William Cullen Bryant is one of those venerable poets from the distant past who have an established and honored place in literary history but are little read in the twenty-first century. As Bryant’s solemn face gazes out from formal nineteenth-century photographs, the textbooks inform us that in those long-gone days he helped to usher in the dawn of an authentic American literature. A giant in his own age, he looms not so large in ours. In his day he was thought to be superior to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and other poets of the mid-century, but almost no one would maintain such a view in the twenty-first century. His poem ‘‘Thanatopsis,’’ however, is one of the few exceptions to the obscurity into which his work has fallen. Regarded as his greatest poem, and written in what Albert F. McLean (in his biography William Cullen Bryant) calls Bryant’s ‘‘voice of eloquent reverie,’’ it still has its admirers, and it has even supplied the name for . . . Read More
An elegy is a formal and somber poem that either laments the death of a particular person or is a more general meditation on death. Thomas Gray’s ‘‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,’’ a poem that Bryant was familiar with, is an example of the form. ‘‘Thanatopsis’’ fulfills the requirements of the elegy since it is a serious poem that meditates on the inevitability of death for every human being and attempts to seek some kind of consolation in the face of certain extinction.
The poem is written in blank verse, which is unrhymed verse usually written in iambic pentameter, a line of five iambic feet. A foot consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Line 19, ‘‘the all-beholding sun shall see no more,’’ and line 24, ‘‘Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,’’ are examples of regular iambic pentameter. However, the . . . Read More
Overcoming Fear of Death
For a poem written in the early nineteenth century, in which Christian belief was the norm in the United States, this is an unusual elegy in the sense that it offers none of the traditional consolations to humans faced with their own certain mortality. In ‘‘Thanatopsis’’ there is no Christian afterlife in which the believer can expect to go to heaven and live forever with God. Nor is there any divine judgment in which the good are rewarded and the evil punished. The poet makes no mention of the human soul, and therefore offers no distinction between body and soul in the sense that the mortal body dies but the soul is eternal. In this poem, nothing that lives is eternal except the forms of nature. Everything goes to death after its brief time under the sun; the material world is all there is. Consolation, the strength and wisdom to overcome fear, exists in the knowledge that the prospect of utter extinction is not . . . Read More
‘‘Thanatopsis’’ begins by painting a verbal picture of the many different aspects of nature, which anyone who loves nature is able to discern. When a person is in a good mood, nature has a ‘‘voice of gladness,’’ and appears in great beauty. When a person is feeling sad, nature can quickly alleviate that feeling. The poet then ventures some advice to his reader. He says that whenever people are disturbed by thoughts of their inevitable death, they should go out into nature and listen to nature’s message, which it offers through earth, air, and water. In this ‘‘still voice,’’ nature reminds humans that in a short while, they will no longer see the sun on its daily course. Their physical form will no longer exist, either in the ground where it is laid, or in the ocean. The earth that nourishes them will reclaim them. No trace of individuality will remain; all that is distinctive to the person will be mixed . . . Read More
Lowell was often criticized in her time for her free-flowing poetry, which went against the strict rules of traditional English poetic form. This form was based on regimented patterns of rhyme and cadence, or rhythm. Words at the ends of lines often rhymed with one another. Lines were written in uniform patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. The rhythm of most traditional poetry was regular—could be heard like a systematic tapping of a pencil on the top of a table. Many poems were based on an iambic meter, in which one unstressed syllable was followed by one stressed syllable, over and over again. Most common was iambic pentameter, or five iambic feet (units that contain one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable). The rhythm would sound something like the following: ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum. Such formal meters became so closely associated with poetry that any poem that did not follow such conventions was criticized for not being any different . . . Read More
In her introduction to her collection Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, Lowell refers to the French term vers libre (which means ‘‘free verse’’) to describe the form in which she wrote some of her poems. Lowell often used her own term, unrhymed cadence, to refer to this type of poetry. Today, most poems in English that are written without adherence to a strict meter are referred to as free verse. Though free verse poems are not based on regular meter, they do have a cadence, or rhythm, created through phrases, punctuation, line breaks, and patterns. Rhyme can be used but rarely is in free verse.
Lowell further explained the form by stating that the poems are ‘‘built upon ‘organic rhythm,’ or the rhythm of the speaking voice with its necessity for breathing, rather than upon a strict metrical system.’’ Lowell stated that the lines of poetry differ from prose and should not be confused with a system by which . . . Read More
Lowell is often praised for her skill in expressing her passion in her poems. ‘‘The Taxi’’ is a good example of how she instills passion in the poetic images she creates.
Passion defines this poem and drives it forward. The word passion means any deeply felt emotion. In the case of Lowell’s poem, the passion is the love that the speaker has for the lover she is either leaving or imagining she is leaving. According to the poem, this passion is so strong that separation becomes torturous for the speaker. It is interesting to note that even though the main theme is the passionate love that the speaker feels, the speaker never mentions the word love. This is due in part to the form that an imagist poet such as Lowell practices in her writing. Imagist poetry does not use abstractions. Love, being an emotion, is an abstract concept; instead of talking about love, Lowell uses powerful images to express it. The speaker . . . Read More
‘‘The Taxi’’ is a poem that has nothing to do with a cab and yet everything to do with it. The word taxi is not once mentioned in the poem; rather, the reader experiences the speaker’s thoughts and sights as the cab carries her away through the streets of an unidentified city. This is a poem about the pain of leaving; in abstraction, the taxi becomes the cause of the pain, pulling the speaker farther and farther away from the object of her love and passion. So although this poem never mentions a taxi, the title gives the taxi a significance that the speaker does not have to explain. The title is used to give the reader an image—a woman being driven away in a cab, looking out the rear window and watching the distance between herself and her lover increase.
The title literally provides the vehicle of this poem, whereas the first three lines provide the direction that the taxi is . . . Read More
Octavio Paz’s Sunstone is a poem concerned with transformation—a complete change in appearance or form. Transformation is a motif, or dominant idea, threaded throughout the epic poem, constituting part of the poem’s cyclical structure, its inspiration from Aztec sources, its theme, its content, and its historical context. The writing of Sunstone also had a transformative effect on its author.
Sunstone is named after an intricately carved, highly symbolic Aztec sculpture dated to the fifteenth century. When the Sun Stone was rediscovered in the eighteenth century, it was believed to be an iconic representation of the Aztec ritual calendar. In the late twentieth century, scholars determined that the Sun Stone represents the destruction of the four ages past, with the hungry mouth of the sun god Tonatiuh, ruler of the fifth and current age, at the center. Thus it was deduced that the Sun Stone was a sacrificial altar. Although Paz would not have known this at the . . . Read More
Paz explores the unity and disunity of humankind in his long poem Sunstone. The narrator of the poem seeks meaning for his existence and finds it in the visceral connection he feels with the land as well as in relationships between people. The connection he speaks of experiencing with other people is romantic love with women—women who have blended together in his mind to form a single radiant goddess. Near the beginning of the poem, this goddess is first manifest to him as a spirit of the land, whom he traverses and comes to know intimately. Thereafter he seeks this goddess, seeks the union of soul, body, and earth that he once knew when he knew her, but she is elusive. He learns to find her in the faces of other women and through these women rediscovers the balm for his loneliness, the companionship of other people. He also learns that his goddess, the spirit of the land, which supports his life and the lives of his neighbors, is dual . . . Read More