Bradstreet’s ‘‘Upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666’’ is not formally broken into stanzas. (A stanza is a unit of poetry, or a grouping of lines that divides the poem in the same way that a paragraph divides prose. Bradstreet’s poem appears on the page as a fifty-four-line poem without any stanzas.) However, each six-line subset of the poem roughly functions as a stanza in that it typically focuses on one idea. In the first six lines, Bradstreet opens the poem by setting the stage for the events of the night of July 10, 1666, observing that when she went to bed that night, she could not expect the sorrow she was soon to experience. She describes waking to loud noises and voices shouting. The sixth line of the poem in particular is open to dual meanings. In this line, Bradstreet speaks of her desire to keep her fear of the fire hidden, implying that if her faith were stronger she would not have been so afraid. . . . Read More
The version of ‘‘Two Eclipses’’ reproduced here is a modern English translation of a poem written by a Spaniard in Hebrew a millennium ago. Any translator of such a poem has to make a number of decisions and compromises in making it accessible to a modern reader while retaining essential qualities of the original. One alternative is to attempt a literal, phrase-by-phrase, line-byline translation. This alternative rarely works, for the English version is likely to sound awkward and forced. Further, the grammars and sound systems of English and Hebrew are different, making a unit of language that sounds perfectly normal in one sound awkward in the other. In translating poetry, the translator can try to maintain the rhythm of the original, but doing so requires taking considerable liberties with the original language. Or the translator can try to maintain the tone of the original, which again requires compromises with language and meter along the way. Or the translator can . . . Read More
The speaker in ‘‘Two Eclipses’’ begins by addressing an unseen friend who appears to still be sleeping in the morning. He urges the friend to wake up, to wake up the dawn, and to look at the sky, which has the mottled appearance of the skin of a leopard. He notes that the moon is supposed to be full but that it is going dark, and he compares it to a kiln, a kettle, and a girl’s face, part of which is blushing. He notes that half of the moon is darkened, as if in shadow. The speaker then draws the friend’s attention to the sun, which later in the month became dim. He describes a full solar eclipse, where the sun is darkened but a rim of light filters out around the edges. He compares the sight of the sun in eclipse to a crown on the head of a princess from Libya (a nation in North Africa). The result is that the sun has set, casting a reddish glow. He compares the effect to the earth being in . . . Read More
Dunbar was often called the Negro Poet Laureate at the beginning of the twentieth century, but by the 1950s he was seen as an embarrassment to many readers because his dialect poems called up plantation stereotypes of African Americans. In his day, white readers embraced his dialect poems (‘‘The Party,’’‘‘When Malindy Sings’’) as the authentic voice of a Negro poet, while his standard English poems, such as ‘‘Sympathy,’’ were seen as imitative. Forced to continue writing and performing the dialect pieces due to public opinion, he feared that he had failed as a writer, as is evident in his poem, ‘‘The Poet.’’ Beginning in the 1970s, there has been an ongoing reassessment of his contribution to the American literary canon. Critics have pointed out his difficult but crucial position between black and white cultures. How could he speak in a true voice using either standard English or a black dialect? Dunbar had to forge a tradition of African American . . . Read More
The central metaphor of the caged bird in ‘‘Sympathy,’’ with the bird forced to perform within confinement, could be taken as suggesting the slavery African Americans endured in the United States for two and a half centuries. Though Dunbar lived after the emancipation, the legacy of slavery continued through various social, legal, and psychological constraints. He was refused white collar or journalistic work because of his race, forced to work in the confinement of an elevator and the barred library stacks that were the inspiration for the poem. Dunbar was a brilliant and creative man, but he struggled to overcome the racial stereotype of blacks as slow, lazy, and child-like. The blacks he portrayed in his dialect poems, singing and dancing on the plantation, were part of the folklore of the past to him, like the Midwestern folklore used in James Whitcomb Riley’s poems. He heard stories of the Old South from his mother and had . . . Read More
‘‘Sympathy’’ is a lyric in iambic tetrameter, seven line stanzas of four metric feet per line. The last line of each stanza is shorter, with three feet. The first line establishes the poem’s controlling metaphor of the caged bird looking at a spring day, which mirrors the speaker’s situation. The speaker ends the line with an exclamation that suggests a sigh of regret. Although the main rhythm of the poem is iambic (alternating unstressed and stressed beats), many spondees (two strong beats together) are used for emphasis. The next few lines create a contrast between the cage and a beautiful spring day. The bird would especially feel restrained on a day when the sun is shining outside on the meadows and hills. In line 3, the image of wind blowing through fresh grass creates a feeling of refreshment and freedom, denied to the caged bird. The rhyme scheme of this stanza is ABAABCC. . . . Read More
In addition to being a poet, Nye is a songwriter and singer. In her poem ‘‘Shoulders,’’ Nye employs several musical devices to develop the tone and message of her words.
Upon a first read, Nye’s poem seems to be very simple—little more than a thought jotted down on paper. But even the simplest poems are created with purpose. In ‘‘Shoulders,’’ Nye uses her songwriting techniques and knowledge to paint a word picture whose meaning relies as much on hearing as it does on understanding the words.
Throughout the first twelve lines, Nye uses soft consonants and blends. The words are quiet, and their sounds are soothing. Especially if read aloud, these lines of poetry give the reader a sense of tranquility.
That peaceful feeling is abruptly and starkly broken beginning with line 13. From that point on, Nye uses words with hard consonant sounds such as t, g, and r. These sounds are more guttural; they do not flow softly off the . . . Read More
Nye’s poem is a word picture of one very brief moment in time: A father carries his son across a street to safety. But everything in that slice of life is representative or symbolic of something bigger. The father is Everyman (the representative of humankind in medieval morality plays). He is every person in the world, just as his son is every child or weaker person in need of human kindness.
The act of carrying the boy across the street is symbolic of any act of kindness, be it carrying someone, caring for someone in time of sickness, teaching a child a new skill, or anything else. The road in this poem is life’s journey, which Nye is saying will always be wide, never easy, and not something one can travel alone. The rain symbolizes the hardship and obstacles every person faces in life. There will always be rain; there will always be hardship.
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Much of Nye’s poetry is about humanitarianism and people caring for one another. ‘‘Shoulders’’ is no exception. A father carries his son across the street. He looks both ways, twice. He is very careful to get his boy safely to the other side. In lines 13–16, Nye says that people must be willing to care for and protect one another when such benevolence is required because there will always be hardship, and life’s journey is long.
The poem is only eighteen lines long, yet within that framework Nye has made her point clear: Life is not just about the individual’s needs and desires. It is about caring for others, going out of one’s way to see that they are protected and their needs are met.
The father in the poem has been entrusted with his son’s care. The small boy knows he is in good hands. He is comfortable enough to fall asleep, even as rain . . . Read More
In the first lines of ‘‘Shoulders,’’ Nye gives the reader a focal point: a father carrying his sleeping son on his shoulder in the rain. He looks both ways and carefully crosses the street. The reader immediately knows he is a gentle and careful father, protective of his son. He is aware of both what he can and cannot see, and he will let no harm come to his boy. Readers are focused on the father.
The reader’s attention shifts to the child. The boy is the most precious cargo in the world, yet nowhere is he obviously marked as such. This section of the poem reflects Nye’s belief in the value of children, as well as the father’s feeling. The reader is again told beyond doubt that the child is both precious and fragile.
In writing about Nye for The Progressive, journalist Robert Hirschfield says her poetry is . . . Read More