I’ve finally finished the poetry essay! *sound of singing, trumpets blaring, people rejoicing, etc*
It was meant to be in this time last week, but I had a depression, was frozen for a few days and got an extension on that account. And, yes, I still managed to leave it to the last possible minute. A combination of anxiety and laziness – equally weighted, I think. As usual, I was in dire straits. I planned to get up at six this morning to finish it, but that didn’t happen. It had to be in by midday, or, at least, I think it did. Is 12pm midday or midnight? Which is am and which is pm? Because technically noon is neither ante-meridian nor post-meridian, as it is, in fact, the meridian. I got it in by noon to be safe, but ran out of time so it’s under the word count. 200 words under. I was doing fine, just 73 words to go, but then I remembered that the bibliography doesn’t count, and it was ten to twelve. So that’s five marks gone, and my chances of a first out the window. I could have wept. Now I’m just trying not to think about it.
Here’s it is, anyway:
Compare a 16th or 17th century poem with an 18th or 19th century poem on a similar or related subject. You must treat at least one poet studied on the course.
The two poems chosen for comparison in this essay are Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 and “Written in October” by Charlotte Smith. They share the theme of autumn, and both link it with the narrator’s situation and feelings. Neither keeps exclusively to the theme of autumn: Smith goes on to contrast it with spring and its associations, whilst Shakespeare moves through a series of natural metaphors for the aging narrator. Both Smith and Shakespeare’s narrators, however, see the natural world as a mirror of their own psyche.
An obvious similarity between these two poems is that they are both sonnets. Shakespeare’s is, unsurprisingly, a traditional Shakespearean sonnet. The three quatrains and concluding couplet are distinguishable not only by the rhyme scheme but also by content: the aging narrator compares himself to an autumn tree in lines 1-4, twilight in lines 5-8 and fire in lines 9-12. In the final couplet, the narrator’s attention turns back to the “thou” whom the poem addresses. This couplet is inverted to make it stand out on the page, thus demonstrating that it contains the main “essence” or message of the poem. The tone becomes much more intimate and less contemplative, and the focus changes from the narrator himself to the addressee and the loving relationship which will be terminated with the narrator’s death. The final rhyme creates both a sense of certainty and a lasting impression of sadness. Smith’s ending couplet is, despite the unfulfilled effect of the half rhyme, less effectively sad, largely due to the narrator’s self-pity preventing empathy in the reader. The couplet is, however, effective as an explanation for the narrator’s enigmatic assertion that she prefers the austere autumn to the joyful spring. There is a greater irregularity in this sonnet’s form, both in the rhyme scheme and use of inverted lines. The metre, also, is erratic, straying sometimes from its iambic pattern. This reflects that emotion in this poem is decidedly less contained, as we see when the narrator uses the apostrophe, “Ah!” in line 6.
Both poems’ narrators identify their own situations with the season of autumn, and they use observation of the natural world as a trigger for introspection. It is interesting to consider why they should do this. Pascoe notes Charlotte Smith’s particular interest in botany and links this with her poetry: “Smith’s poetic descriptions of the natural world possess the exactitude of a naturalist’s field notes.” Pascoe claims that Smith’s focus on minute details initiated, rather than detracted from, supernatural or fantastical speculation. If this is the case, it is quite reasonable to suggest that Smith’s fascination with the detail of her environment led to a similar passion for, or indeed an obsession with, the detail of her own inner life. The focus of Shakespeare’s sonnet, even at the very beginning, is wholly on the narrator: “That time of year thou mayst in me behold” (my italics). Smith’s sonnet, however, doesn’t mention the narrator specifically until line 5. This could be said to suggest that Shakespeare was a more self-centred poet than Smith. Such an assertion would be highly questionable, however, as it assumes that the poems are autobiographical and represent the body of the poets’ work. Furthermore, it ignores the very statement of Smith’s poem, which is that the nature only really “delights” her narrator when it echoes her own feelings, an extremely egotistical statement.
The question of whether the poems are autobiographical, and whether the narrator is indeed the poet, is difficult to address. This is especially the case for Shakespeare as we know less about his life than we do about Smith’s. Both poems have a theme of hostile external forces. In Shakespeare’s sonnet, the boughs of the trees “shake against the cold” (line 3), which would literally be the cold wind, just like the violent “blasts” (line 1) in Smith’s poem. It is easy to link this to her difficult life, in which she constantly battled with hostile circumstances: she was married and sent away at sixteen to pay off her father’s gambling debts, and, when her husband, too, ran up debts, she wrote ten novels in ten years to feed her ten children, then had to fight a prolonged legal battle to protect their inheritance. There is evidence of a similar spirit of endurance in Shakespeare’s poem, as the boughs shaking against the cold suggest resilience and even rebellion.
It can be argued that the circumstances which may or may not have evoked the narrators’ feelings in the poems are not the issue, and the focus should be on the feelings themselves which the poets evoke and describe. Shakespeare depicts the “yellow leaves, or none, or few” (line 2), dividing the line with commas to echo the fact that the leaves are blown away from one another, just as the narrator does not feel whole. Likewise, Smith calls the leaves “fragments,” (line 4), leaving the sense of something having been broken or shattered. Shakespeare describes the trees as “ruined choirs” (line 4). Booth points out that he refers here not to the singers but to the part of a church in which they sing, now empty, and likewise the narrator feels a sense of emptiness and loss. There is a similar theme of loss throughout Smith’s work, evident in this poem when the narrator laments that she will never again see the “Spring of Hope” (line 14). She feels that nature “mourns” (line 13) along with her, as the wind makes a “sad and solemn sound” (line 3), echoed in Smith’s use of alliteration. There is also the rather ambiguous response to the “clamoring” rooks (line 7), who could be seen as a metaphor for the narrator herself, like those which Shakespeare adopts, with their military “phalanx” (line 8) formation symbolising a resilient attitude. The rooks could also be a manifestation of a threatening environment, linking back to the sense of hostile circumstances.
A theme which emerges strongly in Shakespeare’s poem and less so in Smith’s is that of time, and how it is manifested in the natural world. This is a particular interest of Shakespeare’s, as we see in sonnet 5:5-8:
For never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter and confounds him there,
Sap checked with frost and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o’ersnowed and bareness everywhere.
Booth links our original sonnet to certain passages from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which pursue a similar theme. Whilst Ovid is describing Time itself and Shakespeare focuses instead on the aging narrator, both progress through various natural phenomena to demonstrate the effects of time:
glides on with constant motion, ever as
a flowing river. Neither river nor
the fleeting hour can stop its constant course.
But, as each wave drives on a wave, as each
is pressed by that which follows, and must press
on that before it, so the moments fly,
and others follow, so they are renewed.
The moment which moved on before is past,
and that which was not, now exists in Time,
and every one comes, goes, and is replaced.
You see how night glides by and then proceeds
on to the dawn, then brilliant light of day
succeeds the dark night. There is not the same
appearance in the heavens: when all things
for weariness are resting in vast night,
as when bright Lucifer rides his white steed.
This progression through comparisons, from the river to the fall of night, echoes the progression of time itself. Shakespeare’s metaphors are chosen for their relevance to the aging process. The autumn tree, stripped of its leaves and the “sweet birds” (line 4), struggling to stand its ground against the harsh winds, is like the old man, stripped of the benefits of youth and struggling to survive. Twilight is the end of the day, just as old age is the end of youth, or life, and the time for the anticipation of night, just as the old man anticipates death. Fire, like youth, is bright and full of energy, has the potential to be destructive and cause pain, and will eventually burn itself out, ironically “consumed with that which it was nourished by” (line 11).
It is unsurprising, then, that death is omnipresent in Shakespeare’s poem. In using the twilight metaphor for old age, he describes death as the “black night” (line 7) which takes away the sunset. Booth perceives “a dimly perceptible metaphor of a child taken off to sleep… by ‘black night,’ a sinister nursery maid or (line 12) wet nurse.” Shakespeare’s view of death does indeed seem to be one of a sleep-like state, as he refers to “Death’s second self,” a Renaissance term for sleep. This initially causes confusion, though, as it is, in fact, death itself to which he is referring. Shakespeare writes that this sleep “seels up all” (line 8), which carries the double meaning of the closing up of a coffin and the stitching shut of a hawk’s eyelid. The latter carries a suggestion of brutal force, as we are forced to die, and even suffering. It is not explicit whether the narrator feels bitterness or resignation about this, but it does show that the lover he leaves behind is not his only concern.
Death’s presence in Smith’s sonnet is more subtle and more ambiguous. It is not anticipated, as in Shakespeare’s, but could be argued to be implicitly wished for, as the poem is saturated in despair: “For never more to me the Spring of Hope returns!” (line 14) The narrator evokes spring vividly, with its song (line 9), its plants (line 11) and the Shepherd (line 12), as the season of life, and rejects it. It could be argued, then, to be an almost suicidal poem, in direct contrast to Shakespeare’s, which expresses regret at the approach of death.
In conclusion, though the two poems share the theme of autumn and both recognise it as the season in which the life of summer fades and dead winter comes on, there are differences in the response to this in accordance with the narrator’s situation. Shakespeare’s narrator sees the autumn trees as symbolic of himself in his old age, after the summer of his youth. Smith’s narrator sees the autumn as representative of her own “dejected mood,” (line 5) after the “Spring of Hope” (line 14). Both poems ignore the fact that the year is cyclical: in truth any autumn is followed eventually by spring and summer, but Shakespeare’s winter is eternal because of the finality of death and Smith’s narrator denies any possibility that she will ever feel hopeful again. The negative response to autumn in both of these poems contrasts sharply with that of Keats’ “Ode to Autumn,” probably the most well-known autumn poem in English Literature, which praises autumn as a season of joy and plenty. The fact that many people enjoy autumn is ignored. Yet it is this relentless negativity concerning autumn which makes it a fitting representation of the poems’ themes of aging, death and despair.
Booth, Stephen (ed.) Shakespeare’s Sonnets (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1977)
Ferguson, Margaret, Mary Jo Salter and Jon Stallworthy (eds.) The Norton Anthology of Poetry (New York: W. W. Norton and Co. Inc, 2005)
Naso, P. Ovidius, Metamorphoses, ed. Brookes Moore (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0028)
Pascoe, Judith, ‘Female Botanists and the Poetry of Charlotte Smith’ in Revisioning Romanticism: British Women Writers, 1776 – 1837, eds. Carol Shiner Wilson and Joel Haefner (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994)