Piers Plowman by William Langland (edited by Elizabeth Robertson and Stephen H. A. Shepherd).

Piers Plowman is a Christian allegorical poem written in Middle English alliterative verse. It is one of the most important English vernacular works to be written along with Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Three different variants of the work exist known as the A-Text, the B-Text, and the C-text. The biggest differences between the versions:

  • the B-text adds additional visions (chapters) to the ones found in the A-Text
  • the allegorical character giving speeches in certain sections change between the different versions (such as Conscience preaching in the A-Text to the Seven Deadly Sins, while Reason is the preacher during this same part in the B-text)
  • sometimes certain allegorical figures are not included at all (Wrath is absent from the A-Text during the above-mentioned scene, but is present in the B-text)
  • the C-Text adds an autobiographical section tacked onto one of the visions.

I read the Norton Critical Edition of the B-text translated into modern English by E. Talbot Donaldson. The work follows a Christian dreamer named Will, identified sometimes with William Langland himself, who searches for answers to his existential questions concerning theological, spiritual, and ethical issues. He has different dreams or visions that occur across twenty chapters called “Passus,” which in Latin means “Step,” implying that the work involves a journey as he discovers the answers to these questions. It is a very different sort of journey than the one found in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, which is another Christian allegory from a later literary time period. Bunyan’s work externalizes the allegorical elements as part of an adventurous quest plot that isn’t much different from the basic plot structure one might find in a modern epic fantasy, while Piers Plowman consists mostly of dialogues in which Will, the dreamer, puts troublesome spiritual questions to various allegorical figures who offer loquacious answers. The “journey” in this work is an internal one with an inconclusive finale. It reads a lot like Plato’s dialogues and nothing like an adventure story. Another somewhat unique characteristic of the work is its positive portrayal of the lower classes often missing from other medieval works. The poem melds religious allegory about salvation and ethical living with social satire of medieval society.

The poem opens with Will falling asleep beneath a tree and having his first vision in which he views a tower on a hill where Truth resides (God), a terrible dungeon below (hell), and “a faire felde ful of folke (2)” between them consisting of all sorts of people in society from the highest to the lowest. This middle ground represents the world and how people navigate its mazes to end up either in the Tower (heaven) or in the dungeon (hell). A woman arrives who introduces herself as the Church and desires that Will should enter the Tower where Truth resides. She goes on to elaborate on the nature of Truth and God, focusing on divine love and the importance of giving charity to the poor. Will desires to learn not only Truth, but also how he can determine what is false. Lady Church tells him to look to his left side where he sees her many enemies: False, Favel, and the beautifully dressed Lady Meed. Favel represents lying or deceit. Lady Meed symbolizes reward and profit. False and Favel with the help of Simony and Civil try to bribe various officials in order to marry Meed to Falseness. Eventually the King learns about all this bribery happening in his realm through the assistance of his adviser, Conscience (who not only represents moral conscience in the modern sense, but also consciousness in general) and orders the arrest of all these villains.

In custody, King wants Meed to marry Conscience, but he refuses to marry her due to her past sins. Meanwhile in custody, she is busy corrupting the king’s officials left and right with all her bribery. Conscience says he’ll only consider the marriage if Reason agrees. Reason arrives and convinces the king to reject the idea of such a marriage. This turns the King against Meed. Reason offers the advice that the best and most just kingdoms are those ruled by Reason. By having the king turn against Meed on the advice of Reason and hearing a sermon on how a just kingdom is ruled by reason, this scene serves as a social commentary on the rightful role of kings. Kings who rule by Reason and put the interests of the realm first tend to be good rulers, while those who put their own greed and self-interests first, as represented by Meed, end up corrupting the whole realm through their bad rule. These bad kings have married their conscience, their primary guide to ethical concerns, to Meed (their desire for reward and profit) and have failed to consult their reason.

Reason follows this success with the king by going out and giving a sermon to the entire populace. The Allegorical Seven Sins appear and each repent before Reason their various offenses, often involving colorful stories related to their specific natures. It is in this vision that we first meet Piers Plowman who offers his own sermon about the way to Truth and how a humble workman like himself tries to live by the principles of simplicity, faith in God, and helping others. Piers convinces the pilgrims to help him plow the fields and promises them as much food as they need as a reward for their assistance. At first many agree, but over time many of the people grow lazy and stop helping. Piers complains about Waster, an allegorical figure that represents those who waste and do nothing productive for their fellow man. Piers asks Hunger to punish Waster with hunger. He then asks Hunger what should be done about beggars. Hunger tells Piers that it is the way of the righteous to help beggars and the poor who genuinely cannot work or help themselves. The text suggests through this juxtaposition between Wasters and the needy that the difference between them lies in that Wasters can work, but choose laziness, and therefore steal vital resources from true beggars who genuinely need the charity of others because they’re incapable of working.
After this vision, Will returns to the world in desperate search of Do Well as the key to his salvation. Unable to find him in the world, Will has another dream where he encounters a larger version of himself named Thought. Thought explains to him that Do Well, Do Better, and Do Best are three virtues found in anyone who is meek, mild, truthful, and willing to do his or her fair share of work and keep only what he or she has earned. In other words, he is the opposite of the proud, greedy, and intemperate person.

“Do-Wel, my [dere], is to don as lawe techeth,
To love [and to lowe thee and no lyf to greve;
Ac to love and to lene], leve me, that is Do-Bet;
To yiven and to yemen bothe Yonge and olde,
To helen and to helpen, is Do-Best of alle (138).”

To Do Well is to follow God’s laws, to act humbly, behave towards others with love, and harm no other person. In an excerpt taken from the Dictionary of the Middle Ages that is included in the Norton Critical Edition, Donaldson describes the poem’s presentation of Do-Well as a secular person who lives his life according to Christian precepts, Do-Better as the contemplative man who spends his time helping others and engaging in charity, and Do-Best is like a Bishop or Priest who challenges the wicked and ministers to the good (499). Donaldson goes on to suggest that Piers Plowman serves as one of the central figures of the poem precisely because he “transition[s] from Do-Well to Do-Better (499)” and eventually to Do-Best in the final sections of the poem.

Here they turn to Wit to find out where Do Well, Do Better, and Do Best live. Wit tells them that Do Better is Do Well’s daughter and serves as a lady-in-waiting to Anima (soul). They all let Do Best guide them as their Bishop. In this castle is a constable named Inwit (understanding and rational capacity) whose sons Sir See-Well, Sir Say-Well, Sir Hear-Well, Sir Work-Well-With-Your-Hands, and Sir Godfrey Go-Well protect the safety of Anima. Kind has made a castle where Do Well and Anima reside. Kind is one of the allegorical identities of God in the poem. Wit describes what sort of being Kind is and how He tries to take care of all souls and give them what they need. This discourse ends on a discussion of the correct nature of marriage, which is not one based in the desire to gain money or land or one that involves partners of drastically different ages, but equal partners who marry out of love.
After this discourse, Wit’s wife, Dame Study, arrives and castigates him for wasting his wisdom on fools and mockers who will not be able to appreciate them. She attacks the wealthy as mockers of religion who often talk blasphemous and superficially about God. She views Will’s desire to know the difference between Do Well and Do Better as the equivalent of questioning God and His purposes, apprehensive of his motives. At the direction of Wit, the dreamer humbles himself before Dame Study. She softens before his humility and decides to help him after all by acquainting him with her cousin, Clergy, and his wife, Scripture.

 

Will comes to fear that he will never save his soul without more theological knowledge. Scripture teaches him that great learning and wisdom doesn’t save men. Many well-educated clerks and officials of the church will end up in hell for their abuses of their office, while many lowly uneducated men will be saved. Pure faith is superior to a deep knowledge of theology. Often the lowest and most ignorant are the first in heaven as the Bible teaches. True faith doesn’t require learning and quoting scripture from heart, but love of God, fellow Christians, and even one’s enemies.

“For every Cristene creature shulde be kynde til other,
And sithen hethen to helpe in hope of amendement.
God hoteth bothe heigh and lowe that no man hurte other (158).”

 

At this point, Will enters a dream within a dream in which the Flesh and all its seeming pleasures tries to seduce him. As he listens to their seductive speeches, Old Age arrives and warns him that fortune and pleasure who speak such lovely words now will abandon him in time. Recklessness then appears to try and convince dreamer to ignore the warnings of Old Age.

Will has a vision of nature and animals where he comes to realize all animals are guided by Reason, except humanity. He tries to rebuke Reason for not guiding them, but Reason criticizes Will for interfering in the order of things of which he cannot judge properly (repeating Adam’s sin of wanting the wisdom of God), so Reason refuses to instruct him further.

In the next vision, Will witnesses a dinner being partaken by Conscience, Clergy, and Patience. He sits at a side table with Patience eating mediocre food, while at the head of the main table is a hypocritical friar eating all kinds of delicacies. They put some questions to the friar who offers memorized and academic answers to their theological questions, while the poem hints at the friar’s hypocrisy by knowing the answers, but not living by them. During the dinner, Conscience decides to join Patience on a pilgrimage into the world to develop his spiritual self through direct experience as opposed to the theoretical book learning that Clergy offers.

On this journey, Conscience and Patience meet Hawkins the Active Man. This man is all about appearance, wanting to appear the smartest, greatest, holiest, and best of men. He is all talk, pretends to be holy, but is really a sinner and prideful. His sins appear as dirt and specks on his outer coat. Such a man eventually ends up in a state of despair, unable to live by the church’s creed and falling so far into sin that a deep sense of hopelessness pervades him from the fear that his sins have grown too great for salvation. In response to being criticized for his dirty clothes, Hawkin’s claims that he cannot ever seem to get his clothes spotless; every time he cleans it via confession and contrition it gets dirty soon after.  At one point, he even blames his wife for the dirty state of his clothes (echoing Adam blaming Eve for convincing him to eat the forbidden fruit). In response to Hawkins, Patience preaches moderation (the opposite of the “active life.”). The poem reiterates that the world is corrupt and participating in it only leads to sin. In order to achieve heaven, Christians must hate this world. Patience goes on to explain how the poor have an advantage with the Seven Deadly sins compared to the rich. It cannot affect the poor as strongly because their desires and means to engage in these sins are restricted.

Will has a new dream in which he converses with Anima (the soul) who describes her many forms. Sometimes Anima takes the form of Mens (capacity for knowing), Memoria (remembrance), Reason, Sensus (empathy/feeling for others), Conscience, Amor (when the soul loves God and others), Spiritus (when freed from the flesh). Will’s desire to know everything is a sin and similar to the pride of Lucifer – only God knows everything. This is emphasized by the way many of the allegorical figures rebuke him throughout the various parts of the poem for his questions and how he’s often not content with the answers he does receive from them.

Will has a vision of Piers Plowman who has erected three polls to protect this tree from “the worlde [which] is a wyked wynde to hem the wolden treuthe” (274). Satan wishes to take all its fruits for himself. We are told that this tree was planted in a garden by God. The tree metaphor for the Truth and Charity draws on the Garden of Eden story from the Bible and highlights the theme found in other parts of the poem that knowledge is often bad, whereas it’s charity, simplicity, and faith that lead one to God.

Pier’s tree equals Truth and grows in a soil of goodness. The three polls symbolize: the Power of God, Wisdom of God, and Grace and the Holy Spirt respectively. In another metaphor, Piers Plowman, in the roll of a priestly figure and thus representing his ascension to the symbolic role of Do-Best tills the soil of Truth with his oxen: Luke, Mark, Matthew, and John. Following them are four horses to harrow: Austin, Ambrose, Gregory, and Jerome that use the harrows, Old Testament and New Testament, to help plant seeds in men’s souls. These seeds they wish to plant are the Spirit of Prudence, the Spirit of Temperance, the Spirit of Fortitude, and the Spirit of Justice.

 

In another vision, Will watches as Jesus arrives in Jerusalem to joust with Satan in order to overcome Death and win the fruits back from Piers Plowman’s tree. The poem retells the story of the Crucifixion. After Jesus’s death, Truth, Mercy, Peace, and Righteousness debate the meaning of the light that hangs over hell. Then the harrowing of Hell occurs when Jesus arrives to save the Old Testament figures from eternal damnation and their demonic tormentors.

The final dream is an apocalyptic and pessimistic vision of Conscience besieged by the Antichrist and his army of the Seven Deadly Sins. As the sins injure the men inside Conscience’s fortress, the wounded grow weary with the slow, harsh, and difficult cures that the parish priests offer, turning to a friar who promises to offer a quicker and easier salvation for a hefty fee. Conscience believes the friar is a liar betraying the Christians who want an easier path towards salvation. The text’s earlier criticisms of the greedy and parasitic monastic orders culminate in this final vision in which it is implied that Christian society and salvation itself is threatened by the presence of these corrupt Friars.

The Lais of Marie De France (trans. Glynn S.Burgess and Keith Busby)

Marie de France may have been the half-sister of King Henry II. She may have been born in France and wrote her tales in England. Our knowledge of Marie is limited and the authorship of these tales is often debated. As the introduction of my edition states, “We can assert with conviction that at least one poet by the name of Marie was writing in the second half of the twelfth century, but it is equally certain that the author who composed the lays . . . was not called Marie de France (7).” In other words, it may be that some anonymous author wrote these works and they have become associated with her name over time. Although these lays are technically poetry, in translation they read like an early form of the short story.

In “Guigemar,” a knight known for his prowess in battle and lack of interest in women is cursed after being wounded during a hunt. His victim, a talking animal, warns Guigemar that his wound will not heal until he knows love. Soon after, he ends up on a mysterious ship that takes him to a tower where an elderly lord has locked up his young and beautiful wife. The knight and the young lady fall in love with each other. They get separated after their love affair gets discovered by the elderly lord, but before they do they exchange tokens in order to recognize each other in the future if they ever meet again and eventually they do.

In “Equitan,” a powerful king falls in love with his vassal’s wife. She agrees to have a love affair with him. They plan to kill her husband by throwing him into a boiling tub of water, but the vassal discovers their plot and ends up throwing them into the boiling water instead as a punishment for their treachery.

In “Le Fresne,” a noble woman insults the honor of her guest pregnant with twins by claiming that twins can only be conceived by sleeping with two men. Shortly after, the accuser herself becomes pregnant with twins and her words rebound against her. So to save her honor, she has a servant take one of the children away to an abbey. The girl becomes known as Le Fresne and after growing up she becomes a lover to a powerful Lord named Gurun.  After some time, his vassals chastise him for his love affair and want him to marry a proper lady. Le Fresne resigns herself to give up her lover. However, it turns out the lady they find to marry Gurun is actually her twin sister. Through some tokens of recognition, they all discover the truth and Le Fresne now able to establish her identity as the sister of the highborn lady gets to marry Gurun.

In “Bisclavret,” a noblewoman wheedles out of her husband the secret reason why he disappears every few nights. It turns out every few nights he transforms into a werewolf. He informs her it is his clothes that allow him to return to his human form again. The wife decides that she “no longer wished to lie with him (69)” and steals his clothes so he is unable to resume his human form. Then she takes another knight for her lover. During a hunt, the king realizes the werewolf he is hunting acts sentient like a human and decides to take him back to his castle as a cherished pet. After summoning his vassals, the wife and her new lover arrive at court and the werewolf attacks them. Through torture they discover from the truth from the lady about the werewolf. They restore his clothes and he resumes human form.

In “Lanval,” the knight of the same name is selected by a rich and mysterious lady to be her lover with the catch that if he ever tells anyone about her he will never see her again. After Lanval’s fame rises, the Queen falls in love with him and tries to seduce him, but he rejects her advances and insults her with the beauty of his secret lover. Angry at this insult, the Queen accuses Lanval of trying to seduce her and the King puts him on trial for his life. In a fit of depression, Lanval is prepared to die, assuming he will never see his beloved again since he broke her rule and spoke about her, but the lady arrives at the king’s court in order to save his life and prove the truth of his words.

In “Les Deus Amanz,” a knight takes on a challenge to win his beloved by carrying her up a mountain. She tries to assist him by getting a family member to provide him with a restorative potion. However, he forgets the potion during the task and dies in the process.

In “Yonec,” a jealous old man locks his young beautiful wife in a tower. A bird comes to the window and transforms into a knight who becomes her lover in secret. Soon the old man discovers their affairs and places traps around the window. The knight is fatally injured by these traps. The woman jumps out of the window chasing after her injured husband, manages to survive her fall, and follows the path of blood to her lover’s kingdom. He prophesies that their child with take revenge on her husband. She has her lover’s child and her husband raises the child thinking it is his own. When the child learns the truth he takes revenge on his stepfather and then inherits his dead father’s kingdom.

In “Laustic,” a married lady who loves a knight from afar wakes up every night just to get a glimpse of her lover. The suspicion husband realizes what she is doing and kills a nightingale that the lady uses as her excuse for staying up so late.

In “Milun,” a knight has an illicit affair with a woman and gets her pregnant. They send the baby away. Eventually the child grows up and becomes a renowned knight. He fights his father in a tournament where they discover each other’s identities.

In “Chaitivel,” a woman falls in love with four knights and cannot choose between them. Three of them die in a tournament. The lady takes care of the surviving knight who is severely injured. Unfortunately, he is now impotent. She tells him she wants to compose a lay about the tragedy of the three dead men, but he tells her the real tragedy is his since he survived and gets the chance to talk with her all the time, but his injuries prevent him from physical love with her.

In “Chevrefoil,” King Mark banishes his nephew, Tristram, after rumors that he loves the Queen. In his banishment, the Queen finds him and reveals her love for Tristram. King Mark regrets banishing him and Tristram returns to his service.

In “Eliduc,” false rumors causes a king to banish the knight Eliduc. His wife has him promise to stay faithful to her in his exile. He goes to another kingdom and serves a different king besieged by enemies. Eliduc shines in battle and wins an honored place with this other king. The king’s daughter falls in love with him. After some reluctance, he becomes her lover. The original king that banished Eliduc calls him back. Eliduc returns to his wife, but is extremely unhappy to lose his new lover. After winning the war for his original liege, he returns back to the other kingdom and takes the princess back with him to his homeland. On the way, a storm threatens their ship and a servant in fear that they have offended God reveals to the princess that Eludic is married. This knowledge with her seasickness causes her to feint and Eludic believes she is dead. He makes plans to bury her. After becoming suspicious of her husband’s behavior, the wife discovers the existence of the lover and learns that she isn’t dead. She witnesses a weasel use a plant to restore another weasel. She then takes this plant and uses it to restore the princess. The wife agrees to take a vows in order to leave Eludic free to marry his true love.

 

These stories are extremely short. Some no longer than two pages. The minimalism of the characters and the occasional magical element (like the talking animal that curses Guigemar, the hawk-knight in Yonec and the werewolf in Bisclavret) gives these tales an atmosphere similar to those of a fairy tale. Even when the tales give a particular locale, the world it presents feels like a generic medieval kingdom that could be anywhere and is highly idealized.

These stories reflect the values of the nobility. This can be seen in that all the main characters and most of the characters through the tales are knights, kings, lords, and princesses; the peasantry are almost entirely absent from the idealized medieval world of these stories. The shortness of the tales doesn’t leave much time for character development; instead, the characters are described by generic and idealized qualities such as their valor, how beautiful or handsome they appear, and generous behavior towards others. The exploration of the values of courtly love features in all the stories. The love depicted in these tales feels artificial and forced; the characters usually just meet, share a few words, and just fall in love with each other without much development. Although sometimes the tales suggest that a princess falls in love with a particular knight due to his prowess in battle and he falls for her due to her unmatched beauty. The underlying logic of these stories is that since he is the best knight in the area, therefore he deserves the most beautiful and noblest born of the ladies. In stories like “Equitan,” we have characters punished not so much for their infidelity, but their disloyalty to their vassal. After all, if feudalism is a political and social system built on loyalty, it would follow that disloyalty undermines the entire system. “Eliduc” takes the logic of both these ideas to its furthest conclusion in that Eliduc is often torn between loyalties. Should he serve his original king when he is called back to assist him after swearing his service to the new king for a year? Should he break his promise to his wife and become the princess’s lover? The system of feudalism and the ideal of noble behavior can form quite a tangled web of allegiances. Here is an academic website that provides even more information on Marie De France and has links to online translations different than the ones I used.

Collected Poems by Philip Larkin

Although his style is not overly difficult compared to some poets, Philip Larkin is a difficult poet to read. His vision of life is dark, depressing, and unremittingly cynical, although he does employ a comical tone at times to tackle what he sees as the absurdity of life. His poetry presents ordinary experiences drained of their traditional meanings. The speakers of his poems often look back at the past and see only unfulfilled lives, while they wait for death.

In the poem “Church Going” we have a speaker who travels daily to a church that is slowly losing all its religious meaning in modernity as more and more people turn away from religion, yet there is an irony in the poem that he keeps returning to this now meaningless place in search of something that he can’t quite articulate. In the last stanza the poem tells us that he keeps returning to this “serious house on a serious earth” in order to fill “a hunger in himself to be more serious.” Although the church and its theology that it represents no longer has deeper meaning for this speaker, it stands in as a symbol for all that’s missing in his life. In other words, he doesn’t want religion and can’t believe in it anymore, yet he can’t stop searching for a deeper meaning to give his life some purpose. It stands as a symbol of his search for meaning, even as it is slowly losing its meaning. The church “was proper to grow wise in,/If only that so many dead lie round.” This final line of the poem is a major theme that appears throughout Larkin’s other poems. The only real truth, the only destiny we have as human beings, is that we will die in the end. The cynical tone implies that the true wisdom offered in church isn’t religion itself, but the recognition of our fate. Many of Larkin’s other poems explore death and imply that it is the very fact that we will die that makes all experiences meaningless.

If the future frightens him because of impending death, the past doesn’t fill him with nostalgia either, only regrets for an unlived and wasted life. From “I Remember, I Remember”:

“ ’Was that,’ my friend smiled, ‘where you “have your roots”?’
No, only where my childhood was unspent,
I wanted to retort.”

Whereas many writers would look back at their childhood with nostalgia for some lost golden years, Larkin often speaks of his childhood in his poetry as wasted time and makes it sound unhappy.

Indeed in one of his most famous poems, “This Be The Verse” he even questions the role parents play, not raising us to be virtuous or making us happy well-adjusted individuals, but corrupting us with their faults:

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.”

The vision of the poem extends further, suggesting one generation gives only misery to the next generation in an endless cycle, which leaves the speaker to conclude that a person shouldn’t have kids.

A strong sense of regret pervades these poems. Consider for example these lines from the poem, “Toads”:

“Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff
That dreams are made on.”

Larkin writes poems about speakers with unfulfilled dreams. They sometimes imagine a different kind of life, but they cannot give up the comfy boring middle-class lifestyle in the end. Larkin, however, in his poem “Toads Revisited” also isn’t afraid to show the imaginary life longed for in the original poem also has its faults.

Collected Poetry and Prose by Wallace Stevens

“The poem refreshes life so that we share,
For a moment, the first idea . . . It satisfies
Belief in an immaculate beginning
And sends us, winged by an unconcscious will,
To an immaculate end.” – From “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.”

To call Stevens a difficult poet is an understatement. His work is full nonsense words, archaic words in English, French, and other languages, bizarre metaphoric associations reminiscent of the French Symbolists, philosophical meditations on metaphysics, and manipulates the syntax of his verse to the breaking point. Even if one struggles to understand the meaning of his poems, a reader can still appreciate the musicality and the sound of his poetry. In his own words, Stevens cultivated “the gaudiness of poetry.” Such gaudiness, the music of his words, can be heard in lines like this:

After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.

from “The Well Dressed Man with a Beard”

It was as if thunder took form upon
the piano. . .

from “Woman Looking at a Vase of Flowers”

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and big him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

– first stanza from The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Those unable or unwilling to decipher the deeper meanings behind his poetry can still find enjoyment in the unique and beautiful verses he constructs. Indeed, Stevens is a poet that demonstrates the centrality of sound and language itself to poetry. He is a poet that tempts us with his obscurantism to stop searching for the meaning and just enjoy the sound of the poem and beauty of the language as it rolls like music across the page. This is one way to approach Stevens: ignore what he might have to say and just enjoy the beauty of the words themselves, wallow in the messy confusion of his language, and melt into an awestruck stupor at his magical molding of a poem. For a reader willing to work a bit harder, however, there is plenty Stevens has to say.

In his poems, Stevens continually explores the relationship between imagination, our perceptions of the external world, and the arts role in negotiating the two. According to many of his poems, objective reality doesn’t exist outside of our thoughts, feelings, and imaginative experiences of it. This shouldn’t be understood literally. Obviously an objective reality exists, but for all intents and purposes we can never truly experience it without it being filtered through our subjectivity and consequently our imagination. Poems such as “The Snow Man” illustrates that even though external reality exists independent of us, we can only experience it after its been filtered through our perceptions and consequently our imaginations and feelings about it. No observation of the world is a neutral observation. He often demonstrates this by showing how metaphor or unusual associations in poetry drastically changes our thoughts and feelings about the object being compared or described. However, while Stevens is dedicated to these themes of the relationship between perception, imagination, the external world, and poetry, he isn’t beyond showing other sides of the issue. In the love poem “Bouquet of Belle Scavoir” a person receives flowers from their lover, which proves an unsatisfactory stand-in for the real flesh-and-blood lover. In this poem, metaphor and poetic representation cannot replace the actual experience of being with the lover in the flesh, which is a different stance from many of his other poems that suggest poetry enhances our experience of the real world. Poetic and artistic representations of love are unsatisfactory in comparison to the real experience of being with the lover.

Stevens views the efforts of those searching for a single Platonic truth governing reality as futile and sees the world as malleable, constantly changing before our perceptions and the way we speak about it, such as in poetry. One such poem that deals with this issue is “The Glass of Water.” In the poem, reality consists not of a single meaning, but a series of constantly different states. Steven starts by looking at a simple glass of water whose physical state changes between solid and liquid depending on the environment. He then compares a beam of light striking the glass to a lion coming down to drink from it. By transforming a simple beam of light on the glass through an unusual comparison to a lion arriving to drink, the poem also transforms the glass of water into a vast pool, which further highlights the idea of changing states of reality through the interference of our language. The metaphors and associations used in the poem actually change our perception of the object. Eventually a character appears in the poem named Fat Jocundus who doesn’t care about the parts of the poem, but desires to know what exists in the true center, not of the glass, but the deepest truth behind the reality of the physical image of the glass. He desires the Platonic ideal, the singular truth governing reality, what many also desire from poetry. He misses the point, which is that like the glass of water with its changing states, which the poem constantly reimagines through metaphor, our experience of reality isn’t supposed to remain static, where not supposed to come to a final truth underlying all existence, but should enjoy the dynamic change of the world around us and the everyday objects we view. In looking for final meaning, a singular truth, Jocundus ironically misses the truth that Stevens’ poem attempts to teach: that the world is a constantly changing place and change is the only truth, making a single indivisible Platonic ideal impossible.

In this way, Steven is constantly thinking through the nature of poetry. In his poem, “Of Modern Poetry,” he meditates on the nature of modern poetry, which has had to abandon the old themes and tropes of previous poetry of the past, which has grown stale in modern times, in order to capture the feelings and emotions of the current times. In poems such as “The Poems of Our Climate,” Stevens suggests that often people want poetry to do more than simply be a poem; they want poetry to reveal some deeper truth about reality, and what we truly enjoy about a poem is its imperfections that allow us to reconstruct the poem in our own image. Whereas in “Prelude to Objects,” Stevens describes a more ideal reader who is so deeply connected to their selves that they have no need for poetry or art to find a deeper meaning in their lives.

One trope Stevens is fond of is the depiction of painting in his poetry. Some examples of poems that deal with painting are “The Man with The Blue Guitar,” “Study of Two Pears,” “The Common Life,” and “Landscape with Boat.” These poems often use painting to explore the thematic concerns about perception and reality, suggesting all art, not just poetry, plays an integral role in manipulating our perceptions of reality through the imagination. In “Study of Two Pears,” the poem describes an observer viewing a painting of two pears. The opening consists of the speaker insisting that the pear does not resemble viols, nudes, or bottles (other common topics of painting). They resemble nothing other than pears. They are not symbolic in anyway, but depicted realistically. However, as the observer explores this supposedly realistic painting, unusual colors start creeping in such as the bits of blue due to “the way they are modelled.” Such details remind the reluctant observer that he is viewing a painting and not real pears. The fifth stanza speaks of yellows, citrons, oranges, and greens; of all these colors, the Citron is jarring, suggesting a resemblance and metaphorical association with another type of fruit. This comparison has snuck into the observer’s perception, despite his earlier insistence on realism. The final stanza ends the illusion that he can view the artwork as a one-for-one natural representation of pears as he notices that the “shadows of the pears are blobs on the green cloth.” The shadows aren’t naturalistic, but rather appear as green blobs. The observer notices the green cloth of the canvas, suggesting the deconstruction of the illusion, and full awareness that he is viewing a painting. The last lines inform us that “the pears are not seen as the observers wills.” In a way you can view the poem as a kind of philosophical joke: this observer viewing the painting insists that pears should resemble only pears, a desire for realism in the visual arts rather than symbolic distortions of the Cubist sort, but of course, what he is really viewing is paint that is made to resemble pears through artistic invention. He is not looking at actual pears, but paint made to look like pears suggesting that even the most seemingly realistic art on some level is representational and once this is recognized the insistence that art should resemble reality perfectly becomes ridiculous because on some level art will always distort reality to lesser or greater degree, and this distortion is actually a good thing in the way it “refreshes life.”

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake

William Blake’s work is relatively ignored in comparison to the other major English Romantic poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats). I suspect one reason for this situation is the complicated forms of his work. When one first confronts titles like Tiriel, The Four Zoas, The Book of Los, The Laocoon, the names themselves, evoking mystical ideas, are intimidating; add to this observation that many of these poems are lengthy and contain bizarre formatting, and it is not hard to see why some people would rather turn to a nice one page lyric poem by Lord Byron than tackle an abstruse Blake. My previous experience with his poetry had consisted of reading the shorter poems found in Songs of Innocence and Experience, but decided I wanted to attempt reading some of the longer, more esoteric works.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is a medium-sized work that consists of both prose and poetry extending for about ten pages. Parts of the work are philosophical argument, part written in the form of Biblical prophecy, part written as allegory, and part as short pithy maxims.

It opens with a poem where Rintrah “roars & shakes his fires in the burdend air” to prepare us for the true prophet of the poem: William Blake. Blake follows this opening section by preparing us for the major themes of his work with a general outline of his philosophy:

“Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human Existence.

From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.

Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.”

Blake’s idea is that human beings progress and become truly human by the marriage and conflict of these contrary impulses. Human beings make a mistake when they try to be too rational or when they try too hard to control their desires; in fact, Blake is suggesting that our desires are not sinful, but come from God, otherwise they wouldn’t be natural desires. He is blurring our perceptions of what is holy and what is profane; often what we consider profane (sexual desire) is actually holy and sacred. Orthodox religion calls our natural desires evil, but in the work Blake is reconfiguring the notions of evil and hell, not as places of suffering, but rather as a place where imagination and sensual desires, which are good things, can be truly free from the fetters of religion, science, and reductionist rationality. Blake is claiming that the world isn’t meant to be merely understood and controlled, but it’s also meant to be enjoyed and explored with our imaginations.

Religion has been an attempt to reconcile the imagination of poetry with rational control of human desires through laws and commandments. In a later section of the work, Blake explains how religion co-opted the ideas of ancient poets. The Bible is full of poetic stories, but religious institutions control the interpretations of these stories and use things like Commandments to control people’s behaviors and repress people’s natural desires.

The second section of the work is entitled, “The Voice of the Devil.” The title is ironic. The arguments that will follow are being spoken in the voice of the devil as it will oppose traditional doctrine of the church, but for Blake the devil isn’t evil in the traditional sense, but the representative of our desires and poetic imagination. The best poets are really devils because they use their imagination to explore their desires. In this section, Blake presents a kind of philosophical outline in which he condemns certain principles of the church: the idea that body and soul are separate, with the soul being superior to bodily pleasures. That energy (evil) is from the body and reason (good) from the soul; Blake seems to be suggesting that the two are mixed. And his last criticism of the church doctrine is the belief that God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies (which can be understood as his desires, his impulses, and his imaginative capacity that creates poetry). These criticism relate back to the basic point of his work: that human beings are a mixture of desire and control, rationality and irrationality, body and soul. By creating this dualism between body and soul, evil and good, the church presents one side of these dualities as undesirable and bad. Blake also suggests that extreme adherence to science and philosophy as the one truth that should govern our lives is no better; in the case of the latter, instead of superstition and imagination, we are supposed to be ruled by our rationality and observable facts.

The next section Blake descends into hell where he shares different paradoxical aphorisms and maxims that he learned there. Here are a few of my favorite:

“In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.”

This can be read as a metaphor for life: as a child we’re growing seeds and should learn, as adults we are fully grown for harvest and we should teach what we have learned, and in old age (our winter) we should enjoy ourselves. However, this could be read simply as a way to live our everyday lives rather than as a metaphor for aging: we plant our seeds for enjoyment when we learn, we harvest that learning (achieve true mastery) and this can teach it, and in our winter we use our new knowledge (the seeds that we planted) for our enjoyment before the process begins again with the next planting of seeds (new learning). Therefore, we should always be learning, teaching, and enjoying; we should always be growing and changing. Likewise, knowledge shouldn’t be for its own sake, but should add to our enjoyment of life.

“The hours of folly are measur’d by the clock, but of wisdom: no clock can measure.”

When we engage in folly it’s a waste of our time, but the time spent into acquiring wisdom is priceless. The trick, I suppose, is distinguishing what actions are really just foolish wastes of time and what actions, no matter how time consuming, help us be more wise and therefore, enrich our lives.

“Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.”

This passage suggests that religion’s attempt to control our desires actually causes those desires to increase and people to engage in them clandestinely. Religion’s attempt to control sexuality actually increases those desires and therefore leads to the building of brothels as a consequence.

“What is now proved was once, only imagin’d.”

It is easy to mock the ideas and beliefs of other people that they can’t prove, but it is important to remember that many ideas that seemed crazy or had no real evidence to support them at the time were later proved to be true.

“Expect poison from the standing water.”

Blake returns to this maxim in a later section of his work that helps to give context to this passage’s meaning. Standing water is a metaphor for our ideas and opinions. We need to be careful of becoming ossified in our ideas. We should always be learning new things and changing our minds.

“Listen to the fools reproach! It is a kingly title!”

When an idiot criticizes your idea, it is actually praise for the strength of the idea. In other words, if a foolish person insults or criticizes you because of an idea, then one should take that as a sign that the ideas, arguments, and opinions have validity.

“As the air to a bird or the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the contemptible.”

Expressing contempt and derision at a contemptible person is a waste of time. The passage suggests a contemptible person lives within contempt as a bird moves and lives through air. Such a person will enjoy your contempt; such people acts contemptible to rouse a reaction.

In the section that follows, Blake goes to a dinner with the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel where they discuss the nature of prophecy. Isaiah writes:

“I was then perswaded. & remain confirm’d; that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences but wrote.”

This again restates Blake’s own purpose with the work. God exists within the human spirit and imagination. Blake is expressing honest indignation at all the systems (science, the philosophy of the Enlightenment, and Orthodox religion) that have killed the spirit of man, crushed his imagination, and desires.

In the end, Blake isn’t suggesting desire, evil, hell are superior to rationality, good, and heaven. Rather his work is attempting to recognize that these supposedly contrary impulses are what make us human and perhaps they are not really so contrary after all, but the opposition of these forces are products of human rationality attempting to control and fetter human impulses by defining them as “evil” in the first place. Human beings are both angels and devils, rational and irrational, and Blake suggests we should embrace both our natures and such binaries oppositions are illusions of human thought.

Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson

In terms of literature, Ralph Waldo is best known for his philosophical essays and as a leading transcendentalist. As a literary movement, I tend to see transcendentalism as the American counterpart to British Romanticism. In his poetry, Emerson explores themes about nature, love, society, and metaphysics.

In many of his poems, Emerson presents nature as an ideal escape from a corrupt society and the world of men. Nature serves as a refuge from flawed social arrangements and the dubious values of society. In the poem, “Good-bye” the speaker leaves civilization to find peace in the solitude of nature.

“Good-bye, proud world! I’m going home:
Thou art not my friend, and I’m not thine.
Long through weary crowds I roam;
A river-ark on the ocean brine,
Long I’ve been tossed like the driven foam;
But now, proud world! I’m going home.”

Society values superficial qualities like academic learning, wealth, or how much others flatter your vanity.

“Good-bye to Flattery’s fawning face;
To Grandeur with his wise grimace;
To upstart Wealth’s averted eye;
To supple Office, low and high;”

It is only in society that these things matter. A tree, while alive, could care less how much wealth you possess. Wealth matters only in human society. This is not the only poem that Emerson explores this idea. For example, Emerson reiterates this theme in the poem “Destiny” in which he points out that the qualities we think we possess such as wisdom, bravery, or beauty don’t matter unless there is an outside observer who values that quality in us. As he states in that poem, Beauty only has value in so far as it charms another person. The armor of a soldier only has value in so far as it helps him conquer others. If no one is willing to listen to our words or ideas, what value is wisdom or intelligence? However, he isn’t suggesting we value the things society values, but rather the importance of self-reliance. Our qualities only matter in that they help us achieve success in our personal goals. Therefore to escape, Emerson leaves human society for nature where he can quietly contemplate the deeper structures of the universe, himself, and his relationship to it. For Emerson, it is not in reading old books and ancient wisdom where we will learn about God and the metaphysical structure of the universe, but it is in nature that man discovers God and reality. For as the poem ends:

“I laugh at the lore and the pride of man
At the sophist schools and the learned clan;
For what are they all, in their high conceit,
When man in the bush with God may meet?”

The divine is to be found in nature. Not only that, but many deep philosophical insights about the real nature of the world can be discovered by observing nature. These themes about finding truth in nature are developed in many of his other poems as well. In “The World-Soul,” Emerson criticizes man’s attempts to control and conquer nature with science and technology. These products of human civilization make us forget we are part of nature and part of a continuous cycle in which the earth continually rebuilds and renews itself. In “Hamatreya” he tells of a group of farmer who delude themselves that they own the land before them, but the poem shows it is the land that actually will own them when they die and the earth will literally take possession of their corpses. The poem suggests that the material possessions that we stress so much about in life are ephemeral; we cannot take them with us when we die. Nature cannot really be owned, only temporarily borrowed. In “To Rhea”, the speaker listens to nature in order to learn that we should not fret over unrequited love, but love all people as part of an interconnected natural order. This idea of an interconnected world finds more direct expression in “Uriel” where an angel named Uriel interrupts a discussion about metaphysics that the old gods are having with the radical idea that the world is cyclical and its elements intertwined as opposed to each element and phenomena having clear cut and easily defined boundaries. He points out that good can come from evil. The prospects that clear defining borders may not exist disturb the other divine beings.

Two of his best poems, “The Rhodora” and “The Humble-bee” make the point that God created nature for us to experience beauty and that we can learn through nature by observing it. For example, in “The Humble-bee,” the speaker describes the bee as a great philosopher because the insect knows no human despair, but rather spends all its time with the best flowers (the best and most beautiful things in life). The point is to show us how a person can learn from nature. Like the bee, instead of burdening ourselves with endless problems of society, we should spend our time with the beauties of nature away from the corrupt world. He reiterates this idea in the poem, “Wood-notes I.” The poet sees all the secrets of nature and those who can see it secrets understand nature and nature can supply all we really need in this life. “Forebearance” reminds us that we should cultivate friendship with those who can appreciate nature and our virtues without out trying to exploit or control it.

Another major theme in his poetry is the importance of love. In “Give All to Love” the speaker makes the point that we should give up all other human virtues for the sake of love (i.e. fame, fortune, reputation). On the other hand, we should also be willing to let go of the one we love if she finds a joy and passion separate from ourselves..

La Vita Nuova by Dante Alighieri (trans. Mark Musa)

“So long a time has Love kept me a slave
And in his lordship fully seasoned me,
That even though at first I felt him harsh,
Now tender is his power in my heart”

Before The Divine Comedy, Dante wrote La Vita Nuova (the New Life). The work combines prose with poetry (sonnets, canzones, and ballads). Dante is writing in the tradition of courtly love, but develops the genre further. One big innovation is that he wrote the work in the Italian vernacular rather than in Latin. Beatrice is not merely the beloved woman, but he raises her to a divine figure, foreshadowing her place as Dante’s guide in heaven in his masterpiece the Divine Comedy. From a modern perspective, Dante’s love seems odd. He admires Beatrice, her beauty, but it never leads him to try to consummate his love. In her physical beauty and virtuous qualities, he finds access to the divine realm of heaven, transforming the courtly love poetry into an almost religious experience.

The prose narrative covers from the time he first sees Beatrice from afar to her death. By placing the poetry in between a prose narrative, he structures the work and gives a context to the poetry. These are not just random poems about a loved one, but different events involving his meetings with Beatrice throughout the city give rise to particular poems.

In the very first poem, Dante captures the intensity of his love, giving us an image of Beatrice eating his flaming heart:

“[Love] woke her then and trembling and obedient
She ate that burning heart out of his hand;
Weeping I saw him then depart from me.”

Far from terrified by this metaphorical cannibalism, the last lines give the sense that he is passionately moved by it. His heart burns from the intensity of his feelings. She has such control over him it as if she has eaten his heart. He weeps when they depart. All of this captures his uncontrolled passion. Love is a force that devours us, rules over us, and controls us against our will.

Dante takes his images even further than this, praising Beatrice in terms of a heavenly figure that is borderline sacrilegious.

“The mind of God receives an angel’s prayer
that says: “My Lord, on earth is seen
A living miracle proceeding from
A soul whose light reaches as far as here.”
Heaven, that lacks its full perfection only
In lacking her, asks for her of its Lord,
And every saint is begging for this favor.

An angel from heaven notices her because her beauty and virtue radiate a light that can be seen even from heaven, despite the distance from earth and heaven itself being a place full of light. Dante doesn’t stop with this hyperbole describing his mistress’s qualities. The final lines add on a more powerful piece of hyperbole. Heaven, which in theory should be perfect by the very fact that it is heaven and the dwelling place of a perfect G-d, is incomplete due to lacking her presence and therefore it is not perfect.

In a different poem, Dante again shows his willingness to use heavenly and borderline impious imagery to elevate his lady.

“Because the light of her humility
Cut through the heavens with such forcefulness,
It made the Lord eternal stop amazed.”

One of Beatrice’s virtues is her humility. Not only is her virtue in this regard praised outright, but Dante suggests that this quality resides in her to such an extent that they make even G-d, an omniscient being, stop in amazement as if taken by surprise that any mortal could possess such virtue.