Tag Archives: alliteration

Thoughts on “A Late Walk” by Robert Frost

Vincent Van Gogh

When I go up through the mowing field,
The headless aftermath,
Smooth-laid like thatch with the heavy dew,
Half closes the garden path.

And when I come to the garden ground,
The whir of sober birds
Up from the tangle of withered weeds
Is sadder than any words.

A tree beside the wall stands bare,
But a leaf that lingered brown,
Disturbed, I doubt not, by my thought,
Comes softly rattling down.

I end not far from my going forth
By picking the faded blue
Of the last remaining aster flower
To carry again to you.

In this poem, Frost uses autumn as a symbol for impending death. It appears that someone close to him is nearing the end of his or her life, and this imminent death is cause for Frost to reflect on his own mortality.

In addition to the ABCB rhyming scheme, Frost incorporates alliteration, which works nicely. The phrases “garden ground,” “withered weeds,” “leaf that lingered,” and “disturbed, I doubt not” instill a somber musicality to the poem that evokes a feeling of inner reflection.

I have often walked alone in the fall, smelling the dead leaves and listening to the wind rustling the bare branches of trees. At these times, I am very aware of the fragility of life, along with the promise of spring and rebirth.

It is the promise of rebirth that offers a ray of hope in this otherwise sad poem. Frost uses the aster flower as a symbol for spring and rebirth. Death is just part of the cycle of life, but the cycle continues and from death comes new growth.

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“A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas

ChildsChristmasWales

I was reminded today about why I hate to get rid of books. I was scanning my shelves, looking for something appropriate to read for the holidays, and spotted my old copy of Quite Early One Morning by Dylan Thomas. It had been probably 30 years since I opened this book, but it called to me. As soon as I looked at the table of contents and saw that it contained “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” I knew I had been guided to this book.

Let me start by saying that I loved this piece. It is a prose poem that has the feel and lyrical cadence of some of the most beautiful lyric poetry I have ever read. Reading this stirred memories of holidays when I was a kid, complete with the wonder and imagination and adventure that was such a big part of growing up in the north east.

While I would love to include the entire text in this post, I will limit myself to three passages that I feel capture the essence of this tale. I hope it will inspire you to read the entire piece because it is amazing. In fact, here is a link to an online version if you feel so inclined.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales

The first section I’d like to share is a great example of childhood imagination. It brought back memories of how, as a kid, we stalked the woods with sling-shots hunting small animals, which we never caught, but it was the adventure, fueled by our active imaginations, which made it such a formative experience.

It was on the afternoon of the day of Christmas Eve, and I was in Mrs. Prothero’s garden, waiting for cats, with her son Jim. It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no reindeers. But there were cats. Patient, cold and callous, our hands wrapped in socks, we waited to snowball the cats. Sleek and long as jaguars and horrible-whiskered, spitting and snarling, they would slink and sidle over the white back-garden walls, and the lynx-eyed hunters, Jim and I, fur-capped and moccasined trappers from Hudson Bay, off Mumbles Road, would hurl our deadly snowballs at the green of their eyes. The wise cats never appeared. We were so still, Eskimo-footed arctic marksmen in the muffling silence of the eternal snows—eternal, ever since Wednesday—that we never heard Mrs. Prothero’s first cry from her igloo at the bottom of the garden. Or, if we heard it at all, it was, to us, like the far-off challenge of our enemy and prey, the neighbour’s polar cat. But soon the voice grew louder.

The use of alliteration adds to the music of the writing, and Thomas uses this technique throughout the piece. This next passage—which is a long, single sentence—focuses on his romanticized memories of past Christmases and is another great example of the use alliteration and punctuation to instill a poetic feel into the prose.

Years and years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed.

The last section that I want to share is a paragraph near the end where Thomas recounts the telling of stories beside the fire. In an age of digital media and endless streaming entertainment, this is rapidly becoming a lost art, like hand-written letters on artistic stationery arriving in the mailbox. He also recalls going out caroling, something I too did as a kid, and the thrill of going up to a dark, mysterious house, of which there was always at least one in each neighborhood.

Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire as the gaslight bubbled like a diver. Ghosts whooed like owls in the long nights when I dared not look over my shoulder; animals lurked in the cubbyhole under the stairs where the gas meter ticked. And I remember that we went singing carols once, when there wasn’t the shaving of a moon to light the flying street. At the end of a long road was a drive that led to a large house, and we stumbled up the darkness of the drive that night, each one of us afraid, each one holding a stone in his hand in case, and all of us too brave to say a word. The wind through the trees made noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe webfooted men wheezing in caves. We reached the black bulk of the house.

Reading this story kindled warm memories of my childhood. Ever the romantic, I often look back at the past and reminisce about the carefree and adventurous days of my youth. Not that I would ever want to give up the life I have today, but I am grateful that I have those memories.

Have a blessed holiday and New Year!

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 1

Ulysses_S

The first three episodes focus on Stephen Dedalus, who is the protagonist in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This correlates with the first four books of Homer’s Odyssey in which Telemachus is the focus. Stephen is a young, aspiring poet who is in mourning over the death of his mother. He is generally considered to be James Joyce’s alter ego.

The first thing to note about this episode is the giant S at the beginning. As with anything symbolic, there can be any number of interpretations, all of which can be equally valid. For example, it could simply imply that Stephen is the focus of the first episode. Possibly, it is an allusion to alliteration that will appear throughout the text, the ess sound being predominant in the name Ulysses. One could argue that it represents the (s)ymbolism found in (s)tories. I personally have my own theory, but I am not going to share it just yet. I will do so at the end of this blog series, since I feel it is part of one of the larger themes in the book. (Note: This was the topic of my college thesis on Ulysses, which I will try to locate in the attic before we finish the book.)

Early in the episode, Stephen says, “I’m not a hero, however.” (p. 4) I see a double entendre here. On one level, Joyce is making it clear that Stephen is not the hero of the book; hence he is not representative of Odysseus. But I think this is also a reference to Joyce’s then unpublished manuscript of Stephen Hero. This was an early version of a manuscript that would later become Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. As the story goes, it was rejected by the publisher and Joyce ended up throwing into the fire. It was secretly retrieved and published posthumously.

Similarities are established between Stephen and Hamlet. Buck Mulligan accuses Stephen of brooding, in the same way that Claudius chides Hamlet.

—Don’t mope over it all day, he said. I’m inconsequent. Give up the moody brooding.

(p. 9)

Stephen is then described as being haunted by his mother’s ghost, similar to Hamlet being visited by the ghost of his father.

In a dream, silently, she had come to him, her wasted body within its loose graveclothes giving off the odour of wax and rosewood, her breath bent over him with mute secret words, a faint odour of wetted ashes.

Her glazing eyes, staring out of death, to shake and bend my soul. On me alone. The ghostcandle to light her agony. Ghostly light on the tortured face. Her hoarse loud breath rattling in horror, while all prayed on their knees. Her eyes on me to strike me down.

(p. 10)

Earlier in the post, I had mentioned alliteration. This is a literary tool that Joyce uses well and there is a great example in this episode where he uses words beginning with the letter “W” to evoke the sensation of waves and water.

Woodshadows floated silently by through the morning peace from the stairhead seaward where he gazed. Inshore and farther out the mirror of water whitened, spurned by lightshod hurrying feet. White breast from the dim sea. The twining stresses, two by two. A hand plucking the harpstraings merging their twining chords. Wavewhite wedded words shimmering on the dim tide.

(p. 9)

Martello tower, the setting for this episode, figures prominently. It is likened to Elsinore, which supports the connection between Stephen and Hamlet.

—I mean to say, Haines explained to Stephen as they followed, this tower and these cliffs here remind me somehow of Elsinore. That beetles o’er his base into the sea, isn’t it?

(p. 18)

I also see a couple other connections with the tower image. First, I suspect it is meant to serve as a reference to William Butler Yeats, whose poem “Who Goes With Fergus” is quoted by Mulligan. (p. 9) While Yeats’ “The Tower” wasn’t published until 1928, after Ulysses, Yeats was residing at Thoor Ballylee (the tower that would become the symbol in Yeats’ poem later on) at the time that Joyce was working on his book. Secondly, I see a connection to the Tower card in the tarot deck. The Tower, for those who know tarot, is about the worst card you can get. It foretells a catastrophic, unexpected event. This seems to be in keeping with Odysseus’ ill-fated journey home, where he faces one unexpected disaster and danger after another. The cards are stacked against him, so to speak.

The very end of this episode really solidifies the connection between Joyce’s novel and The Odyssey, while at the same time reinforcing the connection between Stephen and Hamlet. There is imagery of not being able to return home, of being out at sea. Also, there is an emphasis on the archetype of the usurper, which can be interpreted as both Penelope’s suitors and Claudius, who usurped Hamlet’s throne.

The priest’s grey nimbus in a niche where he dressed discreetly. I will not sleep here tonight. Home also I cannot go.

A voice, sweettoned and sustained, called to him from the sea. Turning the curve he waved his hand. It called again. A sleek brown head, a seal’s, far out on the water, round.

(p. 23)

This is extremely dense text, and I could certainly write much longer, picking apart the minutia. But that’s not my goal. I want to hit on some of the big themes and the symbolism that resonates with me personally. That said, if there is anything you want to add, please post in the comments. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Next week I will cover Episode 2 which ends on page 36. The last line of that episode is: “On his wise shoulders through the checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins.”

Sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Dedalus

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telemachus

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ulysses/characters.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thoor_Ballylee

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“Howl” by Allen Ginsberg

HowlIf you read just one poem in your lifetime, it should be “Howl.” This poem not only captures and expresses the unspoken reality of post-WWII America, but it shattered social taboos and paved the way for artistic expression that continues today. It is truly a masterpiece.

The poem is much too long to include here. You can click here to read it online; or better yet, go and purchase a copy from your local indie bookstore. Ginsberg would certainly approve of that.

The poem begins with one of the greatest poetical openings ever, in my opinion:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

It is free-form poetry that has a distinct rhythm. I’ve heard it compared with Walt Whitman, and I can see that, but the rhythm is unique and heavily influenced by the jazz music of that period. Reading the words, the cadence makes me feel like I am in a smoke-filled basement and losing myself in hypnotic beats.

In addition to the long, winding lines of verse, Ginsberg brilliantly uses alliteration to create the musical feel of the poem. The following line is a great example of this, where he uses the “B” sound to accent the verse and drive the natural rhythm of the language.

who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo,

The 1950’s were a time of repression. Thinking and acting in a way that didn’t fit in with the social mores could be very dangerous. As a result, people began exploring new spiritual and intellectual paths. Ginsberg expresses this searching and longing in the poem.

who wandered around and around at midnight in the railroad yard wondering where to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts,

who lit cigarettes in boxcars boxcars boxcars racketing through snow toward lonesome farms in grandfather night,

who studied Plotinus Poe St. John of the Cross telepathy and bop kabbalah because the cosmos instinctively vibrated at their feet in Kansas,  

who loned it through the streets of Idaho seeking visionary indian angels who were visionary indian angels,

who thought they were only mad when Baltimore gleamed in supernatural ecstasy,

Travel and mysticism were not the only ways in which Ginsberg and his contemporaries searched for meaning in their world. They also turned to sex and drugs, and for Ginsberg, this was open homosexuality, something that was not accepted at that time. Ginsberg expresses his homosexuality with frank openness, something which led to an attempt to ban the poem as pornographic. Thankfully, the courts upheld the artistic value of the poem in one of the landmark censorship cases.

who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts,

who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,

who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,

who balled in the morning in the evenings in rosegardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may,

The poem is divided into three parts. The second part focuses on Moloch. Moloch was a god worshiped by the Phoenicians and Canaanites who required parents to sacrifice their children by fire. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moloch) Ginsberg adopts the symbol of Moloch and employs it as a metaphor for America. People were expected to sacrifice themselves and their children to a culture that demanded obedience, crushed individuality, and thought of people as nothing more than cogs in the great wheel of capitalist consumerism. It was a society where money was God.

Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!

Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smoke-stacks and antennae crown the cities!

Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen! Moloch whose name is the Mind!

The third section of the poem is all about how Ginsberg relates with Carl Solomon, to whom the entire poem is dedicated. Solomon was a writer who was influenced by Dadaism and Surrealism. He was institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital where he was subjected to shock therapy. (Source: Wikipedia) In the final section, Ginsberg uses the refrain “I’m with you in Rockland” to express solidarity, and most importantly, to assert that, like Solomon, we are all institutionalized. We are all trapped within the society that seeks to dull our minds with the continuous zapping of our thoughts. All creativity and deviation from the societal norms is systematically extinguished by a culture that demands conformity.

Again, I cannot stress enough how important this poem is. It is one of the most ground-breaking works of literature ever. While I have your attention, I’ll also recommend watching the film “Howl” starring James Franco, which has some great reenactments of the court sessions where Lawrence Ferlinghetti from City Lights Books was on trial for publishing Howl and Other Poems.

Finally, there is a “Footnote to Howl” which stands alone poetically. You can probably guess what my next post will be.

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“A Cradle Song” by William Blake

CradleSong1Sweet dreams form a shade,
O’er my lovely infants head.
Sweet dreams of pleasant streams,
By happy silent moony beams

Sweet sleep with soft down.
Weave thy brows an infant crown.
Sweet sleep Angel mild,
Hover o’er my happy child.

Sweet smiles in the night,
Hover over my delight.
Sweet smiles Mothers smiles,
All the livelong night beguiles.

Sweet moans, dovelike sighs,
Chase not slumber from thy eyes,
Sweet moans, sweeter smiles,
All the dovelike moans beguiles.

Sleep sleep happy child,
All creation slept and smil’d.
Sleep sleep, happy sleep.
While o’er thee thy mother weep

Sweet babe in thy face,
Holy image I can trace.
Sweet babe once like thee,
Thy maker lay and wept for me

Wept for me for thee for all,
When he was an infant small.
Thou his image ever see.
Heavenly face that smiles on thee,

CradleSong2Smiles on thee on me on all,
Who became an infant small,
Infant smiles are His own smiles,
Heaven & earth to peace beguiles.

After a month of gothic and macabre reading, I decided to go for the extreme opposite today and read William Blake’s “A Cradle Song” (posted above). The poem is part of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and certainly has the feel of a sweet, childhood lullaby. In fact, for kicks and giggles, I read part of it aloud in a sing-song tone of voice and it sounded like a song that a mother would sing while rocking her infant to sleep.

In addition to the simple AABB rhyming scheme and the musical cadence, Blake goes heavy on the use of alliteration, particularly the “ess” sound. This works very well, invoking a feeling of a soft “shhh” as the mother calms her child, or of gentle breezes outside a window as one teeters on the brink of sleep.

Blake associates the child with Christ, a metaphor that he frequently uses in his poems from Songs of Innocence. The mother sees the image of Christ reflected in her child’s face. It’s a sweet image, but nothing really earth-shattering.

There is, though, something foreboding below the surface of this poem, the key to which is in the following stanza:

Sleep sleep happy child,
All creation slept and smil’d.
Sleep sleep, happy sleep.
While o’er thee thy mother weep

The mother is sad and weeping, which seems to contrast the general tone of the poem. My guess is that the mother, gazing upon her child, knows that her child is destined to grow up, suffer, and die. As much as she would love to coddle and protect her infant, the harsh reality is that doing so is impossible. On a more cosmic scale, I would go as far as to assert that the mother here represents the Goddess, looking down upon “all creation” as it sleeps and realizing that Her beautiful creation is destined to die, that eventually our world, like everything else, will wither and pass from existence.

Blake’s poems never cease to fascinate me. Many of them, such as this one, seem so simple on the surface, yet the more you think about them, the more profound they become.

Thanks for reading, and as always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

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“The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe: A Hidden Anagram?

RavenLast night I volunteered to work at the Scholastic Book Fair at my daughter’s school. While I was there, I had a discussion with Laura, the school librarian, about why it’s important to re-read books and poems that you have not read in a while, how your perspective changes and you notice nuances that you missed previously. After that discussion, I knew it was high time for me to read “The Raven” again, even though I had read it so many times before. It was no surprise that I discovered things about the poem I had never noticed before.

This is the quintessential work by Poe. Whenever someone mentions Edgar Allan Poe, the image that usually is conjured is that of the raven. In fact, I would argue that “The Raven” is probably the most recognizable American poem ever written.

The first thing that struck me on this reading is the fact that the protagonist suffers from insomnia. He is up at midnight, deep in thought, and he does not mention that he almost falls asleep. He clearly says that he nearly napped, implying that he no longer sleeps at night, but only catches brief moments of napping during his long nights of obsession.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

The long, sleepless nights and the obsessive thoughts begin to take their toll on the person’s mind. Fantasy and imagination begin to flood the psyche and affect his sense of reality. At first, it is exciting. One almost gets a sense of an adrenaline rush as the speaker succumbs to his imagination.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before:
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating;
“’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—

He then becomes trapped within his own mind. In the fifth stanza, he describes staring into the darkness. This darkness represents the shadow part of his consciousness, where his dark thoughts lie hidden from himself.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared dream before;

By this point in the poem, Poe has already begun using alliteration in conjunction with his rhyming, which works very well. But as the poem begins to climax near the end, the alliteration becomes more pronounced, adding to the frenzy that the protagonist is experiencing as he loses himself in the fear and obsession which he creates within his own mind.

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil! —
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore
Desolate, yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by Horror haunted, —tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead? —tell me—tell me—I implore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

So this seems like the appropriate place to unveil what I think is the coolest discovery I made regarding this poem. As I was looking at images of covers and trying to pick one for the post, something about the word “Raven” was gnawing at me, and I kept looking at the word, trying to figure out what it was. Then it struck me—Raven spelled backwards (nevar) is phonetic for “never.” It is not a perfect anagram, but I would consider it a phonetic anagram. I have no idea whether this was intentional on the part of Poe, but it does seem more than a coincidence to me. It is like the Raven is the physical manifestation of the word Never. I feel like I have stumbled upon an aspect of this poem that has gone unnoticed. I for one have never heard a mention of this before, even when we studied this poem in my American Literature class in college.

I admit feeling ambivalent about covering this poem on my blog, since I feel it has been analyzed to death, but I am glad that I did. I feel like my understanding of this poem has reached a new level. So to conclude, I will once again quote the Raven, “Nevarmore.”

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Alliteration in “Love’s Labour’s Lost”

LovesLaboursLostI saw in the Entertainment section of the newspaper that the local Shakespeare company was putting on a performance of Love’s Labour’s Lost done as if it were a 1980’s John Hughes film. I thought that was a pretty cool idea, and since I had not read the play before, I quickly read it before going to see the performance.

The interpretation worked really well. The actors did a great job summoning up images of the Brat Pack. And the whole premise of the play, that the guys will swear off women for three years to engage in serious studies, really lent itself well for the interpretation.

As far as the text goes, it was good, but not great like some of Shakespeare’s other comedies. I would not place it in the ranks of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Taming of the Shrew. I was also puzzled by the ending. It didn’t seem to end as a Shakespearean comedy should end, in my opinion. The fact that the Princess’s father dies, and that all the men have to spend a year in abstinence just seemed strange. I expect marriage at the end of a Shakespearean comedy, not death and abstinence. I’m still scratching my head here.

Now the one thing that I did find very interesting about this play was the use of alliteration. Even before I started reading, the title struck me as alliterative and I wondered whether this would be a literary device used throughout the play. I decided to watch for the use of alliteration and note instances. I discovered, rather quickly, that my hunch had been right, and I soon had to stop noting lines that employed alliteration. Here are just a couple from Act II.

“Some merry making lord belike, is’t so?”

and…

“Fair fall the face it covers.”

This one from Act IV is probably my favorite.

“The preyful Princess pierc’d and prick’d a pretty pleasing pricket.”

The entire play is full of this type of wordplay, and for me, that was the most interesting aspect. It’s definitely a fun and whimsical play, and worth reading, it’s just not a “WOW” play for me. But let’s face it, even an “OK” Shakespeare play is much better than a lot of stuff that’s out there in print. Cheers!

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