Tag Archives: children

“Sonnet 5: Those hours that with gentle work did frame” by William Shakespeare

Source: BBC

Source: BBC

Those hours that with gentle work did frame
The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell,
Will play the tyrants to the very same
And that unfair which fairly doth excel.
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:
Then were not summer’s distillation left,
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,
Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it, nor no remembrance what it was.
But flowers distilled, though they with winter meet,
Leese but their show. Their substance still lives sweet.

This is another sonnet that falls into the fair youth category that deals with procreation. The essence is that one should bear and raise children so that they will provide comfort in one’s later years.

Shakespeare uses seasonal metaphors to represent the stages of life: spring as the time of birth, summer as the period of early adulthood, and winter as old age. Personally, I find the symbols associated with old age to be the strongest in this poem; for example, line 7: “Sap checked with frost and lusty leaves quite gone.” If one considers a tree to be the symbol of the person to whom the poem is addressed, then the sap would represent the person’s blood, which has thickened and slowed as old age sets in, causing one’s energy to be “sapped.” The leaves would symbolize the person’s hair, which has fallen off and left the top bare.

I confess in my younger days I was not sure I wanted children. Now, as a father, I cannot imagine a life without my kids in it. When the winter of my days arrives, I look forward to spending that time with my children and reflecting back on my life with them. Yes, this poem has certainly struck a chord in me.

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“Sonnet 4: Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend” by William Shakespeare

"Death and the Miser" by Hieronymus Bosch

“Death and the Miser” by Hieronymus Bosch

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thy self thy beauty’s legacy?
Nature’s bequest gives nothing, but doth lend,
And being frank she lends to those are free:
Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largess given thee to give?
Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums, yet canst not live?
For having traffic with thy self alone,
Thou of thy self thy sweet self dost deceive:
Then how when nature calls thee to be gone,
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?
Thy unused beauty must be tombed with thee,
Which, used, lives th’ executor to be.

Similar to Shakespeare’s first three sonnets, this one also deals with the theme of procreation, but the tone is different. I know there is a lot of debate about whether these sonnets were written for a young man or a young woman. While I feel that the first three sonnets are speaking to a woman, based upon the use of metaphors regarding flowers, mothers, and childbirth, for this one I will adhere to the consensus and say that he composed this for a male youth.

The metaphors used here are primarily associated with business, particularly accounting and money-lending. This would certainly be more within the realm of men during Shakespeare’s time. The entire poem is strewn with words associated with business: unthrifty, spend, lend, profitless, usurer, sums, audit, executor.

The person to whom the speaker is addressing is clearly obsessed with business affairs and is directing all his energy into the pursuit of financial success. The speaker is letting him know that he is wasting his youth in the quest for material gains and that he should shift his focus towards finding a wife and starting a family. If he fails to do so, he will die a lonely, solitary miser, and after his death, the only legacy he will have left will be some money which a lawyer will dispense with.

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“The Chimney Sweeper” by William Blake (from Songs of Experience)

ChimneySweeper_2

A little black thing among the snow,
Crying weep, weep, in notes of woe!
Where are thy father & mother? say?
They are both gone up to the church to pray.

Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smil’d among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

And because I am happy & dance & sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.

This poem corresponds with “The Chimney Sweeper” from the Songs of Innocence. I have to say that although this one is shorter than its corresponding poem, it is much more powerful and visceral in my opinion.

While I find the exploitation of children to be sickening, it is almost beyond comprehension that parents could exploit their children. And what this poem does is it points out the way that people justify their abuse and cruelty. Because the child seems happy, they are able to convince themselves that they are not really doing the child harm. But as we all know, true psychological damage happens below the surface.

The image of “the clothes of death” is really disturbing. I picture blackened rags, covered with soot and dirt, seeping sickness and disease into the pores of the young child. This contrasts starkly with the white snow, but the irony here is that winter is also symbolic of death. I get the sense that the child will die soon and that this will be his last winter.

The last two lines of the poem show yet another level of justification, that of the church. In Blake’s time, church doctrine would have asserted that a child is the property of the parent, and hence the parents could do with the child as they wish. I keep thinking about how, throughout history, religious doctrine has been used to justify social injustice. It continues today. All one needs to do is listen to the arguments against marriage reform.

This is a pretty bleak poem and it’s hard to find any hope in it. The only hope I can find is in the fact that enlightened people like Blake recognize social injustice and have the courage to point it out. It inspires me to point out injustice when I see it around me.

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“Holy Thursday” by William Blake: From Songs of Experience

HolyThur-SOE

Blake wrote two versions of “Holy Thursday,” one for the Songs of Innocence and this one for the Songs of Experience. (Click here to read my thoughts on “Holy Thursday” from the Songs of Innocence.) Both poems deal with the issue of poverty and how it affects children, and while both provide social criticism, they do so from very different perspectives.

Is this a holy thing to see,
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reducd to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?

Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!

And their sun does never shine.
And their fields are bleak & bare.
And their ways are fill’d with thorns
It is eternal winter there.

For where-e’er the sun does shine,
And where-e’er the rain does fall:
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.

In Catholic tradition, Holy Thursday is the Thursday before Easter when Jesus held the last supper. Since the last supper was Jesus’ observance of the Passover Seder, which recounts the Hebrews’ release from the bondage of slavery, there is a dark irony here as Blake incorporates imagery of hunger and subjugation. The church, an institution that is supposed to carry on the traditions and teachings of Christ, instead grudgingly offers meager charity to the poor and starving children with “cold and usurious hand,” all the while viewing themselves as holy and charitable.

For me, the stark difference between this poem and the one from Songs of Innocence is the tone. This is an angry poem, seething with indignation. The poet’s view, no longer tainted by innocence, only sees the bare suffering that poverty inflicts upon poor children. He questions why in a land of abundance we allow those who are less fortunate to suffer, and I personally feel that this question is relevant today. How can we, as a society, tolerate children going without food when we have the resources to alleviate their suffering? It is a question we need to ask ourselves, because there are a lot of children who go to sleep hungry every night.

Blake states strongly: “It is a land of poverty!” This is a powerful statement. It is not material or economic wealth that makes a society prosperous; It is how a society cares for its people that determines whether that society is prosperous or not. A society, just like a chain, is only as strong as its weakest link, and allowing poverty to exist only weakens the social fabric.

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“Sonnet 1: From fairest creatures we desire increase” by William Shakespeare

Titian_WomanWithMirror

Titian

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content
And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

As I read this poem, I couldn’t help but think how little has changed in 500 years. We are still obsessed with physical beauty.

The opening line states the obvious—we desire sexual relations with those who possess physical beauty. But the word “increase” ties in with the next several lines. Humans not only desire physical beauty in their partners to satisfy their own pleasure, they also seek attractive partners so that they can pass the traits of physical beauty on to their children, thereby creating a fair bloodline. This was probably more important in Shakespeare’s time when upward mobility along the social ladder was usually gained through advantageous marriages. Having a beautiful daughter could certainly score you a nice dowry.

The middle section of the poem has an interesting shift. Here we see the obsession with beauty from a woman’s perspective. The woman is “contracted to thine own bright eyes,” or obsessed with her reflection in a mirror. She knows that if she is to secure a husband, she must do so while she still has the beauty of youth. She examines every aspect of herself and ornaments herself in order to highlight her appearance.

The ending of this sonnet has a dark, ironic twist. While we may focus on beauty, procreation, and securing our lineage, ultimately, we all face the same end: death. Our flesh will rot and we will become food for the worms. Which begs the question—Is it worth it? I’d like to say it’s not, but I have to be honest with myself. There are advantages to being good-looking. It would be naive to think that unattractive people have the same workplace opportunities as attractive people. While I think we have made progress in this area, your appearance will still have an impact on the opportunities that are presented to you.

I wish I could say we have evolved past this, but alas, tis not so. We may have come a long way as a society, but the fact is, human nature is very slow to change.

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“Nurse’s Song” by William Blake (from Songs of Innocence)

NursesSong

As I near the end of the Songs of Innocence, the “Nurse’s Song” is next up.

When the voices of children are heard on the green,
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast,
And everything else is still.        

Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of night arise;
Come, come, leave off play, and let us away
Till the morning appears in the skies.    

No, no, let us play, for it is yet day,
And we cannot go to sleep;
Besides, in the sky the little birds fly,
And the hills are all cover’d with sheep.

 Well, well, go and play till the light fades away,
And then go home to bed.
The little ones leaped & shouted & laugh’d
And all the hills echoed.

I see this as a coming-of-age poem. The transition from day to night symbolizes the transition from childhood to adulthood. As evening falls, the nurse tells the children to “leave off play.” It is time for them to mature and accept the responsibilities of being an adult.

But the transition is not easy, and the children point out that there is some daytime left, hence, they still have a little more time to be carefree and young. When they respond that “it is yet day, And we cannot go to sleep;” they are asserting that they are not yet ready to consign their youth and innocence to the realm of dream and memory. They want to remain children for a little while longer.

The nurse concedes: “Well, well, go and play till the light fades away.” She allows the children to enjoy the last of their innocence as they are at the threshold of adulthood. Once they cross that threshold, the light of happiness within them will begin to fade as they sadly take their places in the world of responsibility and sorrow.

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“Night” by William Blake

NightBlake1This poem is fairly long, so for those who need, here is a link to read it online:

PoemHunter.com

Overall, this poem gave me the impression that it was inspired by the classic children’s bedtime prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep.”

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I shall die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.

But in addition to echoing the theme from the children’s prayer, Blake adds his own symbolism, building on the foundation and creating something that is uniquely his own.

In the first two stanzas, there are references to flowers and blossoms, which are symbolic of young girls’ virginity in most of Blake’s poems. Blake describes the angels pouring blessings and joy “On each bud and blossom, / And each sleeping bosom.” I get the impression that the angels are not only blessing the young virgins, but also protecting them from the abuse and assault that may occur at night.

In the third stanza, we see the angels comforting the birds in their nests and the beasts in their caves. It appears that sorrow and unrest haunt the animals, which leads me to interpret them as symbolic of the poor and homeless children of London, seeking shelter wherever they can.

The fourth stanza turns dark, as the wolves and tygers of the night begin to prey upon the unsuspecting innocents as they sleep. The angels try to protect them, but are often unable to do so. Instead, they “receive each mild spirit” and guide them to Heaven.

NightBlake2In the final two stanzas, Christ accepts the souls of the children. Here, Christ is symbolized by the lion whose eyes “flow with tears of gold” as a display of deep, holy sorrow at the loss of the innocent children. The poem concludes with the image of the lion lying down with the sheep, protecting the flock, which is comprised of the souls of the children who were taken from the world too, too early.

This is a perfect example of Blake’s poetic genius. He beautifully weaves his words together in a way that evokes conflicting emotions: joy and sadness; comfort and unease; love and anger; hope and despair. Right now, my feelings are so confused by this poem that it’s hard for me to nail down exactly how I feel. But that’s the goal of poetry, to stir emotion.

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“Holy Thursday” by William Blake: From Songs of Innocence

HolyThur-SOI

Twas on a Holy Thursday their innocent faces clean
The children walking two & two in red & blue & green
Grey-headed beadles walkd before with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Pauls they like Thames waters flow

O what a multitude they seemd these flowers of London town
Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own
The hum of multitudes was there but multitudes of lambs
Thousands of little boys & girls raising their innocent hands

Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of Heaven among
Beneath them sit the aged men wise guardians of the poor
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door

I confess that when I read this, I was lost as to the meaning of the poem, mainly because I had absolutely no idea what Holy Thursday was. So I did a quick search and discovered that Holy Thursday, in Catholic tradition, is the Thursday before Easter when Jesus held the last supper. At that point, the poem began to make sense to me.

The scene that Blake describes seems innocent enough, but as is the case with most poems in The Songs of Innocence, there is a sense that below the surface, something is wrong. In this case, it is the hypocrisy of the church. The children are paraded into St. Paul’s cathedral in a display of charity and kindness, but it is really just a show and does not appear to be genuine. The children are poor and probably homeless, which can be determined by the fact that Blake points out in the first line that their faces are clean, implying that this is not how they normally appear. I got the impression that to show how charitable the church is, they cleaned and fed a group of homeless children just to show them off.

At the end of the poem, Blake entreats the church elders to practice what they preach, to have pity on the poor, hungry children who crowded London’s streets and to not drive them from their door, but instead offer them comfort and food. Just as Christ fed the poor and starving, so should the church.

Once I was in a car with a co-worker going out for dinner, which was being paid for by the company we worked for. On the corner was a homeless person with a sign begging money for food. The person I was with callously yelled out, “Get a job!” I lost all respect for that person. I understand that you cannot give to every starving person, but you can at least have sympathy for those who are less fortunate. And that is the message in this poem: cherish pity. You may not be able to help everyone who needs help, but at least have compassion for another human who is suffering.

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“The Chimney Sweeper” by William Blake (from Songs of Innocence)

ChimneySweeperI’ve read this poem before and it never bothered me. I’d always viewed it as a social commentary against the horrific child labor practices in London. But having gone to the Holocaust Memorial in Washington DC this past week while on vacation, something about this poem struck me the wrong way, and while I am sure it is just my interpretation as seen through the lens of what I recently experienced, I still need to point out my issue with this poem.

Click here to read the poem online.

Most of the poem is pretty straight-forward. Innocent children are being exploited and one has a vision of an angel telling him that a better life awaits in the next realm. This vision provides hope for the child to continue with his life. It is the ending of the poem, though, that is problematic for me.

Tho’ the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm.
So if all do their duty, they need fear no harm.

This struck me as the same mentality that allowed the holocaust to occur, that quiet acquiescence in the face of abuse and human rights violations. On one hand, this is the same as the lie that “Arbeit macht frei” (Work makes you free) which appeared above the gates to Auschwitz. It is also likely that this is the same belief that caused many Germans to go along with the atrocities, the belief that they were only doing their duty. If you think about it, how many human rights violations are committed today as a result of “doing one’s duty.” Sometimes, doing what is right means refusing to do one’s duty.

I know that Blake was progressive and supported human rights, but we must be careful when we read and interpret literature. Ideas can be twisted and reinterpreted to express the exact opposite of what was originally intended. Just think about how many atrocities have been justified by an individual’s interpretation of a religious text. Words are powerful; therefore, we must be careful when we use them.

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