What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me – The Carriage held but just Ourselves – And Immortality.
We slowly drove – He knew no haste And I had put away My labor and my leisure too, For His Civility –
We passed the School, where Children strove At Recess – in the Ring – We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain – We passed the Setting Sun –
Or rather – He passed us – The Dews drew quivering and chill – For only Gossamer, my Gown – My Tippet – only Tulle –
We paused before a House that seemed A Swelling of the Ground – The Roof was scarcely visible – The Cornice – in the Ground –
Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet Feels shorter than the Day I first surmised the Horses’ Heads Were toward Eternity –
Over the past few months, I have been having virtual literature discussions with one of my closest friends, and we recently discussed this poem. I had read through it multiple times prior to our discussion and took many notes. Still, in talking about the nuances of this masterpiece, we discovered more hidden symbolism and meaning. So my goal in this post is to cover some of the themes we discovered in the text. It is by no means exhaustive, and if you have insights you would like to share, please do so in the comments section (available for 14 days after publication of this post).
The obvious theme is that the speaker is describing the afterlife by personifying Death and Immortality. As is implied in the first stanza, many of us hasten through our lives without giving much thought to our impending deaths. But eventually, Death does come for us all. It is also worth noting that Dickinson differentiates between Death and Immortality. One could conclude that dying does not necessarily mean that the soul will unite with the Eternal.
Something that my friend and I discussed was the possibility that the speaker is somehow wedded, either to Immortality or to Death. There are multiple images that support this interpretation. When couples get married, they would often leave together in a Carriage. In the third stanza, there is mention of a Ring and Children. And in the fourth stanza, we learn that she is wearing a Gown, and more importantly, a Tulle, which is a veil.
Now, one could argue that the Tulle might represent the veil between this world and the afterlife. This is also a valid interpretation and worth considering.
Finally, there is one other symbol that we discussed which may be of interest, and that is the biblical Scarlet Woman from Revelation. If you look closely at the sixth stanza, you can find the imagery there. The mention of “Centuries” implies the passing of a millennium, which feels shorter than “the Day.” The Day could be interpreted as the Judgement Day. The “Horses’ Heads” could then be viewed as a reference to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. All of these signs are pointing “toward Eternity,” manifested by the Second Coming of Christ. If one accepts this interpretation, then the conclusion of this poem takes on an ominous tone.
Again, these are just thoughts and impressions regarding this poem. I suspect there is even more going on than I am aware of. There are definitely layers of symbolism and hidden meaning in this text. I welcome you to share any thoughts you may have.
In our current society, poets and poetry rarely get the broad recognition they deserve. An exception to this is The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman. When she read this poem to the nation as the Youth Poet Laureate at Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony on January 20, 2021, I for one was floored. That a 22-year-old poet could compose such powerful and timely words, and present them with poise, dignity, and inspired optimism, renewed my belief in the power of words to foment change in our world. Regardless of which side of the political divide we may find ourselves, it is impossible to deny that Ms. Gorman’s words were able to bridge that divide and offer hope in what was a difficult time.
In her introduction to the printed version of the poem, Oprah Winfrey wrote:
Everyone who watched came away enhanced with hope and marveling at seeing the best of who we are and can be through the eyes and essence of a twenty-two-year-old, our country’s youngest presidential inaugural poet.
I am in complete agreement.
There are two short excerpts from this incredible poem that I would like to share.
And so we lift our gazes not To what stands between us, But to what stands before us. We close the divide, Because we know to put Our future first, we must first Put our differences aside.
The truth of this statement is self-evident. We cannot advance as a nation, or as a species, unless we learn to stop vilifying those who have differing opinions and beliefs. Focus needs to shift from differences to commonalities.
So while we once asked: How could we possibly prevail over catastrophe? We now assert: How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
This past year has been hard for all of us, and our world continues to pose challenges. But challenges, while painful to work through, often provide the spark of heroic inspiration needed to “climb the hill.” Every journey has a point where the odds seem insurmountable. We stand at this threshold. But as Amanda Gorman shows us, we can take that next step and move toward ushering in a better world for all people.
I strongly encourage you to go out and buy a copy of Ms. Gorman’s poem. It is important that we support those creative individuals who inspire us to become the best that we can be.
Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all; What hast thou then more than thou hadst before? No love, my love, that thou mayst true love call; All mine was thine before thou hadst this more. Then, if for my love thou my love receivest, I cannot blame thee for my love thou usest; But yet be blamed, if thou thyself deceives By wilful taste of what thyself refusest. I do forgive thy robbery, gentle thief, Although thou steal thee all my poverty: And yet, love knows, it is a greater grief To bear love’s wrong than hate’s known injury. Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows, Kill me with spites; yet we must not be foes.
In this sonnet, we are presented with a love triangle that is interesting even by modern standards. The speaker is a man who is in love with a younger man. The younger man decides to have sex with the older man’s wife or mistress. The older man, so enamored by the younger man, seeks to reconcile his feelings of love with the pain of jealousy and betrayal, as he becomes aware that his love for the younger man is not enough to satisfy the younger man’s desires.
What strikes me the most about this poem is the pure honesty. Shakespeare cuts right to the heart of complex human emotion and in a mere 14 lines conveys layers of passion and suffering. You can actually sense the speaker’s feeling of being torn between love and hate, compassion and anger, trying desperately to reconcile the conflicting emotions within. And while we may not have personally experienced the same situation, I suspect we can all relate to the feeling of being torn between love and anger.
I hope you enjoyed this poem. Have a great day, and keep on reading.
When Nature once in lustful hot undress Conceived gargantuan offspring, then would I Have loved to live near a young giantess, Like a voluptuous cat at a queen’s feet.
To see her body flower with her desire And freely spread out in its dreadful play, Guess if her heart concealed some heavy fire Whose humid smokes would swim upon her eye.
To feel at leisure her stupendous shapes, Crawl on the cliffs of her enormous knees, And, when in summer the unhealthy suns
Have stretched her out across the plains, fatigued, Sleep in the shadows of her breasts at ease Like a small hamlet at a mountain’s base.
(Translation by Karl Shapiro)
I read this poem a couple times and sense a few possible interpretations of what Baudelaire is expressing.
My initial interpretation is that Baudelaire is describing a sexual desire towards, everything. In the original French as well as in Shapiro’s translation, “Nature” is capitalized, emphasizing the importance. The poem could then be seen as describing passion towards all creation, that the entire living Gaia is the object of Baudelaire’s desire. One can imagine hills and meadows transforming into objects of sensuality for Baudelaire, as all of Nature stirs his passion.
Next, I had a sense that Baudelaire was expressing a personal tendency towards being submissive, of desiring a strong and dominating woman. The image of him as a cat at his lover’s feet, or crawling up onto her knees, provides the impression that he enjoys being the subservient plaything of a woman.
And this leads to the final interpretation, which would likely have been Freud’s first, that the giantess symbolizes Baudelaire’s mother. He appears to feel a sense of comfort from the giantess’s breasts not unlike the comfort a young child receives from its mother’s breasts. Additionally, Baudelaire seems to echo the sense of bonding a child experiences from sitting upon a mother’s lap.
One winter, we’ll take a train, a little rose-colored car Upholstered blue. We’ll be so comfortable. A nest Of wild kisses awaits in every cushioned corner.
You’ll close your eyes to shadows Grimacing through windows This belligerent nocturnal realm, inhabited By black demons and black wolves.
Then you’ll feel a tickle on your cheek… A little kiss like a crazed spider Fleeing down your neck…
Bending your head backwards, you’ll say: “Get it!” ―And we’ll take our time finding the beast ―While it roams…
(Translation by Wyatt Mason)
The footnote to this poem states: Written on a train, 7 October 1870. With that in mind, I interpret this poem as an expression of a sexual fantasy experienced while riding alone on a train. I picture a young Rimbaud, gazing out the window as landscape streams by, imagining himself lost in a loving embrace.
What strikes me as most interesting about this poem is that it seems to blur the distinction between fantasy and physical sensation. The fantasy does not seem to be limited to the mind but is experienced throughout the body. It is like Rimbaud has taken sexual fantasy to a next level where the thought turns to feeling.
The last two lines of the poem I find particularly interesting. The metaphor of the roaming beast can be interpreted in two ways. First, it could represent the mind lost in fantasy. What is intriguing about this possibility is that Rimbaud imagines that fantasy would be taking place during the physical encounter. This is a boldly honest observation, because Rimbaud is essentially admitting that he can get lost in fantasy, even during his most intimate moments. The other interpretation is that the roaming beast symbolizes our primal sexual drive, an animalistic urge which cannot be controlled, and which will roam freely, regardless of however hard we try to rein in our desires. Personally, I feel that both interpretations are valid, which adds richness to the closing stanza of this poem.
I hope you enjoyed this poem and found my interpretation helpful. As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the Comments section. Cheers!
If heaven were to do again, And on the pasture bars, I leaned to line the figures in Between the dotted stars,
I should be tempted to forget, I fear, the Crown of Rule, The Scales of Trade, the Cross of Faith, As hardly worth renewal.
For these have governed in our lives, And see how men have warred. The Cross, the Crown, the Scales may all As well have been the Sword.
Season’s Greetings, fellow readers.
2020 has been a challenging year, for sure, and I think this poem reminds us of something important.
We have experienced a lot of tension resulting from differences in religious beliefs, social ideology, political leadership, and feelings of fear and inequity. At this time of the year, Frost’s poem reminds us that the spiritual values which are supposed to guide us all too often become twisted and distorted into something destructive.
I have one sincere wish for 2021, and that is that we collectively lay down the Sword and begin to treat our fellow humans with… well… humanity. It really is high time we abandoned our habits of vilifying those who do not agree with us, of harboring fear and distrust of others simply because the news media tells us that they might do something that could possibly cause us some imagined inconvenience.
May you and your loved ones have a safe and happy holiday season. Thank you for sharing my reading journey this past year. Keep reading interesting stuff, and help spread some much-needed kindness.
O, how thy worth with manners may I sing, When thou art all the better part of me? What can mine own praise to mine own self bring, And what is’t but mine own when I praise thee? Even for this, let us divided live, And our dear love lose name of single one, That by this separation I may give That due to thee which thou deserv’st alone. O absence, what a torment wouldst thou prove, Were it not thy sour leisure gave sweet leave To entertain the time with thoughts of love, Which time and thoughts so sweetly dost deceive, And that thou teachest how to make one twain By praising him here who doth hence remain!
This seems to me a poignant poem considering what we are all dealing with in regard to the COVID pandemic. In this sonnet, Shakespeare expresses the pain of being separated from someone he deeply loves, loves to the point where they are as one when together. And yet, he acknowledges that it is only because of the separation that he is able to compose poetry praising his beloved, for then they are together, they are one and Shakespeare would not be able to differentiate himself from his love.
In the same way Shakespeare was reaching out to his beloved from a distance through poetry, we are also reaching out to those we love in creative ways, via Zoom, social distance outdoor gatherings, and yes, some of us have even gone back to writing letters.
There is an old adage that absence makes the heart grow fonder. There is truth here. Not being able to spend time with those I love makes me painfully aware of the love I feel for those people. But at least it seems the end of this isolation is drawing near. We just need to hang on a little bit longer.
I hope this poem provides you with some light in the remainder of these dark days. Many blessings to you and your dear ones.
They all have weary mouths,
bright souls without a seam.
And a yearning (as for sin)
often haunts their dream.
They wander, each and each alike,
in God’s garden silently,
as many, many intervals
in his might and melody.
Only when they spread their wings
they awaken a great wind through the land:
as though with his broad sculptor-hands
God was turning
the leaves of the dark book of the Beginning.
(translation by C. F. MacIntyre)
I read this poem a couple times and struggled with it. There is a tension here that is tangible but not easy to identify. I did a little research online about Rilke’s ideas concerning angels, and he would go into deeper exploration of the topic in his Duino Elegies.
Throughout the Duino Elegies, Rilke explores themes of “the limitations and insufficiency of the human condition and fractured human consciousness … mankind’s loneliness, the perfection of the angels, life and death, love and lovers, and the task of the poet”. Philosopher Martin Heidegger remarked that “the long way leading to the poetry is itself one that inquires poetically”, and that Rilke “comes to realize the destitution of the time more clearly. The time remains destitute not only because God is dead, but because mortals are hardly aware and capable even of their own mortality.” Rilke explores the nature of mankind’s contact with beauty, and its transience, noting that humanity is forever only getting a brief, momentary glimpse of an inconceivable beauty and that it is terrifying.
So Rilke appears to be grappling with the contrast between the fragmented human condition and our divine nature as manifested in angelic beings. What is particularly interesting in “The Angels” is that the angels appear sad and lost, just as humans are. Additionally, within each angel is the possibility of sin. It is like every angel recognizes that it has the potential to follow the same path as Lucifer.
Like humans, the angels in Rilke’s poem wander aimlessly, lost and searching for meaning in a reality void of meaning.
Finally, we have the image of an angel taking flight, which causes a “great wind through the land.” This image conjures the myth of Icarus, who tried to escape the world but flew too close to the sun. Do the angels also long to escape from their limited existence, to ascend to new heights? In doing so, are they destined to fall, like Lucifer? Are we as humans, trapped in our reality, fettered to this broken world, and if we attempt to transcend, do we have that brief moment of exaltation before we crash into oblivion?
This poem leaves me with more questions than answers, but that is good. It is important to ponder questions about our existence and our place in the universe, and this poem succeeds in eliciting the deep questions which all of us should be asking.
I hope you enjoyed the poem and my thoughts about it. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.
The living come with grassy tread
To read the gravestones on the hill;
The graveyard draws the living still,
But never any more the dead.
The verses in it say and say:
‘The ones who living come today
To read the stones and go away
Tomorrow dead will come to stay.’
So sure of death the marbles rhyme,
Yet can’t help marking all the time
How no one dead will seem to come.
What is it men are shrinking from?
It would be easy to be clever
And tell the stones: Men hate to die
And have stopped dying now forever.
I think they would believe the lie.
I find this poem fascinating on several levels. First, the imagery speaks to me. I have always found graveyards strangely provocative yet comforting. There is a sense of quiet and stillness that somehow soothes my spirit. It also reminds me that Death is the great equalizer, that we all must succumb to the Reaper regardless of status, wealth, power, etc. And it also reminds me that it is important to live each moment of life to the fullest.
The rest of what I find fascinating about this poem are the levels of meaning and the social criticism which Frost weaves in.
We see from the first stanza that the graveyard Frost is describing is no longer used. It is by itself in a rural area and does not appear to be associated with any church or town, and has become but a curiosity for tourists, day hikers looking for a destination. One gets the impression that no one has been buried there for many years.
To me, this speaks of how modern society approaches death as compared with our ancestors. We now inter the dead in manicured memorial gardens, or in hallowed grounds, as opposed to a location close to a homestead. Or even worse, we send or deceased relatives off to some facility where they are industrially incinerated, and the remains are returned in an aesthetically pleasing urn for display on the mantle.
We have denied that death is part of the natural process. In the past, when we accepted death as the natural culmination to life, we would return the dead to the earth close to the home to which there was connection. And this loss, this shift away from our acceptance of death is what Frost sees reflected in the weathered stones of an abandoned graveyard that no longer sees the return of the dead to the earth.
Thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings. May you have a blessed day.