Thursday, 25 April 2013

Alexander Pope as a Poet


Alexander Pope was born in London on May 21, 1688, disadvantaged from the start by being born into a Roman Catholic family (at a time when Catholics were severely restricted in their liberty and property by the English government). Barred from an English university education by his religion, he nevertheless received some schooling at a couple of Catholic institutions, but soon supplemented this with his own extensive reading in Greek and Latin authors. He began writing verse by doing translations of these authors, and imitations and adaptations of others such as Chaucer, Waller, and Cowley.

Pope is by far the most important poetic figure of the age called after him (1700-1740). His importance lies in the fact that he exercised the greatest influence on the classical poetry of the century. His poetry was intellectual, didactic and satiric, and was almost written in heroic couplet. It is never of the highest class, but within its limits, it stands unrivalled in the language.

Pseudo Classicist

The true classicism is meant to be a combination of poetic ardor and excellence of form. In Pope the true poetic ardor and energy is absent but he is exceedingly careful about the technique of form and style. When we look at the contents of Pope's poetry we do not find anything worthwhile. Satire, didactic poetry, and a flimsy mock-heroic poem---are all his poetic achievements. They are mere products of intellect, and artificially constructed; they do not reproduce true classical spirit. Hence it is not correct to describe Pope as a true classicist. (Milton, with his poetic impulse and perfection of form, is a true classicist.) The classicism of Pope is the shadow of classicism; it is false or pseudo-classicism.

Intellectual Poetry

Pope's poetry was of his age, and it reflected in full measure the spirit of the age. It is intellectual and its appeal is to the mind rather than to the heart. It is full of wit and epigram, the brilliancy of which is unsurpassed. Pope is next to Shakespeare, in contributing quotable lines of verse, which are remarkable for their pregnancy, neatness and brevity. Here are some of his famous quotes.

Ø  To err is human, to forgive divine.
Ø  Never elated when someone's oppressed, never dejected when another one's blessed.
Ø  We think our fathers fools, so wise we grow. Our wiser sons, no doubt will think us so.
Ø  For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

The Rape Of The Lock As A Social Satire

This poem shows Pope's genius for satirical poetry which exposes in a witty manner the follies and absurdities of the high society of the times. All the recognized weapons of satire have been employed by Pope in a most effective manner. The principal targets of satire in this poem are aristocratic ladies and gentlemen of Pope's day. Ladies who learns to roll their eyes and to blush in a coquettish manner. Pope ridicules the fickleness and superficiality of the ladies by referring to their hearts as moving toy-shops and their varying vanities.

A Poet Of Wit And Fancy

Pope's subjects of poetry in which he excelled are of the satirical and mock-heroic kind. He is the unchallenged master of artificial poetry, a poetry dealing with artificial life, and in this sphere, 'The Rape of the Lock' stands unmatched. Among the great English poets who had preceded Pope, Chaucer was the painter of actual life, Spenser of imaginative life, Shakespeare of ideal life, and Milton of moral and spiritual life. 

It remained for Pope to give rhythmical utterance to artificial life, and he was eminently fitted for this task because he was gifted with the power of intellectual expression and perfect propriety of phrase.

            It is true that Pope had not much to express, he had hardly any original thing to say, his thoughts are mostly borrowed or common place, but what gives distinction to his poetry is its lucid expression, His aim was to set the gems, not to create them. Lessing said: Pope's great merit lay in what we call the mechanic of poetry.

Pope's Heroic Couplet

Pope is the unchallenged master of the heroic couplet, just as Milton is of blank verse. Almost all of Pope's poetry is written in the heroic couplet. The rhythm of Pope's couplet has perfect smoothness and regularity which have a pleasing effect upon the ear. Pope mostly used the ‘stops’ couplet--- that is, there is a final pause after every couplet; one couplet does not flow into the next couplet, carrying on its sense. This kind of couplet limits the scope of the poet for he has to cut his thoughts to the size of the couplet. But Pope was the master not the victim of the heroic couplet. He condensed his thoughts so precisely and chose his words so aptly that he could express his complete thought within the range of two lines.

Pope, A Classic In Prose

Mathew Arnold has called Pope as 'classic in prose'. It looks like a paradox, since Pope was a poet and not a prose-writer. What Arnold means to say is that Pope's poetic style has all those qualities which gave distinction to prose i.e. lucidity, balance, imagination, warmth, wit, clearness and logic etc. but is wanting in that moving and transporting quality which is the hall-mark of true poetry. Lowell said: ‘Measured by any high standard of imagination, he will be found wanting; tried by any test of wit, he is unrivalled’.

Some Limitations

Pope's poetry is not only superficial but is limited in its range. Firstly, it is the poetry of society in the city, as in The Rape of the Lock-- a poetry of satire and a philosophic poetry, which is dry and has no warmth of experience behind it. Pope said: "The proper study of mankind is man". But it was mankind as seen only in the small society of London. Stopford Brooke rightly remarks: ‘The vast range of humanity beyond London was left without sympathy, as if it did not exist. This was not only insular, it was insolent’.
So far as Pope's versification is concerned it was limited to the heroic couplet. Though he handled this measure with masterly skill, it shows mechanical skill rather than genuine art.  

Machinery in 'The Rape of the Lock'


The first version of ‘The Rape of the Lock’ was made up of only four cantos, containing the main incidents of the game of cards, cutting of the lock and ensuing battle therewith. This humorous piece was meant to bring about a happy reconciliation between the two families of the Fermors and Petres. This version, however, was never published and it had not yet taken on the shape of a mock-epic. It was meant to be read by a selected number of people related or close with the two families.

Pope saw the possibility of expanding it into a mock-heroic poem.

This was done by including into the body of the poem the supernatural creatures like the sylphs and gnomes who seem to be the guiding force behind the central action of the poem.

Sources Of Pope's Machinery

            Pope took the name of Ariel from Shakespeare's ‘The Tempest’, and the idea of the sylphs from a French book, ‘Le Comts do Gabalis’, which gives an account of the Rosicrucian mythology of spirits. According to this mythology, the four elements are inhabited by spirits, which are called sylphs (air), gnomes (earth), nymphs (water), and salamanders (fire). Two of these kinds-sylphs and gnomes - are introduced by Pope in ‘The Rape of the Lock’.

These Ariel spirits of Rosicrucian mythology were tiny, light beings, which would exactly suit his mock-heroic poem and these are as artificial as the society depicted in the poem.

The Functions Of The Machinery

Ariel, who guards Belinda, assigns different functions to the spirits under his control. One was given the charge of Belinda's fan, another was to take care of her ear-rings, the third was to look after her watch, and fourth was to guard her favorite lock. Ariel warned the pigmy band of spirits against negligence in their duties. Severe punishment was to be awarded to those who failed in the discharge of their duties, The punishments with which the delinquents were threatened were: (I) to be shut up in small bottles, (II) to be pierced through with pins, (III) to be held fast in the eye of a bodkin, (IV) or to be stuck up in gums and pomades.

In spite of all the careful vigilance of Ariel and the sylphs, the lock of Belinda's hair is raped. The spirits do not in the least influence the action.

                        Even then before the fatal engines closed,
A wretched sylph fondly interposed;
Fate urged the shears, and cut the sylph in twain.

So it is the machinery which enables Pope, in various ways, to create the mock epic effect. All the epic poets like Homer, Virgil, Tasso and Milton made use of the machinery, and it was in the fitness of things that Pope should also parody it in his mock-epic.

'The Rape of the Lock' as a Representative Poem of the Age


The age in which Pope flourished is called the Augustan or Classical age, as well as the age of Pope, because he becomes the chief poet and man of letters.

Frivolous Ladies Of London

Belinda represents the typical fashionable ladies of the time. What is her life, and how does she spend her day? There is not the slightest glimpse of seriousness or sincerity, goodness or grandeur of human life in any of her words and actions. Belinda is a beautiful lady; she has a host of admirers; she is a flirt and a coquette.

Favours to none, to all she smiles extends.
Oft she rejects, but never she offends.

But despite all their flirtations and the disdain they showed for their lovers, these ladies of the court did secretly pine for love as Ariel, the guardian sylph, discovered about Belinda:

An earthly lover lurking at her heart.

          They secretly harboured ambition to get married to lords and dukes, or men holding some high titles. And dreaming of their rich prospects women like Belinda sleep late and are used to rising late from their beds.

Now lap dogs give themselves the rousing shake,
And sleepless lovers, just at twelve, awake.

          When Belinda awakes, she is engaged immediately with her toilet which takes up a large part of her time. The beauty of Belinda and the elaborate details of her toilet are all set forth with matchless grace, but behind all this fascinating description, there is a pervading sense of vanity and emptiness.

Their hearts are toy-shops
They reverse the relative importance of things
The little with them is great and the great little.

Places Of London

                  In Canto III, Pope gives a detailed description of the scene where Belinda’s beautiful lock of hair is to be raped. There is Hampton Court, the palace of the English Queen beautifully situated on the banks of the river Thames, where

Britain’s statesmen oft the fall foredoom,
Of foreign tyrants and of nymphs at home.

          The poet in a very subtle manner satirizes the activities of the palace. The Queen’s consultations with her ministers and her taking tea with the luminaries of her regime are equated. The serious and the frivolous have been mentioned in one breath, as if taking counsel is as routine and frivolous a matter as taking tea. The intrigues of the court are also laid bare.

Hollowness Of The Gentlemen Of The Day

            Not ladies only, but the gentlemen of the smart set are equally frivolous. Lord Petre and his fellows are the representatives of the fashionable society of the time. They are all idle, empty minded folk, and seem to have nothing else to do but making love to or flirting with ladies. The battle between the ladies and gentlemen shows emptiness and futility of their lives. They visit clubs and coffee-houses, and there they indulge in empty scandalous talks. ‘At every word a reputation dies’.
          Pope describes the card-game in detail, because card-games seemed to occupy an important place in the daily activities of fashionable ladies and gentlemen of the period. Sir plume is another fashionable gentleman, exceeding all others in his vanity and utter emptiness. When he is requested by his lady love Thalestris to persuade Lord Petre to surrender the precious hairs of Belinda, he utters words which are unsurpassed in their emptiness.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

'Paradise Lost' as a Classical Epic


In the division and style, Milton's poem follows Homer's 'Iliad' and Virgil's 'Aeneid'.

Taking 'Paradise Lost' as a whole, one can see that the rules of classical epic as discussed by Aristotle are followed, to a large extent, by Milton.

(1) The action deals with a great subject, derived from the scriptures. It deals with the fall of man and to this all other episodes are related and subordinated.

(2) The action is entire, having a beginning, middle and an end.

(3) As all other epics, it has a hero, though there has been a controversy as to who it is.

(4) The style of 'Paradise Lost' has all the grandeur which the epic poem demands. Milton is the mighty mounted inventor of harmonies. The meaning of the words, the syntax, and the division of sentences constantly reminds the scholarly reader of classical writers. The opening sentence, the first lines of Satan's speech on looking at his surrounding, his words to Beelzebub, and the description of Satan's shield and spear—all these reflect Milton's grand style.

(5) In the tradition of Homer and Virgil, Milton states the theme of his poem in the very first lines.

                     Of Man's first disobedience, and the fruit
                        Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the world.

(6) In a typical fashion Milton begins the poem in the middle of the story. He begins by describing the state of the fallen angels.

(7) According to the classical convention established by Homer, Milton invokes the Muse to help him in his great task of writing the epic.

                     And chiefly thou O' spirit...
                        Instruct me, for thou knowest

(8) A roll call of the devils is given according to the classical convention. It can be compared with the catalogue of ships in Homer's 'Iliad'.

(9) A prominent convention of the classical epic is the use of similes, especially the elaborate and extended type. There is no dearth in 'Paradise Lost'.

          The first epic simile which compares Satan's huge bulk with Leviathan goes into seven lines. A series of similes are employed by Milton to indicate the huge number of Satan's followers. The fallen angels lie thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks in Vallambrosa. The term ‘autumnal leaves’ conveys the diminished glory of the angels. The simile produces the effect of the confusion in which they lie. When they are compared to the locusts called up by Moses, not merely is their vast number suggested, but also the evil and destruction associated with locusts.

          Above mentioned devices are found, to a large extent, in the epics of Homer, Virgil, and Dante and so in Milton. Thus, 'Paradise Lost' can be discussed as a classical epic. What is more, the vastness of the theme, encompassing the whole of the human race, makes it a unique epic.

John Milton's Grand Style


In his Oxford lecture 'On Translating Homer: Last Words', Mathew Arnold used this now famous phrase. 'Such a style, he maintained, arises when a noble nature, poetically gifted, treats with simplicity or with severity a serious subject'. Arnold refers to Homer, Pindar, Virgil, Dante, and Milton as exponents of grand style. It was a lofty or elevated style suitable for epic, a style Arnold himself attempted in, for instance in 'Sohrab and Rustum'.
          Now, we discuss the devices used in 'Paradise Lost' by Milton which have caused his style to be characterized as the Grand Style.

Erudite Style, Full Of Allusion

The language of 'Paradise Lost' is that of a scholar writing for scholars. A beautiful illustration of the poet's fondness for allusions is provided by his description of Satan's forces, which dwarfed the mightiest armies known to history or legend:

  • the giant brood mentioned by Hesiod
  • the heroic race that fought at Thebes and Troy mentioned by Homer
  • the knights of king Arthur mentioned by Geoffrey of Monmouth
  • the Crusaders who fought the Saracens mentioned in history, and
  • the warriors of Charlemagne mentioned in the Italian epics.

The whole treasury of poetry and the whole storehouse of learning are at his command.

Suggestive Quality In Style     
In Milton's poetry more is meant than meets the ear. He means more than what he says. As the poet's difficulty throughout the poem is to describe what cannot be exactly described—Heaven, Chaos, Hell, God, Angels, Devils-he throws out a broad hint or two of their intended shapes and appearance and asks the reader to imagine the rest. Thus Satan's huge figure, which nobody can have an idea of, is described with a few suggestive strokes: 'head uplift above the wave', 'eyes that sparkling blazed', and other parts in bulk as large 'as whom the fables name of monstrous size'. Hell is described

                   As one great furnace flam'd: yet from those flames
                        No light, but rather darkness visible........
                        Oh how unlike the place from whence they fell.

We have to suggest a lot to form a whole picture of the Hell.

Unusual Structure Of Sentences  
Milton's common practice is to place a noun between its two qualifying adjectives, though the English grammar requires both to be placed before the noun: the upright heart and pure', 'the dismal situation waste and wild', 'ever burning sulpher unconsumed'. Sometimes he uses one part of speech for another, such as verb as noun in 'the great consult began'; adjective as noun 'the palpable obscure' etc. In spite of the violation of the accepted rules of grammar, one cannot deny that 'Paradise Lost' is a poem for scholarly readers. The violation of grammar is not so much criticized as the beauty of his style is appreciated.

Use Of Similes         

A striking feature in 'Paradise Lost' is Milton's use of similes. These are expanded to draw complete pictures. They had dignity of the narrative, and do not merely illustrate but also decorate the epic theme and character.

Elevated Speeches     
The lofty tone is maintained in the speeches of Satan, as for instance in the speech to Beelzebub. One cannot help noting the rhetorical eloquence with which Satan encourages the fallen angels.

So Milton maintains a constant elevation and dignity of style corresponding to the greatness of theme, and Mathew Arnold is absolutely right when he refers to Milton as a poet of grand style.

Epic Similes in 'Paradise Lost'


Epic simile is an extended simile, in some cases running to fifteen or twenty lines, in which the comparisons made, are elaborated in considerable detail. It is a common feature of epic poetry, but is found in other kinds as well.

In an epic poem similes are used for the purpose of illustration, but they serve also to decorate the epic theme or character.

Epic similes are also given the name of Homeric similes because Homer elaborated his similes in such a way that a particular kind of dignity and beauty was created in his poetry and since then it became the tradition of epic poetry.

Milton has brought in a number of such similes in the Book I of ‘Paradise Lost’.

In the first simile he compares the huge form of Satan sprawling on the lake of fire to the fabled sea-beast called Leviathan. It was a kind of big whale of such great size that when it came to the surface, it occupied many miles and gave the impression of an island in mid-ocean. In this simile though the dominant impression is size but the other impressions are also produced. The Leviathan is dangerous and tricky so is Satan.

The second epic simile is where he compares the shield of Satan to the appearance of the moon as it was observed by Galileo through his newly invented telescope. Although this is an anachronism in one sense, it helps us to form some idea of the magnificence of Satan’s shield.

With a view to give us an idea of the countless hosts of fallen angels, Milton compares their dense masses to the autumnal leaves in Vallambrosa in Italy.  In autumn all deciduous trees shed their leaves and the forest would be thickly carpeted with them. This is not so much an epic simile as a complete parallelism.

Joseph Addison is of the view that

‘The resemblance does not, perhaps, last above a line or two, but the poet runs on with the hint until he has raised out of it some glorious image or sentiment, proper to inflame the mind of the reader, and to give it that sublime kind of entertainment which is suitable to the nature of a heroic poem.’      

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

John Donne, as a Poet


A Metaphysical

            Donne has been classified both by Dryden and Samuel Johnson as a Metaphysical poet. This title has been conferred on him because of his sudden flights from the material to the spiritual sphere and also because of his obscurity which is occasionally baffling. His works abounds in wit and conceits. In addition to this, he has been termed a metaphysical poet because his style is overwhelmed with obscure philosophical allusions and subtle and abstract references to science and religion.

Treatment Of Love

            Donne's treatment of love is entirely unconventional. He does not fall in line with the ways and modes of feeling and expression, found in the Elizabethan love poetry. Most of the Elizabethan poets followed the fashion set by Petrarch, an Italian sonneteer, in their treatment of love. According to that fashion the lover was always subject, humble and obsequious (over-respectful). Obedience to his mistress's wishes was his chief virtue. He sighed, wept, yearned, pined, and languished for her.

Donne rebels against these stale and hackneyed conventions of love poetry. He rejects the lofty cult of the woman. She is no deity or goddess to be worshipped. He ridicules and laughs at her. This attitude is best revealed in ‘The Song: Go and catch a falling star’, where he says that nowhere lives a woman true and fair. This is a brilliant piece of mockery. Even in his defeat Donne rises superior to the woman.

In ‘Twicknam Garden’, also, he refers to woman as the perverse sex, and says that it is wrong to judge a woman’s thoughts by her tears.

Moreover, His poems are not concerned with limited number of moods of love as was the case with the Elizabethan lyrics of love. In his poems, there is the variety of moods, even the mood of fulfillment and joy of consummated love, which was absent in the Elizabethan lyrics.

His Use Of Conceits

            Donne and his followers made an excessive use of conceits. While in Shakespeare or Sydney a conceit is an ornament or an occasional grace, in Donne it is everywhere. It is his very genius, and fashions his feelings and thought. Donne's conceits are more intellectual than those of Shakespeare or Sydney. It is chiefly on account of the excessive use of intellectual and far-fetched conceits that Donne is known as a metaphysical poet.

His use of strange and far-fetched conceits may be illustrated from the poems included in our syllabus. In ‘The Song: Go and catch a falling star’, the whole of the first stanza contains a series of conceits. The poet asks to catch a falling star, get a mandrake root and find out who cleft the devil's foot. In ‘The Anniversary’, each of the lovers is a king with the other as the subject. In ‘Twicknam Garden’, the poet's love is like a spider which converts the beauty of spring into poison.

          Being more often intellectual than emotional, these conceits make Donne's poetry difficult. They puzzle and perplex us. At the same time when we succeed in understanding them, we feel a certain pleasure as we feel after having solved a difficult mathematical problem.

Originality In Diction And Colloquialism

            Donne's originality in diction includes words not merely from the vocabulary of science but from colloquialism. He selected colloquial diction which has vigor, freshness and originality. He discards literary words and phrases which became rusty because of repetition. The vigor of Colloquialism is evident in his poem ‘The Good Morrow’, as the opening lines given below show:

                        I wonder by my troth, what thou and I
Did till we lov'd...

            Donne was the first English poet who has used facts of scientific discoveries of his time in the poetry-- the objects, which are utilized in the laboratories such as compasses, and the globe with the maps of earth pasted on it, and various other objects derived from various branches of science like biology, physics and chemistry etc. Such kind of imagery was entirely unexpected at that time.

Monarch Of Wit

            Donne's poems have plenty of wit, as defined by Dr. Johnson, in relation with the metaphysical poets. His conceits indeed are startling, but ultimately just. The poet often proves their truth. The ability to elaborate a conceit to its farthest possibility without losing the sense of its appropriateness speaks for a high intellectual caliber. The compasses image in ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ is an intricate conceit which is logically developed by Donne. Moreover his display of wit can be seen in his humorous and satiric remarks as in ‘The Song: Go and Catch a Falling Star’, and ‘The Elegies’.

The paradoxical style of some of his poems also reflect Donne's wit, especially so in ‘The Holy Sonnet, Batter my heart’.

 To conclude, John Donne is a great metaphysical poet because of the rich themes of his poetry, as well as his treatment and structure. The themes of most of his poems are based upon religion and love and thereby indicate the deep-rooted relationship between body and soul and God, man and his own self. His poetic artifice is to put forth arguments in a controversial manner. Thus he shines on the firmament of the history of poetry not only in England but in the whole of European poetry.

John Donne, as a Love Poet


Rebel Against Woman-Worshipping

When Donne began writing, the Elizabethan love poetry was based wholly on Petrarchan style. It involved the theme of woman-worship expressed in sugar-coated language. Donne's poems get rid of this theme.

In his poems woman is also an ordinary human being, capable of love as well as desire and very well able to deceive and be inconstant. ‘The Message’ mocks at women for their forced fashions and false passions. In ‘The song: Go and Catch a Falling Star’, Donne playfully treats the theme of woman's inability to remain faithful. In ‘The Apparition’ he calls the woman he loves, a "murderess" --a glaring departure from the Petrarchan style.

Joy Of Love

Moreover, Elizabethan poetry described the pains and sorrows of love, the sorrow of absence, the pain of rejection, (except some of the finest of Shakespeare's sonnets).

John Donne, however, speaks in many of his poems of the joy of mutual passion. In The Good Morrow, The Canonization, The Sun Rising, The Anniversary etc. he expresses the delight of mutual love-making.

Rebel In Language

          Another area in which Donne departs from earlier convention is, of course, in the language and imagery used. His poetry is full of allusions as earlier poetry, but the source are much more varied and unconventional. The separation of lovers is expressed in terms of an image of the two legs of a compass. Gods and goddesses of mythology find little place in Donne's love poems.

He makes use of images and allusions from contemporary discoveries and explorations, science and speculation of the new age, scholastic theory and alchemy and astrology and even law.

Moreover, unlike earlier convention, the tone of his love poems is conversational, never ornamental but often colloquial.

 Different Moods Of Love

          Donne's love poetry is chiefly remarkable for the range and variety of mood and attitude that it presents. At the lowest level, or rather the simplest level, there is the expression of the sensual aspect of love, merely the celebration of the physical appetite, subject to change and decay.

On another level are the poems dealing with mutually enjoyed love between man and woman. In this case there is a joy and contentment, expressed in poems such as The Sun Rising, The Good Morrow, or The Anniversarie.

On the highest level are the poems which present love as a holy passion which sanctifies the lovers. Examples are The Ecstasy, The Canonization, and The Undertaking.


          Donne's treatment of love is realistic and not idealistic. He knows the weaknesses of the flesh, the pleasure of sex, and the joy of secret meetings. However, he tries to establish the relationship between the body and the soul. True love does not pertain to the body; it is the relationship of one soul to another soul. Physical union may not be necessary as in ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’. However, in ‘The Relic’, the poet regards physical union as necessary.

Passion And Thought

          Donne does not allow his passion to run away with him. He holds it in check with his reason. When the beloved wants to crush the flea that has bitten her, the poet argues with her dissuading her from what he calls triple murder of the lover, the beloved and the flea.