The bar is… in the sea??

I thoroughly enjoyed Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Blessed Damozel, particularly because of his use of a gold bar that acts as a barrier between Heaven and Earth in the poem. This symbolic use of a physical bar between life and death made me instantly think of the poem Crossing the Bar by Alfred Tennyson. (We didn’t read this particular poem in class, but we did read other Tennyson poems last week so I’m rolling with it).

Tennyson’s poem is a short one that I highly recommend taking a moment to read; It follows the speaker who is being called into the ocean, which, in this case, is the afterlife. “For thought from out our bourne of Time and Place/ The flood may bear me far” (13-14). The speaker notes that by going into the sea, he will be going to a state beyond time and place, which seems a whole lot like death to me. In order to get to life after death, the speaker must cross a sandbar, which is mentioned twice throughout the poem. Its first mention comes in the very first stanza, “and may there be no moaning of the bar, / When I put out to sea” (3-4). I interpreted the moaning of the bar to mean resistance, or perhaps difficult waters for the sailor to pass over. When it is his time to cross, he hopes for calm waters that are “Too full for sound and foam” (6), which will allow the person to pass over easily. The second mention of the bar comes in the poem’s final line: “I hope to see my Pilot face to face/ When I have crossed the bar.” (15-16). Knowing that a pilot acts as something of a guide, and a person that leads a flight/ journey, perhaps this Pilot in the poem is God or another divine figure the speaker could have viewed as a commanding force during his lifetime.

Rossetti’s golden bar is also established as the clear barrier between life and death from the very first lines of the poem, “Damozel lean’d out/From the gold bar of Heaven” (1-2). The damozel is described to be leaning against this bar twice in the poem, the repetition of this action makes it very clear that she is yearning to move beyond this bar. (Just like how the speaker in Tennyson’s poem looks forward to crossing the bar, so does The Damozel; but her wishes are in vain, because, unlike the sailor, she cannot look forward to crossing the bar from the other side) The fact that she presses herself against this bar so firmly it becomes warm (46) proves that she cannot break through it despite her strong desire to do so. This being said the speaker of the poem has seemingly connected to the Damozel, even separated in death, “she smiled. /(I saw her smile.)” (138-39) The implication that her actions have been communicated to someone means that her longing is not entirely futile.

What I find most interesting about this intersection of symbols, is that both substances that make up these bars are strong, but not fixed. A sandbar, for example, may shift in location or shape, but there will always be one there to guide the waves. Similarly, gold is a strong metal but can be easily shaped and bent as it is a highly malleable solid. Both bars in the poems are made of materials that may shift and change depending on the circumstances. Rossetti’s bar bends as the lovers seem to commune with each other, despite being separated in death “She cast her arms along/ The golden barriers, / And laid her face between her hands, / And wept. (I heard her tears.)” (Rossetti 141-144). Tennyson’s bar seems to be malleable as well as the speaker of the poem wishes that when it is his time to cross, the water over the bar is calm, rather than something that may be more painful to endure; clearly stating that the conditions surrounding the bar vary (after all, not everyone can be met with a painless death). In true poetic nature, both speakers hope that their bar will bend, even if only a little bit, just so that they may experience some relief in their experience with death. I think the bar is used very cleverly in both scenarios, and I found it even more interesting that one speaker is experiencing life before crossing the bar, while the others’ story is told from behind this bar.

Follow the Purple Brick Road

The color purple is mentioned 5 times throughout Elizabeth Barret Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese. Each mention is found in a different poem; they all have connected meanings, but are cleverly disguised in various ways. The color works to convey the unique characteristics of her lover, highlighting their differences while subtly revealing the speaker’s deeper anxieties she sees within their relationship and in her own feelings. She uses the color to separate herself from her lover, using it as justification to brush aside her love. Yet, as she falls deeper in love and becomes more invested in the relationship, the color is used, not to separate the two, but as a means of bringing the two together. She continues to use the color to express the strong love she feels for the lover’s character and presence in her life, showing that she has, or is beginning to get over some of the anxieties previously expressed in the early sonnets. She finally uses the color to describe how perfect her love is. The color’s significance and meaning changes with the speaker’s feelings towards her lover and works to weave a complex story about coming to terms with and understanding the feeling of falling deeply in love. 

The first mention of the color is found in Sonnet 8, “And princely giver, who hast brought the gold/ And purple of thine heart, unstained, untold” (2-3). The alliteration found in the letter P of “princely” and “purple” connects the two, immediately showing the speaker’s association of her lover, described as princely, with the color purple. Purple is usually considered to be a very rich, wealthy, regal color. It is interesting that she considered her lover to be the more ‘purple’ of the two considering her own family holds greater status; perhaps she feels that she is not truly connected to this family status, or does not hold the same quality of royalty and status her lover does at his core “thine heart, unstained, untold”. This alludes to some of the anxieties she has surrounding the relationship. 

Her anxiety becomes much more clear in Sonnet 9 where the distinction between the two lovers is made again through the color purple.The speaker says, “I will not soil thy purple with my dust” (11). Again, purple is used to describe her lover, suggesting that the purple is something in danger of being spoiled shows that the vibrancy and richness of the lover’s personality is something the speaker admires. When talking about her own personality, she compares herself to dust, something that is swept away, colorless, barely there, a film that lessens the value of what it covers. Perhaps the speaker is scared of ‘soiling’ her lovers color, or their relationship by falling for them.​​ The juxtaposition could also be a way of noting the lover’s confidence, which as displayed by the nature of this sonnet is something the speaker does not have. 

In sonnet 16, royalty, the color purple, and the speaker’s lover are all associated with one another, but now the relationship has developed a bit more and the speaker does not shy away from the prominent ‘purple’ manner the lover exudes, but wants to accept it into her life. “thou art more noble and like a king,/ Thou canst prevail against my fears and fling/ Thy purple round me, till my heart shall grow” (2-4). In saying that her lover is more noble and king-like, she shows her true adoration of his character. She is perhaps more willing to worship his character, and their love than she is real royalty. The next line suggests that she cares more for her lover than she fears their relationship, and is willing to let him win against her weariness. In letting her lover’s purple to wrap around her, she is letting herself submit to the love she feels. What was once unknown and scary to her is now something she wants to learn from and incorporate in herself. 

In finally accepting this love, the speaker may finally realize its value, preparing herself for a future that includes her lover. Sonnet 26 compares the joy of imagination to the joy real life can offer. In thinking back to the comforts of daydreaming the speaker notes that “soon their trailing purple was not free/ Of this world’s dust, their lutes did silent grow” (5-6). The color purple once again holds a positive connotation. The comparison between purple and dust, previously seen in sonnet 9 is repeated in the final usage of purple. As the speaker gets older her dreams and imagination begins to lose their allure as the real world begins to occupy her thoughts more than pleasant daydreams. In this case purple also seems to be heavily associated with a great, desirable, generally very happy quality of life or period of life for the speaker. “Their songs, their splendours…/Met in thee” (10-12) suggests that she is finding this same joy in her time spent with her new lover. Even implying that this new joy is better than her dream-filled younger years because it is based on real-life events. “Because God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame” (14). 

Purple, although seemingly minute in significance, is in reality one of the driving factors of the speaker’s feelings for her lover. Purple is fancy gifts, purple is different, purple brings anxiety, purple is eye-opening, purple is fun, and purple brings a new life for the speaker, one that the speaker eventually accepts with enthusiasm. It’s complex and changes with time, just like her love. 

Christabel in Crisis

Coleridge creates a vivid narrative that takes readers through the surreal telling of the haunting tale of Christabel. The poem is full of detail, intense imagery, and high emotions. The focus of the poem is the lady Christabel, but it is not just the plot that follows her story, but also the form itself. The rhyme scheme and overall form of the poem reflect the powerful emotions Christabel is feeling, allowing the readers to be drawn into narrative alongside Christabel. Coleridge uses more than just powerful imagery as a tool for immersion, the form literally embodies the emotions of the heroine it follows.

Couplets are the most frequently used rhyme scheme in the poem. Couplets are easily recognizable for readers, similar sounds found one right after another allows for quick reading and digestion of a poem. The repetition and quickness of form in these couplets reminded me of feelings of fear itself. In experiencing a moment of uncertainty, anxiety, or fear a person’s heart usually tends to race, beating quickly and noticeably. This is reflected in the couplets that seem to be never ending when reading the poem.

The couplets are most frequent at times when Christabel is feeling fearful or encountering something unfamiliar. Even before the truly horrifying parts of the story are introduced, couplets are found when learning of Christabel’s dreams that “made her moan and leap” (29), or gray and chilly nights (20). As emotions shift, so does the rhyme scheme. Christabel is faced with a situation of “what it is she cannot tell” (40), as a result the rhyme scheme spreads out and moves from couplets to a staggered ABAB form. This slows down the flow of the poem, and as the rhymes become more separated and choppier, so do the thoughts of Christabel; who slows herself to ask questions about her surroundings: “Is it the wind that moaneth bleak?” (44). Christabel leaps suddenly (37) and so does the rhyme scheme. When she sees something unfamiliar (“a damsel bright”, 58) the rhyme scheme shifts back to couplets and emulates what could potentially be the racing thoughts of Christabel.

In addition to rhyme, the structure of the stanzas themselves often reflect what is happening in the poem itself. When Christabel is fearful of the strange lady Geraldine (62-65), and the strange lady herself claims that she “scarce can speak for weariness” (70) the stanzas become noticeably shorter as these fears and feelings of weariness are expressed. The connection between form and content in Christabel allows Coleridge to not just convey a story, but also an experience that can be felt by both the characters and readers of the poem.

Limón and Blake: Similar ideals, hundreds of years apart

Who gets to look? Ada Limón would say that anyone who wishes to look, can, and should look. This act of looking is the primary role of a tourist, an onlooker full of interest, attention, and appreciation. Tourists travel from place to place, looking at countries, streams, oceans, castles, churches, ruins. Most importantly, tourists, whether literal or metaphorical, look at life, acknowledge life, and savor the act of being, and what has been. During her Dickinson Stellfox residency, Limón noted that she was most interested and inspired by the fact that we live, and we die. 

This same inspiration is exceedingly apparent in William Blake’s work, specifically in his poem The Fly. The speaker of the poem views the fly’s life from an outside perspective, as someone whose “Thoughtless hand/ has brushed away” (3-4) the fly; but also sees the fly from a very familiar perspective. The speaker realizes that both live and both die, making them quite similar in a very simplistic way. They take note of the little things like the fly itself, but doesnt see the fly as small. Instead the fly is viewed simply: as a living being who experiences high and low points in life just like humans do (even if its ultimate low point is being brushed away.) When viewing life in this way there is no gender, and there is no class. There is only the simple act of being alive. With no confinements or definitions, and only viewing life, being watchful, and being a tourist or watcher who thinks, lives, and is interested and appreciates their being, as well as the fly’s. “Am not I/ A fly like thee? / Or art not thou /  A man like me?” (5-8) efficiently equates man to fly, and suggests that even the “little fly” (1) is capable of this appreciation and experience of a good life, just like the speaker and just like Ada Limón’s ideas. 

Both poets share a similar appreciation for intersections between nature and mankind, as well as the simplicity in life itself. Being mindful, stopping to think, to look, to watch, or listen, was the advice of United State’s 24th poet laureate, Ada Limón. Her words, alongside Blake’s, suggest that there is a certain greatness in taking a moment to be a tourist, who is simply watching and exploring life.


The Art of Hopping

       Romantic poetry often focuses on the beauty of nature, the value of individual thoughts, and the power found in complexities. In a time where writing is largely a product of revolution, new thoughts and ideas are essential to the foundation of this new era of writing. Wordsworth explores all of these things in his poem, Lines Written in Early Spring, but goes beyond just recognizing beauty, or being excited about new ideas. Instead, this poem reflects the interconnected nature of all living things in the universe, as the speaker in the poem grapples with their own state of being, leading them to consider things around them that would otherwise be seen as something unimportant, like the thoughts of birds.

       The first stanza introduces the speaker’s environment, and slightly confused mental state; but it also breaks the otherwise consistent rhyme scheme of ABAB found throughout the rest of the poem. The speaker notes the thousands of “blended notes” they hear coming from the birds around them as they appreciate the harmony found in the nature around them (L. 1). Then follows this thought by their slight distress at the fact that “pleasant thoughts/ Bring sad thoughts to mind” (L.3-4). When considering the poem as a whole, the inconsistent rhyming between “notes” and “thoughts” actually allows the contradiction found in the speaker’s emotional state to seep into the form of the writing itself. The entire rhyme scheme pairs the final words of alternating lines, and despite the fact that the words in lines 1 and 3 are not direct rhymes, the pairing of “blended notes” and “thoughts” interested me. Maybe, the inconsistent form is meant to draw attention to the fact that the speaker’s thoughts break the “blend” and harmony found in his tranquil surroundings, where birds “hop and play” (L. 13). Much like how the literal presence and sound of the word “thoughts” breaks the rhyme scheme. This highlights one of the major themes within the poem, which is the speaker’s realization of complexity, both in himself, and in nature. The speaker recognizes the presence of emotional multiplicities first in themself, but then later in the birds.

         The hopping of the birds mentioned in line 13 is mirrored by the speaker’s words through the form of the poem itself. The rhyme scheme is significant to the connection between man and nature once again in that the rhyming of words “hops” between lines. The alternation of rhyming words as a result of the ABAB system is much like a bird that hops from one place to the next. Starting at one place, taking off, skipping over a short stretch of land, and then landing firmly at a spot not far in front of where the “hop” was started. The speaker feels that their soul becomes linked to nature (L. 5-6), this link is also forged in the form of the retelling itself. The speaker “cannot measure” (L.13) the bird’s thoughts, much like he cannot measure their own. Even the birds, as they play and hop only seem to display the “thrill of pleasure” (L. 16) 

       In forming a connection between the pleasant view of hopping birds, and the sadness the speaker finds in normal pleasant things, Wordsworth leaves audiences with a poem that shows that admiring nature is only scratching the surface of what the living things on earth actually have to offer. Even suggesting that the most pleasant things can be often correlated with corruption, sadness or other complete opposite feelings. To stop at something’s surface beauty or outward display of emotion deprives the onlooker of a certain “truth” that is apparent when one looks beyond initial appearances.