The Sonnet, Sappho, and Phaon

Mary Robinson’s “Sappho and Phaon” is a series of sonnets, in order of a story that chronicles Sappho’s love and poetic voice for Phaon. Each focuses on a different aspect of Sappho’s thought process, rather accurately depicting the ups, downs, and complications of being in love. Each sonnet bleeds into the other a bit for the purpose of continuing the story and depicting the changing mental state and racing thoughts of someone in love despite each sonnet being separately titled. Additionally, more opportunity arises within each sonnet to depict racing trains of thought since each sonnet allows for a turn, or volta, within them, where the subject changes slightly (such as in a shift of feelings, thoughts, style, or otherwise). For example, in Sonnet IV (or “Sappho Discovers Her Passion), the volta signals a slight shift in subject from Sappho, the poetic voice, realizing and thinking through her romantic feelings and desires. In the beginning octave, the sonnet begins with “Why, when I gaze on Phaon’s beauteous eyes, / …each thought in wild disorder stray?”. This initial questioning of why her thoughts become disorganized and messy when she sees Phaon’s beauty is answered by the end of the octave, when she states that “stung with hopeless passion,—Sappho dies!”. After the octave comes the sestet, as is typical for Petrarchan sonnets; the volta also commonly occurs here. In Sonnet IV, this is the case: in the following sestet builds upon the dramatic exclamation that Sappho’s passion and love is so strong that she feels she must die, beginning to describe a hypothetical scene of her death. 

If the sonnets were Shakespearian in their format, I believe that the compilation of sonnets wouldn’t have the same natural flow that they have as Petrarchan sonnets. Shakespearian sonnets consist of three quatrains and then one rhyming couplet as the final stanza, giving a clear sense of finality. The stark contrast between the repeated quatrains and a tiny conclusion of two lines, both containing rhymes one after the other, often gives a sense of the poem being well-contained within itself. Petrarchan sonnets, on the other hand, do not have as drastic a contrast between their two rhyme schemes, the octave and sestet, which both endure for more equal amounts of time despite the sestet still being shorter by two lines. Additionally, in Shakespearian sonnets, the volta occurs closer to the end, often right before the final couplet. “Sonnet IV,” by being Petrarchan, affords itself much more time to play with the aftermath of the volta, exploring each turn and twist in thought fully—before concluding not with a couplet, but with a slightly more open line that follows the rhyme scheme of the lines above it. Not only does the volta have more time to be explored in this sonnet, “Sonnet IV” flows more easily into another sonnet of the compilation, starting up again as if it were yet another volta, simply starting off with the next octave. The transition between sonnets IV and V reads as such:

“And, as the soft vibrations float on air,

Let pity waft my spirit to the blest,

To mock the barb’rous triumphs of despair!”


“O! How can Love exulting Reason quell!

How fades each nobler passion from his gaze!

E’en Fame, that cherishes the Poet’s lays,

That fame, ill-fated Sappho lov’d so well” …

In An Artist’s Studio … Lay the Lady of Shalott

Christina Rossetti’s “In an Artist’s Studio” struck me for multiple reasons: first and foremost, the haunting line of “he feeds on her face”. The imagery alone was enough to draw me in, but I became more interested in the poem going over it with peers in class, learning the context of Christina Rossetti’s life and how it may have influenced this posthumously published work. The poem can easily be related to her being the model for many of her brother’s paintings: after all, the woman in the poem is only “one selfsame figure” though she looks out from “all his canvases”. She is portrayed “not as she is”, but as many different fictional figures, in only a perfect, curated pose. Looking at some of the images of the paintings Christina Rossetti modeled for, I was reminded of the poem and subsequent paintings of “The Lady of Shalott,” and one of my classmates brought up the same association. The beautiful, yet often tragic, female figures of the paintings surrounding the Lady of Shalott reflect not only Christina Rossetti’s own experiences, but the more generalized experiences she describes through “In An Artist’s Studio.” “A queen in opal or in ruby dress, / A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens, / A saint, an angel” are all possible paintings done of the same female model. The painting of the Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse embodies multiple of these: the lady is dressed in a white, shining dress, similar to opal—she stood beside the water “queenly” as well. At the same time, she is beautiful yet nameless, known only as the “Lady of Shalott.” And as for being saint or angel-like, one could interpret the moment the painting depicts from the poem as her saint-like moment—sailing off to her death, a sacrifice she makes, “sick of shadows”, “chanting” as she drifts along the water to the light of Camelot. Finally, it is worth noting that both the poem and the painting of the Lady of Shalott depict her death as rather serene, also saintly in nature—it brings to mind the line of “In An Artist’s Studio” where Rosetti states that she, a model, is painted “not as she is, but as she fills his dream”. Both the painting and poem depicting the Lady of Shalott—nameless, queenly, angelic—were produced by men. Rossetti’s poem invites an interpretation of the poem and painting that looks at how the figure of the Lady of Shalott is represented, and why.

Look On My Sad Remains, and Rejoice

A graphic novel I’ve read for another of my classes contains a quote from “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley as a minor detail, the specific excerpt of “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; / Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”. However, I found it fascinating that they chose this specific excerpt considering the wider context of the poem, as one of the characters of the graphic novel was meant to relate to this quote. The graphic novel focuses on many political and social themes, with the character being a “king” of sorts. I thought it might be fitting to apply a political/social lens back to the poem itself to see what interpretation it yields. 

One key aspect of the poem is the overconfidence of the king, Ozymandias, who becomes a sort of character in the poem. The above quote alone displays this show of power: he is not just a king, but a king of kings. He commands all people to fall under his rule and his land, as well as preserve all his creations. 

However, the poem details a traveler meeting someone and telling them of the statue on which this is engraved—a broken-down, sad-looking old sculpture surrounded by nothing but barren land. The “visage,” or face, of the statue is “shattered,” its detached pieces are “lifeless.” Not only is it broken, the poem’s main voice of the traveler (speaking through quotations) goes to great lengths to show how the statue is truly in ruin. They call the pile of stone “decay,” a word that isn’t often used in the context of such a sturdy material. Stone can be weathered and broken, but “decay” is usually reserved for things that were previously living: such as bodies. The traveler, then, seems to see the “Wreck” as something that, though made of stone, previously had a life to it. This “life” might’ve been the sheer power it displayed, with its “sneer of cold command”—this would make sense, considering that statues such as this one have been used for a long time to remember and pay respect to political leaders and other important figures. 

Why the traveler takes great care, then, to emphasize that the sculpture’s reign is long gone, might be interesting. The voice of the traveler doesn’t seem overjoyed nor sad to see the state of the statue, but they do describe in detail how broken it is. The traveler is likely interested by the irony of the statue’s engraved words and the fact that no “works” to “look upon” remain: “Nothing beside remains”, they say, remarking about this irony. 

The graphic novel’s excerpt of the poem invites focus on the figure of Ozymandias as incredibly influential but cruel within his time, as it refers to a powerful character within the graphic novel who controls the lives of many people and is a huge public figure. Applying this political/social lens to the original poem, the traveler seems to not only be thinking of the statue as an isolated and ironic story, but the suggested history in all its complexity—here lies a king who was so important and brash, now reduced to nothing though he thought his influence would remain over the wider population forever. Perhaps it hints at the fact that the wider public not only will recognize this hubris and irony, but also that the population can reshape, over time, what is put in place by those in power. 

The Immediate Verdict on Martha Ray

Ever since we discussed it in class, I’ve been wanting to explore how William Wordsworth’s “The Thorn” looks from a psychological/social perspective, due to the fact that the whole poem operates on gossip! The speaker of the poem’s perspective stems from both their own brief observations of the setting and woman in question, Martha Ray, as well as what others have told them about Martha. The first six stanzas alone communicate a depth to the poem’s central characters and symbols.

The poem begins with an intricate description of nature, establishing the setting and main subject of the poem’s title: the old tangle of thorns, “wretched,” “overgrown” (lines 1-11). The second stanza continues to describe the thorn, but also surrounding nature trying to “bury” the “melancholy crop” (lines 15-22). The landscape’s view itself is eerie: the third stanza’s extended description of setting mentions “thirsty suns and parching air” (line 33). The elaboration on this view and the detail of what surrounds the thorn goes on for five stanzas before Martha Ray is ever mentioned—yet the specific language the speaker uses has already set the tone for the gossip that is about to unfold. The diction is heavy and sinister, painting a beautiful, but certainly haunting, picture of the poem’s setting. The introduction of Martha herself is not by name: added to the landscape in the sixth stanza or part is a “Woman,” and though all she does in her introduction is sit by a pond and cry “oh misery,” readers are already on edge. The setting she resides in has already been established as mysterious in nature—despite all of the detail that has been poured into describing its appearance, particular word choice has given readers the impression that something sinister lurks there. So although all readers are introduced to is a grieving woman, they are inclined to believe that something about her is amiss, consistent with the speaker’s belief and setup. Prior to introducing her, it seems, the narrator of “The Thorn” has pointed out the thorn, representing her supposed murder of her child, as well as setting readers up for a scare through setting before they ever introduce Martha, a woman in clear emotional distress (regardless of how strong the evidence for or against her is). They do not give her a name yet, either—the speaker’s mindset regarding Martha is immediately clear for all of these reasons: they are, at the least, highly suspicious of her. Later stanzas confirm, of course, that this train of thought is consistent with the wider community of the poem, but I especially found it interesting that before readers even realize it, the speaker has taken on a role of not only a storyteller, but an observer and gossip-teller. 

What Has Man Made of Nature? – Reflections on Humans/Nature in “Lines Written in Early Spring”

William Wordsworth’s poem “Lines Written in Early Spring” possesses an inconspicuous title—readers expect descriptions of spring’s beauty, perhaps neutral or lighthearted. However, the poem is a reflective one alongside these romantic-style descriptions, and what the speaker’s reflections are about quickly become tragic: they are “In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts / Bring sad thoughts to the mind” (3-4), as described by the end of the first stanza. 

“Early Spring” scenery surrounds the speaker, implied to cause these pleasant thoughts. The speaker sprinkles brief descriptions of this scenery throughout the rest of the poem, including the birds hopping about and “playing,” “primrose-tufts,” “budding twigs,” “breezy air.” Wordsworth hardly describes large landscapes in the poem, choosing instead to narrow in on these small features of the landscape the speaker is in. Maybe this fact is related to the speaker’s reflective mood; since the speaker is in deep thought, they are more likely to focus on small details of what they are noticing and analyzing. Additionally, each of these brief descriptions contain word choice that paints a romantic view of these parts of nature. Though the speaker is reflecting about nature, the reflection stems from their “pleasant” thoughts about it. Therefore, they frame it as restorative, fun, and gentle (through the use of those descriptors like “playing,” “budding,” and more). These establish that through the speaker’s eyes, nature is peaceful/happy. In fact, the poem states that it is their “faith” that flowers enjoy the air they take in, and that every creature in the wild finds pleasure in their lives (11-16). Each of these choices emphasize the pleasantness in the natural world, magnifying it no matter how small the detail—this focus on the natural world invokes a lot of the ideas of the Romantic period. 

While nature causes pleasant thoughts for the speaker, and the resulting reflection brings about sad ones, the speaker still describes this process or mood as “sweet” (3-4). The “sweet” mood could refer to the speaker’s enjoyment of the natural world before they think too deeply. It could also be meant to be read closer to “bittersweet,” a necessary mood to be in sometimes that reveals truths of the world. It may also mean that the mood is simply “sweet” because of the fruitful analysis that comes with it. 

Finally, what stood out to me during my readings of this poem was the sad thought that resulted from the speaker’s situation: “To her fair works did Nature link / The human soul that through me ran; / And much it grieved my heart to think / What man has made of Man” (5-8). This romantic view of nature is contrasted with the grief the speaker experiences when speaking of “man,” humans. The speaker draws a clear connection between Man and Nature: “Nature” itself gives the speaker a human soul, making humans part of nature. Additionally, both Nature and the second “Man” are capitalized, linking them together as concepts within the poem. As for why the first “man” is not capitalized, it could be because of losing this connection—or otherwise trying to ignore or deny it, since man made this situation themselves according to the speaker. Humans (lowercase “man”) exist as if they did not come from the natural world and as if they are separate, causing the speaker to use very contrasting language referring to them and Nature. But in reality, the speaker implies, they began as humans (uppercase “Man”) that came directly from Nature like everything else in the world. This seems to be the central concern of the speaker’s reflection, and the cause of their grief.