The oysters and the giving tree

When I read the nonsense poetry of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, I was struck by their similarity to Shel Silverstein – particularly The Walrus and the Carpenter and The Giving Tree. Both these poems have slightly absurd, fantastical or unrealistic concepts, but they also hold an underlying meaning, one that a child reader will eventually pick up on as they grow older, enjoying the poems at first because of their simplistic and entertaining language. 

Both of these poems have themes of sacrifice and encroachment. The giving tree’s flaw is in her name – she sacrifices too much to the boy because she loves him, and the oysters, dazzled by the conversation that their older would-be companions provide, are coerced into being their unwitting meal, sacrificing themselves. Both of the receivers of the sacrificers are either unaware or ungrateful of what they are receiving, to the downfall of the giver: “And so the boy cut down her trunk/and made a boat and sailed away./And the tree was happy/… but not really.” At the end of the poem, the tree laments that she has nothing left to give the boy: “‘I wish that I could give you something…./but I have nothing left./I am just an old stump./I am sorry….’” (Silverstein). The boy does not apologize to the tree for what he has taken, only sits upon her stump. In contrast, in Carroll’s poem, the Walrus “deeply sympathizes” with the oysters as he sorts them out by size, yet his empty apologies mean nothing as he does not even realize he has eaten them all until they do not respond. The Walrus and the Carpenter hold an air of entitlement throughout the poem, as they complain about the sand on the beach and expect it to be swept for them. 

life is too short and love is too long

Elizabeth Barret Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese are, at first glance, intensely romantic sonnets about love written to Robert Browning. However, a closer look at some of these sonnets reveals that they explore more than just the notion of romantic love. The liken love with death, explore the dangers of falling in love, and reveal the power imbalances that come with a love affair such as this one. 

These themes reminded me very strongly of a book series I love. It’s The Locked Tomb series by Tamsyn Muir. It’s a sci-fi series that deals with necromancy, and therefore themes of love, death, time, and morality. In their universe, necromancers are assigned cavaliers, trained warriors who serve and protect their necromancer. The bond is not inherently romantic, but it sometimes can be. Necromancers strive to become lyctors, which are extremely powerful and immortal necromancers. The only problem with this is that to achieve lyctorhood, the cavalier’s soul is absorbed by their necromancer, and their body dies. The necromancer’s eyes change to show that they have done this process. 

There are variations on this throughout the series, and there’s lots of body/soul swapping happening. At one point, two of the characters combine their souls into one body perfectly, creating an entirely new person from their relationship. These ideas reminded me of Sonnet IV (6): “leaves thy heart in mine/With pulses that beat double./What I do/And what I dream include thee, as the wine/Must taste of its own grapes. And when I sue/God for myself, He hears that name of thine,/And sees within my eyes the tears of two” (EBB lines 9-14). In this love, there is no more individuality left for the speaker, she is absorbed completely, or otherwise bonded completely to her love forever. Necromancers and cavaliers have a saying to describe them, which is “one flesh, one end” (Muir). When necromancers and cavaliers discover that the way they achieve lyctorhood is cruel, it raises problems of morality. No one is completely sure how the process works, or if there is a way to do it and preserve the bodies and souls of both people – “perfect” lyctorhood. The two characters who combined themselves into a new person both technically are gone – their souls were essentially rearranged, so their persons are gone but not dead. They sacrificed themselves for each other, refusing to let one live on. The first sonnet echoed this sentiment: “Not Death, but Love” (EBB line 14) allowed the necromancer and the cavalier to create a new soul. 

Some pairs refuse to become lyctors, choosing love and eventual death over immortality and power. In sonnet 22, EBB asks her beloved “what bitter wrong/Can the earth do to us, that we should not long/Be here contented?” and tells him that they should “stay rather on earth” (EBB lines 4-10). It is a plea to stay and love normally instead of turning to heaven, implying that their love would be better even than the perfect love that the angels would provide. This is a sentiment heavily echoed in the series, the choice between the power of a love between people on earth and the pull of an immortal and perfect, but bonded love of a lyctor. Can love and freedom coexist, or does one really love thee better after death?

the sonnet as a container

Nuns Fret Not by William Wordsworth is an Italian style sonnet with a volta around line 7 or 8. This is where the speaker shifts from a lighter tone to a more serious one; in the beginning the sonnet lists examples of people who choose to be confined to a small space, and show that they are content there. The list includes nuns, students, and maids, but the one that stood out to me most was the line about bees: “bees that soar for bloom/High as the highest peak of Furness Fells/Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells” (Wordsworth 5-7). This line specifically calls upon the natural world to show how living things need their narrow spaces to feel at home in. No  matter how high the bees fly, they always return “by the hour” to their foxglove bell homes. The bees have more freedom than the humans listed in a literal sense because they can fly, something no human can do, yet the natural and human world imitate each other by creating these “prisons” as the poem refers to them. However, in the line directly after the prison is mentioned, the poem contradicts itself by saying that these spaces are actually not prisons at all, but provide something similar that the “sonnet’s scanty plot of ground” (Wordsworth 11) provides to a poet. Wordsworth says that he has found “short solace” in the confines of a sonnet, and suggests that others “who have felt the weight of too much liberty” (Wordsworth 13) could do the same. The sonnet is a place to talk about ideas that are very broad or complicated in a condensed form, which forces the writer and the reader both to think critically about each word, each line, and to analyze the way that each idea in the poem is laid out in this specific form. In Nuns Fret Not, the sonnet starts out with fairly simple pictures of nuns in a convent, or bees in a flower, but then zooms outward to impress upon the reader what the true topic of the poem is. And just when the ideas are falling into place, the 14 lines come to an end, leaving the reader to think about it themself. 


the cyclical nature of life and death

“The Echoing Green” by William Blake deals mainly with themes of life and death, and the inevitable passing of time. The poem depicts the blissful play of young children on the “echoing green,” as well as the memories of the old people watching as they recall their days of play. Then, the sun sets, and the description of the green as “echoing” changes to the “darkening green,” indicating the inevitability of death, but not exactly the ending of life – the repetition used in the poem points to a cyclical way of reading that imitates the cyclical nature of life and death. This repeating of the title phrase, as well as the very simple yet effective rhyme scheme, lets the reader know that there is more to the poem than just the juxtaposition of the old and new generation. Furthermore, the choice to describe the “green” as “echoing” reinforces the imagery of life and memories indefinitely cycling through the same place, never ending.  

The poem uses one day, one cycle of the sun moving across the sky, to describe a lifetime. The end of the play on the field is inevitable, yes, but Blake sees death as a natural part of life, one that is as demanding as sleep and as peaceful as night. In the last stanza of “The Echoing Green,” he states, “The sun does descend, And our sports have an end. Round the laps of their mother/Many sisters and brothers, Like birds in their nest, Are ready for rest/And sport no more seen/on the darkening green.” The “darkening” of the green is a peaceful deviation from the other endings of the stanzas, the word “seen” is still rhymed with “green,” it’s just this one word that has been changed. The ending is family focused as well, and the lines about reuniting with mothers could be referencing seeing loved ones who have already passed on when you yourself also do so. The imagery of birds in a nest has comforting connotations as well, suggesting that death is not seen as a futile battle against a great enemy, but rather simply as a phase of life, as illustrated by the descriptions of different generations having similar experiences.

that time is past

William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” is a reflective monologue written in blank verse and iambic pentameter. Although this pattern is sometimes broken so as to adhere to a more natural way of speaking, which matches the theme of self-reflection and the inner thoughts that the speaker is having as he gazes on Tintern Abbey and the surrounding nature. I chose part of the third stanza to focus on, because of the way that the speaker refers to his younger self seeing the same sights his “mature” self is seeing now. 

This stanza describes the noticeable change in the speaker’s demeanor and the way he relates to nature from adolescence to adulthood while revisiting old places that are steeped in memory. While reminiscing about his youth, the speaker does not look back sadly like nostalgia sometimes can be. Instead, he is content to remember rather than try to replicate his bond to the natural world, acknowledging that he now looks at nature in a different way. He does not “mourn nor murmur” for “other gifts have followed” (87-88) his loss of his childhood fervor for nature. Now, he looks upon the views of nature described in the poem “not as in the hour of thoughtless youth” but now “hearing oftentimes the still sad music of humanity/nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power/to chasten and subdue” (91-94). He appreciates nature more calmly now, seeing humanity in it as opposed to believing himself as one with nature, inseparable and wild. He describes this by likening himself to a deer, nature for him then, he says, was “all in all” (76). The speaker references the “coarser pleasures of my boyish days/And their glad animal movements,” (74-75) again attributing his younger self as something uncontrollable and intense like a wild animal. He describes nature as it was then passionately, “aching joys” and “dizzy raptures,” (85-86) but clarifies that those times are now past.