“A Loftier Song:” Rethinking the Carpe Diem Tradition

In the fourth poem in Christina Rosetti’s “Monna Inominata” sequence, the speaker’s paced, contemplative structure combats the hypermasculine carpe diem tradition. The speaker untangles the “us” so favored by Andrew Marvell in his poem, “To His Coy Mistress” to engage in a genuine discussion of identity and mutual love. 

The first four lines of the poem are a direct address to the carpe diem poets of the past: “I loved you first: but afterwards your love / Outsoaring mine, sang such a loftier song / As drowned the friendly cooings of my dove. / Which owes the other more?” (l. 1-4). The speaker professes how her love is quiet and her concern that the poet loves her too loudly, too performatively in regimented, iambic pentameter lines. The bird imagery of these lines both recalls Marvell’s poetry, in which he describes “devouring…birds of prey”: a violent, rushing image meant to supplement his argument for casual sex because he claims that time is running out in a woman’s sexual prime. The speaker takes issue with the idea that this “love” is lauded over a more tender connection, emphasized in the figure of the dove and the gentle phonemes of the word “cooing.” To further combat this insistence on fast paced love, the speaker interrupts the fourth line with a rhetorical question which is visually shocking and forces the reader to contemplate the implications of a casual sexual relationship, particularly for a woman. 

The speaker continues, “My love was long / And yours one moment seemed to wax more strong; / …you construed me” (l. 4-6). The speaker emphasizes the fluctuations of the male persona’s actions of love, contrasting them with her own using a distinctly Renaissance masculine euphemism, “long.” Whereas a male speaker may use this slight of hand to refer to an erection, the female speaker uses it to testify to the security of an emotionally invested relationship. The long-ness further engages the desires of Marvell’s male speaker, who wishes to “make [our] sun run” since they cannot “make [him] stand still.” Rosetti’s speaker is concerned with the way that the lover’s affections “wax” in accordance with her willingness to engage with him sexually, the same preoccupations of Marvell’s speaker. Neither man is patient. They wish instead to make of the lover what they wish to achieve this end, emphasized by the enjambed lines. 

However, the final couplet struggles with the format: “Both have the strength and both the length thereof, / Both of us, of the love which makes us one” (l. 13-14). Scanning these lines indicates a break in the highly structured format of the poem, particularly in the final line. The first line emphasizes how both partners must commit to the stability and endurance of their love. But to reinforce this claim, there is a spondaic substitution at “makes us” which replaces the iambic foot. Until this moment, the speaker has been restricted to formal iambic pentameter, and perhaps this moment is an extension of the volta break where the speaker finds a way to actually say what she needs to. Emphasizing “makes us” in the line conveys a set of requirements that must be met before the partners become one, likely the mutual, reliable expressions of love. Leaving “one” unaccented in this line negates the compulsory short-term “coupling” that Marvell suggests in his couplet forms.  

In the final lines, the formal structure struggles to contain the speaker’s sentiments. Rosetti writes a skillful sonnet response which challenges Petrarchan silencing of female subjects and Marvell’s participation in a sexually charged tradition at once. 

Marvell, Andrew. “To His Coy Mistress.” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44688/to-his-coy-mistress. Accessed 14 April, 2023.

Another Pale Warrior for La Belle Dame’s Crown

Sir Frank Dicksee subtly captures Keates entire poem in one scene that emphasizes the troubling gender reversal that bothers the knight immensely. When the knight begins to recount is day with the lady, the meter breaks: “I met a lady in the meads / Full beautiful, a fairy’s child; / Her hair was long, her foot was light, / And her eyes were wild” (l. 13-16). There are two traditional impulses at work in these lines. The first is how the speaker wants to catalogue the lady’s graces, a hallmark of the Petrarchan sonnet tradition extended out of its original form.  The second is the rhyme scheme, abcb, which is a ballad rhyme typically used for joyful or love poems. However, the meter is broken at the fourth line of each stanza from melodic quatrameter to jarring dimeter. In these stanzas there is a clear tension for the speaker between being bewitched by the lovely lady and trying to wake himself up from her spell. In the portrait as well, the movement is driven and controlled by La Belle Dame: the horse she rides is plausibly poised to move forward, and her hands on the bridle and saddle follow that line which wants to move away from the knight. The knight’s knees are bent as if he is losing his drive to follow her, and he is losing his grip on the horse. It is as if the painter has captured the moment of realization between the third and fourth lines where he tries to shake himself from her spell, losing his balance in the process and extending his arms. He is not in control of the momentum of the painting or the poem, and this is unsettling to him as the noble man who typically has control. 

The knight is enthralled by La Belle Dame’s gaze, and getting closer to the lover’s eyes is important. But first we must reexamine the poem when the knight has a sublime vision of his ruin: “I saw pale kings, and princes too, / Pale warriors – death-pale they all – / Who cried: ‘La belle dame sans merci / Hath thee in thrall!” (l. 37-40). The meter break keeps with the established pattern, setting up a community of men urging him to wake up so he won’t be another victim of this woman’s seductions. In the painting, the knight doesn’t quite meet her eyes, instead gazing at the flower crown which has three small flowers drifting down toward him. The knight mentions that he sees three pale men who urge him to wake up, and his eyeline toward these blossoms could be the artist gesturing toward this sublime awakening. Moreover, either he has extended his hand toward another grove of flowers, or they grow toward him. In either viewing, these flowers could be the other male victims who foreshadow his fate if he remains entranced. 

This poem is concerned with the gendered role of the casual initiation of sex as valorized for men and demonized for women. Considering that the Pre-Raphaelites were deeply interested in returning to the Renaissance paradigm of art, it would be interesting to consider this painting alongside Caravaggio’s “Narcissus.” La Belle Dame in Dicksee’s painting and Caravaggio’s Narcissus have similar posture, leaning over the object of their desire, though La Belle Dame is in the dominant position. This is likely the place the knight hoped to put himself in, and is embarrassed by the reversal which literally puts him face to face with his own hypocrisy and vanity – ultimately the cause of ruin for both men.  

Left: “Narcissus” by Caravaggio

Right: “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” by Sir Frank Dicksee

Laura Finally Speaks: The Female Gaze and The Romantic Self

Though Charlotte Smith takes inspiration from the original Italian form, her sonnet, “From Petrarch xv” has considerably different in tone. Smith reinterprets Petrarch’s sonnet 279, which the speaker says that if nature hears his lamentations about the loss of his love, then Laura will surely appear to him and reassure him. Because this is a translation, style conventions and literary devices do not match, but the self-pitying tone of Petrarch’s sonnet remains. 

Smith responds to Petrarch in an English sonnet form where her speaker is a first-person onlooker to the scene which carries a melancholy tone. Smith begins her reimagination much differently. Her speaker pays attention to the exact feelings of the natural scene, “Where the green leaves exclude the summer beam, / And softly bend as balmy breezes blow, / And where the liquid lapse, the lucid stream, / Across the fretted rock is heard to flow, / Pensive I lay:” (Smith l. 1-5). Smith’s speaker begins her musings in the middle of a sentence, as if she was slowly coming back to the present after a long meditation at one with nature. There are multiple occurrences of consonance in these lines, with the affective qualities of a soft beat in the “b,” a whisper, such as the repeated “l” and “f,” and the speaker is finally awoken with the slightly harder “p” sound from pensive. She delays the subject of the sentence until the end of the clause, after four enjambed lines to preserve that thought process, and in conjunction with hard punctuation of the colon in the middle of the line, the speaker’s attention is diverted toward the lover and his beloved. 

The female speaker then notices how Petrarch recalls Laura selfishly from the grave: “When she whom earth conceals,/ And pitying Heaven her angel form reveals, to say – Unhappy Petrarch, dry your tears…” (Smith l. 5-6). “Conceals” carries a much different weight than “hides” which is translated directly from Petrarch. To conceal is to safeguard and protect out of view, while hide carries the implication of a game, as if Petrarch thinks he has a right to find her and recall her whenever it is convenient to him. We get a hint of cynicism in the second line when the speaker remarks on Laura’s appearance recalled for Petrarch’s benefit and disrupting her rest.  Even though Laura is speaking literally to Petrarch, she likely had a more scathing tone understood by the female onlooker. She wants to be left alone, unobjectified by Petrarch’s poetry. 

Laura then makes biting remarks to Petrarch whose manifest content give the impression of abrupt comfort but have a different appearance to the female speaker. In the final couplet, Laura says, “But raise thine eyes to Heaven – and think I wait thee there” (Smith l. 13-14). The dash mimics the lover grabbing a part of her dress to try to stay her even though she only wants to rest. The only way she can shake him off is to promise him that she awaits him in the afterlife, to take comfort in the promises of religion is not enough for the selfish lover. This poem is an expression of romantic thought inaccessible to women because when women go to the forest for that sublime individualistic experience described by male romantics, their realization of self is in the collective. Instead of finding peace in nature, she recognizes herself in how Laura is beholden to this man after death. It is painful to realize that it is Laura who is the Petrarchan solitary wanderer in Smith’s retelling because she is still tied to the lover’s wishes. 

The Melancholy Irony of a Sunflower Graveyard

William Blake’s “Ah! Sunflower” takes on a new dimension of melancholy loss when considering it through a lens of economic privilege and tourism. In this poem, the speaker watches a joyful, youthful scene which he can watch wistfully, but cannot participate in. The speaker reminisces, “Ah! sun-flower, weary of time, / Who countest the steps of the sun, / Seeking after that sweet golden clime / Where the traveller’s journey is done” (Blake l. 1-4). The manifest content has dual implications. The first is that he, the speaker, is the sunflower: stationary and worn from observing the world, he awaits the sunset anxiously because it promises rest from his work. The second is the speaker addresses the sunflower as a friend observing the sublime journey of the solitary traveler, world weary yet determined to accomplish his goal. The ambiguous meaning of the lines is accentuated by the rhyme scheme, abab, which increases anticipation of the resolution by distancing the conclusion as if to mimic the slow setting of the sun. 

Both conclusions are fascinating to follow through to the next stanza which illuminates an economically critical impulse to the poem. The speaker continues, “Where the youth pined away with desire, / And the pale virgins shrouded in snow, / Arise from their graves and aspire, / Where my sun-flower wishes to go” (Blake l. 5-8). In the first two lines, the speaker observes the young lovers in Renaissance language, revived from Greek myth, describing the “youth” usually a lustful or strong young man, and the “virgins,” beautiful women, who waste time among the sunflowers with their lovers. This reading elicits some jealousy on the part of the speaker because the traveler has the privilege to rest among the leisurely youths of antiquity, who can enjoy the scene while they must wait and work until the day is out. For the sublime traveler and his youthful company, money seems to be no object, as they can “pin[e] away” the day on a whim of desire, and the women can afford such delicate adornments as “snow.”  

The lines in this poem contain repeated spondee in the meter which creates the illusion of a hitched breath of desire for the speaker: “Arise from their graves and aspire, / Where my sun-flower wishes to go” (Blake l. 7-8). The content of these lines emphasizes his hidden desire to join these wanderers in their careless joy. In order to fit the rhyme scheme and increase anticipation, the clauses are reversed. As they currently stand, they give the impression that the youths rise from their graves to enjoy one last dance together in the sunflower field, and perhaps this is what the speaker images and desires. But if the lines are reversed, they also reveal that when he watches the lovers, the speaker’s buried dreams of joining them stir in their graves in sunflower field, desirous once more to join them. But because the speaker does not have a monetarily privileged gaze, he must continue to work, and his wishes must remain wishes. 

Begin the Scottish Marriage Waltz, Though Tragic is the Morrow; Behold the Poet’s Joyful Bliss, The Maiden Left in Sorrow.

At first glance, Robert Burns’ poem, “A Red Red Rose” is a pure love poem, but examining the literal content alongside the formal elements reveals a darker turn. This poem describes a private profession of love at a wedding. The groom sings, “O my luve’s like a red, red rose, / That’s newly sprung June; / O my luve’s like a melodie / That’s sweetly played in tune:” (l.1-4). In these lines it isn’t clear whether “my luve” is the bride (my luve), or a description of the way he loves her (my luve), but these lines reveal that the poet has lost the distinction between his art and his wife: she became his poetry.  Both the metrical and rhyme schemes of the poem reinforce this all-encompassing love. 

The rhyme scheme of this poem is abcb, a ballad rhyme. This form was originally sung and still carries a musical quality which is only reinforced by the meter: the odd numbered lines contain four metrical feet, and the even lines have three. This description of the form of the poem is necessary because it places the lovers in the setting of the poem while allowing the poet to focus solely on his bride and share his private vows. There is an odd number of beats in the line, so as the poet pauses to catch his breath in the even numbered lines of the poem, he twirls his bride. He is only sharing his promises when he is looking directly at her. For example, in the next stanza, “As fair art thou, my bonnie lass, / So deep in luve am I;” (twirl) “And I will love thee still my dear, / Till a’ the seas gang dry – ” (twirl) (l. 5-8). The italicized pieces of the words note the accented syllables. Note also the combination of an accented syllable and the strong punctuation at the end of the even numbered lines which emphasize that pause of breath where the lover increases his beloved’s anticipation of the completion of the rhyme (and likewise his promise) with the romantic twirl.  

As beautiful as the opening stanzas of the poem are, there is also a darker turn to this scene. The poem contains sixteen lines, and a clear dramatic volta at the twelfth line, where the repeated allusions to the sea, sun and rocks reveal the lover’s occupation as a sailor, and one who has been called away on his wedding night to fulfil his latest voyage.  Dragged away from the scene, he calls, “And fare thee weel, my only luve, / And fare thee weel, a while – / And I will come again, my luve, / Tho’ it were ten thousand mile!” (l. 12-16). At the volta, the rhyme scheme breaks from the more complex abcb to a more solemn abab. In addition, the word “fair” used in the second stanza used to describe the poet’s wife when he only had eyes and a mind for her has been transformed into “fare” as an admission of defeat, and another indicator of weather and travel as used in the term “wayfarer.” Most interestingly though, this poem could function as a sonnet, stopping after fourteen lines with a dramatically abrupt final couplet. But the poet adds two extra lines to the end of the poem as if to reassure his bride that he will return. The final lines of the poem read almost as if he is being dragged away from the ceremony and has managed to escape for just long enough to blow a final kiss to his beloved.