Category Archives: Old School Sundays

Old School Sundays: Carl Sandburg’s “Fog”

Back during my undergrad years, I took a class called ‘Survey of American Literature II.’ We covered everyone from Whitman to Ginsberg and beyond. The professor was a lively, animated guy and his literary analysis was all but awe-inspiring, holding us all rapt with attention, our books opened, our pencils poised.

By semester’s end I had only one complaint with the course. We ‘d completely grazed over the poetry of Carl Sandburg.

This afternoon in fact, having dusted off the front cover of my old Norton Anthology, I saw that only one of Sandburg’s poems, “Grass,” had been covered in the American lit class. I know this because I circled it—in the shape of the poem’s format, no less—in the book.

photo(14)

I don’t recall our class discussion on “Grass.” Reading it now, however, I’m seeing that it’s quite compelling. The first three lines read, “Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo./Shovel them under and let me work—/I am the grass; I cover all.”

It goes on to mention Gettysburg, Ypres, and Verdun—all names of famous battlefields in various wars. What a telling—if not morbid—way to describe the function of grass.

But today I’m focusing another tiny, but pensive poem in the Sandburg section of my former college text. The poem was untouched that semester, but I can remember wishing we’d discussed it at length.

 

Fog

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

 Boats Free Photo

Sandburg was known to be a plain-spoken poet, who in his own words wrote, “Simple poems for simple people.” Some call him an early forefather to the Beat poetry movement. His words don’t contain hidden allusions or tricky metaphors. Sandburg was a straight shooter. No rigmarole found here.

I wonder then, if we’re meant to take “Fog” as it is—a fleeting image of a common weather pattern. Truthfully, I find that difficult to accept. I’ve been wired to make literary analyses; it’s what I do. So after picking the thing apart, I’ve come up with my own interpretation.

First I pulled out the key words and did a sort of free association technique on each one, in other words, what comes to mind when you hear the word…

Fog: confusion, danger, mystification, fleetingness, quietness, peace

Cat: transitory, feminine, solitary, often symbolized or associated with sorcery, magic, etc.

Harbor: stationary, temporary holding place, shelter, safe haven

Haunches: crouching, sitting, resting

Thom Parkin → in Cats and dogs

Pulling it all together…

Another thing about fog is that it is temporary. It comes, stays a while, and then dissipates. Cats too, often appear and disappear in an almost uncanny way. The use of the word “haunches,” which clearly parallels to the way that cats actually sit is suggestive of the stooping way in which the fog hangs. And of course here, the fog is hanging over a harbor—a place for rest, a place for peace.

To me fog will forever symbolize a lack of clarity. I see this harbor as human consciousness that has been temporarily befuddled by the haziness of the fog. We all face periods of confusion and indecision in life, and in those moments our visions and hopes can seem cloudy, indecipherable, and unclear. But these situations often have a way of lifting themselves, of dispersing at the source.

We work out our problems. We seek advice. We pray. We move in different directions. We make decisions. Little by little, our concerns take care of themselves. They have to after all, because just like the fog, if they don’t eventually fade away, we’d never make it through.

Do you have a different interpretation?

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Old School Sundays: William Wordsworth’s “The Daffodils”

*Note to my loyal readers: I apologize for “disappearing” this past month. The reason for my temporary absence will hopefully explain itself in this post.

Nichole → in Landscape

I’m not sure when I first encountered Wordsworth’s ode to the Lake District, “The Daffodils,” but I was struck immediately by its tight rhyme scheme and peaceful vibes. To anyone who’s ever gotten pleasure from taking a simple walk in nature, these words can be truly resonating:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced, but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A Poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

As far as poetry goes (yes, even the “romantic” kind) this can seem simplistic. What is the speaker really saying after all?

I saw some daffodils. There were pretty. I think about them often.

But it’s more than that. The sharp description in the second stanza indicates that the sight of these flowers reverberated deeply with the poet. The image was so sublime, so breathtaking, that it imprinted itself in the mind as a regular reminder of peace.

And essentially that very notion (reminder of peace) is always what I’ve taken from the poem. I once came across a bunch of forget-me-nots at a nature reserve called “The Celery Farm” nearby where I grew up. I remember being so taken by the sight of these starkly blue & purple flowers that in the moment I understood where Wordsworth was coming from.

Furthermore, I believe “The Daffodils” also calls for a celebration of solitude, which, unfortunately seems to be losing its relevance in this hectic, fly-by-night world. Wordsworth’s poem illustrates that at one time, solitude was something to be cherished, something to enrich the soul.

In my personal life I thrive on solitude. I yearn to visit quiet places with pretty things to look at—nature sanctuaries, public parks, and state reservation sites. And yes, I like to go to the quiet hotspots alone, by myself, solo, “stag,” or whatever.

It is only through solitude do our inner longings reveal themselves, does our state of consciousness rise. Wordsworth teaches us that we can hold onto these moments of pleasure by taking “mental snapshots” of something we see that is beautiful, whether it may be a babbling brook, a flock a geese in a perfect ‘V’ formation, a lone buttercup, a swath of violets, or a school of minnows. These are the things that thrive around us in this world. Through solitude we can become connected as one.

-See more Wordsworth poems here.

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Old School Sundays: John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”

John Cheever is best known for his suffocating depictions of post-war suburban life. For this, I’ve always enjoyed his work. There is something fascinating behind the concept of thousands American men fighting bloody, brutal battles to come home to cookie cutter neighborhoods, shallow niceties, and good old fashioned repression.

No wonder everyone drank back then…

Vladimir Ovcharov → in Food & Drink

As an undergrad, I was assigned to read Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer.” Neddy Merrill, a middle-aged suburbanite is drinking gin with his wife, Lucinda, and their friends, Donald and Helen Westerhazy.

No pun on the ‘hazy’ part of that name, right? Nah.

By all accounts, Neddy has “arrived.” He makes a great living, has many friends in his community, and receives invitations to all the fancy social events. In fact, at the beginning of the story, he feels on top of the world. His life is good. He is fit for a man his age and decides to take advantage of this fact by quite literally, “swimming” home—that is, doing laps across every pool in the neighborhood, town, heck county. Now, it may be the alcohol talking, but Neddy feels pretty confident in his feat.

Marian → in Constructions Marian → in Constructions

And at first he has reason to. Several neighbors offer him an additional drink before taking his voyage across their pools. But after some time, he notices the curt receptions he gets from people he’d assumed were his friends. He’s baffled by a couple who says they haven’t drunk alcohol in three years due to the husband’s illness. Neddy can’t seem to remember this. He also notices for sale signs on the lawns of an acquaintance and wonders when it was they decided to move. He begins to question his sanity and considers the fact that he’s lost his memory.

Finally, about half way through his quest home, he is forced to cross the highway to get to the town’s public pool. He has this thought while shivering his swimming trunks, waiting for a clear shot to get to the median:

“Why, believing as he did, that all human obduracy was susceptible to common sense, was he unable to turn back? Why was he determined to complete his journey even if it meant putting his life in danger? At what point had this prank, this joke, this piece of horseplay become serious?” (Cheever, 2047)

j. l. johnson → in Constructions

Of course, this becomes symbolic of Neddy’s larger world. He lives in a world full of superficial expressions. He’d gone for so long believing that his life was peachy keen that he didn’t realize how much he’d isolated himself from his own community. His trip  becomes parallel with his life: Seemingly fun at first, but murky and confusing when forced to face it head on.

When Neddy finally makes it home (not before stopping at his former mistress’s house, where she promptly kicks him out) no one is there. It is dark. Neddy cries suddenly, and assumes it is just from all the swimming, all the liquor. But when he peers in the window, the house is empty.

I love this story because themes of hopelessness and the barrenness of suburban life ooze off the page. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? A nagging for adventure, but nothing to show for it except a bunch of uniform swimming pools.

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Old School Sundays: Seduction Poetry

This week’s Old School Sundays is dedicated to the original players—Robert Herrick and Andrew Marvel. Both 17th Century British Poets (Marvell being of metaphysical variety) seemed to know how to woe the ladies—as evidenced in their poems below.

TO THE VIRGINS, TO MAKE MUCH OF TIME.
by Robert Herrick

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying :
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer ;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may go marry :
For having lost but once your prime
You may for ever tarry.

Nicolas Raymond → in Paper & Books

What better way to lure a woman to bed than to suggest that she’s not getting any younger? The first two stanzas delightfully use the notion of ‘time’ as a metaphor. And actually, Herrick may go a bit further than that. I wonder what “rosebud” is meant to represent…
The second two stanzas take that same notion of time and applies it to thou fair maiden who is likely making a silly mistake by not making use of said time.

In the last stanza, the speaker really hits the below the belt. Don’t be coy, he says? Coy. Interesting word choice. Notice that it is part of the title in the poem below? By don’t be coy, do we mean ‘don’t be a tease’? You’ll regret it, my dear, he says. Everyday you’re getting older and uglier. If you don’t do it now, while you’re young and beautiful, you may not have a chance later on. And boy how you’ll regret it…

TO HIS COY MISTRESS
by Andrew Marvell

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv’d virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am’rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp’d power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Botticelli. ‘Three Graces’ detail from ‘Primavera’ 1481.

Damn, Marvell’s pretty good at this. Had I been around nearly three hundred years ago, he might have convinced me…well, maybe. The first stanza here is filled with allusions, or shall I say, illusions of time. He’s comparing this very charged moment with his mistress to the sands of time.

I’d be willing to take things slow, he says, if we had the weight of the world’s time in our hands. If we did, I could admire your breasts for two-hundred years before we went any further.

But by the time Marvell gets to the end, he can barely contain himself:

Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball:
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet will make him run

Instead of letting time dictate us, the seducer says, we can be the ones dictating time.

How could any woman resist? Move over John Mayer. You got nothing on these guys.

Interesting though, how Marvell takes so much ‘time’ to prove how much ‘time’ he and his mistress are supposedly wasting.

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Old School Sundays: Langston Hughes’ “Harlem”

The first time I came across the poetry of Langston Hughes, I was an undergrad in an African-American Lit class. I immediately took to his style. To me, Hughes’ work seemed morphed—broken up and haphazardly put back together again, yet the final result was pure…well, poetry.

Hughes’ words seem to almost mimic the meandering beats of jazz music, and it’s not just the formatting, or the ways the words are displayed on the page…the content has roots as deep as the American experience.

Hughes was a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance—a black arts movement that exploded in a Manhattan neighborhood (Harlem) during the 1920s. At the time thousands of African Americans from the south were migrating up north in search of a better life. Those who landed in Harlem took this notion and ran with it.

This poem speaks to me on a variety of levels:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

“Dried Fruits” Merelize → in Food & Drink

I think most, if not all writers—or anyone with a dream for that matter—can relate to this notion. What does happen when we put our dreams on hold? Do they die this horrible death? Do they “fester” inside of us?

I’ve often wondered if Hughes is suggesting that our unanswered dreams completely disappear or if they stay with us, weighing us down, razing our passion and desire.

The other question that troubles me concerns personal choice. Do we choose our own dreams? I’ve often considered leaving my dreams of writing behind. What kind of person would I be if I no longer wanted to write? Would my life be easier? But if I turn away from it…as Hughes seem to be suggesting…am I destined to “…dry up/like a raisin in the sun?”? Is something I can or can’t help?

The last line, “Or does it explode?” appears to have an even darker connotation. Does what explode? Our lives? Does neglecting our true fervor lead to destruction?

It’s interesting to note that despite Harlem’s rich history, it’s more or less a slum today. West Harlem, actually, was the home of the Renaissance. Anyone from the greater NYC area knows to be wary of treading above 96th street. It’s sad, but I can’t help but wonder if Harlem itself feels victim to this idea of “deferring dreams.”

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Old School Sundays: The Poetry of William Carlos Williams

I may be partial to Williams’ poetry, because he’s “one of our own”; that is, he’s from northern New Jersey. Williams wrote about familiar places—the city of Paterson, where my paternal grandparents grew up, where my father born. In fact, the edge of Paterson (once considered a beautiful city, more of a slum today, such a shame) borders my current city of Clifton, New Jersey. Williams also wrote a collection of short stories called Life along the Passaic River, another landmark close to home.

But more than that, Williams truly was one of the most prominent poets during the “years between the wars.” A physician, Williams was known for scribbling poetry on prescription pads. When I studied Williams as an undergrad I was taken by his short, fleeting nonconventional (it was popular era for nonconventional poetry) poems that seemed to be lacking in broader, more abstract notions. In fact, Williams once said his poems were “No ideas but in things.” The concrete aspect of his words, the odd formation of his words, and the brief, one second it’s there, one second it’s gone nature of his words helped give Williams a name of his own.

Two of my favorite poems by Williams are written below followed by a brief analysis. “The Red Wheelbarrow” is from 1923, and “This Is Just to Say” is from 1934.

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

valerie hodgins → in Birds

I don’t believe there is too much to say here. Perhaps it signifies the things we take for granted. Most people don’t think twice about a wheelbarrow, but in fact, much labor could not be done without it. The seemingly innocuous inanimate objects are necessary than we think.

I wonder about the use color. Why red? Chickens are generally white. But what is there place in the poem?

And what about the odd format?

Some believe that the poem is meant to do nothing more than to put a quick, strong image in the mind of the reader.

This Is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Merelize → in Food & Drink

An interesting one. I always saw it as a note someone left on the refrigerator. Of course the mystery is who left for the note for whom?

The confession—which is essentially what this is—doesn’t express much sorrow or regret. In fact, in parts (“Forgive me”) it’s quite demanding.

Perhaps a greater notion here is the fact that these plums are only good for a while. These types of things do tend to spoil quickly. Maybe there is a lesson in here. Waiting too long to take advantage of life’s pleasures may result in regret—even if you are stealing someone’s plums.

Two poems that say little, but express much—or don’t express much. Do you have your own interpretation? I’d love to hear about it!

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Old School Sundays: Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”

I had a professor in college who once referred to Frost’s poetry as “simply complex.” It’s not a bad description, actually; Frost’s writing is clearly stated, accessible, and identifiable, yet there’s more beneath lurking beneath the surface. In that sense, Frost is often misunderstood . His plain spoken, nature-loving words often come across as adages in stanza-form, all bound up in a perfect poetic package. Surely though, such a prolific man of literature goes beyond Dr. Seuss for adults.

There are dark undertones to Frost’s poetry. In the poem entitled, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” the familiar last line (repeated twice), “Miles to go before I sleep,” doesn’t necessary mean that one must keep going in order to pursue her dreams.

Let’s look at the rest of that stanza:

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

And miles to go before I sleep.

The scenario in the poem is a man riding his horse through the woods in sub-zero temperatures; hence, if he “stops” he will likely perish. “Sleep” then becomes synonymous with death. A much darker premise for a poem than simply not giving up on dreams. Of course, there’s a more specific life metaphor in there somewhere. My point is that not all Frost poems are what they seem.

2happy → in Nature

The poem I’d like to speak about in more depth today is “The Road Not Taken.” Common words used at graduations, or inscribed in yearbooks. Of course, this one too, may not be so cut and dry:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had word them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

March to the beat of different drummer. Follow your own path. Make your own way. This is what a surface reading of the poem demands. And while most seem to grasp that a the “road” metaphor is meant to suggest life in general, the poem, taken into consideration,  is rather vague, ambiguous.

2happy → in Landscape

Certain symbolism must be taken into account. In the first stanza, the woods are described as “yellow.” In poetry, yellow is a color that often carries negative connotations. Does this have significance? Maybe, maybe not.

And these two lines suggest ambivalence:

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same

Is this to suggest that the two roads weren’t all that different in the first place?

And what about this?

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

When faced with a life decision, we truly can only go one way, isn’t that true? We’ll never know what might have been. We can promise ourselves to try both ways, to come back and test out our alternative options, but the truth is, how many paths can we really follow? What do we lose each time we make a choice to go one way and not the other?

Then, in the first line of the last stanza, the word “sigh” suggests regret. “I shall be telling with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence.”Don’t we worry about that old notion of waking up one day and realizing what a waste our lives have been? All the missed opportunities, fallen chances, and failures?

In the final line, Frost writes: “I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.”

Does this “difference” he speaks of necessarily mean better? Of course it made a difference. No matter what choice we make, it made all the difference. “The Road Not Taken” then, as it says right in the title, could be a lamentation or at most, a mystery. Something we’ll never know, never grasp, because life will only allow us to follow one path at a time.

What’s your interpretation?

Got to love poetry with all its layers! This by the way, is my first in a short series of “Old School Poetry.” Hope you liked it!

Recommended: A Close Look at Robert Frost

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Old School Sundays: John Knowles’s “A Separate Peace”

I fell in love with this book my freshman year in high school. As far as I’m concerned, this novel is as close to perfect as any piece of literature will ever be. Why? Many reasons. Plot-wise, it’s flawlessly structured. The setting lives and breaths. The dialogue is precise and engaging. The narration, in a word, is superb. As a reader, you’ll go so deep inside the main character, Gene Forrester’s, mind that you’ll likely feel trapped. You’ll try to claw and scratch your way out, but you won’t be able to. At least not until the novel ends. And even then…well, good luck.

Merelize → in Plants & trees The “tree” is a very important symbol in “A Separate Peace”

I’ve used A Separate Peace on this blog many times over as an exemplary literary example of the topic I was discussing. This proves how far in-grained this story is in my mind.

The basic premise centers on two boys, Gene and Finny. They are complete opposites (Gene is studious, introverted, paranoid, and insecure while Finny is free-spirited, extroverted, dynamic, and charismatic), yet they are best friends. They balance each other out. They attend the Devon School–a prep school in New England during the early forties. All the Devon boys know that their time to serve in World War II is looming, and they are aching to live out their last days of freedom–or “peace”–accordingly.

Then Gene does something to his friend Finny that sets them both  back twofold, and thus begins Gene’s inner odyssey where he questions, mistrusts, and doubts his own motives for years to come.

As in most of my worn copies of literature, A Separate Peace is perpetually marked up. I’ll share this one line in particular that has always confused, yet intrigued me, because in essence, I was never sure whether or not I agreed with it.

During the early part of the novel, Gene has a “smart-ass” comeback to nearly everything the optimistic Finny has to say. Gene writes of himself:

“As I said, this was my sarcastic summer. It was only long after that I recognized sarcasm as the protest of people who are weak” (Knowles, 17).

It’s an interesting notion isn’t it? Personally, I’m rather sarcastic myself, which is why this line always stood out to me. Am I weak? I’d ask myself nearly every time I re-read the story.

My favorite television characters were always the sarcastic ones. I get a huge kick out of Eric Forman from That 70s Show and Chandler Bing from Friends. And I’m probably the only person ever to say that Jerry himself was my favorite character on Seinfeld.

What is it then, that suggests sarcasm is equivalent to weakness? Is it because sarcasm is essentially derision? Can sarcasm be used as a defense mechanism by someone who is say, pessimistic and cynical? Do the “weak” hide behind irony? Is sarcasm a disguise for anxiety, inferiority, and apprehension?

Throughout the novel, Gene proves himself to be suspicious and easily offended. His jealousy towards the exuberant Finny runs rampant. Is this what Knowles means? Was Gene simply covering his own insecurities by feigning humorous superiority? Is that the fundamental concept behind sarcasm?

See, I still don’t know! Gets me every time. Got to love literature.

From MemeCreator.org

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Old School Sundays: Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”

Jungle River Ian L → in Plants & trees

I’ve always enjoyed the thematic elements of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness more than the story itself. I studied the book twice, once in high school and then again in college, and I have to admit, both times the story left me cold.

Of course why wouldn’t it? The characters are either evil or uncompassionate at best. The setting—The African Congo during the Age of Imperialism—is grim. And the plot—Marlow, a sailor working for a Belgian trade company, trekking through the jungle, witnessing horror after horror of “trade practices” on the native peoples, to find some lunatic named Kurtz—doesn’t exactly make for a good rainy day read.

Then again, the book did inspire the sensational film Apocalypse Now.

Either way, once the reading was through and I was able to step back and see the broader notions of Heart of Darkness my purpose for reading became clearer.

Thematically, the book explores the absurdity of evil and the greed of imperialism. This line, which I underlined in my copy of the book, says it all:

“Droll thing life is—that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose” (Conrad, 87).

Aren’t most violent acts in this world essentially pointless? In the case of Heart of Darkness, a forced mutiny of an entire culture was all in the name of ivory.

Is life only as valuable as the worth of certain things? Oil. Diamonds. Money. Drugs. Alcohol.

Or concepts? Religion. Power. Influence. Fame.

For a relatively short novel Heart of Darkness encapsulates the whole of human nature’s ugly side. The attainment of evil often has no ulterior motives. What do we really get in exchange for wickedness? How far do we go before evilness becomes a goal in and of itself? And at what point does it all become pointless? Or as Marlow puts it “for a futile purpose?”

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Old School Sundays: Sonnet 130

As if Shakespeare wasn’t busy enough churning out histories, tragedies, and comedies by the dozen, he was also fiercely composing perfectly rhymed, tightly structured, yet deeply meaningful sonnets—154 throughout his lifetime to be exact.

Make no mistake that this is no easy task; syllable counting, rhyme scheming, and line length doesn’t always leave room for free-flowing insight. But yet, it’s The Bard, and he manages not to just pull it off, but pull it off masterfully.

Have you ever tried writing a sonnet? I have and it wasn’t pretty.

Shakespeare's Sonnets: Knowledge Cards

Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Knowledge Cards

In my most recent Old School Sunday posts, I’ve been aiming to prove Shakespeare’s eternal, timeless relevance—both then and now. His ideas, his notions, come directly from the roots of human nature, and despite the many complexities and nuances of his stories and poems a very simple moral will present itself. A moral in which we all—despite time and experience—can identify.

There a various types of sonnets, which you can read about here, but the basic idea is a structured poem with stringent rules; again, like mentioned above containing a certain number of syllables (iambic pentameter), lines, and rhyme schemes. It’s an antiquated tradition that’s mainly been squashed by most of the free verse poetry (though of course even that still has its own structure) we see today.

The English (or Shakespearian) sonnet consists of fourteen lines total. Three quatrains of four lines and one two-line couplet at the end, making the rhyme scheme as follows:

abab

cdcd

efef

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"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

The sonnet below is fairly well known, but it is my absolute favorite of the The Bard’s poetry for reasons I will explain later on. Read carefully though—this is not your average love poem:

 Sonnet Number 130

 My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun—

Coral is far more red than her lips’ red—

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun—

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head:

I have seen roses damasked, red and white,

But no such roses I see in her cheeks,

And in some perfumes is there more delight

Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know

That music hath a far more pleasing sound.

I grant I never saw a goddess go;

My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.

            And yet by heav’n I think my love as rare

            As any she belied with false compare.

 

*Note: I remember from one of my college poetry classes that often, the two line couplet at the end of sonnets often seeks to disprove the preceding twelve lines. This is certainly true in Sonnet 130.

Sonnet 130 Knowledge Card

Sonnet 130 Knowledge Card

Our whole lives we hear the old adages, “No one is perfect,” or “It’s what lies on the inside that counts,” etc.

Shakespeare, it appears, beat us to this notion with Sonnet 130. In contrast to the over-romancized love poetry of his day, which often painted the object of affection as a goddess-like being, Shakespeare brought it down to the earth by saying, essentially: “Let’s be honest here. Her breath stinks, her hair’s bad, she’s tone deaf, and she’s pale. But hey, I love her anyway. There’s no one else in the world like my mistress.”

It’s a concept we sometimes tend to forget. We still look for that flawless specimen. Or worse, we expect our partners to be flawless.  It’s an impossibility that no one on this planet will ever realize. Shakespeare knew it, and so should we. It may, after all, be the ticket to true love.

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