Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Let's Overanalyze a Bit, Shall We?

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

--John Keats

I remember having to analyze this piece for a high school IB English class. It was one of my favorites of the dozens we covered for the sheer lyricism of its verses. It brings a whole new level to “poetry.”

There was a time when my training was so finely tuned that I could automatically break apart a poem like this line by line, pointing out assonance and alliteration, personification, metaphor, hyperbole, synaesthetic imagery. I could tell you whether the verses were written with iambic, trochaic, or dactylic meter, and what type of poem it was (sonnet or quatrain or lyric ballad), and recite the author’s biography, and give various interpretations for reoccurring motifs and themes. All of this came almost without thought, for I had practiced so many times that writing a paper became simply second nature. Critical analysis essays flow rapidly from the buttons on my keyboard, churning out paragraph after paragraph, closing in on the elusive Meaning of the Literature.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Ah, a personified season, given physical, anthropomorphic characteristics! Ah, the wildly winsome alliteration of “winnowing wind!” How artistic! How poetic! How romantic!

…but maybe there’s more to it than that. Perhaps I got too caught up in the literary devices at the expense of the actual essence of the poem. For works such as this are meant to be read, and understood, and enjoyed—they are meant to be interpreted, not as critical, stuffy works of literature, but by each unique reader. They are meant to speak to the psyche of every individual.

I saw that a new movie just came out about John Keats called Bright Star. It tells the story of his doomed affair with the love of his life. Sad story—particularly sad, since the poet died at age 25 of tuberculosis—but so fitting with the tragic romance of the time period.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,--
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Yes, Keats is simultaneously lamenting and revering the autumn of his days, as he dies a slow death while he should still be in the figurative spring of his youth. Metaphor! I say, but a metaphor that extends far beyond the dead poet’s self-pity and personal reflection.

It is autumn now, and the leaves are dying, the chloroplasts decaying to be recycled later, the leaves shining gold and vermillion, bright beauty, and then fading, crumpling, tearing away, falling, crispy, crunched beneath feet, rotting, turned to soil and detritus, which is aerated by earthworms, broken down, reused, nutrient-rich, obtained by the infinite root hairs of the great tree, incorporated, green leaf again. No life without death, no joy without sorrow, no triumph without failure. It’s the great paradox. And here is beauty. Enjoy it while it lasts.


secret agent woman said...

25? Jeez. He was hardly past being a kid. That is very sad, and makes the talent more impressive still.

Mozart said...

Definitely one of my favorite poets, even if everything he wrote is melancholy and depressing (he had a pretty good excuse, after all). "Oh soothest Sleep! If so it please thee, close, in the midst of this thine hymn, my willing eyes..."