Goth Sonnets

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning

Sonnets from the Portuguese, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1850

Once upon a time in Italy, Robert Browning sat scrutinizing a poem in progress. As he plumbed the depths of his brain for the exact word to fit his meaning and his meter, he heard the quick pitter-patter of feet lightly descending the stairs. Before he could turn around, he felt the pressure of a hand on his shoulder, warning him not to look behind him. His wife slid her hand into his pocket, deposited a packet and fled. He saw only the swish of her skirt and a hint of crimson cheek through her thick hair as she retreated to a room of her own. Intrigued, and probably a bit aroused, Robert hastily pulled the papers from his pocket and became the first person to read Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese.

Robert Browning had to convince Elizabeth (let’s call her EBB) to publish the poems. She was hesitant to allow the public to read the deeply personal love poems she wrote to her husband. So, they titled them Sonnets from the Portuguese and pretended that she discovered them and translated them. I think of them as EBB’s Goth Sonnets because she her tone is self-effacing and melancholy. She describes herself as a drooping, tragic, gloom-monster who was destined to a life of weeping misery until Robert Browning shined his brilliant, amethyst light on her.

I always want to call Robert Browning “Robert Barrett Browning,” because it seems logical for married poets to exchange names as well as aesthetic and intellectual ideas. Also, Elizabeth was older, wealthier, higher class and more professionally successful than her husband at the time of their marriage. But, ya know, gender issues.

Without those pesky gender issues EBB might have been named poet laureate over Tennyson. She was quite influential in her time, to the point that she influenced child labor laws. Through poetry. Poetry!

The most famous sonnet is number 43:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints – I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! – and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

The sonnets are all very similar. I recommend them to people who are looking for poetry that represents love in an optimistic light. Most poets like to write about sad, bitter, destructive, doomed, tragic love. Sonnets from the Portuguese conveys love as spiritually uplifting and healing. I know that doesn’t sound Goth, but the trick is that while EBB describes herself as sad, love is the light that lifts her up out of her sadness. So, yes these poems have notes of melancholy, but they still depict love positively.

You might like Sonnets from the Portuguese if:

  • you like poems about love.
  • you’re secretly Goth inside.
  • you’re interested in real life romance between literary figures.

You might not like Sonnets from the Portuguese if:

  • you have no time for self-deprecation.
  • you’re just not that into sonnets.

Final thoughts: EBB was a talented poet. If you like poetry, you should read some of hers. Also, Valentine’s Day is coming up. There’s still time to embroider a sonnet onto a pillow for your loved one. Cuz who doesn’t love a pillow with a sonnet embroidered on it. (internal feminine rhyme, y’all)

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Lyrical Ballads

Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner

Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1798

Notable for:

  • initiating the Romantic Era in literature. 
  • containing the first known Public Service Announcement about albatross curses.

In 1798 Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth wanted to go on a walking tour of the Lake District in northern England.  Their conversation went something like this:

Wordsworth: Would you like to go on vacation?

Coleridge: Yes, but I haven’t any money.

Wordsworth: Hmm.  Shall we write some poems?

Coleridge: That will surely provide the necessary funds.

So they each wrote some poems and published a little volume called Lyrical Ballads.  The publication funded their walking tour and launched a new era in English literature.  Jealous?  Are you wishing you were a Romantic poet and this was your life?  I wish that.  Almost every day.

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In 1800 Wordsworth produced a second, highly modified, version of Lyrical Ballads.  He removed the best poem in the original volume, Coleridge’s “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.”  I read both versions.  “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” is a ballad about a sailor who shoots an albatross. Why? Why!  Killing the bird dooms the entire crew.  Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that they spend some time undead and the mariner must spend eternity spreading the message “Did you know that the gods love the albatross?  Well they do, so don’t mess with them!”  It is creepy and wonderful and one of my favorite poems.

The majority of the remaining poems are by Wordsworth.  It took me a long time to get through this volume, because I have a limited attention span for Wordsworth.  He was dedicated to making poetry more accessible to the Joe Plumbers of his time by using simpler language than his predecessors with their predilection for ornate style, classical references and sporadic Middle English phrases.  Ironically, I don’t find Wordsworth all that relatable.  In poems such as “The Female Vagrant,” “The Complaint of a forsaken Indian Woman” and “Song for the wandering Jew” Wordsworth writes from the perspective of common people, but ends up romanticizing and dramatizing their experiences so thoroughly that the poems feel disingenuous and bizarre. I mentioned before that I think his attempts to emulate Robert Burns failed.   Wordworth wanted to write about being a poor farmer, but he was not a poor farmer so his odes to poverty and rural living lack Burns’ sincerity and vitality.  Wordsworth is much better when he writes about his own experiences, as in “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey.”  You can probably tell that good old WW is not my favorite Romantic poet (Keats! Coleridge!), but I found myself enjoying “Tintern Abbey” immensely.  I was actually inspired by the sentiment contained in the poem, and I can definitely relate to Wordsworth’s description of himself recalling scenes of natural beauty to ease his mind whilst in the city.  I do that.

C

You may like Lyrical Ballads if:

  • you love Romantic poetry.
  • you are interested in the origin of the Romantic movement.

You may not like Lyrical Ballads if:

  • you are not a huge fan of William Wordsworth.

Final Thoughts: This is an incredibly important work in the history of English literature.  If you’re a literature nerd, you should read it.  If you’re more casual in your poetry reading, you would probably prefer selected poems by these two authors.

The Mysteries of Udolpho

Mysteries of Udolpho

The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe, 1794

Notable for:

  • providing the prototype for the Gothic novel.
  • influencing later authors including Jane Austen and Edgar Allan Poe.

I am the only one who will suffer if I turn out to be wrong about this, so I’m gonna go ahead and say it: this is the worst piece of literature on the Book List.  This has to be the nadir of my journey through the English canon.  I just don’t understand how Poe and Austen could have taken this as an influence and gone on to write anything worthwhile.  It’s so bad in so many ways! Ughghghghgh.

Radcliffe does one thing (only) well.  Her descriptions of European scenery are lovely.  As a young reader I was always tempted to skip over descriptive passages.  Who cares about the sunset; get back to the plot.  As a mature reader, I could read that stuff all day.  Tell me more about the shadows on the mountains!  Dear author, please continue surveying the shrubs that grow in the region you chose for the setting of your novel.  If you don’t have infinite patience and appreciation for details of landscape, there is nothing for you in The Mysteries of Udolpho.  Everything else sucks.  Plot, pacing, characterization all suck.  So much.

I just tried to summarize the plot for you, but I got too filled with rage.  These bullet points on why I hate this book will have to suffice:

  • Plot movement is stiflingly, exhaustingly slow.  So many scenes and plot lines could be eliminated with no effect on the overall story.
  • The protagonist, Emily St. Aubert sucks so much.  Every time something happens to her she faints.  Which means that every scene takes three to a billion times longer than necessary, because Radcliffe pauses the action every few sentences to inform the reader that Emily has yet again fainted and been revived.  Here’s an example of how a scene in this book might go:

Random Character: I have bad news.

Emily: *Swoons.  Revives*

RC: Your father has died.

Emily: *Swoons.  Revives*

RC: He asked you to burn all of his journals.

Emily: *Swoons.  Revives*

RC: He asked to be buried in the monastery nearby.

Emily: *Swoons.  Revives*

  • Swooning is not an acceptable response to danger.  Very ineffective.  This would be a better story if the first time Emily swoons she gets eaten by a wolf.
  • Radcliffe’s idea of mystery and suspense is to withhold all of the interesting information until the last 20 of 600 pages.  For example, Emily sees something really scary and of course passes out.  Radcliffe waits another 300 pages to explain what she saw.  That would an acceptable literary device if those 300 pages contained anything else compelling enough to hold the reader’s interest.  But they don’t.
  • Characterization is weak.  Radcliffe just tells you that the villain, Montoni, has a mean look in his eye.  She does nothing else to make him seem scary.  He doesn’t actually do anything too frightening until about page 400.  Yet, Emily swoons 50 times from fear of him before page 400.
  • All the supernatural phenomena are explained in the end.  Just like an episode of “Scooby Doo,” the ghosts turn out to be dudes in costumes.  I like my ghosts to be scary ass ghosts, not just regular guys wearing cloaks.  I liked “Scooby Doo” as a kid, but I always hoped that just once the swamp monster wouldn’t take of his scales and confess to being a local businessman.
  • I have to stop.  This book fails in many other ways, but I’m losing interest so you must be too.

Final thoughts: Don’t read it.

Sarah Wentworth Morton

http://www.sydneyreadseverything.wordpress.com

 

Sarah Wentworth Morton, poems, late 1700s

Sarah Wentworth Apthorp Morton was such a popular poetess in her day that she earned the moniker “American Sappho.”  If you have read any Sappho, you will understand the magnitude of that compliment.  As a native Bostonian, Morton’s poems contain distinctly American subject matter.   I read just two of her poems, the epic Ouabi and her most remembered work The African Chief. 

The African Chief is a stridently anit-slavery poem.  Morton laments the death of a captured African chief.

Ouabi is an epic poem in four cantos.  The story is essentially that of the love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot  if Lancelot were a strapping young European who abandons society to wander in the North American wilderness and is taken in by a kind, wise and powerful Indian chief.  The Lancelot figure then of course falls in love with the chief’s lovely bride.  Drama ensues.  Morton’s compassionate yet romanticized view of Native Americans is certainly out of date and may be why this poem has been largely forgotten.  However, she writes incredibly beautiful verse.  Her meter and rhyme are impeccable and unlike Freneau, the last poet reviewed on this blog, she achieves lovely style without needing to twist her sentences into Yoda-like syntax.

A Quote from Ouabi:

Her limbs were straighter than the mountain pine,

Her hair far blacker than the raven’s wing;

Beauty had lent her form the waving line,

Her breath gave fragrance to the balmy spring.

You might like the poetry of Sarah Wentworth Morton if:

  • you like epic poems.
  • you are interested in 18th century attitudes toward minorities.

You might not like the poetry of Sarah Wentworth Morton if

  • you are offended by 18th century attitudes toward minorities.

Final thoughts: Morton writes beautiful poetry.  Her subject matter is controversial and whether you find her perspective refreshing (she’s obviously in favor of better treatment of minorities) or offensive, her poems are certain to arouse some uncomfortable feelings.

Phillip Freneau

the death of Death

Phillip Freneau, poems, late 1700s

Notable for being:

  • the “Poet of the American Revolution.”
  • a proto-Romantic.
  • an originator of the Gothic genre in poetry.

Phillip Freneau’s epithet, Poet of the American Revolution, makes him sound more exciting than he is.  I think he is more notable for what he wrote about than how well he wrote.  He published anti-British poems, which was a big deal at the time, but they don’t hold much interest now as Americans no longer need to be persuaded against being a British colony.  I’ll tell you about a few of his poems.

The Wild Honey Suckle is your typical Romantic “flowers are pretty, life is fleeting” type of poem.

The Indian Burying Ground romanticizes the Native American method of burying the dead in a seated rather than reclining position.  Freneau is for it, because instead of sending the dead off to eternal rest, one sends them to sit among their friends.  I don’t know. It’s tough to relate to the 18th century attitude toward Native Americans.  I’m not a fan.

The House of Night is my favorite of the Freneau pieces that I read, but I don’t love it.  The poem consists of 136 quatrains with an ABCB rhyme scheme.  The narrator relates the tale of a spooky adventure that befell him when he was out walking one night.  He wanders into a garden and then into a house where Death himself lays dying.  Our narrator speaks with Death for a while, who fears his approaching demise as he is worried that he won’t get into heaven.  Really.  The poem ends with a description of Death’s funeral and all the spooks that attend.  It’s not the best poem I have ever read in terms of style, but I like the supernatural subject matter.  The narrator views the death of Death as a good thing, but I’m not sure it wouldn’t result in zombie apocalypse.  Freneau is the first truly American author on this list, which is pleasant because when our narrator describes the trilling of a bird it is a North American bird and he mentions the Chesapeake, which is a body of water that I know.  Feels nice.

Quote:

Dim burnt the lamp, and now the phantom Death

Gave his last groans in horror and despair —

“All hell demands me hence,” — he said, and threw

The red lamp hissing through the midnight air.

You have to admit “All hell demands me hence,” is a pretty great thing to say.

You might like the poetry of Phillip Freneau if:

  • you read all of Wordsworth and are looking for yet further poems about flowers.
  • you like ghost stories.

You might not like the poetry of Phillip Freneau if:

  • you are offended by the “Noble Savage” attitude.
  • you are offended by mediocre poetry.

Final thoughts: No, I did not completely mess up the carpals and metacarpals!  Death has abnormal anatomy specialized for clutching the soul from your body.  Duh.

Robert Burns

sydneyreadseverything.wordpress.com

Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, Robert Burns, 1786

Bobbie Burns is notable for:

  • being the most beloved Scottish person ever.
  • writing Auld Lang Syne, the song you mumble through on New Years Eve.
  • writing in Scots dialect.
  • living hard and dying young.
  • influencing the Romantic poets.
  • being a farmer rather than an  aristocrat, which was uncommon for poets at the time.

Robert Burns is a big deal, a cultural icon.  He was voted “Greatest Scot” over William Wallace in a poll conducted by a TV network.  People love this guy, myself included.  The crazy part about his enduring popularity is that his poems are not very accessible.  18th Century Scots dialect is hard to read.  Here’s the first stanza of “Tam o’Shanter”:

When chapmen billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors meet,
As market days are wearing late,
An’ folk begin to tak the gate;
While we sit bousing at the nappy,
And getting fou and unco happy,
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps, and styles,
That lie between us and our hame,
Where sits our sulky sullen dame.
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.

Not only is that difficult to understand, but it’s hard to imagine what it’s supposed to sound like.  I’ve been reading Burns aloud to myself in the best Scottish accent I can muster.  It’s not perfect, but damn is he ever an amazing poet!  Even if you’re not sure what he’s talking about you can’t miss the life-affirming vitality of his poems.  They are so full of energy they make me want to jump up and accomplish stuff.

Just listen to this:

You feel happier now, right?  Poems like this are why I am obsessed with literature.  He’s apologizing to a mouse for wrecking her house with his plough!  How wonderful is that?  And it sounds glorious.  When I read literature of this quality I feel that maybe the world is a wonderful place full of beauty after all.  Seriously, Robert Burns makes me excited about life.

I feel weird about the Romantics claiming Burns as an influence.  I see very little resemblance between Burns’ vigorous and sincere odes to farm living and Wordsworth/Coleridge/Keats’ effete lamentations about the lives of the rich and useless.  Sidebar: I love Coleridge anyway.  The Romantics admired Burns, but they never pulled off his style or subject matter.  It’s like when Lady Gaga claims David Bowie as a musical influence.  You can’t just paint a lightening stripe on your face and pretend that your music bears any relation to David Bowie’s music!

Anyway, back to Burns.  My recommendations:

  • The Twa Dogs—a dialogue between a fancy, well-bred dog and a lower class farm dog about whether the rich or the poor have better lives.
  • To A Mouse—OMG, possibly the best poem ever.  Also the origin of the title “Of Mice and Men.”  This poem will break your heart and build you a better heart.
  • Tam o’Shanter—a delightful, mystical cautionary tale warning husbands of the dangers of staying out too late drinking.  Yay.
  • The Auld Farmer’s New-Year-Morning Salutation to His Auld Mare Maggie—an ode to his horse.

You might like the poetry of Robert Burns if:

  • you like things that are good.

You might not like the poetry of Robert Burns if:

  • you can’t be bothered reading Scots dialect.  It’s not exactly easy.

Final thoughts: If you’ve read this far, I think you know how I feel about Robert Burns.  He’s a champion.

Elegiac Sonnets

Elegiac Sonnets, Charlotte Turner Smith, 1784

Notable for:

  • bringing sonnets back.
  • kicking off the Romantic movement in literature.

Hooray!  The beginning of the Romantic movement!  It might not be my/your favorite literary movement, but it’s a huge improvement on the previous 50-80 years of literature.  Charlotte Turner Smith is considered more of a proto-Romantic writer than truly a Romantic writer, but there are plenty of legit Romantic elements in her poems.  Just like Wordsworth and the later Romantics, Smith treats Nature as both exalted deity and source of aesthetic awe and wonder.  She has a very Wordsworthy way of professing strong emotions as a method of self-expression.

Exemplary Sonnet:

Sonnet I

THE partial Muse, has from my earliest hours,
Smil’d on the rugged path I’m doom’d to tread,
And still with sportive hand has snatch’d wild flowers,
To weave fantastic garlands for my head:
But far, far happier is the lot of those
Who never learn’d her dear delusive art;
Which, while it decks the head with many a rose,
Reserves the thorn, to fester in the heart.
For still she bids soft Pity’s melting eye
Stream o’er the ills she knows not to remove,
Points every pang, and deepens every sigh
Of mourning friendship or unhappy love.
Ah! then, how dear the Muse’s favours cost,
If those paint sorrow best–who feel it most!

A very Keatsian ode to the woes of being an oversensitive poet-type, no?  For the record, I”m not sure that poets/writers feel emotions harder than others.  They sure do proclaim them harder, though.

Smith was a sad lady.  To help settle his debts her father married her off at age fifteen.  It was a very unhappy marriage that she described as “legal prostitution.”    Elegiac Sonnets expresses her dejection.  The majority of sonnets have the same subject and structure: a description of nature followed by an expression of sadness.  “Look at the pretty flower.  Oh, oh, my existential angst.”  Over and over and over.  Poor Charlotte Turner Smith.  I feel bad for her, I really do.  (I also felt bad for myself having to read the same sonnet 85 times.)  Women’s lives were shitty in her day.  She spent part of her life in debtors’ prison with her husband, until she finally left him and started writing as a way of supporting herself and her children.  Along the way she made a little niche for herself in the history of English literature.  She was an important influence on the Romantic movement and she is credited with bringing the sonnet form back to prominence in England.

You might like this book if:

  • you are interested in the origin of the Romantic Era in literature.
  • you like sonnets.
  • you like sad poems.

You might not like this book if:

  • you’re not into sonnets.
  • you’re not into sad poems.

Final thoughts: If you’re interested in this era of literature or in female authors, read a few of Charlotte Turner Smith’s poems.  I wouldn’t recommend reading this entire volume of poetry.