Azure guitar shimmers, And flamenco dancers whirl: They careen inside, crying for escape, Kicking long, strong legs against the wood for freedom. A band of importunate strings responds, The instrument’s black hole releases its magic; Pierces our hearts like the sadness of crystal waves, And opens up sparkling blue eternity.
There are various approaches to understanding poetry. In the 20th century, the rise of literary criticism began the process teachers now use of analyzing specific literary (rhetorical) devices such as similes, metaphors, etc. to explain the poem. In the 19th century, though, the focus was on having students memorize the poetry and experience the language of the works as a whole. Which approach is best? My answer is both. Memorizing a poem “makes it your own,” but understanding the diction leads you to richer understanding which causes the poetry to enter deeply into your soul.
Today, honors courses require that students take the poems apart rhetorically. This approach to literature, and poetry specifically, is due to the influence of the New Critics, the group of 20th century authors who popularized the idea of literary criticism. They, and their approach, are no longer “in vogue” in universities today, due to the rise of
Marxist-feminist and other post-modern critical approaches. But in truth, literary criticism as we know it owes its existence to the New Critics such as I. A. Richards, et al, since they taught us how to break apart diction with such careful and specific techniques.
Some assert that analyzing literature rhetorically in this manner “ruins” the enjoyment of it; this is not true. Like any aspect of learning, the more you understand the specifics of the topic, the better you can appreciate its unity. Those who have had negative experiences “digging into” literature have simply had poor teachers who have not successfully passed on the truth that in the humanities, we must comprehend what we read both inductively and deductively, and when a student is challenged to do this, he begins the process of independent thinking, of unifying his thought so as to see the poem as a powerful communicator of truths, both emotional and spiritual.
Let us take Robert Frost’s poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” as an instance of a poem which yields rich results when we “unpack” it rhetorically. Here is the poem:
“Nothing Gold Can Stay” ~ Robert Frost
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Frost is deceptive. He uses nature to write “beautiful” poetry, but upon examination, we find that his diction is complex, and if we are not extremely careful in approaching the poems, we will be led astray, rather like a detective who is distracted by false evidence, and thus misses the clues which will lead him to discover the true topic at hand.
Although he lived during the time of the development of modern poetry, or “free verse,” which abandoned traditional rhyme schemes and meters, Frost despised this movement. He famously quipped that writing free verse is “like playing tennis with the net down.” In other words, without the rules, there is no poem, no way to create a work of value and structure. Thus, Frost’s poetry is traditional, but deceptively so because of his informal diction; he appears to be holding a conversation with us over the backyard fence or a cup of coffee, when in fact he is always giving us fresh assessments about life and the world, and our relation to it as humans.
After reading the poem out loud, we establish the rhyme pattern. (For those already familiar with these basics, please forgive this brief review.) The rhyme pattern is that referred to as “couplets,” as two consecutive lines rhyme before moving on to the next set of two. Always use lower case letters to show a rhyme pattern, as shown at the end of each line. Frost’s is traditional here, as always:
flower/hour b (skip the “er” in flower, and read it in the 19th century way, as “flow’r”)
leaf/grief c day/stay d
We engage next with the meter: The rhythm of the poem. Each syllable is stressed or unstressed in our natural speaking manner, creating the “patterns” we know as “meter.” The first and last lines do not line up with the meter of the rest of the poem; lines 2-7 are strictly iambic, but the first and last lines are not. Iambic meter means that the first syllable is stressed, and the second is not. There are two syllables in each “iamb”; each “iamb” is called a “foot.” A poet may have as many “feet” in a line as he chooses. Frost chooses to have three in his lines here, so this is called iambic trimeter.
But let’s get back to the intrigue of those first and last lines not being iambic. Why? The lines have more stressed (emphasized) syllables in them than the iambic lines. When a poet uses stressed syllables in this manner, he is drawing the reader’s attention to these lines. Frost wants us to notice these first and last lines because they are communicating his theme. Additionally, he uses alliteration to pound home the stress: the hard “g” sound in “green” and “gold” wakes us up. Let’s look at the first line:
The emphasized (stressed syllables) are shown in capital letters:
NAture’s first GREEN is GOLD.
Nature, green, and gold are emphasized. We get it that this poem is about nature. But—is it? Why is nature’s first green also gold? Is that true? Nature’s first green is actually in spring. How can green be gold? The leaves turn gold in the fall, right before they die and fall off. So even in the first line, Frost is presenting us with a dilemma—a quandary. Let’s go on and see if we can find some explanation in the next three lines:
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Gold is the hardest hue (color) to retain. Why? – because the leaves are dying. While the shimmering gold leaf is the height of beauty, it is also bittersweet; it is a sign of impending death. So, this poem might not be about how beautiful nature is; it might be about something else, such as, perhaps, that death is inevitable. And, not only is death unavoidable: importantly, life’s climax, this nadir of perfect glory, is fleeting, and even as the leaves enjoy their golden glory, they are moving towards death, as we are.
The next line is tricky, but is a continuation of his now clear theme, that life is temporal, and we are all on a journey towards death:
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
The question here is: What does “subsides” mean, in context? It can mean lessen, become less severe, etc. We can discover what Frost means by paraphrasing some: As it dies, one leaf gives way to another leaf which will spring fresh in spring, green and bright. A leaf dies, but it is replaced by another, new leaf: the cycle begins again, and the process repeats itself each year. That’s fine, but – didn’t we already know that? Frost was just laying the groundwork: now he goes on to zing his point home in the last three lines, explaining all in the poem’s “shift”:
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Most poems have this “shift”- a point where the author surprises the reader somehow as he changes his viewpoint; it might be a minor twist, or it might be a big one. It’s minor in this poem, if you’ve been paying close attention. Paraphrased, the first of these lines says,
“In the same manner, death came into the world through the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.” The allusion to Eden encapsulates much, but it’s key to understanding the poem; “thus death came into the world,” as the New Testament says. Notice the word “sank” in the phrase “sank to grief,” which implies that originally, the progression to death did not exist. There was a better world, but we do not live in that world. We must accept not only the mortality of nature in general, but our own mortality.
Although Frost is not religious, he relies heavily upon this Judeo-Christian understanding of the nature of humanity: death entered into the world, and it is inevitable. Think about the line
So dawn goes down to day
Here is another quandary. Shouldn’t dawn be the beginning of day; don’t we say that the sun comes “up”? Isn’t it sunset that goes “down”? Why does dawn go “down” to day? You may already see the answer: because dawn brings forthanother day, time has progressed. The dawn goes “down” not only because it disappears as day springs forth, but because it is another harbinger, a marker on the march of time towards death.
The poem concludes with a strong accent on the word “nothing,” which we now understand much more clearly than we did when we read it as the title:
NOTHing gold can stay.
The unspoken messages are now clear: life is precious, but transient, and we should value every minute, for we do not know when the golden leaves of our lives will drift into eternity. Nature’s first green is gold because the very start of life (spring, green) is also the beginning of our journey towards death—we eventually become “gold,” when we reach our maturity, and then will soon pass from this life to the next. We may or may not believe in the biblical explanation for the brief nature of our lives, but we know that its point is true. And, he implies, if we accept this reality, we will have a better chance of appreciating the life we experience here, before we “shuffle off this mortal coil.”
That demarcation line between sunshine and shade,
Dividing the fog of breath from the still of death,
Is where I sometimes exist.
Shadows slip inside and encapsulate;
They know the dark.
But high places beckon, and like a Narnian ghost
I welcome that which is beatified~ even the shadows.
(Originally published in the May, 2011 Epistula, Veritas Press Publishing Company)
We all know the following Mother Goose rhyme: Jack be nimble / Jack be quick / Jack jump over the moon. Wait! Something’s wrong here. Wasn’t it the cow that jumped over the moon? Indeed, nursery rhymes sound the depths of our childhood experiences, but they serve as far more than fond memories. The nursery rhyme has been a training ground for English speaking children for the past 400 years or perhaps longer. Mother Goose was the first “holistic educator,” because nursery rhymes teach to every aspect of a child’s nature: sensory, physical, cognitive, and moral. We can say with assurance that Mother Goose was far ahead of her time.
The mythical figure of Mother Goose is usually depicted as a crone who presides over the treasury of English nursery rhymes which has evolved over past centuries. The earliest reference to her is in a collection of French stories in 1650, but the name came into its current usage in 1780 after a British publisher adopted it in reference to a “compilation of traditional English nonsense songs and rhymes.”[i] The tradition of Mother Goose was carried across the pond to the American colonies, where she has steadfastly remained the reigning denizen of early childhood literature. There are several reasons for the unwavering popularity of her verse; investigating them gives insight not only into the poems, but into the nature of children, and more specifically, into the ways in which children can and should develop.
The first and most important function of the rhymes is that their insistent sing-song rhythms immerse the very young in the cadences of the English language. The rhymes prepare inexperienced ears to recognize not only specific words, but entire phrases, laying down the neural pathways for children to aurally receive, process, and finally, organize the more detailed, chaotic information which will soon bombard them as they grow past toddlerhood and move into the world of cognition and reason. Take the well-known Here We Go Round the MulberryBush—this ditty repeats the phrase “the mulberry bush” three times within four lines, with each repetition varying the tune and pitch slightly. Why? By retaining the same words while slightly altering the tune and placement on the musical scale, the phrase takes the child incrementally from the “known” to the “unknown”—this is foundational to the way that we learn. As they chant, the children run around an object, developing physical abilities in tandem with tonal memory. The content of this rhyme is irrelevant, but the repetitive nature of the words, with their sing-song lilt, provides children with a now-familiar milieu in which to learn; their auditory world becomes a known haven which yields a sense of security through its limited phraseology and repetition, while acting as a vehicle through which they refine their ability to distinguish differences in sounds.
The rhymes also provide children with information about the world around them. Mother Goose “educates” by creating touchstones for their expanding minds. For instance, many are about foods in the household. “Pat-a-cake” explains the baker’s wares; “Little Jack Horner” glorifies the Christmas plum pudding (and Jack’s thumb!); silly Jack Sprat and his wife exemplify fat and lean; the “little piggies” go to market looking for roast beef, etc. Nursery rhymes also familiarize children with commonplace items in an entertaining manner. A cat plays a fiddle, a cow jumps over the moon, dishes and forks run away together . . . amazingly, this simple technique causes children to begin to make connections between and among objects, developing their analytical processes through the use of the furnishings of their everyday world.
Additionally, nursery rhymes serve to help children learn and appreciate humor, as in Sing a Song of Sixpence, wherein the king is served a blackbird pie in which the still-alive birds pop out of the crust singing. (Blackbirds were eaten as a gourmet item in earlier times.)
Or take Peter, Peter,Pumpkin-eater, in which Peter cannot “keep” his wife until he places her in a pumpkin shell (!). Learning humor is a crucial aspect of developing critical thinking, and helps children to learn to differentiate between various aspects of the world around them, as they note the contrast between the joke-rhyme and the real world it supposedly reflects.
Mother Goose rhymes also inculcate morals and rules in children by using a form which they will easily remember, as in this sardonic scolding of a child for his tardiness: A dillar, a dollar, a ten o’clock scholar! / What makes you come so soon? / You used to come at ten o’clock / But now you come at noon. Or this one: Seesaw, Margery Daw / Sold her bed / And laid upon straw. And we all know about what happened to Jack and Jill when they ran up the hill, and it wasn’t pretty! While some lessons Mother Goose teaches might seem grim to us (Ladybird, Ladybird, fly away home / Your house is on fire, your children all gone!) they were necessary helps to children of previous generations, who lived in a harsher environment where these admonitions were necessary. However, There’s a Neat Little Clock is charming even to the 21st century mind: There’s a neat little clock- / In the classroom it stands- / And it points to the time / With its two little hands. / And may we, like the clock, / Keep a face clean and bright, / With hands ever ready / To do what is right.
The riddle-rhymes push the envelope further: My favorite is As I Was Going to St. Ives, which is often used in first grade readers because it incorporates logic with arithmetic (or so it would appear):
As I was going to St. Ives I met a man with seven wives, Each wife had seven sacks, each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits: kit, cats, sacks and wives,
How many were going to St. Ives?
Do you know the answer? Actually, it is unclear. Perhaps only one person was going to St. Ives, since the speaker states in the beginning that he is going there. Or perhaps everyone is headed that way, including the animals. Then there would be 2,802—talk about a traffic jam! It’s even possible that the last line of the riddle is only asking how many of the party he met were going, and doesn’t mean to include him in the question, in which case it is possible that zero could be the answer. This rhyme is actually a form of a riddle from 1650, BC called The Papyrus Rind[ii]–what better way to introduce children to the vagaries of language than that of a timeless logic problem hidden in a nursery rhyme?
Mother Goose has remained with us these many centuries because she is worthy of the honor; she is a teacher par excellence, an iconic and insightful culture-bearer who inculcates deep lessons into our Western heritage. Let us adopt her and say wholeheartedly: Welcome, Thou Beloved Crone!