Bright Star by John Keats

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art—

   Not in lone splendor hung aloft the night,

And watching, with eternal lids apart,

   Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,

The moving waters at their priestlike task

   Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,

Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask

   Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—

No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,

   Pillowed upon my fair love’s ripening breast,

To feel forever its soft fall and swell,

   Awake forever in a sweet unrest,

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,

And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

1820

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We went over the poem in my 2850 Lit class. I like to think that Keats’s poem is an ode to his love and appreciation for the natural world. As a human, he can only appreciate nature for as long as he is living on this earth but he knows that before he was there, and after he is gone, the earth has and will continue to be there in all its glory. I believe that the “ripening breast” he refers to belongs to Mother Nature who he is in love with, and not a physical woman. He gazes upon the the star with jealous because the star, unlike him, lives forever and if he could be that star, he could love Mother Nature to no end and without having to experience the pain of losing her at death.   Comment by Jason Mei — March 13, 2011 @ 2:38 pm

 

This poem is an excellent read but the thing that I appreciate most about it, is how it shows the powerful connection between imagery and poetry. John Keats is a poet that uses personification and abstraction in a way that brings the reader these life-like images that tantalize the mind. The poem “Star Bright” above is just another example of his great work as it simulates the sense to picture this beautiful shining star just hover above the ocean. Just his mention of “the moving waters at their priest like task” creates such a powerful imagery. These images build up in your mind as you read the poem and with each acquired piece complete the scene. In this scene, Keats’s jealousy of nature is exemplified with his statement, “Pillowed upon my fair love’s ripening breast, to feel forever its soft fall and swell”. Reflecting on this poem his shows me that the weaving together of words, which create wonderful phantasmagorias, is what makes poetry such a beautiful art.   Comment by Joel R. Mcaulay — March 13, 2011 @ 3:38 pm

While Keats does gaze upon the star with envy, that envy in the second half of the poem surpasses. He begins to realize that though the star is “steadfast” he is as well however in a diverse way. While the star will forever endure, he will forever love and admire the world around him and, moist importantly, his lover whom is represented by the “ripening breast”. Said tp have been written to Fanny Brawne and during the time befor ehis death when he was aware of his fast approaching demise, Keats writes on the beauty of being able to experience love and how its joy surpasses that of living forever. The last line “and so live-ever or swoon to death” represent his embracing of death and rejection of the stars qualities. He is content dying with the love of his woman upon him.   Comment by Sofia Mogliazzi — March 13, 2011 @ 3:48 pm

sorry for all the typos :p  Comment by Sofia Mogliazzi — March 13, 2011 @ 3:49 pm

John Keat’s “Bright Star” is a visionary poem of how the world rotates at night, below the stars, as we humans live our lives and never notice the beautiful things of life. “The moving waters at their priestlike task / Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores”(Lines 5-6) this part of the poem expresses John Keat’s observation of how the world slowly moves at night, and how peaceful and quiet it is. There is also a mention of Death, and how it follows the reader’s life at night. “Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath / And so live ever-or else swoon to death” (Lines 13-14) these last two lines of the poem concludes that the reader’s lover is dead as the reader walks around at night under the bright stars.  Comment by Daniel Gonzalez — March 13, 2011 @ 3:53 pm

My interpretation of Keats’ “Bright Star” is a bit different than what has already been stated. In fact, I believe the “bright star” is used to symbolize himself a man infatuated with a woman. When he uses nature in the first half of the poem, I view it as his association of a woman’s beauty that is untouchable. Towards the end he describes actually being with the woman, and enjoying her company, in contrast to the lone star. In the last two lines “Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath, And so live ever—or else swoon to death.” When her breath is “tender taken” (or when she dies) he now will return to his admiration of her as the “bright star” and “live ever” or would gladly “swoon to death” to join her in an afterlife.  Comment by Betty Pabon — March 13, 2011 @ 4:20 pm

First, this poem and the imagery Keats uses is amazing. I love it! When I first read it I was only focused on his envy of the night; his envy for the lone star and the peace the night expresses. I felt like he yearned to be the star just so he can be at peace and admire all of the Earth’s beauty. Once I reread it a couple of times I thought maybe he was describing himself as the lone star watching over the earth; Maybe he was already in peace like the night was. He clearly expresses a love and admiration for a woman so he can be describing her as nature in the first half of the poem. He uses personification to describe what the lone star must feel for nature and compares it to what he feels for his lover. the 9th line “No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,” is him saying him and the star are one in the same. Its beautiful.  Comment by Crystal Martinez — March 13, 2011 @ 5:49 pm

Keats’ “Bright Star” is a beautiful poem. The way I perceive the poem is into two different context. First comes nature. In the first half of the poem all we read about is nature. Nature is seen from the eyes of a distant star. The star describes the unchangeable, beautiful nature starting from rivers to mountains covered in snow. Than the poet moves on to his lover. He describes a woman lying down in bed and slowly breathing. The poet accompanied by the star admires her peaceful sleep. The poet contrasts how the nature is unchangeable and immortal. It is always going to be there, beautiful as it is, for the star to look at her. But on the other hand is lover is mortal. She is going to die soon and her breath will slowly fade away. When this happens, Keats wants to die as well. He doesn’t want immortality if there is nobody next to him. He longs for this connection with his lover and seems to feel bad for the star all alone, far deep in the sky.  Comment by Xhana Metaj — March 13, 2011 @ 9:40 pm

I love John Keats’s poem “bright star” because he expresses his feeling of immorality by the bright stars in the sky. We see the stars every night and they look like staying there forever. John Keat wants to be the stars, too and lives forever. I like the way he decribes the stars–”steadfast”, “unchangeable”. Everyone wants to keep himself or herself lives forever and enjoy the beautiful world, just like the bright stars in the sky. One the other hand, we can understand the poem that John Keat is expressing his love to a girl. He is trying to say his love to the girl is unchangeable, he will keep his promise and love her forever.  Comment by Hongjie Pan — March 13, 2011 @ 10:04 pm

Absolutely lovely. I really admire how Mr. Keats personifies a star and practically worships it for its ability to look upon the earth from such a magnificent distance. A distance that allows it to see all the worlds beauties and natural wonders. He mentions his “…fair love” who I believe represents mother nature. The start is constantly looking upon mother earth and its unchanging wonders and Keats admire that ability as if he where admiring another persons quality. Bravo! I love how much passion I found in this piece.  Lynette Garcia  Comment by Lynette Garcia — March 14, 2011 @ 1:18 pm

Before I get started I would like to say that John Keats was an amazing writer!

Many of us know that Keats was very much attracted to nature in his poems, life, death, love, etc all could be taken from the world around him. I agree with many on this blog, Keats was expressing his desire for freedom from temporary existence; the eternal life is what he truly wanted. However, I don’t think he wanted to embark on that journey without his heart’s deepest need and desire, his true love. I feel that the line “No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,” is a turning point in the poem. Throughout the beginning of the poem Keats speaks of nature and its beauty, as if it is a distraction from more important things, his lover. The “No-yet” is as if Keats is attempting to snap himself out of the trance placed upon him from nature, the pulling desire for immortality filled with the love he experienced. I feel that Keats was attempting to say much more here, as if he needed only one thing, eternal love isolated from the rest of the world, much like a bright star above the world! Keats was trying to tell the world a very important message, no aid is required from the world to help a relationship, one of true love, along but the complete and unbreakable bond of two lovers. The way Keats expressed his dying love and devotion is breathtaking, I love it!!!!  Comment by Katie Daniels — March 15, 2011 @ 7:39 am

This poem by John Keats is excellent because shows a great example of the struggle a man can face with an eternal love during his limited life. One such as the speaker can love something indefinitely but be unable to express this great love with due to the time constraints of his life. It can hurt more to have the ability to do something without the opportunity than it will to have the chance with out the ability. Especially if this is pertaining to something as strong as love! Keats uses an incredible word choice to convey this message in this short sonnet.  Comment by Divynne Howard — March 15, 2011 @ 9:33 pm

This is how i feel in the morning after s..! He describes it in a most vivid way, but at the same time gives us something to which we could relate. His imagery and the way he approaches the apex of his point is brilliant. By the time we read the apex, we already tender with excitement about the memory it raised in some of our minds. J.K. is the man.  Comment by Tadas Valiukenas — March 28, 2011 @ 11:50 am

Bright Star, by John Keats, has a very bitter sweet tone. It sounds so beautiful when read aloud. Its like his heart is torn between wanting to be like the unchanging bright star and also wanting to be with his lover. In the first half of the poem, I think Keats clearly shows his desire to be like the star – “Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art.”He loves how the star is able to look down at the earth beauty for eternity and he envies it for that – The moving waters at their priestlike task Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—steadfast as thou art.” However, Keats also knowledges the consequences that comes with being eternal when he says the star is lonely. It does not matter how splendid the star may be, it is nothing if Keats does not have his lover by his side. That is why I believe the poem has a turning point – “No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable, Pillowed upon my fair love’s ripening breast, To feel forever its soft fall and swell…” Keats speaks of wanting to be with his lover forever but he knows it is impossible. He knows that he can never be steadfast and unchanging like the star so in the end, I feel like Keats realizes that the love he feels for his lover is eternal. Therefore, Keats accepts the thought of dying in a more positive way, indicating he would “swoon to death.”  Comment by Carolina Perez — March 29, 2011 @ 9:12 pm

I believe that Keats’ “Bright Star” is blatantly split into two different themes. My favorite part about this poem, however, isn’t regarding its context, but rather, its form. Keats uses visual tools in order to direct the reader. It is very obvious that Keats has divided the poem into two parts: the first being lines 1 through 8, and the second being lines 9 through 14. He clearly divides the poem by not only reusing the word ‘steadfast’ which sticks out to the reader, but also by using visual techniques to further express the idea that the poem is split into two parts. Keats ends line one using a dash (-), and also ends line 8 with another dash. This visual tool allows the reader to make a separation between the two parts of the poem. If we look between lines 1 through 8 we can see the theme of independence being expressed. Alternately, if we look between lines 8 and 14 we can see the theme of love being expressed. The poem is interesting in its context, but also, as you can see, in its form.  Comment by Ben Pare — March 30, 2011 @ 12:09 pm

The poem shows Keats love for both nature and a mysterious women. He seems torn about which one means more to him. His use of oxymorons shows his true uncertainty throughout the entire poem. On the last line, the phrase “swoon to death” shows the reader just how tough of a decision that Keats finds it to be.  Comment by Steven Greenberg — March 31, 2011 @ 3:18 pm

In his poem “Bright Star,” John Keats describes mentions love, nature and death. He describes a star that is steadfast. He describes nature as being patient and “sleepless Eremite”. He mentions a love for a woman and that he will either die or live by her. It seems like he is talking about eternity and his desire or love for nature or this lady. I think that this poem is beautiful to read and listen to. In my opinion, it has a peaceful tone of watching nature although it also mentions death.

Comment by Rabia Ari — April 13, 2011 @ 4:32 pm

Sleeping with the Dictionary by Harryette Mullen

Photo Credit: Judy Natal, 1995

Sleeping with the Dictionary

I beg to dicker with my silver-tongued companion, whose lips are ready to read my shining gloss. A versatile partner, conversant and well-versed in the verbal art, the dictionary is not averse to the solitary habits of the curiously wide-awake reader. In the dark night’s insomnia, the book is a stimulating sedative, awakening my tired imagination to the hypnagogic trance of language. Retiring to the canopy of the bedroom, turning on the bedside light, taking the big dictionary to bed, clutching the unabridged bulk, heavy with the weight of all the meanings between these covers, smoothing the thin sheets, thick with accented syllablesñall are exercises in the conscious regimen of dreamers, who toss words on their tongues while turning illuminated pages. To go through all these motions and procedures, groping in the dark for an alluring word, is the poet’s nocturnal mission. Aroused by myriad possibilities, we try out the most perverse positions in the practice of our nightly act, the penetration of the denotative body of the work. Any exit from the logic of language might be an entry in a symptomatic dictionary. The alphabetical order of this ample block of knowledge might render a dense lexicon of lucid hallucinations. Beside the bed, a pad lies open to record the meandering of migratory words. In the rapid eye movement of the poet’s night vision, this dictum can be decoded, like the secret acrostic of a lover’s name.

By Harryette Mullen

© New California Poetry, 2002

  • Alone, the title of this poem makes me smile. “Sleeping with the Dictionary” is a desire that attracts me. It is nerdy, sexy and loaded with layers of meanings. Once I hear the poem, it’s easy to see (to feel?) the layers within words. It is as if Mullen’s poem is calling attention to how we perceive words, not just what they mean, but how they sound, their rhythm: “A versatile partner, conversant and well-versed in the verbal art, the dictionary is not averse to the solitary habits of the curiously wide-awake reader.” The wordplay, sound play–even erotic play–she finds in the dictionary is astounding. In the poem, I see connections between everyday words and the erotic so that the wordplay, “I beg to dicker,” or the sound play “the perverse positions in the practice” makes “all the meanings between these covers” so very new. And remember, the speaker here is talking about her relationship with the dictionary.Comment by seversley — February 17, 2011 @ 5:47 pm
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  • Prof. Eversley’s emphasis on the erotics here is great, a useful corrective to my first read through the poem, which had picked up on some monastic imagery in the idea of “illuminated pages,” “solitary habits,” and even “retiring.” But the solitary habits don’t seem celibate, and the inspiration is not heavenly but rather the book itself, so I cast aside the image of poet-as-monk in favor of the masturbatory overtones. In this light, it seems apt that what turns the poet on is words about words, which seems like an auto-erotic concept.But I have questions here, too–the euphemism “sleeping with” implies both being asleep and not, a contradiction that’s here also in the way that the poet talks both about conscious and dreaming phases, in a progression that I can’t quite tease out and would love to see someone else attempt. And I’d love to see somebody talk about why this poem takes this form, which isn’t very traditionally poetic, is it?Comment by Mary McGlynn — February 18, 2011 @ 4:03 pm
  • Absolutely amazing. I love how she brings the dictionary to life as if it where a real person, aware of its surroundings. It’s as if it can move and think on its own. Definitely erotic in the way Mullen gives it the ability to weigh on her between the covers as she smooths out its thin sheet. The choice of words and the rhythm here make me feel like I’m reading through a romance scene between two people. I had to re-read it a couple of times to be able to fully appreciate it. Great choice.

    Lynette

    Comment by Lynette Garcia — February 24, 2011 @ 4:40 pm

  • To explain the versatility of this poem is impossible as it seems that it would take more than a lifetime to do. Because everytime that I read it I found yet another facet that I had apparently failed to see before. It is because of such that I feel like this poem can be taken so many ways.Literally, there is this image of a woman with an actual dictionary turning the pages, ‘learning herself to sleep’. Figuratively, I see another person next to her and then each verse becomes a euphemism for something else. Something my vivid imagination prefers to keep locked in the confines of only my mind. Which I suppose is best as now you will come to your own conclusion as to what each line means for you and perhaps in turn you will see more of your true character (and not simply the one you ‘profess’ to have).Comment by Melissa Swan — February 25, 2011 @ 1:45 pm
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  • Simply put, I am a fan. Reading this poem makes me smile and laugh with childlike intrigue and curiosity. The subtext is enjoyable and erotic. I truly appreciate the use of language and how it depicts the love a text as it would the love of man or woman. In my humble opinion, there can be no substitute for the real thing during a restless night; however, this beautifully written work of art that has in-twined such eroticism with the plan black and white, makes the argument worth having.Comment by craigthomas — February 25, 2011 @ 6:30 pm
  • I love this poem. In fact, I love this entire collection, this poet, the idea for this book. I agree with Professor Eversley’s notion of the combining of the “everyday words and the erotic”, and have really enjoyed all of these comments.What intrigues me most about this poem is Mullen’s decision with regards to form. I am a big fan of procedural writing and constraint-based writing–essentially creative work that is partially generated by chance. Mullen used some “oulipian” dictionary games to write these poems–I think she used the “n + 7″ one in particular–which just means that she took the nouns and randomly substituted them for other nouns 7 words later in the dictionary. But, the fact that this poem is able to generate so much conversation despite this chance composing technique is almost a testament to Mullen’s mastery. How can words manipulated, deleted, replaced still be so though provoking, still hold so much charged (perhaps even linear or narrative) meaning?I really like this quote from an interview with Mullen:
    “Dictionaries are attempts to identify or create standard usage and definitions, but of course the dictionaries don’t exactly agree among themselves. In disagreement there is tension, confusion, resistance, and conflict. But also in our disagreement, and in the way language disagrees with itself, there’s room for critical thinking, humor, and play.”I wonder what this idea of conflict and disagreement does to the poem and to the process (or reason why Mullen opted to use a procedural tactic) for the poem? I also wonder…why prose?

    Comment by Erica Kaufman — March 1, 2011 @ 12:17 pm

  • Prof. Kaufman is educating me about procedural writing here–wondering which are the n+7 words! I’m reminded of the way Stanley Fish had one class full of students analyze as a poem the words he left on the blackboard after another class. Does the way meaning gets retained here derive in part from prose syntax?Comment by Mary McGlynn — March 3, 2011 @ 10:48 am
  • I truly ingested this poem as I read it. Something I noted was the way that Mullen gives the mind a body of its own. To me the dictionary is sleeping with this woman’s mind; her brain is achieving the sexual climax that we assumed only the body was capable of. I love the ways in which Mullen detaches the actual body and the body created by the mind. One of the ways she accomplishes this is by having the dictionary’s natural genius as its most celebrated form of foreplay. Here is a line that stood out to me “the penetration of the denotative body of the work.” This line operates to dissect the actual body from the created body for the reader. The idea of penetration is normally one that we cannot have without automatically picturing animate things. But this is just pure notion, if you think about it, we “penetrate” a dictionary whenever we use one, we open and finger its packed pages and it responds by releasing knowledge by the pound into our minds.Comment by taniqua.brown — March 9, 2011 @ 9:19 pm
  • I have a secret admiration for my dictionary. I try to learn how I can woo him/her. I was so happy to see I wasn’t alone in
    my quest to plum the mysteries and the weightiness of my chock-
    filled companion. I immediately grabbed my dictionary with the
    word “hypnagogic” and had an Ahh moment to find this was the place between “wakefulness” and “sleeping”-the place I feel is
    most free to be a channel for art. I love her use of in between:
    “stimulating sedative” and “conscious dreamers.” And then the contrast of this floating state with the tangible physicality of “clutching” and “penetration.” And the dictionary’s “tossing words”
    on our “tongues” – thanks dictionary. I also dig the searching in the “dark” with the light on. The many meanings of dark – most importantly the brightness that comes from the discovery of a magical word.Comment by Carla Savoy — March 10, 2011 @ 1:21 pm
  • “The Flea” by John Donne & “Souvenir d’amité” by Denise Levertov

    Click here: The Flea by John Donne & Souvenir d’amite by Denise Levertov

  • Let’s be honest: romantic failure turns a lot of people into aspiring poets. You summon up the courage, you make a grand overture, you get rejected, and you think: what can I do now? I’ll write a poem about it! That will be my solace. Unfortunately, this particular form of inspiration does not always produce the most inspiring poetry–which is why, as a college student, after having written far too many poems about how sad and lonely I felt, I was thrilled when I first read Donne’s “The Flea.” Here is another poem about a spurned lover, but it’s witty; it’s precise; it’s devoid of self-pity. What better way to cope with rejection than to prove that you are smarter, more brilliant than the object of your desire?In stanza one, he makes his first attempt. He wants to mingle with this woman, but she is attached to her purity. He notes that they have both been bitten by a single flea; their blood is already mixed in the insect’s stomach; they’ve already exchanged fluids, as it were. Here he tries to diminish the significance of their coupling. It wouldn’t be a big deal. Nothing more than a flea bit. Why raise such a fuss? Notice, of course, that all of this is addressed to the woman; presumably she responds, but we get only his half of the dialogue, and so we have to guess that her answer is not all that encouraging. Perhaps she hasn’t found the comparison between sex and insect bites all that appealing. Perhaps his urge to trivialize the sexual act hasn’t exactly quickened her pulse. So, nimble-minded as the speaker is, he changes tactics in the second stanza. The flea, with their blood mingled, becomes massive, momentous; it now symbolizes their “marriage bed and marriage temple.” To kill the flea would be like murdering the speaker. The cavalier approach didn’t work, so the speaker becomes melodramatic, now seeking to magnify rather than diminish the significance of both the flea and his desire.Between the second stanza and the third, the woman responds, this time by crushing the flea—-an unequivocal sign. But the speaker is not defeated. First he admonishes her for spilling the “blood of innocence,” adding: “Wherein could this flea guilty be / Except in that drop which it sucked from thee,” which suggests either that the only innocent blood in the flea has come from the woman—-a rather devilish reminder that he, the speaker, is not innocent, or that the flea has acquired guilt from the woman herself. In other words, she’s not as innocent as she claims. In either case, he playfully reinterprets the woman’s rejection, and changes tactics again. You tried to murder me, but I didn’t die. Sometimes our fears exaggerate the consequences of our actions. Just as nothing happened to me when you killed the flea, nothing will happen to you if we succumb to our desires. You won’t sacrifice your honor—-in fact, you may not have had that much honor to begin with. Whether this final insult will serve to overcome the maiden’s defenses Donne leaves a mystery, but we realize by this point that sexual consummation may never have been the point; he obviously finds his own wit more titillating than anything his companion might offer him. Poetry serves for him, as it does for many of us, as a solace for his unsatisfied yearnings—-a solace so powerful that it has come to eclipse the very object of his desire.

    I’ve gone on a bit too long about Donne, so in discussing Levertov’s “Souvenir d’ amitié” I’ll just briefly note that the flea again seems to symbolize a kind of desired intimacy. The dog suffers “loneliness,” and so, presumably, does the speaker. Why do we own dogs? They bring us fleas; they destroy our property; we punish them. The love between us is fraught, in other words, with abuse. And when, after all, is love ever really free of this element? Indeed, Donne suggests the same idea with his gesture of seduction that becomes an insult. Nevertheless, we crave this love, even though we inevitably find the connections that we manage to achieve incomplete. In Levertov’s poem, she and the dog remain strangers, united only by their shared loneliness, accepting the warmth they can offer each other, since that’s as much intimacy as they can reasonably hope for. But here’s a question: why is there a such a difference in tone between the two poets? And how would we characterize that difference? Is this a product of when they wrote? Are certain emotions acceptable subjects of poetry in one era, but not in the other?

    Comment by Tim Aubry — November 4, 2010 @ 8:10 am

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  • I don’t feel quite so sorry for the speaker of Donne’s poem, who’s a pretty wicked guy writing in an era when personal hygiene was not a high priority and naked ladies are often depicted hunting for fleas on their bodies. In fact, there’s a long tradition of erotic poetry and painting featuring fleas, and Donne’s very knowing and elegant poem belongs to it.
    See, for example, the learned discussion in a master’s thesis about Georges De La Tour’s “The Flea Catcher,” which examines in that painting and many others the erotic and religious imagery that permeates Donne’s poem as well,
    http://etd.lsu.edu/docs/available/etd-04112007- 65514/unrestricted/Bergeron_thesis.pdf
  • and an entry from the Web site of the Dayton Art Institute on “The Flea Hunt,” another Baroque painting,
    http://tours.daytonartinstitute.org/accessart/object.cfm?TT=gt&TN=pps3&ID=84&COM=ac.

    In Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” (cited here from the Norton Anthology English Renaissance Drama, edited by David Bevington), which is probably roughly contemporaneous with Donne’s poem, the Seven Deadly Sins appear to Faustus. The first to speak is Pride, who appropriately expresses disdain for the murky surroundings of Faustus’s study:
    I am Pride. I disdain to have any parents. I am like to Ovid’s flea: I can creep into every corner of a wench. Sometimes like a periwig I sit upon her brow, or like a fan of feathers I kiss her lips. Indeed I do. What do I not? But fie, what a scent is here! I’ll not speak another word except the ground were perfumed and covered with cloth of arras. (2.3.110-15)

    Bevington’s footnote points out that a medieval poem “was falsely attributed to Ovid.” Catullus, another poet of ancient Rome, makes reference to a flea in a funny and scabrous poem in which he refuses a loan to a young man who seems to be the poet’s rival for the affections of another young man. In other words, fleas and bedroom activity go together, and one might ask how compromised Donne’s “innocent” young lady is already by being in a room with a man where there’s a flea in evidence. It would be interesting to meet the naïve and disappointed young lover who could summon up the mixture of blasphemy and wit that Donne’s “Flea” exudes.

    Levertov’s poem, by contrast, appears to be a genuine response to a moment of spontaneous doggy affection: poor Melanie, incorrigible, affectionate, and, unfortunately for the speaker (and to continue the outrageous appropriation of religious terms) far from immaculate.

    Comment by Paula Berggren — November 5, 2010 @ 12:47 pm

    Hi, all,
    Grace Schulman asked me to post this for her:

    Donne wrote some beautiful love poems, but this is not a love poem at all. No way. It’s a poem of lust, of desire for a pure, sexual conquest. The man is cool. He’s wily, canny, subtle, adroit at what he’s doing. Time is fleeting and so let’s enjoy ourselves while we can. He adjures his potential lover to “learn how false fears be,” and how “Just so much honour when thou yield’st to me, / Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from me.” What a player!
    Levertov, on the other hand, speaks for tenderness, loneliness and warmth. Which is the more appealing? Donne’s “The Flea,” with his rascal lover. That scoundrel wins my heart. Isn’t life like that? — Grace Schulman

    Comment by Ely Shipley — November 7, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

    Hi, all,
    Lauren Silberman asked me to post this for her:

    I’ve always loved how most of the action of Donne’s “The Flea” occurs between the lines—or at least between the stanzas. The garrulous would-be lover and the lady are sequentially bitten, the lady makes ready to swat the flea, then, despite the lover’s witty and elaborate pleas—WHAP. Donne is one of the great love poets who writes poems about being in love, in addition to arguably more conventional poems of seduction and frustration—“The Flea” is the latter sort of seduction poem, though not conventionally done. Petrarch’s Laura, who is figured as Diana to the poet’s Actaeon and then, in an act of poetic aggression presented as pre-emptive or retaliatory violence, has her name and body parts dispersed into Petrarch’s poetic conceits. In contrast, Donne’s lady bags her flea. Like so many objects of poetic longing, she is termed “cruel,” but at least she has something to show for it, if only a squashed insect. Levertov is more co-operative artistically with her fellow flea-bitten creature. Melanie chews up paper and the poet sees whole constellations. –Lauren Silberman

    Comment by Ely Shipley — November 9, 2010 @ 4:06 pm

    Interesting to read these two poems together. I especially like how Levertov defamiliarizes the eroticism that usually attaches to the flea image, offering the prospect of a mutuality severed from the need for seduction, yet ambiguous (ambivalent?) about what exactly is shared between the speaker and Melanie: loneliness, warmth, animal need.

    Comment by Sean OToole — November 11, 2010 @ 11:35 am

    Flea poems! Terrifying to read for someone who has survived bedbugs.

    Though a simple thing, a pest, the flea comes to mean very different things when handled by these two poets. In Levertov’s poem, the flea becomes associated and even interchangeable with rather opposite emotions—loneliness and warmth. The flea, taken as the sign of the dog’s “black humor,” is both funny and tragic. Such ambivalence or duality is reflected in the speaker’s relationship to her pet, to whom she is “a friendly stranger.” The flea, traveling from the dog to the pet-owner, becomes an appropriate symbol of the dynamic between the two. This is a problematic intimacy: the flea needs and lives off its host body, but irritates it.

    Professor Aubry astutely mentions that Donne’s flea seems to be a catalyst for a poem that masquerades as a love poem but that is really a celebration of poetic wit. “The Flea” makes some strange equations (“this flea is you and I”), some attempt at an argument that relies on a bizarre arithmetic that is characteristic of Donne’s poetry. Of course, the speaker’s logic or ability to posit a syllogism is not going to woo the girl, but he certainly has some fun in the mean-time, in some way as self-serving as the titular flea. Who would have thought that so much could be done with something apparently so uncomplicated?

    Comment by Matthew Sidney Jones — November 18, 2010 @ 12:22 pm

    My initial response seems to have raised the question of whether it makes sense to read “The Flea” as a love poem. Grace Schulman says no, absolutely not. Matthew Jones suggests that this is some other kind of gesture masquerading as a love poem. I imagined it, in fact, as a kind of revenge poem, a playful response to rejection, and whether or not this seems off-base, I would say that a central subject of the poem is the danger, but also the pleasure, of misreading. The speaker chooses to interpret the flea in a variety of different ways, several of them perverse, and thus he invites us to follow his act and make what we can (or what we want) of his flirtatiously enigmatic gestures. He assumes so many different poses in just twenty-seven lines that in a sense he becomes, like all good seducers, whatever we want him to be. Is the speaker after love or just sex? The obvious answer seems to be the latter. But don’t most successful players operate by tricking their addressees into confusing the two? The speaker certainly uses the language of love at times—-and while we might read it as callously ironic, the most powerful ironies almost always work through a kind of irresolvable ambiguity. Yes, he seems to be merely playing a game, but might this game not conceal real, heartfelt desire? As the great critic Leslie Fiedler reminds us, the earnest romantic and the sly rake often become difficult to distinguish in works of literature, just as love and lust can each pretend to be the other. Indeed, the speaker seems to be sufficiently slippery so that he would elude easy categorization. Strangely, even those who would deny that this poem is about love refer to him as a “lover.” And Grace Schulman goes so far as to admit that the speaker has “won [her] heart.” If we want to strip this scene of any trace of love, aren’t we simply trying to preserve a belief in love’s essential purity? But can we ever entirely disentangle love from the kind of sly gamesmanship on display in this poem? Not in my experience. Why, after all, is the speaker of Levertov’s poem so entirely alone—-neglected, relatively speaking, even by the contributors to this blog? She has no game, as it were, and thus she gets no love.

    Comment by Tim Aubry — November 19, 2010 @ 9:38 am

    Edward Hopper, Hotel Room, 1931 by Larry Levis

    Click here to read: Edward Hopper, Hotel Room, 1931 by Larry Levis

  • “Edward Hopper, Hotel Room, 1931” by Larry LevisEdward Hopper’s oil painting of a young woman alone in a hotel room with a piece of paper on her knees and her possessions in suitcases captures the lonely uncertainty of the early depression era. The year 1931 was an especially difficult one for the vast majority of Americans. Unemployment stood at 16% – on its way to a staggering 25% in 1933. Americans who still managed to hang onto their jobs often had their salaries slashed – sometimes in half. Bank failures numbered in the thousands, and countless Americans saw their entire life savings vanish almost overnight. Home foreclosures were rampant.

    From where does this woman in the painting by Hopper come? To where is she headed? The painting appears to be about a person in transit (and transition) at a historical moment when many Americans were being forced to abandon everything they had ever known. (Think of the Joad family in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.) Beyond this sketch, the meaning of Hopper’s painting remains ambiguous and mysterious.

    The poem by Larry Levis invents a story, filling in the painting’s many blanks. According to Levis, the painting concerns a woman whose mother has been committed to a mental hospital. The woman has come to sell her mother’s home and everything in it. Holding a check in her hands for the house and everything else, she plans to leave her hometown forever. At last, she has a chance to make a better life for herself.

    But having invented this tale, Levis lets it unravel. “No one” can know who this woman in Hopper’s painting is. She has remained “for forty years” – from the 1930s to the 1970s when Levis wrote this poem – both unmoved and unmoving. What had been elusive about the painting, and then imagined by Levis in his poem, returns to the unknowable. In this process, Levis acknowledges the pleasures – and limits – of imagination.

    ~ Michael Staub

    Comment by Michael Staub — October 16, 2010 @ 3:43 pm |Edit This

  • Thanks for your post, Michael. It shows how much can be gained from historical context, as well as what remains elusive about Hopper’s painting and Levis’s poem.The feeling of alienation in both of these works intrigues me. In the painting, this feeling is created by the use of queasy half-tones and an eerie off-centeredness, the woman’s body wedged into a corner of the narrow space and seeming to collapse in on itself. The poem registers alienation more complexly, through images of vulnerability and loss (the “flagrant” moths at the asylum, the reduction of the house to a satchel and a check resting on “bare knees”); words like “looking down,” “apart from everyone,” “sad,” “blank,” and “silent” evoking shame; halting rhythms and irregular pauses; and the indifferent, unrecognizing natural and human worlds of “Kansas” (the normative center?) from which the poem’s speaker imagines an escape for the woman before abruptly returning her, alone and still half undressed, to the hotel room.

    This woman seems alienated from herself, too, or at least from some ideal self-image. My eye keeps going back to the painting. Is this a woman? Her strong features — the angular, stubbornly “silent” face; the broad shoulders, drawn down and together “as if that could help”; the solid build — keep me looking. Is this, in part, why we’re told her body “fails,” because it does not communicate conventional femininity, a message that the “acceptable” shoes and “one good flowered dress” are to convey, ostentatiously, instead? Would this woman feel differently in good economic times or is part of what she is experiencing a difference, an apartness, based on gender?

    And then there is our own position as viewer-readers. These are incredibly intimate portraits, yet we are implicated as witnesses, voyeurs — invited into the scene directly in the painting, by the suggestion of a hallway in the foreground, and vicariously in the poem, through the speaker who describes and imagines for us. An especially interesting moment occurs in the poem’s second stanza, where the detached, objective report of the poem’s opening lines shifts into a more personal, subjective mode — “it feels like,” “I can imagine” — and the third-person “she” becomes the more intimate “you.” The experience of looking at the woman’s silent face, “more silent than this painting, or any / Painting,” brings about this change of perspective: “it feels like the sad, blank hull / Of a ship is passing, slowly, the stones of a wharf / Though there is no ocean for a thousand miles.” These lines, suggesting the slow work of inner experience and of seemingly impossible change, run counter to the stasis of Levis’s imagined, unknowable ending. They point to the possibility, at least, of a shift in awareness, if not for the woman in the hotel room then for us as readers. Drawn into the frame of the painting and the imaginary world of the poem, we are offered a space — awkward, disorienting, fitful — to locate our own thresholds, our own truths.

    ~ Sean O’Toole

    Comment by Sean OToole — October 20, 2010 @ 12:28 pm |Edit This

  • Tough acts to follow! I must warn you that this is an attempt at an intelligent reading of the poem, but I am probably only going to repeat what Professor O’Toole or Professor Staub have already said, only less eloquently.What most interested me about this selection of poetry is how Levis’s poem, as a piece of art, is about Hopper’s painting, another work of art. In this way it invites a comparison of different forms of art and an evaluation thereof, suggesting both the imaginative possibilities Hopper’s art affords (as the speaker tries to create a life for and a meaning of the anonymous female subject) and the parochial scope of such an imagination.

    In the painting, the woman is hardly different from the furniture, her sloping shoulders like the rounded bed-frame, whereas the poem emphasizes the woman within the work. When the speaker remarks that “her face, in shadow, / Is more silent than this painting,” she is divorced from the painting in which she figures, and we as readers must consider her separately: she is “someone” rather than a mere component of the artwork or paint on the canvas. The speaker gives her history – a mother kneeling in fumes who does not recognize her, a house to sell. The speaker aggrandizes her, associating her with migrations and landscapes: in her face can be discerned “the sad, blank hull of a ship”; the harbors of California are undressed, like her. She is thus not only a person, but a type of person; not just someone with a history, but an embodiment of history itself.

    Yet the impulse to give some humanity and importance to the artistic subject is not without its perils. The present tense, the abrupt pronoun shift from the third person to the second person (from detached description to apostrophe), and the syncopated and fragmented quality of the poem (particularly visible in the second stanza’s first sentence) bespeak both the urgency and the difficulty of the task. The speaker admits the limitations of his imagination as he conjures up her past: “I can imagine only Kansas.” The speaker must return her, ultimately, to the painting, static and unknowable: she “never moved…kept on sitting.”

    The speaker’s desire to make a history for her or to read history onto her seems to fail. Yet the a priori terrifying note on which the poem ends, the fact that “no one…knows why you’ve kept on sitting there,” is also an empowering testimony of the value of Hopper’s painting: many interpretations are to be had from the painting, not just one. Levis thus gives us an example of how to experience art, however terrifying or unmanageable that experience might be, and gives us that same liberty when we read the poem in its own right, as a work of art.

    Comment by Matthew Sidney Jones — October 22, 2010 @ 9:56 pm |Edit This

  • What a great start to this blog!Reading through Michael, Sean, and Matthew’s posts, I’m struck by their shared interest in the possibility of change, which figures as “movement,” or progress. Michael sees the poem’s imagined narrative as “unravel[ing]” or undoing itself in the end. Whatever imaginative flights of fancy our engagement with this painting (or any painting?) may inspire, in the end its subject must remain “unmoved and unmoving.” Sean takes a different approach. In the battleship mentioned at the center of the poem, he sees a reference to “the slow work of inner experience and of seemingly impossible change.” Yes, the woman in Hopper’s painting remains static and unknowable, but the experience of viewing her offers us “the possibility, at least” of a change in ourselves, of progress toward greater self-knowledge or self-awareness. Both interpretations make sense, since as Matthew points out, they reflect some of the different ways in which we engage with works of art. But reading these posts together made me notice something I hadn’t seen in the poem — its spatial, almost geographical understanding of time.

    Someone once told me that fugitives in the U.S. nearly always head west. They can’t help it. We associate the West so strongly with freedom, with escape, that its pull becomes irresistible. There is something of that spatial yearning in Levis’s poem. The woman looks down but is inwardly gazing west, “think[ing] of curves, of the slow, mild arcs/Of harbors in California: Half Moon Bay,/Malibu.” She sees the “beaches that stay white/Until you get there” waiting elusively just out of reach. But the beaches are temporally as well as geographically distant, hovering on the other side of “until.” The westward journey she imagines taking, but can’t, reminds us of the temporal one she is forever forced to undergo, which she will never finish: “sitting here for forty years — alone,/Almost left out of the picture, half undressed.”

    And yet, look at what happens to time in the poem: a “young woman” in the opening stanza, she is “only thirty-five,” by the fourth, which “is not too old to be a single woman”; by the close of the poem, it is “now…too late.” What has happened? It is as if time is speeding up, and “the young woman” is aging before our very eyes. This is exactly what does not, what cannot, happen to the woman in Hopper’s painting, who remains forever the same age. Nor does it really happen to the woman in Levis’s poem, who stays seated in the same spot from beginning to end, going nowhere. It is Levis’s speaker who has undergone the progress — temporal, imaginative — the poem describes; or, more precisely, it is the readers of Levis’s ekprhasis.

    This brings us back to the commenters’ claims about art’s ability to alter or “move” us. Whether or not we decide to engage in the imaginative, self-reflective work the poem invites us to perform, I think that Levis’s poem reminds us we are all inevitably moving forward. Time presses on with the relentlessness of the train the woman does not board. In Hopper’s painting, the woman stays seated, hunched over on the bed in the same place. We continue to travel west.

    Comment by adeutermann — October 23, 2010 @ 12:11 pm |Edit This

  • Such insightful comments!
    I read the poem and inspected the painting and I could not help thinking that I have seen this picture, and that the poetry lines are familiar. I googled Larry Levis to see who he is or was, then I googled Edward Hopper to see why he would paint something like the Hotel Room. I however quit my search to see what they meant by their works, so to give me more room to explore what their works bring to mind. I found my self on a similar bench to the previous astute commenters. Art does indeed have manipulative powers.I stare at the painting and the poem and I could only ignore the times in which they were produced and not care to relate to what ever purpose they were meant for. I only applaud the painting’s and poetry’s ability to speak to this time, and most importantly to address me.

    I believe we all find paintings and create for them our own stories. Yet, we are paintings ourselves. And others look at our images and imagine what our stories are. Most importantly, we spend an exuberant amount of time to decide what our stories are. We dream of the best places in which our exhibitions will shine, and with these dreams we seek to build the foundation to help stabilize a realistic form of them. Crawling through trials and errors, experiences and observations, we sometimes reach our best places of exhibition where we will happily fit in.

    Yet, before we reach our potentials, we are usually harassed by the fear of how far…a satchel, a pair of black, acceptable / Shoes and one good flowered dress” will go, and we do realize that it is too late to go back home, because our mothers would fail to recognize us and therefore fail to know how to comfort us. When we fail to reach our full potentials, we realize that it was too late from the beginning; we never had the chance to beg the painter to paint us in a different way.

    So we are indeed stuck with the “…check / Between (our) hands and (our) bare knees…” And we must muster the bravado required to go as far as we can with our lot.

    Comment by Jane Odartey — October 25, 2010 @ 6:26 pm

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