Poetry Analysis: Essay Four [22 out of 25, 2000/2001]

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Chris Larham’s essay on Kubla Kahn, Dover Beach, and Spellbound (22 out of 25, 2000/2001) can be opened in a print-friendly text document format here
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1a.) Read Kubla Khan (extract) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Comment in detail on the way a particular place is described in the poem.

{Essay CONTENTS: Warrior as descriptive vehicle; Alliteration; Assonance and consonance; Sibilance; Lexical choices; Personification [landscape’s mood swings]; Personification [landscape’s life-giving property]; Personification [sexual imagery]; Kubla Kahn conclusion; Jump to essay 1b.).}

Samuel Taylor Coleridge uses ‘Kubla Khan’, an ancient warrior, as the vehicle through which the description is relayed in the poem (similar to the ‘traveller from an antique land’, which Shelley employs in Ozymandias); it was Khan who did ‘decree’ this particular place.[^]

Coleridge employs an extensive alliterative network- incorporating many linguistic techniques- in the description of “A stately pleasure-dome”, situated in “Xanadu”…

…Examples of alliteration are abundant throughout this self-referential poem, dome decree… sunless sea… sunny spots”.[^]

Assonance can be seen in “Xanadu… Kubla Khan…”, whilst consonance is demonstrated by, “Xanadu did… sacred river ran”.[^]

The sounds are selected for a purpose; the repetition of ‘s’, “measurelesssunless sea”, gives us a feeling for the sensuous nature of the landscape. Phonetic similarity is a major feature of this description.[^]

Coleridge’s choice of lexis enforces the dynamic, ever-changing movement of the place, “…the sacred river ran {fast}down to a {downward movement}sinuous {meandering}which slanted down {downward movement again}A mighty mountain momently was forced {upward movement}swift {fast} half-intermitted burst {spluttering action}Huge fragments vaulted {outward motion}Five miles meandering {slow, relaxed}mazy motion {giving the impression of the river sidling along its twisty path}And sunk, in tumult {ferocious, commotion, fighting connotations}Floated {slow, contented last action}”.[^]

Coleridge personifies the place, demonstrated as the landscape appears to have mood swings. This is reflected in the movement and the sudden changes in the landscape, “sunny spots of greenery/A savage place!” Contrasts underline the discontented landscape theme, “enfolding sunny spots of greenery”/ “chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething”. The scenery appears to be ever-changing because it’s searching for something better than that which is on offer.[^]

Through using certain verbs and adjectives, Coleridge enforces the idea of personification. “… the sacred river, ran…” is an example where the verb appears to personify the landscape; the suggestion being that the river has an arterial, bloodstream, life-giving property. The adjective “sinuous”, again has human qualities, reflecting the life of the place…[^]

…Personification can be seen to continue with the covertly sexual imagery that Coleridge employs. Not only is it a “stately pleasure-dome… a miracle of rare device”, there is a “deep romantic chasm”, with a “woman wailing for her demon-lover”, and movement to the effect of “ceaseless turmoil seething”, followed by a “mighty fountain”, that was “momently… forced”, that emitted a “swift half-intermitted burst”, before the action starts to calm down; obvious sexual connotations continuing the personified theme.[^]

In conclusion, Samuel Taylor Coleridge uses many linguistic features to describe the landscape in the poem Kubla Khan. Ideas are developed throughout the poem (for example, personification); the poem is overtly self-referential in phonetic terms; words are carefully selected for their intended purposes; and poetic features add to the overall effect of the poem. In the space of a few lines, Coleridge manages to incorporate many literary and linguistic techniques with great success. {But for the ‘person from Porlock’…}[^]

1b.) Look at two other poems which describe a place. Showing awareness of the contexts of the poems, analyse the literary and linguistic techniques used to communicate ideas in the poem.

{Essay CONTENTS: Dover Beach: context; Viewpoint; Past and present tense usage; Places as vehicles for underlying messages; Literal and metaphorical ‘sea’; Pebble metaphor; Arnold’s changing outlook [positive – negative]; Caesura usage; Iambic metre; Dover Beach conclusion; Spellbound introduction; Present progressive tense – witchcraft theme; Atmosphere and tension; Semi-colon usage; Purgatory symbolism – colon usage; Stanza construction – rhyme scheme – ballad form; Arnold and Brontë – conclusion; Jump to essay 1.a).}

In writing Dover Beach at the time of the European religious revolution, Matthew Arnold not only succeeds in describing a place, he comments on- and describes- several abstract, philosophical ideas.[^]

Arnold appears to be writing from a viewpoint where he can see the beach and the surrounding scenery, without actually being a part of it.[^]

Two tenses are employed in the poem {past and present}, with definite changes in the stanzas where the technique is employed. These contrasts help to distinguish the ideas, “Sophocles long ago {past}and flow/Of human misery; we/Find also {present}…” The semi-colon is used to link the two ideas; the past and the present.[^]

The places he describes in the poem appear to be a vehicle for his subtle, underlying messages…

…For example, “on the French coast the light/Gleams and is gone {illuminated by the explosion of military armoury}”, begins a war-like lexical set which continues with, “you hear the grating roar/Of pebbles {bomb sounds}Begin, and cease, and then begin {the repetitive nature of the landscape is used as a metaphor for the never-ending, disheartening nature of war}Where ignorant armies clash by night” {a poignant societal comment; not only is Arnold saying that wars are meaningless, he apparently dismisses the trivial, petty battles that people engage in everyday}.[^]

Arnold uses the sea in many contexts. For example, there is the literal sense, “The sea is calm to-night… Sophocles long ago/Heard it on the Aegean… distant northern sea”, used to describe the scenery, whilst a metaphorical, “Sea of Faith”, is alluded to, along with the, “turbid ebb and flow {using words from the sea movement lexical set}/Of human misery”.[^]

The pebble can be seen as a metaphor for human lives; just as “the waves…fling” the meek, passive pebbles, so we have little control over our own lives in the wider scheme of things. Things will happen in all our lives- such as (near-)fatal illnesses to loved ones, that can strike at any time- which make you realise just how fragile we really are (and suddenly football isn’t as important as it once was)…[^]

…I believe that Arnold experienced one such life-changing event. This is demonstrated in his melancholic outlook on the world; something appears to have made him reconsider what he once held true. “The Sea of Faith {both personally and others’}/Was once, too, at the full… But now I only hear/Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar…”, is an example of a dramatic change in perspective. “for the world, which seems/To lie before us like a land of dreamsvariousbeautifulnew,/Hath really neither joy… love… light… certitude… peace… nor help for pain”, is another illustration of the way his perception of a once beautiful world has become darkened; it is now a “darkling plain”.[^]

Arnold draws on both personal experience, and a wider, historical perspective in his relation of the landscape and his feelings. A good example of where the two are mixed to good effect is the caesura of line eighteen, where historical and personal bleak outlooks on life are joined through the use of a semi-colon, “Sophocles long ago… Of human misery; we/Find also[…]”. Life appears to have become a monotonous, meaningless, unhappy journey for him {as it did for many people previously}.[^]

From lines 30-36, a certain iambic metre is employed to describe the uncertainty of the world. Not only does this form lend a credible air to Arnold’s declarations, it contrasts starkly with the way that things can never be all that they seem.[^]

In conclusion, Matthew Arnold uses many linguistic and literary features in this poem, while the landscape he describes is a metaphor for conveying his disillusioned feelings. A powerful, moving poem, the message appears to be that loving one another is the only comfort, “Ah, love, let us be true/To one another!”, in an otherwise gloomy world; don’t look outwards for happiness – only through introspection, finding ourselves and one another, can we ever hope to stave off abject depression.[^]

In contrast to the dismal and disappointing world that Arnold sees, Emily Brontë describes a captivating, yet frightening, place in her poem Spellbound.[^]

Using the present progressive tense, Brontë relates a seemingly unpleasant place- but one which she cannot leave-, in the first stanza: “THE night is darkening round me,/The wild winds coldly blow… And I cannot, cannot go.” She is compelled to stay there, bound by “a tyrant spell”. An idea of witchcraft develops here, which is continued with the mysterious, enchanting descriptions of the place in the following stanzas…[^]

“The giant trees are bending/Their bare boughs weighed with snow;”, further adds to the scary atmosphere of the mystical, abstract landscape that Brontë describes to us. “The storm is fast descending,/And yet I cannot go”, gives the impression that a part of her is desperate to leave, but she simply doesn’t have the ability to move; this increases the tension of the poem.[^]

The first two stanzas follow the same pattern of a semi-colon linking the first two lines with the closing two.[^]

“Clouds beyond clouds above me,/Wastes beyond wastes below”, is a description that has several connotations, and could be interpreted in a number of ways. She could be saying that she is floating, thus relating a bird’s eye view of the scene. However, as Emily Brontë was writing in a time when religion was of extreme, everyday importance, it’s possible that she is in ‘purgatory’, with the ‘Wastes’ symbolising hell, and the ‘clouds’ symbolising heaven. Caught between the two, yet “nothing drear can move me:/I will not, cannot go”; she will not be forced into making a firm decision about whether to go to heaven or hell. The (previously unused) colon, joining the third and fourth lines, means the closing declaration has an emphatic, steadfast effect.[^]

Each of the three stanzas is merely one sentence long, giving a trance-like feel to the poem. She is under higher orders which must be obeyed, it appears. The rhyme scheme stays constant throughout, ‘abab’ in each stanza, as the poem employs a ballad form.[^]

In conclusion, Emily Brontë‘s world is one of mystical, compelling uncertainty; one which she will not leave. Matthew Arnold‘s world is full of bleak, depressing uncertainty; one that he would appear glad to leave. Brontë’s landscape is ambiguous- as is the viewpoint from which she is speaking- and it appears to be a relatively shallow piece, whereas Arnold’s world is described more thoroughly, using concrete images to convey his inner angst and beliefs; thus, it is a deeper, more philosophical poem. Both poems exemplify effective linguistic and literary technique usage.[^]

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34-year-old father of three wonderful children [William, Seth, and Alyssa]. Works as an Assistant Technical Officer in the Sterile Services Department of Treliske Hospital, Cornwall. Enjoys jogging, web design, being a bit of a geek, and supporting Arsenal FC. Obtained a BA degree in English from the University of Bolton in 2008, and has continued to gain qualifications in a diverse range of subjects thereafter.

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Posted in AS Level English [A1]

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