The themes of love, life, death, and belief are commonly discussed in poetry, and people are free to expand their own opinions and judgments. One of the main reasons for poets and poetesses to choose these concepts is their emotional complexity. These issues can be easily coupled with each other and provoke new interpretations of human relationships. Each poet is able to create a wonderful world, with its rules and impact. The theme of love can be developed in a variety of forms, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning introduced her “How Do I Love Thee?” with the help of perfectly combined metaphors, imagery, and other literary devices. Death causes multiple reactions, and Ben Jonson relied on his personal experiences and memories while writing “On My First Son”. Life is never simple, and Marge Piercy discovered one side of human life with high expectations in “Barbie Doll”. William Blake succeeded in the evaluation of the concept of God in “The Lamb” through personification and strong symbolism. In this paper, four poems will be analyzed by studying how the authors used tones, symbols, and figures of speech to strengthen their ideas and messages.
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Importance of Themes and Literary Devices
There are many ways for students to improve their creative thinking and literacy, and one of them is to read and analyze poetry. According to Timmermans and Johnson, poetry defines how people could use their background knowledge and develop personal sensory connections, in either writing or reading (362). Compared to novels and short stories, where plots and the identification of the main characters or settings play a crucial role, poems are based on human emotions and their interpretations. Therefore, the use of correct literary devices contributes to the creation of a strong and memorable poem. There are many techniques that could impact the way of how a poem is presented and understood, including metaphors, allegories, symbols, rhymes, and alliteration. When writing about love, poets and poetesses like to use as many metaphors and allegories to demonstrate their personal vision of the topic. Death is a complex concept, and its impact on people provokes implementing allusion or alliteration to hide the actual meaning. Life and God concepts are promoted regarding the environment and cultural background. Each device has its purpose and specific characteristics that strengthen the author’s message and theme.
Barrett Browning and Her Love Theme in “How Do I Love Thee?”
Love is probably one of the most multifaceted emotions a person can have. Some people believe in it and spend days, months, and years to find their true love and enjoy its impact. There are individuals who do not pay much attention to this feeling because it has lost its uniqueness once. However, no one should dispute the fact that love has a variety of forms, including parental love, naïve child emotion, obsessive affection, or self-love. In 1845, Elizabeth Barrett Browning created the 43rd sonnet of her collection of Sonnets from the Portuguese known as “How Do I Love Thee?”. To understand the themes of the poem, one should remember some biographical aspects of Barrett Browning’s life. She was raised in a wealthy family and got an education at home. Her father had a serious impact on her life and career. When Elizabeth met her future husband, she knew that she could hardly get approval from her father, and the couple kept their relationship secret for some time. The result of their love affair was not only a marriage and a child but one of her most powerful poems.
People are free to develop their own ways on how to love and sharing their emotions. Fourteen lines were necessary for Barrett Browning to explain what love meant to her and how she expressed her feelings to one beloved man in a pure and selfless tone. In the first line, the poetess posed one of the most provocative questions about love, “How do I love thee?” (Barrett Browning 936). This phrase sounds like a challenge for the author and the reader to find out some common thoughts and attitudes. At the same time, the use of anaphora (the repetition of the word “love”) helps to clarify the goals of writing. It is not hard to understand that Barrett Browning wanted to discuss the idea of love, a feeling that one person experiences in regard to another person. However, it is not enough for the author to give some dry or frequently applied definitions. Therefore, she combined several literary devices with her real personal emotions.
Love described by Barrett Browning is passionate and deep due to properly combined hyperboles, similes, and metaphors. For example, she used actual parameters, “the depth and breadth and height,” to demonstrate the truth of her emotions. At the same time, she added a hyperbole “my soul can reach, when feeling out of sight” to amplify the worth of her words (Barrett Browning 936). The similes “as men strive for the right” and “as they turn from praise” also serve as a strong means to explain the reality of the relationships between a man and a woman (Barrett Browning 936). The author focused on the experiences people usually have in their everyday life to help the reader understand her message and choose the right insight. Finally, the use of metaphors contributes to the progress of human thought about love, passion, and life. For example, “sun and candlelight” replaces the idea of warmth and calmness, “with the breath” symbolizes life as it is, and “smiles, tears” remind about up and downs of people (Barrett Browning 936). All these techniques and words represent the author’s unique idea and place of love in human life.
Death Theme in Jonson’s “On My First Son”
Writing about death is never easy, especially if an author uses personal emotions and experiences. Even being aware of the fact that their parents are old or sick and could die soon, many children cannot accept this fact and feel anger, disappointment, and fear about losing people. However, the impact of death is hard to explain when a parent should bury their children. “On My First Son” is a poem written by Ben Jonson after his son’s death because of the Bubonic plague at the beginning of the 17th century. The elegy consists of 12 lines where the father describes his despair and the inability to accept his loss. In fact, the theme of death is usually represented in poetry, along with other crucial topics like love, loss, and hope. As well as Barrett Browning set the goals of her poem in the first line by asking a question, Jonson defined the scope of his writing as “farewell, thou child” (1118). After this appeal, it becomes clear that the poem’s tone is sad and heartwarming, with sincere grief, where the role of symbols and imagery cannot be ignored.
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Death is usually unexpected and cruel as it takes the lives of beloved ones. At the age of 31, Jonson lost his only son, Benjamin, who was seven at that moment. The illness took the boy, and the family was challenged by despair and “exacted by the fate” (Jonson 1118). As well as millions of people who face death, the author is overwhelmed with multiple emotions. First, there “was too much hope,” then “the state he should envy,” “flesh’s rages,” and “misery,” and, finally, the possibility to “rest in soft peace” was considered (Jonson 1118). All these stages are frequently discussed in modern psychology (like denial, anger, depression, and acceptance). The success of Benjamin in this poem is the lack of empty and unnecessary words. The theme is professionally revealed by mentioning the importance of hope, joy, and grief. It is hard to have the same feeling to the concept of death all the time, and this poem shows how feelings may be arranged.
There are several good examples of imagery and symbols in the poem. Imagery is the device that gives vivid examples and sensory images to deepen an understanding of the message. In the second line, Jonson said, “my sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy” (1118). The theme of sin and punishment is usually clear to people, and this image in the poem underlines a mistaken attitude of the author toward the life that was his. Besides, “seven years tho’ wert lent to me” is another imagery in terms of which Jonson tried to find out an explanation of why his son died and left him. Finally, a metaphoric symbol of a child as the “best piece of poetry” makes this work remarkable (Jonson 1118). He compared fathering with writing and proved that there was no poem in the world that could replace or explain his grief. In the end, he decided to remember his son and immortalize his image the same way authors used it for their works. Death is never the choice of a person, but it is always an independent solution on how to treat it.
Life Issues in “Barbie Doll” by Piercy
Poetry may be a strong weapon for people to shape everyday life and discuss the most crucial concepts. On the one hand, it is an opportunity to develop an understanding of burning issues, ask questions, and provoke the reader to focus on the chosen theme. On the other hand, the impact of poetry is hard to predict, and some poems can change human lives. Therefore, poets and poetesses have to think about how they introduce their works. The poem “Barbie Doll” by Marge Piercy is a story of a girl whose life is challenged and changed by social norms, high human expectations, and standards that matter. There are 25 lines that are organized in four stanzas of different lengths (5-6-7 lines) and a free verse form in the poem. In addition to evident symbolism and imagery, Piercy showed her mastery in combining metaphors, similes, and irony to set a definite reproaching and evaluating tone.
Any life consists of three main stages – birth, development, and death – and people are responsible for their achievements, abilities, and contributions. Almost the same idea of life was presented in “Barbie Doll,” with the only addition that included absurd expectations. Compared to previous poems about love and death, where feelings have strong backgrounds and explanations, Piercy wanted to explain that life is unpredictable. The girl “was born as usual” and got access to everything an ordinary person expects from life, including “miniature GE stoves and irons” and “wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy” (Piercy 1124). In the first stanza, the author used a number of imagery examples to help the reader understand the message and compare the offered setting with everyday routine. Then, attention was paid to the girls’ intelligence, health, strength, and “sexual drive” – the qualities that determine a normal person. All these symbols introduced a woman, with her role as a daughter, wife, and mother. The simile “like a fan belt” proves the importance of these responsibilities and the possibility to repair the woman like a tool in case something goes wrong.
One of the strongest literary devices in “Barbie Doll” is a synecdoche, a figure of speech where a part represents the whole. Piercy described the condition of the girl’s nose and legs several times. First, a classmate noticed her “great big nose and fat legs,” then, everyone focused on “a fat nose on thick legs,” and finally, “she cut off her nose and her legs” (Piercy 1124). Despite the fact that the main character is smart and capable, she cannot be perfect. This synecdoche underlines the ironic side of human life and the impossibility for a woman to recognize herself independently, neglecting ideals imposed by society. In many nations, the role of a woman remains unclear, and females are still dependent on men, with no rights to demonstrate their interests and desires.
It was necessary for the author to find out how society actually views a perfect woman. In the end, Piercy offers a brilliant but tragic answer where “in the casket displayed on satin she lay” with a “turned-up putty nose” (1124). To underline the irony of the situation, she calls it a “to every woman a happy ending” when all shortages are removed even at the cost of life. The poem shows how unfair and challenging human life is and makes the reader think if it is worthwhile to meet expectations instead of developing in regard to personal needs and abilities.
Worth of Religion in Blake’s “The Lamb”
Because of the lack of faith and the impact of the church in today’s society, the worth of religious poems is frequently discussed in the literature. Some people admire the intentions of poets to underline the importance of the expression of God. William Blake is one of the authors whose religious poem “The Lamb” is recognized as a remarkable and successful example of English literature. In discussing the role of God in human life, symbolism has to be an evident element in the poem. Blake described two main characters: a child, who symbolizes an imperfect but true believer, and a lamb that introduces an innocent creature, the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Curiosity, naivety, and education are the main characteristics chosen by the author to set the tone in “The Lamb”. The dialogue between the child and the lamb is developed in the form of questions as if the poet wanted to know the same from the reader.
With the help of several figures of speech, Blake examined the concept of God through the prism of his functions and contributions to society. “Feed by the stream & o’er the mead” is imagery that adds the depth of opportunities God provides to people (Blake 1024). “Thee clothing of delight,/ Softest clothing wooly bright” is a sign of care and protection that God offers to people. The synecdoche “such a tender voice” to make “all the vales rejoice” is used to show that God is also responsible for creating the qualities that attract and suit society. The repetition of some lines underlines the importance of certain themes like mystical knowledge of supreme power (“Do thou know who made thee”) and the worth of explanations and answers (“Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee”) (Blake 1024). The use of a child as a source of answers could also symbolize the immaturity and subjectivity of knowledge of humans about God and his powers.
In general, the use of different figures of speech and symbolism in poetry is a good opportunity for authors to examine the themes of love, life, death, and God from multiple perspectives. Each poem is a combination of metaphors, similes, imagery, and synecdoche, and it is an independent decision of every person on how to interpret messages and tones. Blake dwelled upon the concept of God and chose an educative tone and a symbol of innocence, the lamb. Barrett Browning focused on passion and individuality in love affairs. The experience of death was described by Jonson, using the elements of despair and sadness. The multiplicity of life predetermined by judgments and high expectations was discussed by Piercy through the prism of irony and metaphors. All these poems are hard to compare in terms of their themes and tones, but the use of literary devices is a common feature that proves the ambiguity of the chosen concepts.
Barrett Browning, Elizabeth. “How Do I Love Thee.” The Norton Introduction to Literature, edited by Kelly J. Mays, 12the ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2015, p. 936.
Blake, William. “The Lamb.” The Norton Introduction to Literature, edited by Kelly J. Mays, 12the ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2015, p. 1024.
Jonson, Ben. “On My First Son.” The Norton Introduction to Literature, edited by Kelly J. Mays, 12the ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2015, p. 1118.
Piercy, Marge. “Barbie Doll.” The Norton Introduction to Literature, edited by Kelly J. Mays, 12the ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2015, p. 1124.
Timmermans, Karren M. and Angie Johnson. “Introducing and Sustaining Close Reading and Writing Through Poetry.” The Reading Teacher, vol. 71, no. 3, pp. 356-362.