The following essay will analyze five poems: two from Emily Dickinson, one from Dylan Thomas, one from Langston Hughes and one from Gwendolyn Brooks. These five poems run the gamut of style, theme and imagery.
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Each poem has been chosen because it is indicative of a certain aspect of the poet’s work, and will be analyzed from the perspective of imagery, followed by a discussion of each individual poem’s theme. The poets themselves differ greatly in life experience and subject matter, all of which the reader sees reflected in this sampling of poetic works.
The poets have been chosen because they all created work that came from their personal experience and crafted it into poems that have stood the test of time and continue to be studied and interpreted years after their initial publication. The poems under discussion include Because I Could Not Stop for Death and Wild Nights_Wild Nights! by Emily Dickinson, Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night by Dylan Thomas, Harlem by Langston Hughes and We Real Cool by Gwendolyn Brooks.
Because I Could not Stop for Death by Emily Dickinson was chosen for this paper because it is the most famous and most successful example of her proleptic poems, wherein the narrator addresses the reader from beyond the curtain of death. Critics and biographers have attributed the impetus for the poem Because I Could not Stop for Death to the death of one of Emily Dickinson’s friends, Olivia Coleman, who succumbed to a tuberculosis attack while riding in a carriage in 1846 (Joyner 1).
After this event Emily Dickinson wrote to a friend named Abiah Root and remarked in that correspondence that she “almost wish[ed] there was no Eternity. To think that we must live forever and never cease to be” (Joyner 1). As many poets do, Emily Dickinson drew from her life experience to develop her work and the deaths of her family members and friends factor greatly in many of her poems as a result (Joyner 1)
The most arresting image in Because I Could not Stop for Death occurs in the stanza “Since then—’tis Centuries—and yet, Feels shorter than the Day, I first surmised the Horse’s Heads, Were toward Eternity” (Dickinson 2).
According to critic Nancy Joyner this stanza “might imply that the speaker is remembering the day of her death from beyond the grave, or that her escort has betrayed her by keeping her riding in limbo, or that she is expressing a death wish, or that she merely distinguishes between finitude…and timelessness, or that she finds the human’s lot of the realization of death to be so overwhelming that it makes time stand still” (Joyner 1). The multiple interpretations that this image supports speaks to the brilliance of Emily Dickinson as a poet.
The image itself is simultaneously chilling and compelling, largely because the narrator addresses the reader using the pronoun “I” (Dickinson 2). The narrator’s realization is made that much more personal and arresting using first person and the imagery “’tis Centuries—and yet, Feels shorter than the Day” places the poem in a state which accurately describes the experience of being beyond time (Dickinson 2).
The theme of Because I Could not Stop for Death speaks to the human propensity to avoid the subject of death. The narrator “could not stop for Death” (Dickinson 2). Given the reality of human life – that we are mortal – the irony of this line implies that the narrator has entered a state of denial toward death which makes her believe that she might actually escape it if she continues to deny its existence.
Wild Nights_Wild Nights! was chosen because it represents a pure expression of the dizzying emotional heights attained by those in love. Love poems in the work of Emily Dickinson are rare; her work was largely intellectual in nature. Yet Emily Dickinson’s poetic gift was perfectly able to communicate love’s passion, and her expression is full of abandon. According to Emily Dickinson’s niece Madame Martha Bianchi, who was the poet’s first biographer, love poems such as Wild Nights_Wild Nights! were created from the poet’s love affair with a married man that the poet met while away on a trip (Powell 1).
The affair was “solved in the ideal Victorian manner. The lovers made the great renunciation. The man took his family and went west, [and] Emily returned to Amherst to…live that life of seclusion which is always associated with her name (Powell 1). Nonetheless, Wild Nights_Wild Nights! remains a passionate declaration of love.
The most arresting image in Wild Nights_Wild Nights! occurs in the stanzas “Futile—the Winds—To a Heart in port—Done with the Compass—Done with the Chart! Rowing in Eden—Ah, the Sea! Might I but moor—Tonight—In Thee!” (Dickinson 3). The poet compares her heart to a ship that has returned home after long voyage and has no intention of returning to the ocean, having found an idyllic harbor.
The theme of the poem is love, and the use of punctuation, particularly the exclamation points, suggests to the reader that these feelings of love are new, given their intensity. As Powell explains, much of Emily Dickinson’s works “makes little sensuous appeal at all, using images which are purely intellectual,” yet Wild Nights_Wild Nights! stands apart as a testament to the passion that lived in the poet’s heart. (Powell 1)
The poem Do Not Go Gently into that Good Night was chosen for this paper because of its vibrant use of imagery. The poet wrote this poem for his dying father, and according to Hochman, “entreats his father not to accept death quietly, but instead, to fight it” (Hochman 1). Dylan Thomas never sent the poem while the old man was alive, yet it has become one of his most famous works.
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One particularly arresting image found in the poem occurs in the stanza “Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright, Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, Do not go gentle into that good night” (Thomas 1). Dylan Thomas’s imagery here suggests an epic wrestling with the cosmic forces of mortality by enlisting the ocean and sun. These stanza also create tremendous movement within the poem.
Death is the theme of Do Not Go Gently into that Good Night, and the poem offers Dylan Thomas’s uncommon counsel not to accept the “good night” that death represents passively, but to go down fighting (Thomas 1). Typically the fodder of poetry is a quiet resignation to mortal forces beyond our control; many poems with death as their theme encourage readers to “accept…death peacefully and gracefully” (Hochman 1).
However in Do Not Go Gently into that Good Night Dylan Thomas offers something far more incendiary in that he suggests that mortals should not accept this core fundament of our being. In Hochman’s words, “perhaps it is this contradiction, unreconciled, that gives this poem its power, its ability to paralyze rational overcoming and obstruct the desire to make polarities meet at some middle ground” (Hochman 1).
Harlem by Langston Hughes was chosen for this paper because the poem speaks to the urban experience of the socioeconomically oppressed underclass of modern cities.
One arresting image from the poem occurs in the last line “or does it explode?” (Hughes 3). Hughes ends the poem with an ambiguous image which could be construed equally as death or violent anger. When interpreted as violent anger, the final line may be read as a call to action that portends the Civil Rights movement in the United States.
Hughes clearly describes the theme of Harlem in the rhetorical question that opens the poem: “What happens to a dream deferred?” (Hughes 3). The dream put on hold describes the psychological suffering of a generation of human beings deprived of human rights on the basis of skin color.
The poem We Real Cool was chosen for this paper for two reasons: one, because the simplicity of its language provides an arresting contrast to the other poems, and two, because similar to Harlem, it has a grounded, urban quality that speaks to the real issues faced by socioeconomically disenfranchised city dwellers.
One arresting image in We Real Cool occurs in the line “We Sing sin” (Brooks 1). This one line contrasts the other lines of the poem that describe resignation because it speaks to a desire for life in these young men. The fact that they “Sing sin” means that they revel in pleasure, and reveling in pleasure means that they want to experience life, and contradicts the idea that they are simply waiting for death (Brooks 1). The reader understands this because “Sing” has been capitalized (Brooks 1).
There are two ways to interpret the theme of We Real Cool. The last line “We / Die soon,” suggests a tragic statement revealing the short violent nature of the lives of these young men. Conversely, however, as critic Joe Sarnowski points out, “We / Die soon,” could also be a reminder that life is short and needs to be lived to the fullest (Brooks 1).
In Sarnowski’s words, the pool players “seem to say that life is too short: that we all die too soon, so why not enjoy life while one has it?” (Sarnowski 2). The theme of We Real Cool could then be interpreted as a calling for young and old alike to “face death without fear or regret” (Sarnowski 2).
The poems under discussion in this essay – Because I Could Not Stop for Death and Wild Nights_Wild Nights! by Emily Dickinson, Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night by Dylan Thomas, Harlem by Langston Hughes and We Real Cool by Gwendolyn Brooks – represent a sampling of some of the most provocative poems of the last two centuries. Rich in imagery and rife with multiple themes, these poems continue to be studied and read long past the deaths of their creators due to their universal appeal.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. “We Real Cool.” Reading for English 2. Mark Connelley and Joseph Trimmer, eds. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.
Dickinson, Emily. “Because I Could not Stop for Death.” Reading for English 2. Mark Connelley and Joseph Trimmer, eds. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.
Dickinson, Emily. “Wild Nights_Wild Nights!” Reading for English 2. Mark Connelley and Joseph Trimmer, eds. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print
Hochman, Jhan. “An Overview of Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.” Poetry for Students. Mary K. Ruby, ed. Vol. 6. Detroit: Gale Group, 1999. Web.
Hughes, Langston. “Harlem.” Reading for English 2. Mark Connelley and Joseph Trimmer, eds. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.
Joyner, Nancy Carol. “Because I Could Not Stop For Death: Overview.” Reference Guide to American Literature. Jim Kamp, ed. 3rd ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994. Web.
Powell, Desmond. “Emily Dickinson.” Emily Dickinson, Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism: Volume 171. Jessica Bomarito and Russel Whitaker, eds. Detroit: Gale Group, 2006. Web.
Sarnowski, Joe. “Critical Essay on ‘We Real Cool’.” Poetry for Students. Mary K. Ruby, ed. Vol. 6. Detroit: Gale Group, 1999. Web.
Thomas, Dylan. “Do Not Go Gently into that Good Night.” Reading for English 2. Mark Connelley and Joseph Trimmer, eds. Oxford, U.K.:Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.