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Friday, September 08, 2006

Another First Undergraduate Essay: The Psychological Theme in Drayton's Sonnet 61

Here's the first essay from my first English class in college. It's dated September 28th, and, as you'll see, it's not filled with discussions of Foucault, Saussure, Barthes, and Greenblatt. And Falstaff was not there to inspire me. Instead, I followed a random piece of advice that had been imparted to me by my English teacher during my senior year of high school: when writing about poetry, analyze both form and content. And so I did. In a five-paragraph essay, of course. And without any witty boasting of brilliance. But with lots of passive voice, repetitious sentences, and plodding nominalizations.
One facet of a literary work's relative quality can be determined by how well its form and content are combined. Masterpieces usually have a blending of form and content which not only serves to heighten their own power, but also forges successful criteria for analyzing other works. Michael Drayton's sixty-first sonnet, "Since there's no help, come let us kiss and part;" can be judged based on this criteria. The striking characteristic of this poem is its psychological theme. It is about a man who ends his relationship with his lover and must endure the tragic reality that doing so virtually kills him; his fate is then left in the hands of his lover who can save him from death. The first eight lines of the sonnet create a vivid picture of the speaker's state of mind through his almost boastful indifference. The last six lines then confirm the reader's assumption that he was lying about his detachment and relate how he actually felt. In addition, the psychological focus of the poem is supported through Drayton's use of form. It increases the meaning of certain passages and, hence, the poem itself. The specific aspects of form and content which enhance the psychological them of "Since there's no help, come let us kiss and part;" are its meter, its diction, and the stylistic difference between its octet and sestet.

One technique in Drayton's sonnet which strengthens its psychological focus is its meter. Although the poem is basically written in iambic pentameter, it also possesses significant metrical shifts which support the psychological ideas behind the words. Line five, for example, begins with the words "Shake hands..." Both of these words are accented, consequently forming a spondaic foot. Moreover, the feeling conveyed by the sound of these words is one of abruptness and finality. This is exactly the idea the speaker is trying to communicate to his lover. Additionally, the second foot in line eight, "one jot," is spondaic. It, too, indicates finality, especially since it is in the last line of the speaker's monologue. In each of these cases, the conclusiveness of the words obviously exaggerate the speaker's actual emotions; one would not expect it to be so easy for him to end the relationship. Lines nine and ten echo this sentiment and reinforce the image of the speaker's imminent mental, or physical, death. The ninth line begins with three unaccented syllables in a row, "Now at the," followed by four accented syllables which are spliced by one unaccented syllable, "last/gasp of/love's lat/est...." If one equates the sounds of these words with breathing, he obtains a sense of easy breathing (three unaccented syllabes) interrupted by two forceful gasps for air (four accented syllables divided by an unaccented syllable). Drayton extends this concept in the next line by following two unaccented syllable with two accented ones, "When his/pulse fail/ing...." As a result, the metrical variations imitate the psychological trauma the speaker is undergoing, amplifying those very emotions and his psychological state.

Another element in "Since there's no help, come let us kiss and part;" which augments its psychological theme is Drayton's choice of words, or diction. [...]

The psychological focus of the poem is further emphasized through the stylistic differences between the sonnet's octet and sestet. [...]

The distinct characteristic of Michael Drayton's sonnet, "Since there's no help, come let us kiss and part;" is its psychological theme. Its meter, Drayton's choice of words, and the stylistic difference between its octet and sestet all contribute to this theme. The sonnet's metrical shifts create sounds that imitate the meanings of the words, increasing their psychological impact. The poet's diction also allows certain phrases to be interpreted in at least two ways, one of which usually reveals the speaker's true psychological state. Additionally, the stylistic difference between the octet and sestet strenghtens the poem's psychological theme through their changes in voice, speech patterns, and the relative truthfulness of the speaker's emotions. Thus, "Since this there's no help, come let us kiss and part;" accomplishes a blending of form and content which supports its essential theme. For a poem to be considered successful, this subtle blending must occur. As a result, one can consider Drayton's sixty-first sonnet a significant achievement, even a masterpiece. In fact, some critics have referred to it as the greatest sonnet ever written. Although it would be difficult to successfully defend such a statement, it is not difficult to support the claim that its psychological theme is artfully supported through form and content.
And so the circle is complete. The essay begins by talking about masterpieces and it ends with more thoughts on masterpieces. In between, there are some airy speculations about breathing and then a final claim that "some critics" call this "the greatest sonnet ever written" (do they? anyone else heard this)?

It might be worth adding that, when I wrote this essay, I was dating a not very nice girl from high school, a mistake I kept up until the end of my freshman year (actually, until she broke up with me during final exams). The feeling of being tortured by "a lover" (yick) was one I could very much relate to--the poem spoke to me, as anything having to do with "love" did that year. The final essay I wrote for this course: "The Theme of Love in Shakespeare's and Donne's Poetry." Its opening sentences: "One goal of many poets is for their poems to make people remember emotions, thoughts, and experiences in their own lives. As a result, the genre of poetry is marked by the recurrence of certain [...wait for it...] universal themes and emotions which all, or most, people undergo." I love that "or most." When I added it, was I thinking of my eighteen-year-old girlfriend then cheating on me with a thirty-year-old guy with three kids? I'd like to think so, even though I almost surely wasn't; but if so, it's easily the funniest thing I wrote that year.

  • At 9/08/2006 08:58:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    A classic of its genre. You follow the 5-paragraph format to a tee.

    That attempt to analyze meter is so incredibly typical of the undergrad essay: you really can't make meter translate so directly into conceptual terms, but you struggle valiantly to produce some sort of meaning from the formal element, basically just making shite up that somehow, some way, might be related to meter. I can remember writing crap like that before, at some unknown point, I realized that, if I have a sense that it's just made up, then probably I don't really believe it and I shouldn't really write it.

     

  • At 9/09/2006 06:20:00 PM, Blogger Flavia wrote…

    My first Shakespeare essay, written the first semester of my freshman year (shortly after having been dumped by my high school boyfriend), was entitled, "Love Is Tyranny." So I hear ya.

    Reading these essays really does illustrate Truewit's point that we can't prejudge a student based on one (or even quite a lot of) shitty papers. Personally, I'm pretty certain that none of my instructors, even in my later years of college, looked at my work and said, "Now THERE'S a student who should join the professoriate!"

    Indeed, when I first approached my future senior essay advisor to ask whether I could work with her, she exclaimed at how funny it was that I should ask, since just that day *another* kid in our class had asked her to supervise *his* senior essay, too. She added, admiringly, "He's REALLY smart."

    As for me? Well--my senior essay was as bad as the worst of my college papers, but I guess I recovered. The other kid went to law school.

     

  • At 9/10/2006 01:29:00 AM, Blogger Truewit wrote…

    All I can say is that during my freshman year, I was clearly incapable of taking paper-writing seriously enough to write even a circular five paragraph essay. Honestly, Simplicius, I'm impressed you even knew what a spondee was, let alone that it necessarily and eternally signifies "abruptness and finality."

    I can only take comfort in assuming that you might not yet have figured out by age 18, as I had, that all fat people are morally suspect...

     

  • At 9/10/2006 11:19:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Yes, when Truewit started college, he was a typically jaded, urbane, rakish gallant who couldn't take anything seriously enough. But you've read all about him in Epicoene, so you know what I'm talking about. I think at the start, he mistook his undergraduate experience for a few years lounging around the Inns of Court.

     

  • At 9/10/2006 12:54:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Ah, yes, Flavia: my senior essay was embarrassingly bad too (though at least I knew it was at the time, unlike in my first year). Glad to hear someone else out there has had that experience.

    When I look back at this essay, though, I find it amazing that I was really attempting to prove that "this sonnet is good, nay great, even a masterpiece." If nothing else, this reinforces the importance of simply teaching students about the kinds of questions they can ask about a literary work (I'm thinking of Flavia's post this week about teaching reading to her students, which, by the bye, I've tended to handle in much the same way as she and her commentators have, by being very explicit about what it is we're doing class and how that translates into students reading and writing about a text on their own). Anyway, it's clear I had no idea about what questions to ask.

     

  • At 9/10/2006 06:58:00 PM, Blogger Flavia wrote…

    Oh yes, that senior essay was bad. My advisor (who was a first-year junior faculty member at that point, so I quite forgive any advisorly failings on her part) was actually rather kind, but my other reader made it clear how perplexed and enraged my essay made her. Needless to say, that was NOT the writing sample I used for my grad school applications.

    As a coda: I spent YEARS being cringingly embarrassed whenever I ran into that former advisor, until finally, over drinks at a conference somewhere, it became clear that she had only the vaguest of recollections of the whole episode.

    It's another lesson that has been invaluable in my own teaching. Every time a student apologizes to me for writing a bad paper, I tell them that a grade is just a rough measure of their performance on a single, discrete task--that it's not a judgement on THEM or their potential. That seems obvious to me now, but it wasn't at all obvious when I was a student and every grade felt like statement about my worth as a human being.

     

  • At 4/03/2009 10:42:00 AM, Anonymous Anna wrote…

    Here's my attempt:

    The poet opens the octet brusquely, he declares that things have come to an end, and tells his love that they should ‘kiss and part’. The plosives consonants (‘kiss’, ‘part’) mirror the abrupt nature of this announcement. The poem continues in this manner, and the strict rhyme scheme it obeys mirrors the writer’s non-emotive speech, the poet seems to either lack, or be sufficiently in control of, passion, as he is able to write his argument in such an ordered, objective fashion.
    In the third line anaphora is used, ‘I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart’. The poet declares he is glad, firstly in order to be perceived so, and secondly to doubly reassure himself that he feels positively about the parting. He sounds as though he is trying to convince both himself and his muse.
    With his ‘glad’ feelings, Drayton is rejoicing that they are able to part ‘so cleanly’. This implies that either the parting is simple, or he wishes it to be so. it reflects the unromantic wish that relationships should be ordered and concise, there should be no myriad of complexities confusing matters, again shown in his meticulous accordance with the rhyme. Perhaps, there is a cruel note here, describes being able to ’free’ himself from the relationship, suggesting the affair was something he had grown to resent and wanted to escape. That he is happy in able to do so ‘so cleanly’, could be Drayton possibly hinting the affair was the opposite of clean, and it is a miracle that the sullied liaison could end, by contrast, so smoothly.??

    The tone has up to this point, been almost that of a business proposition, the suggesting the two should ‘kiss and part’, and ‘shake hands’, like agreeing to a formal contract. (This proposal would however break the original ‘contract’ of love between the couple, it would ‘cancel all [their] vows’). I think the man is trying to emulate a very macho persona, by being so dismissive of the affair and casting it aside so willingly.

    This dissemblance begins to unravel over the next few lines. The tone ceases to be so blunt and abrupt, becoming more pensive. The language becomes less aggressive, and the poet betrays his reluctance to be completely rid of his past lover, by envisaging chance encounters between them at which neither will show sign that they ‘one jot of former love retain’. Although Drayton claims he is ready to part with her, he cannot yet bring himself to imagine a life completely void of her presence. The poet describes this possible meeting for three lines, the most attention he has given an idea yet in the poem. The depiction of this meeting is so effective that I can at once see the couple, standing before eachother, not betraying any longing ‘in either of our brows’, and the fact that this ‘jot of former love’ is not visible, does not mean it is not still present. This is the pivotal point in the sonnet.


    The sestet begins with Drayton personifying the various components of their relationship; Love, Passion, Faith and Innocence. He describes them as gathering round Passion’s deathbed. We see now at last why the poet is dissatisfied with the affair, the vital passion is dying. This powerful passage somewhat conveys the nature of the relationship. We are shown how Drayton perceives it’s structure; Passion is central, yet is accompanied by innocence and faith. The passionate, physical element is conveyed by Passion’s prominent position. Drayton mentions Love’s ‘last gasp’, and Passion’s ‘pulse’, this hints at the lust present between the two, quickening one another’s heartbeart, gasping from desire.
    Drayton makes this description very vivid with his plentiful use of participles, ‘failing’, ‘kneeling’, ‘closing’, and we can at once picture this dramatic scene. The strict rhyme now emphasises the coherence of this symmetrical image.
    In painting this tableau perhaps Drayton is showing us that in losing his love, he would virtually lose life itself.

    The poem concludes in the final couplet that the relationship is not lost irrevocably, as declared at the start, it is within the his lover’s power to rectify the situation. Drayton makes this plea tentatively, perhaps as he realises it is so contradictory to his former wish to separate from her, ‘if thou wouldst’, ‘thou mightst’. we see just how special the woman is to Drayton, revitalising the situation is for her and her alone to do, no other has this supreme influence. He addresses her as ‘thou’, and this informality reminds us of the intimate terms they were once on, it also suggests equal standing, they are the equal parts that can, together make the love whole once again.

     


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