Now it’s time to play Symbol or No-symbol. I thought it would be interesting to contrast these two poems.
We have what appears here to be two completely different poems. The differences in the periods and the style even the tone are completely different, but look closer.
Both seem to be speaking in very plain language and very plain descriptions of places. Neither have any flowery flourishes in language or metaphor, and neither appear to have any metaphor at all. In fact, both appear to be a superficial description of places and both are instructions as to what the reader will find when he or she finds these places, also simple: “They will not keep you standing at the door”, “they will give you a place to sit”. But there is something more going on underneath the surface of both: “..your friends will be there/with smiles on their faces”, “a place to sit/for yourself only, in a nice chair”, “Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?/Of labor you shall find the sum”. They both describe finding these places after taking long journeys and both places feel like very final destinations as if to say, “you will travel no more.”
And yet each tone is very different. “Uphill” feels like a relief from a weary journey where you will find comfort for your travel-sore feet and there are beds for all who seek, and it is a place that everyone will end up at (there will be beds for all).
“Oh No” feels as if you are being deposited at the curb of the retirement home like a box of unwanted books. In this place you will sit among all of the other empties and dawdle away your remaining years. It is a place where they pretend to be happy “with smiles on their faces”, but they’re not actually smiling – are they feeling anything at all?Pretending to be happy is more miserable than just being miserable. But this place also is no ordinary place because as the poem says, “If you wander far enough/you will come to it” as if the poet knows that everyone will go there eventually, because wandering almost never takes a person the same place that everybody goes, therefore this place is a place that is inevitable. Even though we might be pinballs pinging around chaotically, somehow we’ll all drain down to the bottom of the board; we’ll all end up at this place.
So, where is this place in “Uphill” and “Oh No”? If both are inevitable, then they don’t read as earthly realms. So these are, in fact, not straight forward descriptions of places but symbolic journeys.
Symbol or No-symbol? Symbol.
by Christina Rossetti
Does the road wind uphill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.
But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.
Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.
Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Or labor you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.
by Robert Creely
If you wander far enough
you will come to it
and when you get there
they will give you a place to sit
for yourself only, in a nice chair,
and all your friends will be there
with smiles on their faces
and they will likewise have places.