I spent all of last year following the textbook An Introduction to Poetry, 7th Edition, edited by X.J. Kennedy. I went through each chapter, talked about the various topics and used the poem that the editor used as the example.
I did it to explore literature a little, review a bit of what I thought I had learned and understand what goes into making a poem. It isn’t as simple, as one poet put it, as just writing down your feelings; a lot more goes into the making of a poem (a lot, lot more). Poetry is actually one of the more difficult forms to write and it is the preferred medium of the earliest story tellers. The novel as we know it today has been around for a relatively short time.
I often wonder why this is. Why verse, rhyme and meter were preferred over just telling someone, “here are some characters and here’s what they did.” Perhaps our elders didn’t just enjoy the story, they enjoyed the structure of language, the mathematical beauty of the form of the story along with the content. Have we lost something when we stopped paying attention to form? To language? I’ve often said that it isn’t language that makes us human (scientists are discovering every day new and more sophisticated ways that non-humans communicate and it is impressive), but the structuring of that language, the sophisticated use of metaphor and figures of speech that imply more than one level of meaning in the telling of a story (and the telling of the story itself) that separates us from the animals. If story is a way of locating our place in the universe (another thing that animals are unable to do), then form is our way of exploring that place just as science does mathematically of the physical universe.
So, why am I here? Well, I mean, why am I continuing to blog on the same subject with the same textbook which I’ve pretty much already exhausted. (The existential version of that question can be explored more thoroughly in philosophy blog – which I don’t have.) I just wanted to continue talking about poetry, but this time without a set formula. Choose my own examples and do a more in depth discussion of the topics.
Today’s topic is Tone. Tone has much to do with word choice (as discussed in the textbook). The reason for this is simple: you can’t hear what the poem is saying to you. You aren’t certain that when someone writes the words “oh, that’s nice” if he is saying that he likes what it is or if he’s being sarcastic and he doesn’t think that is nice at all. When I wrote “why am I here?” I could have been asking a philosophical question or just asking why I’m sitting in my living room at my computer desk (maybe I went crazy and lost my place in the universe, hmm, that’s kind of existential), or it could have been a rhetorical questions, that is, I could have been asking a question that didn’t require an answer. It was, I was just trying to change the subject. I also stated that I ran a philosophy blog; now, that was sarcasm.
But how do you know? What sets up tone? Usually, it’s word choice. In today’s poem, “The Flea” even the name of the poem tells you right away that the poet isn’t terribly fond of his subject as a flea is an insect that is known for its smallness and how it causes great amounts of irritation to those it is around. He talks about how it “sucks” which doesn’t have the same connotation as today (the poem was written in 1633), but still sounded like an activity without grace and somewhat leech-like. He uses other words like “grudge”, “self-murder”, “cruel” and “sacrilege” sprinkled throughout a poem about his marriage.
You get a pretty solid idea that despite the fact he states in this beautiful sentence “and in this flea our two bloods mingled be” or “And pampered swells with one blood made of two” which sounds a bit romantic, he doesn’t seem stating anything romantic at all. Step back and you realize that “pampered swells” refers to flea bites. This brings us to the second way to understand tone which is by using the context in which the words are being used. So, when someone writes, “That’s nice” and then the rest of the sentence reads, “you just destroyed my only hope of happiness” you understand that the writer is not saying that that is nice – instead it’s “nice”. When Donne writes “Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,/Where we almost, yea more than married are”, it sounds as if he’s happy with his “marriage temple” within the flea, but later writes, ” Though use make you apt to kill me” sounds like he’s got some resentment going on – she’s killing a part of him, by killing the flea. When I read his final two sentences, I thought perhaps he had forgiven her, because she had decided to honor him, “Just so much honor, when thou yield’s to me”, but then he twists it all around to show how much he doesn’t like her, “Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.”
If you judge his character from his poetry, you’d be lead to believe that John Donne wasn’t a very happy guy.
by John Donne
Mark but this flea, and mark in this How little that which thou deny’st me is; It sucked me first, and now sucks thee, And in this flea our two bloods mingled be; Thou know’st that this cannot be said A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead, Yet this enjoys before it woo, And papered swells with one blood made of two, And this, alas, is more than we would do. Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare, Where we almost, yea more than married are. This flea is you and I, and this Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is; Though parents grudge, and you, we’re met And cloistered in these living walls of jet. Though use make you apt to kill me, And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.
Cruel and sudden, hast thou since Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence? Wherein could this flea guilty be, Except in that drop it sucked from thee? Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou Find’st not thyself, nor me, the weaker now; ‘Tis true; then learn how false fears be; Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me, Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.