Poetry has remained a visceral form of self expression for centuries. Consequently, poetry has no means of resisting the constant shifts in style, prose, and content that come with the times. This is showcased in the works of famous poets like William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, and John Donne.
William Shakespeare is credited to be a wordsmith ahead of his time for crafting some of the most well known works of literature, Emily Dickinson is considered one of America’s leading female poets of the 1800s, and John Donne is recognized as one of the leading members of the metaphysical movement. Even so, their work spoke out on religion, love, death, and anything concerning society’s implication on the established perception of the world and humankind. Thus, their poems shared similar aspects to establish the writer’s purpose. The mood in the poems “My Mistress’ Eyes” by William Shakespeare, “Twas warm — at first — like Us —” by Emily Dickinson, and “The Flea” by John Donne reveals a reluctance to conform to societal standards. In William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, or “My Mistress’ Eye,” the light-hearted mood enhances the unconventional nature of a man’s declaration of love for his mistress.
Immediately, the speaker describes his lover by saying, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun/Coral is far more red than her lips’ red” (Arp 807). By placing emphasises on his unconventional way of painting an image of his mistress, the speaker creates an ironic, sarcastic tone that attributes to the intended humorous mood, indicating the speaker does not want his words to be taken literally. Also, the comparisons themselves are exaggerations one would never use in real life. This pushes the notion that indicates the speaker does not adhere to the set of rules surrounding the ideals of what love and a lover should be like, especially when considering the sappy, romantic atmosphere the readers expected to find upon first reading the title of the poem. The poem served as a contrast to the over dramatized love poems at the time. Unlike other poets, Shakespeare intended to create a critical, humorous mood to express his poem should not be confused for those poems he mocks.
He refuses to compare his love in the cliché manner he holds unworthy. In particular, published in 1609, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 is considered a more “modern” take on romantic poetry during his time. Unlike the Petrarchan love sonnets that were previously the standard form of romantic poetry for over 300 years, Shakespeare strove to challenge the status quo. “However, many Neoclassical critics were willing to attribute Shakespeare’s violation of classical rules to ignorance” (Lauder). Shakespeare’s work is a product of the cultural shifts during the Renaissance movement. Enlightened by society’s drift from restrictive views on religion, artists like Shakespeare were no longer anchored to the “classical rules.
” This free rein allowed writers to be inquisitive about society, questioning how humankind fits into the greater aspect of the world. It is even speculated that the muse for his sonnets was not actually a female mistress but a man. This is often an argument proposed to explain the seemingly mysterious atmosphere surrounding Shakespeare’s sonnets. Specifically, Sonnet 130’s mood is depicted as playful to showcase the raw complexities governing humanity in an entertaining fashion—something once unheard of in the English Tudor period. Ultimately, this same “ignorance” would only pave the way for future playwrights and poets. Similar to Sonnet 130, “‘Twas warm — at first — like Us —” by Emily Dickinson illustrates the disconnection between a corpse and the living world through the poem’s straightforward, somber mood. This adds an element of finality that leaves the audience wondering the direction in which Dickinson is taking, especially in regards to the subject of the afterlife.
“‘Twas lowered, like a Weight/It made no Signal, nor demurred/But dropped like Adamant” (Arp 810). Words like “Weight,” “Signal,” and “Adamant” are all capitalized to impart the loss of a soul to speak or move the body. This separation leaves the body swollen and abandoned without use to anyone. Also, the third stanza marks a shift in the solemn tone established before to an indifferent one through the use of the word “it” in reference to the dead corpse. A chilling somber mood is then reflected to provide the reader with the insight that the person is no longer a person, but simply a stiff corpse surrounded by emptiness, which mirrors a lack of belief in a definite afterlife. In Dickinson’s time, the belief in an afterlife—heaven and hell— was upheld by the overly religious, American society. Clearly, with a focus on how the body changes physically, Dickinson refrains from saying what happens to the soul, allowing the audience to form their own speculations on the subject matter.
Therefore, the atmosphere surrounding her quiet reflection on the aftermath of death was once held obscure in her society’s expectations. Moreover, Emily Dickinson’s interest in Transcendentalism, a movement that became less popular at the time of her birth, inspired Dickinson to explore topics such as religion, spirituality, and nature. Her preferred seclusion from society also inspired her to question ideals set by her society. “To make the abstract tangible, to define meaning without confining it, to inhabit a house that never became a prison, Dickinson created in her writing a distinctive elliptical language for expressing what was possible but not yet realized” (Poetry Foundation). Similar to Shakespeare, she did not refrain from questioning how humankind fits into the greater aspect of the world, constantly conceptualizing the unknown and the established alike. Often, through Dickinson’s establishment of an insidious, gloomy mood in her poems, the audience is alluded to the fact that all is uncertain, especially anything relating to death. The question she often explored was what happens to the soul after one dies. Is a person unequivocally destined for heaven or hell or nothingness? Likewise, John Donne’s infamous poem “The Flea” portrays a man’s desire to have intimate relations with a woman while they are not married, which is typified by Donne’s establishment of a fanciful mood.
His proposal was considered uncalled for and sinful in his early time to those in his religious, British society. “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” (Arp 812). The speaker uses exaggeration to accomplish an ironic and persuasive tone, which is seen through his warning that it is sacrilegious to kill the flea. Establishing a playful, light hearted atmosphere from the beginning, the audience can clearly see the narrator does not care if his proposal to the young maiden is considered inappropriate. Playing along with the societal viewpoint that sexual relations before marriage is a sin, the narrator argues the act of their blood mixing in the flea is in fact as ceremonial as any marriage, rendering it acceptable to partake in such activities.
Also, the poem follows a AABBCC rhyme scheme with three stanzas, giving it a sense of fluidity that makes the poem easy to follow and reflects the author’s intention of eliciting a mockingly playful atmosphere. Additionally, although Donne was a cleric in the Church of England, he is considered to be a lead contributor to the metaphysical poetry movement, which spanned across the 17th century in England. Religion played a major role in the British society, deeming it evil to drink, gamble, or partake in sex before marriage.
Consequently, metaphysical poets like Donne paved the way in tackling these notions with intellectual wit. Critics often attribute his poems to adding a sense of validity to the undenying complexity of a human being through his use of a mocking, humorous mood and shocking exaggerations. “From these explosive beginnings, the poems develop as closely reasoned arguments or propositions that rely heavily on the use of the conceit…” (Britannica). Donne opts to hook his audience with the utilization of “conceit” (or an unlikely comparison), hoping to inspire the reader to think deeply and imagine a new way to see how Donne’s argument could be plausible.
Thus, John Donne reimagined the rules and reacted against the Elizabethan lyrics’ installment of delicate, euphuistic language. This same drive made him one of the leading founders of the metaphysical movement. Therefore, some of the greatest poets throughout the ages have impacted the way members of their society view topics of love, death, religion, and much more. Through the use of literary devices like mood, poets like William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, and John Donne were capable of illustrating a reluctance to adhere to societal standards.
As such, their work will continue to serve as an example of the ever changing forms of self expression used in the poetry world. Works CitedArp, Thomas R. and Greg Johnson. “Chapter 10 Tone.” Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound and Sense. 10th ed. Boston, MA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2008.
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