“The Journey of the Magi” -T.S. Eliot

August 19, 2008

Eliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi” offers a view contrary to the traditional conception of the magi’s journey to visit baby Jesus. Popularly, it was a fine uneventful journey, yet Eliot’s poem seeks out the negatives in it. The second line of the poem bemoans that it was “just the worst time of the year” (2). The journey was “such a long journey” where they had to contend with “the very dead of winter” (3 & 5). The narrator goes on to use polysyndeton when describing the hardships faced, enjamming “and” at the beginning of four straight lines (12-15). This gives the first stanza a very reluctant tone at best, and at worst it has a complaining tone. Concluding the first stanza, the magus reveals his thoughts were telling him “this was all a folly” (20).
The second stanza represents a transition, where they go from the cold of winter to a “temperate valley” (21). The third stanza however contributes the most meaning to the poem. It is here where the magus reveals that he perceived the birth of Jesus as both a birth and a death. The birth didn’t represent a literal death, but rather the end of an era– a figurative death within all the old magi. For upon their arrival back at their kingdoms they found they were “no longer at ease here” (41). The magus ends the poem asserting “I should be glad of another death” (43). This suggests that the magus is unable to adapt to the new world, much like T.S. Eliot– Eliot became strongly disillusioned by World War One, another world and life changing event.

The magus first confirms his attitude as reluctant declaring “and i would do it again” (33). This comes after he reveals he has reflected on these events as they occurred long ago. Interestingly, he is now wishing for death, and he certainly became disillusioned because of this journey. Yet he wouldn’t go back and change things. This is very significant, as Eliot is saying to the reader that disillusionment isn’t necessarily a bad thing– it’s the events in life that help shape who you are. If you could go back and change things, you’d change who you were. Eliot is also saying it is better to be enlightened and disillusioned (wishing for death) than to be ignorant and happy.

-B

“The Hollow Men” -T.S. Eliot

August 19, 2008

T.S. Eliots “The Hollow Men” explores the themes of death and coming to terms with life. It begins with a parallel structure that pairs two contrary ideas: “hollow men” and “stuffed men” (I). This suggests people can be full of thoughts and ideas (metaphorically stuffed) yet still hollow as none of the ideas has any true weight, or any true significance taken on its own. Eliot calls the men’s whispers “quiet and meaningless” further asserting this concept. The idea concept is mentioned again near the end of the poem when Eliot talks about the “shadow” “between the idea and the reality” (V). This hollow yet stuffed duality is used to frame the first part of the poem.

Eyes and stars both function as important symbols throughout the poem. They eyes can be the eyes of death which the narrator claims he “dare not meet in dreams / in death’s dream kingdom” (II). This shows an unwillingness to directly face death suggesting that the hollow men, while contemplating death are not truly facing it. Perhaps this is why their ideas concerning it are hollow and meaningless. Stars function in much the same way, as a distant and solemn pair of eyes, looking on at the events of the world with indifference. The fading star though, represents a death that is far off, and thus seemingly insignificant.

The final section is the most intreaguing part of the poem. Eliot points out the fine gap between many things such as “between the conception and the creation” (V). This is very thought-provoking, separating events that seem so closely tied. The shadow Eliot refers to is the unknown. When an idea is conceived along with it comes the desire for it be realized, yet how to turn it into reality will take another idea altogether.

The final stanza is perhaps the most important to the whole poem. The repetition of “This is the way the world ends” emphasizes that the question asked by the hollow men is being answered. “Not with a bang but a whimper” seems to suggest that life doesn’t end in some grand explosion, but rather it ends on an individual basis. The world ends for each person as they die, just as the world ends for a far off fading star when it finally gives out. Thus Eliot presents a largely individualistic look at life and death.

-B

“Fra Lippo Lippi” -Robert Browning

August 19, 2008

In the poem “Fra Lippo Lippi” Browning examines the importance of love and the Lippi’s ambivalence towards the Church. The poem begins as Lippi is clearly not acting like a monk: he is caught out on the streets late at night: “you catch me at an alley’s end where sportive ladies leave their doors ajar” (5-6). This shows an obvious break with church doctrine (celibacy for monks) which Lippi also emphasizes throughout his monologue with the song he recalls. He claims to hear the song lyric “take away love, and our earth is a tomb” (54). Although he claims this is the song that enticed him out of his room late at night, it obviously reflects his own feelings on love. Most telling is the lyric “all the latin I construe is, ‘amo’ I love!” (111).

Lippi displays an obvious ambivalence toward the church and toward monk-hood. He implies that his vows aren’t legitimate because he took them at such a young age in such extreme circumstances. He recalls “I did renounce the world, its pride and greed, palace, farm, villa, shop, and banking-house… all at eight years old” (98-101). He also obviously rejects the church’s advice that he “paint the soul, never mind the legs and arms!” (193). Decrying “now, is this sense, i ask?” Lippi obviously disagrees, yet he continues his being both a monk and a painter (198). He never renounces his life as a monk for a life of pleasure and leisure, but rather, he lives his life of pleasure in secret. Thus he possesses an unspoken ambivalence.

Lippi’s greatest break with the church comes with love: he bemoans “you should not take a fellow eight years olf and make him swear to never kiss the girls” (224-25). Lippi’s greatest weakness appears to be the flesh, whether it be in his paintings (as the church sees it), or the flesh of women he spends his nights chasing. Lippi declares “my lesson learned, the value and significance or flesh, i can’t unlearn ten minutes afterwards” (267-69).

Its curious that Lippi doesn’t break with the church and paint on his own (although I guess that would be strongly discouraged at the time). He shows an obvious disdain for the effect some of his paintings have on the hoi polloi. He recalls he is told “pity and religion grow i’ the crowd– your painting serves it purpose” to which he responds “hang the fools!” (334-35). He seems greatly dissatisfied by others acting as masters over his artwork, yearning to be his “own master” (226). Thus Browning represents Lippi as a deeply ambivalent character who loved life and all it had to offer, yet was restrained by his own vows to not partake in these pleasures.

-B

“My Last Duchess” -Robert Browning

August 19, 2008

Robert Browning frames his poem “My Last Duchess” with the phrase “as if [she were] alive” (2 & 47). Browning does this to emphasize that she is no longer living, and its speaker seems to have a twinge of disbelief. The narrator then examines his last duchess’ countenance in a painting, using that to springboard into talking about her faults. In the painting she is blushing, and the speaker, her husband, objects at her “heart … too soon made glad, too easily impressed” (22-23). This begins to reveal the husbands jealousy at his wife treating him too much like other people. The narrator appears to feel that a husband should be treated with more reverence, and a wife’s blushes should be reserved for a husband alone. He goes so far as to say that she seemed to “[rank] my gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name with anybody’s gift” (33-34). This shows again that his wife is too carefree to hold something like a name in such high esteem. Personally, it wouldn’t bother me at all, but apparently for him it was just another offense of his wife not devoting herself to him entirely.

Once the Duke establishes that he had these problems with his wife, he appears torn deciding whether or not to “stoop” something he has chosen never to do (43). The climax of her offenses to the Duke seems to come because he noticed “who passed without much the same smile?” as the Duke received (45). As the narrator describes it, “this grew” meaning perhaps the offense seemed more and more grave to him until he could no longer stand it (45). Finally he “gave commands; then all smiles stopped togehter” (45-46). This can be interpreted as the Duke having his wife executed or killed. Especially as the framing of the poem with her lack of life occurs directly after this statement

-B