Book Title
Arguing About Literature: A Guide and Reader 2nd Edition

978-1319035327 Part 13

July 26, 2020
arter The Company of Wolves 225
prejudicial, but it originally came from a Latin word for “forest,” and it carries
appropriate connotations of natural wildness. Marriage is about sex and about
love, and Carter’s ending implies that it’s okay to be wild, celebratory, and at
peace about enjoying both.
Perrault’s tale of Little Red Riding Hood presents a wolf who is male, preda-
tory, and irredeemably evil. In his telling of the story, men are out to get you if
you stray from the path, and if they get you, you are a goner. If the wolfs attack
symbolizes rape or seduction, we conclude, then a woman thus ruined is
destroyed in society’s eyes forever. The wolf is a coward who is cautious of wood-
cutters and forced to be sly to avoid being controlled. His eating of the grand-
mother is explained by his not having eaten in three days, but this fact seems to
be offered to explain why he is able to dispatch her so quickly, not to cause us to
empathize with his hunger. The wolf wins, and we are meant not to applaud him
but to fear him as we should fear those like him who would cause us to stray from
the path of obedience and morality. Perrault’s version also hints that women who
have been doted on by their mothers and grandmothers may be especially vul-
nerable to such predators.
These feminist thinkers might define feminism as a community working
together rather than as one in which individual women care more about seizing
their own pleasure with men than righting wrongs done to their grandmothers.
Issues may be raised about the place of the grandmother in feminist thought.
Older women often paved the way for equality for women, but some perpetuate
226 Journeys
the “old wives’ tales” and traditions that hold women back. We might think of
other stories, such as “Cinderella” and “Snow White,” in which women perse-
cute each other. Feminists such as Clarissa Pinkola Estes would advise women
to kill in their own psyches the sort of grandmother that continues to internalize
cultural oppression and to act as the inner predator that drains energy better used
for living. Perrault’s narrative seems most diametrically opposed to feminism. It
assumes that women are infantile and vain, vulnerable to danger if they stray
from the path of righteousness even in the pursuit of natural beauty. Nature is
dangerous and women’s nature is weak in the traditional tales, a view that is
antithetical to feminist thought. Many will find Carter’s twentieth- century ver-
sion of Little Red Riding Hood more realistic than the earlier narratives because
her views of women, men, and nature seem more commonsensical to us.
Modern readers don’t usually like tales with morals, preferring more subtle
approaches, and they may find the characters too simple to be real either all
good or all bad.
Little Red Riding Hood, perhaps, has captured the interests of readers and
listeners for so many generations because she goes astray, if only because she is
naive. But her innocence may pose barriers to readers who see her actions as
simply too stupid to apply to them. A good case can be made, however, for the
irrelevance of reality when applied to fairy tales. Carter has sometimes been
categorized as a writer of “magical realism” and has claimed to be influenced by
South American writers such as Jorge Luis Borges. Some students might want to
follow up on this issue of genre and discuss whether unrealistic stories may help
us think more easily from fresh perspectives than do straightforward narratives.
Some psychologists and philosophers feel that fairy tales contain a deep reality
that evokes archetypes to which all human beings respond. Structural literary
theorists have studied fairy tales in depth to determine aspects they have in com-
mon with all good narratives. Considering issues of realism in the Little Red
Riding Hood stories may therefore lead students into more scholarly and person-
ally valuable territory than they might at first expect.
The Things They Carried (p.1082)
In a sense, the stories in O’Brien’s collection of interrelated narratives about the
Vietnam War, the book The Things They Carried, are stories about stories as
much as they are stories about war. Placing this title story in a fresh context,
however, invites readers to think of its characters in terms of the journey they are
making, both metaphorically and in actuality. Soldiers struggle with the truth
and how to tell it, seeking to find meaning in their journeys to war and back.
O’Brien distinguishes between fact and truth and insists that we must sometimes
lie (perhaps to ourselves more than to anyone else) in order to tell the truth.
“Stories save us,” he believes. The slippery nature of truth may especially apply
to Vietnam War experiences, for conflicting political narratives about that war
o’brien The Things They Carried 227
have been part of our culture since the 1960s. People such as O’Brien find their
actual experiences so bizarre and surreal that they foreground the incredibility of
the account, and, like O’Brien’s character Kiowa, they find that the incredibility
compels repetition. The story must be told again and again to be confirmed as
true, as the real, in Lacanian terms, resists language. O’Brien blurs the line
between fiction and autobiography, perhaps as an issue of definition. Student
readers may be tempted to skim through the story quickly, but to do so is to miss
its impact. The catalogs of burdens have a cumulative effect that builds as the
story humps on, interweaving physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, cultural,
and political burdens. The “climax” of the story the death of Ted Lavender is
first buried in the middle of a sentence, juxtaposed with seemingly trivial items
being carried, and then is repeated again and again. It is unlikely that Jimmy
Cross’s daydreams about Martha actually cause the man’s death, but the lieuten-
ant himself obviously takes responsibility for it. However, as we focus on this
psychological aspect and then compare Cross’s emotions with those of actual
letter writers, perspectives on love begin to emerge.
Although this is a war story, the first paragraph is about Martha’s letters. The
final section of “The Things They Carried” takes us back to Jimmy Cross’s per-
spective, beginning with the sentence “On the morning after Ted Lavender died,
First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross crouched at the bottom of his foxhole and burned
Martha’s letters.” In this way, O’Brien frames the events in the middle of the
story, jumbled as they are in the surreal fashion of war, with the reasoned
thoughts of the protagonist. In the opening, Cross is conscious of “pretending”
that the relationship with Martha is more romantic than it is in reality, and he
uses these fantasies to block out the fear of death that surrounds him. In the end,
he discards romantic love entirely, accepting his blame as Ted Lavender’s com-
manding officer and realizing that his inattention may have been responsible for
the death of one of his men. In the midst of war, love is a luxury he cannot afford,
and we are told, “He would show strength, distancing himself. . . . [H]is obliga-
tion was not to be loved but to lead. He would dispense with love.” By showing
his dreamy sentimentality at the beginning of the story and repeating it through-
out the story, O’Brien prepares the reader for the change that the character
undergoes. Cross becomes hardened because he must.
College students in the twenty- first century will find Martha less real than
readers of her own 1960s generation might have interpreted her. Despite the
images coming out of Woodstock and other “flower power” versions of the 1960s,
many young women expected to be seen as virgins, whether they were or not.
That Jimmy Cross fantasizes about touching Martha’s knee would have been
amusing and ironic to his own generation, but his warrants are true to the mores
of the times. Ideally, the woman he fantasizes about is the American girl next
door whom most soldiers in this war wish their girlfriends to be. As an English
major reading Chaucer, perhaps Martha is not that innocent; and readers will
note the feminist implications in her admiration for Virginia Woolf. The times
they are a- changing, we might note, borrowing from a Bob Dylan song contem-
porary with the Vietnam era. We should also be aware of student protests taking
place on campuses, like the one protest Martha writes about, her letters perhaps
glossing over the truth with trivia meant for Jimmy’s peace of mind. Martha
seems more of a symbol than a real college student.
228 Journeys
As a symbol, Martha cannot really be the recipient of Jimmy Cross’s love.
He knows quite clearly that he fantasizes rather than remembers, although his
“pretending” sometimes is allowed to become real. Martha is careful to couch
her letters in tones of friendship rather than love, although she may be engag-
ing in a bit of suggestive teasing by sending him the pebble, telling him that
she has carried it in her “breast pocket” and giving a poetic description of its
discovery on the beach. Safely at home without this particular man’s desires at
hand, Martha may fantasize as well. Most readers would agree that their “love”
is based on infatuation and daydreaming rather than reality. The “pebble in his
mouth” is a sensual image that takes Jimmy Cross out of his dreadful situation.
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (p.1096)
Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” chronicles the
journey of one Southerner, a Confederate supporter, who was executed at
Owl Creek Bridge for attempted bridge sabotage. At the start of the story, readers
are given a fairly objective description of the condemned Peyton Farquhar’s
appearance and dress, which makes us feel a bit like outsiders witnessing the
scene. Bierce’s description makes him seem relatively unremarkable but certainly
not how you would imagine a typical criminal or saboteur. The story weaves
together reality and illusion by making it unclear whether or not the execution
attempt was actually successful. Farquhar is poised to hang from the bridge, but
upon execution the rope seems to have broken and his life to have been spared
when he ends up in the water. Like the “dancing driftwood,” he notices just before
his hanging, Farquhar is soon swept to a new destination by the deep water, and it
is in these early moments that we readers continue our move inward to witness his
thoughts and experiences. His journey escaping the Union soldiers, however, gets
increasingly fantastical, and as he reaches the gates of his “bright and beautiful”
homestead, we learn that he has indeed been executed, his body still swinging
from the bridge’s timbers.
A complex sense of time undergirds this movement between reality and illu-
sion. Most of the story, which includes a journey we assume takes a day or two
(or more) to complete, has actually happened in the handful of minutes in
which Farquhar waits to be executed. Time here is subjective, in that we are
operating within Farquhar’s sense of this interminable wait. Certain details from
the story start to unravel this complex illusion of survival. For example, Farquhar
shares that upon moving through the water, his senses became “preternatural
frost Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening 229
keen and alert,” so that he can now hear the sounds of each ripple on his face
and spot the veins of each individual leaf. Also, he is somehow able to spot the
gray eyes of the sharpshooter tasked with finishing him off one of several refer-
ences to the color gray in the story, perhaps invoking his Confederate allegiance.
As his journey progresses, Farquhar’s relationship to his surroundings comes to
seem increasingly unreal or even divine, and as we learn of his completed execu-
tion, it becomes more apparent that the ticking of his watch he (and thus we)
heard earlier was indeed his death knell.
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (p.1104)
Because “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” has been widely antholo-
gized, it is likely that college students have encountered it before and been told
that its theme deals with death. We might remind students at this point that
Arguing about Literature suggests finding a theme rather than the theme of a
text. Instructors might locate the interpretation done by HerbertR.Coursen Jr.,
in which he satirically “proves” that the speaker is Santa Claus, delayed on the
way to deliver Christmas presents. Having made the point that we do not take a
New Critical approach, however, we must admit that the cliché that life is a
journey ending in death does seem to drive Frost’s poem to a great extent. We
might suggest a Marxist reading, nevertheless. The speaker is concerned that he
has stopped on property that belongs to an owner who lives “in the village” and
who might object to his trespassing. Nature, though beautiful, does not belong
to the speaker, and his idleness in stopping work to enjoy it challenges the capi-
talistic rule that his own labor does not belong to him either. The “miles to go”
are an obligation that takes over his life and steals beauty, and presumably art,
from him, making it a guilty pleasure, at best.
That this is “[t]he darkest evening of the year” seems significant. Perhaps it
is meant literally, and the speaker is in the woods at the time of the winter sol-
stice. On the other hand, it may be meant metaphysically or psychologically: the
speaker is at his lowest point, deeply depressed, or he is experiencing the
approach of death. We should encourage students to realize that several layers of
meaning are present in such an image and that we do not have to choose among
them; instead we may analyze how they might illuminate each other.
The sound of the poem is part of its meaning. Issues of repetition arise with
rhyme, meter, and other sensory elements. The alliteration in lines 11–12 is
especially effective in communicating the sensory image. We hear the “easy
wind and downy flake” whispering through the air because the sounds of the
letters are almost onomatopoeic. There is also a tactile quality to the sounds as
they enhance the connotations of the words. The effect is that the reader’s body
responds and feels almost as if it has been transported into the world of the poem.
The pause after this image at the end of the penultimate stanza tempts the reader
to remain in the woods, as the speaker’s desire seems to be. The characterization
230 Journeys
of the woods as “lovely, dark and deep” is often taken to mean that the speaker
wishes (to borrow the words of Dylan Thomas) to “go gentle into that good
night,” but the obligations of life keep him going. Most readers agree. We might
ask, however, if “promises” are exactly the same thing as obligations. What might
the promises be, and to whom might they have been given? The repetition of the
last two lines indicates that the continuation of the journey is not as pleasant as
the “sleep” the woods tempt him to accept too soon. It implies a plodding on,
the same old life repeating its ordinary details. Nevertheless, the word miles hints
at a progression, a long journey ahead. We might think about issues a person
debates internally when considering suicide. Isn’t it possible that the journey will
lead to other woods and other moments of peace and beauty?
The Road Not Taken (p.1106)
Like the previous poem by the same author, Robert Frost’s “The Road Not
Taken” may be a poem for which students think they know the one, definitive,
correct interpretation. Many see the poem as having a message for their lives,
as college students about to choose paths to their careers. It is our job as instruc-
tors to disabuse them of this simplistic assumption. Invite them to find critical
essays about the poem and to bring to class an interpretation that they find
surprising. Critics have pointed out inconsistencies that contradict the usual
notion that the speaker has chosen the unconventional path, noting that both
forks of the road are characterized as being “just as fair” and “really about the
same” in the same poem that describes one as “less traveled by.” It is significant
that the title of the poem includes the negative word not. The poem seems to
be not about choosing the right path but about something that is lost by having
to make any choice at all.
Although some instructors encourage student writers to begin with an out-
line, most of us encourage invention strategies that open up choices rather than
limiting or focusing them prematurely. We might see the sort of journey
described by Frost’s poem as relating a similar truth: that it is impossible to see
the future on any path and that openness and flexibility may be needed regard-
less of the choices we make. Because both paths in the poem are worn, both
having been taken by previous travelers, decisions about conformity or noncon-
formity may not be clear. At times, what seems like a bold, independent deci-
sion turns out to be as conformist as the rejected choice, simply shaping our
conformity in a different way. Generational issues, for example, lead young
people to choose music, clothing, and lifestyles that differ from the conven-
tional wisdom of their parents only to find their own children taking the same
attitude a few decades later, characterizing their boldly chosen individualism as
old- fashioned and conforming. Some critics would point out that as part of a
given society, our decisions are influenced by social constructions of reality we
take for granted. We would like to take Frost’s poem as a celebration of noncon-
formity, but this interpretation may itself conform to convention, undercutting
its validity. The sigh of the speaker at the poem’s end may reflect the reality that
every decision involves loss.
frost Acquainted with the Night 231
The mood of the speaker in both “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”
and “The Road Not Taken” is conflicted. The poems describe decisions made
about journeys, and a sense of regret seems present in both. Both poems point
the reader toward the future. The person who stops by the woods would like to
stay there but has “miles to go” on a committed journey. The speaker who
describes the diverging roads anticipates his future reflections. By touching the
future, the concluding lines of both poems leave the reader with something to
think about, an effective way to achieve closure without conventionally sum-
ming up. Although the focus of “Stopping” may be seen as pessimistic if the
poem’s theme concerns death, an argument can be made that the double bind
of being damned if you do and damned if you don’t in the midst of any decision
is more frustrating. The speaker of “Stopping” clearly knows the trajectory of his
journey as he continues straight ahead with promises to others in mind. The
speaker of “The Road” is characterized by lack of focus: although he has chosen
a path, he looks back to the decision and to the other path and then looks forward
to his future sigh in some unknown place “ages and ages hence.” His sense of
futility seems pessimistic indeed.
Acquainted with the Night (p.1107)
An issue of repetition arises in this poem by Robert Frost. The parallel structure
of most of its sentences seems like an incantation, a ritual. The speaker describes
ongoing action: he or she does not take a one- time walk at night but has long
familiarity with night, as the form of the verbs implies. The rhyme scheme, too,
is ongoing, taking us from one stanza to the next with its repeating sounds. The
form is terza rima, a structure invented by Dante, in which the rhyme scheme
interlocks in succeeding tercets ( three- line stanzas). Frost turns the poem into a
sonnet by ending with a rhyming couplet. Our approach to literature does not
emphasize such technical aspects of poetry, but they are interesting in the con-
text of Frost’s poetry, which as we have seen unifies sound and sense to
create an overall impression. How Frost says something becomes as important as
what he says.
Like the speaker of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” the narrator
of “Acquainted with the Night” is aware that he might be seen on his journey in
the night. He does not meet the gaze of the “watchman” because he is “unwill-
ing to explain” his perambulations. Neither does he attempt to explain them to
the reader, perhaps because the action is its own thing, something that would
lose its power if explained. Although the cry in the night seems unrelated to the
speaker, it brings the action of the speaker and the poem itself to a brief halt as
we listen and wonder about its significance. The word But at the beginning of
the following stanza links clauses of a sentence, turning our attention away from
the “interrupted cry” and back to the solitary speaker. Neither the watchman, the
voice in the night, nor the clock proclaiming the time penetrates the isolation of
this traveler in the night. The cry, however, suits the mood of the poem; sub-
merged emotional intensity is implied in the repeated walking, the obsessive
pacing, of the person we encounter here.
232 Journeys
A Greek word sometimes used in rhetoric is kairos. Unlike chronos, which
indicates the passing of time as we usually think of it (hence the word chrono-
logical), kairos refers to a fleeting moment when a word or an action can hit its
precise target. The clock cannot measure this sort of time, so the walker contin-
ues unaffected. Perhaps if the right time ever does present itself, the obsessive
walking may cease, but in the darkness in which the speaker finds himself, it is
hard to find the precise time for decisive action. Night may symbolize this
inability to see, and it also allows the walker to deal with psychological angst
without interruption. The last line seems weightier than the same line that
opens the poem, because we realize that the nightly walks are not simply for
exercise and fresh air. The walker may seek peace from psychological issues on
his recurrent journey, but the walks seem obsessive and repetitive rather than
The journeys in the three poems by Robert Frost that comprise this cluster
are all disturbing and complex. The speaker who stops in the woods wishes he
could embrace the peace he finds there but must move on; his mood is not hope-
ful, and he does not look forward to his journey. The hopefulness of the speaker
in “The Road Not Taken” is mixed with regret. And the brutally honest speaker
in “Acquainted with the Night” seems the least hopeful of all, as he repeats his
apparently random journey. As students choose the line that seems most enig-
matic to them, we might remind them that such a search for the problematic is
a good strategy for finding an interesting writing topic.
Kubla Khan (p.1109)
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of the best known Romantic poets, wrote the
hauntingly beautiful “Kubla Khan” upon waking from an opium dream. The
poem uses characteristically rich imagery, such as “gardens bright with sinuous
rills” and “sunny spots of greenery,” to depict the emperor Kubla Khan’s palace
or “pleasure dome.” But this fantastical palace is contrasted throughout with the
grandeur and force of nature. With the phrase “A savage place!” Coleridge
describes the deep chasm or canyon through which the river, Alph, flows. This
“savage place” is otherworldly, being haunted by a “woman wailing for her
demon- lover.” For Coleridge, this is a tumultuous, even frightening, environ-
ment, where the earth breathed in “fast thick pants” and “huge fragments
vaulted like rebounding hail.” Later in the poem, he recounts a vision of an
Abyssinian maid, whose “symphony and song” seem to have given him the
power of creation. “[W]ith music loud and long,” he writes, “I would build that
dome in air.” And all who saw him would “Beware!” for such a power would
make him almost god- like. There are a number of interpretations of the poem’s
conclusion, but many read the final lines as a comment on the creative powers
of the imagination. With the ability to compose, the poetic genius or creator
would have nearly absolute power over earth and the heavens.
yeats Sailing to Byzantium 233
Ozymandias (p.1111)
“Ozymandias,” written by Percy Bysshe Shelley after a visit to the British
Museum, describes a traveler who came upon the broken statue of a distant king
“half sunk” in the desert. The traveler reports this statue’s existence to the poem’s
narrator, observing that the piece’s sculptor was skilled enough to capture the
“shattered visage” of the long- dead King Ozymandias (including his frown and
his “sneer of cold command”). The worn statue is all that remains in this vast
and lonely desert environment. But “its sculptor well those passions read /
Which yet survive,” the traveler recounts, implying that a good sculptor, like a
good poet, is able to identify and recreate life, “stamp[ing]” passions “on these
lifeless things.” Not unlike the poet/creator in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” the
sculptor here demonstrates significant creative power.
Written in sonnet form, the poem contains fourteen lines total, with a
division of sorts between the first eight and last six lines. Although the first eight
set up the situation and describe the statue’s features, the last six are more
focused on the words inscribed on the pedestal, ending with a return to the
“boundless and bare” desert. Visitors, explains the epitaph, are to recognize the
great king: “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” This makes for an
interesting juxtaposition with the desert environment, for the broken statue is,
more or less, standing in for the dead king of a vast wasteland. But were it not
for the sculptor’s talent, there would be little to remember him by. Because
Shelley was likely influenced by a broken sculpture of Ramses II at the British
Museum, this poem might also serve as a commentary on the passage of time
and the role of great works of art. While he poetically imagines a decaying
statue buried in the sand that is discovered by some traveler, it is the museum-
goer who participates in this new interaction. What happens to the statue when
it’s taken out of its original context and put into a museum exhibit? With the
line “[l]ook upon my works,” readers might identify the sculptor, or the maker,
as the true immortal.
Sailing to Byzantium (p.1113)
Published in his 1928 collection The Tower, William Butler Yeats’s “Sailing to
Byzantium” contends with the struggles of growing old in a young man’s land. In
writing that this “is no country for old men,” the poem suggests that only the
young can thrive there, “[c]aught in that sensual music” of youthful, natural life.
Comparing old men to “[m]onuments of unageing intellect,” Yeats implies that
although our bodies may wither, our minds or intellects remain hungry and stal-
wart. The narrator’s solution to this problem of aging is to journey to Byzantium,
where he hopes to find “ singing- masters” who might help release his soul into
eternity. Trapped in the “dying animal” that is his body, the narrator wants the
“sages” depicted in the city’s gold mosaics to teach him to free his heart from its
mortal bonds. Byzantium, in this sense, serves as a site both intellectually and
234 Journeys
When Death Comes (p.1115)
As the speaker in Mary Oliver’s “When Death Comes” contemplates the journey
of death, her main concern is that she enter into it undefeated and filled with
life. She wants to avoid dying with her life unlived and wants instead to be “par-
ticular, and real.” A skilled poet who teaches creative writing, Oliver is aware of
the “elements of poetry” and the other literary concepts discussed in the early
chapters of our anthology, and she employs many of them in her poetry. Readers
will note her use of sensory imagery, repetition, evocative diction, and carefully
constructed syntax. The opening lines of the poem, for example, use repetition
and parallel structure, repeating the phrase “when death comes” to imply an
ongoing connection between the array of diverse similes. A similar technique is
used near the end of the poem as she begins two stanzas with “When it’s over.
These repeating lines may imply stream of consciousness, but they also give the
poem a sermonic, prophetic quality and emphasize the inevitability of death.
Readers will notice the similes in the early stanzas. Death is first character-
ized as a “hungry bear”; the image is primitive and scary something inexora-
ble, powerful, and elemental that we can’t outrun. Another simile captures the
coldness of the grave: “an iceberg between the shoulder blades.” Most vivid
might be the personification of death as the purchaser of one’s life; as he “snaps
the purse shut,” the one- syllable words with their plosive p and t consonants con-
note a finality that reminds the reader of a coffin lid slamming down. The word
shut makes the connection sure.
The speaker implies that her view of death reinforces the values with which
she lives her life. She tells us of her curiosity and wonder as she contemplates
crossing the line into death, and we therefore can assume that she lives her life
in a similar way, looking ahead in eagerness to each new stage. She expresses
solidarity with other human beings, using the words brotherhood and sisterhood
and celebrating the unique value of each life. For Oliver, life is specific, and she
uses words such as particular and singular to describe it. Using nature imagery,
the poet chooses physical words: names are like “a comfortable music in the
mouth,” and “each body” is “precious to the earth.” She emphasizes “wonder”
and “amazement.” Finally, she appreciates her own body as part of the world,
seeing herself as both bride and bridegroom. She tells us that she doesn’t “want
to end up simply having visited this world.” A visitor does not quite feel at home
and keeps a safe distance. Oliver’s speaker wants to be thoroughly involved and
at home in her skin and in the world.
donne Death Be Not Proud 235
Death Be Not Proud (p.1117)
An Anglican priest who was a contemporary of William Shakespeare, John
Donne wrote sermons, satires, and a great many highly original poems. His
major themes are religion, love, and death. His Holy Sonnets, considered his
most skilled work, reflect these concerns. Like many of Donne’s poems, “Death
Be Not Proud” personifies an abstract concept, death, in the kind of extended
metaphor called a conceit. The sonnet is constructed as a rhetorical argument, a
refutation of the power of death. Addressing death directly, the speaker summons
his evidence with an analogy comparing death to rest and sleep, something that
human beings welcome. What’s more, death is the final agent of the soul’s deliv-
ery, its deliverance to God or perhaps its final rebirth. He goes on to characterize
death as a mere tool of other powers and ends his argument with the paradox that
because the Christian wakes to eternal life, death itself will die.
Death was an ever- present reality for the people of Renaissance England,
and Donne had experienced the deaths of many family members. The wife he
passionately loved gave birth to a new child almost every year in a time when
women frequently died from the complications of childbirth. She died after six-
teen years of marriage in 1617, soon after their twelfth child was delivered still-
born. Six of Donne’s children preceded him in death. His letters often speak of
his own illnesses, and he once wrote a friend, “I am afraid that Death will play
with me so long, as he will forget to kill me; and suffer me to live in a languishing
and useless age. A life that is rather a forgetting that I am dead, than of living.
Death for Donne in his later years seems like an aging cat, toothless, forgetful,
and arbitrary. But the letter is from a later date than the poem, which may have
been written as early as 1611, the same year that the King James Version of the
Bible was published. The Holy Sonnets, subtitled Divine Meditations, owe much
to his own translations of the biblical Psalms and may be read as religious and
philosophical exercises that explore the Christian faith. Perhaps the true inter-
section of his obsession with death and his personal history would come later.
In many of his poems, Donne has his speaker address someone or something
in a dramatic monologue that readers are expected to imagine overhearing. The
situation is much like a formal debate in which the opponents each seek to per-
suade not each other but a listening audience. Donne, as both a clergyman and
a member of Parliament, would have been familiar with both direct and indirect
236 Journeys
ways of swaying an audience. He uses an Aristotelian argument that seeks to prove
the opposition completely in the wrong. Because it is impossible to present an
argument without revealing something of oneself, the speaker shows that he is
proud of his defiance of death. His tone is mocking, almost jeering in its sarcasm.
Perhaps its strong language is merely bravado, a cover for fear. Or the speaker may
seek out death, taunting him into striking.
The poem assumes that the audience will share the speaker’s warrants about
eternal life after death. But even readers who do not believe this may relate to the
concept of death as a rest from life. The intellectuality of the speaker and his skill
with language are not consistent with naiveté, and we trust such an ethos. But
considering his argument in terms of logos, we might charge him with begging the
question. Before we can believe that death should not be proud, we must believe
the doctrine that Christ has conquered death and the grave. Donne preaches to
the choir, to people who are already inclined to believe that death is powerless.
The poem flows so well as an argument that we may not notice its
Shakespearean sonnet structure or its traditional rhyme scheme. To modern ears,
the final couplet does not rhyme, though it would have rhymed in many
Elizabethan dialects. The final line may be read with the rhythms of iambic
pentameter, since it is perfectly regular in its meter. Imagining Donne in the
pulpit or in Parliament, however, we might hear a strong voice emphasizing each
Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night (p.1118)
Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” is written in the
highly structured form called a villanelle. The villanelle began as a French verse
form that originally addressed trivial and lighthearted themes. Always experimen-
tal in some way, Thomas uses it for the serious purpose of responding to his
father’s death, thus transforming the form and making it his own. Thomas’s dra-
matic readings of his poetry in the 1950s made him an important voice in