A summary of a classic poem
There was a time when every schoolchild could quote lines from Thomas Gray’s poem ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, since it was a popular poem to be taught, learnt by rote, and analysed in schools in Britain. Gray’s poem gave Thomas Hardy the phrase ‘far from the madding crowd’ for use as the title of his fourth published novel; the phrase ‘paths of glory’ was used as the title for Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 anti-war film; and the phrase ‘mute inglorious Milton’ has become well-known. But in recent decades its popularity has declined. Is it still worth reading, studying, and subjecting to close analysis? Yes, yes, and yes. First, here’s a reminder of the text of ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, before we move on to explain 1) why it isn’t an elegy, 2) why Gray didn’t want it published, and 3) how an obscure poet who died young helped to sow the seeds of this great poem.
Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds; Read the rest of this entry
A reading of a classic poem about advertising
‘Essential Beauty’ (1962) is one of several poems Philip Larkin wrote about the gulf between advertising and the real world. Like another poem he wrote in 1962, ‘Sunny Prestatyn’, ‘Essential Beauty’ examines the promises that billboard advertisements make to us and how starkly the reality of people’s lives differs from such aspirational messages. You can read ‘Essential Beauty’ here.
Before we proceed to an analysis of this poem, a quick summary. ‘Essential Beauty’ is divided into two stanzas. The first offers a series of images from contemporary posters advertising a range of products: Oxo (‘that small cube’), Ovaltine (‘cups at bedtime’), and so on. Many of these were genuine adverts, or Larkin’s distilled summary of their typical contents. These advertisements offer their products as the key to attaining the perfect life: a well-balanced family, a life of ‘smiles’, ‘how life should be’. The second stanza then contrasts these billboard advertisements with the world – the actual world – these posters hide from our view. Read the rest of this entry
A commentary on a classic Poe story
‘The Cask of Amontillado’ is one of Poe’s shorter classic tales. It was first published in 1846 in a women’s magazine named Godey’s Lady’s Book, a hugely popular magazine in the US in the mid-nineteenth century. (The magazine had published one of Poe’s earliest stories, ‘The Visionary’, twelve years earlier.) ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ is one of Poe’s ‘revenge stories’, and the way he depicts the avenger’s psychological state is worthy of closer analysis. You can read the story here.
First, a quick summary of the plot of ‘The Cask of Amontillado’, which is our way of saying ‘those who wish to avoid spoilers please look away now’. The story is narrated by the murderer, Montresor, who takes revenge on a fellow Italian nobleman, Fortunato, during the carnival season. Fortunato, drunk and dressed in motley, boasts that he can tell an amontillado from other sherry, and so Montresor lures his rival down into Montresor’s family catacombs, saying that he has some amontillado for Fortunato to taste. Read the rest of this entry