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The Geometry of Grief:
Analysis of Poems by Denis Johnson and Gerard Manley Hopkins
Among the most potent subject matter for any writer is grief. In secret, in the dark, we have all felt a pain too powerful to convey. It is for this reason that describing a poem as mournful is generally a compliment. Why do we rave about books and films that make us cry? We love these works because they give us a glimpse into another soul, one with some of the same problems and vulnerabilities as we have. We cry with artists because they are like us: imperfect. We cry and wipe away tears and go on to smile again. The reconciliation that comes after a time of mourning is rejuvenating. There is sometimes a feeling of such cleansing after crying as to make one wonder if happiness is all it is cracked up to be. To touch upon the subjects of grief and its reconciliation or lack thereof are among the poet s chief concerns. Denis Johnson s poem, Sway, and Gerard Manley Hopkins No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief are examples of how poets of different eras deal with the sorrow inherent in human life.
Denis Johnson s title, Sway, is an interesting metaphor that attempts to sum up his feelings concerning grief and happiness, or harmony and divergence (Johnson 10). The term itself is at once comforting and unsettling, achieving a duality of feeling in line with the subject matter. To sway is to be accepting, to move with the winds of change like a stalk of barley. When something sways, it does not bend too far and break off but bends one way then another, always turning to a new direction as its guiding force changes. This movement is reinforced by the use of the repeated phrase, harmony and divergence, which gives a sense of swaying in its sound. There is, in the idea of swaying a comfort. Johnson does not view grief as a crushing thing, something from which one does not recover. Instead grief is a portion of the cyclical flow of life. Divergence may influence one s life, but harmony is on the horizon. Sorrowfully, the reverse is also true.
The alternate connotation of sway leaves less room for optimism. When one sways, it is from lack of control. Swaying is a result of a powerful force acting on a less powerful entity. Like field of barley swaying in the wind, the speaker is helpless to change the movement of his/her own life. The only other mention made of the movement of the speaker is when he/she says, from bar to bar in terror I shall move / past Forty-third and Halsted, Twenty-fourth / and Roosevelt (Johnson 2-4). The speaker conveys this information as if it matters, as if taking a cab further downtown will provide a release from the helplessness of losing love. The mistake in this notion is suggested in subsequent lines. Having moved in terms of geographical location, the speaker finds only fire-gutted cars, / their bones the bones of coyote and hyena (Johnson 4-5). When one tries to run from grief, the impotence of that action is made clear to him.
The unavoidable sway is a sad story the story that begins / I did not know who she was / and ends I did not know who she was (Johnson 11, 12-14). The usage of tense here is odd. Why in both cases of this repeated phrase does the speaker use the past tense to indicate, I did not know who she was ? Perhaps the speaker realized too late who she was. Perhaps this poem is a reflection of the grief manifest in that moment of belated realization. In the most literal characterization of sway in the poem, Johnson calls it the sway / of all of us between harmony and divergence (Johnson 8-9, 10). This phrasing reflects the reason that audiences love to read works of grief. Johnson s idea of a sway may be bleak in part, but it is the sway of all of us. As much as we lament the terror and sorrow brought on by lost love, we also find solace in the idea that this is a common lament. While Johnson may or may not be trying to express the communal aspect of his sorrow, it makes itself known inherently simply by existing in published poetry. By publishing his pain, he has already reached out to the reader. By reading and relating to the poem, the reader can, in a sense grasp the poet s extended hand.
Gerard Manley Hopkins view of grief holds less hope than does Johnson s because the geometry of his grief is different. As I have already mentioned, Johnson views grief as a part of a circle, always moving toward harmony and back again. Hopkins grief is a drop into a pit. Life starts at its highest point and makes a quick descent to death, grief hastening the fall. One never feels the relief of knowing that he has reached the worst, that it can only get better from here. No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief, / More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring. (Hopkins 1-2).
In contrast to Johnson, Hopkins does not tell us from whence this intense pain comes. His poem acts more as a snapshot of a soul in its most broken state. We do not know why Hopkins speaker grieves, only that he does. The speaker s pain is perhaps most beautifully illustrated in the lines that read, My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief / Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing / Then lull, then leave off (Hopkins 5-7). His pain is a pounding of hammer against anvil in his mind, each collision depleting his spirit, sparks of his former self flying away.
Again unlike Johnson, Hopkins questions his audience concerning the degree to which they can understand this suffering. He describes the mind as a mountain with cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed (Hopkins 9-10), going on to say, Hold them cheap / May who ne er hung there (Hopkins 10-11). One might wonder if in this line Hopkins does not underestimate his audience. Even kings and queens have felt these pangs at some point. The exclusivity that the speaker gives this sorrow is at once truthful to his/her state and mistaken about the reality of grief in the world. There is not, nor will there ever likely be a faction of humanity untouched by grief. One might argue that there are none who have ne er hung on these cliffs. At the same time, who among us has not, in a state of anguish thought that no one ever felt pain so deep? The speaker s irrationality reminds us of our own in the same mournful state. The speaker s implication that we may not have felt this same pain encourages us to acknowledge that we have.
One of the most poignant phrases Hopkins uses to describe his geometry of grief comes at the end of the poem. He writes, all / Life death does end and each day dies with sleep (Hopkins 13-14). This idea of grief may revise its earlier geometrical characterization. Instead of a fall from a cliff that connotes a straight-line descent, these lines suggest that the descent into grief is more fragmented. Here, grief is seen as increasing incrementally day by day, in a sense spiralling toward death. Previous lines reinforce this notion. When Hopkins writes, Here! creep, / Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind (Hopkins 12-13), he introduces for the first time the idea of the spiral in the form of a whirlwind. A spiral is the more fitting geometry for Hopkins grief for several reasons. Spirals bring to mind images of whirlwinds and whirlpools that mirror the process Hopkins speaker is going through, being tossed and turned by his sorrow. Hopkins spiral might also be seen as turning from the outward further and further inward, which would also mirror the experience of the speaker. Finally, spirals are continuous entities, in this case moving toward an inward vanishing point. This occurrence might represent the degrees of Hopkins grief, getting worse and worse, spiralling down, but never reaching a worst point.
Hopkins and Johnson s ideas of grief are no doubt shaped in part by the eras in which they lived. Hopkins is a more dramatic view of grief resulting from the dramatic tone of much of the subject matter of his era. He and poets of the same era including Tennyson, Wordsworth, and Shelley to name a few, were known in part for dramatic characterizations of love, honor, and grief. This tendency of his contemporaries to describe major literary themes in grandiose terms no doubt plays a part in why Hopkins view of grief in this poem is so remarkably bleak with absolutely no hope of recovery. As I have already suggested, this fact might also be attributed to idea that the poem is intended merely as a glimpse of an irrational extreme of a particular emotion.
Denis Johnson s circular grief that eventually bounces back to harmony is obviously quite the opposite. He takes a more rationally balanced approach to his image of grief, the speaker realizing even in his most desperate hour that harmony will again return even if it seems far off now. His geometry of grief is only similar to Hopkins in that they are both essentially circular, one contained within set parameters and one spiralling into oblivion. As such, the common characteristic of both shapes is that they involve being thrown about by a higher power, be it fate, God, or what have you. Both of these writers are expressing the helplessness in which they have experienced grief.
Johnson s speaker shows lament at the end of the poem, thinking perhaps that he/she could have avoided this sorrow had he/she known who she was. We cannot know if this sorrow could have been avoided, but we do know that sorrow itself is unavoidable. Had the speaker not felt pain at the loss of this love, it would have been felt at the loss of another. Both Johnson s and Hopkins grief are more accurately representations of their respective views of life. They express grief as an essential part of life, not something entered into by a particular disposition, but born into by becoming human. It is in this realization that the human connection between writer and reader is most genuinely forged. The poet lets out his mournful cry, and we join in, confirming our common humanity.
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