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How Poetry Written Centuries Ago is Still Able to Engage Readers Today

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  • Category: Poetry

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Poetry written centuries ago is still able to engage readers today through its expression of universal themes and ideas and also by the techniques and conventions of poetry that assist in conveying these themes and ideas. Poetry is a form of art which acknowledges the universality of human psychology. It develops with the civilisation from which it springs and this civilisation is a central part of the poetry itself; however, there are aspects of poetry which are relevant to all cultures at all times. These aspects are of course the themes, ideas, conventions and techniques. Some ideas which appear often in poetry are love, religion, fortune, life and death. These ideas are universal in that they are relevant in society centuries ago, and society today. Conventions and techniques have also been used in poetry throughout time in order to assist in conveying the message of the poem and engaging the reader. Some techniques which are commonly used are metaphor, simile, personification, alliteration, rhyme and enjambment. Hence, from this use of common themes, ideas, conventions and techniques, readers are able to be engaged by poetry no matter when it was written.

The two texts that I will be using to support my views are ‘Sonnet 29’ by William Shakespeare and ‘How do I love thee?’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. ‘Sonnet 29’ by William Shakespeare is dominated by the melancholic feelings of the speaker and his own anxieties about himself. He shares with the reader his feelings of loneliness and discontent, as well as the envy he has towards those whom he feels are more prosperous in (both life and wealth) and talented than he is. He feel’s he is lonely, without hope, physically unattractive, without intellect and without talent.

However just when he reaches the lowest point of his depression, the person who he is writing to enters his mind and cures him of his misery. The poem displays the values held by people in both the past and present and uses many techniques such as alliteration, metaphor, enjambment and rhyme in order to emphasise the message and engage the reader. ‘How do I love thee?’ By Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a passionate affirmation of love from and enthralled lover. The poem describes the many ways in which Browning feels for the subject, her lover, and therefore defines her love. It contains ideas about love, religion, life and death and also uses techniques such as rhetorical questions, similes, metaphors, rhyme, repetition and alliteration. These two texts are evidence that poetry written centuries ago still engages readers today and shows the way in which the themes, ideas, conventions and techniques used, play a major role in poetry’s ability to stand the test of time.

Love is one of the strongest emotions felt by living beings; therefore it is no surprise that it is one of the most commonly expressed ideas in poetry. Love is a universal feeling, which is felt by every living being on this earth, as a result of this people from all societies past and present value love and its place in life. As love is so universal, the poetry that is based around the idea of love is relatable and therefore engaging. The poem ‘How do I love thee?’ is a prime example of the idea of love being expressed and the way in which it engages the reader. The theme of this poem is that one can love another in many ways and that this love can be so intense that it can overcome even death. The intensity of the speaker’s love is evident in the second line where it states ‘love thee to the depth and breadth and height’. This statement shows that her love is three dimensional and therefore real, in the sense that all real physical things in the universe are three dimensional. She also explains the level of her love in lines 5 and 6 where it states ‘I love thee to the level of every day’s

Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight’. This shows that her love is on the same level as our most basic needs–air, water, food ect. Finally, in the last line, it reinforces the strength of her love by stating that it can surpass death; ‘I shall but love thee better after death’. This emphasises the strength of her love as death is seen to be a powerful force. This idea of love and its strength is relevant in today’s society as love is still one of the most important aspects of life and it will always play an important role in the lives of all people. This idea is repeated in poems such as ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ and ‘Sonnet 116’ by William Shakespeare. The idea of love is evident in both past and present poetry which in turn causes the reader to relate to the poem no matter what time period it was written in. This supports the idea that poetry written centuries ago is still able to engage readers through the use of universal ideas.

Religion plays an important role in many people’s lives and is another idea that has been commonly used in poetry. Humans are curious beings, and from the beginning of time they have searched for answers about life and about the world. Science having not progressed until recent centuries cannot prove everything itself. There are many things beyond the scope of science, for which religions give the answer, and this inturn gives religion great importance. The poem ‘How do I love thee?’ By Elizabeth Barrett Browning also presents the idea of religion as it has a continuous reference to spirituality and God. An example of this is in line 4 where it states ‘For the ends of Being and ideal Grace’. Ideal Grace is capitalized here and probably refers to God, and His most perfect gift-Salvation. It also refers to the opportunity to experience eternal love and bliss in His presence as she likens her love for the subject to that love of God. It is also evident in the last line where it states, ‘and, if God choose/I shall but love thee better after death’. This suggests that her love for him will not end at the grave, but, God willing, will continue on eternally. This reference to God shows that she, the author values religion in her life as do many people in today’s society, therefore this idea encourages the reader to relate to the poem and hence be engaged. This shows that the idea of religion is also universal and it being included in poetry assists in engaging the reader no matter how long ago the poem was written.

Life and death are ideas that are repeatedly used in poetry, especially those written centuries ago. During times such as the middle ages, the death rate was very high because there was very little medicine, poor hygiene, wars and very little if any laws regarding the killing of people. People during these times cold die of something as simple as a flue, whereas now there are doctors and medicines to cure us. In saying this, the fear of dying and the power of death are always present and many poets express their ideas about death through their poetry. In the poem ‘How do I love thee?” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the strength of death is mentioned. For example in the last line of the poem it states “and if God choose/ I shall love thee better after death”. This statement shows that death was clearly in the mind of the author and that the love that the author feels is so strong it can overcome even death. This not only magnifies the strength of her love but it validates the presence of death in her thoughts and the way in which there can be life after death. The fear of Death is examined in the poem ‘X’ by John Donne and the theme is that Death is just a passing of time, an instant connecting one moment to the next. This fear of dying is also relevant to today’s society as death is of course a part of life. No matter what time you live in, death is an ever present force which means that any poetry related around the idea of death can be read, understood and appreciated even if it has been written centuries ago.

The universal themes and ideas are not the only aspects of poetry which cause them to stand the test of time. The use of conventions and techniques in order to support and assist the themes and ideas also play a role in poetry’s ability to engage the reader. The poem entitled ‘sonnet 29’ by William Shakespeare is one which is rich in techniques and particularly engaging. The poem follows the usual Shakespearean pattern of three quatrains (four line sections) and a couplet. It also follows the traditional rhyme scheme for Shakespearian sonnets: ababcdcdefefgg. This rhyming scheme assists in the flow of the poem which makes it much easier to listen to and easier to remember. The most powerful technique used in this poem is enjambment which is used on the 12th line were it states “(like to the Lark at break of day arising/From sullen earth)”. By placing ‘from sullen earth’ on the line below, the reader is forced to take a breath and emphasis is placed on the last three words. This creates in the reader’s mind, the image of the bird rising just as the sudden realisation comes to the persona. By using these techniques, Shakespeare has engaged the reader and as these techniques are still effective the time in which the poem was written plays no role in the effect the poem has on the reader.

The poem ‘How do I love thee?’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning also uses many techniques which assist in engaging the reader. The first technique of a rhetorical question is used on the first line; it asks “How do I love thee?” The use of a rhetorical question automatically grabs the reader’s attention as he/she is forced to think of an answer almost immediately. This statement also implies that there are multiple ways of loving someone, giving insight into the idea of love. Another important technique used in this poem is repetition, the words “I love the” are repeatedly used which draw attention to the words that follow them. These words include ‘freely’, ‘purely’ and ‘with the passion’ in turn emphasising the main ideas of the poem. The use of similes also assists in the reader’s understanding of the poem. On the 7th line it states “I love thee freely, as men strive for Right”. Men strive for Right freely, for it is necessary to their happiness, therefore the simile used here helps the reader to understand that her love is the kind of love that is freely given without any coercion by guilt or force or the threat of force. These are only a few techniques used in the poem “How do I love thee?” but it is clear just from these that they are successful in engaging the reader. So again, we see that even though this poem was written in the 1861 it is still engaging and effective in conveying an idea to the reader.

Poetry is written in order to express emotion and ideas. These emotions and ideas that are expressed by poets are those that are expressed by all people at some point. Malouf states that “since poetry speaks immediately out of the centre of each one of us: giving shape to what we too have experienced and did not till then have words for, though as soon as they are spoken we know them as our own”. This quote explains the way in which poetry speaks up about what happens in all people’s lives and what usually goes unnoticed. Poetry being open to interpretation can be read in many different ways with different meaning being discovered. Poetry as a whole being concerned with universal ideas and themes, relates to all human beings no matter what country they come from or what time they live in. The techniques used in poetry assist in engaging the reader and emphasising the message the poet is trying to send. To conclude poetry written centuries ago is still able to engage readers today as it contains themes, ideas, conventions and techniques that are universal and therefore relatable to all people. The poems written centuries ago continue to give insight into love, religion, life and death even though they were written so long ago. Poetry may reflect the time period with which it comes from, but through the universality of human psychology, it is timeless.

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