Carpe Diem Readings

by   |  10.08.09  |  221-Early Modern

    If the protagonists in the carpe diem poem are always young, vital, and full of passion, their antagonist is always time. The enemy of love and lovers is the progression of time, an ever-present reality in Renaissance poetry that drives many of the poems we read this week. Consider Andrew Marvel’s “To His Coy Mistress” . As you follow along in your book or online, listen to the following reading and watch for the way the speaker balances desire and argument in his artful invitation to seize the moment.

    To His Coy Mistress – read by Dr. Chris Willerton, English professor and poet

    The three sections of Marvel’s poem lay out an implied argument as the speaker moves from the theoretical, if time were not a factor, to the hard reality of the carpe diem. The poem itself moves from moments of wit and playfulness to passages of somber melancholy before finally inviting the listener to choose life and pleasure.

    In this assignment, we’ve combined poems written over more than a half century by poets with radically different backgrounds and purposes. How does each of the poets approach carpe diem themes in an original way? How do they confront the movement of time or the insistent approach of death? In addition to the carpe diem, what other solutions do they offer their young audience? Is seizing the moment the only response to time, decay, and the approach of “endless night”?

Explication Exercise

    Before class, you will need to produce a short explication of an assigned poem. An explication is a close reading of the most important ideas or elements of a poem (see the Writing an Explication assignment for more information). The process of close reading asks you to focus on the parts of a poem and ask how they function in relation to the whole.

    Shakespeare’s sonnets often strike students as overly complex and difficult on first reading, but breaking them down into smaller parts can make the process of interpreting them easier. How can you break longer poems down into stanzas, verse paragraphs, or sentences? Do these sections move logically from one to the next? Does the poet use basic poetic units like the couplet, quatrain, sestet, or octave (2, 4, 6, or 8 lines) to develop a single image or cluster of related images? Listen to the following close reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 12 before moving on to complete the explication exercise below.

    Shakespeare’s Sonnets – Dr. Kyle Dickson, English professor

    Sonnet 12 – read by Dr. Dana McMichael, English professor

    Explication of Sonnet 12 – Dr. Dickson

    As you begin your own explication, the steps below should help you get started:

    Step 1. Choose one of the assigned poems and read it once or twice aloud. Since lyric poetry shares a close relationship with music, reading your poem out loud will draw your attention to rhythms and sound effects the poet may be using to develop his ideas.

    Step 2. Next paraphrase the poem (or for longer poems a short section of it) in your reading notebook by translating its meaning into contemporary speech.

    Step 3. Looking at the poem as a drama, who are the characters? (What do you know about the speaker? Who is the audience or listener?) What is the central conflict? What implied action(s) occurs before, during, or after the poem?
    *Remember that the “I” of the poem is often a dramatic persona and not necessarily the poet himself.

    Step 4. Looking at the poem as an argument or debate, what is the speaker’s rhetorical purpose or goal? What arguments does he use to persuade his audience? What strategies does he use to make these more persuasive? How is the structure of the argument reflected in the structure of the poem?

    Step 5. Now look at the structural and poetic elements of the poem. How does the poet divide the poem into logical parts? How does spacing or punctuation make these logical divisions clear? How does the poet use image patterns or conceits to develop a theme or support an argument?

    Step 6. Look up any unfamiliar words in a dictionary. How does the poet employ difficult, unusual, or related types of words to develop an image or set the mood of the poem? Do they help set a tone that is personal, playful, academic, provocative, devotional, or something else?

    Step 7. Once you have a clear idea of what the poet is trying to say, organize your thoughts into an outline for a 5-minute audio explication. This doesn’t have to be a formal essay, but you should support main points by referencing key lines or phrases (by line number) that help listeners follow along in the poem.

    *See Student Example on Marvel’s “To His Coy Mistress” before you begin your outline.

    “To His Coy Mistress” – Student Example