Posts Tagged ‘Herbert’

Memento Mori Readings

by   |  10.26.09  |  221-Early Modern

    Up until the plague outbreaks of the seventeenth century, most communities had an unsettling habit of burying people in the church. Wealthy aristocrats and merchants would leave money for a monument or a plaque to be placed in the wall, in an aisle, or, in the days before Henry’s Reformation, in a side chapel where prayers would be said for their soul. One result of this practice was keeping death ever in the mind of the living.
    These memorials to the dead included not only the name and epitaph of the deceased but also a reminder to passersby to look to their own life or remember their end. Memento mori: “remember that you too must die.” This particular inscription, often appearing alongside a skull or hourglass, came to be associated with any work of art used to remind its audience of their mortality. Such monuments represented then a dual memorial, both of the individual’s life and of the universal end.
    In the 2001 film Wit, based on a play by Margaret Edson, Professor Vivian Bearing learns she has stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer. As she comments wryly, “There is no stage five.” The persistent irony of the film is that Dr. Bearing was a professor of seventeenth-century poetry all-too-familiar with the subject of death in literature but suddenly confronted by the reality in life.

    Memento Mori clip

    In memento mori poems like Donne’s famous Holy Sonnet 10, we also recognize a dual memorial, both of the reality of death and of the hope of future life. In contrast to the carpe diem poems which responded to death’s insistent approach by recommending pleasure of the moment, “The grave’s a fine and private place / But none I think do there embrace,” these poets turn to religious reflection.

    This week’s discussion will consider how English poets from the seventeenth century responded to the themes of time and death in light of their religious convictions. In poems that range from the intensely personal to the intently public, Donne, Herbert, and Milton confront the ultimate questions of Life, Death, Soul, God, Past, and Present.

Explication Exercise

    Before class, you will need to write another short explication of a poem by the poet you just reviewed (see the Writing an Explication assignment for more information). An explication is a close reading of the most important ideas or elements of a poem. 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.

    In the 2001 film Wit, Professor Bearing described Donne’s holy sonnets as poetic puzzles, and there is something about the metaphysical wit of Donne and Herbert that seems almost playful in its use of concentrated metaphor, paradox, and language. As with the Carpe Diem assignment, these poems will reward close, attentive reading. How can you break your poem down into its component parts? 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 Holy Sonnet 14 before moving on to complete your own short explication of one of the other assigned poems.

    Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14 – read by Dr. Bill Walton, English professor

    Explication of Holy Sonnet 14 – Dr. Walton

    Anniina Jokinen has posted a “quick and rough” explication of Donne’s Holy Sonnet 10 at the link below. Though longer than what you’ve been asked to write, it may also illustrate the kinds of insights a close reading should generate.

    Sample Explication for Holy Sonnet 10

    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 auditor or audience?) What is the central conflict? What implied action(s) occurs before, during, or after the poem?

    Step 4. Looking at the poem as a meditation, what imagery is chosen to describe the individual believer? How does the poet describe his relationship with God? How does this relationship address questions of life, death, past, and present?

    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 address a question?

    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. Before you leave the poem, what questions does it raise regarding contemporary views of life, death, soul, and God? How does the poem challenge or confirm personal views of mortality or a personal relationship with God?

    Step 8. Once you have a clear idea of what the poet is trying to say, write a 1 to 2 paragraph explication of the poem, referencing key lines or phrases that illuminate that purpose for other readers.