If you find yourself in a poetry class, or literature class studying poetry you will almost doubtlessly be called upon to write an analysis of the poem. An analysis is different from the way in which you might normally take a test on a poem; the paper isn’t there to examine such things as rhyme scheme, meter, alliteration and the like. A genuine analysis of poetry will look for the meaning of the poem. Depending on what kind of analysis you are expected to given, this meaning you go in search of may be what the poet himself is alleged to have meant, or your own interpretation. Most contemporary literary criticism avoids looking for any authorial intent, considering such an enterprise to be an exercise in futility. After all, how can you really ever truly know what an author intended if he even doesn’t know? The intent he had may have been usurped by subconscious motivations beyond his understanding. In addition, time has a unique way of subverting the reading of authorial intention. So, more than likely, you will be engaging in a search for your own interpretation.
To give a couple of example of how you might approach the daunting task of analyzing poetry that may-indeed, quite probably will-seem almost unintelligble, I’ll analyze two poems by the great (greatest?) Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. If you are an English major and you are still reading at this point, it’s probably just to see what I’ll have to say. This guide is directed more towards the non-English majors who will either choose a literature class for an elective or else have one thrust upon them as a freshman or sophomore. Since you stand a terrific chance of having to write a paper on Romantic poetry more than any other poetic genre, I have chosen to focus on this particular Romantic poet. Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a poet that will amost certainly be on your reading list. The first poem of Coleridge’s I will analyze will be “France: An Ode” and the second will be “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison.”
France: An Ode
Coleridge was moved to write this poem by the events surrounding the French Revolution. The French Revolution was a driving force behind the British Romantic poetry movement and in this poem Coleridge is attempting to to discover if liberty exists in nature. The beauty and meaning of nature is another major thematic element in the Romantic movement and it’s import is addressed in the lines that open the poem in it appears that a gauntlet is being thrown down along with the statement that it is only in nature that one can ever achieve authentic liberty. The liberty that was then being being hunted through acts of violent revolution must face the issue of human struggles against liberty at the expense of personal gain. The poem speaks out against France’s devolving into a pit of abject fear and horrifying terror through the imager of “storms, that round the dawning east assembled.” For Coleridge, the promise of the revolution has been corrupted by the dawning of the terrors which will become ever more indefensible.
Liberty can be gained through revolution, but more importantly is that it can be lost just as easily and violently. In nature, however, liberty lives eternally. “Ye clouds, that far above me float and pause, / Whose pathless march no mortal may control!” At the end of the poem Coleridge seems to express the thought that political revolution is no place to seek true liberty, it can be sought only in nature and that revolution is a passing thing to which man must not attach himself too dependently. The poem can be read as an assault against man defining himself by his attachment to social causes at the expense of understanding that nature itself is the only cause which continues unabated.
This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison
In the final, completed version of “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge gives expression to a much deeper and richer appreciation of the beauty that lies in nature than he did in the original version of the poem. It accomplishes this by strengthening the impression that the speaker is being held a prisoner away from the beauty of the earth to which his friends-Charles Lamb, in particular-are party. The opening lines of the poem give greater detail to the dell which he told his friends about and where they are apparently going to wander. The poem’s tone is changed significantly through these alterations, leading one away from a more generalized reading of the poem into introspection of a more specific type. The dell and the ash are immediate and recognizable and are given much more descriptive quality in the final version.
Another interesting variance in the two versions of the poem comes near the end, when twice Coleridge addresses “my sister and my friends” in the first version, whereas he addresses “My gentle-hearted Charles” in the completed version. This spirit of the poem is changed from an address to his sister and friends into a more direct address to his friend Charles Lamb. The same Charles Lamb who earlier in the poem is supposed to have “pined / And hungered after nature many a year”. The poem in this regard enlarges the aforementioned focus of the rewritten poem on the images of natural beauty to which Coleridge is himself pining away for while writing. The fact that Charles is able to partake of the natural beauty of the world seems to Coleridge a small comfort that he is not at this particular time.