In at least two works of poetry you have studied, compare how images convey the thoughts and feelings of the speaker. – Justin Chor Yu Liu

In at least two works of poetry you have studied, compare how images convey the thoughts and feelings of the speaker.

Poetry, compared to prose, is a short and succinct form of literature, so not a word or line is to be wasted; each image is meticulously crafted by the poet to achieve maximum effect. These effects may vary in how much they shock, stun, or surprise the reader, but they are all devoted to the same ultimate goal — to convey the thoughts and feelings of their poets, and to deliver thematic material embedded with emotion. T.S. Eliot is a poet widely revered for his varied and brief yet precise imagery; his “Preludes” and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” are both large canvases filled with his numerous and imaginative images. On the contrary, Eliot’s inspiration and predecessor in metaphysical poetry, John Donne, takes a more singular and focused approach in “The Flea”, but he could also easily do what Eliot does in “The Ecstasy”. The images in these poems vary in quantity and brevity, but are all wildly successful in conveying their poets’ meaning and sentiment.

Eliot begins “Preludes” with the “smell of steaks in passageways”, an image that upsets the gustatory and olfactory delicacy of the steaks with the dirt and darkness of passageways. This is, of course, fitting as his poem laments urban decadence which seems materialistically enticing but actually corrupts the mind and soul of the consumer. More images of urban decay follow, such as “the grimy scraps of withered leaves” and “newspapers from vacant lots”. The former expresses the contamination of nature and withering of humanity, while the latter makes a direct reference to the vacancy of humans. These images are found not only in the first stanza; for example, the “faint stale smells of beer” comments on how decadence is not a one-time occurrence in early 20th-century Western civilization but a lasting trend and addiction much like alcoholism. These examples are merely the tip of the iceberg in a poem in which such images overflow. They activate all five senses and capture the essence of city life very well, and they provoke a disgusting yet familiar feeling in the 20th– or 21″-century reader. All of them contribute in painting Eliot’s negative outlook on civilization, and surely make the reader feel revolted yet guilty at the same time.

Eliot’s “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” is a similar poem which explores similar themes — the urban decadence and negative outlook are there, but there is also more focus on the regularity and procedural quality of modern city life (slowly slipping into dystopian territory). “Every street lamp that [the narrator passes] beats like a fatalistic drum” contains so much in a few words. There are the street lamps — human invention designed to shed light in the darkness — yet all Eliot feels is dark negativity. There is the drum-like effect that is both auditory and kinesthetic, and coupled with “every street lamp” — not just one or two, but every — the reader hears a drum beat thunderously counting down to some ominous and sinister thing. This thing is the “fatalistic” quality of the drum, and all the narrator sees is doom and gloom. This is a prime example of how Eliot’s imagery is unconventional and eccentric (the conventional poet would certainly use street lamps for visual effect), short yet packed with sprawling ideas and vivid imagination, and sensory in all the ways possible. There are many more examples of such urban debauchery in “Rhapsody”, but there is also more focus on the human element than in “Preludes”. While “Preludes” has a woman “[curling] the papers from [her] hair” — a clear jab at society’s superficial and toxic obsession with outward beauty — the eyes of the woman in “Rhapsody” are even “crooked”. Not only is this image disturbing, it also directly points at the crookedness of humanity, i.e. the absence of strong moral values to unwaveringly uphold. Humanity is bent and twisted; once again, the reader feels disgusted not only at the images but also at himself/herself.

Compared to Eliot’s assortment of images, John Donne is much more focused in “The Flea”. That is not to say that he is less successful, but the effect is different. The central images is, unsurprisingly, the titular flea, and Donne stays on it throughout the poem. What Donne does is to exploit the many characteristics of his subject, and even crafts a story for it. The flea represents premarital sex in Donne’s argument against the prohibition of premarital sex; the connection seems far-fetched but Donne is actually exploiting the ordinariness and commonplaceness of the flea. Yes, the flea is seemingly banal and trivial, and so is premarital sex, Donne thinks. He also makes use of the flea’s bloodsucking ability. In the first stanza, the flea draws blood from both the narrator and his lover, so the “two bloods [mingle]”. Donne points out that the exchange of bodily fluids is already happening. He immediately moves to establish his point that this “cannot be said a sin”. In the second stanza, the connection between bloodsucking and lovemaking is made clearer. The flea now contains the narrator’s, his lover’s, and the flea’s own blood — sexual intercourse similarly contains the male’s, the female’s, and the potential offspring’s lives. This might also be a reference to the biblical Holy Trinity, which explains why killing the flea would be “three sings” and “sacrilege”. Donne’s argument becomes more passionate and agitative. In the third stanza, where the narrator’s lover finally kills the flea, Donne calls this “cruel and sudden”, and questions what the flea did to warrant such fate. Obviously, he is also questioning what people did to warrant the church’s condemnation. His emotion is upfront due to this use of questions. The reader understands his feelings because he gives the flea a fully-fledged, three-part story. The flea has a life and a beginning, middle, and end; the reader sympathizes with its downfall and fate. This sides the reader with Donne’s side of the argument. Thus, though the flea is an unlikely connection with premarital sex, Donne, masterful in exploiting the flea’s traits to establish this condition and constructing a story to provoke the reader’s sympathy, makes this image an unforgettable one.

Does this mean that Donne can’t do what Eliot does? No, as he proves with “The Ecstasy”. “The Ecstasy” is very much like Eliot’s assortments of images. Yet, each of the images has its unique power. The “prince in prison” is memorable for many things. The prince represents romance, and what Donne is saying is, if premarital sex is disallowed, it would render romantic encounters inherently based on physical attraction impossible. It would be like imprisoning a prince, stripping away his power and authority. The image is stark, visually strong, and operates even on the page, as the alliteration literally creates an enclosure like a prison cell.

Another thing that Donne does very effectively is his before-and-after contrasts. A violet appears in the first stanza, seemingly unimportant and merely contributive to the pastoral setting. Yet, the violet appears later in the poem, with “the strength, the color, and the size / (All which before was poor and scant) / [Redoubling] still, and [multiplying]”. This is right after the two lovers’ exchange of souls. After the two lovers’ exchange of souls, the two lovers gain new insight into what love can be. It is as if these two people have been transformed, elevated, and made greater — the violet accompanies this progress by redoubling in size. This effect hinges on the violet’s initial appearance, and the two appearances come together to form a larger picture — the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. While the first appearance is brief, it makes the violet image much less arbitrary and much more meaningful as the reader has an epiphany-like realization of the reference. This enables the reader to truly understand the power of love. Donne’s imagery is tailored to be as striking and as invocatory of the reader’s response as possible.

Both poets are undoubtedly successful is their use of images but they are successful in quite different ways. Firstly, as aforementioned, they vary in quantity and density. “Preludes”, “Rhapsody”, and “The Ecstasy” are very ambitious in the sheer number of images they contain. The effect is clear. The images build on one another to create an intangible yet very realistic and atmospheric depiction of their environments. The effect is also clever, since Eliot’s poems are about urban decadence, and what better way is there to convey this than to let the reader experience this at first hand? The reader is overloaded with images, much like how there is too much to consume and indulge in the modern consumerist world. There is too much, so everything cancels one another out, much like Eliot’s images which are all striking but harmonious together. Of course, as aforementioned, the images all provoke disgust and guilt, so they add up together very well. As for Donne, his “ecstasy” overloads the reader because the process he describes — the exchange of souls — is too intellectual and spiritual for mere mortals to comprehend. Since the exchange operates on a non-human, spiritual level, his imagery is fittingly dense and difficult. However, his “Flea” describes sexual intercourse, something much lowlier (albeit important) to Donne. Therefore, the imagery is simple and singular. Both poets cleverly arrange their images to fit their thematic content. The second commonality they share is how their images capture the environments of their time. Eliot is notable for how he quintessentially captures modernity, while Donne’s language is very 17th-century. For example, his “purpled thy nail” in “The Flea” has regal connotations which are fitting to the standards and culture of his time. Donne is elegant while Eliot is blunt; their writing styles encompass their time periods accurately. Eliot’s imagery occasionally feels more precise and evocative but that is only because of its familiarity to the modern-day reader. The literary prowess of both poets is undeniable.

In conclusion, T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes” and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” are poems that feature images tailored to represent urban corruption and to contain Eliot’s pessimism. John Donne’s “The Flea” and “The Ecstasy” both contain images that deliver strong and passionate arguments for premarital sex. There is a lot of intellectual material packed into the images, but it is the feelings of the poets that make their poems resonate. Technically, they are all brilliant in inviting the reader’s visceral response — their desired effects are certainly well-achieved. While they might vary somewhat in quantity and flair, they share a lot of commonalities as well. The greatest commonality of all is perhaps the unquestionable fact that both poets are masters in crafting images, writing poetry, and creating art.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s