Tuesday, May 4, 2010


The supernatural element has come up in nearly every poem we have studied this semester but in a variety of ways, some more obvious than others. As I was looking over the blog, I wondered why each poet incorporated this idea even if it was hidden in the text. Why was it so important and why did it affect each period of literature? There are so many texts I could have chosen but I decided to focus on some that were obviously referencing the supernatural and some where it was harder to connect to this thread. Milton’s Paradise Lost is an obvious choice because it uses the Biblical account of Adam and Eve. Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year incorporates the spiritual element with the real life issues of the plague. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Blessed Damozel describes the supernatural quality in the realm of a fairytale which adds a new dimension to the poem and John Keats evokes the spiritual aspect in a more subtle way while comparing it to nature. Yeats was born during the end of the nineteenth century and his poem The Second Coming reflects the changes in the world since World War I. It seemed like everything was spinning out of control and the title reflected the feeling at that time that maybe Christ would be coming again and restore the broken world.

I became interested in this idea when we were studying The Blessed Damozel by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I thought the poem was really interesting because it is written from third person’s perspective describing this damozel looking over “the gold bar of heaven” to her lover on earth (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Blessed Damozel, 2). It contains a lot of spiritual references and descriptions of heaven, and explains her activities while waiting for her lover to join her. At the first reading, one might expect that Rossetti was a very spiritual man who really visualized heaven and had a deep relationship with God. However, he struggled to accept the spiritual foundations and used images of the women to help save him. As Alec and Liz mentioned in their presentation, Rossetti created a new female aesthetic that was mythical or ionic. His descriptions are beautiful and he creates the image of this supernatural and angelic creature. “Her robe, ungirt from clasp to hem,/ No wrought flowers did adorn,/ But a white rose of Mary’s gift,/ For service meetly worn;/ Her hair that lay along her back/ Was yellow like ripe corn (Rossetti, 7-12).” He questions the spiritual authority in a unique way because he wants God to fit his image, which is represented by these women. It reflects a sense of rebellion from the traditional image of the supernatural. As Daniela says in her blog post, his picturesque quality in these poems helps narrate the story and shows how he interweaves the spiritual traditions throughout to read more like a fairytale. The image that Professor Porter posted on the blog captures the essence of this poem. The woman has three lilies in her hands and her position shows she is looking at the image of her lover below. The golden bar separates the lovers and they are both looking and longing for each other. It promotes this fairytale aspect and one can imagine this scene as they read the poem.

Milton’s Paradise Lost invokes the supernatural because of its content and storyline. There are several ways to read this epic. For example, one can approach it from the Biblical narrative but Milton provides extra details that can mess with the reader’s preconceptions. Most readers put Satan as the evil one but Milton gives him human qualities which create him as a type of underdog in our minds. He sets up the story as a civil war between God and Satan but does not give us a clear victory in the end because it is an infinite battle. He is writing this as Britain enters into modernity and uses this as a political critique against the divine right of kings. He uses the image of Satan obeying God as a policla and social commentary. This is also written as a rebuttal against Calvinism. In his Aeropagitica, he writes, “Many there be that complain of divine Providence for suffering Adam to transgress. Foolish tongues! When God gave him reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing; he had been else a mere artificial Adam, such an Adam as he is in the motions. We ourselves esteem not of that obedience, or love, or gift, which is of force; God therefore left him free.” Robert and Clara focused on the concept of free-will in their blog posts and how it was Eve’s choice to eat the apple and go against God’s command. The emphasis on Eve obviously also leads to a social critique on women and some view it as an example of her feministic nature while others critique her weak character for disobeying God.

This is a really interesting picture and it provides a different aspect to the garden. The lush and thick vegetation show the beauty of paradise and the drastic change Adam and Eve experienced when they left. The river is a symbol of life and vitality even though the inhabitants of the garden were kicked out. I wonder if the painter meant to show that God and Satan are still involved in their eternal battle for victory. I think it is interesting that the viewer only gets a small glimpse of the area and we are not able to even see the Tree with the fruit that Eve picked. All we see is the angel guarding the entry but even then it does not have a sword as the Biblical account describes. Did the painter want to portray the angel’s freewill and thus he left out the sword? It is an interesting idea to think about in light of the different viewpoints on freewill and feminism.

Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year brings the spiritual element to life’s hard situations but it is somewhat ironic because Defoe was only five when the plague swept through. As Jayne Elizabeth Lewis said in her article Spectral Currencies in the Air of Reality: A Journal of the Plague Year and the History of Apparitions, “Awkwardly enough, though, the Journal was composed almost sixty years after the plague in question, and its narrator, Defoe’s fabrication, in point of fact lacked eyes to lay upon the mostly invisible tokens in question. Barring some primitive memory (Defoe did turn five during the plague year), the most we can say is that, in the words of the aforementioned critic, Defoe “saw themes ‘Tokens’ in his imagination,” while his narrator, strictly speaking, cannot be said to have seen them at all.” These descriptive and horrific tokens invoke the supernatural because it is such a desperate situation. However, the institution of the church and God’s authority was being questioned as the situation became worse. People became scared and fled to witches and other sorts of deceivers to help them survive the plague (Daniel Defoe, Journal of the Plague Year, 31). This is also similar to the way people were questioning the governmental authority because they were requiring people to stay locked up in their homes. Just as Eve defied God’s command and Rossetti used images of women to create his own picture of God, the main character attempts to defy the plague and presumes that God will protect him. He decides to stay in the city despite the strong possibility he will die and believes that God’s providence will protect him. It is interesting to read the two reasons that motivated him to make his decision. “I had two important things before me; the one was the carrying on my business and shop…and the other was the preservation of my life (11).” It is a very selfish attitude and he elevates himself and dehumanizes the people around him throughout the entire book. The opening of the book suggests these ideas with the Bills of Mortality. Defoe included them to show the seriousness of the situation but they also detach the reader because they are just numbers. It is interesting to track the progression of the character’s reliability on the supernatural and how they are becoming more content with their own knowledge and its ability to get their tough situations.

John Keats focused on the spiritual aspect of death because so many people in his life died and his own life was short. His poems reflected this idea and most of them are depressing but not completely hopeless. As Alec mentions in his post about the form of odes, he explains that they were supposed to intimate and depict a worshipful attitude towards something. I do not think he is worshipping death but he wove it through his poems in a subtle way. Ode to a Nightingale is one of his most beautiful poems. At the end, he mentions that the bird was not born for death which I think is a reference to the fact that man was not created to die either (Keats, Ode to a Nightingale, 61). His brother had just died when he wrote this poem and it conveys a sense of uncertainty about death. He does not question the authority of the supernatural but he also does not automatically accept his fate. Daniela mentions this idea in her post and how the nightingale is able to transcend its mortal state and become something everlasting. His uncertainty about disease and the spiritual affects are questions that everyone has and it reflects the natural way man thinks. He does not completely disregard all religious idea but finds a sense of comfort in the unknown.

William Butler Yeats wrote The Second Coming in 1919 right after World War I. The title has religious implications and considering the historical context, it causes the reader to immediately think of the second coming of Christ and the restoration that He will bring. As Joan S. Carberg says in her article “A Vision” by William Butler Yeats, “Yeats saw our time as one in which fragmentation would proceed to the point of complete dissolution and his poems are haunting to us partly because of this sense of dread…Thus Yeats can describe the second coming with a exhilaration not unlike the excitement and sense of pending rebirth which has accompanied our horror at the events which have destroyed American complacency in the last few years.” I agree with her interpretation of the poem because I saw a glimpse of hope despite the previous four years. In contrast to the previous poems, Yeats is not disregarding the role of the supernatural but accepts the idea that it will bring healing and restoration to the world. The description of the horror of war, “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/ the best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity,” implies the differences from Christ’s reign on earth (Yeats, The Second Coming, lines 5-8). He does not describe this event, which I think is a unique, because most people have already imagined what this day might represent. This image captures each event, the horror of war and the glory and majesty of Christ’s reign. The spiritual element dominates this poem and I think it represents that someday there will be no war and Christ will be victorious. The earthly battle is characterized by skeletons, blood, and fire. The blood and fire are interesting because of the war that has just ended and Yeats also mentions the “blood-dimmed tide (l. 5).” The immense amount of death matches with the images of skeletons and men falling from their battle wounds. The placement of the heavenly kingdom above the battle in this image matches the idea that Christ will prevail and His authority will overcome evil. Even though the previous poems have challenged the authority of the supernatural, Yeats supports it and uses it to provide hope to a world shaken by the devastations of war.

It is fascinating to follow a thread and see how different authors develop the idea depending on the political and religious situation. At the beginning of the Restoration period, the authors portrayed the characters as rebellious towards the supernatural and its authority but it tapers away with Keats and Yeats and they accept and welcome its role in their lives.

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