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Essay: Poetry is not just about the ‘pretty things’ (Shakespeare, Jonson, Keats)

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  • Subject area(s): Literature essays
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  • Published: March 18, 2021*
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  • Poetry is not just about the ‘pretty things’ (Shakespeare, Jonson, Keats)
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When studying poetry, a misconception that can be rebutted is the idea that poetry finds itself focusing purely on the ‘pretty things’; completely voiding the struggles and lacking the connection to the world around us. Contrary to common misconception, poetry has the capability to use the ‘pretty things’ as a vice to further expand on deeper feelings in which humans struggle to even recognize in a striking way. Through further examination, one can come to the conclusion that poetry is one of the highest forms of expression – providing a beautiful cloak over the deepest thoughts lingering within the human mind in an unconventional but effective way. The importance of poetry lies beyond the surface, as one can be completely blind to this idea, making them unable to look beyond the words in the poem from a humanistic perspective. By examining works such as William Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Ben Jonson’s 1616 folio, and John Keats’ Ode to Autumn – one can further examine the author’s connection to deepest human thought through the use of beautiful and altruistic poetry.

To begin, William Shakespeare is known to be one of the most influential figures in Western literature through both his poetic works and plays in which he produced throughout the 15th and early 16th centuries. Shakespeare’s popularity is held high in standards due to his ability to convey emotions such as love, loss, guilt, and revenge as well as the psychological standpoint of the human mind with extraordinary use of the verbal facility to convey his innermost thoughts. In his Sonnets, Shakespeare’s chronic use of motifs is heavily centralized as well as his desire and will to convey the cyclical and poignant beauty of the natural world. It is through this centralization that one can recognize Shakespeare’s deep connection to human thought by use of paradoxes to convey both love and the unsureness of human emotion. In Sonnet 138, Shakespeare highlights the faults in love and the misconstrued idea behind truth, trust, and lies. When looking deeper into the poem, one can grasp the hardships between truth and flattery within a relationship as one of the two can become heavily lost in the depths of the other. The poem heavily emphasizes the effects of age and comfortability within a relationship as well as its association with the deterioration of the once beautiful connection. The last line highlights the ignorance often bound in a relationship, “Therefore I lie with her, and she with me, And in our faults by lies we flattered be.” Through this line, one can recognize Shakespeare’s use of puns (the confusion of ‘lie’ and ‘lies’) to convey the underlying message of a humans comfortability within a relationship and their ability to recognize the wrongdoings of their partner – yet, blinded by love, leave them bound to stay.

16th-century poet Ben Jonson highlights the innermost human emotion of loss and grievance throughout his works. He uses vices such as metaphor and personification to highlight the misfortunes of life as well as in contrast, the gifts in which human life can provide. Jonson’s poems within his 1616 folio, outline his intensely personal feelings of loss through his ability to convey to the readers the avoidance which follows tragedy and the attempt to devoid oneself of such an emotion, as it is too hard to bear. The cycle of life follows birth, growth, and death, with many unable to move past the death of loved ones, leaving them in a deep despair too hard to accept. In his poem On My First Son, this idea of the hardens of the heart to accept loss is further examined through the recounting of a father who has lost his young son. One way to treat the idea of loss is to try to devoid oneself of all feelings, without truly accepting what has happened. While alternatively, one can try to approach the loss with the concept that the child is in a better place now that he has passed, though this method seems to prove as fruitless as the concept of leaving behind his affection for the child is too hard to do. It is in the ending lines of the poem which one can see that the narrator has come to accept his undying love towards the child, and vows to not love the same ever again as a way to avoid the pain. This idea can be traced back to the often incapacity of the human psyche to accept loss – rather have themselves transform into a loveless being to avoid the feeling. By tapping into this specific human emotion and idea of love, one can recognize that behind the beauty conveyed through the expression of writing, lies a deeper psychological examination of the human mind. While the narrator is trying to suppress love and hold back the feeling to negate himself from loss, he is forgetting the core idea that it is better to have loved rather than to have not loved at all.

Finally, in John Keats’ work Ode to Autumn, the idea of love and the ever-present cycle of life can be seen in the beautiful expression of the seasons. Throughout the poetic work, Keats’ pays homage to the beauty of the seasons and the transformation from one season to the next. It is only through the deeper examination beyond the surface level that one can find what Keats is attempting to bring to the attention of the reader – being the permeance of the cycle of life. Keats glorifies the seasons of Autumn (being birth) and the beauty behind the seemingly simple season. It is through the changeover of seasons leading to winter that one can recognize the metaphor lying beneath his work. Keats stresses that although autumn will be followed by the cold of winter, winter will, in turn, give its way to the freshness of spring – providing us with an analogy/metaphor of life. Life must go on, but it cannot continue without death that completes one individual life and begins another – similar to the changes between the seasons – the seasons of life are developed. Through a further examination of Keats as an author, one can recognize his deep appreciation of the power and beauty of nature, thus, providing the reader with a better understanding of his use of the seasons to portray the underlying darkness of death.

Therefore to conclude, by examining poetry beyond the surface level, one can recognize the use of the ‘pretty things’; such as nature and seasons in Keats’ work; the common misunderstanding lurking behind the emotion of love in Shakespeare; and the hardships behind accepting love and loss in Jonson’s work to exemplify that poetry goes behind human imagination. Poetry is not just about the ‘pretty things’, rather the depth behind the ‘pretty things’ used only to see who is able and willing to accept the innerworkings and ugly truths of human psychology. Furthermore, highlighting the importance behind poetry and its creation, under the guise of beautiful language, to guide the human brain to understand things and emotions in which one would normally ignore or cast aside.

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