Essay Topic 1: To what extent does the poetry you studied present a predominantly hopeful or despairing view of the world?
Chosen ten poems:
Seamus Heaney, ‘Death of a Naturalist’ (B.L.C.A.)
Sylvia Plath, ‘Mushrooms’ (B.L.C.A.)
Sylvia Plath, ‘You’re’ (B.L.C.A.)
Sylvia Plath, ‘Blackberrying’
William Blake, ‘Infant Joy’ and ‘Infant Sorrow’
William Blake, THE Chimney Sweeper’
William Blake, ‘LONDON’
Maureen Watson, ‘Stepping Out’ (B.L.C.A.)
Bobbi Sykes, ‘One Day’ (B.L.C.A.)
The work of poets such as Sylvia Plath and William Blake present a predominantly despairing view of the world. It is evident that hope and despair, however, go hand in hand and Blake in particular explores the contrasts between the two. Similarly, poets such as Seamus Heaney, Maureen Watson and Bobbi Sykes discuss the role of hope and despair in relation to each other, specifically anticipation leading to disappointment and hope following on. Blake’s and Plath’s works comment on the joys and sorrows of new life. While Heaney mirrors Plath in his exploration of anticipation leading to disappointment and the poems of Watson and Sykes’ detail how faith can spring from the grips of degradation, these poets all confirm that although hope is possible, despair is constant.
New life brings both joy and terror; the topic of childbirth containing an equal measure of hope and despair for those involved. Sylvia Plath’s “You’re” explores the lighter side of this, speaking about her ‘little loaf’, her unborn child and its magical innocence: ‘a clean slate, with (her) own face on.’ There are few negative connotations in her diction, with each metaphor or simile playfully carrying joyful undertones. “Infant Joy” from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence has similar hopeful imagery. ‘Sweet joy but two days old’ is Blake’s infant, ‘happy’ to be brought into this picturesque world. It is only when we consider Blake’s Songs of Experience that we see the opposite of this hope, where “Infant Sorrow” details the despair and agony of childbirth. The first stanza indeed tells us how his ‘mother groand! (his) father wept’, as the speaker is pulled ‘into the dangerous world’. Where “You’re” and “Infant Joy” discuss ideas of hope and innocence, “Infant Sorrow” comments on the overwhelming terrors of childbirth and the horrors of the world into which the speaker is brought. While both poets present a predominantly hopeful view of the world when writing about childbirth, Blake’s vision of experience eventually leads him to comment on the despair brought about by new life.
Following infancy is childhood, a topic which Seamus Heaney writes about with flair. His nostalgic poems reflect on the past, the innocence of youth, and the unexpected disappointment that springs from naive anticipation. In Heaney’s “Death of a Naturalist” the first stanza builds a passionate expectation, describing an awed appreciation for nature from his childlike perspective. The ‘flax-dam’ where ‘every spring/(he) would fill jampotfuls’ of frogspawn is a place of wonder for Heaney, his understanding of nature limited to what ‘Miss Walls’ would tell him. This skewed understanding is mirrored in Sylvia Plath’s “Blackberrying”, where she walks through blackberry allies in anticipation of the sea ‘somewhere at the end of it.’ As the poem progresses her anticipation increases, even when trying to convince herself ‘I do not think the sea will appear at all.’ She holds onto this belief, this concept of the sea being a beautiful revelation at the end of her journey, despite the signs pointing to the contrary. Circumstance later turns these speakers’ anticipation into disappointment.
In terms of narrative structure, both “Death of a Naturalist” and “Blackberrying” set out to achieve the same thing. Heaney and Plath introduce their poems with an expectant tone, their first stanzas clear examples of this. Imagery becomes a key factor as the narratives develop, the reader sharing and