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O ME, O LIFE

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For our cultural article this week, we will be examining Walt Whitman’s 1891 poem, O Me, O Life.

THE POET

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Walt Whitman is considered one of America’s most important poets.  Whitman was born in Long Island, New York, on May 31st, 1819.  Whitman educated himself by reading Dante, Homer, Shakespeare, and the Bible. At twelve he got an apprenticeship as a printer, but lost it when a fire destroyed the printing district.  He worked as a journalist for various newspapers before going independent and travelling around America. In 1870, Whitman settled in Camden, New Jersey. Walt Whitman died on March 26th, 1892, at the age of seventy-two.

POEM

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Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

SUMMARY

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O Me, o Life appeared in Walt Whitman’s poetry collection, Leaves of Grass, in 1891.  Written in free verse,  the poem seeks to determine what the value of life actually is. It is an answer to how one can suffer “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and still find a reason for living.

The first stanza is essentially the same in theme as Hamlet‘s “to be, or not to be” speech. How can life, with all its suffering and hardship, be worth living? Why do we continue to hold life so dear when all the inherent suffering and malevolence can compromise our faith in God, in other people, and even in ourselves?

For Whitman, the answer was simple: Life in and of itself is valuable. That even in the darkest periods of human history, life goes on.  For Whitman, the answer to life’s purpose is that you get to “contribute a verse” to the eternal story of man.

To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

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Once a week, King Alfred Press will be examining a work of Western Culture. These works can include literature, poetry, film, art, music, or anything else considered ‘cultural.’

This week we will be examining the poem To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time. The poem was published in 1648 as part of a volume of verse entitled Hesperides, written by lyrical poet and cleric, Robert Herrick (1591 – 1674). (It was one of twenty-five-hundred poems Herrick would write in his lifetime).

THE POET

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Over the course of his eighty-three years, Herrick lived through the reigns of Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603), James I (1566 – 1625), Charles I (1600 – 1649), and Charles II (1630 – 1685), as well as the English Civil War (1642 – 1651) and the subsequent English Commonwealth (1653 – 1660) under Oliver Cromwell (1599 – 1658).

THE POEM

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
To-morrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And, while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

SUMMARY

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The opening line, “gather ye rosebuds while ye may”, provides clues to the poem’s influences. In the Wisdom of Solomon (chapter two, verse eight), the phrase: “Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither.” The closing line of De Rosis Nascentibus, attributable to either Ausonius or Virgil, is:

“Collige, virgo, rosas, dum flos novus et nova pubes,
et memor esto aevum sic properare tuum.”

In English, this translates to: “Maidens, gather roses, while blooms are fresh and youth is fresh, and be mindful that your life-times hastes away.” Edmund Spenser (1552 – 1599) the Faerie Queen has a young man in the Bower of Bliss sing:

“Gather therefore the Rose, whilest yet is prime,
For soone comes age, that will her pride deflowre:
Gather the Rose of love, whilest yet is time,
Whilest loving thou mayst loved be with equall crime.”

Whilst, Shakespeare’s (1564 – 1616) sonnet eighteen begins with the couplet:

“Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease has all too short a date.”

Interestingly, the title of Herrick’s poem may provide us with a clue as to its intentions. The poem’s title addresses itself to ‘the virgins’ – young, beautiful woman – and advises them ‘to make much of time’ – use their beauty and their youth while they still have the chance.

Herrick’s poem is one of the most famous examples of ‘Carpe Diem’ type sentimentality. The term, ‘carpe diem’ or ‘seize the day’, is a Latin sentiment attributable to the Roman lyrical poet, Horace (65BC – 8BC). We are asked, by Herrick and Horace, among others, to understand the brevity of our lives and to make the most of what ever precious moments happen to be presented to us. In this sense, to the Virgins is an advisory poem, an attempt by Herrick to impart some wisdom to us. “The sun is only going to shine on you for a brief moment”, Herrick appears to be telling us, “so make the most of it.”  Even beauty and youth fades: “and this same flower that smiles today/ to-morrow will be dying.”