Thursday, May 16, 2013

Analysis of "Ash Wednesday" by Louis Untermeyer

Original poem reprinted online here: "Ash Wednesday" by Louis Untermeyer
Originally read: February 13, 2013
More information about the Poet: Louis Untermeyer

This poem is comprised of two Italian sonnets.  What I didn't think of when I wrote notes on this poem is how the  form operates in this poem.  Usually, Italian sonnets are divided into an octave (first stanza) then a sestet (second stanza).  In the octave, there's a question being presented; meanwhile, the sestet answers the posed question.  Now with this poem, the core of the poem is what the answer to the question or the first sestet.

The poem starts off thought with the question, "Shut out the light or let it filter through" -- the tone is one of a command but a command that (falsely) gives the power of decision to the reader; however, the speaker continues on what the filtered light illumiated: "feet that grew, "twisted and false," "cupids smirk from candy clouds," "The Lord, with polished nails and  a perfumed hair."  The images are strong and cynical against the representational figures.  I agree/disagree with the last line that what is outlined is a "parody of the divine."  On a line basis, it's not a great iamb, but, more importantly parody (although sort of fitting the iamb) is a watered down description of the above images and the litotes the word parody creates sets up the idea that the other side (shutting out the light) is far more worse than a "parody."

The second stanza describes the "shut out the light" part with a operatic epicness, "Writhing and dark, the columns leave the earth /  to find a lonelier and dark height."  So there is darkness and loneliness; however,  "The church grows dingy while the human swarm / Struggles against the impenitent body's mirth."  So the dilemma is this: dark epic loneliness, or the church, described a "parody of the divine."  -- "Shut out the light"

And the poem could end there; however, the focus then shifts away from the speaker to how the "light" operates without  illuminating/being the church.  In part 2 of the poem, the light is anthropomorphized and does some childish acts, "he stops to fling / Handfuls of birds with green and yellow throats"  "he goads / each blade of grass the ice had flattened down."  Past me wrote, "does the light represent a douchebag Jesus?  Throwing birds, messing up the grass."  Currently, I see the action more metaphorically -- the light, without the crutch of the parody, has to act as a parody to the outside world so instead of "goading people" he "goads grass."  How far will this "light" go.

The sestet still confuses me as far as the description.  There's a sense of the absurd and the surreal with this description, "He daubs the chestnut-tips with sudden reds / and throws and olive blush on naked hills / That hoped, somehow, to keep themselves in white,."  Who does the we refer to?  People searching for the light, (note: not the speaker asking for the light to be shut off -- the speaker turns away).  This kind of makes sense.

"Who calls for sackcloth now?"  I know this is an allusion to something, but can't quite know where.  However the tone is apparent with this rhetorical question -- a snarky tone like "You can't keep me down."

The color red does come back at the end in "His blood" and the douchey actions from the color becomes attributed to the serious "the resurrection -- and the light."

One thing I haven't addressed is the cities mentioned in the beginning of each section of the poem -- "(Vienna)" and "(Hinterbrühl)".  There might be a personal and historical reference to those places (note that the poem was printed in 1928), but I feel the message is strong enough where the references (if I decided to look them up) would add on to the poem rather than hinder the poem.


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