In our first seminar, we spent time working on a poetry puzzle: a poem’s lines had been scrambled up and I challenged your teams to put it back together again.

Eventually this:

 

Came a deep silence, and I knew he wept

He did not love me living; but once dead


He did not touch the shroud, or raise the fold

The curtains were half drawn, the floor was swept


He pitied me; and very sweet it is


Where through the lattice ivy-shadows crept.


That hid my face, or take my hand in his,

Or ruffle the smooth pillows for my head:


To know he still is warm though I am cold.

Lay thick upon the bed on which I lay,


And could not hear him; but I heard him say:


He leaned above me, thinking that I slept


And strewn with rushes, rosemary and may


“Poor child, poor child”: and as he turned away

…became this:

The curtains were half drawn, the floor was swept


And strewn with rushes, rosemary and may


Lay thick upon the bed on which I lay,


Where through the lattice ivy-shadows crept.


He leaned above me, thinking that I slept


And could not hear him; but I heard him say:


“Poor child, poor child”: and as he turned away

Came a deep silence, and I knew he wept.

He did not touch the shroud, or raise the fold

That hid my face, or take my hand in his,

Or ruffle the smooth pillows for my head:


He did not love me living; but once dead


He pitied me; and very sweet it is


To know he still is warm though I am cold.

The exercise was meant to help you think in terms of form, and we worked on the poem by figuring out the genre (sonnet) and its expectations, looking at rhyming words and putting them together, and keeping an eye too for punctuation (which helped with determining the volta and the final line). We talked a lot, after the poem had been put back together, about what the expectations of the sonnet genre are, and in particular the Petrarchan form, and why this particular example allows a dead woman a voice. What does the rhyme scheme of the sestet signify? (cdeedc). It’s not necessarily what we would expect after the very conventional octave (abbaabba). In particular, what does that couple in ll. 11-12 do?

We finished our seminar with my challenge to you all: when reading a poem for the first time, begin with thinking through the form before anything else. Let the form signify for you first, and then work out the content, and the relationship between form and content, and between them both and context.

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