First, a description of the Keats poem. It is a sonnet in the traditional English form. The speaker experiences an existential crisis, and worries that before his death he cannot possibly document every creative idea which passes through him. In the first quatrain, he uses a metaphor and a simile to compare his thoughts to a crop that is harvested from his brain via a pen. In the second quatrain, his thoughts become meteorological objects of which must be re-recorded by hand. However, in the third quatrain, he directly addresses his brain, calling it “creature of an hour” (alluding to the shortness of human life, as Keats died at 25), and noting that his love for it is unreturned at the ending moment. The third quatrain gradually transitions into the post-volta couplet at the end, where he admits that his own questioning of this thought will gradually eliminate his existence as well as his mark on society. In all, it seems Keats believes that his own fears of death will cause his loss of productivity and demise.
Longfellow’s poem is an Italian sonnet, again mostly conforming to the rigorous sonnet form traditions. The speaker here undergoes a subset of existential crisis: midlife crisis (“Mezzo Cammin” means “middle journey”). I have not accomplished what I wished to do a long time ago is the gist of this poem as noted in the first quatrain, with the “accomplishment” goal being “some tower of song with lofty parapet” (another metaphor for some kind of large work). The optimistic second quatrain contains the brightest moment in the poem duo—a notion that the speaker could go on, and might even be determined, to experience additional success. Then, a terrific unbuffered shift occurs, and the sextet which follows this volta contains invocations of the past and death (the future). Longfellow notes it is tempting to satisfy oneself with all previous successes and at this point in life content oneself with these and retire (comparing the past to a city at the base of a hill), but he also knows death is coming and indicates it with sleek metaphors involving autumn (the season close to death) and a waterfall (which will eventually engulf the low city).
The Big Question answer, also known as the thesis:
Although both poets worry that they might die before accomplishing all the goals they wish to reach, only Longfellow credits himself with the value of all his past work when considering the success of his life.
Both poets preoccupy themselves with the effect of death on their final creative output.
- Longfellow: Season (Foster!) Autumn, before death of Winter, and comparison of roaring waterfall to Death (to which he is ascending)
- Keats: Alone on shore, descent to nihilistic viewpoint
- Longfellow: Twilight
- Keats: No mention of death, but “cease to be” indicates fear of completely being forgotten
Longfellow and Keats have different attitudes toward completed work compared to potential or unfinished work.
- Keats: positive connotation of “gleaned my teeming brain,” imagery of books and crops for future work
- Longfellow: Geography (Foster!) and imagery of foggy town beneath him at base of hill (no indication of disdain)
- Keats: Love invested in earlier work “unreflect[ed]” (unreturned, indicates unhappiness)
- Keats: “Shadows” of “cloudy symbols of high romance” (supernatural mystery of future work)
- Longfellow: “A care that almost killed” indicates significant attention to previous work
Tired of reading about poetry already? Well go find another blog to read because there will be much more coming soon!