Poetry Interpretation

After analysis there is restoration. Not "reconstruction" which remakes the meaning in our own image. Not remodeling which conveniently converts it to our needs. Just like redoing an old house, you take the poem apart, clean up all the parts so they are clear and understandable and, then, you put them all back and learn how they work together to make the place livable and enriching. Every time you say "we can't do that" you are making it easier to misunderstand the poem. Don't make it harder for yourself to understand the original as well as you can.

The purpose of the poem appears on several levels [This is a simplification of St. Jerome's Understanding the Scriptures.]:

  1. Literal - the true meaning of the words in their context. ["Jordan (I)," "Jordan (II)"] Note: Don't read between the lines until you read the lines; understand them first.
  2. Metaphorical or Implied - what is not stated but clearly suggested and alluded to. [This is not what the reader infers, but what is unstated in the poem. "Bunch of Grapes," "Josephs coat"] Poetic images communicate on this level. ["The Bag," "The Flower," "The Wreath"]
  3. Symbolic or Allegorical - when Ideas become, act and talk like people. Not all works have symbols, but when they are full of characters that converse as ideas you have an allegory. ["Love Unknown," "Time," "Pilgrimage," "Quip," "Humilitie"] Not all works are allegories even when they have symbols. ["The Rose"] {After you do this for a while, you may see symbols in everything. It is fun and instructive, but, before you give an interpretation, determine if the poem needs to be understood symbolically.}

These different levels work together. Sometimes they are or at least seem independent. If one contradicts another, the reader's understanding becomes faulty. The tone, viewpoint of the persona or the emotion presented may be dis-uniting the purpose. {Be careful that it is not the reader's misunderstanding that separates the levels.}Even in an allegory, the images must support the point, and the literal information must agree with the message.

Using the first stanza of "Pilgrimage," let's examine these 3 levels:
I travelled on, seeing the hill, where lay my expectation. A long it was and weary way. The gloomy cave of Desperation I left on the one, and on the other side the rock of Pride. [Written as prose.]

  1. Literal: The persona sees the hill where he/she wants to go. His way will be long and hard. On one side is a cave and on the other a rock. He continues on. [That's it. Nothing difficult to understand.] {Concerning "persona," which means the person, without name, acting in or telling the story. Do not assume that it is the poet [even when it uses "I"] until evidence in the poem confirms this. Writers use this to express opinions not their own.}
  2. Implied: The persona is on a life journey. [This is a reasonable possibility, but not within the words of the poem. If this theory does not fit later on, we will have to revise it.] He sees where he wants to go, but the way is difficult. He must travel between a gloomy cave and a rock. [If Desperation and Pride were written "desperation" and "pride," these would be understood as images not symbols. This level would understand them in general terms as "a desperate, gloomy cave" and "a prideful rock."]
  3. Allegorical: The persona sees his goal in life, his final objective. He must travel between Desperation (pictured as a gloomy cave) and Pride (seen as a rock). {Herbert's version of a rock and a hard place.} Because Desperation and Pride are capitalized, they become symbols of the ideas, and twin dangers for the traveler.

Final interpretation of the first stanza: The persona {We can not confirm who it is, but conclude that it is a person on a meaningful or spiritual journey.} knows and sees his life's goal in the distance, but it is far away, and the way is difficult. There are temptations on either side of his journey toward that objective {We can not guess what that objective is from what we have. We could infer that the goal is nobel because it is on a hill, but this is going beyond the words of the first stanza.}. On the one hand is Desperation, like a gloomy cave, that swallows all who enter it. {This may be caused by the difficult way toward the goal in the distance, or it may be the persona's own futile outlook.} On the other hand is Pride, hard, insurmountable as a rock, which could drive him to the cave of  Desperation or challenge him to leave the path. If the persona yields to desperation or pride, he will not reach his expectation. {Personal comment acceptable at this point. For example: When we finally see our goal, even in the distance, we may become depressed at the work yet ahead before we can hope to attain our objective. On the other hand we may become proud that we have come so far and know that the goal is there and that it is possible to reach it. If we waste our time on either, we forfeit the prize.} The persona avoids them both.

All levels work together. The literal gives substance to a specific scene. The Implied expands the reality into mental image and emotional feeling. The Allegorical gives specific meaning to the people, places and actions of the story. They do not contradict one another.

Poetry Analysis Exercises

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