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Poetry's Effect on the Reader

In: English and Literature

Submitted By sailorike
Words 886
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Because poetry’s origin dates back before the dawn of literacy, it is still more of an auditory art form than a written one. In the earliest days of the art form, poems were recited or sung. Even today, at clubs and coffeehouses around the world, aspiring artists approach microphones and recite their poetry to their audiences. Poetry, more than any other form of literature, is written for the ear rather than the eye. Put another way, by The Norton Anthology of Poetry, “A poem is a composition written for performance by the human voice.” (Ferguson, Salter, & Stallworthy, p. 2027)
For this reason, the poet takes great care to craft his or her work so that it has the desired effect on the audience. In Thomas Wyatt’s 16th-century poem, “They Flee From Me,” the narrator is remembering something he has lost, and the form of the poem does an effective job of conveying the speaker’s sorrow at this loss.

“With naked foot”
At the beginning of the poem, it would be easy to infer that the narrator is referring to some sort of animal. “I have seen them gentle tame and meek/That now are wild and do not remember.” (Wyatt, p. 127) However, the term “naked foot” in the second line offers a clue that the narrator is speaking of a human being. He did not, after all, use an animal term like “hoof” or “paw.” The beings that used to visit the narrator’s chamber are likely human.
“The anguish none can draw”
The second stanza of the poem begins, “Hidden in the cap/Is the anguish none can draw.” Perhaps in an effort to make hanging as humane as possible, an executioner would slip a hood over the head of a doomed man, so that no one could see his face as he endured his brutal death. Thus, John Brown’s face is “hidden in the cap.” The anguish Melville refers to is the feeling of failure John Brown must have felt. He knew he was breaking the law, and that hanging would be his fate if he were captured. His anguish would not have come from his impending death; he accepted it as a possible outcome of his actions. While he argued that his hanging was unjust, he said, in his final speech, “Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say, let it be done!” (Loewen, p. 178.)
Rather, Brown’s anguish would likely have stemmed from the failure of his mission. He had planned to arm slaves with weapons from Harpers Ferry, and to help them use those weapons to overturn the balance of power in the South, thus ending the practice of slavery. Because Brown was only accompanied by twenty-one men, his grand plan never got off the ground, hence the “anguish none can draw.”
“Weird John Brown”
History has often been unkind to John Brown. For many years, American history textbooks depicted him as a crazy man. In his book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen wrote this about Brown’s treatment in history texts: “From 1890 to about 1970, John Brown was insane.” (Loewen, p. 173) The vast majority of textbook writers and contributors were white at that time, and the prevailing opinion among them was that a white man willing to kill on behalf of slaves, who was willing to “go to the gallows for what he thought was right,” (Loewen, p. 178) could not possibly be in his right mind. Therefore, Brown was often described a wild-eyed, long-bearded lunatic who arbitrarily fixated upon an abolitionist ideology and began randomly killing people in the interest of his adopted cause. Textbooks have described him as, among other things, “fanatical,” “obsessive,” “vicious,” and “fiendish.” (Loewen, p. 174) When Melville used the line, “Weird John Brown,” he was echoing the sentiments of many whites in the North as well as the South. Brown’s execution gained national attention (just imagine, for a second, how fast and far the news would have spread if there had been an Internet!), and most whites considered it strange that a free white man would kill other whites, and risk his own life, in the defense of people who were widely considered to be less than human.
John Brown is still one of the most polarizing figures of the 19th century. Was he a visionary, or a lunatic? Was he an abolitionist, or a terrorist? Was he a martyr, or a murderer? Those answers depend largely on one’s worldview. However, historians tend to agree that Brown’s failed raid and resulting execution served as a tipping point, catalyzing a series of events that led to the Civil War. That war helped define the 19th century in America. Therefore, Melville’s poem, “The Portent,” represents 19th-century America in a way that few literary works can.

Loewen, J. Lies My Teacher Told Me. Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, N.Y., 2007.

Melville, H.. (1859) “The Portent.” The Norton Anthology of Poetry (5th. Ed.). W.N. Norton & Company, New York, N.Y., 2005.

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