Discovering Themes In Poetry

Introduction

Poetry at its deepest level, communicates unspeakable aspects of human experience. It is man’s greatest invention a channel wherein he gains the power to manipulate words to better express his thoughts and feelings. It has the unique ability to delve deeply in all topics imaginable, with which language becomes the media for translation and portrayal, offering an image of a world perceived and delivered through curt and descriptive words.

Poets may venture a variety of themes, with all probability that each one may create literary pieces having the same theme. Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed” written on 1923 and Dorothy Parker’s “Review of the Sex Situation” both touched the theme on love. What made each of their works unique and set apart from one another is the poets’ outlook towards the subject.

Similarity of the Poems Analyzed

Millay and Parker’s poems both divulge a sad conclusion on love brought about by a series of unsuccessful attempts on relationships. Contrary to what is implicated in Millay’s “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed”, the poem does not implicate romance and heart-warming recollections of past relationships. It talks about a woman constantly falling in and out of love and had come to realize that love is an elusive thing:

                                    “I cannot say what loves have come and gone,

                                    I only know that summer sang in me

                                    A little while, that in me sings no more.”

The last line implies resignation, a phrase which seems to have accepted that “there is nothing more for me in this thing called love”. Summer passed her by, indicating her chances of finding her heart’s desire had come to pass as well. Further on, the last three lines implies either that she has aged and finding a man who will want her has become beyond probable or her heart has grown tired from flinging from one man to another and finding them “vanished one by one”. Parker on the other hand, seemed to be wary whether love will still bring good to her when she said:

                                               “With this gist and sum of it,

                                               What earthly good can come out of it?”

Knowing that love is an unsteady and fleeting feeling, the possibility of loving someone only brings about sadness and pain. Love does not serve its purpose when it only breeds grief and unwarranted loyalty. What other purpose does love serve then given the situation? Love, according to the two poets, just seems to come and go and holding on to it and instilling in the consciousness that “Love is woman’s moon and sun” (Parker) will only be futile and will only cause more sad recollections and loneliness when “in the winter stands the lonely tree”(Millay).

Parker and Millay’s sad conclusion on love was anchored on man’s fleeting emotions. Love, as Parker said, “is woman’s moon and sun” yet, “man delights in novelty” and when woman views man as her lord, “count to ten, and man is bored”. Despite showing the man how much the woman loves him, he seems to be discontented and will grow weary of the relationship. He goes from one relationship to another, unconsciously leaving each woman behind, sad and broken hearted. Parker portrayed man as a soul discontented and never easily satisfied having one woman beside him. This then lead her to questioning whether love can still be good when man, as a partaker of love, is hardly satisfied with one. Millay seemed to have suffered from man’s uncanny ability to change heart in a short time, as a matter of fact, she had experienced quite a few of them when she opened her poem thus:

                                    “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and                                                                      when and why,

                                     I have forgotten, and what arms have lain

                                    under my head till morning; but in the rain

                                    Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh…

                                    And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain

                                    For unremembered lads that not again

                                    Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.”

The reader may convey a different image from what Millay narrated about her experiences. But the stirring in her heart proved it otherwise. The woman is clearly longing and looking for a true love, yet from all the men she had encountered, she appeared to have been used. It is an understatement that she easily responds to men who turn to her at midnight and cry hoping that in each man, there might be one who truly loves her and will stay. Millay’s experience is a confirmation of what Parker is saying when she concluded men to be easily bored and delighted in novelty.

Point of Difference Found in the Poems

While both poets shared the same sad realization on love, the tone of the poem marked the difference with which each poet conveyed their message to their reader. Millay tells of a woman who constantly fall in and out of love and had come in full realization that not one of them really stayed long for her to remember:“I have forgotten, what arms have lain under my head in the morning. In the end, the poem speaks of loneliness and longing, even regret for something that will never be fulfilled: “loves has come and gone…summer that sang in me…sings no more.”

She likened each of her encounters to seasons and days, signifying her sadness and brief happiness as well as the gnawing loneliness as she discovered that summer ceased to sing to her. She uses strong and descriptive words that truly showed her feelings. The word vanished implied lost forever and with this she felt lonely. Each element of nature that Millay used – rain, ghosts in the night, midnight with a cry, winter and summer – amplified the strength of her longings and regrets.

Parker on the one hand, is a woman who had a full grasp of the reality concerning man-woman relationship and the irony that exists between them. Her poem’s tone is that of sardonic and sarcastic, though, as a woman she still felt wary of what that realization on men implicated. Still, this made her poem less emotional than that of Millay despite the gravity of the message of her poem. Her curt portrayal of man and woman’s difference is to a point laughable yet contemplative; it makes one think for a while and comes to examine the validity of the poet’s claim. Even her concluding statement became less melodramatic:

                                               “With this gist and sum of it,

                                               What earthly good can come of it?”

While Millay’s concluding statement:

                                     “I cannot say what loves have come and gone,

                                     I only know that summer sang in me

                                     A little while, that in me sings no more,”

divulged resignation and loneliness, Parker’s seemed to challenge her women readers to ponder on the truth of her claim. Though the impact of the question is sad in that it shows love as incompetent and unreliable, it does not invoke a feeling of pity or grief. Her poem’s tone is light and humorous yet very reflective.

Conclusion

The theme love is indeed a very broad topic. It covers vast array of situations conceivable in man’s day to day experiences – from sad to hatred born from deceitful love; forbidden love when one or two people disagrees with the relationship; unrequited love, when only one person experiences the feeling; loneliness when one does not find the right one; and mockery when one seems to have lost faith in love. It can also be love of parents to child, friend to another and human to animals. Discovering varied themes in poetry is indeed very trying for though it constitutes one value, it is further broken down to specific categories whichever it is that the poet find fanciful and relevant.