Heartbreak and the Holidays: “The Feel of Not to Feel It” and Keats

28 11 2012

In Drear-Nighted December

John Keats

In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy tree,
Thy branches ne’er remember
Their green felicity:
The north cannot undo them
With a sleety whistle through them;
Nor frozen thawings glue them
From budding at the prime.

In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy brook,
Thy bubblings ne’er remember
Apollo’s summer look;
But with a sweet forgetting,
They stay their crystal fretting,
Never, never petting
About the frozen time.

Ah! would ’twere so with many
A gentle girl and boy!
But were there ever any
Writhed not at passed joy?
The feel of not to feel it,
When there is none to heal it
Nor numbed sense to steel it,
Was never said in rhyme.

Ah, December— it’s the end of the year, (and if you want to believe the Mayans— maybe the end of the world? Gasp!) so naturally it invites a certain melancholic reflection, a yearning for days gone by. Honestly, I think it’s a really good thing that December is full of celebratory anticipation and glistening lights, because at least in my part of the world, it might get overwhelmingly gloomy at times.

This would be especially true in those years when the first snows don’t fall until late December. The first snows are pretty magical for many of us, especially on the heels of an extraordinarily mild winter last year. Even those of us who grow snow-weary by January, February, or March, tend to enjoy the first snows that cover everything in crisp shimmering white, hiding all the muddy leaves and abandoned toys in the back yard.

But, especially without the snow, things are often drear-nighted, so I can feel what Keats is saying here. Things do get pretty gray, cold, and bare. What a perfect metaphor for how you feel when you are heartbroken. Gray, cold, and bare.

Frozen.

Dark.

And really, is there a worse month to be heartbroken than December? First, there is the natural world that seems to be dead all around you, and then there are the terribly long nights. On top of all that, there is the pressure to have a most joyous and wonderful season of togetherness with the ones you love. Everyone talks about it, and there are images of love everywhere.

So, what if your love isn’t there anymore?

It’s a tough time for many people, especially those who know “the feel of not to feel it.”

This poem looks at how poignant romantic heartbreak is. It is one of my favorite poems reflecting on heartbreak and that hopeless anguish that feels so suffocating. It captures that despair, doesn’t apologize, and doesn’t offer hope. Keats knows that when you are heartbroken, you don’t want to hear people trying to cheer you up.

Heartbreak sucks, and you can feel as lousy as you want without feeling guilty about it. Go ahead and wallow in it for a while. It’s okay.

Keats says it is okay, and he is like the best poet who ever lived.

Frozen light

Frozen light (Photo credit: Nanaki)

In the first stanza, he looks at a frozen sleety tree with bare branches and thinks about how the tree is just fine. It is not at all upset in its current state even though it once had beautiful leaves, and the reason this is possible is that the tree has no memory of that better time. None the wiser, the tree is content, and it will bloom again in the spring without fear of losing the leaves, and the cycle continues.

;

Next, in the second stanza, the speaker’s attention turns to a frozen brook. In

Frozen Brook

Frozen Brook (Photo credit: Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton)

a similar way, he considers how lucky the brook is that it has no memory of the happy time when it once flowed freely. Even encased in an icy prison, the brook is perfectly happy because of the “sweet forgetting.” The brook has no memory of Apollo in his hot “summer look”, so it is happy even in a less comfortable situation.

In the final stanza, the speaker laments that people don’t have this ability to forget, too. Instead, we all are doomed to writhe in the pain of remembering happy times before our heartbreak, and there is nothing that can be done to ease the pain.

Keats believes “The feel of not to feel it” is so excruciating that is was never “said in rhyme”. That might seem like a contradiction at first. I mean, there are loads of poems about heartbreak, right? In fact, isn’t this a poem about it??

Well, yes,

But what he is saying is that the feeling cannot be truly expressed in words; it can’t be said in rhyme. It can’t be communicated at all, only felt.

But Keats! Isn’t It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?

Nope.

Keats does not agree at all. It is painful and he wishes he could just erase it from his memory. I agree that this is how it feels when heartbreak is fresh, but I don’t agree in the long run. I’m not going to delete anyone from my memory.

I think Keats would have liked “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” don’t you? What are your thoughts? Would you push delete on a lost love if you could? Would you be happier if you couldn’t remember?

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Have a Contentious and Uncomfortable Holiday; You May Save Humankind: Thoughts on “A Poison Tree”

19 11 2012

 A Poison Tree

By William Blake

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine.
And he knew that it was mine,

And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

 

There’s a whole spectrum of confrontation styles out there.  On one end we have people who do almost anything to avoid it, and on the other we have people who seem to thrive on it.  You know the type; they throw conflict wherever they go as haphazardly as a little flower girl tossing flowers before a bride. 

Happily, with the exception of teenage girls, most people occupy a space somewhere in between the two extremes. 

I don’t think Blake is espousing an overly combative lifestyle in this poem, but he does have a pretty strong message for those of us who lean too far toward avoiding conflict at all costs.  He reminds people like me, who tend to avoid conflict like I would avoid a snotty nosed child, that when anger is not expressed and resolved, it is dangerous. 

This poem consists of four quatrains, or four-lined stanzas, and the first couplet of the first stanza covers what happens when you tell your friend that you are angry—just like in real life, it is over and done with fast. 

The rest of the poem, however,  delves into what happens when you swallow that anger and “plant” it like a seed inside you. The tree metaphor extends throughout the poem. 

Blake believes that when you swallow your anger, the seed that grows within you is nurtured by all the attention you give it.  Let’s face it, when you are mad at someone, don’t you just keep stewing over it until you do something about it?  It can take over your whole life if you’re not careful.  Anger can easily turn into hatred, and hatred and fear are really indistinguishable twin sisters.  I can’t think of a time when hatred exists for a reason other than fear.  Can you? 

The tree grows and grows with your fears and the tears you water it with. 

Eventually, you start to grow fond of  it and really care for it.  There is a sick pleasure in holding onto grudges—all the rehashing, the plotting for revenge, the sneakiness, the victimized feeling. 

The tree grows and grows till it bears fruit, a shiny poisoned apple, which you offer to your enemy. 

He takes a bite, dies, and you are glad to see him dead beneath your tree. 

Harsh. 

Poison Apple

Poison Apple (Photo credit: andy castro)

What Blake is saying is that anger, when not dealt with, can take hold of your life and destroy it.  You can become transformed from someone who may have been legitimately wronged into  someone who, like a wicked stepmother, delights in murder—or if you want to take it down a notch—delights in hurting other people. 

Alert! Anytime you see an apple in literature, especially one that brings about destruction, you can be

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553): Adam and ...

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553): Adam and Eve. Beech wood, 1533. Bode-Museum, Berlin (Erworben 1830, Königliche Schlösser, Gemäldegalerie Kat. 567) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

pretty sure it is an allusion to the biblical apple in the Adam and Eve creation story.  The apple represents man’s downfall, so it is possible that Blake is saying that one of the faults that leads to man’s destruction and fall from a utopic life is repressed anger. 

This anger too easily develops into violence. 

 

Hopefully this poem can help us all deal with the uncomfortable nature of confrontation and calmly tell people when we are mad for any reason.

 Maybe we can stop some of the hatred/ fear in the world by doing so. 

For many of us, there is going to be a lot of family time coming up soon with the start of the holiday season.  Consider blowing away any seeds of anger that you may have by expressing your feelings, even if they are slightly confrontational.  You don’t want to grow any poison trees. 

And, if you happen to have a poison tree already fully grown, chop that sucker down before it bears any poison apples.





How Do You Help Fight the Blueblack Cold? “Those Winter Sundays” and Gratitude

9 11 2012

Those Winter Sundays

By Robert Hayden

 

Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

 

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,

 

Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of love’s austere and lonely offices?

 

 

In November, many of us reflect a little more on what we have and what we are grateful for.  One of my favorite poems about gratitude, or probably more accurately, regret over ingratitude, is “Those Winter Sundays”.

 

The speaker, an adult, reflects back with regret on the way he and the rest of his family treated their father while he was growing up.  His father was a hard-working man.  Simply by using the word “too” in the first line, we know that for this father, every day was a work day, even including the “day of rest”. 

 

His hands ached from his labors, but still, he got up before the rest of the family to warm the house.  He fought that blueblack cold alone till it splintered and warmed.  Only when the house warmed did he wake his family.

 

Martel and van Over have friends for dinner an...

Spintering the cold (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No one thanked him.

 

In fact, they were all pretty indifferent to him.

 This man gave and gave, and they took and took.

 

I think it is possible that the speaker is being a little bit too hard on himself here.  Children are self-centered by nature, and I think if we are being honest, most of us are pretty horrified when we think about what brats we were to our parents at least at some point in our youth. 

 

I, myself, was pretty bratty till my late twenties.  My mother and I can laugh about it now. 

 

When he says, “what did I know, what did I know/ of love’s austere and lonely offices”, I believe that he really didn’t know.  So, how can he blame himself for something that he didn’t understand at the time?

 

What is most important here is that he realizes it now. 

 

He can’t go back and change things that are long past, but he can do something about it.  He can recognize those sacrifices, both small and large, that people are making for him now.  Plus, maybe now he’ll be more ready and able to make similar offerings of “love’s austere and lonely offices”  for his family, and do so without feeling the need to be thanked. 

 

Do you have someone who splinters the cold for you? I hope you do.

 

Or maybe a better question for reflection is how do you splinter the cold for those you love?

Instead of feeling like a jerk for all the crappy things you did as a child after reading this poem, try to think of all the ways you can help someone else fight off that blueblack cold. 

I don’t know anyone who isn’t cold.