Evaluate the ways in which the treatment of the theme of ‘relationships’ differs according to social and historical context in the poems you have chosen.
The poems to be analysed and compared are ‘My Last Duchess’, ‘The Flea’, ‘Daddy’, ‘Liverpool’ and ‘Annabel Lee’. They are all poems that depict relationships but they do it in different ways. The poems are from various time periods and the poets use different styles to explore the theme, from comical to menacing and brooding.
‘Daddy’ and ‘My Last Duchess’ both depict a powerful and dominating male figure but in ‘My Last Duchess’ he is the speaker of the poem while in ‘Daddy’ the speaker is a woman who is trying to forget her father, whose memory haunts her, though she is not very successful in the attempt as her mind is dominated by thoughts of him. Her feelings towards her father are very intense, perhaps a little over the top, as she compares him to the Nazis (an analogy that could be said to be insensitive or tasteless) and describes him as, among other things, a statue, God and a vampire. The extremity of the analogy is strongly expressed with the lines “Every woman adores a Fascist, /The boot in the face, the brute”
The Nazi analogy is so extreme that it is probable that the poet Sylvia Plath intended it to be seen as over the top to create an exaggerated character to portray her own feelings towards her father. Perhaps Plath herself was trying to forget her father or ‘purge’ herself of his memory and the poem is ‘therapeutic’.
“The speaker is a persona that Plath created so that she could write a poem that may be based on her life, but isn't trapped by having to stick to the literal truth.”
This way Plath indeed does gain much creative freedom to convey her feelings unlike a purely autobiographical poem would have allowed her to. This also makes it possible for the poem to be much more complex and leaves room for allusion.
The Duke in ‘My Last Duchess’ is a ruthless and oppressive man who ordered the death of his previous wife for perceived infidelity and is looking for a new one. Chillingly he tells the story of his late wife to the servant of a Count whose daughter he is seeking to marry. Perhaps in his musings the Duke reveals more than he intends to or this is a thinly veiled threat intended to assure that his next wife ‘behaves properly’. At the beginning of the poem the Duke is describing a painting of his previous wife and how life like it is.
“That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive.”
These two lines raise the question of the Duchess’s current condition. Is he saying that she is dead or merely describing the painting as very life like? The Duke insists that his late wife was unfaithful and that she flirted with every man she met but his portrayal of her comes across as a portrayal of a polite and friendly woman and reveals the Duke to be a possessive and paranoid man. An indication that the Duchess is dead is the fact that the Duke constantly refers to her in the past tense. He then reveals himself to be responsible for his late wife’s fate in the lines “I gave commands; /Then all smiles stopped together.” This is a dramatic line that changes the tone of the poem and reveals the full extent of the Duke’s ruthlessness.
Patriarchal power is an important feature in both poems. The dominance of men and the power that they wield is strongly present. In neither of the poems is the relationship depicted portrayed in an idealistic light. In ‘Daddy’ the father daughter relationship is definitely not joyful or one of equilibrium but one of discord and dominance. The speaker of the poem is deeply affected by the memory of her father whom she describes as domineering, oppressive and as unyielding as a statue and impassive. This invokes an image of him as ‘machine like’, as someone who although capable of ruthlessness does not gain enjoyment from it but does it to achieve a goal with emotional detachment. Her memories of her father do not bring her happiness but turmoil and resentment. The only way the character, and perhaps the poet herself, can gain peace is by metaphorically ‘killing’ his memory.
“Finally the one way the poet was to achieve relief, to become an independent Self, was to kill her father’s memory, which, in "Daddy," she does by a metaphorical murder. Making him a Nazi and herself a Jew, she dramatizes the war in her soul.”
In ‘My Last Duchess’ the relationship is depicted entirely through the Duke's speech and although he tries to portray himself in the best light and claim the moral high ground his jealousy and paranoia are very noticeable.
"The Duke in "My Last Duchess" is pretty much the green-eyed monster incarnate. He’s almost an allegorical figure for jealousy. [...] He’s so jealous that he can’t even bring himself to talk to her about her behavior – murder is the only solution he can come up with. His jealousy isn’t just about romantic attention; it’s about any kind of attention."
The Duke is indeed intensely jealous. His description reveals that he was envious and resentful of any attention his late wife paid to anyone other than him no matter how innocent and trivial. He sees unfaithfulness in her every interaction but does not discuss this with her. Instead he keeps an eye on her and when her so called 'infidelity' becomes too much for him, her orders her execution. With the painting the Duke has in a way turned the Duchess into one of his prized possessions that he has control over unlike the Duchess herself.
“The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)”
The Duke’s ability to have her executed displays not only his ruthlessness but also the vast power he wields as he is able to have his wife killed without consequences of any kind. There is no indication that the Duke has done something that he could be arrested for.
'Liverpool' like 'My Last Duchess' features an obsessive and possessive man although one not as extreme as the Duke of Ferraro. The speaker of the poem in Liverpool is a man who obsesses over a woman called Tracy, possibly his former girlfriend, and a tattoo she once had. Similarly ‘Annabel Lee’ features an obsessive man unable to move on from a past relationship. Neither of the two is quite as domineering as the Duke of Ferraro or the father described in ‘Daddy’ or as ruthless and capable of inflicting hurt. They are both brooding and deeply obsessive to an unhealthy level and in neither of the poems is the speaker able to gain closure but instead keep dwelling on a lost relationship.
The speaker of the poem in ‘Liverpool’ starts with a lengthy description of tattooing including tattoo parlours and how “Even in prison they get by with biro ink and broken glass” that culminates in him stating that women hide their tattoos “under shirts and jeans, in order to bestow them”. The speaker of the poem mentions Tracy and describes the tattoo.
“Heart. Arrow. Even the bastard's initials, R.J.L.”
He attributes much meaning to the tattoo as after stating that she had it removed he says “leaving a scar, she said, pink and glassy\\but small, and better than having his mark on her,” and then compares the tattoo to saint Valentinus who was flayed and desanctified. Bizarrely he is obsessing over a tattoo that no longer even exist and one he has never seen. Considering the beginning of the poem (which the speaker did not start by introducing Tracy but by describing a tattoo parlour) it is likely that he puts so much meaning in the tattoo because of his clear interest in the craft. It is also apparent that the speaker felt that by ‘marking’ her, her ex had ‘possessed’ her. This displays his own possessiveness and obsession.
Like the Duke of Ferraro the speaker of the poem is intensely jealous but unlike the ruthless duke he is unable to move on and put her behind him as proved by the last lines.
“Still, when I unwrap the odd anonymous note
I let myself believe that it's from you.”
In ‘Annabel Lee’ the poem starts in a tone similar to more conventional and idealistic love poems like those of William Shakespeare with the speaker of the poem referring to his lost love as ‘maiden’ and with the description of them living in ”a kingdom by the sea” which conjure up a fairy tale type of atmosphere. The speaker describes the relationship and Annabel herself in idealized terms much like a romantist would.
“Whereas Annabel Lee seems to have loved him in a straightforward, if nonsexual, manner, the protagonist has mentally deified her.”
As the speaker states that they were both children at the time, the fairy tale atmosphere and romanticized imagery are very effective at conveying the innocence and naivety of youth. The speaker also states that it was “many and many a year ago” and people tend to idealise the past. The tone of the poem than unexpectedly changes as the speaker says that “the wind came out of the cloud by night, \\Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee”. In the next stanza the speaker states that their love was purer and stronger because they were innocent children and too strong for even angels and demons to tear them apart.
Considering that the relationship spoken of happened many years ago when they were children and that Annabel has been dead for many years the language and imagery reveal the speakers deep obsession with Annabel. Than in the final stanza in another unexpected twist the speaker of the poem reveals just how deeply obsessive he is as he states that every night he lays down next to her corpse “In the sepulchre there by the sea,\\In her tomb by the sounding sea”.
“As in the case of a number of Poe's male protagonists who mourn the premature death of beloved women, the love of narrator of "Annabel Lee" goes beyond simple adoration to a more bizarre attachment.”
What started out looking like a typical romanticised love poem becomes chillingly eerie. As Poe’s own wife died at an early age ‘Annabel Lee’, among his other similar poems, very likely portrays his own fixation and grief over his lost love.
Both ‘Liverpool’ and ‘Annabel Lee’ feature the theme of obsession and speakers who dwell on a lost relationship (though in ‘Liverpool’ it is uncertain that the speaker ever had a relationship with the woman spoken of) and are brooding in tone. Like in ‘My Last Duchess’ and ‘Daddy’ the ‘relationship’ in ‘Liverpool’ is not depicted idealistically or as a happy one but interestingly in ‘Annabel Lee’ the speaker does portray the relationship with his lost love as loving and joyful and uses imagery and language that is quite idealistic. In the context of the poem the speaker’s idealism in ‘Annabel Lee’ works to portray his obsession and it can be argued it helps create an eerie atmosphere.
‘The Flea’ could be described as an unconventional love poem like the others but it is much lighter in tone and humorous. The speaker of the poem attempts to persuade a woman to give up her maidenhead and uses a flea as the core of his witty argument. The speaker of the poem presents the flea as a representation of their ‘union’ as he says that as it has sucked blood from both of them their blood is united inside it.
“It suck'd me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.”
The flea becomes a symbolization of their relationship and an argument for, as the speaker of the poem puts it “How little that which thou deniest me is”. The speaker of the poem argues that the union of their blood within the flea cannot be said to be a sin or shameful and that it “alas, is more than we would do”.
He pleads with her to spare the flea because there are three lives in it, his, hers and the fleas. The speaker of the poem argues that by killing the flea she would take three lives and commit three sins. And when she does and says that she feels no weaker for it the speaker of the poem turns around and states that that proves how false her fears are.
“'Tis true ; then learn how false fears be ;
Just so much honour, when thou yield'st to me,
Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee.”
‘The Flea’ is a witty and humorous depiction of a relationship that is rich in metaphysical imagery. The unusual metaphor of the flea as their relationship is deftly handled and very inventive. The metaphor of the flea is very allusive and very different from the romanticized metaphors that often appear in love poems.
The poems depict relationships in various and different ways. In ‘Daddy’, ‘My Last Duchess’ and ‘Liverpool’ the relationships are neither happy nor healthy. The first two contain brutal and powerful depictions of patriarchal power and ‘Liverpool’ features a speaker who is potentially a borderline stalker. Obsession also features in ‘Annabel Lee’ which although depicting the lost relationship as idyllic is quite eerie and melancholy. In contrast ‘The Flea’ takes a humorous approach to the theme and while heavily using metaphysical imagery portrays a relationship that is quite ‘normal’ and much more stable. It can be argued that all five poems have shades of obsession as in ‘Daddy’ the speaker spends the entire poem musing on her father, the Duke of Ferraro shows clear signs of obsession alongside envy and the speaker in ‘The Flea’ puts quite a lot of effort into persuading the woman addressed to surrender her maidenhead.
WORD COUNT: 2368
(Robert Browning, My Last Duchess, 1842)
(Edgar Allan Poe, Annabel Lee, 1849)
(John Donne, The Flea, 1896)
(Sylvia Plath, Daddy, 1966)
(Michael Donaghy, Liverpool, 1993)
© Copyright 2016 Sam Smith. All rights reserved.