Born Yesterday by Philip Larkin

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Reference: Martial, Recipe for Happiness

Level: Inferred

Description: In the poem Recipe for Happiness, Martial is giving a friend of his (who is also called Martial) some advice on how to achieve a blissful existence. He suggests, rather unspectacularly, that the things that make life most happy are: to inherit money, work just enough to keep your field fertile and your fire burning, good friends who know when to speak their minds and when to be quiet, an unfussy table setting, some alcohol (but no inebriation), a nice wife who is amorous “yet chaste” and a good night’s sleep that doesn’t eat into any of the hours that you need to carry out all of the above without becoming stressed. Basically Martial is telling Martial that a happy life is one without extremes. Do not chase money, women, notoriety and ‘good times’ as these are not guaranteed in any life and to pursue ‘things’ that you may never have is a pointless exercise. Martial’s poem acknowledges that a happiness based on ‘peaks’ of experience is a happiness that is at risk of being snatched away if those euphoric moments ever cease to be part of your life (Croesus springs to mind). Instead Martial suggests that simple lifestyle choices (that you have control over), will allow you to live a life of moderation, without extremes, which will lead to inner-peace and happiness. This is Martial’s recipe for happiness and it is a sentiment that is echoed in Larkin’s Born Yesterday. Larkin’s poem was a gift to the daughter of Kingsley Amis and uses imagery that juxtaposes the ‘fairy godmother’ at the side of the new-born’s crib with some ‘real world’ wisdom from a hardened veteran of the School of Life. In the first stanza, Larkin wishes the baby the best of lives and declares her a “lucky girl” if she is able to achieve what others have wished for her (the stereotypical beauty, wisdom etc. found in fairy stories). It is in the second stanza however where the voice of Martial can be heard. Larkin hopes that the girl can be “ordinary”, “like other women”, “average” and “not ugly, not good-looking”. These hopes are followed by the concluding lines, “may you be dull – if that is what a skilled, vigilant, flexible, unemphasised, enthralled catching of happiness is called.” If we compare Larkin’s final lines to Martial’s, (“Will to be, what thou art; and nothing more: Nor fear thy latest day, nor wish therefore.”) we can see a clear echo of sentiment. Both men’s lives seem to have taught them that the best chance of happiness for anyone is to be average (like Goldilocks – before the return of the bears). It is an unexpected piece of advice, but one that is perhaps difficult to argue with - although as it comes from two poets of consummate genius, who were decidedly not average, one must draw the conclusion that both Martial and Larkin were desperately unhappy people.

Contributor: David Hogg


To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time by Robert Herrick

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Reference: Ausonius

Level: Inferred

Description: To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time is a poem written by Robert Herrick (1591-1674). Herrick was influenced by Roman poetry and often conjured up pastoral scenes in his works. This poem falls into the carpe diem genre and is most famous for the line “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”. Herrick never married and the women that appear in his verses are thought to be fictionalised - which perhaps explains the ‘advice’ Herrick is giving to the young maidens in To the Virgins…; he could easily be talking to himself (hidden in the imagery of the ‘virgins’) and his regret about missing out on the joys of his own youth - perhaps he wishes he had gathered his rosebuds while he had the chance. The ‘rosebuds’ quote is linked to a work by the Roman writer Ausonius and is found in a piece entitled Epigrammata where we find the line, “Gather, girl, roses while the flower is fresh and fresh is youth, remembering that your own time is hurrying on”. Herrick clearly echoes the ideas and images of Ausonius in To the Virgins…; he gives the young maidens advice about enjoying their youth and seizing the day, because, “[the] flower that smiles today To-morrow will be dying”. Ausonius is not considered one of the Roman greats and was disparagingly dismissed by Edward Gibbon when he stated, “the poetical fame of Ausonius condemns the taste of his age”. However, the fact that Ausonius inspired Herrick (and is also considered as an inspiration for Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress – see below), demonstrates that inspiration can come from unexpected sources.

Contributor: David Hogg


To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell

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Reference: Ars Amatoria Book III, Part 1, by Ovid

Level: Inferred

Description: In Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress, the narrative voice is trying to persuade a virtuous woman to surrender her chastity to him and succumb to his seduction. It is an uncomfortable poem, especially to a modern reader, as the ‘Coy mistress’ has clearly said ‘no’, but her pursuer will not take no for an answer. The man seems to be having a Socratic dialogue (but only with himself) in order to convince her that she is wasting her life by turning him down. He is a dangerous predator who knows how to use language and traditional love motifs (such as descriptions of her beauty) to bamboozle her into saying ‘yes’ to his advances. However, the most troubling moments occur in the second stanza. There seems to be a definite change in tone that comes across as threatening. He reminds the ‘Mistress’ that “Time’s winged chariot is hurrying near and yonder… lie deserts of vast eternity. Thy beauty shall no more be found… worms shall try that long-preserved virginity… your quaint honour turn to dust… the grave’s a fine and private place, but none, I think do there embrace.” In these lines we hear a ‘Carpe diem/YOLO’ attitude that is solely for the benefit of the man who hides his lust behind a veneer of ‘advice’. Marvell’s words seem to echo those of Ovid’s in his Ars Amatoria Book III Part 1. In this poem, Ovid takes on the persona of ‘Love Expert’ for women, a role that he had already fulfilled for men in Book I and II. Ovid seems to be telling women to forget about propriety and live for the moment, life is short and you’re only young once! He states, “Old age will come to you… don’t be timid… have fun while it’s allowed…the years go by like flowing waters, a wave that’s past can’t be recalled again, the hour that’s past never can return… there will be time when you, who now shut out your lover, will lie alone and aged… how quickly the sagging flesh wrinkles… add that the time of youth is shortened by childbirth…”. The similarities between Ovid’s poem and Marvell’s are quite striking. The ‘mistress’ is being wooed with threats of missing this ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’, the inevitability of her aging (and thus becoming unattractive to her pursuer) and her eventual death – at which point all of this ‘coyness’ becomes pointless. I do not think that Marvell was plagiarising; but I think his persona was. Thinking that the Coy Mistress would not be familiar with the works of Ovid, he steals the lines of the poet, repackages them and passes them off as his own (is this what Catullus did with Sappho?). In To His Coy Mistress, Marvell has created a deeply unpleasant persona. My only hope is that the Mistress laughed at his advances and walked away shaking her head in disbelief.  

Contributor: David Hogg


Paradise Lost by John Milton

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Reference:     Hesiod - Theogony

Level:               Overt

Description : While Sin is recounting her genealogy at the gates of Hell, she informs Satan that she is his daughter sprung from his head:
Then shining heavenly fair, a goddess armed,
Out of thy head I sprung. Amazement seized
All the host of Heaven; back they recoiled afraid
At first, and called me Sin, and for a sign
Portentous held me
.     (Paradise Lost 2.757-761)
In Hesiod’s Theogony, Zeus marries Metis/Thought (Th.886). Athena is conceived through this marriage (Th.886-93), and then is born fully armed from the head of Zeus (Th.924-6). If the language of these passages is compared, one can see how close Milton's poetry is to Hesiod's:
PL 2.758:    Out of thy head I sprung . . .
Th. 924:      αὐτὸς δ᾿ ἐκ κεφαλῆς γλαυκώπιδα γείνατ᾿ Ἀθήνην.
In the universe of Paradise Lost, the goddess of knowledge becomes the distorted figure of Sin.

Contributor: Ryan Tribble


Paradise Lost by John Milton

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Reference:    Nicander of Colophon

Level:              Implied

Description: In book 2 of Paradise Lost, Satan is horrified when he encounters Sin at the “thrice threefold the Gates” of hell (2.645). His offspring, Death, charges Satan as he approaches the gate (2.675). He discovers that Sin is his daughter, whom he raped by means of which his son Death was conceived. Death grew in the womb of Sin and tore through her insides in order to be born (2.778-787). Milton seems to be making an allusion to several passages from antiquity that describe offspring that tear through a mother’s womb (Herodotus 3.109, Aristotle Mir. 846b 18, Claudius Aelianus 15.16), the closest of which is likely Nicander’s account of the viper in Theriaca 128-136. 

In the Theriaca, Nicander recommends avoiding the bite of a dark-colored viper in the crossroads (τριόδοισι, Ther.128). This leaping viper has dog-like fangs (κυνόδοντι, 130). The young of this breed of viper immediately chase after the disgrace of the father (πατρὸς λώβην) when gnawing their way out of their mother’s womb (γαστέρ’ ἀναβρώσαντες). Thus they are born 'motherless' (ἀμήτορες ἐξεγένοντο, 134). Parallels with McDuff in Macbeth? [Ed.]

It should not be too surprising that Milton found inspiration from Nicander’s didactic poem about venomous animals and plants since the protagonist of Paradise Lost eventually becomes a serpent. Milton also interprets the venomous beast of Nicander’s poem as part of the consequence of the Fall of Adam and Eve. So this viper that is particularly dangerous in the crossroads (τριόδοισι), a place also associated with magic and Hecate recalls the 'triple gates of Hell'. The dog-like fangs (κυνόδοντι) might also contribute to the references to Scylla and Cerberus, though Milton is clearly borrowing these from other sources. The vipers mode of germination and birth in Theriaca most resemble the germination and birth of Death in Paradise Lost 2.645.

Contributor:  Ryan Tribble


Leda and the Swan by W.B. Yeats

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Reference:     Zeus, Helen of Troy

Level:             Overt

Description: Yeats uses the story of Zeus taking the form of a swan to rape Leda as an allegory for the turmoil in Ireland following Henry VIII's invasion in the 16th century. 

The poem begins in media res with Zeus violently attacking the innocent Leda. In Greek mythology, Helen of Troy is born from this brutal encounter, which ultimately leads to the destruction of the great city state of Troy. As the rhyme scheme in this subverted sonnet breaks down, the Trojan empire is sacked and replaced with a new era. This poem can represent the initial fall of Ireland to British rule as well as the partition in 1922 when the south was given its independence. This prescient poem leans heavily on the Sack of Troy and foresees the years of troubles that lay ahead in the birth of modern Ireland. It is a another example of how the Modernist movement used the mythology of the ancient world to make political and social comments in literature. James Joyce's Ulysses does the same as does T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland. The Classical contexts can sometimes make the texts difficult to understand unless you have a Classical education. This is another reason to advocate the teaching of Classics in state schools - pupils need them to fully access these great works!

For discussion: Is it possible to carry the analogy of Troy beyond the poem and interpret Aeneas leaving the city as an allegory for the success of the Irish diaspora?

Contributor:  Paul Hussein


Medussa by Carol Ann Duffy

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Reference:     Medusa

Level:             Overt

Description: The name is clearly stated, but that is the only thing that is obvious about this poem. Medusa is present in the words, but the meaning of the poem is far from straightforward. The text has as many interpretations as there are snakes on her head. There is something very 'modern' about the story of Medusa, which Duffy plays with very well. There is the initial idea of vanity/hubris and the glee we take in schadenfreude, which we can see today in any tabloid article about celebrity women. Then there is the other story about a powerful woman, who inadvertently challenges men to 'conquer' her. The men know that she is dangerous, but this does not stop them trying to beat her. Parallels again can be made to the unfair treatment of women in the press compared to their male peers. Duffy's poem is interesting because she never quite explains what Medusa wants, neither does she tell us what the men who enter her life want. Our personal opinion and experience start to fill in those gaps.

Contributor: David Hogg


Dulce et Decorum est by Wilfred Owen

Reference:     Horace

Level:             Overt

Description: Owen turns the patriotic slogan from Horace's Odes on its head and uses it to create one of the greatest anti-war poems ever.

When I teach this poem, I try to show the pupils a translation of Horace's Ode (Book 3, Poem 2). It is easy to dismiss Horace's Ode as a tool of propaganda, but context is everything. In the time of Classical Rome, not fighting when you were at war could (in some small way) expedite the death of your family. SPQR should have been the most important thing in your life, because SPQR stops the barbarians breaking down the gates. Therefore to not fight was to put you family at a greater risk - hence the need for soldiers. So rather than blind bloodlust, I think he was thinking war was the best way to protect your loved ones. When you place Owen's poem next to this and remember the 'point' of WW1, the pointlessness of WW1 is emphasised even further; Owen's family were not at risk from barbarians and it was his 'SPQR' that had perpetuated this mess in the first place. 

Contributor: David Hogg


Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats

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Reference:    Bacchus

Level:             Overt

Description: Keats is not feeling in a party mood when he states, "Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards", but it is good to know that he had an option. On the other hand, I am sure Byron would not have thought twice about the offer of a lift from the fun-loving God of Wine!

Contributor: David Hogg