Interpret, decipher, construe, enjoy

How do you determine the significance of poems, novels and plays? John Lewis looks at ways to discover meaning in different texts. Read  ‘A slumber did my spirit seal’ by William Wordsworth.

A slumber did my spirit seal;

I had no human fears:

She seemed a thing that could not feel

The touch of earthly years.

 

No motion has she now, no force;

She neither hears nor sees;

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,

With rocks, and stones, and trees.

 

WHAT possible meanings could be discovered here, in Wordsworth’s poem?

One of the keys to understanding the poem is an alertness to grammatical structures. Note the change in tense between the past of the first stanza to the present of the second; a shift which in the emotional life of the poem is accompanied by a change of tone.

 

The poet seems to gather himself together and what might be described as part wistfulness and retrospective wonder at what existed between himself and the woman he has lost moves to a determined attempt to place whatever exists now.

The verse of the first stanza evokes that peculiar blissful state of being in love. Something magical, dreamlike and entranced is suggested. And here, for the reader, the fixing of the precise meaning of words is vital. “Slumber” brings with it suggestions of an easy, light sleep and a corollary of awakening and “seal” a closing-off that is not permanent.

Look at the way the slight change of tack, “She seemed a thing”, makes its way into the poem as naturally as breathing. And what of Wordsworth’s choice of that word, “thing”? It is placing the otherness of the state of love, where the beloved becomes more than just a person and is the object of intense feelings and personal significance.

It is a state in which hesitations and anxieties, “human fears”, have no bearing. The meanings to be discovered here are complex. In the rhetorical patterning of the second stanza (“No/no/Neither/nor”), the poet attempts to define his experience. The reader should ponder over words and nuances – why that Latinate, scientific-seeming word “diurnal”? Is there a kinship with “motion” and “force”?

Reading meanings is never a cut and dried affair. Different and equally plausible meanings may exist at the same time. Emily Dickinson’s poem, He fumbles at your Soul, is a case in point.

One reading might sum it up as both a meditative and dramatic exploration of the process and experience of personal Christian conversion. The poem would be seen to be showing God as at first tentatively but persistently seeking entrance – “He fumbles at your Soul/As Players at the keys”.

In this scenario, little by little, God prepares the soul for the momentous consummation and union with Him (“When Winds take Forests in their Paws/The Universe is still”). It is an experience so mystically all-absorbing that nothing else seems to exist.

The metaphors here are conflated and compressed. God takes hold of the soul the way mighty winds take hold of a forest.

But are there other possibilities? One aspect of the metaphor sees the wind, God, as a lion playing with a helpless victim – and indeed that observation might send a reader back into the poem seeking another construction of meaning.

Is the poem really about a merciless and cunning God? Does it see life as only a process of gradual destruction and final annihilation? Think of the line, “He stuns you by degrees”, the reference to “your brittle nature”, the way the words “Blow”, “Hammers”, “Brain” in relation to one another are suggestive of the slaughterhouse.

The images of blue sky in Eli Weisel’s Night are not just examples of static “descriptive” writing. They help constitute mood and meaning, marking Weisel’s personal journey from devout boy to utter disbeliever. In the concentration camp, the smoke of the crematorium rises into a sky vast, blue and empty. The complete absence of God is registered.

Read the rest here.

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