The Function Of Poetry English Literature Essay

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In order to understand Wordsworth's view on the function of poetry, we must define the meaning behind the keywords in his statement. The adjective 'spontaneous' implies that poetry is unplanned or is a result of natural impulses. The verb 'overflow' highlights the excessive nature of the 'powerful feelings' the poet feels resulting from the 'emotions' experienced remembered in a calm 'tranquil' manner. Although this statement will be proven to be true in Seamus Heaney's poetry in his collection North, I will also examine other functions of poetry.

Wordsworth's comment is primarily concerned with content in poetry as it highlights the poet's feelings and emotions and points out the theme of memory in the construction of the poem but 'the spontaneous overflow' relates to the form of the poem. An example to illustrate Wordsworth's view is the poem 'The Grauballe Man' as the narrator recalls 'one of the best preserved bog bodies in the world.' [1] The speaker's feelings towards the Grauballe Man is one of pity as Heaney refers to his 'head and shoulder…bruised like a forceps baby' emphasising the Grauballe Man's innocence equal to a baby's innocence. [2] Further emphasis on a baby's innocence is shown in the eighth stanza with the noun 'foetus.' This makes the reader sympathise with the Grauballe Man the same way we would sympathise with an innocent baby. The theme of memory is shown in the line: 'but now he lies perfected in my memory' shows he remembers him in a tranquil 'perfect' way. (Heaney, p.36) We can also see he is remembering the Grauballe Man as the poem is written in past tense. This emphasises the importance of the Grauballe Man's death as the speaker is mourning over someone who died long ago. The 'spontaneous overflow' is also shown in the poem through the use of enjambment occurring throughout the whole poem. It seems spontaneous in the light of the flowing enjambment as it is irregular but Heaney's use of irregular enjambment is planned and is therefore not spontaneous. The first sentence of the poem is run on to the second stanza whereas the sentence in the fourth stanza does not run onto the next stanza. There is the sense that the poem was not planned to be equal and the sentences 'overflow' to the next stanza. Paul Valery states:

…poetry orders the depths of our being, for it aims to provoke or reproduce the unity and harmony of the living person, an extraordinary unity which manifests itself when a man is possessed by an intense feeling which leaves none of his powers unaffected. [3] 

In other words, the speaker's 'powerful feelings' while 'recollecting' the Grauballe Man has overflow as shown through enjambment in a 'tranquil' way.

However poetry can be seen as not spontaneous and the 'powerful feelings from emotions' are not recollected in tranquillity. The poem 'North' is written in equal stanzas which gives the reader the sense that the poem was planned to be written in an organised way. Poetry might show plenty of spontaneously-presented emotion, but at the same time it is self-consciously organised, so it's function is not just emotive, it is concerned with the creation of formal patterns. The negative language shown throughout the poem contrasts the tranquillity in his reminiscence. The harsh verb 'hammered' in the first stanza is metaphorically used to describe Northern Ireland being 'hammered' by violence. (Heaney, p.19) In stanza seven, the words 'hatreds' and 'lies' mirror the political situation of Northern Ireland. (Heaney, p.20) Culler states: 'Theorists speak of 'metaphors we live by' basic metaphorical schemes…Such schemes structure our ways of thinking about the world'. [4] The metaphorical language in the poem highlights the narrator's anger towards Northern Ireland's conflict which leads the reader to think about the conflict. Another example of this is shown earlier in the essay with the image of the bruised baby.

Figurative language enables powerful feelings to be recollected in tranquillity. It is divided into groups and the first and most important group comprises the trope. The most important of the tropes are metaphor, simile, metonymy, synecdoche and irony. [5] These tropes 'are the basic rhetorical structures by which we make sense of experience…and are basic structures of language which underlie and make possible the meanings produced in a wide variety of discourses.' (Culler, p.72) It is for the reasons that tropes help us make sense of the world and enable the meanings of other writing other than poetry, that each trope shown in Heaney's poetry will be explored in the essay.

The theme rebirth is shown in the poem to convey the speakers feelings about the conflict in Northern Ireland. This is shown in the poem 'Punishment' through the metaphor 'she was a barked sapling'. (Heaney, p.37) The noun 'sapling' represents a new beginning which relates to the idea that poetry '…is expressly made to be reborn from its ashes, perpetually to be again what it has been.' [6] Culler states: 'A metaphor can carry an elaborate proposition, even a theory.' (Culler, p.71) In this case, the 'bog body' metaphorically described in the poem represents the rebirth of poetry and also the hope of a rebirth of peace for Northern Ireland.

The speaker's feelings on 'the violence between elements of Northern Ireland's nationalist community (principally Roman Catholic) and unionist community (principally Protestant)' is shown in the poem 'The ministry of fear'. (Aldea handout) The line 'Catholics, in general, don't speak as well as students from the Protestant schools' show the segregation of the two denominations representing the political conflict between the two. (Heaney, p.64) It is also seen that Protestants are more advantageous than Catholics in education through the way they speak. The simile 'My fingers tight as ivy on her shoulders' also represent the conflict between the denominations as the adjective 'tight' gives the reader a sense of tension; the same tension in the conflict. (Heaney, p.64) A simile is a type of metaphor. 'Metaphors can be used to reinforce our images of the world or to challenge them.' [7] This simile reinforces our image of the religious conflict in Northern Ireland.

The feeling of guilt is shown in the poem 'Summer 1969' as it shows the speaker in Spain while 'The Troubles' began in Northern Ireland. 'I was suffering only the bullying sun of Madrid.' (Heaney, p.69) The word 'suffering' shows his guilt for not defending his country when it needed him and the sun is shown to be the cause of his suffering as it 'bullies' him. The use of metonymy in the line: 'I retreated to the air of the Prado' further shows his guilt as he hides away in Spain. (Heaney, p.69) 'Figurative language can significantly affect our attitude towards the topic under discussion, and is capable of affecting us even (or perhaps especially) if we do not consciously recognize that it is being used.' (Ways of Reading, p.156) The use of metonymy is relevant to the speakers guilt shown through the 'sun' and 'Prado' rather than directly blaming them self. The speaker may not recognise this consciously. The theme of patriotism is sensed in the speaker's voice which encourages all readers to defend their country instead of neglecting it. This encouragement is shown by displaying the consequence of feeling guilty if their country is neglected.

The speaker reveals a moral message in the poem 'Freedman' as the last line summarises the statement before the poem begins by R.H Barrows: '…for a man from a 'backward' race might be brought within the pale of civilisation, educated and trained in a craft or a profession, and turned into a useful member of society.' (Heaney, p.61) To 'bite the hand that fed me' is relevant to this as the struggles of slavery enabled the 'backward race' to be a 'useful member of society.' (Heaney, p.61) This is further emphasised by the statement that 'A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.' [8] The statement by R.H Barrows shows the delight of a 'backward race' being 'a useful member of society' but the poem ends with the wisdom that what does not kill a person, makes them stronger. However, the last line is a synecdoche which can be seen as a weak function of poetry. Also, the term 'backward' is colloquial. 'Everyday language is full of terms which would once have required a metaphorical interpretation, but which are now so familiar that they produce no effect at all.' (Ways of Reading, p.156) Therefore the synecdoche and the colloquial adjective 'backward' could be seen as having no outcome on the reader as it is so common.

The feeling of anger of the speaker towards the Irish conflict is emphasised in the irony used in the poem 'Whatever you say, say nothing' as the poet satirises the Irish conflict by describing the English view of it as an 'Irish thing' as if the conflict is insignificant for a proper name. (Heaney, p.57) Another example of irony in the poem is the line: 'The 'voice of sanity' is getting hoarse.' (Heaney, p.58) This line is open to interpretation as 'it requires the reader of hearer to take various interpretive risks in order to work out the intended meanings.'(Ways of Reading p.168) Therefore the function of irony is to allow the reader the freedom to interpret its meaning the way they wish just as the Irish conflict is open to interpretation.

Wordsworth's view on the function of poetry can be proven to be true for some poems such as 'The Grauballe Man' but is proven to be untrue in other poems such as the poem 'North'. The different tropes of figurative language serve different poetic functions such as informing readers on Northern Ireland's political and religious conflicts. It also serves to inform readers on human consciousness as seen in the poem 'Summer 1969.' It may also convey a moral message to the world as shown in 'Freedman'. The reader's freedom of interpreting a poem the way they wish leads to different ideas of the function of poetry, that it allows us to view its function, and the situation in Northern Ireland, in any way. Although Wordsworth's view can be seen as the function of poetry, it should also be considered that it is not the only function as this essay shows.