Personal Poetry: “To the Dandelion” by James Russell Lowell

April showers bring May flowers and May flowers bring…poetry? May flowers also bring weeds! One of the most common is the dandelion. As a weed and flower alike, the dandelion is a powerful symbol in poetry. As the little yellow flowers begin to dot the lawns all over New England, lets take a moment to appreciate them with the 1848 poem “To The Dandelion,” by Massachusetts native and Romantic poet, James Russell Lowell.

 

“To the Dandelion” is the longest poem covered in Personal Poetry yet. Therefore, instead of analyzing it line by line as in past posts, the major themes will be grouped together. If you are interested in reading the poem in full, it can be read in The Complete Poetical Works of James Russell Lowell available at Project Gutenberg linked in the Further Reading section.

 

Lowell opens the poem with a statement of the ordinariness of the dandelion, “ DEAR common flower, that grow’st beside the way,/ Fringing the dusty road with harmless gold!”  At its most literal,  this line describes how the dandelions grow numerous alongside the road that he travels but he still stops to notice and appreciate their presence. This opening line can be further interpreted as the joy one can revel in beholding even the the most ordinary sights in nature. Lowell ends the opening stanza with the line, “thou art more dear to me/Than all the prouder summer-blooms may be.” The dandelion may not be the only flower that catches the observant Lowell’s eye, however, it is the most valuable to him. This is explored deeper later in the poem, but even at the beginning he emphasizes the particular significance of the dandelion.

“How like a prodigal doth nature seem When thou, for all thy gold, so common art!” Significantly, Lowell repeats the descriptor, “common” for the dandelion. Readers of poetry should always take note of repetition, because poets are intentional in their choice of diction. Repeated words typically point toward a important theme of the work. It is the simple commonness of the dandelion that makes it important to Lowell. Dandelions are everywhere, and thus can be appreciated and remind Lowell of the modest beauty found in even the smallest cracks of nature.

 

In addition to Lowell, it is children, he remarks, who appreciate the dandelion. “Which children pluck, and, full of pride, uphold—High-hearted buccaneers, o’erjoyed that they/ An Eldorado in the grass have found” It was this part of the poem, describing children joyously plucking dandelions from the earth as treasures that held the most personal significance for me. Reading it instantly transported me back to my youth in which I would gather the dandelions and wood sorrell in the yard, delighting in their vibrant yellow hues, and present a bouquet to my mother. Children do not differentiate flower and weed in their identification of beauty. They simply pluck and keep what catches their eye.  As with myself, dandelions are also closely tied to Lowell’s memories of childhood. “My childhood’s earliest thoughts are linked with thee” he states in the middle of the poem. The dandelions are a powerful link to Lowell’s own early years and their commonness allow him to experience those memories often.

 

The ubiquity and unsophistication of the dandelion leads to the most important theme of “To the Dandelion”, the richness of sacred gifts in nature. Lowell often linked nature and spiritualism within his poetry. In the dandelion he sees the virtues of modesty, humility, and innocence.

 

“To rich and poor alike, with lavish hand;  Though most hearts never understand/To take it at God’s value, but pass by/The offered wealth with unrewarded eye.” It is those who take the time to appreciate the unadorned flower who truly experience the majesty of God, according to Lowell.  And although these gifts of nature are available to all, rich and poor, it is a rare person who collects the wealth offered so freely and unceasingly. The rare person who allows their heart to be filled with the joy of these humble gifts.

 

It is in this rarity, that children are the exception, part of the reason Lowell appreciates the link dandelions create with his childhood is that reminds him of when he felt a greater and easier connection to nature. “The sight of thee calls back the robin’s song,/Who, from the dark old tree Beside the door, sang clearly all day long;/And I, secure in childish piety, Listened as if I heard an angel sing/ With news from heaven, which he did bring/Fresh every day to my untainted ears,   When birds and flowers and I were happy peers.” To the young Lowell, the birds were angels. Their songs the news of heaven. Notably, he describes his young self as a peer to the birds and flowers, meaning he too was a part of that heaven on earth. As he aged and lost his “untainted ears” he lost that heavenly connection, as well. He loves the dandelions because they remind him that he once felt that fullness of that kinship.

 

espite the inherent loss of aging, the poem ends on a hopeful message, “Thou teachest me to deem More sacredly of every human heart,/Since each reflects in joy its scanty gleam Of heaven, and could some wondrous secret show,/Did we but pay the love we owe, /And with a child’s undoubting wisdom look /On all these living pages of God’s book.” Lowell believes that the dandelions can teach him, and the readers by extension, the value of the humble gifts in our lives. Even if the connection becomes lost in adulthood, it can be regained in “gleams” if we can only remember to look with our childhood wisdom and recognize that the wonder of creation is all around us, even in the humblest weed.

 

Further Reading

James Russell Lowell, The Complete Poetical Works of James Russell Lowell is available to read at Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/13310/pg13310-images.html

 

Similar Poets to Discover

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

John Greenleaf Whittier, Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Poems

 

Katelyn Varley writes poetry and prose. When not engaging in wordplay, she teaches swimming to all ages. She graduated from Hampshire College in Amherst, MA with a degree in History. She lives in Ayer, MA with her partner, two dogs, and a cat. Find her on Twitter @HistKB.

 

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Essay: Alabama Ex-Pat

My name is Hannah, and I was born in a tiny unincorporated township in northeastern Alabama. I’m beginning a series of essays on my experiences. This is an excerpt from the first essay in that series. For the rest, check out my blog, or check it out in Mill Pages Vol 3, coming soon!

People always say I should write about Alabama. “You have such good stories!” they say, and perhaps they aren’t wrong.

I enjoy telling those stories. I’ve told some of them dozens of times, at places like Christmas parties or during slow stints at work. Sometimes it’s relevant to the conversation at hand, or someone asks for a repeat of their favorite. Sometimes, though, they just leap out on their own volition.

As a teenager, I often sensed that the absurdity of my experiences would make good stories one day. My mother used to tease me about it, saying I should write a book about my youth and call it ‘Children of the Cornbread’. It would be a dark comedy about a cynical, soft-hearted southern woman who wished to be a tough, morally-upright northern man.

Again, not wrong.

Some of those stories are worth telling. It’s just that talking about it and writing about it are different. Writing is more of a commitment. Repeating those old anecdotes is cathartic and entertaining. Chronicling them for the future is owning them. The moment I pour my energy into writing it all down, I’m bonding myself to it. It’s taken a long time to gather the moxie.

I think the hesitation partially comes from the inevitable question: why did you leave? You see, I live in Massachusetts now, not too far from Boston.  If I mention my southerness, ‘why did you leave’ is the first question out of someone’s mouth. It’s usually curious, sometimes unbelieving, and always so earnest.

I guess you ask that question to anyone who crosses the country, especially to somewhere so different. It’s hard to answer that question, but harder to ignore it. And the answer is as complicated is it simple.

Allow me to try.

Librarian Reading: May 2018

This monthly column, by our own Sara Marks, will feature new books that librarians and book bloggers are talking about.

This month I’m only sharing one book…. MY OWN!

Phi Alpha Pi

Coming out on May 28th, Phi Alpha Pi is the second book in my 21st Century Austen series.  The series is an anthology series, so pick either of the two current books and enjoy.  It doesn’t matter which one you start with (the other is Modern Persuasion).  Here’s the blurb:

Pride and Prejudice and the story of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy is one of the most popular and famous in British literature. What happens to the same story and characters if you set it today, in a university’s Greek system?
Phi Alpha Pi is the oldest and largest sorority on campus and new president Lizbeth has a busy senior year ahead of her. She is determined to keep her sorority in good standing on campus after a year on probation. She is barely dealing with the new sorority house manager, Mrs. C, who has her own ideas about how to support the sorority sisters. Lizbeth has to balance this with her own academic goals to complete an honors thesis and go to graduate school.
The last thing Lizbeth expects is her anger when Wil, a new member of the Alpha Pi fraternity, pushes every one of her buttons. Lizbeth finds him rude, snobby, and judgmental. Wil, has just transferred to the university with his best friend, Charlie. Lizbeth’s irritation with Wil grows through the year as she keeps being forced to interact with him ALL YEAR.

If the blurb wasn’t clear, this is a modernization of Pride and Prejudice. It’s a sweet romance book, which means there aren’t any sex scenes on the page, but they’re implied.  You can pre-order the ebook online now.

Don’t worry, I’m going back to regular suggestions next month!

Want more?  Check out Sara’s blog, Book Club of 1, where she talks about her own experiences as writer and sometimes suggests books to her readers.  Her column will be featured on the first Wednesday of each month.  Want to see more books suggested by librarians, check out Library Reads.

Personal Poetry: “The Trees” by Philip Larkin

Spring is blooming belatedly in New England this year. After a series of false starts, the warmth of the sun in the longer daylight hours is a cause of celebration. Yet counting the daffodils sprouting in my yard fills me with despondence. With the reawakening of nature, my mind wanders to thoughts of loss. These feelings have only heightened with age. However, I am not alone. Many poets have used the imagery of spring to express their discontent. One standout is Philip Larkin’s “The Trees”, in which the English poet delves into the inherent pessimism of the season.

Larkin begins “The Trees” with an unassuming observation: “The trees are coming into leaf/Like something almost being said.” The trees are almost trying to speak to Larkin. In the next line, he reveals his interpretation, “The recent buds relax and spread,/Their greenness is a kind of grief.” These trees are not joyously celebrating new life. They welcome the fresh buds with grief. These new buds are not the symbol of rebirth. Instead, the leaves are another year of growth.

In the second stanza, the mourning for the passage of time becomes more apparent. “Is it that they are born again/And we grow old? No, they die too,/Their yearly trick of looking new/Is written down in rings of grain.” The trunks and branches of the trees survived the winter but these are new buds blossoming. The leaves Larkin observed in springs of the past, withered from the trees in autumn. It is a mere illusion of rejuvenation. The rings inside tell the truth. These trees are aging just as humans do.

However, in the final stanza, Larkin writes, “Yet still the unresting castles thresh/In fullgrown thickness every May./Last year is dead, they seem to say,/Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.” There is cautious optimism in his words. Even as the trees age, they are planted in the present. They no longer live in the past. Even if they will die one day, they must live today.

Commonly framed as the season of burgeoning new life, spring is, conversely, a season of endings. Even as we delight in the blossoming of flowers or the chirps of hatchlings, there is the ever-present knowledge that those are merely the most recent blooms and birds. The sprouts we nurtured and admired last spring have aged or faded. Nothing is truly “afresh, afresh, afresh,” instead it is only our yearning to believe that such renewal exists. The fountain of youth, even illusionary, is a mere myth for humanity.

Further Reading

The Complete Poems by Philip Larkin

Similar Poets to Discover

Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems 1927-1979
W. H. Auden, Collected Shorter Poems 1927–1957
Robert Frost, The Poetry of Robert Frost

Katelyn Varley writes poetry and prose. When not engaging in wordplay, she teaches swimming to all ages. She graduated from Hampshire College in Amherst, MA with a degree in History. She lives in Ayer, MA with her partner, two dogs, and a cat. Find her on Twitter @HistKB.

Essay: The Haunted South

As a child, I would sometimes sit in front of my mother’s bookcase and look at her collection of hardcover Anne Rice novels. I was too young to read them (or much of anything at all), but I loved how they looked. The cover art was rich and detailed, and covered with mysterious figures and enticing titles. They stoked a sense of mystery in me, even if I was only old enough to look.

If I wanted scary, I had plenty of other places to look. My elementary school library was filled with regionally-published anthologies of ghost stories. They were everywhere, and all with a similar aesthetic. These simple ghost stories were just a little bit more age appropriate. Less teeth, I suppose. But still spooky, and so very popular. Southerners love ghost stories, no matter the age.

There’s something about the south and it’s ghosts. I wish I could put my finger on something objective or tangible, but I really can’t. I suppose it’s a matter of my raising. Anyone can feel haunted by their childhood home. But when I visit Alabama and drive down the winding country roads I knew as a child, I hear all those ghosts calling out to me.

Let me make something clear real quick – I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t even believe in God. I’d like to lay eyes on either, and it’s not been a lack of trying.

Belief or none, something about Alabama still feels haunted. I can almost feel all those ghosts brushing against me everywhere I go. It’s a natural part of the landscape. Everything’s old, rotten, and miserable. The perfect place for a haunting.

It could be the south’s quiet nature combined with its unsavory past. Everywhere you go is thick with the stench of the Civil War, and those lonely rural stretches really start to get under your skin if you think about it too much while your drive through. It’s almost like the ghosts of the old south notice the emptiness, and so they do the polite southern thing and fill the silence with some friendly chatter.

 

Thanks for checking out this preview of The Haunted South! You can read the rest over here on my blog, 905. 

Librarian Reading – April 2018

This monthly column, by our own Sara Marks, will feature new books that librarians and book bloggers are talking about.

I’m having a weird reading month.  I check out a lot of books from my library’s Overdrive account.  This means, when the loan is over, the book just disappears from my account.  If I remember in time, I can renew it, but if there is a waiting list, it puts me at the end.  That means, in many cases, that I have to wait months to get a book and I might have had to wait months to get it in the first place.  These two books are some I expect will take me months to get and months to finish while I wait for the second round of the waiting list to get to me.

35959740Circe

I know a lot of the Mill Page authors like fantasy and mythology.  So many of our conversations turn to various mythologies and magical creatures.  For me, I love the Hindu deities more than other pantheons.  For those who love the Greeks, you should give Circe a try.  It’s getting a lot of great buzz.  Here’s the blurb:

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child–not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power–the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.

Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.

But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

With unforgettably vivid characters, mesmerizing language and page-turning suspense, Circe is a triumph of storytelling, an intoxicating epic of family rivalry, palace intrigue, love and loss, as well as a celebration of indomitable female strength in a man’s world.

Circe comes out on April 10th.  It is a mythological drama with a strong female lead.

PrintMy Lady’s Choosing: An Interactive Romance Novel

I’m sure many of us read at least one Choose Your Own Adventure book in our lifetime.  If you haven’t I suggest you find one at a used bookstore, Amazon (used), or in a library.  They are fun and you always end up dying.  I never discovered a path that led to any success.  Anyway, My Lady’s Choosing: An Interactive Romance Novel is that method with a romance novel.  Here’s the blurb:

You are the plucky but penniless heroine in the center of eighteenth-century society, courtship season has begun, and your future is at hand. Will you flip forward fetchingly to find love with the bantering baronet Sir Benedict Granville? Or turn the page to true love with the hardworking, horse-loving highlander Captain Angus McTaggart? Or perhaps race through the chapters chasing a good (and arousing) man gone mad, bad, and scandalous to know, Lord Garraway Craven? Or read on recklessly and take to the Continent as the “traveling companion” of the spirited and adventuresome Lady Evangeline? Or yet some other intriguing fate? Make choices, turn pages, and discover all the daring delights of the multiple (and intertwining!) storylines. And in every path you pick, beguiling illustrations bring all the lust and love to life.

The publisher, Quirk, is known for… quirk.  They brought us Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, William Shakespeare/Star Wars, and other greats.  This book comes out on April 3rd.

Want more?  Check out Sara’s blog, Book Club of 1, where she talks about her own experiences as writer and sometimes suggests books to her readers.  Her column will be featured on the first Wednesday of each month.  Want to see more books suggested by librarians, check out Library Reads.

Personal Poetry

Emily Dickinson, “I Am Nobody”

Approaching poetry can be intimidating. It is a form layered in symbolism and metaphor. Reading a poem can feel like putting together a puzzle, with readers asking themselves questions about the poet’s meaning throughout. But poetry is a profound literary experience that can shine a light and reveal truth and beauty about a subject. This is why each month here at Mill Pages I will exploring poetry. I’ll explore ways to read it, recommend poets, and discuss what draws me into a specific poem. There are many ways to interpret a poem and I look forward to hearing what each poem means to you as well.

For this first installment, I am choosing the first and only poem I’ve memorized, “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” by Massachusetts poet, Emily Dickinson. I am drawn to Dickinson’s lyric poetry because her style is simple and direct. Even when she is concerned with dark topics such as death and mortality, her style remains accessible. She entices readers with confessions and often reveals her vulnerability within her writing.

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?

When I read those opening lines I feel as if Dickinson is whispering directly to me. She introduces herself and immediately attempts to identify kinship and develop a confidence with the reader. She wants to trust the reader.

There there is a pair of us – don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.

This is my favorite line of the poem, Dickinson has established her relationship with the reader and cautions for safety. She doesn’t want to have her confidence betrayed nor does she want to lose her newfound companion. This is also the first indication that there is a separate group of people from who Dickinson and, presumably the reader, feel alienated from.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

The second quatrain concerns the second group, the Somebodies. Along with her fear of this group, Dickinson also pities and chaffs at them. For Dickinson, famously recluse, this is often interpreted to be referring to shying away from publication or fame. On a larger level, however,  Somebodies can be interpreted to be celebrities, authorities, bullies, attention-seekers, or even just the local gossips, croaking their name or accomplishments to the murky, potentially empty bog of an audience. It conveys a universal feeling of being left out of a group.

For Dickinson and the other Nobodies, the preferance is to be left alone to work quietly and form kinships with other like-minded individuals. I hope every Nobody reading this finds another Nobody to whipser to.

Further Reading

The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

Similar Poets to Discover

Katelyn Varley writes poetry and prose. When not engaging in wordplay, she teaches swimming to all ages. She graduated from Hampshire College in Amherst, MA with a degree in History. She lives in Ayer, MA with her partner, two dogs, and a cat. Find her on Twitter @HistKB.