This page gives an example of practical criticism of poetry. Plans to update this page regularly have not worked out (I have been too busy!), but I hope to make some changes from time to time. See the poetry papers in Model Essays and Web Links for Literature for further online information on the topic.

1. Approaching the Poem
There are many ways of approaching a poem. I would like to focus on an approach that works on gaining insights into the text by analysing the language used. Let me show how I might work on a poem by John Keats using this approach. Here is the poem:

To a Lady Seen for a Few Moments at Vauxhall

Time's sea hath been five years at its slow ebb;
Long hours have to and fro let creep the sand
Since I was tangled in thy beauty's web,
And snared by the ungloving of thine hand.
And yet I never look on midnight sky
But I behold thine eyes' well memoried light;
I cannot look upon the rose's dye
But to thy cheek my soul doth take its flight;
I cannot look on any budding flower
But my fond ear, in fancy at thy lips,
And hearkening for a love-sound, doth devour
Its sweets in the wrong sense: -Thou dost eclipse
Every delight with sweet remembering,
And grief unto my darling joys dost bring.

Of course, there is no substitiute for reading the poem several times. However, we can sometimes learn surprising things by asking one or two questions about the language of the poem.

For example, suppose we ask ourselves whether any of the words used in this poem fall into word groups. If we look, we will find that there are several words which seem to belong to the same group. The poem begins with the word 'Time', and this is followed by several expressions of time - 'five years', 'Long hours', 'midnight' -  as well as words which imply time, or the passage of time - 'slow', 'Since', 'never', 'memoried', 'remembering'. And, of course, the title contains the expression 'for a few moments'.

That is a simple exercise, and we can do it even though we may feel that we haven't begun to understand what the poem is about. It is a very useful exercise, because now, at least, we know something about the poem; we can say, with confidence, 'This poem says something that has to do with time'. That's important, because it gives us a focus, a direction, whereas before we perhaps had no real idea of where we were going.

If we look further, we will find other word groups. We might notice, for example, that images of nature - 'midnight sky', 'the rose's dye', 'any budding flower' - are balanced against images of the human face - 'eyes', 'cheek' and 'lips'. Or we might observe how many of the words and phrases are balanced by their opposite. The sense of being trapped - 'tangled', 'snared' is set against the sense of freedom - 'my soul doth take its flight'; the 'light' of line 6 has become an 'eclipse' in line 12; and the 'sweet remembering' becomes 'grief unto my darling joys'.

Something else which is similar to word groups is repetition. In this poem there is, for example, 'I never look', 'I cannot look', 'I cannot look'. These repetitions are tied in with the images balancing the lady's features against nature, drawing attention to them.

We have noticed a lot of things about this poem. Now we need to try to make sense of what we have noticed. This is a good time to read the poem slowly through again. This time, as I read it, I feel that the time expressions and the phrases that balance so neatly do not seem, in fact, to be logical. On the contrary, again and again, they seem to be paradoxical. Even though the poet only saw the lady for a short time, the poem emphasises 'Long hours' and the 'slow ebb' of time. On the one hand, the lady's beauty trapped ('snared', 'tangled') him, and on the other she seems to free him; his soul 'take[s] its flight' to her. The 'sweet remembering' is at the same time the cause of his 'grief'.
I am beginning to understand why Keats emphasised the word 'look'. The repetition forces me to realise how completely the past is tied up with the present. 'I never look', 'I cannot look' (my italics); it is as if the memory blocks out the present reality - as indeed it does, in the 'eclipse' of line 12.

Now I have a definite direction for my analysis. The poem is about paradox, and the effect of memory in bringing joy, but also in blinding us to the joys around us. If I look further, I can see the paradox of a man who cannot appreciate what is in front of his eyes here and now ( the rose, the flower, the 'midnight sky') because of his memories of the past; and beyond that paradox I can see another paradox - for, if he had never seen the lady, he would not be able to feel that passionate intensity of his soul in flight. His pleasure and his pain are inseparable.

Let's go back over the steps that led to this conclusion. First we looked for word groups. Then we looked for the relationship between the word groups, picking out a balance, and, more particularly, a balance of opposites. If the poet had chosen one half of the pair (for example, if he had chosen the past as being better than the present, the memory as being better than the reality) things might have been easier, but since he didn't I was forced to the conclusion that the poem was presenting both sides, showing that, on the one hand, the memory of the woman causes him 'grief' and, on the other, she enriches him. The fact that the repetition highlighted the paradox strengthened this analysis.

If I am right, then even parts of the poem which I have not so far understood should begin to become clear.Let's look at those strange lines again:

...my fond ear, in fancy at thy lips,
And hearkening for a love-sound, doth devour
Its sweets in the wrong sense...

At first I had no idea what this meant, but now I see. It's another paradox. When he sees a flower he thinks of the lady's lips, and instead of looking at it, or smelling it, he is 'hearkening for a love-sound' - that is, he's using 'the wrong sense'; he's listening to it!

2. Writing a Practical Criticism

So far, I have not written a practical criticism. I have shown the steps which will make it possible for me to write a practical criticism. Now I am ready to start writing!

There is just one more thing I might want to do, though, and that is to take a look at some published critics and see whether I can find any support for my analysis in their work. I find Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony (Oxford University Press, 1933; edition used, 1951) noticed very similar things in a wide range of Romantic poetry. Indeed, he comments on 'pleasure and pain...combined' (p. 26) in a poem by Shelley, using almost exactly the same phrase as I did!

My final practical criticism, then, might look something like this:

In this poem Keats contrasts the brief and passing glimpse he had of a lady 'ungloving' her hand with the deep and lasting effect she has had on him ('I never look...I cannot look...I cannot look...'). Time, described as a 'slow ebb', might normally be expected to make memories fade, but the lady whom the poet addresses is 'well memoried', so much so that the beauties of nature are not simply beautiful in themselves, but cause the poet's soul to 'take...flight'.

Paradoxically, though, this flight of freedom is inseparable for the poet from the experience of being 'tangled' in her 'beauty's web', 'snared' by the sight of her removing her glove. Remembering her is 'sweet', but at the same time it brings 'grief', and 'eclipse[s]/Every delight'. The 'midnight sky', 'the rose's dye', the 'budding flower' are no longer  sufficient pleasures in itself; they remind him of her - her eyes, her cheek, her lips.

Keats creates the impression that his whole being is in a sense of confusion.  The 'budding flower' reminds him of her lips, and so, his senses in confusion, he listens for 'a love-sound'. And yet all this is doubly futile; the lady was someone he only saw 'for a short time' - he probably never even spoke to her.

The intensity of Keats's passion is not destroyed by this futility but, on the contrary, seems to depend upon it. This has long been recognised as a central characteristic of the Romantic poets, for whom 'beauty was enhanced by exactly those qualities which seem to deny it...the sadder, the more painful it was, the more intensely they relished it' (Praz, p. 27). 

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