Structural Analysis: Six Categories

5. Theme

Introduction - On death: sample essay and scratch outline on “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” - On music and war (sample essay)

Introduction

Your job isn’t to make an argument that the theme of a text is such and such, but that the writer develops the theme in this or that way. Try to start with a statement that doesn’t simply state the general subject of the text — for instance, “love in Romeo and Juliet” — but rather examines an interesting aspect of the subject — “star-crossed love in Romeo and Juliet.” “Star-crossed” brings up the possibility of personal anguish in a character (3), struggle between greater forces in society (4), or the theme of free will and determinism (5). By making your statement specific you can see your focus more clearly.

Another way to do this is to ask what point the author is making. In Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare isn’t just observing that love exists, but rather that a certain type of love exists. This love has certain causes and effects, is expressed in certain metaphors and tropes, which you of course can make arguments about. 

John_William_Waterhouse_-_Juliet.jpg
Juliet , 1898 (John William Waterhouse),  Romeo at Juliet's Deathbed , 1809 (Johann Heinrich Füssli); both from Wikimedia Commons

Juliet, 1898 (John William Waterhouse), Romeo at Juliet's Deathbed, 1809 (Johann Heinrich Füssli); both from Wikimedia Commons

Theme is perhaps the most tricky of categories, since it often leads students into mere content and plot summary. Make sure that you aren't just explaining what the text is about — unless it's a perplexing or difficult text. A text with a clear theme is best analyzed by showing how the other categories arrive at a treatment of the theme. For instance, you could show how metaphor develops the theme of infatuation. On the other hand, a poem that's hard to get at, that's obscure or deeply challenging, is often best analyzed specifically and exclusively in terms of theme. The lyric “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” (by Death Cab for Cutie) has a number of obscure statements and thus is a good case where an essay on theme is appropriate.

On Death: “I Will Follow You Into the Dark”

(text here; video with lyrics here)

Paint It Black

“I Will Follow You Into The Dark” is simply written yet gets at deep emotions. In the chorus and the three main stanzas, the singer addresses a loved one who’s about to die. He promises to follow this person into the afterlife. The song’s not accompanied by any complex background music, and the singer’s voice is serious and sincere. Despite the song’s apparent simplicity, it’s complex mix -- of perspective, narrative, metaphor, and image -- deepen our understanding of the poet’s resolve to follow his lover into the dark, uncharted territory of death.

While the vocabulary and the spatial details in the first stanza are relatively simple, they hint at the puzzle of death’s obscurity. Most of the words are monosyllabic (and thus create the illusion of simplicity), yet the stanza leaves us with mysteries, intriguing us and making us feel the challenge and adventure in what he’s proposing. The spatial details are clear and simple: he will be “close behind” her after she dies and he will “follow” her “into the dark” (I am assuming it is a female, although it could be a male). Yet where is this “dark”?  He gives different ideas about where it might be, yet he eliminates these possibilities, and ends up with the same simple notion he started with. This may be appropriate, for who really knows what (if anything) comes after life?

The first stanza also offers an alternative perspective by rejecting traditional ways people describe death. The first word is “No” and the two settings he describes are typical, if not stereotypical: “blinding light” and “tunnels to gates of white.” The singer replaces these with the image of them holding hands—desperately, as if they were making a lover’s leap into the darkness. Yet he isn’t suggesting suicide, for they’re waiting for “the hint of a spark”—which isn’t a very clear reference, although it does rhyme with “dark” in the earlier and later stanzas. The rhyme works, for it juxtaposes the two words and the two ideas: the light that a spark gives is a small yet optimistic alternative to the dark. It also might hint at more light to come, for a spark can also light a fire. At least it’s better than a black nothing.

The first chorus shifts our attention from two rejected clichés to two mini-narratives which introduce more complex situations. In the first three lines of the chorus he combines the cosmic settings of Heaven and Hell with the ordinary setting of a hotel or motel. He suggests that the big capitalized Systems don’t care about her. There may even be an indirect reference to Jesus and the manger, for when Joseph and Mary couldn’t find a place to stay, they were allowed to stay in a barn. Yet here Heaven, or the Christian system in which Jesus supplies the Grace that opens the door to Heaven, doesn’t let them in. Heaven and Hell “decide” to close their doors to the woman, just as a motel manager might put on the “NO” before the “VACANCY” sign. Perhaps this is because the woman doesn’t believe in religious doctrine, or perhaps the doctrine isn’t open enough to accept those who have different points of view. In any case, we once again come back to “No,” to a negation of the traditional afterlife scenarios.

The next three lines of the chorus suggest a different narrative involving a nautical metaphor for death. After the woman dies, her soul will “embark.”  This leads us to rethink what seems like a rejection of spirituality in the previous lines, for at least he believes she has a spirit or soul (we are never told what her beliefs are). This makes sense of the previous idea—that even though he doesn’t expect she will encounter a bright light or a tunnel, he thinks that there will be a “spark” of life that remains after the body dies.

The final two stanzas supply a sustained narrative that explains the singer’s reasons for rejecting traditional beliefs. We see why he chooses mystery and ambiguity over religious doctrine: his Catholic schooling was as strict as “Roman rule” and it emphasized fear rather than love. The strict ‘lady in black’ is a betrayal of Mary, Mother of Grace, so it’s no wonder he rejects this betrayal and focuses on love instead. All of this explains why he earlier rejected the traditional Heaven and Hell scenario. He ‘never goes back’ to a traditional way of thinking, and chooses instead to broaden his vision by travelling with his beloved all over the world, from “Bangkok to Calgary,” that is, from a country that is completely foreign, to another North American city closer to Gibbard’s home state of Washington.

This reference to travel and places leads to the image of worn shoes, which is at once realistic and metaphoric. That the soles of her shoes are worn down suggests that her body is worn down, to the point where death is about to overcome her—which is emphasized by the word “now.”  The “sleep” he refers to is the sleep of death, as in Hamlet’s famous “To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub, / For in that sleep of death what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / Must give us pause…”. This ‘rub’ is not some vague possibility, for she is at the moment of death, of ‘shuffling off her mortal coil.’ Yet she does not have to face this alone, which is the point of the poem: death may be terrifying, yet she is not alone. Love doesn’t depend on time, place, or school of belief. As the pagan Latin poet Virgil wrote two thousand years ago, love conquers all.

At the end of the song, he uses the colour black to reassure her that he will be with her till the end, and beyond. He says that he will stay with her in “the blackest of rooms,” just as he says earlier that he will hold her hand and wait with her for a “spark,” that together they will pass by the “NO VACANCY” sign, and that together they will look out from the dock onto the dark waters. The song ends with a return to the idea of darkness, in this case the “blackest of rooms.” Black conjures the dark mystery of death, and also perhaps the sadder, darker, deeper feelings he will soon experience in the room as her body goes cold. As her soul vanishes into the obscure darkness, he will wait in a similar darkness, lost in mourning, waiting for a spark.

 

Scratch Outline

Paint It Black                       

Despite the song’s apparent simplicity, it’s complex mix -- of perspectives, narratives, metaphors, and images -- deepen our understanding of the poet’s resolve to follow his lover into the dark, uncharted territory of death.

1. While the vocabulary and the spatial details in the first stanza are relatively simple, they hint at the puzzle of death’s obscurity. 

2. The first stanza also offers an alternative perspective by rejecting traditional ways people describe death. 

3. The first chorus shifts our attention from two rejected clichés to two mini-narratives which introduce more complex situations.  

4. The next three lines of the chorus suggest a different narrative involving a nautical metaphor for death. 

5. The final two stanzas supply a sustained narrative that explains the singer’s reasons for rejecting traditional beliefs.

6. This reference to travel and places leads to the image of worn shoes, which is at once realistic and metaphoric. 

7. At the end of the song, he uses the colour black to reassure her that he will be with her till the end, and beyond. 

Brooks on Music and War (plus Sample Essay)

“First Fight. Then Fiddle.” (Gwendolyn Brooks, 1949)

First fight. Then fiddle. Ply the slipping string (Note 1)
With feathery sorcery; muzzle the note
With hurting love; the music that they wrote
Bewitch, bewilder. Qualify to sing
Threadwise. Devise no salt, no hempen thing
For the dear instrument to bear. Devote
The bow to silks and honey. Be remote (2)
A while from malice and from murdering, (3)
But first to arms, to armor. Carry hate (4)
In front of you and harmony behind.
Be deaf to music and to beauty blind.
Win war. Rise bloody, maybe not too late
For having first to civilize a space
Wherein to play your violin with grace. (5)

Notes from http://205poetry.pbworks.com/w/page/822046/First%20Fight%20Then%20Fiddle, last edited by Kvani 10 years, 9 months ago

1. The scheme is similar to the Italian structure because it has an octave but the endings differ, however at the same time it ends in a couplet which is characteristic of the English style 

2. Way in which form relates to the poems meaning: Brooks indicates through her poem that you have to overcome obstacles before being able to enjoy an art form. For example, she illustrates in this particular poem that you must fight before playing the fiddle. Form and line structure in particular must be thought of prior to writing the poem in order to connect it to the theme properly,  

3. First half of the poem (prior to the turn) focuses more on the idea of the fiddle whereas the second part focuses more on the obstacles that must be overcome in order to the play the fiddle 

4. Turn - at the start of the sestet Brooks uses the Italian and English structures of a sonnet to show how she can blend the two structures together. During this time, poets may have wanted to move away from the norms of poetry and therefore wanted to create their own unique form by combing the two structures.  

5. Meter and Rhyme structure - Brooks does not stress the meter, line, or rhyme because many rhymed lines are connected to the following line in terms of meaning = enjambment 

Sample Essay: "Hurting Love": Reckoning Poetry's Costs In Gwendolyn Brooks' "First Fight. Then Fiddle," by Robert Matz, English 201.025, from http://mason.gmu.edu/~rmatz/%21SAMPLE__PAP.htm

Gwendolyn Brooks' "First fight. Then Fiddle." initially seems to argue for the necessity of brutal war in order to create a space for the pursuit of beautiful art. The poem is more complex, however, because it also implies both that war cannot protect art and that art should not justify war. Yet if Brooks seems, paradoxically, to argue against art within a work of art, she does so in order create an artwork that by its very recognition of art's costs would justify itself.

Brooks initially seems to argue for the necessity of war in order to create a safe space for artistic creation. She suggests this idea quite forcefully in the paired short sentences that open the poem: "First fight. Then fiddle." One must fight before fiddling for two reasons. First, playing the violin would be a foolish distraction if an enemy were threatening one's safety; it would be, as the phrase goes, "fiddling while Rome burns." Second, fighting the war first would prepare a safe and prosperous place where one could reasonably pursue the pleasures of music. One has to "civilize a space / Wherein to play your violin with grace." It should be noted further that while Brooks writes about securing a "civilized" place to play the violin, she seems clearly to be using this playing as an image for art in general, as her more expansive references to "beauty" or "harmony" suggest.

Nonetheless, much that Brooks writes about the necessity to fight before fiddling indicates the she does not support this idea, at least not fully. For example, Brooks describes making beautiful music as being "remote / A while" from "malice and murdering." In addition to the negative way Brooks describes war in this line, as murder motivated by malice, the phrase "a while" significantly qualifies the initial command to "First fight. Then fiddle." While this initial command seems to promise that one will only have to fight once in order to create a safe space for art, the phrase "a while" implies rather that this space is not really safe, because it will only last for a short time. War will begin again after "a while" because wars create enemies and fail to solve underlying conflicts. The beauty of violin playing remains illusory if it makes us forget that the problem of war has not really gone away.

Brooks suggests moreover not only that war cannot really protect art but also that art is not really a just excuse for war. Indeed, she implies that art might be responsible for war's unjust brutality toward others. This idea is most evident in the poem's final sentence: "Rise bloody, maybe not too late / For having first to civilize a space / Wherein to play your violin with grace." Though on first read it seems like this sentence repeats the warning to fight before it is "too late," its language has a number of negative connotations that undercut this exhortation. "Civilize" might at first seem a laudable goal, but it is also hard not to hear in this word all the atrocities that have been committed because one group believed another group needed "civilizing" or lacked civility. Moreover, if war inherently makes even "civilized" people uncivil because of its brutality, war's final achievement in the poem--"a space / Wherein to play your violin with grace"--seems heavily ironic. "Grace" can suggest a valuable beauty or refinement, but also more superficial manners. And this possibility of merely superficial refinement, blind to the violence and even injustice committed in its name, is especially suggested by the image of having to "rise bloody." The artist playing his violin so gracefully also has blood on his hands. The first hypothesis of the poem, that one can fight and then fiddle--that is, that once can fight and put the war out of one's mind by playing beautiful music--has been replaced by a recognition that one cannot deny the violence that made beauty possible. For at a minimum war continually threatens this beauty. Even worse, this war has perhaps been unjustly waged with the protection or promotion of "civilized" beauty as its excuse.

This conclusion is striking since violin playing in the poem seems not only to provide a metaphor for artistic creation generally, but also writing poetry in particular. For by its heavy use of alliteration, assonance and consonance, the poem emphasizes its own musicality, as if it were like a violin being played. In just the poem's initial line "first" "fight" "fiddle" alliterate, as well as ring changes on the different sounds of the vowel "i"; "fight" and "ply" assent; and "slipping string" repeats the initial "s" and final "ing" sounds. Moreover, the sonnet itself is a very refined artistic form, easily associated with the difficulty and cultural prestige of violin playing. Indeed, as an emblem of Western civility (one thinks of Renaissance sonnets), the sonnet might be involved in the very justification of the destruction of other less "civilized" peoples that the poem condemns.

One might wonder why Brooks produces poetry, especially the sonnet, if she also condemns it. I would suggest that by critically reckoning the costs of sonnet-making Brooks brings to her poetry a self-awareness that might justify it after all. She creates a poetry that, like the violin playing she invokes, sounds with "hurting love." This "hurting love" reminds us of those who may have been hurt in the name of the love for poetry. But in giving recognition to that hurt, it also fulfills a promise of poetry: to be more than a superficial social "grace," to teach us something we first did not, or did not wish to, see.

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Structural Analysis: Preface - 1: Space2: Time3: Character4: Relationship5: Theme & Theme Take 2 6: Style & Style Exercises

English 1114: Introduction - Contents - Outline

Schedule: Week 1-7 - Week 8-14