Showing posts with label vanity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label vanity. Show all posts

Saturday, 30 January 2016

'On Viewing Herself in the Glass' - Elizabeth Teft

“Was Nature angry when she formed my clay?
Or, urged by haste to finish, could not stay?
Or dressed with all her store some perfect she,
So lavish there, she’d none to spare for me?”

'On Viewing Herself in the Glass'
Elizabeth Teft
(1747)

It’s not a new thing, the experience of looking in a mirror and feeling somewhat dissatisfied with the view.  But in this wonderful mid-eighteenth-century sonnet, Elizabeth Teft succinctly constructs the perfect self-affirming response. 

It all begins with a blunt rhetorical question (that’s a question addressed to nobody, just like when you talk to your mirror in the morning): ‘Was Nature angry when she formed my clay?’  Basically, she’s trying to think of some reason why she doesn’t look as great as she’d like.  I especially enjoy the image of a kind of pre-life production line, with ‘Nature’ personified as some kind of creative artist who, having ‘dressed with all her store some perfect she’, has nothing pretty left in her workshop to give to the poet. 

There is an attempt at indifferent impartiality in the next line – ‘I oft converse with those she’s deemed to grace’ – or is she just being ever so slightly bitchy there?  Nature has, after all, only been ‘deemed to grace’ these women ‘With air and shape, fine mien, and charming face’.  The mirror, or glass, is personified here as it is able to hear these women address their own reflections with the rather affected exclamation that they are ‘strange, unpolished thing[s]’.  The poet is restrained though – she never ‘once upraid[s]’ because (here comes the slightly catty part again folks) ‘Conscious I am that transient charms will fade’.  In all fairness, though, she does allow that their ‘beauty gives delight’ and that it is ‘wond’rous pleasing to the sight’. 

Ultimately, the final couplet makes up for any peevish envy.  Since her looks are ‘defective’, she prays, please ‘Heaven, be so kind / With never-fading charms to dress my mind’.  And this is really what makes this such a perfect poem, as the poet accepts that even if she was beautiful it wouldn’t last forever, and through that acceptance learns to seek the higher and much more important goal of beautifying her mind.  In the tradition of sonnets, there is usually a change of tone after either the eighth or the twelfth line (technically known as the volta).  Here, the definite change before the final couplet becomes also a question of shifting the discussion from women’s bodies to a woman’s own individual journey to improve her mind.  Timeless, isn’t it?

You can read this poem:

(Poetry Nook – a nice, free, online source of poetry.  Here’s where to start if you want to get reading this poem real fast!  This site also features some of Teft’s other poetry, all well worth a read!)

(You can read two of Elizabeth Teft’s other poems here, though not the one the blog post is about)

Roger Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)
(available from numerous book shops online and on the high street: an truly masterful volume! Difficult to say how much I enjoy this book… ) 

About Elizabeth Teft

I was going to put a bit of biographical info here, but sadly, as Roger Lonsdale writes, ‘Little is known of “Elizabeth Teft of Lincoln’, except that she published Orinthia’s Miscellanies in London in 1747’.  But hey, that’s what researchers are for!  Maybe one day more information will be uncovered about this talented writer.

Friday, 5 June 2015

'The Vanity of Human Wishes' - Samuel Johnson


‘Then say how hope and fear, desire and hate
O’erspread with snares the clouded maze of fate,
Where wavering man, betrayed by venturous Pride
To tread the dreary paths without a guide,
As treacherous phantoms in the mist delude,
Shuns fancied ills, or chases airy good.’
(lines 5-10)

The Vanity of Human Wishes
Samuel Johnson
1749

It would not be unfair to say that the language and expressions used in many eighteenth-century poems can seem like something of a ‘clouded maze’.  In their excellent commentary on Johnson’s ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’, James Noggle and Lawrence Lipking note that ‘the difficulty of the poem is also related to its theme, the difficulty of seeing anything clearly on this earth’ (p. 2843).  Yet while it might present a challenge, it remains a hugely poignant and engaging text, full of rich rewards for the persevering reader.   

The most important thing to remember when reading a poem like this is that meaning frequently runs on over several lines (also known as ‘enjambment’, pronounced en-jam-ment).  This bit – ‘betrayed by venturous Pride / To tread the dreary paths without a guide’ – then clicks into focus, as an extra little piece of information about the ‘wavering man’.  The clue here is in the punctuation (something too frequently overlooked by those who read poems aloud, even at graduate level!).  The most inspiring of my university tutors used to encourage us all to read out extracts of the text that we were studying rather than just look at it cold on the page, and poetry in particular benefits from this treatment.  For example, if you read the above quotation leaving a pause for breath at the end of every line the whole thing becomes completely unintelligible.  Instead, try reading it out loud leaving pauses only where the commas fall.  Hopefully, the meaning should now start to pop out a bit more clearly. 

In its broadest term, this is a poem about the futility, not of life, but of the fundamentally human desire for wealth, status, and fame.  Although the poem ultimately advises the reader to ‘leave to Heaven the measure and choice’ of their life’s success and direction, the prioritisation of love and patience remains powerfully relevant to those of any or no religion.  The really important thing, Johnson is arguing, is to avoid the mental destruction of self suffered by the numerous examples he depicts of the covetous and vain. 

Happy reading! 
Feel free to ask questions in comments!

You can find this poem:

The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume C, The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century, edited by James Noggle and Lawrence Lipking, pp 2843-2851. (This volume is a good investment, as it provides an excellent survey of eighteenth-century literature, as well as containing lots of helpful information about eighteenth-century writers and the history of the period; this is also the edition from which the quotation above was taken). 

Samuel Johnson, The Major Works, edited by Donald Greene (Oxford World’s Classics)
(Absolutely superb series of books, Oxford World’s Classics!! Again, lots of useful extra information and annotation to help even the most inexperienced of readers to access a text)

Be wary of spurious copies of the poem available online or free for e-readers: these may not always have enjoyed the benefit of careful presentation, and as I mentioned above, a comma-pause in the wrong place can really confuse things!  If this is the only way that you can obtain the text however, by all means go for it!


To find out more about Samuel Johnson:

1. Wikipedia! (yes, even academics use this sometimes... but sssh! Don't say I told!) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Johnson

2. The Samuel Johnson Society
http://www.samueljohnsonbirthplace.org.uk/society.html
https://johnsonnew.wordpress.com/  (There is a whole list of helpful links on this page, too!)

3. Dr Johnson's House Museum: especially interesting for those who live in, or are visiting, London!
http://www.drjohnsonshouse.org/