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Thread: Can anyone explain the biblical references in this poem?

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    Can anyone explain the biblical references in this poem?

    Can anyone please tell me what this poem is about?

    Consolation- Elizabeth Barrett Browning

    ALL are not taken; there are left behind
    Living Belovèds, tender looks to bring
    And make the daylight still a happy thing,
    And tender voices, to make soft the wind:
    But if it were not so—if I could find
    No love in all this world for comforting,
    Nor any path but hollowly did ring
    Where 'dust to dust' the love from life disjoin'd;
    And if, before those sepulchres unmoving
    I stood alone (as some forsaken lamb
    Goes bleating up the moors in weary dearth)
    Crying 'Where are ye, O my loved and loving?'—
    I know a voice would sound, 'Daughter, I AM.
    Can I suffice for Heaven and not for earth?'

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    My guess consolation after the loss of a loved one but its not easy to make total sense of it. ' Can I suffice for heaven and not for earth. '
    Sadly we look forward to heaven but we are not too keen to leave the earth.
    There may well be some literary experts on the site that have the ability to unravel.

  3. #3
    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    "I am," refers to Exodus 3, 13-14:

    13 Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

    14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.[c] This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
    It also hints at John 14:6: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

    The poetic point involves (although the poem is more than this) the notion that the God of Heaven is also the God of Earth, and that love for the dead and departed ("Where are ye?") is a mere shadow or reflection of the love for God and the love God has for us.

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    Thanks so much for your reply!
    Actually I am not a native English speaker, so it is difficult for me to comprehend the meaning (even the literal meaning) of the poem.

    Do you mean that the persona of the poem stands alone in front of the sepulchres crying 'Where are the dead and the departed who I love?' , while there is a lamb bleating somewhere in the moors (Does 'some forsaken lamb' refer to Jesus? Why is it up the moors in ‘weary dearth’?). The persona hears the God’s voice saying 'Daughter, I AM. Can I suffice for Heaven and not for earth?’ (What does this line mean?)

    Can you please explain this poem a bit more to me? Is this poem about God comforting the persona when someone died?

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    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    I don't know all the answers, nor does anyone else. However, the poem is not an allegory. The "forsaken lamb" is bleating because it cannot find it's mother -- but the choice of "lamb" certainly hints at the lamb of God (Jesus). In addition, Jesus (on the cross) said, "My God, why have you forsaken me." So the comparison of Jesus and the lamb is clear, although the lamb is also a real lamb. "Weary dearth" simply means "exhausted and missing something".

    So if the narrator says that if she, like the lamb, is left behind on Earth while her loved ones die, and if she cries, "'Where are ye, O my loved and loving?'", she will be answered by the voice of God saying that it is not the dead alone who are with God, and love God, and are loved by God, but the living, as well ("Daughter, I AM. Can I suffice for Heaven and not for earth?").

    Of course I don't think these paraphrases and analyses are complete "meanings" of the poem.

    p.s. "as some forsaken lamb
    Goes bleating up the moors in weary dearth". "As" can mean "while" or "like". It's unclear which meaning is used here, but it could hint at both. The narrator is "like" a forsaken lamb, but could also be mourning at a sepulchre "while" a lamb bleats in the moors.
    Last edited by Ecurb; 04-10-2017 at 12:21 PM.

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    Thanks so much! You have helped me so much! Sorry that I have too many questions. Because I know so little about the Bible, I really need your help.

    Can you also see if I get the first 8 lines correct?
    Line 1-4:
    The dead person/ people have left their beloved ones on the Earth. What does ‘tender looks to bring (emjambment) and make the daylight still a happy thing’ mean? Does the word ‘wind’ here refer to ‘twisting/ turning’ instead of ‘breeze’ because it rhymes with the ‘behind’ in the first line?

    Line 5-8:
    Sadly, there is no love on earth that can comfort the persona, nor path that is circular (What does ‘but hollowly did ring’ mean?). We come from dust, we return to dust. When our beloved ones die, they return to dust, disconnecting from the love on Earth.

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    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    Disclaimer: I am not a scholar; I have never studied poetry; I am a native English speaker who likes poetry.

    As a result, I don't know much about enjambment.

    It's unclear to whom the first four lines refer -- but I read it as meaning that those left behind on earth must still make the daylight happy and the wind (breeze) soft. I'm not sure who is giving the "tender looks". I don't think Browning is saying that there is no comfort in love or tender looks. Instead she says that "IF" the bereaved cannot find human love to comfort or replace that which she lost (just like the bleating lamb finds no consolation for losing its mother), consolation can nonetheless be found in divine love. "Dust to dust" is not (I think) from the Bible, but (perhaps) from the book of Common Prayer and is often used at funerals.

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    Thank you so much!
    I dont mind that you are not a scholar, you know way more Biblical references than I do, and you understand the literal meaning of poem. All these are very much appreciated.

    I am wondering if it is ok for you to take a look at my another post in which I need some help with the meaning (any biblical reference?) of a W.H. Auden's poem.
    Sorry that I have too many questions. I really hope you could help me. Massive thanks.

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    A Thought On Death - W.H. Auden

    When life as opening buds is sweet,
    And golden hopes the fancy greet,
    And Youth prepares his joys to meet,
    Alas! how hard it is to die!

    When just is seized some valued prize,
    And duties press, and tender ties
    Forbid the soul from earth to rise,
    How awful then it is to die!

    When, one by one, those ties are torn,
    And friend from friend is snatched forlorn,
    And man is left alone to mourn,
    Ah then, how easy 'tis to die!

    When faith is firm, and conscience clear,
    And words of peace the spirit cheer,
    And visioned glories half appear,
    'Tis joy, 'tis triumph then to die.

    When trembling limbs refuse their weight,
    And films, slow gathering, dim the sight,
    And clouds obscure the mental light,
    'Tis nature's precious boon to die.
    I don't see any direct biblical allusions in Auden's poem, although it does talk about how it is a joy to die when one has faith, and when "visioned glories half appear."

    Auden's poem seems more worldly. Browning suggests that God's love exists on Earth as it does in Heaven; Auden suggests that when earthly pleasures wane (as they do in Browning's poem) then ""Tis nature's precious boon to die". IN contrast, Browning suggests that the eternal pleasure and glory of God's love exists on earth as well as in heaven.

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    I think the point of the poem is that the more blessings you have while alive, the more painful for you and everyone else if you die without having enjoyed those blessings and gifts to their fullest. As we grow older, things start to fall off and stop working and our best days are behind us physically and in some cases mentally. Wisdom is a great replacement, but when you can no longer walk up the stairs, or have no great loves left alive in your life, your career has ended, and all the reasons you used to have to get out of bed in the morning are not so easily replaced or transferred to something else. Albert Camus said, and I'm wildly paraphrasing here, that "the secret of life is whatever you are doing that is keeping you from killing yourself." If you perceive you've nothing left to lose, or live for, faith is what you tend to cling to as you shuffle off the mortal coil. Ever notice when you go to church the disproportionate number of elderly to young? Yes, they're retired and have more time to commit to attendance and church activities and it's a relatively healthy environment in which to socialize. But, they're also a lot closer to death, which is inevitable.

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    Auden's Poem: For the Time Being, A Christmas Oratorio. He sent a copy to his father who was confused and this is Auden's reply: When Auden was nearly finished with the poem, he sent a typescript of it to his father, a learned physician named George Augustus Auden (who, by the way, deserves more scholarly attention in his own right than he has ever received — he was a remarkable man). The elder Auden found the poem baffling: it was a retelling of the Nativity narrative, so why at the beginning is there a clock over the mantelpiece? Why does Joseph say “My trousers were cleaned and pressed”? Why does Herod complain that throughout his kingdom “there isn’t a single town where a good bookshop would pay”? Auden replied,
    Sorry you are puzzled by the oratorio. Perhaps you were expecting a purely historical account as one might give of the battle of Waterloo, whereas I was trying to treat it as a religious event which eternally recurs every time it is accepted. Thus the historical fact that the shepherds were shepherds is religiously accidental — the religious fact is that they were the poor and humble of this world for whom at this moment the historical expression is the city-proletariat, and so on with all the other figures. What we know of Herod, for instance, is that he was a Hellenised-Jew and a political ruler. Accordingly I have made him express the intellectual’s eternal objection to Christianity — that it replaces objectivity with subjectivity — and the politician’s eternal objection that it regards the state as having only a negative role. (see Marcus Aurelius.)…
    I am not the first to treat the Christian data in this way, until the 18th Cent. it was always done, in the Mystery Plays for instance or any Italian paintings. It is only in the last two centuries that religion has been “humanized,” and therefore treated historically as something that happened a long time ago, hence the nursery picture of Jesus in a nightgown and a Parsifal beard.
    If a return to the older method now seems startling it is partly because of the acceleration in the rate of historical change due to industrialization — there is a far greater difference between the accidents of life in 1600 AD and in 1942 than between those of 30 AD and 1600.
    Auden is of course right — he’s almost always right — and it’s worth thinking about how a culture’s understanding of Christianity changes when the events described in the Bible become purely historical, things that happened but no longer happen. I don't know if that is helpful, but it gives you a glimmer to the inside workings of a genius' mind.

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    Auden's Poem: For the Time Being, A Christmas Oratorio. He sent a copy to his father who was confused and this is Auden's reply: When Auden was nearly finished with the poem, he sent a typescript of it to his father, a learned physician named George Augustus Auden (who, by the way, deserves more scholarly attention in his own right than he has ever received — he was a remarkable man). The elder Auden found the poem baffling: it was a retelling of the Nativity narrative, so why at the beginning is there a clock over the mantelpiece? Why does Joseph say “My trousers were cleaned and pressed”? Why does Herod complain that throughout his kingdom “there isn’t a single town where a good bookshop would pay”? Auden replied,
    Sorry you are puzzled by the oratorio. Perhaps you were expecting a purely historical account as one might give of the battle of Waterloo, whereas I was trying to treat it as a religious event which eternally recurs every time it is accepted. Thus the historical fact that the shepherds were shepherds is religiously accidental — the religious fact is that they were the poor and humble of this world for whom at this moment the historical expression is the city-proletariat, and so on with all the other figures. What we know of Herod, for instance, is that he was a Hellenised-Jew and a political ruler. Accordingly I have made him express the intellectual’s eternal objection to Christianity — that it replaces objectivity with subjectivity — and the politician’s eternal objection that it regards the state as having only a negative role. (see Marcus Aurelius.)…
    I am not the first to treat the Christian data in this way, until the 18th Cent. it was always done, in the Mystery Plays for instance or any Italian paintings. It is only in the last two centuries that religion has been “humanized,” and therefore treated historically as something that happened a long time ago, hence the nursery picture of Jesus in a nightgown and a Parsifal beard.
    If a return to the older method now seems startling it is partly because of the acceleration in the rate of historical change due to industrialization — there is a far greater difference between the accidents of life in 1600 AD and in 1942 than between those of 30 AD and 1600.
    Auden is of course right — he’s almost always right — and it’s worth thinking about how a culture’s understanding of Christianity changes when the events described in the Bible become purely historical, things that happened but no longer happen. I don't know if that is helpful, but it gives you a glimmer to the inside workings of a genius' mind.

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    I think the point of the poem is that the more blessings you have while alive, the more painful for you and everyone else if you die without having enjoyed those blessings and gifts to their fullest. As we grow older, things start to fall off and stop working and our best days are behind us physically and in some cases mentally. Wisdom is a great replacement, but when you can no longer walk up the stairs, or have no great loves left alive in your life, your career has ended, and all the reasons you used to have to get out of bed in the morning are not so easily replaced or transferred to something else. Albert Camus said, and I'm wildly paraphrasing here, that "the secret of life is whatever you are doing that is keeping you from killing yourself." If you perceive you've nothing left to lose, or live for, faith is what you tend to cling to as you shuffle off the mortal coil. Ever notice when you go to church the disproportionate number of elderly to young? Yes, they're retired and have more time to commit to attendance and church activities and it's a relatively healthy environment in which to socialize. But, they're also a lot closer to death, which is inevitable.

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    Under Which Lyre
    A Reactionary Tract for the Times
    (Phi Beta Kappa Poem, Harvard, 1946)
    W. H. Auden

    Here are the last four stanza's of the above poem. I think it's interesting his use of 'Thou Shalt Not' and the admonition not to read the bible solely for it's Prose.

    Thou shalt not do as the dean pleases,*
    Thou shalt not write thy doctor�s thesis*
    *** On education,*
    Thou shalt not worship projects nor
    Shalt thou or thine bow down before*
    *** Administration.

    Thou shalt not answer questionnaires*
    Or quizzes upon World-Affairs,*
    *** Nor with compliance*
    Take any test. Thou shalt not sit
    With statisticians nor commit*
    *** A social science.

    Thou shalt not be on friendly terms
    With guys in advertising firms,
    *** Nor speak with such
    As read the Bible for its prose,
    Nor, above all, make love to those
    *** Who wash too much.

    Thou shalt not live within thy means
    Nor on plain water and raw greens.
    *** If thou must choose
    Between the chances, choose the odd;
    Read The New Yorker, trust in God;
    *** And take short views.

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    thank you so much!! your reply is so helpful!
    I don't really understand what 'slow gathering' means in the poem, why would that dim one's sight when one's getting old?

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