English 222 American Literature Questions on Jack London through E.E. Cummings, CSU Fullerton Fall 2013



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From "What Life Means to Me" (Norton Vol. D 917-20). From Tales of the Pacific (Penguin edition): "The House of Mapuhi" (31-53); "Mauki (64-79); "The Sheriff of Kona" (121-34); "Koolau the Leper" (135-50); "The Bones of Kehekili" (151-73).

From "What Life Means to Me" (Norton Vol. D 917-20)

1. How does Jack London describe his early life experience in his essay "What Life Means to Me" (published in Cosmopolitan in 1906)? What does he have to say about labor, workers and the capitalists who employ them? How, as he recounts it, did his experiences shape his thoughts on the course he must follow in the future?

2. How much of the revolutionary philosophy in the 1906 essay "What Life Means to Me" can you find either directly or indirectly in one or more of the Jack London short stories we are reading, which were the product of his voyages through the Pacific Ocean aboard the ship he called the Snark?

"The House of Mapuhi" (Penguin 31-53)

3. From 29-36 of "The House of Mapuhi," why does the native Mapuhi of Fakarava atoll (French Polynesia), who has found a remarkably large and high-quality pearl, want a house including various amenities built for him as payment rather than accepting cash? What kind of deal does the trader Alexandré Raoul offer him, and what terms does he end up getting from another trader, Toriki? What do his family members think of the deal, and why?

4. From 37-45 of "The House of Mapuhi," the great cyclone of 1903 (this was an actual event in which nearly four hundred people lost their lives) comes on, ravaging Hikueru atoll where the story is set. How does Jack London convey the power of this cyclone? Moreover, what inflection of his favorite theme "man vs. nature" does the extended description offer when we factor in the segment's focus on the struggles of trader Alexandré Raoul?

5. On 45-46 of "The House of Mapuhi," the narrative shifts briefly to Mapuhi's survival (as well as Raoul's), and then moves strongly on 46-51 to an account of the successful struggle of Mapuhi's mother Nauri to ride out the storm once she is torn away from Mapuhi, his wife Tefara and their daughter Ngakura. What trials does Nauri undergo before and after washing up on tiny Takokota island, and what qualities does she summon to overcome them?

6. On 51-53 of "The House of Mapuhi," the narrative cuts to the hut of Mapuhi and Tefara, who are arguing about how Mapuhi managed to get more or less robbed of his pearl by the now-deceased trader Tariki and has nothing to show for it. Into this domestic dispute comes Nauri, who is at first feared to be a ghost. But what news does she bring home with her, and how does it change things for the family as well as perhaps adding a symbolic dimension to the story?

"Mauki (Penguin 64-79)

7. On 64-67 of "Mauki," what are the Melanesian protagonist Mauki's original circumstances -- where did he live, what did he look like, what was his social status, and what happened that drastically altered his life?

8. On 67-71 of "Mauki," Mauki unwittingly signs on the dotted line, so to speak, for a three-year period of service with the powerful Moongleam Soap Company. What pattern of action and consequences promptly sets in? What does Mauki learn about the white men who oppress him during this tumultuous period in his life? How do they react to his numerous attempts to escape, and what decision are they finally driven to make with regard to this "troublesome" Solomons native?

9. On 71-76 of "Mauki," the narrator describes the career and character of Lord Howe Island's overseer and sole white inhabitant, a German man named Bunster. What is this fellow like, and how does he treat Mauki in particular? Moreover, how are the other white Moongleam traders said to have dealt with native islanders who cross them or refute their authority as a quasi-governmental body?

10. On 76-79 of "Mauki," what revenge does Mauki take on his antagonist Bunster, and what arc does his life follow after he has taken his revenge? What has he ultimately learned about how to deal with the white men who have made his life so difficult, and how does he both assert and modulate his own newfound power as a chief?

11. Use the conclusion of "Mauki" (76-79) to reflect on the comparison that Jack London has been making throughout between the so-called savagery of Mauki and his fellow Melanesians and the conduct of the white people who rule the Solomons (a British protectorate from 1893-1978) and other island chains in the Pacific. Ultimately, what, if any, differences does London's narrative posit, and to what extent does the story offer a critique of British and European practices and assumptions in connection with Melanesian and Polynesian people?

"The Sheriff of Kona" (Penguin 121-34)

12. On 121-27 of "The Sheriff of Kona," how does the narrator, or more particularly his dialogue partner Cudworth, describe Lyte Gregory, the former sheriff of Kona District on Hawaii Island? What are the man's physical attributes and personal qualities? In addition, what role does the landscape description on these pages play as a setup for the rest of the story?

13. On 127-31 of "The Sheriff of Kona," what is the significance of the particular manner in which Lyte Gregory learns of his dreadful condition? From whom does he learn this fact, and what impact does it have on him personally? Aside from the expected disfiguration that leprosy can cause, what seems to account for the denial and horror we find in the reactions of Lyte Gregory and his companions?

14. On 131-33 of "The Sheriff of Kona," why does Cudworth decide to get Lyte Gregory out of the leper colony where he resides? What is the outcome of the raid for Cudworth and Lyte, respectively?

"Koolau the Leper" (Penguin 135-50)

15. On 135-39 of "Koolau the Leper," Koolau makes a speech to his small group of fellow sufferers in the wilds of Kaua'i Island, all of whom are trying to avoid internment in a leper camp on Moloka'i Island. In this speech, how does Koolau assess the situation and prospects of himself and his band of followers?

16. On 139-43 of "Koolau the Leper," the sheriff pursuing Koolau makes his best attempt to capture the diseased fugitive. How does that attempt turn out? What kind of ethical and martial qualities does Koolau show as the white men or "haoles" (foreigners) try to hem him in and capture him?

17. On 143-50 of "Koolau the Leper," soldiers shell Koulau's refuge, his band of followers surrenders, and he is left to fend off his captors alone. Trace his emotions and reflections as he progresses from hunted fugitive to dying man: what qualities in the man persist? What has he proven by virtue of having eluded his would-be captors for so long?

18. General question about "Koolau the Leper": how would you characterize Jack London's strategy for representing the condition called leprosy? How does he make the narrator describe the disease and picture it forth for us? What do you think is the intended aim of such a representational strategy?

"The Bones of Kehekili" (Penguin 151-73)

To be posted soon….

Also to be posted in sequence, see below ….


"The Figure a Poem Makes" (Norton Vol. D 250-52); "Mowing" (Vol. D 231-32); "Mending Wall" (Vol. D 232-33); "The Death of the Hired Man" (Vol. D 233-37); "The Wood-Pile" (Vol. D 241); "The Road Not Taken" (Vol. D 241-42); "Birches" (Vol. D 242-44); "Out, Out—" (Vol. D 244); "Fire and Ice" (Vol. D 245); "Nothing Gold Can Stay" (Vol. D 245); "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" (Vol. D 245); "Desert Places" (Vol. D 246); "Design" (Vol. D 246); "The Gift Outright" (Vol. D 248).

"The Figure a Poem Makes" (Norton Vol. D 250-52)

1. In his essay "The Figure a Poem Makes," what complaint does Robert Frost make on page 250 against so-called "abstractionists" or radical experimenters in modern poetry? Why can't we just consider a poem as pure sound, or pure wildness (i.e. random association and so forth)? If sound and "wildness" are to be worthwhile, with what do they respectively need to be combined?

2. On pages 250-51 of "The Figure a Poem Makes," how does Frost develop his initial statement that the "figure a poem makes" may be captured with the dictum, "It begins in delight and ends in wisdom"? How does a poem do that? What do you understand by such associated claims as the remark that a worthwhile poem "ends in a clarification of life" and amounts to "a momentary stay against confusion" (251)?

3. On page 251 of "The Figure a Poem Makes," how does Frost differentiate between the scholar and the artist with regard to how they obtain their own kind of knowledge? How does a scholar (or scientist) attain and value knowledge? How does an artist do so? While Frost hardly means to condemn scholars or scientists, it's pretty clear that he favors the way artists arrive at and relate to their kind of knowledge. On 251-52, what justification does he offer for praising artists and poets' way of "knowing"? In particular, what's the result when someone gains and then conveys understanding in the artistic way?

4. On page 251-52 of "The Figure a Poem Makes," Frost shows a certain disdain for political "prating" (251 middle) about big concepts like freedom. He wasn't friendly towards President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, which the Democratic president and his supporters deemed necessary to jolt the country out of the Great Depression during the 1930s; Frost's prose and poetry shows a strong individualist tendency that put him at odds with so-called "collectivist" approaches to life and politics. When it came to art, it seems that Frost thought art should deal with the supposedly permanent elements of human nature and the human condition, not involve itself deeply in immediate social or political issues. Do you agree with that kind of approach, or do you find that prescription too rigid? Explain your response.

"Mowing" (Vol. D 231-32)

5. Mowing the grass or wheat to make hay is the stuff of traditional pastoral poetry, and Frost gives us a variation on that theme in "Mowing" -- one that isn't about a love complaint or an idyllic setting but that rather seems to concern itself with labor. What quality of representation and reflection with regard to the work of mowing, then, do you find in this poem?

"Mending Wall" (Vol. D 232-33)

6. Aside from the obvious, what is a "wall" in the context of Frost's poem "Mending Wall"? How might this poem be explored as a philosophical reflection on the origin and nature of the divisions we make between nature and ourselves, between one person and another?

7. In Frost's poem "Mending Wall," what seems to be the speaker's attitude towards his neighbor? We know they disagree about whether or not their two properties really need a dividing wall, but how does the speaker respond to his neighbor's insistence on upholding tradition and property rights?

"The Death of the Hired Man" (Vol. D 233-37)

8. What difference in perspective do you find in Frost's "The Death of the Hired Man" between the husband Warren and his wife Mary with respect to Silas, the itinerant (i.e. traveling) worker they have long hired to do odd jobs for them? Does Warren's view change or become clearer to us in the latter half or so of the poem, or does it stay the same? Explain.

9. What is Silas' situation in Frost's "The Death of the Hired Man" when he arrives at Warren and Mary's farm? What are some of the key points at which Frost makes his narrator provide us with further information about Silas? How does the poem bring home to us the starkness, the anything but ideal or secure quality, of the old laborer's life?

10. In Frost's "The Death of the Hired Man," the last full stanza seems to contain a genuinely symbolic moment, one that connects "The moon, the little silver cloud, and she" {Mary, Warren's wife} just before Warren returns to announce quietly that old Silas has died. Explore the significance of this section of the poem: in what sense might it be suggestive of Silas' value to Mary, or Silas' predicament more generally? (If you read this part of the text differently, that's fine; the point is to explore its symbolic charge.)

"The Wood-Pile" (Vol. D 241)

11. In Frost's "The Wood-Pile," the speaker muses about some chopped wood left out in the forest rather than stacked where it can be reached to heat the chopper's home in winter. How is this poem both a reflection on the labor we engage in and, at the same time, on how we invest what we do and make with purpose and significance? So far as you can tell, what does the poem as a whole privilege -- the wood-chopper's labor and the product he created, or the speaker's own communion with objects like that wood-pile? Which is more true, if either is more true -- the purposeful labor, or the quiet reflection? Explain your answer.

"The Road Not Taken" (Vol. D 241-42)

12. In lines 6-12 of Frost's "The Road Not Taken," how does the speaker describe the supposed difference between the two paths that he mentions? So how different are they, based on what the speaker says? (Be attentive to these lines -- it's easy to misconstrue them and thereby miss much of the poem's complexity as a reflection on the "paths" that make up a person's life.)

13. What time frames can you find in Frost's "The Road Not Taken"? One of them is of course the moment at which the speaker made a choice and walked down one path rather than the other, but what other temporal horizons would it make sense to recognize, and how might this temporal complexity lead us towards a strong understanding of the poem's final stanza?

"Birches" (Vol. D 242-44)

14. In Frost's "Birches," we are treated to the adult speaker's recollections about the fun he had swinging from sinewy birch trees during his boyhood. How does the speaker transform those recollections into a reassertion of the human bond with nature as well as, perhaps, a meditation on religious notions about going to one's otherworldly reward at the end of life?

"Out, Out--" (Vol. D 244)

15. In Frost's "Out, Out--," with its title borrowed from a line by Macbeth at the hollow end of his bloody career (see Macbeth 5.5.23-24) a young boy just finishing up the day's work with a saw cuts his hand off and dies in surgery when the country doctor arrives to amputate the hand. How is the boy's death regarded by others in the poem, and how does the speaker's attitude compare to the regard shown?

"Fire and Ice" (Vol. D 245)

16. In Frost's "Fire and Ice," the speaker alludes to the end of the world. The general meaning of fire and ice seems to be that the first references a religious perspective in which the world finally burns, as in the "End Times" of Christian theology, and the second references a scientific perspective in which the sun eventually burns out, leaving the planet cold and lifeless. But how does Frost's speaker turn "fire" and "ice" into symbols that speak more directly about human nature itself? What seems to be the speaker's attitude towards "us"?

"Nothing Gold Can Stay" (Vol. D 245)

17. Frost (a native Californian) was a fine observer of the natural environment in his adopted New England, and here in the short poem "Nothing Gold Can Stay," he shows the same acuteness as poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge, or Gerard Manley Hopkins. How does Frost's speaker turn a simple nature-observation into a broader contemplation of the transient quality of life, as well as change our traditional perception of the color "gold"?

"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" (Vol. D 245)

18. In the first stanza of Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," what purpose does the speaker give for stopping where he does? How, in the next two stanzas, does he go on to build a sense of the oddness of this action he has taken, "stopping by woods" on a dark winter night?

19. Many readers of Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" catch the almost hypnotic quality of the final stanza, with its repetition in the final two lines and its initial summation, "The woods are lovely, dark, and deep," If, then, this poem ends with something like a "call of the woods" to the speaker and perhaps to us, how would you give voice to that call? What is being offered, beyond the literal level of simply going farther into the woods or staying longer in them? At the same time, why might it not be quite right to leave the matter at this primeval level? How, that is, does the poem as a whole cast the woods as part of the human world as well?

"Desert Places" (Vol. D 246)

20. The Norton editors rightly point out on page 231 that while Frost is certainly a fine observer of nature, his outlook with regard to it can't be equated with that of American Transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau. How does this poem both connect the speaker with the landscape and yet leave us with a rather unsettling sense of the relationship thereby posited between them? Furthermore, what does the final stanza, with its response to C17 French philosopher Blaise Pascal's often-quoted thought, "the eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me" (La silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m'effraie, from Pensées), add to the poem's psychological depth?

"Design" (Vol. D 246)

21. The speaker of Frost's "Design" asks a question after William Blake's heart -- as when in that romantic poet's "The Tyger," the speaker asks the beautiful but deadly predator, "what immortal hand or eye / dare frame thy fearful symmetry?" What explanation, if any, does Frost's speaker arrive at for the existence and behavior of "dimpled spiders" like the one that stalks the white moth on the heal-all plant (Prunella vulgaris)? If you don't think an "explanation" is what the speaker is mainly trying to achieve, how do you read the poem's significance?

"The Gift Outright" (Vol. D 248).

22. Perhaps the key line in Frost's "The Gift Outright" (which the poet wrote in 1942 and later recited at President Kennedy's inauguration in January, 1961) is the eleventh, in which the speaker says that Americans "found salvation in surrender." In the context established by the poem, how do you interpret that line? What sense of American history, what relationship between the people and the land, does the poem imply?


"Chicago" (Norton Vol. D 279-80); "Fog" (Vol. D 280); "Cool Tombs" (Vol. D 280-81); "Grass" (Vol. D 281).

"Chicago" (Norton Vol. D 279-80)

1. In "Chicago," how does Sandburg build up a representation of the bustling Midwestern city -- what images, sounds, people, and activities does he convey as central to the ongoing meaning of the place? Do they all add up to a unified picture, or does the poem's task lie elsewhere? Explain.

2. How is the treatment accorded the great city in Sandburg's "Chicago" similar to Walt Whitman's treatment of his landscapes in Leaves of Grass or "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"? But how is Sandburg's description of Chicago also different from Whitman's landscapes generally? How, for example, does Sandburg turn the poem into something like an argument in defense of Chicago, a reply to those who might look down on the city in comparison to the great cities of the eastern United States?

"Fog" (Norton Vol. D 280)

3. In "Fog," why do you think Sandburg describes the coming-on of the fog as being like the stealthy walk, perch and attitude of a cat? In using such a metaphor, what might the poet be suggesting about the impact of fog on us, on our perceptions and our daily lives?

"Cool Tombs" (Norton Vol. D 280-81)

4. Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Pocahontas, nameless urban masses, and lovers all figure in Sandburg's poem "Cool Tombs." In the end, what do they have in common? By offering us a perspective on death, what is this poem suggesting about how to live?

"Grass" (Norton Vol. D 281)

5. What is the "work" of the grass at the battle sites the speaker of Sandburg's poem "Grass" mentions -- Austerlitz and Waterloo from the Napoleonic Era, Gettysburg from the American Civil War, Ypres and Verdun from World War I? Why is the natural process mentioned in this poem so necessary to human life -- what mental and emotional process does it imply and regard as vital to getting on with life?


From Spring and All (Norton Vol. D 346-47); Poems: "Queen-Anne's Lace" (Vol. D 305); "Spring and All" (Vol. D 306-07); "To Elsie" (Vol. D 307-09); "The Red Wheelbarrow" (Vol. D 309); "The Dead Baby" (Vol. D 309-10); "This Is Just to Say" (Vol. D 310); "A Sort of a Song" (Vol. D 310); "Burning the Christmas Greens" (Vol. D 311-13); "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" (Vol. D 313).

"Queen-Anne's Lace" (Norton Vol. D 305)

1. In W. C. Williams' "Queen-Anne's Lace," the speaker gives whiteness a connotation that differs somewhat from the one we often give it, the simple notion of purity and innocence. What do whiteness and other colors or color references mean in this poem? If someone – me, for example, right now -- asks you bluntly what the poem is "about," how would you respond?

"Spring and All" (Norton Vol. D 306-07)

2. W. C. Williams' "Spring and All" is of course partly a landscape description -- it helps us to visualize a patch of land alongside the road to a hospital as winter begins to turn into spring. But that isn't the most interesting thing about this poem. What does it tell us about natural process, and about the relationship between natural process and the speaker's own consciousness as a perceiver of the natural world?

"To Elsie" (Norton Vol. D 307-09)

3. In W. C. Williams' "To Elsie," the name apparently refers to Elsie Borden, Williams’ mentally challenged maid, but the poem is sometimes read as representing America’s failure to imagine itself in a sustainable or coherent way. What can you find in the poem's references to Elsie and others as well as its landscape description that might support such an interpretation? Or if you have some other way of understanding it, what's the basis of your own reading?

"The Red Wheelbarrow" (Norton Vol. D 309)

4. W. C. Williams himself, in a recorded March 19, 1952 interview at Princeton University, jokingly called "The Red Wheelbarrow" a "perfect poem," and suggested (seriously enough, I think) that "It means just the same as the opening lines of {Keats'} Endymion: 'A thing of beauty is a joy forever'." What do you suppose he meant by talking about the poem in that way? Furthermore, what is it that "depends" on the red wheelbarrow, and why so?

"The Dead Baby" (Norton Vol. D 309-10)

5. In W. C. Williams' "The Dead Baby," what perspective is offered on the departed child as well as the suffering of the parents? How do you understand the poem's conclusion from lines 19-24, with their reference to displaying the child for visitors somewhat like a curio-item in the parents' home -- what kind of strategy does the poem seem to imply for coping with the child's premature passing?

"This Is Just to Say" (Norton Vol. D 310)

6. In what way does W. C. Williams' "This Is Just to Say" challenge the ordinary way of thinking about poetic form and subject-matter? If someone were to say, “but this isn’t poetry at all!” how might you defend it? Or would you?

7. With regard to his "This Is Just to Say" poem, in a June 1950 interview with John W. Gerber, Williams himself says, "everything in our lives, if it's sufficiently authentic to our lives and touches us deeply enough . . . is capable of being organized into a form which can be a poem." He also says it would be a bonus to set it down in "conventional metrical form." Do you favor something like this rationale for writing poetry with such unassuming, humble subject matter? Why or why not?

8. In his "Preface to Lyrical Ballads," William Wordsworth references the following deliberately foolish "poem" from Samuel Johnson: "I put my hat upon my head / And walked into the Strand, / And there I met another man / Whose hat was in his hand." Wordsworth explains why it doesn't measure up thus: "the matter expressed in Dr. Johnson's stanza is contemptible. The proper method of treating trivial and simple verses … is not to say, this is a bad kind of poetry, or this is not poetry; but this wants sense; it is neither interesting in itself, nor can lead to anything interesting …." Do you suppose that Wordsworth would say the same thing, more or less, about W. C. Williams' "This Is Just to Say"? Why or why not?

"A Sort of a Song" (Norton Vol. D 310)

9. What relationship between words and things does W. C. Williams' "A Sort of a Song" advocate? How is the metaphor of the saxifrage plant useful to the poet in that regard? What about the comparison between "snakes" and the words of a poem—how does that help deepen our sense of the relationship the poet may be asserting between words and the world?

10. In W. C. Williams' "A Sort of a Song," the speaker says in a parenthetical musing, "No ideas / but in things" (9-10). In saying that, what basic perspective on the nature and source of "ideas" does the speaker apparently reject?

"Burning the Christmas Greens" (Norton Vol. D 311-13)

11. W. C. Williams' "Burning the Christmas Greens" explores the meaning of the practice whereby one goes out and cuts little branches from trees to serve as wreaths and other Christmas decorations; some time after the holiday is done, one burns this greenery, as here it is cast into a fireplace. How does the speaker draw out the value of these ornaments, beyond their obvious decorative uses? How are they made to relate to the great power of the seasonal cycles (nature's pageantry of perpetual death and rebirth), and to the renewal of the human spirit itself?

"Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" (Norton Vol. D 313)

12. W. C. Williams' "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" is partly a description of the famous Brueghel painting in which Icarus, his wax wings having melted because he flew too close to the sun, is shown just as he has fallen into the sea where he drowns. What forces referenced in the poem seem to strive to prevent the title event from taking center stage? Even so, how does Williams keep the death of Icarus before us or in our thoughts?

13. The Daedalus and Icarus story from Greek mythology is often interpreted as relevant to the fate of flights of poetic imagination. How might we enlist that insight in reading W. C. Williams' "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus"? How, that is, might the poem be understood as a meditation on the limitations of artistic and literary representation?


From "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (Norton American Lit. 8th. ed. Vol. D 372-75); "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (Vol. D 368-71); "The Waste Land" (Vol. D 378-91).

"Tradition and the Individual Talent" (Norton Vol. D 372-75)

1. In Part I of "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (372-74), how does T. S. Eliot explain his key terms "tradition" and, in particular, "the historical sense"? When a poet writes with due regard for the historical sense, how is the literary past altered by a work that is introduced in the present? By implication, too, what sort of poetry is Eliot criticizing -- what sort of poetry do we get if the author has not cultivated "the historical sense"?

2. In Part II of "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (374-75), how does T. S. Eliot characterize the creative process? How does his analogy of the poet's mind to "a bit of finely filiated platinum" help him explain the creative process? Stay with this scientific analogy and see how much you can draw from it as a vehicle for understanding Eliot's poetics.

3. In Parts II and III of "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (374-75), how does T. S. Eliot take issue with conventional expressive poetics of the sort we find in British romantic literary theory? What fault does he find with Wordsworth's formulation of poetic expression as "emotion recollected in tranquility"? Nonetheless, is Eliot himself offering us an altered form of expressive poetics? If that is the case, what does the poet supposedly express, if not his or her own passions and ideas? Explain.

4. In our brief excerpts from "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (372-75), T. S. Eliot does not address how readers can most productively connect with the kind of literature he is defending. That isn't meant as a criticism of him since the essay deals with poetic creation, not reception. Still, what conjectures can you offer on this point? When you read The Waste Land or some other difficult Modernist poem, to what extent are you able to "put together" your experience with such poetry as a coherent, integral representation of a culture rather than as the artist's personal expression?

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (Vol. D 368-71)

5. How does T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" represent both nature and the cityscape, and what relationship does it develop between the poem's human characters and their environment? To help you expand on these issues: what images does Prufrock reference by way of describing his surroundings, and what is odd about them compared with the general approach to nature we might find in a poem by one of the English romantics, or an American naturalist writer?

6. How does Prufrock in T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" describe the passage of time? Refer to at least a few points in the poem that deal with time. How does time weigh upon or otherwise affect the narrator himself?

7. Prufrock in T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is famous for his inability to do much of anything. So far as you can determine, what is it that keeps the speaker from acting or even making decisions of any import? At what points in the poem does he refer or allude to this failure on his part, and how does he process such failure?

8. How do lines 122-end of T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" affect your understanding of Prufrock's situation? In particular, how do you interpret the symbolism involved in some of these concluding lines?

The Waste Land

General Questions

9. Is there a single narrative voice behind the various utterances made in The Waste Land? To what extent do biblical and classical-age references help you construct a narrator or to what extent do they affect the poem's development and drive home its themes?

10. Many readers have found the allusive style of The Waste Land daunting since, after all, the poem's author was a polymath who chose to incorporate an astonishing array of historical references, characters, narrative voices, settings, and myths. What strategy do you find yourself employing to understand the broader significance of the poem as a whole?

I. The Burial of the Dead

11. In Part I, lines 1-18 of The Waste Land, how are the first seven lines related to Countess Marie's recollections about her childhood, fraught as they are with seasonal references? What kind of consciousness does Marie seem to represent? What is the substance of her recollections, and why do you suppose Marie is the first character (aside from a narrative voice) we hear from?

12. In Part I, lines 19-30 of The Waste Land, the text refers to three Biblical sources, as your Norton notes indicate: Ecclesiastes and the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah. Who seems to be the "Son of Man" addressed, and who is speaking to that figure? The text in with allusions to these prophetic/wisdom texts to make them "show" the Son of Man something, so what is it that he is being shown: what insight is being imparted to him and presumably to us as well?

13. In Part I, lines 35-42 of The Waste Land, we hear from the "hyacinth girl." What symbolic charge does the flower in question carry? What kind of experience is this girl relating to us, and why is that experience significant to the first part of the poem? Furthermore, why surround it with the tragic strains of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde at lines 31-34 and 42?

14. In Part I, lines 43-59 of The Waste Land, the fortuneteller Madame Sosostris puts in an appearance and reads her pack of Tarot cards. What thematic significance can we gather from her enumeration of the images on the cards she draws?

15. In Part I, lines 60-76 of The Waste Land, London is cast as an Unreal City, rather like Paris in Charles Baudelaire's collection of poems called Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil), or William Blake's miserable spectral London, or Dante's hellish landscapes from The Inferno. What is going on in Eliot's London, and how can we put together the strange pastiche of allusions throughout this block of lines – i.e. the references to the English Renaissance playwright John Webster and the French poet Charles Baudelaire, to Dante and to the famous Roman First Punic War victory in 260 BCE over Carthaginian naval forces off Mylae in Sicily? How do you interpret the relation between this segment and the poem's first 59 lines? That is, does it mainly drive home themes already mentioned and thereby cap off the first part, or does it bring up new matter to be explored?

16. We might do well to say that Part I of The Waste Land sets up the problems that the poem as a whole explores: the loss of a unifying mythic consciousness and loss of individual and cultural vitality. How does any one of the several concentrations in this part of the poem (i.e. the initial reference to the seasonal cycle, Countess Marie's recollections, Biblical allusions, Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, Madame Sosostris, or London the Unreal City) help in that regard?

II. A Game of Chess

17. Part II of The Waste Land alludes to a number of famous historical or mythical females: Cleopatra, Queen Dido of Carthage, Philomela from the Ovidian story "Tereus, Procne, and Philomela" in The Metamorphoses, and (at the very end of this part) Ophelia from Hamlet. Why this cluster of women -- what do these famous figures have in common that makes them all relevant to the thematic interests of this section of Eliot's poem?

18. How do you connect Part II of The Waste Land (with its concentration on gender, sexuality, and reproduction) with the previous section of the poem, which emphasized scenes and thoughts rife with incomprehension, failure, sterility and despair?

19. It is always difficult to pin down the narrative voices or speakers in The Waste Land, so reflect on that issue here: what voice or voices seem to be speaking the lines in Part II, and what leads you to make the determinations that you make in that regard?

III. The Fire Sermon

20. In keeping with the title drawn from one of Buddha's sermons, we might say that condemnation of humanity's fixation on sensuality and the things of this world is a major theme in Part III of The Waste Land, along with the implied need to purify or purge one's mind and senses to escape such fixations. If that's the case, choose a few voices or scenes in Part III and discuss how they articulate this theme.

21. Part III of The Waste Land continues to dwell on sexual frustration and apathy as the previous section did. What perspective does the Greek prophet Tiresias (whom Eliot considered a central voice in the poem) offer on these problems? What does Tiresias see, and how does he respond to it?

IV. Death by Water

22. What happens to Phlebas the Phoenician in Part IV of The Waste Land? Does this character's death advance the poem's plot? If so, how? In any case, why do you suppose this admonitory relation of Phlebas' death has been placed here before the climactic ending of the poem?

V. What the Thunder Said

23. The Waste Land draws in part upon independent scholar Jessie Laidlay Weston's discussion of the Grail Legend in her impressive 1920 study From Ritual to Romance. The basic idea is that a Fisher King has been wounded or is ill and his lands have suffered as a result; a quester (an Arthurian knight or an heir to the throne) must help the King heal and thereby restore his lands, in part by "restoring the waters" to a drought-stricken territory. The motif of a restorative quest seems especially important in Part V of The Waste Land, so what elements of it can you find there? If the end of the poem is the end of the quest, how successful has it been? What, if anything, has been achieved by way of insight or improvement in the world constituted by the poem? What passages in Part V are you drawing on to arrive at your view?


"The Snow Man" (Norton American Lit. 8th. ed. Vol. D 283-84); "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" (Vol. D 285); "Sunday Morning" (Vol. D 285-88); "Anecdote of the Jar" (Vol. D 288-89); "Peter Quince at the Clavier" (Vol. D 289-90); "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" (Vol. D 291-92); "The Idea of Order at Key West" (Vol. D 293-94); "Of Modern Poetry" (Vol. D 294); The Plain Sense of Things" (Vol. D 295).

"The Snow Man" (Norton Vol. D 283-84)

1. In Stevens' "The Snow Man," how does this poem counter the Romantics' way of relating to and representing nature as an expressive vehicle for the human mind and spirit? What must happen, according to the speaker, for someone to write about winter accurately?

"Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" (Vol. D 285)

2. Stevens' "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" takes for its subject going to bed at ten o'clock at night: what will one wear, what dreams will come and what do they say about the dreamers? Sort out the groups of wearers/dreamers evoked by the speaker -- who would perhaps dream of "baboons and periwinkles," and who would be quite unlikely to do that? Finally, why does the drunken sailor's dream get pride of place; i.e. why is it mentioned last?

"Sunday Morning" (Vol. D 285-88)

3. In "Sunday Morning," Stevens' speaker contrasts traditional metaphysical abstractions with beautiful material realities and passions, but there's more to the poem than that. Critic J. Hillis Miller writes that "'Sunday Morning' is Stevens' most eloquent description of the moment when the gods dissolve. Bereft of the supernatural, man does not lie down paralyzed in despair" (Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers Harvard UP, 1966). What, then, does Stevens suggest humanity does in such a case -- how do the lady and others referenced in the poem respond, and what at least partly underlies that response?

"Anecdote of the Jar" (Vol. D 288-89)

4. In Stevens' "Anecdote of the Jar," what does the simple jar (a human artifact) that the speaker has placed on a hill in Tennessee do to the surrounding landscape? How do you interpret the thought that the jar "did not give of bird or bush, / Like nothing else in Tennessee"? Why do you suppose that distinctness from bird or bush should matter to us, and what motive can you conjecture for the speaker's having placed the jar on a hill in the first place?

"Peter Quince at the Clavier" (Vol. D 289-90)

5. In Stevens' "Peter Quince at the Clavier," the poet alludes to the story of Susanna in the apocryphal biblical book Susanna? The speaker says that with regard to his thinking about the female addressee's blue silken clothing, "It is like the strain / Waked in the elders by Susanna." What, then, is that "strain" like, so far as you can tell from the rest of the poem? And how is Susanna herself pictured – what is she doing, and how does she react to the elders who covet her?

"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" (Vol. D 291-92)

6. The blackbird is hardly a creature we associate with romantic transcendence of the ordinary, so what, if anything, is special about the blackbird in Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"? Why are there thirteen ways (and counting, we may suppose) of looking at a blackbird? Do these ways of perceiving or considering the bird somehow connect, or should we just consider each as separate and equally worthwhile? Explain why you respond as you do.

7. In Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," concentrate on any two of the "ways of looking at a blackbird" specified, and try to explain what you believe to be the significance of the perceptions evoked.

"The Idea of Order at Key West" (Vol. D 293-94)

8. In Stevens' "The Idea of Order at Key West," what is the basic scene described at the poem's beginning? That is, what's happening and who are the characters participating in the scene? If the scene is subject to development, how would you describe that development? In other words, what is happening in the middle part of the poem, and then in the final portion (say, line 45-end)?

9. In Stevens' "The Idea of Order at Key West," the speaker says that he and his companion Ramon Fernandez hear the poem's "she" singing and "not the sea" (14). What relation, if any, does the speaker posit between the female singer and the ocean scene around her? Furthermore, what is the source of her song, if the poem offers any hints about it? Finally, we might broaden the first question to one about the relationship between words/perception/imagination and the world around us: what might Stevens' poem be suggesting about this relationship?

10. In Stevens' "The Idea of Order at Key West," the speaker refers to a "blessed rage for order" and to "the maker's rage to order words of the sea . . . / And of ourselves and of our origins" (52-55). How do you understand this "rage for order" – according to the poem's final stanza, what are we supposedly trying to accomplish by means of our speech, our perceptual acts, our imaginings?

"Of Modern Poetry" (Vol. D 294)

11. In "Of Modern Poetry," Stevens' speaker explains what is meant by "poem of the act of the mind" (28). How do you understand the meaning of that phrase? Why, for instance, does Stevens use the metaphor of "theater" to describe the kind of thinking that a modern poet must do? How does that kind of thinking supposedly differ from the kinds of thinking we engage in every day, just to get by in the world?

"The Plain Sense of Things" (Vol. D 295).

12. In "The Plain Sense of Things," Stevens' speaker addresses the role of imagination in our lives, its role in our perceptions of what things are and how things are. What, then, is "the plain sense of things," and why does even that plain sense need to be imagined and reflected on?


"Thy fingers make early flowers of" (Norton American Lit. 8th. ed. Vol. D 638); "in Just-" (Vol. D 638-39); "O sweet spontaneous" (Vol. D 639-40); "Buffalo Bill's" (Vol. D 640); "the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls" (Vol. D 640); "next to of course god america i" (Vol. D 641); "i sing of Olaf glad and big" (Vol. D 641-42); "somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond" (Vol. D 642-43); "anyone lived in a pretty how town" (Vol. D 643-44); "my father moved through dooms of love" (Vol. D 644-45); "pity this busy monster,manunkind" (Vol. D 646).

"Thy fingers make early flowers of" (Norton Vol. D 638)

1. Cummings' "Thy fingers make early flowers of" follows the carpe diem tradition in love poetry that has been around since ancient times, but in what significant way does the relationship between the speaker and the addressee does this poem differ from the usual one in such poems? What effect does that difference have on the poem's meaning?

2. In Cummings' "Thy fingers make early flowers of," what word do you understand to be the antecedent of the pronoun "it" in the final line, and why so?

"in Just-" (Vol. D 638-39)

3. How does a child's way of thinking and manner of expression in "in Just-" help Cummings provide an alternative vision over against an adult's perspective on life? Moreover, how do you interpret the presence of the "balloonman" in this poem, given that many readers ally this figure with the Greek god of shepherds and flocks Pan?

"O sweet spontaneous" (Vol. D 639-40)

4. In Cummings' "O sweet spontaneous," what relationship do philosophy, science, and religion seek with nature? What answer does nature give to their attentions, and why? How do you interpret the connection between nature and death that is posited from line 19 to the poem's conclusion?

"Buffalo Bill's" (Vol. D 640)

5. In Cummings' "Buffalo Bill's," what attitude does the speaker strike up with regard to the famous Wild West showman referenced in the poem's title, William "Buffalo Bill" Cody (1846-1917)? How do you interpret the poem's final two lines, which are addressed directly to "Mister Death"?

"the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls" (Vol. D 640)

6. When you add together the jumble of statements in Cummings' "the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls," what do you understand about the Cambridge ladies -- what kind of lives do they lead, and what sort of thoughts do they apparently think? Why is "Cambridge" (as in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University's location) more charged with meaning than lots of other places?

"next to of course god america i" (Vol. D 641)

7. How does Cummings' "next to of course god america i" treat the language of patriotic sentiment -- that is, how does the poem create a counter-attitude to the sentiments and phrases that make up all but the final line? What effect does the final line itself have on everything that precedes it?

"i sing of Olaf glad and big" (Vol. D 641-42)

8. How does Cummings' "i sing of Olaf glad and big" reinforce its antiwar message? What values does Olaf represent here? What does his oppressors' behavior suggest about their values? What difference does it seem to make (in the time period referenced by the poem, World War I) that Olaf the conscientious objector is of Scandinavian ancestry?

"somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond" (Vol. D 642-43)

9. What qualities in the lover does the speaker respond to in Cummings' "somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond"? Moreover, discuss this poem in relation to traditional Petrarchan love conventions -- to what extent, for example, does the poet employ Petrarchan hyperbole about his own condition or the quality of the beloved? Or is he doing that sort of thing at all? Explain.

"anyone lived in a pretty how town" (Vol. D 643-44)

10. In "anyone lived in a pretty how town," how does Cummings re-cast the ordinary powers of syntax (word order), parts of speech, and the basics of sentence generation (subject-verb-object strings, etc.) to provide insight into how people's life-patterns play out over time? Moreover, what is the implied narrative in this poem, who are the main characters, and how are they regarded by the others who live in the "pretty how town"?

"my father moved through dooms of love" (Vol. D 644-45)

11. What understanding of the speaker's father eventually emerges in Cummings' "my father moved through dooms of love"? How is this understanding built up from the poem's beginning to its end? What is implied about those whom we might take to be opponents of the father that the poem describes -- how do they live their lives and treat other people?

"pity this busy monster,manunkind" (Vol. D 646)

12. In Cummings' "pity this busy monster,manunkind," what criticism of scientific progress and its supporters is offered, and by what means does the poem convey that criticism? What is the "hell / of a good universe next door" referenced in the poem's final two lines?