An Examination of a Poetic Narrative in the Context of its Time
Words are multifaceted. Context establishes which meaning is intended every time a given word is heard or used. Writers sometimes use this deceptively, hinting at the implications a different meaning for the same word could have in context. This device is employed more frequently in poetry than in prose. A certain mentality in reader’s results from this: often readers bypass the literal meaning of the word, jumping immediately to the figurative. But the literal should not be overlooked. Without a solid understanding of what is literally being described in the poem, any figurative examination of it lacks basis. Since language is fluid, to engage in a solid examination of older poems that contain archaic or obsolete language the definitive source for historical word meanings in the English language should be consulted, the Oxford English Dictionary.
Sir Thomas Wyatt’s unnamed poems remain popular five-hundred after their composition. To fully understand the poems their sixteenth century meanings must be clarified. The OED exists for just such a reason. One poem, written in 1557, opens with this stanza:
1) Like as the bird within the cage enclosed
2) The door unsparred, her foe the hawk without,
3) Twixt death and prison piteously oppressed,
4) Whether for to choose standeth in doubt,
5) Lo, so do I, which seek to bring about,
6) Which should be best by determination,
7) By loss of life liberty, or life by prison.
A line by line analysis reveals the meaning. Looking at lines one through four, it’s clear this is a simile by the use of like. The words of line one carry essentially their modern meanings, although enclosed had a specific meaning related to the “seclusion of religious communities from the outside world,” possibly an intentional reference to the philosophical question the poem centers on. Line two contains a couple of words that warrant definition; unsparred, which means “unbolted” or “opened,” and foe, which at the time of writing means “an adversary in a deadly feud or mortal combat.” In line three we find twixt, which means “between,” piteously meaning “In a manner that excites pity to see or hear . . . sadly,” and oppressed which in this situation likely means “to be overwhelmed” but also carries the sense “to remove or erase from consciousness” or “to crush.” The last meaning is also pertinent, though the second could be intentionally hinted at. The fourth line contains words that have their modern meanings set in an archaic manner. Lines one through four therefore read:
Like a bird stuck in a cage
With an open door and her deadly enemy the hawk outside
Between death and prison sadly overwhelmed
Which one to choose stands in question
This comparison contains the entire meaning of the poem, more plainly stated in lines five through seven. Lo is simply an “interjection . . . corresponding approximately to the modern O! or Oh!” Determination as it is used in line six means “ending of a controversy . . . decision arrived at . . . conclusion.” A word heard a lot in America though not often understood, liberty meant, at the time, “release from captivity, bondage, or slavery” or in a religious sense “freedom from the bondage of sin, or of the law.” Lines five through seven, in context of the preceding lines, read:
Oh, so do I try to figure out
What’s the best decision to arrive at
To be set free by death or to live in prison.
This is the main point of the poem, stated clearly in the terms of the time. The rest of the poem is argument for or against the two options. The second stanza argues for the choice of death. In line eight the poetic voice speaks of mischief or “ill-fortune” being redressed or “corrected . . . set upright” by mischief. Or, more plainly:
Bad luck by more bad luck corrected.
Lines ten and eleven are a particularly bald statement in favor of choosing death. The word delivered is used, meaning “set free,” in opposition to bide or “remain or continue” which the poetic voice is doing in thralldom, “a slave,” and dolor, “pain . . . sorrow, grief, distress.” Therefore these lines state:
By a quick death better to be set free
Than to continue in painful life, slavery, and sorrow.
This is affirmed again in lines thirteen and fourteen where the decision to choose death is referred to as wisdom, “judging rightly in matters relating to life . . . soundness of judgment.”
The third stanza argues against choosing death. The poetic voice states in line sixteen that it is waiting for fortune’s chance, fortune being “power supposed to distribute the lots of life,” and chance being “luck.” This is contrasted with lines nineteen and twenty where it states that trust, in this case “confident expectation of something; hope,” is through death’s grievance or “infliction of wrong or hardship,” lost, “perished or destroyed.” The voice then asks of the reader if this is not reason, or “a statement of some fact (real or alleged) employed as an argument to justify or condemn some act, prove or disprove some assertion, idea, or belief,” that the imprisoned life should be chosen over the escape of death.
The final stanza is a restating of the question. In line twenty-three, between the two evils that have been presented “se now choose the best:” (my italics). Se, so far as can be told from the OED, is an early variant of “the” that is used as a pronoun, specifically masculine, assumedly being used here to refer to the poetic voice in a manner similar to “me.” Line twenty-four refers back to the bird of the initial simile “that here doth plain” (my italics). Doth is an archaic version of “do” or “does,” whereas plain in this context means “to utter lamentations, bewail oneself.” The bird is lamenting the decision it must make, like the poetic voice which has been torn between the two arguments. The remainder of the poem restates the question from the end of the first stanza, albeit in a more pleading tone.
This shows how a poem’s meaning is illuminated by a solid understanding of the words. With all the changes that take place in English, like any other living language, to understand important texts from the past they must be looked at on their own terms. Armed with the proper equipment for such an understanding, the foundation is laid for a deeper understanding of the works that have built civilization.