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  • Print publication year: 1991
  • Online publication date: March 2007

Poetry’s Sea-Changes: T. S. Eliot and The Tempest


Full fathom five thy father lies.

Of his bones are coral made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes;

Nothing of him that doth fade

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.

Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:

[spirits] (within) Ding dong.

Hark, now I hear them.

[spirits] (within)

Ding-dong bell.

(The Tempest 1.2.400-9)

What part does poetry play, characteristically, in the mental life of its readers? I suggest that a primary function of poetry is simply to provide the reader with the memory of words, phrases, lines, images, impressions and occasionally complete poems. On the other hand it is sometimes seen as providing myths or structures for comprehending life as a whole: the Romantic poets, Blake, Wordsworth and Shelley have been seen in this way. That is to say their work as a whole has been seen as amounting to a comprehensive structure, a vast myth which comprises a view of life, or a 'philosophy' more or less (usually less) precisely formulable. It has also been seen, more recently, as a part of discourse in general, upon which ideological interpretation can get to work to disclose the workings of a particular society. This last role can, I think, be relegated to a subordinate position: something you can do with poetry after reading it and thinking about it as poetry (which is not to say that politics and ideology may not be also part of our immediate response to it as poetry).

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Shakespeare Survey
  • Online ISBN: 9781139053204
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