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This being my final year at GCSU, as an English major with a literature concentration I am required to take a course known as Seminar of Language and Literature. This course serves as an evaluation for the English department and our papers will be compiled in a portfolio at the end of the course. Within this course we are required to explicate works of literature from a Formalist standpoint. Formalism is the process of analysis whereby one looks just at the literary devices in the work and explain how they work to demonstrate the meaning of the work. The first paper we were assigned to write was on a British poem, and my group chose to explicate Lord Byron’s “There’s not a joy”. Now in a formalism no one cares about the author or what he says. I’m not a formalist and I take great interest in the authors of literature just as much as the works themselves. Therefore I shall briefly give an account of Lord Byron for the reader’s sake. Lord George Gordon (Noel) Byron was a Scottish writer during the Romanticist period and was a contemporary of Scott and Burns. Most would classify him as an English poet (since he was born in England) but due to his ancestry and even some of his poetry, I like to call him a Scottish poet. He was born into the aristocracy and his father and grandfather before him were naval officers (his grandfather being a Vice Admiral) and were known for their extramarital liaisons. Lord Byron would soon follow this path. Byron was known for his aristocratic excesses and his rebellious and licentious behavior but his poetry is quite excellent. He was well traveled and even went to Greece where he became a national hero for his involvement in the Greek War for Independence. There he died of fever at the age of thirty six.

Now without further ado, here is the explication of Byron’s poem prefaced by his poem for point of reference. This paper was written by myself and Amy Theobald as a group paper.

“There’s not a joy” by Lord Byron

There’s not a joy the world can give like that it takes away

When the glow of early thought declines in feeling’s dull decay;

‘Tis not on youth’s smooth cheek the blush alone, which fades so fast,

But the tender bloom of heart is gone, ere youth itself be past.

Then the few whose spirits float above the wreck of happiness         5

Are driven o’er the shoals of guilt, or ocean of excess:

The magnet of their course is gone, or only points in vain

The shore to which their shiver’d sail shall never stretch again.

Then the mortal coldness of the soul like death itself comes down;

It cannot feel for others’ woes, it dare not dream its own;  10

That heavy chill has frozen o’er the fountain of our tears,

And though the eye may sparkle still, ’tis where the ice appears.

Though wit may flash from fluent lips, and mirth distract the breast,

Through midnight hours that yield no more their former hope of rest,

‘Tis but as ivy-leaves around the ruin’d turret wreathe,  15

All green and wildly fresh without, but worn and gray beneath.

Oh could I feel as I have felt, or be what I have been,

Or weep as I could once have wept o’er many a vanish’d scene;

As springs in deserts found seem sweet, all brackish though they be,

So midst the wither’d waste of life those tears would flow to me!  20

“There’s not a joy” by Lord Byron presents the idea that everything in the world, whether good or bad, will eventually fade away; nothing is as it seems.  Through his poem, he highlights specific words and lines to illustrate and reiterate this concept through various fields: the diminishing of youth’s innocence, the realistic image of  ivy, and the image of death.  In the poem, “There’s not a joy”, Byron includes the literary devices: alliteration, meter, metaphor, irony, and imagery in order to reinforce the central purpose of his poem. Not only do these devices add significance to the purpose of the poem but also add great beauty to this timeless poem.

Many lines of this poem naturally display the positive and negative aspects of things in the world.  The first line of each stanza begins with a positive attribute to the poem but the second half of the line is a contradiction of the former.  The first line of the poem, “[t]here’s not a joy the world can give like that it takes away” (1) is a perfect example of how the contradicting line begins with an optimistic thought that quickly changes to a pessimistic one.  Every joy in the world will eventually be taken away from the possessor leaving the reader to question what real happiness is in the world.  This idea can also be found in line five of the second stanza, “[t]hen the few whose spirits float above the wreck of happiness”.  Although spirits rising might not be a positive image per se, the words “wreck of happiness” continues on with the positive / negative effect the poem brings. When one thinks of spirits floating, positive thoughts come to mind. However, these assumptions are dashed by the metaphor “wreck of happiness”. The third stanza of the poem further illustrates this idea of contradicting lines:           Though wit may flash from fluent lips, and mirth distract the breast,

Through midnight hours that yield no more their former hope of rest;

Tis but ivy leaves around the ruined turret wreath,

All green and wildly fresh without, but worn and grey beneath (13-16).

The first two lines of this stanza illustrate a sense of joy and mirth within the poem but the last two lines of the stanza present how all earthly joy is only temporary and will slowly wither away.  More importantly these presented lines also contribute to Lord Byron’s use of irony.  “And though the eye may sparkle still, ’tis where the ice appears” illustrates the fact that when one thinks of a sparkle in the eye it is of someone who is living, yet in Bryon’s poem, this just the opposite (12).  The pleasant thought of a bright eye is ruined because it is merely death that has frozen the eye in place with no chance of recovery for the affected.  Once again this ironic line further explicates the main point of the poem.  In line nineteen “[a]s springs in deserts found seem sweet, all brackish though they be,” also illustrates that though one might have joy in finding an oasis in the desert, that hope is dashed with the discovery that it is brackish, undrinkable.  There are descriptions in the poem that are ironic as well: “wreck of happiness” (5), “springs in desert” (19), “ivy” & “grey” (15-16), “feelings of dull and decay” (2).  Each description carries a combination of unthinkable pairs in the sense that they are not descriptions that are usually found together.

The literary devices meter and rhyme are also extremely important to the meaning of the poem.  There are four lines in each stanza.  As a whole, the metric pattern is irregular though some stanzas have commonalities with the others.  The first three stanzas begin with a line of 8 metric feet followed by three lines of 7 metric feet.  In the first stanza the first line is iambic followed by three trochaic lines as follows:

ᵕ        /       ᵕ   /    ᵕ       /     ᵕ       /     ᵕ    /         ᵕ   /      ᵕ  /

There’s not a joy the world can give like that it takes away

/     ᵕ       /     ᵕ   / ᵕ        /           ᵕ      /     ᵕ    /  ᵕ       /      ᵕ /

When the glow of early thought declines in feeling’s dull decay

/     ᵕ    /     ᵕ           /              ᵕ      /     ᵕ         /   ᵕ       /       ᵕ       /     ᵕ
‘Tis not on youth’s smooth cheek the blush alone, which fades so fast,

/      ᵕ     /    ᵕ        /       ᵕ     /     ᵕ     /       ᵕ        /    ᵕ  /     ᵕ      /
But the tender bloom of heart is gone, ere youth itself be past (1-4)

The first line, being iambic, brings about a joyful, sing song tone.  However this is contrasted in the following lines of the stanza by a somber, trochaic rhythm.  Furthermore the punctuation or placement of caesurae explicates the transition from a good feeling to a hopeless position.   The first two lines contain caesurae to indicate the anticipated pause such as between the words “give” and “like” in line 1 and in line two with the words “declines” and “in”.  This gives the reader the idea that even the structure lines reiterate the central theme.

There is another metric characteristic which is worth bringing to the attention of the reader since it addresses the central purpose or theme of the poem. This regards the eight foot lines of the first, second, and fourth stanzas (lines 1, 5, 9, and 18). The eight foot lines make it difficult to read out loud in a smooth manner. If each of these lines are put together as if they were a stanza, one can find several interesting correlations between this “new” stanza and the central theme of the poem. The eight foot lines are illustrated directly below and will serve as a point of reference to this interesting anomaly.

There’s not a joy the world can give like that it takes away,          1

Then the few whose spirits float above the wreck of happiness,     5

Then the mortal coldness of the soul like death itself comes down 9

Or weep as I could once have wept o’er many a vanish’d scene.    18

There is a progression from bad to worse manifested through the actual meter of the lines as well as the imagery of the lines. The first line, as demonstrated earlier in this explication, is eight lines of iambic feet. While the iambs suggest that everything is ok (unlike the mechanical, brutal rhythm of trochaic lines), the actual words of line suggest otherwise: joy is fleeting. This is a pretty hopeless statement and it gets worse. The following three lines of eight feet are of trochaic meter suggesting chaos and more hopelessness. The first line suggests a state of hopelessness or joylessness which progresses to a further advanced state of misery: “spirits float above the wreck of happiness” (5). This would denote that a person who is without joy is wrecked and wandering like a ship without a rudder (that is the actual imagery of the second stanza of the poem; this line coming from that stanza). The next line suggests that a state of wandering or being wrecked decays into death, a much worse state than joylessness. Dark words such as “mortal”, “coldness”, “death” and “down” suggest this(9). The last line in the stanza presents another state of progression from bad to worse, from joylessness to weeping over the loss of hope.  One could put a downward pointing arrow outside the margin of this new stanza to further illustrate the point or progression from bad to worse. These lines illustrate the central theme by expressing that nothing really is as it seems- joy can be taken away and gives way to despair. This eight foot characteristic illustrates a darker side of the central theme.

“There’s not a joy” also includes the use of metaphor throughout the poem.  What can be noted is that each stanza seems to portray or allude to a different subject matter.  The metaphors within the poem transition from the loss of youth and its innocence to death approaching to take the soul away.  In a literary sense, the first two stanzas of the poem have the most effective use of metaphor.  The first stanza metaphorically describes the diminishment of youth and how “[t]is not on youth’s smooth cheek the blush alone, which fades so fast, / But the tender bloom of heart is gone, ere youth itself be past” (3-4).  At face value, these two lines describe how youth is quickly fading away, but from a literary stand point, these two lines delve deeper into the idea of the loss of youth.  Youth’s innocence and soft heart are also disappearing with the growth of the person.  Therefore, not only does someone transition from an adolescent to an adult, but they also lose much more than just a physical aspect.  Through this drastic change, all innocence falls between the cracks with age.  The second stanza then creates an image of a ship lost at sea that will eventually return back to shore no matter how far out the ship may be.  “Are driven o’er the shoals of guilt or ocean of excess: / The magnet of their course is gone, or only points in vain / The shore to which their shivered sail shall never stretch again” (6-8).  This idea of a ship is a metaphor of life due to the fact that it represents how in life all of the vast opportunities that the world grants someone will eventually pull them away back to shore.  The life is pulled away from any designated direction and their ship, meaning their life’s journey, is only given the choice to return back to land.  These metaphors call into question just how important it is for one to value and cherish the time that they are given in their youth and follows to the rest of their lives.

The images in “There’s not a joy” are equally as vivid as Byron’s use of irony, as they deal with things such as darkness, joylessness, death, and even youth.  Lines fifteen and sixteen have an image of joylessness when Byron describes the ivy around the tower.  It is “worn and grey beneath” and “ruined”, which give the impression that the ivy is not as beautiful as it looks on the outside. This word picture represents the central theme of this poem. Darkness and death also appear as images in the poem. In line nine, “…the mortal coldness of the soul like death itself comes down”, death is mentioned by name, being compared to the “mortal coldness of the soul”.  This imagery demonstrates the hopelessness that comes forth when the soul is pulled from the body as well as when someone reads this poem. Other images include nautical imagery in stanza two and desert imagery in stanza five. These images create vivid pictures of one’s life going through differing kinds of wastelands which represent the absence of joy and hope.

Through the use of alliteration in the poem, particularly focusing on the s’s throughout the poem, there is an aura of fluid movement that is expressed within the poem. This fluid movement helps move the reader from one idea to the next whereupon all seeming joys and hopes are shown for what they really are.  Line eight, “[t]he shore to which their shivered sail shall never stretch again” produces soft sounds in order to present the line with eloquence. It also contributes to describing to the ear the imagery of the sea found in stanza two. Furthermore this use of alliteration hammers home the fact that once joy is lost it can never be regained. However it is only in the second stanza that so many sounds or words are alliterated. From then on each stanza seems to have a varying amount of alliterative sounds. Stanza one has four: “dull” , “decay”, “fades”, and fast”. Stanza three has many: “death”, “down”, “dare”, “dream”, “frozen”, “fountain”, “sparkle”, “still”, and even “ice”. Stanza four has only two: “flash” and fluent”. Finally stanza five has eight: “feel”, “felt”, “be”, “been”, “weep”, “wept” , “withered”, and “waste”. Since the number of alliterations per stanza is so chaotic, the sounds these alliterations emit are much more important. Even so, a chaotic sprinkling of alliterations demonstrates the central theme by showing the chaos felt once joy is lost. These alliterative sounds are not very soothing sounds, even the “s” sounds seem to be more like hissing not lullaby sounds. The d’s and f’s especially demonstrate the harsh sound and tone of the poem. They contribute an air of despair and finality to the poem.

Byron’s “There’s not a joy”, demonstrates that there really is a lot more beneath the surface than what is initially perceived. This poem itself is an unfolding mystery that needs to be pulled apart to understand its richer, deeper meaning. Furthermore, through the use of irony and imagery, the poem shows how life’s seeming beauty and joy is only temporary and can vanish in the blink of eye, forever lost. This effect produces chaos and despair in the poem and in the reader which is emphasized through the use of meter and the fluid nature of the poem. The speaker really captivates the experience of the human and the fleeting nature of life.

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