2. Time - 3. Character - 4. Relationship - 5. Theme

Six Categories - 1: Space 2-5: Time, etc. 6: Style

2. Shelley and Tagore on Time - Historical Ages and Periods - 3. Macbeth’s Dagger - 4. Dorothy Parker on the Sexes - Bhartrhari on Attraction - 5. Brooks on Music and War


This includes any type of real or theoretical time frame: a momentary encounter, an hour, a day, a year, or any amount of time in the past or the future — from the Big Bang (or Creation) till the end of the universe (or Day of Judgment). This includes manipulations of linear time.

This mosaic image is the sharpest wide-angle view ever obtained of the starburst galaxy, Messier 82 (M82). [...] Throughout the galaxy's center, young stars are being born 10 times faster than they are inside our entire Milky Way Galaxy ... from https://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_1829.html

This mosaic image is the sharpest wide-angle view ever obtained of the starburst galaxy, Messier 82 (M82). [...] Throughout the galaxy's center, young stars are being born 10 times faster than they are inside our entire Milky Way Galaxy ... from https://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_1829.html

Salvador Dali,  The Persistence of Memory , 1931, Museum of Modern Art (Wikimedia Commons)

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, 1931, Museum of Modern Art (Wikimedia Commons)

Detail from Michelangelo Buonarroti's  Last Judgment , 1537-41, Fresco, Cappella Sistina, Vatican (Wikimedia Commons)

Detail from Michelangelo Buonarroti's Last Judgment, 1537-41, Fresco, Cappella Sistina, Vatican (Wikimedia Commons)

Shelley and Tagore on Time

In the following poem, Shelley sees time in terms of the large spaces of the sea and in terms of the horrific power of a sea-monster. The ocean is linked to the monster by the brackish depths and by the powerful ebb and flow of the tides:


Unfathomable Sea! whose waves are years,
Ocean of Time, whose waters of deep woe
Are brackish with the salt of human tears!
Thou shoreless flood, which in thy ebb and flow
Claspest the limits of mortality,
And sick of prey, yet howling on for more,
Vomitest thy wrecks on its inhospitable shore;
Treacherous in calm, and terrible in storm,
Who shall put forth on thee,
Unfathomable Sea?

Shelley’s view of time is a grim one, unlike the positive view taken by the Bengali author and poet Rabindranath Tagore:

Endless Time

Time is endless in thy hands, my lord.
There is none to count thy minutes.

Days and nights pass and ages bloom and fade like flowers.
Thou knowest how to wait.

Thy centuries follow each other perfecting a small wild flower.

We have no time to lose,
and having no time we must scramble for a chance.
We are too poor to be late.

And thus it is that time goes by
while I give it to every querulous man who claims it,
and thine altar is empty of all offerings to the last.

At the end of the day I hasten in fear lest thy gate be shut;
but I find that yet there is time.

In writing about time, ask yourself why a writer sets up a particular time frame, and how this time frame affects character, conflict, theme, etc. For instance, imagine a film starting with a Wall Street executive about to put a bullet into her head. The director then takes the audience back to a beautiful summer day when the character was younger, happier, and lying on a lawn with her boyfriend. By manipulating linear time in this way the director is urging the viewer to examine the intervening time-frame with a clear purpose: to detect the causes which lead her to suicide. If she was once so happy, what made her want to kill herself? The director’s use of time might lead the viewer to examine her character (3), her relations with others (4), and her struggle with a particular problem or issue (5).

Other uses of time include flash-backs, historical references, moments where time seems to expand or contract, biography charting the course of a person’s life, jumping back and forth from the present to the past to set up a parallel between the two, comparing aspects of the present to a future time which is perfect (a utopia) or imperfect (a dystopia).

In his anti-war book Slaughterhouse-Five (1968), Kurt Vonnegut’s protagonist Billy is traumatized by war. As a result, his mind jumps around in the fourth dimension of time. Thus “unstuck in time,” Billy sees a war movie backwards, which allows Vonnegut to make his reader think about the causes of war, the destructive direction in which humans take technology, and the possibility of doing things differently:

[Billy] went into the living room, swinging the [champagne] bottle like a dinner bell, turned on the television. He came slightly unstuck in time, saw the late movie backwards, then forwards again. It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground., to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

Historical Ages and Periods

Because we’ll be touching on ancient history and reading Shakespeare, Romantic poets, and Modern poets, you should be familiar with basic time periods. In the broadest sense, there are four historical Ages: 1. Ancient 3000 BC – 1000 BC; 2. Classical 1000 BC – 500 AD; 3. Medieval 500 AD – 1500 AD; 4. Modern 500 AD - present. Within the Modern Age, the following ages and periods are likely to crop up:

Renaissance: c. 15th - 16th C. — characterized as breaking from the religious and feudal systems of the Middle Ages; rise of humanism, science, and global European empires.

Enlightenment or Age of Reason: roughly the mid 17th C. to the late 18th C. — characterized by the exploration of science and rational thinking.

Romantic: late 18th and early 19th C. — characterized by a re-integration of emotion into the rational frameworks explored in the Age of Reason.

The two images below suggest the 18th C. spirit of rationalism and the emotional spirit of Romanticism which followed:

Above:  A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a Lamp is put in place of the Sun  or  The Orrery,  1766, Joseph Wright of Derby (Wikimedia Commons)  Right:  Wanderer above the Sea of Fog , 1818, Caspar Friedrich. "The hiker stands as a black figure in the center of the composition. He looks down on an almost impenetrable sea of fog in the midst of a rocky landscape - a metaphor for life as an ominous journey into the unknown." (Wikimedia Commons)

Above: A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a Lamp is put in place of the Sun or The Orrery, 1766, Joseph Wright of Derby (Wikimedia Commons)

Right: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818, Caspar Friedrich. "The hiker stands as a black figure in the center of the composition. He looks down on an almost impenetrable sea of fog in the midst of a rocky landscape - a metaphor for life as an ominous journey into the unknown." (Wikimedia Commons)


Victorian: 1832 (passage of the Great Reform Act) to 1901 (death of Queen Victoria) — characterized by democratic reform (abolition of slavery, voting rights), scientific advances and discoveries (especially of evolution, but also electricity, photography, telegraphy, decipherment of hieroglyphs and cuneiform, etc.).

Modern Period: 1900-1950 or 1900 to the present.

Post-modern Period: 1950 to the present.


Try to determine if a character is flat (one dimensional, one-sided, like a caricature) or deep (three dimensional, with different sides or aspects, like a usual person); static (the same throughout the story) or dynamic (changes as a result of various forces — that you should then analyze).

Character is a crucial category because as human beings we usually want to see whatever the author is exploring from a human and personal point of view. How does the author make a fictional character, narrator, or persona come alive to us? What do we find intriguing in the character? What is the character’s problem, and how does the character confront it? 

The close study of character is strongly linked to the modern novel and short story, which emphasize reality-based psychological depiction. In analyzing character, feel free to bring to your arguments any psychological approach or any insights you have about what makes people tick. Think for example about yourself and your identity, and how it is affected by romance, gender, sexuality, peers, family, money, class, religion, ethnicity, etc.

Detail from  A Bar at the Folies Bergère , Eduard Manet, 1881-2, in the Courtauld Institute of Art, London (photo by RYC)

Detail from A Bar at the Folies Bergère, Eduard Manet, 1881-2, in the Courtauld Institute of Art, London (photo by RYC)

Note that this category includes internal conflict, that is, tension within a character — between desire and loyalty, greed and morality, logic and emotion, etc. If you’re emphasizing the forces that create the internal conflict, you’re focusing on the next category (4. Relationship: Conflict, Bond, etc.), but if you’re emphasizing the way these external forces affect what’s going on in the thoughts and feelings of a character, you’re focusing on 3. Character. Remember that all the categories overlap. If you’re making an argument about character, don’t worry if you stray into another category. Simply take your point about the other category and apply it to the category you’re dealing with.

Macbeth’s Dagger

In the following excerpt (from Act 2, scene 1), Shakespeare’s Macbeth is on his way to kill the King of Scotland — a horrible act, since the King is his guest, the king is a good ruler, and regicide is particularly heinous in a monarchy. Macbeth’s psychological state is so darkly frenzied that he conjures a vision of his bloody knife before he even uses it, he peoples the air around him with evil spirits (Hecate, the wolf, the cruel Tarquin, the ghost), and he imagines that the earth is sentient and that if it hears his steps then the stones will give him away.

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible*
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Thou marshall'st me the way that I was going;
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o' the other senses,
Or else worth all the rest; I see thee still,
And on thy blade and dudgeon* gouts* of blood,
Which was not so before. There's no such thing:
It is the bloody business which informs*
Thus to mine eyes. Now o'er the one halfworld*
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtained sleep; witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate's offerings, and withered Murder,
Alarmed by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl's his watch, thus with his stealthy pace,
With Tarquin's* ravishing strides, towards his design
Moves like a ghost. Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear
Thy very stones prate* of my whereabouts,
And take the present horror from the time,
Which now suits with it.

sensible = able to be sensed dudgeon = handle gouts = drops informs = takes shape halfworld = our hemisphere Tarquin = cruel Roman tyrant prate = talk


Note that category # 4 is often defined exclusively in terms of conflict. That term, however, only gets at part of the relationship dynamic. For example, the attraction or bond between Romeo and Juliet is perhaps more important than the forces which pull the lovers apart. Texts are often written around the dynamic between betrayal and trust, or between hatred and love. There are basically two types of conflict or bond:

— conflict or bond between two characters: often this takes the form of a friendship, a romance, or a struggle between a protagonist and an antagonist.  

— conflict or bond between an individual and a group or between a group and another group: this can range from family or friend groups to regional or ethnic groups, and often includes the powerful forces of culture, language and religion. One common dynamic is when the bond between two characters is disturbed by a third person, resulting in jealousies, love triangles, etc.

Dorothy Parker on the Sexes

General Review of the Sex Situation

Woman wants monogamy;
Man delights in novelty.
Love is woman's moon and sun;
Man has other forms of fun.
Woman lives but in her lord;
Count to ten, and man is bored.
With this the gist and sum of it,
What earthly good can come of it?

(Dorothy Parker, 1937)

Culture is an amalgam of codes and practices instilled at a very young age. In general, it’s difficult for us to react in a way that goes against our own upbringing. As a result, when people of different cultures clash the result can be irresolvable. Language and religion also operate on very basic, deep levels, although it's generally easier to learn a new language than to adopt a new culture or religion. In places like Canada and India we can see language as both a unifying and dividing force.

manet detail from server .jpg

There are of course many other types of groups that can conflict: much of the 20th century was influenced by the split between working and privileged classes (hence the term class struggle); age or generation groups can create gaps between parents and their own children or between older and younger people in general; etc.

Note that when a conflict of ideas, ideology, emotions, etc. occurs chiefly in an individual, that is, when it is chiefly an internal conflict, it pertains to character or psychology (3); when it is treated in larger, speculative, or philosophical terms, it usually pertains to theme (5). Again, ask yourself what you are trying to focus on — the effect of conflict in and on the individual (3), the conflict as it is seen or dramatized in the interaction between characters (4), or the larger meaning of the conflict (5). Once you have your focus, don’t worry about the overlap in categories.

Bhartrhari on Attraction

The following two-line poem by the 5th-century poet Bhartrhari celebrates (4) physical attraction by using contrasting metaphors (6) involving light and dark:

The clear light of man's discernment dies

When a woman clouds it with her lamp-black eyes.

The poem might also be seen in light of the three gunas, the three basic qualities or properties of Hinduism. The poet playfully suggests that "discernment" is connected to sattva — light, clarity, purity, intelligence, and non-attachment — and that this perfect state is threatened by the passion of rajas and the lust of tamas.

As I was saying in the section on space, geography plays a large role in determining culture and the way people understand and express ideas. In Europe, dangerous attraction might be seen in terms of the Greek and Judeo-Christian traditions in which women tempt men — from the sirens and Circe to Eve and Jezebel. In the song, “One of These Nights,” the Eagles use this tradition when they sing, “I’m looking for the daughter of the Devil himself, I’m looking for an angel in white.” In Hindu India, a poet might see the temptation of a beautiful woman in terms of an apsara, and the threat involved in terms of basic properties of dark matter and light spirit. In the West, on the other hand, a poet might see this in terms of bright angels and dark devils. One thing that remains constant here, however, is the use of colour and light to explore the nature of relationships.


Your job isn’t to make an argument that the theme of a text is such and such, but that the writer develops the theme in this or that way. Try to start with a statement that doesn’t simply state the general subject of the text — for instance, “love in Romeo and Juliet” — but rather examines an interesting aspect of the subject — “star-crossed love in Romeo and Juliet.” “Star-crossed” brings up the possibility of personal anguish in a character (3), struggle between greater forces in society (4), or the theme of free will and determinism (5). By making your statement specific you can see your focus more clearly.

Another way to do this is to ask what point the author is making. In Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare isn’t just observing that love exists, but rather that a certain type of love exists. This love has certain causes and effects, is expressed in certain metaphors and tropes, which you of course can make arguments about. 

Juliet , 1898 (John William Waterhouse),  Romeo at Juliet's Deathbed , 1809 (Johann Heinrich Füssli); both from Wikimedia Commons

Juliet, 1898 (John William Waterhouse), Romeo at Juliet's Deathbed, 1809 (Johann Heinrich Füssli); both from Wikimedia Commons

Brooks on Music and War

“First Fight. Then Fiddle.” (Gwendolyn Brooks, 1949)

First fight. Then fiddle. Ply the slipping string (Note 1)
With feathery sorcery; muzzle the note
With hurting love; the music that they wrote
Bewitch, bewilder. Qualify to sing
Threadwise. Devise no salt, no hempen thing
For the dear instrument to bear. Devote
The bow to silks and honey. Be remote (2)
A while from malice and from murdering, (3)
But first to arms, to armor. Carry hate (4)
In front of you and harmony behind.
Be deaf to music and to beauty blind.
Win war. Rise bloody, maybe not too late
For having first to civilize a space
Wherein to play your violin with grace. (5)

Notes from http://205poetry.pbworks.com/w/page/822046/First%20Fight%20Then%20Fiddle, last edited by Kvani 10 years, 9 months ago

1. The scheme is similar to the Italian structure because it has an octave but the endings differ, however at the same time it ends in a couplet which is characteristic of the English style 

2. Way in which form relates to the poems meaning: Brooks indicates through her poem that you have to overcome obstacles before being able to enjoy an art form. For example, she illustrates in this particular poem that you must fight before playing the fiddle. Form and line structure in particular must be thought of prior to writing the poem in order to connect it to the theme properly,  

3. First half of the poem (prior to the turn) focuses more on the idea of the fiddle whereas the second part focuses more on the obstacles that must be overcome in order to the play the fiddle 

4. Turn - at the start of the sestet Brooks uses the Italian and English structures of a sonnet to show how she can blend the two structures together. During this time, poets may have wanted to move away from the norms of poetry and therefore wanted to create their own unique form by combing the two structures.  

5. Meter and Rhyme structure - Brooks does not stress the meter, line, or rhyme because many rhymed lines are connected to the following line in terms of meaning = enjambment 

Sample Essay: "Hurting Love": Reckoning Poetry's Costs In Gwendolyn Brooks' "First Fight. Then Fiddle," by Robert Matz, English 201.025, from http://mason.gmu.edu/~rmatz/%21SAMPLE__PAP.htm

Gwendolyn Brooks' "First fight. Then Fiddle." initially seems to argue for the necessity of brutal war in order to create a space for the pursuit of beautiful art. The poem is more complex, however, because it also implies both that war cannot protect art and that art should not justify war. Yet if Brooks seems, paradoxically, to argue against art within a work of art, she does so in order create an artwork that by its very recognition of art's costs would justify itself.

Brooks initially seems to argue for the necessity of war in order to create a safe space for artistic creation. She suggests this idea quite forcefully in the paired short sentences that open the poem: "First fight. Then fiddle." One must fight before fiddling for two reasons. First, playing the violin would be a foolish distraction if an enemy were threatening one's safety; it would be, as the phrase goes, "fiddling while Rome burns." Second, fighting the war first would prepare a safe and prosperous place where one could reasonably pursue the pleasures of music. One has to "civilize a space / Wherein to play your violin with grace." It should be noted further that while Brooks writes about securing a "civilized" place to play the violin, she seems clearly to be using this playing as an image for art in general, as her more expansive references to "beauty" or "harmony" suggest.

Nonetheless, much that Brooks writes about the necessity to fight before fiddling indicates the she does not support this idea, at least not fully. For example, Brooks describes making beautiful music as being "remote / A while" from "malice and murdering." In addition to the negative way Brooks describes war in this line, as murder motivated by malice, the phrase "a while" significantly qualifies the initial command to "First fight. Then fiddle." While this initial command seems to promise that one will only have to fight once in order to create a safe space for art, the phrase "a while" implies rather that this space is not really safe, because it will only last for a short time. War will begin again after "a while" because wars create enemies and fail to solve underlying conflicts. The beauty of violin playing remains illusory if it makes us forget that the problem of war has not really gone away.

Brooks suggests moreover not only that war cannot really protect art but also that art is not really a just excuse for war. Indeed, she implies that art might be responsible for war's unjust brutality toward others. This idea is most evident in the poem's final sentence: "Rise bloody, maybe not too late / For having first to civilize a space / Wherein to play your violin with grace." Though on first read it seems like this sentence repeats the warning to fight before it is "too late," its language has a number of negative connotations that undercut this exhortation. "Civilize" might at first seem a laudable goal, but it is also hard not to hear in this word all the atrocities that have been committed because one group believed another group needed "civilizing" or lacked civility. Moreover, if war inherently makes even "civilized" people uncivil because of its brutality, war's final achievement in the poem--"a space / Wherein to play your violin with grace"--seems heavily ironic. "Grace" can suggest a valuable beauty or refinement, but also more superficial manners. And this possibility of merely superficial refinement, blind to the violence and even injustice committed in its name, is especially suggested by the image of having to "rise bloody." The artist playing his violin so gracefully also has blood on his hands. The first hypothesis of the poem, that one can fight and then fiddle--that is, that once can fight and put the war out of one's mind by playing beautiful music--has been replaced by a recognition that one cannot deny the violence that made beauty possible. For at a minimum war continually threatens this beauty. Even worse, this war has perhaps been unjustly waged with the protection or promotion of "civilized" beauty as its excuse.

This conclusion is striking since violin playing in the poem seems not only to provide a metaphor for artistic creation generally, but also writing poetry in particular. For by its heavy use of alliteration, assonance and consonance, the poem emphasizes its own musicality, as if it were like a violin being played. In just the poem's initial line "first" "fight" "fiddle" alliterate, as well as ring changes on the different sounds of the vowel "i"; "fight" and "ply" assent; and "slipping string" repeats the initial "s" and final "ing" sounds. Moreover, the sonnet itself is a very refined artistic form, easily associated with the difficulty and cultural prestige of violin playing. Indeed, as an emblem of Western civility (one thinks of Renaissance sonnets), the sonnet might be involved in the very justification of the destruction of other less "civilized" peoples that the poem condemns.

One might wonder why Brooks produces poetry, especially the sonnet, if she also condemns it. I would suggest that by critically reckoning the costs of sonnet-making Brooks brings to her poetry a self-awareness that might justify it after all. She creates a poetry that, like the violin playing she invokes, sounds with "hurting love." This "hurting love" reminds us of those who may have been hurt in the name of the love for poetry. But in giving recognition to that hurt, it also fulfills a promise of poetry: to be more than a superficial social "grace," to teach us something we first did not, or did not wish to, see.


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