Band 6 Elizabeth Barrett Browning + F.S Fitzgerald:: Sonnets + The Great Gatsby

             Reflected within the composer’s construction of a text are changing values and perspectives, which are essential for understanding the influence of social, cultural and historical contexts. Both Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s (EBB) poetry ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’, 1845 and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel ‘The Great Gatsby’ (TGG), 1925, explore similar perspectives of ideal love, however, the context surrounding each text alters the composer’s viewpoint. Barrett Browning heightens our understanding of this interpersonal human emotion through a subversion of the rigid principles of the Victorian Period. In contrast, Fitzgerald’s novel critiques the demoralised world of the 1920s, in which materialism and hedonism dominate the public psyche.  Thus, it is from a study of texts in tandem that responders gain better understanding of a contrast of contexts and common thematic concerns.

Paragraph 1: Influence of the past upon the present- Gatsby

Both Barrett Browning’s sonnets and Fitzgerald’s novel examine the perspective of how the past can impinge upon the present. While Browning’s persona transcends the past, Gatsby acted on the belief that he could repeat it, this is demonstrated by his use of hypophora “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can.” Gatsby’s impoverished past motivates him to free himself from the shackles of being in the low class level of a 1920s society, by creating metaphorical façade “a platonic conception of himself,” in order to rekindle his love with Daisy. However, the attainment of Gatsby’s dream destroys what he had very much dreamed of attaining. The symbolic metaphor used to which Nick ends his memoir of Gatsby, ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” captures the  ‘paralysis’ brought about by shaping a future based on a desire to reconnect with the past. Where as Browning’s love transcends the physical, Fitzgerald’s perspective of “love’ is more akin to the American Dream, in which the sweet pursuit of what we desire is without limit and inherently unattainable. As such, the ‘boat’ is borne forward, and carried backward by the current, a Möbius paralysis brought about by the superficial materialism of the Jazz Age.

Paragraph 2: Influence of the past upon the present- EBB

Correspondingly, Barrett Browning’s sonnets also communicate her contextual perspective of how the past cannot be escaped. This is elucidated in Sonnet I by Browning’s sorrowful historical allusion to the Greek pastoral love poet Theocritus of, “How [he] had sung… of sweet years… the dear and wished for years.” The lament ‘sung’ demonstrates not only the restriction of human emotion, passion and love during the Victorian period but also the comparison of his words to her own “melancholy years.” The sibilance of “sweet, sad years” mirrors the sound of a sigh, further reinforcing the lack of happiness in her life prior to love, as well as Browning’s initial tone of doubt and fear. The progression of Browning’s sonnets exemplify her growth in confidence on her perspective of love and how it had allowed her to come to an understanding of her emerging emotions, this is elucidated from repetition of “cuckoo-song” and “Spring” which signify rebirth from her past. Despite the fact that both texts echo the influence of which past has on the present, Fitzgerald provides his perspective on Gatsby who reinvented himself and attempted to repeat the past, Browning’s persona on the other hand embodies the transcending of the past into the present. 

Alternative paragraph 1: Mortality- Gatsby

Fitzgerald’s TGG provides his perspective on mortality within the 1920s, particularly the significance of death diminished by a materialistic and hedonistic context. Unlike that of EBB’s sonnets, the Gatsby society cared only about their own troubles and lacked connections that existed beyond the mortal world. All ties are severed and there is a complete descent into apathy once Gatsby died, this is evident in Nick’s anecdote in attempt to contact Gatsby’s most trusted ‘friend’ Wolfsheim. Upon the reception of “Mr Gatsby is dead”, Fitzgerald draws upon the technological metaphor of a phone line, synonymous with the advancements of the 1920s to depict the insignificance of human life. The synecdoche used “a long silence… an exclamation… then a quick squawk as the connection was broken” combines both sound and visual image to demonstrate Gatsby’s trivial death and the finality of such an end. Hence, the text captures the superficiality of a life lived as a “colossal illusion”, as unlike EBB’s perspective, Gatsby’s life does not transcend into the afterlife.

Alternative paragraph 2: Mortality- EBB

Mirroring this, within EBB’s sonnets, death is seen as no barrier in a context where passion and emotion transcends the physical and exists even after death. Central to EBB’s argument is the concept that feelings of love are completely ‘deathless’, unlike Fitzgerald’s perspective where all feeling and sentimentality is eradicated by death. In Sonnet XIII, EBB brings forth sound imagery of “silence” to craft a bond not of ‘reiterating love’ but rather a silent appeal to emotion that continues beyond the mortal “let the silence of my womanhood / Commend my woman-love to thy belief —“. In addition to this quote, use of enjambment and punctuation emphasises a perspective of a ‘silent’ love that endures. Thus, Barrett Browning unlike that of TGG, defines a love that “[she] shall but love… better after [her] death”, in which religious perspectives of the spirituality of human connection replaces the connections based on material pleasure within the Jazz Age.

Alternative paragraph 1: Transformative power of love- Gatsby

Fitzgerald’s TGG provides his perspective on the transformative power of love within the 1920s. As with EBB’s perspective, Fitzgerald, similarly elucidates this concept through the characterisation of Gatz transformed into Gatsby. However, the driving power of an obsessive love to ‘own’ Daisy Buchanan highlights the idea that the transformative power of love can only exist as the material and the possessive in the Jazz Age.  This is metaphorically evident in “her voice is full of money” where Gatsby’s idealised love is derived from the trappings of status and wealth. Fitzgerald connotes a transformation that is shallow and corruptive, captured in the extended metaphor “[The Green Light] had seemed as close as a star to the moon”. This ‘enchanting object’ symbolises the unachievable love that Gatsby has for Daisy, based entirely on his transformation from rags to riches. However, the attainment of Gatsby’s dream destroys what he had very much dreamed of attaining. That the green light “was again a green light on the dock” utilises sharp contrast of the celestial [stars and moon] against the pedestrian [the dock] to create a literary warning of love based simply on obsession and attainment. Thus, Fitzgerald conveys his perspective of love during the Jazz Age, which was a love lacking in transformative power and orbited around the material and obsessive nature of a consumerist context.

Alternative paragraph 2: Transformative power of love- EBB

Correspondingly, EBB’s sonnets channel the contextual perspective of love being spiritually transformative. Barrett Browning’s subversion of the Petrarchan sonnets and her appropriation of male poetic conventions to her own feminine voice allows her to challenge the constraints of love during the Victorian Era. The progression of EBB’s sonnets exemplifies her transforming perspective on love and how it allows her to come to an understanding of her emerging emotions, this is elucidated from repetition of “cuckoo-song” and “Spring” which signify her rebirth from a “melancholy past” in Sonnet I. Both TGG and EBB’s sonnets echo the perspective that love is a powerful transformative force, yet it is only through the context of EBB’s embracement of the spiritual and immaterial that allows her transformation to be complete. In Sonnet XXXII, EBB utilises an extended metaphor comparing herself to a debased musical instrument which can still play a beautiful tune when the musician is skillful “More like an out of tune worn viol… for perfect strains may float ‘neath master hands.” This change in tone is evident within the Volta, where EBB has progressed from  “sweet sad years” into a new, passionate and confident love that completes her. Ultimately, differing from Fitzgerald’s perspective, Barrett Browning’s dismissal of love based on superficial qualities and her manipulation of the sonnet form provides her own perspective on the transformative power of love.

Paragraph 3: Transcendental/ spiritual love- Gatsby

Within TGG, Fitzgerald evaluates the Roaring 20s’ shift away from spiritual traditions. Similar to EBB’s sonnets, Fitzgerald reveals his perspective that love may also be transcendent.  However he questions the morality of a hedonistic context, which warps the individuals’ capacity to see the ‘pure and eternal love’ as in EBB’s poetry. Women like Jordan Baker, in the Jazz Age, embody concepts of sexual liberation and moral apathy. Baker’s name is synonymous with two 1920s car brands, she represents the subversion of femininity as she pursues materialism, juxtaposing against EBB’s perspective that pursues spiritual love in rebellion against a context of rigid morals. Baker’s character doesn’t exist within the spiritual; her relationships are defined by physical attraction instead, just as Nick Carraway observes in his mechanical metaphor, “I thought I loved her. But I am… full of interior rules that act as brakes on my desires.” Additionally, dialogue between Gatsby and Daisy in the Plaza Hotel, “Tell him … you never loved him” “I love you now-isn’t that enough?” extends the perspective that in the world of the 1920s, no strong commitment existed and that there was a failure to recognise love in its pure and eternal form. Hence, within TGG’s context, which expresses personal divinity and ethical shallowness, love becomes something that is defined by the physical and not the spiritual.

Paragraph 4: Transcendental /spiritual love- EBB

Despite the fact that love holds the potential to be transcendent in both texts. The recognition of spiritual realms within EBB’s sonnets strongly contrasts to the more physical love or perhaps, lust, of Gatsby. As her context is heavily religious at core, love for EBB as interpreted by contextual perspectives is eternal. This is created by the Christian belief of love transcending into the afterlife. Accumulation, “Do not say, I love her for her smile… her look,” in Sonnet XIV juxtaposes against Gatsby through imperative language, a love easily “unwrought so” when based on transient qualities. Furthermore, repetition of “love me for love’s sake only” and diction of “evermore” “love’s eternity” reflect the spiritual dimension of her love, which endures after death. In direct contrast to EBB’s first and last sonnets, “But there the silver answer rang… not Death, but Love” different to “I shall but love thee better after my death”, EBB exemplifies the ultimate strength of love in which she discovers its spiritual perspective and its ability to change her life. This demonstrates EBB’s alignment of love to religious purpose, purity and indeed eternity. Hence, the fundamental nature of love as a basis of human spirituality highlights the importance of context in shaping Browning’s perspective, reflecting the values that have altered her view of a transcendent love.

Both texts explore the perspective of love as a fundamental component of humanity, a driving force of transformation and the spiritual purpose of life. However differing in which Gatsby has an unattainable and physical love while Barrett Browning highlights the persona’s strong commitment of love, that continues long after death. Thus, a change of context shapes the perspective in which love has influenced the composition of both Barrett Browning and Fitzgerald.


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