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Contemporary America Described Through Summaries of Famous Poems

Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach”
In a post-truth world, a man believes meaningful action is impossible yet expects his romantic partner to restore his faith.

 William Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey”
A man ignores the political turmoil, pollution, and homelessness around him to focus on his own lost youth and sense of self-complacency. He first ignores the woman standing next to him, then mansplains her own feelings and experiences to her.

William Carlos Williams, “This Is Just to Say”
Someone offers an insincere apology and gloats over the transgression.

John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”
An empathetic person, overwhelmed by the suffering in the world, tries to escape through sleep, reading, alcohol, and suicidal ideation. At times, he can’t quite believe this shit is really happening.

Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven”
A self-described intellectual feels nostalgia for the past and is obsessed with a woman. When told that he won’t be able to recapture the past and won’t get the woman he wants, he feels persecuted. He deliberately seeks out more opportunities to feel persecuted and casts himself as the victim of a conspiracy.

George Gordon, Lord Byron, many of his poems and much of his life
An entitled man pursues his own sexual pleasure regardless of the consequences. When confronted with the harm he has caused the women in his life, his attitude is equal parts oblivious, defiant, and self-pitying.

Christina Rossetti, “Goblin Market”
A girl is barraged with sales pitches for consumer goods, is herself treated as a commodity, is punished for indulging in sensual pleasures, and, after eating too much of the wrong thing, stops eating altogether. The imagined solution is that another, more proper girl will only enter the free market to acquire what’s needed by her family, will not seek her own pleasure, will not eat, and will withstand a gang assault with her purity intact. (Her body has ways to shut that whole thing down.)

Sylvia Plath, “Daddy”
A woman’s unhealthy relationship with her father blurs the roles of daughter and spouse. She worries her father might think Nazis are good people, and she embraces a Jewish identity.

Robert Browning, “My Last Duchess”
A powerful man, whose claims about his speaking skills do not match his actual speaking skills, frequently brags about his wealth. He reveals the horrible things he’s done and the horrible things he plans to do, and he expects that no one will object. No one with the power to stop him does object. Unhappy with his former wife, he negotiates terms for a new wife from another country.

Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”
The person controlling one side of a border insists upon a wall, even though it is wasteful, divisive, and undiplomatic. When asked to justify his demand, he can only unthinkingly repeat a trite phrase.

William Blake, “The Chimney Sweeper” (Innocenceand Experienceversions) 
Young children are forced into unhealthy, cramped areas. The nation is split in how they view this. Some desperately want to believe authority figures, and they think that if people just followed the rules, they’d be fine. Others are enraged that the government and churches empower themselves at the expense of children’s wellbeing.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”
A disastrous foreign policy decision with no chance of success results in many unnecessary deaths. The media avoids assigning blame, and no one is held accountable.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
The wanton destruction of nature causes unusual heat, storms, and drought. Those only indirectly complicit experience more dire consequences than those directly responsible.

William Shakespeare, Hamlet, “To be or not to be” soliloquy
The world is seriously fucked up, things are unlikely to get better, and there are no sure means of escape.

Percy Shelley, “England in 1819”
An unstable and hated political leader from a corrupt family, callous legislators who profit at the country’s expense, a struggling populace whose protests are ignored, an army misused and maltreated, churches that ignore Christ’s teachings, and a destructively conservative Senate are so damn bad that they might inspire people to envision a better future.

Emily Dickinson, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”
A feared and impartial figure who has brought many to their ultimate judgments pursues someone trying to evade him. He is persistent, patient, and civil as he reviews the activities of an entire lifetime. It all comes to an ambiguous conclusion.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Pied Beauty” 
Someone earnestly, gratefully embraces the beauty of diversity. In its context, it is both a return to earlier values and a radical path forward.

Dylan Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”

Monique Morgan is Associate Professor of English at Indiana University and co-editor of Victorian Studies

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