The Lady’s Yes by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

457px-Elizabeth_Barrett_Browning“Yes!” I answered you last night;
“No!” this morning, Sir, I say!
Colours, seen by candle-light,
Will not look the same by day.

When the tabors played their best,
Lamps above, and laughs below —
Love me sounded like a jest,
Fit for Yes or fit for No!

Call me false, or call me free —
Vow, whatever light may shine,
No man on your face shall see
Any grief for change on mine.

Yet the sin is on us both —
Time to dance is not to woo —
Wooer light makes fickle troth —
Scorn of me recoils on you!

Learn to win a lady’s faith
Nobly, as the thing is high;
Bravely, as for life and death —
With a loyal gravity.

Lead her from the festive boards,
Point her to the starry skies,
Guard her, by your truthful words,
Pure from courtship’s flatteries.

By your truth she shall be true —
Ever true, as wives of yore —
And her Yes, once said to you,
SHALL be Yes for evermore.


Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) was a highly esteemed poet in the nineteenth century. Married to fellow poet Robert Browning, her fame and reputation surpassed his – she was even a role model for Emily Dickinson herself. Browning grew up in a wealthy household, which gave her the background and inspiration to write poems such as this one.

“The Lady’s Yes” opens with a woman taking back the “yes” she had given to a gentleman suitor the night before. We find out in the second stanza that the affirmative answer was given in response to the young man’s inquiry into whether she loves him or not. However, the speaker says she has changed her mind because “Colours, seen by candle-light / Will not look the same by the day.” The opportunity for love and the possibilities for her future that seemed so bright the night before dim by the next morning, and she decides that no, she does not in fact love him. The speaker was caught up in the atmosphere of the previous night, in the lamp light, the music (the “tabors” mentioned are a type of drum), and the laughter surrounding them, and agreed that she loved her suitor without thinking. Now she is dealing with the repercussions, namely the risk of being called “fast” or “free,” both insults for those who were considered ladies at the time. However, she says she does not regret changing her mind, and even blames the suitor for catching her off guard, saying, “Time to dance is not to woo,” and that it is as much his fault as it is hers.

The second half of the poem consists of the speaker giving the gentleman advice on how to really win over a lady. She tells him to be noble, brave, and loyal, as these are all traits that ladies deserve. She also advises him to be truthful. This implies that she does not feel that he was truthful with her. Caught up in the moment, she believes they both said things they did not mean, so she warns him to speak nothing but the truth to any future love interests, and not to focus so much on “courtship’s flatteries.” With this truthfulness, she says, if another lady responds with a “yes” to his love, she will actually mean it, unlike the speaker. Or perhaps she is even telling her suitor that he has a chance with her if he changes his ways.

The poem is written in four-line stanzas with a simple ABAB rhyme scheme. It is very traditional, with no extraordinary flair or unusual style. This makes sense, as the poem itself covers a traditional topic. It speaks to the customs of courtship in the nineteenth century. It lists the qualities looked for in a man – bravery, nobility, loyalty, and honesty – as well as the traits that were looked down upon in a lady. The rude names the speaker expects to be called are “fast,” used to describe a woman who rushed through things quickly with a love interest, and “free,” meaning a woman who gave out her “love” easily to the men around her. That is one of the great things about poetry and literature in general – it can shine a light on the culture at the time, dipping into the historical and creating for a richer reading experience.

Women’s Prison by Joseph Bathanti

prisonyardTwo Sundays a month, darkness still abroad,
we round up the kids and bundle them
into a restored salvaged Bluebird school bus,
repainted green, and make the long haul

to Raleigh where their mothers are locked
in Women’s Prison. We pin the children’s names,
and numbers, to their coats, count them
like convicts at lights-out. Sucking thumbs,

clutching favorite oddments to cuddle as they ride
curled in twos on patched sprung benches,
they sleepwalk bashfully, the little aged,
into the belly of the bus, eyes nailed to its floor.

We feed them milk and juice, animal crackers, apples;
stop for them to use the bathroom,
and to change the ones so young, they can’t help wetting.
We try singing: folk tunes and strike ballads –

as if off to picket or march with an army of babies –
but their stony faces will not yield and, finally,
their passion to disappear puts them to sleep,
not to wake until the old Bluebird jostles

through the checkpoints into the prison.
Somehow, upon reopening their eyes, they know
to smile at the twirling jagged grandeur
surrounding the massive compound: concertina –

clotted with silver scraps of dew and dawn light,
a bullet-torn shroud of excelsior, scored
in dismal fire, levitating in the savage
Sabbath sky. By then, their mothers,

in the last moments of girlish rawboned glory,
appear in baggy, sky-blue prison shifts,
their beautiful hands lifting to shield their eyes,
like saints about to be slaughtered,

as if the light is too much, the sky suddenly egg-blue,
plaintive, threatening to pale away, the sun
still invisible, yet blinding. Barefoot, weepy,
they call their babies by name and secret endearment,

touch them everywhere like one might the awakened dead.
The children remain dignified, nearly aloof
in their perfect innocence, and self-possession,
toddling dutifully, into the arms of anyone

who reaches for them, even the guards, petting them too.
When visiting hours conclude, the children hand
their mothers cards and drawings, remnants
of a life they are too young to remember,

but conjure in glyphic crayon blazes.
Attempting to recollect the narrative
that will guide them back to their imagined homes,
the mothers peer from the pictures to the departing

children – back and forth, straining
to make the connection, back
and forth until the children, already fast asleep
as the bus spirits them off, disappear.


Joseph Bathanti was born on July 20, 1953, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He grew up in East Liberty, an Italian neighborhood in the city. Bathanti earned an M.F.A. in English Literature from the University of Pittsburgh. After graduation, he joined Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), a national service program designed to fight poverty. In 1976, Bathanti was placed in North Carolina as a volunteer for the state’s prison system. Since then he’s spent 35 years teaching writing workshops in prisons and is the former chair of the North Carolina Writers’ Network Prison project. Bathanti is the author of eight books of poetry: Communion Partners; Anson County; The Feast of All Saints; This Metal; Land of Amnesia; Restoring Sacred Art; Sonnets of the Cross; and Concertina. From 2012 through 2014 Bathanti was Poet Laureate of North Carolina. His writing draws heavily on his life, ethnicity, religion, and personal experiences. His latest collection, Concertina, revolves around his experiences volunteering in the North Carolina penal system and features “Women’s Prison.”

Bathanti’s work in the prison system has greatly impacted his writing. Throughout the poem “Women’s Prison,” Bathanti depicts bringing children to their mother’s in prison on visitor’s day two times a month. The poem’s opening stanza says, “we round up the kids;” the phrase “round up” draws a parallel between the mothers in prison and their children. The second stanza continues this parallel with the simile, “count them/like convicts at lights-out.” Here Bathanti captures how entire families are impacted when one person goes to jail. Though the children of convicts have done no crime, they are rounded up and have numbers pinned to them when they go to visit the women who have given them life.

Bathanti continues the poem by calling attention to the innocence of these children by referring to their “Sucking thumbs” in stanza two, “clutching favorite oddments to cuddle” in stanza three and their being unable to “help wetting” in stanza four. These children are innocent before entering the prisons, but Bathanti hints at their eventual loss of innocence throughout the rest of the poem.

In stanza five, Bathanti refers to the children of convicts as “an army of babies,” saying their “stony faces will not yield.” Comparing these children to armies strips them of their individuality and turns them into men and women who know they are about to face horrors that will change them for the rest of their lives. This sense of loss of innocence continues in the next stanza when Bathanti writes of the children “reopening their eyes.” These children walk into the jail and are forced to face seeing their mothers behind bars. They have the opportunity to see their mothers and talk to them, but they must do so in a prison compound. Walking into this new environment may be new and exciting for them, on some level, but this new place is a “bullet-torn shroud of excelsior.” This place has the excitement of familial reunion, but it is surrounded by violence.

As the poem continues, Bathanti references the children’s “perfect innocence, and self possession” as they first see their mothers in the prison in stanza ten. Though his wording makes it clear these children are still innocent, the words throughout the poem hint that this innocence will soon trickle away. Though they are visiting their mothers, they are quickly forgetting these mothers as they were before going to jail. Bathanti writes they bring their mothers cards and drawings of “a life they are too young to remember.” Drawing these pictures is their attempt to remember the lives they had before their mother’s went away to jail and left their families in shambles.

As Bathanti words it, these children are trying to “recollect the narrative/that will guide them back to their imagined homes.” In these lines, Bathanti uses the word “homes” instead of houses. Since a home is distinguished from simple being a house by the fact that a family lives inside, this specific word choice emphasizes that these children are attempting to find a path back to the families they used to have. This poem ends with these very children “straining/to make the connection” until they all eventually “disappear.” These disappearances not only show how the children leave the prison, and their mother’s worlds, but also show how from these experiences these children lose a part of themselves, their innocence.

“Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold

doverThe sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! You hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.


Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) was a famous English poet who graduated from Oxford University and worked as a cultural critic and school inspector. He is remembered as a sage writer, a type of author who rebukes and educates readers on existing societal concerns. He was a contemporary of Tennyson and Browning, and he is considered the third great Victorian poet.

When the big picture looks ominous, sounds dangerous and reminds us of armies clashing, Matthew Arnold recommends seeking solace in the fundamental bond between lovers.

Arnold’s well-known poem opens with a couple quietly looking out onto the moonlit English Channel, listening to the waves. As he’s looking out onto the beautiful seascape, the speaker realizes that while it seems like it’s a beautiful world, it’s really just an illusion; the world is simply a place filled with pain. The speaker references Sophocles, a playwright who is remembered for his tragedies. In his plays, Sophocles professed that humans only have the ability to become wise through suffering. Similarly, this poem reflects that it is through pain that people really begin to understand the world as a broken, distraught place. The speaker’s mind continues to reel as he connects the ebb and flow of the waves to the rise and fall of humanity, and the descent that he feels humanity has faced. At the end of the poem, there isn’t any beauty. He says that it seems like a beautiful world, looking out at the splendor of the ocean. But, he says that humans must be true to one another because there’s nothing else meaningful out there. Everything that seems to be really wonderful is just an illusion. The hope for beauty and happiness relies on loving one another.

Arnold uses the sea as a symbol for the inevitably negative fate of humanity. Throughout the poem, the sea and waves gain momentum and become more and more rough and violent. The waves come and go, but they ultimately bring the eternal note of sadness. The piece opens with a calm, moonlit ocean, and escalates to strip away the sea’s calm illusion and unveil the danger beneath the surface. He compares the ebb and flow of the sea to the ebb and flow of human misery. The ocean used to represent a “Sea of Faith,” as Arnold notes in the second-to-last stanza. However, this faith in humanity is withdrawing and retreating; humans cannot rely on the world for beauty and happiness. Instead, our ability to love one another determines our happiness.

What My Father Knows by Nancy Naomi Carlson

Cup_of_tea_(High_Speed_Photography)-MJMy father knows his mind is leaving,
Cells fleeing a mineshaft’s dark.
My father remembers the color of Laddie’s coat –
first of a long line of dogs – but forgets the shade
of my mother’s eyes when she leaves the room.

How long before he forgets her face
and the fire of her auburn hair?

Each night she pours him Jiuqu Wulong tea –
dragon brew – to head off the growing chill,
and chides him when he spills a drop –
from highest mountains come finest teas.

She invents a tale of an emperor – K’ang Ha –
who seduces a red-haired beauty beneath a gingko tree.
A pot of water simmered nearby.
As she finger combed her shimming hair,
three strands broke free to ride the wind
into the steaming brew –
now transformed into liquid amber, jasmine-oiled –
a dynasty of song.

My father inhales the scent of her words.


Nancy Naomi Carlson received her B.A. from Queens College and her Ph.D. from the University of Maryland. She is currently an instructor at the Bethesday Writer’s Center, and a senior translation editor for Tupelo Quarterly and Blue Lyra Review. She is the author of three poetry collections, as well as the critically acclaimed Stone Lyre: Poems of René Char. Her work has appeared in print over 290 times in various publications, including, Poetry, The Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, and The Iowa Review and has won her grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Maryland Arts Council, and the Arts & Humanities Council of Montgomery County.

Right at the opening of Carlson’s heartbreaking poem, the encroaching threat of a life forgotten consumes the reader. Carlson writes of the heartbreak of watching a parent, presumably one suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia, and their struggle to remember basic life details. In the opening stanza, Carlson writes, “My father knows his mind is leaving.” This minor detail, that the person who is slowly forgetting everything knows they are slowly forgetting everything, brings to mind the tragedy of people knowing they are suffering from dementia, but having no way to stop the progression. Throughout this poem, Carlson captures how this is often harder to face than the actual memory loss itself. The first stanza continues by calling on minuscule details of life, the specifics that many people take for granted, but that make life complete. She writes of the “shade of my mother’s eyes.” The very eyes the narrator’s aging father has looked into presumably every day for decades are quickly erased from his memory.

In the second stanza, Carlson presents the idea that eventually the disease will make the narrator’s father forget not just the color of his wife’s eyes, but his wife entirely. This type of tragedy is something that people have become more aware of in recent years, from books like The Notebook and so forth. As this stanza continues, the “Jiuqu Wulong tea” the wife serves him to “head off the growing chill” can be seen as her trying to slow the progression of his memory loss.

Then, in the fourth stanza, the wife “invents a tale” to tell him, which seems reminiscent of how the two probably met as well. As the tale continues she alludes to her husband’s mental state saying, “three strands broke free to ride the wind.” The “three strands” of hair can be seen as a metaphor for the memories slowly leaving her husbands mind. Just as the strands land in the tea and are “transformed into liquid amber,” his thoughts leave his mind and become forever lost. Carlson ends the forth stanza by writing, “a dynasty of song,” and although “song” is not capitalized and could just refer to musical sound dissipating in the open air, the earlier mention of an emperor named K’ang Ha brings the Chinese Song dynasty to the reader’s mind. The Song dynasty reigned over China from 960-1279 and ended abruptly when 8-year-old emperor Emperor Huaizong of Song (along with Prime Minister Lu Xiufu and 800 members of the royal clan) committed suicide. The father in the poem seems to have led a long life, but, like the Song dynasty, his life quick fades away.

This poem is overall evocative of a lifetime slowly being lost in the mind of an old man and reads like the father inhaling “the scent of her words” in the last line. The lines of the poem put a heavy weight on the readers heart, like smelling a loved ones perfume after their passing.

Love and Friendship by Emily Brontë

hollyLove is like the wild rose-briar,
Friendship like the holly-tree —
The holly is dark when the rose-briar blooms
But which will bloom most constantly?
The wild-rose briar is sweet in the spring,
Its summer blossoms scent the air;
Yet wait till winter comes again
And who will call the wild-briar fair?
Then scorn the silly rose-wreath now
And deck thee with the holly’s sheen,
That when December blights thy brow
He may still leave thy garland green.


Brontë’s attitude toward love in this poem is telling, given how much she distanced herself from others in her own life. While Emily was very close with her sisters, Anne and Charlotte, she did not venture far outside of her family circle. Emily preferred the company of animals to people. She had a mastiff named Keeper, whom she adored. She never married, dying a single woman at the age of 30, an age that, at the time, was enough to deem her an “old maid.”

Besides her poetry, Emily Brontë wrote one novel in her lifetime, the famous Wuthering Heights. The novel, ironically, also focuses on love, detailing Heathcliff’s infatuation with Catherine and the impact her loss had on him. For someone who avoided love in her own life, Emily certainly enjoyed exploring the topic in her work.

Emily starts “Love and Friendship” by comparing love to a “wild rose-briar,” a comparison used many times thereafter (e.g., “Every rose has its thorn”). While love is beautiful, it can also bring pain. She then compares friendship to a holly tree, which is “dark when the rose-briar blooms.” During times of romance, she is saying, friendships fall to the wayside, and love takes over all feelings and emotions – “its summer blossoms scent the air.”

However, she says, during hard times – “winter” – the rose-briar does not hold up; it dies, leaving none of the beautiful flowers behind. Holly, however, lives on even in the coldest of months. Holly is the plant that will “bloom most constantly.” Friendship, then, lives on even when romances fade away.

The idea of love’s cruel sting in this poem is illustrated in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff’s anger and sorrow come from his inability to have Catherine, his true love, for his own. Love scorns him, hurting him like a rose thorn. As beautiful as he thinks Catherine is, the pain she brings to him leads to his downfall.

While Emily avoided love, her compassion for and closeness with her sisters must have motivated her portrayal of friendship in this poem. The three girls grew up together, using each other for support after their mother and sisters’ deaths – “when December blights thy brow” – and bonded through their writing.