Jung's Midsummer Dream: How Shakespeare Explores the Collective Unconscious

In his article, The Missing Child in ‘A Midsummer’s Night Dream,’ Thomas R. Frosch discusses “Shakespeare’s complex portrayal of childhood and the childlike, (Frosch)” in which he focuses upon off-stage characters, namely the “little changeling boy” or “stolen Indian boy” (namesake of Frosch’s article), the Indian King (boy’s father) and Indian mother (boy’s maternal mother), who are mention only during the first conversation between Oberon and Titania in Act 2, Scene 1. By concentrating upon these obscure characters, Frosch brings to the foreground “a theme that is implicit or not fully developed in the many commentaries on the play that discuss oedipal and preoedipal dynamics, dreams… and the maturation of the lovers.” Through his use of “[Sigmund] Freud… and [Carl] Jung-influenced myth criticism,” Frosch crafts a compelling psychological analysis for Midsummer, particularly in regards to the character Puck, as well as Bottom, being symbolic for childhood curiosity, in addition to Oberon and Titania’s dynamic being symbolic to Freudian parental forces. Yet it is his argument for the Indian Boy’s importance which is most interesting as it highlights him as a “symbol of potentially,” of childhood optimism and the hopes parents place in their children’s existence. Nonetheless, one aspect which Frosch mentions, but only touches upon, is the Indian Boy’s ethereal nature, in addition to his relation to Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious, and what that means in terms of interpreting the forest as not just a representation of imagination but where dreams and desires are born.

One of the main cases that Frosch builds is that the Indian Boy emphasizes the Freudian dynamic between Oberon and Titania, “in that the mother (Titania) seeks to keep the son with her always whereas the father (Oberon) seeks to replace the mother as the total focus of the son’s life and have the son as his servant and second self. (Frosch,507)” We see this directly in Oberon and Titania’s first conversation, with Oberon stating he wants to make the “little changeling boy” his henchman as Titania denies him permission to do so (Shakespeare, 2.1.120-121). “The missing child,” Frosch states, “is also the child whom we may have now but who is missing in the sense that it is never ours as much as we want it to be. (Frosch, 505)” Much like Egeus wishing for Hermia to marry Demetrius, yet her being in love with Lysander, the faeries’ “missing boy” is oppressed with paternal desires. However, unlike Hermia and Lysander, the Indian Boy doesn’t have a presence nor make any attempt to escape outside his “oppressive” situation. Frosch makes the claim that Shakespeare uses the Indian Boy as a “symbolic presence, looming over the world of the play,” and that he represents different metaphysical aspects of what children represent to society. The unborn “child of the future,” the no longer visible “child of the past,” and the “child of the present, who, after infancy, is never as much our visible possession as we want it to be. (Frosch, 506)” While it could be argued that Hermia and Lysander are the “children of the present” becoming adolescence, there are no representations of the former two types beyond the Indian Boy. So this gives Oberon and Titania’s relationship more weight in that (much like the Athenian world being symbolic for law, order and Earthly reason) the forest represents more than just escapism, imagination and love, as it also deals with the ethereal plane of what has yet to become and what has passed before. In other words, Shakespeare uses the forest, as well as Oberon and Titania, as a means of discussing where the world beyond human perception lies, as well as the birthplace of dreams and desires.

By symbolizing the forest as the place where human desire is located, we can look back on Hermia and Lysander going into the forest and see that they weren’t merely escaping the tyranny of Athens but also returning to the birthplace of their passion and longing to be together (“following the root,” if you will). Yet, much like Egeus being trapped within the bubble of reason, Frosch doesn’t go beyond a Freudian analysis of this aspect of the Indian Boy. While he does continue to make larger points, it would have been the perfect opportunity to implement the Jungian myth criticism, specifically Jung’s ideas regarding the collective unconsciousness, as Frosch states he would use in his thesis paragraphs. Extrapolating upon the notion of the forest in terms of the dreamscape, Carl Jung would’ve pointed out that such experiences were taking places within the collective unconsciousness, in that the characters experienced and gained knowledge from events outside their own personal empirical nature (Jung, 99). Therefore, within a theatrical framework, the characters in Midsummer go to the forest in order to tap the well of limitless experience in order to gain perspective on their respective situations. Frosch does, however, lightly touch upon this notion in regards to what India, and the East, symbolizes within the play. “Symbolically,” Forsch writes, “[it’s] the place where things begin.” Stating that through “the divine child [specifically the Indian boy but also any the children blessed by fairies] are manifestations, we make contact with origins and even perhaps with a state before origins, a state of complete possibility. (Frosch, 507)”

Another aspect in which Frosch delves too lightly into Jungian myth criticism would be in regards to the “second birth,” “dual mother” motif or, as Frosch writes while drawing parallels between the Indian Boy and the Greek god Bacchus, “In having two mothers, Bacchus is like the Indian boy, who has both birth mother and Titania, and in being twice born. (Frosch, p.506-507)” Jung explains in his article The Concept of the Collective Unconscious, that myths regarding “second birth” can be found in all cultures and times periods, and is the origin of adoptive godparents. Interestingly, Jung states that there’s “an infantile fantasy occurring in numberless children… who believe that their parents are not their real parents but merely foster-parents to whom they were handed over. (Jung, 100)” Bearing resemblance to how Titania became the “changeling” boy’s adoptive mother, it’s surprising that Frosch overlooked this observation. Granted, while he does mention the “second birth” motif and attempts to use it as a springboard for comparing the “child-like” qualities of Bacchus to those of Puck in the following paragraphs, he misses out on an equally important detail in that the “changeling” boy is more than just an adoptive child of Titania. In terms of the “second birth” motif, the Indian Boy represents the creation myth of human consciousness before being delivered into their respective bodies in order to live a human life. Given that the forest is known to represent all the facilities beyond human logic, it isn’t a stretch to parallel the Indian Boy to this concept and draw such a conclusions. While Frosch implies such whilst discussing the “Primordial Child” myth, stating “in the image of the Primordial Child the world tells of its own childhood (Frosch, 507),” he doesn’t dig any deeper than this. Yet the Indian Boy appears to be as much an apparition, symbolizing the metaphysical consciousness floating beyond logic, as an image for universal childhood. A deeper examination into this through a Jungian critique could’ve expanded Frosch’s small mention regarding the “Primordial Child,” which seems glossed over and use merely as a transitional point while it couldn’t been one of this base arguments.

While Frosch crafts a compelling observations in The Missing Child in ‘A Midsummer’s Night Dream,’ it is unfortunate that his article mostly focuses upon the ideas of Sigmund Freud. Had he used Carl Jung’s theories regarding dreams, cultural myths and the collective unconscious just as frequently, Frosch could have drawn a wider breath of comparisons between the mythic beings and characters in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, specifically Oberon, Titania and the changeling, but also Puck, Bottom and the lovers. Even still, his awareness for the Indian Boy’s importance is necessary as it highlights Shakespeare’s attention toward non-written, as well as written, characters. By focusing upon a character whom is never on stage nor speaks any dialog, we are alerted to the subtlety in which Shakespeare develops his features using Oberon and Titania. And while those features might be small in comparison to others, they are no less important as his presence sets in motion the events of the play.


Works Cited
Frosch, T. R. "The Missing Child in A Midsummer Night's Dream." American Imago, vol. 64 no. 4, 2007, pp. 485-511. Project MUSE.

Jung, C. G., and R. F. C. Hull. The Concept of the Collective Unconscious. Princeton University Press, 1980.

Shakespeare, William. “A Midsummer Night's Dream.” The Riverside Shakespeare, edited by G. Blackmore Evans and J. J.M. Tobin, Houghton Mifflin, 1974, pp. 222–249.

A Reason to Dream: How Love & Reason Are Eternally Knit

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream Shakespeare plays with the theme of reason verses fantasy, using the setting of the forest as a means for the young lovers Lysander and Hermia (and others) to flee the reason-bound Athens in order to exercise their forbidden love. While this presents the metaphor that one must go outside of reason in order to experience love, Shakespeare inverts this notion later in the play, notably in Act IV when Theseus, a steadfast Duke of Athens, ventures into the woods in search for the lovers. By doing so Shakespeare creates a duality, suggesting that reason not only seeks the imagination but that love is an extension of reason as well, illustrating that in order to find balance in life and relationships one must explore and/or be present in both to find happiness.

In Act IV, Scene I, as Theseus and Egeus walk deeper into the forest when they discover the four lovers resting on the ground, having just received Puck’s remedy to his potion. Going by the logic of Puck’s love potion, that one will fall in love with the first thing they see, that fact that Theseus is the one who wakes everyone up would assume that reason would ground the lover’s desires and would make them forfeit to the Athenian ways of marriage arrangement. However, in this moment, Shakespeare performs a slight-of-hand as Theseus is the one who condones each couple’s love, stating that the “fair lovers” are “fortunately met” and “shall be eternally knit (Shakespeare, lines 177-181).” This being a far cry from the Theseus we see in Act I, in which he states that Demetrius is the worthier mate for Hermia and that she must obey her father’s will or either die or join the nunnery. Theseus’ change in perception proposes that, being a representation of reason and logic, he was required to venture into the “unknown,” love-soaked grounds of the forest in order to understand Hermia’s perspective. What’s more, unlike Hermia and Lysander, Theseus wasn’t forced to do so and by traveling “beyond” the realm of reason on his own accord Shakespeare alludes to a more symbiotic relationship between the rational mind and the fantastical woods. Such duality is also implied in Hermia’s awaking words in Act IV, “Methinks I see these things with parted eye, When every thing seems double (Shakespeare, 188-189).” Essentially stating that while reason isn’t “beyond” love, that the two are the sides of the same coin, one still must balance the two together in tandem like seeing double with one eye.

Furthermore, much like Theseus, none of the lovers express contentment until after they’ve walked within both worlds, the rational and fantastical. Beforehand, Lysander and Hermia escape into the woods specifically to avoid Athenian law, Demetrius goes in an attempt to run away from Helena (with Helena later stating frustration that her pursuits only make Demetrius hate her more) and Titania denies Oberon’s wishes for children right before he decides to give her Puck’s potion. Yet, after all their experiences in the forest, they express either fulfillment of their current situations or an increased willingness to compromise. This character development could be interpreted as a metaphor for emphatic reasoning. For example, in Act III when Lysander, under Puck’s spell, falls in love with Helena and essentially throws himself at her in similar manner that Helena chased Demetrius earlier in the play (Shakespeare, 245-337). Yet, during this scene, it’s Demetrius that defends Helena when Lysander speaks ill of her. So while Puck’s cocktail might be “Love Potion #9” it also appears to have some positive, subliminal effects on the minds of the characters, implying that logic alone isn’t enough, that the forest (i.e. love) is instrumental in having meaningful, understanding and reasonable relationships with others.

Another way in which Shakespeare explores this notion is in the complementary characteristics between the relationships of Theseus/Hippolyta and Oberon/Titania. While both are from very different worlds, each contain an amount of exploration into the other side’s mindset. Through these parallels Shakespeare conveys the absence of one aspect from the other, such as the absence of emotion from Theseus and the vacancy of reason in Oberon. In particular, Oberon’s love for Hippolyta and Titania’s for Theseus which, during their first conversation in Act II, Titania admits a desire to leave the forest (Shakespeare, 138). While she doesn’t specifically state Athens, it can be surmised by her love of Theseus that it is where she desires to be. What’s more, in symbolic terms, Titania leaving the forest implies an expedition into rational thought. Something that Oberon finds worrisome, if not threatening, resulting in him asking Puck to use his potion on an “Athenian man.” This reaction can be equated to Theseus’ reaction to Hermia’s desire to be with Lysander, going against her father’s wishes as well as going outside of the social norms. While the main different is that Theseus inadvertently drives the lovers into the woods and Oberon deliberately causes Titania to fall in love with something else, they both cause someone to be entrenched in another state of mind and, eventually, themselves as well. As Oberon prevents Titania from going into more rational territory we are shown various scenes in which Oberon (along with Puck) observe the Athenians from a distance, as though he’s studying them. This could be interpreted akin to Theseus’ venture into the forest, that Oberon is attempting to exercise empathy even though he doesn’t actually leave the forest.

This duality of mind and heart is further painted in Act V with the Wall character in Pyramus and Thisby. While the Wall is suppose to be a partition that separates Pyramus and Thisby, it ends up acting as a bridge of communication and physically connects the two lovers. Once again, this symbolism can be expanded to the rest of the characters and how their relationships have existed within the play. For instance, similar to how Pyramus and Thisby have to penetrate large boundaries in order to be together, so too does Lysander and Hermia with their “crack in the wall” being the woods. And much like talking to Theseus or Helena is equivalent to talking to a wall at the beginning of the play, both being headstrong regarding their wants and desires, Hermia and Demetrius both find ways to break through their stubbornness and eventually each party gains understanding. While Helena’s empathy for Demetrius’ is achieved through Lysander being given Puck’s potion, interpreting the forest itself has a magical force/state of mind, it can, therefore, be seen as an exploration in an alternative perspective for Helena. Actually giving Helena a view of her own behavior outside of her own self/feelings and being able to feel how she’s made Demetrius feel throughout the entire play.

This theme of tension between one’s desires and reality are notably explored in Neil Gaiman’s adaptation of Midsummer Night’s Dream within issue sixteen of his series the Sandman. During which we met Shakespeare and his traveling cast who are preparing to perform Midsummer for Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, who has struck a deal with Shakespeare. The deal in question sees that Shakespeare write two plays commissioned by Morpheus which explore the idea of dreams and, in return, Morpheus grants Shakespeare is the ability to write timeless stories. Throughout the performance, whose audience are the actual inhabitance of Faerie, we are shown two scenes which echo the sentiments of the actual play but with more regards to Shakespeare as a person. The first of these come from Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, who expresses that his father cares only about his stories and characters. “He doesn’t seem like he’s really there any more,” Hamnet states of his father, “I’m less real to him than any of the characters in his plays (Gaiman).” While the dilution of another’s person-hood and autonomy in lieu of one’s personal desire is abundant throughout Shakespeare, it’s very particular in Midsummer especially in regard with Theseus’ quest for Athenian perfection. Such yearning is mirrored with Shakespeare the man as well as Theseus in that both place their ideals/dreams in front of those they hold dear. Moreover, in a conversation Morpheus has with Titania, he expresses regret in giving Shakespeare exactly what he wanted. “He did not understand the price. Mortals never do,” Morpheus says regarding Shakespeare, “They only see the prize, their heart’s desire, their dream… But the price of getting what you want, is getting what you once wanted (Gaiman).” We see this attitude expressed in actual play with Lysander and Hermia, who want nothing more than to be with each other that they escape into the woods, not unknowing what the result would be. Yet Morpheus continues in stating that explaining the price to Shakespeare wouldn’t have made any different in the outcome. In the end, for Gaiman’s Shakespeare, the only thing that matters is his dreams and, much like his own characters of Lysander and Hermia, he is lost in the woods of imagination. Yet, unlike his two characters, reason doesn’t venture to ground him, nor does he go looking to be grounded, and must live life as though he is watching a play.

By creating the duality of the forest and Athens, as well as mirroring character ambitions on either side of the tree line, Shakespeare inverts the idea that reason and love are separate entities. Through illustrating characters delving into both mindsets he suggests that love seeks rational ground to stand on while reason wishes to find meaning in the unknown corners of the woods. For Shakespeare, balance in life and relationships can arrive only by developing the self and expanding our belief systems as well as our mindsets.


Works Cited
Shakespeare, William. “A Midsummer Night's Dream.” The Riverside Shakespeare, edited by G. Blackmore Evans and J. J.M. Tobin, Houghton Mifflin, 1974, pp. 222–249.
Gaiman, Neil, and Charles Vess. “A Midsummer Night's Dream.” The Sandman, Volume 3: Dream Country, DC Comics, 2012, pp. 53–77.

Super Frog Dreams of Freud

In Haruki Murakami’s short story “Super Frog Saves Tokyo” we meet Katagiri, a debt collector and seemingly boring person, who comes home one evening to a large talking frog sitting in his apartment. As they deliberate and Frog explains his plans to save Tokyo from the ever-absent Worm, we are taken through the repressed psyche of Katagiri, with his memories of the Great Kobe earthquake displaced with Kaiju-type fantasies. While illusions, Frog and Worm serve as a defense mechanism and cathartic, self-healing tool for Katagiri to deal with the post-traumatic stress/repressed memories in an attempt to not just discover the strength to endure but also save Tokyo.

Let’s look closer at Frog and Katagiri’s first interaction with Frog appearing in Katagiri’s apartment only a month after the Kobe earthquake, as these two events occurring so close the one another is no accident. As Frog explains to Katagiri that there will be a second quake directly below the Tokyo Security Trust Bank, Katagiri’s place of work, he continues to describe of what will occur if said quake isn’t prevented: “The number of dead from such a quake would probably exceed 150,000—mostly from accidents involving the commuter system: derailments, falling vehicles, crashes, the collapse of elevated expressways and rail lines, the crushing of subways, the explosion of tanker trucks” [p.4]. Such details echo that of the Kobe earthquake, details of which would’ve been fresh in Katagiri’s memory at this point in time, suggesting that Frog is Katagiri’s repressed consciousness who has manifested in order to dredge up his repressed memories in an attempt for him to deal with the pain of the earthquake and eventually heal. However, Katagiri’s repression does not stop with the Earthquake as there’s a second player in this Kaiju dance as well as a second set of memories Katagiri is forced to confront.

In describing Worm, Frog describes a creature who “just [lies] there and [feels] every little rumble and reverberation that comes his way, absorbing them into his body and storing them up. And then, through some kind of chemical process, he replaces most of them with rage [p.5].” Curiously this description also suit Katagiri and is book-ended by his mirroring similar behavior, existing in silence until Frog snaps him back into the present. Before Worm is mentioned Katagiri is described as “rooted in the doorway, unable to speak [p.1],” staring at Frog and letting Frog’s words wash over him. Katagiri isn’t able to speak for the first twenty or so lines, not until the word “urgent matter” is uttered by Frog is he able to articulate yet only repeats the word, “urgent matter [p.2],” which proposes a sense of numbness in that Katagiri, much like Worm, is unable to react or connect until something jerks him back into consciousness. Additionally Katagiri’s reaction to “urgent” (in that he actually reacted) also implies a sense of sensitivity to the language of catastrophe, which is to say the language used during events of mass destruction, since such a term as “urgent” would definitely be in repeated used during post-earthquake evacuation and news coverage.

Following Worm’s description, Frog admits his respect for Katagiri, saying that Katagiri’s superiors, colleagues and family don’t “properly appreciate [his] accomplishments” and, after recalling events and occasions in which these people have failed to show Katagiri appreciation, Frog “[falls] silent watching Katagiri and waiting until his words had sunk in [p.5].” Again we see Katagiri mirroring Worm, merely existing as he absorbs the rumblings of repressed emotions only to do or say nothing. Interestingly Frog seems conscious of these similarities between Katagiri and Worm as he also waits silently, watching Katagiri as his words “sink in.” These echoed reactions between Frog and Katagiri occur throughout the story; when Frog tells Katagiri that the matter of urgency involves an Earthquake, “Mouth dropping open, Katagiri looked at Frog. And Frog, saying nothing, looked at Katagiri. They went on staring at each other like this for some time [p.3].”; when Frog essentially paraphrases Katagiri’s emotions about fighting Worm from a paragraph earlier, “In all honesty, Mr. Katagiri, the thought of fighting Worm in the dark frightens me, too. [p.6]”; And, most hilariously, toward the end when Frog visits him in the hospital and states that he is “a thing that stands for a world of un-Frog,” and both him and Katagiri agree that they both don’t understand what that means [p.14]. These moments in which both Katagiri and Frog sync up together puts forth the idea that Frog, in addition to being a manifestation of repression, is also a coping mechanism through which Katagiri chooses to deal with said repression as Frog not only embodies Katagiri in the same ways Katagiri reflects Worm (i.e. long periods of time in order to absorb things) but Frog frames distressing circumstances in ways that Katagiri can process and come to terms with them. So it is no surprise that the moment of shared meditation upon the word “earthquake” between Frog and Katagiri is followed by the detailed description of the forthcoming earthquake. With such details Katagiri is surely to react and Frog appears to know this, so by conjuring up emotions that Katagiri would have otherwise locked away Frog can pull him out of his mental “sleep” and save him from becoming a literal worm (closed off and hard to reach). This would explain why Katagiri’s participation is so vital for Frog, why Frog would choose him and why Frog is so encouraging to Katagiri as this entire scenario is essentially Katagiri battling a potentially destructive side of himself, with Frog serving as mediator as well as instigator. Furthermore when Frog tells Katagiri, “I need you to stand behind me and say, ‘Way to go, Frog! You’re doing great! I know you can win! You’re fighting the good fight’ [p.7]!” he is telling Katagiri to root for/believe in himself, essentially being the catalyst for self-healing and to gain the courage to face what he suppresses.

Similarly, just as Frog can be seen as the semi-conscious extension of Katagiri, Worm can be viewed has Katagiri’s subconsciousness as his experience with Worm is indirect, existing only through the information Frog gives him. In what is to suppose to be the story’s climactic battle, Katagiri instead gets “shot” as he makes his way to the Trust Bank and then wakes up in the hospital. This is notable since it’s the only direct action Katagiri takes in the entire story in terms of both forwarding the plot as well as confronting Worm, responsibilities usually given to Frog. However, when Frog visits Katagiri in the hospital and tells him, “The whole terrible fight occurred in the area of imagination. That is the precise location of our battlefield [p.14],” he is saying, in so many words, that dreams are a way to tap into our subconscious fears and desires which is exactly what Frog has been trying to get Katagiri to face in the form of Worm. Parallel Frog’s absence with the moments leading up to the “shooting” during which Katagiri is on his way to help battle Worm, Katagiri had the chance to, as he puts it, “get scared at the last minute and run away [p.10]” and have Frog fight Worm alone, yet he chooses to go through with it and heads to the Trust Bank. In this moment Katagiri takes agency over his own repression and does battle with it in the form of passing out in the middle of the street.
When Katagiri awakens in the hospital and asks the nurse about his wound she “[flashes] a nervous smile in his direction” and says, “I’m sorry, Mr. Katagiri, but you haven’t been shot [p.12].” While this moment begs the question as to whether Katagiri was dreaming this entire time, let’s first consider how the shooting is described: “[Katagiri] felt no pain, but the blow sent him sprawling on the sidewalk. The leather briefcase in his right hand went flying in the other direction. The man aimed the gun at him again. A second shot rang out. A small eatery’s sidewalk signboard exploded before his eyes. He heard people screaming. His glasses had flown off, and everything was a blur [p.11].” The events described in this moment echo the first rumblings of an earthquake as well as the initial assumption someone like Katagiri would make to rationalize what was happening. Additionally, it is mentioned that Katagiri’s glasses had fallen off and that he may only think he saw a gun. This moment could be interpreted as Katagiri recalling his direct experience of the Kobe Earthquake through a dreamscape shooting serving as a buffer (as a singular tragedy can be easier to cope with than a national one) and shows Katagiri coming to terms with what happened. Shortly after Frog returns to thank Katagiri for his help in the battle against Worm, which seems to have taken place while he was asleep, signifying that said battle was a subconscious one. Katagiri, in fact, had to be in a dream-state in order to confront his subconscious, aka Worm, and prevent his repressed emotions and memories from overcoming him.

After the battle with Worm, Katagiri is visited in the hospital by the critically wounded Frog who “slips into a coma” and decomposes in front of Katagiri:

“...boils burst with a loud pop. The skin flew off, and a sticky liquid oozed out, sending a horrible smell across the room. The rest of the boils started popping, one after another, twenty or thirty in all, flinging skin and fluid onto the walls. The sickening, unbearable smell filled the hospital room. Big black holes were left on Frog’s body where the boils had burst, and wriggling, maggot-like worms of all shapes and sizes came crawling out [p.15].”

These bugs then begin to crawl onto Katagiri’s bed and inside his mouth, ears and anus before he is woken up by the nurse yet, even in the more awake state, Katagiri still feels their smiley sensation all over his body [p.16]. This physical reminder of his nightmare, as well as the grotesque nature of Frog’s demise, can be viewed as a positive step for Katagiri as it suggests a coming to terms with death (i.e. his own death as well as the death that has surrounded him from the quake) as well as a psychical internalization of Frog’s lessons as Katagiri literally becomes covered in Frog’s essence. Furthermore, the fact that Frog transforms from a friendly contemporary in a horrible pile of bugs could imply that Katagiri now mentally prepared to cope with the horrors of the natural world and no longer requires them to be sublimated into an intellectual Sesame Street character.

Which ever avenue Katagiri’s mental health takes, one question still remains: does Frog actually save Tokyo? One could argue that he in fact does, not in the literal sense that he fought Worm to the death thus preventing a second earthquake, but in that he helped Katagiri cope with a very traumatic experience in order for him to realize his good deeds and emphatic nature are required now in the face of tragedy more than ever. As Frog puts it, “What I want from you, Mr. Katagiri, is for you to share your simple courage with me, to support me with your whole heart as a true friend [p.7].”

Trouble of Remembering Trouble

In his 2015 collection How to Be Drawn, Terrance Hayes explores how and why we are drawn to certain labels, ideas, and memories as well as the methods we use to literally draw them into existence through music, vocabulary, and, of course, poetry. The poem How to Be Drawn to Trouble, in particular, is a strong example of this with its speaker using a James Brown song as a means to explore his own experiences and reflect upon them. Through its use of song-like, verse-chorus-verse repetition, structure, and enjambment, the poem conveys not only the troubled relationship between the speaker’s parents but, with the same mechanisms, mirror the speaker’s struggle in understanding himself and the attraction to trouble he shares with his mother.

While throughout the poem Hayes bends and twists time in a Tarantino-esque fashion, we are first introduced to the speaker of the poem as he observes the people in his immediate surroundings: “The people I live with are troubled by the way I have been playing/ ‘Please, Please, Please’ by James Brown and the Famous Flames/ All evening, but they won’t say.” (Lines 1-3). This sets the emotional environment for the rest of the poem as the speaker is drawn to this song, so much so that he is withdrawn from those he lives with. This is also the last time anyone outside the speaker’s memory is observed, suggesting that after the third line we are beyond the realm of shared experience and are taken within the speaker’s stream of consciousness. “I’ve got a lot of my mother’s music/” the speaker reflects, “In me. James Brown is no longer a headwind of hot grease” (3-4). Here is where the cast is assembled, with the speaker observing James Brown as a connection to his mother, with Brown serving as a type of mediator throughout the piece.

This trinity of James Brown, the mother and the speaker also mirrors how the speaker describes Brown singing the word please (“bending the one syllable until it sounds/ Like three.”) in addition to being a metaphor for the interconnection of these three characters (9-10). This theme of thirds is repeated all over the poem, with the enjambment being such that it causes the beginning of certain lines to either have three metrical feet or three words; “Of the soul,” “Of the state,” “Was briefly imprisoned,” “I, for one,” “To eradicate trouble,” “Or was given,” “Covering her scar,” and so on (10, 11, 13, 14, 16, 17, 20, 30, 56). It could also be argued that the loss of this meter toward the last third of the poem reflects the speaker’s inability to focus on “the good things,” which he refers three times within the piece (6, 26, 38).

Furthermore, the speaker mentions focusing on “the good things” after difficult realizations, particularly in regards to his parents relationship: “My father believes a man should never dance/ In public. Under no circumstances should a grown man have hair/ Long enough to braid. If I was a black girl, I’d always be mad./ I might weep too and break” (23-26). Considering James Brown was a man who not only danced in public but had long, manicured hair, it can be reasoned from this selection that the speaker’s father did not approve of Brown’s life, never mind the life that the speaker’s mother was/wanted to live. This suggested tension is something the speaker promptly tries avoiding and ends line twenty-six with, “But think about the good things.” However, a few lines later the speaker reflects: “My mother and father though rarely did they actually dance./ They did not scuffle like drums or cymbals, but something/ Sluggish and close to earth. You know how things work/ When they don’t work? I want to think about the good things.” While the speaker’s observations are more general this time it results in a similar repression, indicating he still has a difficult time processing their relationship directly and his continual “dancing” around their conflicts.

Additionally, in between the “good thing” lines, the speaker recalls his mother meeting Brown while he was imprisoned at the prison she worked, mentioning of her scar: “In the photo she took/ With him, he holds her wrist oddly, probably unintentionally/ Covering her scar” (28-30). Later in the poem does the speaker tell of the scar’s origin: “When my mother was beating the door and then calling to me/ From the window. I might have heard her say Please just before/ Or just after the glass and then the skin along her wrist broke” (55-57). This image of James Brown covering/obscuring the mother’s scar is metaphorical of how the speaker views his mother’s relationship with the Godfather of Soul in that she is made to feel unblemished, akin to his worldview; an idea conveyed in the enjambment of line thirty: “Covering her scar. There’s the trouble of being misunderstood.” Juxtapose this with the father’s reaction to the mother coming home in the early morning after being out all night, the situation during which she received the scar, she feels rejected, literally outcasted for the same reasons. This scar metaphor also summarizes how the speakers focuses on his mother, “thinking of the good things” and covering up the bad stuff (as much as he can) with James Brown.

As the poem continues, Brown’s lyrics are often in place of/allude to dialogue that would have been said between mother and father; The lines, “Add the to the trouble of shouting/ ‘I got to get out!’ ‘I got to get down!’ ‘I got to get on up the road!’” (32-33), alluding to an argument regarding the mother going out and the father disapproving; The lines, “Baby, you done me wrong. Took my love, and now you’re gone” (53) following the quatrain where the speaker’s mother punches “clean through the porch window” (49) after being locked out of the house; Most directly in the final quatrain, “I might have heard her say Please just before/ Or just after the glass and then the skin along her wrist broke. Pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease, that’s how James Brown says it” (56-58). This use of the song’s lyrics not only submerge the reader into the consciousness stream of the speaker but also reflect a type of escapism for the speaker himself, as the lyrics show up during moments of arguments, shouting and violence. This suggests that while Brown’s song helps take the speaker (and by extension, the reader) to these memories, it also serves as an additional way for the speaker to distance himself from them when they become too overwhelming. This duality is echoed earlier in the poem with lines, “[Brown’s] accent made it sound like he was pleading/ Whether he was speaking or singing” (21-23).

Equal to the poem’s use of Brown’s lyrics is its visual structure in which it adopts a song-like, verse-chorus-verse format, alternating from quatrains to couplets similar to how a pop song would alternate from four verses to a two line chorus (1-58). With this feature the piece takes a step beyond just referencing a song and becomes a song itself, not only submerging the reader into the speaker’s mental framework, and how he chooses to cope with these painful memories, but displaying how intertwined these memories have become with music, reflecting back to the speaker’s stream of conscious. However, with such a rigid structure, it could be argued that the speaker’s mental state has become less of a free-flowing “stream” and as repetitive as listening to the same song over and over and over again, similar to what the speaker admits to doing in the first three lines, “...I have been listening to ‘Please, Please, Please” by James Brown…/ All evening.”

As we, the reader, navigate through the speaker’s hodgepodge of memory and music, we are also, simultaneously, observing a battle between the speaker and his own thoughts and perspectives. Specifically, we see the speaker struggle to his define his own allure to trouble, one that he admits his mother was drawn to: “I’ve got a lot of my mother’s music,” the speaker states at the beginning in line three. Throughout the piece, the speaker rationalizes the irrational actions of his mother, as well as James Brown, by validating/redefining “trouble”; “Trouble is one of the ways we discover the complexities/ Of the soul,” the speaker says before recalling, “Once, my mother bit the wrist of a traffic cop” (10-11). Prefacing this definition of trouble with this memory of the mother doesn’t necessarily serve as a validation for the behavior but more an acceptance of the mother’s humanity—the fact that while the mother has made mistakes, the speaker rationalizes that her character is greater than the sum of her errors. This is echoed in the following quatrain, “...James Brown/ Was briefly imprisoned. There had been broken man-made laws,/ A car chase melee, a roadblock of troopers in sunblock./ I, for one, don’t trust the police because they go around looking// To eradicate trouble” (13-17). In this quatrain, the speaker’s descriptions of “laws” as “man-made” allude to a critical position on a traditional social stance, one that focuses more on mistakes than character, with the speaker alluding to his father holding these beliefs later in the poem. Additionally, the speaker’s mention of the police troopers usage of “sunblock,” referring to their pale complexions, suggests possible racist leanings and unfair treatment toward people of color such as Brown and the speaker’s mother. With the speaker outright saying he distrusts police for “trying to eradicate trouble,” one could interpret this as the “trouble” being the warped, racist “social law” of Jim Crow trying to suppress people of color. In this case, the speaker could see his allegiance to Brown and the mother as a form of solidarity with the Civil Rights Movement and the belief that his father’s strict social views are one of stagnation and obedience to oppression.

Shortly thereafter, the speaker defines “trouble” again in line eighteen, “Trouble is how we learn what the soul is,” and recalling, “After another of my mother’s disappearances, my father left her/ Bags on the porch” (22-23) before describing his father’s belief that “Under no circumstance should a grown man have hair// Long enough to braid,” (24) with the speaker admitting, “If I was a black girl, I’d always be mad./ I might weep too and break.” (24-26). While “weep too and break” foreshadows the mother’s breakdown at the end of the poem, it also sees the speaker empathizing directly with his mother as she attempts to live her life within the judgmental eye of a disapproving husband as well as society. This idea is further expanded upon in the following lines as the speaker juxtaposes this image of the father leaving the mother’s bags on the porch with Brown “covering” the mother’s scar in the photo they take together; with the image of the father as one of rejection and the photo with Brown as one of acceptance (22-30).

The speaker’s empathy aside, an interesting occurrence happens in the second to last quatrain: “She punched clean through the porch window/ When we wouldn’t let her in. I can still hear all the love buried/ Under all the noise she made. But sometimes I hear it wrong./ It’s not James Brown making trouble, it’s trouble he’s drawn to/ ...It’s trouble he’s asking to stay.” (49-52, 54). “When we wouldn’t let her in,” states that the speaker, as well as the father, refused to let the mother into the house and is the only time the speaker refers to himself and the father as a unit. Considering all of the speaker’s concessions toward mother and her actions through out the poem, the inclusion of himself here reflects a certain guilt which he still holds—reflected when he states, “But sometimes I hear it wrong,” referring to not hearing the “buried” love but the presumed crass shouting from the mother, suggesting a similar focus on error over character as the father does toward the mother through out the poem. Moreover, when the speaker states that, “It’s not James Brown making trouble, it’s trouble he’s drawn to/ ...It’s trouble he’s asking to stay,” the speaker, in this moment, is reflecting this of himself as much as it reflects James Brown in that the speaker acknowledges the mother as “troubled” and her action as irrational but still wishes her to stay out of love. This is the crux of the piece, as the speaker struggles to outweigh his guilt with positive memories—“good things”—and find peace within a shared love rather than a self-accused betrayal. However, in attempting to cover up his mother’s failings, the speaker finds himself more drawn to them and is, therefore, reminded of his betrayal equally as often. Thus, he is stuck in this repetitive mindset as much as “Please, Please, Please” is stuck on repeat.

Through the interweaving of memories and music via the repetition of language and meter, as well as the use of James Brown’s lyrics, and a verse-chorus-verse structure, Terrance Hayes explores how one deals with guilt and traumatic experiences. Similar to how a song combines moments and condenses time, the mind connects points in a person’s life and attempts to draw lessons and meaning from them. However, more often than not, the results are mixed, leading one to reinterpret experiences again and again. The hope being that, among the difficulties, one can focus on the good things and hear the music.

Works Cited
Hayes, Terrance. "How to Be Drawn to Trouble." How to Be Drawn. N.p.: Penguin, 2015. 7-9.

My Life Had Stood—A Body Electric

If one were to merely glance at their work, focusing solely on the structure and form of their poems, it would seem appropriate to place Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson on opposite sides of their poetic spectrum. With Whitman’s words and line lengths following as freely as a wind through grass blades in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” or Dickinson as concise as a slant of light on a winter afternoon in “Poem 320,” both poets appear light years apart from each others subject matter, yet, despite their varying forms, both poets achieve a similar intimacy with the their topics. By using the human body as a vessel to describe emotional states of existence, both Whitman and Dickinson are able to express emphatic oneness and explore their relationships with their fellow humans as well as nature by weaving together these internal and external worlds.

“There's a certain Slant of light,” Dickinson begins in “Poem 320”, “Winter Afternoons – / That oppresses, like the Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes – / Heavenly Hurt, it gives us – / We can find no scar, / But internal difference – / Where the Meanings, are – “ (Dickinson, Lines 1-8). Through its em-dashes and enjambment, each short, concise line forces the reader to take each word methodically, being drawn inward, toward a quiet sense of contemplation. While we may have begun observing light crawl across a room, the experience morphs into something more molecular as we continue to read. It’s when we hit “internal difference,” which em-dashes us further into “Where the Meanings, are –,” (Dickinson) we become enveloped by the speaker’s mind and realize what we’re witnessing is the death of a thought, an event as fleeting as a slant of light. As Yvor Winters concisely states in “In Defense of Reason,”[Slant of Light] is rather a legitimate and traditional form of allegory, in which the relationships between the items described resemble exactly the relationships between certain moral ideas or experiences (Winters).”

Dickson further explores the dynamics of relationships through her use of allegory within “Poem 764” by identifying the speaker with the “Loaded Gun.” “My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun - / In Corners - till a Day / The Owner passed - identified - / And carried Me away -” (Dickinson, Lines 1-4). As Adrienne Rich points out, “[Dickinson] sees herself as split… between the hunter, admittedly masculine, but also a human person, an active, willing being, and the gun—an object, condemned to remain inactive until the hunter—the owner—takes possession of it.” By objectifying the speaker, Dickinson is able to express an experience of powerlessness and an inability to escape a situation or predicament through one’s own autonomy. While, simultaneously, showcasing through the hunter that one’s power to change one’s surroundings can come from outside oneself but one must seek out said power first.

Similar to Dickinson, Whitman not only uses structure to reflect his subject matter but also creates allegorical imagery to express an empathy gaze. Such is perfectly observed in Section Seven of “Lilacs”:

(Nor for you, for one alone,
Blossoms and branches green to coffins all I bring,
For fresh as the morning, thus would I chant a song for you O sane and sacred death.

All over bouquets of roses,
O death, I cover you over with roses and early lilies,
But mostly and now the lilac that blooms the first,
Copious I break, I break the sprigs from the bushes,
With loaded arms I come, pouring for you,
For you and the coffins all of you O death.)

Compared with the preceding section (Section Six), Section Seven is enclosed within parentheses suggesting more internal thinking than what followed it. This enclosure also suggests that Section Seven is taking place inside the speaker’s mind while Six is happening, with Section Six ending with “I give you my sprig of lilac” and Seven being a more personal meditation of the speaker’s mourning and their lilac sprig: “For fresh as the morning, thus would I chant a song for you O sane and sacred death, (Whitman),” the speaker claiming to “break the sprigs from the bushes” in copious amounts and bring them to the coffin in arm-fulls. Here, the speaker might also be meditating on the momentariness of human life as each lilac sprig is a living thing and the speaker is bringing said sprigs to a coffin/funeral. What’s more, while Whitman’s line lengths and diction are still more verbose than Dickinson’s, Whitman mirrors Dickinson’s attempts to decelerate the reader’s pace to convey a sense of contemplation by shortening his lines comparatively. Section Seven not only contains “Lilacs’” smallest lines but also the piece’s largest concentration of short lines, meaning that Whitman was conscious of the molecularity of introspection and, much like Dickinson, molded his lines to echo this.

However, just as short line lengths can infer a musing or reflection, longer lengths can exude the indescribable, or rather the speaker’s inability to take in everything a moment has to offer (immense sensory overload). For Whitman, “Lilacs’” cascading cadence transmits the immeasurable sadness the speaker experiences as they watch a funeral procession while, in tandem, admiring the landscape of nature (both in terms of rolling terrain as well as the landscape of the human figure). In happens most notably in Section Fourteen:

The many-moving sea-tides, and I saw the ships how they sail’d,
And the summer approaching with richness, and the fields all busy with labor,
And the infinite separate houses, how they all went on, each with its meals and minutia of daily usages,
And the streets how their throbbings throbb’d, and the cities pent—lo, then and there,
Falling upon them all and among them all, enveloping me with the rest,
Appear’d the cloud, appear’d the long black trail,
And I knew death, its thought, and the sacred knowledge of death.

While Whitman describes being in a busy street during the funeral march, he uses provocative language (“With loaded arms I come, pouring for you,” “their throbbings throbb’d,” “Falling upon them,” “enveloping me”) that can propose a sexual encounter (a mé·nage à trois, perhaps). Such figurative language allows Whitman emotional complexity, less that the speaker wants to “get down” during a funeral and more that the speaker’s tremendous love of the person who just passed is equaled only to the sadness the speaker feels regarding their absence. “In the face of the overwhelming grief and guilt,” writes Michael Moon in “Disseminating Whitman,” “Whitman relaunches a self through a poetic congeries of the defiles of signified desire… [intertwining] the subject into sexuality with the recognition of death, [linking] the political and historical catastrophe of the Civil War and the assassination of Lincoln with… the recapitulation of the catastrophe in the [cultural psyche] (Moon).”

Whitman also uses expresses such compassion on the smaller scale as well, seen in “I Sing the Body Electric”: “I knew a man, a common farmer, the father of five sons, / And in them the fathers of sons, and in them the fathers of sons. // This man was of wonderful vigor, calmness, beauty of person, / The shape of his head, the pale yellow and white of his hair and beard, the immeasurable meaning of his black eyes (Whitman).” Here we see Whitman use similar detail and focus as in “Lilacs” but on a Dickinson scale, magnifying one person in one moment instead of multiples of either in tandem. What’s fascinating is how Whitman maintains an affinity regardless of his scope, be it one person, three, or a funeral procession. Such an overwhelming surge of feeling equates to the second-by-second daily experience of human beings, an emphatic aspect Whitman shares with Dickinson.

While Dickinson’s lines remain consistent throughout most of her work, there are times we encounter Whitman-esqe moments which convey grand sweeps of scale and emotion, usually when she chooses not to include her signature em dash. As mentioned previously, for most of “Poem 320” Dickinson chooses a deliberate pacing, pausing with em dashes as well as enjambment in order to convey contemplation about the word/idea being pause upon, yet between lines three and four we see Dickinson have more fluidity with her diction; “That oppresses, like the Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes –“ (Dickinson). Unlike the majority of the poem’s lines, the enjambment between “Heft” and “Cathedral Tunes” does not end with a comma nor em dash and, according to the grammar used, can be read at a more ecstatic pace. This increase in tempo suggests a revelation on behalf of the speaker and, continuing with the interpretation that this poem is about the death of an idea, comes at the exact moment when the speaker realizes their idea is first lost. Additionally, as Donald E. Thackrey points out, “the sudden, inward change is so thorough that the poet, holding her breath and listening, sees her own emotional state reflected in the very landscape and shadows. The emotion, too intense to last, subsides as the slant of light lengthens and lowers into the gray of twilight (Thackrey.)” Furthermore, in lines fifteen and sixteen, we see a second revelation, the enjambment between “Distance” and “On the look of Death – (Dickinson)” except, this time, it’s the speaker realizing the thought is gone forever. By book-ending the poem with these revelations, Dickinson mimics circularity of thought processes as well as the ephemeral nature of consciousness. Much like Whitman’s lilac sprigs, Dickinson’s lost thought represents a human awareness and empathy toward its fleeting moments.

While both poets operate within different scales of experience, a common intense immense empathy is shared between both. Be it every single face in a massive crowd or a hunter and his tool of choice, to slivers of light crawling across a room or the immeasurable meaning of a farmer’s yellow teeth, both Whitman and Dickinson express an affinity for the other. Through such passion do they teach lessons in finding commonplace with one other, seeing our faces in the eye which stare back. As Whitman writes in “Body Electric,” “O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul, O I say now these are the soul!”


Works Cited
Dickinson, Emily. "Certain Slant of Light" Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation
Dickinson, Emily. "My Life Stood—a Loaded Gun" Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation
Moon, Michael. Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in "Leaves of Grass". Cambridge: Harvard Univ, 1993. 219.
Rich, Adrienne. "Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson." On Lies, Secrets, and Silences. N.p.: W.W. Norton, 1979.
Thackrey, Donald E. Emily Dickinson's Approach to Poetry. Darby, PA: Norwood Editions, 1985. 76-80.
Whitman, Walt. "I Sing the Body Electric." Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation
Whitman, Walt. "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d." Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation
Winters, Yvor, and Kenneth Fields. "Emily Dickinson and the Limits of Judgment." In Defense of Reason. Athens, OH: Swallow, 1987. 283-99