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"Shelly's theme is the liberatation that comes to imaginative people when they recieve moments of unity with the universe. Such moments should be cultivated by imaginative people. They could, possibly, transform society and end the cycle of subjection to tyranny and revege for that subjection. Moments of spiritual unity with the universe are granted, they are not brought about by any activity or choice by the imaginative person, who is symbolized by the figure of a poet drifting from island to island. These moments of unity give the recipient clear insight into the circumstances, the true values, and real aim of human existence. Love and reason, which are both divine, break through the limits to perception and action that limit most people, who are ordinarily subject to forces beyond their conscious control. Without the cultivation of such moments by the imaginative few, and their transmission to the ordinary multitude, tyranny and revenge against it will continue. Additionally, isolated poets will continue on their lonely, aimless wandering. Shelly symbolizes the acheivement of unity and freedom with fire and light illuminating a peaceful isolated place, whereas isolation and subjection are symbolized by cold and fog in wastlands."

The first sentence starts off the essay with a concept. It avoids the "Ever since the dawn of time" opening characteristic of so many essays written for the humanities.

The supporting sentences describe the value that should be attached to the event described in the first sentence. And they work out some of the implications of the theme mentioned in the first sentence.
They also preview supporting paragraphs which will address the three sections of the poem and the narrative arc that traverses the poem.

The last sentence is the kind of thesis statement that I look for: it relates a theme to symbols or other literary elements. In more advanced classes connection could be made to syntax, semantics, intertextual weavings, ideological symptoms, logical possibilities, imaginative spaces, etc.

But students should be relieved of the impossible task of writing out single-sentence theme statements that also lay out the textual materials that are supposed to allow the essay's reader (me) to see the theme that the student has.

Reiman spends most of his essay explaining the "symbolic universe" before he gets to formulating his theme. I haven't really found secondary students who can write at length about symbolic universes or textual features. They are over-eager to find the topics for discussion or clear moral or intellectual propositions. I hope to get them a little better at articulating the specific treatment of a topic in a particular poem (a.k.a. "theme) but I really want them to use that semantic base as the starting point for exploring to the textual materials, and not treat theme-propositions as the ends for which poems are mearly the means.

Wish me luck. I have 10 weeks to figure it out.
There are some images in the passage I cited earlier that could feed into the notes published in the previous post. But the first and final thirds need to be accounted for.

  • These moments enable clear and vital insight into the values and aim of human existence.

  • The experience is that of being in bright sun,seeing the outbreak of fire, and observing from a height.

  • In these moments, a divine infusion of love and reason breaks through the subjugation all mortals suffer.

  • These moments have a force beyond conscious control.

  • However, they give the recipient moral freedom.

  • These moments, with their associated divine forces of love, freedom, and reason, might end cycles of tyranny and revenge. (ideas present in the last section of the poem

I don't think that the whole "symbolic universe" of the poem could be handled in a short essay. But I student might address a few symbols or symbol-clusters as they began to talk about theme.
Here, I have tried to paraphrase some of Reiman's ideas in simpler language. Stripping out his allusions and the complex syntax.

  • People are normally subjected to forces beyond conscious control.

  • No insight into values and aims of existence are possible inside this subjection.

  • People move about it as if they are in a fog.

  • Being subjected this way is so intolerable that death and oblivion are preferable.

  • Imaginative people recieve moments where their souls become one with the universe.

  • These moments enable clear and vital insight into the values and aim of human existence.

I feel that a student reading the poem might be able to derive some of these ideas from the various parts of the poem.
"Shelly has created a symolic universe that skillfully emboides and reverberates his theme: although it is ordinarily man's fate to be the slave and victim of forces beyond his conscious control (a situation so intolerable that death and oblivion are preferable to it), there comes to the man of imagination moments in which his soul becomes one with the universe, in which he is able to see, not through a glass darkly but clearly and vitally, the values and end of human existence; such moments, in which a divine infusion of love and reason breaks through the clouds of mortality, have their own kind of inevitability but one that gives their recipient true moral freedom; such moments, if cultivated and trusted, might break the harsh chain of provocation and retribution."
Donald Reiman on Shelly's "Lines Written among the Euganean Hills"

I'd have to let a student who could write such a sentence include it in their opening paragraph. It is the "one sentence statement of the poem's theme" that I call for in rubrics. But nothing this complex and allusive could be appropriated easily by most students.

Academic Writing About Theme

Specifying a theme is difficult enough. Additional difficulties come when a student has to create an original thesis about that theme. I want students to link theme to expression, so I often ask them to have their thesis statement link the theme to some literary aspect. The reader would concede that the theme is at work in the poem if they should pay attention to the same literary material.*

Statements about theme produced by literary scholars are not as constrained by the requirements of the secondary school's 5-paragraph essay. So offering examples of how more advanced readers have specified themes is not particularly helpful to students just beginning to consider meaning and literature.

I need to find a better way.

So I'll be working with an old essay by Donald H. Reiman, "Structure, Symbol, and Theme in 'Lines Written among the Euganean Hills,'" from PMLA Vol. 77, No. 4 (Sep., 1962), pp. 404-413.

It's a long poem so I will try to limit my remarks to a short section. Here it is.

"Lines Written among the Euganean Hills"

PB. Shelly

"As the Norway woodman quells,
In the depth of piny dells,
One light flame among the brakes,
While the boundless forest shakes,
And its mighty trunks are torn
By the fire thus lowly born:
The spark beneath his feet is dead,
He starts to see the flames it fed
Howling through the darken'd sky
With myriad tongues victoriously,
And sinks down in fear: so thou,
O Tyranny, beholdest now
Light around thee, and thou hearest
The loud flames ascend, and fearest:
Grovel on the earth; ay, hide
In the dust thy purple pride!"

* Perhaps there is nothing essentially "literary." But a number of speech genres — song, prose poem, short story, detective novel — are frequently found together in different collections of texts, and share a number of features and so may be, provisionally of course,  be considered to constitute "literary" texts and may be considered distinct from new reports, biology textbooks, and laundry lists.

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Original Student Text

The connection of the play’s topics, themes and image patterns is based on stereotypes. Lady Macbeth believes strongly that in order to be tough and strong, you may must become be a man. She feels she does not have the ability to kill Duncan due to her feminine traits. In this play being a woman means having no strength or power. In order to become merciless she has to strip away any female qualities. Therefore this quote is hugely involved with stereotypical behavior.

Advice for students:

1. Choose the Right Verb

NO: The connection of the play’s topics, themes and image patterns are based on stereotypes.

YES: Stereotyping of women is connected to the play’s topics, themes, and image patterns.

2. Build Supporting Sentences on Topic Sentence’s Concepts

YES: Lady Macbeth introduces the topic of female weakness in this speech, and at the same time she declares that to be ruthless and strong you must be a man.

YES: The rest of the play, especially Lady Macbeth’s words and actions, demonstrate that women must indeed take on characteristics that are supposed to belong to men. Lady Macbeth feels that her feminine qualities make it impossible for her to kill Duncan and her later actions demonstrate that she has “unsexed” herself in the way described here.

3. If Paragraph Changes, Change its Topic Sentence

YES: The stereotyping of women is connected to topics and themes of this play.

4. Image Patterns May Be Described Succinctly

[In a test you don’t have time for citations. Summarize.]

YES: The images of the play suggest that such a transformation is evil. Like Macbeth she invites “night” and “the dark” to cover her actions and seeks the help of “spirits.”

5. Make Sure All Elements of the Topic Sentence have Been Addressed.

* Stereotyping of women

* connected to the play’s

* topics, themes, and image patterns

[Topic and theme have been addressed at length, no need to reiterate them all in the final sentence]

6. If You Have Time, Write a Concluding Sentence Echoing the Topic Sentence

[You are not writing an essay so you shouldn’t end with a transition to a follow-up paragraph. You’re not going to write one so you can’t transition to it.]

YES: Her unsexing is accompanied by imagery associated with the operation of evil magic. Escaping the stereotype of female weakness is, the play implies, connected to choosing to do evil.

At this point we have enough material to become explicit about how this play develops that theme.

We had a broad generic topic:

We qualified it w. reference to the play’s situation:

Women, subject to stereotypes

We examined text for evidence (topic, theme-hints, images):

Women > stereotypes of women


Breaking stereotype
= unnatural
= evil magic


“Choosing to break from the stereotype of female weakness is, the play implies, choosing to do evil.”


[You will soon have to write a literary essay about theme. We did all of that work creating a theme statement. That gives us a core around which we can build the first paragraph on an essay. All of the claims made here would have to be backed up by evidence in the body paragraph, naturally.]

Macbeth addresses the topic of stereotypes about women. One stereotype presents women as kind, nurturing, but ultimately weak and defenseless people. Lady Macbeth, co-protagonist with her husband, does not fit this stereotype. She successfully unsexes herself so that she can become a strong and ruthless, and consequently effective, co-usurper. This unsexing is accompanied by imagery associated with the operation of evil magic. Choosing to break from the stereotype of female weakness is, the play implies, choosing to do evil.

Implied Body Paragraphs:

  • Overview of the play (see the sentences we have written so far)

  • Detailed reading of the “unsex me here” speech

  • Citation of those moments where she acts strong and ruthless

  • Citation of those moments when she upbraids Macbeth for not fitting the male stereotype

  • Contrast with Lady Macduff: motherly, gentle, protests innocence, powerless without husband

  • Examination of any imagery that ties Lady & Lord Macbeth to the witches, Hecate, and Hell: i.e. darkness & night images

  • Possible look at invocation of spirits (look for Witches’ scenes)

  • Possible look at ingestion of fluids or spirits (in this play you may pour spirits and other influences into others, fill or empty yourself with fluids that others contain, control, or give you – potions, alcohol, witches’ brew).

  • Putting oneself in darkness, taking in evil spirits, ingesting evil fluids (or spirits) lead to changing your nature, for the worse

  • Conclusion: revisit topic, theme, and images that give the implication: challenging stereotypes is possible but wrong [in this play, not in life or other plays or science or morality or politics, theme is the implication of this play not some general topic or some simple universal truth]

Anytime you deploy the phrase “the play implies,” I will take it as reading “the thematic implication of the totality of the play’s signifying elements relevant – by logical, rhetorical, or imaginative association -- to ___some topic___, a topic that is itself relevant (in the ways stipulated above) to values held by the reader (or that are possible for the reader to hold, for however long and with any degree of clarity or earnestness), the fictional characters (as we may imagine them holding), other readers (as we may suppose or conjecture they hold or held or could hold), the author (as we tentatively – because we disavow any claim to know or be able to know completely and certainly all or any of the intentional acts carried out by any person or persons involved in the creation and transmission of a text – posit some actual or possible writer -- or writers, or other collaborators, editors, and other interested parties such as censors or publishers or distributors, actual or possible, and in any combination of those roles previously mentioned -- might discursively or privately hold or merely entertain – to affirm or deny, or merely to articulate or explore, as the case may be).”

That ought to do it.

Even that formulation does not provide all the caveats that you have to hold in your mind as you write about theme. When you can write “the play implies,” you have already done a lot of intellectual work and taken many factors into account. So, one more time. This time I will arrange my stipulations by increasing magnitude of the intellectual work required. This arrangement is identical with increasing distance from your personal experience and immediate impressions.
Anytime you deploy the phrase “the play implies,” I will take it as reading “the thematic implication of the totality of the play’s signifying elements relevant to values that are themselves relevant to the reader, the author, and the play’s characters.” But even that misses the complexities of the production, transmission, performance, and study of a drama. So I have to expand a little more. This time I need to stipulate what I mean by relevance, reader, author, character. We will leave the definition of what “values” are for some other occasion.

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