The Literary Apprentice

Subject Matter, Title, and Occasion for Writing


The subject matter, the title, and its occasion for writing are global matters to figure out when reading anything and especially poetry. It would seem to go without saying that we should pay attention to titles, yet we often don't. That is because we often don't expect to understand the title well without reading the poem. So good advice is to note first the title, of course, but always to go back to the title and ask yourself why the poet titled it in that way.

Also keep in mind that some poems are untitled. In that case the first line is routinely used by the reader or anyone else, such as a book editor or librarian, to keep track of or refer to poem. One should not try to infer a title function in those instances. When this occurs the title is always enclosed in brackets.

The subject and situation can be informed by titles, but don't overlook other clues such as editor's notes or dates of publication that can often be found published with poems. Sometimes the date and context of publication can make all the difference in the world.

Here is a discussion which exemplifies what I mean about how critical this can be. Go to this page and read John Dryden's often anthologized poem, [Why should a foolish marriage vow] <>

After you have read the poem consider what you can learn about the poem from these clues given at the top of the page:

  • Original Text: John Dryden, Marriage -la-Mode (1673).
  • First Publication Date: New Court Songs and Poems (1672).

The poem orginally appeared in Dryden's play, Marriage -la-Mode. What was that about? Here we learn more about the Speaker in Dryden's poem.

Here is a commentary found online describing the play: <>

Dryden's Marriage a la Mode, the first example of masquerade appearing in British Literature, bears similarities to gender-transgressing Shakespearian plays such as As You Like It, where Rosalind dressed as a boy explores whether, and then how deeply, Orlando loves her. The events of Act IV of Marriage a la Mode are more appropriately termed masquerade, however, because the two female characters, Doralice and Melantha don boys' garb in order to promote sexual exchanges, a goal consistent with those of Restoration Comedies. In masquerading as boys, Doralice and Melantha have arranged to meet their respective would-be lovers; Rhodophil, Melantha's lover, has been married to Doralice for three years, and Dorothea's lover, Palamede, is Rhodophil's best friend and Melantha's betrothed. Although the masquerades are quickly discovered, this scene shows the male lovers to be fools because they fail to recognize their lovers in disguise; and gives the women agency to openly express and act upon their sexual desires in ways that they are otherwise prohibited from engaging in earlier in the play. For example, the play opens with Doralice's song in praise of adultery [our poem], which is extremely frank yet cannot qualify as a speech-act [sincere] because she presents herself as a spectacle, . . .

Does it affect your initial understanding of the poem to learn that the speaker is a woman in this play and that the situation is a complex one of mascarade? Can we any longer take the speech which seems to be a precursor to our own jaded notions of marriage, a "praise of adultery," at face value, or should we go back and evaluate more closely the subtext of references to "vows" and "oaths" taken before God in marriage. The title of the play alone can help, Marriage -la-Mode, for anything -la-Mode, is merely of the fashion and not enduring. The connotations are of a travesty of marriage.

Reread the poem with its situational irony in mind.

Determining the implications of title, situation and occasion for writing are essential for all poetry but especially so for detecting irony.


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