A Farewell to the Reader

 Overview

The last poem in our collection! What a relief it is to finish writing my analysis… or it would be if I’d tackled the task in numerical order. Cambridge helpfully sent me a copy of the anthology with missing pages and this poem was completely absent and Google searches are pretty fruitless, so this analysis is a little less considered and debated… but it’s all there is on the internet so be grateful!

This poem can be compared to Emily Dickinson’s ‘This is my Letter to the World’ and see it as her asking for her audience to enjoy and value her poetry, but if not then not to be too disparaging as it is her life’s work. However, I prefer my interpretation below, which also helps it tie in more closely with the other poems in the collection. You might see some of my ideas are a bit tenuous, but I think it’s a plausible idea and more useful for you to provide links between this poem and others… but the obvious interpretation above doesn’t take much digging or altering of my ideas if truth be told and would be a suitable comparison for a question focused on the use of nature.

I see this poem as using nature to again represent human emotion. The flowers being given represent the poetic voice’s heart and love, but there is a calm plea to treat the flowers with respect and not damage them if they are not to the receiver’s fancy. She’s acknowledges that sometimes people don’t reciprocate feelings, but there is no need to break another’s heart by scorning their affections.

Good reader, now you tasted have
       And smelt of all my flowers,
The which to get some pain I took,
        And travailed many hours.
I must request you spoil them not,
        Nor do in pieces tear them;
But if thyself do loathe the scent,
        Give others leave to wear them.
I shall no whit be discontent,
        For nothing is so pure
But one or other will mislike,
        Thereof we may be sure.
If he for whom I gathered them
        Take pleasure in the same,
And that for my presumption
        My friends do not me blame;
And that the savour take effect
        In such as I do know,
And bring no harm to any else,
        In place where it shall go;
And that when I am distant far,
        It worn be for my sake;
That some may say, ‘God speed her well
        That did this nosegay make.’

Isabella Whitney (c.1540-?)

Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.

ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Ladies, Whitney should be revered as a pioneer of female literature. She is the first recorded female publisher of poetry and at a time when it simply wasn’t done. Unlikely the other female poets in our collection, Whitney was not a member of the upper classes or a frequenter of royal circles; she was middle class and worked as a servant to the upper classes for sometime before trying to make a living as a poet.

Little is known of her, including when she died thus the ?, but her work was published between 1567-78. This poem relates to a large poem called A Sweet Nosegay (which contains 110 stanzas about philosophical flowers – or statements about life), so the flowers referred to should also be considered to be her outlook on life. I’d recommend reading A Sweet Nosegay if it wasn’t completely awful, tedious and dull.

Themes 

This one is about love, but less of the dramatic than we are used to in this collection. She gives the flowers as a representation of her love and herself, but request the receiver to treat them kindly even if they do not reciprocate her emotions.

Content

There’s not a huge amount more to sum up than in the overview, but I’ll give it a go.

It feels like this poem is addressed to us, with the opening line ‘Good reader’ and it being stationed at the end of our collection; however, it is really for a lover. This lover has ‘tasted’ and ‘smelt’ all her flowers meaning that he knows her and what she has to offer – we could take this to be sexually suggestive as in he’s experienced every part of her and they have no secrets; but I think that is overstepping it a little.

She explains that she has worked hard and struggled to offer him these flowers, which I take to mean that she has taken a long time to get him to notice her and build up the courage to express her true feelings. Then she requests that he be gentle with the flowers and respect them, but what she really means is that she doesn’t want him to break her heart by being unkind towards her or about her adoration of him. Her choice of vocabulary here is really expressive, but we’ll deal with that below.

Anyway, it is almost as if she doubts her affections will be returned and she is not fully committing herself to this lover as she knows it may not work out; you could say she is not fully exposing her heart and taking a full leap of faith which saying ‘I love you’ usually is. She wants her heart left intact so she can love again, if this doesn’t work out. She continues justifying his potential rejection of her affection by saying that she will ‘no whit be discontent’ – in other words, upset – if he turns her down because there is nothing or nobody that can be attractive to everyone, as we all have different tastes and ideas about what makes a flower beautiful or a woman ‘pure’. Lines 11-12 express this as a certainty that no one appeals to or is attractive everyone.

You can read this poem either as being really sensible and rational in its approach to love or as being bitterly sad. The first interpretation would rely on you seeing the poetic voice as really meaning what is being said, that she will be able to move on and not fully exposing her heart to the height of pain that love can cause (ask Lady Mary Wroth) – this attitude might be a reflection of the lower status of Whitney as she may not have been exposed to the same levels of romanticism as the idle upper classes.

Alternatively we can see a girl so lacking of confidence that she cannot believe that her love would reciprocate her feelings and trying desperately to hide the extend that any rejection would damage her.

I prefer the first interpretation, but the more I think of it I get the picture of a truly desperate young girl… for some reason I picture the scene a little like Julia Roberts in Notting Hill (the emotion is definitely not the same).

She continues with more confidence as she contemplates what would happen if her feelings are reciprocated and are able to be realised without offending others, especially given how unorthodox it was at the time for a woman to be the romantic pursuer. As the poem concludes she is almost contradictory by wondering about actually having someone value the flowers/love/poetry she has made rather than just pity her as she thinks it ‘worn be for my sake’ that they praise the beauty of her work.

Language and techniques

The most interesting thing to comment on is the contrast between the words associated with how the poetic love has presented her affections and the way a lover can destroy them.

She talks about the ‘pain’ she has been through as she ‘travailed [worked] many hours’ to reach this position. This indicates dedication and commitment. However, she presents the idea that this can be destroyed in a second. ‘Spoil them not/Nor do in pieces tear them’ shows a fear of being exposed in love (or by publishing her poetry) and demonstrates how quickly she can be reduced to nothing or something incomplete and impure.

Also, make sure you explain the analogy with flowers. There are as many different flowers as there are people in the world and we all have our own taste – when I was a child I loved pansies and named a rabbit Pansy before being roundly ridiculed by my friends as the word in England also has homosexual connotations and means someone who is exceedingly weak! Anyway, the fact is that all people have different taste and if we don’t love something we should not ruin it or treat it as worthless as someone else will find beauty and joy in it. She is the flower and although this lover may not value her she believes others will, but not if she is left an emotional wreck, in pieces and spoiled.

The fact she links the experiencing of a flower to scent and taste is significant as we are not just valuing a flower for its aesthetic beauty, but also appreciating the deeper beauty, which should represent personality and character alongside her physical appearance. I would also argue that this makes the lover’s experience of her deeper and more meaningful as it is not just aesthetic.

I’d also comment on the use of the word ‘loathe’ in the second quatrain. This is such a strong word expressing more than hate, something similar to disgust. Is it possible to feel this way about a flower? Probably not, but it certainly shouldn’t be our reaction to unwanted affection and if it is then you can understand why certain people can be so injured by love and the cruelty of others.

You could also talk about the poet’s humility. Throughout the poem there are suggestions that she is not overly confident in her chances (either as a lover or a poet) and she tries to cover her doubt with reasons her love may not be reciprocated. Even when she imagine a reciprocal relationship she still considers the impact of her actions and hopes that her ‘presumption’ in being so forward with be overlooked and her friends will not ‘blame’ her for acting contrary to the expectations of society.

Structure

I’m struggling a little bit here to be honest, but let’s see.

We have 6 quatrains divided by topic. The first establish how hard she has worked on presenting these flowers or her affections (or her poetry); the second then begs for careful treatment, particularly if her affections are going to be rejected; and finally she establishes that she will not be offended as everyone has different taste in flowers/love/poetry; the fourth imagine her feelings are reciprocated; the fifth discusses how she wants to avoid hurting others with her affections; and the final quatrain details a wish for appreciation of her beauty – aesthetic or otherwise.

You could also mention that there is a gentle rhyme repeated throughout the quatrains between the second and fourth lines (ABCB). This establishes the tone (see below) of calmness as this request is presented calmly to the lover as opposed to a Wroth like whirlwind of depression.

Tone

As above. I think I see this as a calm expression of love, but one that is tempered by doubt as she feels her emotions will not be reciprocated.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

4 thoughts on “A Farewell to the Reader”

  1. In my point of view. I think the poem is more about her poems. I think that she refers to her poems when she says ‘flowers’. And when she asks the readers not to ‘spoil’ them she might mean not to spoil them with their critisism. However she is also aware of the fact that there will always be someone to critisise and dislike her poetry.

    1. Yeah, that is the common and easier to argue interpretation. My post was an attempt to make the poem comparable to others in the collection as I think otherwise it represents something of an outlier.

  2. could it be that the person\lover she’s referring to came from the upper class? because we get the idea in her gentle plea and ‘flower’ of heart that this person maybe a little intimidating?

  3. I am unable to understand the part where she is talking about the reciprocation of her feelings, what if they do get reciprocated?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *