Symbols in literature

Excerpts from “More Poems”
by A. E. Housman


Crossing alone the nighted ferry
With the one coin for fee,
Whom, on the wharf of Lethe waiting,
Count you to find? Not me.

The brisk fond lackey to fetch and carry,
The true, sick-hearted slave,
Expect him not in the just city
And free land of the grave.

Charon’s ferry symbolizes the transition from life to death, or dying. The “one coin” is the obulus, which symbolizes death: the ultimate cost of mortal life. The river Lethe symbolizes forgetfulness, oblivion and concealment, as the dead are concealed from the living, and vice versa. The grave is also symbolic of death. In this poem the river Styx symbolizes death; although it is not explicitly named, we can infer it. In Greek mythology, Charon’s ferry carried the newly dead from the land of the living across the River Styx to Hades, the realm of the dead. It may interest Christians to know that Hades was not “hell,” as Hades incorporated heavenly regions such as the Elysian Fields and the Blessed Isles. Y

Sonnet 147
by William Shakespeare

My love is as a fever, longing still [1]
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest.
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are, [11]
At random from the truth vainly expressed,
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as Hell, as dark as night. [14]

This is one of Shakespeare’s famous “Dark Lady” sonnets. It employs simile, a type of metaphor in which comparisons are introduced by “like” or “as” (please refer to lines one, eleven and fourteen).

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