Edgar Lee Masters

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Analyze the poem "Cleanthus Trilling" by Edgar Lee Masters.

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It can be said that a seed hides a tree in itself. This poem too, in its shortness, tends to capture the movement of life in itself. One may simply demonstrate this little poem as a piece showing the natural growth of a plant while another may see it as a succinct image of life and some may even read it as a spiritual and religious poem.

Cleanthus or clianthus is a shrub that bears red flowers in cluster resembling a parrot’s beak. The poem, however, isn't just about cleanthus or any other plant. It’s more about a human life or about anything that tends to grow and develop like a plant.

The poem presents a step by step logical movement of one’s life- from seed to God. It begins with the image of a seed,

The urge of the seed: the germ. 

The image of seed is symbolic. It marks the beginning of life. Anything that begins follows a course of its development. The poem depicts a generalized course of development of life.

The journey of life begins from a seed. The seed’s only “urge” is to germinate; with germination the seed grows and there sprouts a stalk or a stem. On the stalk grow leaves followed by blossoms. Blossoms scatter pollen grains with a desire to give birth to another of its kind.

The word “urge” is repeated in every line of the poem. It underscores the point that there’s something very strong about each stage of life that makes the way for its successive growth. It hints at some undefined force that propels one’s growth further, inexorably.

Until the first five lines, the poem seems to be only about a growing plant. From the sixth line onwards, the poet, quite carefully and subtly, shifts the focus from the plant to a human being.

The image of the plant begins to fade away and quite spontaneously we replace it with that of ours.

The urge of the pollen: the imagined dream of life. 
The urge of life: longing for to-morrow. 

Having read the final two lines we know for sure that the poem is about us, the growth of our individual lives.

The urge of to-morrow: Pain. 
The urge of Pain: God.

We too have this “longing for to-morrow,” a much happier and a better tomorrow, but quite often it brings us “pain.” A universal experience indeed!

The pain the poet refers to is frustration, hardship and human suffering. And when we encounter it, we seek divine intervention; we remember God.

So it is the “pain” that reminds us of and turns us towards God. God represents the truth, the state of perfection and everything that’s good and right, devoid of any flaw or imperfection.

In this way, it may be said that the poet is eulogizing “pain” as it directs a misleading man to God. Humans have this general tendency to remember God when things are not right with them. We seek His help with a hope to find some immediate and assured remedy to our problems.

What's really fascinating about the poem is the fact that although we start reading it as the journey of a cleanthus plant, we finish it with a realization that it's actually about my own journey; this happens in merely nine lines.

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