Sunday, 20 December 2009

"Adolescence" - W H Auden

The previous poems I have considered have all given up their meanings quite easily. Their appeal has been either the way they say something (as with One Art or the multiple meanings of a single complicated metaphor (as with No Second Troy).

WIth this poem I want to examine the idea of poetry as a crossword puzzle, or a detective story. It can force you to grapple for a meaning and, in doing so, stimulate complex thoughts along the way.


By landscape reminded once of his mother's figure
The mountain heights he remembers get bigger and bigger:
With the finest of mapping pens he fondly traces
All the family names on the familiar places.

Among green pastures straying he walks by still waters; 5
Surely a swan he seems to earth's unwise daughters,
Bending a beautiful head, worshipping not lying,
'Dear' the dear beak in the dear concha crying.

Under the trees the summer bands were playing;
'Dear boy, be brave as these roots', he heard them saying: 10
Carries the good news gladly to a world in danger,
Is really to argue, he smiles, with any stranger.

And yet this prophet, homing the day is ended,
Receives odd welcome from the country he so defended:
The band roars "Coward, Coward', in his human fever. 15
The giantess shuffles nearer, cries 'Deceiver'.


The striking thing about this poem is that a meaning doesn't emerge on a first, or even a second or third, reading. A process of logical analysis is needed to extract anything. Some will find that annoying. Others will find it stimulating. Let's go through that analysis by considering some of the key images in detail.

It is clear from the first stanza that landscape, family and a sense of place are central to this poem. Landscape Reminds the hero of his mother's figure perhaps both because of its gentle curves but also because he always feels a special affinity for the landscape of his childhood when he is closest to his mother. There is a clear link between family history and particular places. The first verse also brings out the idea of the strong gravitational pull that is exerted by one's place of birth and history. You might expect the hills of his youth to appear smaller as the hero grows up, but in fact they appear taller. Perhaps this is because, when he was young, it never occurred to the hero that they might be climbed: they were just features of the landscape of his youth. It is only as the hero starts to grow up and contemplates the idea of leaving home, that he realizes how tall those mountains really are.

The next stanza introduces us to the hero as an adolescent lover. But he is not a typical adolescent racked with lust. He is described in strongly spiritual terms here. Firstly there is the explicit reference to the Psalms (green pastures, cool waters) that operates to distance the reader from ideas of physical love. Girls who are "unwise" enough to fall in love with him come to view him as being like a "swan": aloof, curiously asexual and more likely to act out the platitudes of love (indicated bythe clumsy repetition of the word "dear" that the hero does not whisper sexily into a girl's ear but rather into her, terribly unsexy "concha", her outer ear). You get the sense that his girlfriends are left disappointed by the absence of physicality.

Our hero's idealism continues in the next stanza. Summer bands are playing but he is not tempted by these charms. Roots of trees exhort him to be as "brave" as them which doesn't appear to be terribly brave given that roots, by definition, stay in one place. Despite the strong gravitational pull of his locale and family, he sets out with almost missionary zeal to spread "good news": another spiritual reference.

Despite his strong individualism, the hero prophet still returns home in the end. There he is dismayed to find that he is not thanked for his efforts. Here perhaps we have an echo of the proverb that no prophet is appreciated in his home country.


What I like about this poem is its economy of expression. It seems to me to be saying lots about individuality and history in a few short sentences. Were the language less opaque, it would not say as much. What the poem
seems to me to be saying is that you can never escape the formative influences in your life, the landscape and "roots" in the imagery of the poem. You may devote significant effort on developing your own persona, and may even think that you are swimming against the tide of your background as our hero does by adopting a spiritual pose, and rejecting the "summer bands" and easy promises of physical love. Yet however much you strive to do this, you will still find yourself drawn home and will look for approval there. If that approval is not forthcoming, that will still hurt even if you think you have cast off the influences of your youth.

So in short, for me, a poem about the difficulty of rebellion and the enduring gravitational pull of childhood influences.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Old People's Home - W.H. Auden

This poem, by W.H Auden, is certainly not one of his most famous, nor perhaps even one of his best. However, its use of language is quite striking and demonstrates that "style" and "structure" in poetry can be an aid to unlocking its more complex meaning.

Old People's Home

All are limitory, but each has her own
nuance of damage. The elite can dress and decent themselves,
are ambulant with a single stick, adroit
to read a book all through, or play the slow movements of
easy sonatas. (Yet, perhaps their very
carnal freedom is their spirit's bane: intelligent
of what has happened and why, they are obnoxious
to a glum beyond tears.) Then come those on wheels, the average
majority, who endure T.V. and, led by
lenient therapists, do community-singing, then
the loners, muttering in Limbo, and last
the terminally incompetent, as improvident,
unspeakable, impeccable as the plants
they parody. (Plants may sweat profusely but never
sully themselves.) One tie, though, unites them: all
appeared when the world, though much was awry there, was more
spacious, more comely to look at, it's Old Ones
with an audience and secular station. Then a child,
in dismay with Mamma, could refuge with Gran
to be revalued and told a story. As of now,
we all know what to expect, but their generation
is the first to fade like this, not at home but assigned
to a numbered frequent ward, stowed out of conscience
as unpopular luggage.
As I ride the subway
to spend half-an-hour with one, I revisage
who she was in the pomp and sumpture of her hey-day,
when week-end visits were a presumptive joy,
not a good work. Am I cold to wish for a speedy
painless dormition, pray, as I know she prays,
that God or Nature will abrupt her earthly function?


The meaning of the poem as a whole is pretty clear. (We will come back to the unusual wording in a minute, though).

The speaker is about to visit an old people's home. On the way, he thinks about the various residents. They suffer from varying degrees of decrepitude. Some can get themselves dressed, read books and play music. They are the "elite". The "average majority" aren't really able to do much more than sit in front of the TV and participate half-heartedly in singalongs that they don't really enjoy. The worst of all are so decrepit and senile that they are scarcely distinguishable from plants.

All, however, are united by the fact that they are no longer wanted by their families. When they were less old, their grandchildren loved them, but they don't visit any more. The poem concludes by asking whether it is wrong to pray that death, for the person he is visiting, should be quick.


This poem is not about particular inhabitants of a particular old people's home. It is actually about our own mortality. A poem that said "Isn't it scary that we will all grow old and, one day, die" would not be a terrible remarkable piece of verse. By very skilled use of structure and style, this poem invites us to meditate on this difficult subject.

The first thing that leaps out is the formality, stiltedness and often incongruity of the language used. I am not sure that the word "limitory", in the first line, even exists. "Decent" in the second line is used as a verb (as in "to make oneself decent") whereas most of us would recognise it as an adjective. "Glum" is used as a noun (a "glum beyond tears") whereas we would normally use it as an adjective. These oddities of language appear early in the poem and operate to distance us from the inhabitants of the old people's home. They also echo the tendency of the senile to make mistakes in their speech.

So, in the first part of the poem, the inhabitants of the old people's home are largely objectified. They are not described as human beings, so much as categorised by what they can do. However, in the midst of the extended first section, hints of humanity peek through. There is some suggestion that the "elite" might be unhappy because they are actually conscious of their surroundings. The average majority are said to "endure" TV which again hints that these people might actually have the ability to experience pleasure (and indeed are not experiencing it). But largely, the first part of the poem is describing the residents, rather than empathising with them. It is also written in the present tense: describing what the residents are like at the moment.

Then the tone changes. These people haven't always been in the old people's home. They have previously been members of a family. Grandchildren loved them, but now they are "stowed out of conscience" like unpopular luggage. At this point in the poem, the residents have become human, but the description is still about them and their feelings. Also, this part of the poem invites us to experience sorrow for the loss of their pasts. It is essentially retrospective in tone.

Right at the end of the poem, we realise that the writer is speaking on his way to visit a long-standing friend. He is now thinking about the future: ostensibly what will confront him when he gets to meet his friend. That part of the poem introduces us to someone else's perspective. And that is when our brains really get working. If the writer knew his friend when she was young and beautiful, it is reasonable to assume that he is not too dissimilar in age to her. When he thinks about the future, he must be worrying about what his own old age will be like. The future tense of the last aspect of the poem, and the abrupt change of perspective, causes us to reflect on our own mortality.

What, then, do we think about the rhetorical question at the end? Is he wrong to pray for a quick death for his friend, or is life too precious for that? I have the suspicion that the contrast between points of view, and tenses is deliberate. Perhaps the suggested answer is that onlookers might think that they are being merciful in praying for a swift death for the residents of the old people's home, but the residents themselves are doing no such thing and are clinging to life almost instinctively. Perhaps also the poem suggests that your answer to the question might change over time. When you are young and healthy, you might think that death is preferable to decrepitude, but as you get older you change your mind.

What is clear, though, is that the poem achieves a large part of its appeal not from a particularly complex thought, but rather from a very skilled structure that alternates perspectives and tenses to invite a complicated reaction to the rhetorical question at the end.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Written on a Summer Evening - John Keats

With apologies to my "readership" for a long lay-off, I return to my poetry theme with John Keats "Written on a Summer Evening". What I like about this poem is that it manages to say two completely different things at once.


The church bells toll a melancholy round,
Calling the people to some other prayers,
Some other gloominess, more dreadful cares,
More harkening to the sermon's horrid sound.
Surely the mind of man is closely bound
In some blind spell: seeing that each one tears
Himself from fireside joys and Lydian airs,
And converse high of those with glory crowned.
Still, still they toll, and I should feel a damp,
A chill as from a tomb, did I not know
That they are dying like an outburnt lamp, -
That 'tis their sighing, wailing, ere they go
Into oblivion -that fresh flowers will grow,
And many glories of immortal stamp.


The poem is a sonnet, quite traditional in form and on the face of it presents no great complexity.

In the first quatrain (four lines), we are presented with the "gloomy" and "melancholy" tolling of the bells that is in distinct contrast to the summer's evening on which the poem is written. The bells draw people out of their homes to perform an apparently arid and sterile ritual that is devoid of much joy.

In the second quatrain, the speaker muses on the curious aspect of human nature that allows people to be persuaded to give up the pleasures of the fireside and intellectual conversation to take part in this.

But in the sestet (last six lines) there is an apparently defiant resolution. The bells are only ringing because religion is dying. Soon humanity will be free of it. In its place something much better and much more beautiful will grow: an image that quite clearly draws out the idea of flowers growing in the church graveyard.


No doubt one could remark on the bravery and individualism that would have been required to write a poem like this in the 18th century. But that is not the point of the poem to my mind.

What I think this poem is about is the conflict between the brash self assurance of the (young) writer writing on a summer's evening and the certainty that his life will end and the uncertainty of what there is beyond that life.

When you are young and in the summer of your life, it is easy to scoff at organised religion. But the strong imagery of, and direct references to, death reminds us that one of the reasons people have a religious belief is that it offers some explanation of what happens after death. So, when the speaker makes his bold assertions in the sestet that organised religion is going to die, you get the slight sense that he is trying to convince himself. Behind the bombast and anti-religious rhetoric of the young man, you get the sense of the older man asking "What happens after death? What happens if these guys are right after all?"

This is a poem that seems to me to be saying two completely different things at the same time.

Friday, 26 June 2009

London - William Blake

Last week, I suggested that the heart of WB Yeats's "No Second Troy" lay in the Helen of Troy image at the end. There could be no doubt that Yeats was comparing Maud Gonne to Helen of Troy. But it was only by exploring that comparison in detail that the poem's full implications could be understood.

Today's poem has a similar feature. We need to expend a bit of effort to understand what the "mind forged manacles" are that William Blake is referring to.


I wander through each chartered street,

Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every man,
In every infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear:

How the chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.

But most, through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot's curse
Blasts the new-born infant's tear,
And blights with plagues the marriage hearse.


There are strong elements of social protest at conditions in 18th century London in this poem. The people described have their faces marked with woe. The image of the chimney sweep speaks of oppression. Right at the end we have that extraordinary image of a young prostitute pushing a pram. She has venereal disease and her child has inherited it. Moreover, prostitution is so rife that this young girl is going to pass on her disease to her clients who will get married and pass it on to their wives.

However, the central image here is that of the "mind forged manacles". This must be some sense of inhibition that creates artificial, not real, constraints. The key question posed by this poem is what is the relationship between the "mind forged manacles" and the images of human suffering.

All suffering in the poem is described in a graphic and visual way. The soldier's blood runs down a palace wall. The prostitute wheels her child in a pram. Each image of suffering is accompanied by a sound. The soldier "sighs" before he is shot. The chimney sweep cries and the harlot "curses". Each of those sounds carries the echo of the mind-forged manacles because the sound of those manacles is heard in "every voice". This poem is not just about the suffering (or why have the "mind forged manacles" at all). Rather, the central message of the poem is that the suffering is awful, and terribly real, but that there is something that is contributing to that suffering.

That "something" is not an external factor; Londoners are born with it. (Note that the "mind forged manacles" can be heard in even a child's cry, perhaps an inversion of the Catholic doctrine of original sin). They carry it around everywhere, much as a convict dragging his chains around him would constantly be reminded of his fate by a continuous clinking sound. I believe that Blake's message is that the people of London are not being true to their nature. If they cast off the mind forged manacles, the soldier would refuse to serve the master for whom he dies, the chimney-sweep would refuse to do his dangerous job and the prostitute would devote herself to the care of her child rather than plying her dangerous and unhealthy profession.

The contrast between the graphic visual images, and the images of sound therefore emphasise that this is not just a poem about the awfulness of London life. It is a mystical and spiritual poem about human nature.


This poem is too easily glossed as a protest poem, a kind of Bob Dylan for the 18th century. The truly special thing about it is how the central image of the "mind forged manacles" invites a question of what the root causes are of the suffering described.

Friday, 19 June 2009

No Second Troy - W.B. Yeats

Both of the two poems I have looked at before, One Art and The Collar had a very definite conclusion that brought proceedings firmly to an end.

Today I would like to examine a very short poem whose conclusion is much more enigmatic and forces the reader to keep on re-evaluating what the poem is trying to say.


WHY should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great.
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?


Much as I deplore too much biographical investigation, even I would concede that you can't really get to grips with this poem unless you realise that the subject is Maud Gonne. She was active in Irish republican politics in the early 20th century and indeed an advocate of violent revolution to secure an independent Ireland. She was a great beauty. Yeats adored her for most of his life but, while she regarded Yeats as a friend, she was adamant that that was the extent of their relationship. Indeed, just before this poem was written, she had married someone else: a boorish, violent, drunk who Yeats despised.

With that in mind, at least superficially, the meaning looks clear. The poem takes the form of a sonnet which is associated with a love poem. There are some aspects of the love poem for example the praise of Maud Gonne's physical beauty. However, there is also an acknowledgement of her failings. She is a rabble-rouser who can inspire ignorant men to violence. She can inspire the "little streets", presumably the Irish, to "hurl themselves" on the much more powerful English. Yeats does not think this will end well: if you pull out too quickly from a "little street", you will get run over. "Ignorant men" might not appreciate that their own violence could lead to repercussions.

While noting these failings, Yeats seems to say that she is not to blame for them or indeed for the misery she inflicts on him, by not returning his affections. She is a special creature who simply could be no other way.


To my mind, it is the Helen of Troy image right at the end that sets this poem apart.

Helen, also a great beauty, was abucted from Menalaus by the Trojan prince, Paris. Menalaus and his allies declared war on Troy in revenge and ultimately Troy was destroyed.

So, Yeats seems to compare Maud Gonne to Helen of Troy, asking rhetorically "Was there another Troy for her to burn". But this implied comparison with Helen serves to highlight the differences between the two women. First of all, Helen did not burn Troy. She was abducted, against her will by Paris. It was Paris who was responsible for the fall of Troy: Helen was really a passive observer. Maud Gonne, however, is no passive observer: she is actively seeking to foment violence and discord.

So, why make the comparison if it is so inapt? I think that what this image does is bring out two separate aspects of Maud Gonne. The first aspect is as an object of Yeats's love. In this regard, Maud Gonne is "Helen-like". She causes pain and suffering to Yeats without any conscious act of will on her part. The Helen image is effectively an ackowledgement of the futility of Yeats's love. If Maud wished to cause him "suffering", or lead him on, she clearly has the wherewithal to do so. The fact that she does not demonstrates that Yeats's love exists only his own mind.

Separately, the inaptness of the Helen image in relation to Maud Gonne's political life highlights that this is a woman who, with her rabble rousing tendencies has the ability to perform conscious acts which, however unintentionally, could lead Ireland to befall the same fate as Troy.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

One Art - Elizabeth Bishop

The last poem I looked at, George Herbert's The Collar relied on a steady build up of tension and a sudden jolt at the end to convey its message.

Elizabeth Bishop's One Art is a very different poem but also has a startling and equally successful jolt that is a key part of its appeal


Here is a link to the text


Like The Collar, this is not a poem whose meaning is obscure. The speaker meditates, slightly sardonically about various things she has "lost". Losing things, people and ambitions is characterised as an "art" that you gradually get the hang of. None of the losses individually is a disaster. The final stanza focuses on the loss of a particular relationship which, apart from the "Write it!", to which we will return, is just another loss in a long, and not disastrous, line of losses.


The form of the poem, with its three line stanzas and frequent repetition of rhyme sounds and even whole phrases (a "modified villanelle" if you are interested) is entirely in keeping with the central idea of the poem, namely that losses will keep on happening through one's life.

However, what I think really sets this poem apart is the deliberate hiding of the emotion and the fact that the true emotion, and indeed meaning, is revealed only in a two word "jolt" right at the end.

Note the slightly sardonic, supercilious notion that continued losses are an "art" that can be "mastered". Note the losses that are referred to: the triviality of losing one's door keys is referred to next to the loss, presumably with advancing age, of ambition to travel. Then there is the continued refrain that no loss is a disaster. The overall impression from these stanzas is of a self-assured, dispassionate commentator turning away from the emotion that you might expect someone to feel at continued loss and advancing age.

But right at the end, she speaks about her lost relationship. She is well on the way to concluding that this is yet another "loss" that is no disaster but, at the last minute she can't bring herself to do so. The "Write it!" is a rebellion against the dispassionate tone of the rest of the poem. We realise not only that this particular loss is indeed a "disaster" but that the writer does indeed experience extreme emotion about her losses and that the sardonic tone adopted is nothing more than a front to protect herself. She is in fact, desperately afraid of advancing age and desperately sad about her lost relationship. But she is not going to tell you that. No, you have to work it out for yourself.

Show me a piece of prose that can have that effect in so few words.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The Collar - George Herbert

Poetry has a bit of an image problem at the moment. No doubt with one eye on league tables, it no longer features prominently in many schools' syllabuses. It is seen as a special interest pursuit or, perhaps worse, as elitist and exclusive.

That is partly true. It is certainly harder work to read a poem than it is to read the sports pages. But I think the hard work can be worth it. Over the next few weeks, I would like to examine a particular poem in some detail and try to analyse both what it means but, more importantly, what makes it special. In this post, I would like to examine The Collar by George Herbert and introduce you to poetry's ability to communicate unfamiliar experiences.


Here is a link to the text:


The "meaning" is extremely clear. The writer of the poem starts out extremely angry, striking the table fiercely. He has had enough and is going to leave the country. He has had enough sighing and pining for his religion and feels that he is missing out on pleasure. He is going to make up for lost time by having double rations of pleasure. He seems to be getting more and more determined, his language more and more resolute. But just at the peak of his anger and at the moment he has finally resolved to devote himself to a life of pleasure he thinks he hears God's voice speaking kindly to him. His fury disappears immediately and he replies simply "My Lord", his faith reaffirmed in an instant.


What I find special about this poem is its ability to communicate an unfamiliar experience directly. I am not at all religious. I have therefore never experienced either strong faith, or strong doubt. This poem takes us on a journey with a man whose faith is sorely tested, but which ends up stronger. Even if we are not religious, we identify strongly with the writer and begin to understand the emotions he is experiencing.

The poem achieves this by the contrast between the build up to a crescendo and the calm language of pure love in the final four lines.

Let's examine the language a little more closely:

We all identify with that initial striking of the table. How many times have we done that and said that we have "had enough". How many times is that just bluster and bravado? That is how we meet the speaker. At first he seems to be blustering. But he gradually starts to realise that he is "free as the road, loose as the wind". He can do something about his situation if he wants to. He also focuses specifically on the material things his religious life makes him give up. The overblown vagueness of the image of the thorn draining his blood and not replacing it with "cordial fruit" leads him to think of the wine he could be drinking and from there onto the food he could be eating.

Focusing on these specifics makes him become determined and coolly rational. "Not so, my heart, but there is fruit". This is the rational head telling the heart that in fact something can be done about this situation and when we hear "I will abroad" again, this is the voice of a man who has made up his mind.

And then he thinks he hears a voice calling "Child". He replies instantly, unthinkingly "My Lord" bowing to without question to God. This isn't a surrender. He is not a dog who has been pulled back forcibly by his collar. The voice pulling him back comes from inside. This is the simple acquiescence of someone who realises that he is indeed "free as the road, loose as the wind", but is choosing to adhere to the faith embodied in his priest's collar.

What a truly amazing poem.