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.