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.