Archive for the 'poetry' Category

Carol Ann Duffy: The Wound in Time analysed

April 24, 2020

There is an earlier version of this post here. The poem itself may be found here.

The title

It’s always worthwhile spending some time reflecting on the title of a poem: we too often merely give it a cursory glance and then dive headlong into the text, but we should remember the poet will have given it time and thought, just as they did the poem itself. Here, it’s the wound in time: note the definite article – it’s a special or specific wound she means, not one of many. And we can see from the first line of the poem that Time is capitalised, so that word is also emphasised. What is she saying about time? A wound is usually something temporary, which heals eventually; it’s something physical in the way we normally use the word, so we are in metaphor territory here. We will return to this.

Form

Look at the form of the poem. It has fourteen lines, which normally says sonnet. A sonnet is traditionally a love poem, but many of the poets of the Great War wrote sonnets, so Duffy may well be paying a tribute to them in the form of this poem. Hatred, warfare, killing are as powerful as love.

Structure

If we consider the poem as a sonnet, then we are immediately confronted with the fact that it doesn’t obey any of the traditional rules of either the Shakespearean or the Petrarchan sonnet; it does not fall neatly into the usual sections, and there is no discernible rhyme scheme. Later twentieth century poets, Duffy included, have experimented with the sonnet form like this, and rhyme often disappears. There are rhymes – hatching/ singing, war/ shore, and a half-rhyme – brave/ love – but these are not part of a structured scheme. Read the poem aloud: does the absence of rhyme make any difference? Would rhyme be distracting from the message of the sonnet? Is the rhythm noticeable, despite the absence of rhyme?

Can we find any meaningful divisions in the poem? For me, what stands out it that the first four lines (roughly) speak of it, the next four address you, and then move on to we, before finally coming back to you in the ending. To me, it’s almost like the poet’s gaze moving around. That analysis tends towards the Shakespearean model. Or maybe the shift is in the eighth line where the poet moves to we, after the caesura. This allows us to think about the Petrarchan model. But it’s probably best not to get too hung up on either; it’s Duffy’s poem we are considering.

Language

This is the most important aspect, perhaps: the actual words the poet is using to convey her message and her feelings. How does the language help? The first half line stops abruptly, at the caesura. A compete thought, but containing a question: what is it, in that first word, and repeated at the end of l.2? Something unspoken? Something shameful, that we are unable to say? Notice the alliteration of Time and tides, the sense of regularity and repetitiveness. And then there’s the allusion to the old saying, time heals all wounds – except this one. Why is this one an exception? Bitter (l.2) recalls Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est, and the psalms perhaps also recall the funeral anthems in Anthem for Doomed Youth. There’s also the more powerful suggestion that all the commemorative church services of thanksgiving at the time of the centenary are pointless, useless.

The war to end all wars (l.3) is the traditional way of thinking of the Great War, which of course led to an action replay only two decades later; the French have a similar phrase to describe it. Look at the position of Not at the start of the line, powerfully negating the idea. The position of a word in a line can often give it extra force.

Then we come to the powerful imagery of birth and death; putting death’s birthing alongside each other is very effective; the idea of the earth itself nursing ticking metal eggs – shells – about to hatch carnage is surely meant to be deliberately shocking. Think about how much meaning is crammed into very few words here, and recognise that this is something that poetry often does really well.

Next we shift to the soldiers themselves, whom the poet addresses as you, and emphasises their bravery through the alliterations brave belief boarded boats. They were singing: I find an echo of Owen’s powerful poem The Send-Off here. The next line is also meant to shock: The end of God? How could a deity allow such things? It was originally said a propos of the extermination camps of the Second World War that after Auschwitz there is no God; here Duffy boldly moves the idea forward in time a couple of decades. And the poisonous shrapneled air has the gas and the explosions jammed together. The reference to God also calls to mind for me the Sassoon poem Attack which ends O Jesus make it stop! There’s another powerful half line next: think how effective stopping halfway through at full line, at the caesura, actually is, forcing a pause for thought. And gargling is clearly meant to echo that famous line in Dulce et Decorum Est.

Now the poem calms down as the focus shifts to us. The silent town squares perhaps remind us of The Send-Off again, and the chilling awaiting their cenotaphs echoes for me the marvellous Philip Larkin poem MCMXIV, written on the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War.

Duffy is angry now, and bitter as she reminds us that there has been constant warfare ever since then, that all the horror of 1914-1918 has made no difference at all to the way we conduct our affairs. History as water? Ineffective? Disappearing as it sinks into the ground? But chastising – punishing – how? Why is the men’s sacrifice endless? And the final line so chilling and accusatory, drowning taking us back yet again to Dulce et Decorum Est, and the faces taking me back to one of the scariest poems of the Great War to me, Sassoon’s Glory of Women and its utterly shocking final line. And what about the pages of the sea? Think about how that image works.

Tone

Think tone of voice here; it’s important: imagine the poet reading her poem aloud to you. How would it come across? What words – try and be precise – would you use to describe that voice? I’m looking at anger, certainly, but bitterness comes over even more strongly to me. And why bitter? Because, as she points out (l.11) humanity seems to have learned nothing, changed nothing in a hundred years: we are still at it.

A female poet

Carol Ann Duffy is a woman. She was our Poet Laureate at the time she wrote this poem, so it’s specifically meant to commemorate the centenary of the Armistice, for the nation. It may not have been to everyone’s taste as a commemorative poem. Do you think a man would have treated the subject differently? How, and why? To me it’s significant that she brings in eggs (l.4) and birth (l.3): women bring life into being, men kill in wars. She doesn’t put it that starkly, but the thought is there (to me, anyway, and this is also important in interpreting a poem: whatever the writer’s intentions and meaning were at the time of writing, once a work is published, out there for anyone to read, it becomes capable of taking on meanings and shades of interpretation which the original writer may never have imagined or intended).

Your personal response

Although it’s Duffy’s poem, you are reading it and are allowed to have your own opinion, your own reaction and response. Indeed, this is most important, and you don’t have to like it just because it’s by a ‘famous’ poet. What is important it that you can articulate your response: you like or dislike it for these or those reasons. Does the subject matter move you? Do you like the way she uses language? Do you like the sounds, the poetical devices? When you explore your personal reaction to the poem, be sure to anchor it in examples from the text.

To finish: we have spent a long time taking this poem to pieces to try and understand it more deeply. Now stop and just read it aloud again, to bring it all back together as a piece.

If you have found this post (and the original one) helpful or interesting, I would appreciate it if you left a brief comment to say how and why…

Christmas in literature

December 18, 2019

As I grow older I find Christmas more and more difficult; nothing seems to remind me more clearly of just how old I am, and the tree and the decorations each year bring a sadness as I recall the innocent happinesses of the past years, of my own childhood and then that of our children, moments that can be remembered but never re-experienced, times, meals and presents I particularly appreciated, people who are no longer here…

I love the idea of a midwinter festival, marking the solstice, and the time when the days cease to grow shorter, but actually begin to lengthen in preparation for the renewal of life and the eventual arrival of spring. The worst is over. It’s right that there should be a time of rest and recuperation, some feasting, and the sharing of food and gifts with those we love and care about is surely part of that. The Christian festival, for those who celebrate it as such, is clearly part of that ancient idea of new life and new hope; even if older ideas and festivals were colonised and annexed by the new religion, that doesn’t really seem to matter to me; everyone recognises the same new beginnings in their own ways.

I find it sad that every year there is the commercial urge to an ever more crass blow-out of binge-eating, drinking and spending, in which certainly the religious and spiritual aspects of the festival are totally lost, but even the symbolism of marking midwinter.

I racked my memory for instances of Christmas festivities in literature, but was surprised at how few I could summon up. Obviously there is the maudlin and sentimental Dickens – although I can happily watch the Muppets Christmas Carol every year! There is the one Sherlock Holmes story where Conan Doyle also cashed in, The Blue Carbuncle; the over-rich Christmas pudding which the boy is not allowed to eat, in Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, and the feast and squabbles and the presents of air rifles in To Kill A Mockingbird. And I can’t omit Milton’s poem On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, nor the episode in Emma where the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse is worried about going out in the snow… Finally, to return to the Great War with which I have been quite preoccupied with in this blog over the years, there is the story of the 1914 Christmas truce on the Western Front, not repeated in subsequent years as far as I’m aware. Overall, not a lot from a lifetime of reading, although perhaps I’ve forgotten a few other mentions. Perhaps you can prompt me, dear reader…

On death in literature

December 8, 2019

People die in literature all the time; their deaths are dwelt on for a while, and affect other characters. What occurs rather less often is deliberate and sustained consideration of the subject of death itself, perhaps viewed as too depressing to sustain an entire novel.

You can reflect on death in poetry: John Donne, for instance, does it masterfully in his Holy Sonnet Death Be Not Proud. Donne, Anglican clergyman and Dean of St Paul’s, knows that death is not the end, not ultimately something to be fearful of, because it leads to something far better – heaven and eternal life. He thunders at Death personified, though as a twenty-first century reader I’m not convinced, and I wonder at times how much his seventeenth century readers were.

Eugene Ionesco devotes an entire play to death; of all his works that I’m familiar with, Le Roi Se Meurt, which I had the good fortune to study at A Level (alongside King Lear, which was an interesting comparison) is the play I’ve found most powerful and affecting. The king has come to the end of his life and usefulness and so must die, but first he must accept this, and prepare himself for non-existence. Here, a king is an Everyman figure: powerful he may have been, but he cannot avoid the lot of every human, no matter how lowly. He rages and refuses, attempts to elude and evade; his young Queen supports him in this futility, holding out vain hope, while his other, older Queen must drag him kicking and screaming to face reality. It’s an absurdist drama and gains a great deal of its power from this, with the near-Brechtian alienation effect sharpening the focus on one man and his coming to terms with death. The single line (translated) “Everyone is the first person to die” had a profound effect on me at the age of 17, and I’ve never forgotten it: it gets to the core of the question so directly.

Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Illych is jarring, disturbing: one day Ivan’s life is running normally, the next, he learns he has a fatal illness, which takes its course, and we observe his growing confusion and confusedness in himself as death approaches, as well as the attitudes of family, colleagues and neighbours, whose responses vary from initial concern to eventual boredom, because their lives are continuing normally and they are not (yet) faced with death in such a brutal way. And this is the way we react to knowledge of someone’s approaching end: we may be shocked or upset, and yet are reassured by the knowing that we will survive.

I first read Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars as a teenager, and have come back to it a good number of times; as you might expect, as I’ve grown older, my response to it has changed. I now see how he has attempted to remove death from human experience, not in the manner of the Swiftian Struldbruggs, but through technology: the computer that runs the city of Diaspar (go on, work out the almost-anagram) has perpetuated that city for a thousand million years whilst the rest of Earth has worn out and disappeared. Each citizen has their mental pattern, their brain and memories stored, and is brought back to life every thousand years or so, for another, fresh existence… you die and yet you don’t, being preserved in the computer’s memory banks. I quite like this idea, and could happily while away some hours planning my next existence.

Robert Frost: The Road Not Taken

September 25, 2019
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I mentioned this poem briefly in a post about life choices last year, and something recently recalled it to my mind again.

Why is the wood yellow? Is it a mature wood, it is autumn there, and if so, why? I really don’t know. Both paths seem equally appealing to our curious walker who looks as far as he can see down the first. But there is a corner, beyond which the path and future are unseen. I’ve often found myself on a path in a wood, knowing that at some time I will need to turn around and return the same way; looking ahead I’ve thought, ‘well, I’ll just walk as far as that turning’ and then come back. In life, that’s not an option anyone has…

The speaker takes the other path on the grounds that it looks brighter and less-used, whilst admitting that there’s really not all that much in it. There is a jauntiness, a casualness in the decision – he’ll come back another day and follow the other track, again whilst admitting to himself there’s not really much chance of that happening.

Is there a sigh of regret in the final stanza? After so much time has passed he will remember that moment of choice, a brief hesitation marked by the repetition of ‘I’ at the end and beginning of lines. And it made all the difference: what difference is he actually talking about? He doesn’t, can’t know…

It is a deceptively simple poem, because the tone – casual, offhand even – mirrors the way we take a lot of the decisions we make in our lives: this or that course, this or that job, journey and so on. And we have to: to agonise too much is to paralyse ourselves and in the end we have to leap and act. Only as we grow older, perhaps, like the speaker or the poet, do we pause, look back and reflect on the significance of choices which actually did shape of change our lives. Is that what he means by ‘all the difference’? For the choices we make shape the person we become, and if we are content, then we approve and validate the choices we made, as the poet does.

The language is simple – no difficult words in the poem – the sentences quite long and involved, nevertheless, for the poet wants to create a thoughtful and reflective mood, and such sentences mirror the slow thought-processes as he recalls and evaluates his choices and how they shaped his existence. The first sentence is twelve lines! Then a single exclamatory line, another short sentence and then the final sentence is the last stanza, summing up his complex train of thought.

For me, it is a wonderful poem, one that I suspect will last a long time in anthologies and possibly become the poem Frost is ultimately remembered for, for its deceptively easy profundity and lasting effect, and the way it surely speaks to most of us and our condition. Existential, perhaps, but without the angst…

A tour of my library – part two

August 9, 2019

My collection of literature and literary criticism lives in my study, and includes works of reference I used when I was teaching. I have been gradually slimming this section down in retirement, since I have actually finished with a good many of the books and do not expect to have any further use for them. I still write the occasional study guide, and so the collection does come in useful, although I tend to rely much more on my own teaching notes, most of which I’ve scanned and keep on my laptop. I’m most pleased with a collection of Shakespeare texts I built up over many years: a complete set of thirty-five volumes of the Arden Shakespeare Second Series in hardback editions. This may not mean anything to you, but this series was the gold standard in my time as a student and teacher. However, the gem of my literature collection was a treat to myself of a facsimile of the First Folio: pure book porn (if you’ll allow the expression), I love to sit and turn the pages over and marvel quietly.

The fiction section lives in our sitting room, by and large, and fills two alcoves on either side of the fireplace. For ease of searching it’s divided into two sections, works written before 1900 and works written after that date. The pre-1900 section contains many of the classics you might expect, Austen, Conrad, and also quite a few of the Russians. I have a good number of nice editions, particularly those of the latest incarnation of the Everyman’s Library; these are books that I do like to come back to. The modern section is very eclectic, but – as you might expect – with a bias to Eastern European literature on my part. A good number of our poetry books also find their homes on the top shelves: Milton, Donne and other metaphysicals; the modern poetry I used to teach is in my study.

There’s a small selection of my science fiction in my study. It’s the only section so far where I have begun to apply a new criterion: do I definitely want to keep/ re-read this book? If I’m certain, or there’s enough doubt, then I shall keep the book; otherwise I shall part with it. This means that quite a lot of the science fiction is actually in boxes in the loft, because I have no interest in re-visiting it. One book which I am keeping is a not very well-known American utopian novel from 1887, Looking Backward, by Edward Bellamy, which envisions a socialist America in the year 2000. The premise is contrived, as often in a utopia, but the vision is fascinating. And my copy is a most bizarre example: it’s printed on very cheap paper which has gone seriously brown, and looks exactly like the original British edition of the novel, except that it’s in a semi-glossy paperback cover, which would not have been possible then. This cover would seem to feature the frontispiece portrait of Bellamy from that first edition. There are absolutely no clues that this is a reprint or facsimile, and it certainly does not look like a photographic reproduction. I bought it new in the late 1970s, and there was apparently an edition published then, but I have no clue who published it. Very mysterious…

Miroslav Holub: The Fly

July 11, 2019

She sat on a willow-trunk
watching
part of the battle of Crécy,
the shouts,
the gasps,
the groans,
the trampling and the tumbling.

During the fourteenth charge
of the French cavalry
she mated
with a brown-eyed male fly
from Vadincourt.

She rubbed her legs together
as she sat on a disembowelled horse
meditating
on the immortality of flies.

With relief she alighted
on the blue tongue
of the Duke of Clervaux.

When silence settled
and only the whisper of decay
softly circled the bodies

and only
a few arms and legs
still twitched jerkily under the trees,

she began to lay her eggs
on the single eye
of Johann Uhr,
the Royal Armourer.

And thus it was
that she was eaten by a swift
fleeing
from the fires of Estrées.

I’ve always found writing that tries to look at human events from a non-human perspective fascinating; it often says as much about the writer as the subject. Here (in a translation of a poem by the Czech poet Miroslav Holub) we have a nasty and insignificant fly observing nasty and insignificant humans killing each other in battle.

We’re back in the fourteenth century. Yes, it’s the battle of Crécy, but the fly knows nothing about that; probably not watching the battle, not having any conception of what’s going on – we humans think everything is about us. She does fly things: copulates, sits on carrion, lays eggs and gets eaten by another creature who doesn’t know what is going on in the world of humans either (although she is affected by it).

Holub uses the innocent creatures – flies, horse, bird – to put a different perspective on the human events, which he skilfully locates using names, times and places, all human-only aspects of the world.

We see flies as repellent creatures, but what is actually repellent here? There are the gross images of what the fly does, and yet the grossness – dead horse, dead armourer, burning villages – is all human-created.

Even through translation, the horrors of the battle and its consequences come over vividly: the actions of battle in three nouns and two participles; the disembowelled horse, the blue tongue of the armourer. Limbs twitch jerkily as the whisper of decay – what a marvellous image! – softly circles (notice the alliteration there) the bodies…

And the poet is not only alert to the irony of the humans’ situation in all this, but to the fly’s too: moments after apparently reflecting on her species’ immortality, she is eaten… and yet flies are everywhere, omnipresent, and after any war will no doubt abound, for a while.

Not a great poem, not brilliant in terms of technique or use of language, but clever enough to make a reader pause, see something from a perspective s/he would otherwise never have thought of using, and reflect briefly before moving on: for me that’s the essence of a poet’s art, something I can’t do and the poet can.

John Donne: The Apparition

June 30, 2019
WHEN by thy scorn, O murd’ress, I am dead,
And that thou thinkst thee free
From all solicitation from me,
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed,
And thee, feign’d vestal, in worse arms shall see :
Then thy sick taper will begin to wink,
And he, whose thou art then, being tired before,
Will, if thou stir, or pinch to wake him, think
Thou call’st for more,
And, in false sleep, will from thee shrink :
And then, poor aspen wretch, neglected thou
Bathed in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lie,
A verier ghost than I.
What I will say, I will not tell thee now,
Lest that preserve thee ; and since my love is spent,
I’d rather thou shouldst painfully repent,
Than by my threatenings rest still innocent

A nasty poem from John Donne? Surely not? But yes: the woman has rejected him and his advances, and gone to bed with another man, and he wants her to suffer for it.

Look at the power, the vitality, the sheer energy of the opening line: she is a killer, who has done for him by spurning him; when she learns he’s dead she will imagine he’s gone for good and so will stop harassing her, but he will return as a ghost… The multiple alliterations of the second line, through enjambment into the third, seem to help to create that false sense of security in her.

The ghost labels her feign’d vestal, suggesting she rejected the poet to hold on to her virginity for someone else, and that this was a lie, anyway; her lover is not as good a one as he would have been. The image of the sick taper winking – flickering as if it was about to go out, like an expiring candle – is a vivid visual picture. She will be scared, and perhaps seek to waken her partner. Here comes another put-down: he’s tir’d and asleep, with more than a hint of not being able to perform sexually, and will feign sleep when she tries to wake him. There’s a lot of pretending in this poem: her pretended virginity, his pretending to sleep; what about the notion of his shrinking from her: are we meant to imagine what may have shrunk? I think so.

The imagery used to describe her fear at the sight of the ghost – aspen wretch, in a quicksilver sweat – are also visual: she will end up looking more ghost-like than the poet’s ghost!

He taunts her further: he won’t say now what he will tell her then, when he appears as the ghost, in case that undermines the shock effect he intends; he’s over her (allegedly, although I suspect we are invited to think about what he means by my love is spent) and intends her to suffer; he wants her to realise what she’s missed out on…

It’s all a pose, of course, not a poem about a real situation, a real woman or a real rejection. In Donne’s day, any educated man should have been capable of turning out a poem about a rejection. Donne successfully brings out all the anger and spite felt by a man at being rejected sexually, in a poem that manages at the same time to be extremely unpleasant and extremely clever. A consummate artist.

 

Carol Ann Duffy: Education for Leisure

June 23, 2019

Education for Leisure

Today I am going to kill something. Anything.
I have had enough of being ignored and today
I am going to play God. It is an ordinary day,
a sort of grey with boredom stirring in the streets.

 

I squash a fly against the window with my thumb.
We did that at school. Shakespeare. It was in
another language and now the fly is in another language.
I breathe out talent on the glass to write my name.

 

I am a genius. I could be anything at all, with half
the chance. But today I am going to change the world.
Something’s world. The cat avoids me. The cat
knows I am a genius, and has hidden itself.

 

I pour the goldfish down the bog. I pull the chain.
I see that it is good. The budgie is panicking.
Once a fortnight, I walk the two miles into town
for signing on. They don’t appreciate my autograph.

 

There is nothing left to kill. I dial the radio
and tell the man he’s talking to a superstar.
He cuts me off. I get our bread-knife and go out.
The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.

 

As I seem, for some reason, to be channelling Carol Ann Duffy at the moment – my post last autumn on The Wound in Time has been my most popular post ever (I would love to know why) – I thought I’d write about another of her poems which I’ve always liked a lot.

Duffy always inveighed against Thatcherism and its consequences, especially for those overlooked by society, and here she gets inside the head of an asocial misfit who feels he has no future in Britain. It’s shocking, powerful, and always provoked debate when we studied it in class in preparation for GCSE.

There’s nothing complex about the language, form or structure of this poem, reflecting the thoughts and mindset of the speaker perhaps: five simple, four-line stanzas and no discernible rhyme-scheme; the narrative is linear. So how does the poem work, and where does it derive its power from?

Immediacy in the opening line: today, and the idea of killing, muted a little by something, then ratcheted up a notch by the full stop, pause and subsequent one-word sentence Anything. The rhyme with the previous word helps the effect, too. The first person is emphasised throughout: count the recurrences of I, me, my. Look at how the I comes at the start of sentences and at the beginnings of lines: extra emphasis there. And there is power in the determination to play God. Nothing special about the day except that the speaker seems to have reached breaking-point: the image of boredom stirring in the streets is vivid, oxymoronic, fits in with the character of the speaker which is gradually built up.

Violence at the start of the second stanza, as well as a disgusting image. The Shakespeare reference is wonderful (King Lear: As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods | They kill us for their sport), reflecting the speaker’s condition, and startling up, perhaps, with the idea that he’s not an unintelligent young man, having studied and understood some literature… then flinging the other language back at us in a witty comparison. We’ve all written our name in mist on glass at some point in our childhood; the speaker breathes out talent. What is Duffy doing with her character here?

Could he be a genius? The real issue is he’s one of many to whom society has not given a chance, for whatever reason. Then we’re back with his desire, intention to make an impact, but he doesn’t know how: something’s world will be changed, though. There is a growing sense of the sinister as the cat avoids him.

More violence: destruction of the goldfish, in the bog: that monosyllable, as well as the slang, the vulgarity of the word, heighten the sense of menace. He has been marauding against dumb creatures so far, but we sense something more. Again a glimpse of his intelligence, as he quotes the Bible: I see that it is good. ‘And God saw that it was good’ is a phrase repeated several times during the creation story in Genesis.

There is the old ritual – which I remember well from my own student days – you had to go to the local employment office to sign on as available to work, in order to receive unemployment or supplementary benefit if you weren’t actually working. Remember the speaker has talent, is a genius: he has an autograph!

Alone back home. Has he done for the budgie now? The radio-station fails to recognise the superstar, and the presumably seven-second delay means his words are never actually broadcast. Then the menace becomes real as he goes out: are the glittering pavements meant to remind us of Hollywood? The final half-line is superb, the perfect ending via the shift in the personal pronoun as the speaker connects specifically, individually with the reader: I touch your arm.

In many ways this seems a rather simple poem. The genius is in the brief but vivid creation of a character and a specific situation or moment; the poet faces us with something we would never have thought to imagine or visualise for ourselves, and briefly we share her creation, her vision and perhaps her anger at the hopelessness of the speaker’s situation. The language is straightforward, economical, and clever at times. Ultimately, however, I think the apparent simplicity of the poem is deceptive: I certainly couldn’t have written it…

Keats: On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

June 19, 2019
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;

Round many western islands have I been

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene

Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men

Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

 

This is another of my all-time favourites. It’s about an epiphany, a sudden moment of revelation, awareness of something not known or understood before, and it works through a comparison that develops throughout the poem. Chapman was the first translator of Homer into English, in the early seventeenth century (1611); before that it was assumed you were educated enough to read the original in classical Greek. And if you couldn’t, like the young Keats, tough, until translations came along; as a young poet he would surely have wanted to read the ur-poet’s work but couldn’t access it until he got hold of Chapman’s version. You can find it online.

Keats likens his exploration of the world of poetry to the travels of the Spanish conquistadors to the New World in the sixteenth century in this Petrarchan sonnet, the octave describing his travels through the world of poetry, and the sestet the effect the discovery of Homer in translation has on him, the wow-moment. The rhyme scheme is regular: count it out, mark it up and see.

The opening quatrain outlines the extent of his familiarity with the poetry, perhaps mainly of western countries. The poets are imagined as countries and islands, and the richness of the poetry is referenced in the gold and the kingdoms, the heritage going back centuries perhaps also alluded to through obsolescent words like bards and fealty. Poets are loyal to Apollo, god of the muses of inspiration… He’s heard about Homerdeep brow’d the adjective traditionally applied to him in history, in the way that all the epic heroes also had their own epithet, which helped summon up the character in the imagination of the listener – but never been able to actually read any. He knows of the poet’s demesne – another archaic word – and finally encounters it with the aid of Chapman.

Keats then wants to make us aware of the powerful effect on him of reading Homer. The two lines which compare it to an astronomer discovering a new planet are superb, close as the poet was in time to the recent discovery (1780) of Uranus by William Herschel. No new planet had been discovered since ancient times; even Homer knew about Saturn. The new planet swimming into his ken is lovely: the planet reveals itself to the astronomer, rather than he finding it, we have both discovery and revelation here.

But the Cortez image is even more powerful. You need to look for the isthmus of Darien on a map of Central America, and think about what actually happened: nobody knew the Pacific Ocean was there! It’s vast, and has never been seen before by a westerner. Cortez and his men climb a mountain and – WTF? There it is, as far as the eye can see in every direction. Look at star’d: why is that good? Why is it better than gazed, for example? It’s often helpful, I’ve found, when you are considering a poet’s choice of a word, to look at what s/he might have used instead, and reflect on why they went with what they chose.

Consider the picture of Cortez’ men looking at each other, and the expressions on their faces as they realise. The power of the single word silent, at the start of a line, the last line, with a pause following it, needs to be taken on board properly; the rest of the final line merely locates them, it’s a let-down after the shock: you are meant to feel as stunned as they are.

There’s a good deal more to find in the language and sounds of this poem if you take the time; again I think it’s a brilliant example of just how much can be packed into such a small space. What Keats wants you to understand and to experience is that sudden flash of realisation, and if there has been one for you about anything in your life, then that will help you get what he means.

Shelley: Ozymandias

June 17, 2019

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

I’ve always loved this poem. It says so much, as well as demonstrating a great deal of what poetry is especially good at. And you cannot fully grasp all of it without hearing the poem, so if necessary, read it aloud…

It’s a Petrarchan sonnet, fourteen lines divided into an octave and sestet, though the rhymes are not perfect and the rhyme-scheme is not self-contained within octave and sestet. Look carefully and you will see what I mean. The emphasis shifts from the statue itself in the octave, to the inscription and then reflections on it, in the sestet.

Now see how the poet distances himself from everything: he meets a traveller, so everything is received secondhand rather than personally encountered. What does traveller suggest, nowadays? And back in the early nineteenth century? What is an antique land – why has the poet chosen that word? The speaker reports the traveller’s words. Only the statue’s legs are still upright. Look at vast. How big is vast? These legs of stone | stand in the desert: those two alliterative monosyllables gain considerable power and effect from the enjambment. The caesura slow things down further. There’s further emphasis through another alliteration: sand | Half sunk. Consider shattered – listen to the sound: what is the effect? Is it onomatopoeia?

The traveller now describes the features that can be seen on what’s left of the face – a cruel ruler, it seems: cold command is quite explicit, with the hard ‘c’ sounds and the ‘o’ both long and short; alliteration abounds in the poem but never feels contrived, I suggest. The passions carved into the face are still familiar today, it is suggested; stamped hints both at the features of the face and the idea of power repressing it subject people. Economical use of language, and again the onomatopoeia in the word adds to the effect…

Words on the pedestal are still legible – note the alliteration of the letter ‘p’, quite subtle but pulling the line together. Do you know who Ozymandias was? Nor do I, though we could search for his name and get information. King of Kings, allegedly. The next line is sheer beauty, through the emptiness of the boast and the double meaning which our king will never have been aware of. Despair, at the power of what he achieved, or the ruin to which he and they have been reduced by time. The next half line falls leadenly, three two-syllabled words followed by the full stop and caesura: how powerful is that? Where are all these works to have driven the viewer to despair?

The concluding two and a half lines are truly magical and have to be heard to enjoy the full effect, particularly through the repeated use of long vowels, which magnify the lapse of time and its destructive power for me. What about colossal? How large is that? Is it bigger than vast, which we had earlier? The alliteration of boundless and bare enhances the effect, and then in the final line we have lone and level, and sands stretch, and I can’t help feeling too that all the sibilant ‘s’ sounds throughout the poem are meant to suggest all the sand…

An enormous amount can be crammed into a very short space in a good poem, where the words and the sounds are so carefully chosen to contribute their part to the overall effect. You might try to imagine how long a piece of prose might be needed to achieve anywhere near the same effect or same level of description. And that’s before you reflect on what the poet has sought to have his readers think about: time, eternity, erasing human vanity and achievement, our smallness in the face of the vastness of the universe. If you didn’t read the poem aloud, do it now: use the punctuation to help you know where to pause, because the enjambments in the poem are also important in maintaining the flow of the verse as you read it, and creating and sustaining a reflective tone throughout. Good, isn’t it?

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