Archive for the 'poetry' Category

First World War poetry: some help for students

January 14, 2021

I’ve noticed that a great number of people are looking up what I’ve written about First World War poems, and deducing that many of them are students who are preparing these poems for exams or assessments.

Do you need to write an essay about poetry? Here are some ideas to think about, and get you started. They are based on an idea of mine which I used when teaching, called the staircase. It only has three steps, and the idea is that the higher you get up the staircase, the more credit an examiner is likely to give you.

Step one: What is the poet saying?

This is the bottom step, the easiest to do, the one that will get you some marks but not move you very far up the mark scheme. It’s like understanding the plot of a novel. What is the poem about? What happens in the poem? What is the story of the poem, if you like. You are showing that you understand. Bear in mind that you will get very little credit merely for telling the story, unless that’s all the question asks you to do. If you do need to re-tell what goes on in the poem, other than perhaps a brief account at the start of an essay, make sure that you do this for a reason, connected with a part of the question you are answering.

Step two: How does the poet say it?

Now you are getting on to the second step, the real stuff. It is a poem, after all, not a novel or a play, and you are beginning to recognise this and explore detail, in particular acknowledging the poet as an artist or a creator who has set out to do something specific. You are thinking about how it all works, considering the tricks of the poet’s trade as they craft and create their poem.

You will be looking at form, at structure, at language. You will be finding various poetic techniques. The form is a poem, simple as that, although you may also recognise it’s a particular kind of poem, a sonnet for instance. Structure may involve looking at what kind of sonnet it is and how the different parts work, or it may be about looking at what happens as the poet moves through different verses in her/his poem: do they move on through different aspects of their subject?

You may notice rhyme, rhythm, metre. If you read the poem aloud (in your head, in the exam room!) does it move slowly, or quickly? This is the pace of the poem: does it make a difference to how you feel? What might the poet be wanting to do? Look for other poetic techniques. Are words repeated? Is there assonance, onomatopoeia anywhere? What effect do these techniques have? Notice pauses: are they in the middle of a line? At the end? Do the lines run on (enjambment)? What difference do these techniques make?

Again, you won’t get much credit for technique-spotting on its own: you need to say what the poet achieves by using the things you have noticed. Do not worry if you don’t have time to mention everything; there may well be too much. Go for what seems particularly effective to you.

Step three: How well does the poet say it?

This is the hardest part, the top step: your personal response to the poem and the poet’s (hard) work. Remember that there is no law that says you have to like a poem, to like every poem. But whether you like it or you don’t, you do need to try and explain why…

Go into detail. Say what you like and don’t like; explain why; give evidence – a short quotation – that shows the examiner what you’re on about. Don’t be afraid of you reactions to a poem: the examiner likes this part, and there are marks to be gained for a well thought-out and expressed opinion.

More thoughts

Do you need to compare two poems? In that case, your plan – you did write one, didn’t you? – should have the notes on both poems side-by-side so that you can look to move easily between the two poems when you need to, back and forth. A comparison isn’t writing about one poem, then writing about the second and then writing a sentence or two about both of them. It’s trying to consider them both at the same time, alongside each other. It means looking for similarities and differences between them.

Quotations

There isn’t a right number to include. Quotations are evidence, to support your comments, your analysis, your opinions. Ideally they are short, and frequent. You should not be copying in three or four lines of a poem when your point actually refers to three or four words: that’s time wasted that isn’t gaining you marks.

The end

I’m sure I haven’t actually said anything that teachers haven’t already told you. I’ve put it all down on paper, in one place, for you to read and think about, maybe in different words from your teacher. Sometimes that unfamiliar voice helps. Good luck!

If you have found this useful, you can find other posts about different aspects of poetry and literature by using the search box. If you want context or background information on the First World War, look under the ‘Pages’ heading on the left.

2020: My Year of Reading

December 29, 2020

No need to remind you what a weird year it has been. When lockdown arrived, naturally someone like me thought, “Well, OK, time to hunker down and get on with lots of reading..” Only it didn’t turn out that way. I found myself dithering a great deal, unable to choose what to settle down with. So I ended up reading quite a lot of magazines, and articles I’d saved offline on all kinds of different topics, tidying up my reading loose-ends if you like, but also, I increasingly felt, frittering away useful reading time. Overall this year I have actually completed slightly fewer books than usual. And the tidying up of my library, and the weeding out and disposing of many books that I know I’m never going to open again, has proceeded apace and some 250+ books have made their way to benefit Amnesty International at some point in the future. I think I’m now down to only 1700 or so books now!

You may not be surprised that I went back to Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which I taught once, many years ago; nothing new there, so I didn’t bother with revisiting CamusLa Peste

When I did manage to settle on a book, I found I did quite a bit of re-reading – Sherlock Holmes, Hermann Hesse, Josef Skvorecky, science fiction. I have read 51 books this year, and acquired 25 new ones. After some reflection I have decided I’d like to spend some of 2021 re-reading some of my favourite classics. We’ll see how far I manage to get with that one… but it is somehow comforting to return to a book I have previously enjoyed a number of times. It’s a sort of anchor in a very turbulent world.

Blog report:

Once again, my posts analysing various poems of or about the Great War have been the most visited. A logical deduction is that the poetry appears on examination specifications in various countries and students are perhaps tuning in for some insight, or else coming across the blog in search engine results and opening it by mistake. I do wish I got more feedback from visitors, and once again record my gratitude to those readers who take the time to like my posts and to occasionally comment or engage in discussion.

Other popular posts this year have included (again) Theodore Kröger’s The Forgotten Village, and Alexandra David-Neel’s With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet.

This year’s awards:

My biggest disappointment of the year: re-reading Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine, of which I’d carried positive recollections for quite a few years. It palled, it dragged, it was simplistic and it went on the ‘I don’t need to read this ever again’ pile. Ditto Harry Harrison’s A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!

The weirdest book I’ve read this year is definitely the Strugatsky brothers’ One Billion Years to the End of the World.

The best novel of 2020: re-reading Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, which never fails to disappoint in its poignant picture of a long-vanished age.

The best new novel of 2020: not awarded this year as I haven’t read any new novels!

The best non-fiction book of 2020: after a fair amount of hesitation, I decided on Alberto Angela’s Pompeii, which I’d wanted to read for quite a while, after really enjoying another book of his on daily life in the Roman Empire. His formula for telling the story of those dreadful days in 79CE worked really well, and sent me back to the catalogue from the major British Museum exhibition a few years back, the closest I’ve actually got to Pompeii itself (unless you count passing through a train station just south of Naples – Ercolano – many years ago and realising ‘hey, that was Herculaneum!’)

My book of the year award goes to a book I ought to have read years ago, Adam Mickiewicz’s Polish national epic poem Pan Tadeusz, which was a gentle and lyrical revelation and took me closer to my Polish roots.

Travel book of the year: in a year when not a lot of travelling could be done, reading about travelling was a substitute. A review sent me to Sophy RobertsThe Lost Pianos of Siberia, which was a surprisingly thoughtful, interesting and well-written variation on history and travel in Siberia. And I’ve read a good deal of that.

Special mention – because there isn’t really a category for it: Yuri Slezkine’s doorstopper of a book about the inhabitants of a building which housed the ruling elites of the Soviet Union over many years: The House of Government. If you’re interested in a deeper insight into the machinery of how the country worked and its ruling classes, this is the one. It felt like an obligation, but it was worth the effort.

Here’s to 2021: may it be a better year for everyone in every way, and may we all get lots of good reading done!

Adam Mickiewicz: Pan Tadeusz

December 4, 2020

     Today marks a real achievement for me, and one that’s taken years to make myself accomplish: I’ve finally read the Polish national epic poem, Pan Tadeusz. This may not sound a big deal to many of you, but imagine if an educated Englishman (like myself!) confessed that it was only at age 65 he had first read any Shakespeare…

I still have my dad’s small, leatherbound copy, in Polish of course, so I couldn’t read it, given to him on our first visit there half a century ago. I recently came across a reference to the translation pictured above, which was highly praised, and bought it. After I’d begun reading it, I found an old, second-hand copy of a much poorer translation on an out-of-the-way bookshelf; I’d obviously been feeling guilty over 30 years ago when I’d bought it!

I had been dreading (mildly) reading the poem, regarding it as a duty more than anything. Not that I don’t like poetry, obviously, but lengthy poems can be a slog. (Still only a third of the way through Dante, begun over ten years ago). And poetry from the Romantic era I’ve always had a problem with. But this was a delight… not what I’d anticipated at all. Partly, this feeling is a tribute to the hard work and sensitivity of the translator Bill Johnston, who is totally in sympathy with the work and the country, and thought carefully about metre, rhythm and the differences between the languages. So the translation feels contemporary, the verse is carefully but not obsessively rhymed, and Johnston has used the iambic pentameter throughout, except in the epilogue, which works well in English and is not tiring to read. I was more than a little surprised when, quite early on, I found myself reminded, both in terms of the rhythm and subject-matter, of Wordsworth’s Prelude.

The poem was written in exile in 1830; it’s in twelve books, and is set some twenty years earlier, at the time of the beginning of Napoleon’s invasion of tsarist Russia, which brought hopes of freedom and independence to Poland, which had been erased from the map in 1795. It’s set in the remote forests of the borderlands between Poland and Lithuania, which had formed a single Commonwealth for several centuries, and is the region of my Polish ancestors. The focus is largely on the gentry and its traditions, the setting is rural, and the plot focuses on rivalries and disagreements over land and property, a mysterious killing some twenty years previously, and various marriage plots.

What works most effectively is the marvellous creation of place and atmosphere of a lost past, one that is sliding into history as the story unfolds. I understood rather more about the nature of the old Polish nobility and its relation to other social groups, place and country, and am clearer about how our family comes to be in the book of the nobility despite being impoverished peasants…

The story works its way through various local rivalries up to a serious skirmish between Poles and Lithuanians united against local Russian troops, in which the former carry the day (obviously); the battle descriptions are marvellously done and you really feel in the middle of things. Then comes the reckoning, the revelations, the weddings and the feasting. And none of it is too deadly serious, if you see what I mean. There is a real sense of the Polish nation united, a happiness or contentedness with the old – and vanishing – ways beneath the surface, a gentle nostalgia…

Now that I finally have a handle on the entire story, I shall go back to it soon and read more closely and deeply, and enjoy more fully.

Carol Ann Duffy: Collected Poems

November 6, 2020

     A while back, I treated myself to a copy of Carol Ann Duffy’s Collected Poems. Of course, it’s not complete, because she’s still very much alive and writing, and one of my posts on one of her poems is the most read post on this blog, for some reason which no-one has yet elucidated.

My interest in Duffy is two-fold, aside from the fact that she’s a brilliant poet. One is that we were contemporaries as students of English Literature at the University of Liverpool in the 1970s; she did joint honours with Philosophy I think, I with French and so our paths never crossed. And she was my favourite poet for teaching at GCSE, I think because the selection of her poetry connected well with my students: I really enjoyed teaching her poems. Annually we’d take an entire GCSE cohort off to Leeds Town Hall for GCSE Poetry Day, a well-run commercial venture at which Duffy was always one of the featured live poets. You never knew what sort of a performance you’d get – if she had an off-day, it was pretty perfunctory though well-delivered; if she was on form, it was excellent, highly political, and the students raved about her.

And in this collection, I’m discovering a completely different side to Duffy. Obviously the poems for the GCSE Anthology were carefully selected for suitability, though there were a couple of edgy ones, Anne Hathaway, for instance, where you could (carefully) lead bright students who were becoming aware of their own sexuality to use their imaginations…

Duffy is both a brilliant versifier and a very political poet. That feels very trite; you’ll need to explore for yourself to appreciate what I mean here. Much of her poetry is autobiographical in some way: we see her wrestling with Catholicism, and she is very bitter about the toxic effect of religion on people’s lives. She can be harsh, cruel, even vicious in some of her portraits of individuals and character types she has met. She creates vivid memories of her childhood days, and there are powerful memories of her mother, which become very poignant and elegiacal after her mother’s death.

The one particular collection in this huge volume which isn’t so personal is The World’s Wife, where she deliberately gives a voice to the often silent or unheard partners of famous men in history and literature; it is good to experience this more imaginative or creative aspect to her work; I particularly like Anne Hathaway which I mentioned above, and also Eurydice’s counterpoint to the story of Orpheus.

It’s clear that Duffy is also a wide reader of poetry and at times I found myself detecting influences of other poets, or deliberate imitations of them, Donne, Shakespeare and Hopkins to mention a few. I referred above to her poem The Wound in Time, which was her response as poet laureate to the centenary of the Armistice at the end of the Great War; she is clearly as moved by her knowledge of that conflict as I have been and there are a couple of other really powerful poems on the subject – Last Post, and Christmas Truce.

I’m not pretending to do justice to a lifetime’s work in this piece, but to sketch my personal response. I turned the pages, letting my eyes wander, and slowed down and enjoyed the poems which they lit on. For me, at this particular reading, the shorter poems have worked better than the longer ones, and at times I found some of the love lyrics rather repetitive, although she writes sensual and erotic verse better than any other poet I’m familiar with…

It has been so refreshing and eye-opening to explore the full range of her work.

Andrzej Franaszek: Miłosz, A Biography

October 7, 2020

I’ve been familiar with Czesław Miłosz’ autobiographical and literary writing for many years, but haven’t really got to grips with his poetry yet; my interest stems from his being from the part of Poland where my father and his forebears originate, and the interplay between the notions (and nations) of Poland and Lithuania in past centuries. The more I read, the more complicated it all seems. I found myself reading about him now as I grow older myself and look back on my life and consider how much I have been affected by my fifty percent Polishness.

This is a very detailed and well-written biography that anchors the poet’s life very firmly in his poetry. There are excellent, copious notes and a full bibliography; it’s also very nicely produced and once again reminded me of how much higher US production values for books are than our own. I like books that are physically good to handle and pleasurable to read.

Miłosz is one of the true greats of recent Polish literature and culture, and clearly deserved the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature. We read of his life as a student, and of intellectual life generally, in the poorest region of the second Polish Republic, as well as the incredibly complex interrelationships of races, nations and peoples in that borderland region, the troubled history of which has been so well recorded by Timothy Snyder.

The second republic was not terribly stable and what with being sandwiched between Russia and Germany and learning to become an independent country again, was increasingly chaotic as the 1930s progressed, particularly in the borderlands. Eventually it became a political quagmire as well as a military dictatorship, torn between a narrow nationalistic vision and a broader one which wanted to encompass at least some of the ideals and the peoples of the nation’s great past. The anti-semitism of the right-wing government was appalling.

Miłosz travelled widely, spending considerable time in Paris with his uncle, womanising and sorting out his attitudes to politics and religion, specifically Catholicism, which had and still has a leaden hold on the country. Having survived the insanity of Nazi occupation during the Second World War, he then faced the tragic dilemma of many Polish intellectuals after the war, seeking change and progress and yet faced with the inevitable Sovietisation of Poland. How to slow this down, how to distance oneself from the old rejects of the second republic, now emigres, but the ones who had aided and abetted the calamity of the war, and still hankered after the past?

Having initially thrown his lot in with the new order, Miłosz reached a point where he had to break with it and went into exile, first in France and subsequently living, working and teaching in the US for the second half of his life, tarnished for many Poles with the brush of collaboration with the Stalinists…

His was an incredibly full and complex life, a very reflective one which he mirrored in his poetry, which I am now hoping to begin to come to grips with, as it does exist in decent translations on which the man himself collaborated.

I rarely read biographies; I find them hard going unless it’s a person whose life really interests me, and in the end this one was worth it for all the insights into person, places and the intellectual difficulties of those times.

Horace Smith: Ozymandias

September 28, 2020

Dedicated to all my former sixth form students of English Literature.

In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:—
“I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
The wonders of my hand.”— The City’s gone,—
Naught but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.

We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

I was astonished recently when something sent me to the wikipedia article on Ozymandias, and I learned that there was another version of the poem, for Shelley and Horace Smith had had a friendly competition to write a poem on the subject. Shelley’s survives and is well-known; this student and teacher of English Lit for half a century had not heard of Smith’s poem. I refer you to the excellent article for texts of both poems side-by-side and decent contextual background, too. I’m not going to write a detailed crit of Smith’s effort: you can do that for yourself. I just wanted to share the discovery.

The ‘leg’ somehow wrecks the poem for me – twice. It’s the sound of the word, its shortness coupled with the short, open vowel that just screams incongruity with the subject-matter.

Alliteration (sandy silence – the sibilants suggesting sand shifting in the desert wind, just as in the closing lines of Shelley’s poem) and assonance (the long vowel sounds at the end of the first three lines, the mournful ‘o’) create atmosphere and romantic sensation in Smith’s poem, just as Shelley does. But, I don’t think it’s just the familiarity of Shelley’s poem that makes it so much better: I do think he does so much more with all the poetic devices he brings in to play.

The sestet redeems Smith’s poem, though, by bringing in a perspective that Shelley doesn’t: the fact that this oblivion may affect the world and time to which we belong. The image of a huge, forgotten fragment of London creates a shock for the contemporary reader, striking a chord like that much later moment towards the end of Planet of the Apes. The alliteration of the ‘w’ sounds, repetition of ‘wonder’, use of the antiquated and biblical ‘wilderness’ create an atmosphere of desolation; London in the past tense ‘stood’, and the sense of abandonment conjured up by the ‘wolf’ are rather effective, I find. Smith has a ‘Hunter’ rather than Shelley’s ‘traveller’ but this character is equally effective, perhaps more so in the sense of a more primitive being, not understanding what he finds. And ‘annihilated’ works well in that final line, too.

Here’s a piece I wrote earlier.

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. You may also like to read this.

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…

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