Monday, 12 November 2018

1967, by Thomas Hardy

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

“1967” is a poem that Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) wrote in 1867 towards the end of the five-year period during which he was living in London and working as an assistant architect. The poem was not published until 1909 when it was included in the “More Love Lyrics” section of his collection entitled “Time’s Laughingstocks and Other Verses”. 
The title is an obvious reference to a date 100 years in the future, but that is all the significance that should be attached to it. The poem is not an attempt to prophesy what the world would be like in that specific year, and there is therefore no point in commenting on any features of the year 1967 that either did or did not correspond with anything said in Hardy’s poem. This would in any case be rather difficult given that Hardy did not make any predictions of this nature.

The Poem

In five-score summers! All new eyes,
New minds, new modes, new fools, new wise;
New woes to weep, new joys to prize;

With nothing left of me and you
In that live century’s vivid view
Beyond a pinch of dust or two;

A century which, if not sublime,
Will show, I doubt not, at its prime, 
A scope above this blinkered time.

Yet what to me how far above?
For I would only ask thereof
That thy worm should be my worm, Love!

The poem comprises twelve lines split between four three-line stanzas, with each group of three lines sharing the same rhyme.

The first stanza emphasises the word “new”, which is used seven times. In “five-score summers” everything will be new, but not necessarily better; there will be “New woes to weep” as well as “new joys to prize”.
In the second stanza it becomes clearer that this is a love poem with the mention of “me and you”, although the sentiment expressed seems a bit negative with the statement that there will be “Nothing left of me and you / … / Beyond a pinch of dust or two”. On the other hand, this is hardly earth-shattering as a prediction!

The third stanza comes as close as Hardy ventures towards real prediction in this poem, with his conviction that the coming century will “show … at its prime, / A scope above this blinkered time”. It is no by means a vision of a glorious future in which all the world’s problems will be solved, in that the poet appreciates that the next hundred years may not be “sublime” and that there will be times when it is not “at its prime”, the implication being that, at such “subprime” times, there will be no improvement on Victorian lack of vision and social progress.
The fourth stanza brings everything back to the personal level, much as the second stanza did in response to the global vision of “newness” put forward in the first stanza. The poet asks what any of this will matter to him, because he only has one wish and that is to share his grave with that of his beloved. The thought expressed in the final line, “That thy worm should be my worm, Love!”, is a concept that seems to owe something to John Donne’s poem “The Flea”, in which the poet speculates on the union that he has with the woman he loves because their blood has been sucked by the same flea. Much later in his life Hardy actually noted this connection with Donne in a comment he scribbled in a copy of a book written about his work.

“1967” is therefore a poem that regards the future with modified optimism but which also dismisses the significance of any future progress, however “far above” the present it might be, in contrast to what really bothers him, namely the wish never to be separated from the woman he loves. The implication of sharing a grave is, obviously enough, that their lives will have been spent together for as many years of the next century as possible.
It is, however, a strange mixture of love lyric and political statement. Although the final message is about love, there is also plenty of talk in these twelve lines about what Hardy would later call “evolutionary meliorism”, which is the idea that things will get better over time provided that human beings exercise “loving-kindness” towards each other and the world they live in. That exercise can take place at the personal level but must also inform the way people treat each other in social and political terms.

The date of 1867 is important to note, because this was the year in which the British Parliament passed the Second Reform Act which extended the voting franchise to a much wider social stratum, in effect allowing working class men (not women) to vote for their government for the first time. This was therefore a year in which there was much talk about planning for a different, more democratic future. It is probably significant that the Reform League, which was founded in 1865 and organised demonstrations to press for extension of the franchise, had its headquarters on the ground floor of the building in which Hardy worked as an assistant architect, so that he would have passed their offices every time he arrived at and departed from his place of work.
It was also a time of intense debate occasioned by the working class movement that began with the holding of the “First International” conference in London in 1864, which Hardy may well have attended.

These political influences seem to have rubbed off on Hardy to a considerable extent, although he was to express his radicalism through his novels and poems rather than any overt political means. In any case, he was soon to leave London and return to Dorset, thus removing himself from the hotbed of radicalism that the capital city threatened to become.
“1967” is thus an interesting poem from the perspective of the developing thoughts of a young man who was soon to make his mark as a literary figure, firstly as a novelist and later as a poet. Whether it really works as a love poem, due to the throwing together of political, social and personal elements, is a matter for debate.

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

© John Welford

Monday, 3 September 2018

A Wife in London, by Thomas Hardy

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

The Poem

She sits in the tawny vapour

   That the City lanes have uprolled,

   Behind whose webby fold on fold

Like a waning taper

   The street-lamp glimmers cold.

A messenger's knock cracks smartly,

   Flashed news is in her hand

   Of meaning it dazes to understand

Though shaped so shortly:

   He--has fallen--in the far South Land . . .


'Tis the morrow; the fog hangs thicker,

   The postman nears and goes:

   A letter is brought whose lines disclose

By the firelight flicker

   His hand, whom the worm now knows:

Fresh--firm--penned in highest feather -

   Page-full of his hoped return,

   And of home-planned jaunts by brake and burn

In the summer weather,

   And of new love that they would learn.

The poem is dated December 1899, which was two months after the outbreak of the Second Boer War in South Africa. The theme of the poem is the receipt of news of an early British casualty of that war.
Thomas Hardy was a pacifist by nature, and he was particularly horrified by the Boer War, which he saw as the exercise of imperialist bullying by the British government on the settlers of Dutch descent who – in Hardy’s eyes – fought for “homes and liberties” whereas the British were only interested in “Transvaal Funds, diamonds and gold” (these words were actually penned by his wife in a letter dated 7th February 1899, but in this matter Mr and Mrs Hardy were in complete agreement).
Thomas Hardy wrote several anti-war poems at this time, and these were collected as the “War Poems” section of his “Poems of the Past and the Present”, published in November 1901. The War Poems include some of Hardy’s best-known poems, including “Drummer Hodge” and “The Souls of the Slain”.
One unusual feature of “A Wife in London” is that Hardy chose to write about the fate of a soldier from London rather than those recruited from his own county of Dorset (which he referred to in his novels and poems as Wessex). In his other war poems it was very clear that his sympathies lay squarely with the latter – Drummer Hodge, for example, had a “Wessex home”, and Hardy had cycled to Southampton Docks to watch Dorset regiments embarking for South Africa.
So why London? It is possible that Hardy based his poem on an actual experience of someone he knew, who lived in London, or it might simply be that by setting the poem in London he could make effective symbolic use of the “peasouper” fogs that often enveloped the capital city but not rural Dorset. 
The poem comprises four five-line stanzas split into two sections, the second forming a distinct contrast with the first. One might ask whether it was necessary to make this split – it is surely obvious enough to the reader that the contrast is there for them to find without drawing his/her attention to it quite so blatantly.
The rhyme scheme for each stanza is ABBAB, although Hardy is a bit careless in the second stanza with trying to make “shortly” rhyme with “smartly”. 
Hardy is also careless with the rhythm, which is unusual for him. The syllable count for the first stanza is conventional enough – 8,8,8,6,6 – but this is not repeated. Indeed every stanza has a different syllable count, with anything from 5 to 10 syllables in a line, which means that the rhythm is necessarily irregular unless syllables are lengthened or shortened. 
However, the main feature of the rhythm is that the fourth line of each stanza is “out of step” with the other lines because the metrical pattern is interrupted – it cannot be read at the same pace, which means that greater attention is drawn to it than to the other lines.
That must imply that the fourth line has a particular significance to the meaning of the poem, but it is questionable whether this is the case, except possibly in the second stanza.

Stanza one
The scene-setting stanza is mostly about fog – the “tawny vapour” of the polluted peasouper that afflicted cities like London in the days before smokeless zones were introduced. Fog is a regular occurrence near rivers on still Autumn days, and when this is combined with smoke from thousands of homes and factories the result can be deadly, not only from lack of visibility but from the foul air that people are forced to breathe.
One has to assume that the wife in question is in a working-class terraced house close to the river, and that – because she is actually sitting “in the tawny vapour” – that the fog has penetrated into the house. That is quite possible, especially if the smoke from her fire (referred to in the fourth stanza), is unable to escape from her chimney and has created a fog in her own room. 
The impression of poor light is also conveyed by references to “a waning taper” (i.e. candle) and a glimmering street-light. It is not actually stated that the setting is night-time, but the implications are clear enough.

Stanza two
The action of the poem happens in this and the following stanza. Stanza two simply describes the arrival of a messenger who delivers a telegram that has been “flashed” by means of the electric telegraph system that was in full operation by the time of the Boer War. The messages were sent using Morse code and transmitted via undersea cables that skirted the coasts of Africa and Europe. An urgent message, such as one informing a spouse of the death of her soldier husband, would be transcribed with all due speed and delivered at any hour of the day or night.
The tone of this stanza is suddenness and shock, conveyed by “cracks smartly” and “flashed”. This is in contrast to the soft focus of the fog, the effect of which is to hide things and make them uncertain. 
However, the fog cannot be forgotten. The line “Of meaning it dazes to understand” is interesting, particularly for the use of “dazes”, which suggests uncertainty and confusion, whereas “fails” or something similar would not have done so. The word also suggests that the wife is dazed by hearing the news, as though she has been hit over the head by a heavy object.

Stanza three
Morning has broken but the fog is even thicker. We can take this as a symbol of the darkness and despair that the wife must be experiencing, having spent the rest of the night at the lowest possible ebb. Nothing can make her world any brighter, and surely it cannot get any worse.
But something worse is precisely what is about to happen. The ordinary post arrives, with a letter from her husband. Contemporary readers of the poem would probably have appreciated better than modern ones the contrast between telegraph and postal services, in that the former were extremely rapid and the latter very much slower, especially if international mail was involved.
The postal service from South Africa would have been by ship for much of its journey, largely following the course of the undersea cables used for the telegraph service. The letter might therefore have been written as much as a month before it was delivered, possibly only shortly after the soldier had arrived in the war zone. 
Hardy uses quite a clever device to link the letter to the death of the soldier, which is the double meaning of the word “hand” – the part of the body and a short form of “handwriting”. To say that you know somebody’s hand indicates that you recognize their handwriting, but the only knowledge a worm can have is that of burrowing into dead flesh.

Stanza four
The irony of the poem is expressed full-force in the final stanza. There is no suggestion of fog here, only mentions of freshness and “summer weather”. 

We can picture the soldier writing home in high spirits, presumably not having been engaged in any military action up to this point. This is what Hardy has in mind with “penned in highest feather”, but it is a slightly odd use of words. It could give the impression that the soldier is using an old-fashioned quill pen in order to write his letter! I think we have to assume that Hardy was stuck for a rhyme with “weather” and this was the best he could manage!
The hopes expressed in the letter are that the couple will have plenty of holidays well away from the fog and that they will maybe start a family (“new love that they would learn”). We can picture how the wife felt on reading the letter just after she learned the terrible news brought by the earlier messenger.
There is one other small problem with word choice in this stanza, which is the reference to “jaunts by brake and burn”. Firstly, would a working-class soldier from the London slums really use an old-fashioned word like “brake” to refer to woodland thickets? And would he also have used “burn”, this being a Scottish word for a small stream? Holiday trips to Scotland from London on the pay of a common soldier? It seems unlikely! Once again, Hardy’s search for a rhyme seems to have led him to use an inappropriate word for the circumstance in question.

So – does this poem work or not? As a piece of anti-war poetry it strikes home in a way that a story of death on the battlefield would not have done. It brings the war home to the domestic front and looks at it from the point of view of a wife who has just become a widow. There is another of the War Poems that has a similar perspective, namely “Song of the Soldiers’ Wives and Sweethearts”, but that one is very different, being about the safe return of soldiers from the Boer War.
Hardy’s use of irony in “A Wife in London” has given rise to differing opinions, favourable and otherwise, some seeing this as a perfect example while others thinking it too “raw” and obvious. One thing to remember is that it is the reader who is the target of the irony – it would be a mistake to think that the wife would be expected to regard the situation as ironic – just utterly tragic. 
It is worth noting that Hardy used this device in other poems. One such example was his much later “A Circular” (1913) in which he was himself the recipient of ill-timed mail, namely a catalogue of the latest fashions addressed to his wife, who had just died and needed only a funeral shroud.
Irony is indeed one of Thomas Hardy’s strongest suits – it runs through many of his poems to a greater or lesser extent. “A Wife in London” is definitely on the “greater” side of the scale.
There are problems with this poem, as noted above. Let’s just say that he wrote plenty of better ones!

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )
© John Welford

Thursday, 12 July 2018

The Prison and the Sea, by Lydia Fulleylove

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

It is only in relatively recent years that Lydia Fulleylove’s work has started to get the recognition it deserves. She has achieved high placings in several major poetry competitions, including being shortlisted for the Forward Poetry Prize (best single poem category) in 2010. Her first collection of poems, “Notes on Sea and Land” was published by HappenStance Press in 2011.
A teacher until 1997, Lydia Fulleylove now works as a leader/facilitator on combined arts projects with community groups, including young people and mental health patients. For seven years she has been a writer in residence at Her Majesty’s Prison Isle of Wight.  The island has been Lydia’s home for most of her adult life, and where she has become an “outdoor” person with a passion for the sea and wildlife.

The poem

“The Prison and the Sea” brings together the two very different worlds of “inside” and “outside”. Three short stanzas describe the experience of two prisoners who are taking part in a writers’ workshop, although the reader might assume that they are on the seashore, as opposed to looking at objects that have been brought to them. 

First stanza

Tom reached for the oarweed, which still

glistened. He pressed it to his face.

He could smell the sea. “The sea,”

he was saying, “the sea”.

The reader cannot know who Tom is without the clue given in the poem’s title, but that is enough to make it clear that this is someone who has not seen the sea, or seaweed (oarweed is a variety of seaweed that grows in long brown strips), for a very long time. It is somewhat ironic that people can live on an island, so close to the sea, but never get to see it. That is, of course, what happens to people in prison. The experience is an ecstatic one, as if the contact with the sea, if only by proxy, is by itself a gaining of freedom. 

Second stanza

The experience told in the second stanza is similar:

David hooked his finger through

a frail cleft of driftwood , kept

cradling it, as if he wanted

never to let it go.

This experience is similar to that related in the first stanza, as both men feel a need to touch and to hold the things they have been given to look at. This is something that might be expected more of children than of adults, who are usually content merely to look, but the two prisoners must have direct contact with these symbols of the outside world, as if they need to re-establish a relationship with that world.

Third stanza

It is clear from the third stanza that David cannot bear to be parted from the thing he has been given and to which he now imparts ownership:

At the end, he said, “Would you mind – could I

keep it?” And knowing I should not

and seeing how his hands turned it

over and over, I said, “Yes”.

This final stanza brings the poet into the scene, which had up until now belonged entirely to the two men. It is David who asks the question, daring to hope that he might be allowed to keep hold of the piece of wood that, for him, has had the same effect as Tom’s oarweed.

The writer seems to be taken aback by the response of the two men. She had presumably brought them these objects with a view to inspiring them to be creative, but had not expected quite such a reaction.  However, the childlike grasping of oarweed and driftwood, and the emotional release that this has engendered, makes her see that, whatever the rules might say, it would be cruel to say No to David’s request. The answer seems to come after an internal debate (“knowing” versus “seeing”), but what other answer could there be?

The power of the physical

The reader is struck by Tom and David’s need for close physical contact with the oarweed and the driftwood. Tom does not just pick up the slimy seaweed but he presses it to his face so that he can smell it as well as feel it. David pushes a finger into the wood and “cradles” it. The seaweed and the wood become more than inanimate objects thrown up by the sea, they become living things to be caressed and, in David’s case, to be kept close at hand for as long as possible. These are sensual experiences that are symbolic of the human contact that the men have missed.

Anyone who is incarcerated, for whatever reason, has a pervading “idée fixe” that never leaves them, namely the prospect of freedom. Some take the risk of trying to escape, but for the vast majority the gaining of freedom must take other forms. As the Writers in Prison Network states: “Writing and the Arts are the only legitimate forms of escape”. In the cases of Tom and David, escape comes through the imagination and the writing inspired by these objects.

The contrast between the land and the sea, as encapsulated in the title of Lydia Fulleylove’s poetry collection, is a powerful one, especially as the sea is also a symbol of freedom. Anyone who lives on an island, be it relatively small like the Isle of Wight or somewhat larger like the mainland of Great Britain, knows that the sea is both a prison warder and a means of escape, if you have a boat or are a strong enough swimmer! In theory, the sea can take you anywhere you want to go on Planet Earth that has a coastline. The sea is also wild and untamed, with a thousand moods of its own. The sea is therefore both free in itself and the means of gaining freedom.

This is a very simple poem, presented in a minimalist way that tells its story with great economy in just twelve short lines, but it packs quite a punch. The reader is able to get inside the heads of all three people involved and to realise that, had they been any one of the three, their reaction would probably have been exactly the same. A good poet can say a lot with a little, and that is precisely what Lydia Fulleylove does here.

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

© John Welford

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

A Thunderstorm in Town, by Thomas Hardy

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

Thomas Hardy’s poem “A Thunderstorm in Town” is subtitled “A Reminiscence, 1893”. It was published in 1914 in his collection “Satires of Circumstance” and so must have written at some point between those two dates. Given the nature of the event recalled in the poem it is possible that Hardy withheld its publication until after the death of his first wife in 1912, or it may not have been written until after that occurrence. 

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) is known as both a novelist and a poet. Although his novel-writing and poetry overlapped, the novels all belong to the first 55 years of his life, after which he concentrated mostly on writing poems, of which he produced more than 900. The setting of “A Thunderstorm in Town”, although presumably not its writing, is about halfway between the publications of his two final novels, “Tess of the D’Urbevilles” (1891) and “Jude the Obscure” (1895).

Hardy’s marriage, to Emma Gifford, had taken place in 1874 but by 1893 it was going through a very difficult period. Hardy had become a famous writer who mixed with the glitterati of the London literary scene, but Emma did not have the intellectual capacity to keep up and was in turn regarded by London society as being dull and uninteresting.

The couple therefore spent much of their time apart, and Thomas was in turn proving attractive to other women, and they to him. “A Thunderstorm in Town” recounts a moment spent alone with one of those other women.

She was Florence Henniker, the daughter of Lord Houghton. She was a novelist herself, and, if not exactly Hardy’s intellectual or artistic equal, at least she was able to converse with him on terms of mutual understanding. They even collaborated on writing a fictional piece together. Hardy described her as a “charming, intuitive woman”. He was clearly deeply attracted to her and it is probably true to say that, of all Hardy’s extra-marital relationships, and there were several, this was the most serious. However, there was never any question of her leaving her husband, to whom she always remained loyal, and Hardy, who was an atheist, could not have coped with her sincerely held religious beliefs. 

“A Thunderstorm in Town” describes an incident shortly after they first met, when Hardy knew that he was becoming attracted to her but had not made his feelings fully known to her. 

The poem is very short, comprising ten lines in two stanzas, in which the rhyme scheme is not the same, being ABAAB in the first and ABBAB in the second (or CDDCD if considering the poem as a whole). The first stanza reads:

“She wore a new 'terra-cotta' dress,
And we stayed, because of the pelting storm,
Within the hansom's dry recess,
Though the horse had stopped; yea, motionless
We sat on, snug and warm.”

This sets the scene in five short lines that say no more and no less than is needed. The poet has accompanied a lady to her home by hansom cab. The reader does not know where the couple have been, and does not need to know. There is no past to this story, just a present and, as will be seen, a hint of a future. The lady is wearing a new dress and presumably has nothing to protect her from the elements, which are in the form of a sudden and unexpected thunderstorm with heavy rain. As she has no wish to ruin her dress by stepping from the cab, her best course is to stay put until the rain eases.

During the time when the poem was set, the horse-drawn hansom cab was ubiquitous in London, with thousands of them plying for hire and filling the streets. The carriage was slung between two large wheels and provided a single two-person seat on which the passengers sat side by side, facing forwards. The driver’s seat was high at the back, with the reins passing over the top of the cab. This meant that the passengers were conveyed in total privacy and were protected against the weather by two folding doors which covered their legs and a hinged glass screen that filled in the space above the doors. There was not much spare space inside the cab which meant that the passengers could, should they so choose, be quite intimate with each other. This was clearly what the poet had in mind. However:

“Then the downpour ceased, to my sharp sad pain,
And the glass that had screened our forms before
Flew up, and out she sprang to her door:
I should have kissed her if the rain
Had lasted a minute more.”

The thunderstorm ends as suddenly as it had begun, and the poet’s plan to turn the conservation into something more than a polite chat comes to nothing. She is clearly keen to get home as soon as she can and she steps out of the cab at the first opportunity. He would have liked the rain to last just a little longer so that he could steal a kiss.

It is interesting to read into these few lines the motivations of the two people involved. Had the woman wanted to be kissed, she could presumably have stayed long enough and not left as soon as the rain stopped. However, she is sitting in a cab with a man who is not her husband, outside her house in which, quite possibly, her husband is looking out for her. Once the rain had cleared, he would have been able to see that she was sharing the cab with a man. She would presumably have decided from the outset that she would “spring to her door” the second that the rain stopped, and this motivation would have overridden any desire to be kissed by her companion.

However, the poet clearly regrets that the opportunity has passed. It is quite possible that this is the first time that the couple have been together in such an intimate environment, and for a man in Victorian London who wanted to start an illicit relationship such opportunities would not have come along very often. He would not know when, if ever, the next chance for a stolen kiss would present itself. Very frustrating!

Maybe there is another element here, namely that the opportunity was there but he could not pluck up the courage to take it. The reader is not told how long the cab waited at the roadside while the horse was motionless, but it might have been several minutes during which he could have made his move. Did he blow his chance and then use the cessation of the storm as his excuse? Did he write the poem some time later to recall his stupidity in not seizing the moment when it presented itself? It is questions like these that make poems like this so fascinating! 

The reader does not know whether the poem is telling the story of an opportunity that has gone forever, or if the poet will ever get a second chance to demonstrate his feelings for the woman. This lends the poem a certain poignancy, although the actual event was not as critical to the relationship as the poem might suggest.

In any event, this is a poem to which most men can relate, although the sensation of having made a mess of an encounter with the opposite sex is one that is usually associated with young men of limited sexual experience, as opposed to men in their fifties, which is the age that Hardy was at the time of this incident. 

The reader must decide whether to take the poem at face value or to make use of the background knowledge outlined above. From the first perspective it could indeed be read as a recollection of youthful fumblings in the back of a cab, and it comes across as a portrayal of innocence. However, when the reader is aware that this is a well-respected married man in his fifties who is regretting his failure in making a pass at a married woman outside her own front door, and that she is afraid of being discovered in an embarrassing situation by her husband, the whole thing takes on a different meaning and becomes somewhat creepy and sinister. It is little wonder that Hardy did not consider this poem to be suitable for publication during his wife’s lifetime, assuming that it had been written prior to her death.

Although very short, and hardly the greatest poem ever written, “A Thunderstorm in Town” presents an interesting snippet of the psychology of sexual attraction, and is worth reading for that reason alone.

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

© John Welford

High Windows, by Philip Larkin

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

Philip Larkin was born in Coventry in 1922 and died in Hull in 1985. He worked in university libraries for most of his adult life, holding the post of chief librarian at the University of Hull from 1955. He also wrote poetry of a very high quality and is generally acknowledged as being one of Britain's greatest poets of the 20th century.
He had a complex personality and outlook on life, in which self-deprecation, pessimism and mockery combined with more positive and hopeful attitudes. In a 1972 radio interview he stated that "Somebody once said that the great thing is not to be different from other people but to be different from yourself", and many "different people" can be discerned in Larkin's poems, sometimes even within the same poem. 

The poem

"High Windows" is a case in point. It is the title poem of his third (and final) collection, published in 1974. He wrote relatively little poetry after this time, certainly not enough for another collection, and so the poems in this book can be seen as being as close to the "definitive" Larkin as is possible, given that it is not easy to arrive at a consensus as to what that definition might be.
The poem comprises five four-line stanzas in which there is rhyming of a sort; the first two stanzas rhyme (or half-rhyme) the second and fourth lines, but the other three have an ABAB pattern. However, the rhyming is almost casual (with a number of half-rhymes such as "back/dark" and "glass/endless") and is not relied upon to provide the poem's structure. 

In terms of grammar, the poem consists of four sentences of varying lengths, split between the stanzas such that the final lines of each of the first four stanzas are continuous with the first lines of the next. The poem therefore reads like a single thought process, starting with a bold (and possibly shocking) statement and ending with something much more profound. It runs as follows:

When I see a couple of kids 
And guess he's f**king her and she's 
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm, 
I know this is paradise 

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives -- 
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side 
Like an outdated combine harvester, 
And everyone young going down the long slide 

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if 
Anyone looked at me, forty years back, 
And thought, That'll be the life; 
No God any more, or sweating in the dark 

About hell and that, or having to hide 
What you think of the priest. He 
And his lot will all go down the long slide 
Like free bloody birds. And immediately 

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows: 
The sun-comprehending glass, 
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows 
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

(As originally printed, the words from "That'll be the life" to "free bloody birds" are in italics)

The poem was written in 1967, when Larkin was 45 years old and in charge of a large university library. He was therefore surrounded at his place of work by large numbers of students in their late teens and early twenties, at the height of the "swinging sixties" when young people had learned to express themselves fearlessly and not to be embarrassed by their sexual feelings for each other. 
Larkin could hardly fail to be aware of the "bonds and gestures pushed to one side", but the paradise in question is not that of the young couple but the dream of "everyone old", himself included. He regrets that he could not have behaved in this way when he was younger, due to the unavailability of modern birth control methods, and he envies the modern generation their sexual liberation. He uses the image of a fairground "long slide" to picture the one-way ride to endless happiness that this is bringing "everyone young". 
Larkin then throws the thought process backwards to imagine what the generation before his would have thought of his own prospect of liberation from constraint. However, this is expressed not in sexual but religious terms. It is release from fear of eternal damnation and offending the priesthood that he sees as their abiding desire, expressed in terms of envy of the next generation who will have the liberty that is denied to them.
The image of the long slide is used again as the means to achieve freedom. Once on the slide the desired outcome is inevitable, and Larkin reverses the traditional image of sliding downwards to perdition by emphasising that freedom must lie at its base, as does happiness for the generation that Larkin envies.
However, the final stanza brings all this to a halt in a rather startling way. The natural conclusion to the two scenarios that Larkin has offered would be the suggestion that every generation, going back to time immemorial, has thrown off the shackles of its parents and found liberty by sliding away from its constraints. But the image that Larkin has of his own situation is that the promise of godless and hell-less freedom has not been achieved. Instead, his thoughts turn to the "high windows" of a church or cathedral where he is still on the inside with the sunlight shining down on him. The promised freedom has therefore been an illusion.
The poem ends with a despairing recognition that there is no ultimate freedom. The young couple might hope for endless happiness, but what is endless is the "deep blue air" that "shows nothing, and is nowhere".  It is the windows that are "sun-comprehending" and not people with their mortal longings. 
By making "High Windows" the title poem of his collection, Larkin makes the point that the individual can never have what he or she ultimately wants, because they can never know what that is. Just as freedom from religion is not the answer, neither is 1960s "free love" and, Larkin implies, the same will apply to every imagined desire of future generations. 

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

 © John Welford

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

The Darkling Thrush, by Thomas Hardy

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

“The Darkling Thrush”, by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was published in the “Graphic” on 29th December 1900 and originally entitled “By the Century’s Death-bed”. Although it must have been written some days before that date, it was clearly intended to be read as though the poet was contemplating the closing of the final day of the 19th century (the Victorians had the good sense to realise that centuries begin with an “01” year, which their descendants 99 years later chose to ignore!)

The word “darkling” (meaning “in the dark”) only appears in Hardy’s revised title and not in the poem itself. It is a significant word in the context of understanding the poem, given that it was used in three poems with which Hardy was very familiar, and its use here was a deliberate reference to those earlier poems.

It appears in Book III of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” to describe a nightingale (“… the wakeful bird / Sings darkling …”), which was almost certainly why John Keats used the word in stanza six of his “Ode to a Nightingale” (“Darkling I listen …”). The third poem was “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold, in which one of the last lines reads: “And here we are as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms”. There are definite echoes of all three poems in “The Darkling Thrush”.

The poem

I leant upon a coppice gate
      When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
      The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
      Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
      Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
      The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
      The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
      Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
      Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
      The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
      Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
      In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
      Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
      Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
      Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
      His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
      And I was unaware.


Hardy’s poem comprises four eight-line stanzas in a standard ballad format of alternating tetrameters and trimeters (i.e. four and three stresses per line, respectively) having an ABABCDCD rhyme scheme. As might be expected with a ballad, the poem tells a story, with the first two stanzas setting the scene, the third describing the “action” and the fourth posing the question of what the action could mean. Thomas Hardy often experimented with poetic forms, but on this occasion he stuck with a tried and tested one which suited his needs admirably.

The theme of the poem is that the century is dying and the prospects for the next are far from certain. The 19th century had been one of great progress in many respects, but it had also undermined former certainties and left mankind in a state of bleakness and lack of understanding of the forces that science had revealed as being dominant in the world. One of the fixed points that had been removed as a buffer against doubt, for many intellectuals including Hardy, was religion and a sense of divine purpose. This was the basic theme of “Dover Beach”, mentioned above as a “darkling” poem.

The imagery of the poem is important in presenting these concepts. The setting is a coppice (a small wood) in the depth of winter, and the images of the first two stanzas suggest death and decay as well as cold. The frost is therefore “spectre-gray” and mankind does not “live” nearby but “haunt[s]”. The remaining hours of the day are “dregs” and the setting sun is a “weakening eye”. The twigs and stems that can be seen against the sky are “Like strings of broken lyres” that were typical images on Victorian grave-stones.

In the second stanza the imagery is extended to include the “Century’s corpse” such that the leaden sky becomes the roof of a crypt in which the century’s tomb might be placed and the wind is its “death lament”. It is not just the century that has died; it has taken with it the certainties of the Christian religion. Just as Nature has shrivelled (“The ancient pulse of germ and birth / Was shrunken hard and dry”), so has human spirituality (“And every spirit upon earth / Seemed fervourless as I”).

And then, in the midst of all this gloom and destitution, a thrush sings out “In a full-hearted evensong / Of joy illimited”. This would have to have been a mistle thrush rather than the much commoner song thrush. The mistle thrush (also known as the storm cock) is renowned for singing in mid-winter, late in the day and in gloomy conditions such as those described in Hardy’s poem.

The thrush’s song seems to be produced very much against the odds. The “aged” thrush is “frail, gaunt and small / In blast-beruffled plume”, but it has “chosen” to sing despite there being “So little cause for carolings”. As a symbol, the thrush can be seen as a contrary force to those of death and decay detailed earlier. It can represent the spirit of humanity that refuses to die along with the century and holds out the prospect of better times ahead, even though this might seem to be a forlorn hope.

The “blessed Hope” of which Hardy thinks the thrush is aware sounds, on the face it, like an optimistic view of a religious revival in the new century, when the doubts inspired by science and Darwinism would be set aside. However, the emphasis in Hardy’s words is that such a hope is irrational; it is the thrush that might have this hope, but the poet is not convinced. From the viewpoint of an agnostic humanist there was nothing to be gained from looking towards religion in order to gain hope for the future, as Milton would have done. The battered thrush is singing joyfully for no good reason and the song can therefore be rejected as a way forward. That said, the act of singing does have value in terms of being “a happy good-night air”, and man’s expressions of joy can do much to mitigate the drudgery of mechanical routine, but that is as far as it goes.

Hardy was more in sympathy with Keats, on hearing his nightingale, than with Milton. The parallels between Hardy’s poem and Keats’s are quite strong. For example, Hardy’s thrush “fling[s] his soul / Upon the growing gloom” whereas Keats’s nightingale “pours forth thy soul abroad”. Keats’s thoughts turn to death (“Now more than ever seems it rich to die”) and there is death imagery throughout Hardy’s first two stanzas, although Hardy stops short of Keats’s suicidal musings. “The Darkling Thrush” can therefore be seen as Hardy’s response to “Ode to a Nightingale”.

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

© John Welford

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

The Good-Morrow, by John Donne

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )
John Donne (1572-1631) is regarded by many critics as the greatest poet of the "metaphysical" school, who used language in new ways to express emotion and meaning at the same time. Donne's poetry falls into two main groups, namely that written before he "got religion" (he ended his life as Dean of St Paul's Cathedral) and that written after that event. Among his earlier works are the "Songs and Sonets", a set of love poems written over a period of time and which include "The Good-Morrow".

The poem

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I

Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?

But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?

Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?

’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.

If ever any beauty I did see,

Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.

And now good-morrow to our waking souls,

Which watch not one another out of fear;

For love, all love of other sights controls,

And makes one little room an everywhere.

Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,

Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,

Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,

And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;

Where can we find two better hemispheres,

Without sharp north, without declining west?

Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;

If our two loves be one, or, thou and I

Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.


"The Good-Morrow" consists of three 7-line stanzas with an ABABCCC rhyme scheme, although some of the rhymes read as half-rhymes in modern diction.
It is typical of Donne's poetic method in that it opens with a line (or several) that grabs the attention and then develops the theme through the poem. It also takes the form, used quite often by Donne, of posing a direct question either to himself or the subject of the poem. In this case it is both:

I wonder, by my truth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved; were we not weaned till then,
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers' den?

(The "Seven Sleepers" refers to a legend of the miraculous survival of seven Christians who fell asleep in a cave during the reign of the Roman Emperor Decius and were walled up, only to come to life when the cave was opened nearly 200 years later)

The question is therefore posed and answered: "Twas so". Donne then develops the "conceit" that being in love distorts one's sense of reality to such an extent that what went before was unreal. This is expressed by his statement that any woman who had taken his fancy in the past was "but a dream of thee".

In the second stanza the poem's title is explained by love having given rise to a "Seven Sleepers" miracle, and also adding a completely new dimension to the lovers' perception:

And now good morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room, an everywhere.

Modern readers might see that last line as almost a "Doctor Who's Tardis" concept, in that what seems small at the outset can contain a universe once opened. In Donne's view, the love of two people for each other can outweigh all other considerations and be as all-encompassing as they want it to be. The explorations of "sea-discoverers" (at a time when Europeans were still ignorant of large portions of the world) are irrelevant to the lovers who: "… possess one world, each hath one, and is one".

The third stanza introduces a new conceit that further develops the themes of re-awakening and discovery of new worlds:

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp North, without declining West?

To be awake, eyes must be open, and, as each lover looks fully into the eyes of the other, they see themselves, and their "true plain hearts" reflected. The eyeballs thus become hemispheres that, for the lovers, are just as wide-ranging and wonderful as those of Planet Earth. They are indeed superior to the geographical ones as they lack the coldness of "sharp North" and the sunset of "declining West".

Donne then throws in another idea, namely that lasting love must come from equal sharing between the partners, because "Whatever dies, was not mixed equally". The concluding couplet stresses this point:

If our two loves be one; or thou and I
Love so alike that none do slacken, none can die. 

Love therefore conquers all, is the only thing that matters, and is a rebirth to immortality. This is the "pre-religious" John Donne, but the Christian belief of spiritual rebirth is very close to what is being presented here.

In "The Good-Morrow", as with some other "Songs and Sonets", the poet is sincere and passionate, which suggests that the object of the passion could be Anne More, who became Donne's wife.

As a poem, "The Good-Morrow" is an example of something that was quite new to English poetry by beginning with a conversational and startling opening and projecting the reader into the poem in a way that holds their attention through a complex development of thought that preserves the passion rather than letting it cool. This was not always successfully done by the "Metaphysicals" (Donne included) who often let their delight in conceits and cleverness get in the way of the emotional content of their poems. "The Good-Morrow" is a good example of a John Donne poem in terms of its development but it is first and foremost a powerful love poem that never loses sight of its goal.

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

© John Welford