Thursday, 12 July 2018

The Prison and the Sea, by Lydia Fulleylove

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.

© John Welford

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

A Thunderstorm in Town, by Thomas Hardy

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.

High Windows, by Philip Larkin

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.

 © John Welford

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

The Darkling Thrush, by Thomas Hardy

“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”.

© 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

Winter Evening, by John Clare

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

The “Northamptonshire peasant poet” John Clare was born in 1793 to a farm labourer and his wife. He was fortunate to be given a rudimentary education, but he also had to work in the fields as a child and when older. His interest in writing poetry was sparked by reading a copy of “The Seasons” by the 18th century Scottish poet James Thomson, and he was already composing poems at the age of thirteen. His first collection (“Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery”) was published in 1820 after a chance discovery of one of his poems by a publisher. However, John Clare had many difficulties throughout his life as he tried to match his literary ambitions with the need to support a family, and his mental health came under severe strain. He spent the last twenty years of his life in a lunatic asylum although he continued to write during this time. He died in 1864.

The subject matter of his poetry was the countryside in which he spent most of his life. His eye for detail and sense of wonderment led him to produce a large number of poems in which plants, animals, birds and people are placed in the context of the changing seasons. For the main part his poems are simply descriptions, without attempting to draw profound conclusions about the meaning and purpose of the cosmos or Man’s place in it.

“Winter Evening” is a good example. It runs as follows:

The crib-stock fothered, horses suppered-up

And cows in sheds all littered down in straw

The threshers gone, the owls are left to whoop

The ducks go waddling with distended craw

Through little hole made in the henroost door

And geese with idle gabble never o’er

Bate careless hog until he tumbles down

Insult provoking spite to noise the more

While fowl high-perched blink with contemptuous frown

On all the noise and bother heard below

Over the stable ridge in crowds the crow

With jackdaws intermixed known by their noise

To the warm woods behind the village go

And whistling home for bed go weary boys

This is ostensibly a sonnet, in that it has fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, but it fails the test of the traditional sonnet, whether Petrachan or (to a lesser extent) Shakespearean, by not including a “turn” (or “volta”) to divert the flow of the poem and introduce a conflicting thought or solution to a problem. Clare’s poem is a smooth flow of description all the way through. Also, the rhyme scheme (ABABBBCcDEEDEF) is highly idiosyncratic and fits none of the generally accepted schemes for a sonnet.

However, these divergences from tradition do not seem to matter, and neither does Clare’s lack of punctuation apart from commas in the first and third lines. His grammar is sometimes a little wayward (as in “Through little hole”) and he occasionally uses words that were familiar to him as a Northamptonshire countryman but which need “translation” for anyone who is not (such as “fothered” for “foddered” in the first). Again, these discrepancies are immaterial and do not distract from the general impression of the poem.

Many poets might have treated this subject matter with pious sentimentality. Not so John Clare. There is no piety here, with God left well out of reach, and certainly no sentimentality. All the animals and birds mentioned here are doing exactly what they might be expected to do. They are not being held up as examples for mankind to follow or avoid, neither are their actions anthropomorphised into human ones, with the possible sole exception of the “contemptuous frown” of the fowl perched on the beams of the barn.

Clare’s diction is more 18th than 19th century in tone, and, although there is a touch of Romanticism in his poetry, his control and poise are more Classical or Augustan. This comes in part from his early devotion to the work of James Thomson, who belonged to the previous century, but also from his desire simply to express what he saw and felt in straightforward words and phrases.

A true Romantic might well have described the approach of night on a farm in terms of everything going quiet and peace descending on man and beast alike. However, that is far from the impression that Clare conveys. Within the fourteen lines there are six distinct references to noise, from the whoop of the owls in the third line to the whistling boys in the last. The word “noise” appears three times in alternate lines in the second half of the poem. At the heart of the poem the gabbling geese annoy the hog, and his noise offends the fowl looking down. This is followed immediately by the noise of crows and jackdaws outside the farm buildings and then there are the whistling boys to finish off. This is hardly a scene of agrarian serenity!

However, this is all offered without comment or any suggestion that this winter evening is in any way unusual or remarkable. This is life on the farm as it is every evening in winter when the animals are fed and gathered together for the cold night to come. Country life, whether natural or agricultural, is one of routine and repetition, and the scene painted by John Clare is offered without fanfare or fuss because of its normality.

It is the simplicity of John Clare’s choice of vocabulary and use of language that makes his poems so approachable, as well as his refusal to make more of a situation than it deserves. It is left to the reader to observe the poem in the same spirit that Clare used to observe the scene he describes.

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

© John Welford

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Peace, by Henry Vaughan

See the source image

Henry Vaughan (1621-95) wrote poetry in the “metaphysical” tradition of John Donne and George Herbert, and declared himself to be a disciple of the latter. Some of his poems are indeed such close parallels to some of Herbert’s that the latter, had he still been alive, might have considered suing
Vaughan for plagiarism! That said, Vaughan did have a distinctive poetic voice of his own, and some of his poems are remarkably well-wrought and expressive.

“Peace” is a short poem that was included in Henry Vaughan’s 1650 collection of religious poems entitled “Silex Scintillans” (“The Flaming Flint”). It runs as follows:

My soul, there is a country

Afar beyond the stars,

Where stands a winged sentry

All skilful in the wars:

There above noise and danger

Sweet Peace sits crowned with smiles,

And One born in a manger

Commands the beauteous files.

He is thy gracious friend

And – O my soul, awake! –

Did in pure love descend

To die here for thy sake.

If thou canst get but thither,

There grows the flower of Peace,

The Rose that cannot wither,

Thy fortress, and thy ease.

Leave then thy foolish ranges

For none can thee secure,

But one who never changes,

Thy God, thy life, thy cure.

This is a simple poem with a simple message, and it is not surprising that it has appeared over the years in many church hymn books, split into four four-line stanzas. However, it is worth examining the methods that Vaughan uses to get his meaning across.

The poem is addressed to the poet (“my soul”), and is therefore introspective. It is a meditation rather than a sermon, intended as a reminder and statement of one’s own faith rather than a call to others.

It speaks of Heaven as “a country far beyond the stars” that is guarded by a winged and experienced sentry. Vaughan clearly has a concept of Heaven as a physical location that has the trappings of an earthly nation, governed by a monarch and comprising “beauteous files” of angels. However, whereas nations are generally warlike, this one is ruled by Peace who wears a crown of “smiles” as opposed to gold or laurels.

Vaughan assumes that his readers will know the nature of the Holy Trinity and therefore not be phased by the apparent distinction between Peace, who wears the crown, and “the one born in a manger” who does the commanding. In Christian theology, they are one and the same being.

There is a short diversion to consider the role of Christ as friend and saviour, then Vaughan returns to exhorting his soul to “get but thither”. He then uses the image of the rose as “the flower of Peace”, followed by that of the fortress as the securer of peace against all troubles.

The concluding lines are reinforcement of the need for faith during one’s earthly life and the need to “leave … thy foolish ranges”. It is noticeable that God is only mentioned by name in the final line, being referred to as Peace in the rest of the poem. Vaughan may well have been thinking about the names of the Messiah given by Isaiah (9:6) as “The Mighty God” and “The Prince of Peace”.

The basic message of the poem is that peace, whether on earth or in Heaven, depends on security. Heaven is guarded, but it is also the source of security, not only for the soul that reaches it but for people of faith who accept God as their fortress.

The idea of Heaven as a country is one that has been taken up by other poets and hymn writers, one example being Cecil Spring-Rice in his 1908 poem “I vow to thee, my country” (famously set to music by Gustav Holst) which also includes the line “and all her paths are peace”. Spring-Rice uses the line “But there’s another country I’ve heard of long ago”; one wonders if it could have been Vaughan’s poem, used a school or church hymn, that was where he first did the hearing.

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

© John Welford