Wednesday, 9 May 2018

The Spirit, by Geraldine Atkinson

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )
“The Spirit” is a poem of great beauty and tenderness that was written by a 13-year old girl who had no idea at the time that it would prove to be tragically prophetic. 
Geraldine Atkinson (1984-2009) was a pupil at Henrietta Barnett School in Hampstead, north London, from 1998 to 2002 and she then studied medicine at University College London. She had qualified as a doctor and was on the brink of what promised to be a highly successful career when she went on holiday with friends to Iceland early in 2009. On 7th February she was found dead in bed, having died from an extremely rare and undiagnosed brain condition, aged only 24.
The poem she had written eleven years previously was set to music by Gabriel Jackson who was commissioned to do so by Geraldine’s parents. As a member of the Vasari Singers, Mrs Atkinson was one of those who recorded the song in 2012 as an accompanying piece to Gabriel Jackson’s “Requiem”. For the purpose of the musical setting the title of the poem was changed to its first line (i.e. “I am the Voice of the Wind”) although the “The Spirit” was the title original chosen by the poet and is therefore the correct one.

The poem
I am the voice of the wind on your cheek,
I am the warmth of fire between fingers.
I am the smell of spring in the air,
I am the stars to lead you home.
I am the echoes in the caves of loneliness,
I am the rain to cool your skin.
I may be gone from this life my friend,
But remember I am not yet dead.


The poem is eight lines of blank verse, the first six of which begin “I am the …”.  It is addressed to “my friend” (line 7) who could have been intended to be someone who knew Geraldine personally, but, because the term is used more widely in general converse, the poem can have a much wider appeal, especially if the poet is not identified as one specific person. It is therefore like many poems that people find can speak to them individually even though that was not the poet’s original intention. 
Geraldine takes six instances of how the natural world makes itself known to a person in gentle, unobtrusive ways, but she avoids cliché, in most cases, by relating the natural phenomenon to the person being addressed in terms that suggest a direct, and beneficial, link with the disembodied spirit that is the poet.
Hence the reference to stars in line 4 is that they “lead you home”, and the echoes of line 5 are in the “caves of loneliness”, with the implication that the echoes make the caves less lonely. The rain in line 6 has a specific purpose, which is to “cool your skin”.
Even the “warmth of fire” in line 2 is not on the fingers but “between fingers”. The poet could easily have written “on your fingers”, which would have matched “on your cheek” in line 1, but chose to abandon “your” in favour of “between”, with “your” having to be taken as read due to the use of an extra syllable. This subtle change of emphasis is significant because it emphasises the greater intimacy of the touch; the warmth does not just hit the fingers but it infuses between and mingles with them. 
The final couplet makes its impact by phrasing the conclusion in a rather startling way. Geraldine could have said something along the lines of “All these things will keep my memory fresh for you when I am gone, and it will seem to you as if I am still alive”, but that would have been to repeat an age-old cliché and she clearly wanted to avoid doing that. Instead, she says in line 7 that “I may be gone from this life” but in line 8 “remember I am not yet dead”. On the face of it, this sounds like a direct contradiction, so how can both statements be true?
One possibility is that “this life” refers only to a specific relationship between the poet and “my friend” and that 13-year-old Geraldine, with the whole of her life ahead of her, was not thinking about death at all. However, that does seem unlikely given the whole tone of the poem, and the fact that a girl of that age would surely not have referred to a friendship, however intensely felt, as “this life”. 
One therefore comes back to the conviction that Geraldine Atkinson really was contemplating her own death when she wrote this poem, in an exercise of imagination that shows an amazing degree of maturity in both emotional and poetic terms. So how can the apparent paradox be resolved?
An interpretation of “I am not yet dead” that offers itself is “I am not yet dead as long as you are alive”. The person who has gone from “this life” continues to live in the forms of all the phenomena listed in the preceding lines and will always be a part of that person because of them. This is not just a matter of being reminded about the dead person by “the wind on your cheek”, etc, because it goes a lot deeper than that. Memory is one thing, but an abiding presence is another. It is similar to what religious people apparently mean when they say that their God is always with them and is, indeed, part of them. 
A note of caution is, however, appropriate in relation to this poem's originality. It is hard to imagine that Geraldine Atkinson had not read "Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep" by Mary Elizabeth Frye (written in 1932), as the parallels are quite striking:

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

Frye's poem also mentions wind, rain and stars as examples of how the departed person is still in the company of those left behind, and the final line, "I am not there, I did not die", is also remarkably close to the sentiment expressed by Geraldine Atkinson. It would be a hard call to say that Geraldine plagiarised the earlier poem, but it would be remarkable if she had not been greatly influenced by it.
That said, "The Spirit", as it stands, is a powerful and well-constructed poem, by a talented and highly sensitive poet, and is one to which many people can relate. It speaks more directly than Frye's poem and it is Geraldine's voice that speaks, not Mary Elizabeth Frye's. If the poem started life as a classroom exercise to write one's own version of "Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep", then Geraldine Atkinson passed the test with flying colours and created something that came from within herself and is, to that extent, original.
It is a fulfilled prophecy in more ways than one. Not only is there the tragic coincidence that it came true far sooner that anyone could have predicted, but it is itself an example of the words of the poem, namely a means of getting inside the reader, if they had known Geraldine personally, in a way that they can never forget. The existence of this poem, particularly in its brilliant musical evocation by Gabriel Jackson, means that Geraldine Atkinson will always be alive to them, and other readers who have suffered a bereavement can imagine that they will always have a similar relationship with their loved one.
As a potential “funeral poem”, if for no other reason, “The Spirit” deserves to be much more widely known.
( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )
© John Welford

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