D. H. Lawrence – Bavarian Gentians

Turning the decorative and incidental into something all-consuming, the flowers the give this poem its name symbolise the passionate, uncontrollable essence of the human as Lawrence sees it. The darkness so prominent in the poem is at once the id, sex, death and madness – held together by their shared connection with the Classical myth of Persephone and Dis. It is an ethereal concoction of unstable forces which oppose the light – representative of hope, truth and goodness – offering an alluring, primeval guidance. Lawrence’s use of allusion seems to encourage a universal application of the poem’s ideas, with the flowers as a symbol for the human condition. Yet there is a deliberate, though problematic effort to eschew this generalization and present them as a personal symbol, a confession of the speaker’s own dark passions. This despite the consuming darkness in the imagery of the poem, that removes all distinctions and makes any notion of individuality impossible. Continue reading

Elizabeth Bishop – Sestina

A poem named for its form might suggest a mere technical exercise, but here the sestina structure is emphasized as a means of understanding the poems very powerful discourse on fate, loss and relationships. The cyclical nature of the form seems to work against the sense of foreboding generated by the ominously characterized ‘almanac’. At the same time it reinforces the imagery of astrology and fate – conceiving the rotation of the end-words like that of celestial bodies. The weaving, seamless pattern of the repeated words provides a distinct contrast and reflection upon the damaged bonds of relationship in the poem – the absent mother and disconnected grandmother and child. ‘Sestina’ comes to embody and reflect the world evoked by Bishop, rather than displacing it with an abstract form. Continue reading

Seamus Heaney – Death of a Naturalist

This poem addresses disillusionment and people’s changing perspectives as they age. The speaker attempts to divine – dramatized through the stanza break – a pivotal moment in childhood when his attitude towards the world changed. The poem refuses to allow this clear distinction, and presents obliquely the difficulty we have in kn owing ourselves and understanding our origins. The antithetical themes of ‘Death’ in the title and fecundity in nature betray a deep-set anxiety about mortality as the root cause of this self-examination attempted in the poem.

The poem is structured so as to encourage a binary reading of the speaker’s recollections. The first stanza might be seen to present an idyllic childhood, with the nostalgic tone of ‘I would fill jampotfuls’. In the classroom scene, the simplicity of the language allows us to see through the speaker’s childhood eyes. The naive amazement of ‘You can tell the weather by frogs too’ has the voice of a child behind it. The stanza break is emphasized by the  fairy-tale expression ‘Then one hot day’. We are forced to view this as the pivotal moment – the part of the fable where fortunes are reversed and everything changes. Accompanying this is a new tone of disgust in the voice of the poem, conveyed particularly in the vulgarity of the description, ‘their blunt heads farting, / I sickened, turned and ran’. The speaker wants to imagine this as the moment of disillusionment about nature and life – moving from the idyllic childhood world where tadpoles burst from jelly to the muck and ugliness of the adult world.

We are prevented from accepting this account, however, by the ambivalent attitude the poem takes towards nature from the start. The rural image created by the archaic sounding ‘flax-dam’ in the first line is interrupted by ‘Of the townland’ in the second, where the rhythm also breaks with the iambic pentameter established in the first line. Also we notice that the proliferation of images of decay begins not in the second stanza but in the first with ‘festered’, and ‘bluebottles’. The pre-disillusionment recollection is not protected from the speaker’s present, more pessimistic perspective. Rich onomatopoeia in ‘gurgling’, ‘sods’ and ‘spotted butterflies’ drenches the scene in colour but also creates a literal ‘gauze of sound’ – an over abundance of guttural sounds that suggests a stifling, ‘heavy’ atmosphere. We are made to see that there is no empirical difference between the world of the frogspawn and that of the frogs. The speaker’s attempt to define and rationalize the change in his perspective is shown to be inadequate as a means of explaining what defies understanding.

This discourse on the difficulty of knowing one’s origins comes out in the poem’s ambivalence towards fertility. The primal violence of the ‘fattening dots burst’ and the ‘thick slobber / of frogspawn’ contrasts with the facile description offered by the teacher conveyed in the repetitions ‘And how… and how’. Clearly there is something alluring in this primal fecundity that draws the young child – the dense language can be seen as another expression of extreme overpowering fertility. By the end the change that has occurred is a new revulsion to the process of birth, which now becomes something malignant and ‘unnatural’, ‘if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it’. This image of the hidden monster invites us to view the poem from a Freudian perspective. Here the child’s fixation with conception and fertility is an expression of the family romance. The dramatic shift to an attitude of repulsion towards mother and father symbols in the frogs can be seen as the flowering of the Oedipus complex, with the lurking malevolence in the lake representing the ever-present id. Such a reading certainly contributes to the poem’s confrontation of the way we see our childhoods, but the antithesis between ‘Death’ in the title and the abundance of nature in the poem would remain unaccounted for. These can be seen as reflecting the source of worries about origins – a fear of mortality. Like the first stanza of Yeats’ ‘Sailing to Byzantium with its ‘salmon-crowded seas’, this poem exhibits a revulsion to all things growing and reproducing because they provide a damning contrast to the frail and ageing soul.

This poem creates a powerful but ambivalent view of nature as both rich and fertile but also malignant and repulsive. It questions the ways in which we attempt to reconcile ourselves with our past, and suggests that doing so is much more difficult than any notion of a  revelatory event or psychological complex – there is something inevitably left out by all of these attempts.

Sylvia Plath – The Ghost’s Leavetaking

This poem focuses on the moment of waking up and invokes the dream-state in a luscious menagerie of images. It is interested in transitions, the state of semi-consciousness ‘between two worlds’, and draws connections between sleep and death, where mortality is portrayed as both terrifying and embracing. The nature of dreams as at once ludicrous and utterly sincere is used as a prism through which to see the whole of existence. The ghost of the title can be seen both as the shadow of a dream after waking, and also the dreamer themself in a wakened world.

The poem’s interest in transitional states and dreaming is conveyed from the first line where ‘no-one’s land’ uses the stock image of disputed territory to suggest a place between definitions, with no unique qualities but notable only for the two concrete things it is not. The alien feeling of remembered dreams is conjured in the vivid soundscapes created by different word sounds, ‘void’, ‘draggled lot’, ‘sulfurous’, playing off each other in cacophony. This aural representation of colour is countered by the sterility imposed by ‘no-colour void’ – mimicking the return of reality which banishes these memories of colour. The poem attempts to hold both states in suspension, capturing the moment of transition when both ‘worlds’ are available. There is a sense in which the wakened state seems the more false, the more one-dimensional. It is a ‘ready-made creation’, reflecting the fact that it appears instantly on regaining consciousness, but reinforcing the sense of sterility – it has been pre-prepared, and populated with banal objects, ‘chairs and bureaus’ as if it itself had been mass-produced.

The poem makes allusion to Egyptian rituals and culture to present dreaming and sleep ans intimately connected with death. The ‘twisted sheets‘ found on waking are the only evidence of actions in the night that have now been forgotten. They have associations of mummification, the Egyptian practice that has also faded in the memory, and decayed physically, to leave ‘twisted sheets’ as its only remnant. It brings associations of ancient ritual, mysticism that is picked up in the idea of ‘hieroglyphs’. The ‘chairs and bureaus’ become profound symbols with divine significance, something ‘wakened heads ignore’. Trying to interpret dreams is likened to attempting to delve into a mysterious history, interpreting symbols that now seem devoid of meaning. The image of the ghost, ‘Upraised, as a hand, emblematic of farewell’ bears a resemblance to an ancient depiction of a deity, with ’emblematic’ seeing this figure as another symbol in the hieroglyphics of the dream. The ‘rocky gizzard of the earth’ represents death, with the harsh sounding ‘gizzard’ reflecting the pain of mortality, and resembling buzzard‘, which in turn recalls the bird of prey represented in Egyptian hieroglyphs. This ghost does not descend into death, however, but instead rises into thinner ‘atmosphere’ – the world of reality.

The poem also looks at dreams as a means of exploring the bond between banality and profundity. The transformation of the ‘chairs and bureaus’ is an example of this already noted, we also see in the ‘region’ the ghost ascends to a ‘point of exclamation’ like a ‘stellar carrot’. The bathetic vegetable simile is imposed upon an image that perhaps alludes to another poem I’ve recently written on, Eliot’s The Hollow Men, where the different ‘regions’ of Dante’s Hell and Purgatory are invoked in a fear of death and judgement. So the profound and terrifying resolves in this poem in to absurdity – the absurdity of dreams ‘which seemed when dreamed to mean so profoundly much’, but also of real life.

The figure of the ghost in the poem can therefore be seen to represent the half-remembered dream – which like a dream is both there and not there. The ‘ghost of our mother and father, ghost of us’ are the fragmented resemblances of people in dreams that bear only ephemeral connections to reality. These lines also indicate that the ‘ghost’ is also the dreamer themself, where the ‘ghosts’ of the family are the wakened family living in reality. This is underscored by the recurrence of the ‘head’ at the start and end of the poem, first clearly the dreamer’s ‘waking head’, and at the end the ‘dreaming skull’ of the ghost – a figure both intimate and familiar, but also a representation of death.

This poem takes an ambivalent look at dreams both as the most profound human experience but also as death-in-minature. The speaker seems grimly reconciled with what is portrayed as an empty, sterile reality – seeing humour in the absurdity of existance and poetry in the escape of unconsciousness.

T.S. Eliot – The Hollow Men

This poem addresses a vapid, futile state of existence that Eliot sees as symptomatic of modern existence. The allusions and pretensions of the speakers to Tragedy, Epic and significant historical events, highlight the emptiness, the ‘hollow’ness of the lives the poem describes. Eliot tries to capture the terror and paralysis of modern Man.

The poem opens in the style of an incantation – anticipating a preoccupation with ritual and the demonic throughout. The speakers ‘whisper together’, with repetition suggesting sorcery or magic spells, and yet they produce nothing. The two lines starting ‘Shape without form’ address this idea of matter robbed of its purpose or essential value. The rituals of the poem work towards no end, just as for Eliot the rituals of modern life are futile and empty. Eliot makes a deliberate effort to make the everyday seem not just mundane but malignant and grotesque. The terrifying image conjured by the ‘Here we go round the prickly pear’ section advances this – we imagine children dancing and chanting round a cactus in the desert in the half-light like a scene from Lord of the Flies. Other rituals in the poem are the ‘supplication of a dead man’s hand’, and ‘prayers to broken stone’. All are futile, all seem to ape religion in a burlesque, morbid way. They are all representative of the seemingly innocent routines we follow day by day in an attempt – as Eliot sees it – to charm away death or the fear of death.

A central allusion in the poem is to Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot. This event is a representative for human kind’s ability to act, but also of an act stopped in the moment of completion. The Hollow Men are introduced ‘in our dry cellar’, likened to the conspirators with heads ‘leaning together’. Like th plot, the Hollow Men’s attempts at agency end ‘Not with a bang, but a whimper’. Eliot sees every human action in the modern world as fraught with doubt, self-loathing and fear, invariably leading to the inhibition of any meaningful progress. Hence the Hollow Men are also likened to the effigies of Guy Fawkes burnt on Bonfire Night, ‘filled with straw’. They are grotesque impersonators of human agency, ridiculed and condescended to as in the poem’s epigram, ‘A penny for the Old Guy’. The idea of effigy is developed to a disguise, the Hollow Men are seen as scarecrows, ‘Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves / In a field’. the strange and ugly objects that adorn these figures might stand for the useless trappings of modern life that dress us up but don’t ultimately hide us from death.

The tone of the speakers in the poem alludes to theatre and especially Elizabethan Tragedy. The pretension in the voices of the Hollow Men, the exclamations ‘Alas!’ and Dr Faustus-like desire to defer judgement, ‘No nearer – / Not that final meeting’, always reminds us that these figures are not tragic heroes or even actors. They haven’t over-reached like Marlowe’s Faustus, they are unable to reach at all. Like Elizabethan tragedy, the poem stresses the difference between the exterior and the corruptible flesh underneath. The ‘broken jaw’ might remind us of Yorrick’s skull in Hamlet, as well as Samson’s massacre of the Philistines – another ironic reference to a figure notable for the things he did.

Ritual and disguise are seen as a desperate attempt to suspend judgement or death by the Hollow Men, who fear being held accountable for their failed lives. Dense allusions to Dante emphasize the eternal state of waiting and deference of Limbo. They ‘grope together’ on the shore of the Styx, river of the underworld. The phrase suggests brutalized sexuality of the kind identified by Eliot in the Waste Land. It also implies blindness, eyes being a recurrent motif in the poem. Judgement is through sight, therefore the Hollow Men ‘dare not meet’ each other’s gaze, and ‘avoid speech’. As in Prufrock, to interact or communicate is to be judged, and for the Hollow Men to be judged is to confront their Limbo – a neutral world of nothingness.

One could see The Hollow Men as a satire, pushing that genre as far as it will go in terms of bitterness and lack of sympathy towards the subject. It seems to go beyond even those limits, however, to a place where Eliot expresses neither pity nor disgust for the people he describes. Fittingly for the vacuous modern world he describes, he seems to feel nothing at all.