Robert Frost – Directive

The rigidity of form and metre in this poem belies its reticence with respect to meaning. The stanzaless block of iambic pentameter suggests something concrete and tangible, but this is not what we are offered. What’s clear form the lethargic, reminiscent voice of the poem is a preoccupation with memory, history and confusion. There is a sense of narrative movement, as we are taken up a road, past a town and into mountains with a house and stream. Impressed upon us is the idea that what was here is no longer here; other than that we are left feeling that a deeper meaning is being withheld, that a more complete narrative lurks untold in the background. Part of the poem’s discourse is conveyed by this effect it has on the reader, a sense of unfulfillment and confusion.

Not far into the poem we begin to question who is speaking to us, and from what perspective. The ‘Directive’ of the title suggests a command, a set of instructions perhaps in a will. The speaker knows the place he’s describing, he offers directions and describes landmarks, ‘this side of Panther Mountain’. Yet the speaker is not present. The voice gains a complex character behind it when it suggests, ‘if you’ll let a guide direct you / Who only has at heart your getting lost’. This cryptic remark suggests that being ‘lost’ has a greater significance than its surface meaning – it seems almost to have a positive connotation, in that it instigates the journey and allows the rest of the poem to take place. The apparent futility and absurdity of a guide who gets you lost is clarified later by the idea of being ‘lost enough to find yourself’. The poem involves its reader in this ‘lostness’, withholding the placemarkers of clear character and narrative to generate confusion. ‘Finding oneself’ usually denotes a mental process, a personal examination of one’s own psyche, and there is evidence to suggest that this narrative is a kind of allegory for something happening within the mind. The image of detail dissolving ‘like graveyard marble sculpture’ at the start of the poem reflects the fading of memory over time. The way the poem chews itself up and reconstitutes itself in repeated phrases, ‘cellar holes’, and ‘playhouse’.

The portrayal of landscape in the poem also contributes to the idea that we are seeing into someone’s mind. The three bleak lines starting ‘There is a house that is no more a house’, project a landscape of absences – a void containing shadows of what it used to contain. This is another picture of frail memory. As the poem continues, however, this darkness is filled with scenery on an awesome, almost grotesque scale, the quarry with ‘great monolithic knees’, that in turn recalls for the speaker the ‘Glacier / That braced his feet’. Nature is personified as a crouched or lying giant, all legs and limbs – reflecting the distorting, romanticising effect of reconstituted memory. All the time these images are undermined, however, as the voice acknowledges that they are in some sense imagined, ‘as if it should have been a quarry’, ‘there’s something in a book about it’. The poem is almost grappling with itself over the substance or lack of it in these images, and the poem’s effort is in getting down to an essence of memory that can be trusted. Even here we have a conflict in terms of the direction to go looking for this truth: one set of images takes us from ‘knees’ down to ‘feet’ down to the ‘instep arch’, perhaps the leg shape of the glacier being echoed in the form of the poem. Meanwhile the ‘road’ leads upwards towards the source of ‘spring’ at the end of the poem.

The mood of the poem generally is one of sadness and loss. A sense of nostalgia is created by glimpses of pastoral warmth and beauty, ‘pecker-fretted apple trees’, where homely, dialectic diction suggests fondness and remembrance. These glimpses are brief, ceding to the grim present reality of the ‘road’, which reminds us that these rural scenes ‘are lost’. A sense of confusion is reinforced at the end of the poem where the ‘broken drinking goblet’, which with associations or Romance quests places itself as the ostensible object of the poem’s journey, turns out to have been stolen ‘from the children’s playhouse’. This is in itself ‘make-believe’, casting the journey of the poem in an ambivalent light. The waters that make us ‘whole again’ might be the forgetting waters of the river Lethe or the life-giving waters of the Bible – both would put us ‘beyond confusion’ in very different ways, through death or in perfect divine knowledge.

This poem deliberately resists linear interpretation in order to create in the reader an experience of confusion and being lost. It offers glimpses of an individual, personal narrative, but withholds information that would give a complete and concrete picture – leaving the reader feeling there is more meaning just out of reach.


Kathleen Jamie – The Way We Live

The poem seeks to highlight the fragmented oddity of human existence. Its imagery is at times profound, seeming to strive for the grandeur and beauty of epic poetry, and at times mercilessly banal – making heavy use of bathos to make us aware of the dislocated nature of our lives. Just as the imagery seems to want to burst out of its surroundings, so too does the form, with deliberately conspicuous enjambement contributing to the rhapsodical, flowing style.

The poem is framed as a kind of hymn, recalling the Book of Psalms in its reference to ‘tambourine’ and ‘praise’. The exhortational, celebratory tone conveys an enjoyment of the oddities described. The reference to ‘Lord God‘ might be taken at face value, dedicating the poem to an originator of this chaotic beauty. Alternatively, the addition of ‘of movement’ might negate the religious element and suggest a more general celebration of the force governing human existence, or perhaps just life itself. Ultimately the poet doesn’t make it explicit whetherGod is present behind the poet, but we feel that the symmetry suggested by the return to ‘pass the tamborine’ in the final line implies a governing creative intelligence responsible for making order out of the chaos.

Descriptions of natural grandeur and emotional complexity are juxtaposed with the banal and the mundane to suggest the oddity of existence. The image that opens Stanza 2 encapsulates this variety. The mundanity of windscreen wipers, their ‘pulse’ echoed in the strong iambic rhythm through these two lines, is expanded and elevated to something majestic with the developed description of moorland. The place name ‘Rannoch’ lends an authenticity to the poet’s description, and the harsh consonance and ‘rock’ resemblance make the word seem suitable for a bitter, desolate place.¬† The lines that follow have the feel of a supressed epic simile, something better fitted to a narrative poem. The personified elements seem almost to be shaped to fit Classical allusions, and although of course none are given we have the sense of the poem trying to burst out of its meagre form. We can see the poem’s imagery as reflecting its message – humanity is simultaneously at home in the mundane and dreary, and yearning for more profound experience.

The poem implies deep and complex emotion without explicitly stating it. The line ‘Of airports, impulse, and waking to uncertainty’ develops a whole series of scenarios by implication. Combining ‘airports’ and ‘impulse’ we see a desire to escape, the idea of leaving one’s life behind and starting again. ‘Waking to uncertainty’ combines with the preceeding ideas to temper this excitement with fear, perhaps bringing to mind deportation; on its own it might represent illness or old age. The poem also offers itself as a profound reevaluation of life’s mundane aspects. The union of ‘Final Demands and dead men’ recasts the threat of unpaid bills from something serious to something absurdly minor in comparison with the threat of mortality.

In its striking contrasts and fluid movements, this poem aims to echo and to celebrate the complexity and curiosity of human existence. It tempers a recognition of the banal necesities of modern life with a suggestion that human beings might be capable of greater things, something echoed in the form and structure.

W.B. Yeats – Who Goes with Fergus?

This poem takes the tone of a passionate exhortation, evoking a mysterious figure in ‘Fergus’ as it asks the reader not to ‘brood on hopes and fear’. The ABCABC rhyme scheme gives a harmonious sound to the poem which compliments the lyrical imagery, without being so overpowering as to make the poem seem like a simplistic proverb or moral lesson, with all its imperative tense.

The central figure of the poem remains difficult to define; he could be read as one who has freed himself from ‘brooding’ or, as seems more likely, has been consumed by it. The insistance on ‘now’ in the first line seems to suggest that Fergus’ present state of aloneness has been recently brought about. The wildness of the ‘wood’ and ‘shore’ seem clear metaphors for the troubled, brooding psyche – ‘woven’ suggests that this mental darkness is of painstaking human construction, through the act of brooding. The connotation of pain in ‘pierce’ might reflect back on Fergus, or any other brooding person, as the emotional pain of ‘bitter’ ‘love’. There is an ominous quality to the image of the third line, suggesting both druidic devotion and insanity as contained within the idea ‘brooding’.

However, an alternative reading might see Fergus’ ‘driving’ as the carefree action of someone who has ‘pierced’ his tendancy to brood, using the word to mean ‘broken’ or ‘found a way through’. A person who now ‘dances’ on the brooding psyche as an act of defiance. This interpretation seems weaker in the light of the rest of the poem, however, and one could see it as a fault in the poem that it leaves such a contrary reading available.

The poem uses archaic language, as part of striving for a traditional, romantic ‘poetic’ style suggested by the imagery of woods, sea and stars. The tone of exhortation is achieved by anaphora, repeatedly beginning lines with ‘And’ to suggest passion and a build up of feeling. This is felt also in the repetition over lines 6 and 7. The exhortation finds its subjects in lines 4 and 5 – they are characterized in archaic terms – a ‘maid’ and a ‘young man’ with a ‘russet brow’. Yeats takes care to emphasize their youth – young love and carefree youth being offered implicitly as alternatives to ‘brooding’ in the poem. They are asked to no longer ‘turn aside’, suggesting both a physical action indicating shyness and reluctance, as well as connoting self-withdrawl and abandonment of something. Here the reading which sees Fergus as a warning rather than an example takes precedence – we see a parallel with his lonesome ‘driving’ – he seems to have ‘turned aside’ from something.

All description in the poem contributes to the image of a dark, encompassing world of ‘brooding’. The young man’s ‘russet brow’ calls to mind the opening scenes of Hamlet and the ‘dawn in russet mantle clad’ which drives Old Hamlet’s ghost away. Invoking the play brings associations of troubled youth, and ominous, mysterious darkness. It also brings forward a subdued pun in ‘shade’, suggesting the ghost of a past ‘bitter’ ‘love’ – the subject of ‘brooding’. Just as the ‘russet dawn’ banishes Old Hamlet’s ghost, the young man can banish his regret and memories by lifting his ‘russet brow’.

The final four lines of the poem show Fergus consumed by his landscape. Despite the fact that he ‘rules’ this world, the overpowering atmosphere of loneliness reminds us that this is a ‘woven’ psychological world of his own making. A sense of brooding is contained within the very fabric of this world, from the brief glimpses of a female form in the sea – too brief to certainly represent his ‘love’, but what else could a brooding mind see in it? – to the stars personified as knights errant, wandering without purpose in unrequited passion.

It would be difficult to extract any moral as such from the poem. Yeats, while offering carefree youth as a refuge, seems to imply through the persistance and potency of imagery that a state of consuming reflection and regret is inevitable. Perhaps the ambiguity surrounding Fergus’ character suggests that there is a paradoxical form of release in completely surrendering oneself to the imprisonment of one’s own mental world.


Dylan Thomas – And Death Shall Have No Dominion & Poem in October (A Comparison)

Both of these poems are interested in the way that life and death are wrapped up in one another and inter-dependent. They both see this relationship expressed in nature and landscapes. Yet the overriding tone of Poem in October is hopeful, in comparison with And Death Shall Have, whose chant-like, self-contradictory refrain gives the poem a dark, bitter tone.

Death presents itself very prominently from the first stanza of And Death Shall Have, despite apparently having no dominion there. Nature exists, not as a force of life in its own right, but as a tormentor of life. It is the ‘wind’ that picks ‘bones’ clean, and the ‘gulls’ that ‘cry at the[] ears’ of drowned men. These images echo strongly those found in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and seem to convey a similar message – death is omnipresent, in the desert, sea and soil. The poem’s superficial insistence to the contrary might reflect the fact that dead matter is reborn by providing matter for new life, the line ‘Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again’ is true of corpses on a geological time scale. Yet the perversion of death imagery in the poem suggests that, despite this process of renewal, or even because of it, death is inevitable and ever-present in living matter, which contains the memory of the dead matter of which it is composed.

Poem in October also considers the idea that all stages of life and death are contained within a single moment, yet presents it in a more positive, hopeful light. A consciousness of death is still conveyed from the opening line, which sees a person’s birthday as bringing them one year closer to ‘heaven’. However, the speaker seems to acknowledge that there is not only a future death contained within the present, but a youthful past as well. We see this in the blurring of the seasons in the poem. The ‘sun of October’ is described as ‘Summery’, suggesting a slow, pleasant transition in the manner of a lingering Summer into Autumn. If Spring can be read as a symbol for youth, then the ‘springful of larks‘ might remind the speaker of his childhood, as well as containing positive associations of liveliness and abundance. We might take Winter to mean death, continuing the seasons as an analogy for life. It is therefore significant that it is the only season not referenced directly in the poem – implying a subtextual fear or apprehension in the speaker. Winter is alluded to, however, in the phrase ‘leaved with October blood’. While ‘blood’ simply describes the colour of the leaves, it also carries an implication of death, hence suggesting the coming Winter. However, the poem overall attempts to balance an apprehension of death with a hopefulness and joy in the present and past, therefore presenting a much more positive mood than ‘And Death Shall Have’.

The use of Biblical constructions and word choice in ‘And Death Shall Have’ casts doubt on religion as an attempt to rationalize death. We hear an echo of the language of Psalms in ‘Though they go mad they shall be sane’, presenting an impossible contradiction in the style of a Herbert-style theological paradox. The idea of madness is a significant one throughout the poem, suggested in the violent, strange images and the tone of a prophecy – bringing to mind prophetic madman characters in literature, such as in Moby Dick, whose antic ramblings drive at a deeper truth. These dark, sometimes comic associations play against the formal Christian doctrine suggested by Thomas’ choice of language, and cast it in the same doubtful, mysterious light. Similarly, the Biblical sounding refrain, that defeats itself by propagating and strengthening the presence of death in the poem, suggests that death cannot be controlled or rationalized by religion in this way.

‘Poem in October’ uses linguistic effects to a very different purpose – demonstrating the vitality and connectedness of nature in syntax. Words describing specific aspects of landscape float away¬† their subject and apply themselves to something else. We see this in Stanza 1, with the phrase ‘the heron / priested shore’. It is a fitting metaphor for the bird, describing its reverent, gentle movements, and tall position above the water as if in a pulpit. When later in the stanza we find the verb ‘praying’, it must naturally associate back to the heron. Yet the verb is placed so as to describe either the ‘morning’ or the ‘water’. This produces the effect, on cursory reading, of nature’s elements – the birds, the water and the weather – spilling into one another, inter-connected and interdependent. It is an effect repeated in stanza 2 with ‘birds’ sat in ‘winged trees’, as if the inherent bird-ness of the birds extends beyond them into their surroundings. We are given the sense of nature flowing with energy, just as it is fluid in characteristics.

Both poems consider the relationship between life, death and nature, taking this theme in different directions. And Death Shall Have becomes a meditation on the futility of life, and the unsatisfactory-ness of religion – straying a little close to the domain of T.S. Eliot, and risking comparison with The Waste Land. Poem in October takes a more balanced, positive view, finding hope in nature that is portrayed in vivid terms. Thomas’ strength lies here, in capturing an essence, and extrapolating from it a view of existence that is both conflicted and honest.

Edward Thomas – Old Man

The loose iambic pentameter helps create a mood of reflection in this poem; the metre, often in the background, suggests a soliloquy or dramatic monologue, while the deviations from it suggest the ambling lethargy of the speaker, as well as a conversational tone. What strikes us in the first stanza is that the poem is not explicitly about what we think it’s going to be about, (the ageing process, mortality) it appears at first to be simply about a plant with two strange names, However, all these other associations stay in the reader’s head, and come into play later on in the poem.

The first stanza develops a theme of naming. The plant with strange names is remembered fondly, we feel, by one who ‘knows it well’ – the phrase suggests a familiarity and wealth of memory associations, an idea challenged later in the poem. Here, however, the gentle internal rhymes, ‘tree’, ‘rosemary’, ‘thing’, ‘clings’, suggest a conversational, fond reminiscence. The word inversion that puts ‘clings’ before the negating ‘not’ encourages the reader to hold both positive and negative meanings in the mind momentarily. We are therefore given the sense of ‘clinging’ – in the sense that the speaker takes an interest in the plant for its names, and ‘clinging not’, in that they seem incongruous with the plant itself.

A sense that the plant is uncomfortable with its names is given by the words ‘decorate’ and ‘perplex’, which stick out prominently as the only polysyllabic words in the last four lines. This prominence itself suggests an incongruence between matter and name, an effect strengthened by the Latin-rooted longer words playing off the Saxon words around them. So the simple, Saxon ‘the thing it is’ is naturally ‘perplex[ed]’ by it’s ill-fitting names. We note that it is not the beholder but the plant itself that is ‘perplex[ed]’ by the names. Here the ‘Old Man’ plant becomes personified, with the implicit irony that just as its name is made to sound inappropriate, its response makes it fully inhabit the ‘Old Man’ title- the plant itself is in a state of confusion, as if it were an old man. Here we see another dimension to the ambiguity around ‘clings not’ – the plant inhabits the name simultaneously with finding it unsuitable. It is this paradoxical feeling of awkward self-consciousness that the poem is trying to create for its speaker.

At the second stanza, the speaker imagines a future for the plant, in a vision of a ‘child’. Whether this child is the speaker’s own, real or imagined, is unclear. However, one might imagine so from the line ‘I love it, as some day the child will love it’. Although neither verb ‘love’ refers to the ‘child’, the pattern of the line, which surrounds the ‘child’ with ‘love’, would be reduced by the casual reader to ‘I love the child’. The vivid detail of the child playing with the plant also gives the impression that the speaker is projecting his own memories onto the vision, an effect strengthened by the neater, more consistent adherence to iambic pentameter in this stanza, which adds movement and confidence to the lines.

The final lines of the stanza come as a surprise, then, when the speaker appears in the vision and cuts it short, ‘forbidding her to pick’. This could be seen as a literal action, with the speaker exercising parental authority. Or it might be read as a closing down of the vision itself in the speaker’s mind. The effect of the short line that starts with ‘Forbidding’ is to give a sense of brutality and suddenness, implying a more complex relationship with the plant, or more specifically the memory of it, than suggested in the first stanza.

Hence at the final stanza we find a far more conflicted, troubled voice from the speaker. The plant is described in similar terms as before, ‘bitter’, ‘shreds’ and ‘shrivel’ have all appeared before. Yet something about their order and proximity here gives a much harsher picture of the plant. The speaker claims that the plant makes him ‘think of nothing’ – surely a contradiction with the detailed vision already seen. Here we imagine he is talking of the past, a reflection that childhood gets forgotten so quickly. The result is a bleakness conveyed in the fragmented final line. All the ‘no’s towards the end of the stanza give a sense of blotting out the vision that’s preceded it, just as a fading memory cuts us off from our past bit by bit.

We notice how, just as the plant came to inhabit its name in stanza 1, the speaker himself now inhabits both. The sense of regret at lost meaning recaptures the associations initially formed by the title, the speaker feels the isolation and confusion of old age. The brilliant phrase ‘I have mislaid the key’ conveys both a profound helplessness in its figurative sense, and the banal tragedy of forgetfulness if taken literally. Here the speaker is an ‘Old Man’, at ‘I see and I hear nothing’ he might equally be the plant itself, or both. This recasts the vision, where the child picks at the leaves of the bush, as another metaphor for gradual loss of memory, and the awkward attitude to the plant, ‘I cannot like the scent’, echoes the issues of identity raised in stanza 1.

The poem explores in paradoxes the problem of identity, as well as a feeling that we are cut off from our past and our future.