William Cowper – The Castaway

This is a ballad with an unusual and distinctive subcurrent of introspection – a movement that is glimpsed at the start but surfaces fully in the final stanzas. The performative, distancing tone and perspective of the ballad form collapses and the terror and isolation of the striken sailor are traced to their source in the emotions of the speaker. This overwhelming sadness is all the more terrible for its namelessness, the profound personal loss that even to the end hides behind the allegory of the drowning sailor. One could read in this internalized ballad the heralding of the Romantic era and the cult of Self, yet the real ache of the poem is felt most strongly in the reticence it maintains to the end. Continue reading


John Donne – A Hymn to God my God, in my Sickness

On first reading, John Donne poems often seem to be intellectual exercises, intricately crafted but yielding little emotion. It is only when we examine the imagery closely that we realise that behind the confident doctrine lies a soul that feels fear and doubt intensely, using the subtleties of his extended conceits to delineate his inner struggles. Such is the case in this poem, where an overt resolute confrontation with death masks a desperate fear and self-doubt. Donne grapples with his image of heaven, and questions implicitly his fate in the afterlife. The end of the poem offers the tone of resolution but gives us to believe that this inner struggle will continue. 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

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.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson – Ask Me No More

This poem conveys a mood of deep melancholy and grief despite being reluctant to explicate a simple narrative or situation in which this passionate feeling is being felt. The poem can be seen as a plea to and for the speaker’s lover or friend on their death-bed, yet the picture is kept just out of focus, as if the exhortation of the title were intended to be extended to the reader as well. Through repetition we are made witness to the change in tone behind this phrase, from the resolution and coldness of the first stanza to a deep anguish and compassion in the last. The adapted sonnet form of the poem fits this dramatic shift in mood and the soul-searching that accompanies it.

A mood of bold defiance is conveyed in the opening lines with the imperative ‘Ask me no more’. The construction comparing tumultuous natural forces with the speaker’s maintained silence, ‘when have I answered thee?’, works on the idea that while the elements are subject to influence, the speaker’s resolution not to respond is unshakeable. The lines are given a Biblical cadence by the conditionals ‘may’ balanced against ‘but’ as in a psalm, as well as the idea of a ‘cloud’ reaching down from ‘heaven’. With the entrance of death into the poem at stanza 2 this will be reconfigured as an allusion to the death of Elijah or the ascension of Jesus, but here it simply demonstrates that storm clouds are shaped, and so influenced, by the land they pass over. The speaker’s exclamation ‘O too fond’ hangs unexplained in the stanza, but could apply to the speaker himself or the subject of the poem with a tone of admonishment. At this point in the poem the speaker might be rejecting an enamoured lover – he wants to distance and silence the person he is addressing.

The mood changes dramatically in the second stanza to one of grief and helplessness. The vulnerability and frailty conveyed by ‘what answer should I give?’ contrasts starkly with the firm coldness of stanza 1. ‘I love not the hollow cheek…’ attempts to explain this remoteness as a profound insight that sees beyond mere mortality, but the whole poem suddenly pivots on following word, ‘Yet’. This can be seen as the volta of this semi-sonnet, as the speaker allows the outpouring of his true emotion indicated by the exclamation mark at the end of the line. ‘O my friend’ counters ‘O too fond’ in the first stanza, turning that from a reproach towards the addressee, to a complex expression of self-admonishment, at having become too attached to the ‘hollow cheek and faded eye’ of a person that must inevitably die.

There is a bitter irony in the seeming command, ‘I will not have thee die!’, where the speaker tries desperately to imagine that it is in his hands to save the person he’s speaking to. The earlier mention of the moon that can ‘draw the sea’ is now retrospectively recast as an allusion to King Canute – the speaker’s command to death is as vain as trying to command the sea. A similar mismatch in tone can be found in the following line, where ‘lest I should bid thee live’ strikes us as a nonsensical threat. Just as the admonishing ‘too fond’ was turned back on the speaker, so the apparent threat of ‘lest’ towards the addressee implies a deep fear and consciousness of weakness in the speaker himself. It is not ‘lest I make the command to spare your life and it is enacted’, but rather ‘lest i make the command and it is not enacted, hence I am made palpably aware of my own frailty’. The final ‘Ask me no more’ has become, instead of an emphatic command, a fearful, compassionate plea.

Resignation and passionate love are the underpinning tones of the final stanza, as the speaker confronts the inevitability of death, ‘thy fate and mine are seal’d’. A return to the imagery of nature seen in stanza 1 shows the difference – where before the speaker held himself in contrast to the changes or nature, he now sees himself within it and subject to it, also recognises that although he ‘strove against the stream’, he was never actually outside the influence of mortality. Life’s passing is elevated beautifully in the image of the ‘great river’, and the passionate grief in ‘No more, dear love’ is touching. We see that his yielding’ refers both to the deathbed requests of his lover or friend, and to the ‘touch’ of death of itself, of which he now has a heightened consciousness.

This poem addresses the inner struggle to reconcile oneself with death and the fact of mortality. The speaker’s love for the person he addresses is movingly portrayed as breaking through the superficial coldness with which he attempts to evade the unalterable and inevitable approach of death.