Very little is known about Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886) other than that she had a normal rearing in a Calvinist, New-England background; that at school she formed some extravagant attachments, and, at the age of 23 she cut herself off from the outside world, except for some correspondence with a few friends. She spent years without putting her foot outside the grounds of her house and yet, like Hopkins, she made a huge contribution to the world of literature after her death. With her contemporary, Walt Whitman, she helped to usher in a new age of poetry. No one is sure why she resorted to live a life of seclusion; some say, without much proof, that she had an unhappy love affair; perhaps she did so from choice. Judgement of her work is often made in an atmosphere of wonder, similar to that of judges of Shakespeare’s work: ‘How could this country boy from Stratford have written such plays?’ However, having studied her work, I’m sure you’ll agree that she had a unique perspective on life, death, love, nature and friendship. She didn’t use titles for her poems, she didn’t need them because her lines spoke volumes and still speak volumes to us today.
She was a Calvinist, living in a narrow New England society, but she did not accept the Puritan idea of a frightening, punishing god: she was rather a mixture of Puritan and free-thinker, but she never doubts an after-life, although she is terrified of its nature. Indeed, the number of her poems about death is remarkable. She was terrified of its uncertainties. In spite of the Calvinism in her upbringing she could say, ‘That bare-headed life under grass worries me like a wasp.’ She had, despite her reclusive nature, a morbid passion (obsession?) for writing letters of condolence and was always probing into the morbid details as to how a person died. She was obsessed by death, ‘goings away’. At times she seems to be looking at her own death in anticipation. But all the time she writes as an observer. But this pre-occupation, with its horrible uncertainties and its doubts about immortality, gave us her best works.
Patricia Coughlan*, in a very thought-provoking article, finds two opposing but possibly complimentary representations of sex roles in Heaney’s poetry:
A dominant masculine figure who explores, describes, loves and has compassion for a passive feminine figure, and
A woman who ‘dooms, destroys, puzzles and encompasses the man, but also assists him to his self-discovery: the mother stereotype, but merged intriguingly with the spouse.’
It is easy enough to identify the first representation as the speaker of the poems. Coughlan traces male activities and attitudes of the speakers in Heaney’s first book, Death of a Naturalist – ploughing, digging, and its equivalent, writing – as well as significant male attitudes, such as the importance of following in the footsteps of ancestors and imitating their prowess, in poems such as ‘Digging’, ‘Follower’, and ‘Ancestral Photograph’. She traces the development of male identity in such poems as ‘Death of a Naturalist’ and ‘An Advancement of Learning’, where the young boy passes a test of male courage in facing up to a rat. The identification of the speaker with the natural maleness of creatures such as the bull and the trout (‘Outlaw’ and ‘The Trout’) is noticed in the second volume, Door into the Dark.
Heaney views the creative process as a particularly male activity in ‘The Forge’ – the violence of the activity, the archetypal maleness of the protagonist, leading to the suggestion that the truth of art is forged out of violence and brute strength. But the poetic process of ‘seeing things’ in the later poetry is a more spiritual, even intuitive practice. The image of the poet changes to one of seer, or mediator between states of awareness (‘Field of Vision’, ‘Lightenings VIII’, ‘St. Kevin and the Blackbird’.
Something of the prowess of ancestors is present in the speaker’s celebration of his father’s gift in ‘The Harvest Bow’. It is a quintessentially male prowess (‘lapped the spurs on a lifetime of game cocks’), yet the skill involved in making the bow exhibits an understanding of the spirit and a delicate craftsmanship. Indeed plaiting the bow is a female art form, at least in traditional thinking. So perhaps sex roles are not so clear-cut here, as the male ancestor is celebrated for his prowess at a feminine craft.
The representation of woman in the poems on the Leaving Cert. course leads to the consideration of a number of issues.
WOMAN AS LOVER
Consider ‘Twice Shy’ and ‘Valediction’. In ‘Twice Shy’ woman is the love object; perhaps there is even a suggestion in the imagery of being victim to the male (‘tremulously we held / As hawk and prey apart’). But this is balanced just after this by an equality of rights, by the mutual recognition that each had a past and that each had a right to be cautious, even timorous, in the new relationship (‘Our juvenilia / Had taught us both to wait’).
In ‘Valediction’, roles are reversed. Not only is the woman the source of stability in the speaker’s life but she is in complete control of the relationship, ‘Until you resume command / Self is in mutiny’. Nevertheless the image of woman here is traditional and somewhat stereotyped: an object of beauty, defined by dress and pretty, natural allusions such as the frilled blouse, the smile, and the ‘flower-tender voice’. So in these poems there seems to be a traditional visual concept of woman, combined with a more varied understanding of role, both as love object and as controlling force.
Woman in ‘The Skunk’ is very much sex object, alluring, exciting in a primitive, animal way:
By the sootfall of your things at bedtime,
Your head-down, tail-up hunt in a bottom drawer
For the black plunge-neck nightdress.
Here she is an object of desire, observed with controlled voyeurism by the speaker.
WOMAN AS MOTHER
In ‘Mossbawn: 1. Sunlight’ the female figure is associated with traditional domestic skills, in this instance baking. The mother figure (in this case, his aunt, Mary Heaney) is one of the central props in Heaney’s ideal picture of rural life. His aunt is characterised as being ‘broad-lapped’ signifying her warm and loving nature and her kitchen is a womb of security for the young boy, radiating warmth, nurture, and love, as well as being a forger of identity, offering links with tradition and values mediated by the female figures.
A feminist critique would argue that this representation is denying women the freedom to develop fully, by giving them fixed roles within the domestic environment and by associating them with what is maternal rather than with any intellectual activity. As Patricia Coughlan says: ‘Woman, the primary inhabiter and constituent of the domestic realm, is admiringly observed, centre stage but silent.’
THE EARTH AS FEMALE
Nature – the earth and both the physical territory and the political spirit of Ireland – is viewed as feminine by Heaney. There was a hint of this in the soft, preserving, womb-like quality of the earth in ‘Bogland’. This feminine aspect becomes explicitly sexual in such poems as ‘Rite of Spring’ and ‘Undine’. But the female principle is destructive to man in such poems as ‘The Tollund Man’, where the male is sacrificed to the goddess, who is female lover, killer, and principle of new life and growth, all at once.
She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint’s kept body.
Coughlan feels that the female energy here is represented as ‘both inert and devouring’ and that if the poem is understood, ‘as a way of thinking about women rather than about Irish political murder, it reveals an intense alienation from the female.’ But can it be divorced from its political context? And was not Caitlín Ní hUallacháin always the femme fatale of Irish political revolutionaries? And hadn’t this fatalistic attraction almost a frisson of sexual passion about it, coupled with maternal devotion? The poem reveals the danger of the attraction, but surely it was a willing consummation? The poet envies Tollund Man ‘his sad freedom’, so perhaps the poem reveals less an intense alienation than a fatalistic attraction to the female.
The feminist critique certainly throws some light on central aspects of Heaney’s writing – among them a very traditional view of woman – but there is too much complexity in his vision to allow us to view the encounter of the sexes in his poetry as simply antagonistic.
* ‘Bog Queens’: The Representation of Women in the Poetry of John Montague and Seamus Heaney by Patricia Coughlan, in Theorising Ireland, ed. Clare Connolly, pages 41-60. NY: Palmgrove, 2003.
THIS IS A PERSONAL REVIEW OF SOME THEMES AND ISSUES WHICH FEATURE IN DEREK WALCOTT’S POETRY. YOU SHOULD CONSIDER THESE IDEAS, THEN RE-EXAMINE THE POEMS MENTIONED FOR EVIDENCE TO SUBSTANTIATE OR CONTRADICT THESE INTERPRETATIONS. IN OTHER WORDS MAKE YOUR OWN OF THESE NOTES, ADD TO THEM OR DELETE FROM THEM AS YOU SEE FIT.
THE FOLLOWING SELECTION IS SUGGESTED BECAUSE THEY DEAL WITH THE MAJOR THEMES WHICH RECUR IN HIS POETRY:
Letter from Brooklyn,
The Young Wife,
St. Lucia’s First Communion,
W. B. YEATS ONCE SAID THAT HIS POETRY WAS ‘BUT THE CONSTANT STITCHING AND RESTITCHING OF OLD THEMES’. CHECK THIS OUT FOR YOURSELF IN RELATION TO WALCOTT AND ALL THE OTHER POETS ON YOUR COURSE!
YOUR AIM SHOULD BE TO PICK YOUR OWN FAVOURITES FROM THIS SELECTION AND GET TO KNOW THEM VERY WELL.
Derek Walcott is a Caribbean poet who was born in 1930 in Castries on the island of St. Lucia, one of the Windward Islands in the Lesser Antilles.
Both his grandmothers were said to have been the descendants of slaves.
He was born into a Methodist, English-speaking family although the dominant tradition on the island was Catholic and French speaking.
His father, described in the poem “A Letter from Brooklyn”, was a civil servant and painter who died at the age of 34 when Derek was only one year old.
He began writing poems at the age of fourteen and plays at the age of sixteen.
After studying at St. Mary’s College, a school run by the Irish Presentation Brothers in St. Lucia and at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica where he graduated with an Arts Degree in English, French and Latin, he moved in 1953 to Trinidad, where he worked as a theatre and art critic.
In 1954 he married Faye Moyston. They separated in 1956 and divorced the following year.
He founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in 1959, which has produced his plays (and others) since that time, and he remains active with its Board of Directors.
At the age of 18, he made his debut with his first collection 25 Poems in 1948, but his breakthrough came with the collection of poems, In a Green Night, in 1962. That same year he married his second wife, Margaret Maillard.
In the 1960’s his Selected Poems was a publishing success and he was awarded a substantial grant by the Rockefeller Foundation.
In 1970 his best known play, Dream on Monkey Mountain, was published and later performed with great success in New York.
He has learned his poetic craft from the European tradition, but he remains mindful of West Indian landscapes and experiences.
In 1973 he published Another Life, a long narrative book-length poem, offering autobiographical details and opinions.
In 1976 he published a collection Sea Grapes (including the poem “Endings”) which dealt with changing phases – beginnings and endings – of his life.
After a break with the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in 1976, Walcott directed his attention increasingly to the United States, where he has held a number of teaching positions, including a long-standing appointment at Boston University.
In 1979 Saint Lucia achieved independence following the collapse of the West Indian Federation.
In 1979 he published The Star-Apple Kingdom, a very successful collection containing the long poem, “The Schooner Flight”.
He founded the Boston’s Playwright’s Theatre at Boston University in 1981 hoping to create a home for new plays in Boston. That same year he was granted an award by the American MacArthur Foundation worth over $250,000.
In 1982 he published a collection of poems called The Fortunate Traveller and, that same year, married Norlene Metivier, his third wife.
In 1986 his Collected Poems were published and sold remarkably well.
His 1988 collection of poems, The Arkansas Testament, written about his life in Saint Lucia, (dealt with in part one entitled “Here”) and his life in America (dealt with in part two entitled “Elsewhere”) contained the following poems: “To Norline”, “Saint Lucia’s First Communion”, “Pentecost”, “The Young Wife”, “For Adrian” and “Summer Elegies”.
In 1989 he was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, the first non-English writer to be granted the award.
Omeros (modern Greek for Homer) was published in 1990, just after his sixtieth birthday, and is Walcott’s most ambitious work to date, a book-length poem that places his beloved West Indies in the role of the ancient bard’s Cyclades. Gods and heroic warriors do not inhabit this retelling of the Odyssey, but simple Caribbean fishermen, whose Greek names register their hybrid identities.
In 1992 he became the first Caribbean writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
With his artistic and financial success he bought a house on Saint Lucia and spent more and more of his time on the island.
In 1997 he brought out a new collection, The Bounty, which dealt with themes such as old age and death.
In 1998 he co-wrote a Broadway musical, The Capeman, with the singer/songwriter Paul Simon. Unfortunately it proved to be the biggest flop in the history of Broadway musicals closing with losses of $11 million.
In 2000 he published the long poem Tiepolo’s Hound, a biographical study of the Impressionist painter Camille Pisarro.
That same year his twin brother, Roderick, died.
In 2004, at the age of 74, The Prodigal, his sixteenth book of poetry was published.
In 2009, Walcott began a three-year distinguished scholar-in-residence position at the University of Alberta.
He now divides his time between his home in the Caribbean and New York City.
A BRIEF THEMATIC GUIDE TO THE POETRY OF
A Letter from Brooklyn
The poem deals with the influences that were important in Walcott’s life and career as an artist.
Religion, particularly the Methodist religion, was an important part of his father’s life and has also influenced his own poetry in both substance and style.
The artistic example of his father is celebrated in this poem.
The belief that poetry is a divine gift is exemplified in the story of his father’s life and death
This is a short one-sentence poem on the theme of transience.
The poem offers examples of things that fade and end.
Even love is seen as transient.
The idea of Beethoven’s hearing ending offers a deeper meaning and a deeper image.
See also For Adrian which deals with the same theme of transience
This is a brief meditation on lost love and the power of memory.
The poem also considers the evocative and memorable power of poetry.
The theme of the sea and its fluctuating status is important in Derek Walcott’s poetry.
The Young Wife
This is a poem written to comfort a husband who has lost his wife.
The poem explores the complex processes of grief, including guilt, despair and comfort.
There is a contrast evident between how grief affects a husband and how grief affects their children.
The poem concludes by asserting the primacy of love over death.
Saint Lucia’s First Communion
The poem describes one of the most important religious festivals on the island of Saint Lucia.
At first the poem describes the communicants.
It sees the religious ceremony as akin to a form of slavery.
The poet wishes to liberate the children to find their own way to heaven.
This is primarily a poem about the nature of belonging.
The theme is the power of the Caribbean landscape to affect the poet’s very soul.
There is a strong contrast between the constrictions of city life in winter and the freedom of the sea in Saint Lucia.
MAJOR THEMES IN WALCOTT’S POETRY
Derek Walcott was brought up in the Methodist religion. His father’s religious faith and the influence that had on both his father’s life and on his own life is dealt with in the poem A Letter from Brooklyn. In that poem the simple faith of the old lady restores the poet’s faith in God.
He offers a critical perspective on the traditional religious practices of Catholicism in Saint Lucia’s First Communion where he sees the children as innocent victims of an institutionalised religion. But the poem does have a positive religious perspective as he imagines the children flying heavenward beyond prejudice and evil.
Pentecost has not only a religious title but also a religious conclusion as it celebrates the sense of a soul finding itself in a natural seaside environment away from the soulless city.
Love and the End of Love
Derek Walcott was married three times and many of his poems deal with themes of love.
That love has a powerful but temporal influence on human life is acknowledged in Endings where love’s “lightening flash” has no “thunderous end.”
The dissolution of his marriage to his third wife, Norline Metivier, is treated with metaphoric brilliance in To Norline, a poem that charts the end of a relationship.
Death can also end a relationship but in The Young Wife Walcott explores the manner in which love can overcome death and the ending of life.
Derek Walcott’s father died when the poet was only one year old but his death had a profound effect on his poetry. This is explored in A Letter from Brooklyn.
That positive view is also expressed in another poem on death and grief, The Young Wife, where a sense of hope evolves out of the devastation of grief.
AN ANALYSIS OF WALCOTT’S STYLE
Derek Walcott uses a variety of poetic forms in the poems on the course.
• There is a loose, relaxed narrative form, using dialogue and description, in the poem A Letter from Brooklyn.
There is a complex use of couplets in the poem Endings. In this brief poem the couplets are short, pithy and, like “the silence that surrounds Beethoven’s head”, imbued with a sense of power and mystery.
The most common form evident in these poems is the four-line quatrain, influenced to some extent in the Methodist hymns Walcott learned in his childhood. The themes, as well as the form, often reflect a religious content, perhaps not in To Norline, but certainly in Saint Lucia’s First Communion, Pentecost, and The Young Wife.
Derek Walcott was born into an English speaking family in the predominantly French-speaking island of Saint Lucia. His use of English belongs to the English poetic tradition but it is also influenced by the religious language of his Methodist up-bringing and also by the traditional patois of Creole English.
He has a very fine ear for dialogue as is evident in the manner in which he captures the old-fashioned religious language of the elderly correspondent in A Letter from Brooklyn. There is an astute religious sensibility present in many of the poems. Pentecost uses religious terminology as does Saint Lucia’s First Communion.
The poetic sensibility of this modern poet is revealed in his constant and varied use of metaphor and simile (see below).
Metaphor and Simile
From the beginning Derek Walcott has used both metaphor and simile with great inventiveness and originality.
The metaphor of a spider’s web runs throughout A Letter from Brooklyn and helps to unify the different strands of this complex, sensitive treatment of old age, art and death.
In Endings the “silence that surrounds Beethoven’s head” becomes a metaphor for the mysterious of endings and beginnings while the poem is bolstered by the clever use of similes.
To Norline, although very brief, has a subtle mixture of metaphor (in the opening stanza where the wave’s surf is seen as a sponge erasing lines and love) and simile in the second stanza (where the poet’s memory of his sleeping beside his wife is compared to a coffee mug warming his palm) and in the third stanza (where the sight of a salt-sipping tern is compared to a memorable line of poetry.)
At other times the use of metaphor and simile reveals a wonderfully visual imagination as in Saint Lucia’s First Communion where a caterpillar is compared to an accordion and communion girl’s compared to candles.
The Sound of Poetry – Rhyme, Assonance and Alliteration
Although Derek Walcott uses a variety of poetic forms in the poems on the course, his use of rhyme is more subtle than regular, more attuned to the off-beat sounds of the Caribbean than to any formal pattern.
An early poem like A Letter from Brooklyn uses rhyme more regularly than is evident in the latter poems. There are many rhyming couplets in this narrative poem and it ends with a distinctive rhyme in the concluding couplet: believe/grieve.
Another poem using couplets, this time very short-lined couplets, is Endings. In this poem, although none of the couplets rhyme, there are subtle echoes throughout the poem involving off-rhymes ( flesh/flash, sand/end/sound) assonance (fail/fade) and alliteration (fades from the flesh, flowers fading like the flesh, sweating pumice stone, silence that surrounds).
Five of the poems are written in quatrains but none of these employ regular rhyme schemes. To Norline is the closest to an ABAB rhyme scheme with its half-rhymes and assonantal echoes. The rhymes are purposely faint: dawns/sponge, come/palm, house/yours, tern/turn. This poem also uses alliteration cleverly, particularly on the “s” sounds to convey the sound of the surf on the beach: slate, surf, sponge, someone, still-sleeping, salt-sipping and some.
The rhyming scheme in Saint Lucia’s First Communion varies from a loose ABAB in most stanzas to AABB in the third stanza and ABBA in the fourth stanza. There are assonantal patterns throughout the poem (cotton frock, cotton stockings, pink ribboned missals, caterpillars accordion).
Pentecost uses rhyme more regularly than in any of the other quatrain poems: concrete/street, show/snow, roof/proof, shoal/soul. As in many of the other poems, the use of alliteration, particularly on the “s” sounds, is very evocative: slow scriptures of sand/that sends, not quite a seraph.
Contrast: Many of the poems use a form of contrast to emphasise their thematic concerns.
Pentecost comes from a book, The Arkansas Testament, which is divided into two contrasting sections entitled “Here” and “Elsewhere”. The poem contrasts the soulless, winter, lost city where he works with “the slow scriptures of sand” he finds in his warm Caribbean home. There is a stark contrast between the dead and the living in the poem, The Young Wife. In this poem the contrast is overcome by the sense of love that accompanies the end of the poem.
COMMENTS ON WALCOTT’S POETRY
Derek Walcott on Derek Walcott
“There is a continual sense of motion in the Caribbean – caused by the sea and a feeling that one is always travelling through water and not stationary.”
“My calling as a poet is votive, sacred… it was a cherished vow taken in my young dead father’s name, and my life is to honour that vow.”
“Throughout my whole youth, that was happening. It was the experience of a whole race renaming something that had been named by someone else and giving that object its own metaphoric power.”
“I had a sound colonial education
I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,
And either I am nobody, or I am a nation.”
“I come from a backward place: your duty is supplied by life around you. One guy plants bananas; another plants cocoa; I’m a writer, I plant lines. There’s the same clarity of occupation, and the sense of devotion.”
“I think of myself as a carpenter, as one making frames, simply and well. I’m working a lot in quatrains… and I feel there is something in that that is very ordinary… I find myself wanting to write very simply cut, very contracted, very speakable and very challenging quatrains in rhyme.”
“Well, when I write
this poem, each phrase go be soaked in salt;
I go draw and knot every line as tight
as ropes in this rigging; in simple speech
my common language go be the wind…”
“History and elemental awe are always our early beginning, because the fate of poetry is to fall in love with the world, in spite of History.”
“This island is heaven.”
“Visual surprise is natural in the Caribbean; it comes with the landscape, and faced with its beauty, the sigh of History dissolves.”
“It takes a West Indian a long time to say who he is”
“People who praised classical Greek, if they were there then, would consider the Greek’s tastes vulgar, lurid….All the purple and gold – that’s what I’m saying is very Caribbean, that same vigour and elation of an earlier Greece.”
“The easiest thing to do about colonialism is to refer to history in terms of guilt or punishment or revenge, or whatever. Whereas the rare thing is the resolution of being where one is and doing something positive about that reality.”
“The romanticised, pastoral vision of Africa that many black people hold can be an escape from the reality around us. In the West Indies, where all the races live and work together, we have the beginnings of a great and unique society. The problem is to recognise our African origins but not to romanticise them.”
Critical Comments on Derek Walcott by the Critics
“What moves me in Walcott is his refusal of simplifications.” Paul Breslin
“It was the Metaphysicals technique of using metaphor as the prime vehicle of shape and meaning in their poetry that seems to have so greatly impressed Walcott, who has always …” moved in metaphor as in his natural element.” Stewart Brown
“Walcott is a model of ripened ambivalence that makes impossible demands of the heart, tears it to pieces by a contradiction of origins, and finally offers it to the dubious consolation of despair.” George Lamming
“Naming is central to Walcott’s claims for an ‘Adamic’ New World poetics. The act of naming takes the natural world into the cultural domain while grounding language in the domain of the natural. And the choice of a name reveals much about the consciousness of the namer, the degree to which it has become Adamic by exorcising ‘the pain of history words contain.’ ” Paul Breslin
“Omeros attempted to shrink the Iliad and the Odyssey into the tiny sins and squabbles of some Caribbean fishermen and bewildered colonials” William Logan
Sample Answer: Write a personal response to the poetry of Derek Walcott.
Of all the poets on the Leaving Cert course, Derek Walcott, in my opinion, is the one who has most to say about the ‘big issues’, about life, the universe, and everything. I would recommend his poetry to anyone who has lost someone close to them, or to anyone who finds themselves wondering about man’s place in the universe.
There are three aspects of Walcott’s poetry in particular that appeal to me: his approach to the notion of ‘endings’, his poems about lost love, and his poems about bereavement. I’m not saying that Derek Walcott has the answers to all the questions that surround these issues; just that he asks them in a very beautiful and enlightened way.
One aspect of Walcott’s poetry that really hit home with me was his focus on the way everything in this world is moving slowly but surely toward its end. ‘Endings’, for example, depicts how things ‘do not explode, / they fail, they fade’. Everything, the poem maintains, is disappearing, but too quietly for us to notice. Things fade away as gently and subtly, ‘as the sunlight fades from the flesh / as the foam drains quick in the sand’. We no more notice most things disappearing than we do the water draining into the sand at the beach. Reading his poetry, we are constantly reminded, of the fragility and preciousness of all things. His work reminds us to enjoy what we have while it lasts.
For me, one of the finest aspects of Walcott’s work is his depiction of lost love. ‘To Norline’, is filled with a melancholy longing for a love that has been and will never be again. This poem paints a sad portrait of the poet walking along an empty beach remembering his lost love. He seems certain that ‘someone else’ instead of him will soon be enjoying Norline’s affections. His poetry is always keenly aware of the fact that love inevitably fades away. As he puts it in ‘Endings’, ‘love’s lightning flash / has no thunderous end’. Love, like everything else, fades away quietly, without us even noticing, ‘it dies with the sound / of flowers fading’. We can no more notice love fading away than we can hear a flower withering. All in all, then, I would recommend the poetry of Derek Walcott to anyone who has had their ‘heart broken’! His writing provides real solace and comfort for anyone whose relationship has just ended.
Bereavement is one of Walcott’s most recurring themes and he deals with it magnificently. He never shrinks from depicting the true horror of bereavement. ‘The Young Wife’, for example, is a moving depiction of great loss. This poem is about a man whose wife has just died from cancer. He must mourn her quietly so as not to upset their children, ‘the muffled sobbing / the children must not hear’. The house he lives in is haunted by memories of his departed partner. There are certain drawers in the house which he ‘dare not open’ because the objects they contain would remind him too painfully of her. Despite this obvious emotion and pain, however, his poems invariably contain an element of hope. In this case, the wife may have been claimed by cancer at a tragically young age but she somehow lives on in her children. When her husband sees their children laugh he is reminded so strongly of her that she may as well be in the room, ‘They startle you `when they laugh. / She sits there smiling’.
‘A Letter from Brooklyn’ is another poem that offers hope to the bereaved. Mabel Rawlins, a friend of the family, writes to the poet about his dead father. She is convinced that this man, who died twenty-eight years ago, is at God’s side in heaven, ‘he was called home, / And is, I’m sure, doing greater work’. Mabel’s unquestioning faith helps to overcome the poet’s own doubts about the existence of God and ‘restores’ his belief in the afterlife, ‘I believe. / I believe it all, and for no man’s death I grieve’.
Just as I would recommend Walcott’s poetry to anyone who has had his or her heart broken by the break-up of a relationship so too would I recommend it to anyone who has been bereaved. His poetry presents us with a full picture of the sorrow and pain of bereavement. Yet it also suggests that maybe, just maybe, there is hope.
Larkin’s worth and relevance as a poet is constantly under review. The most recent biography by his friend and former colleague at Hull University, James Booth, was published in 2015 entitled, Philip Larkin: Life Art and Love. Booth sees himself as keeper of the Larkin flame and is at pains to debunk much of the negative publicity which has surrounded Larkin in the decades since his death. Booth’s main motto seems to be: judge the poems, not the poet.
All good biography should send us back to the poet’s work and in this Booth succeeds admirably. He also makes Larkin more likable – we are made to wonder how it was that this miserable, self-hunted man managed to produce such great, enduring work.
Larkin was born in Coventry in August 1922. He has described his childhood, with his domineering father and timid mother, as a “forgotten boredom”. Tall and shortsighted, he grew up self-conscious and shy, developing a stammer at an early age. He did well in school and went to study English at Oxford, where his interest in writing and his love of jazz were nurtured.
On leaving Oxford with flying colours, he took up a post as librarian in a small village in Shropshire, and it was here that he began to write more extensively. He went on to work as a librarian in various colleges and universities, including Queen’s University in Belfast and the University of Hull, and he won increasing recognition as a writer.
There were many significant women in his life, but despite a yearning for love and intimacy his relationships seem to have been blighted by fear and indecision, and he appears to have resigned himself to the idea that marriage was not for him. He remained alone and became something of a recluse in later years, growing increasingly melancholic.
In June 1985, he was diagnosed with cancer and he died that same year, on December 2nd. He left behind him a body of work that has won him the accolade of being one of England’s finest post-war poets.
WHAT FOLLOWS IS A PERSONAL REVIEW OF SOME THEMES AND ISSUES WHICH FEATURE IN THE POETRY OF LARKIN. YOU SHOULD CONSIDER THESE IDEAS, THEN RE-EXAMINE THE POEMS MENTIONED FOR EVIDENCE TO SUBSTANTIATE OR CONTRADICT THESE INTERPRETATIONS. IN OTHER WORDS MAKE YOUR OWN OF THESE NOTES, ADD TO THEM OR DELETE FROM THEM AS YOU SEE FIT.
THE FOLLOWING SELECTION IS SUGGESTED BECAUSE THEY DEAL WITH THE MAJOR THEMES WHICH RECUR IN LARKIN’S POETRY:
An Arundel Tomb,
The Whitsun Weddings
YEATS ONCE SAID THAT HIS POETRY WAS ‘BUT THE CONSTANT STITCHING AND RESTITCHING OF OLD THEMES’. CHECK THIS OUT FOR YOURSELF IN RELATION TO LARKIN AND THE OTHER POETS ON YOUR COURSE!
YOUR AIM SHOULD BE TO PICK YOUR OWN FAVOURITES FROM THIS SELECTION AND GET TO KNOW THEM VERY WELL. MAKE NOTES FOR YOURSELF, TOGETHER WITH QUOTATIONS AND REFERENCES.
MAJOR THEMES AND PREOCCUPATIONS IN LARKIN’S POETRY
Larkin’s awareness of modern society: When asked if writers should be concerned with political and social issues, Larkin said: ‘The imagination is not the servant of the intellect and social conscience.’ But while his poetry may not be directly motivated by specific social themes, Larkin was always alert to social behaviour, and many important aspects of modern society are reflected in his poetry:
The bleakness of urban living is explored in ‘Ambulances’ with its references to traffic, accidents, frightened people.
The random nature of social bonds is also explored: ‘the random blend of families and fashions’ is mentioned in ‘Ambulances’.
The vanity and empty glitter of our fashionable functions is explored in ‘At Grass’:
Numbers and parasols: outside
Squadrons of empty cars, and heat,
And littered grass.
The society Larkin writes about is a post-religious one (see ‘Church Going’ which can be read as charting the stages in the breakdown of faith – from scepticism, to superstition, to disbelief).
The function of churches in an age of disbelief is considered: they supply ceremonies that provide unity in our lives and mark significant points, places where ‘all our compulsions meet, / Are recognised, and robed as destinies’ (‘Church Going’)
Love and Marriage
In general, Larkin yearns for the ideal of love as a solution to human isolation.
In ‘An Arundel Tomb’ he toys with the vain hope that love might transcend death:
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love
He deals with the fragile nature of human happiness and love in ‘The Wedding Wind’ when he compares the fragility of the newly married woman’s joy to ‘a thread carrying beads’.
Also in ‘Wedding Wind’ he deals with sexual fulfilment, happiness and joy from the woman’s point of view: ‘Our kneeling as cattle by all-generous waters’.
Complete happiness is never achieved for Larkin: as far as he is concerned there is an untruth at the heart of the love statement in ‘An Arundel Tomb’; love is qualified, as the speaker is still sad that she cannot share her happiness, in ‘Wedding Wind’.
Larkin is obsessed with the passage of time in many of his poems. He doesn’t make any heroic attempts to defeat Time as other poets like Shakespeare or Keats have done, rather he records the different faces of death and finds the odd crumb of comfort along the way!
In ‘At Grass’ death is seen as the culmination of life. Death is seen as natural and gentle, yet it is essentially lonely: ‘And not a fieldglass sees them home’.
In ‘Ambulances’ the bleaker side of death is introduced. Here death is seen as capricious (‘children strewn on steps or road’), it is impersonal, alarming, the final loosening of all bonds, utterly comfortless, ‘so permanent and blank and true’.
Larkin sees death as the meaning of life: ‘the solving emptiness / That lies just under all we do’. (‘Ambulances’)
In ‘Cut Grass’, death in nature is seen as something beautiful; death and beauty exist side by side:
It dies in the white hours
Of young-leafed June
With chestnut flowers
Larkin is constantly aware of nature in his poetry. In our selection all but ‘Ambulances’ use nature as a backdrop.
For Larkin, nature is the one constant, the only survivor, outlasting many institutions, ideas, etc. In ‘Church Going’ he says, ‘And what remains when disbelief has gone? Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky’.
Nature imagery is used by Larkin to express human emotions: ‘perpetual morning shares my bed’, ‘all-generous waters’ (‘Wedding Wind’).
Death is acceptable, less threatening, natural in the context of the seasons (‘At Grass’, ‘Cut Grass’)
Larkin’s Philosophy of Life
Many critics find a deep sense of disillusionment and pessimism in Larkin’s poetry: Eric Homberger describes it as, ‘the saddest heart in the post-war supermarket’, while Charles Tomlinson says of Larkin’s writing that it shows, ‘a tenderly nursed sense of defeat’ (Charles Tomlinson)
The main areas of disillusionment for Larkin were:
the lack of religious faith, which means that he has not got the comfort of that absolute in his life (‘Church Going’)
his very bleak view of the end of life is given full expression in ‘Ambulances’ when he speaks of, ‘the solving emptiness that lies just under all we do’.
the pointlessness of the struggle and the irony of all the effort, ‘not a fieldglass sees them home’ (‘At Grass’)
We also find that his perpetual awareness of death colours all his attempts to celebrate life. For example, ‘At Grass’ celebrates the success of life, but it is a life that is over. Even the celebration of nature’s beauty and abundant growth is qualified by the presence of death (‘Cut Grass’).
Larkin himself denied that he was a completely pessimistic poet: ‘The impulse for producing a poem is never negative; the most negative poem in the world is a very positive thing to have done’. Would you agree?
SAMPLE ANSWERS ON LARKIN – FOR THE OPTIMISTS AND PESSIMISTS AMONGST US! TAKE YOUR PICK!
(1) Sample Answer Specially Written for Pessimists!: ‘The realities of his own society and life, explored through a variety of traditional techniques, is characteristic of the poetry of Philip Larkin.’
In many of Philip Larkin’s poems we are presented with situations in a society that is post-war, increasingly materialistic, decreasingly spiritual, often alienating and occasionally meaningless. In this society we see ordinary people struggling to realise their ideals, dreams and hopes, grasping at an illusive happiness, which for many will remain unattainable and remote. This contrast between the ideal and the ordinary is central to Larkin’s view of the life and society within which he worked.
In ‘At Grass’, the narrator recalls the brief moments of fame enjoyed by the horses and their trainers. The poem is carefully structured into five stanzas, each of six lines with a regular rhythm and the rhyme scheme abcabc. Most of the lines are of equal length and of eight syllables, which is suited to a poem that is ponderous and sad in tone. The horses are closely observed in the poem and their retirement in the ‘unmolesting meadows’ suggests how short-lived fame or notoriety is, and just as short, perhaps, for humans as for these horses. They enjoy a temporary freedom from the flash bulbs and public glare before being called to the stables, symbolic of the inevitable submission to death.
The idea of death disturbed Larkin. In ‘Church Going’ he confesses to being a non-believer in a church which has frequently left him ‘at a loss’. Through the argument of the poem, Larkin discovers his purpose in these frequent visits to churches. It is a desire to fulfil, ‘A hunger in himself to be more serious’, to be, perhaps, important, significant, or simply a desire to matter and to make a difference. This desire to be important underpins several poems by Larkin which deal with love. In ‘Wedding Wind’, the speaker, in this case a young bride, delights in her happiness, despite, or perhaps in spite of, being left by her husband to feel, ‘Stupid in candlelight’. Her joy is tempered only by her reflection on those less fortunate than herself who ‘lack the happiness’ she anticipates and perhaps expects to enjoy in her married life. However, Larkin is not so convinced and in the second stanza the newly-weds have once again been parted by the domestic rituals that will demand attention and disrupt the ideal of shared married life. It is notable that the rhyme patterns are less than regular in this poem. In the last four lines of stanza one, a pattern emerges as the bride speaks of her joy and contentment but this pattern is not continued into the second stanza, the tone of which is certainly more anxious and uncertain.
In ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ Larkin deals with several marriages that occur on the same Saturday in June in a landscape that is quintessentially English, ‘wide Farms’ are observed from the train and as the journey continues south the poet speaks of ‘Canals with floatings of industrial froth’ and of new towns which were ‘nondescript …. with acres of dismantled cars’. Gradually the poet’s curiosity draws his vision to the wedding parties where women wore ‘nylon gloves and jewellery substitutes, / The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres’ and ‘girls, gripping their handbags tighter’. The speaker’s increasing involvement with those married couples who have boarded the train is suggested when the personal pronoun ‘I’ is replaced by ‘we’ in the final stanza. The sense of ‘swelling’ of hope and of possibility in the future is with all of those who step from the train in London. The poem is meticulously crafted over eight stanzas each of ten lines and with a regular rhythm. The rhyming scheme mirrors the speed of the train – slow at first and then gradually picking up speed as it leaves each station.
Not all – in fact, very few – of Larkin’s poems show such optimism! While there are moments of joy and happiness, and surprise in Larkin’s poetry, the overriding sensation which remains with the reader, having read his poetry, is disillusionment. In ‘Ambulances’ the clamour of the sirens which ‘Brings closer what is left to come, / And dulls to distance all we are’, is a striking reminder of the inevitable fate we await in death.
Larkin’s poetry reflects the experiences and impulses that were common to many people living in England in the immediate post-war era. Some of these experiences he shares, if not physically, then emotionally. He may at first stand as an observer, but he often becomes less detached and removed from the scene he observes in order to identify himself with those who live and breathe and ‘grow old’ before him and with him.
(2) Sample Answer Specially Written for the Optimists among us – for those who see the bright side of everything!: Write an essay in which you outline your reasons for liking and/or not liking the poetry of Philip Larkin.
Of all the poets I studied as part of my Leaving Cert course it was Philip Larkin who really struck a chord with me. When I think now why I liked his poetry so much I think of his moving elegiac accounts of the passing of time in poems such as ‘At Grass’. Then there are the poems rich with philosophical ideas and considerations that give rise to many questions without pretending to know the answers. ‘Church Going’ and ‘An Arundel Tomb’ offer a fascinating perspective on how values and meanings change over time without resorting to unnecessary obfuscating language. Larkin’s poetry also gives us a view of life that is ‘permanent and blank and true’. However, whereas some readers may find the poetry of Larkin to be bleak, at the heart of many of these poems lies a beautiful sensitivity to the bonds and moments of love that come to define our lives. This is particularly the case with ‘Ambulances’, a poem that deals unflinchingly with mortality. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is the language that Larkin uses. Every poem contains exquisite lines of poetry that are a joy to read.
‘At Grass’ is a perfect example of Larkin’s ability to evoke the past and the heart-aching melancholy that comes with the passing of time. The poem is an elegy to a lost world – the world of the summer races, Ascot, the Derby: ‘Silks at the start: against the sky / Numbers and parasols: outside / Squadrons of empty cars, and heat’. However, there is a very interesting and moving ending to this poem. Having described the exciting world of the races he brings us back to the scene of two horses alone in a field, their racing days now long over. Capturing perfectly the melancholic sadness of life drawing to its close, Larkin describes how now that the world of the races has vanished, ‘Only the groom, and the groom’s boy, / With bridles in the evening come’. This final detail achieves a powerfully poignant melancholy.
This awareness of the passage of time and its consequences also lies at the heart of ‘Church Going’ and ‘An Arundel Tomb’, two poems I found particularly stimulating. Each poem considers how an object, though it might physically remain the same, comes to have different value and significance over the course of time. In ‘An Arundel Tomb’, the poet considers the representation in stone of an ‘earl and countess’ upon their tomb. Using sharp observation the poem raises many fascinating questions about the changes that time effects. Those buried in the tomb could never have imagined how the world would change around their frozen image:
They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read.
In ‘Church Going’ the poet raises equally fascinating questions about the significance of the churches that lie at the centre of every town in the country.
What I particularly liked about ‘Church Going’ was the way Larkin draws the reader into the poem. Using the register of the ‘Bored, uninformed’ tourist, the poet charms the reader with his observations (‘From where I stand the roof looks almost new – / Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don’t’) and humour (Hatless I take off / My cycle-clips in awkward reverence’) before raising some very important questions about the gradual demise of the church in modern society. The church ultimately becomes a ‘serious place on serious earth’, a place, ‘In whose blent air all our compulsions meet, / Are recognised, and robed as destinies’. That the church does this seems an invaluable thing and Larkin rightly wonders what institution will take its place when it no longer exists.
Wherever Larkin’s poems start from, they most often end with the inescapability of death. ‘Church Going’ contemplates the importance of churches in our lives but cannot help but notice in the end that ‘so many dead lie around’ them. In ‘Cut Grass’, something as ordinary and everyday as mown grass becomes a powerful symbol for the great sadness and finality of death:
Cut grass lies frail:
Brief is the breath
Mown stalks exhale.
Long, long the death
It is ‘Ambulances’, however, that provides us with the bluntest depiction of human mortality, with its vivid descriptions of illness and death. The poem exposes ‘the solving emptiness / That lies just under all we do’. However, even in this bleakest of poems Larkin remains keenly aware of the small things that come to define our lives and invest them with value and meaning – ‘the unique random blend / Of families and fashions’ and ‘the exchange of love’.
And that is what lies at the heart of Larkin’s poetry – his attention to the intimate details that define our everyday lives. He was not a poet who needed to travel to exotic places in order to find inspiration for his poetry. His truths are the simple truths of life and death and as a poet Larkin stuck with what he knew and like Frost’s, ‘The Road Not Taken’, that has made all the difference for me!
This one is a bonus – however, it is not on the Leaving Cert course – maybe for obvious reasons!
Elizabeth Bishop has garnered the reputation of being one of the finest, one of the most formally perfect, poets of the second half of the twentieth century. Irish poets Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon have testified in lectures and in essays on her poetry, to the unchallengeable subtlety of her work. And if she has been called a poet’s poet she is also pre-eminently a reader’s poet, and a poet whom it is always a serious joy to teach – students come alive when asked to discuss her work, partly because she communicates with an eager, unforced directness, partly because of the wit, the sheer pizazz and style with which she writes.
In the 1980s, there was a serious resistance to her work: she never came out as a lesbian, refused to appear in all-women anthologies, guarded her privacy and did not take direct political stances like her friend Robert Lowell. She was seen as insufficiently political, a misreading of her work, which identifies with black Americans, and with the struggle of the poor and oppressed in South America. But she, wisely, does not draw attention to those themes. She designs beautiful cadences, perfect shapes, and then she runs a counter-theme against them: ugliness, bad taste, rough or unbroken surfaces and sounds infiltrate her paradise of pure form and make it both more ideal and more real.
In ‘Cape Breton’, she draws our attention to the “weaving water”, and then offsets it with “hackmatack”, the name of a hard American spruce much admired by Walt Whitman. She also introduces an “irregular nervous saw-tooth edge”, and a “rough-adzed pole”. A gifted amateur painter, she designs a composition which plays the rough against the smooth, and allows a coded unhappiness and anxiety to disturb the surface of her art.
Bishop’s personal life – like many other poets – was often unhappy – two lovers committed suicide – and she became an alcoholic as a young woman. Behind the formal façade of her poems, there is a homeless, orphaned imagination, whose loneliness was expressed in her insatiable letter-writing and in late-night phone calls to friends.
She was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on February 11th, 1911. Her mother was from Nova Scotia, her father, who was half Canadian, half American, died in 1911, eight months after she was born. Her mother became deeply disorientated over the next five years, was diagnosed as permanently insane in 1916 and died in a public sanatorium in Nova Scotia in 1934. Bishop lived alternately with her grandparents in Nova Scotia and New England, and later with an aunt. She suffered poor health and hadn’t much formal education until she was fifteen. In 1930 she attended Vassar College and joined a brilliant generation there.
Bishop impressed everyone she met – she was musical, very well read, and was also a painter with a great knowledge of the visual arts. She was a compulsive traveller, who manages to avoid all the pitfalls of tourist verse.
The roots of Bishop’s art can be traced to her undergraduate years at Vassar, and rather unusually it is to a single academic essay that we must turn to understand her idea of form and beauty. As an undergraduate she read a famous essay by the distinguished scholar, M. W. Croll. It was called ‘The Baroque Style in Prose’ and is one of the classic essays on prose style (it can be found in a collection of essays called The English Language, edited by George Watson). Croll’s concept of baroque style – ‘not a thought, but a mind thinking’ – spoke to Bishop like a vocation. She quoted Croll’s essay in letters to friends, because what she admired in the baroque was the “ardour” and dramatic energy and immediacy of an idea as it was formulated and experienced. The result is a poetry of intense visual and vocal power, where the play of rhythm, rhyme, spoken inflection and carefully composed, sometimes abraded images, has a spontaneity and deft authority whose perfect cadences create that “unique feeling of timeliness” which she sought and admired in poetry.
We can see this in ‘Cape Breton’ where she places against the rapid movement of the song-sparrow songs as they float upward “freely, dispassionately, through the mist” – the sudden short, heavily stressed line “in brown-wet, fine, torn fish-nets”. It’s this difference of movement and texture that makes Bishop such a continuously interesting and alive poet.
We can see her delight in rapidly changing tones and surfaces in one of her wittiest and most painterly poems, ‘Seascape’, where she describes “white herons got up as angels,/flying as high as they want”. She is making the picture baroque, and her delicate ear starts a run of ee sounds: the herons fly “in tiers and tiers of immaculate reflections”. In the next line the word “region” picks up the ee sound, then hands it on to bright green leaves edged neatly with bird-droppings”.
The reason why Bishop appeals so strongly to fellow poets can be seen in the sudden uncomfortable word “edged”, which brings in the idea of a margin and the marginal, as it abruptly breaks the pair of ee sounds in “green leaves”, before letting the sound come back with emphasis in “neatly”. The two ds in “edged” are echoed in “bird droppings” to design an uncomfortable, deliberately bad-taste moment. That moment of unease frays against the aesthetic surface she is designing, a surface she reasserts by transforming their faecal randomness into “illumination in silver”. This use of images of discomfort and unease also suffuses Seamus Heaney’s poetry from Death of a Naturalist on – it is as though he has developed the ontological anxiety in her poetry into a form of social and political anxiety.
In Bishop, this tension between the aesthetic and a type of anti-aesthetic effect is one expression of her puritan upbringing – it introduces an anxiety into the delineation of a beautiful image, and this discomfiting effect then helps strengthen and make more flexible the particular aesthetic moment.
Bishop was also a gifted short story writer (her collected prose has been published), and she was also a marvellous translator. Many of her translations came out of the fifteen years she spent in Brazil, where she moved in 1952 to live with Lota de Macedo Soares. She moved back to New York in 1967, and it was there that Lota committed suicide later that year.
Though Bishop continued to travel, she based herself in Boston and died there on October 6th, 1979. She is one of the greatest American poets of the last century, and is the subject of many books, essays and academic dissertations; 35 years after her death, her work is revered and admired more than ever.
Edited extracts from an essay by Tom Paulin first published in The Irish Times, Saturday, September 11th 2004.
The legend of Plath as a dark and driven and unstable young woman is a tremendous simplification of her work. Her work will endure where poetry endures.
The trouble for us who come to study her work in depth at Leaving Cert or A Level is that we already know the ending – a bit like watching a film of The Titanic! We know that Plath died by suicide in mid-sentence, so to speak, at the age of thirty one. Studying this arbitrary selection of her poems here should impress on us her vast and vital legacy. She is, in my view, a very essential poet.
There is unfortunately a widespread tendency to interpret Plath’s work as autobiographical, to read her poems as if they tell her life story. While it is quite obvious – and probably inevitable – that a writer’s life will influence what she writes, it is important to understand that poetry is art. Writing about this issue, Ted Hughes pointed out that the reader must learn, ‘to distinguish between a subjective work that was trying to reach an artistic form using a real event as its basis, and a documentary of some event that did happen.’
Some critics read her later poems exclusively in the light of her suicide. They argue that she signals her suicide (intentionally or otherwise) in a number of her last poems, through various references to despair, rage, loss, separation, or death. This is by no means as obvious as these critics claim and after all hindsight has always been the great tormentor of those left bereaved and bereft after a suicide. Many of these poems are the work of a woman who is coming into her own, recognising her own needs, using her own voice, finding her true self. Look, for example, at ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’. This is about facing and releasing the fears that are hidden beneath the surface – not about a woman who is contemplating death.
So therefore, it is important to read the poems as they stand. Looking for signs of what was to happen afterwards in her life is to predetermine how the poems should be read, not actually attending to the poems themselves.
Note:To help you prepare for your Leaving Cert you need to become very familiar with at least six of Sylvia Plath’s poems. I would recommend that you concentrate on her later poems (from 1960 to her death) because of their power and honesty. The following selection will be dealt with in some depth here:
‘Morning Song’ (19th February, 1961),
‘Finisterre’ (29th September, 1961),
‘Mirror’ (23rd October, 1961),
‘Pheasant’ (7th April, 1962),
‘Elm’ (19th April, 1962),
‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’, (4th October, 1962),
‘Child’ (28th January, 1963).
The points made here represent one interpretation of her work. It is important that you develop your own response to each poem; where this differs from the suggestions given here, trust your own judgement! Become familiar with the poems and with the major themes running through Plath’s poetry.
Plath wrote incessantly during her short life: poetry, short stories, articles, essays, and one semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. Her writings were first published in magazines on both sides of the Atlantic; later they appeared in book form.
She considered poems written before 1956 as ‘juvenilia’. Her first published book, The Colossus, includes only poems written after this date. Her remaining poems were published after her death in three collections: Ariel and Other Poems, Crossing the Water, and Winter Trees.
Her last poems are generally seen as Plath’s outstanding achievement and that is why we concentrate on them here in this review. Here she truly found her voice, expressing herself in a distinctive, unique style. She was aware of this herself: while writing them she informed her mother, ‘I am a writer…. I am a genius of a writer; I have it in me. I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name…. (Letters Home, 16th October 1962).
Her husband, Ted Hughes, describes these poems equally glowingly:
‘Her real self showed itself in her writing … When a real self finds language and manages to speak, it is surely a dazzling event’ (The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1982).
MAJOR THEMES IN PLATH’S POETRY
Motherhood: Plath wrote many poems dealing with all aspects of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood, at a time when writers, especially poets, rarely touched on such topics. Her best-known work on the theme, ‘Poem for Three Voices’, evokes powerfully the variety of emotions experienced by women around pregnancy, miscarriage, motherhood, and adoption. Her poems on this theme are remarkable for their lyricism (their song-like quality), depth of feeling, and tenderness.
What did my fingers do before they held him?
What did my heart do, with its love?
However, being a realist, she also reflected the other side of being a mother: the drudgery, the anxieties, and the level to which a mother is bound to her child:
I have never seen a thing so clear …
It is a terrible thing to be so open: it is as if my heart
Put on a face and walked into the world.
Both attitudes are seen in ‘Morning Song’. The mother’s life is shadowed by the child’s arrival, but is enriched by the joy of love. ‘Child’ also reflects the simple pleasure she derives from her child; his eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing that she longs to fill with the beauty of the world. But there is also an underlying threat to the child’s safety, which distresses her.
Identity: Plath frequently returned to the issue of double identity in her writing. The subject of her undergraduate thesis in Smith College was: ‘The Magic Mirror: A Study of the Double in Dostoevsky Novels’. Her interest in what appears on the surface and what is hidden is reflected in ‘Mirror’. Here, the depths hide something frightening and sinister; something the woman would prefer to avoid but cannot escape.
‘Elm’ also deals with doubleness: the apparent calm of the elm in the opening stanzas, and the hidden terrors that surface as she talks. A similar preoccupation is at the heart of ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’. The practical, square box is a simple container: apparently there are no mysteries here. However, it conceals something sinister, but also fascinating.
Nature: Plath’s abiding interest in the world around her, her interest in nature, is reflected in many poems. Her descriptions are remarkable for their concrete, precise detail.
‘Finisterre’ paints a graphic picture of the scene before her eyes, conveying the harshness of the sea, the bleakness of the rocks, the delicacy of the flowers on the cliff, and the effect of the mist.
Her painterly style creates graphic images in ‘Pheasant’: the bird itself, the flowers, the hill and elm in the background, the earlier scene where the snow was marked with the ‘crosshatch’ footprints of various birds. This poem also reflects her stance against the destruction of nature, a concern that features in many of her poems.
Psychic landscapes/Mindscapes: While her descriptions of landscapes and seascapes are very striking, the scene is at times simply the backdrop to the mood of the speaker. In ‘Finisterre’, the place is identified by the title. The landscape is captured in a series of wonderful images. Many of these are personified: cliffs are ‘admonitory’, rocks hide their grudges, the sea wages war, and mists are without hope. The place assumes an atmosphere that is oddly human.
Style: Plath’s style changed considerably during her career – unlike, say, Hopkins. However, there are certain features that mark all her work:
Her remarkable use of language
Unusual and striking imagery
Language: Plath’s ‘crackling verbal energy’ is apparent in her poems’ biting precision of word and image. Her writing has been variously praised for its tactile quality, power, incisiveness, control, taut originality, and luminosity. Joyce Carol Oates observed that, ‘the final memorable poems (‘Elm’, and ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’ among others) … read as if they’ve been chiselled with a fine surgical implement out of arctic ice.’ In her Journals, Plath constantly urges herself to develop ‘diamond-edged’, ‘gem-bright’ style. This she certainly achieved. Part of her technique was to reuse certain words in many poems, which thus took on an almost symbolic meaning: smiles, hooks, element, dissatisfaction, vowels, shriek, horse, sea.
‘Pheasant’ is a good example of her skilled control of descriptive language. The form here is less dominant, and the poet’s feelings are reflected in the personal voice that speaks throughout. The words are simple, the descriptions are vivid, and the poem is crystal clear – a good example of Plath’s descriptive powers at their best.
‘Elm’ shows her powerful response to loss, pain and terror. The feeling of despair, for example, is conveyed through a number of highly charged nouns and verbs.
Imagery: Certain images recur in Plath’s poetry, taking on a symbolic meaning that gains added force through repeated use.
The moon symbolises barrenness, coldness, and the negation of life. in ‘Elm’ it is merciless, cruel, and barren, associated with pain and suffering.
The mirror often symbolises the hidden alter ego (the ‘other self’), as in ‘Mirror’.
The horse is a symbol of vitality. In ‘Elm’, love gallops off like a horse.
The sea is often associated with undefined menace or hidden threat, as is so graphically evident in ‘Finisterre’.
She uses many other images, however, that are not symbolic, images that add to the vividness and immediacy of what she is describing. One of the most distinctive features of her work is her use of metaphors, many of which are visual.
Mists are ‘souls’, which ‘bruise the rocks out of existence’ (‘Finisterre’).
The pheasant is ‘brown as a leaf’, a ‘little cornucopia’ (‘Pheasant’).
The bee box is ‘square as a chair’, a ‘midget’s coffin’ (‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’).
Bees are like ‘African hands, / Minute and shrunk for export’ (‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’).
The baby’s mouth opens ‘clean as a cat’s’ (‘Morning Song’).
Her crying is ‘a handful of notes’, which rise ‘like balloons’ (‘Morning Song’).
Plath attached great importance to colours, often identifying them with specific attributes. The repeated use of colour to suggest certain qualities links her poems to one another, giving added force to her meaning.
Red signifies vitality, life force: the pheasant’s vitality is envisaged largely through its vivid colouring.
Green too signifies the positive, creativity, life force: the pheasant is red and green.
Black is associated with death, anger, depression, aggression, and destruction: the black headland that opens ‘Finisterre’ underlines the sinister mood.
Surprisingly, white too is sinister: the white faces of the dead, the white mists in ‘Finisterre’.
In Summary then…
Sylvia Plath was a lyric poet in the Romantic tradition. She wrote poems that drew on her own experience of life and explored a range of emotions from love and joy to terror and despair. Like the Romantics, she looked inwards rather than outwards; her experience is gauged by what she has lived through.
‘Elm’ is perhaps the most striking example of this. It is one of a number of poems she wrote around the same time, expressing agonising emotions. Some of these emotions were quite ‘acceptable’, provided they were not shown too openly: the grief and loneliness expressed in ‘Elm’, for example. However, less acceptable was the intensity with which she voiced these; it was considered ‘over the top’, too revealing.
The writer and critic Joyce Carol Oates sees in these poems the seeds of Plath’s eventual suicide.
Her poems have that heart-breaking quality about them that has made Sylvia Plath our acknowledged Queen of Sorrows, the spokeswoman for our most private, most helpless nightmares, her poetry is as deathly as it is impeccable; it enchants us almost as powerfully as it must have enchanted her.
Not everyone agrees with this estimate, however. Janice Markey sees Plath’s writings as life-affirming:
‘The enduring success and greatness of Plath’s work lies in its universal appeal and in an innovative, effective presentation. Plath was the first writer in modern times to write about women with a new aggressive confidence and clarity, and the first to integrate this confidence and clarity in a sane, honest and compassionate vision’.
SYLVIA PLATH – AN AMAZING POET
One of the problems when reading poetry is how much do we need to know about the poet’s life and background. The poet Thom Gunn argues that the making of poems is not like turning out clay pots; poems are rooted in and tell directly or indirectly of a life. People who have never read a Sylvia Plath poem know that she killed herself at thirty one and therefore, her death has come to overshadow and dominate the life. In Plath’s case, probably more so than the other poets on our course, her life is so emotionally complicated and complex that a fuller understanding and appreciation of the poems are possible when they are read against the life. That life was in Sylvia Plath’s own words, ‘magically run by two electric currents’ and these she named ‘joyous positive and despairing negative’; her poetry reflects those charged polar opposites.
The seven poems that we have chosen here were written in the space of two years – the last one, ‘Child’ two weeks before she died. Her poems describe the natural world and the domestic world but, whether she is writing about a pheasant, an elm tree, bees, or her child, she is primarily writing about herself.
Her poetry is always very urgent and intense. That poetry has sometimes been described as hysterical and self-dramatising but such descriptions ignore the clear-sighted understanding she has of a situation. She very often courageously writes of troubled emotions, the darker side of life, her own experiences. Ted Hughes once told Eavan Boland that Sylvia Plath’s face changed in absolutely every single moment of expression. She did experience extremes and, if her work is more pessimistic than optimistic, more shaded than light, she herself defended it as follows:
Don’t talk to me about the world needing cheerful stuff! What the person out of Belsen – physical or psychological – wants is nobody saying that the birdies still go tweet-tweet, but the full knowledge that somebody else has been there and knows the worst, just what it is like. It is much more help for me, for example, to know that people are divorced and go through hell, than to hear about happy marriages (Letter to her mother, 21st October, 1962).
‘Morning Song’, ‘Finisterre’, ‘Mirror’, ‘Pheasant’, ‘Elm’, and ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’, in Seamus Heaney’s words, reveal, ‘the terrible stresses of her own psychological and domestic reality’. If she writes about a dramatic landscape, as she does in ‘Finisterre’, we see that landscape as Plath sees it. She brings to it, just as every viewer would, her own preconceptions and concerns. Anne Stevenson, in her book Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath, writes that Plath’s, ‘raw-edged response to personal sorrows and joys, her apprehensions of the world’s horrors and injustices, as well as its beauty, were excessive to an unusual degree.’
Asked once about the importance of poetry, Plath said:
‘I am not worried that poems reach relatively few people. As it is, they go surprisingly far – among strangers, around the world, even. Farther than the words of a classroom teacher or the prescriptions of a doctor; if they are very lucky, farther than a lifetime.’
She wanted her poetry to mirror the life lived, its ordinariness and its extraordinariness, so much so that Plath once famously said that she wanted to get a toothbrush into a poem and that she was interested in writing about, ‘The real world. Real situations, behind which the great gods play the drama of blood, lust and death’.
Her mother, Aurelia Plath, said that Sylvia Plath, ‘made use of everything and often transmitted gold into lead …… These emotions in another person would dissipate with time, but with Sylvia they were written at the moment of intensity to become ineradicable as an epitaph engraved in a tombstone’. But on the page the thoughts and feelings are shaped and crafted. Eavan Boland speaks of Plath’s, ‘great elan, her handling of the line, her very unusual take on language and image – all of those things have become coded into the poetry that we now have. Robert Lowell speaks of Plath’s, ‘perfect control, like the control of a skier who avoids every death-trap until reaching the final drop’ and Michael Schmidt says of her poetry that it ‘is hard to imagine a poetry more forcefully stamped with a personality and voice’.
Therefore, it is clear that the legend of Plath as a dark and driven and unstable young woman is a tremendous simplification of her work. Her work will endure where poetry endures.
SAMPLE ANSWER: Nature imagery in the poetry of Sylvia Plath.
Sylvia Plath was a very ambitious writer. In 1958, before the publication of her first volume of poetry, she wrote in her journal: ‘I think I have written lines which qualify me to be The Poetess of America ….. I am eager, chafing, sure of my gift.’ Plath dedicated much of her short life to writing and developed several features that became characteristic of her style. One of the most interesting and accomplished features is her depiction of nature in her work.
Plath shows a very keen eye for detail in her fine and striking portrayals of nature. It is easy to picture the ‘Black admonitory cliffs’ in ‘Finisterre’ and she can also recreate the beauty of nature’s creatures as we see in ‘Pheasant’ where she marvels at ‘the wonder of it, in that pallor / Through crosshatch of sparrows and starling’. She manages to capture the beauty and richness and ‘rareness’ of the pheasant in one remarkably apt image: ‘It’s a little cornucopia’. Imagery, of course, adds a new dimension to Plath’s descriptions of nature. She uses imagery in a way that sends echoes of suggestion, of splendour, of menace through a poem and invites interpretations from the reader.
Much of her imagery is of a visual kind, in itself emphasising the importance of ‘seeing’ and ‘reflecting’ in her work. One of her common images from nature, very like Heaney, is water. In ‘Finisterre’, for example, Plath recreates the sights and sounds of land’s end in a dramatic evocation of the sea as it explodes, ‘Whitened by the faces of the drowned’. The sea ‘cannons’ to the dead, suggesting that for Plath, it represents a destructive force that humans can only hope to oppose in their unheard prayers to ‘Our Lady of the Shipwrecked’. The scene at the sea cliffs is a grim one. Nature is unforgiving; it is a receptacle of death, ‘Leftover soldiers from old, messy wars’, and it holds potential for more evil where ‘rocks hide their grudges under the water’. Certainly, it is not a benevolent force, not a nostalgic, romantic or sentimental place. Plath’s vivid and perhaps unexpected images have created a disturbing ‘Bay of the Dead’.
However, a further development occurs in Plath’s imagery when she begins to use it, not merely to create a vivid picture of external reality, but as a device to suggest the inner reality of her own mind. In this way, Plath uses imagery as an expression of landscape but also as a reflection of her own inner mindscape. (Hopkins does this also in his Terrible Sonnets). In other words, Plath succeeds in fusing external events with her own inner feelings. In the poem ‘Elm’ the poet creates a dark, disturbing and surreal world where love is ‘a shadow’, sunset an ‘atrocity’, where winds are violent, the moon ‘merciless’, and the tree/woman is ‘terrified by this dark thing / That sleeps in me’. The poem concludes with death that seems, rather than being final, to be ongoing. The external landscape of the tree may indeed express the inner turmoil and disturbances of Plath’s mind, that has become ‘inhabited by a cry’ that ‘Nightly … flaps out / Looking with its hooks, for something to love’. The poet is ‘terrified by this dark thing’ that ‘petrifies the will’.
Imagery, therefore, captures various states of emotional distress. Often this unexpected power of her images originates in objects that at first appear commonplace, such as the elm tree or, in ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’, the bees. Nonetheless, the echoes that emanate from such commonplace objects are unexpected and startling. The bees in the bee box, for example, are variously described ‘a Roman mob’, ‘maniacs’, who speak ‘unintelligible syllables’. However, the poet has to ‘live with’ them overnight. Such imagery certainly animates the bees in the poem, but it could also evoke the inner turmoil and chaos within the poet’s mind. Her inner voices are like the bees: she can’t control them, can’t understand them, they remain ‘dark, dark’. She also sees them as ‘Black on black, angrily clambering’ and their shriek ‘appals’ her. In the poem she decides, hesitantly, to ‘set them free’ from her mind, which up to now has remained a ‘coffin’, a locked up box with ‘no exit’. The poet, dressed in her ‘moon suit and funeral veil’ both wishes for and fears their release. But the conclusion is more hopeful than that in ‘Elm’, for tomorrow she will ‘set them free’.
(As an interesting exercise, you might examine the poem ‘Mirror’ with some of these ideas in mind. Stanza two of that poem should reward you with some thoughtful insights! Another worthwhile study would be Plath’s use of colour and what it might symbolise in her poetry.)
It is clear, therefore, that Plath’s striking metaphors and startling similes are usually central to a poem’s development. Her images can evoke vivid descriptions of the external world, the poet’s feelings for that world, and at times she has the ability to fuse these feelings to the emotional insecurities of her inner world.
There is a very telling little poem by Michael Hartnett tucked away in A Book of Strays called ‘Aere Perrenius’. In it the poet recounts early encounters with Patrick Kavanagh after Hartnett had made his way to Dublin, ‘fresh from Newcastle West / at twenty, with a sheaf of verse / tucked into my belt’. It is really a very gentle admonition by the very prescient Hartnett who was already garnering academic interest. He is saying to those who are required, as part of their academic studies, to rummage through the entrails of a poet’s work to be gentle in their excavations.
The Latin phrase aere perrenius comes to us from Horace. In the final poem in his third book of Odes, Horace boasts that his poetry will outlive any man-made monument: “Exegi monumentum aere perennius.” (“I have made a monument more lasting than bronze.”). Hartnett would probably have been first introduced to the beauty and wisdom of Horace by Dave Hayes, erudite classics scholar and teacher of Latin at St. Ita’s Secondary School, Newcastle West where Hartnett studied for his Leaving Cert in 1950’s.
Hartnett’s poem ‘Aere Perrenius’, is therefore, really a poetic warning to young aspiring academics not to ‘tamper with the facts’ of his verse – or indeed Kavanagh’s verse either! He mentions these, ‘dull strangers with degrees / who prune, to fit conceptions’. These aspiring scholars build their theories on fragile ground, ‘give you ancestors and heirs’ and try to ‘bring you into line / with academic aims, / number all your bones / and make false claims.’
Would-be academics who undertake such necessary work should be aware, however, of the poet’s sensitivities. Hartnett is adamant that he can live with being forgotten but not with being misunderstood or misinterpreted:
It is easy to forgive
a world that forgets
but not a world that changes
with subtle sentences
a life that was and is.
Both Hartnett and Kavanagh have had their fair share of being misunderstood – and for those who are familiar with the ‘history’ of their friendship, many will find Hartnett’s appeal on behalf of his ‘mentor’ very commendable! He claims to understand Kavanagh, for all his rough edges, ‘the smokescreen of your talk / about fillies, about stallions’. His intimate knowledge of the man from Inniskeen is encapsulated in that uniquely Irish form of the ultimate trusting relationship: ‘I sometimes placed your bets.’
He declares that the bronze statue by the Grand Canal in Dublin’s Baggott Street is best described by Kavanagh’s own word ‘banal’! He, unsuccessfully as it happens, hopes that he will never suffer a similar fate. He issues an appeal to all young, and not so young, aspiring academics to thread softly when they come to investigating and exploring the work of any poet: