The Poetry of Dylan Thomas

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Dylan Thomas, oil on canvas, by Augustus John, 1938.

THE POETRY OF DYLAN THOMAS

(with particular focus on ‘Fern Hill’ and ‘A Refusal to Mourn’)

Dylan Thomas’s poetry has always attracted diverging views, attracting some readers and repelling others.  In certain ways he is the last of the Romantic poets, and like most poets in that tradition he liked to experiment with words.  He was perhaps the only modern poet to experiment persistently, hence the bewilderment of his audience when his early poems were published in the mid-1930’s.

The poetry of the twentieth century can be divided roughly into two main categories.  There is, first of all, the tradition established by Yeats and Eliot which attempted to comment on and influence major social issues in an effort to bring about reforms.  Yeats’ ‘September 1913’ and Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ (1922), are two good examples of this tradition.  Both poets express similar attitudes, namely disgust at the degeneracy of modern life, and both poets advocate a return to past virtues as a means of displacing society’s unpleasant aspects.  For Eliot and Yeats therefore, a significant aspect of a poet’s role was that of social commentator, and with them a tradition was established which continued to be a dominant one throughout the first half of the twentieth century.

The poetry of Dylan Thomas, however, diverges sharply from this tradition and to a large extent he remains outside it.  His poems had so little of the realism of Eliot and Yeats that they took the contemporary literary scene by storm.  Being at heart a Romantic poet, Dylan Thomas preferred to write poems that were completely devoid of social issues and unlike Yeats and Eliot he did not feel the urge to reform the world.  Modern poets in general had come through the Great War with a new sense of function and responsibility.  This sense of conviction, of important work to do in a political or social context, is completely lacking in the works of Dylan Thomas.  Indeed, this lack of an urgent poetic content seemed naive to many early readers, particularly at a time when Europe had emerged tragically from one World War, and seemed likely to get entangled in another.  In ‘Fern Hill’, for example, Dylan Thomas describes his memories of childhood in Wales in the years after the Great War.  The picture he creates, however, is so beautiful and idyllic as to be almost unreal.  The real Wales of the time, many early critics suggested, was in sharp contrast to that described in the poem.

Similarly in ‘A Refusal to Mourn’, a poem which describes the death of a child killed in an air-raid, no reference is made to the terrible atrocities of war.  ‘Fern Hill’ was also criticised in other respects.  Besides its lack of serious content there was the more serious charge of a complete lack of meaning.  Indeed, like much of his poetry, ‘Fern Hill’ was strongly criticised as being almost totally obscure.  Thomas himself realised the problem his poetry in general, and ‘Fern Hill’ in particular, presented to readers.  He remarked how his poems were always rigorously compressed, being ‘as tight packed as a mad doctor’s bag’.  The poet and critic Geoffrey Grigson, who published Thomas’s early work in his influential magazine, New Verse, (where he also published W.H. Auden and Louis McNeice), and who recognised Thomas’s promise was one of the first to comment on its obscurity.  He attacked Thomas for his neglect of a continuous line of meaning, for his use of ‘towering phrases’ which imply so much but say very little, and for his tendency to be ‘over-fantastic’ and obscure.

To understand the poetry of Dylan Thomas one must consider him as a modern exponent of the Romantic tradition.  Indeed, it is only in the context of this tradition that one can really characterise his particular method and identify his major themes.  Throughout the first half of the twentieth century Romantic poetry was steadily in decline.  Eliot, in particular, had dismissed all poetry in the Romantic tradition as obsolete and unacceptable in a modern context.  In its stead he substituted a new urban poetry which is so often full of depression, anger and despair (e.g. ‘The Love song of J. Alfred Prufrock’).  Dylan Thomas, however, completely rejected the modern mode of expression, and returned instead to the Romantic poets for his principal themes and his characteristic method.  Whereas Eliot and Yeats describe a world which is often dark and depressing, Dylan Thomas reaffirms a personal faith in life.  His poetry is subsequently filled with a sense of joy and optimism.

Dylan Thomas’s working life as a poet lasted a little over twenty years but the most extraordinary thing about it was how much of the foundations were laid down in a very short period towards the beginning.  He was writing profusely in his early teens and when he was seventeen he began work on some of the poems for which he is still remembered.  Between the years 1931 and 1935 he drafted, and in many cases actually completed, most of his best poems.  In other words he had already created the most important parts of his work by the age of twenty-one.  Despite his basic differences with T.S. Eliot, he adopted Eliot’s habit of rejecting nothing, and lines or sections that were unsustainable or unsuitable for one poem often found their way into another.  Years later he still continued to draw on material from his adolescent notebooks.  Indeed, out of these notebooks and casual jottings grew the most famous poems he published in his lifetime and those for which he is remembered after his untimely death.  He composed by selecting the best expressions from his notebooks, reordering and perfecting them until he was satisfied with their sequence.

‘Fern Hill’ and ‘A Refusal to Mourn’ are typical examples of Dylan Thomas’s poetic method.  Both poems depend on a common Romantic assumption that the natural world is self-explanatory: things die and are born again in a constant process of death and renewal.  We notice, therefore, how nature is often strongly incorporated into his poems.  In a letter dated March 1935 he speaks of how his, ‘pre-conceived symbolism derived from the cosmic significance of nature’.  Thus, both ‘Fern Hill’ and ‘A Refusal to Mourn’ are overlaid with a strong natural imagery.  He is particularly attracted to natural images, which suggest youth and vitality, but we also find him returning constantly to ideas of transience and death.  Indeed, throughout his poetic career he remained haunted by the reality of death, and perhaps his chief contribution to English poetry was his sustained vision that life and death form part of a great process shared by all created things.  Both ‘Fern Hill’ and ‘A Refusal to Mourn’ begin with the assumption that we start to die from the moment we are born, even indeed from the moment we are conceived.  This continuous process of dying extends to all living things.  The entire thought of ‘Fern Hill’ is based on this idea, though it does not become explicit until the final stanza:

                   Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,

                   Time held me green and dying

                   Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

In ‘A Refusal to Mourn’ the theme of death is seen in a slightly different context as the poet surmises on the probability of another existence.  Here he suggests that the world into which we are born and in which we die is not the final world; that there is another existence on the other side of things.  Again he expresses his ideas through use of comparisons with natural things.  Nature ‘dies’ each year and renews itself with the return of every spring; but for man there is only one death, ‘After the first death there is no other’.  Yet this realisation of the eternal presence of death does not allow the poet to grieve over the dead child, or to encourage false sentiments by a vain display of tears.  This poem is not so much a discussion of the child’s death, as a presentation of Thomas’s attitude to the idea of death in general.  He thinks of death as a slow, relentless process, rather than as a sudden pathetic end to life.  This process of destruction extends to all living things and he sees no reason to mourn when the process is finally completed.

The poem begins with a great statement as befits some good, cosmic occasion.  The first two stanzas, and the first line of the third, are one sentence with the skeleton grammar: ‘Till doomsday I will not mourn for the dead child’.  Darkness is described as making mankind, ‘fathering’ birds etc.. and ‘humbling’ all.  As such it is more than a personification of death: it is unknown, undeveloped nature from which all life comes and to which it will eventually return.  One critic suggests that darkness might also refer to God the Father who is described in the Book of Genesis as making the world out of nothing.  Water is always used in Thomas’s poetry as a fundamental life-giver.  Here it is joined with the reference to corn and behind each is the idea of change and transformation.  Corn was said by St. Paul to die in the ground before it receives the rain whereby it sprouts again.  In this manner it is transformed into a more perfect element.  The general theme of the poem is clear: all people, no less than this young girl, are transformed by death into more perfect states, and the whole process of dying is a natural precondition for this transformation.  Throughout the poem ordinary words are used to suggest mystic processes: ‘The majesty and burning of the child’s death’; ‘The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother’.  Behind this poem is the biblical idea of death as a change of life rather than as an end of it.  In the final stanza, therefore, we are given a great image of the relentless continuance of life as the Thames, bearing the young girl’s spirit, flows away to the sea.

In ‘Fern Hill’ the emphasis is on life rather than on death, yet we see how the pervasive presence of nature is a dominant feature of this poem also.  From the beginning of the poem the boy’s experiences are described in terms of natural images and his simple vitality is seen as a gift of nature soon to be withdrawn.  Phrases like ‘all the sun long, all the moon long’, show how the child measured time by nature , not by the clock, and how each day seems a long savouring of experience.  As the poem progresses, however, the facts of time become more insistent and the pathos of transience can no longer be ignored, ‘The children green and golden / Follow him out of grace’; ‘And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land’.  The lack of grammar in these stanzas makes them appear, as in Chapter 1 of James Joyce’s, Portrait of the Artist, as if part of a dream-like reflection.  This nostalgic emphasis on childhood is yet another dominant feature of Romantic poetry.  In one of his most famous poems Wordsworth wrote that, ‘Heaven lies about us in our infancy’, an idea to which Dylan Thomas also subscribed.

Wonderfully rich in visual imagery, the words of ‘Fern Hill’ combine together in highly original ways to picture the joyful exhilaration of a child.  This can be the cause of some confusion for readers.  Striking phrases like , ‘happy as the grass was green’, ‘prince of the apple-towns’, or ‘at my sky-blue trades’, are surprising by their novelty and at first it is difficult to be sure what effects are intended.  These unusual images are evocative rather than precise: their purpose is to create a strong emotional atmosphere.  Dylan Thomas deliberately uses all his poetic powers to combine in one image a wider range of associations.  Being essentially a Romantic poet, he is trying to communicate an experience, which is almost beyond expression.  In the repetitions, ‘it is lovely’, ‘it is air / And playing lovely, and watery…’, he seems to be straining after an ecstasy which can never be completely expressed in words.  He is celebrating the divine innocence of childhood which, for him, is a mystery almost beyond analysis.

The second stanza reminds us how for a child roaming the countryside, time moves slowly through long mornings of pleasure.  But much more than this is implied.  The noise of water passing over the pebbles is like Church bells calling the boy to worship.  Dylan Thomas is aware of the power of time but instead of becoming melancholy he sees the joy of his childhood as something for which to be thankful, being itself part of the wonder of creation.  Instead of giving way to regrets he rejoices in what has been.  Thus, the boy’s emotions transform every object he sees: ‘the lilting house’, ‘happy yard’, ‘gay house’.  He is, ‘honoured among foxes and pheasants’, an integral part of all natural things.  But he also achieves an exalted state: he is a ‘prince’, ‘honoured’ and ‘lordly’.  Lines such as ‘the big fields high as a house’ evoke a sense of abundance, of a world of plenty, of which the boy’s youthful joy is but a part.

These expressions of mystery and wonder reach a climax in stanza four.  When he awakes in the morning, the farm appears like the Garden of Eden, a revelation of earthly innocence.  It is typical of Thomas that this awareness is expressed in religious terms:

                   And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white

                   With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all

                   Shining, it was Adam and maiden,

                   The sky gathered again

                   And the sun grew round that very day.

From the beginning of the poem the boy’s simple vitality is seen as a gift of time to be withdrawn.  The final image of the sea repeats the previous evocations of energy and abundance; but like the child it too is confined and restricted in its range by natural forces.

An important characteristic of ‘Fern Hill’ is the manner in which Dylan Thomas develops his ideas through imagery, verbal repetition, and other stylistic devices.  The prose meaning of his poems – their paraphrasable content – is usually simple.  What is difficult, however, is their verbal texture.  In his prose writings he has stressed the importance of metaphor in his poetry, which often causes difficulties of interpretation to arise.  In one of his few statements on his own poems he describes his peculiar method of composition with particular regard to his use of imagery:

‘A poem by itself needs a host of images.  I make sure – though ‘make’ is not the word; I let, perhaps an image be ‘made’ emotionally in me and then apply to it what intellectual and critical forces I possess; I let it breed another, let that image contradict the first; make of the third image bred out of the other two together, a fourth contradictory image and let them all conflict within my imposed formal limits.  The life of any poem of mine cannot move out of the centre; an image must be born and die in another; and any sequence of my images must be a sequence of creations, recreations, destructions, contradictions…’

This concept of the image determines the construction of ‘Fern Hill’.  Sequences of images are linked together without the relationship imposed by ordinary syntax, so as to provide a uniquely original form of poetry.  Words are arranged in terms of their musical effects, and individual stanzas abound with references to music.  In ‘Fern Hill’ these references are numerous, ‘the lilting house’, ‘singing as the farm was home’, ‘the Sabbath rang slowly’, ‘the tunes from chimneys’, ‘it was air / and playing’, ‘all his tuneful turning’, ‘I sang in my chains like the sea’.  The opening stanza expresses the poet’s experiences clearly.  Music, as conceived by the Romantics, is identified with nature.  Words are listed for their sound properties and are densely woven into poetic rhythms.  To these, also, are added colours suggestive of youth and vitality, ‘green’, ‘golden’, ‘white’, ‘blue’.

One of the secrets of Dylan Thomas’s strongly personal style then was his discovery of unsuspected variables in English – again like James Joyce in Ulysses.  Thus, he would write ‘all the sun long’ instead of ‘all day’, ‘once below a time’ instead of ‘once upon a time’, ‘all the moon long’ instead of ‘all night’.  The change to ‘Adam and maiden’ instead of ‘Adam and Eve’ is particularly significant with the connotation of innocence and purity that the first phrase brings.  This gift for revitalising common, general statement was to remain with Thomas all his life.  Indeed, only the great Gerard Manley Hopkins shows a comparable talent for finding similar rich possibilities in worn-out words and phrases.

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Maiden Street

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Photograph courtesy of Niall Hartnett

Maiden Street

By Michael Hartnett

Full of stolen autumn apples

we watched the tinkers fight it out,

the cause, a woman or a horse.

Games came in their seasons,

horseshoes, bowling, cracking nuts,

Sceilg, marbles – frozen knuckled,

Bonfire Night, the skipping-rope

And small voices on the golden road

At this infant incantation:

        ‘There’s a lady from the mountains

Who she is i cannot tell,

All she wants is gold and silver

And a fine young gentleman’.

 

We could make epics with our coloured chalks

traced in simple rainbows on the road,

or hunt the dreaded crawfish in the weeds

sunk in galleons of glass and rust,

or make unknown incursions on a walk

killing tribes of ragworth that were yellow-browed:

we were such golden children, never to be dust

singing in the street alive and loud:

        ‘There’s a lady from the mountains

Who she is I cannot tell,

All she wants is gold and silver

And a fine young gentleman’.      

 

Commentary:  In the preface to the beautiful, bitter sweet ‘Maiden Street Ballad’, which Hartnett wrote as a Christmas present for his father, Denis Hartnett, in December 1980, he writes:

Everyone has a Maiden Street.  It is the street of strange characters, wits, odd old women and eccentrics; in short the street of youth.

This earlier poem published in 1967 is one of Michael Hartnett’s most romantic, sentimental and nostalgic poems about the street where he was reared as a child in the 1940’s.  It is a poem brimming with childhood games and activities – all outdoors by the way!  The games ‘came in their seasons’, throwing horseshoes, bowling, cracking chestnuts, playing sceilg and then there was street entertainment as they watched ‘the tinkers fight it out’.

Hartnett himself in an article in The Irish Times in the 1970’s explains the games that were played in Maiden Street in his early years:

Old customs survived for a long time.  I played ‘Skeilg’ once a year, chasing unmarried girls with ropes through the street, threatening to take them to Skeilg Mhicíl; I lit bonfires along the street on Bonfire Night; I put pebbles in a toisín (a twisted cone of paper in which shopkeepers sold sweets) and threw it on the road.  If anyone picked it up and opened it, you lost your warts, a pebble for each one in the paper, and the person who picked up the paper took the warts from me of his own free will.

Each stanza comes to an end with a lyrical, lilting skipping-rope incantation.  The poet looks back with nostalgia to a time of childhood innocence and the grinding poverty experienced by all in Lower Maiden Street during the ‘40’s is set aside for a time at least.

While the games and activities mentioned in the first stanza are mainly autumnal, those of the second stanza take place in high summer – similar to Kavanagh’s Canal Bank poems.  Here the children play in the road drawing with coloured chalks on the footpath or fishing for minnows or crayfish in the Arra as it flows down North Quay and continues on parallel to Maiden Street.  They fished using jam-jars or tin cans and they imagined them to be Spanish ‘galleons’ bobbing in the stream.  The imagination of the young children is again highlighted as the young urchins from the ‘golden road’ carry out military-like incursions into the surrounding countryside, with sticks for swords, as they kill ‘tribes of ragworth’, the yellow  perennial weeds which were the bane of every farmer’s life in the country.  The stanza then ends with the beautiful, poignant phrase:

            ‘We were such golden children, never to be dust’

Many poets, such as Seamus Heaney and Dylan Thomas, have also romanticised their childhood and maybe its just that human nature has decreed that we look back on our childhood through rose-tinted glasses.  However, our memory is never a good witness: Hartnett’s mood here resembles Dylan Thomas in Fern Hill; childhood is forever remembered as high summer and ‘it was all shining, it was Adam and maiden’.   There is a fairytale, Garden of Eden, ‘Mossbawn kitchen’ element to this poem also with its lilting chorus and his references to the ‘golden road’ in stanza one and the ‘golden children’ in stanza two.

The object of this poem, and also the much longer ‘Maiden Street Ballad’, is to evoke and preserve ‘times past’ and to do so without being too sentimental and maudlin.  Hartnett has said elsewhere that, ‘Maiden Street was no Tír na nÓg’, and he admonishes us that:

Too many of our songs (and poems) gloss over the hardships of the ‘good old  days’ and omit the facts of hunger, bad sanitation and child-neglect.

It is quite obvious that he hasn’t taken his own advice when writing this poem!  He has written eloquently about the hardship and poverty experienced during those early years, particularly in his prose writing where he shows a great aptitude as an incisive and insightful social commentator.  However here in this poem, the poet, now in his twenties, recalls a happy childhood, living in his own imaginative world playing on ‘the golden road’ or along the banks of the Arra River.

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  ‘Such golden children never to be dust….’

Image Patterns in King Lear

 

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One of the possible questions on your Leaving Cert Higher Level Paper 2 in June may well demand a good knowledge of the imagery in this great tragedy.  As in all the great Shakespearean tragedies, imagery is very effectively used in King Lear to highlight and illustrate the major themes of the play.

These notes will focus on some of the most important image patterns such as

  • Animal Imagery
  • Clothes Imagery
  • Imagery of Sight and Blindness
  • The Fool’s use of rich Imagery

ANIMAL IMAGERY

Animal imagery is dominant in the play.  We notice that the animals named are predatory: monsters of the deep, the tiger, the vulture, the serpent, the dragon.  This pattern of vicious animal imagery underlines the theme of predatory humans who feed off one another in Lear’s degenerate kingdom.  Goneril and Regan, in particular, are seen as all-devouring creatures.  The Fool describes their behaviour towards Lear in terms of the cuckoo and its young:

                   “The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long,

                   That it had its head bit off by its young.”

Goneril and Regan are persistently seen as beasts of prey, or as monsters:

  • More hideous … than the sea-monster” – Act 1 Sc 4
  • “detested kite”, “a serpent’s tooth”, “wolfish visage”, “like a vulture” –Act 2 Sc 4
  • “boorish fangs” – Act 3 Sc 7
  • “tigers, not daughters” – Act 4 Sc 2

This type of imagery underlines the viciousness of the two characters.  They are seen as creatures that operate by the law of the jungle.  They are very dangerous.  They can devour all that is human and prey on those who are weaker than themselves.

On the heath, ‘unaccommodated man’ comes very close to the animal world – the wolf and owl, the cub-drawn bear, the lion and the belly-pinched wolf.  Poor Tom brings with him the lower and more repulsive animals.  Man no longer uses the animals – “thou owst the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool”.  Man himself seems no more than an animal.  His behaviour suggests this – he is likened either to the monsters of the deep that prey on each other, or to a “poor, bare, forked animal”.  Tom has been “hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness…” (Act 3 Sc 4).

In the terrible world of Lear’s vision, man is a beast.  Yet, something may come out of this elemental existence on the heath.  We notice that the animal imagery changes as Lear’s recovery gets underway.  The animals mentioned now are those which convey feelings of pleasure.  In Act 5 Sc 3 a much-chastened Lear tells Ophelia:

          “We too alone will sing like birds i’ the cage, …”

          “We’ll live and pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh

          At gilded butterflies…..”

The animal imagery throughout King Lear is a powerful and imaginative expression of the play’s major themes – how predatory human beings destroy decent values by operating the law of the jungle, and how the inevitable result is pain and suffering.

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CLOTHES IMAGERY

Clothes are also a central image in King Lear.  Lear is the first to mention this image when he declares in his opening speech that he will “divest (us) both of rule, interest of territory, cares of state…”.

Clothes become a symbol of  luxury – “Thou art a lady...” a desperate Lear tells an obstinate Regan in Act 2 Sc 4,

          “If only to go warm were gorgeous,

          Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wears’t

          Which scarcely keeps thee warm…”

In the Storm Scene, there is much significance in Lear’s tearing off his clothes and his joining “poor Tom” in the naked state.  This gesture allows Lear to become “unaccommodated man … a poor, bare, forked animal”.  It is only when he experiences this reduced state that Lear can truly identify with the poorest of his subjects.  Naked to the elements, he now knows what it is like to “bide the pelting of the pitiless storm”.

The theme of appearance versus reality is a common one in Shakespearean plays.  In King Lear, the image of clothing and its opposite, nakedness, is the imaginative expression of this theme.  Clothes are seen as a camouflage to hide injustice and to symbolise power and privilege.  It is a much wiser Lear who tells us in Act 4 Sc 6 that things – and people – are not always what they seem.  The outward trappings of wealth and privilege can sometimes conceal corruption.  Likewise, poverty in one’s personal appearance can adversely affect the attitude of others towards us:

          “Through tattered clothes small vices do appear.

          Robes and furr’d gowns hide all.

          Plate sin with gold

          And the strong lance of justice hurtles breaks:

          Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw doth pierce it.”

Lear has travelled a long way along the road to wisdom since he was fooled by Goneril’s and Regan’s flattery in Act 1.

The imagery of clothing in King Lear is closely linked to the theme of disguise.  Just as “robes and furr’d gowns hide all”, Goneril’s and Regan’s hypocrisy is disguised by their honey’d words at the beginning of the play.  Those who do not resort to disguising their true feelings must suffer – i.e. Cordelia and Kent.  In fact, Kent quickly finds that unless he disguises his appearance, his survival is at risk.  Edgar too must assume a new identity if he is to stay alive – he becomes the naked “poor Tom” who is at the mercy of the elements on the heath.

The image of clothing is, therefore, a central one in King Lear.  It is used most effectively to bring out the theme of appearance versus reality.  The notion of disguise is also linked to the clothes imagery in the play.  A key element in the tragedy is that virtue can only survive if disguised, while vice can parade openly and be rewarded. And we wonder if Shakespeare is still relevant in today’s world!

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IMAGERY OF SIGHT AND BLINDNESS

The frequent allusions to eyes, sight, and seeing are significant throughout the play.  They begin as early as the first scene when Lear expels the sincere and loyal Kent: “Out of my sight!”  Notice Kent’s emotional plea in reply:

          “See better, Lear and let me still remain

          The true blank of thine eye.”

These words underline Lear’s lack of insight, i.e. mental sight.  The theme will be developed from this point onwards.  Before long, Lear is forced to acknowledge his lack of insight.  In Act 1 Sc 4, he is beginning to see Goneril in her true colours.  The truth about his “thankless child” is painful for him: his “eyes” have deceived him, and in bitterness he wants to cast them out:

          “… Old fond eyes,

          Beweep this cause again, I’ll pluck ye out,

And cast you, with the waters that you loose,

To temper clay….  “

The anguished king returns to this theme again later:

          “Does Lear walk thus?  Speak thus?

          Where are his eyes?”

Lear’s redemption is linked to his painful acquisition of the personal insight to himself and to others which he so blatantly lacks at the beginning of the play. His frequent references to sight, eyes, seeing, illustrate and highlight this theme.

Shakespeare also uses the sight/blindness imagery for another purpose.  Through it he merges the main plot and sub-plot of the play, i.e. Lear’s betrayal by his daughters and Gloucester’s betrayal by Edmund.  Gloucester, like Lear, does not know his children.  He is fooled by Edmund and mistakes Edgar’s honesty for deception.  This truth is brutally conveyed to him by Regan in Act 3 Sc 7, as Cornwall plucks out the old man’s eyes.  Paradoxically, Gloucester only begins to acquire insight when his physical sight is taken from him.  Within seconds of his becoming physically blind, in Act 3 Sc 7, he sees that Edmund truly “hates” him.  Gloucester’s realisation of his foolishness is poignant:

          “O my follies!  Then Edgar was abused.

          Kind gods, forgive me that and prosper him!”

Gloucester may now be “an eyeless villain” according to Cornwall, but in reality he is a much more “seeing” man than before.  His reply to the Old Man who tells him in Act 4 Sc 1 “you cannot see your way” is, therefore, highly symbolic.

          “I have no way, and therefore want no eyes;

          I stumbled when I saw”

Gloucester has acquired knowledge and wisdom.  The loss of his physical sight is meant to be understood in that context.

The parallel between Lear’s predicament and Gloucester’s, between main plot and sub-plot, is highlighted in Lear’s words to the blind Gloucester in Act 4 Sc 1:

          “A man may see how this world goes with no eyes.

          Look with thine ears…”

Edgar sums up the paradox later in the same scene: “Reason in madness!”

Through the imagery of sight/blindness in King Lear, Shakespeare parallels the main plot and sub-plot, and this highlights the paradox at the very centre of the play.

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RICHNESS IN THE IMAGERY USED BY THE FOOL

The Fool in King Lear is one of the most interesting comic characters in all of Shakespeare’s plays.  His language is rich, his thoughts at times profound.  It is worth looking more closely at some of the imagery which he uses.

From the first moment of his appearance in the play, the Fool begins his commentary on Lear’s foolish behaviour.  His first action is to offer Kent his “coxcomb” – his foolish cap.  He explains that Kent has a right to the coxcomb  “for taking one’s part that’s out of favour”.  The Fool then goes on to compare the Truth to a dog that must be whipped out of sight and confined to its kennel.  In the universe of hypocrisy and deception which Lear has now created, Truth, as always, will be the first casualty.

As Act 1 Sc 4 progresses, the Fool is relentless in pursuit of Lear and his folly.  Although disguised in the form of nonsense rhymes, the Fool’s message is consistent: the real Fool is Lear himself.  In one of these rhymes, the Fool distinguishes between the Fool who wears “motley”, i.e. the Fool’s uniform, and the real Fool who wears ordinary clothes, i.e. Lear.

At times the Fool is more direct: “thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown, when thou gavest thy golden one away”.  He keeps up this piercing banter until Lear threatens to have him whipped.  The Fool’s response is sharp:

“I marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are: they’ll have me whipped for speaking true, thou’lt have me whipped for lying…. I had rather be any kind o’ thing than a fool: and yet I would not be thee, nuncle; thou hast pared thy wit o’ both sides, and left nothing ‘i the middle”.

As Act 1 is drawing to a close, Lear is beginning to question his own wisdom in giving everything to his daughters.  Goneril has already complained about the size of his retinue of followers, and the Fool’s premonitions look like becoming a reality.  Lear is troubled, and his appeal to the fool now is urgent:

          “Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!”

From now on, the Fool will also be mindful of his master’s suffering as well as his folly.

In Act 2 Sc 4, the Fool’s language is dense with significant imagery.  He keeps up the meaningful rhymes which take the edge off his poignant commentary:

          “Fathers that wear rags

          Do make their children blind,

          But fathers that wear bags

          Shall see their children kind”.

He also uses the imagery of a wheel careering down a hill and out of control to depict Lear’s fate for Kent.  He warns Kent that he will be crushed if he doesn’t release his hold on the “wheel”:

“Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill, lest it break thy neck with following; …”

When Lear comes to the verge of emotional collapse in this scene, the Fool switches to nonsense to try and retrieve the situation:

Lear:  “O me, my heart, my rising heart! But, down

Fool:   “Cry to it, nuncle, as the cockney did to the eels when she put ‘em i’ the paste alive; she                          knapped ‘em o’ the coxcombs with a stick, and cried “Down, wantons, down!”  ‘Twas her                    brother that, in pure kindness to his horse, buttered his hay.”

As the climax of the play approaches, there is poignancy in the Fool’s attempts to save his master from total despair.  He relents in his torture of lear and concentrates instead on urging him to take care of himself:

“O nuncle, court holy-water in a dry house is better than this rain-water out o’ door” …

But the caustic note is not completely gone.  When Kent asks “Who’s there?”, the fool’s reply is deliberately ambiguous:

          “Marry, here’s grace and a codpiece,

          That’s a wise man and a fool”.

One is in no doubt that he means to convey how these roles have been reversed.

Through the imagery of his speech, the Fool acts as a kind of intelligent chorus in King Lear.  He never lets us forget the tragedy of what is happening on the stage.  His loyalty to, and concern for, his master are touching.  He is, perhaps, the play’s most endearing character.

funny-Shakespeare-spoilers-Hamlet-Macbeth-King-Lear

The Early Poetry of Thomas Kinsella

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The Early Poetry of Thomas Kinsella

(with particular focus on ‘Another September’ and ‘Mirror in February’)

In the years after Yeats there was a general change in the direction of Anglo-Irish poetry.  In his desire to establish an Irish poetic tradition, Yeats had confined himself, for the most part, to subjects of Irish interest, and poets who directly succeeded him were very influenced by his poetry and the underlying philosophy of cultural nationalism which he espoused.  Thus, an older poet like Austin Clarke is very obviously an imitator of Yeats both in his subject choice and in his treatment of it.  Indeed, Clarke’s subject matter is principally confined to three main areas and may be summarised as follows: his judgements on the old heroic Ireland of the past (‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’), his response to the general contemporary issue of Ireland itself (‘The Lost Heifer’), and his perceptive, lyrical treatment of the theme of love (‘The Planter’s Daughter’).

In the 1950’s, however, a new generation of Irish poets began to emerge.  Born in 1928, Thomas Kinsella belongs to this generation of writers; unlike Clarke, his main concern as a poet was not to limit himself to Irish topics but to explore a wider range of ideas and themes.  In 1892 Yeats had called for the creation of a national literature which would be distinct from all other literatures written in the English language.  Consequently, poets who succeeded Yeats found a constant need to express themselves as being fundamentally Irish, and the nature of their relationship with Ireland was one of their dominant concerns.  By 1950, however, Anglo-Irish poetry had found a permanent place for itself in modern English literature.  The new generation of writers were therefore not restricted to the old stances.  They did not feel it necessary to constantly assert allegiance to subjects of Irish interest, nor were they emotionally involved with dead leaders and causes as Yeats and Clarke had been.  Indeed, their most vivid memories were not of Wolfe Tone or the Fenian, John O’Leary, but of the contemporary holocaust in Europe, and the futile hero-worship of the modern world.  With Thomas Kinsella, therefore, we have one of the first to move into this different area of awareness and exploration.

Kinsella’s considerable talent as a poet has been well documented in many recent studies (e.g. Andrew Fitzsimons, The Sea of Disappointment: Thomas Kinsella’s Pursuit of the Real. UCD Press, 2008). His early work shows his skill at exploring states of feeling, especially feelings that are painful or acute.  His early poems also contain some moment of illumination, or epiphany, as he increases his awareness of some thought, idea, or reality he has previously overlooked.  This emphasis on reflection gives his poems many of the qualities of meditations: they are often, as he called them himself, ‘detailed explorations of private miseries’.  In these poems he usually begins with some simple situation which he advances towards complexity and which he attempts to incorporate into a coherent personal philosophy.

In both ‘Another September’ and ‘Mirror in February’ the speaker is presented as a solitary, humble figure who is confronted with an overwhelming significance in some simple aspect of life.  Though many of Kinsella’s poems deal explicitly with members of his own family he is essentially a poet of abstract ideas and concepts.  Also, throughout his early works nature always figures prominently.  He is conscious of the passing of time and of the seasons, the birth, death and decay of all life, even his own.

In ‘Mirror in February’ he connects his realisation of the decay inherent in modern man with his personal understanding of nature, while in ‘Another September’ he expresses his work as a poet in simple rural terms, ‘this … consciousness that plants its grammar in her yielding weather’.  Both these poems reveal certain similarities; each shares a common effort to find meaning and direction, and both are portraits of a defeated personality.  In ‘Another September’ the speaker is plunged into the bizarre, disorientated and isolated world of his wife’s past.  He is concerned with her immediate rural background, with the ways and customs of the people who still live there, with the culture they have formed from which he is excluded.  But beyond these reflections lie considerations about truth and justice, especially in the idea of a spectral woman who haunts him throughout the poem.  In ‘Mirror in February’ the poet’s self-portrait is made up of naturalistic and personal details through which he contemplates his muted, tragic story.  He experiences a sudden crisis of identity; there is a sense of loss in the feeling that his hold on youth is frail and tenuous.  In the end there is a gallant expression of hope as a faint optimism hesitantly breaks through.  Both poems succeed through a close attention to detail and through the use of natural images to expose the unpleasant and pitiful details of the poet’s life.

The material of each poem is different but the method is the same.  A theme is projected through the narrator, who alternates between apprehension of his immediate surroundings and memories or ideas that impinge upon his mind.  His recurring theme is the gulf between appearance and reality.  In ‘Mirror in February’ he regrets the loss of his youth: but the loss he is even more painfully aware of involves what he appears to be and what he actually is, ‘For they are not made whole that reach the age of Christ’.  The poem moves towards the acceptance of his condition even though his relationship with the world is one of steady and unavoidable decay.  Similarly, ‘Another September’ attempts to find some meaning in chaos.  This poem is also a projection of a state of feeling: the chaos is trivial in a wider sense, but is endowed with significance within the context of the poem.  The theme has possibly a wider application than ‘Mirror in February’, which deals with the poet’s immediate awareness of time.  In ‘Another September’, on the other hand, the initial meditation on his wife’s past gives rise to a meditation on women in general, and then to a consideration of the serious moral concepts that are usually represented as women, ‘Down the lampless darkness they came, moving like women: Justice, Truth, such figures’.  No firm conclusions are made in this poem: it is not ‘rounded off’ with a simple assertion as ‘Mirror in February’ is.  Indeed, the poem ends not with conclusions but with images, the meaning of which are not completely understood by the poet.  The theme of ‘Mirror in February’ is clear enough.  In ‘Another September’, however, the poet is presented with half-formed, shadowy ideas which trouble his consciousness and on which no firm judgements can be pronounced.

‘Another September’ describes an incident of particular importance in Kinsella’s life.  He has returned with his wife to the country house in which she grew up, and the opening stanza gives the poem a particular rural setting: ‘Dreams fled away, this country bedroom…’.  The time is early morning, just after dawn on a damp autumn day, and the poet wakes up in unfamiliar surroundings.  He first becomes conscious of the coldness (‘raw with the touch of dawn’), then of the silence (‘Nearer the river sleeps St. John’s’).  Nature, too, is still sleeping: the garden draws, ‘long pitch black breaths’, and the orchard exhales ‘rough sweetness’.  The poem is set in autumn, a time of ‘minor peace’; for the hard-working country people when the chores of summer are over and the fruits of their labour can be enjoyed.  The harvest is strongly suggested in this opening stanza, and the images provide a sense of simple rural abundance.  The trees are ripe with pears and apples, the rough soil is ‘windfall-sweetened’, the people are momentarily free from labour and secure from all intruders, ‘Locked fast inside a dream with iron gates’.  Being a Dubliner, it is as though Kinsella is experiencing these things for the first time.  This country scene is completely new to him, and he tends to see it in poetic terms.

The presence of autumn is strongly suggested in the images of the first stanza: in the second, it is personified as a domestic animal which, ‘rubs her kind hide against the bedroom wall’.  This sort of imagery is very common in modern poetry.  T.S. Eliot, in particular, specialised in far-fetched, arresting images, which have much of the impact of extended metaphysical conceits.  There is indeed a strong comparison between Kinsella’s description of autumn in this poem and Eliot’s description of the fog in the second section of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, ‘The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-pane’.  In Kinsella’s poem the image is meant to suggest friendliness and familiarity.  Country people live close to nature; they measure time not by the clock but by the seasons.  As such, autumn represents another aspect of their lives and is ‘long used to handling’ by them.  For Kinsella on the other hand – a city dweller for whom the seasons have no real significance – autumn is seen, prosaically, as ‘weather’.

The main topic of the poem is introduced here. The farm-house and the surrounding countryside are familiar features of his wife’s past; the life they represent belongs to his wife, not to him.  In the first stanza the farm is quiet and peaceful, safe from all intruders.  Here, however, Kinsella begins to realise that he himself is an intruder; he feels isolated and estranged in these new surroundings.  He is only ‘half-tolerated’ by the autumn morning, personified here as a friendly domestic animal which only ‘half-tolerates’ the caresses of a stranger.  The comparisons suggested here are difficult but comprehensible: it is as though a large domestic animal has entered the room sensing that an old forgotten friend has returned after many years’ absence.  Immediately, it is confronted by a stranger who tries to win favour by a vain display of friendship.  However, the poet’s overtures of friendship are ignored: it is not for his sake but for his wife’s, ‘this unspeaking daughter’ that the morning dawns so beautifully.  This use of personification in the poem is meant to suggest a sense of drama.  Indeed, what is difficult in the second stanza is not so much what the poet has to express, but the manner in which he expresses it.  He could just as easily have said that he felt out of place in the small rural community where his wife grew up, but this unremarkable statement would lack the strong sense of urgency that Kinsella wishes to suggest.  Also, by introducing characters in the second stanza Kinsella not only makes us see his personal situation in terms of drama – almost like a short scene from a play – but he also prepares for the important characterisations at the end of the poem.  He continues for the moment with simple poetic description:

                   Wakeful moth-wings blunder near a chair,

                   Toss their light shell at the glass, and go

                   To inhabit the living starlight.

At this point his attention is suddenly directed back to his wife who seems remote and unfamiliar in these strange surroundings.  Almost at once his image of her fades, ‘wanes’, and is replaced by other threatening images, ‘bearing daggers and balances’.

The ending to the poem presents some difficulty of interpretation but its meaning is usually explained as follows: Kinsella’s visit to the house where his wife grew up makes him conscious of those aspects of her life that had previously been ignored.  The poem represents, as it were, a moment of insight into her past which he had never before considered.  Following this epiphany he realises how women’s achievements in general, and their contribution to history, have also frequently been ignored.  Throughout the poem his wife is presented in quiet, placid descriptions: ‘a fragrant child’, ‘unspeaking daughter’, ‘stranded hair stirs on the still linen’.  The final feminine images, however, suggest vigour and movement, representing that part of womanhood which is characterised by energy and endurance.  Down through history, ‘down the lampless darkness’, the deeds of women have been unknown and unrecognised.  Kinsella therefore sees the images as threatening him with retribution, ‘bearing daggers and balances’, and seeking recognition for their personal deeds and achievements.

The situation described at the start of ‘Mirror in February’ is somewhat similar to that of ‘Another September’.  Indeed, both poems are composed of certain personal details and are in some sense autobiographical.  Again Kinsella relies on simple rural description in an effort to create a sense of atmosphere.  It is a damp spring morning; outside the upturned soil is ready for the seed; the trees are dark and still leafless.  The poet is going about the familiar morning chore of dressing and shaving, his mind occupied ‘by some compulsive fantasy’, when suddenly he notices his reflection in the mirror.  In the cold light of morning he is brought back to reality and he considers his advancing years.  His features reveal the relentless progress of time: his eyes are dark and exhausted; his mouth is dry and down-turned.

This moment of revelation, this epiphany, is extended into the second stanza.  The poem is set in springtime, the start of another year.  It is time to look to the future, to take stock, a time to ‘learn’.  In the second line of this stanza the cyclical nature of life is represented in an interesting paradox, ‘this untiring, crumbling place of growth’.  Life and death, he realises, are part of the great system of creation.  Things mature and die in an endless process of death and destruction.  Within the context of the poem, however, this realisation is the cause of some concern for the poet.  The slow, relentless progress of time has not brought him to perfection as it has in the case of Christ.  Instead he has achieved little, apart from a comfortable mediocrity.  The phrase ‘and little more’ is deliberately ambiguous.  The obvious meaning is that he is a ‘little more’ than the age of Christ, and the poem describes a moment of painful revelation for a person who suddenly realises that the best years of his life have slipped away and middle-age is approaching.  Another possible meaning to the phrase is suggested by Maurice Harmon.  What this critic suggests is not so much the idea of time passing, but of time lost: the poet laments that he has merely ‘looked’ his last on youth, almost like an observer, and done ‘little more’ to accomplish anything of importance.  This interpretation certainly fits in with the general tone of the second and third stanzas where the idea of worthwhile achievement is suggested in the extreme comparison with Christ’s life.  In contrast to Christ’s supreme achievements the poet has accomplished little, and he strays into the middle years of his life with little hope of attaining anything of note.  At this point he generalises about life: ‘they are not made whole / That reach the age of Christ’.  In the second stanza life is visualised in terms of sacrifice, and the idea implied is that it only becomes meaningful when seen in goal-directed terms.

In the third stanza this idea is repeated and is made more explicit in the striking references to nature.  Looking through the window the poet sees that the fruit trees have been severely pruned.  He uses this simple observation from nature as the occasion for an important comment on life.  The trees in the garden have withstood these brutal attacks upon them so that they may bear more and better fruit.  The basic idea expressed here is that nothing worthwhile is accomplished  without sacrifice, and that suffering contributes in a mysterious way to the perfection of a person’s character.  Just as Christ attained his destiny through suffering, and just as trees are pruned to make them more productive, so men too must suffer ‘mutilations’ if they wish their lives to be meaningful and enriched.  Unlike Christ, however, man does not submit to suffering willingly: he avoids hardships at each opportunity and cowers, ‘quails’, under every blow of fortune.

One aspect of the kind of suffering Kinsella imagines is described in this poem.  In his moment of anguish he tries to make light of the serious thoughts that weigh upon his mind.  He folds his towel with as much grace as he can manage.  He is no longer young, and unlike the trees he is not ‘renewable’, but he takes comfort in the fact that everybody shares in the same fate.  Life is continuous and irreversible: in the last line, therefore, he attempts to face up to his predicament with courage and conviction.

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Exploring the Poetry of Adrienne Rich (1929 – 2012)

 Adrienne Rich (1)

THIS IS A PERSONAL REVIEW OF SOME THEMES AND ISSUES WHICH FEATURE IN THE POETRY OF ADRIENNE RICH. 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 RICH’S POETRY:

  • Storm Warnings,
  • The Uncle Speaks in the Drawing Room,
  • Living in Sin,
  • The Roofwalker,
  • Trying to Talk to a Man,
  • Diving into the Wreck,
  • From a Survivor.

YEATS SAID OF HIS POETRY THAT IT WAS ‘BUT THE CONSTANT STITCHING AND RESTITCHING OF OLD THEMES’.  CHECK THIS OUT FOR YOURSELF IN RELATION TO ADRIENNE RICH!  

YOUR AIM SHOULD BE TO PICK YOUR OWN FAVOURITES (THREE OR FOUR) FROM THIS SELECTION AND GET TO KNOW THEM VERY WELL. 

 

 

Adrienne Rich (2)

_______________ o __________________

 

MAJOR THEMES IN RICH’S POETRY

 

Relationships

Rich is best known as a feminist writer and many of her poems deal with the oppression of women by men.  Marriage, in particular, is seen as a tool by which women are kept under the thumb of men.  ‘From a Survivor’ emphasises how women can be mastered or controlled by their husbands.  The speaker suggests that her husband’s body was ‘the body of a God’ and that it had ‘power’ over her life.

Similarly, in ‘Trying to Talk to a Man’, the speaker again suggests that her husband might have dominated her life: ‘Your dry heat feels like power / your eyes are stars of a different magnitude’.  ‘Living in Sin’, too, touches on this topic although here the couple are simply living together.  Here it is the woman in the relationship who does all the work (What’s new?), who makes the bed and tidies the apartment: she ‘pulled back the sheets and made the bed and found / a towel to dust the tabletop’.  The man with whom she’s living, meanwhile, seems to contribute little to the upkeep of the household.  This can be taken as yet another instance, therefore, of a woman being dominated or controlled by man.  It is another poem in which Rich emphasises the fundamental inequality of marriage and of relationships between men and women.

‘The Roofwalker’ is another poem that presents marriage in a negative light.  In this poem the speaker realises that her marriage has been a terrible mistake, that she has wasted a great deal of time and energy creating a life that is not suited to her: ‘Was it worthwhile to lay / with infinite exertion / a roof I can’t live under?’  The life she has made for herself, this seemingly comfortable existence that centres on a happy marriage and healthy children, is a life she was pressured into: ‘A life I didn’t choose / chose me’.  Now she is prepared to leave this life behind, to abandon the comfortable structure of her marriage and brave the world beyond this comfortable shell.  She will become, she says, ‘like naked man fleeing / across the roofs’.

It is important to note, however, that Rich can also be positive about marriage and relationships.  There is also room in her poetry for straightforward romance and love.  In ‘From a Survivor’, for instance, she emphasises that her husband’s body is ‘as vivid to me / as it ever was’ suggesting the deep love she felt for this man who is now tragically dead.  ‘Trying to Talk with a Man’ also stresses the deep emotional bond that existed between Rich and her husband with its deeply moving litany of memories and intimate moments that the couple shared; ‘whole LP collections, films we starred in / playing in the neighbourhoods, bakery windows / full of dry, chocolate-filled Jewish cookies/ the language of love-letters……’

The Personal and the Political

One of the best-known aspects of Rich’s poetry is the way it blends political and personal concerns.  Again and again she finds unexpected parallels between her personal traumas and political events that take place in the wider world.  This technique is used in an especially moving way in ‘Trying to Talk with a Man’.  The disintegration of the couple’s relationships is depicted against the backdrop of the violence and fury of a nuclear test in the Nevada desert: ‘Out here in the desert we are testing bombs / that’s why we came here’.  As we read the poem we realise that external violence of the nuclear test is a metaphor for the internal or emotional violence of the couple’s break-up: ‘talking of the danger / as if it were not ourselves / as if we were testing anything else’.

Women in a Patriarchal Society

The poetry of Adrienne Rich (like the poetry of Boland and Plath) documents the struggles and difficulties that women endure in the modern world.  Many of these difficulties are the result of the nature of the society in which we live.  Rich suggests fairly forcefully that we live in a man’s world.  The consequence of this for women is that they are never given the opportunities to achieve and optimise their potential or even communicate their true feelings and desires.  In ‘Diving into the Wreck’, Rich uses the dive into the dark depths of the sea to symbolise her efforts to penetrate the murky waters of history in order to see what lies at the bottom.  She has read about what might be there in a ‘book of myths’ but she wants to find out for herself.  What she finds is a ‘wreck’, an old ship that is battered and broken, but ‘whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies / obscurely inside barrels’.  It seems that this ship is a symbol of the origins of who we are and how we understand ourselves.  Down here with the wreck the speaker of the poem seems to lose all solid notions of what it means to be a woman.  Her gender becomes ambiguous and gender definitions become fluid and vague.  (Could you tell if a diver in a wet suit is male or female from a distance under water?)  The suggestion seems to be that the roles of men and women in society have a history, they are not established in fact, are not absolutely intrinsic to who we are.  If we can get back to the origins, to the beginning, when these definitions were first established we might be able to re-define and re-determine roles.  Why, the poet asks, should we live our lives according to definitions that we had no role in creating, that were established way back before we were even born.  ‘Diving into the Wreck’ suggests that there may be possibilities of rediscovering and re-learning who we are, if we are willing to try:

                               We are, I am, you are

by cowardice or courage

the one who find our way

back to this scene

carrying a knife, a camera

a book of myths

in which

our names do not appear

Forces for Change

The idea of an outside force, something that is potentially dangerous and capable of affecting our lives, is present in a number of Rich’s poems.  In many of her earlier poems Rich gives the impression that she is at the mercy of elements that she can’t quite control.  In ‘Storm Warnings’, for example, Rich portrays the weather as a powerful force for change that threatens her fragile home.  All she can do is close the windows and lock the doors against the storm that is brewing outside.  As the poem points our, even with our fancy new-fangled technologies and our weather reports, we are unable to control the weather.  We might be able to predict what is going to happen, but we are powerless to prevent it happening.  Time and darkness are two other forces that we are unable to control.  She also seems to suggest that there are elements of our own lives that we are powerless to change also.  As Rich points out: ‘Weather abroad / And weather in the heart alike come on / Regardless of prediction’.  By this she seems to be talking about the depression and other moods that we suffer from throughout our lives.

The notion of an external force is also at play in ‘The Uncle Speaks in the Drawing Room’ which contains the speech of a rich man whose lifestyle is put under threat by the presence of an angry mob at his gate.  We are not aware of the mob’s grievance but its presence remains a potent and ominous force in the poem.  Again there is a suggestion that the world contains elements that are beyond our control, no matter how wealthy and powerful we might be.  As I have said on many occasions, change is a fact of life, and the only people who welcome change are babies with wet nappies.  The speaker in this poem, the uncle seems oblivious to the reality of the growing social unrest that is taking place around him.  One could say that he’s in denial – and as I often say the Nile is not just a river in Egypt!!!!!

Roofwalker - Adrienne Rich (3)

Sample Answer:

‘The poetry of Adrienne Rich shows us the relationship between men and women in all their glory and despair’.

With reference to the above statement say whether the poetry of Rich appealed to you.

 

Adrienne Rich was the poet on the Leaving Cert course whose work most appealed to me.  There were several reasons for this.  For me the most important aspect of Rich’s work was her depiction of relationships in a way that seemed very real.  Her poems take account of the fact that love so often goes wrong yet they also offer hope that the anguish of a failed relationship can be overcome.  I also enjoyed the feminist aspect of Rich’s work.  Her depiction of women being dominated by the men in their lives is as relevant today as it was when Rich first presented it.

In my opinion, too many poems and pop songs present an idealistic or overly romantic view of love.  Rich, however, is having none of this.  She is fully aware that all too often relationships don’t work out the way we want them to.  As she puts it in ‘From a Survivor’, every couple believes they are ‘special’: ‘Like everybody else we thought of ourselves as special’.  Yet no couple is immune to the ‘failure of the race’.  Every relationship will experience turbulence and difficulty.  In ‘The Roofwalker’ for instance, the speaker invests a great deal of time and energy in a relationship only to realise that she does not really belong with this man.  The life they have created together is not for her.  ‘Was it worth while’, she asks to ‘lay – / with infinite exertion – / a roof I can’t live under?’  This tragic waste of time and effort in the  cause of a failed relationship was something I could really relate to.

I could also identify somewhat with the situation depicted in ‘Living in Sin’.  This poem also shows us a woman whose relationship has not worked out as she expected.  This young woman believed she would have a perfect life with her lover in their studio apartment.  She imagined there would be ‘no dust upon the furniture of love’.  However, life in the studio has turned out to be quite miserable.  The apartment is dirty and unpleasant; ‘Half-heresy, to wish the taps less vocal, / the panes relieved of grime’.  Her lover appears distant and uncaring, and hardly speaks to her each morning before going ‘out for cigarettes’.  It is hardly unsurprising, therefore, that this young woman is filled with mental anguish, is haunted by the ‘minor demons’ of sorrow and disappointment.

Yet Rich’s most moving account of a relationship in crisis is surely ‘Trying to Talk with a Man’.  What impresses me most about this poem is the way it captures just how difficult it can be to communicate at the end of a relationship, with Rich brilliantly describing the lovers ‘surrounded by a silence … that came with us /and is familiar’.  This silence expands like a cancer at the heart of the couple’s relationship, forcing them to ‘give up’ the things they shared, such as  ‘the language of love-letters’ and ‘afternoons on the riverbank / pretending to be children’.

A strong belief in women’s liberation is also central to Rich’s poetry as she developed as a writer.  Many of her poems, including ‘Living in Sin’, focus on the inequality between women and men that exists at the heart of so many relationships.  The young woman in this poem seems to do all the housework while her boyfriend lounges about the place uselessly.  Though he is allegedly an artist of some kind he appears to do little artistic work, only sounding a ‘dozen notes upon the keyboard’ before heading ‘out for cigarettes’

However, Rich’s poetry also offers a lot of hope.  In both ‘The Roofwalker’ and ‘From a Survivor’ she shows that it is possible for a woman to reverse bad decisions and escape a relationship or way of life that is unsuitable to her.  In ‘From a Survivor’ the speaker has ‘made the leap’ and escaped her failing marriage.  Now her husband is no longer like a god to her and her new life is like a ‘succession of brief, amazing moments’.  ‘The Roofwalker’ also deals with this possibility of escape and shows the speaker desiring to leave behind a life she ‘didn’t choose’.  Yet this poem stresses how unnerving and intimidating it can be to leave a stable relationship behind.  To do so is to be exposed and vulnerable as ‘a naked man /fleeing across the roofs’.  I thought this was one of Rich’s finest images, brilliantly capturing feelings of vulnerability and isolation in an image that is both moving and amusing.

While Rich’s philosophy is important, it is her use of images, in my opinion, that makes her truly great as a poet.  Her use of metaphors is very eye-catching and there is a lovely example of this in ‘Living in Sin’ where a beetle is described as ‘an envoy from the moldings’.  There is also another excellent metaphor in this poem where the morning is compared to a ‘relentless milkman coming up the stairs’.  I found both of these images amusing but they also filled me with a certain unease and discomfort.  There is also a startling set of metaphors in ‘The Roofwalker’ that really appealed to me, where builders on a roof are described as sailors on a deck; the sky is depicted as ‘a torn sail’, and the night as a black wave about to descend.

To sum up, then, my admiration for Rich’s poems stems from the fact that she is not afraid to confront unpleasant realities such as the heartbreak that accompanies the failure of a relationship and the oppression of women.  Yet she is not a poet who is content to simply dwell on the negative.  Her work also offers hope, hope that the anguish of failed love can be overcome, that women can escape the traps in life they set for themselves and that they can gain power all of their own.

image

Sample Answer:

‘Adrienne Rich’s poetry is interesting both for its themes and its language’.  Discuss.

 I am in complete agreement with this statement.  Rich is one of the most important and provocative voices in modern day literature.  Her themes are always relevant and she often challenges us with her ideas on, for example,  male-female relationships and the role of women in society.  While her feminist perspective means that her work has an obvious attraction for a female audience, her appeal is not confined to one gender.  Her language is generally clear and direct and her images striking and memorable.

An idea that she often explores is the complex reality of male-female relationships.  ‘Living in Sin’ is interesting primarily because of its realistic depiction of male-female relationships.  Most people could relate to the experience of the woman who finds that the reality of living with her partner in a small studio apartment falls short of the romantic dream.  In her naivety, the woman had given no thought to the mundane realities of day-to-day life with her partner.  This idea is expressed in everyday language, ‘She had thought the studio would keep itself’.  Inevitably, harsh reality reveals the unglamorous truth: noisy dripping taps, grimy windows, scraps of leftover food and empty bottles.  Worst of all, she encounters a beetle among the saucers – the beetle is described in a memorably humorous image as an ‘Envoy from a village in the moldings’.  Aside from the grim physical environment, the woman has to cope with her partner’s lethargy and general indifference.  He seems to be a musician or composer, but lacks the motivation to practice his music, ‘sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard, / declared it out of tune, shrugged at the mirror, /rubbed at his beard, went out for cigarettes’.  The shrugging image perfectly captures her partner’s apathetic attitude.  This poem provides us with an insight into sexual stereotyping – the man makes no attempt to tackle any domestic tasks and it is the woman who cleans the apartment.  Despite her disillusionment, the woman does not leave her indifferent boyfriend and the depressing apartment, ‘By evening she was back in love again’.  However, the next phrase (‘though not as wholly’) qualifies this statement, reminding us that her initial optimism about the relationship is beginning to fade away gradually.

Anyone of us who have found ourselves in a relationship, which is falling apart, will easily relate to ‘Trying to Talk with a Man’.  In this poem the speaker and her partner have gone into the desert ostensibly to witness (and protest about) the detonation of a nuclear bomb – however, we get the impression that the underlying purpose of this journey is to take stock of their relationship.  An excellent visual image suggests how the woman is growing in insight, ‘Sometimes I feel an underground river / forcing its way between deformed cliffs / an acute angle of understanding’.

This poem also highlights Rich’s effective use of metaphor and imagery to convey her themes.  The images of a ghost town and the desert effectively suggest the silent, barren nature of the couple’s relationship.  While the troubled lovers are ‘surrounded by a silence’ that sounds like the silence of the deserted town, the poet realises that the silence has come with them – it is ‘a familiar’ silence. The speaker acknowledges the extent of their problems in language that is admirably simple and direct, ‘Out here I feel more helpless / with you than without you’.    What I found interesting about this poem was the man’s unwillingness to discuss the problems at the heart of the relationship.  He talks only of external events such as the danger of nuclear testing, making no attempt to address the danger surrounding the relationship, ‘Talking of the danger / as if it were not ourselves’.  This poem stands out in my mind because it underlines an almost universal truth – women are more emotionally aware and more emotionally honest than men.

‘From a Survivor’ is a deeply personal poem describing the poet’s failed marriage.  What I found interesting – and indeed uplifting – about this poem was the affectionate nature of the poet’s reflection on her late husband and the fact that her brave ‘leap’ away from her marriage enabled her to find true joy.  The conversational language employed by Rich gives this poem a wonderful sense of immediacy, ‘I don’t know who we thought we were / that our personalities / could resist the failures of our race’.  The poet reminds us of the optimism that attends the early stages of romantic relationships, ‘Like everybody else, we thought of ourselves as special’.  She never anticipated that their marriage, like so many others, would not stand the test of time.  Despite the tensions of their marriage, the poet’s affection for her late husband endures, ‘Your body is as vivid to me / as it ever was’.  It was also encouraging to learn that, having come through a difficult period, the poet retains the capacity to find joy in life – she speaks of having experienced ‘a succession of brief amazing moments’.  Another aspect of this poem that I found interesting was the insight it provided into the changing nature of male-female relationships.  Social and cultural changes brought about largely by the active feminist movement mean that the poet now has a clearer perspective on her marriage.  When she married, marriage was an intrinsically unequal institution (and who wants to live in an institution….!), with the woman expected to be obedient to her husband.  In the past the poet had seen her husband as ‘a god / …with power over my life’.  As Rich grew as a person and as a poet, she ‘no longer’ viewed her husband as god-like.

In conclusion, Rich’s poetry is interesting both for its ideas and the way in which these ideas are expressed.  She explores issues that are relevant to the modern reader in language that is generally clear and accessible, making very effective use of imagery to express her themes.

 

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