It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.
A comet that was lost
Should be visible at sunset,
Those million tons of light
Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips,
And I sometimes see a falling star.
If I could come on meteorite!
Instead I walk through damp leaves,
Husks, the spent flukes of autumn,
Imagining a hero
On some muddy compound,
His gift like a slingstone
Whirled for the desperate.
How did I end up like this?
I often think of my friends’
Beautiful prismatic counselling
And the anvil brains of some who hate me
As I sit weighing and weighing
My responsible tristia.
For what? For the ear? For the people?
For what is said behind-backs?
Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conductive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls
The diamond absolutes.
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner emigre, grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne
Escaped from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows;
Who, blowing up these sparks
For their meagre heat, have missed
The once-in-a-lifetime portent,
The comet’s pulsing rose.
– Seamus Heaney
‘Exposure’ was written in 1975 and significantly is the last poem in the poet’s volume, North. Not only that, but ‘Exposure’ is the final poem in a six poem sequence grouped under the title The Singing School, a phrase borrowed from W. B. Yeats’ famous poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, which concludes that great collection. The poem itself is, to an extent, a reflective self-analysis, as Heaney takes stock of his life and poses a series of questions about his role and function as a poet. The poem depicts Heaney’s anxiety and discomfort with his position in society and with his role as a poet. The poem explores Heaney’s dilemma as ‘The Troubles’ detonate and resonate and invade his artistic space. He has removed himself from the North and like his friend Michael Longley, who had already moved to Carrigskeewaun in Mayo, he has thus acquired a new perspective from his cottage in Glanmore in County Wicklow. He is, however, troubled by self-doubt and uncertainty and hurt by the whispers, the innuendo, the charge that he hasn’t taken sides, that he has abandoned his people and taken the English ‘shilling’.
It is a ten stanza poem that is separated into quatrains. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme. They are composed in free verse, meaning there is no pattern of rhyme or rhythm. The poem opens, ‘It is December in Wicklow.’ December is deep winter in Ireland, characterised by its cold bracing wet weather, it is also the end of a year. This sets up a peaceful and tranquil scene providing time for self-reflection and a chance to reappraise his situation. This time affords him an opportunity to analyse his obvious anxiety and discomfort and the horrible tension that has arisen between his private persona and his very public career as a poet. It is a rainy, wintry month, the ‘alders [are] dripping,’ the ‘birches’ are fighting for the ‘last light,’ and ‘the ash tree’ is bare, too cold ‘to look at.’
It is obvious that his main source of frustration is that he feels that he is being dragged unwillingly into the current fraught political situation in his own native place. His former neighbours in Bellaghy have all been forced by circumstances to take sides and here, Bellaghy’s most famous son is seen to be ambivalent and non-committal. Earlier on in North, in the poem ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’, he has made the famous statement:
Northern reticence, the tight gag of place
And times: yes, yes. Of the ‘wee six’ I sing
Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, say nothing.
In ‘Exposure’, then, we see the poet is under pressure from all sides to say something and he feels that he is being used by all sides for their own political ends. How then can he solve this dilemma? He tries to wrestle with this dilemma in his solitary walk in the Wicklow hills. He considers the inherent differences between a comet and a meteorite. A comet is predictable and appears after sunset on a set date once every four years or four hundred years. A ‘falling star’ or meteorite is totally unpredictable and appears randomly in the evening sky. The comet ‘visible at sunset’ is expected, it ‘should’ appear. Yet, the ‘falling star’ only ‘sometimes’ appears. Heaney himself admires the meteorite, the ‘falling star’. This is shown through the use of the exclamation mark. Unlike the comet which typically follows a cycle, a meteorite is free, it does not need to keep to a designated orbit. Rather, it is able to float and fall whenever and wherever it wishes. Here, Heaney is making the metaphorical comparison between the comet and the meteorite and his own role as a poet. He wishes to be able to express himself freely yet the political circumstances in Northern Ireland do not allow for such, it forces him to choose sides, and tries to drag him into the conflict. Here, Heaney poses an important question – is he to be simply another insignificant individual pushed around by politics or is he to be an independent figure able to freely voice his own thoughts?
In the next two stanzas, Heaney further ponders his role as a poet. He plaintively asks ‘How did I end up like this?’ There is a certain degree of torment shown through this as he sits, ‘weighing and weighing’ his worth. This repetition places emphasis on his vulnerable psychological state. He identifies two opposing groups: the rational ones with their ‘beautiful prismatic counselling’ and his enemies with their impenetrable ‘anvil brains’. He feels isolated from all groups and becomes an ‘inner émigré’ as he is unable to satisfy the demands of one, without conflicting with the others. Heaney is frustrated that he is unable to change the perceptions of those people, close-minded and devoted to their own beliefs. Once again, he questions his role as a poet; he questions himself as to who he is to please, who should he be serving – the minority, the various political groups or society as a whole?
This poem helps him resolve his dilemma and therefore it is a seminal poem in which he takes his lonely stand as an artist and refuses to be drawn in and forced to take sides – he will be his own man – the epiphany comes like Austin Clarke’s ‘The Lost Heifer’ appearing out of the mist. He clarifies the reference to ‘the alders’ in stanza one and this time the image is clearer and more definite:
Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conductive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls
The diamond absolutes.
This is more hopeful as Heaney gradually comes to terms with himself. He realises, despite the rain causing ‘let-downs and erosions,’ it is able to ‘(recall) the diamond absolutes.’ Through his self-imposed ‘exile’ in Wicklow, he has ‘grown long-haired and thoughtful.’ He repudiates both extremes – the fanaticism of ‘the internee’ languishing ‘on some muddy compound’ in Long Kesk and the despicable betrayal of ‘the informer’. He emphatically states that ‘I am neither’. Instead, he has gained wisdom and realised that like the ‘wood-kerne,’ the Irish soldiers of old who having lost the battle retreat to the woods to regroup, he is able to use his writing as a way of controlling and fighting for his voice in society. His solitary trek through the winter woods has given him a deeper insight into his role as a poet in a society devastated by violence and divisions.
In ‘Exposure’, Heaney reflects on his changed circumstances and on his present situation living and writing in the quiet backwater of Glanmore in County Wicklow. He reflects on the great expectations being placed on him as a poet of standing. This marks a drastically different approach to that seen in earlier collections such as Death of a Naturalist. In this final poem of The Singing School sequence and the final poem in the collection, North, Heaney wonders whether his move South will have any effect. Will it give him the perspective he craves or will he be exposed to ridicule like the king without clothes in the children’s fable. He knows he is taking a risk and giving his critics and the ‘anvil brains’ ammunition to mortally wound him. What if after all the brouhaha he only produces the odd spark to illuminate the daily atrocities taking place further North when what the situation really needs is the arrival of a ‘comet’s pulsing rose’?
Michael Hartnett began Secondary School in September 1956. He arrived in St. Ita’s Secondary School with a burgeoning reputation. By that time he had had his first poem published in the Limerick Weekly Echo as far back as the 18th of June 1955. He was then thirteen and still a student in the Courtenay Boys National School. The poem was entitled ‘Camas Road’, and it described in particular detail the rural vista of the West Limerick townland of Camas at evening: ‘A bridge, a stream, a long low hedge, / A cottage thatched with golden straw’ (Book of Strays 67). He sat his Intermediate Certificate in June 1959 and later in mid-September the results were published in the Limerick Leader and Hartnett from 28 Assumpta Park was first on the list having received a full set of seven honours.
Patrick J. O’Connor, later to be Dr. Patrick J. O’Connor, who for most of his academic life lectured and published extensively on human geography at the University of Limerick, entered the school as a first year in September 1959 and has vivid memories of the young Hartnett and saw him, in particular, as a shining role model to be emulated. He describes Hartnett at that time as ‘a small, slight figure, bookish, often solitary, never a participant in play in the field opposite his house’.
In his evocative memoir, The New Houses, O’Connor also suggests that Hartnett, despite his excellent academic record, did not find favour with the school’s Principal and Manager, Jim Breen. O’Connor held Jim Breen in high esteem and he says that he, ‘made a distinctively personal contribution during the lean years that saw a blossoming of second level education in this country.’ He goes on to say that he, ‘asserted a strong presence and, being a big man physically, he rarely had to repeat anything. He was a strict disciplinarian, meticulous in attention to detail, but never petty or vindictive. He led by example in the sense that his own work bore the stamp of discipline and commitment.’ The sight of his green Volkswagen Beetle, registration number AIU 524, was enough to elicit an instant quickening in the step of many a tardy pupil.
According to O’Connor, Mike Hartnett ‘was the target of persistent monitoring on the part of the headmaster, Jim Breen’. Mike was a voracious reader and it seems that not all of his reading material was on the Prescribed English Syllabus and some of the literary works did not always find favour with the erstwhile headmaster. According to O’Connor, it was the ‘skewed subject content that bothered Jim Breen’. He made repeated raids on Hartnett’s gabháil of books. Following these repeated attacks O’Connor says that in his eyes, ‘From the status of heroic scholar Michael Hartnett sank into disrepute’ as a result of this regular attention paid to him by the headmaster!
It seems he didn’t fare any better with his English teacher, Willie O’Donnell. According to Pat O’Connor, O’Donnell taught English at senior cycle level and employed strategies supremely well suited to cope with the rigours of the examination system. A man well acquainted with the technicalities of language, he had a particular fondness for the double entendre, and one of his most favoured concerned the numbers of students from the school who would, ‘go down in history’! Seemingly, he persistently charged his young student, Hartnett, with the indictable offence ‘of meditating the Muse’. It was only a matter of time before the Empire struck back and Hartnett it seems planned and executed a number of retributions on Willie O’Donnell. Even long after he had left the influence of St Ita’s, indeed long after he had left UCD, and while carrying out periodic commissions for The Irish Times in the Sixties and Seventies, he made a number of pointed references to his former school which were not seen as complimentary by management. For example, in an article in The Irish Times on November 11th, 1968 he writes:
I left the national school in 1956 and lost an ally (Frank Finucane). Secondary school came then, and I wrote many poems (all, fortunately, lost) and made a new enemy, my English teacher. For five years I was beaten more often for ‘meditating the Muse’, as he called it than for lack of learning. But my poetry changed for the better, not because of the school, but because I partook of an old Irish custom: the girl I loved at the time entered a convent. This and the claustrophobia of Newcastle West, its rich and its poor, its bullying priest, turned me to write about myself …….. I was a poor man’s son in a secondary school, a place I had no right to be, as I was often reminded.
Harnett was never forgiven for all these indiscretions, by Jim Breen. Even when he returned as a recognised poet to Newcastle West in the 1970s and lived for a decade ‘out foreign in Glantine’ he was not welcomed back with open arms to his old alma mater while Jim held sway – even when Michael’s son, Niall, was a student in the school in the early Eighties.
There was, however, one teacher in the school who recognised Hartnett’s latent talent and who was most attuned to this rebel without a cause and that was Dave Hayes. As a teacher, Dave Hayes brought style and panache to bear on the teaching of Latin. According to Pat O’Connor, he was, ‘unquestionably a classical scholar of stature.’ This assessment was reinforced later during Dr O’Connor’s first year in UCD, when a well-known lecturer and future Minister for Education, John Wilson no less, could, in his view, ‘do no better than stand in the long shadow of Dave Hayes’. Dave Hayes was probably responsible for ensuring that Hartnett continued his Secondary education in St. Ita’s until he was nearly twenty years of age. His earlier scholastic promise failed to develop, however, and he eventually left St. Ita’s with honours only in Irish and English – much to the chagrin of his father, Denis.
Jim Breen retired as Principal in 1977 but continued as Manager and owner of the school until his death in 1984. Following his death, Des Healy, who had become Principal of the school on the untimely death of Noel Ruddle in 1981, took over the reins as Manager up until the school closed its doors on 29th May 1992. Des Healy was a past pupil of the school and, indeed, had been a classmate of Hartnett’s during their time in school. Des remained a lifelong friend of the poet, Michael Hartnett.
I will end this post with a true story. Honestly! I was there! As I mentioned earlier, Des was Principal of St. Ita’s Secondary School in the 1980s and Michael’s son Niall was a student in the school up until about 1985. To add to the intrigue Michael’s brother Dinny was the local postman at the time. One morning Des received a postcard from the poet delivered by hand to the school by Dinny the Postman. The postcard, which no doubt had also been read by Dinny prior to delivery, read as follows:
If I ever have any more children I won’t be sending them to your school. This has nothing to do with the quality of education provided in your school – it’s just the principal of the thing.
Hartnett, Michael, A Book of Strays, ed. Peter Fallon, Gallery Press, 2002.
O’Connor, Patrick J., The New Houses – A Memoir, Oireacht na Mumhan Books, 2009.
O’Connor, Patrick J., Hometown: A Portrait of Newcastle West, Co. Limerick. Oireacht na Mumhan Books, 1998.
Read also blog post ‘Happy Memories of St. Ita’s Secondary School’ here..
to draw attention to a clever camera angle and to share
a priceless nugget about Native American tribal customs.
Cue outburst from Darren (aka Talks through His Hole).
The tape rolls again while Dunbar courts Stands With A Fist
and logs his emotions in that classy leather-bound journal
beloved of lieutenants and stocked in Waterstone’s.
Then Eddie (aka Breaking Wind) uncorks a silent rasper;
the braves groan and swear, and fan themselves
with A4 copy books of the type beloved of fifth-years
and purchased in Tesco’s. But peace comes dropping slow
before the bell rings, when all of us, including me
(aka Keeps A Low Profile) and Barry (aka Sleeps Through English)
Spring from our desks, and the entire Sioux nation sets off
On its Trail of Tears to French and German or Ag. Science.
This is an extremely funny poem by Michael Durack (aka Poet Who Keeps A Low Profile). Michael quietly taught English for many years in Nenagh CBS in County Tipperary. His work has appeared in journals such as Boyne Berries, Skylight 47, The Stony Thursday Book and Poetry Ireland Review. His publications include a memoir in prose and poems, Saved to Memory: Lost to View (2016) and a poetry collection, Where It Began, published by Revival Press in 2017.
Little did the unsuspecting ‘braves’ who sat before him every day in his English class realise that they were in the presence of a very keen observer of the human condition, and someone with a very wry sense of poetic humour to boot. In this poem he captures beautifully the mood in a (double) Pass English class on a Friday evening with the young male ‘braves’ of Nenagh and its hinterland!
One of the great emancipations in the Noughties for all English teachers was the rejuvenation and re-imagining of the Leaving Cert English Syllabus brought about by such luminaries as Hal O’Neill and others in the NCCA. One such early new arrival on the English Syllabus was the epic Western, Dances with Wolves, which starred, Kevin Costner as Lieutenant Dunbar. Indeed, the film was also produced and directed by Costner. In the film, Dunbar is depicted as a Civil War soldier who develops a relationship with a band of Lakota Indians. Attracted by the simplicity of their lifestyle, he chooses to leave his former life behind to be with them. Having observed him, they give the name Dances With Wolves. Soon he is a welcomed member of the tribe and falls in love with a white woman, Stands With A Fist, who has been raised in the tribe. However, tragedy soon ensues when Union soldiers arrive with designs on the land.
Looking back now from 2019, those halcyon days seem Dickensian! The changes in mass media and communications that have taken place since 2000 are simply mind-boggling! In those days the efforts harried teachers made to ensure that their students could avail of these new developments was often Herculean. Firstly, you had to come by a VHS copy of the film and then you had to search the school to find a television and a tape machine and wheel it in to your designated classroom. This was not an easy task as these trolleys containing big, bulky 28” TV’s and a VCR player were like gold dust, in high demand.
And for those nostalgic for that great, epic Western – sit back and enjoy the trailer to Dances with Wolves (1990).
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, commonly known as “Prufrock”, was the first professionally published poem by American-born British poet T. S. Eliot (1888–1965). Wikipedia tells that Eliot began writing “Prufrock” in February 1910, and it was first published in the June 1915 issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse at the instigation of Ezra Pound. It was later printed as part of a twelve-poem pamphlet titled Prufrock and Other Observations in 1917. The poem has come to represent a generation, an epoch, much in the same way as The Great Gatsby, Waiting for Godot and Ulysses are also seen as seminal works which seek to define an age.
Rightfully, it is regarded by many as one of the very first great modern poems. It is modern in theme because it expresses the confusion and indecision arising from the self-doubt of modern man facing a world in which the traditional religious and social certainties were losing force. It is also modern in method, making its impact by means of images and symbols which are not held together by any strict or obvious logic, but by the free association of ideas. In other words, the confusion and incoherence of Prufrock’s mind and of his world are to some extent reflected in the apparent incoherence of the poem. Close study of the poem (by you, hopefully) will reveal that it has, in fact, a coherence and logic all of its own.
‘Let us go then, you and I’ – and analyse the poem!
While the two opening lines of the poem might well belong to a conventional love poem I don’t think anyone is going to rush out and put it on their Valentine’s Day card – not even Jacob Rees-Mogg! The essential point to make about Prufrock is that it is a dramatic monologue. Like many of Hamlet’s soliloquies, the purpose of this monologue is to light up his own mind rather than illuminate ours! He is using his utterances not so much to expound the meaning of his life as to pursue it. The meaning he extracts may surprise him, and puzzle him, as much as it does the reader. This meandering quest to find his life’s meaning accounts for the tone of improvisation in the dramatic dialogue, as well as the speaker’s absorption in what he is saying, and also for his strange lack of any real connection with his audience. Indeed, in Eliot’s monologue, the listener is mainly Prufrock’s other self.
It is interesting to notice how little dramatic situation there is in Prufrock. There is, in fact, barely enough situation to serve as a springboard for Prufrock’s self-revelation. There is the ‘journey’ through ‘half-deserted streets’ to a drawing room where the ladies ‘talk of Michelangelo’ make it easy to avoid ‘the overwhelming question’, and a final retreat to the sea-chambers of fantasy where Prufrock can spend the rest of his days listening to the song of the mermaids. The relative unimportance of the actual situation is underlined by the fact that Prufrock does not really direct his utterance to the situation at all. It is important to remember that his utterance is not contemporaneous in tense with the situation. He speaks, not to alter this situation, but to extract from it the pattern of his life. In fact, the use of tenses in the poem is a vital element: Prufrock’s utterance is framed almost entirely in the perfect and future tenses. Thus the crucial situation, the putting of the question, appears not in actuality but as anticipation (‘there will be time’) or as recollection (‘would it have been worth it after all … I have known them all already’). After the evocation of the tea-party, there is no situation at all, not even the implication of a present tense. There is only the pattern of the future, blended with the pattern of the past (‘I shall wear white flannel trousers … I have heard the mermaids singing’).
The use of tenses, combined with the Hamlet references, may be considered significant in relation to Prufrock’s indecisive, fearful nature. As already mentioned, Prufrock’s monologue achieves something of the same effect as Hamlet’s soliloquies. It reveals a private hell from which there is no escape, not even through fantasy. There is also another Hamlet-like dimension to Prufrock: fearful anticipation (1-69) and retrospective excuses for failure (70-131), coupled with self-laceration.
Another interesting feature of the poem is that while there is often little sense of logical continuity between its parts, Eliot pays detailed attention to syntactical continuity. The poem gains in coherence through the extensive use of linking words, phrases and expressions. No fewer than twenty-one lines are introduced by and, which introduces seven of the verse-paragraphs. To link the major paragraphs, Eliot makes use of sporadic word-repetition, which in Prufrock is a more significant device than rhyme. There are repetitions within the paragraphs and echoes linking each paragraph to its successor (yellow fog, yellow smoke, evening, they will say, voices dying with a dying fall, each to each ….). The word ‘time’ appears ten times in the third and fourth paragraphs.
The voice of the poem is, mainly, one of shadowy, uncertain identity. The presiding image is of a dream labyrinth (the landscape, the fog, the streets, the sea), an image created by an uncertain mind vainly endeavouring to find itself. One occasional weakness is illustrated by the Hamlet passage (‘I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be’). This is, perhaps, too abstract, too clever, too sharp a definition for the generally uncertain and vague identity of the ‘voice’ we have been listening to up to this point.
Many of us, students of the poem, perhaps coming to it for the first time are almost certain to be puzzled by Eliot’s method here. However, even after several readings, Prufrock can still remain as obscure as ever! The sources of difficulty are easy enough to identify. The principal one is the absence of a straightforward sequence of thought and of continuity between the various fragments which go to make up the poem. The physical appearance of Prufrock reflects Eliot’s method of composition. It was not composed as a unit: as befitting a poem we have earlier described as ‘one of the very first great modern poems’, some lines were written in America, some in Paris and some in Germany; added to this was the fact that it underwent a good deal of editing and re-arranging of lines before the present version emerged. One looks in vain for logical connections between the parts. The speaker proceeds by indirection, implication, suggestion. Indeed, at one point he declares that it is impossible for him to say just what he means (105). A good deal of what one might think necessary for an understanding of the speaker and his situation is omitted or else merely hinted at or vaguely implied; even the nature of the ‘overwhelming question’, apparently a central issue in the poem, is left obscure.
The disjointed fragments, put together in an apparently arbitrary fashion, can, however, be related to one another and made to take on the appearance of parts of a unified structure provided that a certain amount of ingenuity is exercised by the reader. Indeed, it is only by means of such an exercise, involving the discovery of the missing links in the broken chain of events and ideas that Prufrock can be made to acquire the kind of ‘meaning’ that most people look for in any work of literature. Reading Prufrock in this fashion for its ‘meaning’ is rather like playing a game of charades, solving a puzzle or doing a piece of detective work. Clues are seen to be left lying around: a journey of some sort is in question; a man seems to be facing a difficult predicament; an urban landscape is described; details of the man’s appearance and character are, apparently, revealed. The poet’s peculiar use of pronouns is noted. The reader will naturally try to combine these elements into as orderly and intelligible a sequence as he can, discover logical relations between them, and make out his version of the ‘story’ of the poem. Each reader’s version may, of course, be somewhat different from that of his neighbour; each will marshal the ‘clues’ to different effect. The number of possible versions of the poem as a ‘story’ is obviously endless.
What kind of poem, then, is Prufrock? One of Eliot’s images gives us a useful clue to the poet’s method:
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on
a screen ….
The magic lantern will serve as a symbol of Prufrock. The fragments of the poem are like separate, isolated slides projected onto a screen. The voice of the speakers invites us to follow it on a dream-like progress from the half-deserted streets to the room full of fashionable women, through the yellow fog, to the staircase and finally to the mermaids in the chambers of the sea. The only place in which all these different locations could exist together is in the mind of the speaker.
If Prufrock has unity it is not a unity of idea or incident: the streets, stairways, rooms and ‘chambers of the sea’ clearly cannot belong to a single, visible world. Instead of trying to relate the fragments of the poem to such a world, one should regard them as projections of various states of feeling, some of them contradictory, all originating in a single mind. This is the only sense in which it is possible to speak with confidence of the ‘unity’ of the poem. The images of Prufrock correspond to these states of feeling: they objectify them. The experience of reading the poem should be like that of listening to music: moods and feelings are communicated, emotions stimulated. It does not really matter where the room is in which the women talk of Michelangelo, or whether this can be the room towards which the speaker may be going; nor does it matter whether the fog has formed before the projected ‘journey’ or after it. The physical details of the poem, the relationship between its people, places and objects, are as unsubstantial as those in a dream; they dissolve and reappear quite arbitrarily. The time-sequence is equally chaotic. Therefore, if Prufrock can be said to be about anything, it is primarily about a state of mind.
 It is essential for our understanding of the poem to realise that the ‘you’ and ‘I’ refer to two aspects of Prufrock’s personality. The ‘you’ stands for the timid, apologetic, public side of Prufrock; the ‘I’ stands for the inner man with his passionate desire for a more heroic and splendid mode of life. There is a third person in the poem, the woman, who is the object of Prufrock’s love. She is constantly referred to as the ‘one’.
You might also like to read a brief analysis of Eliot’s Religious Poetry featuring ‘Journey of the Magi’ and ‘A Song for Simeon’ here.
For many years during my chequered career as an English teacher, I taught a very limited selection of poems by Thomas Hardy which featured in the interim anthology, Soundings, edited by Augustine Martin. This was as part of the then Leaving Poetry Certificate course – where the only requirement for selection was that the poet had to be dead! How times have changed – for the better. Having now retired I have been able to revisit the poems and glory anew in their darkness – a rather sad, pathetic version of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’!
During his lifetime, Thomas Hardy was much engaged with the great issues which exercise the minds of all thinking men; time, death, suffering, immortality. Three of his finest poems (‘Afterwards’, ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’, ‘During Wind and Rain’) deal with these matters. Students of Hardy’s oeuvre will already know that he was not a particularly cheerful or optimistic observer or commentator on the human condition. He could not, for example, believe that the universe was the work of a benevolent Creator. At different times in his writings we can see that he thought creation to be a cruel joke, or as an accident, and he even once suggested that some ‘Vast imbecility / Mighty to build and blend / But impotent to tend / Framed us in jest, and left us now to hazardry’ (‘Nature’s Questioning’). Human life appeared to him to be devoid of any clear plan or purpose, and personal immortality was clearly an illusion. He could find nothing to give meaning to the weight of suffering in the world, to the ravages of time, or to the cruelty of death.
The three poems mentioned above embody varying reactions to the predicament of human beings in the face of the remorseless forces of destruction. In ‘Afterwards’ we find a calm, stoical acceptance; while ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’ he affirms the continuity of everyday life against a background of war and turmoil, while in ‘During Wind and Rain’ he portrays a relentless picture of absolute desolation and despairing, tragic anguish.
Recited by Jeremy Irons
‘Afterwards’ happens to be one of my own personal favourite poems of all time. The poem was written in 1917 (the same year as Eliot’s, ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’, was published). Hardy was 77 at the time. It is not really a poem about death, but about the world Hardy feels he will soon be leaving, and about the ways in which he would like to be remembered after he has gone. It is a sincere, truthful poem, showing Hardy’s resignation and stoicism, as well as embodying his modest view of his own significance. At the time of writing, Hardy was nearing the end of a long and illustrious career, as poet and novelist. In the poem, however, he hopes not for universal remembrance after death, as a great man of letters, but instead that a few kind people will remember him for his lifelong interest in nature and for his fondness for living things. He does not look forward to death with terror or dread, or even with excitement; he greets the prospect of his ‘bell of quittance’ with quiet detachment. Detachment, indeed, is the keynote of the poem. It is as if Hardy were observing his own fate from a distance; the fact that he talks so much about himself in the third person (a la J.M. Coetzee in more recent times) lends force to this impression.
One way of reading ‘Afterwards’ is as the utterance of one returned to life from the past, as a kind of tolerant, objective, kindly observer. The major focus of interest in the poem is not the poet himself but the things he used to notice while he lived: there is a beautiful tension between the things so lovingly observed and the idea of death which broods over the poem. Hardy’s ability to be objective about his own demise is finely suggested in the second line:
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings
Instead of using morbid nature imagery to portray his death, as he does in poems like ‘The Darkling Thrush’, he instead evokes the joys of early summer. Furthermore, his claim to have been a close observer of nature during his lifetime is validated in the beautiful image of the hawk in lines 5 – 6:
Like an eyelid’s soundless blink
This beautiful and powerful simile, combining as it does speed and soundlessness, would occur only to one who had, indeed, looked long and closely at the minutest details of a scene.
The third stanza is both endearing and sad. Hardy was a firm believer, whether in regard to humans or animals, that the chief aim of man should be to strive to keep pain down to a minimum by loving kindness. His lifelong campaign against cruelty to animals and birds, referred to here, in this stanza, will, he suggests, come to nothing once he has passed away:
But he could do little for them, and now he is gone.
I find that it is impossible to read this line in its context without feeling a pang at the absurdity of isolated human effort in the face of the relentless progress of evil in the world.
In the fourth stanza, Hardy moves from the contemplation of every day, local details to glance momentarily at the mysteries of creation and record his interest in such matters. He is content to contemplate them with due wonder and to reserve his comment for the more homely things he does understand. There doesn’t seem to be any religious significance to his contemplation of created things or of matters after death other than his reference to the ‘bell of quittance’, obviously the bell of his local parish church. The very modesty of his hopes and claims make them all the more moving and impressive. Yet, the long sonorous lines of the poem help paint a picture of Hardy the man: a good neighbour, a keen observer of nature, a man who will be missed when he goes – a man who had an eye ‘for such mysteries’
Recited by Judi Dench
‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’
Along with ‘Afterwards’, ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’, despite its brevity and simplicity, ranks as one of Hardy’s finest achievements. In three short stanzas, Hardy makes a profound comment on war, and on the basic permanence of simple, everyday things.
Although the poem was written during the First World War in 1915, the subject occurred to Hardy as early as 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, as we read in his TheLife and Work of Thomas Hardy. He was in Cornwall when he wrote:
On the day that the bloody battle of Gravelotte was fought they were reading Tennyson in the grounds of the rectory. It was at this time and spot that Hardy was struck by the incident of the old horse harrowing the arable field in the valley below, which, when in later years it was recalled to him by a still bloodier war, he made into the little poem of three verses (p. 84).
The poem makes its powerful, telling and timely point by sharply juxtaposing the momentary aberration of war against a background of centuries of human history. Hardy asserts the pre-eminence of simple human values in the face of the misuse of power and the disintegration brought about by war. According to Hardy, there are two kinds of history: that of war, political events and the rise and fall of Dynasties, and the humbler history of obscure people and everyday life. The man and the old horse ploughing the field, the thin smoke rising from the field, and the two lovers, represent the second kind; the Dynasties represent the first kind. The Great War (To End All Wars) was meant to mark the passing of these Dynasties, but the ‘maid and her wight’ have greater significance than all the dynasties, since, through their children and their descendants down the generations, they will continue the story of humanity long after dynasties and their wars have passed into oblivion.
Read by Tom O’Bedlam
‘During Wind and Rain’
‘During Wind and Rain’ is a very pessimistic, indeed despairing, comment on life and death, providing an interesting contrast with ‘Afterwards’ and ‘At Time of the Breaking of Nations’. It is quintessentially Hardy. As in the other two poems, the powerful effects are achieved largely through contrast and juxtaposition. Here, each of the four stanzas has the same structural features. The setting of the poem is a wild, tempestuous autumn day which bears an obvious weight of symbolism. In each stanza, a happy, beautifully depicted scene from the past is followed by a pathetic refrain whose theme is the havoc wrought by the years, while each final line brings forcefully to life the wildness of the autumn day.
It is said that Hardy wrote the poem with his first wife, Emma Gifford, in mind. She is seen with her family in a series of happy scenes, the security and comfort of which are shattered in turn by the intrusive, tortured refrain on ‘the years’. There is a wealth of implication in the first stanza, with its cheerful family music-making followed by the image of the sick leaves which ‘reel down in throngs’, which seems both to describe the autumn day and to suggest the deaths of the participants in the happy gathering. Again, in the beautiful garden of Stanzas Two and Three, ‘the rotten rose is ript from the wall’, a glance, apparently, at the family’s tendency to madness.
In this poem – one of his darkest and despairing – Hardy finds the origins of death and despair in the past. Time enjoys a cruel triumph, and a total one here, obliterating without a trace not only the most stable and fortunate families and their carefully tended surroundings, but even those remains which might serve to perpetuate their memories. This latter idea is graphically conveyed in the great last line, which is almost a poem in itself:
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs
Even the very names of the dead carved on their tombstones are not exempt from the erasing hand of time. The absolute desolation of this poem is appropriately summed up in the slow, lingering pathos of this line, with its crushing air of finality.
Hardy, Thomas. TheLife and Work of Thomas Hardy ed Michael Millgate (1984). London: The Macmillan Press Limited, 1984.
Martin, Augustine (ed). Soundings: Leaving Cert Poetry/Interim Anthology. Gill and Macmillan Limited and The Educational Company. 1969.
My overall analysis of the poetry of Thomas Hardy can be accessed here
‘Journey of the Magi’ (1927) and ‘A Song for Simeon’ (1928) both arose from the poet’s spiritual struggles which eventually gave rise to his conversion to the Church of England. In an essay first published in 1931, Eliot gives us a fairly vivid account of the process of conversion as he understands it:
The Christian thinker proceeds by rejection and elimination. He finds the world to be so and so, but he finds its character to be inexplicable by any non-religious theory. Among religions, he finds Christianity accounts most satisfactorily for the world, and thus he finds himself inexorably committed to the dogma of the Incarnation (Selected Essays, 408).
This description helps us understand Eliot’s personal development during the 1920s, and helps us see how his conversion was not a sudden transformation but an inevitable culmination of a long drawn out process. His early poetry had been pervaded by a lament for his loss of faith and sometimes hinted that it might someday be recovered. Thus, even a decidedly secular poem such as ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is interspersed with familiar Christian references. In the poem we see references to Lazarus: ‘I am Lazarus, come back from the dead’. Later we come upon a reference to St. John the Baptist: ‘though I have seen my head …. brought in upon a platter’. Part of the greatness of Eliot’s Prufrock is that it depicts in a very honest way a personal state of mind and it also serves as an example of normal human misery and Roaring Twenties angst. In the second section of Prufrock (‘The yellow fog that rubs its back…’) there is a beautiful, extended image of Prufrock’s own individual awareness. For him, normal day-to-day apprehension is like a fog, but occasionally he feels that just beyond his field of vision there is a different order of reality – a parallel universe.
In ‘A Song for Simeon’ this order of reality is described and clearly defined. What first strikes us is that Eliot very often has a peculiar tendency to express religious ideas in predominantly secular terms. Both ‘A Song for Simeon’ and ‘Journey of the Magi’ rely on this relationship between biblical and secular language. Thus, ‘A Song for Simeon’ is based on the story of Simeon in St. Luke’s Gospel, (Luke 2:25 – 35) while ‘Journey of the Magi’ is modelled on St. Matthew’s account (Matthew 2: 1 – 12). Both poems could be described as apocryphal, reminiscent of other written accounts of the life and works of Jesus during his life on earth, such as The Gospel of St. Thomas and others, which were seen by Church authorities as being of questionable provenance.
‘JOURNEY OF THE MAGI’ (1927)
St. Matthew begins his Gospel account with an elaborate genealogy that places Jesus as an ancestor of King David and Abraham. Here already Matthew shows his special interest and the intended audience for his Gospel. He is writing for a Jewish audience and presents Jesus as a King, better than David and a teacher greater than Moses.
It is Matthew that tells us about the Three Wise Men (Eliot’s Magi) that came to worship, bringing gifts fit for a king. Matthew, in his powerful birth account, presents Jesus, in fulfillment of the prophecies and hopes of the Hebrew Scriptures, as the King of the Jews who has been given all authority in Heaven and Earth. He is Emmanuel, God with us. Matthew, however, is making a powerful distinction for his Jewish audience – the Magi represent those outsiders, those wise men, magicians, or astrologers from the East, from Persia who will now be saved by this Christ child. The Good News of Matthew, therefore, is that this Christ has come for all people and not just for the Chosen People of Israel. Eliot sees in the Magi a metaphor for his own conversion – he too has made a long and tortuous journey and has finally made his decision to bow down before the Christian God.
‘Journey of the Magi’ – one of the great classic Christmas poems – is told from the perspective of one of the Magi (commonly known as the ‘Three Wise Men’, though the Bible makes no mention of their number or gender – although it does mention that they brought three gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh). The poem examines the implications that the advent of Christ had for the other religions of the time, and it emphasizes this pivotal moment in human history. In the Christian calendar, the coming of the Wise Men or Magi is celebrated on January 6th – the Twelfth Day of Christmas. It is often referred to as the Feast of the Epiphany, when Jesus is revealed to all, Jew and Gentile, as the Saviour of the World.
This is an apocryphal account of the journey made by the Three Wise Men which eventually led them to a humble stable in Bethlehem where the Christ Child lay. It is narrated to us by one of their number, perhaps over a glass of wine, after their return home. The story, and it is a beautifully told story, is told not in Biblical language, but in the language of everyday speech and with an amount of detail not found in the Gospel story of St. Matthew.
The opening quotation comes from one of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes’ Nativity Sermons, preached at Christmas during the 1620s. The speaker, one of the Magi, talks about the difficulties encountered by the Magi during the course of their journey to see the infant Christ. It is unconventional in that it focuses on the details of the journey: their longing for home (and for the ‘silken girls’ bringing the sweet drink known as ‘sherbet’), their doubts about the purpose of the journey they’re undertaking, the unfriendly people in the villages where they stop over for the night, and so on. The hardships of the journey are recounted in some detail. The details underline the absurdity of the journey in the first place but stress the strong impulses that made them undertake the journey in the middle of winter. The hardship is further stressed by the sharp juxtaposition between what they faced on their journey and what they had left behind in their ‘palaces’.
Eventually, the Magi arrive at the place where the infant Christ is to be found. The weary travellers trek through a ‘temperate valley’ – a kind of Garden of Eden – and eventually arrive at a tavern with its drunkenness and gambling. The description of the valley is akin to a movie still – the camera pans slowly over the landscape lingering on sharply etched details such as the running stream, the watermill, the three trees, and the old white horse. Then the camera moves on and picks out the gamblers and the empty wineskins. There is no mention of Bethlehem or the stable in this account and the narrator simply states that they ‘arrived at evening, not a moment too soon / finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory’. Neither is there any mention of the star which – the Gospels and a million children’s Nativity Plays tell us – guided the Magi to the spot where Christ lay in a manger. The words ‘not a moment too soon’ are important here because the narrator seems to realize that they, like Simeon later, because of their advanced years, were unlikely to survive to witness the Crucifixion or the Resurrection of Christ and that they can only count themselves lucky to have witnessed the beginning of this powerful new religious movement.
The poem ends with its narrator reflecting on the journey some years later, saying that if he had the chance he would do it all again, but he remains unsure about the precise significance of the journey and what they found when they arrived. Was it the birth of a new world (Christianity) or the death of an old one (i.e. the Magi’s own world)? The speaker then reveals that, since he returned home following his visit to see the infant Christ, he and his fellow Magi have felt uneasy living among their own people, who now seem to be ‘an alien people clutching their gods’ (in contrast to the worshippers of the newly arrived Jesus, who worship one God only, in the form of the Messiah). The speaker ends by telling us that he is resigned to die now, glad of ‘another death’ (his own) to complement the death of his cultural and religious beliefs, which have been destroyed by his witnessing the baby Jesus.
Jesus himself, however, is absent from this poem. One reason for this may be that we are, of course, all too familiar with the story of the Nativity and we don’t need reminding here. Another possible reason is that the focus here in this account is on the journey, the quest, and the hardship of the search. Eliot places himself here among and alongside the Persian astrologers as they seek out the face of the baby Christ. The poet empathises with the ‘Wise Men’ who are seeing their once deeply held beliefs being called into question by this new Messiah.
No study of the poem would be complete without reference to the imagery used by the poet. In carrying out such an analysis we also need to remember that the narrator is one of a band of ‘wise men’, ‘astrologers’ who are learned in the study of signs and omens. Sadly, it seems, the Magi miss the significance of almost all the images mentioned in the poem! Much of the imagery foreshadows Christ’s later life: the three trees suggesting Christ’s crucifixion on Calvary; the vine, to which Jesus will liken himself; the pieces of silver foreshadowing the thirty pieces of silver Judas Iscariot will receive for betraying him; the wine-skins foreshadowing the wine that Jesus would beseech his disciples to drink in memory of him at the Last Supper. Even though the narrator is a priest or astrologer, someone trained to look for the significance in the things around him, to read and interpret signs as symbols or omens, he fails to pick up on what they foreshadow.We, however, living in a Christian (or even a post-Christian) society, can read their significance all too well – and modern society, despite the aid of hindsight’s 20/20 vision seems equally oblivious to the significance of those momentous events in Bethlehem. At poem’s end, the narrator is left feeling perplexed and troubled by his visit and by the advent of Christ: he wonders whether Christ’s birth has been a good thing since his arrival in the world has finally signalled the death of his own old religion and the religion of his people. Now, he and his fellow Magi, like Simeon, are left world-weary and longing for life’s end.
So, therefore, ‘Journey of the Magi’ is partly about belonging, about social, tribal, and religious belonging: the speaker of the poem reflects sadly that the coming of Christ has rendered his own gods and his own tribe effete, displaced, destined to be overtaken by the advent of Christ and Christianity. It is tempting to see the poem – written in 1927, the year Eliot converted to the Anglican faith – as a metaphor for Eliot’s own feelings concerning secularism and the Christian religion, Christianity having itself been rendered effete in the face of Darwin, modern physics, and secular philosophy. The poem, about a people’s conversion from one religion to another, is equally bound up with Eliot’s own conversion.
‘A SONG FOR SIMEON’ (1928)
‘A Song for Simeon’ relies heavily on the account given in the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel and phrases from this gospel echo throughout the poem. Simeon comes to see the Christ child as he is being presented in the Temple by Mary and Joseph and he utters his famous Nunc dimittis: ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For my eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people’. Joseph and Mary marvel at this and Simeon addresses Mary: ‘This child is set for the fall and rise of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed’.
The poem is not, however, a simple restatement of Simeon’s prophecy. Indeed, the purpose of the religious references is not to analyse religious experience into a series of logical or dogmatic statements, but to reflect a state of mind. Eliot diminishes somewhat Simeon’s role as a prophet and brings into focus his human characteristics. The poem, therefore, has considerable realism. Simeon is tired and old; like all ordinary men, he neither longs for martyrdom nor for the ‘ultimate vision’ of Christ’s triumph on earth. He just wants to die peacefully, with no heroics and no rhetoric. Eliot’s ‘Song’, unlike the original in Luke, is the ordinary prayer of a tired old man who has accomplished his task on earth and who hopes for God’s salvation. This tone of contemplative piety is maintained until the end, ‘Let thy servant depart / Having seen thy salvation’. Throughout the poem, the coming of Christ is seen as a victory over the powers of darkness. Yet, characteristically, the advent of Christ is also seen as involving a painful transformation of attitude.
This idea is central to all of Eliot’s religious poetry and in particular to ‘A Song for Simeon’; namely that all Christians must endure hardship and suffering in this life if they are truly Christ’s followers. The quiet strength of the poem enables the allusions to suffering to be used in such a way that the reader is forced to pause and to consider. Take for example the reference ‘And a sword shall pierce thy heart / Thine also’. In his address to Mary, Simeon foretells her grief and that of Christ. But here in their new context, the words extend in meaning to cover the sufferings of all Christians who bear the derision as well as share in the glory of the passion and resurrection. Thus, Eliot suggests, every Christian enacts the martyrdom of Christ in his own life: this, now and in the future, will be a prime condition of his life as a Christian.
Simeon’s case, however, is a special one. He is the only Christian whose life does not involve participation in the suffering and death of Christ (He will, after all, be dead long before the Crucifixion) – ‘Not for me the martyrdom … / Not for me the ultimate vision’. Eliot sees Simeon standing at that unique crossroads in human history when the pagan world gives way to the Christian. Simeon grew up in the old dispensation, and yet he has the foresight to welcome the new Christian age but he knows that he cannot share in it. He has to be content with the ‘ultimate vision’, the consolation of recognising that he has achieved salvation in the figure of the Christ child whom he has held momentarily in his arms.
Any close analysis of this poem must involve some mention of Eliot’s use of symbols. As his interest in religious topics increased he continued to invent a symbolic language so as to express his ideas in poetry. What he does in ‘A Song for Simeon’ is to translate his experience partly into traditional Christian images, and partly into his own private symbols. Throughout the poem, the presence of familiar Christian references is obvious enough. Groups of them appear in the third stanza:
Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation
Grant us thy peace.
Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
Low at this birth season of decrease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking the unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no tomorrow.
Next to these familiar images, however, Eliot places various symbols which express very forcefully the waning of the old pagan world and the imminent coming of Christianity. Stanza One, in particular, is filled with images drawn from nature. The Roman world, the world of the old dispensation, continues to move in its accustomed way: the hyacinths are ‘blooming in bowls’, but the light of the old beliefs represented here by the winter sun is weak and fading – ‘The winter sun creeps by the snow hills’. In the fourth line, Simeon is introduced to us using natural imagery – ‘My life is light, waiting for the death wind’.
Another significant feature of Eliot’s poetry after his conversion is his discovery of heroes – as opposed to anti-heroes like Prufrock. Indeed, one modern critic has summarised Eliot’s religious poetry as ‘explorations of the meaning and nature of heroism’. In ‘a Song for Simeon’, heroism is seen primarily in a Christian context. Throughout the poem the coming of Christ is associated with images of desolation and hardship; he is the ‘wind that chills towards the dead land’; he brings ‘cords and scourges and lamentation’; he announces salvation to all men in terms of death and suffering. The placid images of stanza one (‘hyacinths’, ‘feather’, ‘dust and sunlight’, ‘snow hills’) give way to images of torment that represent the lives of all succeeding generations of Christians. Death is the source of life (‘this birth season of decrease’). This, says Eliot, is the law of sacrifice and renunciation, a law which can be seen mirrored in nature and which is the essence of the Christian way. This is the essence of the challenge which Eliot outlines in ‘A Song for Simeon’.
Like Simeon, Eliot has longed to find Peace – ‘Grant us thy peace’. Peace (Shalom) was a sacred word for Jews denoting a positive state of wholeness and productivity rather than our merely negative notion of an absence of hostilities. It is in this wider sense that Eliot means the word to be understood. Indeed, the entire poem must be seen in a Christian context, if its message is to be fully understood and appreciated.
Therefore, these two poems, ‘Journey of the Magi’ and ‘A Song for Simeon’, deal with different journeys: the Magi come from the East and traverse difficult landscape at an inhospitable time of the year to seek out their new Messiah. The hardships experienced on their journey are emphassised by words like ‘cold’, ‘worst time of year’, ‘the ways deep’, ‘weather sharp’, ‘dead of winter’. Simeon, too, has ‘walked many years in this city’ in order to carry out his religious and charitable works (‘Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor’). Simeon also foresees persecuted Christians fleeing ‘from the foreign faces and the foreign swords’. This is closely followed by the stark image of Christ’s journey to Calvary – probably the most poignant expression of the journey-metaphor in all of Eliot’s poetry:
Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation
Grant us thy peace,
Before the stations of the mountain of desolation.
Both poems are set in winter representing not only the old age of the narrators but also signifying the end of the ‘old dispensations’ and the advent of the new. There is also, of course, the underlying notion of the journey which the poet has undertaken during the course of his conversion to his new faith.
To sum up, we can say that ‘A Song for Simeon’ and ‘Journey of the Magi’ mark a decisive turning point in Eliot’s religious faith. They also mark a change in his poetic style as well as a total shift in his outlook on life.
Eliot, T.S., “The Pensées of Pascal”, Selected Essays (3rd Edition), London: Faber and Faber, 1951.
This poem, “My November Guest”, is taken from A Boy’s Will, the first published volume of Frost’s poetry (1913). This is among the best of Robert Frost’s poems where he speaks of the Fall in rural New Hampshire.
The poet at some point of time must have experienced extreme pain and sorrow in the month of November. There is an air of familiarity created by the poet and he and his guest have walked and talked along the ‘sodden pasture lane’. Sorrow is personified as a woman – a friend, companion, and she is considered a regular visitor and ‘a guest’ in the poem. He is very comfortable in her company and doesn’t wish to be separated from her – ‘She talks and I am fain to list’. She is dressed for the weather – that time of year in New England before the first snows of winter – wearing ‘simple worsted grey’.
As the poem commences, Sorrow is personified as a woman and someone whom the poet dearly loves. In the very first line, “My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,” marks the peak of the poet’s togetherness with sorrow.
My Sorrow, when she’s here with me, Thinks these dark days of autumn rain Are beautiful as days can be;
Walking with the poet, she (Sorrow) speaks of the beautiful Autumn days, finds ecstasy in the withered trees, and the autumnal browns! Fall is a season marked with desolate earth, deserted trees, the sodden pasture lane and the departure of the birds. The poet’s Sorrow finds beauty in the Autumn days. She reprimands the poet for not being able to experience the joy in Autumn and asks for an explanation. The phrase “Simple worsted grey is silver now with clinging mist” reflects the mood of the poem, the coexistence of joy and sorrow.
Not yesterday I learned to know The love of bare November days Before the coming of the snow, But it were vain to tell her so, And they are better for her praise
In the first three stanzas the poet is forced to listen to his ‘guest’ extol the virtues of Autumn, ‘the dark days of autumn rain’ and she seems convinced that he has ‘no eye for’ the beauty that surrounds him at this time of year. Those of us familiar with the poetry of Frost know this to be false and we know that he does appreciate these beauties. However, the constant repetition of ‘She’ creates a sense of easy familiarity with his guest, ‘She walks’, ‘She talks’, ‘She thinks, ‘She’s glad’ and, therefore, out of respect or deference, he doesn’t make any effort to correct his companion, for ‘they are better for her praise’. In actual fact, it was not just yesterday that he discovered this fact, he has known it for many a long day:
Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
The poem is lucid, characterized by a tone which is musical – is written in iambic tetrameter. The poem expresses the poet’s love for November days in an extremely original way. The poet seems to happily embrace the November Guest (Sorrow) and seems to enjoy her company. The pictorial imagery in the poem is easy, vivid, simple, and rich.
The intriguing question here is, of course, who, if anyone, is being referred to when he speaks of ‘My Sorrow’? Maybe ‘Sorrow’ represents someone close to him, his wife perhaps, who despite her closeness to him fails to recognise that he too finds November beautiful. In a famous letter written by Frost in 1939 to his daughter, Lesley, he refers to a letter written by his wife Elinor to their children:
“My, my, what sorrow runs through all she wrote to you children. No wonder something of it overcasts my poetry if read aright. No matter how humorous I am, I am sad. I am a jester about sorrow. She coloured my thinking from the first just as at the last she troubled my politics. It was no loss but a gain of course. She was not as original as me in thought but she dominated my art with the power of her character and nature” (Latham : 397-8).
If we are to assume – and this is dangerous ground – that the speaker is Frost himself then we can sieve through biographical details for clues as to the identity of this Sorrow. Any such survey, however, will show that Frost’s personal life was plagued by grief and sorrow and loss. By the time this poem was published in 1913 Frost had buried two of his children: his son Elliot died of cholera in 1900 aged four and his daughter Elinor Bettina died just three days after her birth in 1907. His mother who had cancer had also passed away – co-incidentally in November 1900! Maybe it is one of these losses that caused Frost such sorrow?
However, Frost’s life, even after the publication of A Boy’s Will in 1913, continued to be plagued with sorrow and heartache. In 1920, he had to commit his younger sister Jeanie to a mental hospital, where she died nine years later. Mental illness apparently ran in Frost’s family, as both he and his mother suffered from depression, and his daughter Irma was committed to a mental hospital in 1947. Frost’s wife, Elinor, also experienced bouts of depression. She also suffered from heart problems throughout her life. She developed breast cancer in 1937 and eventually died of heart failure in 1938. His son Carol, born in 1902, committed suicide in 1940.
In my view, it is highly unlikely that any of these tragic biographical events formed the basis for this poem – although the loss of his mother in November 1900 may indeed have been a catalyst. While this literary detective work may have some foundation, I am more inclined to believe that the ‘Sorrow’ in question here may be simply a melancholic mood that comes over the poet during the long month of November, a sense of resignation that Winter is at last upon him. He tells us that Sorrow’s visit is only a temporary visitation and that it is hugely influenced by the bleakness of nature and the greyness of the weather. However, the poet owns this blue mood that comes over him during November. He says it’s ‘My Sorrow’ and it has come to visit annually during November. Indeed, November and Thanksgiving are synonymous and Frost sees the bright side here: Sorrow teaches him how to appreciate Nature at this time of the year and he is a willing student.
The poem is living proof of that old saying, ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ and that at this time of year these ‘dark days’ hold their own beauty: ‘the withered tree’, ‘the sodden pasture’, ‘the clinging mist’ evoke a powerful and distinctive feeling or emotional memory in the poet. Even his ‘Guest’ chides him that he cannot see that even in November every cloud has a silver lining!
Frost’s world, the world we perceive in his poetry, is largely a rural world, a world of nature and trees, and soil, and pasture. His poetry, like that of Kavanagh, Heaney, and others, recreates a local and familiar landscape in which Frost, as a poet and as a person, is in communion. We sense that he knows nature’s spaces. We believe that his is a voice of integrity that invites us into fields and pastures and along the brooks of New England. And we occasionally feel that along the way, we may even discover something of Frost himself.
Latham, Edward, ed., Robert Frost: A Biography, New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1981.
Wikipedia page on Robert Frost
“My November Guest”, is taken from A Boy’s Will, the first published volume of Frost’s poetry (1913). Here it is read by the poet himself.
For a more detailed analysis of Robert Frost’s poetry see here
For commentary on ‘Spring Pool’ by Robert Frost check here
For commentary on ‘A Tuft of Flowers’ by Robert Frost check here
Check out some reflections on Robert Frost’s ‘The Road not Taken’ here
The Romantics, and especially Wordsworth, were unlucky not to have lived in the smartphone era! Then again maybe we’re lucky that no such modern technology existed in 1802! If Wordsworth were alive today his camera phone would surely be filled to capacity and the scenes and events he captured would be relived and enjoyed later in the comfort of his study – ’emotion recollected in tranquility’ brought into the twenty-first century!
This poem is noteworthy in particular because of its location. Instead of the leafy banks of the Wye or the rolling hills and dales of Cumbria, he brings us to the heart of the city in the early morning. He wants to stress to us that his philosophy of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ will work just as well in the grubby city as it would by the shores of Lake Windemere.
In this case, he is inspired by the view he saw from Westminster Bridge on the morning of 31st July 1802, although he didn’t write the poem until September of the same year. In fact, the more correct title of the sonnet is ‘Composed on Westminster Bridge, September 3rd, 1802’. He and his sister, Dorothy, were crossing the bridge on a coach taking them to a boat for a trip across the English Channel to France. We know all this because Dorothy mentions the event in her diary:
‘We mounted the Dover Coach at Charing Cross. It was a beautiful morning. The City, St. Paul’s, with the river and a Multitude of little boats made a most beautiful sight …. The houses were not overhung with their cloud of smoke and they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly with such pure light that there was even something like a purity of Nature’s own grand spectacles.’
I’m sure we have all experienced a city in the early morning before the sleeping giant awakes. The early morning light gives the impression that the city has been recently washed and is now clean in the morning air. The gaudiness of the night before with its neon lights flashing on the water and the constant rumbling and screeching of traffic has yet to begin anew. This fleeting moment of peace before the storm is what Wordsworth is describing here as he crosses London Bridge on an early morning stagecoach.
The theme of the poem is London as it lies asleep in the early morning sun. We get the impression here of a sleeping giant, perhaps rather terrifying when awake as some cities tend to be, but, now it sleeps so peacefully that those who see him are no longer afraid and are able to admire his elegance and splendour.
The tone of the poem is one of awe and breathless admiration at the sight before him. He feels a deep sense of peace and contentment at the sight of such man-made things as ships and towers. These sights are made even more wonderful in his eyes because of the closeness of Nature herself – the fields, the sky, the sun, and the river Thames itself.
His opening line shows that to him this is the ultimate in beauty; he cannot understand how anyone could ignore such a sight. We must remember that the poem, like most of Wordsworth’s poetry, is one of feelings and emotions. He refers to this scene of grandeur (‘majesty’) as ‘touching’ whereas often we consider grand and majestic things to be somewhat cold and distant. The city, to him, is a living thing; it is clothed in the ‘beauty of the morning’. The city is also silent at this time of the morning and this impression is reinforced by his use of the sibilant ‘s’ sounds in ‘silent’, ‘ships’, ‘sky’, ‘smokeless’ and also in the line:
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples….
There is a lovely juxtaposition when he uses the word ‘bare’ to describe the ships and towers without their human activity in sharp contrast to the city wearing its beautiful morning ‘garment’. Wordsworth is suggesting to us that all these man-made things are ‘bright and glittering’ only because they are exposed to Nature; that the air is clean only because man is not yet awake to stain it with his smoking fires. The idea of the sharp, clear and clean air is suggested by the words ‘sky’, ‘bright’ and ‘glittering’.
His long list of man-made objects conveys to us what makes the city different: not just one ship but many; not just one tower but tower blocks. The use of alliteration in ‘towers’, ‘theatres’, ‘temples’ also conveys a sense of wonder in the reader and adds to their importance.
There is a sense that the sun is dressing the city to meet another day and that it has never steeped the countryside in the same manner as it does the sleeping city. Gradually the city comes alive: the river is moving gracefully (‘glideth’), unimpeded by the small boats who ply their trade up and down the Thames all day long. The houses have yet to come alive and they will do so as soon as their eyes (windows) are touched by the sun’s rays.
The poet’s prayerful exclamation of ‘Dear God!’ is ambiguous and it seems as if the thought has entered his head that everyone in the houses is also dead. This is a striking example of the poet’s imagination. The final line reintroduces us to the idea of the heart of the city, our sleeping giant. The ‘mighty heart’ suggests something huge, whose heart is gently and soundlessly beating. We all have seen what happens next on our TV screens as the camera uses time-lapse shots to show the ever-increasing flow of people and traffic and shops opening their doors, as the city slowly, relentlessly comes to life – the great giant stirs.
The poem presents us with a very compact series of images. His use of the classic Petrarchan Sonnet formula shows his discipline and craft. (The rhyming scheme is abbaabba cdcdcd). His use of run-on lines suggests the movement of the rising sun over the city. They also emphasise the poet’s use of ordinary speech rhythms, which was a strong feature of Romantic poetry. The run-on lines may also mirror the poet’s rush of emotions as he encounters and strives to capture the scene before him.
A poem with such feeling must be musical. Note his use of broad ‘o’ sounds in the first quatrain, ‘show’, ‘more’, ‘so’, ‘doth’. These broad vowel sounds combined with the long ‘i’ sounds in ‘by’, ‘sight’, ‘like’ also convey the poet’s sense of awe and wonder. I have already mentioned the sibilant ‘s’ sounds that occur throughout the poem and these are associated with the silence and calm of the early morning scene. Finally, in the final three lines, this harmony is brought out by the assonance in ‘sweet’, ‘Dear’, ‘seem’, and ‘asleep’ and in ‘glideth’, ‘mighty’, and ‘lying’.
This poem is similar to ‘Daffodils’ and other masterpieces like ‘Tintern Abbey’ in that it furthers Wordsworth philosophy of what poetry is. He is yet again storing up photographic images using his ‘inward eye’ so that they can be recalled and enjoyed again in the peace and quiet of his own study at a later time. Nature is here presented from a different perspective. It is a delight to the senses and a source of aesthetic beauty and its pleasures can be evoked through memory to fortify the poet at times of distress and amid the ‘din’ of towns and cities. It is a comforter to those in despair, and it can enrich our physical well-being and restore our mental health, prompting him to exclaim as he does here on Westminster Bridge that he never before ‘saw, never felt, a calm so deep!’
Read a more comprehensive analysis of William Wordsworth’s poetry here
Read a detailed analysis of Tintern Abbey by William Wordsworth here
Commentary: Dr Andrew Barker called ‘Digging’ – the first poem in Heaney’s first collection – his Mission Statement Poem. If that is so, ‘The Diviner’ is an early codicil to that Mission Statement! It is yet another of Heaney’s poems about rural crafts and craftsmen. These earlier poems focussed on his rural roots and the local crafts which were synonymous with his local place. Similar to ‘Digging’ and ‘The Forge’, and ‘Follower’, this poem also explores the poet’s early search for poetic inspiration. Heaney discovered his own gift by seeing the connection between the local craftsmen and his own burgeoning desire to be different yet the same.
The first thing to notice here is that Heaney doesn’t name the poem ‘The Water Diviner’ – instead, he uses the more generic title ‘The Diviner’. This allows him to make ancient connections with the meaning of the word. In the ancient world of Greece and Rome, a diviner was a wise man, a seer, a prophet, a mystic, an oracle. Even in ancient Ireland in the Bardic tradition, the diviner was a saoi, literally a ‘wise one’, a poet at the pinnacle of his powers. So, it is evident that Heaney here is making a clear analogy between the work of the local diviner in Bellaghy and the work of a poet. Heaney is making this connection very early on in his career and so he has already accepted the onerous responsibility of following in the ancient footsteps of the Filí and Bards who had gone before him.
Water is, of course, a vital element and it has to be understood by the modern reader that in Ireland even in the 1950’s, houses, especially in rural areas, did not have water on tap as they do today. Instead, water for daily household use was still being drawn by bucket from communal wells in each locality. Therefore, it is no surprise that the person who could locate the presence of water in such springs and wells would be given great recognition and elevated status in the community.
Heaney speaks of this in some of his early poetry in such poems as ‘Personal Helicon’ and ‘Sunlight’. In ‘Sunlight’, one of two poems dedicated to his Aunt Mary’s home place in Mossbawn, he speaks of the ‘helmeted pump in the yard’; this pump which was the centre of his boyhood universe, where ‘water honeyed in the slung bucket’. In ‘Personal Helicon’ he tells us that he is inspired by and attracted to the water in wells and springs. He tells us that as a child ‘they could not keep me from wells’. However, as an adult, it seems that this activity is frowned upon, so instead, he became a poet! In a beautiful concluding sentence, he says, ‘I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.’ There is a clear connection suggested here between the young Heaney’s activities and the older Heaney’s poetry.
The diviner in this poem is seen in the same light as his father and grandfather are in ‘Digging’. The diviner is exploring the hidden depths, the unexplored layers of landscape, seeking out water-bearing aquifers. This is similar to his father or grandfather toiling in the bog, ‘going down and down for the good turf’.
The jury is still out on whether it is even possible to divine the presence of water by holding a forked hazel stick in one’s hands! Scientists still seem to frown on the idea yet in Heaney’s home place of South Derry there would have been one or two men with this innate power, just as there would have been a person who had a cure for burns or had the ability to fix a bad back or rid a person of warts. These cures or remedies had been handed down through the generations from father to son, from mother to daughter. Heaney has realised that he too has a rare gift and he normalises his own talent as a poet by comparing it to those with rare gifts in his own rural community.
The diviner described here was a real expert and he put on a performance for the onlookers present. His actions were ceremonial, just like a priest at the altar on Sunday – he refers to the diviner ‘Circling the terrain’. The poet creates a mood of tension as the ritual performance commences; words like ‘tight’, ‘hunting’, ‘pluck’, ‘nervous’, sharp’, ‘sting’, ‘jerked’, ‘convulsions’, convey tension, urgency, doubt, and expectation in the reader. The tone of the final stanza is far more relaxed and of course, this is because the diviner has been successful in his quest for water and so he ‘nonchalantly’ grips the ‘expectant’ wrists of those who have asked to have a turn and see if the hazel stick will work for them.
Notice the poet’s clever use of the word ‘nervous’ here in stanza one. He is referring to the fact that our nervous system carries messages to the brain – but here it is the diviner who is the path along which the message from the underground water will be carried.
The poet tries to demystify the work of the diviner by using the analogy of a radio signal picking up foreign radio stations as one turned the dial on the old cumbersome radios that were a feature in many rural homes in the Fifties. The hazel stick is likened to ‘a green aerial’, which picks up the unseen signals the water gives off from underground caverns. We know the diviner has picked up the signal when Heaney says in the second stanza, ‘The rod jerked with precise convulsions’. This image of the water broadcasting its position presents us with the notion that the diviner is the receiver and interpreter of messages that ordinary mortals cannot experience or understand. In Heaney’s view, this is also an exact analogy with his work as a poet.
The word ‘convulsions’ suggests to me that the diviner is not in control of his movements and of course the fact that these ‘convulsions’, these involuntary movements, are visible to the bystanders adds to their sense of wonder and awe.
The style of the poem is very matter-of-fact – as if the poet is reporting for his local newspaper! There is also the subtle innuendo that it’s all some kind of hoax that is being perpetrated here by the diviner – that he is some kind of charlatan, pulling the wool over the eyes of his unsuspecting, gullible audience. These notions are finally dispelled and underlined by the final short sentence: ‘The hazel stirred’.
Another interesting feature of the poem that we need to explore is that we are not told what the diviner looks like. This helps the poet to create the feeling of awe and wonder. This is in marked contrast to other poems such as ‘The Forge’ and ‘Digging’, for example, where we are given little pen pictures, sometimes uncomplimentary, of his father and the blacksmith. In ‘Digging’ he looks down from his upstairs study window and sees his father digging in the flower garden: ‘I look down / Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds / Bends low’. In ‘The Forge’ he describes the blacksmith, Barney Devlin, in a very Chaucerian manner: ‘Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose, / He leans out on the jamb, …’. However, in ‘The Diviner’ he refrains from making any of these derogatory comments and therefore the mystique of the diviner is maintained right to the end.
The reason Heaney is drawn to these rural craftsmen and their various trades is that he is in awe of the power of the diviner, the turf-cutter, the ploughman, talents that he doesn’t possess but ones that he admires. In ‘Digging’ he tells us, ‘But I’ve no spade to follow men like them’. He is drawn to these people who divine for water, dig in gardens and plough the land and shoe horses because he wants to follow in their footsteps but in his own unique way.
In many ways, these poems, particularly the ones from the collection Death of a Naturalist, are efforts to pacify and appease worried parents who have suspicions that their young son is different. In this, his first collection, he is reassuring them that he’s not that different but that they will have to accept his choice of career: he will be a poet to be reckoned with, he will dig and plough and divine – but with his pen. Fittingly then, thirty or so years later, The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Seamus Heaney in 1995, “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past’.
For rose-moles all in stiple upon trout that swim;
Fresh–firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He father’s-forth whose beauty is past change:
The poem shows Hopkins at his innovative best. Everything is condensed, distilled, pared back to the bare essentials. His use of comma and semi-colon, compound words, alliteration and simile are examples of his craft. The poem packs a huge amount of detail and contrast and comparison into its ten short lines.
The theme of the poem is the gratitude he expresses to God for the variety and imperfection in Nature, in the implements used by man, for the lesser earthly things, for the two-tone things in life that add beauty by simply being different. He may also be pointing out that God is perfect in sharp contrast to all the imperfection seen on earth. Maybe the message is that variety is the spice of life!
The overall tone of the poem is one of praise and wonder – wonder at the variety and contrast to be seen everywhere in God’s creation. The word ‘pie’ is of Medieval Latin origin and here it means spotted, two-toned or striped. We still use the word today in words like magpie or piebald; someone is said to be pie-eyed drunk; we’ve all heard of pie in the sky; of course Simple Simon met a pieman going to the fair; and where would we be today without our pie charts? When dealing with Hopkins we need to give ourselves permission to think outside the box and there is even room to think of a pastry pie made of assorted fruits – mother’s award winning apple pie even!
The opening line introduces us straight away to the idea of variety and mixture with the word ‘dappled’ (streaked) and, from then on we are among things that have two aspects, the ‘couple-coloured’ are compared, by way of a simile, to a spotted (‘brinded’) cow. We have no problem with this comparison today because all our Irish cows are ‘couple-coloured’ anyway but this wasn’t always the case. The ‘rose-moles’ on the sides of the speckled trout are compared to the once fashionable moles applied to a woman’s cheeks to enhance her beauty. The sound of the word ‘dappled’ is echoed through the poem in words like ‘couple’, ‘stipple’, ‘tackle’, ‘fickle’, ‘freckled’, ‘adazzle’. Hopkins’ use of compound words like ‘fresh-firecoal’ and ‘chestnut-falls’ adds to the overall sense of compression in the poem. The coals of the fire are both red and black, and the windfall chestnuts are often mahogany and beige. The similarity between the coals and the chestnuts is classic Hopkins. Some of these innovative compound words are very unusual, but their very oddness helps the poet to convey the idea of diversity, variety and imperfection as well as adding freshness to the poem.
Hopkins then mentions the birds with their variety of feathers. He is ever the priest looking for good material for his Sunday homily and he once spoke of the sun, stars, birds and bees giving glory to God without their realising that they were doing so. Man can also give this glory to God and mean it. Perhaps he is contrasting and juxtaposing his own intentional praise of God in this poem with the finches instinctive song of praise.
Next we are given the beautiful patchwork quilt image of the landscape with its pastures, meadows, cornfields and ploughed fields. ‘Fold’ suggests a sheepfold, ‘fallow’ suggests land being rested after producing a crop and ‘plough’ suggests land newly tilled and ready for a new crop. It should be very easy for us today to imagine such a sight with our ever increasing use of aerial photography and the use of drones to take photographs from the air. Hopkins, on the other hand, seems to be suggesting that this is a God’s-eye view looking down on the things He has created.
In the fifth and sixth lines the poet is praising the work of man and here also there is an infinite variety in the different types of work performed by man and also a great variety in the implements he uses to carry out his various tasks. All these also give glory to God.
The final five lines are a masterclass in the compression of ideas: God creates all the varying contrasts in life, all things odd, original, spotted. We are then dramatically ordered by the poet to praise God for these things. ‘Fathers-forth’ is a strange compound word. To me this suggests and echoes the creation story in Genesis: God magically clicking his fingers and saying ‘Let there be light!’ ‘Counter’ means contrasting with what is usual, as in ‘counter argument’, ‘spare’ can mean both ‘scarce’ or ‘more than enough’ or ‘left over’. This is exactly what Hopkins is about here: he is trying to show us that there are contradictions within things (even in words). Hopkins uses great technique here in line 9 by placing these contrasting words together side by side without any connecting word or verb and also with his use of alliteration.
A FURTHER NOTE ON HOPKINS’S TECHNIQUE
Hopkins deliberately set out to be innovative and to create a new type of verse, and so he broke many of the accepted ‘rules’ of poetry – rules of grammar, the order of words in the sentence, making up his own words, especially compound words, and so on. In fact, to give further credence to the idea of compression used here, the poem actually reads like a ten line sonnet! His words and phrases are actions as well as sounds, ideas and images. He uses very few verbs and this is accommodated by his repeated use of the semi-colon. The words must be read with the ear and the body as well as the eye. He obviously feels what he sees. This is the challenge for us when we come to study any poem by Hopkins. In coming to our own interpretation of the poem we must not forget the music, and his appeal to our sense of sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell.
Hopkins has been called ‘the poet of energy’. Notice the rush of words in the first three lines and then he pauses as he ticks off his ‘shopping list’ as it were: ‘fold, fallow and plough; / And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim’. The energy is also made possible by the scarcity of verbs and by his use of alliteration. In his great poem, ‘God’s Grandeur’, he says that the earth and all things in it are ‘charged’ with God (like a battery – and long before they were even invented!). This poem, too, like many others is full of God – it is, in fact, a prayer, a spiritual meditation.
As I said earlier the poem reads like a shortened sonnet and Hopkins called it a ‘Curtal Sonnet’ (curtailed). There are only ten and a half lines instead of the usual fourteen lines and unlike the usual sonnet, which is concerned with the number of syllables, Hopkins here is only concerned with stressed syllables. Therefore, in this poem, there are five stressed syllables to each line, with two in the final line. This, however, is just something for you to know; don’t let it interfere with your enjoyment or reaction to the poem.
A more comprehensive analysis of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins is available here