The Religious Poetry of T. S. Eliot (with a particular focus on ‘Journey of the Magi’ and ‘A Song for Simeon’)

isp_eliot_sketch_color
T.S. Eliot portrait by Baltimore Maryland artist Jerry Breen.

 

‘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. 

773777-6
Journey of the Magi by Graham Pope

‘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.

Ron-DiCianni-Simeons-Moment-Full
Simeon’s Moment by Ron DiCianni

 ‘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. 

 Works Cited

Eliot, T.S., “The Pensées of Pascal”, Selected Essays (3rd Edition), London: Faber and Faber, 1951.

 

Advertisements

The Poetry of Dylan Thomas

Dylan-thomas
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.

Dylan thomas (2)

 

 

 

 

 

The Early Poetry of Thomas Kinsella

thomas-kinsella (2)

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.

Kinsella (1)