Tag Archives: m

‘Napoleon’ by Walter de la Mare

‘What is the world, O soldiers?
It is I:
I, this incessant snow,
This northern sky;
Soldiers, this solitude
Through which we go
Is I.’

I love Walter de la Mare for his capacity to conjure such startling images with clear, plain language. There is also, I think, a greatly musical quality to his poems, and Napoleon is full of all the lyrical simplicity that I admire so much about this poet’s work.

This poem seems to me to be a exquisite expression of the loneliness that can surround power and aggression. The mention of the “incessant snow” and the “northern sky” put me in mind of Napoleon’s Russian campaign, which led to his downfall and ultimate exile. The imagery in the poem evokes the disastrous Russian winter (the best weapon against invaders) and the Russian tactic of continuous retreat (each time Napoleon and his troops advanced, they met with only deserted, burnt land). The Russians burnt the land to prevent Napoleon from feeding his soldiers (he had anticipated a relatively short campaign), and this eventually forced Napoleon’s greatly diminished Grande Armee to retreat.

For me, these images deliver the idea of the ego’s aggression being met with icy (and an ultimately more powerful) silence. Napoleon’s pursuit of empire through war and conquest is a perfect example of the force and violence of the ego (the poem is certainly not a condemnation of Napoleon in particular, but rather uses him as an example for all those who seek power through aggression or conquest). In the end, nature, in the form of the Russian climate, dealt with Napoleon; the Russians did not have to. I think this is such a powerful image, and one that I think de la Mare captures beautifully in this short poem.

The speaker (Napoleon) begins with a question for his men; “What is the world?” he asks. Of course, he does not wait for their response, but answers himself: “It is I”. There is such clear confidence in this answer, and this seems perfectly befitting of the power-crazed, arrogant character that has been ascribed to Napoleon.

De la Mare’s Napoleon is a wonderfully dramatic piece. It seems to capture the legendary quality of the man, with its grand, heroic tone, but it also illustrates the way in which ego and violence will always reach a point of burning out, or a point where there is no one left to conquer. I think the image of the “incessant snow” is a beautifully poignant one. I just imagine Napoleon staring into the silence of the snow falling — deserted, and the ground burned — and realising that there was nobody there to fight. Violence is a force that must be spent, apparently, but once it is spent; once you have slaughtered and fought and conquered — however much ground or wealth you may have gained — you still have to face the deafening silence and the emptiness of the world you have created.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Education for Leisure’ by Carol Ann Duffy

Today I am going to kill something. Anything.
I have had enough of being ignored and today
I am going to play God. It is an ordinary day,
a sort of grey with boredom stirring in the streets.

I squash a fly against the window with my thumb.
We did that at school. Shakespeare. It was in
another language and now the fly is in another language.
I breathe out talent on the glass to write my name.

I am a genius. I could be anything at all, with half
the chance. But today I am going to change the world.
Something’s world. The cat avoids me. The cat
knows I am a genius, and has hidden itself.

I pour the goldfish down the bog. I pull the chain.
I see that it is good. The budgie is panicking.
Once a fortnight, I walk the two miles into town
for signing on. They don’t appreciate my autograph.

There is nothing left to kill. I dial the radio
and tell the man he’s talking to a superstar.
He cuts me off. I get our bread-knife and go out.
The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.

This is from Carol Ann Duffy’s 1985 collection, Standing Female Nude. Blake’s poem, The Fly, from yesterday, reminded me of this because Duffy’s poem also has a reference to that line from King Lear (“As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods/ They kill us for their sport.”)

Education for Leisure is written from the point of view of a young person, who has presumably left school and is on unemployment benefit (every fortnight, he goes into town for “signing on”). I find the speaker’s voice at once frightening and heartbreaking; I can see that this person is capable of doing terrible things (he squashes a fly with his thumb, he wants to kill the cat, and he flushes the goldfish “down the bog”) and yet his voice also seems to contain hues of a wounded child, with lines like “I have had enough of being ignored”, and the bit about Shakespeare being “in another language”.

An obviously frightening aspect to this character is that he is clearly deluded and probably a psychopath. He begins with the statement, “Today I am going to kill something. Anything.” This person is destructive, angry, and desperate. But why does he feel this need to “kill”? Why does he want to “play God”? I think one reason is that he is afflicted by “boredom”, which seems to be a result of his neglectful education. The other reason, I think, is a need to take control of a life that seems so far beyond his power to change.

The second stanza is the one that breaks my heart the most. He squashes and kills a fly with his thumb, remembering Shakespeare’s King Lear from school. “It was in/ another language and now the fly is in another language”, he says. The speaker is extremely bitter about not having understood things at school, and perhaps not being given enough attention or time to improve himself. He feels like a victim, with no control over his future. So, as revenge, he imposes the same thing on the fly.

The speaker tries to convince himself that he is worth something more than he has apparently been told. “I breathe out talent,” he writes; “I am a genius”. He wants to change the world — “Something’s world”. He knows that the only power his has is physical, violent power, and so the only way he can change the world is to destroy it. The poem follows his desperate search for something “to kill”. The cat hides from him, flushing the goldfish is not enough, the budgie is “panicking”, but that is not enough, either.

This person, like all of us, wants to be heard, to be listened to. He is seeking approval and human contact just as any of us. I think this is also why he phones up “the radio” in the final stanza, and tells the man “he’s talking to a superstar.” The man cuts him off. This is yet another blow for the speaker, who told us from the start that he has “had enough of being ignored”. Since nobody takes notice of him, he moves on to hurting people. The poem ends with the ominous line, “I touch your arm.”

I think the final line to this poem is brilliantly clever. If we do not care about the  speaker by this stage of the poem; if we are still thinking to ourselves, ‘this person has nothing to do with me’, well, he now turns on and actively addresses the reader. The speaker in this poem is an example of a very real problem (though it was written in Thatcher’s Britain, I believe it is still very relevant), and I think it is very dangerous to ignore him.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Not waving but drowning’ by Stevie Smith

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

I admit this is the only poem by Stevie Smith I have ever read. But I always liked it. I think it is easy to relate to. It talks about something that I think we all understand: that there are great — often catastrophic — distances between what we say and what people understand, and between what we mean to say and what we actually express.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh