Tag Archives: poetry analysis

‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ (Wilfred Owen)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.

Sticking with the Remembrance Day theme, here is (probably!) the best war poem ever written.

Dulce et Decorum Est is a Latin phrase taken form an ode by Horace, and it means “It is sweet and honourable to die for your country.” Of course, in Owen’s poem the title is used ironically, and goes against all that Charge of the Light-Brigade kind of rhetoric that was so prevalent before the First World War.

This poem absolutely floored me the first time I read it as a teenager. I had never really thought about war in this way — on a personal, human level. I almost don’t know what to say about it; the imagery is so graphic and shocking – and so strangely beautiful in its immense power – that it leaves me rather speechless.

As Owen said himself, “My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.”

I admire Owen so much, both for his courage as a man and soldier, and for his poetic genius. The more I’ve read about him over the years, the more I feel very connected to him. He spent time just before the war teaching English in France, near Bordeaux, and he was also determined from a young age to be a poet. He was very taken with Keats, and Romantic poetry, and it took much persuasion from his literary hero and mentor Siegfried Sassoon to get him to write about the war (the two met at Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland where Owen was being treated for shell-shock.)

Wilfred Owen wrote this poem while still at Craiglockhart. In the original manuscript, the poem was dedicated to “Jessie Pope, etc”. Jessie Pope wrote a lot of poetry full of propaganda to encourage men to enlist. Her poems are pretty boring, tame and infuriating creatures, with such nauseating lines as, “Who would much rather come back with a crutch/ Than lie low and be out of the fun?” I think Dulce Et Decorum Est very firmly slams a door on that kind of nonsense.

There is something incredibly touching to me about this young man — so earnest and determined to be a poet like Keats — being so utterly transformed by his experience of trench warfare, that through the trauma he finds his voice. And what a voice! He has really become the poet of the Great War, and I think it’s so tragic that he never knew the extent to which his poetry would be read and loved after his death in 1918.

This poem is as relevant today as it was in 1918. War has not changed, in its essence, and the gas attack described in this poem is certainly not a bygone phenomenon.

Owen wrote many very moving (and surprisingly detailed) letters to his mother from the trenches of northern France. I will end this post with an extract from one, written from a cold, dark cellar, just days before Wilfred Owen was killed:

Dearest Mother,So thick is the smoke in this cellar that I can hardly see by a candle 12 inches away. And so thick are the inmates that I can hardly write for pokes, nudges, and jolts. On my left, the company commander snores on a bench. It is a great life. I am more oblivious than the less, dear mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside and the hollow crashing of the shells. I hope you are as warm as I am, soothed in your room as I am here. I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here. There is no danger down here – or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Swan’ by Rainer Maria Rilke (Translated by Robert Bly)

This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.

And to die, which is the letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down
into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave,
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown,
more like a king, further and further on.

I am so sad that my German is non-existent, apart from the odd greeting or pleasantry. I would so love to be able to read and understand this poem in its original language, but for now Bly’s superb translation will have to do. Continue reading ‘The Swan’ by Rainer Maria Rilke (Translated by Robert Bly)

‘To a young girl’ by W. B. Yeats

MY dear, my dear, I know
More than another
What makes your heart beat so;
Not even your own mother
Can know it as I know,
Who broke my heart for her
When the wild thought,
That she denies
And has forgot,
Set all her blood astir
And glittered in her eyes.

I absolutely love this poem. It is from Yeats’ 1919 collection, The Wild Swans at Coole, which is amazing, and which contains most of my favourite of his works. I tend to prefer Yeats’ earlier work because I am more drawn to Romantic poetry than I am political poetry. I first read To a young girl when I was a teenager, and it felt to me at the time that Yeats was speaking directly to me, and that he understood me; I remember that feeling distinctly.

For me, this poem is the voice of the older, male poet to a young girl full of Romantic notions. When I was a teenager, I was more besotted with Yeats, Keats and the Bronte sisters than any of the spotty, obnoxious boys in my class! It is only for this reason, I think, that for me this poem was more about a young girl’s wild, Romantic, idealist ambitions fancying herself as a poet, rather than any romantic (with a small ‘r’) ideals of love. I love the way that this wise, worldly voice tells the young girl that he understands “What makes [her] heart beat so” — her Romantic ideas — her naivety? — and that though most adults might have forgotten how they were themselves in youth, he has never forgotten.

There was something very comforting in this poem for my teenage self, to feel that someone as erudite and successful (the absolute pinnacle of what success meant to me at the time) as Yeats could speak in this way to a young girl. It was a comfort to hear in this poem that he valued the “wild” spirit of youth and that idealism, because there is obvious disapproval of the older woman (“she broke [his] heart for her”) and “denies/ And has forgot”. There is the idea here that though youth can be naive and sometimes really cringe-worthy, it is something nevertheless precious and pure. Whenever I read over the poems I wrote as a teenager, many of them do make me cringe at my earnestness and naivety. However, I would never want to lose them and some part of me envies the girl who wrote them.

As always with Yeats, the language is exquisitely lyrical — especially those final two lines, I just love: “Set all her blood astir/ And glittered in her eyes”.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The good morrow’ by John Donne

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
‘Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a
dream of thee.

And now good morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to others, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one,
and is one.

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp North, without declining West?
Whatever dies was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike that none do slacken, none can die.

This is the first poem by John Donne that I have posted on this site, and it is a beautiful and spiritual love poem. Donne lived from 1572-1631 and is probably the most famous of the metaphysical poets.

The good morrow begins with the speaker reflecting on what his life was like “before we loved” — before he loved the woman to whom this poem is addressed. The answer to this question is that his life was meaningless, before her. He may have enjoyed “country pleasures” before, but these were merely physical, and “childish”. My favourite lines in the whole poem are at the end of this first stanza: “If every any beauty I did see,/ Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a/ Dream of thee”. Any love the poet thought he felt before her — any liaisons he may have had before he met her — they were “but a/ Dream of thee”. They were not real, and only a shadow of what love can be.

Stanza two goes on to describe how this woman has become the speaker’s entire world, and the spiritual bond that they enjoy together. Their souls are “waking” — coming alive — because of this love that has opened their eyes and filled them with joy. They have no “fear”, and their “little room” becomes “an everywhere”. They may spend their time cooped in one small room together, but being together in this space means that it is more than enough. Donne goes on to write that he no longer cares about sea farers discovering new worlds (as was literally happening in Donne’s day, as the Americas and other new lands were being discovered.) The discovery of new worlds means nothing to the speaker in this poem, for he possesses his own new world: his lady.

When we arrive at the final verse, Donne writes beautifully about seeing himself reflected in the eyes of his lover, and she in his: “My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears”. This third stanza fascinates me because there seems to be a desire for equality with his lover, which was perhaps unusual in Donne’s era. As he states, “Whatever dies was not mixed equally”. If the two love each other in equal measure then their love will not fade; “If our two loves be one, or, thou and I/ Love so alike than none do slacken, none can die”. I adore this ending to the piece, as it describes so beautifully how the spiritual marriage of minds and hearts can create an unbreakable bond of love.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Tay Moses’ by Kathleen Jamie

What can I fashion for you
but a woven creel of river-
rashes, a golden
oriole’s nest my gift
wrought from the Firth –

And choose my tide: either
the flow, when, watertight
you’ll drift to the uplands
my favourite hills, held safe
in eddies where salmon, wisdom
and guts withered in spawn,
rest between moves – that
slither of body as you were born –

or the ebb, when the water
will birl you to snag
on reeds, the river
pilot leaning over the side
Name o’ God!‘ and you’ll change hands:
tractor-man, grieve, farm-wife
who takes you into her
competent arms Continue reading ‘The Tay Moses’ by Kathleen Jamie

‘Nothing will die’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson

When will the stream be aweary of flowing
Under my eye?
When will the wind be aweary of blowing
Over the sky?
When will the clouds be aweary of fleeting?
When will the heart be aweary of beating?
And nature die?
Never, oh! never, nothing will die;
The stream flows,
The wind blows,
The cloud fleets,
The heart beats,
Nothing will die.

Nothing will die;
All things will change
Thro’ eternity.
‘Tis the world’s winter;
Autumn and summer
Are gone long ago;
Earth is dry to the centre,
But spring, a new comer,
A spring rich and strange,
Shall make the winds blow
Round and round,
Thro’ and thro’,
Here and there,
Till the air
And the ground
Shall be fill’d with life anew.

The world was never made;
It will change, but it will not fade.
So let the wind range;
For even and morn
Ever will be
Thro’ eternity.
Nothing was born;
Nothing will die;
All things will change.

This in an early poem by Tennyson, which appeared in his first book (Poems, chiefly lyrical) published in 1830. I like this poem, and the poem that will follow it tomorrow (the cheerfully titled, All things will die). I thought it was most appropriate to post them consecutively because they seem to go together. They present entirely contrasting perspectives on the world and on existence, and I think it is really interesting to compare the two.

In this first poem, Nothing will die, the speaker seemingly believes in a world that is in constant motion, constant change, always going “Round and round,/ Thro’ and thro’”. The world depicted is one where nature never tires of its cycles: “The stream flows,/ The wind blows,/ The cloud fleets,/ The heart beats,/ Nothing will die.” I love the way Tennyson uses this energetic rhythm here to reflect the rhythms of the natural world (I also love ‘fleet’ as a verb!) Life moves constantly through the seasons, always coming full circle to Spring, which fills it “with life anew”.

The defining statement in this poem, I think, is “The world was never made;/ It will change, but it will not fade.” This is a beautiful expression of the idea that if the world was never created/’born’ then it need not end; if something is born it must die, but if something simply exists, without being born or created, then it can be said to be eternal. Our notions of God (in most religions, I think) tell us that he is uncreated and can never die (i.e. he is eternal.) I like this idea of death not existing, but of it simply being a change, and part of a continual cycle.

I think that this poem could also be read as being a poem of denial – the voice of one so afraid of death that he tries to convince himself that ‘Nothing will die’. Read in this way, the rhythm of the poem seems feverish and frantic – a mantra to convince oneself of a fantasy. However, I don’t personally read it like that.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Chanson d’automne’ (‘Autumn Song’) by Paul Verlaine

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon coeur
D’une langueur
Monotone.

Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l’heure,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure

Et je m’en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m’emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.

 

Here is my translation of this autumnal poem by Verlaine:

The long sobs
Of violins
Of autumn
Wound my heart
With a monotonous
Languor.

All suffocating
And pale, when
The hour chimes,
I remember
The old days
And I weep.

And I go off
In the cold wind
Which carries me
Hither, thither,
As a
Dead leaf.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Do not go gentle’ by Dylan Thomas

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The poem “Do not go gentle” by Dylan Thomas was addressed to his father, who was going through all the hardships of old age and illnesses. Continue reading ‘Do not go gentle’ by Dylan Thomas

“O captain! My Captain!..” by Walt Whitman

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

Walt Whitman enriched American literature with his outstanding creative work; he broke the new ground in poetry. Whitman despised slavery and fought for the ideals of freedom and democracy. Continue reading “O captain! My Captain!..” by Walt Whitman