Tag Archives: Poetry

‘Morning in the burned house’ by Margaret Atwood

In the burned house I am eating breakfast.
You understand: there is no house, there is no breakfast,
yet here I am.

The spoon which was melted scrapes against
the bowl which was melted also.
No one else is around.

Where have they gone to, brother and sister,
mother and father? Off along the shore,
perhaps. Their clothes are still on the hangers,

their dishes piled beside the sink,
which is beside the woodstove
with its grate and sooty kettle,

every detail clear,
tin cup and rippled mirror.
The day is bright and songless,

the lake is blue, the forest watchful.
In the east a bank of cloud
rises up silently like dark bread.

I can see the swirls in the oilcloth,
I can see the flaws in the glass,
those flares where the sun hits them.

I can’t see my own arms and legs
or know if this is a trap or blessing,
finding myself back here, where everything

in this house has long been over,
kettle and mirror, spoon and bowl,
including my own body,

including the body I had then,
including the body I have now
as I sit at this morning table, alone and happy,

bare child’s feet on the scorched floorboards
(I can almost see)
in my burning clothes, the thin green shorts

and grubby yellow T-shirt
holding my cindery, non-existent,
radiant flesh. Incandescent.

This poem fascinates me with its treatment of subject-matter that Atwood often visits in her poetry: grief and loss of innocence.

I feel that this piece is exploring the dizzying, almost out-of-body sensation that grief can inject us with. For me, the grief in this poem can and should be interpreted according to the reader. There seems to be room in this poem for grief for the self (that is to say, grief for lost innocence – the child that one once was) or grief for a loved one (particularly a for parent, I think). Of course, these two sorts of grief are in a sense inseparable, and can certainly intertwine.

The opening of this poem is immediately intriguing: “In the burned house I am eating breakfast./ You understand: there is no house, there is no breakfast”. I find these lines extremely clever, extremely telling. From the very outset of the piece, the poet is admitting to us that she is a liar, or that she is in denial of her reality. There is something so appealingly confiding, almost intimate in that “You understand”. Atwood seems to be saying: ‘you are like me; you are in denial, too’.  The image of the burned house seems to me to be symbolic of the ruins of a conventional family life, childhood, innocence and stability. The burned house is such a violent image, and it leads me to imagine a brutal loss of innocence via some kind of trauma, or else the sudden loss of a parent or close family member.

The words, “yet here I am” are so incredibly sad. For me, this line evokes the way in which human nature clings to its own innocence, and to love, with all its might. We cannot help ourselves. Even though the house has burned down, the speaker in the poem attempts to retrieve some remnants of normality and stability; here she is, “eating [her non-existent] breakfast”. Breakfast is a very cleverly chosen meal here – it smacks of  all that one connects with a healthy, disciplined, ‘correct’ lifestyle, as one’s sensible mother and grandmother would encourage. Even after the fire – even her home and all the furniture of stability has been destroyed – the speaker seeks normality; safety is seemingly being sought in the memory of what was once good.

As the poem continues, the speaker wonders where her family has gone – her mother and father, her brother and sister. She speculates hopefully about this,  surely inspired by her former life in happy innocence: “Off along the shore,/ perhaps. Their clothes are still on the hangers”. Although it is clearly not the case as she sits among the ruins of the burned house, the speaker imagines that her family has simply gone for a walk along the beach, and that they will be back soon. The image of the clothes on the hangers, and the dishes piled up by the sink to be washed up, is highly evocative of a house after its occupant has died without warning; nothing in the house was prepared for the sudden departure, and everything is waiting for its owner to return, as thought they had just stepped out for a short walk.

The poet describes the day as “bright and songless”. For me, these words really help to depict the sense of stark grief that haunts the poem – the desolation of absence under the spotlight of a clear morning. The line, “In the east a bank of cloud/ rises up silently like dark bread” again shows the speaker’s need for the language of her former life to describe her desolate reality; in the east, where the the sun should be rising, heralding a new day, there is a bank of cloud rising “like dark bread”. The image of bread rising is clearly inspired by traditional domestic life and possibly the kind of activity that a child might share with her mother in an idyllic childhood – baking bread.

“I can’t see my own arms and legs/ or know if this is a trap or blessing” writes Atwood. I feel that here the idea of a physical loss of innocence is strongly evoked, since the speaker refers to her own body. She is telling us that she has now become estranged or detached from her body, and that she doesn’t understand if this situation is a “trap or blessing”. There is clear confusion here.

The poet can see nothing of herself: “including my own body,/ including the body I had then,/ including the body I have now/ as I sit at this morning table, alone and happy”. The all-purging fire has apparently consumed her entire body. Did she die in the fire, too? Is she a ghost? She seems unsure. Here the speaker acknowledges how radical the change that her loss has had on her – it is a physical loss: she speaks about the body she had before the loss, and the body she had after the loss.

In the final two stanzas Atwood continues with her evocation of physical loss, and the ambiguity about whether or not she has survived the fire continues to linger. We are delivered the image of her “bare child’s feet on the scorched floorboards/ (I can almost see)/ in my burning clothes”. Here we are clearly being delivered the sense that the speaker remains innocent before the loss she has suffered (she has “bare child’s feet” that stand innocently upon the scorched floorboards). Does she remain innocent because she has been burned – destroyed – by the fire? Again, we may ask, is she a ghost? I love the final image of that “grubby yellow T-shirt/ holding my cindery, non-existent,/ radiant flesh. Incandescent.” What an outstanding ending to the poem. I detect some sense of triumph on the part of the speaker (who had appeared before as the ‘victim’). She is “non-existent” – she has been consumed by the fire that has burned the house down, but she is “Incandescent” – rising above the destruction, as it were. She is in fact radiant in her preserved innocence that has apparently been distilled by the murderous flames that burned the house down.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Who Has Seen The Wind?’ by Christina Rossetti

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you.
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I.
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.

I love the singing simplicity of this piece. Rossetti employs her usual chanting, prayer-like tone to express the wonder she feels for the unseen forces of this world.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Especially when the October wind,’ by Dylan Thomas

Especially when the October wind
With frosty fingers punishes my hair,
Caught by the crabbing sun I walk on fire
And cast a shadow crab upon the land,
By the sea’s side, hearing the noise of birds,
Hearing the raven cough in winter sticks,
My busy heart who shudders as she talks
Sheds the syllabic blood and drains her words.

Shut, too, in a tower of words, I mark
On the horizon walking like the trees
The wordy shapes of women, and the rows
Of the star-gestured children in the park.
Some let me make you of the vowelled beeches,
Some of the oaken voices, from the roots
Of many a thorny shire tell you notes,
Some let me make you of the water’s speeches.

Behind a pot of ferns the wagging clock
Tells me the hour’s word, the neural meaning
Flies on the shafted disk, declaims the morning
And tells the windy weather in the cock.
Some let me make you of the meadow’s signs;
The signal grass that tells me all I know
Breaks with the wormy winter through the eye.
Some let me tell you of the raven’s sins.

Especially when the October wind
(Some let me make you of autumnal spells,
The spider-tongued, and the loud hill of Wales)
With fists of turnips punishes the land,
Some let me make you of the heartless words.
The heart is drained that, spelling in the scurry
Of chemic blood, warned of the coming fury.
By the sea’s side hear the dark-vowelled birds.

I’d wanted to squeeze this one in while we were still in the month of October, but I didn’t quite make it in time! Nevermind; this is my belated final October post.

Dylan Thomas is one of those rare and extraordinary poets whose music can entrance and satisfy the reader even before understanding the significance of his words. That was certainly the case for me with this particular poem, whose rhythm and texture of sound were what initially mesmerised me; I had to read it through several times before really getting to grips with its full import (for me). It is a complex piece, and I find it difficult, but personally it speaks to me about poetry, and the process of writing it.

In the first verse, a fiercely evocative image of autumn is delivered; the wind “punishes” the speaker’s hair with “frosty fingers”, and he “walk[s] on fire”. I love this idea of the poet walking on fire (it brings to mind the fiery colours of the autumn leaves creating a carpet underfoot and paints a gorgeous contrast with the “frosty fingers” of the wind). I think that through this opening the poet is telling us that especially when life is hard (“Especially when the October wind” is cruel and “punishes” his vanity) he finds the greatest strength and inspiration; he walks “on fire”.

Thomas tells us that he hears the “raven cough in winter sticks”. I adore this description of the autumnal trees (that are shedding their leaves) as winter sticks. It is such a brutal, honest image. The speaker hears the raven’s “cough”. A cough is just an involuntary noise (the previous line mentions the “noise” of birds), but the sound greatly affects the poet’s “busy heart”. “As she talks” (notice it is the only the poet who can understand the language of the raven) his heart “shudders” and “Sheds the syllabic blood and drains her words.” The final line of this first stanza is such a exquisite description of the poetic process. The raven, a bird traditionally associated with sinister omens or happenings, inspires the poet – he “drains her words”, and they influence his own.

As we move into the second stanza, Dylan Thomas pursues his theme of language. As well as “shed[ing]…words” from the heart – as well as language/ poetry being a natural form of release for him – it now becomes apparent that language is also a kind of prison: “Shut, too, in a tower of words”. This is the eternal paradox of language: it is the great liberator, but also a great suppressor; there is so much it can say, yet so much it is unable to express. The barrier of language, or his devotion to poetry, isolates him.

Next, the speaker marks the “the wordy shapes of women”on the horizon, and the rows of “star-gestured children”. Dylan Thomas’ love-life, like that of many artists, was notoriously stormy and complicated. To me, these lines evoke the poet’s paradoxical fear and longing for a ‘normal’ romantic and family life. The women mentioned in this poem are mythical (they walk “like the trees”) and are constructed by language only (they are “wordy”). It seems that the poet is aware that they are constructs of his own mind and language.

“Some let me make you of the vowelled beeches”. I love this line, and something about it for me is so typically Dylan Thomas. I love the way it is repeated and reformulated throughout the remainder of the poem. I cannot decide whether he the “you” in this phrase is poetry or a woman. I suppose that it could be both, but I think that my initial instinct was that he is talking about poetry.

So, sometimes it is the “oaken voices” of the trees that inspire him to write; sometimes it is the “water’s speeches” that give him fuel for poetry. Nature gives him tools for creating his art. We can understand here that the speaker experiences the world intensely through language: even the water makes “speeches”.

The “wagging clock” is an unforgettable image. It evokes the persistence of time’s progress and that ever-present ticking. And even time is experienced through language, for the poet: the clock “tells me the hour’s word”, “declaims the morning” and “tells the windy weather in the cock”. It is the narrator of his life, even dictating the weather.

“Some let me tell you of the raven’s sins./ Especially when the October wind… With fists of turnips punishes the land”. I love how Thomas revisits the first line of the poem as we approach its close. The description of the turnips as “fists” is violent and evokes hard times, which Thomas would have known in  wartime Wales. I think it is interesting that the poet now situates himself specifically in “Wales”. He does not often make his poems so obviously personal.

As we come to very end of the piece, Thomas returns to the raven, and her “sins”: “The heart is drained that, spelling in the scurry/ Of chemic blood, warned of the coming fury./By the sea’s side hear the dark-vowelled birds.” What is he telling us, here? For me, I feel that there is something very mystical about these lines (the word “spelling” at once evokes magic, but also has the obvious association with writing). It think that Thomas is recognising the sometimes unfathomably mysterious nature of the poetic process. The raven’s heart is drained, for the poet has taken its ink. The “chemic” blood is transformative, alchemizing his poetry.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Autumn’ by Rainer Maria Rilke

The leaves are falling, falling as from far,
As if far gardens in the skies were dying;
They fall, and never seem to be denying.

And in the night the earth, a heavy ball,
Into a starless solitude must fall.
We all are falling.

My own hand no less
Than all things else; behold, it is in all.
Yet there is One who, utter gentleness,

Holds all this falling in
His hands to bless.

Below is the original German text for those of you who can understand it, and for those of you (like me) who can’t, but who would like to read it to catch a glimmer of Rilke’s original music.

Herbst


Die Blätter fallen, fallen wie von weit,
als welkten in den Himmeln ferne Gärten;
sie fallen mit verneinender Gebärde.

Und in den Nächten fällt die schwere
Erde
aus allen Sternen in die Einsamkeit.
Wir allen fallen.

Diese Hand da fällt.
Und sieh dir andre an: es ist in allen.
Und doch ist einer, welcher dieses

Fallen
undendlich sanft
in seinen Händen hält.

This poem is full of such beautiful, melancholic and autumnal images. I particularly love the line in the first verse, “As if far gardens in the skies were dying”. This image strikes me as so uniquely brilliant, and makes me eager to read more of Rilke’s work.

Autumn, uses the notion of “falling” throughout, mirroring, of course, the falling of the leaves and the dying of the year. The season of Autumn is often attached to a state or tone of melancholy, as it inevitably reminds us of the the seasons of our own lives winding down. This notion is expressed in a line so memorable here that I am sure I will be unable to forget it: “And in the night the earth, a heavy ball,/ Into a starless solitude must fall.” The idea of the earth being a heavy ball promotes the feeling that none of us are immune to the melancholy of the passing of time, and the “starless solitude” is just a perfect coupling to create a vision of the bleakness of the state of mind being described.

In his final lines, Rilke introduces hope to the poem – religious hope: “Yet there is One who… holds all this falling in his hands to bless.”

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Scholars’ by W.B. Yeats

Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.
All shuffle there; all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what other people think;
All know the man their neighbour knows.
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?

This poem from The Wild Swans at Coole means a great deal to me because it reminds us that poetry is an Art and a passion before it is anything else. In this piece, Yeats evokes the blinkered academic, furiously analysing – “edit[ing] and annotat[ing]” – the dry pages of tomes full of poetry that was “Rhymed out in love’s despair” by “Young men, tossing in their beds.” The Scholars is a spot-on, well-aimed jab at literary critics, but also a very pertinent comment on the nature of poetry.

I love the contrast between the bald heads – those “Old, learned, respectable bald heads” – and the young poets rhyming out “in love’s despair”. Notice how the scholars don’t seem to have bodies; they’re just heads. The “young men” are living their lives, and experiencing every moment of it intensely. Their writing is what Wordsworth described as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. The way the scholars are described as annotating and editing suggests they manipulate the verse to fit their purpose (which critics often do).

“All shuffle… all cough in ink”, Yeats tells us. The shuffling certainly amplifies this idea of quiet living – blinkered living – and the coughing brings to my mind a person that almost ignores the needs of his body because he is so deeply buried in his books. “All think what other people think”; these scholars seem to be dictated to by tradition, and pressure about what is the ‘right’ literature to venerate.

When we come to the end of the piece, Yeats poses us a question: “Lord, what would they say/ Did their Catullus walk that way?” I like this very neat ending. If Catullus (a Roman poet, known for his love poems) had been as dry, as hermit-like, and as studious as Yeats’ scholars, what on earth would his poetry have been like? Without experience – without a life – without at least some kind of passion – a poet is nothing, because it is in moments of intense emotion that poems are ‘born’, even if they are completed and polished in a calmer state (or “in tranquility” to quote Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads again).

As you can probably tell from this blog, I kind of like literary criticism. I love to read about writers and their techniques; I love to take a poem and really get to grips with it and work out how and why it’s such a marvel because I love poetry. But The Scholars reminds us that the greatest literary theorist cannot necessarily write a poem, and the greatest poets need not by any means be academics. On the contrary; the poet is an artist. Yeats certainly was.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Morning Song’ by Sylvia Plath

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

Here I am, writing about Sylvia Plath again. Every time I return to her ‘Ariel’ poems, I am newly astounded; the poems are so unique, challenging and rewarding. ‘Morning Song’ is the first poem in that collection, and describes a mother waking in the night to tend to her crying baby. As a mother of two, Plath is surely writing about her own child, her own experience.

The opening line is killer: “Love set you going like a fat gold watch.” From the outset, it is clear that Time is to be a prominent theme here. Plath likens her child’s birth to the winding of a watch. The implication here is of course that the watch must eventually wind down, stop; her child will ultimately die. There is a strong awareness throughout the poem that this baby is on its own life course – that it occupies Time in a space separate from the mother. Plath recognises this in the second verse as she describes the child as a “New/ statue./ In a drafty museum”. A new statue that will receive its own stains, chips and cracks. Mother, father and midwife become mere “walls”, eclipsed by the new life that has just become the most important thing in the world.

Plath develops this notion of separation in the third, magisterial stanza: “I’m no more your mother/ Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own/ Slow effacement at the wind’s hand”.  What a statement; this is Plath at her enigmatic, economical finest. The poet is poignantly aware that her child is a separate entity, and she sees her own mortality reflected in that life.

I love the description in the fifth verse of the mother stumbling from bed at the baby’s cry, “cow-heavy and floral/ In my Victorian nightgown”. Her description of herself here is decidedly unglamorous, dowdy and functional – the sole purpose of her existence now being to nurture and preserve the child. I do not want to dwell on the idea too much, but I cannot help but notice an apparent parallel between her child and her poems, in the sense of one’s creation becoming an independent entity with its own agenda. Plath describes her approach to motherhood in much the same way as she seems to have approached her vocation as a poet. Sylvia Plath famously used to write in the very early hours of the morning, before dawn, while her children were asleep. Her self-sacrificing dedication to her craft was quite ‘motherly’ of her, and the poems are (aren’t they?) mysteriously out of a poet’s control once they are written, and seem to have their own life force…

The final lines of the poem are just perfect, and neatly conclude the poem with a sense that the child is beginning its own, separate journey of life. It tries its “handful of notes”, the “clear vowels” rising “like balloons”. This is a clear acknowledgement that the child has its own independent voice, will tell its own story and build its own future. Plath, the mother, is helpless to control that voice or that life. It is not within her power to censor it.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Why Do I Love” You, Sir?’ by Emily Dickinson

“Why do I love” You, Sir?
Because—
The Wind does not require the Grass
To answer—Wherefore when He pass
She cannot keep Her place.

Because He knows—and
Do not You—
And We know not—
Enough for Us
The Wisdom it be so—

The Lightning—never asked an Eye
Wherefore it shut—when He was by—
Because He knows it cannot speak—
And reasons not contained—
—Of Talk—
There be—preferred by Daintier Folk—

The Sunrise—Sire—compelleth Me—
Because He’s Sunrise—and I see—
Therefore—Then—
I love Thee—

This breathtakingly unique and original poem by Emily Dickinson expresses the notion that love cannot be explained (and cannot, must not be justified) by reason or logic. Dickinson was an incredibly innovative poet, ahead of her time; although she lived in the 1800s, the way she writes often reminds me of 20th century poet E.E. Cummings. This piece is a perfect example of that. Notice the way she uses syntax, and punctuation; the characteristic hyphens; all of this breathes uncommon ease and freedom of language.

I adore the opening stanza of this poem. The speech marks indicate the poet is responding to a question: “”Why do I love” You, Sir?” and then that touching, self-contained, almost childish answer: “Because”. A concrete answer is never given, though the simple “Because” is illustrated with examples taken from nature. For example, the wind does not ask the grass for an explanation when it “cannot keep her place” as he blows. “Because he knows”, says Dickinson — again, enigmatically. He knows, presumably, that the grass has no choice but to move as it is moved by the wind.

Another example given is that of the lightning, which “never asked an Eye/ Wherefore it shut – when he was by”. Because he knows the eye cannot speak. And in any case, the reason is “not contained of -/ – of Talk – “. There is no explanation that can be put into words for such a phenomenon.

I find the last verse very touching as the poet employs a final example to illustrate her love. “The Sunrise”, she tells us, wakes her “Because he’s Sunrise”. She is woken by the light, because it is light – because it is itself. “Therefore, then -/ I love Thee”. What a beautiful, simple expression of something that is beyond us.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘London’ by William Blake

I wandered through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.In every cry of every man,
In every infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear:How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.But most, through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born infant’s tear,
And blights with plagues the marriage-hearse.
I quoted this poem in my last post about Auden’s Their Lonely Betters, so I thought I would write about the whole piece. The phrase “mind-forged manacles” is one that I’ve never forgotten since I first read it. I think it must be inspired by Rousseau’s statement, “Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains”. It expresses beautifully the idea that it is man’s own mind that limits and emprisons him.
This poem describes the London that Blake (1757-1827) knew when he was alive. However, there is a timeless and universal truth to it. Blake begins by describing the “charter’d streets” and the “charter’d Thames”. That word “charter’d” gives a sense that everything is mapped out; that every stone is named and accounted for; that there is no room for mystery in the world anymore. This reminds me of Keats’ famous “Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings, unweave a rainbow”.
The tragedy of poverty, the hypocrisy of the Church and the injustice of the class system are all present in this poem. They are dissatisfactions that lead to revolution. The poet describes the chimney sweeper’s cry ‘appalling’ the Church, and this really gives us a sense that Blake perceived a jarring incompatibility between what the Church preached and how it treated the many impoverished of the city. The “hapless Soldier”‘s blood running down Palace walls also amplifies the notion of injustice…
Most noticeable, according to Blake, is the “Harlot’s curse” blighting “with plagues the Marriage hearse”. This is really interesting to me, because the poet seems to consider society’s conventions surrounding Love as the most obvious contributors to human sorrow. It is true that Victorian mores really corseted women in particular with regard to marriage and having children. To call marriage a “hearse” is very extreme, and very dramatically effective, I think.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Their Lonely Betters’ by W.H. Auden

As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade
To all the noises that my garden made,
It seemed to me only proper that words
Should be withheld from vegetables and birds.

A robin with no Christian name ran through
The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,
And rustling flowers for some third party waited
To say which pairs, if any, should get mated.

Not one of them was capable of lying,
There was not one which knew that it was dying
Or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme
Assumed responsibility for time.

Let them leave language to their lonely betters
Who count some days and long for certain letters;
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
Words are for those with promises to keep.

Their Lonely Betters embodies everything I love about Auden’s work; it employs a traditional, rhyming form, but loses none of its poetic ease or beauty. For me, this shows the real mastery of Auden as a poet; nothing is ever forced, with his writing. He sweeps calmly and majestically through these four verses, ending on a neat and poignant final line that leaves you desperate to read the whole thing again.

The poem explores the differences between ‘natural’ beings in the garden – the “vegetables and birds” – and humans with all their artifice. I love the unassuming, understated opening. Auden expresses his feeling that words should be “withheld” from the creatures in his garden. It is as though he does not want to contaminate the innocence of nature with the ‘man-forged manacles‘ of language. He mentions the robin “with no Christian name”, singing its “Robin-Anthem which was all it knew”. This line reminded me of Mary Oliver’s The Kingfisher. In that poem, Oliver talks about the bird’s “rough and easy cry/ I couldn’t rouse out of my thoughtful body if my life depended on it”. It is the sound of pure instinct – the essence of life un-muddled by thought.

The mention of the birds mating, and how simple it is without the sometimes deceitful mask of language, adds a tint of bitterness to this poem. Auden’s love-life was rather rocky, and I get a sense of real pain in his expression of how language and its inclination for telling lies confuses natural instincts in this poem. We are forever questioning and imagining and longing for other places, other people; we are never content. Of course, this can be both a blessing and a curse.

In the third verse, Auden reminds us that not one of the birds in his garden is “capable of lying” or knows that it is “dying”. They have no awareness of their mortality, and they do not tell lies. Is there a link between these two facts? Do we lie – do we write fiction – because we know that we are dying? I am certain our impulse for storytelling comes partly from our awareness of death; we want to pass on memories, make sense of our lives and distract ourselves from reality. As Auden says, none of those birds could “with a rhythm or a rhyme” assume “responsibility for time”. I just love those two lines. I love the idea of poetry being an act of assuming responsibility for time. For that is, in a sense, what we do when we write poetry — we are playing God.

As we enter the final stanza, Auden says “Let them leave language to their lonely betters”. This sums up the whole poem, for me. The birds will keep their happy innocence, and their “lonely betters” – that’s us – will remain lonely, with our language – our craft of lying. Language – source of so much beauty and delight – makes us superior in so many ways to non-speaking animals. But it also complicates our lives intensely. It is through language that we betray and lie to each other; it is through language that misunderstandings arise and promises are broken. Perhaps this is because language is ultimately inadequate for expressing what we really mean.

The last two lines are unforgettable. The noises that we make when we “laugh or weep” are natural expressions of untempered emotion – they are the sounds we make when words fail us. When grief is too great, we weep, having no words to describe our pain. When we are in hysterics, we laugh, and for a moment we are relieved of thought. “Words are for those with promises to keep”. Auden ends the piece with a lovely rhyme, remarking that we need language because we communicate; we make promises; we bargain and negotiate with each other. Animals do not do this. This ending for me has a positive tint to it; it makes me feel like although language allows us to lie, and although we often break our promises and betray each other, I would rather the promises were made and the lies told, than for nothing to be said (or written) at all.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Childhood’ by Frances Cornford

I used to think that grown-up people chose
To have stiff backs and wrinkles round their nose,
And veins like small fat snakes on either hand,
On purpose to be grand.
Till through the banister I watched one day
My great-aunt Etty’s friend who was going away,
And how her onyx beads had come unstrung.
I saw her grope to find them as they rolled;
And then I knew that she was helplessly old,
As I was helplessly young.

This is a piece that really intrigues me because it manages to have both a childlike tone, and also one that is so spot-on in expressing the ‘helpless’ tragedy of old age. It evokes so beautifully the way that age defines us — both as a child, and as an elderly person.

Phrases like “grown-up people” and the notion of people getting “stiff backs” and  veiny hands “on purpose to be grand” ensure that the poet’s voice retains a childish element. We can all remember thinking things like this of ‘grown-ups’ when we were children; age limits the child’s understanding and empathy due to lack of experience.

The speaker describes her “great-aunt Etty’s friend” who’s beads have “come unstrung” and who gropes around to find them “as they rolled”. What a poignant image. The word ‘unstrung’ is carefully chosen – it delivers the notion of a life unravelling… It is an important moment in a child’s life, when they first realise the limitations and failings of adults – and when they first become conscious of their own mortality.

I’m sure everyone can relate to the feeling you get when you witness helpless old age, or helpless frailty. It does something to you because you are watching somebody suffer, but also because you are being faced with a weakness that you know is within you also, and that is hard to admit.

I think the word “helpless” is perfect in this situation. The old lady, great-aunt Etty is “helplessly old” and the speaker is “helplessly young”. Etty is limited by her frail body in her movements, and the speaker is limited in her empathy and understanding by her youth.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh