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.
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.
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. Continue reading ‘Childhood’ by Frances Cornford→
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us, we could not return? If equal affection cannot be, Let the more loving one be me.
Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.
Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.
I’ve been a little obsessed with Auden lately (even if I haven’t been writing blog posts about poetry, I’ve still been reading!)
This piece is one of my favourites. It’s so unusual, touching, and deals with something that Auden experienced very painfully in his own life – unrequited love. In The More Loving One, Auden develops a beautiful metaphor of the stars as people, or lovers. I also feel that this poem might be about religious faith, which Auden struggled with throughout his life – abandoning it through many of his younger years, and returning to it in old age.
I particularly love the opening to this poem. I love the way that the first line could easily lead on to a cliched second line, but that it doesn’t. Instead, Auden, contemplating the stars, affirms that – for all they care – “I can go to hell”. I love that blunt phrasing. He goes on to remark that indifference is not the worst thing in the world; there exist reactions we ought to fear far more.
The second verse poses the question, “how would we like it” if the stars burned with a love for us that we couldn’t reciprocate? What would it be like to be loved so intensely by someone we could not love? Which side is more painful in unrequited love? Auden tells us his choice through what I think are the ‘star lines’ of the poem: “If equal affection cannot be/ Let the more loving one be me“. I wonder whether Auden choses to be “the more loving one” because it is the less painful option, or because he cannot bear for the one he loves to suffer as he does.
Of course, if you read this as a poem about religious faith, this second verse suggests that Auden would rather keep his faith and love for God, even if it is completely in vain. Even if heaven doesn’t care, or doesn’t exist, he would still prefer to be the ardent lover – the one that feels, rather than the one that is cold.
As much as he admires “stars that do not give a damn”, the poet tells us in the penultimate stanza, he can’t say that he missed one all day. During the daytime there is the sun, and all of nature to admire and love. In romantic terms, I think Auden is trying to convince himself (not very successfully) that there are ‘plenty more fish in the sea’. In religious terms, I think he’s just saying that it’s easy for him to forget God during the times when he is happy or involved.
The final verse contemplates a scenario where all the stars have disappeared or died. Faced with this eventuality, Auden informs us that he would “learn to look at an empty sky/ And feel its total dark sublime”. However, that “might take me a little time.” Auden seems unsure whether he could learn to appreciate a life without the one he loves so much, yet who does not return his love. It would take time, and much effort. The same goes for a world without God.
As always with Auden, this poem is a masterful exploration of ideas that can and will be read in many different ways. He gifts us an emotional honesty that I find incredibly touching.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
This is probably Maya Angelou’s best-known poem, and for good reason. It is a wonderfully defiant, human, uplifting cry from the deep heart of America, which tells a story that I’m sure speaks to us all.
The poem roots itself in the history of the African-American people, with it’s talk of slavery, and that gorgeous image of the “black ocean, leaping and wide” — such a powerful metaphor for overcoming oppression. But the poem’s scope is not limited to one people; it speaks of the universal notion of the defiance of the downtrodden. Angelou’s voice is resounding and sensually rhythmic, and carries so beautifully her message of strength and positivity.
Still I rise contains so many images that I love. In the first stanza, Angelou writes that although she may be trod into the very dirt, she will still rise like dust (“like dust, I’ll rise”). This idea, coupled with the soulful rhythm, creates a palpable atmosphere of unstoppable defiance. The dust rising, for me, delivers the image of a ghost — perhaps even the ghosts of slaves — that no oppressor or murderer can escape.
The recurring questions in the piece are brilliantly provocative: “Does my sassiness upset you?” “Does my haughtiness offend you?” and “Does my sexiness offend you?” she asks. I love this. It seems to overcome sexism and the oppression of women in particular. This is something that Maya Angelou overcame in her own life, and she speaks with such inspiring strength here. Another phrase that gives a great symbol bash to all of that is “Does it come as a surprise/ That I dance/ Like I’ve got diamonds/ At the meeting of my thighs?” This gives me goosebumps every time I read it. By specifically talking about the “meeting of [her] thighs” Angelou gives the ultimate defiance of a woman; she owns and loves every part of herself, and rises up, dazzling and sexy.
Another couple of images I love, and that I want to talk about, are the “oil wells” and the “gold mines” mentioned in the second and fifth stanzas. The poet writes that she walks “like I’ve got oil wells/ Pumping in my living room” and that she laughs “like I’ve got gold mines/ Diggin’ in my own back yard”. Again, her defiance is brilliant. Though her oppressors might think they have ended her by subjecting her to poverty, still, she walks like she has all the wealth in the world. I love the tone, here. It’s as though she knows her oppressors are so materialistic and mercenary, that the only way they can describe her joy and sexiness is to say she looks like she has a lot of money. The images of the oil wells “pumping” and the gold mines “Diggin’” are so strongly evocative; I just love it.
Here is a video of Maya Angelou reading Still I Rise. She has the most incredible voice and presence.
And here is another video I found on Youtube that I just had to share. This is Maya Angelou’s talking about how “love liberates”. I think she’s such an amazing and inspiring human being!
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.
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
‘What is the world, O soldiers?
It is I:
I, this incessant snow,
This northern sky;
Soldiers, this solitude
Through which we go
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.
When all’s said, and done,
if civilisation drowns
the last colour to go
will be gold –
the light on a glass,
the prow of a gondola,
the name on a rosewood piano
as silence engulfs it.
And first to return
to a waterlogged world,
the rivers slipping out to sea,
the cities steaming,
will be gold,
one dip from Bellini’s brush,
feathers of angels, Cinquecente nativities,
and all that follows.