Tag Archives: writing

“Nothing gold can stay” by Robert Frost

One of the most celebrated poets in the US, Robert Frost holds a unique position in American literature. He was awarded Pulitzer Prize four times – the result that no other man of letters has managed to achieve so far. It was partly due to his long and fruitful life (he died at the age of 88), but what actually mattered was his talent.

From a formal point of view, his poems follow the rules of metrical verse. What make them unique are the reflections concerning New England, its nature and all those things that unite people living there. However, the matter of uttermost importance for the author was philosophy, namely the essential and universal problems of human existence.

At first glance, “Nothing gold can stay” seems just another poem about autumnal nature. Yet even the rather common metaphor comparing fall to the decline of human life is not a chance one, it conveys a personal message. This message is connected with Frost’s own life.

During his long life the poet went through a series of losses: he lost his wife, whom he loved dearly, as well as his four children. Frost’s son decided to take his own life when the Second World War started. Being aware of these facts you become capable of feeling all the tragedy behind the words “Nothing gold can stay”.

The line “Nothing gold can stay” could be considered a response to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65.

“Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of batt’ring days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! Where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold this swift foot back,
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?”.

Robert Frost is universally accepted as America’s national poet and the world’s greatest poet of the 20th century. Why not any other talented poet (there were a lot of them in the previous century)? Why not any other man of letters who wrote about philosophical problems connected with the everyday life?

Time gives the answers to all these questions. The thorough research of Robert Frost’s poetry reveals a whole lot of new messages. Similar to Walt Whitman, he alluded to the Bible and to classic literature. Yet he named mowing and chopping wood among the things he loved to do, in addition to writing poems. He called his poetry a dream, creating the future. Neither contemplating nor prophesying, but creating.

And yet the author writes: “So Eden sank to grief”. This line is connected with his biography. His first marriage was not easy: initially, the woman he loved did not accept his marriage proposal (and this even led him to a suicide attempt), their first baby died. The woman with whom he fell in love with late in his life, refused to marry him, as she was married and loved her husband.

Reviewed by Katerina Sidoruk

‘If strangers meet’ by E.E. Cummings

If strangers meet
life begins-
not poor not rich
(only aware)
kind neither
nor cruel
(only complete)
i not not you
not possible;
only truthful
-truthfully, once
if strangers(who
deep our most are
selves)touch:
forever
(and so to dark)

 

I love this poem because of the way it describes a chance meeting between two people, and the connection that can be made between strangers. This poem always makes me think of strangers on a bus, or on a train; it makes me think of the recognition we can find in a chance glance exchanged — the innocence that exists in that moment — before we know anything about the person — before judgement can interfere.

You could also read the poem as showing us a sort of “love at first sight” moment, which is truly touching. In the moment the strangers’ eyes meet, their owners are no longer “poor, not rich/ (only aware)”. The self has been forgotten and each person is only aware of the other and nothing else. The strangers, in this moment, are neither “kind” nor “cruel” but “only complete”. This part is so beautiful because it delivers the idea of how, when we connect with strangers (on a bus for example) we recognise instinctively — in the split second before all our baggage and judgement and personality interferes — a fellow spirit and inhabitant of this world.

The fleetingness and sense of chance that pervades the poem (note the title: “If strangers meet”) reminds us of the rarity of humanity recognising itself in others. It might only happen “once”. But when strangers, “who/deep our most are/ selves” — who are the same as us, at the core — “touch”, then it is “forever”. There is something divine in this recognition that makes it eternal.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with wornout tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!

I’m not a great reader of Kipling but, of course, probably like the majority of us, this is the poem I most connect him with. ‘If’ is such a bolstering and wise poem about staying true to yourself and your beliefs and values. Joni Mitchell wrote a beautiful song that set this poem to music which I really love, too (it’s in her album ‘Shine’).

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘That sanity be kept’ by Dylan Thomas

That sanity be kept I sit at open windows,
Regard the sky, make unobtrusive comment on the moon,
Sit at open windows in my shirt,
And let the traffic pass, the signals shine,
The engines run, the brass bands keep in tune,
For sanity must be preserved

Thinking of death, I sit and watch the park
Where children play in all their innocence,
And matrons on the littered grass
Absorb the daily sun.

The sweet suburban music from a hundred lawns
Comes softly to my ears. The English mowers mow and mow.

I mark the couples walking arm in arm,

Observe their smiles,

Sweet invitations and inventions,

See them lend love illustration
By gesture and grimace,
I watch them curiously, detect beneath the laughs
What stands for grief, a vague bewilderment
At things not turning right.

I sit at open windows in my shirt,
Observe, like some Jehova of the west
What passes by, that sanity be kept.

I loved this poem from the first time I read it, as a teenager. It is a poem I often come back to; I don’t think I ever open my Dylan Thomas book of poems without reading this one.

Its music is, of course, glorious, as with all Dylan Thomas’ poetry. For me, ‘That sanity be kept’ describes the complexity of the role of the poet beautifully. There is, near the end of the poem, a rather exaggeratedly grand description, as Thomas describes himself as a “Jehova of the west”. I find something ironic in the way Thomas describes himself in this way, when he is talking about preserving sanity… by describing himself as a sort of God makes himself sound a little bit delusional. But then, don’t you have to have a certain amount of ego to create poetry, or any form of art for that matter? And poets are God-like in the sense that they are creators. Poets create what Thomas loved to describe as his “craft”; they observe, describe, comment, philosophise, and, on occasion, prophesy.

There also seems to me to be in this poem a sense of ritual — of the religion of poetry. It is almost as though the speaker believes that, were he not to “sit at open windows” in his shirt, making “unobtrusive comment”, then the “traffic” would fail to circulate, that the “signals” would fail to “shine”, and the “brass bands” would fail to “keep in tune”. The writing of poetry becomes a sort of compulsive prayer. Thomas keeps leaving hints to reveal to us the complexity of his relationship to his craft, adding that, as he sits at his open window — that symbolic position of an observer, apart from the world — he is “Thinking of death”.

Another line in the poem that fascinates me is “The English mowers mow and mow”. Why the repetition of such a banal word? I think Dylan is showing us here how sometimes poetry is difficult, and that sometimes the world is dull, leaving him without inspiration (with Thomas, though, this phase is very short-lived.)

I love how the poet describes himself watching the couples “curiously”, watching them “lend love illustration”. This is a very interesting line to me because it seems to suggest that the speaker has only ever read about Love — not experienced it first-hand — and so what he observes in the couples walking “arm in arm” is simply an “illustration” of a theory… he “detect[s]” the meaning behind their behaviour from his high window. This is a very sad image of the poet — he is sort of doomed in his role of observer, apart from the real world. He can make only “unobtrusive comment”, which suggests that he cannot change things. He is a passive observer and commentator, rather than an actor in life’s continuation.

So, in this poem, the poet’s very complicated role is at once that of a passive observer and commentator, a creator with very grandiose (possibly deluded) ambitions or opinions of himself, and that of a sad person who does not connect with others, and who remains apart from the real world… Which is all quite negative and sad. But then I love the image of Thomas sitting at his window in his shirt because there’s something so romantic about it.

As a final thought, I love the idea of the poet doing what he does in order “that sanity be kept”. I love that phrase, and the variation of it — “for sanity must be preserved”. Throughout my life so far, poetry has been a great preserver of sanity for me. Poetry reminds us that we are not alone, it reminds us that there is beauty in this world, and that, even where there is none, we can nevertheless create beauty, through the expression of our experience.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘God Help the Wolf after Whom the Dogs Do Not Bark’ by Ted Hughes

There you met it – the mystery of hatred.
After your billions of years in anonymous matter
That was where you were found – and promptly hated.
You tried your utmost to reach and touch those people
With gifts of yourself –
Just like your first words as a toddler
When you rushed at every visitor to the house
Clasping their legs and crying: ‘I love you! I love you!’
Just as you had danced for your father
In his home of anger – gifts of your life
To sweeten his slow death and mix yourself in it
Where he lay propped on the couch,
To sugar the bitterness of his raging death.

You searched for yourself to go on giving it
As if after the nightfall of his going
You danced on in the dark house,
Eight years old, in your tinsel.

Searching for yourself, in the dark, as you danced,
Floundering a little, crying softly,
Like somebody searching for somebody drowning
In dark water
Listening for them – in panic at losing
Those listening seconds from your searching –
Then dancing wilder in the darkness.

The colleges lifted their heads. It did seem
You disturbed something just perfected
That they were holding carefully, all of a piece,
Till the glue dried. And as if
Reporting some felony to the police
They let you know that you were not John Donne.
You no longer care. Did you save their names?
But then they let you know, day by day,
Their contempt for everything you attempted,
Took pains to inject their bile, as for your health,
Into your morning coffee. Even signed
Their homeopathic letters,
Envelopes full of carefully broken glass
To lodge behind your eyes so you would see

Nobody wanted your dance,
Nobody wanted your strange glitter – your floundering
Drowning life and your effort to save yourself,
Treading water, dancing the dark turmoil,
Looking for something to give –
Whatever you found
They bombarded with splinters,
Derision, mud – the mystery of that hatred.

This is from Ted Hughes’ 1998 Birthday Letters collection, which is all about his wife, Sylvia Plath. Perhaps Hughes intended this collection of poems to ‘set the record straight’; I think that he may have felt that many blamed him for his wife’s death because of their break-up after his affair with another woman not long before Plath committed suicide. It was my love for Plath that led me to read Hughes’ work, and this collection is full of love and pain and struggle and I find it quite fascinating and compelling mostly because it seems so intimate.

I chose this particular poem to blog about today because I simply love this image of Plath as a ‘wolf after whom the dogs do not bark.’ The poem is about Plath’s early attempts at poetry – when she was studying at Cambridge – and the negative criticism that she received at that time. But Hughes reminds us in this poem that it did not matter because she was in fact a wolf among dogs, and should not have cared whether the dogs barked after her or not.

Ted Hughes delivers this touching picture of his wife trying to get her “gifts of [her]self” – her poems – published. He likens her efforts to her “first words as a toddler/When you rushed at every visitor… crying “I love you! I love you!” I love this image because it is so telling; as most writers, Plath must have sought approval and recognition, and yet she was “hated” by the critics to begin with. It is also telling of Hughes’ affection for Sylvia.

I love the contrast between Hughes’ image of Plath, “dancing wilder in the darkness”, as though “searching for somebody drowning” trying to give these beautiful “gifts” of her soul … and the reaction is: “the colleges lifted their heads.” The critics who “hated” Plath when she was at Cambridge (she received many negative reviews there) were so institutionalized that Hughes refers to them not as people but as the buildings – the institution of a literary Establishment – that they represent. The image of the Cambridge colleges marks a sharp contrast to the image of Plath with her “strange glitter” and her childish enthusiasm – she is so much more alive, so much more real.

Now, the line that most excites me in this poem is “They let you know that you were not John Donne”. This comes back to what I wrote about yesterday in my blog about Plath’s poem, ‘Daddy’. I talked about “the weight of English Literature” in that post, which is something I heard Plath talk about in an interview that I watched on Youtube. In that interview, Sylvia says that she remembers a critic telling her that she had “started out [a poem] just like John Donne, but not quite managed to finish like John Donne”. It is then that she adds, “and I felt the weight of English Literature on me at that point”. I loved hearing Plath say that because she is part of English Literature (with the huge capital letters) now, and it is comforting and encouraging to think that she did not always feel that she was good enough…

But what viscousness; these critics are described as totally venomous by Hughes as they send his wife “Envelopes of carefully broken glass/ To lodge behind your eyes so you would see/ Nobody wanted your dance”. This is calculated hatred, “injected… into your morning coffee”. He describes this hate as a “mystery” — in fact, the “mystery” of this hatred frames the entire poem. And it seems to be a mystery that is haunting Hughes because this criticism so affected Plath.

But, of course, Sylvia Plath rose way above those early critics. As Hughes says: “You no longer care.”

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Daddy’ by Sylvia Plath

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time—-
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal

And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off the beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du.

In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend

Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.

It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene

An engine, an engine,
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gypsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You——

Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I’m finally through.
The black telephone’s off at the root,
The voices just can’t worm through.

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two—-
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.

There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

This is such a well-known poem. It is crashing and cathartic and hypnotically powerful… and I’m excited to write a blog about it.

I read ‘Daddy’ over and over as a teen, when I found it in an anthology that I had. That was before I read The Bell Jar or any other poems by Sylvia Plath. As my fascination for Plath’s life and work grew, ‘Daddy’ made deeper sense to me and I now understand how it is a defining poem for this poet. It still fascinates me every time I read it.

So, Plath presents us with an image of a father in this poem, and it is this father figure that I want to write about mostly. She affectionately and childishly addresses him as ‘Daddy’ in the poem, and yet he is a complex, dark, almost mythical figure that she has had to “kill”. You never get to know the father — we see him only from a distance variously as a “black shoe” in which the speaker has lived imprisoned, “Barely daring to breathe”, a Godlike, “Ghastly statue”, a Nazi, and a “vampire”. I think ‘Daddy’ in this poem certainly represents Plath’s own father; Otto Plath died when Sylvia was just eight-years-old, and his image haunts much of her poetry.

Plath writes in the poem, “Daddy, I have had to kill you./ You died before I had time”. This is a very important line and I think it is key to understanding the crux of the speaker’s issues with her father. Plath’s father did in fact die before she “had time” to kill him in the psychological sense that we all “kill” our parents. By this I mean that Plath’s father died at an age when he was still Godlike in the eyes of his daughter. To the eight-year-old Plath, her father was everything and she idolized him greatly. She never had time to get to know him on a personal level as an adult (“I never could talk to you”). As a consequence, as Plath grew up, it seems that her father remained a mythical, elusive and powerful shadow in her mind that she could never quite understand. This poem is about her getting what nowadays we call ‘closure’.

In my opinion the ‘Daddy’ figure in this poem also represents Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes. Hughes left Plath for another woman not long before she wrote this poem (and she wrote this poem not long before committing suicide in 1963). We become aware of her husband’s relevance in the poem as it nears its end, when Plath writes (addressing her Father): “I made a model of you,
/A man in black with a Meinkampf look/ And a love of the rack and the screw.
/And I said I do, I do.” This is clearly telling us that Plath found a replica of her father in her husband. She suggests that Hughes has tortured her in the same way her father did, and stifled her voice in the same way; “If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two”, she says, communicating that by the end of this poem she will be through with her Father, and with her husband (a model of the Father figure and just as creatively smothering). The similarities between Plath’s ‘Daddy’ and Hughes is even clearer as she describes her husband as “The vampire who said he was you/ And drank my blood for a year,/ Seven years, if you want to know”.

I also think that the ‘Daddy’ figure represents another force that was very present in Plath’s writing life — something that I heard her call “the weight of English Literature” in an interview that I saw on Youtube. There is no escaping the reality that English Literature is dominated by men (dead, white men), and this can be very intimidating for a female writer even today. Virginia Woolf called it “Milton’s bogey” in A room of one’s own. Woolf acknowledged the incredible weight of male dominance in literature as she wrote the following:

“For my belief is that if we live another century or so […] and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; […] if we look past Milton’s bogey, for no human being should shut out the view; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down..”

‘Daddy’ in this poem, represents Milton’s bogey. It weighs upon Plath’s mind and prevents her from using her voice (“Ich, ich, ich, ich,
/I could hardly speak.”) The fear of writing can become very real when one is aware of all that has gone before. How does one follow Milton (this ‘Daddy’ figure — the dead, white male poet par excellence)?

T.S. Eliot also acknowledges the weight of English Literature on modern writers in The Waste Land:

“O o o o that Shakespeherian Rag —
It’s so elegant
So intelligent

What shall I do now? What shall I do?
I shall rush out as I am, and walk in the street
With my hair down, so.
What shall we do to-morrow?
What shall we ever do?”

But Plath frees herself from this heavy inheritance by the end of the poem. The ending is so cathartic, so triumphant:

There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

I love the sense of victory that is brought by that dancing and stamping. The parallels made with the Nazis in this poem makes it all the more powerful (and it compels our attention) — I think it allows us to understand the gravity of what this father figure has done to Plath and the effect it has had on her life. He has almost killed her. When faced with him she automatically assumes the role of the victim, turning him into a Nazi and her into a “Jew” being chuffed off to “Auschwitz, Dachau, Belsen”. There is so much confusion in this poem; Plath has had to kill an oppressor — two oppressors — that she loved in order to be free.

But there is something so cathartic about those final lines — we feel that Plath has got her ‘closure’. The villagers “always knew”, so there is triumph there too — he never really ‘won’. And I love the irreverence of the “you bastard, I’m through”; Plath is certainly seeing past “Milton’s bogey”. She does not need to imitate him or anybody else: this is Plath’s own voice, real and profound and transcendent. And with that voice she has written something that stands alone as its own pillar of greatness. She is free of the ‘Daddy’: free of the past, the mythical ‘Greats’ of literature and male oppression. She is free to write with her own voice.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Listeners’ by Walter de la Mare

“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grass
Of the forest’s ferny floor;
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
“Is there anybody there?” he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:–
“Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,” he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

This was a favourite poem of mine as a child. It was probably the rhymes and the mystery of the story that first attracted me. I think it is a poem that really sets the imagination reeling. I love how the Listeners never do answer the Traveller. Sometimes, there are no answers to our questions; sometimes, we are not meant to know.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Night-Wind’ by Emily Bronte

In summer’s mellow midnight,
A cloudless moon shone through
Our open parlour window,
And rose-trees wet with dew.

I sat in silent musing,
The soft wind waved my hair:
It told me Heaven was glorious,
And sleeping Earth was fair.

I needed not its breathing
To bring such thoughts to me,
But still it whispered lowly,
‘How dark the woods will be!

‘The thick leaves in my murmur
Are rustling like a dream,
And all their myriad voices
Instinct with spirit seem.’

I said, ‘Go, gentle singer,
Thy wooing voice is kind:
But do not think its music
Has power to reach my mind.

‘Play with the scented flower,
The young tree’s supple bough,
And leave my human feelings
In their own course to flow.’

The wanderer would not leave me;
Its kiss grew warmer still –
‘O come,’ it sighed so sweetly;
‘I’ll win thee ‘gainst thy will.

‘Have we not been from childhood friends?
Have I not loved thee long?
As long as thou hast loved the night
Whose silence wakes my song.

‘And when thy heart is laid at rest
Beneath the church-yard stone,
I shall have time enough to mourn
And thou to be alone.’

This is one of my favourite poems by Emily Bronte. I am a little bit obsessed with her work as you will have gathered if you read my previous blog about No coward soul is mine.

The Night-Wind is hypnotically sensuous in its language, with the “soft wind” waving the speaker’s hair, its voice whispering “lowly” about “how dark the woods will be”. I think my favourite part is when the Night-Wind says, “The thick leaves in my murmur/ Are murmuring like a dream” — it is so evocative of a natural world that is wild and brimming with life, or “instinct with spirit”, as Bronte writes.

I love the dark, mysterious atmosphere that surrounds this entity or force called the Night-Wind. There is a common theme running through much of Emily Bronte’s work — both in her poetry and, I think, in Wuthering Heights — of the force of nature and the mystical connection that can be felt with it. There is something almost pagan about this poem, as there is certainly something pagan about Wuthering Heights. In that novellove is presented as a sort of religion. In the novel, love is dark and destructive but also all-pervading and eternal. God and Beauty in nature is of course a theme common to the works of Romantic poets such as Wordsworth or Coleridge, but for me Emily Bronte goes further — or at least deeper and darker — than those poets. This is why Emily Bronte’s poetry fascinates me so much: her poems might be in many ways immature (I don’t want to use the word naive because I don’t think Emily was naive) but there is something wild and dark and spiritual about them that is incredibly powerful. And, of course, there are absolutely nothing immature about Wuthering Heights. 

There are different versions of this poem. The one posted above is Emily’s original version. However, Charlotte Bronte (Emily’s sister) edited The Night-Wind after Emily’s death. In Charlotte’s version, the final stanza reads as follows:

And when thy heart is resting
Beneath the church-aisle stone,
I shall have time enough for mourning,
And thou for being alone

Charlotte edited much of Emily’s poetry after her death. This particular correction is the most important one that Charlotte made to this poem, and I think it reflects her own grief at the death of her sister. For example, the changing of “church-yard” to “church-aisle” is significant because Emily Bronte was not buried in the church-yard, but beneath the aisle in Haworth Church. Also, I feel like the way Charlotte has changed the verbs from the infinitive to the present continuous (i.e. “laid to rest” becomes “resting”, “to mourn” becomes “mourning” and “to be alone” becomes “for being alone”) demonstrates how her grief has now become Charlotte’s ongoing and bleak reality. Poor Charlotte outlived both Emily and Anne Bronte, and was the only sister to marry, though she also died before she could have children.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Kubla Khan’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round :
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree ;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh ! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover !
A savage place ! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover !
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced :
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail :
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean :
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war !
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves ;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice !

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw :
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome ! those caves of ice !
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware ! Beware !
His flashing eyes, his floating hair !
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

When I was 18 I wrote half a very bad and naive novel in which the hero died, and this hero’s epitaph consisted of the last two lines of this poem. I mention this embarrassing anecdote simply because the fact that I chose these lines to sum up my hero’s life demonstrates what in incredible impact this poem had on me at that time. When I first read Kubla Khan I couldn’t believe its beauty and had to read it again and again. And another thing that happened, and that happens with all my favourite poems, is this: I felt the need to read it aloud. I feel like that is the sign of a poem that I will keep: one that I want to read aloud.

I think that perhaps it is the pure music of this poem that has made it so famous and enduring. And then there is also the story. The story is one with which Coleridge prefaced his poem, asserting that he wrote Kubla Khan upon waking from an opium-induced sleep. He supposedly had a dream about Kubla Khan and when he woke up this beautiful verse simply poured out of him, without strain or effort (I know, I don’t believe him either.) Then poor Coleridge was interrupted by a visitor at the door, and this broke his flow of poetry. So, he could not finish the poem. This is why, in his poetry collection, Kubla Khan is categorised as a Fragment. I think the “damsel with a dulcimer” part and beyond is the post-interruption part of the poem. Up until this point you have this incredibly rich description of the fictional land of Xanadu with its “sacred river”, its “caverns measureless to man” and the “forests ancient as the hills”. Then the latter part of the poem seems to be the poet grasping frantically in the dark for the “vision once [he] saw”, which he cannot recover.

If only the poet could “revive within [himself]” the “symphony and song” of his vision, he could write the most glorious, heavenly poetry, in fact, he would “build that dome in air,/ That sunny dome! those caves of ice!” This unattainability of a vision which has come from some source uncontrolled by the poet (i.e. the Muse?) is a very Romantic notion.

But it is the last part of the poem that I love the most — the part where Coleridge tells us what he would do if he could only recreate the magnificence of his vision. When he says, “And all who heard should see them there” it makes me think that Coleridge longs to recreate what he has seen so faithfully that readers would physically “see” the vision for themselves. Then there is that couplet I love so much:

And all should cry, Beware ! Beware !
His flashing eyes, his floating hair !

I just adore the drama of these words, the delicious rhyme setting you up for the crashing finale:

Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

This weaving a circle round him thrice brings to mind the idea of ritual for me, and that “holy dread” reinforces it. There is certainly something holy or sacred about this poem — about all great poems. The poet who can recreate his visions is one to be revered, one to ritualise (haven’t we made some sort of ritual or religion of our greatest authors? Shakespeare? Criticising Shakespeare is like blasphemy, even to people who have never heard one of his poems or plays.) The final two lines — my poor hero’s epitaph — express, in my opinion, the awe we can feel before the works of great artists, poets and musicians. Heaven is occasionally attained in art — by those blessed artists who have “drunk the milk of Paradise” — and when it is, it leaves us in a slightly dazed state, not quite sure where we are anymore. As a final thought I will say that that I think the last lines of this poem are akin in tone to those of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale: “fled is that music: – do I wake or sleep?”

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh