The Moment – Margaret Atwood

The Moment

The moment when, after many years
of hard work and a long voyage
you stand in the centre of your room,
house, half-acre, square mile, island, country,
knowing at last how you got there,
and say, I own this,

is the same moment when the trees unloose
their soft arms from around you,
the birds take back their language,
the cliffs fissure and collapse,
the air moves back from you like a wave
and you can’t breathe.

No, they whisper. You own nothing.
You were a visitor, time after time
climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.
We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round.

Analysis

Have you ever questioned your own perceptions?

If so then you will read this poem in a certain way. That is the joy of poetry for me, that three different people can say “this poem is about…” and each one be correct in their assumptions because of their life experience. Poetry is a living thing and should always be treated as such. This is why we write about a poem as if it is still living, in the present tense, using words like “this poem IS about” rather than “this poem WAS about…” If you want to get the A grade or higher, learn this one fact.

Back to the perceptions.

Our thoughts are important. They are important to our life. They shape who we are and how we act and react to different stimuli. So when something happens that shakes us to the core, we have to rethink our thoughts and perceptions about life. To me, that is what this poem is about, a “moment” in life when “after so many years,” we come to a blinding realisation that what we thought about this or that, was in fact, a lie.

If we go verse by verse, as usual, then we will see this, but take specific note about the tenses used in the poem as we do. The first line begins without tense, misleading as ever and very cleverly laid down. The word “after” denotes a possible tense that is coming, like looking back over so many years. Is this an example of future tense? I doubt it. Line three is in fact, the first example of a tense, when we see the word “stand.” This is present tense. [stood = past tense etc]

So, after a long voyage, or a lifetime of living, one comes to a realisation, standing there in your room, that what you thought was right and good is in fact a false realisation. You stand there, “in the centre of your own room” or “house,” in other words wherever you call home, thinking and “knowing at last how you got there.” This is the moment in time when you know fully how and why you are where you are. In essence, this existential knowledge comes only by experience. As you stand there you think you “own this,” moment in your life and that you alone have been in control all your life.

You feel good about it. You feel as if you have been successful in life, that your efforts have been worth it, but then, as you think this, you begin to realise just what a load of rubbish this really is. Now for a 16 year old student, who has little experience in life and has little experience in studying, this poem will be too much like hard work. One needs a few years under the belt for this one to hit home, or some really tough experiences as a child. Realising in that “moment” that life is not all it is “cracked up to be” is something that comes with time.

So, that false realisation makes us realise that the “moment” we think of is in fact “the same moment when the trees unloose their soft arms” and we begin to see something else. Is this line about death? Could this poem be taken this way, to reflect that all this is happening at death? Possibly, but as stated earlier, three different readings can give three different responses. The whole second verse seems to be leading towards the demise of the protagonist because of words like “the air moves back from you like a wave,” offering a simile and metaphor to reflect death in pure beauty. Air moves back from you, in a way, when you die.

Words like “collapse” are also indicative of death and decay. Coupled with “you can’t breathe” such words bring the reader to the point where they see that in life, whatever this person has thought has now been set in place by death, or by the very thought of it. What is then left is the thought of what is actually the truth behind the greatest adventure we face; life itself. These cliffs and waves that are mentioned “whisper” to us saying “you own nothing.” That is a very definite statement indeed, for we are only here on this earth for a short time. If the earth has been here for millions of years and we only live on average for “three score and ten,” then seventy years is nothing in comparison.

So now the reader is left with a feeling that they “own nothing,” being made to see that whatever they did in life was just their way of saying it was theirs, but what is the truth of the matter is that they [we] were “just a visitor” in this life. Everything that we hold dear will not last. Everything comes to an end. We never “found” things because things find us. That is what the poem is saying.

Notice now the use of the tense in the word “were.”

The poet says “you were a visitor.” This for me, is important because it makes us as readers think back over our life [in my case 54 years of life, marriage, children, career, joyous times, sad times etc] and see that what we think we owned was in fact given to us on loan for a brief span. We do not own the land. We do not own each other. We do not even own life itself, for it is given to us [by whoever or whatever] and we take what we can from it for the betterment of humanity.

So, as the poet suggests, we may go about “planting the flag,” making our mark in the soil of earth [or even the moon], we may proclaim that we have lived a life that has been full of things we have owned, but in the end, the message is simple; life speaks back and says “it was always the other way around.”

Does this suggest that we humans have got something wrong? If so, then what? Is it that we need to stop hating, coveting [look it up], lusting for power and that we need to be more loving towards each other? Is this poem saying that we need to be more careful with the world’s resources? We own nothing so be more careful with what we have got? Possibly so. In the end, what comes from reading this poem has to be that what we consider to be the truth, to be real, and factual and accurate is in fact, a false realisation, so we should consider our perceptions when we consider the life we live.

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Spellbound

Spellbound – EJ Bronte

The night is darkening round me,
The wild winds coldly blow;
But a tyrant spell has bound me,
And I cannot, cannot go.

The giant trees are bending
Their bare boughs weighed with snow;
The storm is fast descending,
And yet I cannot go.

Clouds beyond clouds above me,
Wastes beyond wastes below;
But nothing drear can move me:
I will not, cannot go.

Analysis

Let me ask you a little bit of a rhetorical question and let you decide what the answer will be; if this poem was about you, what would it be about?

The answer to that question will dictate just how you write about this short little poem. If you are of a spiritual nature, then you may write about death. If you are interested in the way nature enfolds around us, how it enables us to love and to live, then you may write about something entirely different, but at the end of the day, the true meaning of this poem rests on something that I was taught in my studies, about how as readers we need to consider the social and historical context of this poem.

Social and historical context? To what does this refer? Well, it is the social and historical context of the day when written, but the joy of literature is that over time, meaning can change as society changes and as beliefs change. Thus it may be the case with this poem as well.

Bronte was born in 1818 and died in 1848 aged just 30, when mortality rates were lower; in other words, when people died younger than they do now. She wrote in a time when it is perceived that people in society were more religious and the UK was more solely Christian than it is now. Now I am not too sure if that is an accurate depiction of life at that time because the history books are littered with lies and falsehoods, where the victor writes down what will then be considered to be the truth about those times. Who are we to know if people went to church or prayed more back then, than they do now? Yes, records show that to be the truth, but records can be distorted to show a ‘better age,’ a ‘bygone era’ that is somehow considered to be better than today.

So, we need to consider what it may have meant to a reader back then, over 200 years ago, and then consider just what it might mean for us reading it today. As we unpack this little gem, we do so with bifocals on, crossing the boundaries of time as we read on.

So, line 1 says that “the night is darkening round me,” which may suggest that either night has come where day once was, or if read as metaphor, then it reflects that the light is beginning to extinguish itself from her body as the point of death approaches. When we die, there is that sense that we are drifting off into something quite ethereal. Those of us who have been brought back from the brink of death by paramedics, will say that the time just before one loses consciousness is one that is spellbinding in every manner, at times too beautiful to contemplate. It certainly was for this writer!

So as the night is darkening we then read on into the next line and see a bit more, another snippet of information for us to work out, where we read “the wild winds coldly blow.” This use of alliteration helps the reader to feel the emotion being expressed here, the sense of cold as we shiver out our final breath. The sense of wildness about all of this suggests someone who is unsure in her faith, for one who was confident in going to heaven would anticipate the bright lights and warmth of heaven rather than coldness.

The next two lines however, show us why the person feels as if she is “spellbound,” or bound by a spell that keeps her here for she “cannot go” to where she believes she is going next. The word “tyrant” is a strong one indeed, one that denotes or even implies the Devil being the one who has cast the spell in the first place. A worse or deeper understanding might be that someone here on earth has cast the woman in a spell keeping her here on earth. If this is your thought too then the suggestion of witchcraft at play has to be adopted.

I however, take the approach that the “tyrant spell” is one that has been set there by the one person who Bronte would have undoubtedly believed in; Satan himself. It is something that is avoided in modern understanding of ancient poetry but one that has to be taken on board, even if not believed. I did say there was the ‘then’ approach and the ‘now’ approach when reading these old poems.

So, the woman feels that even in the throes of death, she cannot go, cannot depart this earth, or as Shakespeare might add, cannot “shuffle off this mortal coil.” But what then follows? Where we have seen the darkness of night approaching, we now see “the giant trees [that] are bending” in the night as the wild winds sway but these “bare boughs [are] weighed with snow.” There is more than a coldness being shared here, for if the natural elements are not cold enough, the introduction of snow compounds the deep seated feeling of despair at the person about to lose their life. Indeed, the use of the words “the storm is fast descending” show us that there is trouble brewing, where the passing of a person from this life to the next can be seen in terms of storms, but still this person “cannot go.” At this point as I am reading this, I am thinking to myself does the person actually want to go? Does the person want to die? Or is there a sensation that there is still work to do here on earth?

If my interpretation is correct then one then has to ask have I got something special I should be doing still in my life? Now if my answer to this is yes, then I am left with a dilemma where my body wants life to end, but my mind and my spirit do not. Now that would be a true dilemma, a spellbinding problem that needs fixing.

Finally, notice before now it has been a case of the night, the wind, the trees and the boughs that have been over her? Now it is the “clouds beyond [and] clouds above [her]” that make for the final stanza of the poem. Clouds are generally wispy when there is wind. Clouds are ethereal and spooky so to feel that clouds are “wastes beyond [and] wastes below” does show us a person who sees the oncoming storm, the prospect of death as something that for most people would be all consuming, all engulfing, but that for this person, “nothing drear can move” her forward.

Let me ask one last question and your answer will dictate how you read the last line of the poem; do we have control over death? In the poem, Bronte says she “will not, cannot go.” This suggests that we have a control over death but when our time comes, we do not. Yes we can fight it. And yes, we can breathe in our last breath and accept what is coming. But total control? No, we do not go in for that do we any more?

So, what is your take on this one? Do you agree with the 1848 rendition of this and other poems of the same ilk or does your modern mind say no to some of these thoughts? As there is no real wrong answer when it comes to literature, especially with poetry, your answer can be a good one.

Enjoy!