A Poison Tree – William Blake [OCR]

A Poison Tree – William Blake

I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I waterd it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night.
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine.

And into my garden stole,
When the night had veild the pole;
In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.


When you opened the anthology and saw the section you are studying entitled “Conflict” what did you think would appear each lesson? If it was me, then I would have expected a series of War Poems the like of Dulce Et Decorum Est, the great war poem by Wilfred Owen. I absolutely adore that poem and used to love teaching it in all its extreme, gory detail, before telling Year 10 that they could now go to lunch and enjoy their food. The fun I had! But did you expect to see one about another form of ‘conflict?’ I bet there will not be many that did. For we tend to think of conflict in terms of warfare, not the kind of conflict that can exist between two friends or even enemies. That is another form of conflict. So, as we go through the anthology in these posts, consider just how many uses of the word “conflict” there are and how they can be subverted, turned upside down as it were. Then you will not be surprised by the different takes on the theme that may appear.

So, a little bit of William Blake.

The first thing to know about such a poem as this is the age it was written in and when Blake was alive. Do some research on him, his life, his work and world and you will be all the more wiser. Then consider just what Blake is trying to say in this poem. Consider for a moment the structure of any good storyline you have read. There is the beginning, the build up, then the conflict and then the resolution. Sometimes, there is more conflict than normal, as in the first Harry Potter story, but when conflict shows itself, the thing to do with prose [story writing] is to fix that conflict with a suitable ending, where Harry defeats Voldemort in his ugly hideousness and all is well again in Hogwarts.

With poetry, the theme of conflict works differently. With poetry, we express angst and conflict where it shows its head and we leave it there in a cathartic release, to make us feel better as writers, like when you tell someone where to put themselves, or maybe as a lesson for others. In this instance, Blake tells us he “was angry with [his] friend.” That first line explicitly says everything we need to know in that right from the beginning, there is anger [conflict]. But there is a sense of paradox [one thing opposing the other] in this first verse, for the poet says that even though he was angry with his friend, he expresses that and “my wrath did end” whereas when he is “angry with [his] foe: [he] told it not” and his “wrath did grow.” In plain English, when he told of his anger to his friend, his anger subsided but when he chose not to express that anger to an enemy, or held it in, then the anger did not go away.

Instead, he “watered it in fears,” which is saying that his fears made it far worse than it should have been allowed to become. “Night & morning with [his] tears,” he let the flame of anger burn brightly inside himself, allowing thoughts of what he might do next. Think about those times when someone has said something unkind to you and you have allowed it to fester into something bigger than it should be. Perhaps, what we should do in those times is the opposite, where we should have “sunned it with smiles and with soft deceitful wiles” as the poem suggests. The simple rhyming couplets used in this poem offer a powerful image to the reader as he discusses the aspect of this inner conflict he is experiencing because as he lets the emotion fester, it grows “both day and night” making it so he is now unable to do something about it.

This is allowed to go on for some considerable time until we see the extent of his angst. It is described as “an apple bright,” which is a very interesting image because a lovely, shining apple, so fresh and so lovely to behold is not the sort of image you would normally associate with any kind of conflict. But his “foe beheld it shine” says the  poet, or saw it shine, so now the question is, who, or what, is the “foe?” Is he referring to the friend who has now become a foe or is he thinking that the act of turning something small and insignificant into something it isn’t, or blowing something out of all proportion, is the foe he now faces in order to bring back the once given friendship? Or perhaps ‘friend’ and ‘foe’ are two different people or times when something has been said, or not.

We are led to wonder about this for we know that “he knew that it was mine” and as the next verse begins, we see a movement in this poem, where the poet says “into my garden stole, when the night had veild the pole; in the morning glad I see my foe outstretched beneath the tree.” But the problem with Blake is that you are in danger if you take him literally, like this, all the time and do not think in terms of other possible alternative meanings to his word. To understand him, you need to think deeper than that. You have to think in terms of metaphor, which in my experience, is one of the hardest things for a Y10 or Y11 student to grasp and understand. Then you have to extend that metaphor into something else, to represent how something else is living, existing, operating etc.

In this instance, the extended metaphor is the garden in the poem. If you think of “the garden of life,” then you see two images in the mind, a garden and life itself. That is a metaphor. It is like when we say “the traffic is evil today.” Two images in the mind brought together in one descriptive comment or title. The extended metaphor extends that idea, in this case a garden, into something that represents something else entirely. The foe enters the poet’s garden, or mind, in ways that mean the foe cannot be eradicated. It is like a germ that plants itself in the mind. We can, like the poet, express our angst at a friend, but at a foe is a different matter altogether. When the foe or the enemy does something to us, it is nigh on impossible to forget or to forgive.

Such evil infects the mind and so now, via the extended metaphor Blake uses, we have something much deeper, much larger and much more sinister in terms of the person being able to figure out their emotions. “Into my garden stole” becomes such a great way of describing just how the element of hatred begins in the mind of us all “when the night had veild the pole” and we are no longer able to work out right from wrong, good from bad, love from hate. As this happens, the fruit that is our goodness goes bad and turns into poison and when you link this with the Bible’s words about “bearing fruit” fit for the Christian life, something Blake will have held to largely, we see something emerging, where he is saying that we can so easily be overcome with anger if we are not too careful about how we process conflict in our life and then communicate it properly. Check out James chapter 3 in the bible and what it says about the tongue and you will begin to see what I mean.

Let me ask you a question therefore and one that is important. When was the last time you allowed someone to say something to you and you let it get out of hand? If it as a friend then the chances are that you said something to them and they realised they had overstepped the mark, but if it was someone who you would not classify as a friend, then you may have felt hurt by them and wanted something bad to happen to them. Now imagine that you had the chance to make a change and make it so that even if your enemies cursed you, did something bad to you, or even verbally abused you, you would be able to respond in such a way as to make it so that it does not hurt any more. Now that would be a blessing indeed if we could all learn to take what someone says and does, that is terrible, and ignore it in terms of what makes us hurt. If we could learn to do that, the poet is saying, then we can move on from reactive people, to proactive ones who can love without reserve.

For me, that is the essence of this poem, but for other ideas, may I suggest that you look at this website, where there is more specialist knowledge about some of the stylistic devices used.


Dusting The Phone – Jackie Kay

Dusting the Phone (1993) Jackie Kay

I am spending my time imagining the worst that could happen.
I know this is not a good idea, and that being in love, I could be
spending my time going over the best that has been happening.

The phone rings heralding some disaster. Sirens.
Or it doesn’t ring which also means disaster. Sirens.
In which case, who would ring me to tell? Nobody knows.

The future is a long gloved hand. An empty cup.
A marriage. A full house. One night per week
in stranger’s white sheets. Forget tomorrow,

You say, don’t mention love. I try. It doesn’t work.
I assault the postman for a letter. I look for flowers.
I go over and over our times together, re-read them.

This very second I am waiting on the phone.
Silver service. I polish it. I dress for it.
I’ll give it extra in return for your call.

Infuriatingly, it sends me hoaxes, wrong numbers;
or worse, calls from boring people. Your voice
disappears into my lonely cotton sheets.

I am trapped in it. I can’t move. I want you.
All the time. This is awful – only a photo.
Come on, damn you, ring me. Or else. What?

I don’t know what.


The first thing I want you to do is read the following paragraph.

“I am spending my time imagining the worst that could happen. I know this is not a good idea, and that being in love, I could be spending my time going over the best that has been happening. The phone rings heralding some disaster. Sirens. Or it doesn’t ring which also means disaster. Sirens. In which case, who would ring me to tell? Nobody knows. The future is a long gloved hand. An empty cup. A marriage. A full house. One night per week in stranger’s white sheets. Forget tomorrow, you say, don’t mention love. I try. It doesn’t work. I assault the postman for a letter. I look for flowers. I go over and over our times together, re-read them. This very second I am waiting on the phone. Silver service. I polish it. I dress for it. I’ll give it extra in return for your call. Infuriatingly, it sends me hoaxes, wrong numbers; or worse, calls from boring people. Your voice disappears into my lonely cotton sheets. I am trapped in it. I can’t move. I want you. All the time. This is awful – only a photo. Come on, damn you, ring me. Or else. What? I don’t know what.”

One of the things I love teaching is Free Verse poetry, where you have no rules like punctuation to bother you, especially when you may have difficulty with commas and semi colons and the like. But many students say to me they cannot write poetry, so I ask them to think of a certain theme, like this one of love and simply write the first thing that comes to mind in their heads about love. I ask them to write a paragraph in as much detail as possible and then, I show them a technique shown to me by my teacher trainer at university, whereby you add one of these [/] between words where you want a line to end in your poem and where you want one or two words to have so much impact on the reader. You know the sort of thing, where you maybe are making a point.

So, consider these words for a moment……

“love is the sort of thing that confuses some people it gets under their skin it allows them to feel pain and it turns them into something incomprehensible and makes it possible that they can hurt others love is something that is beautiful and glorious it is the sort of thing that enriches the heart blesses the soul and makes a person glow with pride love is many things it is wonderful and glorious desperate and saddening beautiful to behold and painful to experience”

Notice the lack of punctuation? Now consider where the lines would end and you get this….

“love is the sort of thing/ that confuses some people/ it gets under their skin/ it allows them to feel pain/ and it turns them/ into something incomprehensible/ and makes it possible/ that they can hurt others/ love is something/ that is beautiful and glorious/ it is the sort of thing /that enriches the heart/ blesses the soul/ and/ makes a person glow/ with pride/ love is many things/ it is wonderful/ and glorious/ desperate and saddening/ beautiful to behold/ and/ painful to experience”

So when we split it up and add some capital letters at the beginning of each line, what we get is something that resembles a poem. You give it a title.


Love is the sort of thing
That confuses some people
It gets under their skin
It allows them to feel pain
And it turns them
Into something incomprehensible
And makes it possible
That they can hurt others

Love is something
That is beautiful and glorious
It is the sort of thing
That enriches the heart
Blesses the soul
Makes a person glow
With pride

Love is many things
It is wonderful
And glorious
Desperate and saddening
Beautiful to behold
Painful to experience.

It is such an easy thing to do because there is no need to use rhyme, so when I see a poem like the last one in the OCR Anthology Love and Relationships section, I rejoice because such as this is easy to understand if you think of it as just the thoughts of someone who has decided to write down her thoughts.

So what is this last poem about then? Well, with immediate effect, we see and hear a speaker who is wasting time again, as in at least one other poem from the section. She says “I am spending my time imagining the worst that could happen.” What possible reason does she have to do such a thing as this if she is in love? Does it show a personality that finds it difficult to trust? If you are deeply in love, then one could argue that trust should come a little bit easier. But what do we mean by being “in love?” She adds “I know this is not a good idea, and that being in love, I could be spending my time going over the best that has been happening,” but there is still an element of distrust here in the words. We use a phrase in English where we ask students to “read between the lines,” which in one sense is idiotic because between the lines there is nothing but silence, but what we mean is from your perspective as a reader, what do you think is missing between words or lines of poetry or prose? In other words, given this first three line verse, what do you think she is really saying about love, or even, about herself? If anything, ten students can have ten different answers to that question, all of them valid ones.

A person with a lack of trust sees things that are maybe not there. Such a person reacts to life rather than being the sort of person who is ‘proactive’ in their relationships and this speaker is no different to the former sort of person for when the “phone rings heralding some disaster” she reacts thinking of “sirens.” But then she sees reality and thinks that when it does not ring, it “also means disaster.” There is nothing like being sure eh? In either case there are the expected “sirens” whether it be good or bad news or no news at all. Her argument, to herself, as if she is mulling over something possibly terrible, is that “who would ring me to tell? Nobody knows.” Remember I said that love can confuse a person in my five minute poem earlier [that’s how long it took to write]? Well, here in this verse is clear and incontrovertible proof that this is the case. One could argue, therefore, that love as a concept has not got any kind of future, that it is a waste of time [does this make you think of a poem in the section you can link this one to?] or that the effort of love brings nothing but chaos.

But, according to this poet, “the future is a long gloved hand.” Now what a fantastic image that really is. It makes me think of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or any film where someone gorgeous wears those long, arm length gloves with the ball gown and makes us all fall in love with the character. The future [of love?] she says, is an “empty cup” as well, or a “marriage.” Clearly, she is trying to think positively about this thing called love, trying to think in positive terms of a “full house” or even the possibility of “one night per week in stranger’s white sheets” and what is emerging is someone who is being successful at diminishing the negative aspects of love and someone who is able to “forget tomorrow” and all that it brings, both positive and negative.

The poet refers to advice given to her by her lover when she says “you say, don’t mention love” and even shares the fact that as much as she tries to be positive about love, she still finds that “it doesn’t work” because each time the mail comes she is at the door to “assault the postman for a letter.” This is someone for whom love is an obsession, linking looking “for flowers” and all the usual, traditional gifts. Can you remember another poem in the anthology where the poet hates the idea of gifts on a certain day? Well what we have here is the entire opposite, where she is ready for the postman to give her whatever it is that her lover has sent. It is therefore a poem to contrast with the other, should the need arise in the exam.

She says “I go over and over our times together, re-read them,” in her mind as if doing so is important to her, to remember the good times. For most people, who are in love, this does not happen. Yes, you remember the times when there is a need to remember the good times and you remember the bad ones less often so as to diminish the pain that love can bring. But this person is obsessive about love, needing its embrace as often as she can. She states that “this very second I am waiting on the phone” as if she is expecting a call, like a “silver service” waitress waiting for someone to raise their hand. While she does so, she cleans the phone and prepares herself for the arrival of that one wonderful voice, promising to “give it extra in return” for the call. But it gets her nowhere because what comes is a sense of irritation. “Infuriatingly” is a fantastic word to use because it fully epitomises the sense of utter desolation she feels when she does not receive the call, like the maid in the Duffy poem who does not receive the love back from her mistress.

In this instance, the phone she is holding, cleaning, willing to ring “sends [her] hoaxes, wrong numbers; or worse, calls from boring people.” What an annoyance that would be if you was in the same situation. Imagine for a moment waiting for an important call and then, the phone rings. You jump and squeal with anticipation, answering the phone, only to find that it is a business call, a scam call, a random call from nowhere and you begin talking as if it is to the lover you are waiting for. Now that would be horrendous indeed. It is also something that happens to us all at times as we wait for that “voice” that we want only to hear. In the end, in this poem, that voice “disappears into [her] lonely cotton sheets,” giving us [the reader] a sense of desolation again as something so expected drifts away into nothingness. Love, in this instance, is futile. She is “trapped in it” and “can’t move,” but in the end, with all this pain and heartache, all she can say is “I want you.” It is something so “awful” to endure when all she wants is “a photo.”

Have you ever been there and experienced such a thing as this, where you so badly want something to happen and it doesn’t? Well that level of frustration is something that is being shared here as she expresses the complete angst that love brings when she says “come on, damn you, ring me.” Now we see despair and annoyance after the beginning of irritation. She issues the usual threat of “or else” as we all do from time to time and then, as if someone has responded with a sarcastic comment, we hear her say “what?” But the truth is that she has no answer to this lack of contact, this lack of love. When she says “I don’t know what,” she is referring back to the very notion of love itself, never being able to understand fully the complexities of love itself.

So, here is a poem that shows the duality of love, the obsession and the desire, the beauty and the agony and attempts to share the experience of someone in love but for whom love has taken control of her senses, making her into something distrusting, someone who cannot love purely and someone who finds love extremely difficult to deal with. This is why it is such a good poem.

Warming Her Pearls – Carol Ann Duffy

Warming Her Pearls
Carol Ann Duffy

Next to my own skin, her pearls. My mistress
bids me wear them, warm them, until evening
when I’ll brush her hair. At six, I place them
round her cool, white throat. All day I think of her,

resting in the Yellow Room, contemplating silk
or taffeta, which gown tonight? She fans herself
whilst I work willingly, my slow heat entering
each pearl. Slack on my neck, her rope.

She’s beautiful. I dream about her
in my attic bed; picture her dancing
with tall men, puzzled by my faint, persistent scent
beneath her French perfume, her milky stones.

I dust her shoulders with a rabbit’s foot,
watch the soft blush seep through her skin
like an indolent sigh. In her looking-glass
my red lips part as though I want to speak.

Full moon. Her carriage brings her home. I see
her every movement in my head…. Undressing,
taking off her jewels, her slim hand reaching
for the case, slipping naked into bed, the way

she always does…. And I lie here awake,
knowing the pearls are cooling even now
in the room where my mistress sleeps. All night
I feel their absence and I burn.


Now here we have one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets, in my opinion, someone whose poems have entertained and taught so many children in school classrooms. My favourite so far in twenty years of teaching has to be Salome, based loosely on the Bible story of the same person of the same name, but given that modern, subverted twist by Duffy that she always brings, as she seeks to bring to life someone of old. So when I see another poem, like this one, that I have to study, and hopefully teach, I get all too giddy with excitement at the chance to try and unpack it with a Year 10 class or same age students when offering home tuition, as I am now.

This one is towards the end of the love section in the anthology and with previous ones being more anti-love than pro-love, I am anticipating this to be the same before I read it. Are you thinking the same thing too [or were you] when you first saw it on the page in front of you? Or were you thinking “oh no, not another Duffy poem?” Well, do not worry, for it does not matter if you do not like them. What matters is that you understand them.

“Warming Her Pearls” is a poem that gives a personal account, from a woman, about that person’s “mistress” [a word with two meanings] who wears a set of pearls, but at the beginning of the poem, we see the speaker wearing those pearls because she has been asked to do so by her mistress. Now I want to ask a question here. “Next to my own skin, her pearls” is the first sentence but how does it make you respond? Each of us are different, thank God, and we will respond to such a poem as this in a number of ways, dependent on who we are and how we lead our lives. Someone who can be described as a ‘prude’ will blush at some of the wording to follow. Some teachers will absolutely loathe teaching this one because they know that a Year 10 class of boys and girls will react in two very different ways to the poem; the girls either slowly curious as to the sensuality of it and the boys offering their cheeky comments about the lascivious nature of some of the words. Me? I would teach this in a heartbeat and happily embarrass the lads who play up and try to be cautious as to how to approach such a subject as a woman like this who loves the wrong person.

The mistress wants her to wear her pearls. She “bids [her] wear them, warm them, until evening” when they are parted. The speaker then expresses that “at six, I place them round her cool, white throat” which is the beginning of the language of love, or as some would believe, the language of lust. The mistress is on her mind every minute of every day, infecting her thoughts. “All day I think of her,” she says, as we see where the mistress is and what she is doing during the day, “resting in the Yellow Room” or “contemplating silk or taffeta.” The mistresses life is a good one where the only thing she needs to think about is the question, “which gown tonight?” And as she “fans herself” in modest opulence, we see a speaker who is working “willingly” as her “slow heat” enters each jewel. To her, the pearls are lovely when on her mistress, but on herself, they seem nothing short of being “slack on [her] neck, her rope.” The reference to rope is an interesting one there. Is she referring to the rope that binds, or the rope that hangs, or some other form of rope and use for rope in the modern context? Your answer is the right one here, for none are wrong. So long as you can ‘prove’ what you are saying from the text, a marker cannot mark you down just because they disagree with you. If you can leave them thinking ‘hang on, I have never thought of that,’ then you are doing well and will score well.

The speaker speaks about her mistress in glowing terms, saying “she’s beautiful” and tells the reader that she dreams about her day and  night “in [her] attic bed.” She also is able to “picture her dancing with tall men, puzzled by my faint, persistent scent beneath her French perfume, her milky stones.” Now we are beginning to get into the use of words related to the sexual encounter, but they are laced with undertones of love for the woman. She tells us some of the things she does to the mistress, like dusting “her shoulders with a rabbit’s foot,” softly encountering her skin to excite and to thrill her sensually. She likes to “watch the soft blush seep through her skin like an indolent sigh” as if this is some kind of trophy to be had and enjoyed for eternity. “ But then we get the odd phrase “in her looking-glass my red lips part as though I want to speak” which at first glance seems an odd thing to say, but as simple as it sounds, she is in the moment when you are so engrossed by your partner that you wish to say something and open your mouth to do so, but there are no words there, because you are mesmerised by the beauty of the person in front of you. This is love bordering on sensual obsession.

Like Cinderella, the princess in the fairy tales, when the “full moon” arrives at the end of the evening, “her carriage brings her home” and the speaker tells us that she sees “her every movement in [her] head.” She watches as she sees her mistress “undressing, taking off her jewels, her slim hand reaching for the case, slipping naked into bed, the way she always does.” Now, so far, this sounds like a woman and her mistress, but think for a moment about the word “mistress” and how it can have a double meaning. Yes, it can be about one woman and her obsession with another, but it can also become about the relationship between a maid and her mistress which adds an extra dimension to this relationship, one that means her love is something that should not happen. It is neither professional or correct in those situations for such passion to show itself. But, you see, sometimes, Duffy writes in a way where you are not sure if the speaker is even male or female and this can confuse the reader into reacting to the poem in a certain way and then, as you read on, you realise that there is something else happening here, a different message appearing before your very eyes.

A maid has to prepare clothing and jewelry. She has the chance and the privilege to dress and undress her mistress at times and I dare say that some maids in the past have become so besotted with their charges that they have fallen in love with their mistress and have been unable to keep their imagination to themselves. This poem suggests that this now might be the case with this relationship. Yes, there is love between one woman and another, but is it returned? Is it reciprocated, or requited? When you find that it is not, then you are left thinking that the maid loves her mistress but not the other way around.

With this in mind we come to the last verse and we see the love that one woman has for another, but that it is unrequited. The mistress being the person being served is such that she cannot ‘love’ her maid back in that way, so she allows her to wear her pearls as if to ‘keep them warm’ and as the maid lies “awake, knowing the pearls are cooling” she is able to dream of how her relationship with her partner could, hopefully, one day, become even better. The final sentence is perhaps, the most hard hitting because it shows us just how this woman feels. She says that “all night I feel their absence and I burn” which is an interesting image in the mind of the reader, for this is a woman who is so deeply in love that it has become an obsession, but you see, that is what Carol Ann Duffy does with her poems; she subverts what we consider to be normal in relationships, or love, or hate, or vengeance, and she offers a twist on them, a new way of thinking for the reader, a challenge as well to make them think ‘outside the box’ as it were when considering something as special as love.

This is a poem about love but one that subverts love. It is a poem that shows love, but an altered, or illegitimate form of love, one that simply cannot be, or should not be. Whether you read it from a two person perspective, or whether you see a maid and her employer, either way, what you end up with is a wildly amorous woman who has a huge desire for the ‘mistress’ in the title. Is this therefore, a poem about love? Can we label it in the same category as any of the others in this section? Or do we say yes, it is a love poem, but it is also one that twists the very idea of what love is and how it should operate? In the end, it will come down to how you see the world around you. Would it be right for the character of Anna in Downton Abbey to fall madly in love with Lady Mary? I think not.

I perhaps see less of the maid v employer situation and more of the woman who simply cannot have the woman she wants in the way that she wants her, for whatever reason. Yes, she may still be a maid, but that is a title of a job. First and foremost, she is a woman who is in love and for her, the pain is that she cannot receive the same kind of love back, which is why Duffy uses the word “burn” at the end of the poem. We tend to think in terms of how we burn with desire for someone else, but the word ‘burn’ can also be used in the sense of being able to ‘burn’ with anger, or resentment and this is how she feels at the end of this poem. It is therefore, a powerful portrayal of love gone wrong in the wrong context.

There is a problem for you though if you are a student preparing for exams and so, the question I have is simple: if you had to write about this one and how it showed love and then choose one other from the section, which ‘other’ poem would you choose and why? Now that is the $64,000 question!

In Paris With You – James Fenton [OCR]

In Paris With You
James Fenton

Don’t talk to me of love. I’ve had an earful
And I get tearful when I’ve downed a drink or two.
I’m one of your talking wounded.
I’m a hostage. I’m marooned.
But I’m in Paris with you.

Yes I’m angry at the way I’ve been bamboozled
And resentful at the mess I’ve been through.
I admit I’m on the rebound
And I don’t care where are we bound.
I’m in Paris with you.

Do you mind if we do not go to the Louvre
If we say sod off to sodding Notre Dame,
If we skip the Champs Elysées
And remain here in this sleazy
Old hotel room

Doing this and that
To what and whom
Learning who you are,
Learning what I am.

Don’t talk to me of love. Let’s talk of Paris,
The little bit of Paris in our view.
There’s that crack across the ceiling
And the hotel walls are peeling
And I’m in Paris with you.

Don’t talk to me of love. Let’s talk of Paris.
I’m in Paris with the slightest thing you do.
I’m in Paris with your eyes, your mouth,
I’m in Paris with… all points south.
Am I embarrassing you?
I’m in Paris with you.


From this OCR anthology, we have seen many poems about love that are derogatory when it comes to love itself. They have not been the sentimental poems about love but instead, have been the anti-love poems that are so popular in modern songs. Perhaps this was done on purpose when the people at OCR selected these poems to put into their anthology, so you could or would, be able to write about them, comparing one with the other?

This one is no different. Fenton begins with a statement about love, from the heart as well as the mind when he says “don’t talk to me of love. I’ve had an earful and I get tearful when I’ve downed a drink or two.” The internal rhyme of “earful” and “tearful” is wonderful to see and hear when read and clearly, this is a man who has been hurt, spurned in the affairs of love and someone for whom love is a negative thing, a time when emotions get the better of people, leading to hurt and tears. He says he is one of the “talking wounded” and that he feels as if he is “a hostage” to love and all it stands for. He feels “marooned” even though he is “in Paris” with someone he is supposed to love.

He is obviously in a place he does not wish to be and this makes him feel “angry at the way [he’s] been bamboozled” as well as “resentful at the mess” he has had to endure. He feels as if he has been dragged into something he would not have wanted to go through and admits that this is probably because he is “on the rebound,” which is a term that means he has ended a relationship with one person, possibly badly and has immediately found someone else, or maybe, even has had the two relationships happening at the same time and when one has ended he has gone straight to the other for solace and comfort. He says he does not “care where [they] are … bound” because at the end of the journey [of life or a real one] he is “in Paris with” his partner.

Now, if you was in a similar situation and did not wish to be there, you would not wish to go anywhere either, so he says “do you mind if we do not go to the Louvre,” a museum in Paris where there are lots of things to look at that are famous, the painting of the Mona Lisa for one. He is not that bothered about seeing all that. It does not interest him, but there is a hint it does interest his partner and if this is true, then the two of them are not a good match. He wants to say “sod off to sodding Notre Dame” and “skip the Champs Elysées,” both places of interest in the capital of France, where most of the tourists go. Instead, his desire is to “remain … in this sleazy old hotel room doing this and that,” which may be a reference to seeking to be intimate with each other, or to simply share each other’s company and not be so like the rest of the tourist masses.

He wants to learn who his partner is as much as his partner learns about him which does suggest they have not been together long. Or is this because he is embarrassed by being out in public with this partner for some reason? There is a faint possibility that this may be the case because he asks that they do not talk of love but instead instructs the partner to “talk of Paris, the little bit of Paris in [their] view.” This is the bit that they can see from their hotel room, or the bits inside the room, the “crack across the ceiling and the hotel walls [that] are peeling.” Now depending on how you view love, there has to be a reason why he does not want to be out and about and instead be “in Paris” with the partner. We are left to assume that for some reason, the tourist spots are not of interest, but what is close by is.

He says that he is “in Paris with the slightest thing you do” which does suggest his intentions and eyes are for one person only, the partner he is there with. He is in the French city with the “eyes” and the “mouth” and “all points south.” This level of private intimacy shows a love that could be seen one of two ways. Firstly, it could be seen as more like lust than love especially as he then has to ask, “am I embarrassing you?” Or, possibly, it could be a reference to love in the closeness of their relationship, in Paris, together, not prepared to share the partner with every single tourist that they will bump into, but more likely, that he has a preference for the quiet, romantic weekend, rather than the time spent where you are walking everywhere and feel like you need a holiday after the break to get over it.

Finally, the last line repeats the opening line, bringing the whole thing to a circular conclusion, like the poems before it, with the line, “I’m in Paris with you.” The repetition is important to note in these poems because it is meant to drive home the meaning that this man prefers to spend time with his partner together, alone, instead of sharing said partner with everyone else in such a busy city.

As love poems go, this one is a little odd in places because it has the tendency to make you think it is anti-love, but then states the preference for closeness in their love. In this way, there is a sense of balance as well as a lack of equilibrium because the two people want radically different things from their trip to Paris and their relationship with each other. In the end, love will come through though and win the situation and we are left to assume that as much as he wants to stay in the hotel room sharing an intimate experience, somehow, the partner will find a way to experience both aspects of their trip to France. This is then, a lovely poem showing the duality of love but also the difficulty of being in a loving relationship where balance is sadly lacking.  

I Wouldn’t Thank You for a Valentine

I wouldn’t thank you for a Valentine
Liz Lochhead

I wouldn’t thank you for a Valentine.
I won’t wake up early wondering if the postman’s been.
Should 10 red-padded satin hearts arrive with sticky sickly saccharine
Sentiments in very vulgar verses I wouldn’t wonder if you meant them.
Two dozen anonymous Interflora red roses?
I’d not bother to swither over who sent them!
I wouldn’t thank you for a Valentine.

Scrawl SWALK across the envelope
I’d just say ‘ Same Auld story
I canny be bothered deciphering it –
I’m up to hear with Amore!
The whole Valentine’s Day Thing is trivial and commercial,
A cue for unleashing clichés and candyheart motifs to which I personally am not partial.’
Take more than singing Telegrams, or pints of Chanel Five, or sweets,
To get me ordering oysters or ironing my black satin sheets.
I wouldn’t thank you for a Valentine.

If you sent me a solitaire and promises solemn,
Took out an ad in the Guardian Personal Column
Saying something very soppy such as ‘Who Loves Ya, Poo?
I’ll tell you, I do, Fozzy bear, that’s who!’
You’d entirely fail to charm me, in fact I’d detest it
I wouldn’t be eighteen again for anything, I’m glad I’m past it.
I wouldn’t thank you for a Valentine.

If you sent me a single orchid, or a pair of Janet Reger’s
In a heart-shaped box and declared your Love Eternal
I’d say I’d rather not be caught dead in them they were
Politically suspect and I’d rather something thermal.
If you hired a plane and blazed our love in a banner across the skies;
If you bought me something flimsy in a flatteringly wrong size;
If you sent me a postcard with three Xs and told me how you felt
I wouldn’t thank you, I’d melt.

Have you ever sent a Valentine’s Day card to anyone? You do so because you like them, admire them, or even, love them. You sometimes put your name in them and at other times, you put something like “from a secret admirer” in them, to make the person wonder who it is that has sent them a card. It is love commercialised by this modern age that we live in, where cards, chocolates, flowers etc are given as gifts in fondness and even, in love.

This poem immediately states its writer’s opposition to such things as this, when it says “I wouldn’t thank you for a Valentine.” The writer is being very cynical about love here, thinking that to send such cards as this is a waste of time. This is someone who refuses to enter into such frivolities, believing that she “won’t wake up early wondering if the postman’s been should 10 red-padded satin hearts arrive with sticky sickly saccharine sentiments in very vulgar verses.” Clearly, to her, the very idea is vulgar and something that should be avoided, suggesting that here we have someone who has been hurt in the past and who now refuses to love or be loved. Doing such things, to her, will not result in success.

To her, the sender is a fake! She says she “wouldn’t wonder if you meant them” when you send the presents, because to her, it is a waste of time. Such things are for those fools out there who fail to see how much they are being conned into spending their money on worthless things that eventually, will be thrown away, eaten or wither away. To her, this is total idiocy!

One can understand her ideas about love if we find she has been hurt before. We assume that this is the case, especially as we consider the following words after someone sends “two dozen anonymous Interflora [delivery company] red roses” and she feels the despair of them, the death of them, the sense of decay all around her. She uses a word that is not a word when she also says that she would “not bother to swither over who sent them!” Why should she, she is thinking. To what end would it do her any good? Once again, she repeats the opening line with “I wouldn’t thank you for a Valentine” and the first verse comes to a circular end. The same line starts and ends the verse. This is done on purpose, to drive the point home.

Now she has done that, she has made her statement and she can settle down to have a gripe at this foolishness called love, as she believes it to be. She does so by suggesting that to “scrawl” the acronym of “SWALK across the envelope” which stands for SEALED WITH A LOVING KISS, seems a waste of effort because the sender is not going to get anywhere in doing so. The response that would come would be one of “Same Auld story,” as if this has happened before and the person who has sent has not learnt their lesson. Notice here the words “auld” and “canny” and try to figure out where this poet is from, or where the speaker hails from and you get dialect words being used. I live in the north east of England and people use the word “canny” here too, but not for “cannot” as such, but for something good, or something “canny,” so be careful when trying to translate.

The poet says she “canny [cannot] be bothered deciphering it” because she is “up to hear with Amore!” Amore being translated as “love” means she is fed up with love and its fake place in life. To her, “the whole Valentine’s Day Thing is trivial and commercial, a cue for unleashing clichés and candyheart motifs” which personally offend her. She is “not partial” to such things and is letting the world know about it too. Does this read as a polemic against love? Do some research and try to understand what I mean.

For her to be impressed would take “more than singing Telegrams, or pints of Chanel Five, or sweets” for she feels she cannot be bought with that kind of gift. She is not going to offer up her love just because someone spends a lot of money on Chanel No. 5. Neither would any of this nonsense “get [her] ordering oysters or ironing [her] black satin sheets” for some night time shenanigans to take place. Think about it! Oysters are supposed to be an aphrodisiac and precursor to love making. Forget it, she is saying and try to love with a purer love. Try to show and share something that is purer, but the thing is that there is nothing purer than true love and she fails to see this through every line of her poem, such is her bitterness towards the very idea of love. This is why she says “I wouldn’t thank you for a Valentine,” repeating the style of the end of the first verse at the end of the second in an attempt to sound even more annoyed at the concept of love shown in this manner.

Then, cynicism turns to black humour, dark humour, as she gives her responses to anyone who dare send her a gift on that horrible day. She says “if you sent me a solitaire and promises solemn, took out an ad in the Guardian Personal Column, saying something very soppy such as ‘Who Loves Ya, Poo?” then her response would be equally as daft and direct, leaving the sender in no uncertain terms as to what she thinks about such a card or message. She would respond with “I do, Fozzy bear, that’s who!” The use of a character from The Muppet Show who is usually derided for being not very clever [and who tells awful jokes] is an interesting choice. Perhaps she is saying the sender of such a card or message in the ‘Personals’ is as daft as Fozzy Bear? The sarcasm in those words is cutting, harsh to the sender and hurtful to anyone who hears the words. Such is her resentment at the very nature of love.

No matter what the man or woman tries, she knows that she would not be charmed in any way for inside her, she hates the idea and states that she “wouldn’t be eighteen again for anything.” She is glad such times are behind her. She is glad she is “past it,” reflecting her growing age and for the fact that she reiterates that she “wouldn’t thank you for a Valentine.” Note the repetition again. It is used as a technique, for dramatic effect. When you read it, you are supposed to add more venom into the line the further down the lines of poetry you read. By the end, it should be extra forceful, venomous, spiteful almost.

Then she says “if you sent me a single orchid,” which is usual in these times as it is a flower representing love, or “a pair of Janet Reger’s,” and “declared your Love Eternal,” then her answer would now be more spiteful than ever in that she would “rather not be caught dead in them.” Now for those students from another country, who may not understand the nuances used here, she is saying that normally, she would never want to wear such a thing [shoes at a guess] on any occasion because she is the more ‘practical’ kind of woman who prefers “something thermal” to wear rather than any fashion item. This is a hater of the traditional kind of love tokens sent on Valentine’s Day and clearly, she does not wish anyone to waste their time or money on her for she prefers the more mundane of things if someone is to give or send her a gift.

However, who of you would think of doing what comes next? Would you be the sort of person who would rent “a plane and [declare] love in a banner across the skies?” If this is the case, she is saying, then think again and if you bought her “something flimsy in a flatteringly wrong size,” then you might be getting closer to the right kind of gift. Her argument begins to soften towards the end [possibly] because of the last word of the poem and its duality of meaning in that she says that “if you sent me a postcard with three Xs and told me how you felt I wouldn’t thank you, I’d melt.” Now the word “melt” has two meanings. Nowhere in this last verse is there a mention of hot weather so the word “melt” cannot be taken to mean it is too hot and you feel like you are melting, a term used in the UK for sweating profusely. But, and it is a loose fitting “but,” the word “melt” can mean, in the context of love, that a person ‘melts’ by becoming more receptive to the sender’s advances.

So, with this in mind, it is clear to state that the opening verses [stanzas] of this poem are anti-love in the traditional sense of the word. If you send her tacky love tokens, then she will ignore your advances, but if you are bold enough to “blaze [your] love in a banner across the skies,” then she is prepared to think about it and ‘melt’ or ‘give in’ to your advances because in the end and with all things being equal, such a thing would be powerful to her where a pair of shoes or a tacky card would not.

Ask yourself, what is it that pleases you about Valentine’s Day? Is it the cards, the chocolates, the flowers, or just the fact that someone close to you is prepared to show how much they love you? For me, it is the latter. My Valentine will always be my true Valentine no matter how I go about sharing and showing my love for her, but it is nice, now and again, to do something outrageous, like organise a day out for her parachute jumping, [something she always wanted to do] to show her how much I care. This is why I appreciate this poem, because it discusses both sides of love; the tacky and sentimental versus the more sensible outpouring of the emotion.

Long Distance II

Long Distance II

Though my mother was already two years dead
Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas,
Put hot water bottles her side of the bed
And still went to renew her transport pass.

You couldn’t just drop in. You had to phone.
He’d put you off an hour to give him time
To clear away her things and look alone
As though his still raw love were such a crime.

He couldn’t risk my blight of disbelief
Though sure that very soon he’d hear her key
Scrape in the rusted lock and end his grief.
He knew she’d just popped out to get the tea.

I believe life ends with death, and that is all.
You haven’t both gone shopping; just the same,
In my new black leather phone book there’s your name
And the disconnected number I still call.



I wonder, what is the first thing you see about this poem?

Is it the shape, the rhyme, the words or is it the title itself? If it is the latter, then you will notice the use of the “II” at the end. What does that suggest, if not that there has been a first one of the same title? Presumably, the poet has already written one called “Long Distance” and this is the second effort. It may be linked to the first, or not, so do some research I beg you.

So, what is it about then?

Well, the first thing we see is that the speaker’s mother has been dead for two years but that this poem is about a father who seems to be living a lie, if he is still alive [you choose]. As a father, if my wife was to die, I would tell everyone I am okay, but the truth of the matter would be that I would be a wreck!

The poet says that “though my mother was already two years dead, Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas,” as if it was the best thing for him to do to keep her memory alive. The longer the marriage, the more that this is bound to happen. I have been married for thirty years now and if this happened to me, then there would be a huge amount of time where I would keep everything in its place that meant something to me as a link to her memory.

The father would “put hot water bottles [on] her side of the bed and still went to renew her transport pass.” Clearly, this is a man who is hurting because of his love for his wife and mother to his children. His life, in a sense, has ended. It all seems so pointless now because he has not got the love of his life there any more. It is quite a sad poem therefore.

This is a father for whom you “you couldn’t just drop in. You had to phone.” He has set up a network for his family and friends, who all know the rules for contacting him. Was this before the advent of social media, I wonder, for if it was, then that would make a lot of sense to me. Today, we contact each other on social media, like Twitter and Facebook, to see how our friends and family are, or we text them. If this was written before this time in our lives then we have to understand the isolation he is now feeling.

The poet says that “he’d put you off [for] an hour to give him time to clear away her things and look alone, as though his still raw love were such a crime.” Now you may ask why he would do that, why he would want to have his wife’s things on show when he is alone and not when others come. The truth is twofold; he does not want to share her memories and therefore does not want others to see her things and feel as if they need to do something for him in his loneliness. He just does not want the pity that comes from people in these moments.

Instead, he would put them off and wait for their arrival once everything is sorted out in his home, when all his wife’s things have been put away. Ask yourself the question; when someone comes to where you live, does the house get sorted and cleared if you know someone is coming? There is a part of this here, but he does not want the questions either and is happy to put things back again when the visitors have departed. He does this in order to not “risk [the] blight of disbelief” from his child/ren or friends even though there would no doubt be a time when “very soon he’d hear [the] key scrape in the rusted lock and end his grief.”

Now, ask yourself the question, is the father now dead as well? The line that reads “he knew she’d just popped out to get the tea” suggests this may be the case and the child is looking back over the last two years since the mother’s death [after the father’s death]. Or is the father still alive and thinking that when he hears “her key’ in the door, [put there by the child visiting] that it is his wife simply returning, a sign of false hope in his heart that she is not dead? I shall let you decide on that one, for with poetry, there is no wrong answer and it depends on your life experience and how you live life and understand its complexities.

Look at the last verse, which is where the truth of this poem, according to the poet, emerges onto the paper. The poet says “I believe life ends with death, and that is all.” This is one very dry way of looking at life, leaving those who are left with little hope for the future. We live. We love. We die. That is the end. The poet expresses the frustration that comes from such a belief saying “you haven’t both gone shopping” as if to dispel the practices of her father when the mother was dead.

But then we get the last section, where the poet states that “in my new black leather phone book there’s your name and the disconnected number I still call.” Now this does suggest that father has died and child is looking at the father’s life since the mother passed, how their love and their relationship is a symbol of true love, of how love should be but also, of the desperation that love and then loss can bring. It is, therefore, a very powerful poem indeed. S/he feels the pain and the loss of the father and the mother and still rings the number. I have heard of this, where someone will keep the mobile phone of the deceased, so as to ring them up and listen to their voicemail message, just to hear the voice once again after they have died. It is such a powerful emotion, this love that suffers loss.

Morning Song – Sylvia Plath [OCR]

Now, what do you know about Sylvia Plath? If the answer, as I suspect, is not a lot, then you need to do some research. Find out which poet she was married to, what her emotional life was like, how she wrote things that inspired her and how she ended this life, for all that is important when considering the elements in this poem.

I say that as a father, but you see, I adopted. I have never experienced the utter joy of being a father when the baby is minutes old and as much as I see things on television about that joy, I cannot relate to it. I can only think how I felt the first time I saw my son, who is now 24. He was 4 at the time. If the effect of seeing him is anything like the joy of knowing I am going to be a father, then it is joyous indeed. But I also know the pain of losing a child as well so I feel I can relate to how a person might feel, man or woman, who has given birth to a child and who is experiencing problems with that child. Just as much as we experienced issues when at the age of five and six, so to does a new mother when the baby is feeding and needing its mother.

So when I read this poem and I get to the reference to feeling “cow-heavy” I remember back to when I was younger and how my two wore me down to the bottom of my soul at times, to moments where you just want your life to end, or at best, change for the better. Plath’s poem reminds me of these feelings of woe and as we go through each line, I will show you why. Hang on to your emotions; this could be a bumpy ride.

Plath’s poem is called “Morning Song” which in itself, suggests either a song of joy, or a song of pain. Just by using the title [you will have seen me do this on other posts] what you expect to follow is something quite positive, about the joys of hearing the little one in the morning, or the woes of hearing and then having to deal with the issue, day in, day out. It could be about either. At what point in the poem, when you read it, do you see the despair in her voice as a mother?

Here is the poem….

screenshot-2016-12-25-at-21-52-36Starting with a simile, she says that “love started you going like a fat gold watch.” What a way to start a poem! The very first word is a word of love for her baby child, just as it should be. It was love that begot the child and love that carried the child and love that bore the child, kicking and screaming its usual way into the big wide world. We even see a secondary figure of the midwife, slapping the soles of the feet to get a breathing response. Anyone who has seen a birth, or watched one on television [or even in dramatised form like Call The Midwife] will see and know that there are techniques used to get the baby squealing its lungs out to signal its entry into the world. This is how this starts and it continues in the same vein in the next few lines.

We hear how the child’s “bald cry took its place among the elements.” As an image in the mind, this is so evocative of new birth and the way the baby looks. Not many appear with a shock of hair. It can happen but is not often the case. So the baby has very little hair, hence the relevance to being “bald” but we also see that line four heralds the arrival of the new-born with the words “our voices echo, magnifying your arrival” into the world.

She sees the room as a “draughty museum,” somewhere sterile more than likely and reminiscent of a museum, where loud noises are frowned upon during the day, where one has to behave oneself, where the baby’s naked form shows their sense of safety. The visitors to the hospital or place where the birth has taken place stand around like statues, admiring, looking on, sharing in the joy of the occasion. But they stand round, “blankly as walls.” In these places, the walls are usually blank because of risk of infection. There is the sense and feeling of everything needing to be sterile, germ free and safe and it is more than likely this that makes us behave when in hospital, or feel as if we have to, to get better [and have a free life while there].

“Blankly as walls” is such a powerful image in the mind of the reader when you think about it. When you go to visit someone who has just given birth, you go to give your regards, maybe see the baby, but you do not expect to pick the baby up, unless you are the father, so you end up standing there feeling useless, waiting for the time to head for the lifts again, or the stairs, to relative safety. This is the feeling being mentally engraved into the mind of the reader.


Then the speaker, presumably Plath, says that she is “no longer” the mother to the baby than the next person, or the cloud on a mirror as it brings back a sense of clarity. She does not feel like a mother should. Again, perfectly normal. She may even be suffering from a form of post natal issue here, causing her to feel down, or perhaps, she is just so tired from the constant lack of sleep that is so famously linked with having a baby of your own. But there is still the sense of love there in their relationship, even if the mother feels inadequate at being the mother to the child.

And as the sea moves in her ear at night, she listens for the sound of the child as s/he sleeps. This is what new mothers do in some cases, for they want to be the best they can as a Mum for their new baby. The last thing we want is to fail at being a mother [or father] when something so small depends solely on us for its life to progress. And the mother shows her true love for the baby at the first shout or scream from its lungs. We see the words “one cry and I stumble from bed,” signifying how tired she is. When we stumble, we do so because we are exhausted, so perhaps this is a poem that shares the autobiographical sense because it relates to of one of Plath’s two children. Is she expressing how she struggled with one of them? It can happen and as I have said elsewhere, for a poet, the act of writing is cathartic in that it helps us get rid of our bad feelings, or angst about life and how bad it can be. Some folk shout out the swear words. Poets tend to write them, but usually, with style and venom.

This sense of despair is heightened as we continue in the poem, seeing that she is “cow-heavy” and in a “pink Victorian night gown.” It is yet again, a picture being formed in the mind of the reader, of someone who is finding this new thing of being a mother hard going. That is life I am afraid and sometimes, new Mums do struggle and suffer. It is a sad fact of life. And as the child’s “mouth opens clean as a cat’s” we see the continuance of her struggle in that the child “tries its handful of notes,” meaning that it senses it needs something, so the “morning song” starts once again, as baby needs to be fed, or worse still, has to have something changed.

I remember changing nappies for friends who had babies. They taught me how to do it and said I was a natural. I think they were “being nice,” but I will never know. It is incredible how much such a small thing as a baby relies on us who are older and maturer to have things done for it, but because there is a language barrier, when we as parents get it wrong, a baby will let us know about it in no uncertain terms. “The clear vowels [a, e, i, o, u] rise like balloons” is perhaps, a strange way to put it, but then again, balloons brought to the baby’s side tend to be filled with helium don’t they, and they rise upwards in celebration. Perhaps what Plath is saying here is that the baby’s joy and celebration of being alive and in this world is opposed by the mother’s depression when things are going wrong, or of tiredness when the baby is simply being too demanding.

One thing is for certain and that it the fact that the speaker, or Plath herself, assuming this is autobiographical, is suffering in this poem from the tiredness and despair that being a Mum can be. What she needs is rest, reassurance that she is a good mother and the chance to recharge her batteries, but she is obviously not getting any of that going on the words used in this poem. What the poem leaves you with, after you have read it, is a sense that something bad is about to follow, at some point, that fear and despair will take over and make the mother go inwards, into depression, fear and mistrust of others. Or maybe that is me thinking this because I know how Plath died?

Now when that happens and a parent becomes so suicidal, it is a great pity, for we should, as families and friends, give as much support as we can, to new mothers who are struggling like this. This is why this poem is so good at showing the need for love, the joy of love to bring something into the world and how that love can get chipped away at by something that can wreck a person’s life; a baby.

Love After Love – Derek Walcott

There are times when I think I have done an analysis on a poem and when I check the website, I find I am wrong. This poem is one of those moments and I know why, for this is, I think, another where I have taught it, I think in a section of poems from other cultures. Now if I am correct in my assumption, then as students, you need to be careful in how you analyse this one. I know in previous posts I have said that you should read up on the poet and in this instance, I urge you now to do so, before you read on. It will illuminate your thinking.

Here is the poem…

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.


Derek Walcott is from St. Lucia in the West Indies, or as Cricketers know it, the Windies. His full name and title is Sir Derek Alton Walcott and he was born in 1930. He is a poet and playwright, a Professor at Essex University teaching Poetry and is of African and European descent. That mixture of ethnic diversity will play into his works in one way or another.

Here, we see a poem about love, but can we call it a ‘love poem?’

“Time will come” he says, “when, with elation you will greet yourself arriving at your own door, in your own mirror and each will smile at the other’s welcome and say, sit here. Eat.” It is a strange opening for a poem but one that is arresting as well, making the poet think about who is speaking. Is it the poet himself or is this addressed more widely at all the readership? There is a sense here of the poet saying that there will come a time when you have to look at yourself in the mirror and love yourself, because if you fail to do that, then how can you hope to love others out there in the world?

He continues by adding that one day “you will love again the stranger who was your self.” This is a clear reference to the reader, not necessarily the poet himself so this is indeed a polemic, a learning tool for those whi cannot love. Love first, he is saying, before you can love others, for without love we are nothing. At that time, he says, you will be able to “give wine” and give “bread.” You will be able to “give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life.” There is a sense in us all that we are narcissistic, or in other words, we love to preen ourselves, to be the best, to look the best, but he is saying that this can cause issues with loving others if it is taken too far to the extreme. By loving only self means that “you ignored” others and that is a pity.

For in all of this, the one “who knows you by heart” is the one who knows, or should do, how to give and receive love. But for most of us, this is an issue we need to face, for we feel we cannot trust someone because we have been hurt or let down in the past. A love gone bad can cause a hatred in a person. I know that for ten years, from sixteen to twenty six, I went through something similar because of something terrible happening when I was sixteen. Could I love others? No, because I could not love myself. I was at that point in life where a tipping point came when I met the woman who I have now been married to for over thirty years and whom I love and adore. Then, I would not be able to make changes. When this new woman began to love me and I began to trust her, then I was able to “take down the love letters from the bookshelf,” or in my words, begin to love and trust again.

This is what this poem is so good at showing, that we need to see past ourselves, past the pain and into somewhere where there is the chance to love. Forget all the old “photographs, the desperate notes,” says the poet, when these times are upon you. Do not listen to the hate in the mid, the distrust in the heart, for that will guide you away from love. Instead, what we are to do is “peel [our] own image from the mirror,” taking the stress away and simply “sit” and as we do so, we then can begin to “feast on [our] life.” Then, when we are open again to the chances of love, we can find the kind of love that lasts, the kind of expression that shows itself in love and experience the kind of relationships that are grounded in love.

In essence, there is a matter of equilibrium to love and loving, according to Walcott. Imagine, if you will, a see saw, Normally there is a child on one end and a child on the other. If one is ten years old and the other five, then one end will be up all the time due to weight and age. If the two children are twins, of the same age and family, of the same weight, then providing the middle is balanced at a good fulcrum [triangle] both shall be level with each other. It is the same with love, according to this poem because if we have an equal propensity to love and our distrust is not outweighed by our ability to love, then we shall do well in the love and relationship stakes. If we are not like this and cannot trust, then it stands to reason that we will suffer until we get something sorted out.

Walcott’s poem is therefore, a warning to us all to do the best, be the best and love the best, in the best way we can. With his time in Britain, can we label this with all the other British poems and poets? Or is his belief about love and relationships one that has come from his African and European heritage? The answer to that will depend on your future research.

Over to you, to study this man and his poetry more.



An Arundel Tomb – Philip Larkin


The first thing anyone should do when researching this one is what they should do for all of these poems and that is research the life and works of the poet, where they lived, in what era, through which wars, to see how the world was very different to what it is now. Even if they are still alive and writing, one has to know this information to readily understand why a poet puts pen to paper. I know from my perspective as a writer, novelist, playwright [just starting] and published poet, that when something inspires me in life, I put pen to paper, or nowadays, hit the computer and open up Google Docs. An event like 9.11 can inspire me to write something about the victims or a hate filled rage poem at the horror inflicted on the world. Likewise, a Year 7 parents’ evening at my school where I used to teach left me with a few minutes where parents who wanted to see me were talking to other teachers and it gave me rest, so I wrote two poems in quick succession; one being called Grasp The Nettle, about how we should cherish our children, for we only have them on temporary loan as it were.


So, with that in mind, let us now look at this poem by Philip Larkin, a very famous poet indeed. He writes a poem about a tomb, about how love itself is portrayed in the figures of the two dead people in the tomb, because he has seen that there is a closeness in the sculpture and he sees that as being emblematic of true love, real love, not this wishy washy watered down version we see today at times, especially on the television.

Here is the poem…

An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd—
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.


This is one of my favourite poems of all time to teach in a key stage three setting. I have so many fond memories of teaching it to Year 9 groups [14 yrs old]. They may struggle with some of the language and imagery, but as an introduction to how to analyse at GCSE for Year 10 onwards, there is not much better than this.

Note please, how it begins. The title in three words puts us in the place itself. A tomb. Presumably in Arundel. Easy. We know what to expect. But what are tombs actually like? What is this one like? What do you expect it to be like assuming you had never read this poem? These are all questions I would ask before the students even see the poem. Title analysis is important after all.

Verse 1 begins with these words, “Side by side, their faces blurred, the earl and countess lie in stone.” What better way to start by showing the love that an Earl and his Countess had when they were alive than representing them both in stone? They are buried side by side which shows closeness. My Grandparents are one on top of the other in their grave. Not side by side. This is because they died 32 years apart from each other, but this edifice shows them side by side, as they were in life. But their faces are “blurred” which suggests the tomb is old and the carvings for their faces have weathered badly, being worn down by normal weather and possibly even, people touching the faces, body line etc of the couple, in the paying of their respect. It is a beautiful way to begin a poem about love.


But be careful with the language contained herein because some of it can be confusing, especially if you are studying this from somewhere outside the UK. Words like  “their proper habits” can lead you to thinking about habitually derived things they do when in fact, it is ambiguous in that the word “habits” can be about clothing as well and as you, as a visitor, are looking at two effigies carved in stone, you will see them lying there, side by side, in peace with their maker. But the effigies show “jointed armour, stiffened pleat and that faint hint of the absurd, the little dogs under their feet.” Do not forget, this is an Earl and a Countess you are viewing when you visit their tomb. They were the Landed Gentry of their time, the land owners, rich and powerful people who have now passed into heritage and the next life.

So, as a visitor, you are there seeing these two images carved in stone. The style of the carving is “pre-baroque” [another thing to Google]. Baroque style is quite grand and magnificent, so it is before that time that the sculptor has decided to show them and as you view them in reality, there is nothing much you see until your eye “meets his left-hand gauntlet, still clasped empty … ” and you see “with a sharp tender shock, his hand withdrawn, holding her hand.” The symbolism is obvious here. The reference to their love when they were alive is evident. Hand holding in English culture signifies attachment and love in many forms so the sculptor has decided to immortalise them in their love. But, you would think, standing there, “they would not think to lie so long” should they know how they have been set in stone, “such faithfulness in effigy” for all their friends to see. It is the “sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace” that has been used here to keep the carvings in line with the rest of the tomb, which has “Latin names around the base.” The pre-Baroque style is evidently grand in style and opulent to the eye.


The next verse adds to this wondrous sight by asking the visitor to the tomb, or the reader of the poem, to consider just what time does to such carvings as this. The problem with effigies is that they wither and fade away over time and this is happening here. Visitors do not “guess how early in their supine stationary voyage,” itself a beautiful use of the English language, how the “air would change [them both] to soundless damage.” As such, and as time has gone on, these two have been slowly withering away and those that have visited have looked, “not read.”

Now to all you die hard poetry fans, there is one simple rule with poetry and that is this: THERE ARE NO RULES.  A poet can twist and turn the rules on their heads and Larkin does that here, at the end of the verse. You would expect the words “Rigidly they” to be on the next line down but he wants to use some enjambement to keep the piece going, almost as if he wants to keep their love going, so one becomes symbolic of the other. As such, the words trip on, using no punctuation at the end of the line [enjambement] to make the reader immediately read the next line as being part of what has gone before it. Clever poet!

“Rigidly they persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths of time” symbolises how their love has continued to this day, even though snow has fallen and light has “thronged [shone through] the glass” in the window to the church to rest on them. All manner of things have happened as they have lain there in their love; “a bright litter of bird calls,” along with “endless altered people” coming to view them, altered by what they have seen as they walk away.  Such is the beauty of their love for each other shown in these carvings. But as these things have happened, there has been a sense of time “washing at their identity.” Through all that time, they have laid there, in their supine splendour, “helpless in the hollow of an unarmorial age.” Armorial is a reference to armour worn by the man in the carving. This is something we do not do now, so we live in an “unarmorial age.” To the visitor, who has walked by their grave, “only an attitude remains” because “time has transfigured them into untruth.” In a way, Larkin is saying that now, they do not fit in with the modern age any more.

I disagree!

This is because in the modern age, we need to look back to the past and the days of yore and learn from them, learn our mistakes, learn how we did things right and correct and then move on using those learnt lessons. As such, if we were to do that, any “stone fidelity” would be worth the visit by anyone and not just become an old relic of time. Theirs, according to the poet, has “come to be their final blazon” and as such, almost proves that our “almost-instinct,” that hint of gut feeling we have as humans, has become “almost true.”

Notice the use of the colons at the end of these verses and lines as well, for they invite us on, to read the next line as a list, like the use of enjambement, in this case a list of one, a message to us all that “what will survive of us is love.” When we have gone and are buried, or cremated, or whatever we choose to do with our mortal bodies, one thing will remain, says this poet and that is our love for each other, in this instance, our families and our friends. When those who remember us after we have gone think of us, let them think of one thing only, our capacity to love!

The Sorrow Of True Love

The Sorrow of True Love

The sorrow of true love is a great sorrow
And true love parting blackens a bright morrow:
Yet almost they equal joys, since their despair
Is but hope blinded by its tears, and clear
Above the storm the heavens wait to be seen.
But greater sorrow from less love has been
That can mistake lack of despair for hope
And knows not tempest and the perfect scope
Of summer, but a frozen drizzle perpetual
Of drops that from remorse and pity fall
And cannot ever shine in the sun or thaw,
Removed eternally from the sun’s law.

EDWARD THOMAS (1878–1917)


Okay so here we have another of these love poems and so far we have seen that they are usually about love that is unrequited, not the sort of love that is shared between two people. When you think about pop music over the last fifty years or so, and even before that, what is mostly the case is that the songs are love songs but they usually state how someone has fallen out of love with someone else. Love is always, or mostly, brought to life as a destructive force and the positive ones are usually left for church music, gospel tracks etc. So, the buying public are used to buying them and think nothing but negative things about the concept of love.

So now we get this one. The first line fits in with the theory of love poems generally being about broken love, fake relationships, love that is lost or not returned. What is it about humanity that we feed off this kind of emotion? Why cannot we celebrate the love that we have for things and for each other? The speaker in this poem says that “the sorrow of true love is a great sorrow” which in itself is a negative statement from the beginning of the poem. In essence, this is saying that love is painful. Love is something that makes you hurt. Love is unkind, which goes against everything that we know from sacred texts which suggest that love is kind, not self seeking etc. True love’s “parting blackens a bright morrow,” or makes everything that happens tomorrow worthless. Clearly this person has experienced the heartache that love can bring when it ends.

However, in the lines that follow there is a duality of expressions all about love. The speaker says that love and heartache are equal in their joys because their “their despair is but hope blinded by its tears.” No matter what we do or say, the speaker is saying that love is both good and bad, the yin and the yang of life, the one thing that keeps life going. “Clear above the storm the heavens wait to be seen,” proving that love and loving is like a storm here on earth. Love can be like a storm is an interesting image in the mind of the reader because storms are usually violent and destructive. If we think about how we name Hurricanes across the world, then we can begin to see what the poet is trying to say; love is indeed complex and hard to fathom, or understand.

Then, thinks the poet, there is a danger in mixing up sorrow “from less love” and that the “mistake” can be made to think that there is a possibility to see “lack of despair for hope” because of the fact that we fail to see love as it really is, a two edged sword that can be used to bless and abuse. The “tempest and the perfect scope of summer” is a powerful image, pitting one thing against another, as a simile would do, but in this instance, it is designed to show us the opposites that love brings to any relationship. As the poem continues, we see the images of “frozen drizzle” that is “perpetual” and of “drops that from remorse and pity: fall in ways that reflect the nature and complexity of love. These things “cannot ever shine in the sun or thaw” because if they do, then what is “removed eternally from the sun’s law” becomes something that loses its sense of being and purpose.

In essence, the poet is using imagery to compare love to certain things and is saying that in the end, love can bring joy and pain. It can bring peace and heartache, sometimes one minute after the other. Love can make a marriage and it can leave a marriage bereft and in need of help and assistance. Love can be a blessing and a curse. These dualities are important to consider when we think about love ourself. Do yourself a favour and make a chart that is two columns wide and a full page in length. Then put “LOVE IS” at the top of each column. For the left one, put all the positives you can. Love is kind etc. On the right column, add in words to describe love in the negative. When you have the page complete, you will begin to see just how complex love and relationships really are. That is what this poet is trying to evoke in us as readers, a sense that love can be both good and bad in our life.