She Walks In Beauty – Lord Byron

She Walks In Beauty

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellow’d to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impair’d the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!

Analysis

Have a look at this video clip before you read any further.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_zCOJOgd4U 

When it comes to poems, this is one of the most quoted poems of all time, especially the title. Anyone who is anything in the world of literature has heard the phrase “she walks in beauty as the night.” Mega famous poetry at its best! But what is it actually about? What is going on with some of the language in there? It does sound dated and faded by today’s more harsher standards doesn’t it? I mean, even the title seems a little off putting to a modern audience.

“She walks in beauty, as the night….” Can someone come up with a better, more trendy title please?

But I digress and I jest. It is a poem worthy of your time and it is about the innocence of a loving heart. It starts with those now famous words, “She walks in beauty, like the night,” so we know it is about someone the poet either loves, or admires from afar even or even has just met for the first time. He was a romantic poet after all. She walks “in beauty” signifies that she is a true beauty indeed, something special in Byron’s eyes and walks in this state of grace, “like the night.” But the next line gives more depth to this wonder he knows, for we see the words: “of cloudless climes and starry skies.” When there is not a cloud in the sky, the vision before us is wondrous to behold, when the stars are fully out and you can see the wonders of creation, however it came about.

This is someone beautiful indeed.

But there is more when it comes to her description, because “all that’s best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes.” The word “aspect” is a reference to her looks, her manner, her whole way of being and as far as Byron is concerned, this is perfection indeed. She might be an average lady he knows, by our standards, but his love covers that and he sees her as a vision of beauty, his muse almost, the thing that inspires him to write. We poets need to have something happen for us to feel inspired enough to write a poem.

All that is good, all that is graceful. All that is wondrous. That is where he places his love upon the brow of this unknown lady. She is “mellow’d to that tender light which heaven to gaudy day denies.”

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These are odd words by today’s standards of English so we have to treat them as an example of archaic language even if there is not an example of words like “thee” or “thy” to put us off reading it. Then we get the words, “one shade the more, one ray the less, had half impair’d the nameless grace which waves in every raven tress, or softly lightens o’er her face; where thoughts serenely sweet express how pure, how dear their dwelling-place.” They seem too hard for some people, which is another reason why I despair at the modern exam boards putting poems in that some will be able to read and understand, but where the rest will struggle and be put off poetry altogether. There are examples of poems that could be studied that would help the people of this planet to appreciate poetry more, even as good as this one is.

But as much as the rest can be confusing, what you need to get in your head is that this is a love poem par excellence, that was written just after Byron had met a young lady at a party one evening. A short google search on wikipedia, as dodgy as wiki can be, will give you these words:

She Walks in Beauty” is a short lyrical poem in iambic tetrameter written in 1813 by Lord Byron, and is one of his most famous works. It is said to have been inspired by an event in Byron’s life; while at a ball, Byron met his cousin by marriage through John Wilmot.”

But then, if you type in a slightly different request into Google, you get this…

“Lord Byron was the 6th Baron Byron. The poem was written in response to seeing his cousin, Lady Wilmot Horton, in a mourning dress at a party of Lady Sitwell’s on June 11, 1814. The poem was written by the next morning. It was published in Hebrew Melodies in 1815.”

So this begs a question then, one which has been asked for some time and will be asked for some time to come. It is a simple question and it is this. Is there such a thing as love at first sight?

I can answer that in the affirmative, for as soon as I saw my wife, I knew she was the one for me. I knew that the light shining on “that cheek, and o’er that brow” was enough for me to fall madly in love at that moment and so, after three days, I asked her to marry me and she said yes. Well, she actually told me I was not doing it right, so I had to get on one knee. She told me, both knees, so I did and I have been hooked ever since. I look at her and see what Byron saw in this mysterious young lady, her face “so soft,” and her manner “so calm,” unlike mine and “yet eloquent to the nth degree. I see “the smiles that win, the tints that glow” every time I look at her for she drives me mad, both good and bad, at times. But my love for her endures through thick and thin. I have even written poetry for her, which she adores.

So when I see this poem, it reminds me of when we first met, through a dating agency we both joined to see if they worked, to have a giggle as it were. Several months later, three to be precise, we were married and that was November 1986. Since that day, she has been the centre of my existence, the one person who has stood by my side when everyone else has fled, especially when the tough days and the Dog Days have been with us. We have both had ample opportunity to flee, but choose to stay together because the love we have for each other is pure and innocent and perfect!

That is what I see here in this poem, an immediate infatuation with the young lady he met at the party, to the point where he can feel he can express the deepest of emotions more or less straight away. He can tell of “days in goodness spent” with a woman whose mind is “at peace with all below [her]” in social standing and who has “a heart whose love is innocent.” Note the use of the exclamation mark at the end as well, for it is like he is feeling so passionate towards her he feels he has to ram the point of her grace and beauty home. She is perfection, after all. Do not be deceived by the word “passion” used in my analysis either. This is passion of both kinds; for her and towards her. His love is pure and his intentions good and honourable, even if we do things differently these days. Make no mistake. He loves this beautiful young lady. 

It is therefore, a poem that is difficult to grasp, but it is also one that expresses the deepest of emotions in such a gorgeous way, sharing his immediate affection for her, along with a big lump of passion as well. It is a poem that reflects the notion of love at first sight, but unless you do some research, you will never know if that love was ever reciprocated.

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My Father Would Not Show Us

My Father Would Not Show Us

[Which way do we face to talk to the dead?]

Dedicated to: Rainer Maria Rilke 

My father’s face
five days dead
is organised for me to see.

It’s cold in here
and the borrowed coffin gleams unnaturally;
the pine one has not yet been delivered.

Half-expected this inverted face
but not the soft, for some reason
unfrozen collar of his striped pyjamas.

This is the last time I am allowed
to remember my childhood as it might have been:
a louder, braver place,
crowded, a house with a tin roof
being hailed upon, and voices rising,
my father’s wry smile, his half-turned face.

My father would not show us how to die.
He hid, he hid away.
Behind the curtains where his life had been,
the florist’s flowers curling into spring,
he lay inside, he lay.

He could recall the rag-and-bone man
passing his mother’s gate in the morning light.
Now the tunnelling sound of the dogs next door;
everything he hears is white.

My father could not show us how to die.
He turned, he turned away.
Under the counterpane, without one call
or word or name,
face to the wall, he lay.

Ingrid de Kok

Analysis

I remember when my father died. I was at home and we had not spoken for over three years due to separation and when the call came in I went to see my mother and sort out the funeral arrangements. Disregarding my relationship in his later years, with my father, the one thing I chose to do was go and say my own goodbye. I had lived in the hope that he would see the error of tearing into my wife one day and apologise, but as that was not his way, he chose the opposite, well trodden path instead of the one less travelled. In the end, it was me and him in a cold room, him with eyes closed and made up to resemble something of the man he was in life. But the image was a lie. The good was there but the bad wasn’t because the pain of life has long since gone due to heart failure.

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So, when I come to a poem like this, the memories of that day come flooding back. I see the poem and its dedication to the Austrian poet and novelist and I see the words that follow and I think of one thing; my own father there in that box. Whether it was the box he would go to the chamber in, to be cremated, I have no idea. But here is a poem that deals with the relationship we all have, with death.

So, what can we make of it for our studies? We can look at all the rhymes and structure, broken as it is to represent the brokenness of death, but we need to understand the relationship more to be able to see what the poet is trying to say. Entitled “My Father Would Not Show Us,” it is an intriguing title. Would not show us what? The title is a little misleading but that will change because what we see next is almost a subtitle, where we see the words, “Which way do we face to talk to the dead?” If you were intrigued by the title, how much more can you be intrigued by the subtitle? Then, we get the dedication to Rainer Maria Rilke, the Austrian poet and German speaking novelist. He was born in 1875 and died in 1926 and came from Bohemia, or Prague as we know it now. A truly beautiful place; enough to get the poet going in any of us.

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Now when we read the poem for the first time, if our eyes do not raise heavenward, then there must be something wrong, for here is a man who did the exact opposite to that what his children wanted in life and especially, in death. We see the words, “my father’s face five days dead is organised for me to see.” This is a natural thing to see in the funeral parlour, or the room where he is laid for her to visit, but there is something about the room that is important. She says “it’s cold in here,” which is significant because it has to be cold for the body not to give off too many odours, I assume, but it is also a metaphor for the coldness that is death. When death comes, the body loses its lower and lustre, so coldness comes with rigor mortis and decay.

The coffin that he is in is interesting too. We see how “the borrowed coffin gleams unnaturally” because “the pine one has not yet been delivered.” In order for her to see him like this, they have to put him in something, so they give him the best they have, the gleaming wood of some rich man’s coffin, or maybe, even the best display coffin, but she knows that it will not be the one he is buried in.

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She says that she “half-expected this inverted face” which again needs mentioning. This is normal in death, where the muscles relax and unless the body is preserved, the face will contort away from flatness and smile, to that of an inverted upside down U shaped smile. She says she expects to see this which reflects something of the life of the man. She saw it in life so it comes as no surprise it is there in death. But she is not expecting to see the “unfrozen collar of his striped pyjamas.” Whoever has prepared the body has not been able to get him fully dressed and she notes the difference and the expectation of both.  

Then, when she has looked past that, she realises something profound; she says “this is the last time I am allowed to remember my childhood as it might have been: a louder, braver place.” Now we see her thinking of how much better life would have been had her father taken so much more of an interest in the things he was doing and those of his children. This is the last time she will see him. This is where the memories flow like raging waters sometimes. They did with me. In the end, all I could say to my father was that he need not worry, that I would look after Mum. I promised. But he was dead and could not hear me. I said it anyway.

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Here, in this poem, we see her thinking of a “house with a tin roof being hailed upon, and voices rising, [her] father’s wry smile, his half-turned face.” Note that this is what she wanted, not what she is getting. In life, she wanted the upturned or half turned face. She wanted the smile, but she never got it. Instead, she says, “my father would not show us how to die. He hid, he hid away.” This is the death of a recluse, someone who wanted to simply be alone with his life, with his thoughts, someone who was possibly disturbed in mind so that he could not be the father that she so badly wanted.

Then she tells us something of his life, where “behind the curtains … his life had been” one of “the florist’s flowers curling into spring,” itself a symbol of death and decay as “he lay inside, he lay.” This is someone who has become inverted just like the face he is pulling in death. This is the sort of person who wanted to be alone in life and is quite happy to be so in death. No one else mattered for him in life so no one matters to him as he is laid there. This is a fact of life for some of us.  

But the speaker states how in life, “he could recall the rag-and-bone man passing his mother’s gate in the morning light.” So now we get something of the man, a person who looked back always, in life and saw the better things in the past. It hints at the idea that this is a man whose life has turned sour, reflected in his face as he lies in death. Now, all things have ended and we are shown the image of the “tunnelling sound of the dogs next door” and that “everything he hears is white” now. Well of course it is. There is nothing more for him here at all.

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If that was not obvious enough for the reader, the next line hammers it home like someone hammering the nails in the coffin of his life. The poet tells us how her father “could not show us how to die. He turned, he turned away.” He turned away from life, from love, from relationships, from those who wanted to love him so much and for me, this tells me one thing; this man has done something so terrible in life in the past that he looks at what he has done [possibly to his family] and he finds he cannot encounter them again without feeling the pain. Or, the situation was in the opposite, for when someone does something so bad to another, we tend to shut down on them don’t we? I know that those who do something terrible to me or my loved ones are shut out from my life, which is just what happened with my father.

So this, for me, is a poignant poem in that it makes me think of my own relationship with my father. He chose to live “under the counterpane, without one call or word or name” for so long that he might as well have had his “face to the wall” because that is what he did to his son, his daughter in law, his only Grandchildren he could see and visit. The rest live abroad you see, but he had said pointedly in the past that he never wanted children, so he was making his choice that day. Did he expect me to back down? Possibly, but it was a better life without him than with.

In the end, the one thing from this poem that intrigues me is the way the poet says he has his “face towards the wall” where “he lay.” Now, go back to the beginning of the poem and the subtitle and ask yourself this question. Why did she write that line? Why did she write “which way do we face to talk to the dead?” The answer lies in the direction he is facing in life, towards the wall, away from her, so she is now ironically asking if there is a direction she should adopt to speak with him now he is dead. It is an interesting question, for me, for how do we speak to those who are deceased?

I remember going to see my father and I remember seeing him there, all fake and nice and I remember talking those eight words. “Don’t worry Dad. I’ll look after Mum now.” There was a fondness in my voice, but also a tinge of regret that neither of us had the gumption to step down from our lofty towers and sort our issues out. In the end, I am keeping my promise and I shall keep my promise until the day that I have to go and see my Mum in the same place and the same position. That is what love is all about.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheek a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful – a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said –
‘I love thee true’.

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lulled me asleep
And there I dreamed –
Ah! woe betide! –
The latest dream I ever dreamt

On the cold hill side. I saw pale kings, and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Thee hath in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

John Keats

Analysis

There are poems that are easy enough to study at GCSE and then there are poems that just need to be avoided. This, for me, is one of those heritage poems that someone has added into the anthology and it causes me, and other teachers too I am sure, to shake their heads in wonder. Another one is My Last Duchess. But they are quality poems and worthy of study; that is for sure. Personally, they are best suited to A Level for their complexity rather than GCSE so I apologise if you have a teacher who sees this and thinks ooooh, lovely, I shall teach that to my group and enjoy myself.

So what is happening in this poem? What is it about? And what else can be gleaned from it in terms of metaphor or underlying meaning? Well, the title alone is confusing unless you can translate it. La Belle Dame Sans Merci, translated into English, in my pigeon French, word for word, would be The Beautiful Woman Without Thanks because ‘merci’ is part of the thank you comment we make. But that is how French and English work isn’t it? They never translate in the same word order and here, we have a final word that has a different translation. So, a better translation is The Beautiful Woman Without Mercy, which is a different thing altogether. It is a classic poem by Keats that has been read, recited, acted out ad infinitum [forever and a day] since it was written and is considered one of the best ever by some.

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The way it begins is interesting because it starts with “O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, alone and palely loitering?” That question contains lots of information for the reader, who sees a knight at arms, someone set back in the medieval period who is alone and ‘loitering’ or waiting [possibly] for the next thing to happen, whatever that might be. “What can ail thee” contains another archaism in the word ‘thee’ which means ‘you’ and so the medieval knight is being asked, what can make you feel so bad or worry you?

An interesting start, but which way does it go after that. The reader is thinking will it be negative, or positive in tone? The next thing to ask is about this man? We have the man but we do not have the setting; part of the who, where, when list etc. But we are then told that “the sedge has withered from the lake and no birds sing.” The word ‘sedge’ means a grass like plant with triangular stems [now I know why Sedgefield is named as it is] so we have a knight, by the side of a lake, where Sedge grows, in wetlands, waiting for something.

Is there a connection already to the Arthurian legend?

Then we see the use of repetition, with the words, “O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,” which is used to emphasise the man and his setting, with a hint of balladic romance set in there as well. But now we see that he is “so haggard and so woe-begone.” He is demoralised and sad, let down by something or someone somehow. Perhaps, the man has been on a quest for so long, he just feels so tired and alone now. So, we have the man, the setting, the tone; all negative. Add to that the image of the “squirrel’s granary [being] full and the harvest’s done” and you get a time of year as well to consider.

Is the man a former knight at arms and now working the field, or there simply waiting for his lady? We consider that because of the title, but need to read on to see the next piece of information. “I see a lily on thy brow,” says the poet, “with anguish moist and fever-dew and on thy cheek a fading rose, fast withereth too.” What can be seen here? What else is in this image? There is the lily on the brow, but the lily is a flower meant to represent humility and devotion, as all true knight at arms should be but on his cheek there is a fading rose, representing one of two things; the redness of a ruddy cheek, or the love and adoration he has for his sweet lady. In the sense of a romantic ballad, this would fit the bill entirely.

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Bu then the poems shifts away from the man waiting for something onto a different tack entirely, as if someone else is speaking, or as if the man himself is relating the meeting with a lady and the description of her is one that is typical of ballads of this nature. “I met a lady in the meads, full beautiful” is so typical of the time in that the woman is seen in perfect beauty, the kind of face and personality that would surely be on a Hollywood billboard if it was today, but she is then described as “a faery’s child.” Now we have to suspend disbelief here and consider when this was written and the belief in fairies at the time. If you are not sure of what I mean, read [or better, see] A Midsummer Night’s Dream and see how the fairies there are represented as having power to make us do all sorts of things.

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This fairy, we are told, has “hair [that] was long, her foot was light and her eyes were wild.” This is a mischievous imp of a fairy and the speaker makes a “garland for her head and bracelets too.” A garland is a rope of flowers, so we are still in the realms of the fairy world, where everything is a “fragrant zone.” This is a meeting between one man and a spirit, where we are led to believe, because we have to, that “she looked at me as she did love and made sweet moan.” Have you ever been in love or missed someone so much that you moan a slight moan of grief that they are not there? Or, have you ever looked at someone and an utterance has been made by you? Not a word, but a sound so short it could not be a word? That is one interpretation of this word ‘moan,’ but another is that she begins to tell him just how much she loves him.

The speaker then puts her on his “pacing steed” [horse] and the horse takes her to her destination but we are told something else as well, for “nothing else” did they see “all day long.” These two are alone on their journey and occasionally, “sidelong would she bend, and sing a faery’s song.” In mythology, there are reasons for such singing; firstly out of joy, but that does not fit with the title, and secondly, to hypnotise or to make someone sway to their fairy ways. You decide which one it should be, for we all look at poems differently, just as much as any genre in literature.

So far, we have a knight meeting a fairy and a journey beginning, all very typical of ballads of the time, telling the story of their meeting, but now we are given more information and because of the title, we are led into thinking that there is an ulterior motive behind her actions. We see how “she found me roots of relish sweet and honey wild and manna-dew” to eat, as if she is helping him to survive the harshness of his waiting, making his life all the more better for meeting her, but if she is a mischievous imp of a fairy, then something bad is about to happen and she could be drugging him to the sense of the real world. That is the usual case and any reader who has seen the likes of Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare, will know that.

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Then, she speaks to him, in soft and subtle tones, but in a “language strange” to him, telling him, “I love thee true.” As you read, are you thinking cynical thoughts about the direction this is going? I certainly am. The speaker tells us that, “she took me to her elfin grot and there she wept and sighed full sore and there I shut her wild wild eyes with kisses four.” It is a picture of grace and love so far and one where love is being shared, where their relationship, albeit a man and a fairy, is being shared in the grandeur of love as it should be. Perhaps, the writer is saying this is the only kind of love that can exist, because love in the real world is so much more hard work and impossible on the heart? After all, love needs working out but in this make believe land of fairies and such like, it is so much easier to grasp and live out.

The fairy then lulls him to sleep and he dreams a series of images that are interesting indeed. Do not forget, he is a knight at arms, so when he dreams of a “cold hill side,” it is not surprising, or of, “pale kings and princes,” all of them, “pale warriors.” We now begin to see the depth of his heart of devotion. He says they are, “death-pale” and they all utter the same thing: “La Belle Dame sans Merci thee hath in thrall!” This is a warning that whilst she might be beautiful and bewitching, she has no mercy and he is now in a heap of trouble, to put it mildly. He is being tricked away from his quest into the realms of unbelief and at the end of the dream, he realises where he has ended up.

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But before that he sees all these people in his dream, with “starved lips in the gloam” as if they have been lured there too and tricked in the same way. It is very like a scene from the film Excalibur, where Percival is lured away from the quest to find the Holy Grail and is taken to a strange place where he is tortured and suffers enormously for his wandering heart. This knight sees these other knights with their “horrid warning gapèd wide” and then he awakes from his dream. The word “gaped” should not be read as it first appears either, for it has a stress above the letter ‘e’ and as such should be read as “gape-ed” so be careful there.

Then, as he wakes from his dream induced state, he finds himself “on the cold hill’s side.” The imagery here is interesting, for the beginning of the poem has the knight by marshes, all heroic and on a quest. Yes, it is possibly cold but there is a warmth in the language used, a warmth in the image, but here, this is different entirely. He then explains that this “is why I sojourn [journey/wait] here alone and palely loitering,” even “though the sedge is withered from the lake and no birds sing.” The image has now changed from that of heroic warmth to brazen coldness, a barren landscape that seems colder, even though the place might be one and the same as in the beginning.

The reader has been taken on a journey through noble heroism and into foolishness and the desire to not be lonely any more. It is as if the knight has been so lonely whilst ‘loitering’ where he is, that he needed company, almost wished for it and then, out of nowhere, it appeared in the form of a sprite who was wandering the land for someone to torment. This then, is a poem set in the medieval period but is also one that deals with the mythical world as well, as many other writers have done before them and is so well constructed, even though the four line verse is simple enough, to make the reader think that something bad is coming.

Now, there is a technical term for that? Do you know what it is?

The Woman In Black – Monologue

Jennet Humphrys’ Monologue

I remember the first time I saw that strange young man from London. What a sorry sight he was, in his black bowler hat, long black coat and solemn look, as if he knew and had respect for my sister. The temerity of the man. The gall of such a character as he, a mere lawyer and a junior one at that. The bravado of the man for being with that horrible little man who turns away every time I arrive on the scene.

They all hate me and they have good reason to as well. Crythin Gifford has never been the same since my sister died and I have every intention of making their sorry lives a living hell. I take their babies because they took mine you see, that sister of mine and her sanctimonious husband who could not bare the scandal of an unborn baby in the family. But I put an end to the both of them. Yes, my darling sister did not die of natural causes. She was struck by my stare and went mad with grief; for the baby she stole and the sister she lost.

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Along came this little man from London. If he had left me alone, all would have been well. But no, he had to meddle in my affairs and come and take what was not his; my home. No one takes my home, for it is mine, all mine! He had the temerity to live in my house, my family home. How dare he? How dare he come and disrupt my house here on the marsh? No one is allowed here. No one shall pass apart from that cart driver and only because I let him.

This little man with the wistful eyes, so scared of his own shadow he has to bring a little dog to make his time here more bearable. I showed him how unbearable I can be when vexed. Many times came and passed where the dog sensed my arrival and began to bark, but I was able to shake the little man to his foundations. He crumbled like the stones of this house are doing and could not stand the horror. Oh, the horror I subjected him to. Oh the fright I gave him. Oh the torment he underwent at my doing!

I terrified the life out of him and his little dog, who ran out into the midnight air on more than one occasion, terrified for his little life. He brings himself here to sift through my effects, to find my secrets and he expects to get away with it? I do not think so! I made the fear rise to such an effect that the poor little man from London felt he had to run away back to where the smoke and the smog resides.

I caused him to run away, scared for his life. He escaped, or so he thought. But my vengeance will be had, for he had the audacity to stare at me. No one looks in my face and does not pay the price. A child lost is something you never get over, so without the support of my family, friends or even this vile community, I now take my vengeance out on every child of those who take the time to stare at me. I will continue to have my revenge!

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He had seen me, so I had to take the child, his newly born son. Am I sorry? No! Not in the least. If I cannot have my dear child with me, then he is not having his, or his young, vital wife for that matter. Both are dead now, trampled by the horse and cart I caused to bolt. I did take particular delight in eyeing up the horse and making it bolt. It was a particularly nasty of me I know, but at the end of the day, this is my revenge. This is the end that comes to those who wish to continue to view me as their spectral challenge. This is where I will rest forever in the knowledge that when you come to my house, only death and destruction will follow in your wake!

***

This is 700 words in length and took about 30 minutes to type using the 5 point plan mentioned on the monologues – how to do them page on this site. Have a go yourself.

A Child to his Sick Grandfather

A Child to his Sick Grandfather

Grand-dad, they say you’re old and frail,
Your stocked legs begin to fail:
Your knobbed stick (that was my horse)
Can scarce support your bended corse,
While back to wall, you lean so sad,
I’m vexed to see you, dad.

You used to smile and stroke my head,
And tell me how good children did;
But now, I wot not how it be,
You take me seldom on your knee,
Yet ne’ertheless I am right glad,
To sit beside you, dad.

How lank and thin your beard hangs down!
Scant are the white hairs on your crown;
How wan and hollow are your cheeks!
Your brow is rough with crossing breaks;
But yet, for all his strength be fled,
I love my own old dad.

The housewives round their potions brew,
And gossips come to ask for you;
And for your weal each neighbour cares,
And good men kneel, and say their prayers;
And everybody looks so sad,
When you are ailing, dad.

You will not die and leave us then?
Rouse up and be our dad again.
When you are quiet and laid in bed,
We’ll doff our shoes and softly tread;
And when you wake we’ll aye be near
To fill old dad his cheer.

When through the house you shift your stand,
I’ll lead you kindly by the hand;
When dinner’s set I’ll with you bide,
And aye be serving at your side;
And when the weary fire turns blue,
I’ll sit and talk with you.

I have a tale both long and good,
About a partlet and her brood,
And cunning greedy fox that stole
By dead of midnight through a hole,
Which slyly to the hen-roost led –
You love a story, dad?

And then I have a wondrous tale
Of men all clad in coats of mail,
With glittering swords – you nod, I think?
Your fixed eyes begin to wink;
Down on your bosom sinks your head –
You do not hear me, dad.

Joanna Baillie

Analysis

Where does one start with a poem so beautiful and heart wrenching as this?

The obvious place to start is the title. As mentioned before on this site, the title and the poem mostly match in all poems, but sometimes, there are exceptions. This is not one of those exceptions and is as obvious a title as it gets. Think for a minute of a parent or sibling that you love and maybe have lost. Imagine being able to tell them what you think of them even though they are either gone, or at that stage in life where they fail to recognise you anymore through age or illness. Then imagine writing down those thoughts. That is what this poem is, a collection of thoughts on a relationship between father and son. It is a special bond indeed, or at least it should be, so when I see these words, my heart, a usual swinging brick, melts due to several reasons, some of which I am not going to go into here. Suffice to say that I have had my own degree of pain in this relationship but now, all seems well again. For now. I adore my daughter and always will, no matter what anyone else says. So when I see these words, I imagine her, twenty five years from now, when I am a 70 year old, cantankerous old soul, moaning about the world and its woes [I do that now so nothing changes] and her looking at me and remembering the past.

Likewise, I am reminded when I read this of a poem by Seamus Heaney, or Famous Seamus as I know him. I have studied it and taught it and it is called Digging. Give it a read and let it digest before reading and looking at this one. It would not surprise this teacher if AQA or WJEC shoved Digging into the Unseen Poem slot for your exam, given this poem and a few others in this Edexcel anthology.

So, what is this one about? What message is being shared?

The title says it all really. It is aimed at a Grandfather, or “Grand-dad,” who he obviously adores, but his nurses say that he is “old and frail” and that his “stocked legs begin to fail” when he stands. As someone who struggles now with standing at times, due to illness, I know the feeling and can sympathise with this Grandfather, although I am not there yet. He carries a “knobbed stick” when he walks, which is a non-word [or dialectal] that should represent the word “knobbled” or “knobbly” because there are some knots in the wood of it. He then remembers, through use of parenthesis, or brackets, that this at one time, used to be his hobby “horse” when he played with him when he was younger, but now reflects that it “can scarce support [his] bended corse.” By this, because he is so aged, he is bent over, possibly with rheumatism or normal ageing that the body goes through. He has gone from a lean, mean machine of a man to something not good in his eyes. He will feel the pain for him because he is so close to him. Everything he does has to be done with his “back to [the] wall,” where he perches himself, “so sad.” This has such a profound impact to see him this way and he shares this emotion by saying “I’m vexed to see you, dad.” It is as if he is saying it to him directly.

Did you notice that he says “Dad” here? This is done for effect in that he sees this man just like he does his father. Perhaps, he has lost his father and this is one of those moments where you slip up and call someone Dad when it should be Granddad? You now need to find out about the poet and see. Google to the rescue I suppose. If her own father passed when she was in her mid 50s, then this might be the case and the ‘he’ might be her writing in the guise of a man [because of the patriarchal times back then] but if not, then it is something else.

He continues to the Grandfather, telling him directly, even though he may not understand, that he “used to smile and stroke my head and tell me how good children did.” It is as if he is remembering him saying, “in my day it was so different than it is now.” It is a sentence heard by many of us as we grow older and said by so many fathers and Grandfathers. I even see my 55 year old father, in my heart and mind, thirty years ago, saying the same thing to me and I now say it to my 24 year old and 23 year old children. It is a frightening thought that I am turning into my father but there you go. Time has its effects.

“But now,” he says, he “wot not how it be.” This is an old use of language, or what we term an archaism, or a use of archaic language in that it is seldom used any longer. It means he does not want it to be how it is, or maybe even, that he does not understand how it can be, that this lovely Grandfather can get to this stage in life and be so troubled. Archaisms are used by poets to signify age of something, or link a theme of age to someone, as in this case. The man is old so a few archaisms in there have the effect of linking them to the man, in your mind. Or they should do.
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This is a time where the man “seldom [takes her] on [his] knee” any more. I remember those times when I was 5 and 6 years old, where my Grandmother taught me the alphabet, whilst I sat on her lap, reciting A through Z and singing it. Then we would do it backwards; Z.Y.X.W.V.U.T etc right back to the beginning. When I then went into a classroom for the first real time, in primary school, I knew them. I remember that with fondness and who knows, my old Grandma may have seen the English teacher in me even then because I sure didn’t. This Grandfather is no different I suppose and this poet is like me, “right glad to sit beside you, dad.” I love to sit with my 86 year old Mum, as adorably dotty as she can be at times, because I adore her so much and will feel the loss, when she passes, like no other I have felt before [or after I suppose]. My love for her transcends all emotions and I see this young man in the poem in the same way with his Grandfather, the one he calls ‘Dad.’

As he looks at him, he ponders on his appearance, adding “how lank and thin your beard hangs down!” Note the use of the exclamation mark here. It signifies that maybe he is not happy with the level of his care, something I see with my own mother. “Scant are the white hairs on your crown” and “how wan and hollow are your cheeks” meet with the same thoughts. He is seeing him deteriorate and cannot take the heartbreak. If you have never read it before, locate Simon Armitage’s poem called “November” and have a read. That has a similar feel to it, even though the context is different. He sees how his “brow is rough with crossing breaks” and sees the strength flowing away from him. Imagine, for a moment, how this feels. I know some of you may be teenagers, but imagine seeing your own parent or carer suffering with something terminal and seeing them wane so quickly. It is a painful sight indeed. I once saw it from the opposite angle, with a Year 8 child I taught in the High School I was in, who had Cancer and an aggressive one at that. Her normal, jovial self vanished in weeks before she died and the effect on us all was catastrophic! Just as much as he sees this, the same feeling emerges from him onto the page, that of adoration and even though “all his strength be fled” he still loves his “own old dad.”

It is such a gorgeous image!

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Up till now, we know that the man is ailing but now the poem turns a corner and we see just how close to death he is as “the housewives round their potions brew and gossips come to ask for you.” These are visitors who will be seeing him possibly for the last time. “Good men kneel, and say their prayers and everybody looks so sad,” he says, “when you are ailing, dad.” It is as if he is in a death bed somewhere, or near death at home and the neighbours are coming, the fellow believers are saying prayers over him, asking God to heal him, or more likely, help him be at peace and yet, there is a defiance in the heart of the poet, who asks of him, “you will not die and leave us then? Rouse up and be our dad again.” He is asking, or it could be said, praying, that the old times return, for that is normal in these circumstances. We tend to think back to those wonderful times and wish they could be run again. I would give anything to go back a few years to certain points in my life as a father and make the right decisions instead of the wrong ones. But hindsight is such a wonderfully painful jacket to wear isn’t it?

As the verse continues, keeping the rhyme scheme rolling, we see him doing just that; reflecting on former times. He then tells him how “when you are quiet and laid in bed, we’ll doff our shoes and softly tread and when you wake we’ll aye be near to fill old dad his cheer.” Grandfather is sleeping it seems. He is resting, waiting on God and that is a time we all dread. It is a time some fear but there is no need. But as he reflects, he thinks about how it could be all very different if he would but recover from his ailments. He thinks of how, “when through the house you shift your stand, I’ll lead you kindly by the hand” and “when dinner’s set I’ll with you bide and aye be serving at your side.” If only he would recover, he would be able to help him out so much. It is as if he is regretting not doing more in his life when he had the chance and if true, then this is a painful regret he is experiencing because it can never be recovered. It can never be turned back, just like time. It is also something that we all face from time to time. Feelings and emotions therefore, that are being shared centre on love and adoration but also on loss and regret. The pain is palpable as he watches this old man struggling. “When the weary fire turns blue,” he thinks, “I’ll sit and talk with you.” Why is he thinking this now when he had ample opportunity in his earlier life?

Such is life in the way it is nowadays.

He then goes on to mention something else that we get from our Grandparents, or at least I did. I cannot remember which one taught me which one, but the stories I know come from my mother and my Grandmother, so I see the next section of the poem and smile affectionately at the thought of Susan Spencer and think to myself how blessed I am to have had such a woman as this in my life. The poet says “I have a tale both long and good about a partlet [animal] and her brood and cunning greedy fox that stole by dead of midnight through a hole, which slyly to the hen-roost led.” A story of the animal kingdom that was perhaps shared when he was a lot younger is something that would normally come back to him now because she knows that Grandfather loves a good story. He will be the one who taught him that one when he was very young. Sly Mr. Fox etc. The words “you love a story, dad” are so lovely to see. It is as if he wants to retell that story to him right there at that moment to make the pain go away. It is such a lovely thing to behold in this time of woe.

The last verse though, for me, is perhaps, the most painful and the most poignant. He goes on from the last verse into another story he knows well, more than likely one of his again “of men all clad in coats of mail, with glittering swords.” Now, whenever I see stories of yore like this one, in written form or especially in filmic form, I tend to jump and reel and think to myself that some money will have to be spent to go and see it. The newest King Arthur film, with Jude Law has yesterday, had the same effect on me. Now where did I get that love of the Arthurian legend come from I wonder? I can remember the film The Sword In The Stone for years ago, the Disney classic, but I think I was fascinated earlier than that so I can only deduce that at some point, my mother of Grandma told me stories of men in armour and sword fights and the legend of Excalibur, for I simply cannot get enough of it. Imagine my glee when in my degree I got the chance to study the literature in depth.

This Grandfather nods in agreement, or at least he thinks it as his “fixed eyes begin to wink.” Is it a wink, or is it something else? Be prepared to see more than one reason why this is happening in the poem, especially when you link it with the next line, where we see these words: “Down on your bosom sinks your head.” Has he gone to sleep? Has he simply lost control of his neck muscles? Or is his illness taking him to the land of yore, where men in chainmail reside and Kings and Queens send forth Knights on quests to find the Holy Grail? All sorts of possibilities exist within those two lines.

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But above all, just as much as the first line links us into the image of the Grandfather, the last line asks us to consider his end as it approaches, either in this instant or in the future for we see the words “you do not hear me, dad” as he looks on, in pain and heartache. Now the fact that the poet uses “Dad” for “Grandfather”  and the hyphenated term of “Grand-dad” at the beginning of the poem makes me ask one thing: when she uses the word “Grand,” is she meaning “Good” or Great?” I ask this of myself because where I am from, if something is “grand” it is considered to be fantastic. If someone asks me what the food is like I have just been served, I may respond with “it’s grand is that!”

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Joanna Baillie was my age [55] when her own father died so this is perhaps her way of remembering him, not only as he was close to death, but also afterwards. It is such a beautiful poem and all the more gorgeous because of the date when it would have been written. In the back of the anthology, you should have dates for that, but my advice is to Google Joanna Baillie and see for yourself where the penchant for storytelling came from and how she was the daughter of a clergyman, which would have given her access to books and literature in bucket loads. Once you have that, you will appreciate this even more.

Nettles – Vernon Scannell

Nettles

My son aged three fell in the nettle bed.
‘Bed’ seemed a curious name for those green spears,
That regiment of spite behind the shed:
It was no place for rest. With sobs and tears
The boy came seeking comfort and I saw
White blisters beaded on his tender skin.
We soothed him till his pain was not so raw.
At last he offered us a watery grin,
And then I took my billhook, honed the blade
And went outside and slashed in fury with it
Till not a nettle in that fierce parade
Stood upright any more. And then I lit
A funeral pyre to burn the fallen dead,
But in two weeks the busy sun and rain
Had called up tall recruits behind the shed:
My son would often feel sharp wounds again.

Vernon Scannell

Analysis

On the surface, this poem is a simple account of how a three year old son comes in from the garden, has been stung by nettles and tells/shows his father, who comforts the little one and then how the father goes out and hacks at the things as if the same thing will not happen next time.

But it is so much more than just that little story.

Vernon Scannell’s poem is a tour de force of how to write poetry, with an easy rhyme scheme and an equally easy tonal quality in it to be able to read it. But it shows us something about the true nature of love, especially when something comes to challenge that love.

As usual, let us begin with the title. One word. Nettles. But when you first see or read or say that word, what is the one thing that pops into your head? For me, it is the memory of that pain and that rash when I was hit by these things as a child, or when I was an adult and gardening and the damn things got me in the join between thumb and hand, that fleshy bit where it hurts like hell and seems never to stop. No amount of water, or salt, or dock leaves seems to ease the pain. So for me, this is a poem more about pain than love, but underlying that is the theme of love that is shown from the child to the father and from the father to the son. It is also a metaphor for the poet’s own pain from his previous experiences in the British Armed Forces, where he saw things and did things that pain him now and play on his mind.

So, first things first; search for information on Vernon Scannell on Google. When you get it, then read this poem, for you will then see things that you would not normally associate with the poem. The first thing I see here is the reference to the son, which is meant to get your support, from the beginning of the poem. “My son aged three,” he says, to make you respond to him positively, “fell in the nettle bed.” Immediately, all those memories of nettle rash as a child come flooding back to us and we empathise, or feel his pain, but do we feel the pain of the father also? As a father myself, I remember when my two children got themselves into scrapes and came to me wailing in pain and abject agony. They were not in that amount of pain of course, but it was just the shock of something attacking them that made them respond.

We used to tell them “get up before it hurts” or some other thing, or make them laugh about it, or something, to take their mind off the issue, which is what the father does here. He then says that the use of the word “‘bed’ seemed a curious name for those green spears” making us think now of real spears that are used in battle. In this case, the spears are used for defence of the plant by the plant, but in times of war in days gone by, they have been more used to kill people or inflict real pain. Couple that military image with the one in the next line, of a “regiment of spite behind the shed” and you immediately see the poet’s preoccupation with the armed forces. When you do your research on him and where he ended up for therapy, you will see this poem in a new light entirely.

This place behind the shed, he says “was no place for rest.” It is a place of pain. It is a war zone. It is a field of battle. It is, in the poet’s mind anyway, a killing field, so he sees his child come to him “with sobs and tears” seeking “comfort” from the pain and he sees those usual “white blisters beaded on his tender skin.” Now, think of the word “tender” in the middle of all those words about pain and you see what he is doing with the language he is using. All the good exists in his son and all the evil exists in the plants. But they need to grow, just like everything else in the world and will not be stopped. He cannot see that or understand that at that point in time.

Father comforts his crying toddler

Now that the child is with him, seeking solace, he as a loving father treats his wounds just as a medic would in a war zone. He soothes his pain till it is “not so raw” and eventually, the child offers him “a watery grin,” which in itself signifies love between him and his father. This is a loving relationship between father and son, a two way, reciprocal relationship based and grounded in love and care. This is something special when this kind of relationship can exist. Believe me when I say this, it is not an easy relationship to perfect, especially when things go wrong.

But then, we move on in the plot line of this mini saga as we see the gentleness of the father turn to hatred and loathing for the plant that has caused so much damage and he takes his “billhook” [look it up] and hones “the blade” till it is incredibly sharp and venomous [just like the nettles themselves] and goes out to slash “in fury” at them “till not a nettle in that fierce parade” stands upright any more. The language used is that of the Army, with words like “blade” and “fury” and “parade” reflecting how they stand to attention in the wind and are incredibly venomous to all that come into contact with them. Likewise, he then burns the dying bits of nettle in a fire but describes it as a “funeral pyre to burn the fallen dead,” who remind him of soldiers in the heat of battle [no pun intended]. In times of warfare, they used to bury their dead en masse or burn them to destroy the bodies. This is a pyre of fallen dead nettles, that if left to rot on the ground would reform shoots and roots and grow back all the more.

Now, at this point, it is natural to think that this is all over, but any keen gardener knows that you can never stop nettles and weeds from sprouting up anywhere they want. When they are pulled up or cut up, their spores are released and drift to the ground and off they go again, blooming later in the year. Check out the story in the Bible about the sower who sows seeds on good ground, stony ground etc. There is a mention of weeds there too but they represent something else entirely.

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Scannell knows that soon after this event, the things will begin to grow again. He says “in two weeks the busy sun and rain had called up tall recruits behind the shed,” continuing the metaphor and the language from the poem into the future. He says that his son will “often feel sharp wounds again” and that is total truth, for we never learn. They always manage to catch us with their barb and their sting. But when you think about the relationship between the boy and the father you see one of love and a paternal affection that exists between the two. Note it is the father who the child goes to when in pain, not the mother. Again, do your research and find out why.

In the end, this is in the relationships section because of the relationship between father and son, but it is also there because of Scannell’s relationship between himself and the Army. He hated his time in the armed forces and suffered because of it, spending some time in a mental institution, so we have to see this poem, as well as any of his, through those tinted glasses as if we are walking around in his shoes.

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In the book, To Kill A Mockingbird, the father, Atticus Finch, tells his daughter, Scout, that until you have walked around in someone else’s shoes, you should not judge the way they lead their lives [my paraphrase] so when I see this poem and know about his inner turmoil and pain, I see a man who needs to write about pain and suffering, which he endured. I see a man who sees the pain of his son and is reminded of his own pain and suffering and I see a man suffering with PTSD most likely and having to write his way out of it. As someone who suffers in the same way, it is why I write poetry, as a cathartic response to the pain of life and love. This is why this is such a great poem.

Love’s Dog – Jen Hadfield

Love’s Dog

What I love about love is its diagnosis
What I hate about love is its prognosis

What I hate about love is its me me me
What I love about love is its Eat-me/Drink-me

What I love about love is its petting zoo
What I love about love is its zookeeper – you

What I love about love is its truth serum
What I hate about love is its shrinking potion

What I love about love is its doubloons
What I love about love is its bird-bones

What I hate about love is its boil-wash
What I love about love is its spin-cycle

What I loathe about love is its burnt toast and bonemeal
What I hate about love is its bent cigarette

What I love about love is its pirate
What I hate about love is its sick parrot

Jen Hadfield

Analysis

Let me begin by asking you a question. What are the things you love and what are the things you hate? List them on a piece of paper for notes on this poem before you go into any kind of detail on it. Then, when that is done have a think about how you could add a few words to each. Consider the last line of this poem where it says “what I hate about love is its sick parrot.” If on your list it says “I hate school” you could add to it the words “what I hate about school is its rigid coffin” to represent just how we as teachers make you stick to times and attitudes and “because I said do it” attitudes. Try to do that with each of the loves and hates on your list and you can then make up your own version of this poem. That is what I would do as a writing activity if I was teaching this.

My students now know what is coming. Ha!

But what does this poem say about the poet’s hates and loves? Well, it says a lot about what she likes and does not like but also a lot about her attitude to life. She has a vast knowledge of history and life to be able to find examples for each one of her pet hates and loves. She begins by letting us all know that she loves something. Note please, that the love comes first. One could argue that this is because love is better than hate and that she does this at first, for a reason, or because normal ways of thinking make us think of good before evil, or bad. We tend to think in positive terms before we think in terms of negative, but this poet subverts that later in the poem, as we shall see.

She says “what I love about love is its diagnosis,” which in essence, is a strange one. How can we diagnose love? Love is not a disease after all, unless you are one of those people whose glass is half empty rather than half full.

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She is saying that what she loves is the way we can say that there is nothing wrong with us, for we are in love. But then she goes for the polar opposite in saying “what I hate about love is its prognosis.” Now, a diagnosis is when we say what is wrong with someone; Cancer, Appendicitis etc. A prognosis is where we say what the outcome should be, where we say to a terminal Cancer patient that they only have six months to live. Now this is where the title, for me, comes into play, because the phrase “Love’s Dog” makes me think of something I learnt from a Facebook friend recently when he said that the “Black Dog” has returned. Knowing he has two cats got me all concerned, so I commented underneath and then he explained that the “Black Dog” phrase was in fact, a metaphor for depression. With that in mind, it is possible to see that “Love’s Dog” may represent the depression that love can bring, when it is going wrong, or when those moments come where we are unable to do or get what we want and feel hemmed in by the fact that we are not single any more.

The poet then says, again in rhyming couplet form, “what I hate about love is its me me me” which is an easy one to consider because there is nothing worse than being so self centred that love suffers. Some folk, in relationships, want it all their own way. They want everything to go their way, be for them, about them, as a result of them. They are so caught up in their own little lives that they fail to think about others. This person hates such people, but what she loves “about love is its Eat-me/Drink-me,” where the relationship is a two way one, where love is equal and fair and equitable. That is love as it should be. That is the message being shared here.

But then we get the words, “what I love about love is its petting zoo” followed closely by “what I love about love is its zookeeper – you.” Again, using a rhyming couplet and sticking to a rhyme scheme helps the reader to be able to read the poem easily enough, but what does it mean? A petting zoo is a place of love, a place where fondness and affection can be shared with animals and each other. That fondness and softness is the thing that the poet is saying should be seen in any loving relationship. But the love she has is for the person on the other end of the relationship. The word “you” is one that can be used to a single person and that is how it is meant here, originally, but it is also a word that can be used collectively as well, where a group of people can have the word used on them. Think of a classroom situation where a teacher says “what I want you to do now is….” and that is where this is being used.

Is this the same here? Can this be used in this way, in any way close to it?

And so the love-in continues with her saying “what I love about love is its truth serum,” which is easy enough to understand; let’s all tell the truth to each other in our relationships. But then she adds, “what I hate about love is its shrinking potion.” Does this sound rather odd in a way? Does it sound confusing? It is not meant to. A lie shrinks the truth in any situation. A lie spoils a relationship. A lie makes it so that only half truths are being shared with our loved ones. Does this make you think of one other poem in your anthology? If so, make a note of that for the exam.

“What I love about love is its doubloons” is perhaps, for me, the best part of this poem. A doubloon, for those that do not know, is a very old form of coin or treasure. We hear all the time of treasure being dug up from old wrecks that contain doubloons and because they are precious metals, they are expensive to buy. This is another example of what she loves about love, how love is precious, how it can be expensive [in money and effort] to keep going but how it is all the more worth it for those who try. But the next line is an odd one to be sure, for when she says “what I love about love is its bird-bones,” we are left to wonder just what she might mean by this. Personally, when I think of bird bones, I think of their strength but also of their frailty, so when I see this line, it makes me ponder on how strong love can be but also how frail it can be. The use of metaphor in this way is so powerful.

Have you noticed the rhyme scheme changing in the poem yet? It is not held throughout the poem. Is this because she ran out of words when trying to make something rhyme with “wash” in this next line, where we are sat there thinking, as poets, about how stuck we are? She states “what I hate about love is its boil-wash” and then couples that with “what I love about love is its spin-cycle.” There is no way to rhyme those lines up but the two lines now link up. One end of the line is about what I know to be a “Number 1 wash” that takes forever to wash. If you start a number 1 off with our washing machine, it is a case of do something else for about two hours and then come back to it as it is just finishing shrinking your clothes. But the spin cycle is something else entirely, at the end of the wash where the clothes are being wrung within an inch of their life and the door is about to open, ready for the clothes to be hung up. With that in mind, consider how she uses it to represent love, in that love can be long and drawn out, something that takes time to master. For her, that is something she hates. This is a person who wants immediate satisfaction in life. She wants the instant tea, instant coffee, instant gratification and love sometimes does not work like that.

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As we near the end of the poem, we see these words: “what I loathe about love is its burnt toast and bonemeal” and “what I hate about love is its bent cigarette.” You could argue metaphors are being used throughout, or half metaphor if you like,  because she is not saying “love is” something else but the use of the images of burnt toast, bonemeal and a bent cigarette are powerful images indeed. Burnt toast tastes horrible. Bonemeal, I am sure, will be equally the same. But for me, the image of the bent cigarette is the most powerful for it represents how the male libido [or the woman’s I am sure] can wane with time, or with neglect, making it so that sexual arousal cannot be achieved and when that hits a relationship, there can be issues that come next for any couple.

Finally, we see the last couplet, where a near rhyme is used when we see these words: “what I love about love is its pirate.” A pirate has been portrayed in film and art as a villain but a romance has arisen around the pirate. Think of Captain Jack Sparrow here and think about how the ladies in the stories swoon at him. Yes, they slap him from time to time, but they also love and adore him because he is a mischief at all times, especially with them.

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But what happens when that pirate romance turns sour? It leaves us with the idea of love being like a “sick parrot.” A sick bird is a terrible sight indeed, a painful time for the owner, or in the case of love, the partner. When love turns sour, it becomes sick, so you can now see why the poet uses the image.

So, although this is a poem about love within relationships, it is also about the duality of love and hate within that relationship. To some that will sound odd, especially the young. If you love someone, then it will be perfect. That is a rose tinted image of love and relationships, but I can tell you, they are hard work to maintain. The very reason why so many people meet someone, live with them and then break up after 6 months is because they have not got the patience, or the love in the right amounts, to forgive their partner when they do something wrong. Love is kind and generous and giving, yes. But love is also something that makes us want to put the other person first in all things. When we do that, we can love with a purity that will cover any sins [things we do that are bad] that our partners will do wrong. When we learn to love like that, we still will see negative things in our relationships, but we will also see that the love in that relationship is richer because we do not put ourselves first all the time. For me, that is the message of this poem.

Valentine – Carol Ann Duffy

Valentine – Carol Ann Duffy

Not a red rose or a satin heart.

I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.

Here.
It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.

I am trying to be truthful.

Not a cute card or a kissogram.
I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.

Take it.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding ring,
if you like.
Lethal.
Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.

Analysis

Have you ever read something and immediately thought what on earth is happening here? Well, for me, this one is one of those moments. At first reading, knowing Duffy’s penchant for the negative images in life [see Salome] I am led to think she is pulling the idea of love apart, but you never know, she might be being more literal than usual here and making us think in terms of different images just what we expect being in love to be like.

Valentine’s Day is one of those days when we can lose our minds; buying cards, chocolates, roses for someone we admire, or love. It can be for the one closest to us, or it can be just someone we admire from afar who gets those roses or wine. It is a commercial nonsense in reality and I for one choose not to opt into that loss of half my bank account just for that day to be a happy one. If I cannot give my lover a good day on that day or on any other day of the year, then I do not deserve her in my life.

So when I see someone putting pen to paper like this and saying that she would not give out a Valentine, ether in card, or message, or sweeties, then I applaud, especially when I see her bring in the image of the onion.

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She says she would not buy “a red rose or a satin heart” but instead would provide at least one gift, the gift of “an onion.” Now that is a statement indeed. How many of us think ooooh, stinky onion, so therefore she means he stinks? As a lover, or maybe even really, as if she is saying he is useless. That is, if indeed it is referencing a ‘he’ and not a ‘she’ for it is one of those poems that can do both.

She then delights in the torture of adding insult to injury by describing what the onion is and does and makes us think of how these attributes can be given to the person receiving the poem. She says that an onion is “a moon wrapped in brown paper” which is all well and good and hints at the fact that the glories of the moon can only be seen at night. If the same is true of her lover then her lover is not the best one out there. This onion “promises light like the careful undressing of love,” like the layers of love that can be revealed one by one.

 

Years ago now, my wife and I went to see a play at the Liverpool Playhouse in the UK, with Pete Postlethwaite starring as Scaramouche Jones, a clown who wore seven faces and the idea of the show, a one man acting tour de force as well, was that he had finished his shift and one by one, took off each part of his face; make up, fake nose etc and spoke to the audience to reveal his inmost self. It was a most illuminating experience, seeing him reveal a bit of his humanity step by step. What Duffy is suggesting here is that in this poem, the image of the onion is acting in the same way. It is a vegetable with layers.

A little like Donkey and Shrek, who discuss the self same thing in their adventures, an onion has so many layers and so does love. Could Duffy be saying therefore, that her love for her lover is one that has so many layers and that a mere card or a box of chocolates is so one dimensional that it borders on boredom with a person, or a degree of love that is lacking in the relationship? Perhaps, this might be the case, for there is a chance that what she puts next reveals why she uses such an image in this poem. “Here,” she says, “It will blind you with tears like a lover.” This use of the simile is effective because we are thinking of the onion and how it makes us cry. Love does that doesn’t it? Love is so many good things that makes us rejoice, but love can also make us cry floods of tears when things go wrong.

Duffy adds that “it will make your reflection a wobbling photo of grief,” which is a fantastic image when you think about it. Love has the power to make us think we are one thing when we are not and when we look in the mirror, hopefully seeing the truth of what lies there before us, what we see when love fails is a jibbering mess, a wobbling strawberry jelly with blancmange on top that is unsteady, unsure of itself and wobbling all over the place. Love, therefore, to Duffy, is a lie. Duffy then inserts something that is almost a disclaimer for she says “I am trying to be truthful.” Is this a point where she says hang on, I am being honest here. I am laying my heart on the line. This is why I do not go in for all this Valentine’s Day rubbish? If so, then she is making the reader, who by now is either smirking or laughing their butt off at the image of the stinky onion, rethink immediately because she is bringing them [and us] back round to sensible normal thinking by saying she is not messing about.

“Not a cute card or a kissogram,” she adds, as if almost to add an extra thought. None of that nonsense will come from her. This lady is past all that rubbish; sentimentality gone wrong in her opinion. No, this will not be her way, both now or in the future. This is a woman who is intent on stepping outside the boundaries of the normal existence and understanding of love and someone who likes to do things her way. “I give you an onion,” she adds, because “its fierce kiss will stay on your lips, possessive and faithful
as we are, for as long as we are.” It is a great image, the one of the onion [or the kiss] being something that lasts on the lips of the recipient. When we have onions, if we add them to a cheese sandwich and they are raw, boy can they make our mouths stink. I love them, personally, but they do have that tendency to affect our breath after we have had them. So too, she says, does love linger on us, like a kiss that will never be forgotten.

“Take it” she says, as if the receiver needs second bidding. A kiss is a kiss. It is something between two people that when right, when done right, is utterly glorious and enticing. But Duffy is saying that this onion now represents the love that she has for her lover, in the form of an onion whose “platinum loops shrink to a wedding ring” as it gets closer to the centre and in whose hands, if handled wrongly, can be “lethal” enough to cause the utmost damage. Love is patient and kind, as the saying goes, but love can also be nasty and brutish and short. If you want to know what I mean, look up the poem Caritas Est, on this website. It will make you rethink your thoughts on love and was written by a fourteen year old!

An onion has an odour that is unmistakable and “its scent will cling to your fingers” as much as “cling to your knife” when you wield it, so what Duffy is doing is saying that she loves her lover, and she does so with an honesty of love that is pure and innocent, but realistic as well. She does not need the garbage that is farmed onto us all every January in the shops to show her lover her love. No. Garbage like that is pointless, she is saying and should be avoided, for love is the most glorious thing in the world and it should never be mishandled.

One Flesh – E Jennings – An Alternative Analysis

One Flesh – Elizabeth Jennings

Lying apart now, each in a separate bed,
He with a book, keeping the light on late,
She like a girl dreaming of childhood,
All men elsewhere – it is as if they wait
Some new event: the book he holds unread,
Her eyes fixed on the shadows overhead.

Tossed up like flotsam from a former passion,
How cool they lie. They hardly ever touch,
Or if they do, it is like a confession
Of having little feeling – or too much.
Chastity faces them, a destination
For which their whole lives were a preparation.

Strangely apart, yet strangely close together,
Silence between them like a thread to hold
And not wind in. And time itself’s a feather
Touching them gently. Do they know they’re old,
These two who are my father and my mother
Whose fire from which I came, has now grown cold?

Analysis

There are times in every relationship when couples grow apart, some being caused by coldness and hatred and others by distance in the relationship. To the people in the relationship, it can appear as if they are ‘coasting’ in their relationship. They love each other dearly but thirty years of being together, or more if older than me, can cause a couple to live and love together, without there being a need for intimate contact. Likewise, the lack of intimate contact in a relationship is not always a signal that the love is dying, but that is the usual conclusion when you are observing someone else, like a daughter looking on at her parents and coming to the wrong, or false, conclusion.

That is what I think is happening here and my reason for thinking it rests on one line of verse. Let’s have a look, line by line and see what I mean. The poem begins with the words “lying apart now,” which immediately denotes separation between the two. Couple that with them both being “each in a separate bed” and the reader takes the opinion that the love has waned or died and now they are just staying together because of relationship rather than love, a companionship if you like, in old age.

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How far from the truth could we be?

The picture is painted for the reader of them both in the bedroom, “he with a book, keeping the light on late” and “she like a girl dreaming of childhood.” The idea of opposites are obvious but these are the obvious things that the speaker, the daughter, expects to see. They are the things she, at a younger age, sees on the television, but they are caricatures of real life, not their representative reality. The speaker then says “all men elsewhere – it is as if they wait some new event.” This is quite a hurting, callous thing to say, reflecting more of the poet’s opinions of love and relationship than her parents’ attitude to it. It is a reflection of her modern, post feminist attitudes that comply with the likes of Political Correctness than a true look at reality.

The poet then says of the man that his existence is meaningless and uses the image of “the book he holds unread” to bolster her opinion of what is happening. She seems to think that with “her eyes fixed on the shadows overhead” there is a growing distance between them both. She might be right too but I see and offer an alternative here for you to consider. They are described by their poet daughter as resembling something of “flotsam” tossed up “from a former passion.” Flotsam may need to be Googled by you [you have to do some work you know] but she says “how cool they lie” as if all the passion has died. Couple this with “they hardly ever touch” and “if they do, it is like a confession of having little feeling” and you get the common reading of this poem; separation and loss of passion leading eventually, to real time separation and divorce.

However, if “chastity faces them” then this means they intend to stay together, denoting a long, abiding affection for each other, because what else is there? There is no hint of another woman, or man, in the poem. There is no hint of an affair. So the poet is assuming that they will lead “their whole lives [as] a preparation” for something that is coming. Now this is where my proof comes in for they are described as being “strangely apart, yet strangely close together,” a selection of words that sound slightly oxymoronic, if not ironic, seeking to make the reader think it is all but over now for them but in reality, hiding the truth, or offering a half truth if you like.

Does it sound like another poem you have studied now?

There is a “silence between them” and it is this silence that makes me wonder if this relationship is stronger than the poet thinks. She has just got through saying that they are “strangely apart, yet strangely close together,” which makes me think the poet might be missing something. Yes, there is a sense of separation, but real loss is something these two do not share. The pain of such loss brings a couple together. If they had lost a child, they would be in each other’s arms. I know, because I have been there and got that tee shirt.

So why would a happily married couple defer to single beds then? Have a read of this article. It is not as obvious, or an unused thing in modern life as we think.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1173803/Separate-beds-28-Why-loving-couple-want-sleep-apart.html

The truth of the matter is that there is not enough information in the poem to suggest this is all over for this couple. The words that follow also back up my theory about this poem in that they suggest that the couple are ageing well together, that “time itself’s a feather touching them gently,” making their life together happy in their final years together even if there is a separateness.

Now, there is the traditional reading of this poem and then there are the rogue ones like this, but I ask the same question as the poet, namely “do they know they’re old?” if they have been together for four decades, as is suggested here by the poet [or some other lengthy period of time] then a sense of oneness is formed. The title here, supports my theory because it comes from the book of Genesis in the Bible, where the phrase “one flesh” is used to signify how when two people get married, two become one in union with each other.

Genesis 2 v 24 says, “that is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” These two seem to have a real grasp on the meaning of this in their relationship? These two are the father and my mother of the poet, so she is close in the family but she fails to see where their fire and passion comes from. She says that the “fire from which I came, has now grown cold” in the two of them, but this is only an opinion and one that shares her own discontent for love in general. It may be that she has radical views on love and is therefore expressing those views on us, the reader.

Is the love and passion growing cold for this couple? It may well be, but be careful not to consider other alternative ways to read a poem like this.

1st Date – She, 1st Date – He

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Analysis

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The thing I love about poetry is the way it can mess around with words. I heard a James Blunt song this morning on the news, a new one, with this line in it: “I could say you’re beautiful” and then he added the words, “but I’ve used that line before….” This is what I adore about poetry. He is famous for a song called “You’re Beautiful” and yet, he can play with language and add it into something else with irony. With this poem by Wendy Cope, I just love the way that she looks at a first date relationship and twists it.

But be careful, for I am analysing it as it appears in the Edexcel anthology, recently handed out to school children for their study, where 1st Date is on the left hand side of the page and 2nd Date is on the right. But I have had a discussion recently with a teacher who states that the poet, Wendy Cope, did not originally write it like that and there was a different format to the poem. But would this change the meaning of the poem in any way? I tend to think not,  for they are both giving their analysis of the date and how it went on the night.

How you take to this poem then, may depend on the version you have in front of you. Don’t shoot this messenger just because he sees it in the anthology at GCSE in a High School.

Now, think on, have you ever been on a first date? Chances are, you have. Chances are that you know all about the truth that you tell on those occasions. Not! You are so busy trying to please the other person that you show off, or make a fool of yourself and this is what is happening in this poem too, for the both of them are only telling each other half truths before and during their date. It is a thought process, almost like a stream of consciousness writing, but different to that and for you older students, the more mature among us, like me, if you are of a certain age, then you will know of a song sang by Maurice Chevalier, in the film Gigi, where he meets with a former lady he wooed and they discuss, in song, their first date. One says he wore one colour and the other picks him up as if to say “no you didn’t.”

This one reminds me of that encounter from the off because it can be read in more than one way. When you read it for the first time, I am betting that you read verse 1 of her and then verse 2 of hers and then verse 3 and 4 of hers and then you have a crack at his, but try this. Read it verse 1 hers and then verse 1 his. Then verse 2 hers and verse 2 his and so on, down the page. It suddenly sounds like a dialogue between them but of thought. So what is each one thinking? Two voices thinking things of themselves and of their new partner, but neither of them are telling the truth.

From her perspective, she says in verse one that she likes classical music, but that “wasn’t exactly a lie,” but if it was not really a lie then what was it? “Not exactly” does suggest only half right, or a half truth and she says it because she hopes “he would get the impression” that she is rather ‘high brow,’ or posh, to use the vernacular. His response, if we read it like I said, is that he “implied” he was “keen on it too” so as to make her interested in him, but once again, the word “implied” denotes that it is hinted at, but not necessarily is the truth as we know it. He says he does not “often go to a concert” so he is no keen classical music fan and then states that his hint is not “exactly true.”

Some first date this is turning out to be!

So then we have her saying she likes “Vivaldi and Bach,” two world famous composers, but we get the impression they could not tell Bach from a Bath between them both. She says that they are there now, at the concert, “sitting there in the half dark,” which is metaphorical in a way in that whilst someone can be sat in the shade, so in the half dark, it can also represent their relationship in that there is only half the amount of light, or truth, that there should be in their relationship. This date is not progressing well.

His response is to say that he “looked for a suitable concert” or somewhere he could take someone with such an air about her. She is posh, or so he thinks and the clues are in her dress sense. He then tells us that this is their “first date” and that he arrived “ten minutes late.” Now, what does that tell you? He arrived ten minutes after her, so they did not make their way there together. Is he bothered about this date, or has he got other thoughts on his mind? A huge hint is coming later regarding his intentions.

She says she is “thrilled to be asked to the concert.” Whilst this may be true, there is still a sense of an undercurrent of lies as she “couldn’t care less what they play.” It makes the reader think she is not there for the music. What she is there for is the chance to be with him and then be able to talk about it all afterwards. So she thinks that she “better start paying attention.” She needs to do this so as to be able to discuss the concert later, thinking, wrongly, that he will want to discuss it later too. One thinks the other is the fan, and vice versa. Could this be a first date and a blind date?

He, for example, tells us that when he glances at her face, “it’s a picture of rapt concentration.” Yes it is, because she is having to concentrate and find something she can talk about later. He believes that the young woman is “quite undistracted by him.” It is as if the concert has her whole attention but he cannot see the truth; she is out of her depth in all of this and needs to go to the pictures instead.

“So,” says the man, “we haven’t had much time for talking.” Not surprising really when you think about it for they simply do not communicate with each other from the start of their relationship. There is a real sense of separation in their relationship, a sense where they do not feel like they can commit to one another fully, possibly because each has been hurt in love before this moment. 

The most telling part of his part of the poem comes when he says that there seems to be no time for chit chat. Well he is ten minutes late. There seems to have been no chance for him to take her for a drink beforehand and chat her up. He was late and now he feels the guilt of that and thinks things about her that are not necessarily true. He says that “she is totally lost in the music,” which she has hinted at before now, so both are misreading each other. He believes, as she does, that the other person is “quite undistracted by me,” which shows his lack of understanding of the situation.

Then, he tells us that he likes how she looks because “in that dress she is very attractive,” which understates his thoughts about how his date will go in the end, hinting at the hope of a sexual encounter, and follows this up with “the neckline can’t fail to intrigue.” He is looking at this vision of beauty and wanting her to be his, but he is only prepared to go half way into the relationship. Is he dating her just for a sexual encounter, a possible one night stand? Who knows. Possibly.

But he feels that he should not show his true emotions, because that will let the cat out of the bag, but mainly because he thinks that she is in another class of woman entirely. His comment about how “she is out of my league” shows a degree of lack of confidence and also his infatuation with her. She thinks the same thing about him which is interesting, so perhaps the both of them need to be more open and honest with each other for their relationship to flourish.

At this point in their first date, when all should be going well, we then see the extra verse of thought from him, assuming we have read as I suggested, that could be read as an afterthought almost, one of those throw away after comments we make in life. He asks “where are we?” Normally this would hint at the idea that someone is lost, in themselves, or in something else, or that they have not got a clue what is happening around them. This is an example of the latter.

The fact of the matter is that he has put his glasses away. Now when I was teaching this poem recently, I stopped and asked the question I am now going to ask of you: for what reason do you take your glasses off? When I have my photo taken, off come the glasses. Women in films dressed as secretaries with high held hair, drop their hair and remove their glasses. But above all, we drop the specs because we are self conscious and think we look better without them. He then thinks he had “better start paying attention” to her and to the music, “or else {he will} have nothing to say.”

What Wendy Cope has done here is provide a poem that shows a relationship that starts with half truths, a lie if you like, a relationship that exists “in the half dark” of a concert and a relationship that is doomed to failure. Now with that in mind, as you prepare for the exams, which poem can this be linked to in your anthology, so you could compare the two? As you figure that out, then have a go at writing a 600 word comparison of the two. In the exam, you will no doubt see a question that says compare 1st Date … with another poem of your choice, …. and then it will ask you to look at a central theme, such as love, relationship breakdown or silence.

Enjoy!