How to Closely Analyse a Poem (and keep exam boards happy) #1 Edward Thomas: ‘Old Man’

Having declared in my review of one year of blogging, that I wanted to include more about teaching literature and having spent the last 3 weeks or so congratulating, consoling, interviewing and advising students post-results, I thought this would be a chance to post something of that sort. Part of my job during August is to talk to students who have fallen short at schools and colleges (largely at A level) and it never ceases to astonish me that so many of them – clearly capable of better grades than they have achieved – seem muddled and even ignorant of the Assessment Objectives required by exam boards. Now I’m the first to loathe this kind of acronymic reductiveness but if AOs are what the examiners want, it’s either a brave or stupid teacher who screws them up.

Of course, English A level courses are changing significantly this academic year but I’ll talk here about the OCR English Literature specification I have been teaching for a few years (both AS and A2 levels are available for the last time this year). Module F661 involves study of prose and poetry. The latter involves a study of 15/16 poems by an author and essays are close analyses of one selected poem (AO2) with the student putting that poem into relation with some of the other poems (OCR call this AO4 in this module – though elsewhere AO4 is historical and cultural context) . . .

See what I mean – it’s not really complicated but it’s easy to find this sort of stuff very boring indeed.

My advice is that it’s always better to show than tell. I show essays performing this relatively complex task written by students as homework or in past years’ exams (photocopied to the class, read and discussed). Alternatively, I’ll occasionally write something myself. The latter has the advantage that I can make specific points about style and strategy (and teachers doing what they ask their students to do is another piece of good advice). What follows is an example of the latter on OCR’s selection of Edward Thomas’ poems, focusing on ‘Old Man’. I’ve also included in this one a kind of meta-commentary on what the essay is doing. The poem can be read here.

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“I have mislaid the key” (‘Old Man’). Explore how Thomas tries to get to grips with his feelings about the real nature of the Old Man plant.

  • In your answer, explore the effects of language, tone, imagery and verse form, and consider how the poem ‘Old Man’ relates to other poems by Thomas that you have studied.

 NB.  Bolded phrases signal close analysis to the examiner

Introduction

‘Old Man’, on the face of it, is a poem that tries to describe and explore the narrator’s feelings about a particular plant. Ironically, the descriptions tend to be rather vague and the point of the poem seems to be that the narrator cannot precisely pin the plant down, nor can he pin down the memories which smelling the plant’s odour brings to his mind.

Brief comparative suggestions here …

This sort of uncertainty is very common in Thomas’ poetry (for example in ‘The Glory’) as is his interest in states of memory. This is also a poem where we see evidence of Thomas’ love of Nature and his close attention to its many details which also appears in a poem like ‘Aspens’.

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Para 1: Get well into your close analysis of stanza 1 . . .

Line 1 opens with the alternate names of this plant. Old Man and Lad’s Love are contrasting terms – suggesting both youth and old age – and this immediately announces the ways in which the narrator finds it difficult to define this plant. In the opening stanza, the narrator is preoccupied with the plant’s names, probably because this might be one way to get to grips with the thing itself. But the narrator, after the caesura in line 1, immediately declares that “there’s nothing” in the name. This feels rather hyperbolic but the second line’s repetition of the two names perhaps gives the reader the sense that nothing is really conveyed by them. He then tries some simple descriptions of the plant itself but line three calls the plant both a “herb” and a “tree” which seems contradictory again and the hyphenated phrase “hoar-green” has the same effect because the first word is associated with grey (grey hair – old age?) whereas the second word is more associated with youth and freshness. The phrase is therefore oxymoronic and confirms the difficulty of defining this plant. The metaphorical “feathery” also suggests something soft, something whose shape is hard to define. Reinforcing this idea, the narrator goes on to say that (even for someone who actually does know “well” what the plant looks like) its names “Half decorate, half perplex”. The repetition of “half” here suggests that nothing about the plant is straightforward or clearly defined. Also if the name decorates the plant perhaps it also obscures it from sight, while the word “perplex” suggests that the name actually confuses things rather than clarifies.

A brief comparison . . .

This is surprising given Thomas’ evident love of language as seen in a poem like ‘Words’ where he praises words in a series of images such as “Tough as oak, / Precious as gold”.

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Old Man or Lad’s Love

Para 2 is till focused on stanza 1 – it’s detailed but I’m taking a long time…

Line 6 of ‘Old Man’ uses a phrase which does make clear what the narrator is after: “the thing it is”. But the language used here is vague and does not convey an image of the plant at all. This stanza ends with the narrator suggesting that the “thing” is not something that “clings” to the names of the plant. Despite the names not seeming much use in getting to grips with the plant, the stanza ends with a half line in which the narrator, rather contradictorily, says he does “like” them (the names). This short sentence is begun with the conjunction (“And”) though I would expect it to begin with a more contrasting word (like “but”) and this reinforces the way the opening stanza of the poem has been wrestling with trying to define things and names but failing to do so.

A brief comparison . . .

This sort of failure to get to the heart of experiences occurs in ‘The Glory’ too. There, having praised the beauty of the English countryside, the narrator suggests there is something further that he cannot access: “I cannot bite the day to the core”.

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Para 3 covers lines 9-16…

Line 9 of ‘Old Man’ uses the word “herb” for the second time to characterise the plant itself (rather than its names) and begins by sounding more definite with the monosyllabic “I like not”. This seems reinforced with the line’s final word “certain” but the enjambement to line 10 plays a trick on the reader: “for certain / I love it”. I think this surprises the reader but again the narrator seems to be struggling to define his own feelings about the plant. This second stanza goes on to focus on the narrator’s child’s interaction with the same plant. He wonders if the child will also have a strong attachment to it. This seems to be one of the ways in which he is trying to work out his own feelings about it, though I don’t think it helps him to be any more definite. Lines 10 – 17 focus on the child’s actions in relation to the plant. These lines are full of active verbs as she “plucks” a “feather” from the plant. The “feather” metaphor again suggests something about the type of leaves the plant has and “plucks” has a plosive opening, a harsh ‘k’ sound and sibilance at the end which is perhaps suggestive of the plucking motion, even the sound it might make. Sound is also important in lines 13-15 as the child is “snipping  . .  tips and shrivelling / The shreds”. Sibilance hisses through these lines, to me suggesting the quite aggressive action of tearing the leaves off. The short hard vowel sounds (mostly ‘i’) also suggest this to me. The noun “shreds” again suggests the destructive way the girl behaves. The girl seems unaware of what she is doing and this is suggested by how she just drops the leaves “on to the path”. This is reinforced with the casual-seeming repetition of the word “perhaps” (another example of vague lack of definition in this poem) but especially because the girl is perhaps “thinking, perhaps of nothing”. She then “runs off” though we are not told where to and the reader gets the impression she has not taken much notice of the plant. Her casual attitudes are perhaps reflected in the poem’s form (mostly iambic lines of about 10 syllables, but no rhyme) which gives a loose, colloquial, even casual tone. This suits the poem’s meandering, thoughtful qualities – though perhaps is a contrast to the way the narrator seems to want to be more precise and definite.

A brief comparison…

Thomas uses the same sort of lines in the opening of ‘As the Team’s Head-brass’, where the long lines running on reflect the movements of the horse and plough as they move up and down the field beside the fallen elm.

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Para 4 covers 16-23

Despite the child’s casual attitude to the plant in the present moment, the narrator wonders if she will remember it in the future, or as he puts it in line 19, the “hereafter”. Later in the poem we realise that this is part of his fascination with the plant: its smell reminds him of something in his own past. Lines 16-18 suggest some sort of comparison between the girl and the plant as the narrator compares their heights and ages. But his main sense seems to be that the girl is oblivious to the plant and this is emphasised when we are told that she says “Not a word”. The narrator now wonders what she might remember later in life of the “bitter scent”. This is an oxymoronic phrase which again suggests the puzzling nature of the plant with its acrid “bitter” smell, which is here described using the more attractive sounding word “scent”. This stanza ends with a listing technique. The narrator lists the elements of the landscape which he thinks the girl may later associated with the smell of the plant. The items in the list are not very remarkable but conclude with “me / Forbidding her to pick”. The father/narrator here takes on an authoritative character (the garden imagery might remind the reader of the original garden of Eden and God’s forbidding to pick from the Tree of Knowledge) though it seems from the poem that his warnings are ignored by the girl.

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Para 5 to the end of the poem…

It’s at this point that the narrator’s puzzling obsession with the plant becomes more clear as he admits that he too shrivels and sniffs the leaves but where he first “met” the scent is unclear to him. ‘Tears’ is similar in that it describes a fox-hunting scene and then soldiers parading, and the narrator tells us that they revealed to him “truths” that he has now “forgotten since their beauty passed”.

A brief comparison…

Thomas is fascinated by these areas of uncertainty and this is also reflected in his interest in those moments when seasons change as in the way ‘But These Things Also’ ends with an asyndeton: “Spring’s here, Winter’s not gone”.

In line 25 of ‘Old Man’ the narrator personifies the plant’s scent into a character he might encounter and in the following lines the repeated verbs (shrivel, sniff, think, sniff and try) suggest his fascination with the plant once again. But here too he fails to get to grips with its real significance as he declares that his efforts are “Always in vain”. The paradoxical thread that has run throughout the poem is again clear as he says that he “cannot like” the smell of the plant and yet he’d give up “sweet” smells rather than this contrastingly “bitter” one. The mystery remains unsolved as the final stanza begins and this is conveyed very simply with the metaphor that he has “mislaid the key” to the experience and to his understanding of the plant. This sentence fills only half a line in line 32 and so is short, dramatic and striking because longer sentences are far more typical of Thomas’ poems. The final lines use the repetition of negatives like “nothing” and “no” to suggest the absence of any clear understanding of the plant or the memory associated with it. These final lines are also heavily punctuated, slowing the pace of the poem, perhaps suggesting hopelessness. The absences of child, mother, father and play-mate, create a sense of loneliness in the final lines though the mystery remains unsolved. The last line of the poem conveys this very powerfully with the memory being imaged in the metaphor of an “avenue, dark, nameless, without end”. Again the caesura here slows the pace so that the reader emphasises each element of the scene, the final phrase especially suggesting eternity while the darkness might well suggest death itself, in an image

A final comparison…

that reminds me of the bleak ending of ‘Rain’ where everything seems to have dissolved for the narrator except the “love of death”, a suicidal thought that we know was something Thomas himself felt at times.

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Conclusion

So the narrator may try to get to grips with what the plant represents or suggests to him but he fails. He tries to consider the plant through its names, its physical appearance and smell, through the child’s experiences of it and lastly through his own memories. It is clear that the plant provokes powerful feelings but the “key” remains lost. The colloquial tone of the poem and its simple language make the reader feel as if we are hearing the narrator talk aloud but what he ends up saying is that he cannot tell us what is really behind this plant nor what memory it suggests.

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2 thoughts on “How to Closely Analyse a Poem (and keep exam boards happy) #1 Edward Thomas: ‘Old Man’

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