Edward Thomas and Two of His Friends

Last weekend I was asked to talk briefly about Edward Thomas at an event at the Palmers Green Library in north London. This year is the centenary of his death and I looked at one of my favourite poems, ‘The Sun Used to Shine’. I have written in close detail about it in an earlier blog so I have excised most of my comments about the poem itself from this current post. I hoped to take the audience’s attention to the poem, to Thomas’ life in 1914/17 and then bring them to more contemporary poetry with a couple of my own poems which are thoroughly imbued with Thomas tropes – inspired by his work and life. 

 

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Edward Thomas and Helen Thomas

Edward Thomas died at the Battle of Arras on the 9th April 1917. One hundred years and 5 months ago. It has long been thought that he died from a nearby shell blast stopping his heart and his watch, on that Easter Monday. But a couple of years ago, the discovery of a letter from his commanding officer suggested he had been actually ‘shot clean through the chest’. It was perhaps a sanitised version of his death delivered to his wife, Helen, that gave rise to the attractively poetic myth of his ‘clean’ death.

But so much about Thomas has a similar mist of uncertainty about it. He shares with his great friend and poet, Robert Frost, a liking for the word ‘something’ – a thing that is unspecified or unknown, a description or amount being stated but not exactly. This is partly what makes him a modern writer (though his main subject material – the natural world – might make him seem otherwise).

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But he’s also modernist in that he can be emotionally reticent, guarded, suspicious. In a letter to his wife a few days before he was killed he wrote: “I know that you must say much because you feel much. But I, you see, must not feel anything. I am just, as it were, tunnelling underground and something (that word again!) sensible in my subconsciousness directs me not to think of the sun [. . .] If I could respond to you as you would like me to [. . . ] I should be unable to go on with this job”. You might think such guardedness was just a war-time effect. But a poem like ‘No one so much as you’ – written in 1916, surely to his wife – says: “My eyes scarce dare meet you”.

His difficulties with loving were certainly related to his bouts of depression. He suffered dark, suicidal periods, infamously taking a revolver with him into the woods intending not to reappear. In the poem ‘Beauty’ he writes:

 

What does it mean? Tired, angry, and ill at ease,

No man, woman, or child alive could please

Me now. And yet I almost dare to laugh

Because I sit and frame an epitaph –

‘Here lies all that no one loved of him

And that loved no one.’

 

The poem eventually finds some sense of relief in the natural world. Note here the uncertainty in both what it is in him that seeks happiness and what it is that seems lost to him:

 

This heart, some fraction of me, happily

Floats through the window even now to a tree

Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale,

Not like a pewit that returns to wail

For something it has lost, but like a dove

That slants unswerving to its home and love.

 

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Thomas and Frost

 

Because it’s one of his best, I’m going to look at Thomas’ poem ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ written in May 1916. There is no straining between subject and technique. Its moods shift continually from companionship, to thoughts of war, to an historical sense, to an almost cosmic sense of time. So it travels great distances without departing far from the English countryside that provided Thomas with its beginnings. Nor does it depart far from ordinary language – it has a surface accessibility. It’s held together by a human voice – quiet, questing, informed about nature as well as history, one willing to contemplate existential questions.

[. . .]

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By the time the poem was being written, it was more than a year after the Frosts had sailed for New York. Thomas is mourning a lost era as much as a lost friend. Perhaps no surprise that he had Tennyson in mind as he wrote. In Memoriam is Tennyson’s tribute to his lost friend, Arthur Hugh Hallam. In section 89, Thomas found a model and images of friendship, the English landscape, ripe fruit, running water, long walks, long talks – a kind of lost Paradise:

 

The landscape winking thro’ the heat:

 

O sound to rout the brood of cares,

The sweep of scythe in morning dew,

The gust that round the garden flew,

And tumbled half the mellowing pears!

[. . .]

Nor less it pleased in livelier moods,

Beyond the bounding hill to stray,

And break the livelong summer day

With banquet in the distant woods;

 

Whereat we glanced from theme to theme,

Discuss’d the books to love or hate,

Or touch’d the changes of the state,

Or threaded some Socratic dream;

[. . .]

We talk’d: the stream beneath us ran,

The wine-flask lying couch’d in moss,

[. . .]

And brushing ankle-deep in flowers,

We heard behind the woodbine veil

The milk that bubbled in the pail,

And buzzings of the honied hours.

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Such similar quiet acknowledgements of landscape, of time present and past, of friendship are some of the themes which draw me to Thomas’ work. Another of his friends was Jesse Berridge. The depth of this friendship is revealed when Berridge writes – this in the Spring of 1947 (fully 30 years after Thomas’ death at Arras) – of dreaming of the poet:

In my dream he was coming down a road, in loose dark clothes, to meet me, with his long purposeful stride and his face alight with pleasure and gaiety. Well I knew that look on his face, and here and now I would give testimony that I did know very many hours in his company, and in by far the greater part of them he was happy, sometimes with an almost bewildering intensity.

Here (if I may) is a poem of my own, drawing on material from Berridge’s memoir of Thomas which I hope captures some of the pleasures the poet shared with Berridge and before that with Frost. The opening detail about the church at Kilve in Somerset, is referred to in Wordsworth’s poem ‘Anecdote for Fathers’ (1798) included in Lyrical Ballads, obviously a favourite with Thomas and Berridge:

 

These things I remember                               

after Jesse Berridge

 

That afternoon on the beach at Kilve

we had ascertained

there was no weather-cock on the church

and we were resting in peace

almost in silence when he turned

and told me to listen

to the little melodious twittering

of a tiny bird that swooped and dipped

between where we sat and the roiling ocean—

a meadow pipit he said

the moment was unforgettable then

as he so often made such things

calling attention to this or that aspect

of what I call his vision

as one morning he cut a walking-stick

from the woods then carved

until it had a character of its own

or the knife I’ve owned almost sixty years

its bone handle chafed

and worn by my touch

until the white has begun to show through

for him held a peculiar fascination

till obscurely I began to feel

it possessed of a soul

that nothing but his observation of it

had created and I remember my children

always delighted in his occasional visit

(from The Lovely Disciplines, Seren 2017)

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Thomas and Berridge would often cycle the English countryside together and if you are interested in his extraordinary responses to the landscape I’d recommend In Pursuit of Spring, published in 1914. It was this book that Frost seized on in the summer of 1914 as evidence that Thomas ought to start writing poetry.

There are also personal reasons why I like this book so much – Thomas cycles from the outskirts of London, heading westwards, to the Quantocks. On his way he descends from Salisbury Plain into the Wiltshire where I grew up. Indeed he traces a particular ride along roads I know well. Here he is describing the almost visionary impact of the English countryside:

Motion was extraordinarily easy that afternoon, and I had no doubts that I did well to bicycle instead of walking. [. . .] At the same time I was a great deal nearer to being a disembodied spirit than I can often be. I was not at all tired, so far as I knew. No people or thoughts embarrassed me. I fed through the senses directly, but very temperately, through the eyes chiefly, and was happier than is explicable or seems reasonable. This pleasure of my disembodied spirit (so to call it) was an inhuman and diffused one, such as may be attained by whatever dregs of this our life survive after death. In fact, had I to describe the adventure of this remnant of a man, I should express it [. . .] with no need of help from Dante [. . .] Supposing I were persuaded to provide the afterworld with some of the usual furniture, I could borrow several visible things from that ride through Semington, Melksham, and Staverton.

Later, Thomas takes a detour to another place I know well, the village of Tellisford, its ruined water-mill and bridge by the River Frome. There he meets the Other Man, a figure who pops up in the book and who represents Thomas’ alter ego. I’d like to finish with another of my poems which I hope captures a good deal of the spirit of Edward Thomas in its love of English landscape, its sense of history, its longing for companionship, its loneliness and, in its conclusion, its sense, as ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ says, that “Everything / To faintness like those rumours fades”. The old man is a version of Thomas perhaps, or a version of the Other Man, or a version of myself – or all three at once. You might say one of my projects is to convince you that clarity is a chimera.

 

Rebuilding Tellisford weir

turn aside to see Tellisford  – Edward Thomas

                                               

He refuses shade in midday heat

the old man walking

in his honey-brimmed hat

along the drained weir-shelf

 

that looks today like stacked loaves

its pallid smooth ranks

of Victorian stones

mapping precisely the Domesday line

 

where he patrols to and fro

proudly surveying the place he owns

this stretch of England

his plan to restore the workings

 

of the old watermill

to feed the Grid—and it is for this

he has ordered tons of sludge

to be dredged above the drop

 

and dozens of loosened stones

to be replaced to give

the mill-race its full head

and today he walks the slippery length

 

of the dammed weir-shelf

hallooing picnickers

who pull corks from fizzy wines

he cries what marvellous weather

 

then falls to conversation with a couple

who are celebrating sixty years

in their self-built house

with their three good boys

 

raised and schooled to distant homes

though today they recline

on trashy garden chairs

on this riverbank as if to watch

 

the old man in an antique yellow hat

who walks noting progress

on the weir and how could they know

he’s something on his mind

 

for the next hundred years

how could they know more and more

these days he struggles to endure

the roaring of the fish-shoot

 

with its silted water

and these stilted conversations

with such ordinary people

their Diet Coke and egg mayonnaise

 

their crisps for the grandchildren

their Sunday newspapers

let blow and tumble across the meadow

reminding him of himself

 

how his mind often strays

up the ditch-line to the old drovers’ road

where for fifty years

their cars have pinked and purred

 

especially at night as they mount

slowly the gravel verge—

O so many love-cars for so many years

drawn to his father’s land

 

each in pursuit of what the river gives

of moonlight and chance

of the ticking of an engine

as it cools of blonde hair spilling

 

across dark seats in disarray

he knows the windows rolled to the dusk

the sickly smell of water

the murmur within and talk

 

when it’s over though he knows well

it is never really over—

and it’s because of this

he will not turn them away

 

although they holler and soil and litter

still he’d grant them every wish

it’s for this his feet edge now across

the weir-shelf this afternoon

 

for this he takes his uneasy stand

hands thrust in his pockets

their cars pulling in to the dark hiss

of white gravel everywhere loosening

(from The Lovely Disciplines, Seren 2017)

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How to Answer the Poetic Influence Question #2

With my new collection just out from Seren Books, I’m happy to have a number of promotional events and readings coming up over the next couple of months. As I discussed in an earlier blog, though I love the business of giving a reading, there’s often a moment that arises that I’m always uneasy about. It’s the question of influence. In that previous blog I followed through, chronologically, those poets who have had a powerful influence over the style and direction of my work. That provides one possible answer to the question ‘what other poets do you consider to have been an influence on your poems?’ Another reply might be to look closely at very recent work to see which poets are present in it as ghosts. This is what I’m doing here.

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In preparing a new book for public reading, I tend to work through every poem making notes on the kind of thing an audience might need/like to know before hearing it (once and once only, in performance). I will often draw attention to the presence of a powerful poet figure that I’m aware of in the vicinity of the poem. So in The Lovely Disciplines, I can see influential roles of substance for Robert Hass (with Czeslaw Milosz), Ivan Lalic, Mary Oliver (with Emerson), Whitman and Edward Thomas.

Before looking at those in a little more detail, there are also two translations/versions from other poets in the collection. One is a version of Boris Pasternak’s poem from the 1950s called ‘In Hospital’. In the process of my versioning, the gender of the main protagonist was switched to female, more in line with most of the poems from the middle section of my book which forms a composite portrait of the passing of my parents’ generation.

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Abbaye de Valsainte

I also include a loose translation of (plus a poem alluding to) the work of the French poet, Yves Bonnefoy, who I referred to in my earlier post on Poetic Influence. My poem ‘Valsaintes’ is named after the rural retreat in Haute-Provence where Bonnefoy lived in the 1960s. In many ways an idyllic place, in the end the renovation and up-keep of what was little more than an ancient ruin proved too much for him and the property was sold. For years afterwards, he harked back to it as a favoured, lost place. Bonnefoy’s ideas about what he calls ‘presence’ continue to fascinate me. My version, called ‘After Bonnefoy’, ends:

 

let’s bring ourselves one to another

 

as if each was at last all creatures

and all things all empty ways

all stones all metals and all streams

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Sir Michael Tippett

Sir Michael Tippett’s 1944 secular oratorio, A Child of Our Time, is explicitly relevant to my poem ‘Listening to Tippett twice’. Tippett also wrote the libretto, inspired by the assassination in 1938 of a German diplomat by a young Jewish refugee and the Nazi government’s reaction to it. This took the form of a violent pogrom against its Jewish population – the infamous Kristallnacht, so called because of the broken glass which littered the streets the following morning. Tippett’s text and music deals with these incidents in the context of the experience of oppressed people more generally and the whole work carries a strongly pacifist message of understanding and the need for reconciliation.

I’m certainly aware of echoes of Wordsworth on a couple of occasions. In ‘The Toll Cottage’ – a dream-poem in which I am being driven by my father – there’s a mangled remembrance of a phrase Wordsworth uses in ‘Tintern Abbey’ – “Once again I see / These hedgerows, hardly hedgerows, little lines / Of sportive wood run wild”. Also ‘The girl who returned to Aix’, a sequence of three sonnets, includes the awkward fact that I cried on first seeing Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was that moment when the huge alien spaceship finally appears, rising up from behind a mountain – just as Wordsworth’s mountain, Black Crag, rises up in the boat-stealing episode of The Prelude Book 1.

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Enough to make a grown man weep

In my poem ‘Nocturne’, I was partly thinking of Whistler’s painting, ‘Nocturne in Black and Gold’ (c. 1875) but I like to think my (love) poem has more light in it than that, set as it is in the same Tuscan landscape as another poem called ‘The renovation near Sansepolcro’. ‘Nocturne’ also makes reference to ‘the poet’s kelson’ and this is Walt Whitman who, in the fifth part of ‘Song of Myself’, refers to love as a kelson of creation. A kelson (or keelson) is the structure running the length of a ship and fastening the timbers or plates of the floor to its keel giving stability and strength.

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In his book, Time and Materials (2007), introducing the sequence ‘Czeslaw Milosz: In Memoriam’, Robert Hass recounts a discussion he had with Milosz (as his translator) about the different connotations in English of Oh! and O! As it turned out, the one Milosz intended in his poems was the second and this is the one that most interests me too. My poem opens:

 

Oh! is longer drawn already

beginning the button-down

of understanding

that well-I-never

with its freighting

of verb tense and identity

whereas O! is more sudden

more urgent surely

of the moment rapt

when we are prised open

by desire [. . .]

 

I wanted the title of my poem, ‘The lovely disciplines’, to feel paradoxical and in my mind it was related to the Serbo-Croat poet, Ivan Lalic. I remember reading his 1981 collection, translated by Francis R. Jones as The Passionate Measure. I remember Lalic explaining he hoped to suggest the fluidity or fluency of emotion as well as the orderliness or measured nature of a dance or verse. I hoped my title would suggest something of the same – a balanced response to experience, both our taking pleasure in it and searching it for order. My poem takes place on a women’s hospital ward.

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Mary Oliver’s book, Swan, is not her best but I bought it in a secondhand bookshop once and inside discovered an ATM receipt with some cryptic notes on it. This provided the start of ‘As we live’, a poem which takes up Oliver’s sensitivity to nature (which she often gazes at with such precision of feeling as to achieve a visionary intensity) as well as her epigraphs from Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay ‘Beauty’ in The Conduct of Life: “’Tis curious that we only believe as deep as we live”.

Finally, Edward Thomas (Ted Hughes’ “father of us all”) appears explicitly in relation to two poems in my book. Not a million miles from Oliver’s example, it’s his directness and love of what lies before him that I like. I like his sense that, in Robert Frost’s words, this world is the right place for love, combined with his intuitions about the human need to look beyond, perhaps into an inexpressible obscurity. ‘These things I remember’ is almost a found poem on these issues – taking phrases from a memoir written by Thomas’ friend Jesse Berridge (published with letters by Enitharmon Press).

And ‘Rebuilding Tellisford weir’ has an epigraph from Thomas’ 1914 prose book, In Pursuit of Spring. His book recounts his 1913 journey – by bicycle – across southern England from London to the Quantock Hills. I was delighted to discover him passing through the landscape of my childhood: cycling down off Salisbury Plain, through Erlestoke and Edington, Steeple Ashton, North Bradley to stay with friends at Dillybrook Farm just outside Trowbridge, where I lived for 18 years. He writes about waking at night to the sound of falling water. The next day he is persuaded to visit Tellisford and its weir by the mysterious Other Man (a kind of alter ego for Thomas). My poem mixes some of these details with my own memories of visits to Tellisford. I like to think the poem has a lot of Thomas in it: a sense of history, the beauty of nature, strange encounters with others, a sad loneliness, the transience of all things.

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The weir at Tellisford, Wiltshire

How to Answer the Poetic Influence Question #1

A Boat..._quicksand cover

With my new collection just out from Seren Books, I’m happy to have a number of promotional events and readings coming up over the next couple of months. I love the business of giving a reading, but there’s often a moment that arises that makes me uneasy as to how to how to respond. It’s the question of influence; the hand going up to ask: what other poets do you consider to have been an influence on your own poems?

It’s my problem I’m sure, but I’ve always had two ludicrously extreme responses spring to mind on hearing the question. Firstly, to list pretty much every single poet I’ve read in the last 40 years because the truth is every single one has added a grain, a pebble (for better or worse) to the path I walk to write a poem. Alternatively, since I can’t think of one, or even two, clear contenders for powerful influence when I sit down at a blank page or screen, it must be that I have emerged ex nihilo, a peculiar original. The first would be a lengthy reply of little use or interest; the second would seem positively dripping with arrogance (and equally of little use or interest).

Actually, I can think of a third answer: it’s not for the poet to identify influences; it’s a job for a reader. But I wanted to use the next two posts to kick the idea of influence around, to sort out my own ideas and to answer it in two ways. Early in a writing career, the revelation of, or encounter with, a new voice, style, or even subject area can lead to great lurching changes of direction in a poet’s own work. The lurch or swerve becomes progressively less marked the older a poet gets. Put that down to a more confident self belief perhaps, or to a growing inertia, or a more sophisticated process of absorption of such novelty, or sheer bloody mindedness . . .

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For me, I started in the business convinced that I was composing song lyrics because poetry as such was not a familiar thing – except in occasional English classes at school and I dropped that subject at the age of 16. As I’ve said elsewhere, science was what I did through most of my teens. With too much time on my hands and too little joy to be found elsewhere, in the mid 1970s I began to turn to other sorts of books. From Foyle’s in London, I stole a copy of Everyman’s Selected Poems of Wordsworth. They seemed a bit dull and plodding but reminded me of rural Wiltshire where I grew up. For a few months I copied Wordsworth. Perhaps a year later, after a good dose of Sartre, I was finding my way back to the academic study of literature. It was the poetry (and drama) of T S Eliot that I fell in love with (not Dylan Thomas – the other poet on the curriculum). I still have those early Eliotesque poems somewhere, mostly Prufrock period style, though also a horrifyingly pretentious sequence of poems like a clumsy, anaphora-laden Waste Land.

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Re-starting my Higher Education took me to Lancaster University, studying Literature and Philosophy (and a few sessions of Creative Writing with poet, David Craig) and Hughes and Larkin were served up and readily ingested. At first, I swerved to the latter’s urban details and personal gloom; later it was the Hughes of Gaudete (recently published, 1977) that I copied, writing a long, quasi-mythic, magic-real, psychodrama about sex and power that I eventually self-published in Oxford. As a post-graduate among the dreaming spires, it was Percy Byshe Shelley who I was working on for several years and, though not a model for poems as such, his ideas about the role of the Imagination and poetry as an “Orphic language” have been important to me ever since.

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Among contemporary poets, I’d discovered Heaney (not the rural Ireland stuff so much as his wrestling with private and public responsibilities – Station Island, for example), Peter Redgrove’s fluid take on mind’s encounter with the natural world (The Apple Broadcast) and Ken Smith’s urban-political Americana (oh how I wanted to have written Fox Running). I wrote individual poems modelled on all these writers while absorbing much more deeply the work of the Romantic period – only now did I really find Keats, his poems and letters, Wordsworth still, Coleridge’s Conversation poems especially. What might have been expected – Hardy, Auden, Yeats, Frost, Stevens, Lowell, Bishop, Plath, Dickinson – were all missing or they missed me.

 

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Ken Smith

 

A decade of writing, reading, plus some reviewing too. A couple of my own books published and I’d stumbled my way to Rilke’s New Poems, Elegies and Sonnets, the second and third of which I began to translate and (whether visible on the surface or not) were a great influence on me – the Duino Elegies  for their thoughtful drive from existential mourning to praise, the Sonnets to Orpheus for that same thought (more of the praise) and their use of form. From Whitman I found my way to W S Merwin’s marvellous fluidity (something I was comparing to Paul Eluard’s work too) and from Rilke it seemed a logical (not the right word at all) step towards the 81 texts of the Daodejing which again I felt I had to try to English because it both rhymed with what I already knew and I knew it would develop further what I needed to know.

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A few years back, an article in PN Review sent me to the work of Yves Bonnefoy. A heart-rate raising sense of another writer who had fought the two-faced dragon of language and seen enough to conclude that at the bottom of its filthy lair gleamed the concept and the concept promises a “strange immortality” but only if we can “forget brutal reality”. One reason (I’m now quoting an earlier blog post on a 1953 essay by Bonnefoy) we do this is that there are “general truths in conceptual thinking and a particular kind of power derived from it. It ‘allows thinking’ of a certain kind; it is linked with ‘the vast power of words’. But any gain is predicated on a significant loss, the abandonment of the actually existing ‘world of things’. Conceptual thinking is ‘systematized’, generalizing, categorizing; it’s in this that its ‘flight’ from the real is found. The only sort of thing that can be held up to counter the concept are specific particularities of human experience: Bonnefoy asks ‘Is there a concept for footsteps in the night, for a cry, for a stone rolling in the brushwood? For the feeling evoked by an empty house? No [. . . ]’”

 

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Yves Bonnefoy

 

Reading Bonnefoy did not send me lurching to right or left but rather nudged, re-calibrated, re-assured me that my own direction of travel was not a wholly isolated one. I don’t write like Bonnefoy – there can be a dull abstraction to his poems which seems to me to contradict his ideas about real presence expressed as specific particularities – but I know what thought underlies my own work has close parallels to his (as far as I understand him). That’s influence, I’d say.

In my next blog, I’ll look at the question of influence from a different angle – what ghosts of other writers can be seen in more recent work?

This Must Be All: Robert Frost’s ‘Two Look at Two’

I have recently posted about Robert Frost’s brief essay ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’ as well as on one of his lesser known poems, ‘A Soldier’. The latter is one of the poems I’ll be teaching this coming academic year as set by the Cambridge International Exam Board: see page 47. Student essays are supposed to offer a close analysis of one (or two poems) while also exploring a wider understanding of what the poet is doing in terms of methods and concerns (techniques and themes). Another of the set poems is discussed in what follows: ‘Two Look at Two’. I read the poem here:

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In The Dyer’s Hand (1963), Auden’s essay on Frost opens by observing that, if asked who said ‘Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty’, most people would reply ‘John Keats’. Auden differs, arguing the famous phrase is really something Keats makes the Grecian urn say so the author maintains some dramatic distance between himself and the poem’s questionable statement. This is also a very Frostian device – though not one that Auden probes in his subsequent discussion of the poems. Whenever we read Frost, it’s important to be alert to such ironic distancing from the (simply understood) lyric voice or ‘I’. In fact, ‘Two Look at Two’ is a poem which does not obviously lend itself to this ‘dramatic’ sort of interpretation as its narrative voice seems more reliably omniscient, or at least impersonal. And yet the obvious meaning of the poem is not characteristic of a poet whose work can be dark and pessimistic, indeed labelled “terrifying” by Lionel Trilling in 1959. In the poem, a couple of lovers, walking up a mountain, encounter a corresponding pair of deer – a doe and buck. At the end of the brief, uneventful encounter the narrator reports that the human couple sense a “wave” of reciprocated love emanating from the “earth”. At the conclusion of this discussion, I’ll look again at whether the narrator’s confident assertion of this should be taken at face value.

The first and last words in the poem are the same: “love”. The opening 3 lines are full of qualifying equivocations with the choice of verb form “might” and the vague but limiting phrases about how far up the mountain side the couple will go: “A little further up” and “not much further up”. It is the twin forces of “love and forgetting” which have the potential to drive them higher up the mountain. The two are probably linked in that, absorbed in their mutual love, they may become forgetful, neglectful of the potential dangers in the landscape. The risk of self-absorption (even in the cause of romantic love) is raised here by Frost, a risk encountered by other narrators in poems like ‘An Encounter’, ‘The Wood-Pile’ and most clearly in ‘Stopping by Woods…’ In the latter, the allure of the snowy woods is strongly felt by the narrator (“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep”) but his work and social responsibilities probably prevent him from abandoning the road and risking/welcoming death by exposure.

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In many cases, the chief risk is a neglect of the boundaries that in Frost’s world it seems wiser to acknowledge and adhere to. In ‘Two Look at Two’ this is clear in the forceful verbs used in the following few lines (“They must have halted” and “they must not go”) and it may explain the optimistic nature of this poem that we see the lovers in fact do adhere to the limits set. Lines 5/6 suggest they have thoughts not of over-reaching or dizzying aspiration but rather of the dangers present to them: “With thoughts of the path back, how rough it was / With rock and washout, and unsafe in darkness”. Frost’s music here is suitably rough and threatening with its harsh consonants and internal rhyme (path/back), the growling ‘r’ sounds followed by a swilling of sibilance (washout /unsafe /darkness) suggestive of the water-eroded path on the hillside. When they encounter the actual physical barrier of a wall, Frost bulks it up (despite its ruined state) in the reader’s ear with heavy plosive ‘b’ sounds: “they were halted by a tumbled wall / With barbed-wire binding”.

This is not a barrier to be passed easily – and the lovers do not even try. They possess a sort of Frostian piety or reverence most clearly seen also in ‘Mending Wall with its repeated maxim: “Good fences make good neighbours”. ‘Two Look at Two’ does allow its lovers a residual “onward impulse” which they spend, or expend, simply by gazing up along the path “they must not” now follow. The dangers that lie there are again described with a telling adjective (it is a “failing path”) and a haunting moment of hypothetical personification: “if a stone / Or earthslide moved at night, it moved itself”. It is at this point that we hear some words spoken by the lovers. Their words are brief and (effectively) firmly monosyllabic – “This is all [. . . ] Good-night to woods”. But they are accompanied by a sighing of regret that the walk has reached its limit. Frost here is accepting the reality of human desire – that “limitless trait of ‘There Are Roughly Zones’ –but he and the lovers see the risks of its limitless pursuit.

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The lovers’ clipped statements are answered in kind by the narrative voice: “But not so; there was more.” The clipped, heavily punctuated nature of lines 13/14 make them a clear, early turning point in the poem, a moment of stasis and some tension. The unpunctuated and enjambed line 15 then sets the narrative flowing again as it records the sudden presence of the doe, staring back across the wall at the lovers. The mirroring effect is most important and presented through the plain language of lines 16/7: the doe is looking at them “Across the wall, as near the wall as they. / She saw them in their field, they her in hers”.  In each line the caesura acts as the wall, dividing and join the two halves of the lines. The repetitions of ‘wall’, ‘they’, ‘their’ and ‘her’ slow and focus the reader on what the title suggests is the mutual regard occurring on either side of the wall.

Frost’s narrative slides seamlessly into the doe’s perspective, imagining her difficulty in seeing the couple. Though watched carefully, their alien appearance is conveyed in a simile: they are “like some up-ended boulder split in two”. But the couple perceive no “fear” in the creature and Frost’s formulation – “they saw no fear there” – also suggests they feel no fear on their part either. In fact, lines 21-24 rather suggest the couple, “though strange”, do not possess much interest for the doe:

She could not trouble her mind with [them] too long,

She sighed and passed unscared along the wall.

Notably, she also shares the ‘sigh’ with the couple and in this way the shared mutuality of the encounter is emphasised, preparing us for the final affirmative moments of the poem.

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The couple’s speech (line 25) suggests – through italicisation, short phrases and the rhetorical question – that they are breathlessly impressed. They think this is “all” but there is more to come. Frost’s poem ‘The Most of It’ comes to mind, recording as it does the appearance of another creature (“As a great buck”), its advent perhaps a response to a man’s demand for “counter-love, original response”. There, the creature seems brutish, indifferent, unaware, alien and incomprehensible as it stumbles off into the underbrush. ‘The Most of It’ (bafflingly not a poem included in CIE’s set poem list) is a key poem to contrast with ‘Two Look at Two’. In the latter, a buck also appears and, despite its more challenging even arrogant tone, it is never as frighteningly remote as the creature in ‘The Most of It’.

The buck of ‘Two Look at Two’ announces itself with a “snort” and is a more stereotypically masculine presence with its antlers, “lusty nostril”, its jerking head and its (imagined) arrogantly dismissive questioning of the couple. But his difference from the doe is minor as we recognise a whole line repeated: the buck also stands looking at the couple, “Across the wall, as near the wall as they”. It’s perhaps not clear who is interpreting the shaking of the buck’s head as questions. It’s either the narrative voice itself or that voice reporting (omnisciently) on the thoughts of the couple. His questions verge on the belligerent:

Why don’t you make some motion?

Or give some sign of life? Because you can’t.

I doubt if you’re as living as you look.

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If we are going to find disharmony in this seemingly mutual encounter, this is where it might lie. The buck’s questions portray the couple as standing respectfully, perhaps in awe, certainly in silence. The impact of the (imagined) questions is to make the human couple “almost” feel “dared / to stretch a proffering hand – and a spell-breaking one”. So the buck’s obstreperous attitude strikes the couple as a dare to reach out across the divide. Such an action would be to proffer, “to hold out or put forward (something) to someone for its acceptance”, hence a gesture of friendship. But Frost also makes it clear such a reaching across the divide would break the spell of mutual regard which has been the subject of the whole poem. In fact, the moment of choice – a topic of so many other Frost poems, most famously ‘The Road Not Taken’ – is passed over as the buck, just like the doe, moves away, “unscared along the wall”.

The final 5 lines deal with the impact on the lovers. Again, they briefly speak: “This must be all”. And on this occasion, the narrative voice agrees: “It was all”. The final phrase in ‘The Most of It’ is “and that was all”. Is this the cry or half-question of the disappointed man asking, ‘Is there no more than this’? Or is it a rapt, stunned whispering in the face of a vision of a unitary world declaring, ‘So this is all and all’s connected’? You could ask the same questions about the end of ‘Two Look at Two’ though the couple’s italicised emphasis in line 39 and the fact they continue to stand, as if rapt and wrapped still in the experience they have just had, surely does not suggest disappointment. Frost uses the metaphor of the “wave” sweeping over them, suggesting an irresistible inundation, a largeness of feeling derived from this minor incident. It is “As if the earth in one unlooked-for favour / Had made them certain earth returned their love”.

But the “As if” that opens line 41 cannot be ignored. This is how it felt – for the lovers. I don’t think Frost wants to deny them their experience. But perhaps they are still too absorbed in their own “Love and forgetting”. This is where the sense of the poem as a dramatic performance perhaps is relevant, in this case the incident rosily-coloured by the perceptions of the lovers. We ought to hesitate before we conclude that Frost himself sees the earth as in fact mutually responding with love. This would be exactly the “counter-love, original response” that so signally does not occur in ‘The Most of It’. The optimism of ‘Two Look at Two’ cannot be dismissed – but nor can it be taken in any simple way as the real and final ‘message’ of its author.

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2017 Forward First Collections Reviewed #4 – Ocean Vuong

This is the fourth in the series of reviews I have been posting over the summer months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2017 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 21st September 2017. Click on these links to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique)  and all 5 of my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The 2017 shortlist is:

Maria Apichella – Psalmody (Eyewear Publishing) – reviewed here

Richard Georges – Make Us All Islands (Shearsman Books) – reviewed here

Eric Langley – Raking Light (Carcanet) – reviewed here

Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree Press) – reviewed here

Ocean Vuong – Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry)

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In living with Ocean Vuong’s book over the last week or two I have on occasions mistaken its title for Night Sky with Exile Wounds. It will become obvious why. But it has also been hard to ‘see’ this collection because of the accumulated material – interviews, awards, perhaps hype – that already surrounds it in a way that affects none of the other Forward First Collections this year. Vuong has already appeared on the cover of Poetry London and been interviewed by The New Yorker. He has been nominated as one of Foreign Policy magazine’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers. Such recognition is even more extraordinary given that Vinh Quoc Vuong was born in 1988 on a rice farm outside Saigon and, at the age of two, he and six relatives emigrated to Hartford, Connecticut, where they lived together in a one-bedroom apartment. On learning that ‘ocean’ (in American English) is a body of water that touches many countries – including Vietnam and the United States – his mother renamed her son.

Ocean Vuong is also gay. Hence his exile – the word that kept coming into my mind – is one not only from his birth country and culture but also from the mainstreams of his adopted country. It’s no surprise there are several Ocean Vuongs in this book in terms of subject matter as well as in its use of a variety of poetic forms. This might – reflecting his given name – be an essential, protean, shape-shifting style or it might reveal the kind of casting around in the sea of form and content one might expect from a first collection. I think it is more the latter than the former, though the thrashing and contortion involved in such self creation (we used to refer to ‘self discovery’ – the book title has ‘self portrait’) is now a topic of such ubiquity in Western culture that Vuong’s personal struggles may come to be considered as representative in themselves.

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Saigon 1975

Though 13 years before his birth, ‘Aubade with Burning City’ portrays the American withdrawal from Saigon in 1975. Apparently, Armed Forces Radio played ‘White Christmas’ as a sign to commence the withdrawal and the poem assembles a montage of the song lyric, events on the streets of Saigon and a sinister, coercive-sounding male/female dialogue. The result reflects the chaos of such a moment of violent transition (though the ironies of the sentimental song are a bit obvious) and introduces a recurrent thread in Vuong’s work, the uneasy alliance between power and sex. ‘A Little Closer to the Edge’ seems a reminiscence, perhaps of his own conception (Cape’s cover image of the young poet encourages this biographical approach). Among bomb craters and anticipated domestic violence, a young Vietnamese couple are at first “hand in hand”. Then:

 

 

He lifts her white cotton skirt, revealing

another hour. His hand. His hands. The syllables

 

inside them. O father, O foreshadow, press

into her –

 

For his mother’s part, the narrative voice asks her to show “how ruin makes a home / out of hip bones” and also to “teach me / how to hold a man”.

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Vuong with his mother and aunt -refugee camp Philippines, c.1989.

Once in the USA, there are poems that treat both parents with some tenderness. In ‘The Gift’, the son teaches his mother the alphabet. She can hardly get beyond the third letter, the fourth, gone astray, appearing only as

 

a strand of black hair – unravelled

from the alphabet

& written

on her cheek

 

Several portrayals of Vuong’s father suggest violence and drinking but in ‘In Newport I Watch my Father Lay his Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back’ he is seen to express concern for the creature, “the wet refugee”, though the poem is fractured by bullets, Huey helicopters, shrapnel and snipers as if to suggest the root of the father’s violence and his inability to express affection for his own family.

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Ernest Hemingway and his son (plus guns)

Or perhaps such things innate to a man? Another major theme in the book is masculinity itself as expressed through father figures and a young gay man growing up. The former is seen in two poems involving guns. ‘The Smallest Measure’ has the father instructing the boy on how to handle a Winchester rifle (it reminds me of a photograph of Hemingway and his son). ‘Always and Forever’ (Vuong’s note tells us this is his father’s favourite Luther Vandross song) has the father substituting himself with a Colt.45 in a shoe box: “Open this when you need me most”, he says. The boy seems to wonder if the gun might deliver a liberation of sorts: “[I] wonder if an entry wound in the night // would make a hole wide as morning”. This image of an aperture being made in darkness – most often through an act of violence – to let in light recurs in these poems. I can’t quite see what is intended here but there are again links to the erotic/violence motif. Later, the gun barrel must “tighten” around the bullet “to make it speak”, making further obscure, but interesting, links to violence and the ability to speak (or write).

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What it is to be a (young, gay) man is explored in the second part of the collection. Andrew McMillan’s physical comes to mind in reading these poems (McMillan interviewed Vuong for Poetry London recently). ‘Because It’s Summer’ is a more conventionally lineated poem in the second person singular (some distancing there) of slipping away from a mother’s control (and expectations) to meet a boy “waiting / in the baseball field behind the dugout”. It’s particularly good at conveying the exciement (on both sides) of a desire, previously played out alone, being mutually gratified: “the boy [. . .] finds you / beautiful because you’re not / a mirror”. ‘Homewrecker’ evokes the energy of erotic discovery as well as the ‘wreckage’ it threatens (to some) in the “father’s tantrum” as much as the “mothers’ / white dresses spilling from our feet”. ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’ is particularly inventive in its form. The poem – set as prose, but with line break slashes included (a baggy, hybrid form Vuong uses elsewhere) – appears as a series of footnotes. The footnote numbers appear scattered across a blank page. The poem deals with the murder, by immolation, of two gay men in Dallas in 2011. The mainstream silence is cleverly played against the passionate love poem only recorded as footnotes.

Elsewhere, Vuong hits less successful notes and styles. There are some dream poems – like ‘Queen under the Hill’ – which don’t always escape the hermetic seal around an individual’s dream world. On other occasions, he wants to use mythic stories to scaffold his own. ‘Telemachus’ is probably the most successful of these (the materials again feeling dream-like to me) as the son pulls his dead (shot dead) father from the ocean. Elsewhere we find allusions to Orpheus and Eurydice (and to Lorca’s ‘Sleepwalking Ballad’ and Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’). Certainly, Vuong is not fearful of taking on big subjects such as JFK’s assassination (‘Of Thee I Sing’), the murders of Jeffrey Dahmer (‘Into the Breach’) and 9/11 (‘Untitled’).

 

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Archaic Torso of Apollo

 

But actually I think ‘ordinariness’ and those poems which show the influence of O’Hara and the New York School prove a more fertile direction. In an interview, Vuong has discussed the Rilkean imperative to look, what the young poet calls the “inexhaustibility in gazing”, something with which we might “resist the capitalist mythos of an expendable gaze”. So ‘On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous’ (I do hope Vuong thinks, as I do, of Jay Gatsby whenever he uses that last word) the fragments of vivid perception amount to more than the sum of its parts. ‘Notebook Fragments’ – which appears to be precisely what the title says – works better than some more crafted poems in the collection. And ‘Devotion’ – with its concluding placement suggesting Vuong knows how good it is – rises out of the sometimes conflicting biographical currents that by his own admission have buffeted him. It’s a beautiful lyric (the form, tripping, delicate, this time not drawing attention to itself) about oral sex; its debatable claims made with utter conviction:

 

there’s nothing

more holy than holding

a man’s heartbeat between

your teeth, sharpened

with too much

air

 

The lilting lineation, the brush-strokes of punctuation, work better here than in some of Vuong’s more Whitman-esque streamings of consciousness. The enviable, insouciance of youth – “& so what” – is thrillingly conveyed. Yet, it turns out,  this is not really about the provocative challenges of a variety of states of exile and  ‘otherness’, but about the need to feel anything “fully”, however transient it may prove to be:

 

Only to feel

this fully, this

entire, the way snow

touches bare skin – & is,

suddenly, snow

no longer.

 

 

 

The Cleansing Tang of Otherness: C. S. Lewis’ ‘A Grief Observed’

By 1956, C.S. Lewis was famous as a Christian apologist, literary historian, critic, BBC broadcaster and a writer of science fiction and children’s books (the Narnia books appeared almost yearly from 1950 to 1956). He had long been a confirmed bachelor, living with a housekeeper and his brother in Headington, just outside Oxford, since 1930. For most of his life he’d been a don at Magdalen College, Oxford. Just the year before, in 1955, he had accepted a new professorship at Magdalene College, Cambridge, but remained living in Headington. An establishment, if eccentric, figure whose views on so many things are scarred by the era in which he grew up, nevertheless he is a writer capable of remarkable insight.

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He first met Joy Gresham in September 1952 and the two grew closer over the ensuing four years. Gresham was an American whose marriage was collapsing. By 1956, she wanted to remain in the UK with her two children, but the Home Office refused to renew her visa. To secure her residence, Lewis offered to marry her in a civil ceremony in a registry office. He seems to have suggested that he already loved her in all ways but one – the erotic – and he would continue to do so. In fact, they had just four years of marital happiness (and a love that seems to have included the erotic) before Gresham died of cancer in July 1960. Lewis jotted thoughts down after the event, referring to it as a record, “a defence against total collapse, a safety valve”. What he wrote was published in 1961 (under a pseudonym) as A Grief Observed. A version of these events is played out in the film Shadowlands (1993).

A Grief Observed does what it says on the tin. Lewis observes the progress of his own grief after the death of Joy Gresham – she’s referred to in the text as Helen. For example, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.” A little later: “I am thinking about her nearly always. Thinking of the H. facts – real words, looks, laughs, and actions of hers. But it is my own mind that selects and groups them. Already, less than a month after her death, I can feel the slow, insidious beginning of a process that will make the H. I think of into a more and more imaginary woman.” It’s these thoughts about a closely observed mental process that particularly interested me.

 

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Lewis with Joy Gresham

 

Way back in 1926, in a now mostly unread long poem of ‘scientifiction’ (as he called the sci fi genre) called Dymer, an individual who for years has been refined, clipped, moulded and adorned by an oppressive regime suddenly acts freely: “Then came the moment that undid the whole – / The ripple of rude life without warning”. On that occasion, the rebellion of real/rude life takes the form of an almost inadvertent violent action. But this pattern of the mental/social construct being breached by an undeniable and more authentic reality seems for Lewis to have been one of those magnetic norths that serve to guide any reflective individual’s thinking. In Lewis’ religious thinking, the authentic was, of course, the presence of God. Epistemologically, he never doubted a real presence behind all perceived phenomena. And this is the point he makes in relation to his recall of his wife.

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The accumulating false image of Helen would, of course, be founded on fact, nothing fictitious as such, but the composition of the image would become more and more his own. He compares the process to the settling of snowflakes: “little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her. The real shape will be quite hidden in the end”. Eventually, if the process continues uninterrupted, the image “will do whatever you want. It will smile or frown, be tender, gay, ribald, or argumentative just as your mood demands. It is a puppet of which you hold the strings”.

Lewis wonders if this is the real meaning of all those ballads and folk tales in which the dead return to the living to inform us that our mourning somehow does them wrong. Counter-intuitively, he argues it is our passionate grief that actually cuts us off from the dead. In such moments, because of the power of our emotion, all is “foreshortened and patheticized and solemnized by [our] miseries”. The real presence of the lost one is swamped and submerged beneath a passionate egotism. Lewis observed something resembling this just a week after Joy’s death. An American, Nathan Starr, who he’d not met up with for years, visited him in Oxford and, in his notes, Lewis wrote: “don’t we often make this mistake as regards people who are still alive – who are with us in the same room? Talking and acting not to the man himself but to the picture – almost the précis – we’ve made of him in our own minds? And he has to depart from it pretty widely before we even notice”.

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This matters less when the real person is on hand to breach and explode the fictional composition we make of them – though Lewis is right to note how tenaciously we hang on to our précis before accepting its divergence from the real. But in the case of the dead? “The reality is no longer there to check me, to pull me up short, as the real H. so often did, so unexpectedly, by being so thoroughly herself and not me”. In some of his most moving lines, this ageing don and once-confirmed bachelor argues: “The most precious gift that marriage gave me was this constant impact of something very close and intimate yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant – in a word, real”. One of Lewis’ great gifts was his ability to communicate. He often declared his belief in the vernacular, even (or rather especially) when it came to religion, arguing the vernacular was the real test – if beliefs could not be turned into it, then either you didn’t fully understand them or you didn’t truly believe them. In A Grief Observed, he describes what he misses of his wife’s real presence, “the rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness”. In contrast to the puppet-like, “insipid dependence” of the image or précis created by the person left behind, the lost one’s real presence was “obstinate, resistant, often intractable”.

 

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Lewis’ house in Headington, Oxford

 

Moving from this particular to the general, it’s here that Lewis memorably declares “all reality is iconoclastic”. Our true acquaintance with reality or real presence is the only way to cleanse and scour our egotistical preconceptions whether of the dead or the living: “Not my idea of God, but God. Not my idea of H., but H. Yes, and also not my idea of my neighbour, but my neighbour”. In William Griffin’s hyper-episodic biography of Lewis, he reports a 1944 BBC broadcast given by Lewis in which he refers to Christians as “new men”, a new step in evolution. This is because they have abandoned their own personalities and allowed God to inhabit them. In looking for your self, Lewis argued, you find only hatred, loneliness, despair and rage. In turning away from the self we find “Him, and with Him everything else thrown in”. This is interesting as it’s a later (though ironically more traditional) version of Keats’ Godless explanation of the importance of negative capability (which I have discussed at length elsewhere).

Whether in Keats’ or Lewis’ view, what the individual – whether we think of ourselves as artists or not – must always bring to the table is our attentiveness. The etymology of the word attend shows its roots lie in the Latin verb tendo – to stretch, to stretch out. The effort implied is the energy and precision with which we must perceive and this energy breaches the accumulated shell, the snow-cover of our preconceptions. At the close of A Grief Observed Lewis says “Attention is an act of will. Intelligence in action is will par excellence”. The willing poet, of course, must apply attentiveness in 3 directions – to the outer world (including the living and the dead), to my inner conditions, to my language.

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Too Short an Arc: Robert Frost’s ‘A Soldier’

I recently posted a discussion about Robert Frost’s brief essay ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’. In this post I’m looking at one of the poems I’ll be teaching next year from the Cambridge International Exam Board’s list of set texts. See page 47 of the Specification. Essays are supposed to offer a close analysis of one (or two poems) while also exploring a student’s wider understanding of what the poet is doing in terms of methods and concerns (techniques and themes).

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Robert Frost’s seldom discussed sonnet, ‘A Soldier’, was first published in West-Running Brook (1928). The choice of the indefinite article in the title contrasts immediately with a war poem like Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ in which some effort is made to capture an individual voice, a specific occasion for grief. In Frost’s poem, the soldier’s death is rather an opportunity for the poet’s characteristic reflections on life’s limits and freedoms, on boundaries, on the relationship between our place on earth and our aspiration to something else.

He is that fallen lance that lies as hurled,

That lies unlifted now, come dew, come rust,

But still lies pointed as it plowed the dust.

If we who sight along it round the world,

See nothing worthy to have been its mark,

It is because like men we look too near,

Forgetting that as fitted to the sphere,

Our missiles always make too short an arc.

They fall, they rip the grass, they intersect

The curve of earth, and striking, break their own;

They make us cringe for metal-point on stone.

But this we know, the obstacle that checked

And tripped the body, shot the spirit on

Further than target ever showed or shone.

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On the page, Frost does not divide the structural elements of this broadly Petrarchan sonnet, but it is useful to think of them for the sake of analysis and I refer to quatrains, octet, sestet and volta where relevant. Here’s me reading the poem with the text differently chunked into units of sense.

Line 1 immediately treats the dead soldier to a metaphorical (more strictly metonymic) transformation – he becomes his own weapon. But the kind of dehumanisation suggested by the ‘man=lance’ image does not lead to more obvious themes about loss of individuality in war time. Also why Frost chooses such an archaic weapon as a lance is not clear – perhaps he was thinking of a painting, perhaps he wanted to distance the death from more contemporary images of war (the poem first appeared 14 years after the end of WW1), perhaps he felt it would give him more freedom to explore the symbolism of the death without personal, (distracting?) human entanglements. The opening 3 lines of quatrain 1 (Q1) are as follows:

He is that fallen lance that lies as hurled,

That lies unlifted now, come dew, come rust,

But still lies pointed as it plowed the dust.

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The repetition of the verb “lies” is striking and emphasises the soldier’s passivity in death and the subsequent stillness of the lance. The adjective “fallen” confirms this idea. The end of line 1 seems to mean something like ‘the lance lies just as/in the way it was hurled’. So the throw was a failure, an ineffective effort, as also suggested in line 3 where we are told it has merely “plowed the dust”. The lance’s metaphorical ploughing of the earth further suggests an ineffective, unfertile, unproductive act. Line 2 reinforces these images of passivity, inaction, ineffectuality, as the lance “lies unlifted” over a length of time (duration suggested by the hesitations of the heavier punctuation in line 2) likely to give rise to both “dew” and “rust”. So this is not an image of death and failure in the heat of the battle; it may indeed be long after. Frost seems more than happy to draw the reader’s mind away from what might be the actual condition of the flesh and blood soldier himself by this stage. His dewy, rusty lance, plugged point first into the earth, stands in for him. This is not a poem of personal grief or lament for a warrior’s lost life. That it ought to have a bit more concern for that theme (to be a bit less exploitative) is one of the reasons why we may find reading the poem an uneasy experience.

Line 4 introduces the plural pronoun and – crossing the unmarked boundary between Q1 and Q2 – we are off into more generalised realms of philosophical speculation.

If we who sight along it round the world,

See nothing worthy to have been its mark,

It is because like men we look too near,

Forgetting that as fitted to the sphere,

Our missiles always make too short an arc.

The image of ‘sighting’ along the lance perhaps re-instates more modern methods of warfare (rifles with sights?) but whether ancient or modern, Frost suggests, in looking for a suitable target or “mark”, we fail, we see “nothing worthy”. This is more hyperbolic than factual perhaps, given that we are sighting along the lance and apparently gazing “round the world”. It’s this latter phrase – its easy familiarity enabling Frost to smuggle it past the reader’s guard against inappropriate pretention – that initiates the poem’s elevation from battle-field incident to generalised speculative discussion about human aspiration and limitation.

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The simile in line 6, comparing the observing “we” to “men” has been noted and criticised by H. A. Maxson (On the Sonnets of Robert Frost (1997)). He objects that the observing “we” are surely “men” (in the sense of human) and so the simile barrenly compares like with like. Maxson suggests Frost intended something like ‘isn’t it just like men’, a sort of frustrated, critical aside (self not excluded) that human beings have very limited powers of observation. Another way of reading the moment may be to emphasis the gender specificity of the reference: is this limit to our sight a specifically male problem?

Of course, it’s not mere shortness of optical sight that is the issue, but a “Forgetting that as fitted to the sphere, / Our missiles always make too short an arc”. The phrase “as fitted to the sphere” works in the same way as “round the world” did earlier. Frost is urging us to forget the battlefield where the poem began; the discussion now is about our place in the world/sphere and how we perceive it or not. Though the use of the word “missiles” does suggest a return to the militaristic, it works as a more generalised allusions to human tools, all carefully “fitted to the sphere” but because of that they/we are unable to contemplate what may lie beyond it. For this reasons our tools, missiles, thought and perceptions all fall short, they “make too short an arc”.

 

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Robert Frost

 

The arc image reminds us of the interim statement in Frost’s ‘Birches’ that the narrator would “like to get away from the earth awhile”. In ‘A Soldier’ the desire for a similar escape is expressed more indirectly in the constriction and thudding physicality beyond the volta, at the opening of the sestet, descriptive of all lances’ fate when limited by human “sight”:

They fall, they rip the grass, they intersect

The curve of earth, and striking, break their own;

They make us cringe for metal-point on stone.

The short phrases, heavy punctuation and repeated 3rd person pronoun as well as the violence of words like “rip”, “striking” and “break” convey Frost’s sense of the tragic, destructive quality of such limited aspiration and vision. There is a double wounding implied as the lances intersect and puncture the earth itself and in doing so “break their own” (curve, I take it).

Frost’s use of the word “cringe” in line 10 is interesting. The root of the word is relevantly related to Old English cringan, crincan to ‘bend, yield or fall in battle’. Its modern meaning is to bend one’s head and body in fear or apprehension or in a servile manner or to experience an inward shiver of embarrassment or disgust. So our human failure to see or aspire beyond the earth – represented here by the lance’s metal point striking stone – becomes a defeat of sorts, an act of weakness or servility, at least of embarrassment or disgust at our own inadequacy. It is as if the birch swinger in Frost’s other poem has no other option but to remain in his despondent state, “weary of considerations”:

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs

Broken across it, and one eye is weeping

From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

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It’s at this point the birch swinger expresses the wish to “get away” from earth by climbing the tree and swinging on it. But this is no simple, one-way,  transcendent wishfulness. In ‘Birches’ the narrator always intends to come back to earth and “begin over” because – in two of Frost’s most moving lines – “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better”.

‘A Soldier’ lacks the uplift (for reader) and complicating paradoxes of ‘Birches’. The sonnet dwells long and hard on our limitations, our poor aim and aimlessness, the burns, tickles and cobwebs. But the sestet ends in a declarative mode, not typical of Frost who works more usually via hints and guesses.

But this we know, the obstacle that checked And tripped the body, shot the spirit on Further than target ever showed or shone.

The “obstacle” here is the earth, plugging the lance, tripping the soldier himself, a pratfall in the obstinate materiality of the world. But Frost’s plainly concluding tone is now undermined by a more characteristic paradox in what has tripped the soldier’s body is precisely what also shoots his “spirit” beyond the merely everyday. The sonnet’s final line suggests the apparently unworthy “mark” of line 5 (now referred to as a “target”) has indeed been transcended towards something “Further”. Frost’s final phrase, overly pushy and hyperbolic, overly alliterative, the rhyming couplet also raising the poetic stakes a bit too high, strikes me as vacuous, its faux shimmer and shine propelled more by wishful thinking than precision of thought. Of course, what Frost intends to say – something about the generative tensions that exist between matter and spirit – may well be inexpressible but in poems like ‘Birches’, ‘Mowing’ and ‘After Apple-Picking’ he gets closer to it than he does in the confines of this sonnet.

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