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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



How to Closely Analyse a Poem (and keep exam boards happy) #3 Edward Thomas’ ‘This is no case of petty right or wrong’

Having declared in my review of one year of blogging that I wanted to include more about teaching literature, I am posting three examples of the type of essay required by OCR exam board in module F661 (see also Essay 1 and Essay 2). The essay below focuses on Edward Thomas’ poem ‘This is no case of petty right or wrong’ which can be read in full here. The poem has Thomas probably remembering bitter arguments with his patriotic father about the rights and wrongs of the war. Beyond this essay written for specific purposes, the poem seems to me to contain so much unresolved material that it rather falls apart at the seams. Poems may well travel long distances in a few words but this one seems to me to trip itself up in doing so though it also seems to record Thomas’ final and fatal decision to join the fight in France. As can be seen below, OCR students are supposed to present a close analysis of one selected poem (AO2) while also putting that poem into relation with some others by Thomas (AO4).

Thomas in uniform

“I am one in crying, God save England”. Explore the ways in which Thomas’ poem ‘This is no case . . . ’ wrestles with the idea of patriotism in a time of war.

In your answer, explore the effects of language, imagery and verse form, and consider how this poem relates to other poems by Thomas that you have studied.

Key:  close analysis is in bold;           comparative comments are in italics

In this poem Thomas seems to be continuing a debate – or argument even – with a more conventionally patriotic person (perhaps based on his own father) and trying to define his own view of patriotism and why he might join up to fight in WW1.The single block stanza suggests a dense or intense passage of speech. Though there are some vivid images included, this is an unusual poem for Thomas as it is argumentative rather than descriptive. Although it contains some of his characteristic uncertainties (as seen, for example, about memory in ‘Old Man’ for example), it does end with what seems to be a strong affirmation of patriotism: “God save England”. This love of England and its history is very typical of Thomas as in poems like ‘Words’ and the lovingly portrayed rural English landscape of ‘As the team’s head brass’.

The opening couple of lines contain a bold reply, suggesting a discussion is already underway. Thomas denies that the issue of patriotism can be easily resolved (even by “politicians and philosophers” – probably jingoists and pacifists respectively) because the rights and wrongs of it are not “petty”. This adjective with its plosive first sound conveys something of the anger that Thomas feels. He provocatively declares, “I hate not Germans”, the delaying of the “not” giving extra emphasis and the clashing ‘t’ sounds of “hate” and “not” again suggesting the anger, even aggression of the debate. Lines 3 and 4 make use of contrasting terms (Germans/Englishmen; hate/love) to make the point that the narrator will not simply obey the conventions or propaganda of “newspapers” of the times. Lines 5 and 6 repeat this contrasting device (hate/love) and hyperbolically and dramatically declare that his hate of a “patriot” makes his “hatred” of the Kaiser (the German leader) “love true”. This is evidently exaggeration as he goes on to describe the Kaiser metaphorically as “a kind of god . . . banging a gong”. This metaphor gives the Kaiser the powers of a god but he is portrayed as using them merely to create irritation and noise in the onomatopoeic, consonantal phrase “banging a gong”. The Kaiser’s actions seem pointless.

Scene from the Battle of Arras 1917

Line 8 again declares an independent viewpoint with heavy emphasis on the monosyllabic “not”, denying that the choice is a simple one “between the two” warring sides, or between “justice” (England) and “injustice (Germany) as jingoistic “newspapers” would have put it in 1914/18. The verb “Dinned”, prominently placed at the end of line 9, again suggests that Thomas feels the debate is a loud and noisy one (perhaps more shouting than clear argument?) and as a result he can “read no more”. This image of reading may refer back to the debates in the “newspapers” of the time or it might be more metaphorical, suggesting his ‘reading’ of the situation in general. What Thomas suggests is that he gets little more sense from these debates than he might find watching “the storm smoking along the wind / Athwart the wood”. This image of a natural landscape is much more typical of Thomas’ poetry in general, reminding me of the opening lines of ‘Melancholy’ where Thomas uses repetition, heavy punctuation and personification to evoke another stormy scene: “The rain and wind, the rain and wind, raved endlessly”. The storm image in ‘This is no…’ is ominous and perhaps war-like with the bad weather approaching, metaphorically “smoking”  and the sweeping and whistling of the weather evoked through sibilance and repeated ‘w’ sounds and even the enjambment of “wind / Athwart”. Perhaps this storm suggested to Thomas the next image, recalling the storms and wicked witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The imagery here becomes more gothic briefly (again not at all characteristic of Thomas’ poetry in general). The irony is though that what emerges from these apparent alternatives (Thomas again using contrasting terms in this poem) is similar. The adjectives “clear and gay” and “beautiful” suggest that there is little to choose between these alternatives, echoing line 8 with its phrase “I have not to choose”.


Thomas’ discussion of patriotism continues at line 16 with a dismissive tone: “Little I know or care”. The admission that he may be “being dull” is surely ironic and his reference to “historians” must echo line 2 with its reference to “politicians or philosophers”. In each case, these reputedly clever and intelligent figures are being mocked as unable to solve the “case” being discussed. Thomas uses the mythical image of the phoenix (re-born from the ashes of its own destruction) and imagines the historians raking at the ashes when the bird itself – the valuable, beautiful – “broods serene above their ken”. The archaic word “ken” suggests the historians fail to understand (perhaps are behind the times?) and the verb/adjective combination (“broods serene”) again evokes the beauty and value of what they have completely missed.

It’s at this point that the poem abandons its blank verse form and breaks out into rhyming couplets. It has been suggested that these final 7 lines were added later and it is interesting that it is these that declare the patriotic view more confidently with the ringing rhyme sounds supported the confident tone. In line 20, the contrasting terms (“best and meanest”) now suggest a unity of purpose or viewpoint rather than the futile oppositions earlier. Thomas is more typically alone in his poems, an isolated figure as in ‘Rain’ where the narrator repeats the word “solitude” and says he has “no love” left to offer except the “love of death”. In complete contrast, here he declares he is “one” with many of his countrymen and the passion of their patriotism is conveyed in the powerful verb “crying” suggesting loud and vigorous support rather than grief in “God save England”. His discussion concludes here with his motive for patriotism: “lest / We lose what never slaves and cattle blessed”. This is a difficult line but the image of what never blessed slaves suggests that it is English tradition of freedom/liberty that he hopes to preserve and would fight for.


The final four lines use the traditional personification of England as a woman. This sort of personification is not something Thomas does a great deal though he does personify the sun in ‘March’ to evoke the mixed nature of the weather of that month: “the mighty sun wept tears of joy”. In these final lines, England (as often for Thomas) is linked with history with the phrase “ages made her”. The bold declarative tone is aided by the hyperbole in line 24 (“all we know”) and the connecting “and” is repeated which gives a rhetorical tone. There is an  interesting contrast in the rhyme words “dust” and “trust” suggesting that England has raised her people up from almost nothing to a more complex relationship of trust in the country being “good”. The statement that she “must endure” conveys a determination or perhaps a hope that England will survive the world war. The final line again uses contrasting words and creates a sense of paradox as well as drawing the argument of the poem to a conclusion: “as we love ourselves we hate our foe”. Most of this line is monosyllabic which also gives a sense that these final words are clear and simple and explicit in deciding for English patriotism and against “our foe”.

So the poem starts by seeming to reject conventional ideas of patriotism and jingoism and suggesting that this “case” or issue cannot be easily decided. Thomas employs lots of contrasting terms throughout the poem and suggests (especially through the phoenix image) that this sort of black/white argument tends to miss the real point. Thomas’ real point seems to emerge in the final rhyming lines: it is the old traditions of English liberty that are at stake in the war. This is something he does feel passionately about and it is on that basis that he chooses patriotic commitment: “God save England”.

Photograph of Helen Thomas found on her husband’s body at Arras

How to Closely Analyse a Poem (and keep exam boards happy) #2 Edward Thomas’ ‘The Sun Used to Shine’

Having declared in my review of one year of blogging that I wanted to include more about teaching literature, I am posting some examples of the type of essay required by OCR exam board in module F661 (see also Essay 1). The essay following focuses on Edward Thomas’ poem ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ which can be read in full here. The poem has Thomas recalling happy days, walking with Robert Frost in the Gloucestershire countryside. Though the Great War  had begun, neither of them had yet become entangled with it. Students are supposed to present a close analysis of one selected poem (AO2) while also putting that poem into relation with some others by Thomas (AO4).

Little Iddens – where Robert Frost lived in 1914

Explore Thomas’ response to the English countryside of 1914 in the poem ‘The sun used to shine’. Your focus should be on close analysis of language, imagery, tone and form.

NB: Comparative sections here are in italics only to indicate the proportion of the essay devoted to that Objective (AO4). The main Objective remains AO2)

In this poem Thomas describes the English landscape as a place of pleasure and relaxed enjoyment as he walks with Robert Frost. These are remembered scenes and as the poem develops thoughts of the war of 1914-18 become more prominent. In the end perhaps the poem explores ideas about permanence and change, putting the war into a more historical perspective. The features which are typical of Thomas in the poem are the focus on the small details of the natural landscape (like ‘But These Things also’), the way the war lies in the background of the poem (like ‘Rain’ and ‘Tears’) and his interest in memory (‘Old Man’).

The opening stanza describes the two men walking at peace and the sun shining and here is an example of pathetic fallacy, the sun reflecting their happy mood. The easy rhythm of their walking is also reflected in the enjambement of lines 1-4 and the caesura in lines 2 and 4, giving a lilting, relaxed and flowing movement to the verse. At this early point in the poem, the regular ABAB rhyming adds to this impression and adverbs such as “slowly” and “cheerfully” obviously reinforce this sense of easy pleasure. The phrase “sometimes mused, sometimes talked” also suggests their free and easy life, with the caesura here again giving the steady walking rhythm of the opening as they contentedly (but thoughtfully – “mused”) explore the English landscape. This is similar to ‘As the Teams’ Head Brass’ where Thomas uses enjambement in many of the opening lines to reflect the flowing movement of the horse and plough up and down the fields. In that poem there is even less punctuation, reinforcing the idea that in ‘The Sun Used…’ the caesuras’ reflect the stopping and starting of the two men’s walking pace.


The narrator’s statement that the two men “never disagreed” about which gate to lean on is probably hyperbolic but again suggests their closeness and harmony and even the action of leaning on the gate with no urgency or hurry  reflects their relaxed state of mind. From line 6 the narrator conveys their mental focus as they walk through the landscape and suggests that they are wholly occupied in the enjoyment of the present moment. The phrases “to be” and “late past” suggest both past and future to which they give “small heed”. Other subjects are suggested by the phrase “men or poetry” and the “or” here suggests their easy freedom even in topics of conversation. However, it is at the end of stanza 2 that the war is first mentioned though at this point the word “rumours” is used, suggesting that the subject is only vaguely picked up and this is reinforced by the use of the adjective “remote” which is placed at the end of line 9 giving it an particular emphasis. At this point the war is not an important element as they walk through the landscape and this is also suggested by the word “Only” at the start of line 10 which rather dismisses the war topic of conversation in place of their focus on the landscape, this time in the form of the apples they find there.

The description of the apples is ambivalent because they are initially described with the adjectives “yellow” and “flavorous” suggesting their attractiveness and sweet taste so the reader may be a bit taken aback to hear in the next line that wasps have “undermined” the skin of the apples. The most important thing about this latter word is that it suggests the mines and mining associated with the battlefields of World War One and therefore suggests that thoughts of the war even penetrate the pleasant walks through the countryside of the two men. Something like this can also be seen in ‘Rain’ in which the narrator listens to rainfall in a depressed mood and hopes that no one who he “once loved” is doing the same. That poem uses a natural image of “Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff” which also can be interpreted as referring to the many dead on the battlefields of France. ‘The Sun Used…’ was actually written in 1916 when Thomas was about to join up though the memory of the walks refers to 1914 when the war did seem further from him personally. These suggestions of war are continued in stanza 4 with the line of betonies described as both “dark” in colour (a contrast to the yellow apples?) and with the metaphor of “a sentry”. This makes very explicit the war reference and this is continued with the description of the crocuses (their “Pale purple” suggesting both weak vulnerability and shade) as having their birth in “sunless Hades fields”. Each of the words in this phrase might suggest the war with the darkness of “sunless”, the reference to death in “Hades” (the Classical land of the dead) and “fields” which surely refers to the battlefields in France.

Robert Frost

These suggestions that thoughts of war cannot be excluded from pleasant walks in the English countryside in 1914 are confirmed with the very next line: “The war / Comes back to mind”. Here it is the rising moon that reminds the two men of the war as they remember that the same moon would also be visible to soldiers on the battlefields of France “in the east”. The next word “afar” again suggests the distance of the war, though actually the poem has suggested that thoughts of it are not at all remote. The narrator’s thoughts now go beyond thoughts of the 1914 war. Typical of Thomas, he develops a more historical perspective, referring to earlier wars, “the Crusades / Or Caesar’s battles”. This has an ambiguous effect as it might suggest some consolation that war has always occurred and perhaps always will. On the other hand, perhaps it suggests the more depressing thought that humankind cannot avoid warfare. This sense of long stretches of time is quite common in Thomas’ work such as in ‘Aspens’ where he describes the trees at the crossroads and there implies that they are permanent, even indifferent to the human world: “it would be the same were no house near. / Over all sorts of weather, men, and times”.

May Hill – where Thomas and Frost often walked together

Perhaps it is this longer historical perspective that creates the thoughts of the final 11 lines of this poem. They open with a hyperbolic statement that “Everything” fades away and Thomas then uses a series of similes of things which he regards as transient, starting with the “rumours” of war, running water vividly described as “glittering // Under the moonlight” and the two men’s “walks” through the English countryside, even the men themselves (in line 26) and the apples from stanza 3 (now more pessimistically described with the adjective “fallen”) and the men’s “talks and silences”. This is a very inclusive list which gives the impression of time sweeping away many of the pleasures of life. The climax of the list is the last simile that seems to wipe away memories too (an important element in many of Thomas’ poems). He seems to suggest that memories are like marks on sand and the tide washes them away (is the tide an image of Time?). The poem ends with images of “other men” enjoying the same “easy hours” that the poem began with though now Thomas and Frost have vanished. In these last lines some things have changed (“other flowers”) but the moon alone remains “the same” suggesting that much of the landscape even will have changed (this reminds me of the felled elm tree in ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ in which the English landscape is shown to be changing).

In this poem, Thomas records pleasures gained from walking in the English countryside in 1914 though he also suggests that thoughts of the war cannot be excluded. As the poem goes on, it seems to become detached from the countryside but does return to it at the end in suggesting that though people may vanish and die and even aspects of the countryside itself may change in the long perspectives of Time, there are a few things – like the moon – can be seen to remain constant.

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.


“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


‘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’.


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”.

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”.


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.


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.


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.



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.


Teaching Dannie Abse’s ‘Two For Joy’ (2010)

I first became aware of Dannie Abse’s work in 1986 when he and his wife, Joan, were editing Voices in the Gallery,  a sumptuous anthology of poems about paintings for the Tate Gallery. To my astonished delight, they accepted ‘At The National Gallery’, an early poem of mine about Gerrit van Honthorst’s ‘Christ Before the High Priest’ which later appeared in Beneath Tremendous Rain (1990). Our paths continued to cross around the London poetry scene, especially at (usually fraught) Poetry Society Council meetings in the 1990s. A couple of years ago he visited the College where I work and happily discussed his poems with students. His death in September 2014 was such a sad loss.

With the New Year we are again teaching Dannie Abse’s collection Two for Joy ( But with the changes to A Levels being hurried in from September 2015, this will be the last time we work on this book (for AS Level Coursework) though it has proved a joy to teach. This is perhaps a surprise given its subject matter.

The book is a compilation of work from several years focused on Abse’s relationship with Joan, his wife (herself a writer, editor and acclaimed art historian). It was published a couple of years after The Presence (, a memoir completed in response to Joan’s tragic death in a car accident in 2005. ‘Two for Joy’, of course, alludes to the old country saying, cited on seeing magpies: one for sorrow, two for joy. The poems in the collection evoke both sides of this cryptic saw, from the early joys of young love to the sorrowing widower more than 50 years later.


In terms of teaching and coursework the book’s focus is so intense, powerful and yet varied that the material always goes down very well with students and enables them to write confidently about ‘the collection’ (one of the Assessment Objectives). We might start with the simplicity of ‘Condensation on a Windowpane’ where the aging narrator inscribes his and his lover’s names on the wet windowpane because he wants to write “something simple as pure water”. Yet even water, further considered, is complicated, “like steam, like ice, like clouds”. This plainness of address and nakedness of emotion is immediately engaging but Abse is really flagging up the collection’s main themes of love and time as, eventually, the words fade, dribbling down the glass: “They weep as they vanish”.

Or what better way (I mean appalling way) to gain students’ attention than this opening quatrain of ‘Lachrymae’:

I crawled from the noise of the upturned car

And the silence in the dark began to grow.

I called out her name again and again

To where neither words nor love could go.

This little sequence of poems like tear drops is set after Joan’s death and delicately re-visits a few scenes from married life, only to end with the narrator walking in solitude beside the Hampstead ponds, “where a lone swan sings / without a sound”.

An earlier poem ‘A Night Out’ records a visit the couple made to the Academy cinema in Oxford Street in the 1950s. As a Welsh Jew in London, courting and marrying a gentile, there are plenty of moments in these poems where the unconventional couple have to confront the narrow-mindedness and bigotry of the 1950s and early 1960s: anti-Semitism in ‘A Marriage’; general moral strictures in ‘Two for Joy’. On the occasion of the cinema visit, Abse’s cultural background is significant as they watch a fictionalised account of the Holocaust: “images of Auschwitz, almost authentic, the human obscenity in close-up” so much that “we forgot the barbed wire / was but a prop [. . . ] those striped victims merely actors”. Afterwards, the couple are stunned by what they have seen, sitting in a “bored espresso bar”. Gathering themselves at last, they return home to a German au pair girl, their own children safely asleep upstairs:

Reassured, together we climbed the stairs,

undressed together, and naked together,

in the dark, in the marital bed, made love.


Abse’s technical skill with plain language is on full show in such lines and the class might have debates about how far individual love is shown to counter, compensate, or merely distract from world horrors. In a 1980 essay called ‘Rhyme’ (collected in Dannie Abse: a Sourcebook, ed. Cary Archard: Abse has commented on this poem and presenting students with his observations has often proved to be a moment when sceptics about the deliberateness of a writer’s choices can be converted. He compares ‘A Night Out’ with ‘In Llandough Hospital’ arguing that the charge of emotion from the film was so powerful that he “did not want to make any pretty artifice out of it. I did not want to be lyrical about such a theme. I wanted to be as truthful as possible, to avoid all kinds of artificiality, to say what I felt and to say it plainly. I wanted the verisimilitude of prose”.

The period of the Cold War is briefly evoked at the end of ‘A Scene from Married Life’ in contrast to the “few and brief” cold wars of the couple’s marital rows. Set in Abse’s beloved Ogmore-by-the-Sea in South Glamorgan, after a petty squabble, the narrator metamorphoses into a monster of self-pity and suicidal thoughts. The poem cleverly balances the two perspectives of the over-dramatising, younger self with a more ironic, mature judgment. It’s only at the end with the appearance of Joan on the cliff top (surely an echo Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Voice, with Emma in her ‘sky blue gown’) that the faux-suicide relents:

On the high cliff my wife dressed in blue and all

The best of the world true and desirable.

With surrendering waves I crawled back to the shore.


Such humour, often in self-mockery is never far from Abse’s work. The darker side of grief is evoked in the image of blood-stained petals falling in ‘Magnolia’ (“bridal branches slowly violated”) but most powerfully in ‘The Revisit’ which again works the rich seam of two periods of life knotted together. A beautiful lake scene enjoyed together is re-vised by the lonely widower into an apocalyptic vision, with the sun-set now evocative of “Angel wars. Such April bloodshed!” Though there are more consolatory poems in the book, where time the healer is seen to begin its work, ‘The Revisit’ shocks in its blunt confrontation with grief and on this occasion Abse’s use of poetical devices, the abundant skill of the artist, only serves to emphasise the helplessness of the man:

The gradual distance between two stars is night.

Ago, love, we made love till dark was bright.

Now without you dark is darker still and infinite

It would be a shame indeed if, in the mean-spirited, ever-narrowing criteria of the new A Level specifications, a collection such as this one could not continue to find a place. Dannie Abse’s website is at:


Writing poems to the tune of Sibelius (circa 1990)

This has been a very busy week and blogging time has been hard to find. At work we are gathering and discussing plans for the 3000-word A2 essays on T S Eliot, West and Fitzgerald – don’t let anyone give you any nonsense about how easy A levels are! But the other evening was spent at Holy Trinity in Sloane Square (not a usual haunt of mine) at my daughter’s school concert. The final piece they played was Sibelius’ Karelia Suite and it set me thinking about a poetic project I embarked on in the 1980s.

It’s with awed admiration as well as a good deal hilarity that I remember setting out to write a sequence of poems – one each month – based on the 7 symphonies of Sibelius. In my wholly untutored way, what I found in the music was a fluidity of movement – one section seamlessly linked to the next – that I wanted to echo in verse. I failed badly, I think, and perhaps only more recently have I found ways to achieve something like it. I also wanted a diaristic quality to the poems, recording and responding to events as they occurred in my own life through the period set. Perhaps not so sadly, I’m not sure I could now lay my hands on the full typescript. Only one of the ‘symphonies’ survived to be published in my first collection Beneath Tremendous Rain (1990): see


It was the extraordinary Fourth Symphony (1911):

Listen to it here: 

And here’s Wikipedia on it: Many commentators have heard in the symphony evidence of struggle or despair. Harold Truscott writes, “This work … is full of a foreboding which is probably the unconscious result of … the sensing of an atmosphere which was to explode in 1914 into a world war.” Sibelius also had recently endured terrors in his personal life: in 1908, in Berlin, he had a cancerous tumour removed from his throat. Timothy Day writes that “the operation was successful, but he lived for many years in constant fear of the tumour recurring, and from 1908 to 1913 the shadow of death lay over his life.” Other critics have heard bleakness in the work: one early Finnish critic, Elmer Diktonius, dubbed the work the Barkbröd symphony, referring to the famine in the previous century during which starving Scandinavians had had to eat bark bread to survive.


The seven months were (I think) through the winter; so the fourth was probably linked with December and my partner had had a scare with a breast lump. The music’s dark, stark, exploratory qualities all found correlatives in what was going on around me. References to Betjeman and Larkin in section 1, allude to that BBC Monitor programme ( which I had been using to teach Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings around the same time. My partner’s grandparents had also recently died. In section 3, the reference to Ainola is to Sibelius’s beloved retreat beside Lake Tuusula in Finland, named after his wife:

So – in lieu of anything more fresh, here’s the 4 part poem – with all its faults – long, thin and astringent . . .



It is the rawness

of my own throat

that forebodes.

So little else has

been altered, yet

everything’s realigned

as if from without.

My peasant-thoughts

mix bitter bark

with dull flour

to eke life out.

They recognise

the violent-sudden


of their strength,

its cropped boundary.

Breath shortens.

Sweet Betjeman,

black-eyed Larkin:

these two dead men

alive on a screen

to discuss poetry,

the intimacies

of panic and pain.

And a malignancy

in the songbird’s

weak throat severs

the transference

from hand to hand.

The grandparents

of my young bride

pass along these

pallid, frost-blue

roses on bone-china.

Whether shelved or

to hand, they chill me:

their stark reaction

to our modish

wisdom, our shallow


optimism . . .

Take up the bitterness

of this bread,

brush every crumb

towards the sink

and douse your plate.

Baptise and scour

each blue-ice rose.


The first peculiarities of this year’s

snowlight break up the bedroom glass.

There’s a crackle of news in the kitchen.

All is well. Yet the difficulty is this:

to convey information which is true,

while avoiding fear which is unnecessary,

yet maintain hope which is essential.

In a mess of sensual pleasure and death

it rose obediently to hand as I soaped

my breasts, in my left, quite low down.

Unmistakable. How long have I nursed

this featureless clod over my heart?

Water gems and drains from my feet.

The radio chuckles at my trembling.


What remains to be done

but retire into some

Ainola of the mind,

glimpsed down a track

of snow, pine, a refuge

still as a blown flute.

I wake at night thirsty

and from the window,

across tangled gardens,

a yellow light burns,

sketching the grid

of dull-bricked walls.

But I sink to sleep

still unresolved

whether this midnight’s

oil is some illness,

vocation, compassion,

or the absentmindedness

we fearfully deny.

Your thinned hair now

combed neatly back

behind fleshy ears.

And how is the throat?

Nervy artist’s hands

flutter about the chin.

Those pale eyes of yours

gaze hard at my room,

at this ceiling’s rose

across my shoulders.

I guess you’re slow to be

moved, yet once begun

a relentless nature

like time or weather.

It’s a gaze to outlast

any physique: this slip

of a thing, your strength.


This clod in my breast

wears a tight

black neckerchief.


It must be evil

that I think of it

as a child . . .


Dark nights running

I dream of him

rapping gently


against the door

 – our bedroom door –

till I answer.

So she speaks

as we journey south

out of London,

through the suburbs’

assembled brambled

tussocky plots,

bright washing

collecting the sun

as it drops

long shadows

to meet us both

on the allotments.

Vitality sickens me

with fierce envy

and the why? why?

Across the carriage

a brash student

absently rearranges

his big thighs.

Two powerful hands

murder the fruit

he cleanly eats.

I let him in

over the threshold.

These backs of houses

so ordinary

that reassurance

ought to flow

from them. Yet

we both move here

as an illustration,

a shadow,

quite regardless:

of how a charming boy

will come to the door

from without,

how you bend to him

just as he’s hulking

through transformation

into a killer

in our bedroom

who bolts you upright,

over and over,

screaming unrestrained

beside me.

Kei Miller’s ‘Cartographer’ and Friel’s ‘Translations’

Kei Miller’s third collection, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (Carcanet), recently carried off the Forward Prize for poetry and it struck me that it shares concerns about language, colonialism and map-making with Brian Friel’s play, Translations (1980) which has become something of a staple teaching text in recent years for several exam boards.

Miller’s poems explore knowledge of place. To begin with there are two opposing views. The cartographer of the title is schooled in “Babylon science” and seeks objective, timeless, abstracted knowledge of Jamaica, knowledge of worth (to his mind) because rid of all contingent distraction. The rastaman knows his island more subjectively, historically, full of local detail, more politically. For the rastaman the island is “unsettled . . . unsugared . . . unmapped”. It “fidget[s]” and slips from “your grip”, is full of what the objective gaze can “never see”. The cartographer arrives with the colonial mission to “untangle the tangled, / to unworry the concerned”, to set a nation and its people back on the right path from which they “may have wrongly turned”.


The 27 sections of the title sequence then proceed to track the dialectic between these two viewpoints. But the book itself is less Ordnance Survey, more a full colour, illustrated map stuffed with half-sketched houses, trail signs, characters, places. This wonderful effect is achieved by Miller’s scattering, along the trail of the dialogue, poems that explore the etymology of place names as well as others that praise various aspects of Jamaica (especially its creatures). So the outcome of the dialogue – proceeding as it does as a pretty civilized skirmish – is loaded in the rastaman’s favour. It’s true that he is said to dismiss “too easily the cartographic view”, though even here the particular poem ends with an acknowledgement that the Eurocentric Mercator projections of the world (1569) misrepresent the size of Africa and have long “gripped like girdles / to make his people smaller than they were”. Rather, it is the position of the cartographer that shifts significantly. Though initially he too “dismisses too easily the rastaman’s view”, he soon begins to “lose himself” among the “I-drens & I-formants . . . smoking a chillum”. Eventually a question rises in his mind, “between his learning / and awakening: how does one map a place / that is not quite a place? How does one draw / towards the heart?”

It’s on this basis, in his more illumined state, that the cartographer begins to try to “map a way to Zion”. Of course, he needs the rastaman to point out that Zion is less a “where” than a “what” and that it cannot be plotted towards but rather must be waited for. Nevertheless, the book’s conclusion is comedic; the whole begins and ends with a “heartbless”. The brutal facts and bloody history of colonialism are conveyed more in the place name poems, many of which record displacement, floggings, shootings, “suspicion . . . centuries deep”. The brevity of most of the poems, the switching between standard voice and forms of Jamaican patois, the details of landscape and people, all combine to make a very enjoyable read, rewarded with a convincing up-lift at the end.

Translations 4

Remarkably similar territory is explored in Brian Friel’s modern classic drama Translations, about the re-mapping of Ireland by British colonial forces around 1833. But Friel writes a tragedy, recording (with historical hindsight) the almost complete stamping out of Gaelic culture and language in the 19th century. The British sappers (like Miller’s cartographer) claim they are there to benefit the Irish people, to rationalize and clarify what they perceive/assume is a backward country in need of modernization. But Friel (like Miller) portrays the native culture as sophisticated, if different, so that with the British process of improvement comes inevitable loss. The hedge-school teacher, Hugh, closes the play, failing to recall lines from Virgil and Friel is implying, with dramatic economy, with the stage lights fading, the loss of knowledge, of language, of personal and national identity. In contrast, Miller’s book ends in peaceable benediction:

In leaving

The rastaman bids you

Mannaz and respeck

Izes and protecshun


He bids you

Guidance and healt

Inity and Strenth

Bids you, Trod Holy

To I-ly I-ly I-ly

Mount Zion-I

Trod Holy.

W. H. Auden, West and Wannabes

In The Dyer’s Hand (1962), W H Auden throws off one of his critical Interludes on the subject of Nathanael West’s fiction from the 1930s. With the passage of time and the continuing prominence of Simon Cowell, his observations only become more relevant. I currently have classes in process of preparing OCR A2 Coursework on West’s The Day of the Locust (1939), Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) and T S Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) and I’m finding that Auden’s piece, while difficult, provides a framework of terms and ideas which relate all three texts.


Auden denies West’s status as a novelist first, then as a satirist. The first point is because of West’s lack of interest in the accurate representation of either the “social scene” or “subjective life”. Auden’s definition, I guess, demands forms of realism, while West delivers forms of caricature. As for satire, Auden also holds a conventional position on it, demanding not merely a critique of American society and its behaviours but also positive elements, a way out, a solution however faintly sketched. West does not provide the latter (though I disagree that this disbars him as a satirical writer) and I wonder if later work might have developed a more positive message. West’s death, at the age of 37 in a car accident in Southern California in 1940, was one of the greatest losses suffered by US literature in the 20th century.

Auden argues West fictions are “Cautionary Tales” from an infernal land ruled by the “King of Wishes”. All his main characters suffer from what Auden christens “West’s Disease” in which the sufferer is incapable of converting wishes into desires. A wish here is a fantasy, a refusal of reality, particularly self-directed so that it proclaims “I refuse to be what I am”. Momentary, innocent, frivolous wishing is a form of play; if allowed to predominate in one’s psychic life, a wish becomes a form of self-hatred, leading to guilt and despair. In contrast, a desire (Auden is less clear on this) is an ambition, an intention which acknowledges the conditional nature of reality and the self, accepts the present state of both but seeks a pragmatic course to pursue the desire. Wishes begin as whimsy and grow poisonous; desire is the fuel that drives us out into the world.


West’s characters know only wishes. They are doomed because they cannot truly desire anything since wishers deny themselves; they can believe nothing because wishers are always drawn to the next novelty. Faye Greener (from Locust) amuses herself by running through fantasies, stories she plays in her head, like “a pack of cards”. She loves to slip into a dream, she says, because “any dream was better than none”. But Faye is young and her wishes have some vitality. She may be convincing herself that they may sometime become desires. The strange case of Homer Simpson (yes, West got there long before Matt Groening) is of an older man who has ceased to entertain wishes at all. His is a passive sort of despair: “It took him a long time to get all his clothing on. He stopped to rest after each garment with a desperation far out of proportion to the effort involved”.

Both characters demonstrate the utter self-centred nature of wishers. Auden argues that, for such people, others exist only as images of what s/he is or is not, all feelings are mere projections of what is felt about the self. As perceived from the outside, all behavior therefore appears fraudulent, erratic, incoherent. Born of frustration and anger, the final stages of West’s Disease is a craving for violence, symbolically reflected in Locust in the stomach-churningly sanguinary cock fight of Chapter 21 and then literally in the film premiere riot of the final pages.


In 1962, Auden speculated that the promises of democracy and modern living only served to exacerbate this Disease, encouraging hopes of personal achievement beyond the bounds of reality and supplying apparent means of satisfying wishes through technological advances: “In societies with fewer opportunities for amusement, it was easier to tell a mere wish from a real desire”. We have probably only progressed in precisely the wrong direction on these issues. The instantaneous satisfaction of our wants blurs the wish/desire distinction Auden wants to make and we now have a slangy, slurred word for Faye Greener. Wannabe is a noun formed from a complex verb combination and is defined as someone who wishes for something but fails to have the drive, ambition or talent to make the journey in reality; a poser, a follower, a charlatan of sorts whose grip on reality is tenuous even when Simon Cowell tells them they are talentless.

More troublingly, it strikes me West’s Disease is an essential component of extremist, fundamentalist views – both political and religious – which achieve their existence and persistence only through the wisher’s denial of the indubitably various nature of reality. Faye Greener’s innocent deck of Hollywood dreams disturbingly travels, via West’s scenes of riot and sexual abuse, into the mouths of fanatics, to the deserts of Syria where real crimes are being committed because other human beings have become no more than mere projections of what is felt about the self.

Louise Gluck’s ‘Education of the Poet’

As Keats once said, several things dove-tailed together. One of these was being asked by Poetry London to review Louise Gluck’s new collection, the PBS Recommendation, Faithful and Virtuous Night (Carcanet, 2014). The other – yesterday – was discussing with students the opening quatrain of Edward Thomas’ ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ with its marvelous evocation of the happy days he spent with Robert Frost in the Gloucestershire countryside in 1914. The opening lines employ an ABAB rhyme scheme, enjambement, judiciously placed caesuras and simple colloquial choices of verb and adverb to create its effects. As often, students asked whether what we were discussing was ‘thought about’ by the poet. My usual answer is that a writer is far more conscious of his craft that they might expect, but also that he considers options and exercises a veto. Like evolution, what fails goes to the wall; what remains becomes more and more coherent and effective. This is an idea I first saw expressed in Gluck’s essay, ‘Education of the Poet’ (originally a lecture delivered in 1989, reprinted in Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry (Carcanet, 1999).


Gluck’s over-riding point is that her characteristic mode of thought defines itself “in opposition”. This gives rise to her image of the poet as fundamentally in a state of helplessness much of the time, absorbing whatever is regarded as ‘oppositional’ and looking for opportunities to speak back. She makes it clear that such an idea “does not mean to distinguish writing from being alive”. What it means in practice is that the life of the poet is a life of “yearning, not [one] made serene by sensations of achievement”. The image of the writer effectively, confidently, repeatedly decanting her self, her being onto a sheet of paper is a false one. There are periods of silence, preoccupied with the desire to make art, a restlessness that may be agony. When at last “some sound, some tone” precipitates, what follows is a period of concentrated work: “so called because as long as one is working the thing itself is wrong or unfinished: a failure”. Yet when the poem, the utterance, is finished – Gluck argues – the poet is no more, reverting “simply [to] someone who wishes to be one”.

This pattern of a powerful force, a cacophony being replied to by the artistic voice  can also manifest in the way a poet engages with language. Gluck rejects the idea that poets are people who can’t get enough of individual words like ‘incarnadine’, in favour of language deployed in larger swathes to create contexts in which the “simplest vocabulary” is liberated from custom. It is custom that is thus replied to through using the gestural aspects of language – setting, timing, pacing – releasing words into novel relationships with truth. The poet generates material, improvises, plays with language and replies to what is produced through the process of veto. Like evolution, what fails goes to the wall; what remains becomes more and more coherent and effective.


So it’s no surprise that Gluck’s taste in poets favours those whose mode of poetic speech is more like a spoken confidence, a reply, a conversation: “I read to feel addressed”. Accordingly, her personal preference is not for poets – like Wallace Stevens – whose work is a more solitary musing, like “intercepted meditation”, not concerned to be listened to. I find myself in agreement with much of what Gluck says and – re-reading the essay now – I remember that she also uncovers this pattern in the teaching process. She warmly recalls being taught by Stanley Kunitz, his application to the novice writer of a steady “scrutiny”, the oppositional force “from outside, from the world, from another human being”. It’s a scrutiny and compulsion she herself continues to provide for her own students; the teacher’s presence is to stir, to provoke the reply, to kick start the process of definition.

It seems even one’s own work can be seen in this light. Considering her early collections, Gluck regards each new book as a fresh reply to what went before. This is a good answer to my students’ inquiries about how conscious an artist can be. Gluck tells us – and we should more than half believe it – that here she sought latinate suspended sentences, there how to end a poem without sealing it shut; elsewhere she looked to learn a longer breath, to make better use of the present tense; later still to write something less heroic, devoid of mythic reference. The artist is conscious, manipulative, alert. The artist waits, responds, manoeuvres. The both.

Sir John Franklin and Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’

The Guardian tells us today: The grisly and mysterious tale of two British ships that disappeared in the Arctic in 1845 has baffled generations and sparked one of history’s longest rescue searches. But now, more than 160 years later, Canadian divers have finally found the remains of one of the doomed Navy vessels.


Legend has it that sailors on board the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, who were chosen by the explorer Sir John Franklin, resorted to cannibalism after the ships became ice-bound in the Victoria Strait in the Arctic territory of Nunavut. Search parties hunted for the crew until 1859, but no sign of either ship was discovered until now. However, tantalising clues have emerged over the years, including the bodies of three crewmen, discovered in the 1980s.

The Franklin expedition’s mission to the fabled Northwest Passage had frustrated explorers for centuries and the sea crossing was only successfully made 58 years later, far further north. The original search expeditions in the 19th century helped open up parts of the Canadian Arctic for discovery. (

And by coincidence an AS class is today beginning to study Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in which Robert Walton writes home to his sister, Margaret Saville, from St Petersburgh, on December 11th, 17—. One of the three aspirers in Shelley’s book, Walton also hopes to discover the Northwest Passage. He too becomes trapped in the ice but then picks up the bedraggled and wasted figure of Victor Frankenstein. Victor’s tale begins as a moral warning about the dangers of over-ambition, how the pursuit of knowledge risks destroying the “tranquillity”of life and our “domestic affections”.

This may have been Mary’s primary message, living as she did through the loss of a daughter the year before and Percy Bysshe’s roving eye and Byron’s restless wanderings. Despite her mother’s political radicalism and feminism and her father’s philosophical anarchism, I find it hard not to read the novel on one level as a rather conservative plea for a quieter life. Unlike Franklin and his crew, the ice eventually breaks up around Walton. This gives him the possibility of choice – and he chooses not to follow in Victor’s self-destructive footsteps but to turn for home, to Margaret, delivering his journal as the novel we now read.


On the other hand, deriving from a dream she had in the year with no summer, 1816, there’s plenty in the novel that may have been brimming beyond the author’s conscious control. Victor is a tragic hero of sorts. Even when he is dragged on board, close to death, Walton senses “He must have been a noble creature in his better days, being even now in wreck so attractive and amiable”. Franklin, 50 years later, was another Victor, risking all; it cost him (and his crew) all they had. A failure, but a tragic sort of failure and one long remembered. But Walton’s journal is a story of two sorts of heroism: the one that never gave up as well as the one that chose life, the life of relationships. We remember Walton because of Victor. But I think Walton knew what he was choosing and maybe thought of it with equanimity in the anonymity of his twilight years.

Mary Shelley saw her husband drowned in 1821. She died of cancer in Bournemouth in February 1851. I wonder what she thought, 6 years earlier, reading of Franklin’s abortive voyage. I imagine her re-reading the end of her great novel, the created Creature’s life ended because his creator, his only human tie to life itself, has perished: “He sprang from the cabin window [. . . ] upon the ice raft which lay close to the vessel. He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance”