`The Telephone Call` by Fleur Adcock

These notes are a brief analysis of the selected poems for IGCSE English Literature for the
May/June 2014 examinations in the USA. They are intended for high-ability students, to aid
discussion among themselves, or with their teachers.
Poetry is sometimes difficult to analyse and comment upon, as one person’s interpretation may not
be another’s. Please be aware that the notes are my interpretation of each poem, and should be used
in conjunction with other materials, resources, and worksheets to have the best results. Nonetheless,
these notes can be a useful starting point for students and teachers, and to stimulate discussion for
each poem.
Poetry selection:
From Songs of Ourselves: The University of Cambridge International Examinations Anthology of Poetry in
124 – The Bay, James Baxter
125 – Where Lies the Land?, Arthur Hugh Clough
127 – The Man With Night Sweats, Thom Gunn
128 – Night Sweat, Robert Lowell
129 – Rain, Edward Thomas
130 – Any Soul to Any Body, Cosmo Monkhouse
132 – From Long Distance, Tony Harrison
134 – Funeral Blues, W. H. Auden
136 - From Song of Myself, Walt Whitman
138 – The Telephone Call, Fleur Adcock
139 – A Consumer’s Report, Peter Porter
141 – On Finding a Small Fly Crushed in a Book, Charles Tennyson Turner
142 – Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley
143 – Away, Melancholy, Stevie Smith
For each poem, it is assumed that teachers will guide students to annotate and analyse literary
techniques. In addition, teacher/student discussions about the poems may draw out more salient points
than I have included here. This set of study notes is intended to be improved upon, and any feedback,
suggestions or additions would be welcomed via email at [email protected]
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The Bay, by James Baxter
James Baxter was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1926, and produced a large number of poems
in his short life (he died at the age of 46). He wrote about New Zealand society and the landscape,
about love, religion and myth. Baxter described his own poems as ‘part of a large subconscious
corpus of personal myth’ and also commented that what ‘happens is either meaningless to me, or
else it is mythology’1.
Baxter struggled with alcoholism and yet continued to write. Religion was an important influence on
his life, and he was baptized as an Anglican, and then as a Catholic, before taking on the spiritual
aspects of Maori life. Although Baxter died early from a heart attack, he produced many poems of
note, and he is still well known in New Zealand. This poem, The Bay, is one of his earlier published
Structure and language
This poem is written in free verse, as there is no fixed metrical pattern, nor are there rhyming lines.
The only noticeable rhymes within the poem come in the first stanza, in the middle of line 1 and at
the end of line 3 (bay, say), and in the last stanza, in the middle of line 19 and at the end of line 20.
In the first stanza, the word ‘say’ is followed by a colon to stop the reader and introduce the next
thought. Again Baxter uses ‘bay’ in the middle of line 19, and then ‘away’ as the last word of the
stanza. This has the effect of making the sounds of ‘bay’ and ‘say’, or ‘bay’ and ‘away’ resonate a little
longer in the reader’s mind – perhaps an intentional emphasis of the poet.
The poem consists of six lines in the first two stanzas and then eight lines in the last stanza. Baxter
uses colons to abruptly stop a thought and introduce a musing in lines 4 and 6; commas within a line
also give the reader pause for thought, and perhaps to take in the imagery that Baxter presents (see
lines 5, 11, 12, and 14). This shows a feature called caesura, and enjambment (the running of one
line to the next) is frequently found with caesura.
Reading the poem as if someone was reminiscing about the past helps to understand how Baxter
might have written this or spoken the poem aloud. It also makes it more obvious to see the
transition in mood between the three stanzas – the first introduces the bay and the child’s memories,
as well as hinting at a certain melancholy; the second stanza further describes the child’s memories;
and the last stanza jolts the reader and poet back to the reality of the present time.
For effect, Baxter uses alliteration ‘cliffs with carved names’ (l.7), ‘boats from the banks’ (l.9),
‘carved cliffs’ (l.11), ‘thousand times’ (l.13), ‘stand like stone’ (l.20) – all examples can be used to
emphasise the images, such as the harsh ‘c’ sound of cut cliffs with carved names, or to emphasise
the words such as ‘thousand times’ (hyperbole - an exaggeration).
Baxter’s only simile in the poem, ‘stand like stone’ (l.20) can be felt from either the child’s or grown
man’s perspective. More important to Baxter than personification, or other abstract forms of
figurative language, it appears important to the poet to make this childhood place vivid and true to
From an article by John Gillespie, accessed at http://www.poetseers.org/poets/james-baxter/
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the reader (as it might have been to him). So, each stanza is peppered with descriptive terms, such
‘a lake of rushes where we bathed’ (l.1-2)
‘changed in the bamboos’ (l.2)
‘the alley overgrown’ (l.5)
‘cliffs with carved names’ (l.7)
‘beside the Maori ovens’ (l.8)
‘banks of the pumice creek’ (l.9)
and so on
To define this poem, it could be argued that it is a lyrical elegy. That is, it is a songlike poem that
expresses the thoughts and feelings of the poet, and is elegiac as Baxter mourns something lost (his
childhood perspective, simpler pleasures, wasted time?).
At first glance, it seems to be a straightforward description of a childhood playground, but there is a
hint of conflict, or retrospect, as in ‘How many roads we take that lead to Nowhere’ (l.4). This also
has a similar theme to Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, and Thomas Hood’s Past and Present. Does
Baxter feel that time has been wasted in childhood, or mistakes made in the paths taken in his
present life? This conflict is also presented in line 6, ‘Not that veritable garden where everything
comes easy’. Is this a reference to Eden, and the fact that he sees his Eden is as lost as his
childhood? The ambiguity that Baxter introduces in the stanza may be as much for his own benefit
as for the readers, who will draw their own conclusions based off their particular experiences.
The second stanza also has conflicting tones – that of wistful memories of racing boats or
swimming, and of the physically colder memories of ‘autumnal shallows growing cold in amber
water’ (l.10-11) or of the menacing Maori ‘taniwha’ (l.12). It appears that Baxter cannot shake the
more sombre adult perspective from his childhood memories, as the third stanza shows evidence of
the ominous ‘little spiders’ (l. 13) that are in fact ‘poisonous and quick’ (l.14).
The third stanza also reveals that perhaps the bay ‘never was’ (l.19), but he remembers it in this
poem – perhaps Baxter remembers an idealised childhood, or wants to remember and stay in that
moment, as he ends the stanza with a vision standing like stone and being unable to turn away.
Remember, tone is a very subjective aspect of a poem to analyse – my personal interpretation is
based on my life experiences, and may or may not reflect the poet’s intention. Thus, one
interpretation of Baxter’s poem may be of happy childhood memories, whilst another interpretation
may read far more into the melancholy undertones of an Eden lost as the child grows up.
There are a few themes here that can be expanded upon by using the poem to amplify meaning.
Obvious themes include childhood memories, mourning lost innocence, conflict between childhood
and adulthood. Link themes in with the way Baxter uses poetic form for meaning. For example, the
first stanza could be spoken in an easy tone up to the third line. After that, lines 3-6 can be read in a
more mature and clipped way, to highlight the change in thought from child to adult. Baxter’s words
in lines 1-2 flow far easier off the tongue than ‘Now it is rather to stand and say’ (l.3) as the use of
consonance slows speech.
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The Bay
James Baxter
On the road to the bay was a lake of rushes
Where we bathed at times and changed in the bamboos.
Now it is rather to stand and say:
How many roads we take that lead to Nowhere,
The alley overgrown, no meaning now but loss:
Not that veritable garden where everything comes easy.
And by the bay itself were cliffs with carved names
And a hut on the shore beside the Maori ovens.
We raced boats from the banks on the pumice creek
Or swam in those autumnal shallows
Growing cold in amber water, riding the logs
Upstream, and waiting for the taniwha.
So now I remember the bay and the little spiders
On driftwood, so poisonous and quick.
The carved cliffs and the great outcrying surf
With currents round the rocks and the birds rising.
A thousand times an hour is torn across
And burned for the sake of going on living.
But I remember the bay that never was
And stand like stone and cannot turn away.
(1948 approx. date)
For further reading:
Thomas Hood, Past and Present
Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken
Norman MacCaig, Summer Farm
Now make your own notes based on annotating this poem, using quotations, and categorizing your
notes under headings like: poem summary/overview; structure and poetic devices; language; themes;
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Where Lies the Land? by Arthur Hugh Clough
Arthur Clough (pronounced ‘cluff’) was born in 1819 in Liverpool but moved to the South Carolina,
USA when he was a young boy. He travelled quite a bit as he went back to England for his
education (aged nine) but also went to France, Italy, back to America and then back to England, as
well as visiting Greece and Turkey. Inspiration for this poem came from his sea voyages as well as
from a poem by William Wordsworth, as the first line to the poem is ‘Where lies the Land to which
yon Ship must go’.
Structure and Language
This lyrical poem has a recognisable structure, written in four quatrains (4-lined stanzas) with a
very rhythmic metre. The metre is in iambic pentameter (favoured by Shakespeare and Chaucer),
that is, five pairs of syllables (unstressed and then stressed). Each pair of lines rhyme at the end, and
this is the particular style called heroic couplets.
Iambic pentameter is a common metre used in poetry, especially at the time that Clough was writing
– it also requires thought and discipline to create a poem that follows such a structure. In this
instance, using the rhythmic pattern of stressed/unstressed iambs and rhymes, Clough could also be
subliminally mimicking the waves at sea on this voyage, thus doubling up the purpose of the poem’s
Not only is the pattern and rhythm an important strength to the poem, Clough has used repetition
to emphasise or reinforce meaning. You can see this as the first and last stanzas are repeated, so
‘topping and tailing’ the poem, or introducing and reinforcing the main theme of travel to the
reader. In addition, each line is rhymed with the next, and such end rhymes resonate longer in the
mind as a result. Clough liked the ‘oh’ sound so he repeats it in the second stanza (below, go) –
different interpretations can be given for his purpose.
Poetic devices used by Clough include plenty of alliteration in each stanza, to create rhythm, and
comfort in the repetition of sounds. This is to give an upbeat attitude towards travelling to unknown
places, rather than introducing apprehension of the unknown. In addition, to add a more natural
rhythm to the lines, Clough uses caesura and enjambment for effect. For example, ‘And where the
land she travels from? Away’ uses caesura to give a pause after the question. Enjambment, where the
line continues to the next line of verse with no pause in punctuation, is also used – ‘watch below the
foaming wake’ is an example of Clough’s desire to keep the natural conversation going.
This poem can be interpreted at two levels, I believe, and as long as examples from the poem
support the interpretations, both can stand as true. Firstly, this poem can simply be seen as a journey
by sea from one port to another – we know Clough travelled and that he would have experiences as
a result. So the first stanza is the start of the journey, with the travelers going ‘far, far ahead’ with the
seamen. By leaving everything ‘far, far behind’, the travelers are leaving the comforts of home
behind. The second stanza illustrates the good times on the ship with ‘sunny noons’, friends being
‘linked arm in arm’, ‘reclining’ and watching the waves ‘foaming’. The third stanza introduces stormy
weather, ‘stormy nights when wild north-westers rave’ and shows how the seamen bravely face the
storms. Their delight at getting through the bad weather is described by Clough as an exulted
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dripping sailor. The last stanza, which repeats the first, brings the traveler back to shore and to the
beginning of his or her next journey – unknown to all, but also unafraid.
At a deeper level, Clough may have been using the imagery of the ship and the journey as a
metaphor for life and the journey that we take. With this interpretation, the first stanza is the start
of our journey, as we leave the comforts of home and leave our childhood behind. The second
stanza then represents the good times in life, such as the ‘sunny’ times, friendship with arms linked,
the ‘pleasant …pace’, and the relaxing state that we are in. Clough makes an effort to show that the
traveler and sailors are enjoying the ride, enjoying life. The third stanza represents the storms and
troubles that people undoubtedly face, and yet his perspective is proud and strong as we ‘fight’ and
‘exult’ when life’s battles are won. The last stanza, back to the beginning, is actually the start of
another journey in life, with its ups and downs to come, that does not faze anyone taking the
Linking this poem to a metaphorical journey of life can also be seen in Clough’s use of cycles (as in
life). Time is illustrated with ‘sunny noons’ and ‘stormy nights’ and the pleasant unknown journey of
life seems to be a trip that all want to take. It is as if being on the ship, or taking the journey of life in
stride, is better than the destination, and that there will always be another trip to take (the complete
cycle is portrayed by the identical first and last stanzas).
Though this journey, whether it is a simple ocean voyage or symbolic of life, is one where the
destination is unknown, the tone is joyful, almost excited. The first stanza does not give clues to the
destination, but Clough teases the reader as the seamen neither know nor can say much. There is
also pride in the journey when it is hard, as the sailors (and the travelers facing trials in life) ‘fight
wind and wave’ (either nature or life’s challenges). Their pride continues as they bravely exult in
victory over the elements and ‘scorn to wish it past’.
Taken at a superficial level, the themes of travel, exploring, joy (with travel), living in the moment
(the carpe diem perspective) all come to mind. If the poem is interpreted as symbolic for life, the same
themes run through as we take on the joy of life, exploring, seizing the day (good or bad) and doing
it all over again.
Where Lies the Land?
Arthur Hugh Clough
Where lies the land to which the ship would go?
Far, far ahead, is all her seamen know.
And where the land she travels from? Away,
Far, far behind, is all that they can say.
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On sunny noons upon the deck’s smooth face,
Linked arm in arm, how pleasant here to pace!
Or, o’er the stern reclining, watch below
The foaming wake far widening as we go.
On stormy nights when wild north-westers rave,
How proud a thing to fight with wind and wave!
The dripping sailor on the reeling mast
Exults to bear and scorns to wish it past.
Where lies the land to which the ship would go?
Far, far ahead, is all her seamen know.
And where the land she travels from? Away,
Far, far behind, is all that they can say.
Compare Clough’s poem to William Wordsworth’s poem, Where Lies the Land
For further reading, find Arthur Clough on this website:
Now make your own notes based on annotating this poem, using quotations, and categorizing your
notes under headings like: poem summary/overview; structure and poetic devices; language; themes;
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The Man With Night Sweats, by Thom Gunn
Thom Gunn was born in Gravesend, England in 1929. Both his parents were journalists, and Gunn
remembers the house full of books. His parents divorced and his mother committed suicide, which
were obviously traumatic experiences. Gunn went to Cambridge University and began publishing his
poems, many of which had an existential thread running through them (about will, action, selfknowledge).
Gunn left the United Kingdom to live in San Francisco with his boyfriend. The Aids epidemic
affected many of Gunn’s friends, and his poem, ‘The Man with Night Sweats’ was inspired by the
deaths of his friends. The poem was one in which Gunn tried to ‘show people what it’s like to be
something else’2.
Structure and Language
The poem has a well-defined structure through most of the eight stanzas, with a pattern of a 4-lined
stanza (quartet) followed by a 2-lined stanza and then a 4-lined stanza and so on. Each line has six
syllables, or three feet (iambs) of stressed/unstressed syllables. This is called iambic trimeter. In
addition, the poem has rhyming couplets in the first four stanzas in alternate lines – so the rhyme
scheme is abab, cc, dede, ff. This well-defined structure starts to loosen in the fifth stanza, as the
rhyme scheme ghgh is held together by two half-rhymes (‘sorry’, ‘hurry’ and ‘cracked’, wrecked’).
The sixth stanza is a clear rhyming couplet, but is then followed by a 4-lined stanza that only
contains one rhyming couplet using a repeated word, ‘me’, with the final stanza having no rhyme.
The poet has used structure for deliberate effect. The short lines could illustrate his fragmented
thoughts, or shortness of breath to mimic his physical condition. Perhaps Gunn is hesitant about
revealing the details of the issues that face the narrator (it may be Gunn’s perspective, or he may
have written it from another persona). The poem was written after the Aids epidemic that had
affected so many gay men in San Francisco – it could be that the poem is about someone afflicted
with Aids. If this is so, the strict structure through the first four stanzas can be seen as the narrator
keeping the issue under control until it becomes apparent that the disease cannot be controlled any
more than the lines or rhymes in the poem.
Gunn also uses tenses to help structure the poem. The first stanza is in present tense, and the
reader can almost feel the abrupt wakening from a dream. Then, the poet reminisces for four
stanzas, and the narrator takes the reader there. Jumping back to the present tense in the sixth
stanza, Gunn reminds us about the sweaty wet sheets that must be changed, but just as quickly
segues to what he is doing ‘hugging my body to me’ and using the future tense to state what he fears
‘pains that will go through me’.
This poem is quite tactile and physical, to coincide with the physical condition that Gunn wants to
explore and explain. He first describes his ‘flesh’ in terms of being a ‘shield’ and sees its strength as
‘Where it was gashed, it healed’. This transitions to his later admissions of his ‘shield’ being ‘cracked’,
his ‘flesh reduced and wrecked’, as he tries to ‘shield’ from ‘The pains that will go through me’.
Quoted in Potts, Friday 26 September, 2003, Moving Voice, The
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/sep/27/featuresreviews.guardianreview13 ]
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Gunn’s repetitive use of the words ‘wake’, ‘flesh’, ‘shield’, and ‘reduced’ is presumably to register
these images with the reader.
Other techniques that Gunn uses in this poem include enjambment (for eg. ‘I wake up cold, I
who/Prospered through dreams of heat’, or ‘A world of wonders in/each challenge to the skin.’
Although Gunn has kept six syllables to a line, he uses enjambment to create more natural sentences
that flow. In addition, he uses caesura to break the rhythm within a line, such as ‘Sweat, and a
clinging sheet’ or ‘Where it was gashed, it healed’. Not only does Gunn use caesura to give pause for
thought within the line, he uses consonance (the hard consonant sounds in ‘Stopped upright’) to
slow the reader (especially if the poem is read aloud).
Other poetic uses for effect include alliteration, as in ‘risk’, ‘robust’, and ‘world’, ‘wonders’.
Alliteration is another technique to help connect the poet’s words with his feelings: risk and robust
both start with a strong ‘r’ sound, to draw out the strength the narrator felt at the time when he
trusted his flesh and his body. However, the softer sound of ‘w’ in world and wonders can be
associated with softer, warmer feelings that the narrator remembers.
When looking for more poetic devices, consider why the poet uses such techniques to amplify
meaning, heighten awareness for the reader, entertain, inform, and so on.
This poem is an elegy, a lament for the loss of life, or the life that will be lost to Aids, or the loss of
physical health. Yet the tone is not moralistic (about the dangers of homosexuality or Aids) nor selfindulgent or self-pitiful. If anything, the tone is non-emotional, matter-of-fact and direct.
There is also a sense of pride towards his body (see lines 4-11) as he trusted his body and soul to be
a strength and a ‘shield’. This pride and strength is replaced by regret ‘I cannot by be sorry’ and
finally a realization of the futility of his situation, his illness (see lines 22-24). Gunn’s regret is created
by the realization that he has brought the disease and its side effects (such as the night sweats) upon
himself. His acceptance of the ravages of the disease is revealed in the future tense of the pains ‘that
will go through’ and his repetitive ‘as if’ (lines 22, 24).
Themes in this poem include life and loss, regret and acceptance. When poets write, they have a
purpose for doing so; the themes that run through their poems are their interpretations of life. In
Gunn’s case, he is writing about a particularly tragic time in his life – Aids became a problem in the
1980s and there was so much ignorance and fear surrounding the disease. At the time Gunn was
writing his poem, he wanted to capture his reality, as he saw it. Mentioned before, but worth
repeating, this poem is not full of self-pity, but is more directly elucidating a condition that many
might not have understood from a first-person perspective. Gunn expects us to transition with him,
from the present physical condition of the night sweats, to reminiscing about his vitality and youth,
to regretting his behavior that has led to his ‘wrecked’ body, to an acceptance that he will go through
more pain.
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The Man With Night Sweats
Thom Gunn
I wake up cold, I who
Prospered through dreams of heat
Wake to their residue,
Sweat, and a clinging sheet.
My flesh was its own shield:
Where it was gashed, it healed.
I grew as I explored
The body I could trust
Even while I adored
The risk that made robust,
A world of wonders in
Each challenge to the skin.
I cannot but be sorry
The given shield was cracked
My mind reduced to hurry,
My flesh reduced and wrecked.
I have to change the bed,
But catch myself instead
Stopped upright where I am
Hugging my body to me
As if to shield it from
The pains that will go through me,
As if hands were enough
To hold an avalanche off.
Other poems to compare: Night Sweat, by Robert Lowell
Now make your own notes based on annotating this poem, using quotations, and categorizing your
notes under headings like: poem summary/overview; structure and poetic devices; language; themes;
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Night Sweat, by Robert Lowell
Robert Lowell was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1917, and died in 1977. Lowell suffered from
mental illness, was a conscientious objector during World War II, and had several marriages – all
these experiences influenced his poetry. In this poem, ‘Night Sweat’, Lowell writes about two
important aspects of his life – his poetry writing and his wife’s support.
Structure and Language
There are two, inter-connected, sonnets in this poem. The first fourteen lines follow a
Shakespearean sonnet, in that the rhyme scheme is three quatrains and a rhyming heroic couplet,
written in iambic pentameter. Shakespearean sonnets usually introduce a theme in the first
quatrain, and then develop that theme in the next two quatrains, with a concluding couplet. In this
poem, the first sonnet follows the pattern of quatrains and a couplet, but it is not uniform. That is,
the first quatrain uses the abba rhyme scheme and then diverts to a cdcd, efef scheme. What is more,
Lowell has used a mixture of end stopped and enjambed lines, perhaps to play with the formal
structure of a Shakespearean sonnet even more. Then the second section of fourteen lines is more
like a Petrarchan sonnet, with an eight-line octave, followed by a six-line sestet. So, Lowell has
changed the sonnet’s pattern again, especially if the reader expected a set format. A Petrarchan
sonnet is used to show a change of thought or direction between the octave and the sestet, though
the theme runs through the sonnet. Lowell seems to have broken this second sonnet into a ten-line
section (not a separate stanza) and a quatrain.
Lowell’s attempt to show control, by using sonnet form contradicts the content of the poem,
especially the first half that highlights his writer’s block. His writing is very important to him, as his
‘life’s fever’, and yet it is causing great anguish. He keeps to a rhyme scheme, he keeps to a poetic
pattern, but the highly descriptive figurative language he uses portrays a lack of control, through
images of sickness and death.
The numerous personal pronouns reveal the very personal nature of this poem, and it could have
been autobiographical at the time. So, how does Lowell amplify his anguish over the importance of
his poetic writing and his writer’s block in the first half, followed by his gratitude towards the other
important element in his life – his wife?
Repetition of various words or phrases, personal to the poet, are used ‘always inside me’, ‘one’,
‘my’. He describes his writing as his life, and yet he is awake with night sweats. He is careful to
describe the dishevelled scene in front of him in the first two lines of the poem, and introduce his
writing apparatus, though the ‘stalled equipment’ may not be literally a broken computer or
typewriter, but his stalled mind. Here, Lowell is using metaphors to connect concrete objects to the
abstract writing process that Lowell lives for but is finding arduous in this poem. In fact as the third
line indicates that he is in ‘a tidied room’, so perhaps he intends for the reader to see his mind as
cluttered, and not his physical surroundings.
To tie in to the horror of writer’s block, Lowell uses multiple images of sickness and death, fever
and discomfort throughout the poem [see the examples of colour –white, gray skulled; death –
embalms, urn, the black web from the spider’s sack; sickness – animal night sweats, fever, leaded
eyelids]. There are numerous examples of figurative speech that tie in with images of sickness and
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death – the poet wants us to see and feel as he does: ‘the creeping damp’, ‘sweet salt embalms me’,
‘wrings us dry’, ‘the child who died’, ‘a heap of wet clothes, seamy, shivering’, and so on.
Alliteration is a poet’s tool to amplify meaning by the repetition of sound, or by introducing a
sound that creates a particular effect. Lowell’s use of ‘l’ in ‘light lighten my leaded eyelids’ slows the
reader down, to focus on the particular words that hint at the poet’s drowsiness (or exhaustion);
‘dabble in the dapple of the day’ also draws our attention to the words and consider, perhaps, the
dapple or patchiness of the day’s light; and ‘heart hops and flutters like a hare’ creates a
breathlessness that may mimic how the poet feels.
Lowell’s tone is feverish, anguished, and ties in closely to how he feels about his writer’s block. His
frequent references to deathly images or sickness pervade the first sonnet, and it is only the subject
matter of the second sonnet, namely his wife, that eases his pain to an extent.
Lowell transitions to focusing on his wife in the second sonnet, giving himself some hope and
showing the reader that his wife is the other (more positive) force in his life. Yet the anguished tone
continues, in spite of the ‘lightness’ that his wife brings.
The overpowering themes in this poem centre round sickness, fever and death, but also lightness
and hope as a counter balance. It seems paradoxical that Lowell’s work, his love for writing, is
becoming a sickness and stumbling block for him. His confusion is shown in this poem as he deals
with images of death, but also light, especially mentioning ‘the child who died’ and ‘my child
exploding’. Was Lowell referring to the innocence of a child, his child-like carefree state, or making a
reference to a childish naivety about the nature of high quality creative writing and the toll it takes
on the individual. One thing is certain – Lowell appears confused and anxious about his ability to
write, and can only take comfort from his wife (though he suggests that she may not be able to bear
the world’s dead weight).
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Night Sweat
Robert Lowell
Work-table, litter, books and standing lamp,
plain things, my stalled equipment, the old broom –
but I am living in a tidied room,
for ten nights now I’ve felt the creeping damp
float over my pajamas’ wilted white …
Sweet salt embalms me and my head is wet,
everything streams and tells me this is right;
my life’s fever is soaking in night sweat –
one life, one writing! But the downward glide
and bias of existing wrings us dry –
always inside me is the child who died,
always inside me is his will to die –
one universe, one body … in this urn
the animal night sweats of the spirit burn.
Behind me! You! Again I feel the light
lighten my leaded eyelids, while the gray
skulled horses whinny for the soot of night.
I dabble in the dapple of the day,
a heap of wet clothes, seamy, shivering,
I see my flesh and bedding washed with light,
my child exploding into dynamite,
my wife … your lightness alters everything,
and tears the black web from the spider’s sack,
as your heart hops and flutters like a hare.
Poor turtle, tortoise, if I cannot clear
the surface of these troubled waters here,
absolve me, help me, Dear Heart, as you bear
this world’s dead weight and cycle on your back.
Compare this poem to The Man with Night Sweats, by Thomas Gunn
Now make your own notes based on annotating this poem, using quotations, and categorizing your
notes under headings like: poem summary/overview; structure and poetic devices; language; themes;
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Rain, by Edward Thomas
Edward Thomas was born in 1878, in London, UK, and died in a World War I battle in 1917. He
seems to have lived his short life as fully as possible, marrying while still at Oxford University, and
writing as much as possible. Thomas was one of six boys in the family, but he did not seem to get
on well with his father, and portrayed his tense relationship in a poem P.H.T.
Marrying at a young age, Thomas supported his family by writing steadily – biographies, essays,
fiction, introductions, poetry and reviews. He was encouraged to write poetry by Robert Frost, and
within two years of starting his poetry, Thomas had written all his poems. His first book of verse,
Six Poems, was published under a pseudonym (Edward Eastaway) in 1916.
Structure and Language
This poem is written in blank verse, with no end rhyme scheme, although the title and theme of the
poem is repeated at the end of lines 1, 10, and 15 and internally 1, 4, and 7. Repetition is used for
effect; there is a sadness associated with the rain in this poem, so the repeated word ‘rain’ reveals a
fixation with the condition.
As might be expected, there is a rhythmic pattern, with each line having ten syllables, apart from
lines 7, 9 and 14 which have 11 syllables. Unlike neatly unstressed and stressed iambic pentameter
(five pairs of syllables), Thomas has used other rhythmic metre, such as trochaic (stressed and
unstressed) and spondaic (stressed and stressed) feet to give different rhythms that could be likened
to falling rain. However, if the poem is forced into a rhythmic metre on reading, it loses the tone of
a monologue or spoken conversation. It also loses the change in tempo of the rain falling hard and
fast, or letting up at times. It is likely that Thomas wanted to create a poem that not only mimicked
the rain about which he lamented, but also connected with his introspective thoughts about life,
death and emotional suffering.
The use of enjambment, where the line continues to the next line without pauses in punctuation, is
used to continue the poet’s thoughts and musings about the rain and his feelings, in a conversational
tone. Caesura, used to pause a thought, is often found with enjambment, and the effect is to make
certain words or phrases stand out. In the poem, caesura is used with commas, and repeatedly with
the theme of solitude (see line 2, ‘solitude’ and line 10 ‘solitary’) and with the punctuation at the end
of ‘solitude’ on line 6.
Thomas has used some alliteration, ‘still and stiff’, ‘neither…nor’, ‘since…solitude’. This is for the
effect of repetition or to introduce a sound to the reader, such as the ‘s’ of reeds whistling in the
breeze, or the ‘s’ of breath expelled through sadness of the poet’s solitude. Other repetitive sounds
can also be found with assonance, the repetition of similar vowel sounds, in phrases like ‘still and
stiff’, ‘dying’ and ‘lying’, ‘tempest tells’. Notice that Thomas has used many examples of assonance
alongside alliteration, to amplify the effect of the words, thoughts and feelings for the poet and
reader alike.
It is worth noting that all repetitive sounds are used for a particular effect by poets, and the
individual reader may be (i) forced to pause when reading/saying certain phrases in order to focus
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on these phrases, or (ii) hear sounds that mirror the topic under focus, for example, the many ‘s’
sounds could be interpreted as incessant rainfall.
Imagery can be physically helpful to paint the scene for the reader, such as Thomas has done with
the ‘rain’, ‘bleak hut’, and ‘broken reeds’, so that we can imagine the speaker inside the hut, kept
awake, pensive, and melancholic about his situation. Poets also use imagery at a deeper level, to
introduce themes, via symbols, metaphors, similes and other literary devices. Thomas has used the
ubiquitous rain as a bleak image and he is not the first writer to link rain to sombre, sad thoughts
and feelings. Bad weather is often used to foreshadow certain events in literature and though rain
can also be perceived in positive terms of cleaning, renewing and giving life to plants and animals,
Thomas does not dwell on the positives in this poem. Nonetheless, there are positive images of the
rain washing the poet cleaner and the hint of baptismal purifying water in the phrase ‘cleaner than I
have been since I was born’.
Images of cold rain, as ‘cold water’ or part of a storm (‘the tempest’) paint a bleaker scene, especially
if the reader considers that Thomas, or the poet, may have been writing as a soldier at his post living
through the horrors of war. Perhaps the poet is writing from such despair that suggests he has
suicidal thoughts?
Finally, Thomas uses the senses to reach the reader as the poet is affected by the sight, sound and
touch of the cold, incessant rain. The assault of the rain on the poet’s senses could be interpreted as
a physical means to deepen the feelings of emotional weariness.
The mood of the poet is palpably felt in this poem, linked to the rain. As much as rain can signify
purity, life and rebirth, the overall tone of the poem portrays melancholy, sadness, great loneliness
and perhaps depression. The romantic linking of emotions and thoughts with the natural world is
also a strong undertone to this poem. Thomas also vividly portrays the physical and emotional
discomfort felt by the poet, and such morose feelings could resonate with the reader.
Solitude, audibly found in this poem, is one of Thomas’s principal themes in his poetry; the other
theme is that of war (death) and the effect on the individual. So this poem is a classic portrayal of
central themes to Thomas. The influence of Robert Frost, of exploring issues of nature, is also
evident in this poem that links emotions to the physical elements of rain. There is also an
undercurrent of Christianity as a symbol of hope, found in the phrases ‘Blessed are the dead’, and
the reference to praying (line 8) and baptism (line 5).
Thomas uses the discomfort about feeling alone, with death nearby, as inextricably linked with the
physical issues of being entrapped in a hut by a cold, relentless rain. Nature is used to amplify the
solitude felt throughout the poem. Death, as a part of the natural cycle of life, could be considered
as a more important theme in the poem, if it is interpreted as the poet waiting for the inevitability of
dying in a war – the fact that Thomas was killed in the war lends some poignancy to this poem.
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Edward Thomas
Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying to-night or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be for what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells, disappoint.
Compare this poem with:
During Wind and Rain, by Thomas Hardy
Range-Finding, by Robert Frost
When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead, by Charles Sorley
Futility, by Wilfred Owen
A useful commentary on the poem can be found here:
Now make your own notes based on annotating this poem, using quotations, and categorizing your
notes under headings like: poem summary/overview; structure and poetic devices; language; themes;
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Any Soul to Any Body, by Cosmo Monkhouse
William Cosmo Monkhouse was not a professional poet but he loved poetry and art. He was born in
London in 1840, and died in 1901, having been married twice. He had a humorous style in several
poems, and wrote several limericks, including my favourite, There was a Young Lady of Niger.
Monkhouse had strong religious beliefs, though this poem about death does not overtly link religion
to the parting of body and soul. In spite of the serious topic matter about death, Monkhouse injects
a light tone, even self-deprecating humour, into the poem.
Structure and language
This poem has five stanzas, each with eight lines, and with a definite visual structure in each stanza
(though this may have been a typesetting issue for the Cambridge anthology book). Only the second,
fourth and sixth lines are indented, with the last two lines in each stanza containing a rhyming
couplet (two end words rhyme). There is also a rhyme scheme to each stanza, though it is not
uniform: stanzas 1, 4 and 5 each have one unrhymed end word, whereas stanzas 2 and 3 are
The rhythm and metre of each stanza is also not as uniform as expected. Stanzas 2 and 4 contain ten
syllables in each, though the lines are a mixture of iambic pentameter (stressed and unstressed
syllables) and dactylic pentameter (stressed, unstressed and unstressed, for example – For/give
me, tis’ not my ex/per/i/ence). For the other three stanzas, there are a few lines of eleven syllables
mixed in with lines of ten syllables, though there is a rhythm to the stressed and unstressed syllables.
Poets will sometimes use structure to keep poems regular or uniform in an attempt to control the
subject matter, for a number of reasons. The sombre topic of death and the parting of the body and
soul in this poem may have led Monkhouse to keep the fairly uniform rhythm of the poem –
perhaps to bring solace to the reader or poet when dealing with imminent death.
Monkhouse also uses a conversational style with enjambment (the continuation of the sentence
over a line break) and caesura (a pause in the line, using punctuation). The conversational style is
also illustrated by the use of personal pronouns, introduced on the first line ‘you and I’ and
continued through each stanza.
Repetitive sounds are used throughout the poem, as alliteration (similar sounds at the beginning of
phrases) like ‘company…clove…close’; ‘whate’er the weather’; ‘tear or two’; or as assonance
(similar sounding vowel sounds in words) such as ‘clove to me so close’; ‘leave…beneath’;
‘think…wicked’. Repetitive sounds or repeating words is a common effect used in poetry – to give
emphasis, to highlight emotions or underscore thoughts or central themes, to create sounds (either
pleasing or discordant) when reading the poem aloud. How repetition is used and how it is
interpreted can be based on the individual’s analysis of a poem.
In this poem about the soul and the body, it seems that the repeated words and sounds are intended
to soothe and comfort the reader who may be feeling uneasy about the subject matter. In fact, rather
than the poem being morose, Monkhouse uses an almost lighthearted conversational tone.
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This poem both describes the inextricable linking of the soul to the body in life, and the parting of
the soul from the body in death, according to Christian theology. The soul is considered immortal,
whereas the body’s mortality is seen as it ages, decays and perishes. References to the body’s
mortality are made in the fourth stanza, and though such subject matter could become weighty, the
poet appears nonchalant. This could be taken, from the soul’s perspective, as a way to gently shed
the body that has come to the end of its use for the soul; if the poem had been written from the
body’s perspective, would the same tone and language have been suitable?
The language used in this poem is meant to be inclusive and comforting, as references to marriage
and friendship are found throughout, for example ‘so many pleasant years together’, ‘my departing
friend’, ‘dear body’, ‘a friend more true’. Yet, looking briefly at each stanza will help to highlight an
undercurrent of uneasiness and shifts in perspective.
The first stanza introduces the soul as the controlling force in the partnership, and though
complimentary about the body, is matter-of-fact about the aging body reaching ‘the limit of your
tether’. This metaphor symbolizes the inability of the body to stay entwined with the soul, and links
to the religious doctrine of death.
The second stanza shows the conflict that the soul experiences with ‘they’ – a reference to stanch
Christians who consider the body wicked, weak and apt to sin. Monkhouse shows conflict from the
soul’s perspective ‘tis not my experience’ and for feeling sadness at leaving the body ‘a clod, a
prison’. There is even remorse felt that the soul was kept from shedding tears and instead had to
think about being ‘very glad’ at becoming ‘free’.
The third stanza is more retrospective than previous stanzas, and more serious. Even though the
soul, according to religious ideology, is meant to be pure and strong as contrasted with the weakness
and wickedness of the body, there is reference to the body’s strength. The body’s honesty in
showing emotions with ‘a blush or stammering tongue’ have kept the soul from ‘unworthy schemes’
and lying. So in this stanza, the soul is giving credit to the body.
By the fourth stanza, a lighter tone is used in the first four lines. References to Christianity are found
with ‘first design’ either meaning the body as a baby, or as the first body, Adam. The admission that
the body is not as handsome as before, partly because of the soul, may be referring to the lack of
strength of mind, or bad decisions made that had a physical impact on the body. The tone becomes
more sombre and dark in the last three lines, as the soul feels pity for the body being placed in a
‘friendless grave’. As Decay is capitalized, it takes on a powerful persona, commanding ‘all the
hungry legions’ (soldiers or workers) to work on the body. This is quite a sinister turn to the stanza,
but Monkhouse returns to a more detached perspective in the last stanza.
There is another reference to the close relationship between soul and body, and between the
mother’s and soul’s joy and pride in the body. In this final stanza, Monkhouse also repeats the
uneasiness that sometimes surfaces in the stanzas, and the conflict from ‘even they who say the
worst about you’. They are the Christians who see the wickedness and weakness of the body, and
the purity and strength of the Christian soul – but they are not sure about life after death, or what
will happen to a person’s soul, as ‘what I shall do without you’.
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In spite of the seriousness of the subject material, the tone is not as sombre as might be expected.
There are hints of lightheartedness, almost self-deprecating humour, and yet the undercurrent of
uneasiness surfaces from time to time. This poem is meant to be read in a conversational tone, and
as casually as one can speak about imminent death.
Though there is an obvious link with religious beliefs of life, death and the afterlife, the religious
message is not overplayed in the poem. Death is the more prominent theme in the poem, as each
stanza indicates that death is not far away. In keeping with Victorian poetry, the poem covers a
serious topic, but in a more practical manner rather than dwelling on the religious perspective
associated with life after death.
Any Soul to Any Body
Cosmo Monkhouse
So we must part, my body, you and I
Who’ve spent so many pleasant years together.
‘Tis sorry work to lose your company
Who clove to me so close, whate’er the weather,
From winter unto winter, wet or dry;
But you have reached the limit of your tether,
And I must journey on my way alone,
And leave you quietly beneath a stone.
They say that you are altogether bad
(Forgive me, ‘tis not my experience),
And think me very wicked to be sad
At leaving you, a clod, a prison, whence
To get quite free I should be very glad.
Perhaps I may be so, some few days hence,
But now, methinks, ‘twere graceless not to spend
A tear or two on my departing friend.
Now our long partnership is near completed,
And I look back upon its history;
I greatly fear I have not always treated
You with the honesty you showed to me.
And I must own that you have oft defeated
Unworthy schemes by your sincerity,
And by a blush or stammering tongue have tried
To make me think again before I lied.
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‘Tis true you’re not so handsome as you were,
But that’s not your fault and is partly mine.
You might have lasted longer with more care,
And still looked something like your first design;
And even now, with all your wear and tear,
‘Tis pitiful to think I must resign
You to the friendless grave, the patient prey
Of all the hungry legions of Decay.
But you must stay, dear body, and I go.
And I was once so very proud of you:
You made my mother’s eyes to overflow
When first she saw you, wonderful and new.
And now, with all your faults, ‘twere hard to find
A slave more willing or a friend more true.
Ay – even they who say the worst about you
Can scarcely tell what I shall do without you.
Further reading:
Andrew Marvell, A Dialogue between the Soul and Body
Now make your own notes based on annotating this poem, using quotations, and categorizing your
notes under headings like: poem summary/overview; structure and poetic devices; language; themes;
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From Long Distance, Tony Harrison
Tony Harrison was born in Leeds, England in 1937. Much of his poetry is about his family and of
memories of his working-class childhood. Harrison won a place at Leeds Grammar School and
became better educated than his parents. It is said that Harrison and his father differed in their
opinions towards life, and that this caused tension and feelings of guilt from the younger Harrison.
This elegiac poem highlights the way the poet sees his father deal with the death of his wife and how
the son then deals with the death of his father.
Structure and language
This structured poem is written in four stanzas with an alternate rhyme scheme (quatrain) of abab,
cdcd, efef, ghhg. The last stanza draws emphasis to itself because of the change in the rhyme scheme
to ghhg, as well as to the subject matter. The poem is written using the natural rhythm of the
structure as well as employing colloquial speech that personalizes Long Distance for the poet (for
example, see ‘just popped out to get the tea’).
Though this poem can be termed a lyrical elegy, it does not quite follow the traditional stages of
loss in an elegy (namely grief, praise, and solace). The first stage of loss is portrayed in the first
stanza, from the father’s perspective, as he tries to keep his wife’s memory alive by completing
certain mundane tasks. The second stage of praise is touched upon in the second stanza as the poet
admires his father’s ‘still raw love’, and yet the poet also shows his frustration with the use of ‘blight’
and disbelief in the third stanza. The third stage of the elegy, of solace and consolation, is expressed
in the last stanza, but with a hint of Socratic irony. The reader learns that although the poet cannot
understand his father’s inability to accept death, the son also follows the same patter by calling the
father’s ‘disconnected number’.
Apart from the formal structure and rhyme scheme of the poem (which can be interpreted as the
poet’s attempt to keep the subject matter and his emotions under control), there are other poetic
devices used for effect. The most noticeable is the use of personal pronouns throughout the
poems; the poet is speaking about his family and his personal loss. He also draws the reader in by
using ‘you’ to address people in general, though the reader can take it personally (especially if he or
she has had similar experiences of loss).
Harrison also employs poetic sound devices, such as assonance and consonance. The repetition of
consonant sounds ‘look alone’ and ‘still raw love’ slow the reader down and add emphasis. This can
be seen as a deliberate measure by Harrison so that we stop to think about how his Dad must have
felt. We can interpret these feelings either as guilt, melancholy, disbelief, and so on. The repetition of
vowel sounds within words, such as ‘risk’ and ‘disbelief’ are also for emphasis. The soft ‘sss’ sound
may have been a deliberate technique to mimic a whisper, or portray reverence.
Enjambment and caesura are often used together, to help the poet give a natural flow to the poem
but also to make the lines more interesting with internal stops. So Harrison uses enjambment, the
continuation of a thought, to give a casual conversational tone to the poem (for example, see ‘to give
him time to clear away her things’). Caesura breaks the rhythm within a line, and gives pause for
thought or a change in direction (for example, see ‘You couldn’t just drop in. You had to phone’.
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There are other techniques that Harrison uses, but only two more will be mentioned here. The first
is the onomatopoeic word ‘scrape’ to help the reader hear the sound of the rusted key that
Harrison’s father desperately wants to hear. For emphasis, the word ‘knew’ is italicised – as readers,
we automatically stress the word when we read it. Harrison wants us to feel the depth of his father’s
misguided faith in his wife’s return, or perhaps in his purposeful self-deception to keep his grief
under control.
The tone of an elegy is naturally mournful, and yet Harrison does not dwell on his despair but on his
father’s. The reader does not even know until the last stanza that the ‘long distance’ is actually
between himself and his deceased parents. So Harrison is masterful in keeping the melancholic tone
diluted – this might make it all the more poignant for the reader.
Harrison tries to portray a ‘matter-of-fact’ attitude towards the death of his parents, and yet there is
a hint of conflict within himself. For example, he has a new phone book, and his Dad’s disconnected
number has been put in there. Perhaps there is wistfulness about his Dad’s death and maybe a little
guilt for the way Harrison treated his Dad. The title of the poem, ‘Long Distance’, lends itself to
sadness or longing for people; though Harrison tries to be conversational and straightforward about
missing his parents, the undercurrent of sadness can be imagined.
Life and loss, regret and acceptance, and conflict are all themes that can be drawn out from this
poem. Harrison deals with the death of his parents in a way that he could talk about, or write about.
His interpretation of death is seen as creating distance between himself and his parents – they are
still around in his memories, and in his phone book, but there is a disconnection with life. As much
as Harrison had to prevent his disbelief towards his Dad’s behavior from getting stronger (see
‘couldn’t risk my blight of disbelief’), he finds himself repeating certain aspects of the behavior.
From Long Distance
Tony Harrison
Though my mother was already two years dead
Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas,
put hot water bottles her side of the bed
and still went to renew her transport pass.
You couldn’t just drop in. You had to phone.
He’d put you off an hour to give him time
to clear away her things and look alone
as though his still raw love were such a crime.
He couldn’t risk my blight of disbelief
though sure that very soon he’d hear her key
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scrape in the rusted lock and end his grief.
He knew she’d just popped out to get the tea.
I believe life ends with death, and that is all.
You haven’t both gone shopping; just the same,
in my new black leather phone book there’s your name
and the disconnected number I still call.
Further reading
Tony Harrison reading his poem
Compare this poem to
Elegy for my Father’s Father, by James Baxter
Now make your own notes based on annotating this poem, using quotations, and categorizing your
notes under headings like: poem summary/overview; structure and poetic devices; language; themes;
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Funeral Blues, by W. H. Auden
Wystan Hugh Auden was born in York, England in 1907 and died in 1973 in Vienna, Austria. He
went to school in Surrey, where he met one of his closest friends, Christopher Isherwood. While
studying at Oxford University, Auden became familiar with poetry by T.S. Eliot, amongst others.
Auden enjoyed travelling, and went to Germany, Iceland and China before moving to the United
States in 1939 (considered an unpopular move, by people in England, on the eve of World War II).
Auden felt uncomfortable about being public with his homosexuality, which may have been a
deciding factor to leave England, but was nevertheless happy with his longtime partner in the USA.
He became an American citizen in 1946.
Auden’s earliest poetry was often written in clipped phrases and short lines, though changes in the
style and depth of forms of public and private themes were becoming apparent in his poetry of the
1930s and 1940s.
The poem ‘Funeral Blues’ was originally written as a satirical piece for a play on ‘The Ascent of F6’
(co-written with his friend Isherwood) and was part of his 1940 collection ‘Another Time’.
Structure and Language
This poem is a lyrical elegy, written for a friend who has died. It is comprised of four stanzas, each
with four lines. Each stanza, or quatrain, seems to be structured along the traditional iambic
pentameter (five pairs of syllables, stressed and unstressed), but there are irregularities in the meter.
Each line has between 9-12 syllables, though the uneven line length does not detract from a natural
rhythm. This could have been a deliberate construction by Auden, to show the poet wanting a
controlled form and yet not having the ability to keep the iambic pentameter form due to his
heightened emotional state. However, he has kept a rhyme scheme, with heroic couplets in each
stanza. In spite of the irregular meter, Auden may perhaps have wanted to place particular emphasis
on the words without having to stick to form. For example, I have interpreted the first stanza with
the following stressed and unstressed syllables:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the tel/e/phone,
Pre/vent the dog from bark/ing with a juic/y bone,
Si/lence the pi/a/nos and with muff/led drum
Bring out the coff/in, let the mourn/ers come.
Note that this is my interpretations of the stresses for each line, based on a personal connection to
the themes of love and loss through death. Other readers might place different stresses on the words
of the poem.
What stands out, particularly in the first stanza, is repeated in the second stanza and in two lines of
the final stanza, is the verb start to each line. Notice the verbs that Auden uses, and the imperative
way they are used: stop, prevent, silence, bring, let, (scribbling), put, let, pack, pour. These verbs
almost demand to be stressed, to highlight the poet’s anguish. Yet, in spite of the poet’s grief, there
is still a sense of trying to keep control, at least in the poetic, technical sense.
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Looking at the structure of the stanzas, each ends with a period or full stop, to contain the thoughts.
There are examples of caesura within every stanza, with the use of commas to give a choppy effect
– perhaps simulating the breathlessness of someone having difficulty talking.
Other poetic sound devices include alliteration eg. working week; consonance eg. the repeated ‘n’
sound in the last stanza; and onomatopoeia, eg. the ‘s’ sound in scribbling like the sound of
pen/pencil across paper. These sounds, along with the use of repeated words such as ‘my’ in the
third stanza present sounds to the reader to amplify meaning, or create deep or lasting thoughts
about the poem’s themes.
Auden uses plenty of imagery, hyperbole, metaphors and personification, to layer on meaning to
this seemingly simple poem about death. That is, many of the chosen words are very visual and
descriptive, linking everyday sights and sounds (clocks, telephone, barking dog, piano, drum) with
the mechanisms of a funeral. The ordinary and mundane commentary in the first few lines is
contrasted with the introduction of the funeral on line 4.
As this poem deals with universal themes of love, loss (at some time in our lives, we will all
experience these emotions), it is fitting that Auden uses straightforward language, simple descriptive
adjectives, and an almost conversational tone. This is no conversation, though, but rather a lament, a
cry of grief, an outpouring of raw emotion at a funeral. It is communication, on both a private and
personal level.
The second stanza widens the scope of the personal funeral of a friend that was introduced in line 4,
to the skies overhead. Suddenly Auden has transitioned from a personal setting to a much wider
audience, where the white doves (released at funerals) wear crepe bows (a sign of respect for
someone who has died), and traffic policemen (an old image, dating the poem) wearing black gloves
as a sign of mourning as opposed to traditional white gloves to guide traffic. The poet is in
mourning but wants to make his private grief as public as possible. Even the aeroplanes are
‘moaning overhead’ as Auden personifies the sounds of the planes with anguished moans of
Transition occurs again in the third stanza as the poet uses a deeply personal string of exaggerated
metaphors to describe the dead friend, e.g. “He was…My working week’. The poet’s pain is palpable
as he likens the death of the friend to all corners of the compass, all days of the week including
Sunday rest, both moon and night, both speech and song.
Finally, in the last stanza, there is a final transition – of resignation, of indifference to anything else
but the poet’s own immediate pain. The hyperbolic statements of putting out the stars, packing up
the moon, and so on are perhaps reflections of the poet’s grief as universal as nature itself. So, the
poet wants to stop nature, in order to cease his grief, or at least not be reminded of the continuous
world of nature while he is grieving.
This poem can be delved into even more, if the reader sees other symbolism that could be explored.
For example, the links to time in the third stanza may also have relevance to the first line of
stopping the clocks. Auden may have meant to use the metaphor of the friend as a personal clock, a
keeper of their time, and now the time has stopped. Readers can also consider the multiple meanings
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of ‘blues’ in the title, or the contrast between the small actions of sweeping, pouring and putting out
connecting to the woods, ocean and stars, and so on.
From the title ‘Funeral Blues’ which aptly illustrates the sadness associated with funerals and
mourning, to each stanza amplifying the poet’s pain, the overall tone is melancholic, anguished and
palpable in the poet’s grief. The poet displays control through stating (or ordering) commands, in
attempts to contain his private grief, though it is so overpowering that he shifts to wanting the world
to know about his friend’s death. Indifference to everything around is the end note of the poem –
hope and joy are emotions that are still too distant for the poet.
The universal themes of great love and the corresponding grief when love is lost through death are
the main themes here. There is also the issue of communication of emotions on a private or public
level, and how to deal with such powerful emotions.
Funeral Blues
W.H. Auden
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
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From Song of Myself, by Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman was born in 1819 on Long Island, New York, died in 1892, and was one of nine
children. He trained as a printer, but also held jobs as a teacher, journalist and editor. His started
writing poetry after visiting the South in 1848, and published his first volume of poetry himself in
Leaves of Green which included the poem, Song of Myself. Whitman sent a copy of his poetry to Ralph
Waldo Emerson, who responded with a congratulatory note.
Whitman was influenced by what was happening around him, including the Civil War, slavery and its
abolition, the rise of the United States as a nation of power, and his personal desire to volunteer as a
nurse in army hospitals during the Civil War. His poetry has centred on democracy, equality and
what it means to be an American.
This particular poem, Song of Myself, is very long. The section to be studied is only one out of 52. To
better understand the poem, reading the other 51 sections might be useful, if time allows.
Structure and language
This section is one part of a very long poem, and may have been inspired from similar epic poems
by Homer (Odyssey) and Virgil (Aeneid), as well as being necessarily long to cover the expansive
subject material. Section 21 is upbeat, celebratory and typical of Whitman’s use of lists to catalogue
what he saw and felt. In addition, he loved to tell stories or anecdotes. This epic poem can be seen
as a story of the poet’s journey through his imagination, linking his soul and his body to his love for
the land and the people.
Looking at the structure of Section 21, it is considered free verse, as it follows no rhyme or set line
pattern. Whitman’s style was to steer clear of traditional rhyme schemes and poetic devices favoured
by others in the nineteenth century. He seemed more interested in being ‘democratic’ with his
language, writing style and subject matter. So, he chose to be inclusive in all of his poetry, in his
treatment of the self, inclusion of all others and of nature. Whitman uses a common, inclusive
language, and his exuberant praise of everyone and everything around him is part of his unique
poetic voice. American pride in their sense of self and love of country is a cultural phenomenon that
is not always felt by other nationals in their own countries, but it is amplified here in Whitman’s
The poem highlights Whitman’s use of long lines – each one with end-stop punctuation (caesura)
apart from line 15. The effect of such long lines makes the reader pause for breath at the end, before
continuing. If read aloud, this poem can sound like a speech, a passionate speech to anyone who will
listen. Speeches often use rhetorical questions (that answer themselves or anticipate a question from
the reader) as Whitman does in line 10, ‘Have you outstript the rest? are you the President?’. Which
President is the poet referring to, and what is the significance of this president?
Whitman also uses a particular type of rhetorical device, the apostrophe, to address an abstraction
or personification that is not physically present. Line 14 and Line 17 call to the night or the earth, to
include nature in the poet’s praises. This direct address to nature shows Whitman continuing to be
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Whilst there is no traditional rhyme scheme, Whitman does use repetition and anaphora
(repetition of the same expression at the beginning of two or more lines) to highlight or intensify
meaning. There are examples of end-line repetition: ‘man’ (lines 4, 5); ‘love’ (lines 25, 26); and
repetition within the stanzas or at the end: ‘earth’ (lines 17 – 23) and ‘night’ (lines 12 – 16).
In fact, the poet’s musings about the wonders of the world are focused on earth and night,
introduced in line 13. Night is first mentioned as he connects himself walking with the ‘tender and
growing night’. This poem, a journey of the poet’s imagination, of his body and soul, really starts to
unfold with the vivid descriptions and images of the night and earth.
The night is personified as a body that half-holds the sea, or presses close like a naked body. The
earth is also described in elaborate terms, for example, ‘voluptuous cool-breath’d’ and perhaps as
Mother Earth as the reader can imagine the ‘far-swooping elbowed earth’ putting arms around
everything and everyone.
Though the poet’s title states that the subject matter is about ‘myself’, and the personal pronoun ‘I’
is found throughout the first four stanzas, the poem also includes the reader (this is more apparent
in other sections of the poem, but the reader can sense the poet’s wish to consider himself no
different from anyone else). The poet’s use of the pronoun ‘you’ in the fourth stanza is directed at
the reader – it can be interpreted to mean that in spite of your achievements, wealth or status, ‘you’
are as important/unimportant as the next person [as ‘you’ are not the President, and you have not
outstript or done better than everyone else]. Where ‘you’ is used in the last stanza, the poet refers to
earth, and wants to return love he feels from the earth to the earth itself (hyperbole). The second
stanza is also a good example of Whitman’s central desire to include everyone, and to praise all
people, ‘it is as good to be a woman as to be a man’.
The poem makes historical references to the growth of America, especially in the third stanza –
contextualising the historical time period that affected Whitman’s writing, as it was a time of slavery,
the Civil War and the reconstructive growth of America. This can account for Whitman’s focus on
writing about democracy, unity and being an American. There are biblical references throughout
Song of Myself, but specifically in this section, mentioning the Prodigal Son has significance, in relation
to the earth. Why, though, is the poet calling the earth the Prodigal Son, someone who was wasteful
before becoming repentant?
Walt Whitman is a very popular poet in American culture, and there are many different ways to
interpret the language he uses. Thus, it is important to read it through and make your own
interpretations, especially in light of the other sections and the controversial nature of some of the
Reading this section of the long poem, it nonetheless illustrates the overall tone as joyous and
celebratory. Even in this short section, the language used and material covered gives a very inclusive
tone to the poem as Whitman strives to be a representative, proud American voice.
Democracy, equality and identity of the self are all displayed in this section of Song Of Myself, and are
central themes throughout the poem. Whitman considers his identity as compromised of his
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everyday personality, displayed in his physical self, and his inner soul. As he is able to identify with
heaven, earth, all people and animals, he feels connected with everything and everyone. Equality is a
concept Whitman strives for, especially in light of his society at the time (eg. Slavery, Civil War), and
the poet makes claims to be the poet of ‘body’ and ‘soul’ as well as ‘woman’ and ‘man’. Democracy
is found in friendship, fairness and Whitman strives to be friendly and welcoming in his poem, using
more easily-accessible language, common images and experiences.
Section 21
From Song of Myself
Walt Whitman
I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue.
I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,
And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.
I chant the chant of dilation or pride,
We have had ducking and deprecating about enough,
I show that size is only development.
Have you outstript the rest? are you the President?
It is a trifle, they will more than arrive there every one, and still pass on.
I am he that walks with the tender and growing night,
I call to the earth and sea half-held by the night.
Press close bare-bosom’d night – press close magnetic nourishing night!
Night of south winds – night of the large few stars
Still nodding night – mad naked summer night.
Smile O voluptuous cool-breath’d earth!
Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!
Earth of departed sunset – earth of the mountains misty-topped!
Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon just tinged with blue!
Earth of shine and dark mottling the tide of the river!
Earth of the limpid grey of clouds brighter and clearer for my sake!
Far-swooping elbowed earth – rich apple-blossom’d earth!
Smile, for your lover comes.
Prodigal, you have given me love – therefore I to you give love!
O unspeakable passionate love.
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graft – transplant
dilation – expansion
vitreous – glassy
Prodigal – wastrel, reckless spendthrift (as in Prodigal Son)
Further Reading:
Pied Beauty by G.M. Hopkins
Now make your own notes based on annotating this poem, using quotations, and categorizing your
notes under headings like: poem summary/overview; structure and poetic devices; language; themes;
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The Telephone Call, by Fleur Adcock
Fleur Adcock was born in Papakura, New Zealand in 1934. She moved with her family to England
during World War II and then went back to New Zealand when she was thirteen. She later returned
to England in 1963. Adcock did her degree in Classics, has worked as a professional librarian for the
British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and has held several writing fellowships at different
Adcock has centred many of her poems around ordinary home life and about images drawn from
her experiences. It has been noted that the ’subject of Adcock’s poetry is often unromantic, yet she
privides a deeper, sometimes dark, twist on what appears to be a mundane situation’
(http://postcolonialstudies.emory.edu/fleur-adcock/). This characterization of her material may
easily be applied to The Telephone Call.
On a superficial level, the poem seems to be focusing on the dream of winning the lottery, coupled
with the irritation of getting unsolicited calls or hoax calls. There is a deeper theme here, drawn out
through the satirical dialogue of the poem.
On a personal note, I really enjoyed Adcock’s clever imagination in the poem – I may have thought
about a telemarketer trying to give me something free, but I had not thought about Adcock’s spin
on a telephone call. The satirical nature of this poem still makes me smile.
Structure and Language
This poem is very structured, written in six stanzas of eight lines each. There is no end rhyme
scheme, as the poem is a dialogue between a company representative and the person receiving the
call – an end rhyme scheme would have disrupted the flow of the conversation. There are, however,
internal rhymes, such as ‘dry’ and ‘cry’ (lines 19 and 20 respectively), and ‘way’ and ‘day’ (lines 22
and 23 respectively). Perhaps Adcock introduced these words in the third stanza to slow the reader
down to reflect upon how he or she may feel (especially are there is an abrupt change in tone, that of
skepticism, from the ‘lottery winner’ in the fourth stanza).
Free verse, with its free structure, is the obvious choice to keep the conversational rhythm going in
this poem. Adcock has thought carefully about the length of lines and dialogue, peppering the
speakers’ words with enough punctuation to help the reader hear the voices and the change in pitch,
tone, level of excitement from the ‘lottery winner’, or the ingratiating manner of the company
To slow the reader down, several poetic devices and grammatical tools are used by Adcock.
Consonance, the repetition of consonant sounds, can be seen in the first stanza as the company
representative introduces an unexpected message. It is also noticeably used by the ‘lottery winner’
when describing the physical symptoms of winning such a huge prize. In addition, judiciously used
punctuation (commas, ellipses, dashes, question marks) help the reader to hear intonations in the
voices of the two people on the phone.
Hyperbole, the use of exaggerated words or phrases for effect, has been used with the company
representative’s dialogue, especially in the introduction ‘the Ultra-super Global Special’. Not only is
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hyperbole used to make certain words or phrases stand out, it is a clever literary style used by
Adcock – it mirrors the overinflated claims and selling tactics of advertisers or telemarketers.
I cannot help smiling after reading this poem – it is one of my favourites because the tone is downto-earth, whimsical and satirical. Adcock plays on the ‘universal’ wish that people have to win the
top lottery prize, or to get something for nothing. I believe she is laughing at human nature and the
inherent greed of most people.
There are several tones in this short dialogue, including an upbeat tone from the company
representative, and the excited, emotion-filled ‘lottery winner’. The transition to a skeptical tone ‘I’ll
believe it when I see the cheque’ is a very real emotion to include here.
Her language in the poem is very easy to read, especially as a conversation. Her subject matter, of an
unsolicited call would be mundane and yet it contrasts with the extraordinary news of lottery
winnings. Adcock is whimsical in the pleasant tone from the company representative, touching on
the American phrase ‘Have a nice day!’ as a cheerful conversation ending. Perhaps Adcock wants the
reader to see, through her satirical use of the phrase, the insincerity of the platitude as used by the
company representative.
Greed is the underlying theme in the telephone call, and the hook for the reader as well as for the
‘lottery winner’. Does the poem make the reader consider what he or she would do if a huge lottery
prize was suddenly won? Another theme, then, is considering personal values and whether rational
thought is lost when huge wealth is given or suggested. If so, the theme of greed and values
emanates from the poem into the reader’s thoughts – that makes this poem powerful (and funny, if
we can laugh at ourselves).
The Telephone Call
By Fleur Adcock
They asked me ‘Are you sitting down?
Right? This is Universal Lotteries’,
they said. ‘You’ve won the top prize,
the Ultra-super Global Special.
What would you do with a million pounds?
Or, actually, with more than a million –
not that it makes a lot of difference
once you’re a millionaire.’ And they laughed.
‘Are you OK?’ they asked – ‘Still there?
Come on, now, tell us, how does it feel?’
I said ‘I just…I can’t believe it!’
They said ‘That’s what they all say.
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What else? Go on, tell us about it.’
I said ‘I feel the top of my head
has floated off, out through the window,
revolving like a flying saucer.’
‘That’s unusual’ they said. ‘Go on.’
I said ‘I’m finding it hard to talk.
My throat’s gone dry, my nose is tingling.
I think I’m going to sneeze – or cry.’
‘That’s right’ they said, ‘don’t be ashamed
of giving way to your emotions.
It isn’t every day you hear
you’re going to get a million pounds.
Relax, now, have a little cry;
we’ll give you a moment…’ ‘Hang on!’ I said.
‘I haven’t bought a lottery ticket
for years and years. And what did you say
the company’s called?’ They laughed again.
‘Not to worry about a ticket.
We’re Universal. We operate
A retrospective Chances Module.
Nearly everyone’s bought a ticket
in some lottery or another,
once at least. We buy up the files,
feed the names into our computer,
and see who the lucky person is.’
‘Well, that’s incredible’ I said.
‘It’s marvelous. I still can’t quite…
I’ll believe it when I see the cheque.’
‘Oh,’ they said, ‘there’s no cheque.’
‘But the money?’ ‘We don’t deal in money.
Experiences are what we deal in.
You’ve had a great experience, right?
Exciting? Something you’ll remember?
That’s your prize. So congratulations
from all of us at Universal.
Have a nice day!’ And the line went dead.
Further reading:
‘A Consumer’s Report’ by Peter Porter
Now make your own notes based on annotating this poem, using quotations, and categorizing your
notes under headings like: poem summary/overview; structure and poetic devices; language; themes;
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A Consumer’s Report, Peter Porter
Peter Porter was born in 1929, in Brisbane, Australia, but he moved to England in 1951. He was
deeply saddened by his mother’s death when he was only nine; he also had personal periods of
difficulty that led to a nervous breakdown and suicide attempts. His first wife, Jannice, also had
issues of depression and alcoholism, and died in an apparent suicide after Porter started an affair
with a married woman.
In spite of these tragedies, Porter continued to write prolifically. His occasional jobs as a clerk,
bookseller, and advertising copywriter seem to have influenced some of his work, including this
poem. This poem pokes fun at advertising and consumer-report writing, but there is a deeper
message under the satirical overtones of the ‘consumer report’.
Structure and Language
As a consumer’s report about a product, this poem has to be in free verse to allow for its expository
nature. There are two parts to the poem: an opening tercet to frame the poem, and the main stanza
describing the consumer’s findings with the product, Life.
The poem reads as if someone is completing sections in a questionnaire about a product that has
been purchased – Porter uses the language of marketing to structure this poem and create a
completely fresh style. There is no formal rhyme scheme, rhythm, and the language is informal and
Porter combines poetic techniques of enjambment (the continuation of a thought to give a casual,
almost conversational, tone) and caesura to break the rhythm within a line are used throughout the
poem. Caesura can give pause for thought or a change in the writer’s thoughts. This helps to create
the flow of the poem, as does careful use of punctuation such as commas, dashes, brackets, full
Slowing the reader down, Porter uses alliteration (similar sounds at the start of words) and
consonance (similar consonant sounds close together) throughout the poem. Some examples can
be seen on line 6 ‘I think I’d have liked’; line 12 ‘it’s difficult to tell’; line 36 ‘popular product’; line41
‘behave badly about’. There are plenty of other examples that are intended to slow the reader down
and give pause for thought about what is being said.
Lines are short and to the point, to get the consumer’s message across in a matter-of-fact way.
Interestingly, though the consumer states that the answers are ‘confidential’, they become very
public – Porter’s irreverent sense of humour is thus seen from the outset. In fact, the whole poem is
a satirical metaphor for life itself, and Porter mocks the advertising and questionnaire form-filling in
the seemingly bland way the writer responds to the questions.
There seems to be a transition from the carefully constructed answers to more reflective thinking,
from line 33 onwards. Perhaps Porter wanted to show a natural frustration by some ‘respondents’
when conforming to writing specific points in a questionnaire.
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On first reading, this poem could appear to be really dry, almost as if the writer was bored of filling
out the ‘consumer’s report’. Once it becomes clear that the poem is about life and the satirical
undertones are realized, the poet’s humorous tone is seen. This is a satirical piece, mocking
advertising (presentation of products as ‘must-haves’), and treating life as if it were a product.
The humour in the poem can be understood, especially if deeper meanings are drawn out from the
words (Sorry, but the lines ‘It seemed gentle on the hands…I have used much more than I thought’
just reminds me of children using too much toilet paper! Perhaps it is the subliminal message from
the ‘embarrassing deposit’ that I read into the poem, or after four children, it may be remembering
certain incidents). There are plenty of funny comments that make this poem quite light-hearted, in
spite of the deeper thoughts about life e.g. it should not be put in the way of children.
An undercurrent in the poem is that of the writer’s serious thoughts about life, with a slightly cynical
tone at times ‘I think we should take it for granted’.
The main idea or underlying meaning of the poem is about life, as a product that is given and used.
Reflection about life, seen as an assessment of the product, is at two levels – as feedback for a
product, or as someone who is slightly dissatisfied with life.
A Consumer’s Report
Peter Porter
The name of the product I tested is Life,
I have completed the form you sent me
and understand that my answers are confidential.
I had it as a gift,
I didn’t feel much while using it,
in fact I think I’d have liked to be more excited.
It seemed gentle on the hands
but left an embarrassing deposit behind.
It was not economical
and I have used much more than I thought
(I suppose I have about half left
but it’s difficult to tell) –
although the instructions are fairly large
there are so many of them
I don’t know which to follow, especially
as they seem to contradict each other.
I’m not sure such a thing
should be put in the way of children –
It’s difficult to think of a purpose
Also the price is much too high.
Things are piling up so fast,
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after all, the world got by
for a thousand million years
without this, do we need it now?
(Incidentally, please ask your man
To stop calling me ‘the respondent’,
I don’t like the sound of it.)
There seems to be a lot of different labels,
sizes and colours should be uniform,
the shape is awkward, it’s waterproof
but not heat resistant, it doesn’t keep
yet it’s very difficult to get rid of:
whenever they make it cheaper they seem
to put less in – if you say you don’t
want it, then it’s delivered anyway.
I’d agree it’s a popular product,
it’s got into the language; people
even say they’re on the side of it.
Personally I think it’s overdone,
a small thing people are ready
to behave badly about. I think
we should take it for granted. If its
experts are called philosophers or market
researchers or historians, we shouldn’t
care. We are the consumers and the last
law makers. So finally, I’d buy it.
But the question of a ‘best buy’
I’d like to leave until I get
the competitive product you said you’d send.
If you want to hear Peter Porter’s reading of his poem, go to this link
Further reading:
‘He Never Expected Much’ by Thomas Hardy
‘The Telephone Call’ by Fleur Adcock
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On Finding a Small Fly Crushed in a Book, Charles Tennyson Turner
Charles Tennyson Turner was born in 1808, in Lincolnshire, United Kingdom, and died in 1879. His
last name was Tennyson and he was the brother of a more well-known poet, Alfred Tennyson. It
has been stated that he changed his last name to Turner for a dying relative, in order to get money
from the will.
Charles Tennyson Turner led a quiet life as a vicar in Lincolnshire – his religious perspective
becomes visible in this poem about an insect, though a deeper analysis could reveal his perceived
fate of each one of us.
Structure and Language
This elegiac poem has a definite structure (iambic pentameter), with a regular rhyme scheme of
abbacddcefefgg. As a fourteen-lined poem, it can be described as a sonnet, but it does not quite fit
the traditional pattern of a Shakespearean, Petrarchan or Spenserian sonnet. Perhaps the poet
wanted to mimic his struggle over the crushed fly, the death of an innocent, by struggling to keep to
the traditions of sonnet form. Or, in an attempt to highlight the personal nature of the poem to the
writer, he created his own style of sonnet.
Sonnets written during the time of this poem, that were entitled ‘Oh…’ were usually about some
weighty topic.3 The title about a crushed fly would appear to be more whimsical, perhaps even on a
first reading – and yet, a deeper analysis reveals the poet’s reflection upon human responsibility, the
state of the individual, and religion.
The poet has used particular techniques to make this sonnet more effective – some are typical styles
to add meaning (to be discussed later). There is one striking use of language that can be tied to the
poet’s lifestyle. This is the use of archaic language, such as ‘thee’, ‘thine’, ‘pent’ and ‘wert’. Though
this language could have been typically spoken in the community in which Turner lived, it is more
likely that his religious background impacted this poem in his word choice (and deeper message).
Poetic structures used for effect include caesura (using punctuation or words to create a break in the
flow of words) and enjambment (the continuation of one line to the next line). Caesura examples
include ‘Oh! that the memories, which survive us here’ (line 15) or ‘Now thou art gone: Our doom is
ever near’ (line 18). Both lines have the effect of making us pause for thought, as the writer does, to
consider the deeper implications of a fly’s death in relation to a life lost.
Accompanying caesura is enjambment, a technique used to give flow to a poem. Examples include
lines 7-8 and lines 11-12. They help to give continuity to the lines and prevent the poem from
becoming too disjointed (as can happen when a poet is constrained by a particular style, such as the
Other techniques picked up include the use of sounds, through alliteration and consonance.
Alliteration examples include ‘pages pent’ and ‘thou’ and ‘thine’ – such repetitive initial consonants
See John Milton (1608-1674) who wrote ‘On the late massacre in Piedmont’, or Thomas Gray (1716-1771) who
wrote ‘On the death of Mr Richard West’.
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help to slow the reader down, or make the reader think about the content a little longer. In the case
of alliteration used in conjunction with the archaic language of thee, thine, and so on, Turner may
have wanted the reader to dwell on the religious resonance of the words. Consonance, the repetition
of consonant sounds within words or close together is also seen in the poem, with the many
instances of ‘th’ sounds in ‘thine’, ‘thou’ and ‘thy’. Again, I can connect the religious sounds of such
words to the poem, in an attempt to create deeper layers of meaning. Perhaps the ‘th’ sound in lines
2 and 3, along with the ‘h’ sound of ‘has’ and ‘here’ lends a breathlessness to the lines – to create the
feeling of surprise and sadness that a fly has been accidentally killed.
Though appearing to be slightly comical, the poet uses apostrophe to address the dead fly in the
poem, making this a personal communication between poet and fly. As apostrophe is a poetic
technique used to directly address someone or something as if it is present and real, did Turner want
to make this personal, or keep the existence of the fly real? Is this technique being used to address
Turner has wrapped quite a few descriptive words into this sonnet for greater effect, and though
readers may find more, I will highlight a few that stand out to me:
‘thine own fair monument’ – instead of writing about the crushed fly leaving a smudge in a book,
the stain of the insect is elevated to being a ‘fair monument’. Turner changes the image from that of
a ruined page in a book to a mark of a remembered insect;
‘thy wings gleam’ – this phrase ties in with ‘lustre’ at the end of the poem. Turner wants the reader
to see beautiful and positive connotations with the colour and shine of the wings, as opposed to
using words that may show the dullness or negativity of a marked page;
‘doom’ – metonymy for death, as the word doom refers to something that is associated with death.
This is similar to a synonym, but the reader can interpret the poet’s use of the word doom – why did
Turner use the word for death, as it implies something darker or more destructive?;
‘peril’ – another negative word that could make the reader question what ‘peril’ exists – it could be
impending death, our own mortality, or perhaps being exposed to sin itself;
‘lustre’ – this word ties in with the gleaming wings. Lustre is the shine of the fly, or its vitality. By
saying we will leave no lustre is to say that we will not leave a mark. Turner seems to suggest that the
‘blameless life’ of the fly is more worthy than ours. Perhaps the reader is to infer that we may not
leave a physical mark after we die, but does Turner not want us to be comforted by the fact that we
may leave some legacy that transcends the physical? As a religious man, he would have believed
souls going to heaven.
Turner uses a simile to express meanings that are deeper than the physical description of the dead
fly. For example, ‘the memories…were half as lovely as the wings’ are interesting lines as they can be
interpreted in two ways. The poet may be indicating that the physical presence of the fly was ‘lovely’
but the memories may not have been (too short a life, too insignificant?). Alternatively, the poet may
be optimistically comparing the beauty of the physical (wings) to the beauty of the intangible
memories. A deeper interpretation of the simile can be suggested if the poet is seen to be talking
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about human lives. In this sense, the memories of the individual survive in the people who live to
remember him or her and can be represented in a beautiful monument (gravesite, for example).
If Turner’s religious perspective is shown through the use of Biblical language, it is also most clearly
displayed in the line ‘Pure relics of a blameless life’. This is a clear religious reference to the
innocence of creatures that do not sin. The religious references continue with the loss of innocence
‘thou art gone’ and the consequences of doom and peril.
Religious metaphors are also found in lines 11-12 and 13-14. In lines 11-12, the lifting up to ‘soar
away upon the summer-airs’ is a metaphor of the religious belief that the soul is risen after death.
This has a positive connotation for the readers that share the same religious perspective. A more
cynical, or realistic view of death is illustrated in the last two lines that through ‘the closing book’ (is
this the Bible?) may end our lives, we will not leave a mark or lustre. Is this because Turner felt that,
as humans, we are all sinners and cannot leave a pure mark? Or does he feel that abstract memories
are all humans can hope form instead of concrete reminders of our life and our worth.
Did Turner want the reader to consider his/her own mortality, and worth, as compared to a fly? If
so, he paints the insignificant fly as leaving more of a mark than us. Do we need to have more of a
carpe diem attitude towards life, as Turner wants us to consider more meaning to living life well than
hoping for a physical remembrance after we have died?
As an elegy, there is an expected mournful tone to the poem. Though it may seem superficially
whimsical to be lamenting about crushing a small fly, this wistful sonnet is far more reflective about
our mortality.
There are also steady religious undertones in the poem, linking Turner’s lifestyle with the themes
and message about life and death that he wanted to highlight.
Universal themes are covered here, namely life and death. Linking both concepts to religion and
structuring the poem around the death of a fly to draw a parallel to our own worth are two other
themes that can be drawn out from Turner’s ode.
On Finding a Small Fly Crushed in a Book
Charles Tennyson Turner
Some hand, that never meant to do thee hurt,
Has crushed thee here between these pages pent;
But thou has left thine own fair monument,
Thy wings gleam out and tell me what thou wert:
Oh! that the memories, which survive us here,
Were half as lovely as these wings of thine!
Pure relics of a blameless life, that shine
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Now thou art gone: Our doom is ever near:
The peril is beside us day by day;
The book will close upon us, it may be,
Just as we lift ourselves to soar away
Upon the summer-airs. But, unlike thee,
The closing book may stop our vital breath,
Yet leave no lustre on our page of death.
pent – shut up within
Percy Bysshe Shelley
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert … Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
trunkless – lacking the chest or trunk of the body
stamped – inscribed
Away, Melancholy
Stevie Smith
Away, melancholy,
Away with it, let it go.
Are not the trees green,
The earth as green?
Does not the wind blow,
Fire leap and the rivers flow?
Away melancholy.
Prepared April 2013
The ant is busy
He carrieth his meat,
All things hurry
To be eaten or eat.
Away, melancholy.
Man, too, hurries,
Eats, couples, buries,
He is an animal also
With a hey ho melancholy,
Away with it, let it go.
Man of all creatures
Is superlative
(Away melancholy)
He of all creatures alone
Raisieth a stone
(Away melancholy)
Into the stone, the god
Pours what he knows of good
Calling, good, God.
Away melancholy, let it go.
Speak not to me of tears,
Tyranny, pox, wars,
Saying, Can God
Stone of man’s thought, be good?
Say rather it is enough
That the stuffed
Stone of man’s good, growing,
By man’s called God.
Away, melancholy, let it go.
Man aspires
To good,
To love
Beaten, corrupted, dying
In his own blood lying
Yet heaves up an eye above
Cries, Love, love.
It is his virtue needs explaining,
Not his failing.
Away melancholy,
Away with it, let it go.
Prepared April 2013