November: The Waste of Life

A poem that uses leaves as a metaphor for the pointless slaughter of war is ‘November’ The poem starts off as one of celebration and hope as the leaves fly from the tree. The leaves can be seen as representing young soldiers who have left the safety of their families and their homes and are going off to fight in a faraway place. Frost’s use of the adjective ‘migratory’ is suggestive of great movement and the leaves mimic the journeying of birds as they migrate across the globe. Frost’s use of the collective pronoun ‘we’ shows that the speaker is joined by others, possibly representing the older generation of parents and grandparents who are seeing their offspring fly the nest. This is a glorious expedition, one undertaken with much anticipation. Yet the tone of the poem changes in line three as the leaves only reach ‘part way down the lane’.leaves lane

Their journeys are cut short by the brutal wind and rain which leaves them ‘beaten down and pasted’- as Mark Richardson suggests they are ‘brought down in a rain of bullets’ (Richardson, 2001)This mirrors the horrifying experiences of many of the young soldiers who fought in both the first and second World Wars. Millions of young me were cut off in their prime, their lives, like the journey of the leaves, were short. The suddenness and totality of the ‘one wild day of rain’ is indicative of the massive loss of life that was suffered in individual battles during the wars. For Frost this was particularly poignant as he had first-hand experience of this as his close friend Edward Thomas was killed on the first day of the Battle of Arras in 1917.

Edward Thomas
Edward Thomas was Frost’s dearest Friend.

In ‘To E.T’ written in commemoration of Thomas Frost, laments the many things that he was not able to say to Thomas before he died ‘I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain/ Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained’. This mood of lamentation, loss and missed opportunity captured by Frost in ‘To E.T’ would have been familiar to all the families of soldier who perished in war.

The wind and the rain within ‘November’ are shown to be ambivalent about the loss of the leaves claiming sardonically ‘Tis over’, as though it is no great loss. Just like in ‘Once by the Pacific’, Frost casts Nature as being unconcerned with loss and destruction, whether that loss and destruction concerns plants, animals or humans. As Mark Richardson writes ‘Ours is a fallen world, not subject to any but a ‘divine’ redemption – and that, one gathers, is not forthcoming’ (Richardson, 2001, p. 241) Like many of Frost’s poems that consider the place of mankind in the universe, the conclusion is one of a grim nihilism – that we are alone to sort things out as we may. What is more harrowing is that rather than coming together to create a supportive and inclusive world, humans are conditioned to war and kill.

The poem takes on an even more bitter tone with the declarative ‘A year of leaves was wasted’. The speaker can see the senselessness of the loss and deplores the waste of a generation of leaves, of men. Frost’s use of the apostrophe ‘Oh’ directs the speaker from the ‘we’ of his companionship with those who watched the leaves ‘go to glory’ to a ‘we’ which incorporates all of mankind. The poem moves from description to accusation as the speaker savagely lambasts people for their boasts of ‘storing’ ‘saving’ and ‘keeping’ inconsequential things such as money, land and reputation but only at the expense of ignoring the loss of the elements of life that truly matter like pleasure, sleep and love. As George Bagby notes ‘Frost expands the sense of waste even more vehemently to include both grief and sleep. He sees natural processes, political processes, emotional processes – half of every element of human experience – as sheer waste. Any repetitive or cyclical process, whether natural or emotional or political involves loss and destruction’  (Bagby, 1993, p. 60)

Tyler Hoffman states that ‘Frost describes the waste of leaves at the end of fall and our deluded sense of our own conservationist ethic’. This delusion is highlighted at the end of the poem through the accusation that people ignore the wanton waste of war because it makes their lives easier to lead as they do not have to call into questions their own beliefs and positions. In a break from the traditional form of the sonnet, Frost runs onto a fifteenth line. Hoffman states that his ‘superfluity points to the abundance of resources soon to be squandered by men in a world consumed by war. (Hoffman, 2001, p. 82) It could also be that so much deliberate death and destruction goes against any natural form. Death is a natural part of Nature’s cycle, but it is not cruel and unusual. Only man is responsible for unnecessary slaughter and butchery. That Frost slips from the fourteen-line structure of the sonnet mirrors how man has slipped away from the fundamental principles of Nature. This waste of human life is something that is completely avoidable, but which has sadly become an expected and acceptable part of human existence.

 

November
We saw leaves go to glory,
Then almost migratory
Go part way down the lane,
And then to end the story
Get beaten down and pasted
In one wild day of rain.

We heard " 'Tis Over" roaring.
A year of leaves was wasted.
Oh, we make a boast of storing,
Of saving and of keeping,
But only by ignoring
The waste of moments sleeping,
The waste of pleasure weeping,
By denying and ignoring
The waste of nations warring.

Wordsworth and the Daffodils of Depression

Robert Lowell’s “Life Studies” was a seminal text in the Confessional Movement in the late 1950’s as it made popular the form of poetry where the poet, as narrator, infiltrated their own work through the use of the pronoun “I” and discussed their inner most feelings.

The focus of the confessional movement was to imbue poetry with a sense of self, purposefully moving away from the impersonality of the Modernist movement headed by poets such as T.S Eliot and Ezra Pound.

Edward Hirsch said of Confessional poetry that it ‘equates poetry closely with psychological trauma and defines it as a way of writing about such illicit subjects such as sexual guilt, alcoholism, and mental illness’1 It was a form adopted by poets such as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and John Berryman and has become linked to the idea of mental health issues as the poets mentioned were often candid and frank in dealing with their darkest thoughts. Indeed, of the four poets mentioned above only Robert Lowell died a natural death rather than at the hands of suicide.

Even though the term ‘Confessional’ was coined in the 1950’s by the critic M.L Rosenthal, the form of poetry was not new. Examples can be seen stretching back through the canon. In his poetry written upon the death of his wife Emma, Thomas Hardy wrote a series of startling elegies which laid his grief open and bare for the whole world to see. Likewise, Alfred Lord Tennyson did the same in his poem “In Memorium” dedicated to Arthur Hallam, his long-time friend. 

Yet even before these poets utilised the form of the confessional to express their inner thoughts and feelings, William Wordsworth was took up the form when he wrote what is considered to be one of the greatest poems in the English language “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”

Pick up any popular anthology and you will find the poem. Ask any everyman on the street what their favourite poem is and it will crop up again and again. It is as ingrained on the national psyche of British identity as deeply as a cup of tea and the Royal family.

Yet over the years the poem has become somewhat lost in its own sentimentality, used as an invocation for the beauty and serenity of nature, gained perhaps through Wordsworth adoption of easy rhythm and pastoral imagery. It is read as a quintessentially rustic poem, harking back to the evocation of Nature as muse that we find in the classical Idylls of Theocritus and the Eclogues of Virgil.

Yet there is another possible interpretation of the poem which can be explored and that is the poem is a metaphor for depression.

This idea can clearly be seen by a close analysis of the first line:

“I wandered lonely as a cloud”

The use of the first person pronoun “I” as the first word in the poem clearly contextualises who the narrator is. There is no room for ambiguity and we, the reader, are aware that we are listening to the deepest thoughts of the poet. 

The idea of the confessional is backed up in Wordsworth’schoice of verb to describe his actions. He has not picked a strong dynamic verb which connotes peace and enjoyment such as “strolled” or “hiked” – instead he has used a verb that carries with it connotations of confusion, of aimlessness. There seems to be nowhere in particular that the narrator is going in the poem, an idea that was taken up in Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” where thenarrator is overwhelmed by the world around them so much that they become insignificant to their surroundings.

They are lost in their “lonely” state and it is clear that the wandering within the poem could be a literal walk or a more metaphorical mental wandering, as though the loneliness that the narrator is feeling is causing him to go over and over in his mind the problems that he is facing: problems that could be categorised under the symbolic idea of the black “cloud” of depression.

The idea of the “cloud” representing depression could be elaborated on in the next line when it is described as,

“That floats on high o’er vales and hills” 

The notion here being that it dogs the narrator in the poem wherever he goes. It “floats” above him, too high to be reached so that it becomes the very nature and atmosphere of the places that the narrator inhabits.

Yet the poet’s melancholy is lifted by the sight of the daffodils. Here we have several layers of interpretation open to us. The first being that nature has become the great equaliser in terms of offering a counter to the negative thoughts of the poet. Wordsworth and his fellow Romantic poets were often concerning themselves with the idea of the sublime. Edmund Burke defined the sublime as “astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other” 1

It is a classic case of transference in terms of rejecting emotional turmoil in the fact that Wordsworth is allowing his mind to wander and think about anything other than the negative thoughts that have been plaguing his mind. The daffodils offer a grandiose and fitting distraction and he uses them to deflect his attention away from his real problems. He uses nature here in the same way that a contemporary sufferer may use Facebook or alcohol; as a tool to numb the mind.

This idea of the daffodils as a method of distraction then opens up a range of possibilities for the understanding of the “waves” and the “bay”. Is the “bay” the metaphorical line between Wordsworth’s conscious distractions (the sublimity of the daffodils) and his subconscious destructive thoughts (the constant flow of the “waves”)?

The fact that the daffodils “out did the sparkling waves in glee” suggests that the repression of the thoughts through the use of the distraction has allowed Wordsworth a moment of solace and profundity, a thought encapsulated in the line:

“A poet could not but be gay

In such a jocund company:”

The horror and the turmoil are overwhelmed for a moment and Wordsworth is able to forget what is troubling him. It is a bright moment, one which resonates with all mentally ill patients who are able to relate to the feelings of elation when their problems seem to melt away into nothingness.

The repetition of ‘gazed-and gazed’ is suggestive of a catatonic state, a mental stupor that allows for no process of thought or development of the senses. An idea that is further evidence by the end of the stanza ‘but little thought/what wealth the show to me had brought’. We are left with the image here of a person in a state of numbness. At the moment in time in which he is looking at the daffodils he is unable to process the beauty of the moment. 

This sets up a contradictory idea within the poem.  In line three of stanza three the poet states ‘A poet could not be but gay’ yet he is unable to understand ‘what wealth the show to me had brought’ Again we have the idea of conflict within the mind of the narrator. He is both ‘gay’ and of ‘little thought’. If it were that the ‘gayness’ of the situation brought on a moment of sublime thought, where the narrator is overawed by the sight of the daffodils, we could reasonably expect him to be able to frame the moment as one in which he understands the value of. However, it seems he does not.

The elation that he elicits from viewing the daffodils is only fleeting, as the last stanza of the poem suggests. The use of the adverb “oft” suggests to the reader that the moments of “vacant” and “pensive” moods that he suffers from are far more regular than the moments of ecstasy that he encountered when watching the daffodils “dancing in the breeze”

Sufferers of Bi-Polar disorder often switch between different mind states, going from a state of heightened mania to a state of deep desolation in a matter of seconds and it seems that this is the case for the narrator within the poem.

‘They flash upon that inward eye’

Again in this line we have evidence of the mental state of the narrator. The use of the verb ‘flash’ suggests vivid imagery, but imagery that is not substantial in terms of its effects. A flash lasts but a moment, suggesting the fulcrum of thoughts within the narrator’s mind is ever changing, as though he cannot collect his thoughts or keep them in one place. 

The ‘inward eye’ leans towards a reflective mind-state, one where the poet narrator is looking inside himself, examining his mind. The fact that the daffodils ‘flash’ when he is in ‘vacant or in pensive mood’ suggests that he uses the image and positive connotations of the daffodils, perhaps the memories that they invoke, to alleviate his depressive state of mind and it would appear that it was a successful method as his ‘heart with pleasure fills/and dances with the daffodils’

It is well known that the Romantic poets experimented with mind altering drugs, and often sought out these states in order to develop their creative muse. Samuel Taylor Coleridge is said to have written ‘Kubla Khan’ whilst under the influence of Laudanum. The side effects of stimulants is well-known and in our modern world, yet the side-effects of drug taking would have been little understood amongst the Romantics; could ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ have been a poem based on the issue of drug related mental illness? 

It is fitting then that the poem can be read in such radically different ways, as though it is mirroring the inner struggle of the poet, mirroring the form that depression takes – the sublime heights of the wondrous multitude of daffodils to the dejected lows of the debilitating moments on the couch, it truly can be read as a poem of polar opposites.

1Edward Hirsch, A Poet’s Glossary (2014) p.125

2 Edmund Burke, On the Sublime , 1756 ed. J. T. Bolton. 58

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

You never know what is right in front of you. We are out down south, heading for my Major Review for my PhD tomorrow and we have stopped in a small village called Stanwell to get some food and have a break.

The village is right underneath the flight path for Heathrow and every two minutes or so a great metal bird flies low enough overhead as it takes off for destinations far more exotic that this. It is chucking it down here, the rain drumming out a taboo on the roof of the car. There is a big Tesco a few minutes down the road, some reservoirs and all the trappings and accoutrements of modern life.

We parked outside St Mary the Virgin CofE church, eating our sandwiches and the conversation got round to the architecture of the building. A Norman tower and some gothic tracing round the windows and, after we had checked Wikipedia, the knowledge that the spire is a good 700 years old too.

We also found out that inside the church (which is unfortunately locked) lies the tomb of Lord Knyvett. You are forgiven for not having a clue who that is, because I didn’t either but he is the man who went into the cellars of parliament on November 5th 1605 and found the gunpowder barrels all primed to blow the government to kingdom come. He also helped to collar Guy Fawkes as well as he tried to slip away into the night.

And this made me think about all the other places that we pass by and know nothing about. There is history everywhere and stories to be heard and learned and I for one am now going to try my best to be a little more observant, and a little more inquisitive than I have been.

A Trick of the Light

For a few mornings last week, as I was driving to work, I noticed a strange scene far across the fields. At first I thought that it was a war cemetery, as it glinted brightly in the morning sun. Then I realised how stupid that idea was. Why would there be a graveyard, out there across a field in the middle of nowhere? Who would be scrapping over such an inconsequential piece of land. The I realised what it was, and in a way I was kind of right. Here is the poem that came out of that experience.

 

Family Tree

 

They were incongruous along the ridge,

a scattering of war graves, white

Against the sky.

Another,

then another,

Far out across the fields. Some battle fought

And the fallen left in sacrifice.

No, they couldn’t be,

Not here. This wasn’t Ypres or The Somme,

But the A68 above the Tyne.

I looked again and realised

They weren’t graves at all

but plastic guards wrapped

Around the trees planted to replace

The fallen woods hacked down

In days two years ago.

A wasteland then of stump and branch.

But now new saplings rear their heads,

Their crowns pushing out towards the light,

Growing into their place,

their life,

The horizon ever wide and massive

Beyond their plot of bracken and moss

And the looming shadows

of the dead.

Eco-Feminism in Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife

 

When trying to categorise Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry one would not lean readily towards the moniker of nature poet in the bent of Wordsworth, Clare or Frost. Her poetic voice is associated with political satire and the exploration of relationships through her use of acerbic language. However, on closer inspection her poetry is often imbued with a sense of the natural world and humanities place in it, often transferring through the use of personification and other techniques the emotions and traits of the characters on to the landscapes in which her work resides.

When the Poet Laureate’s 1999 collection The World’s Wife was published it received high acclaim because it challenged the patriarchal stereotypes inherent in both history and modern culture. Author Jeanette Winterson said of the collection: ‘The title of The World’s Wife is both a tacit understanding that it’s (still) a man’s world, and a joke on the world’s most popular dedication: To My Wife.1 Duffy herself, in a BBC interview in 1988 described herself as a feminist and that, although she never sets out to write feminist poetry, the voices that are created in her work often discuss issues which are important to oppression of women in society. It is with this idea of understanding nature and its link to feminist ideology that this essay will explore, looking closely at whether Duffy’s collection The World’s Wife can be classed as an eco-feminist text.

The themes and stories that run through the collection take their inspiration from a wide range of sources: from fairy tales characters to classical figures, from the wife of a psychologist to a notorious murderer. What Duffy does, alongside giving these marginalised and greyed out figures a voice, is show that the women of the collection and the landscapes that they inhabit are dominated by patriarchal forces, often with devastating and lasting consequences. In this sense it can be classed as an Eco-Feminist text.

Ecofeminism is the proposition that the destruction of nature is largely perpetrated by men and follows logically from their exploitation of women. Ultimately eco-feminists argue a single masculine ‘logic of domination’ lurks under all forms of oppression and exploitation. 2 This logic of domination is the premise of Duffy’s collection and is the characteristic that draws the dramatic monologues together in terms of their exploration of women’s subjugation.

Alongside this female domination however is the domination of the natural world and how, often, there is a direct correlation between the negative emotional states of the characters within the collection and the world they inhabit. These negative emotional states, wrought by the dominance of man, are superimposed onto the landscapes and physical features described in the poems.

As a principle Eco-Feminism rests on the essential proposition that men and women are different in their essences, that they intrinsically think and feel differently and will, because of these differences, interact with the environment according to their gender roles and expectations. Women are considered, through their caring, protective and nurturing qualities closer to nature and the natural world and consequently can be viewed as having a deeper understanding of the environment than men.

It is with this close bond with nature in mind that many adherents to the eco-feminism movement are reviving the goddess centred cults of the pre-industrialised, pre-capitalised era. 3The World’s Wife therefore is a prime example of the reclamation of the female voice, the establishment of female power and, more subtly, an exploration of the similarities of struggle between nature and man.

Little Red Cap, for example, concerns itself with the exploration of sexualisation of a young girl who is lured into the woods by a man, personified as a wolf, inherent with all the connotations of animal brutality and cruelty. Drawing from the fairy-tale Little Red Riding Hood it takes the girl ten years to break free from the power that he exerts over her, removing herself from the patriarchal dominance, to take control of her environment. That the wolf resides in the ‘woods’ which are ‘deep’ and a ‘tangled thorny place’ is not only representative of an inhospitable landscape, far removed from the ‘houses’ ‘allotments’ ‘factories’ and ‘fields’ of her childhood but is the personification of an abusive relationship – it is his ‘lair’ and one where she can find no solace or comfort. It is only when she summons the power to kill the wolf and end the relationship that Red Cap can reclaim her power. The ‘virgin white of my grandmother’s bones’ that she removes from the wolf’s stomach represents an emancipation through her reclamation of matriarchal power, not just for her but for women across time and this renewal of her power and vitality is mirrored by her leaving the woods to re-enter society with ‘flowers’- themselves a symbol of beauty and growth.

In Thetis the narrator shrinks herself ‘to the size of a bird in the hand/of a man’. Throughout the poem, however much she changes to meet his needs it is never enough to save herself from violence. The violence that she endures within the relationship is likened to the destruction of nature, making explicit links between the domination of man over women and nature. The metaphoric connections between hunted animal and controlled woman are obvious ‘I felt my wings/clipped by the squint of a crossbow’s eye’ ‘the squeeze of his fist’ ‘the guy in the grass with the gun’ The man is systematically removing her identity through his dominance, he is, as with a landscape, moulding it to his needs until the only option that she has left is to turn herself ‘inside out’ in child birth – losing her individuality to become what is expected of her in a patriarchal society.

Medusa explores the subject of mental health, of how the man’s treatment of Medusa has turned her into a suspicious monster, her thoughts zoomorphised as sly, whispering snakes that are corrupting her mind. Other animal imagery is used, animals that should offer comfort and solace are destroyed or are not able to illicit any kind of positive reaction. A bee is ‘a dull grey pebble’ a ‘singing bird,/a handful of gravel’ ‘a ginger cat,/ a housebrick’. Nature’s destruction coincides with the destruction of Medusa’s mental state. Her lover on the other hand seems not to have been affected. He is well protected against her wrath and has moved on to other ‘girls’ with sinister suggestion that he is going to kill Medusa, armed as he is with ‘shield’ and ‘sword’. She has outlived her usefulness and he is moving onto other people.

The exploration of grief, motherhood and the personification of emotional turmoil is explored in Demeter. In classical mythology, Demeter, the goddess of harvests and agriculture, was also the mother of Persephone who was abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld. In her grief the seasons stopped turning and the world became a cold and barren place and nature began to die. It is in this moment of grief and loss that we join Demeter in the poem in her ‘cold stone room’ her words ‘tough’ and like ‘granite, flint’ suggestive that her personality has been destroyed by the actions of Hades as much as the physical landscape has with its ‘frozen lake’ and ‘hard earth’ Persephone’s return from the underworld heralded the beginning of spring. As she walks in the poem she is ‘bringing all spring’s flowers/ to her mother’s house’ the ‘air softened and warmed as she moved’. It is man who has removed beauty, warmth and love from the world. He has stripped it bare in his greed and lust and the consequences are dire not only for Demeter, embroiled as she is in her grief, but also for nature. The connections between feminine nurturing, motherhood and the blossoming of new life are clear in the poem; man’s exploitation of women and of nature leaves both cold and insipid, where nothing can grow are flourish. It is only through a women’s love and their understanding of natural processes that life can be reinvigorated.

Ultimately The World’s Wife can be read as a text that extols the virtues of the goddess centred ideology. As Martin Lewis states in Green Delusions, that with ‘the dismantling of patriarchy and capitalism and the reinstitutions of goddess-centred practices, eco-feminists believe that a social order can be reinvented.(p.35) This reinvention has taken the form in this instance of giving a voice to the unheard, not just in terms of the characters within the poetry but for issues such as domestic violence, abuse, mental health and the destruction of place. The World’s Wife is more than a collection of tales about the forgotten voices of women through history, it is in fact an expose on the dynamics of relationships and their consequences, whether that be person on person or pertaining to our understanding of the natural world.

 

1 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/17/jeanette-winterson-on-carol-ann-duffys-the-worlds-wife

2 Green Delusions

  1. Green Delusions p.34