The More Loving One by W.H. Auden

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us, we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

© W.H. Auden. All Rights Reserved.

This particular poem is hands-down my absolute favourite Auden poem. It’s both lamentable and heart-warming and deals with a subject matter that Auden had plenty of experience and of which more or less all of us can relate – the pain of unrequited love. I’ve always favoured the idea that Auden creates a gorgeously tragic metaphor out of the stars in the sky to be all the lovers who never returned his affections. The More Loving One in some respects could fundamentally be considered to be Auden’s extensive self-examination of his failures in romantic endeavors, and the delicately implemented natural imagery enhances the idea that these failures are ultimately an inevitable facet of human nature.

I love how Auden begins his poem with typical romanticism and the (now almost cliché) act of ‘looking up at the stars’ and then immediately follows with the abrupt claim that ‘for all they care, I can go to hell.’ I guess I’m just a sucker for ironic cynicism but I utterly adore this kind of commentary. It’s as if Auden is immediately clarifying his realist perspective to us readers, but also addresses that this kind of indifference is not the most evil our world has to offer as there are far worse things ‘we have to dread.’ He points out to us that if it were that the ‘stars [would] burn / with a passion for us’ our planet would catch a blaze it would end in destruction and toil. If we continue with the interpretation that the poem is discussing the pains of unrequited love, we can infer that Auden has deduced that ‘equal affection’ is not always possible and not always a positive thing. Affection and attraction (although both holding positive connotations) can result in detrimentally damaging relationships filled with obsession and jealousy. He thus concludes that if this ‘equal affection cannot be , / then let the more loving one be me’, diluting his pain with the antidote that if all does not go the way in which he willed, he can still pride himself on his ability to love and protect the one who evokes his affections from the pain he suffers; as a virtue that one would find near impossible to fault.

The final stanza is particularly poignant, with Auden’s final contemplation of the worth of his painful endurance in his unrequited love affairs. He claims that ‘were all the stars to disappear or die, / I should learn to look at an empty sky’, thus implying that eventually the pain of unrequited affection will heal or simply numb itself and could result in not feeling the thrills of love at all. He calls this scenario ‘dark’ and suggests that adapting to this ‘might take me a little time.’ We are ultimately left wondering whether or not the pains of love aren’t actually a covertly positive facet of human nature, for if it did not exist Auden seems less sure that we could fully appreciate life without those we truly love – regardless of if they return our affections or not.

W.H. Auden (1907-1973)

W.H. Auden (1907-1973)

 

Not Waving But Drowning by Stevie Smith

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning. 

© Stevie Smith, All Rights Reserved.

Now this poem’s focal metaphor of calling out for help in distress but being mistaken for simply waving suggests to us as readers that the core conflict centers on a lack of communication and misinterpretation between the subject (or main character)  and the rest of society. We can infer that this dead man was the type to ‘put on a brave face’ (as it were) when faced with everyday dealings with society as they go on to claim ‘he always loved larking’, when we can deduce that internally the reality was rather more tragic. Smith ultimately seeks to confront us with the severe consequences of a society which lacks any form of sincere interaction, through the death of the subject while those on shore ignorantly stand by and watch. The use of the mixed perceptions; flitting between the first and third person narrative also highlights the segregation between the dead man and others around him, creating a barrier and distance between even the poem’s omniscient speaker. The use of the first person narrative is particularly interesting and hints that the speaker of the poem is also the subject himself due to the frequent uses of personal pronoun ‘I’ when depicting the ‘dead man.’ Although the poem opens with an ostensibly third person narrative in addressing the subject of the poem as ‘the dead man’, but then goes onto adopting the first person perspective of the subject, claiming that ‘I was much further out than you thought.’ It would be feasible to suggest that the speaker and the subject are in fact one and the same as their consideration of themselves as ‘the dead man’ further bolsters the idea that the man is completely disconnected from all things and continues in a self-contained existence. As he is speaking after his death and is seemingly looking down upon the scene, he is ultimately considering himself separate from his own dead body; perhaps beginning to reveal his internal duality.

Smith’s starkly contrasting tone in relation to the major themes of this poem (being mainly the morbidity of death) is another point of interest for us as readers. The ironic tone depicting a man whose body language has been misinterpreted could be considered darkly humorous. It seems so unfeasible that one would misinterpret a cry for help as a casual wave that it borders on absurdity. If we extend our understanding of the speaker’s perception of society, we can infer that perhaps Smith is covertly poking fun at society are themselves submerged in their ignorance – just as those on shore idly stand by and watch the drowning man, unable to differentiate between signals from relatively simplistic body language. Smith continues her cynically humorous commentary of society’s stupidity through the use of colloquial language such as ‘poor chap’ and ‘oh, no no no.’ This adoption of an informal tone fundamentally suggests the format of a simple anecdote that one would tell at a dinner party, intensifying our disdain for society’s empathetic qualities, as they continue to vacantly observe and take no action when faced with a ‘drowning man.’

Stevie Smith (1902-1971)

Stevie Smith (1902-1971)

 

“Hope” is the Thing With Feathers by Emily Dickinson

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

© Emily Dickinson, All Rights Reserved.
Those who exists in the absence of hope bear a weighty load on their backs that’s for sure, and the subject of this particular Dickinson poem focuses on just that: the necessity and indispensability of the force that is hope. I think the first thing to note with this poem is the method by which Dickinson bolsters hope as an ever-victorious virtue against all that poses a threat. The utter simplicity of the poetic structure of the poem, with a basic and uniform flow, consisting of four lines per stanza with a semi-traditional rhyme scheme with the entirety of the second stanza adhering the ABAB rhythm. Even the very language used is taken from an innately simplistic lexis, with the absence of any flamboyance or superficiality. These facets ultimately amount to covert astuteness, as it further bolsters the complexity of the very nature of hope. In using the image of a bird as a metaphor itself  reflects the intricacies of hope, portraying it as having similar levels of composition as a bird does in it’s biological make up. In stating that hope is a ‘thing’ indicates it as a physical being and as Dickinson claims that the bird – hope – ‘perches in the soul’, thus suggesting that there is a living being inside each person, making the metal image and reader perception of hope all the more powerful.
The conflict between positive and negative imagery is also a noteworthy feature of Dickinson’s work as this also bulwarks the convolutions of hope in its graces. In stanzas two and three the first two lines discuss the negativity that the bird – hope – accompanies us through in our souls; first facing up to sore storms and then ‘the chillest land’ and ‘strangest sea.’ In both instances Dickinson reveals hope to triumph, through the gale and storm of which it continues to sing through and keep our souls ‘warm’, and then showing us unwavering loyalty as never ‘asked a crumb of me.’ Dickinson’s complete confidence in the bird reassures us indeed, she tells us that hope’s greatest integrity lies in its generosity to ask nothing  of us in return for its everlasting presence.
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Red by Ted Hughes

Red was your colour.
If not red, then white. But red
Was what you wrapped around you.
Blood-red. Was it blood?
Was it red-ochre, for warming the dead?
Haematite to make immortal
The precious heirloom bones, the family bones.

When you had your way finally
Our room was red. A judgement chamber.
Shut casket for gems. The carpet of blood
Patterned with darkenings, congealments.
The curtains — ruby corduroy blood,
Sheer blood-falls from ceiling to floor.
The cushions the same. The same
Raw carmine along the window-seat.
A throbbing cell. Aztec altar — temple.

Only the bookshelves escaped into whiteness.

And outside the window
Poppies thin and wrinkle-frail
As the skin on blood,
Salvias, that your father named you after,
Like blood lobbing from the gash,
And roses, the heart’s last gouts,
Catastrophic, arterial, doomed.

Your velvet long full skirt, a swathe of blood,
A lavish burgandy.
Your lips a dipped, deep crimson.

You revelled in red.
I felt it raw — like crisp gauze edges
Of a stiffening wound. I could touch
The open vein in it, the crusted gleam.

Everything you painted you painted white
Then splashed it with roses, defeated it,
Leaned over it, dripping roses,
Weeping roses, and more roses,
Then sometimes, among them, a little blue
bird.

Blue was better for you. Blue was wings.
Kingfisher blue silks from San Francisco
Folded your pregnancy
In crucible caresses.
Blue was your kindly spirit — not a ghoul
But electrified, a guardian, thoughtful.

In the pit of red
You hid from the bone-clinic whiteness.

But the jewel you lost was blue.

 

© Ted Hughes. All Rights Reserved.

 

From the very first line; ‘Red was your colour. / If not red then white’, we can infer that the core conflict presented to the reader in this poem revolves around the contrasting facets of its subject which is believed to be his first wife – Sylvia Plath. Hughes’ adoption of colours as being symbolic of emotion is rather Plath-esque in itself, and as the poem’s subject so happens to be Plath herself, the technique seems even more fitting. In Plath’s poetry, the colour red is often versatile in its interpretations, ranging from being the pinnacle of vitality and life or alternatively blood as a sign of death in her 1962 poem ‘Cut.’ White (as another focus for Hughes in ‘Red’) also poses a weighty significance to Plath, as it consistently epitomizes death and demise. If we apply the same magnitude to the connotations of these colours in Plath’s work (considering that Hughes’ poem itself it about her), in that Hughes directly accuses the subject of being consumed by these ‘colours’ as emotions, we can determine that ‘Red’ serves as an exploration of Plath’s mental endeavors as she walked the line between life and vitality in red, and death and demise in white. Hughes claims that ‘red / was what you wrapped around you’, thus suggesting that Plath as the subject made the conscious effort to wrap herself in the vigor of life, concentrating of surrounding herself with it through ‘the carpet of blood’ and her ‘skirt, a swathe of blood.’ The intense emphasis that Hughes bears on blood in the poem further enhances his subject obsession with the clout of her existence, forcing herself to recognize life’s many spectacles.

However, no matter what the subject of the poem does, the connotations of white will always follow as her own personal phantom. Hughes describes how ‘everything you painted, you painted white / then splashed it with roses.’ This morbid obsession to cover the world in ‘whiteness’ in death and then to drastically ‘defeat it’ may be a reflection of Plath’s macabre fixation with her dead father which she herself explores consistently across her own work, most notably in her poems ‘Daddy’ and Full Fathom Five’ in which she contemplates with disdain the irrevocable opportunity for a relationship with him and concludes that her only method to reach reconciliation would be to ‘breathe water’ and die. With this in mind, our reading of Ted Hughes’ ‘Red’ is abundantly personalized, we can find empathy with Hughes in his struggle to comprehend the complexities of Plath’s internal suffering.

What makes this poem ultimately heartbreaking  is the final broken stanza in which Hughes discusses another facet of Plath’s nature in life – the blue that ‘was better for you.’ Now, if we continue to follow suit and refer back to Plath’s own work to decipher the connotations of blue we can find it in such poems as ‘Nick and the Candlestick.’ This poem by Plath draws out its subject very similarly to that of ‘Morning Song’ (of which I have spoken about before). It depicts a mother (which we assume to be Plath) awaking in the night to watch her sleeping child – Plath’s second child Nicholas. Plath opens this poem by setting the scene as being bathed in ‘the light [that] burns blue.’ If we link this back to Red, we can instantly identify that  Hughes has chosen to adopt the colour blue in the same way as Plath. He claims that blue ‘folded your pregnancy’, thus clearly referring to her role as a mother, and that ‘blue was wings’ and her ‘kindly spirit.’ As readers, we get the impression that Plath’s ‘blueness’ was the very thing that enthralled Hughes will love and enabled him to endure her bleak spurts of red and whiteness for a time. Red is written with the virtue of hindsight as a part of The Birthday Letters collection, thus enabling Hughes to portray a full reflection of his time with Plath before their divorce and her suicide and in the final stanza we see the only positive language to offset the negativity that red and white brings. In signing off, Hughes depicts blue as a jewel, precious with the right to be treasured, with disastrous consequences should it be lost. But as we know, and as Hughes reminds us with lament; ‘the jewel [Plath] lost was blue’ and she ultimately allowed herself to be consumed by those demons who are inconspicuously shrouded in the colours red and white.

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were married and had two children between 1956 and 1963.

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were married and had two children between 1956 and 1963.

Born Yesterday by Philip Larkin

Tightly-folded bud,
I have wished you something
None of the others would:
Not the usual stuff
About being beautiful,
Or running off a spring
Of innocence and love –
They will all wish you that,
And should it prove possible,
Well, you’re a lucky girl.

But if it shouldn’t, then
May you be ordinary;
Have, like other women,
An average of talents:
Not ugly, not good-looking,
Nothing uncustomary
To pull you off your balance,
That, unworkable itself,
Stops all the rest from working.
In fact, may you be dull –
If that is what a skilled,
Vigilant, flexible,
Unemphasised, enthralled
Catching of happiness is called.

© Philip Larkin. All Rights Reserved.

Philip Larkin never ceases to amaze me in his consistently unconventional approach to writing. As a full modernist, no work of his reflects this better than ‘Born Yesterday’, his poem for fellow writer Kingsley Amis’ newborn daughter Sally. The poem itself focuses upon the need for society to be grateful for the simplest and most humble things in life – despite them being somewhat mundane. He begins with a fabulous metaphor to depict the child as being a ‘tightly folded bud’, reminiscent of a flower just before blooming, whilst the verb ‘folded’ could possibly evoke the image of a coiled fetus in it’s mother’s womb. The title itself – ‘Born Yesterday’ in context of the idiomatic phrase to depict ignorance is a seemingly innocent notion in Larkin’s poem. As birth is the dominant subject of the poem, the mental image crafted by this metaphor is most fitting. In portraying the swaddled child as being one and the same as a ‘folded bud’, the reader may infer that (as we have learned from biology) both have the plant-like potential and ability to grow into something rather beautiful which is another issue Larkin goes on to address in the following lines.

Larkin’s choice of structure is also a point of interest, discussing firstly those virtues that are expected to be bestowed to a newborn child, speaking of ‘being beautiful’, ‘innocence’ and ‘love.’ He quickly addresses that he will not be wishing her these things as he claims to recognize that others’ shall. He goes on to note that if fate has designed that she will gain such virtues as these then she is indeed ‘a lucky girl.’ Larkin then goes on to draw a stark contrast between what our society has taught us to think will bring us happiness and what he has found can bring contentment also. This vivid juxtaposition is further evident through Larkin’s manipulation of language, pairing colloquial terms like ‘stuff’ and informally addressing  the subject in the doting phrasing of ‘well you’re a lucky girl.’ with traditional poetic devices.

The second and final stanza of ‘Born Yesterday’ is one of my favourites in all the poetry I’ve ever read, I just adore the matter-of-fact tone Larkin takes up here. I’ve always found comfort and reassurance from these lines as it (in true Larkin style) suggests that one can find happiness and joy through being granted little or no extraordinary qualities. Larkin ostensibly contradicts the gleaming positives of the virtues described in the first stanza, offsetting them with dull and mundane facets, claiming them to be ‘an average of talents.’ Despite this, we must understand that Larkin is not countering his claims. He asks his reader to instead concede that being extraordinary with ‘uncustomary’ talents may ‘pull you off balance’ and make you lose sight of necessary values. Larkin prompts us to explore what are the truly valuable aspects of  life and those that amount to superficiality and unhappiness. The final lines confirm the sincerity of the poet’s wishes for the child, praying that it have (if only that) happiness in whatever form it presents itself, no matter how run-of-the-mill.

Philip Larkin (1922-1985)

Philip Larkin (1922-1985)

 

 

Hour by Carol Ann Duffy

Love’s time’s beggar, but even a single hour,
bright as a dropped coin, makes love rich.
We find an hour together, spend it not on flowers
or wine, but the whole of the summer sky and a grass ditch.

For thousands of seconds we kiss; your hair
like treasure on the ground; the Midas light
turning your limbs to gold. Time slows, for here
we are millonaires, backhanding the night

so nothing dark will end our shining hour,
no jewel hold a candle to the cuckoo spit
hung from the blade of grass at your ear,
no chandelier or spotlight see you better lit

than here. Now. Time hates love, wants love poor,
but love spins gold, gold, gold from straw.

© Carol Ann Duffy. All rights reserved.

Now this is a very interesting contemporary poem that plays around with the contemporary attitudes surrounding the traditional perceptions of love. Duffy really impresses me with the way in which she manages to morph the very Shakespearean portrait of candlelit moments and passion filled romances that we are covertly taught is the norm at a very young age; ‘Hour’ explores the fresh and ostensibly unorthodox (though more commonplace than we may want to believe) faces of intimate relationship. I utterly adore the images Duffy constructs to juxtapose facets of ‘love’ that we associate with the tale of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with her own ideas of what real true love looks like. I think my favourite line(s) is in the first stanza: ‘we find an hour together, spend it not of flowers / or wine, but the whole of the summer sky and a grass ditch.’ I just love the complete transformation in the language used here; substituting the opulent imagery of coins and richness with the organic imperfections of a grass ditch. Now, I’m sure that if you were asked to rank the top ultimate romantic settings, a grass ditch would probably lay very low (or more likely not even appear) on your list. But that’s the very essence of this particular poem. It’s unexpected, it’s witty, it knows it’s breaking tradition.

Another thing to note is Duffy’s emphasis upon the relationship between time and love itself, portraying time as a malevolent antagonist intent on making ‘love poor.’  The first stanza implies the vulnerability of love under the harsh constraints of the personified ‘time’, labelling it as ‘time’s beggar.’  Despite this seemingly pessimistic opening, by the final stanza Duffy concludes that love still triumphs over the obstacles that time has set out for it. She portrays time as trivially gluttonous in that it ‘hates love’ and ‘wants love poor’ for an unjustifiable notion. To Duffy these notions are ultimately futile anyhow, as love will continue to be victorious and ‘spins gold, gold, gold from straw’ as reminiscent of the fable of Rumpelstiltskin. This fundamentally suggests that love can derive value from something that is initially worthless, proving it’s true power and potential. ‘Hour’ champions the classic message that love conquers all, giving the poem just the right amount of traditional elements to still instill a romantic tone. Although offset by unorthodox means of expressing love, the poem does maintain that love is (as traditional tales teach us) the most valuable virtue in this world.

Carol Ann Duffy (1955-)

Carol Ann Duffy (1955-)

Morning Song by Sylvia Plath

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

From Ariel published by Harper & Row, 1966. Copyright © 1966 by Ted Hughes. All rights reserved.

I’ve found myself rather at an affinity with the confessional lyric style of Sylvia Plath and Morning Song, as the very first poem of hers I read, is truly one of my favourites. The opening line: ‘love set you going like a fat gold watch’ instantly confirms to us as readers that time is a dominant theme in this particular poem, creating a simile between the birth of the child and the progression of time behind the glass disc of a watch. Plath ultimately recognizes, as the mother of this child, that the infant is the occupant of a completely separate facet of space to herself and it’s own span of time will continue to shrink until the child’s eventual death. The poem in this sense deal with simply that: the value but constrictions of time and the role and station of living things in that finite space. The depiction of the watch as being ‘gold’ really emphasizes the true value of time which – like gold in the sense of monetary wealth – can be both one’s best friend but also their worst enemy. Time can be viewed as a positive, in reference to ‘all the good times’ someone has had in their life in their own nostalgic memory and also on a larger and more objective scale in that time has allowed society to continuously morph and develop over the course of history. But there is also the more morbid face of time in it’s abstract nature. Time is arguably by definition finite, it implies a beginning and an end and this is the kind of time which Plath aims to address in Morning Song.

From my first reading of this poem I have always inferred that although the plosive and begrudging language used to depict the mother’s ‘stumble from bed, cow-heavy’, she is aware that she will grow to miss the disruptions to her daily life inflicted by the infant child. The child’s cry gives the mother the purpose to dote and nurture, but throughout maturity our dependence on the this intensity of our mother’s role in our life tends to fade somewhat. Plath’s poignant awareness of the child’s inevitable independence from her as it grows is further highlighted through the third stanza in which Plath declares ‘I am no more your mother / than the cloud that distills a mirror.’ She expresses an acceptance that the child is not purely an extension of herself as her reflection in a mirror but it’s own being with it’s own – as depicted gorgeously in the final stanza – ‘handful of notes’ with ‘clear vowels [that] rise like balloons’ which creates both a beautifully peaceful but also distressing image of the mother’s child floating away from her with their independence and resources of language acquisition and the like in tow; to begin taking their own direction in life autonomously.

Plath with her two children: Freida and Nicholas.

Plath (1932-1963) with her two children: Freida and Nicholas.