Content

1950-Present

Abbey Tomb
Patricia Beer

I told them not to ring the bells
The night the Vikings came
Out of the sea and passed us by.
The fog was thick as cream
And in the abbey we stood still
As if our breath might blare
Or pulses rattle if we once
Stopped staring at the door.

Through the walls and through the fog
We heard them passing by.
The deafer monks thanked God too soon
And later only I
Could catch the sound of prowling men
Still present in the hills
So everybody else agreed
To ring the abbey bells.

And even while the final clang
Still snored upon the air,
And while the ringers joked their way
Down round the spiral stair,
Before the spit of fervent prayer
Had dried into the stone
The raiders came back through the fog
And killed us one by one.

Father Abbot at the altar
Lay back with his knees
Doubled under him, caught napping
In the act of praise.
Brother John lay unresponsive
In the warming room.
The spiders came out for the heat
And then the rats for him.

Under the level of the sheep
Who graze here all the time
We lie now, under tourists' feet
Who in good weather come.
I told them not to ring the bells,
But centuries of rain
And blustering have made their tombs
Look just as right as mine.

This poem draws on the style of dramatic monologue from the Victorian era, but the persona created here in “impossible” – they’re speaking from beyond the grave. The poem is mostly iambic, one line of tetrameter and one line of trimeter. Like a dramatic monologue, the use of enjambment throughout creates a conversational tone.

As with a dramatic monologue like 'My Last Duchess,' we get a sense of the speaker’s character through his words, and the voice Patricia Beer creates is quite egotistical and arrogant. From the first line, there is a sense of this: “I told them not to ring the bells / the night the Vikings came” – he is advising them, and marking himself as somehow superior to them. They didn’t listen, however, and it brought tragedy.

The first stanza creates a sense of tension in “stood still” and the onomatopoeic contrasts of the soft sounds “breath might blear” and “or pulses rattle” shows their fear. “Rattle” creates a frenzied heartbeat, but also has connotations of death – rattling bones. Very clever.

“The deafer monks thanked God too soon” is ambiguous – “too soon” because the Vikings have not yet passed, or “too soon” because God hasn’t done anything? Using “deafer” shows that the speaker is deaf too, just less than others. There’s a resentful tone created in the isolation of “and later only I” – a sense of his self-importance, where “I” is stressed by both the metre and the line break – and “everybody else” again creates isolation.

And even while the final clang
Still snored upon the air,

The beginning of the third stanza again uses onomatopoeia, although the word “snored” is interesting and doesn’t really match what it describes. It creates a sense of sleep. The persona disassociates himself from the action in this stanza with the third person pronouns, “the ringers joked their way” to make clear that he wasn’t part of it – again his arrogant nature.

“The raiders came back through the fog / And killed us one by one” – the last line of the stanza makes it sound like a long, unrushed process that they’re helpless to prevent it. Considering this, “Spit of fervent prayer,” seems to be a criticism of their religion, that all their prayer was ultimately ineffective against a real threat.

In the next stanza, the persona takes on an amused tone. He describes the deaths of various abbey members, though never refers to them as dead. Father Abbot “caught napping / In the act of praise” and “Brother John lay unresponsive” a pun on the idea of a call and response prayer. The final image, “The spiders came out for the heat / And then the rats for him,” is one of decomposition.

Cutting into the final stanza is the juxtaposition of a modern image:

Under the level of sheep
Who graze here all the time
We lie now, under tourists’ feet
Who in good weather come.

It draws out the insignificance of the abbey tomb in the modern world, to be “under tourists’ feet.” As time has passed, “centuries of rain” have made “their tombs / Look just as right as mine” – no one knows, now, how he was right all along, and he feels resentful that none of these “tourists” know or care. “Blustering” is an interesting choice; the “blustering” of the monks caused their downfall, yet “centuries” later, the same mistakes are still being made. There is a criticism of these modern tourists, how they only “in the good weather come.” It’s a reminder us of how the bad weather caused the monks downfall – nothing seems to change.

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An Arundel Tomb
Philip Larkin (1922-1985)

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd -
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor's sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly, they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

There are different ways of interpreting this poem, particularly the final line. Larkin’s poem is based upon a real tomb, Arundel being a place in Sussex. He was an atheist, and terrified of death. The poem falls into a movement that Larkin drove called “the Movement,” which was a response to the highly introverted Modernism poems – mostly iambic tetrameter and uses enjambment throughout.

The first stanza of the poem describes the tomb, although it is full of a deeper message. “Side by side, their faces blurred” gives the impression that their identities have been lost through time and erosion, as does the choice of “vaguely.” There is something ambiguous in the lexical choices, however: although “lie” can be taken that they’re literally lying down, it could also mean that the “truth” of them has also been lost through time, and in “their proper habits vaguely shown,” “habits” could refer to their mannerisms, not only their clothes, have been distorted.

Referring to “such plainness of the pre-baroque” (before the irregularity of architecture seen in the Gothic style) could be a criticism of modern art – perhaps the time before was better. Another example of this is the reference to the “Latin names” – a dead language nowadays – and that soon in “Their early supine stationary voyage,” the “succeeding eyes begin / To look not read” the Latin. There is a sense of loss about this fact, a criticism of the modern world. “The old tenantry” – the old way of life – soon “turn” “away.”

                             until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other;

The complex syntax of these few lines means that his left gauntlet is held in his right hand and that the left hand is “holding her hand.” “Sharp tender shock” is an oxymoron – but then, Larkin was a man of contradictions.

The next stanza has the same ambiguity on the word, “lie,” and the two lines perhaps mean that the “faithfulness of effigy” (being unable to move away from each other; eternally holding each others’ hands) isn’t something that they’d intended. The oxymoron, “sweet commissioned” draws out how the effigy was only made because it was the sculptor’s job, “sweet” becomes almost sarcastic.

“Rigidly” is another pun on death and moving into the next stanza, there are various images of the passing time:

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass.

In “The endless altered people came,” referring to tourists, there is a pun on “altered,” which means changed people, but could also refer to the altar – loss of religion. This “endless” wave of people are criticised, that they “look, not read” similar in some ways to the “tourists’ feet / Who in the good weather come” of ‘Abbey Tomb.’ These people are “washing away at their identity” – their lack of understanding is hastening the air’s “soundless damage” of the tomb (erosion).

Larkin refers to the current world as an “unarmorial age,” (without the coat of arms), negative image, “hollow” and “a trough / Of smoke in slow suspended skeins.” The sibilance of that line augments the negative image, and the “smoke” is a reference to Industrial Britain. (“skeins” means “tangles,” great imagery for the collection of smoke in the sky). It really is an image of deterioration.

In the final stanza, “Time has transfigured them into / Untruth.” Something that “hardly meant” anything when it was first sculptured “has come to be / Their final blazon.” It proves, Larkin says, “our almost-instinct almost true: / What will survive of us is love.”

Is that an optimistic end? In my opinion, not at all. Larkin doesn’t really mean the last line, saying it’s only “almost true” and that it’s an “almost-instinct” anyway. For love to “survive of us” is something that humans desire to be true, but in truth, the two figures never meant the “blazon” of love. The modern world merely projects that “almost-instinct” on them. Because of the deterioration, we cannot understand what it was like to be those people.

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Wuthering Heights
Ted Hughes (1930-1998)

Walter was guide. His mother's cousin
Inherited some Brontë soup dishes.
He felt sorry for them. Writers
Were pathetic people. Hiding from it
And making it up. He effervesced
Like his rhubarb wine kept a bit too long:
A vintage of legends and gossip.
About the poor lasses. Then,
After the Rectory, after the chaise longue
Where Emily died, the midget hand-books,
The elvish lacework, the dwarfish fairy-wood shoes,

 

Hughes’ poem, ‘Wuthering Heights,’ is written in free verse, used to create a conversational tone. In it, he speaks directly to his wife, Sylvia Plath (who wrote the later poem of the same name), using the second person pronoun, “you.” Colloquial lexis, such as “poor lasses” and the elliptical opening, “Walter was guide” help augment the conversational style, while the latter contributes to the very “Yorkshire” feel (Hughes came from Yorkshire) of the poem. Dropping the determiner, “the,” is a common feature of Yorkshire dialect… and this “feel” to the poem mirrors Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights.

“But your transatlantic elation / Elated him” is the first reference to Plath. She was an American writer, “transatlantic elation” referring to her enthusiasm. But when we compare this with her poem, we see a very different attitude – it seems that he is making assumptions about his wife.

                          He effervesced
       Like his rhubarb wine kept a bit too long:
       A vintage of legends and gossip.

Isn’t that a fantastic simile? “Effervesced” means to give off gas (talking), like rhubarb wine too matured. He then uses “vintage” to mean a “collection,” still connecting it to the wine simile. The imagery in the poem is all very “earthy” and related to farming – this again giving it the Yorkshire feel and mirroring the book.

                                 the midget hand-books,
       The elvish lacework, the dwarfish fairy-wood shoes,

Hughes creates a semantic field of mythology here, through lexis such as, “midget” “elvish” “dwarfish” and “fairy.” Here again, he makes assumptions about his wife, that she didn’t see Emily’s home properly, rather that she fantasised it – he is quite to the point, in contrast: “Where Emily died.” Still, if the poem is read to have a greater meaning, he’s correct; so many tourists don’t really appreciate what they see when they visit places like Haworth (where the Bronte sisters lived).

It was all novel and exhilarating to you.
The book becoming a map. Wuthering Heights
Withering into perspective.

The pun on “novel” connects the landscape to her emotions here, and Hughes conveys the same message – Plath, he says, is merely looking at this place through the eyes of the book, “The book becoming a map,” and not seeing it for what it was. As it comes “into perspective,” the truth of the landscape is “withering” away her imagination of the place is replacing it – the phonologically similar “Wuthering” and “withering” connecting them.

“And it was all gaze” has a resentful feel to it, in “all.” She’s looking, but she’s not thinking, according to Hughes. He goes on to describe the place with images of decay, “deadfall slabs were flaking,” “sodden, raw-stone camp of refuge,” “the stonework – black.” This contrasts to “her” imagining of “gamma rays and decomposing starlight.” The decay, it has been suggested, is also symbolic of Hughes’ and Plath’s deteriorating relationship: how they imagined something wonderful, but its reality was quite different.

He says it’s “So hard / To imagine the life that had lit / Such a sodden, raw-stone cramp of refuge” and asks his wife, “how would you take up now / The clench of that struggle?” “Being cornered” – trapped here – “with a scatter of crazed sheep.” It wasn’t an easy life.

Yet Plath, in his opinion, “breathed it all in / With jealous, emulous sniffings” – desiring the fame that the Bronte sisters have nowadays. He finds it “odd” that she, with her “globe-circling aspirations,” can be jealous of those “burnt-out, worn-out remains / Of failed efforts, failed hopes.”

The contrast between them is marked out further in the next few lines, where a “snapshot” (with connotations of a tourist) brings her and Emily together. “You / Had all the liberties, having life” while “Emily had stared / Like a dying prisoner,” doomed to poverty and never a chance to leave Haworth. A poem can be “unfurled” from Plath easily, but it would have been so difficult for Emily. Sylvia Plath had clinical depression and Hughes shows his frustration with her here. He asks how she can be depressed, with her “huge / Mortgage of hope,” when she is contrasted to Emily.

Ghosts have twice as much reason to be “suddenly aflame / With the scorch of doubled envy” – for she has life, is free and is a modern woman. Yet their flame, in the final line of the poem, is “gradually quenched in understanding” – not like Plath.

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Wuthering Heights
Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)

The horizons ring me like faggots,
Tilted and disparate, and always unstable.
Touched by a match, they might warm me,
And their fine lines singe
The air to orange
Before the distances they pin evaporate,
Weighting the pale sky with a soldier color.
But they only dissolve and dissolve
Like a series of promises, as I step forward.

There is no life higher than the grasstops
Or the hearts of sheep, and the wind
Pours by like destiny, bending
Everything in one direction.
I can feel it trying
To funnel my heat away.
If I pay the roots of the heather
Too close attention, they will invite me
To whiten my bones among them.

The sheep know where they are,
Browsing in their dirty wool-clouds,
Gray as the weather.
The black slots of their pupils take me in.
It is like being mailed into space,
A thin, silly message.
They stand about in grandmotherly disguise,
All wig curls and yellow teeth
And hard, marbly baas.

I come to wheel ruts, and water
Limpid as the solitudes
That flee through my fingers.
Hollow doorsteps go from grass to grass;
Lintel and sill have unhinged themselves.
Of people and the air only
Remembers a few odd syllables.
It rehearses them moaningly:
Black stone, black stone.

The sky leans on me, me, the one upright
Among all horizontals.
The grass is beating its head distractedly.
It is too delicate
For a life in such company;
Darkness terrifies it.
Now, in valleys narrow
And black as purses, the house lights
Gleam like small change.

Sylvia Plath’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ was written six years after Hughes – and shows a very different interpretation of her feelings on the day of their visit to Howarth. It is written in free verse, which perhaps reflects Plath’s own state of mind at the time – being written in 1961, it is just a few years before her suicide. This poem is characterised by its use of similes, metaphors and other imagery, but this, perhaps, is merely a distraction from its real meaning: her own feelings. Plath will understand what she means, but for readers, it is difficult to interpret the imagery.

The poem is extremely subjective, which can be seen from the opening line – “The horizons ring me like faggots.” The subject of the poem isn’t really Wuthering Heights or Howard, but “me” – Plath. “Faggots” are bundles of wood used for fire and it’s a strange image to feel the “horizons ring me,” when they usually create a sense of vastness – she feels trapped.

Her vulnerability is furthered in the next few lines, “Tilted and disparate, and always unstable” is more of a reference to her own mental state. The horizons “only dissolve and dissolve” as she steps forward, (similar in some ways to the imagery in ‘Ulysses’ by Tennyson), “like a series of promises.” The simile could refer to her relationship with Hughes, how their relationship is dissolving, and that her trust has been broken.

It’s very different to the “transatlantic elation” that Hughes assumed upon her in his poem.

In, “There is no life higher than the grasstops” she refers to the empty sky. All this open space seems to scare her, for besides “the hearts of sheep” (not even sheep themselves, just their “hearts”), there is no life. “The wind / pours like destiny, bending / Everything in one direction” again shows how trapped she feels – like even nature is trying to force her in one direction. The wind is trying “To funnel her heat away” while the “roots of heather” “invite me / To whiten my bones among them.” She fears nature is trying to kill her.

The third stanza begins with more threatening images of nature. The sheeps’ “black pupils take me in.” However, the modern simile, “It is like being mailed into space,” takes the poem far from Wuthering Heights, showing quite clearly that this poem is about her emotions. “Space” is the ultimate lonely place, yet even “being mailed into space,” she feels like “A thin, silly message” – she feels insignificant.

The fourth stanza has the same depressing message, quite clear from the lexical choices: “limpid” “solitudes” “hollow” “moaningly” “black.” “Of people the air only / Remembers a few odd syllables” and this isolation scares her. “Remembers” shows that Plath is aware of the difference between the past and the present, unlike in Hughes’ poem.

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All the Things You Are Not Yet
Helen Dunmore (1952- )

for Tess

Tonight there's a crowd in my head:
all the things you are not yet.
You are words without paper, pages
sighing in summer forests, gardens
where builders stub out their rubble
and plastic oozes its sweat.
All the things you are, you are not yet.

Not yet the lonely window in midwinter
with the whine of tea on an empty stomach,
not yet the heating you can't afford and must wait for,
tamping a coin in on each hour.
Not the gorgeous shush of restaurant doors
and their interiors, always so much smaller.
Not the smell of the newsprint, the blur
on your fingertips — your fame. Not yet

the love you will have for Winter Pearmains
and Chanel No 5 — and then your being unable
to buy both washing-machine and computer
when your baby's due to be born,
and my voice saying, "I'll get you one"
and you frowning, frowning
at walls and surfaces which are not mine —
all this, not yet. Give me your hand,

that small one without a mark of work on it,
the one that's strange to the washing-up bowl
and doesn't know Fairy Liquid for whiskey.
Not yet the moment of your arrival in taxis
at daring destinations, or your being alone at stations
with the skirts of your fashionable clothes flapping
and no money for the telephone.

Not yet the moment when I can give you nothing
so well-folded it fits in an envelope —
a dull letter you won't reread.
Not yet the moment of your assimilation
in that river flowing westward: rivers of clothes,
of dreams, an accent unlike my own
saying to someone I don't know: darling...

Helen Dunmore’s poem ‘All the Things You Are Not Yet’ is written as said “for Tess,” her infant child, as a direct address similar to Ted Hughes ‘Wuthering Heights.’ It’s almost an apostrophe, because the child is too young to understand it, and in describing the future possibilities of the child, it is thematically similar to MacNeise’s ‘Prayer Before Birth,’ though more optimistic.

The poem, like many modern poems, is written in free verse with no rhyme scheme. Perhaps Helen Dunmore could have “done more”. (Okay, okay, bad joke – blame my English teacher/singer). Many modern poets see form as an unnecessary constraint, though when this opinion will change (as it invariably will) is yet to be seen…

In the first stanza, there is a sense of confusion created within the poet’s mind, as we see from the metaphoric, “Tonight there’s a crowd in my head / all the things you are not yet.” She is talking about a crowd of thoughts, of glimpses of her small child’s future, worries and concerns, so many that she feels disorientated by them. The purpose of the poem is to straighten out these confusing emotions.

She describes how the child is “words without paper,” – a story not yet told. The pages are “sighing in the summer forests,” a very gentle image, but this immediately is contrasted by a harsh, “builders stub out their rubble / and plastic oozes its sweat.” This contrast shows the conflicting emotions Helen Dunmore feels for her daughter – both optimism and fear.

The second stanza is equally conflicted in its images of her daughter’s future. “The whine of tea on an empty stomach, / nor yet the heating you can’t afford (…) / taping a coin in on each hour” gives the idea of a poor student, going without food or heat. This is contrasted by the next, must more adult image of wealth, “the gorgeous shush of restaurant doors” with the nice onomatopoeia on “shush” and sibilance of the phrase, followed by “the newsprint” declaring her “fame.” Not only are her emotions confused, the images she sees of her daughter are jumping from one point of her life to a completely different one.

In the third stanza, we get a feel of Dunmore’s own life, rather than that of her daughter’s. “The love you will have for Winter Pearmains / and Chanel No 5” is probably her own opinion, “and then you being unable / to buy both washing-machine and computer / when your baby’s due” is probably a difficulty she faced herself. Dunmore images the point of her life where she can be proud to say, “I’ll get you one,” though she also realises how this financial security will be taken: “frowning, frowning.” There’s an element of resentment too, when she refers to “surfaces which are not mine” – the child has broken away from her by this point; is having her own child.

With the caesura into the fourth stanza, the poem turns to describe the child as young again: “Give me your hand / that small one without a mark of work on it.” The “daring destinations” shows the child’s risk taking and “no money for the telephone” shows her irresponsibility.

The final stanza contains a depressing message. “When I can give you nothing / so well-folded it fits into an envelope, / a dull letter you won’t reread.” Dunmore realises that eventually her child will break away from her completely, and never require anything. The only way they will talk will be through “dull” letters that she “won’t reread.” Her daughter will have an “assimilation / in that river flowing westwards” – she’ll take up the western lifestyle. With an “accent unlike my own” shows how her daughter will change and be unlike her, and the final line, the saddest of all, “saying to someone I don’t know: darling…” shows that eventually the mother will be replaced by a lover, or perhaps her own child.

Isn’t it a universal truth of life? The poem transcends the personal idea of Helen Dunmore and Tess to be symbolic of any child/daughter relationship – and this greater message makes it enduring poetry.

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Marged
Gillian Clarke

I think of her sometimes when I lie in bed,
falling asleep in the room I have made in the roof-space
over the old dark parlŵr where she died
alone in winter, ill and penniless.
Lighting the lamps, November afternoons,
a reading book, whisky gold in my glass.
At my type-writer tapping under stars
at my new roof-window, radio tunes
and dog for company. Or parking the car
where through the mud she called her single cow
up from the field, under the sycamore.
Or looking at the hills she looked at too.
I find her broken crocks, digging her garden.
What else do we share, but being women?

The word “Marged” is the Welsh form of the name “Margaret.” Marged was the previous owner of Gillian Clarke’s house, who died there. The other Welsh word in the poem, “parlŵr” means parlour.

The poem is written in sonnet form with 14 lines of iambic pentameter. There is also a rough rhyme scheme, if you consider half rhymes of ababcddcefefgg, which is closer to a Shakespearean sonnet than Petrachan, particularly because of the rhyming couplet at the end. Though not a love poem, as the sonnet traditionally is used for, it is a personal poem and creates a link between the poet and her subject. Enjambment is used in the poem, as with many, to create a conversational tone.

The poem draws out many contrasts between the two women, and between the past and the present. When Marged owned the house, there was a “parlwr,” but now there is a “roof-space” and “new roof-window.” Marged was “penniless” but Gillian Clarke drinks “whisky gold” (all the wealthy connotations of the word “gold”) and Clarke parks “the care / where through the mud she called her single cow.”

The poem ends with a rhetorical question, giving no sense of closure, but leaving the readers to think about: “what else do we share, but being women?” From the previous examples of different cultures, it doesn’t seem like much, but looking deeper into the poem, perhaps there are more similarities. The form seems to suggest an intimate link between the pair.

Marged was “alone in winter” with “her single cow” – isolated – and Gillian Clarke is no different. She mentions a “dog for company” (though the lack of determiner on “dog” makes it seem insignificant) and “November afternoons, / a reading book” – like Marged, she is “alone in winter.”

Gillian Clarke also finds herself “looking at the hills she looked at too.” The nature of the place is unchanged, reminding us of the immutable laws of nature seen in Romantic works. Yet besides the two people and their lone animals, there is no mention of anything else alive, only “broken crocks.”

The poem is perhaps a meditation on female isolation… or more, a meditation on Gillian Clarke’s isolation. The mention of her “type-writer tapping under the stars” reminds us that she is a writer, and writers are, as the saying goes, “lonely people.”

There is a sense, perhaps, that Clarke feels afraid that her fate could be the same as Marged’s, “alone in winter, ill and penniless.” She has tried to change Marged’s house to make it her own, “new window-space,” yet she still thinks “of her sometimes when” she lies “in bed.” The descriptions of these new things are all very basic (such as the lack of determiner on “dog”) and lack any imagery, showing that they haven’t brought Clarke the desired effect – she doesn’t really care about them. Despite the differences, she is still like Marged, still “alone.”

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