‘1915’ by Robert Graves

I’ve watched the Seasons passing slow, so slow,
In the fields between La Bassée and Bethune;
Primroses and the first warm day of Spring,
Red poppy floods of June,
August, and yellowing Autumn, so
To Winter nights knee-deep in mud or snow,
And you’ve been everything.

Dear, you’ve been everything that I most lack
In these soul-deadening trenches—pictures, books,
Music, the quiet of an English wood,
Beautiful comrade-looks,
The narrow, bouldered mountain-track,
The broad, full-bosomed ocean, green and black,
And Peace, and all that’s good.

I think this is such a touching poem. It describes a soldier living through the hell of trench warfare in the First World War, and holding on to “all that’s good” in the memory of a person that he loves.

This poem is to me remarkable because of its lack of obvious anger. A lot of the war poetry that I have read is very (justifiably) angry. This, however, is quiet, and sad, and wistful. The “Red poppy floods” bring to mind the senseless and copious bloodshed of the war, and the “Winter nights knee-deep in mud or snow” and the “soul-deadening trenches” communicate the incredible hardships that the speaker has endured. But it is his dream — his memory of his loved one — that dominates and endures in this poem and that triumphs over his unspeakably hard reality.

There seems to me to be a beautiful simplicity in the images of the things the poet-soldier Graves most misses: “pictures, books,/ Music” and “the quiet of an English wood”. There is something almost innocent here. Why should a man who wants such simple things in life — who can derive contentment from “Peace, and all that’s good” — be sent to die in the trenches? He wants nothing to do with violence. I think the voice of the poet is so strong in this poem because he holds on to his humanity — his love of peace and good things — amid the diabolical circumstances into which the war has flung him.

This poem means a lot to me because it reminds me that our memories of love and peace can always save us, even in the darkest of hours.

‘A une artiste’ by Louise Ackermann

Puisque les plus heureux ont des douleurs sans nombre,
Puisque le sol est froid, puisque les cieux sont lourds,
Puisque l’homme ici-bas promène son cœur sombre
Parmi les vains regrets et les courtes amours,

Que faire de la vie? O notre âme immortelle,
Où jeter tes désirs et tes élans secrets ?
Tu voudrais posséder, mais ici tout chancelle ;
Tu veux aimer toujours, mais la tombe est si près!

Le meilleur est encore en quelque étude austère
De s’enfermer, ainsi qu’en un monde enchanté,
Et dans l’art bien aimé de contempler sur terre,
Sous un de ses aspects, l’éternelle beauté.

Artiste au front serein, vous l’avez su comprendre,
Vous qu’entre tous les arts le plus doux captiva,
Qui l’entourez de foi, de culte, d’amour tendre,
Lorsque la foi, le culte et l’amour, tout s’en va.

Ah! tandis que pour nous, qui tombons de faiblesse
Et manquons de flambeau dans l’ombre de nos jours,
Chaque pas a sa ronce où notre pied se blesse,
Dans votre frais sentier marchez, marchez toujours.

Marchez! pour que le ciel vous aime et vous sourie,
Pour y songer vous-même avec un saint plaisir,
Et tromper, le cœur plein de votre idolâtrie,
L’éternelle douleur et l’immense désir.

 

My Translation — ‘To a female artist’

Since the happiest have numberless pains,
Since the ground is cold, since the heavens are heavy,
Since the man down here walks his dark heart
Among the vain regrets and short-lived loves,

What to do with life? O our immortal soul,
Where will you throw your desires and your secret impulses?
You would like to possess, but here everything totters;
You want to love forever, but the grave is so near!

The best thing is still to shut oneself in
Some austere study, as well as in an enchanted world,
And, in beloved art, to contemplate on earth
One of its aspects, eternal beauty. 

Serene-browed artist, you have understood,
You who, of all the arts, captured the sweetest one,
Who surrounded it with faith, with worship, with tender love,
Whilst faith, worship and love, all disappear.

 Ah! Whereas for us, who fall from weakness
And lack a torch in the shadow of our days,
Each step has its bramble where our foot gets wounded,
On your fresh pathway walk, walk forever. 

Walk! So that heaven will love you and smile upon you,
So that you may dream for yourself with a holy pleasure,
And deceive, heart full of your devotion,
The eternal pain and the infinite desire.

 

I thought I would do another translation for today; I haven’t done one in a while. This is a poem that I really like by Louise Ackermann. This poet was born in Paris in 1813, and spent a lonely childhood in the countryside near Amiens. She married a German man called Paul Ackermann, and moved to Berlin with him, but her husband died after only two years of marriage. Once widowed, Louise Ackermann moved back to Nice to live with her sister in a very austere fashion. She lived in isolation in the countryside, and it was during this time of solitude that she wrote most of her poetry. She published at three volumes of poetry (as far as I know) during her lifetime.

I find this poem quite fascinating in its exploration of the nature of art and the artist. It seems to me that there is a great sadness and longing in this verse — a longing for the eternal beauty that seems to exist in art. In this poem there is an acknowledgement of the drudgery of human life (the “numberless pains”, the “vain regrets” and “short-lived loves”), as well as an expression of the human impulse to express the soul in art (“O immortal soul,/ Where will you throw your desires and your secret impulses?”) There is also an expression of the idea of wanting to exist as if in art (similar ideas to those of Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn) — “You want to love forever, but the grave is so near!” The artist keeps almost flying away with her art, but she is always pulled back to reality…

I love the final line, that “eternal pain and infinite desire”. I think it is such a profound description of the nature of the artist (and poet) — forever in pain, forever suffering from being human, but forever full of desire to express, to create, to transcend… to attain something holy through art.

I found this quite a difficult poem to translate, and this is what I came up with.

‘The parable of the old man and the young’ by Wilfred Owen

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

This poem retells the story of Abraham and his son, Isaac. At the beginning of the poem, you could almost believe that it is going to be a conventional telling of the story, because it sounds just like the Bible translation. It is not until you read the description of Abram’s preparations of “fire and iron” that it becomes clear that this is a different version of the old parable. Owen creates a clear depiction of the particular war in which he was fighting, with the “belts and straps”, and the “parapets and trenches”.

In the original story from the bible, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son for Him. Abraham goes to do this, preparing an altar and a knife, but at the last minute, God tells him to stop. God tells Abraham to sacrifice a Ram instead. Abraham is relieved and sacrifices the Ram in the place of his son, and Isaac lives.

In this poem, Wilfred Owen has changed Abraham into a symbol of the politicians of Europe, sending the young men to die in their millions during the First World War. It is a recurring theme in much of the poetry from the Great War — the horror and disgust that the soldiers and soldier-poets felt at the reality of old, rich men sending the young masses to the trenches be slaughtered. Siegfried Sassoon (fellow poet and friend of Wilfred Owen) describes similar disgust for the ignorant men who sent the masses to their deaths in his poem Base Details:

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. “Poor young chap,”
I’d say–“I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.”
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die–in bed.

I wanted to post Sassoon’s poem here because I think that it is interesting to see the difference between Sassoon’s tone and Owen’s. You can feel the anger in Base Details — but Sassoon has channelled his anger into a satirical piece that uses irony to mock what he called “callous complacence” (in his letter, A soldier’s declaration, which was read out to the House of Commons in 1917).

In both Sassoon’s and Owen’s poems there is a strong sense of the futility of the slaughter of the soldiers, but I am personally more drawn to Owen’s poem because I prefer the tragic tone rather than the satire of Sassoon…

Owen’s contempt for the politicians is clear in ‘The parable of the old man and the young’ as he talks about the “Ram of Pride”. The angel in the poem asks Abram to sacrifice his Pride instead of his son, but Abram “would not so”. Here you can see the disgust that Owen has for the politicians and perhaps for civilians too, like Sassoon. How can we not have contempt for one who would sacrifice his son (and “half the seed of Europe”) rather than his Pride?

I love the way that Owen has separated the final two lines of the poem, because it sets them apart and emphasises their importance and tragedy:

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

There is, to me, a real sense of powerlessness in these lines; even God could not stop Abram from killing his son and the sons of Europe. That phrase “half the seed of Europe” delivers such a sense of waste. The description of Abram as “the old man” is very evocative, I think, of a miserly creature — it is a description that has very negative connotations. Isaac, however, is an innocent victim, like the soldiers.

‘Love is not all’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

I really like this sonnet. It speaks about how intangible, and how hard to define love is. And how strange love seems, when described in this way. Love is nothing solid, it is “not meat or drink”; it’s not necessary for the sustaining of our human life. It does not nourish the body or protect it from the elements or mend broken bones… But then love, the poem reminds us, has an incredible power over us. The lack of love can tempt us to make “friends with death”. Even in the most “difficult hour”, when she is “Pinned down by pain and moaning for release”, the poet tells us that she “might be driven to sell your [the person she is addressing in the poem] love for peace”, or trade her memories of “this night” of love “for food”. And then she concludes the poem by affirming, “It well may be. I do not think I would”. I think this ending is so great because it illustrates how we are all illogical when it comes to love. For lack of love some of us will court death — we feel that we could die of a broken heart — and yet if faced with death we would not exchange the moments of intense love to save our bodies. I say we are all like that… I think most of us are!

‘God Help the Wolf after Whom the Dogs Do Not Bark’ by Ted Hughes

There you met it – the mystery of hatred.
After your billions of years in anonymous matter
That was where you were found – and promptly hated.
You tried your utmost to reach and touch those people
With gifts of yourself –
Just like your first words as a toddler
When you rushed at every visitor to the house
Clasping their legs and crying: ‘I love you! I love you!’
Just as you had danced for your father
In his home of anger – gifts of your life
To sweeten his slow death and mix yourself in it
Where he lay propped on the couch,
To sugar the bitterness of his raging death.

You searched for yourself to go on giving it
As if after the nightfall of his going
You danced on in the dark house,
Eight years old, in your tinsel.

Searching for yourself, in the dark, as you danced,
Floundering a little, crying softly,
Like somebody searching for somebody drowning
In dark water
Listening for them – in panic at losing
Those listening seconds from your searching –
Then dancing wilder in the darkness.

The colleges lifted their heads. It did seem
You disturbed something just perfected
That they were holding carefully, all of a piece,
Till the glue dried. And as if
Reporting some felony to the police
They let you know that you were not John Donne.
You no longer care. Did you save their names?
But then they let you know, day by day,
Their contempt for everything you attempted,
Took pains to inject their bile, as for your health,
Into your morning coffee. Even signed
Their homeopathic letters,
Envelopes full of carefully broken glass
To lodge behind your eyes so you would see

Nobody wanted your dance,
Nobody wanted your strange glitter – your floundering
Drowning life and your effort to save yourself,
Treading water, dancing the dark turmoil,
Looking for something to give –
Whatever you found
They bombarded with splinters,
Derision, mud – the mystery of that hatred.

This is from Ted Hughes’ 1998 Birthday Letters collection, which is all about his wife, Sylvia Plath. Perhaps Hughes intended this collection of poems to ‘set the record straight’; I think that he may have felt that many blamed him for his wife’s death because of their break-up after his affair with another woman not long before Plath committed suicide. It was my love for Plath that led me to read Hughes’ work, and this collection is full of love and pain and struggle and I find it quite fascinating and compelling mostly because it seems so intimate.

I chose this particular poem to blog about today because I simply love this image of Plath as a ‘wolf after whom the dogs do not bark.’ The poem is about Plath’s early attempts at poetry – when she was studying at Cambridge – and the negative criticism that she received at that time. But Hughes reminds us in this poem that it did not matter because she was in fact a wolf among dogs, and should not have cared whether the dogs barked after her or not.

Ted Hughes delivers this touching picture of his wife trying to get her “gifts of [her]self” – her poems – published. He likens her efforts to her “first words as a toddler/When you rushed at every visitor… crying “I love you! I love you!” I love this image because it is so telling; as most writers, Plath must have sought approval and recognition, and yet she was “hated” by the critics to begin with. It is also telling of Hughes’ affection for Sylvia.

I love the contrast between Hughes’ image of Plath, “dancing wilder in the darkness”, as though “searching for somebody drowning” trying to give these beautiful “gifts” of her soul … and the reaction is: “the colleges lifted their heads.” The critics who “hated” Plath when she was at Cambridge (she received many negative reviews there) were so institutionalized that Hughes refers to them not as people but as the buildings – the institution of a literary Establishment – that they represent. The image of the Cambridge colleges marks a sharp contrast to the image of Plath with her “strange glitter” and her childish enthusiasm – she is so much more alive, so much more real.

Now, the line that most excites me in this poem is “They let you know that you were not John Donne”. This comes back to what I wrote about yesterday in my blog about Plath’s poem, ‘Daddy’. I talked about “the weight of English Literature” in that post, which is something I heard Plath talk about in an interview that I watched on Youtube. In that interview, Sylvia says that she remembers a critic telling her that she had “started out [a poem] just like John Donne, but not quite managed to finish like John Donne”. It is then that she adds, “and I felt the weight of English Literature on me at that point”. I loved hearing Plath say that because she is part of English Literature (with the huge capital letters) now, and it is comforting and encouraging to think that she did not always feel that she was good enough…

But what viscousness; these critics are described as totally venomous by Hughes as they send his wife “Envelopes of carefully broken glass/ To lodge behind your eyes so you would see/ Nobody wanted your dance”. This is calculated hatred, “injected… into your morning coffee”. He describes this hate as a “mystery” — in fact, the “mystery” of this hatred frames the entire poem. And it seems to be a mystery that is haunting Hughes because this criticism so affected Plath.

But, of course, Sylvia Plath rose way above those early critics. As Hughes says: “You no longer care.”

‘Daddy’ by Sylvia Plath

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time—-
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal

And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off the beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du.

In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend

Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.

It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene

An engine, an engine,
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gypsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You——

Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I’m finally through.
The black telephone’s off at the root,
The voices just can’t worm through.

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two—-
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.

There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

This is such a well-known poem. It is crashing and cathartic and hypnotically powerful… and I’m excited to write a blog about it.

I read ‘Daddy’ over and over as a teen, when I found it in an anthology that I had. That was before I read The Bell Jar or any other poems by Sylvia Plath. As my fascination for Plath’s life and work grew, ‘Daddy’ made deeper sense to me and I now understand how it is a defining poem for this poet. It still fascinates me every time I read it.

So, Plath presents us with an image of a father in this poem, and it is this father figure that I want to write about mostly. She affectionately and childishly addresses him as ‘Daddy’ in the poem, and yet he is a complex, dark, almost mythical figure that she has had to “kill”. You never get to know the father — we see him only from a distance variously as a “black shoe” in which the speaker has lived imprisoned, “Barely daring to breathe”, a Godlike, “Ghastly statue”, a Nazi, and a “vampire”. I think ‘Daddy’ in this poem certainly represents Plath’s own father; Otto Plath died when Sylvia was just eight-years-old, and his image haunts much of her poetry.

Plath writes in the poem, “Daddy, I have had to kill you./ You died before I had time”. This is a very important line and I think it is key to understanding the crux of the speaker’s issues with her father. Plath’s father did in fact die before she “had time” to kill him in the psychological sense that we all “kill” our parents. By this I mean that Plath’s father died at an age when he was still Godlike in the eyes of his daughter. To the eight-year-old Plath, her father was everything and she idolized him greatly. She never had time to get to know him on a personal level as an adult (“I never could talk to you”). As a consequence, as Plath grew up, it seems that her father remained a mythical, elusive and powerful shadow in her mind that she could never quite understand. This poem is about her getting what nowadays we call ‘closure’.

In my opinion the ‘Daddy’ figure in this poem also represents Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes. Hughes left Plath for another woman not long before she wrote this poem (and she wrote this poem not long before committing suicide in 1963). We become aware of her husband’s relevance in the poem as it nears its end, when Plath writes (addressing her Father): “I made a model of you,
/A man in black with a Meinkampf look/ And a love of the rack and the screw.
/And I said I do, I do.” This is clearly telling us that Plath found a replica of her father in her husband. She suggests that Hughes has tortured her in the same way her father did, and stifled her voice in the same way; “If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two”, she says, communicating that by the end of this poem she will be through with her Father, and with her husband (a model of the Father figure and just as creatively smothering). The similarities between Plath’s ‘Daddy’ and Hughes is even clearer as she describes her husband as “The vampire who said he was you/ And drank my blood for a year,/ Seven years, if you want to know”.

I also think that the ‘Daddy’ figure represents another force that was very present in Plath’s writing life — something that I heard her call “the weight of English Literature” in an interview that I saw on Youtube. There is no escaping the reality that English Literature is dominated by men (dead, white men), and this can be very intimidating for a female writer even today. Virginia Woolf called it “Milton’s bogey” in A room of one’s own. Woolf acknowledged the incredible weight of male dominance in literature as she wrote the following:

“For my belief is that if we live another century or so […] and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; […] if we look past Milton’s bogey, for no human being should shut out the view; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down..”

‘Daddy’ in this poem, represents Milton’s bogey. It weighs upon Plath’s mind and prevents her from using her voice (“Ich, ich, ich, ich,
/I could hardly speak.”) The fear of writing can become very real when one is aware of all that has gone before. How does one follow Milton (this ‘Daddy’ figure — the dead, white male poet par excellence)?

T.S. Eliot also acknowledges the weight of English Literature on modern writers in The Waste Land:

“O o o o that Shakespeherian Rag —
It’s so elegant
So intelligent

What shall I do now? What shall I do?
I shall rush out as I am, and walk in the street
With my hair down, so.
What shall we do to-morrow?
What shall we ever do?”

But Plath frees herself from this heavy inheritance by the end of the poem. The ending is so cathartic, so triumphant:

There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

I love the sense of victory that is brought by that dancing and stamping. The parallels made with the Nazis in this poem makes it all the more powerful (and it compels our attention) — I think it allows us to understand the gravity of what this father figure has done to Plath and the effect it has had on her life. He has almost killed her. When faced with him she automatically assumes the role of the victim, turning him into a Nazi and her into a “Jew” being chuffed off to “Auschwitz, Dachau, Belsen”. There is so much confusion in this poem; Plath has had to kill an oppressor — two oppressors — that she loved in order to be free.

But there is something so cathartic about those final lines — we feel that Plath has got her ‘closure’. The villagers “always knew”, so there is triumph there too — he never really ‘won’. And I love the irreverence of the “you bastard, I’m through”; Plath is certainly seeing past “Milton’s bogey”. She does not need to imitate him or anybody else: this is Plath’s own voice, real and profound and transcendent. And with that voice she has written something that stands alone as its own pillar of greatness. She is free of the ‘Daddy’: free of the past, the mythical ‘Greats’ of literature and male oppression. She is free to write with her own voice.

‘The Lovers’ by Jalalud’din Rumi

The Lovers
will drink wine night and day.
They will drink until they can
tear away the veils of intellect and
melt away the layers of shame and modesty.
When in Love,
body, mind, heart and soul don’t even exist.
Become this,
fall in Love, and you will not be separated again.

Rumi’s poetry has become very important to me over the past couple of years. His descriptions of God make sense to me. I chose this particular poem as an example because I love the analogy that Rumi often uses of God as a lover. Sufis talk about God as ‘The Beloved’ and I think this is such a perfect name. A lot of Rumi’s poems could be read as love poems, but they are in fact addressed to the Divine, and I just think that is very beautiful.

This poem explains how finding God is like falling in love. You have to become intoxicated by Him, like the Lovers, and the “veils of intellect” must fall away. The “body, mind, heart and soul don’t even exist” when one is in love — you become the other that you love. “Shame and modesty”, and the “intellect” — these are the things that separate us from God. We must “become” a Lover — fall in love with the Divine — “and you will not be separated again”. If we are not separated from the Divine then we are the Divine — one with God.

(And if you are thinking that such a surrender of the intellect is stupid, then I refer you to my blog about ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats’. That explains why I don’t think this is stupid, and why I don’t believe the intellect is the only path that can lead us to truth.)

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