‘Huesca’ by John Cornford

Heart of the heartless world,
Dear heart, the thought of you
Is the pain at my side,
The shadow that chills my view.

The wind rises in the evening,
Reminds that autumn is near.
I am afraid to lose you,
I am afraid of my fear.

On the last mile to Huesca,
The last fence for our pride,
Think so kindly, dear, that I
Sense you at my side.

And if bad luck should lay my strength
Into the shallow grave,
Remember all the good you can;
Don’t forget my love.

John Cornford (who incidentally was the great grandson of Charles Darwin and son of the poet Frances Cornford) joined the International Brigade to fight Franco’s fascists early on in the Spanish Civil War, just like numerous other writers and poets such as Orwell and Auden.

You may recognise the first line of this poem as a quote from Karl Marx (from his introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right) where he stated that religion was “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of the heartless world, the soul of the soulless situation, and the opium of the people.” Marx went on to say that criticism of religion had “plucked the flowers on the chain not so that man shall bear the chain without consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.” It is not surprising that Cornford, a committed communist and atheist since his Cambridge days, should find inspiration in Marx for a poem. Nevertheless, this particular quote is one that, though it doesn’t quite excuse religion (it is an oppressive “chain” to be “throw[n] off”), does seem to accept it as being founded on Man’s necessity for light, comfort, morality and truth in a brutal world (a “living flower”).

Huesca, perhaps despite initial appearances, however, is not a political poem. Its opening is musical, romantic – almost chant-like – with the three repetitions of “heart”, and particularly that repeated, breathless “h” sound bathing us in a beautiful whispered effect. It is addressed to Cornford’s girlfriend, Margot Heinemann, and expresses his longing for her and everything she seems to represent (gentleness, clarity, grace, kindness…); everything that is missing amid the “heartless”, chaotic hell-world of War that he is enduring.

I find it fascinating that the poet has used that quote from Marx, originally used to describe Man’s religious impulse, to address his lover. So far removed from her, and the tranquil bubble of England, has she become for him like a saint to pray to – an ideal? This poem does read like a prayer, I think. Amid the terror of battles and constant anxiety and fear, the thought of her is the “pain” in his side, the “shadow that chills [his] view”. These lines seem to me to deliver the idea that Cornford (convinced as he was of the rightness of the cause he was defending, and determined as he was to fight for it) could only waver in tenacity when thinking of Miss Heinemann back at home. She was what he had to lose, his only reason, it would seem, for not being ok with becoming a martyr.

Cornford was killed either on or on the day after his 21st birthday in 1936. He died while fighting on the Cordoba Front. Knowing this, I find the end of the piece even more touching: “Remember all the good you can;/ Don’t forget my love”. The way this last line breaks with the regular rhyming sequence that precedes it (the unremarkable, quaint abab) rhyme scheme, is very effective. Here, the poet’s honest fear – the cracks and trembling in his voice – comes through because it contrasts so with the sing-song and rhyming of the rest of the poem. In this last line, I can almost hear the machine-gun fire going off behind him, and the cries of soldiers coming from all around. Stripped of rhyme, reality is more patent. The music has died, and suddenly we are left with only Cornford and his lover – his earnest voice begging her not to forget him.

John Cornford

John Cornford

‘The Stolen Child’ by William Butler Yeats

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berrys
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim gray sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that dropp their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Away with us he’s going,
The solemn-eyed:
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.      

This was one of my favourite Yeats poems as a child. It is the refrain – the voice of those faeries – that is, I think, so entrancing about the piece. I remember reading that refrain to myself over and over, and knowing that the music of those words was just the most powerful thing in the world; it was like a spell — a magic spell. I think that this is what really drew me to poetry as a child, and what rekindles and rekindles my excitement about it even now; it is the way in which words (those ordinary things that are stamped all over the back of ready-meals) placed one in front of the other in a certain way, can create magic and music, and transport us.

The Stolen Child is essentially the call of the faeries — their voices call the child (and the reader) to go with them to their beautiful “leafy island”, away from the world that is so “full of weeping” and so “full of troubles”. On an initial surface reading, perhaps, we are simply charmed by the sounds and romance of the poem. We long to follow the faeries to the “waters and the wild”; we are perhaps too enthralled by the charm of that alliteration (“the word’s more full of weeping than you can understand“) to consider its meaning, or question why we should be incapable of understanding the world’s difficulties. Hypnotised by the spelling music, we long to dance the “olden dances” and forget everything else. However, on a second reading, you might detect some slightly unsettling things…

I think The Stolen Child is about the many temptations that surround the poet. Yeats wrote in another poem, “All things can tempt me from this craft of verse”. Perhaps the faery voices represent the call of a life of indolence – or even the call of oblivion through alcohol. I say alcohol because this poem reminds me greatly of part of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale: “That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,/ And with thee fade away into the forest dim:// Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget/ What thou among the trees hast never known/ The weariness, the fever and the fret…” In Yeats’ poem we are at least being called to a world without thought – to a disconnection from the world. The faeries are coaxing the “child” (the poet), trying to lure him away from the world of “weeping” to a world of magic. They tempt us with their “reddest stolen cherries”; these are apparently rather impish faeries, for they have stolen these cherries, and wish to steal the child too… They dance with “Mingling hands and mingling glances”. The use of “glances” to me immediately raises suspicion; a glance is something furtive, and breeds an aura of mischief here.

Indeed, we must distrust these faeries who seek out “slumbering trout” only to whisper in their ears, and give them “unquiet dreams”. What are they whispering to the trout? Why do they wish to trouble their sleep? There is something sinister here that sounds like dark, mischievous spells. Moreover, the repetition of the word “human” (“Come away, O human child!“) draws attention to the fact that the faeries are not human, and makes us distrust them even more.

Finally, when we reach the last stanza, it seems the faeries have managed to persuade, or hypnotise the child into coming away with them: “Away with us he’s going,/ The solemn-eyed”. The child is not rejoicing to be joining the faeries, he is “solemn”. And now (that the child has been successfully “stolen”) they are more up front about where he is going, or at least what he is leaving; “He’ll hear no more the lowing/ Of the calves on the warm hillside/ Or the kettle on the hob/ Sing peace into his breast”. The child is leaving the comforts of home — not the world’s weeping. He has been tricked by the faeries.

All in all, this poem is beautiful, mysterious, and quietly but naggingly sinister. For me, it has the quality of an olden fairy-tale, such as of the brothers Grimm.  I hope it is enjoyed by all!

fairies

 

 

‘Forgetfulness’ by Hart Crane

Forgetfulness is like a song
That, freed from beat and measure, wanders.
Forgetfulness is like a bird whose wings are reconciled,
Outspread and motionless, —
A bird that coasts the wind unwearyingly.

Forgetfulness is rain at night,
Or an old house in a forest, — or a child.
Forgetfulness is white, — white as a blasted tree,
And it may stun the sybil into prophecy,
Or bury the Gods.

I can remember much forgetfulness.

In his essay General Aims and Theories (1925) Hart Crane quoted Blake’s lines “We are led to believe in a lie/ When we see with not through the eye”.

Forgetfulness is a poem that certainly offers us a vision of experience seen through the eye, by which I mean that Crane has tried (to quote his own words in General Aims) to establish the poem as “free from [his] own personality”; it is “a stab at truth” – its aim is “not toward decoration or amusement, but rather toward a state of consciousness, an innocence (Blake) or absolute beauty”. Rather than telling us what forgetfulness is, he invites us to inhabit forgetfulness, and to discover via our own senses what it is. He offers us the possibility of perceiving the truth and essence of things rather than their arbitrary, disposable, surface forms.

Crane admitted that it is probably impossible to write a poem that sees purely through and not with the eye (for the ‘I’/’eye’ always has something to say!), however, he tries to realise his ideal of poetry by choosing his terms of expression “less for their logical (literal) significance than for their associated meanings”, thereby creating what he called a “‘logic of metaphor'”, which “antedates our so-called pure logic, and which is the genetic basis of all speech, hence consciousness and thought-extension”.

Forgetfulness is a poem that presents us with a world that wants understanding through the senses and (very appropriately) through our own memories and associations. Of course, the notion of forgetfulness can have various interpretations. Initially, I thought of it in terms of forgetfulness in old age – afflictions such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease – and for me this gives an extremely poignant reading of the poem. However, we might also think in terms of deliberate forgetfulness – the purposeful forgetting of painful memories or past happiness that cannot be recovered. There is also room, I think, for reading this piece as being about choosing to forget (or rather ignore) certain literary conventions or traditions. This latter concept was something that Crane was much concerned with, as I will discuss later.

“Forgetfulness” begins the poem “is like a song/ That, freed from beat and measure, wanders”. I love this opening; this is such a unique and brilliant notion – that forgetfulness can be something beautiful and uncontrolled. Crane here certainly evokes a lack of logical coherence, but he also suggests a liberation from the constraints of structure and the prison of Time. There is also an ambiguousness (principally brought about by the word “wanders”) about whether the forgetful person is sad and lost or just happily, obliviously drifting. The overwhelming sensation for me in this first stanza is that the poet favours the latter option (notice the words “song”, “freed”, “wanders”, “bird”, “outspread”, “unwearyingly”…)

The idea of forgetfulness being a “bird whose wings are reconciled,/ Outspread and motionless” could be read negatively in the sense of passive resignation, however, reconciliation is necessarily a positive thing – a coming to peace – and this and all my senses tell me Crane is suggesting more of a relaxing into the gentle currents of forgetfulness, allowing the mind to travel – to “coast… unwearyingly” on the wind. The word “motionless” is very important. A lack of motion of course denotes an absence of progression. But there is a strange, deceptive stillness about this image; the bird is gliding or “coasting” – and this is not an image of letting go or of resignation but of allowing oneself to be carried.

This stillness is the same that I feel in the mention of the “rain at night” – a moving, wakeful, secret stillness. There is also an undeniable feeling of loneliness here, delivered by the “old house in the forest” and “a child”. These symbols of loneliness are importantly disparate, however the loneliness of age and the loneliness of a child are quite similar in the respect that both children and the elderly can be isolated by being unable to communicate or by inhabiting a different (emotional) world from those around them. I do not think that these images of the old house and the child are purely negative, however. There is something rather quaint or romantic about an old house in a forest – something secret and wonderful – like the “rain at night”. A child, too, is not only connected with loneliness – far from it – children give up images of wonder, joy, and again – secrets. A secret, exclusive, fleeting and wonderful world.

Crane also describes forgetfulness as “white” and “white as a blasted tree”. I love these images. White delivers the obvious notion of purity and innocence (easily reconcilable with the image of the child). It also makes me think of a blank page, a terrifying vision of what it might be like to remember nothing at all – when all memory has gone. But white is so different from blackness – white is not nothingness, it is not annihilation – it is something beautiful, clear and pure, something good. It is not non-being, it is not death. Even the “blasted tree”, which injects the notion of a victim here, is not such a terrible one because it is white. A black, blasted tree would be burned, but this one is white and retains its beauty, its purity.

Taking the image of the blank page now (that dreadful “white”), I would like to discuss the way in which I think this poem is exploring the notion of using new forms of (or rather formless) poetry. Crane writes that forgetfulness may “stun the sybil into prophecy,/Or bury the Gods.” When I read these lines they instantly struck me as concerned with the writing of poetry. If “forgetfulness” is ignoring old conventions (the “beat and “measure” we were freed from in the first stanza) then I think Crane is saying here that choosing to use free verse will either stun – shock, stimulate – the poet into “prophesy” – make him a visionary poet – or else “bury” him. Using free verse – abandoning the crutch of strict form – separates the ‘men from the boys’ as it were (or the true poets from the amateurs).

Hart Crane saw himself as the direct inheritor of, and was enormously influenced by, Walt Whitman, the great master of ‘free verse’. As he set out in General Aims and Theories, “it is part of the poet’s business to risk not only criticism – but folly – in the conquest of consciousness I can only say that I attach no intrinsic value to what means I use beyond their practical service in giving form to the living stuff of the imagination”. Another poet who would have agreed with Crane was of course Keats (“if poetry does not come as easily as leaves to a tree it had better not come at all”).

I think I will end this post, however, with a quote from Allen Ginsberg, another inheritor and spiritual brother of Whitman, who wrote in his essay When the Mode of the Music Changes the Walls of the City Shake (1961) that

“The only poetic tradition is the Voice out of the burning bush. The rest is trash, & will be consumed”.

This for me really encapsulates all that I wanted to say about Crane’s poem. Whether we are talking about an elderly person suffering from dementia, somebody purposefully forgetting a painful memory of violence or lost love, or else the chosen forgetfulness of ignoring certain poetic forms or constraints, what lasts, what matters; what will never be consumed is the “Voice out of the burning bush”. That voice is love and it is the human spirit.

 

Hart Crane

Hart Crane

‘High flight’ by John Gillespie Magee

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of; wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sun-lit silence. Hovering there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air;
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor even eagle flew —
And while, with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

I wanted to post a poem that was entirely new to me today and I found this piece in an anthology that (very surprisingly) fits into that category. High flight totally floored me with its easy-seeming, dazzling-bright description of the sublime freedom and pure joy of flying above the clouds. The story of its author and journey to publication fascinated me further and heightened its significance so that I just had to share it with you.

This poem was written by an evidently rather exceptional 19-year-old American called John Gillespie Magee who, in 1940 (before the US entered World War 2) joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in order to fight the Nazis. He is reported to have sent this poem to his parents while training as a Spitfire pilot in the UK, saying “I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day… It started at 30,000 feet and was finished soon after I landed”. I wonder how many poems have been written at such an altitude! Only a few months later Magee was tragically killed when returning to base with his squadron after a training exercise. His Spitfire collided with another aircraft, resulting in the deaths of both pilots involved in the accident.

It was Magee’s family that endeavoured to have his poem published, and once they succeeded this unlikely, one-hit American poet became famous overnight. High flight is still one of the best-known poems of World War 2.

I love the effect of carefree, boyish joy that is achieved by Magee’s diction. Take the dancingly beautiful first line: “I have slipped the surly bonds of earth”; the combination of sibilance and the assonance of “surly” and “earth” here makes for such a musical opening. The ensuing images of the “laughter-silvered wings” of his Spitfire, and the “tumbling mirth/ Of sun-split clouds” are gorgeously ecstatic. I also find extremely touching the way in which there is a tone of almost bragging as this young pilot tells us he has “done a hundred things/ You have not dreamed of” (and later on that he has flown “Where never lark or even eagle flew”). If one remembers that he sent this poem only to his parents (and perhaps wrote it principally to them), one can almost hear in these proud claims his need for their approval and admiration.

This poem is clearly about the pure joy of flying, and is a wonderful expression of a pilot’s passion for his job. However, I think there is also (isn’t there always?) room for other interpretations. I personally feel that this piece can be read to describe any activity that allows you to feel a version of this pure joy – this bliss being described where you feel such elation that you might “put out [your] hand, and touch[..] the face of God”. For me, this makes me think of writing poetry (or any artistic endeavour). I think Magee had poetry in mind as well, and he gives this away by referring to his “craft” (I adore that phrase – “flung/ My eager craft through footless halls of air”).

This idea of soaring above the mundane world, adventuring into unchartered territory, and being so close to bliss that he could reach out and touch the divine… makes me think of the joy that can be found through any form of artistic expression (particularly musical forms, perhaps), but could also be read as referring to other forms of human endeavour such as scientific or mathematical discovery or even falling in love.

John Gillespie Magee

John Gillespie Magee

Magee, 19 years old

Magee, 19 years old

‘Picking Blueberries, Austerlitz, New York,1957’ by Mary Oliver

Once, in summer
in the blueberries,
I fell asleep, and woke
when a deer stumbled against me.

I guess
she was so busy with her own happiness
she had grown careless
and was just wandering along

listening
to the wind as she leaned down
to lip up the sweetness.
So, there we were

with nothing between us
but a few leaves, and wind’s
glossy voice
shouting instructions.

The deer
backed away finally
and flung up her white tail
and went floating off toward the trees –

but the moment she did that
was so wide and so deep
it has lasted to this day;
I have only to think of her –

the flower of her amazement
and the stalled breath of her curiosity,
and even the damp touch of her solicitude
before she took flight –

to be absent again from this world
and alive, again, in another
for thirty years
sleepy and amazed,

rising out of the rough weeds
listening and looking.
Beautiful girl,
where are you?

In this enticingly titled poem Mary Oliver takes us, as she loves to do, deep into a world of natural beauty and child-like wonder. I don’t know if anyone will understand what I mean when I say that I always find something very clean and sharp about Oliver’s work… perhaps it is the simple, unassuming manner of her expression, and the powerful effect it never fails to deliver. Whatever it is, this piece is a very charming treasure.

This wonderful poet seems to me to be always very much in admiration of the oblivious wisdom of wild creatures. As she writes in her fragmented prose-poem Staying Alive, “I believe everything has a soul”. The deer in this poem certainly seems to have one; I love the way she describes her (the deer) as being “so busy with her own happiness” that she has “grown careless” and just stumbles across the speaker in the blueberries as she leans down to “lip up the sweetness”. Mary Oliver always finds truth for us in the natural world. In the above-mentioned prose-poem she writes of her instruction as a poet while growing up, “I stood willingly and gladly in the characters of everything – other people, trees, clouds. And this is what I learned, that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion – that standing within this otherness – the beauty and the mystery of the world… can re-dignify the worst-stung heart”.

There is a precious moment in this poem where the deer and the speaker connect – a moment “so wide and so deep” that “it has lasted to this day”. It is as though the deer has forgotten that it ought to be afraid of a human being, and then the wind shouts its “instructions”, and it floats off toward the trees.

But I think the most charming thing about this poem is its end lines: “Beautiful girl,/ where are you?” I love the description of the slender, delicate but wild deer as a beautiful girl; it is absolutely appropriate, and really captures that instinctive, immediate rush of love one can feel when encountering an animal in this way – especially in its own environment. I also think that the deer in this poem could represent the speaker’s younger self – perhaps a memory of a carefree, easily startled (human) girl who was also “so busy with her own happiness”. I think the deer has something to teach the speaker (and the reader) about ageing and being present; to quote Staying Alive again, “you must not ever stop being whimsical“.

A doe

A doe

Wild blueberries

Wild blueberries

 

‘Meeting point’, by Louis MacNeice

Time was away and somewhere else,
There were two glasses and two chairs
And two people with the one pulse
(Somebody stopped the moving stairs)
Time was away and somewhere else.

And they were neither up nor down;
The stream’s music did not stop
Flowing through heather, limpid brown,
Although they sat in a coffee shop
And they were neither up nor down.

The bell was silent in the air
Holding its inverted poise –
Between the clang and clang a flower,
A brazen calyx of no noise:
The bell was silent in the air.

The camels crossed the miles of sand
That stretched around the cups and plates;
The desert was their own, they planned
To portion out the stars and dates:
The camels crossed the miles of sand.

Time was away and somewhere else.
The waiter did not come, the clock
Forgot them and the radio waltz
Came out like water from a rock:
Time was away and somewhere else.

Her fingers flicked away the ash
That bloomed again in tropic trees:
Not caring if the markets crash
When they had forests such as these,
Her fingers flicked away the ash.

God or whatever means the Good
Be praised that time can stop like this,
That what the heart has understood
Can verify in the body’s peace
God or whatever means the Good.

Time was away and she was here
And life no longer what it was,
The bell was silent in the air
And all the room one glow because
Time was away and she was here.

MacNeice’s poem Meeting point is a magisterial expression of the extraordinary way in which time can seem to be suspended during intense moments of human connection. It describes the very ordinary scene of two lovers sitting together in a café and ‘having a moment’ – a ‘moment’ that transports them out of time and place.  The poet also manages to inject a subtle but sustained tension throughout the piece – a vague, nagging threat in the background of this blissful moment – which adds an extra dimension to the whole thing.

The crux issue of Meeting point seems to me to be Time. Each stanza is contained within a repeated refrain – the first line of each is later revisited as the final line of each. This structure, and the use of sing-song rhyming, adds to the effect of Time being suspended or controllable. “Time was away and somewhere else”, begins the speaker. I love this refrain and the way it sounds like the start of a nursery rhyme. The speaker purposefully begins by describing solid things (as if to say ‘I can tell you what was there for sure even if I can’t explain where Time went’): “There were two glasses and two chairs/ And two people with the one pulse”. This is the safe territory of inanimate objects – easy to quantify and pin down. And the couple are in love – they share a pulse. He adds “Somebody stopped the moving stairs”. This image of the escalator having been stopped adds perfectly to the general effect of the endless loop of Time pausing for these two people.

The line ‘And they were neither up nor down’ is of course straight out of the nursery rhyme, The grand old Duke of York. The use of this phrase is incredibly clever. Through it, MacNeice delivers a sense that these two lovers are in a sort of limbo – a world of childish wonder and naivety – waiting for the clock to recommence its ticking – waiting for reality to set in. The idea of their surroundings being very banal and ordinary is accentuated by the “limpid brown” music “flowing through heather”. Here is one of many displacements in the poem – suddenly we are out among the heather “Although they sat in a coffee shop”.

“The bell was silent in the air”; I love this line, which opens the third stanza. For me, this silent bell is a solemn timekeeper – we are waiting for it to toll again and release these two people from the spell of their moment of intense connection. I think this bell could also be read as withholding judgment on them. There is a great sense of tension (“Holding its inverted poise”). Also, “between the clang and clang” is “a flower,/ A brazen calyx of no noise“. This, I think, is making reference to Keats’ “spirit ditties of no tone” in Ode on a Grecian Urn, which is another poem about the nature of Time (“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ Are sweeter”, wrote Keats). I think that MacNeice is suggesting here that this moment is the most precious this couple will ever have – nothing has happened yet – it is perhaps their first meeting – they are the untainted, fictitious, painted characters on the Urn. They will never grow old – their love will never fade – because they exist within this poem. MacNeice has immortalised their Meeting point forever.

Moving into the fourth verse, we are immediately transported again into a place far distant from the coffee shop, this time to a place more exotic – the desert: “The camels crossed the miles of sand”. There being miles of sand between the “cups and plates” gives us an idea of just how far Time is stretching out within this moment. Sand is always connected with the notion of Time (hourglasses etc.) but this desert is “their own” and they “planned/ To portion out the stars and dates”. The couple, within their eternal moment, make plans about their future together – their stars and dates.

As happens in all moments of bliss, the awareness of mortality has disappeared in this moment, and this is communicated through the refrain “Her fingers flicked away the ash”. This is such a carefree action – flicking away the idea of death. This is what Keats was saying in Urn and what I think is generally accepted to be true of poetry – it is an attempt to slow time down, to pause it even, give us relief from its endless, inevitable passing, and also relieve us of our awareness of death.

The final stanza is a marvel. I just love the way MacNeice brings all these elements to such a neat conclusion. “Time was away and she was here”; this refrain gets to the real reason for all this bliss and stopping of time – she was here. This is all that matters, ultimately, which is why this as our final line as well. The bell is still “hanging in the air” but it no longer matters to the speaker; he has seemingly arrived at the realisation that this moment is eternal and that, regardless of what follows –  whatever pain and trials the future may hold for the couple – they will always exist in this one bright, glowing moment of pure connection that can never fade:

“All the room one glow because/ Time was away and she was here”.

Louis MacNeice

Louis MacNeice

‘Your Paris’, by Ted Hughes

Your Paris, I thought, was American.
I wanted to humour you.
When you stepped, in a shatter of exclamations,
Out of the Hotel des Deux Continents
Through frame after frame,
Street after street, of Impressionist paintings,
Under the chestnut shades of Hemingway,
Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein.
I kept my Paris from you. My Paris
Was only just not German. The capital
Of the Occupation and old nightmare.
I read each bullet scar in the Quai stonework
With an eerie familiar feeling,
And stared at the stricken, sunny exposure of pavement
Beneath it. I had rehearsed
Carefully, over and over, just those moments –
Most of my life, it seemed. While you
Called me Aristide Bruant and wanted
To draw les toits, and your ecstasies ricocheted
Off the walls patched and scabbed with posters –
I heard the contrabasso counterpoint
In my dog-nosed pondering analysis
Of café chairs where the SS mannequins
Had performed their tableaux vivants
So recently the coffee was still bitter
As acorns, and the waiters’ eyes
Clogged with dregs of betrayal, reprisal, hatred.
I was not much ravished by the view of the roofs.
My Paris was a post-war utility survivor,
The stink of fear still hanging in the wardrobes,
Collaborateurs barely out of their twenties,
Every other face closed by the Camps
Or the Maquis . I was a ghostwatcher.
My perspectives were veiled by what rose
Like methane from the reopened
Mass grave of Verdun. For you all that
Was the anecdotal aesthetic touch
On Picasso’s portrait
Of Apollinaire , with its proleptic
Marker for the bullet. And wherever
Your eye lit, your immaculate palette,
The thesaurus of your cries,
Touched in its tints and textures. Your lingo
Always like an emergency burn-off
To protect you from spontaneous combustion
Protected you
And your Paris. It was diesel aflame
To the dog in me. It scorched up
Every scent and sensor. And it sealed
The underground, your hide-out,
That chamber, where you still hung waiting
For your torturer
To remember his amusement. Those walls,
Raggy with posters, were your own flayed skin –
Stretched on your stone god.
What walked beside me was a flayed,
One walking wound that the air
Coming against kept in a fever, wincing
To agonies. Your practiced lips
Translated the spasms to what you excused
As your gushy burblings – which I decoded
Into a language, utterly new to me
With conjectural, hopelessly wrong meanings –
You gave me no hint how, at every corner,
My fingers linked in yours, you expected
The final fate-to-face revelation
To grab your whole body. Your Paris
Was a desk in a pension
Where your letters
Waited for him unopened. Was a labyrinth
Where you still hurtled, scattering tears.
Was a dream where you could not
Wake or find the exit or
The minotaur to put a blessed end
To the torment. What searching miles
Did you drag your pain
That were for me plain paving, albeit
Pecked by the odd, stray, historic bullet.
The mere dog in me, happy to protect you
From your agitation and your stone hours,
Like a guide dog, loyal to correct your stumblings,
Yawned and dozed and watched you calm yourself
With your anaesthetic – your drawing, as by touch,
Roofs, a traffic bollard, a bottle, me.

This poem, taken from Hughes’ Birthday Letters (a collection of poems all written about and addressed to his wife Sylvia Plath) is a kaleidoscopic, emotion-heavy snapshot of the couple in Paris, where they apparently went as part of their honeymoon in 1956. When reading this poem, I think it is vital to remember that it is very much coloured by hindsight, and that it was only published in 1998 (35 years after Plath committed suicide in 1963).

Many have accused Hughes in his Birthday Letters of being over-critical and cruel about his (probably manic-depressive) poet wife; he has even been labelled by some as misogynistic – of objectifying Plath. I do not take this view, however, admirer though I am of Plath and her work. In any case, I dislike any discourse that tries to take sides in the much-publicised, complicated relationship of this literary couple, and consider it a pretty fruitless activity for readers or critics to squabble over who was the real victim in their story – all that he said, she said nonsense.

Hughes admits from the outset that this is only a portrait from his own perspective; the “I thought” saves him from sounding too tyrannical, indeed throughout this piece (and throughout the entire collection for that matter) I feel Hughes is showing us how elusive Plath (or any human being) is – how hard it is for him to pin her down.

So, he thought her Paris was “American”. The opening statement introduces the notion of difference – here cultural, educational difference, but also a difference in attitude – that is developed as the poem goes on. Plath steps out, in a “shatter of exclamations” of the “Hotel des Deux Continents”. The name of the hotel of course accentuates the feeling of estrangement – these two people are as different and distanced from each other as two continents. They are also each as heavily laden with history as two continents.

Plath in Paris is portrayed as ecstatically (perhaps manically?) enthralled with everything, even to the point of violence (the “shatter of exclamations”, her ecstasies “ricochet[ing]/ off the walls”) and very much wrapped up in the bohemian Paris of the interwar years – the Paris of the American ex-pat writers that Hughes lists (“Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Henry Miller…” etc.) She seems to very purposefully ignore the recent plight of Paris during the Second World War and the Occupation, from which in 1956 the city would still have been recovering. Is she afraid of something? Hughes is certainly afraid of ‘bursting her bubble’, as it were, for he states quite plainly “I kept my Paris from you”. The impression I import here is that Hughes was rather walking on eggshells around the explosive Plath – afraid to upset her.

But what was Hughes’ own Paris like? It was “only just not German”, he says. Hughes depicts himself as having been keenly aware of the recent war and all that had gone on in Paris – the reality of it was too present for him to ignore and feel nostalgic for the interwar jazz age. For Hughes, this was the city of “Occupation and old nightmare”, and the bullet scars in the Quai stonework gave him an “eerie familiar feeling”. I wonder whether Hughes (with the dye of hindsight inevitably colouring his memory) is relating to the suffering of Paris here – to the idea of Occupation. Perhaps he feels a connection to this city since the ghost of Plath has ‘occupied’ him – possessed him even – as is evident from this collection of more than eighty poems addressed to her over thirty years after her death.

Hughes is not interested in Plath’s Paris: “I was not much ravished by the view of the roofs./ My Paris was a post-war utility survivor,/ The stink of fear still hanging in the wardrobes.” He is full of “the Camps”, “the Maquis” and the “Mass grave of Verdun”, but for Plath (he remembers) all that was just “the anecdotal aesthetic touch/ On Picasso’s portrait/ Of Apollinaire”. It is made clear that Plath is hiding from something – from her own reaction to this history of violence, and perhaps from the notion of shame too. The shame of the collaborateurs perhaps drew too keen a comparison to Plath’s own ‘occupation’ by the memory of her father and the wound of his death (his towering ghost was ever-present in her poetry, most memorably in the masterfully controlled detonation that was Daddy but was never, it would seem, entirely exorcised).

This is certainly suggested by Hughes, who describes her as using her “lingo” as “an emergency burn-off/ To protect you from spontaneous combustion/ Protected you/ And your Paris.” She is hiding from the violence of recent history, hiding from her “torturer” (her father/ her illness) waiting for him to “remember his amusement”. Hughes describes her father as a “stone god” (reminding us of Plath’s poem The Colossus), which really creates a sense of their helplessness – both of them – faced with the reality which was that Plath had been picked on by fate – by the Gods –  and by a mental illness that would eventually kill her.  Hughes describes Plath as a “walking wound that the air/ Coming against kept in a fever, wincing/ To agonies”. The word “wincing” is extremely important here, I think. With this word, Hughes is acknowledging Plath’s suffering but he is also allowing himself to express his anger and frustration at her.

A language barrier between the two poets is evoked with Plath’s “gushy burblings” having to be “decoded into a language, utterly new to me” and which he admits he interpreted with “hopelessly wrong meanings”. His fingers are “linked in [hers]” yet she is “hurtl[ing]” through a “labyrinth… scattering tears”, locked in a nightmare from which she could not wake, and “The Minotaur” (again, her father/her illness?) could not put “a blessed end/ To the torment”. This mention of a blessed end to the torment is even more devastating with the knowledge of how Plath’s suffering would eventually finish.

I will finally mention the end of the poem, and this touching image of Plath calming herself down by drawing, probably in the hotel room. Hughes paints himself as a blindly loyal partner, with many references to himself as dog-like throughout the piece – “happy to protect you”, and “Like a guide dog” – he “Yawned and dozed and watched [her] calm [her]self” by drawing, “as by touch, Roofs, a traffic bollard, a bottle, me”. I think this end line is just perfect, and very clever. It is as though with hindsight Hughes feels that he was in some way ensnared by Plath – that he became her victim; the way he makes her turn on him at the end – suddenly, the unexpected “me” – is very sinister, eerily foreboding and powerful.

Ted Hughes with Sylvia Plath

Ted Hughes with Sylvia Plath

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