A poem for the beginning of a new academic year (Post 42)

Walking Away – C. Day Lewis

Here, schools have either started their new year – in Scotland – or are about to do so – in other parts of the UK. University semesters are about to get underway.

For many families, there will be something new about this academic year – perhaps a child starting school, or a young person changing school, or a soon-to-be-young-adult beginning a university career.

It is a challenging time – both for the central players, and for their parents. It is exciting, of course, and it’s important to focus on that, and to encourage and support the person taking this first, new step. But it’s also a bit scary – it’s natural to be a bit scared when undertaking something new. And for parents, it can be a sad and difficult time, too, as they acknowledge that their offspring are growing up.

Cecil Day Lewis reflects on two partings, I think, although he describes only one. He doesn’t say what it is that prompts him to reflect on his memory of a leave-taking almost 18 years prior to the time of writing, but I think it is perhaps an older child’s leaving home permanently, or moving away – or perhaps even becoming a young father himself.

There is some wonderful, evocative imagery, for example the little boy walking back to school after his first match, a little uncertain about what he should do: “the gait of one/ Who finds no path where the path should be.”

There is a deep truth and a painful understanding, too, about the nature of parenthood, and the love that parents have for their children – whatever age they may be.

Walking Away

It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day –
A sunny day with leaves just turning,
The touch-lines new-ruled – since I watched you play
Your first game of football, then, like a satellite
Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away

Behind a scatter of boys. I can see
You walking away from me towards the school
With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free
Into a wilderness, the gait of one
Who finds no path where the path should be.

That hesitant figure, eddying away
Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,
Has something I never quite grasp to convey
About nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching
Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay.

I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show –
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.

April 2nd 2021 (Post 41)

It is a year ago today that this blog went live. Coincidentally, April 2nd was also the date of my parents’ marriage; and the date of my baptism; and the date when close friends of my parents were married, one of whom has died since this time last year. So with these occasions in mind, I thought I’d post a poem, and a few thoughts about love, life and poetry, as a commemoration.

Asking me “What is your favourite poem?” would be about as useful (and productive) as asking me “What is your favourite piece of music?” There are different favourites for different times, moods and needs. One poem that has stood me in very good stead over many years, however, and one that I keep coming back to, is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. I first realised what a consolation it can be when my first “serious” boyfriend ended our relationship after several years. The poem made me realise that there will always be a corner in my heart for someone I have truly loved, however the relationship ended, however that person feels about me now, whether or not the person is still alive and whether or not he or she loved me at all.

Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments; love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove.

O, no, it is an ever-fixed mark,

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wand’ring bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

     If this be error and upon me proved,

     I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Similarly, I have come to realise that when you are loved by someone, it has a lasting effect on the person you are, whether or not the love itself continues and whether or not the relationship lasts. As J.K Rowling had Albus Dumbledore say, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: “to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection for ever.”

Perceptively, too, Rowling writes in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows of someone who has “that indefinable air of having been well cared for, even adored”.

It is important to realise that we cannot hang on to – or preserve – moments of joy in life. The nature of life is that it and we change constantly. We have to “live in the moment” and try to appreciate it for what it is. We shall remember it, we hope, and the memory will bring joy. Perhaps there will be further moments of joy to come. But we cannot preserve that moment so that we are constantly experiencing it. The poet Keats wrote several wonderful poems in which he tried to identify and describe the human experience of beauty. One attempt saw him describe a scene of two young lovers as they were portrayed on the side of an ancient vase (in Ode on a Grecian Urn): “Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave/ Thy song nor ever can those trees be bare;/ Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss/ Though winning near the goal, yet do not grieve;/ She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,/ For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair.” Later he describes their love as “For ever warm, and still to be enjoy’d” and the lovers (and their love) as “for ever young”.

That’s one way of preserving beauty and beautiful moments – but it’s not life. Keats came to realise that an essential element of that which we perceive as beauty, or as a beautiful experience, is transience – that is, it is passing, it doesn’t last. That is the nature of life, and of human enjoyment of it. It is a valuable lesson to learn, and one that helps us to appreciate the good things in life – which will have a lasting effect on us – while recognising that we cannot make them permanent.

UK National Day of Reflection – Tuesday 23rd March 2021 (Post 40)

On 23rd March 2021 it will be exactly a year since the UK began its first Covid19-related “lockdown”. The care charity Marie Curie is organising a National Day of Reflection, including a minute of silence at 12 noon, so that we can take time to focus on those who have died during the past year, those who have been bereaved, and those who have been or still are ill – as well, of course, as thinking about those who have cared for the ill and the dying.

There are various events – many, understandably, online – being held, created by various organisations. Many people, however, will either want to, or have to, mark the day alone, each in his or her own way.

Poetry has a great capacity to help us in times of sadness. The best poets sometimes seem to express what we feel, when we can’t find the words for it ourselves. Others through their words allow us to realise what we feel, when we’ve been struggling to recognise it.

Above all, when we find a poem that resonates with us, it helps us to know that we are not alone in what we are suffering: someone else has been there, too, and knows how it feels.

Here are three poems, very different from one another. There are many more I could have chosen, but there are at least as many poems as there are types of suffering, and each of us has to find what speaks to herself or himself.

Remember me when I am gone away,

         Gone far away into the silent land;

         When you can no more hold me by the hand,

Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.

Remember me when no more day by day

         You tell me of our future that you plann’d:

         Only remember me; you understand

It will be late to counsel then or pray.

Yet if you should forget me for a while

         And afterwards remember, do not grieve:

         For if the darkness and corruption leave

         A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,

Better by far you should forget and smile

         Than that you should remember and be sad.

(Christina Rossetti)

Though my mother was already two years dead
Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas,
put hot water bottles her side of the bed
and still went to renew her transport pass.

You couldn’t just drop in.  You had to phone.
He’d put you off an hour to give him time
to clear away her things and look alone
as though his still raw love were such a crime.

He couldn’t risk my blight of disbelief
though sure that very soon he’d hear her key
scrape in the rusted lock and end his grief.
He knew she’d just popped out to get the tea.

I believe life ends with death, and that is all.
You haven’t both gone shopping; just the same,
in my new black leather phone book there’s your name
and the disconnected number I still call.

(Tony Harrison)

If I should go before the rest of you,
Break not a flower nor inscribe a stone,
Nor when I’m gone speak in a Sunday voice,
But be the usual selves that I have known.
Weep if you must
Parting is Hell,
But life goes on,
So sing as well.

(Joyce Grenfell)

World Book Day: Thursday 4th March 2021 (Post 39)

The past year, in which most of us have been confined to our homes more than ever before, has seen a great increase in reading.

Perhaps that’s a good reason for celebrating World Book Day especially enthusiastically this year. Celebrate it by telling friends and family about books you’ve particularly enjoyed – or particularly valued (not always the same thing). Celebrate by buying, or arranging to borrow, a book you’ve been wanting to read for some time. Celebrate by starting – or continuing – to write your own book, if that’s your inclination. But above all: celebrate by READING.

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, is probably the classic novel about the value of books. First published in 1953, it is what we would nowadays call a “dystopian” work of fiction, set in an imagined future where books are banned and, if found, burned. Like Asimov’s short story The Fun They Had (see Post 38), Fahrenheit 451 suffers from having made predictions or assumptions about the future which do not take account of how our lives have actually changed since the work was written. Bradbury has no concept of computers, for example, or the internet, whereby whole libraries can be digitally stored on cloud servers for posterity, even if all hard copy books were to disappear. He has some interesting ideas on home entertainment, though! If you haven’t come across it, Fahrenheit 451 is definitely worth a look. It is thought-provoking as well as being a well told story.

Other books to try . . .

Douglas Adams’s The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy became a cult, back in the early 1980s. There are still some people who make knowing reference to 42 being the answer to “life, the universe and everything”. Starting as a radio series, “Hitch-hiker” then became a book (and a series of books) and then a tv series, and eventually a film. Douglas Adams, whose death at a relatively early age deprived us of many, many more wonderful pieces of writing, takes a wry look at the way that the future will alter our perceptions: written at a time when digital watches were new, expensive and quite rare, the book refers to “an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” It’s another classic that deserves your time if you haven’t already read it; it won’t take long to read and with luck you’ll find it still very funny.

Richard Adams (no relation) is best known as the author of Watership Down, a children’s book which was also enjoyed by many older readers. A later novel, The Girl in a Swing, is much darker and definitely for adults. It is well written, of a good length, shows variety in its subject-matter and leaves the reader questioning the strangeness of what happens.

P.G. Wodehouse wrote in the first half of the twentieth century. He wrote a great deal, and most of it remains very popular. Light-hearted and with an extraordinary use of well known (or half-remembered) quotations from Shakespeare, the Bible and other works which formed the basis of a boy’s education in literature at that time, Wodehouse’s novels tend to focus on the English aristocracy or well-to-do middle classes in a way that gently makes fun of them. My favourites are the “Jeeves” series of novels and short stories, which were turned into a tv series with Stephen Fry as Jeeves and Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster, some time in the early nineties (and the jazz theme tune is wonderful!). No need to see the action, though – the books are a treat, especially when you feel in need of being cheered up.

Donna Leon has written 30 novels about Inspector Guido Brunetti of the Venice police and his family and colleagues. They are detective stories, but much more than that. The descriptions of Venice are wonderfully atmospheric, and the characters beautifully created. There may be some resolutions of the cases featured, but there is no happy ending to the corruption and self-interest of many of the organisations and individuals Leon includes. The balm of the books is Brunetti’s family life, which restores the reader’s sense of what is essential in life as much as it does his own.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are known and loved across the world. I don’t need to tell you about the massive industry that has sprung from them. What is particularly special about these books is that they started – or re-started – boys reading fiction in a way that nothing else had done. Even the “boys’ own” adventure books of earlier in the twentieth century didn’t have the same mass appeal as her stories of the boy wizard and his friends (and enemies). They are the product of a very special imagination, and the reading the first in the series – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – always impresses me with its inventions. It is easy to take the “world” of Harry Potter for granted now, but we shouldn’t forget all that it has achieved.

Two books that deal with real-life challenges for young people are The Year of the Rat by Clare Furniss and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Each deals with reactions to the serious illness or death of a parent, in one case on the part of a young girl, and the other on the part of a young boy. One is absolutely based in real life; the other has a magical element to it but is no less valuable an insight into young people’s lives and emotions for that.

If you want something very lighthearted, easy to read and always enjoyable, try Jilly Cooper‘s novels (which tend to find favour with female readers rather than men) such as Score!, Wicked! and Appassionata. For factual but no less entertaining light reading, any of Bill Bryson‘s travelogues will fit the bill, especially (for my money) the early ones.

Opinions are divided about the work of Terry Pratchett, but I love his use of language, his humour and his insight into human behaviour disguised as the behaviour of the inhabitants of Discworld. Each of the novels tends to have a particular relevance to the time in which it was written, but that’s never made explicit and it doesn’t prevent readers of any period enjoying them.

I could go on . . . but I hope that some of what I’ve written gives you ideas for trying something you haven’t read before.

Have a very happy World Book Day!

A story for our times? (Post 38)

One of the greatest writers of science fiction was Isaac Asimov. He is probably best known for his “Robot” series and his “Foundation” novels. He was however a prolific writer of short stories [that is, he wrote a lot of them].

Very often it is the content of science fiction stories that attracts its readers, rather than the style. That is probably true of Asimov’s work as well, although his style is pleasingly easy to read.

It is interesting to see what sci-fi writers guessed correctly about the future (as it was to them) and what they got wrong. In the story to which I’m attaching a link, which he wrote in 1951, Asimov imagines a mechanical teacher rather than a computerised one, and – unsurprisingly, I think – had no concept of the Internet. He also still works in “old fashioned” fractions, rather than decimals.

Despite all that, however, the story still speaks to us, in my view. Asimov sets it in 2157; he would have been surprised, perhaps, to know that it already has a resonance for us in 2021. When you read it, spare a thought for what school-age pupils are missing out on, during this Covid19-related “lockdown”.

Press Ctrl and click on the link to go to the story’s site.

The Fun They Had (visual-memory.co.uk)

Christmas Poems (Post 36)

Whatever Christmas means to you, I hope you enjoy these poems.

The first is a well known poem of nostalgia, written in the voice of an adult wishing that he could still believe the accounts of Christmas that he was told as a child. In this case, the story is the legend that at midnight, when Christmas Eve becomes Christmas Day, all the animals kneel down, to honour the birth of the Christ child.

Thomas Hardy uses a simple structure of four-line verses, rhyming a b a b, with a regular rhythm; this is appropriate for a simple story of childhood. The atmosphere that Hardy creates is a large part of the attraction of the poem; it is one that we might all long to experience. [barton and coomb are dialect words from Hardy’s part of the country. We might say “farmyard” and “valley”.]

The Oxen – Thomas Hardy

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock. / “Now they are all on their knees,” / An elder said as we sat in a flock / By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where / They dwelt in their strawy pen, / Nor did it occur to one of us there / To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave / In these years! Yet, I feel, / If someone said on Christmas Eve, / “Come; see the oxen kneel,

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb / Our childhood used to know,” / I should go with him in the gloom, / Hoping it might be so.

U. A. Fanthorpe wrote poems regularly at Christmas. Some of her best, it seems to me, look at the traditional story of the Nativity – the birth of the Christ child in a stable in Bethlehem, surrounded by farm creatures, laid in a manger for his bed and attended by his parents – from an unusual point of view. The two short poems that follow are examples of that.

Joseph uses – like Hardy’s poem above – a simple four-line verse structure with a regular rhythm; its rhyme-scheme is a b c b. Again, it’s essentially a simple message – it’s how Joseph feels about the birth of Jesus, who is said to have been conceived by his mother, Mary, while she was still a virgin, through the action of the Holy Spirit. Because it’s written in the first person – that is, as if it is being spoken by Joseph himself – it makes it easier for us to appreciate how he feels. Joseph could so easily have felt resentful about what had happened. There is, instead, a sadness and a determination about his response here. The final verse suggests to me the great love that Joseph has for his “foster son”, and the final line is a very compact summary of the life of Christ as traditionally told.

Joseph – U. A. Fanthorpe

I am Joseph, carpenter, / Of David’s kingly line, / I wanted an heir; discovered / My wife’s son wasn’t mine.

I am an obstinate lover, / Loved Mary for better or worse. / Wouldn’t stop loving when first I found / Someone Else came first.

Mine was the likeness I hoped for / When the first-born man-child came. / But nothing of him was me. I couldn’t / Even choose his name.

I am Joseph, who wanted / To teach my own boy how to live. / My lesson for my foster son: / Endure. Love. Give.

The second U. A. Fanthorpe poem tells the story from the point of view of one of the animals in the stable – the donkey. It includes, too, other elements of the traditional story – the shepherds and Magi (or Wise Men from the East) who came to worship Jesus when he was born, and the multitude of angels (“the heavenly host”) who told the good news to the shepherds and guided them to the stable. A cherub, by the way, is traditionally a small angelic figure, rather like a baby with wings.

What I particularly like about this poem is the sense of ownership of the stable which the donkey has, and the oblique [indirect] reference in the last two lines to the adult Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, on the back of a donkey, at the beginning of the week in which he is to be tried, found guilty and executed by crucifixion.

This poem is more free-form than those above: the lines are of uneven length and the rhyme scheme is slight, if indeed it is there at all (course – host; baby – money). The effect is to render the poem more like normal speech – an effect which is enhanced by the poem also being written in the first person, in the “voice” – or thoughts – of the donkey.

What the Donkey Saw – U. A. Fanthorpe

No room in the inn, of course, / And not that much in the stable / What with the shepherds, Magi, Mary, / Joseph, the heavenly host – / Not to mention the baby / Using our manger as a cot . / You couldn’t have squeezed another cherub in / For love or money.

Still, in spite of the overcrowding, / I did my best to make them feel wanted. / I could see the baby and I / Would be going places together.

Reading helps young people cope with life (Post 34)

Cressida Cowell, the author of the How to Train Your Dragon series, was writing in The (London) Times Saturday Review last weekend – 22nd August 2020. What she had to say struck a chord with me. The piece was timed to appeal to parents and carers in England whose children are returning to school in early September after – in some cases – a six-month break because of the Covid19 restrictions. Understandably, some children will be fearful about going back to school. That prompted her to write about helping young people cope with fear, through reading.

“. . . To a certain extent you have to know the child: what is acceptably and even necessarily scary for one child might be very frightening indeed for the next. That’s one of the reasons why librarians and booksellers are so vital. They have so much experience of giving children the right book at the right moment.

“Reading together is also important; it means that the adult is there to chat about any issues in the book. . . .

“And don’t forget about the necessity of the words themselves. The first stage of dealing with any kind of fear is being able to describe it. The more a child reads or is read to (audiobooks still count), the more words they have to help them. This is why it is so important that books survive as a medium. It’s the words, people. Words are the pathway of thought: the more words a child has, the more intelligently and creatively they are able to think about their emotions and the emotions of others.

“Children’s books often distil the most important messages we and our children need to hear, doing so with simplicity, humour and heart. In the words of Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt: ‘We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh no! We’ve got to go through it!’ “

I couldn’t have put it better myself! Good luck with the things that you fear – we all have them – and keep reading! (For other blog posts on reading and books, see Posts 5, 11 and 22.)

Wind – by Ted Hughes (Post 32)

See the source image

To my mind, this is another wonderful poem (See Posts 27 and 31 for others I admire and enjoy).

Although it has fairly even (in length), four-line stanzas, there is a random quality to the actions and elements described in the poem – reflecting the unexpectedness and sudden changes of events caused by a viciously high wind in the UK. (There are more damaging and stronger, but more consistent, winds that ravage other countries.) This poem seems to me to describe an English (Ted Hughes was a Yorkshire man) or Scottish storm particularly well.

1 The title bluntly describes what the poem is about. That bluntness – including use of monosyllables (one-syllable words) – is going to run throughout the poem.

2 The opening line challenges our imagination – how can a house be at sea? – but perfectly conjures up the sense of unsteadiness which has been caused by the buffeting wind howling around the outside of the house throughout the night.

3 Even indoors, the narrator has heard and seen the vicious damage caused by the winds. Inanimate objects – the woods, the hills, the winds – are given actions, as if they were alive: The woods crashing . . . the booming hills,/ Winds stampeding the fields . . . .

4 If this were prose (not poetry), there would be something missing in the final line of the first stanza: “astride” usually requires an object – that is, something is astride something else. Here there is nothing. And what is it that is astride, anyway? Is it the winds – stampeding the fields under the window/ Floundering black astride and blinding wet – ? Or is it the fields, or even the window? Certainly “blinding wet” would apply very well to the window during a rainstorm. Here there is a disconnect of language, something poetry can do very well and which we wouldn’t usually “get away with” in prose. The randomness and uncertainty of the actions and the nouns in lines 3 and 4 work to draw us into the situation of looking out of a house window during a raging storm.

5 I’m not going to go through this poem line by line, as I did with the other two. I don’t want to bore you, and also by now you will be able to respond to the poem in your own way, and explain how it works on you. I’m going to pick out a few things that I think work especially well, and a few techniques that we haven’t come across or focused on before.

6 Look at how the lines don’t always end with a punctuation mark. In these cases the sentence runs on into the next line – sometimes even into the next stanza (Stanza 1 into Stanza 2; 4 into 5). This effect is called enjambement (it means making a leg; I always think of a leg bending at the knee, seen side-on, with the thigh being the upper line and the calf being the lower one! OK, I’m strange, but it works for me). I particularly like how the reader comes to an end of the description of the night of the storm (at the end of line 4) and then, as soon as the next line and stanza begin, it is daybreak – and a whole new world, it seems, emerges into the light.

7 The storm continues during the day. An image (a picture in words) that I especially like comes in line 9 – At noon I scaled along the house-side. “Scaling” is how we climb cliffs. The wind is so strong that it threatens to blow the narrator off the side of the house. If you’ve been out in any really strong wind, you’ll relish that description!

8 Line 11 makes great use of monosyllabic wordsThrough, brunt, wind, balls, eyes – and hard-sounding lettersbrunt, that, dented, balls. The brutal impact of the wind on the narrator’s face and eyes is conveyed through the sounds of the words as well as though their meaning.

9 There’s a lovely extended metaphor in lines 12, 13 and 14. Remember, a metaphor is a comparison between two largely unalike things and doesn’t use either the word like or the word as. Here, the metaphor compares the hills with a tent: The tent of the hills drummed and strained its guyrope, / The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace, / At any second to bang and vanish with a flap . . . . Have you been in a tent when it’s likely to be blown away by a very strong wind? The quivering canvas, the flapping of any sections which aren’t pinned down tightly enough – these are all reproduced here, and the hills (possibly tent-shaped on the horizon) – those massive, earthbound lumps of age-old rock – are made to seem flimsy and vulnerable in the face of the powerful wind.

10 Possibly my favourite part of the poem is the image of the black-Back gull [which] bent like an iron bar slowly. Every time I see a bird fighting its way into a strong wind, the black-back gull comes to mind. Again the hard sounds – blackback gull – suggest struggle, and the way in which the epithet (short description) black-Back is bent around the end of one line and the beginning of the next is, I think, genius! And it’s not bent “slowly, like an iron bar” but like an iron bar slowly – so that we have to continue reading the line, relentlessly, without comma or pause, in the same way that the wind is relentlessly pressing on and bending the gull.

11 Have you ever run a wet finger-tip round a fine glass to make it ring? It’s a wonderful sound; do try it. And here the whole house is being made by the wind to ring like a fine glass – and as with the tent-like hills, the massive house is rendered as fragile as glass by the whipping wind – The house/ Rang like some fine green goblet in the note/ That any second would shatter it.

12 The final six or so lines focus on the effect of the wind on the occupants of the house, and tell us of the unsettling, disturbing effect it has. Despite being safe in deep chairs, in front of a great fire, the occupants cannot concentrate on anything, but only sit and wait, experiencing the ravaging effects of the storm – watch the fire blazing . . . feel the roots of the house move . . . seeing the window tremble . . . Hearing the stones cry out . . . .

Perhaps reading this will make you want to try your hand at writing your own poems about intense experiences in nature!

Another poem: High Flight (Post 31)

This poem is very different from the last one we analysed (Valentine, by Carol Ann Duffy – see Post 27). Nevertheless, responding to the words you read, and giving evidence to back up your responses, are the two elements needed – once again – to write a critical account of the piece.

You don’t need to know this, but for interest’s sake: the writer of the poem, John Magee, was an Anglo-American aviator and poet. Magee served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, which he joined before the United States entered the second world war; he died in a mid-air collision over Lincolnshire in 1941.

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 sunlit silence. Hov’ring 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, or
ever 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.

1 You can see on the page or screen that this poem is fairly regular in its line lengths (unlike the Carol Ann Duffy poem). This shows us that the poet has put some effort into achieving that effect, as everyday speech and writing do not come out like that naturally. As I’ve said before, poetry is a form of writing where the writer has made an extra effort in his or her use of words, and so it is a form which repays an extra effort on the part of the reader.

2 In fact, if you count the number of syllables (units of sound within the words) in each line, you will find that they are all the same – ten syllables per line.

3 If you read the poem aloud, once you’ve got the sense of it, where do you put the strong stresses? Don’t get “hung up” on this, because different readers will read the poem differently, but on the whole I’d say that the stresses are in pairs, and that the most common stress pattern in those pairs is dit-DAH (weak-STRONG). Lines which are mostly ten syllables long, and where the stress pattern is most often weak-STRONG, are known as lines of iambic pentameter – and this is a very popular form in English because it is thought to resemble most closely the speech patterns of native speakers. Most of the text in Shakespeare’s plays, for example, is iambic pentameter.

4 Anyway – on to a more instinctive response! The title gives us a clue to what the poem is about – flying high. It could be about a bird – in which case the voice of the poem is the bird; we can tell this from the first line; “I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth”. The first verse (as it’s set out here – though in some editions the poem is only one, longer, verse) is a joyous description of flying and playing in the air. It is only in the final line of the first verse (or section) that we find out that the voice of the poem – the narrator – is not a bird after all, but a pilot: “I’ve . . . flung/ My eager craft through footless halls of air . . .”.

5 In the second verse, or second section, the narrator states that flying in his (or her – but as we know he was a pilot, it is likely that Magee is writing about his own experiences here) aircraft enables him to reach places that even birds cannot: “Where never lark, or even eagle flew – “.

6 What are the words and expressions which enable us to sense some of the joy and freedom the narrator feels whilst flying? “I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth”: he has escaped from the ties holding him to the ground. Notice the alliterationrepetition of a sound or sounds within a short distanceslipped – surly – to give a sense of something material (and unpleasant: surly means bad-tempered) falling away.

“And danced the skies” – a happy image (word picture), and one that tempts us to wonder at how anyone – or anything – could dance in the sky.

“on laughter-silvered wings” – laughter and silver are both attractive things; one speaks of happiness and joy, the other of beauty and richness. Notice, too, how the poet is appealing to both our sense of sound – with laughter – and our sense of sight – with silvered.

“Sunward” – most of us here on earth turn our faces to the sun, whether we be humans, animals or plants, as a matter of instinct.

“joined the tumbling mirth/ Of sun-split clouds” – mirth means happiness and laughter; sun-split (notice the alliteration again, which focuses our eyes and ears on the expression) clouds are something for us to conjure up in our imagination. It is (I think) a wonderful picture.

“and done a hundred things/ You have not dreamed of” – well, that’s how wonderful it is for him – better than any dreams we might have had.

“wheeled and soared and swung” – these are the actions he’s taken, and they have a marvellous sense of freedom about them.

“High in the sunlit silence” – having told us about things we can see, or imagine we see, he now appeals to our sense of hearing: there is no sound at all. (And yes, there’s more alliteration, again on the letter s. Either he really likes this sound, or – and having gone up in gliders for several years, I favour this interpretation – there is something about the s-sound that replicates or suggests the experience of flying freely.)

“Hov’ring there” – balanced between earth and sky, almost magically (because air-borne things usually fly or fall or climb). Why has he cut out the e of hovering, replacing it with an apostrophe? That’s because he wants to keep to ten syllables per line, and without the e we pronounce it as “hov – ring” – two syllables – rather than “hov – er – ing”, three syllables.

“I’ve chased the shouting wind along” – who wouldn’t want to be able to chase the wind? And here’s some sound, too – “shouting”.

“long, delirious, burning blue” – there’s a challenging image for you to conjure up! How can blue burn? How can blue be long? I expect you can explain that, but it’s not how we’d usually describe the sky, so I think it’s an excellent way of trying to get us to feel the wonder that the pilot feels. (Delirious, by the way, can mean wildly happy, which is how – I think – he wants us to feel here, even though – again – he’s actually describing the blue.)

“I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace” – what an achievement! And he makes it seem effortless – “with easy grace”.

7 At the end of the poem, we come to something going beyond even the physical, mental and emotional joys of flying. In the final three lines, the poet suggests that there is something spiritual about the experience of flying your own aircraft so high in the sky.

“with silent, lifting mind” – as if perhaps in a church, where people reflect in quietness and raise their thoughts to God.

“I’ve trod/ The high untrespassed sanctity of space” – sanctity means holiness. And he is not a trespasser here – it’s not wrong for him to be here.

“Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.” Here he is experiencing something beyond the normal human experience. There is something sublime about his experience while flying.

8 It seems wrong to say much, if anything, after that superb and mysterious ending – but you might want on another occasion to look at the rhyme-scheme [ABAB CDCD EFE GFG]. The poem is a sonnet . . . but that’s material for another day and another blog!

Eye tolled ewe sew – Homophones (Post 19)

Homophones are words which sound the same but are spelled differently – I/eye; told/tolled; you/ewe; so/sew. There are many in the English language.

Eye-rhyme is when this happens the other way around: words look as if they should rhyme, but they’re actually pronounced differently – rough, through, although, cough. The language is well supplied with traps for the unwary!

If you were brought up from your childhood to speak (and read and write) English, you are fortunate: you will have learned to avoid most of these traps almost as a matter of course.

Even native speakers can struggle at times, though. See how you get on with this ditty (a ditty is a short poem that rhymes very obviously and has a very distinct and simple rhythm), reading it for understanding. Read it aloud (it’s allowed …) if you want to make that easier!

Spell Chequer

Eye have a grate spell chequer:

It came with my pea sea.

It plainly marques four my revue

Miss steaks aye can knot sea.

Eye strike a quay and type a word,

And weight for it to say

Weather eye am wrong oar write;

It shows me strait a-weigh.

Whenever a mist ache is maid,

It nose bee four two long;

And eye can put the error rite.

It’s rare lea ever wrong.

Eye ran this poem threw it and

I’m shore your pleased two no

It’s letter perfect awl the weigh:

My chequer tolled me sew.