An Analysis of Neutral Tones by Thomas Hardy

In terms of comparison, you couldn’t go far wrong in looking at this poem alongside Winter Swans by Owen Sheers. Neutral Tones has some similar ideas and themes that Sheers picks up to explore in his poem, although this poem does not, of course, finish happily.

In terms of form, the poem is very straightforward: four stanzas of four lines. In this aspect, you can easily compare it with When We Two Parted. Written some sixty years after the Byron poem, you can notice how the form here is just a vehicle for condensing his thought rather than anything that supports the meaning of the poem, per se. It was published some thirty years after it was written, in 1898, and is very typical of Hardy’s turn-of-the-century poems. I’d go as far as to say it’s very typical of Hardy in general – he’s certainly a man who doesn’t shy away from the miserable and depressing. Marriage, religion and education all come under attack, and his depiction of several miserable marriages doesn’t leave readers with much faith in love. The theme of love’s disappointments is one he explores frequently.

When we consider the poem’s title, it perhaps gives us some reason for this ‘neutral’ form. The form in itself is so popular as to be meaningless. The enclosed rhyme ABBA makes each stanza neat and compact, a circle if you like. Each line falls in a syllabic length of between 8 and 11 syllables without any clear pattern. There are quite a lot of unstressed syllables and there’s not a clear pattern, which takes away any desire to make it either easy to read or ‘rhyme-y’. For instance, there are quite a lot of anapestic feet that go da-da-DUM, like this “by a POND… and the SUN… as though CHIDD/en of GOD… on the STARV/… and were GRAY”. Because you can do anapests that sound a bit Dr Seuss-y… “you have BRAINS in your HEAD, you have FEET in your SHOES” which is a very sing-song, harmonious rhythm and Hardy has few enough of the anapests so that it doesn’t sound sing-songy like Seuss. In fact, when you think he’s establishing any kind of rhythm, he throws you off balance. It’s more purposeful than normal speech, with some patterns, but not enough that you can get carried along by the rhythm. Neither disharmonious nor harmonious. Now that’s some clever use of stress and meter! It’s neither comfortable nor uncomfortable, but I’ll say one thing: just as you fall into a rhythm, it throws you off again and you find yourself stumbling over the words to stress, which makes it feel a bit awkward. That’s interesting to me, this awkward rhythm. I think it reveals much of his own state of mind.

Like Winter Swans and When We Two Parted, this poem is also written as a kind of confessional. We get that from the first word, “we” which gives us the initial sense of the relationship, but then we have “your” and “me” in stanza two which reveals the division. All of those personal pronouns, from “our” and “us” to “your” focuses the poem very much on the relationship. We are left to wonder which relationship he is writing about, and who this mysterious woman is, just as we are in the Byron poem. We are also left to wonder why he chooses to write this poem, to make it public (and to know that it was thirty years between writing and publication, which is interesting) and left with the same questions we have for the Sheers’ poem and that of Byron. Is it words he could never say to this person, a kind of confessional? Is it what he would say if he could? We ask the same things: it feels strangely private and I feel a bit odd reading it – like he’s put all his emotional wounds out on display for me to read. Similar to the Owen Sheers’ poem, it’s a bit unnerving on two levels: firstly in that we’re faced with the rawness of someone’s emotions, which we’re perhaps not so comfortable looking at, and secondly because it feels like we’re a bit of a Poetry Peeping Tom, and it’s always a bit uncomfortable when people are airing their personal stuff in public. All the same, you should ask yourself why he would publish something that is essentially private communication that is quite clearly about someone? Is it just that he happened upon a great emotion and he thought “I could make a great poem out of that?” or is it autobiographical? This is a technique that ties all three poems together and is worth reflecting on why you think they did this. Personally, I think they are words they could never say, things they wish they could have said. Poetry is such a great medium for a bit of introspective relationship navel-gazing. It’s the pre-emo vehicle for all contemplation of personal issues. You can see, however, how the poem has moved on from the now-old-fashioned “thee” form that we see in When We Two Parted. 

Not only that, this is a different time period in the relationship. In fact, it spans two. First, it’s about “that” day, and the fourth stanza moves it on to “since then” showing how things have developed.

Like Owen Sheers, Hardy uses winter as the perfect backdrop to this dying relationship. Unlike Sheers’ poem, which is littered with positives, the breaking light, the birds, this has none of that. The sun’s a strange kind of post-apocalyptic “white” which reminds us of the title, “neutral tones” which works on two levels, firstly about colour, meaning those colours without colour, shades if you like. Ask any interior designer or fashion designer what neutral tones are and they’ll tell you that they’re those colours like grey and beige. But they’ll also tell you that neutrals often have undertones which I think is very relevant here (not that Thomas Hardy dipped in and out of Dulux catalogues pondering on the difference between Apple Blossom and Milk Pail) Ask a photographer about neutral and they’ll tell you that it refers to something in the middle, not black or white, not warm or cold. I think that adds quite a lot to our understanding of what Hardy meant. He has a poem which is written in what he suggests is a neutral tone (the second meaning of the poem) but has undertones all of its own. It’s not neutral at all. We also take neutral as a word in itself to consider what that means – that it refers to something unbiased, taking neither one side nor another. It can mean “grey” or emotionless too, kind of dull – but the mood of the relationship seems anything but that.

Like Sheers, we have the “pond”, this body of unmoving water, which is in keeping with the “neutrality” – it’s not the passionate seas or the ever-moving rivers. It’s still and motionless. The “winter” and the “white” sun also add to the image. White suggests an impartiality, but also a coldness and emotionlessness. This sun is not the cheery break in the rain that Sheers describes, this is a cold and dispassionate thing. The simile “as though chidden by God” is unusual. Chidden is the past tense of “chide”. Chide in itself is an old-fashioned word and the past participle of “chidden” is too. It means “told off” or “scolded” and is an image also used by Shakespeare (with the Roman Gods Mercury and Jove) the simile puts a dampener on the mood of the poem too: why would God tell the sun off? And the sun’s reaction is to burn colder, whiter. It puts us in the frame of mind of disputes and disagreements.

The first stanza introduces another colour as well, the “grey” of the leaves of the “ash”. Ash in itself (the fire by-product rather than the tree) is grey, so we’ve whites and greys that set the atmosphere. The fallen leaves are evocative of a season of dying and decay. Interestingly, ash (the substance, not the tree) is what is produced when something is burned up. It’s also a symbol of penitence, like “Ash Wednesday”. It’s unusual, this choice of the ash-tree. Either it’s a factual autobiographical detail and there really were ash leaves on the edge of the pond, or Hardy has picked the word “ash” for a reason. It’s not that the tree in itself is particularly symbolic or meaningful (unlike Romeo’s sycamores) but that like Shakespeare and his sycamores, it’s a play on words, using “ash” to give us this grey association, this “neutral tone”. Plus, we say “ashes to ashes” when we talk about death, so perhaps he’s picking up on this connection.

Perhaps the other thing worth considering in stanza one is the way Hardy writes about the “starving sod”, and the alliteration of the s really focusing us on these words to wonder why he says that the ground is “starving”. Is it lacking in nourishment, in anything nourishing? I also notice in the first stanza the multiple use of “And”, which adds a monotony to it, along with the greyness and the winter.

As we move into the second stanza, it becomes more focused on the woman, rather than their relationship. Into this neutral-but-not-neutral landscape, we have a woman who looks at the poet as a “tedious riddle” – riddles sound kind of fun, like something to puzzle over, something to work out. When we talk about people being an enigma, it makes them sound kind of cool. But if you’re a tedious riddle, you’re monotonous and tiresome, boring. That with the “years ago” makes it seem like not only does she look at Hardy as if he was a tedious riddle, but one that got tedious years ago, like me with a ten-year-old sudoku. It’s just not appealing anymore. The word “rove” by the way, gives us the noun, “rover” or one who wanders. That’s why we call our dogs Rover and we have the Land Rover. It’s someone who has no kind of definite purpose in mind when they set out. Her eyes are the “roving” thing here though, which is curious. “Roving eyes” or “wandering eyes” always make me think of someone who’s looking at everybody else other than the person they’re with – someone who is no longer interested in what’s before them.

In fact, we have another positive word in stanza two as well: “played” to describe the words between them. This has connotations of something fun, as “riddles” do (and don’t forget, riddles are very much a word thing) It sounds like Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing with their “merry war” of words and verbal sparring, but this doesn’t sound fun, just melancholic and miserable, with the alliteration of “lost” and “love”. He doesn’t even know what was said anymore – just “some words”. He looks back on this very vivid scenario and now everything seems to be in a different light.

We see that very clearly in the next stanza, that she was smiling, but it was “the deadest thing”, as if she is going through the motions, her smile is not at all genuine. It’s ironic to have the superlative “deadest” put next to “alive enough” because “deadest” means that her smile couldn’t be more dead – it is as dead as it is possible to be. Yet it is “alive enough” which is strange. Only “alive enough” to have “strength to die”. The juxtaposition of dead and alive forces both of them into contrast, highlighting them both. Certainly it doesn’t sound as if she has any feelings of happiness when she looks on him. It certainly doesn’t strike me as a very “neutral” description of this moment.

The stanza continues with her “grin” – something that would sound positive and has positive connotations of happiness, but here seems loaded with something false and disingenuous, since it is a “grin of bitterness”. Again, nothing particularly neutral about the way he recalls her smile as insincere and bitter. These two images are then finished with the final line, a simile comparing her smile to an “ominous bird a-wing”. You can kind of imagine how a smile might look like a bird in flight – an interesting point of comparison for what Owen Sheers says about the two swans and how they use natural images to portray the emotions of the narrator and the person to whom the poem is directed. An “omen” gives us the word “ominous” and it means a sign of something bad that will happen, like if you break a mirror or see a magpie. It’s a warning of bad things that will happen. So when he sees in her smile a bird in flight, it’s not just any old bird, it’s a bird that is an omen for something bad that is yet to come. At this point in both the poem and the relationship, there is a feeling of things going wrong, but the couple are together. It is only by the fourth stanza that we realise time has passed. However, the poem is written retrospectively, and hindsight gives us 20/20 vision as they say. It’s easy to look back on past relationships and see where they went wrong, see the warning signs that the relationship was doomed: signs that we didn’t see at the time. That seems to be what is happening here.

The fourth stanza starts with a shift in time, “since then”. In this sense, “keen” means sharp, like a knife. Painful lessons, you might say. And the lesson that he’s learned? Love hurts.

Here’s a bit of 70s magic that really encapsulates Hardy’s feelings.

So…. not neutral at all then if he’s learned some lessons about love, that love deceives.

Interesting though. He says “love” deceives, not that she has deceived. Maybe it’s not that she has cheated on him or lied (although the smile on her mouth being “dead” and the “grin of bitterness” make me think that it was not just love deceiving Hardy, but the woman as well. If anything, there’s not a stick of evidence that she has been unfaithful, more that her love was just a fiction. The play on sounds of “wrings” and “wrongs” throws these words into focus. “Wrings” implies forceable twisting, or to extract in a forceable way. Honestly, I’m not sure what this bit means exactly – which makes me think he thought the sounds were good, but I think personally it’s more sound than sense. It sure sounds painful though. None of the “neutral tones” that we were promised. The final lines come back to the beginning again, making a pun on the word “wrings” and turning it to “rings”, suggesting to me that he is trapped in a circle of memories that he can’t escape – the image seems to be burnt into his memory of the woman, the sun, the trees and the leaves, like he remembers the exact point at which he realised something momentous. Was this then the moment that he realised the woman’s smile was “dead” and that her grin was something more than it seemed?

In summary, a pessimistic and negative poem that has an intensely dour lexical field despite promising neutrality. It’s a poem recalling a moment significant to the poet, a turning point perhaps from which he then went on to learn the bitter lessons of love’s deceit. It compares well with Winter Swans or When We Two Parted in terms of mood, tone and ideas, as well as the narrative voice and the particularly private nature of the poems.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about AQA GCSE English Literature poetryplease send me an email and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.




An Analysis of “When We Two Parted” by Lord Byron

Not the most challenging poem on the new AQA GCSE English Literature specification, but one worth a little reflection, of course. It’s especially thought-provoking once you really think about it, rather than just glibly saying that it’s a poem about being broken-hearted, or a relationship gone bad.

Here’s Amy to get you in the mood.

She can’t say “no regrets” and neither can Byron, it seems.

So… what have we got with When We Two Parted

Like Winter Swans, it’s written from a first-person narrative perspective, and it’s addressed to an unnamed individual. So what’s that about? Is it words he could never say to this person, a kind of confessional? Is it what he would say if he could? He does say that he’d greet her “in silence” so perhaps these are the words he wishes he could say to her. All the same, it feels strangely private and I feel a bit odd reading it – like he’s put all his emotional wounds out on display for me to read. Similar to the Owen Sheers’ poem, it’s a bit unnerving on two levels: firstly in that we’re faced with the rawness of someone’s emotions, which we’re perhaps not so comfortable looking at, and secondly because it feels like we’re a bit of a Poetry Peeping Tom, and it’s always a bit uncomfortable when people are airing their personal stuff in public. All the same, you should ask yourself why he would publish something that is essentially private communication that is quite clearly about someone? Is it just that he happened upon a great emotion and he thought “I could make a great poem out of that?” or is it autobiographical? Do we need to know heartbreak to write about heartbreak?

We’ve also got the use of “thee”, the equivalent of the French “tu”. It’s singular, because it refers to one person. We can use “you” though, if we’re feeling cold. Just look at how Shakespeare brings out Hamlet’s feelings of betrayal when he speaks to his mother using “you” if you don’t believe me. Cold words, Hamlet, cold indeed. Yet here we’ve got Byron using the familiar “thee” which suggests an intimacy and a knowledge, he “knew” her “too well”. So why’s he using it here? To express familiarity? To express that closeness and intimacy? Or to express contempt? It had generally fallen out of use in Southern England by 1650 according to some sources. We don’t see it, for instance, in the characters’ speech or writing in Jane Austen, though we see it in some other texts, especially to represent the speech of provincial characters. So in other words, it’s a choice Byron is making that would have revealed something about their relationship, though it’s still something that we see used in Frankenstein, for instance. It’s not that he’s using it to make it sound old-fashioned, or even that he’s using it inappropriately, more that he’s using it to reveal something about both the intimacy of their relationship and the contempt he has for her.

As to whether it’s an autobiographical poem, I think it’s very angry and bitter, personally, perhaps too angry and bitter not to be autobiographical. It’s the same with Winter Swans in what that reveals. It’s too real a feeling (even if we get the sense that it is a bit contrived as incidents go… do any of us really have those real-life moments where, just as we need a universal reminder of love to bridge the divides in our relationship, we happen upon a break in the clouds and a pair of swans? Or… is it just that the poetically-minded among us have these moments and make connections that other people just don’t go reading as some kind of weird universal symbol of something?)

So… does the form tell us anything particular?

Not really… it’s pretty standard. There are eight lines in each of the four stanzas, and across each pair of lines, there are usually ten or eleven syllables. Written early in the Nineteeth Century, these were the years before poets started really messing around with form for effect other than the occasional odd-bod up to high jinx (that’d be George Herbert) The form doesn’t necessarily lend anything to the tone or the content.

The scansion, on the other hand, well, that’s more interesting. Not very interesting, but more interesting. Most of the poem has a very similar metre (iamb/anapest, or two anapests) but there’s one line where you might want to think about how he stresses one of the words. Quite a few of the words fall on ‘stressed’ syllables. If I pull out some of those words, you’ll see what I mean.


All the little words are the unstressed ones in this case, so he uses the metre to emphasise the most important words. Clever indeed.

And then there is one line where his metre is up for debate – a line that changes the meaning depending on how you read it, or at least indicates different feelings.

When we two parted

in silence and tears, 

half broken hearted 

to sever for years. The question arises over ‘half’. If you really stress it, it sounds like he’s really cynical about it – that he wasn’t broken-hearted much. Normally, the emphasis would fall on broken, not on half. And the rest of the poem has two stressed syllables per line, plus this line surely must follow line one in terms of where stresses fall, since it’s a symmetrical parallel. If you stress it in this way it makes it sound like half of him wasn’t broken-hearted at all. So if he was only ‘half’ broken, what’s the other half? Glad? Not bothered? Angry? Or does it mean that HE was broken-hearted, but she didn’t care less, so a half of them is broken-hearted?

Many people think the tone of this poem is one of self-pity. This is Byron’s tragic love poem to them. It’s the tears that do it. Tears can be a sign of grief, and he mentions ‘grief’ too – we think he is sad, that he is mourning his relationship. The lexical field certainly is evocative of this: ‘tears… broken hearted… sorrow… grieve…’  We focus on the ‘broken-hearted’ not the ‘half’ or the other emotions, that he ‘rues’ her, that he feels shame when he hears her name spoken. There’s a kind of anger in the question as well, ‘why wert thou so dear?’

He can’t understand now what he ever liked about her.

That reminds me that tears aren’t always about grief, but sometimes anger. Silence can be angry as well. Needless to say, he doesn’t love her any more. If he was really broken hearted, wouldn’t he still love her, regardless? We don’t stop loving someone just because they stop loving us, no matter how they hurt us.

From the first stanza, we pick up clues about this couple and their relationship: they split up badly and they haven’t spoken ‘for years’, that she grew ‘cold’ towards him – so she was the one who ended the relationship. Byron still feels bad about it. It still fills him with ‘sorrow’. Not only did she grow cold towards him, but she broke promises, “vows” – though we could look at the line “thy vows are all broken” and wonder if it means vows in a religious sense, like marriage vows. It leaves us wondering if she was a married woman and she broke her marriage vows with Byron, which would make sense when we learn that they met in secret. I guess she could have been a nun and have made a vow to God, but it doesn’t seem likely. We just get the impression that she was a married woman and their affair was carried out in secret, which is why the poem is perhaps anonymous. Byron’s obviously not the kind of man to name and shame, but at the same time, it feels like he wants her to know how angry he is at her. We also get the impression that she is somewhat notorious, given her “fame” and the fact that he hears her name mentioned and he feels ashamed. Every time he hears her name, it makes him “shudder”. It’s either a bit ironic that he says, “Long, long shall I rue thee/too deeply to tell” (since here he is telling all and sundry just how much he regrets being with her) or this poem is just the tip of the iceberg concerning his feelings, and even though he is tellings us what he feels about her, these words cannot convey the depth of his emotion. When he says he will “rue” her, it has two senses, which adds to the complexity of the poem: it can mean grieve or feel sorrow over, but it can also mean regret. Again, this deliberately ambiguous choice of words leaves us wondering if he regrets having ever met her, or he’s just heart-broken.

You’d be forgiven for thinking it is heart-break and grief. Indeed, he says he “grieve[s]” in the final stanza. But what he actually says in the final stanza is that he grieves “that [her] heart could forget” and her “spirit deceive”, what he’s feeling great sorrow over is the fact she’s forgotten him, that she’s deceived him. When it’s used with an object, this verb “grieve” means that something causes him to feel grief, and what causes that grief is how transient her feelings were, how fleeting and how brief, that she has moved on and he has not. In fact, the history of this word “grieve” (some six hundred years before the poem was written, but still…) doesn’t help us with this ambiguity over sorrow or anger, since the word also had a sense of “make angry, enrage”.

It does leave me wondering why he chose such ambiguous words. Surely it cannot be an accident that he’s choosing words that hint at both anger and heart-break? Perhaps then, it is both that he feels. They’re not the only words that leave me wondering at his real sentiments.

We have a strange couple of lines, ‘the dew of the morning/sunk chill on my brow’ which to my mind sounds a bit Romeo-esque. He’s always wandering around moping. How do you even get morning dew on your forehead? It sounds a bit melodramatic if you ask me – unless he’s been lying around in a field. Still, with the ‘cold, colder’ of stanza one and the chill in this line, we’ve got the same frosty, wintery ‘love is dead’ imagery that we get in some bits of Winter Swans.

So although you will find it much less complicated to write about (and please don’t spend an eternity TRYING to write about the form – Byron’s simply not using the form in the same ways we see Heaney and other modern poets in the anthology doing) there is still plenty to write about in terms of the language. There is not much by way of figurative language – you can’t analyse the metaphors and similes as you can with Winter Swans and Follower for instance. What you can write about are what it reveals about Byron’s feelings (or not) and what it reveals about his tone for the subject. His voice, his perspective, the first-person narrative autobiographical tone is kind of nice. You have to remember that Byron was a kind of cult hero, his affairs the talk of the town (and he himself was pretty prolific at letter writing which reveals some pretty salacious tales), so this poem is kind of the equivalent of a celebrity singer’s version of a break-up song. Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River” for Britney Spears has nothing on this.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about AQA GCSE English Literature poetryplease send me an email and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.

Why Of Mice and Men will always be relevant

On Edexcel’s January 2013 IGCSE English Literature paper, there was a particularly lovely question about Of Mice and Men. 

The novel was first published in 1937. What is it about the themes of the novel that continue to attract readers?

It’s a much more interesting question than the usual character questions and asks you to engage with the themes in general.


As a novella, Of Mice and Men picks up on some of the themes that Steinbeck would go on to explore in his two great works, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden. It’s a didactic, moralistic text that preaches the dangers of believing in dreams, specifically in the American Dream, and it teaches us the value of friendship and companionship.

The title is our first indication of the major theme of the text, taken from Robert Burns’ poem Ode To A Mouse. In it, Burns writes a brief allegory about a field mouse whose house is destroyed by a farmer (i.e. Robert Burns in this case) and cautions the mouse that “the best laid plans of mice and men…” often don’t work out and leave us with nothing but “grief and pain”. Steinbeck seems too to find the dreams and plans of George and Lennie to be “silly” and pointless, although he ends a little more hopefully than Burns, who says that the mouse is better off than he, since the mouse isn’t filled with dread and anxiety about the future.

All through the novella, we get the sense that George and Lennie’s “dream” will never work out, that they will never have enough money, or that there are unforeseen problems that they have not thought about. From the moment we hear of the path “beaten hard” by men who have come and gone, the “ashes” of the fire, we realise that George and Lennie are but the latest in a long line of men who have come here before. George describes it as a dream come true, “it ain’t enough land that we’d have to work too hard” a Paradise-regained with rabbits and pigeons, a dog and a couple of cats, a place where friends could stay if they liked, yet within seconds, he tells Candy “the ol’ people that owns it is flat bust” Steinbeck also uses the words of Crooks to point out the ridiculousness of their dream, “I seen hundreds of men come by on the roads… an’ that same damn thing in their heads” pointing out that it’s “just like heaven”. For George at first, we get the impression that the dream is born of desperation, of hope for a better life, for roots and a place to belong, a place where Lennie will be safe and they won’t get “canned”. When Candy finally proposes the money, the dream becomes tangible, something they might finally achieve, rather than just a fireside story he tells Lennie by way of entertainment. George realises at that moment that “the thing they had never really believed in was coming true” which shows us that up until now, it was just a hopeless fairy story. Even Crooks falls for the dream, “if you guys would want a hand to work for nothing – just his keep”, but his dream is interrupted by Curley’s Wife, whose death will put an end to the dream for this bunch of “bindle stiffs and dum-dums”. Here, we’re reminded of a bigger truth: the novella is run through with images of Paradise, of Eden regained. From the very opening of the novella, Steinbeck paints a picture that is reminiscent of Eden whilst simultaneously reminding us that our species were banished from Eden for our sins. Just like Adam and Eve, a woman will be the downfall of mankind. Like Cain, the itinerant workers will be forced to travel from farm to farm, nomadic and rootless. Even in his choice of surname for George, “Milton”, Steinbeck is leaving us not-so-subtle clues about “Paradise Lost” – since John Milton’s major work was an epic poem recounting the tale of how Adam and Eve came to lose Eden. Every time there is mention of hope, of permanence, of a future more solid than the one they have now, Steinbeck reminds us that such dreams are bound only to leave us disappointed. It’s this theme that is universal, for him.

The belief in the American Dream doesn’t seem to be decreasing: it is the land of Bill Gates, the land of Steve Jobs, the land of Donald Trump and Warren Buffet. Men become millionnaires, rising up out of the masses. California is still the universal symbol of hope for riches and fame and a reminder of the reality. For every Angelina Jolie, there are a thousand waitresses waiting for their big part in a movie or film script. American movies and television shows are still filled with the ultimate belief that you can go to Los Angeles and become a movie star or a rock star, that you can move to San Francisco or Silicon Valley and build the next Microsoft, the next Apple, the next Google or the next Facebook. That’s why Of Mice and Men is still relevant. It’s an allegory for men and women who dream, who have “plans”. Whether it’s George’s dream of financial stability and a life in a modern paradise, or Curley’s Wife who thinks she “could of been in movies”, many of the characters in Of Mice and Men have a dream, and they are the ones who end up dead or broken-hearted. Steinbeck’s message couldn’t be clearer. That message is still relevant, perhaps even more so than ever.

Although there are clearly details that date the novella, the universality of the message is what makes it a classic tale. There will be times of plenty and times of poverty: you don’t have to have lived through the Great Depression to understand it, nor do you have to have lived in this period of matter-of-fact racism to understand it. We still see and hear racist things, although it’s doubtful we would be so accepting of the reality of Crooks’ existence. Few people today would let Candy’s tale about Christmas and the way the men “let the nigger come in” at Christmas only for someone to “take after” him, along with the anecdote that if Smitty had been allowed to use his feet, he’d have “killed the nigger”. Whether or not this the bravado of a man who has been beaten by a cripple in a fight, it doesn’t matter. We see the general acceptance of violence towards black men, just as we do when Curley’s Wife tells him that she could “get him strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even true.” One word and Crooks would be murdered. It’s doubtful many of us would stand by these days and allow such overtly cruel actions, but we still live in an age of the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, where it is de rigueur to blame immigrants for everyone. Segregation and the Jim Crow laws may have ended in the 1960s, but we are no less tolerant as a species and every passing decade only serves to bring us a new target to hate. The isolation and social exclusion of different groups is still a topic that is as relevant today as it was to the 1930s.

We may find the “angel in the home” clichés about Curley’s Wife to be alien from us today. Perhaps. One only has to talk to students of the text to hear views that are not far removed from those of fundamentalist religious groups. Curley’s Wife “asked” to be killed, she “deserved it” – it’s almost laughable to think that because a woman might wear red, might put on make-up on a farm, might hang around looking for a little attention, that she might “deserve” to die. Yet many students believe this! We like to think that women are free to choose what they want to do or how they want to dress, that they can choose to marry whomever they like, that they have other options available than prostitution or being somebody’s wife, yet this is the time when “slut-shaming” seems to be as popular as ever, when men can sing songs about rape and get to the top of the charts with a fist-bump from their friends and men are always going to be “a dog” or “a stud” if they have many sexual partners, but a woman is just “a slut”. We like to think we have come so far in the eighty years since Steinbeck published his novel, but many people still believe that a provocatively-dressed woman “deserves” all she gets.

As for the other themes, friendship, loneliness, violence, justice… they’re all still just as relevant in today’s society. It’s this relevance that makes it a modern classic. Each time I read it, I take something more from it. I always find something new in it.

An analysis of Winter Swans by Owen Sheers

Owen Sheers is perhaps my favourite modern poet. Following the death of Seamus Heaney, it seemed like one of the great lights of modern poetry had been extinguished, and Owen Sheers began to fill the void that Heaney left. I fell in love with Y Gaer which seems almost Heaney-esque in its simplicity and emotional power. He’s a man who seems often to find man in touch with nature, just as Heaney did. Sheers is not just a poet: he is a playwright and a novelist. I think the story of the moment is what he finds important.

Like Follower, it is not a complex poem, but one that depends on a central metaphor or point of comparison – the lovers and the swans.

The poem is set out in six stanzas of three lines, finished by a final couplet – some twenty lines in total. The couplet, to me, is the interesting bit. Couplets (well, rhyming ones) can be used to present a single, distinct thought, and this is used here to present the final idea – the description of the lovers’ hands. In its completeness, it brings a finality to the poem and restores the relationship to one of peace. In Shakespearean drama and sonnets, a couplet marked an ending of something, an exit, a conclusion. The same could be said for this final stanza, which brings harmony back to the couple with its two-line simplicity and brevity. It is a finishing point, a relief from tension. Other than the couplet and the way enjambement and caesura are used to emphasise words and ideas, the form of the poem isn’t doing anything remarkable, other than carrying the narrative. The lines are roughly following breath-breaks, pausing where it would be natural to pause. Sometimes the lines read more easily and more rhythmically than others, which emphasises the content and ideas. Again, like Follower, it uses the enjambement to create an easy rhythm in some places.

The title isn’t just “Swans”, it’s “Winter Swans”, which begs the question, ‘Why Winter?’ In fact, there are a couple of ideas in the poem that link to the idea of winter, the “clouds”, the “days of rain”. The first reason is a biographical reason: it really was winter when the event happened, and Sheers is recounting a real event. The second reason is perhaps the symbolism of the winter and what it represents: a time when the world is still and dead, when it seems like nothing is growing. When we think of this though, we understand that winter is a precursor to spring, to renewed life and hope, which we see with the “afternoon light” which marks the change in mood. Winter is a period of necessity, a time of coldness and darkness. This dormant time is necessary for regeneration. Swans and winter are regularly explored by writers, such as Swans at Coole by WB Yeats and The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy. Swans are often used as a metaphor for love. Their grace and beauty coupled with the fact that ” ‘They mate for life’ ” makes them a popular image of dedication and devotion.

The title, then, sets the mood of sobriety and coldness, at the same time presenting us with an image of the swans. From the title, we are left to wonder if the winter swans are just a nifty title and the poem is about something more than two swans seen in winter. If the poem is about more, then it’s possible the title refers to the couple as the ‘winter swans’ too. The swans become an emblem of a relationship, but one that is in decline or a period of inertia.

We notice immediately the personification, the pathetic fallacy of the weather in the first line: “the clouds had given their all – ” evoking the notion of a battle and clouds who had finally been beaten. They have given their all and still not succeeded. In that first stanza, there’s a sense of pathetic fallacy – the weather having human emotions that seem perhaps to be a mirror for an emotional onslaught in the relationship we read about later on. Of course, we can read it fairly literally – there was no rain left to fall. The simplicity of the language here is noteworthy: one single polysyllabic word in the whole stanza, “given”. I think this simplicity gives it a stark and bare feeling, not unlike winter. Definitely not flowery language!

The imagery becomes more defined in the second verse, as the language also becomes more complex with “waterlogged” and the “gulping for breath”; the pathetic fallacy extends here in a different direction and seems almost mythological – an earth that wants to swallow people up. The diction is more poetic with “skirted” the lake and the stanza finishes with the “silent and apart” description, which works like many of the other details in the poem on both a physical, literal level and a metaphorical level. We notice the division in their relationship, the gap between them.

It is the swans in stanza three that stop the couple and reunite them with a show. What they’re doing is hunting for grubs, feeding, their heads going beneath the surface and their bodies tipping and then righting theselves as they feed. This is why they look like “icebergs” and why Sheers describes them as “like boats righting in rough weather”.

In stanza four, we get much of the imagery in the poem, the idea of the swans “halving” themselves and the way he calls them “icebergs of white feather” which reminds us of the notion that there is much that lies beneath the surface. Often, only a small proportion of an iceberg can be seen on the surface and for this reason, we are led to think that there is a lot going on that we can’t see and can’t fathom, not just for the swans but also for the couple. Icebergs are, by their very nature, cold, too. It’s very much in keeping with the wintery mood. The setting, the theme, the tone and the choice of images all help create this atmosphere. What the swans do in this stanza is important: their worlds are literally upside down and then they right themselves. This stanza is the second to introduce the notion of equilibrium, that the relationship will “right” itself, even though it is off-kilter at the moment.

In stanza five, we have a moment of story-telling, a line of dialogue. ” ‘They mate for life’ you said” and we realise that the poem is addressed to someone – the person he is with. We only have a more clear sense of a couple later, when they hold hands, but for the first time we understand that this poem is written to someone – we are a third-party audience. We have to ask ourselves why we are reading this poem. Are we accidental voyeurs, seeing into this relationship, a glimpse through the window onto a domestic scene? Are these words the poet wishes he could say to his partner but never does? Instead of including us, as the second-person address may do in some writing, this makes me feel a little like an intruder, seeing aspects of their relationship in black and white that I am not privy to. It is not like Follower where Heaney writes in the third-person about his father, and the dialogue about his relationship with his father is very much with the reader as his confederate, someone he is trying to explain his relationship to. This is a very deliberate second-person address and we wonder why we are here, reading this. Are these words he said to her, or words that he couldn’t bring himself to say?

We also have the turning point in this stanza, the metaphorical break in the clouds. “I didn’t reply/but” and then a reminder of “the afternoon light”.

As the poem moves forwards into stanza six, the vocabulary becomes more poetic, picking up on the soft ‘s’ in “slow-stepping… shingle… sand” – a slow and satisfying sound that is perhaps evocative of the changing mood and moves us onwards to the final image of the poem: the hands that move towards each other, unconsciously as if driven themselves to do so, bridging the physical gap that there had been between the couple at the beginning of the poem to bring them together by the end. We notice too that the ground itself has become more firm, going from “gulping mud” to “shingle” and “sand” which is perhaps suggesting that the relationship itself has moved to ‘firmer ground’ just as the couple do themselves in the scene. The commas in the final two lines of stanza six really slow down the pace and make us focus on the words. We have the enjambement in the final line here as it moves us effortlessly into stanza seven, the final couplet. The pace and rhythm is very controlled here, very slow and purposeful.

“I noticed our hands,          that had,          somehow,/                       swum the distance between us                                             and folded,/”

This all builds up to the final image in the last line, “like a pair of wings settling after flight” which is a beautiful image, much less clichéd and obvious than most of the poem (with the exception of stanza four) as the hands form one part again, and “settle” after the disruption. It brings back calm to the poem and to the relationship. I do wonder about the two line couplet. Is it emphatic of the “two-ness” of them again? Is it unfinished?

In its essence, not a complicated poem. It describes a relationship with some unexplained distance between them that is emphasised by the wintery setting and then brought back together by seeing a symbol of love which appears in front of them. It’s not my favourite Sheers poem – it’s a bit cheesy and obvious in parts. The partner saying “They mate for life you know” is a bit heavy-handed, although I like the images in stanza four and the final line. I wonder at the second-person address and the final two-line stanza, and the image of the lake that they “skirt” around – these are the aspects that give us the most room for interpretation.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about AQA GCSE English Literature poetryplease send me an email and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.






A brief analysis of Seamus Heaney’s “Follower”

Often shared as one of Heaney’s seminal poems, Follower finds itself once again the study of subject for AQA GCSE English Literature. Perhaps why it has become such a classic might the emotional intensity of the poem. At A Level, I called this poet the “bogs and frogs guy” and it was only Follower and Digging that really resonated with me. Its accessibility and powerful commentary on the relationship between a child and their parent is the main focus of exploration.

At first glance, there’s a neatness to the form: Heaney has chosen a six-stanza, four-line structure. There is nothing rule-breaking or revolutionary about the four-line stanza; it is perhaps the most common of forms, the most traditional. It is the form of the ballad, the poetic story, and it is the form of lyric poetry. It is the form of hymns and the form of heroic poems. The ABAB rhyme scheme is evocative of the ballad, although not quite. The half-rhyme of ‘plough’ and ‘furrow’, of ‘eye’ and ‘exactly’ give it an off-kilter sound, something less harmonious and more dischordant. At a glance, it looks like a traditional poem; when reading, it becomes evident that there is something a little off.

The big question is why Heaney does this. Why choose such a traditional form? Why have half-rhyme rather than no rhyme or a full rhyme? In what ways is he using form and rhyme to say something about the content of the poem? These are questions we will revisit once we’ve explored the content.

The title is immediately ambiguous. At first we know that Heaney is the eponymous Follower, “I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake”, with the roles reversed by the end of the poem, “But today/it is my father who keeps stumbling behind me…” and so the title clues us in to the changing roles and the cyclical nature of the poem. He once followed his father, and now his father follows in his wake.

From the first line we see a statement: “My father worked with a horse plough” and we might wonder about the past tense – a state that is no more. There’s a formality too, to ‘father’, not ‘Dad’ or anything more intimate. You could read this with a sense of pride too, “My” father, that is especially evident when Heaney reveals his admiration for his father’s work: “An expert”. The wonderful simile on line two, “his shoulders globed like a full sail strung/between the shafts and the furrow” gives us a sense of his father’s size and power. Sails are not small things; one at ‘full sail’ would be filled out with wind, straining, and it adds a real sense of how strong and efficient his father is, cutting through the soil with the plough like a ship cutting through water. He makes it sound so very easy. A boat at full sail is smooth, fast and effortless. There is a roundness to full sails as they harness the wind’s power to propel themselves forward: we have the same idea here. He continues it when he mentions his father’s “broad shadow”.

The way that his father manages the horses also suggests effortlessness. One click and the horses are “straining”, and he moves them with “a single pluck of reins”. Heaney calls them “a sweating team,” which ambiguous and renders his father and the horses as moving in synchronicity as if they are one, his father sweating with effort as well as the horses. Driving the horses is not his father’s only skill, and Heaney creates an image of him, “mapping the furrow exactly” The linebreak prior to verse two, and then the caesura to follow, “An expert” makes his point perfectly. His father is an artist, “his eye/narrowed and angled at the ground”. Even the enjambement drives the lines, turning into the next just as his father “turned round/and back into the land. The lines are syllabically neat, with eight or nine syllables, and more often iambic tetrameter (da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM) than not, which mimics exactly the neatness and efficiency, the ‘flow’ of his father’s work. Ironic indeed that Heaney says he cannot do what his father does with the plough, and yet he replicates it beautifully with words, syllables, metre, rhyme and rhythm. Technically, he does exactly what his father does, in a controlled, effortless ‘flow’.

Even though Heaney is conversant in the language of ploughing, the “furrow”, the “wing”, the “steel-pointed sock” and “the head-rig”, it is something he cannot do himself. Although he paints a picture of himself as a youngster, literally falling in the wake of his father, it works on a metaphorical level too: he could never seek to emulate his father.

Where the first three stanzas are dedicated to describing his father, the turn comes in stanza four, where the focus shifts from his father as the subject to “I” and my favourite bit of the poem, where his father picks him up and “sometimes he rode me on his back/dipping and rising to his plod.” which is a strange arrangement of the words. “He rode me” would imply his father still in control, the son being ridden, but in this case, even though the boy is sitting on his father’s back, he is certainly not in control. The role-reversal here, where the young boy assumes the mantle of the ploughman, mocks the later role-reversal. But it does something much more powerful: it shows us the closeness of the father and son, the way his father guides his son and helps him to ‘master’ the ploughed fields. Without needing to say so, we can see how Heaney’s father encourages him to step into his shoes, metaphorically. Not having the skill to follow in his father’s footsteps, nor the desire, is a theme of several of Heaney’s poems, most notably Digging. Here, we see the very gentle encouragement of a father trying to aid his son’s ability to follow in his footsteps. More than that, we feel Heaney’s desire to follow in his father’s footsteps. His tone is assured and factual when he says, “I wanted to grow up and plough,” and we see that this desire to mimic his father’s path in life is driven from Heaney’s own admiration of his father and his craft. When he writes, “All I ever did was follow” we see his disappointment. The very definition of following means “to come after”. You can never equal, rival or supercede the person you are following. It is a role that is filled with frustration and disappointment. There is another sense of the word, “follower”, as in someone who believes in something, we can be religious followers or even followers of fashion or a football team. A follower is a person who supports and admires someone or something, as well as meaning “someone who comes after” and the way Heaney explores the relationship here makes both meanings relevant.

You will notice a lot of technical things in this poem, in the way Heaney manipulates words and the sounds that they make. For instance, the consonance of the ‘f’ sound, “father… full… shafts… furrow…” the fricative effect both focuses our attention on these sounds and makes a soft, airy sound which could add to the sense of his speed as he cuts through the land. They don’t fall next to each other in an alliterative way, but if you listen to the first verse, you hear the sounds strongly. If you add the other fricative sounds from the first stanza, the ‘th’ sounds in “father… with… THE shafts… THE furrow” uses consonance to create that airy, light effect. F and TH are voiceless, gentle sounds. We also notice sibilance, in “sail strung… strained” which also adds to the effortless sound and smooth effect of some of those early sounds in stanza one that recreate the sound and image of his father at work. I like how Heaney uses these technical effects – it’s evocative of the same technical control his father has with the plough and horses and turns both activities into an art-form.

Heaney does the same thing with the stresses of the words and uses iambic tetrameter in many places:

“An EXpert. HE would SET the WING/And FIT the BRIGHT steel POINTed SOCK”

and you see the iambic tetrameter most obviously in the parts that recreate the smoothness of his father’s work. Where the iambic tetrameter fails, we see that the tone changes:

“I was a nuiSANCE, TRIPPing, FALLing/YAPPing alWAYS, but toDAY”

where the rhythm changes and the words need more focus to read aloud, where you cannot depend on the regularity to carry you.

Heaney uses enjambement and caesura in two ways too. One way is to show how his father turns round “and back into the land”, showing the continuousness and the lack of hesitation in the turn. We especially see this between stanza two and stanza three. Here the enjambement mimics his father’s actions. The caesura emphasises the statement, “An expert.”

Between line 19 and 20, we also see some noticeable enjambement as a sentence is split up. “All I ever did was follow/in his broad shadow round the farm” where the word follow is left dangling at the end of the line. Syllabically, it is the point to stop, since the lines have the ballad-style eight syllables but the iambic tetrametre doesn’t work here and the way “follow” is left dangling makes us think about it, pause a little before thinking about his father’s “broad shadow”. The enjambement emphasises the word “follow”, especially in conjunction with the repetition of “Follower” from the title.

Heaney is not a man to use fancy, high-fallutin’ words where simple ones will do; often I find that he uses a very Germanic language and that there are relatively few Latinate words, in this case “globed”, “expert” and “polished”.  What is perhaps surprising are the number of Old English words in the poem, from “horse-plough” and “shoulders” to “sail”  “strung” and “tongue” in the first stanza. These are our ‘heart’ words, the roots of our language, the basics, the most akin to our linguistic history. Interesting that he should choose such ‘functional’ and historical words rather than the perhaps more elevated additions of latinate words. Heaney makes something beautiful, evocative and poetic without resorting to elaborate vocabulary or complex diction. This is certainly ‘the language of our fathers’, without being decorated and sophisticated. For me, this is the appeal of it. The linguistic simplicity, the controlled techniques of pace and sound, the sparse diction… it is just perfectly in keeping with the subject of the poem.

You will notice too that it is thin on poetic devices other than those to complement sound and pace; we see few figurative devices. Of course, we have the simile of the sail in the first stanza, and the extended metaphor of ‘following’ but other than this, the use of figurative or poetic language is very sparse. There is nothing flowery or abstract about this poem – it’s not complicated or confusing, layered with symbolism or complexity. In this way, the use of figurative language is very fitting with the content, with the technical and practical skill exhibited by his father. We are left to puzzle out what the final metaphor means, with his father who stumbles behind him, “and will not go away” – where we see a shift to the future tense and we are left with a few puzzling questions – in what way does his father stumble behind him? Is this the near future or a certain ‘forever’ future? We go from “today” and the present tense to a sense of the future, where he sees the same frustrations reversed: he saw himself as a “nuisance” even though his father did not seem to, riding his child “on his back”, but we are not in any doubt that Heaney finds his father’s “stumbling” to be a nuisance. In what way does his father stumble? It only seems to work to me on a metaphorical level, that the son has now surpassed his father in terms of technical skill (if not in ploughing!) but feels haunted by his father, conscious that his father is lurking there in his subconscious and he cannot escape the feeling that his father is there. Perhaps too, the young boy has become a master in his own right and his father does not have his capability with words, but then the final line is redundant, in the “and will not go away” which is meaningless if there is a sense that his father is now following in his son’s footsteps, in terms of writing skill. This is why I just have this sense of a man who is haunted by his relationship, that he can’t escape from his father and the poem is, ipso facto, a method of expressing this sense of being unable to leave his father behind completely. That’s my take on it. However, it is true to say that the only complex or ambiguous part of this poem is the ending and to what it refers. In what sense is Heaney being “followed” by his father, and why won’t he “go away?”

Other questions we are left to ponder include Heaney’s use of the technical, his use of layout and his word choice. Why choose such a traditional form? Why have half-rhyme rather than no rhyme or a full rhyme? In what ways is he using form and rhyme to say something about the content of the poem? Why choose such a non-poetic range of vocabulary? Why stick with the one simile? What is the power of the one simile? What can be said about his use of enjambement and caesura?

These questions are your starting point to think about your own interpretation of this poem and what you think it means. Make sure you root your response in the text and in what you know, so that you can justify your answers.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about Follower, please send me an email and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.