Four left to go after this one, which will complete the analysis of all the poems in the new AQA GCSE English Literature anthology. The end is in sight!
Eden Rock is a nostalgic poem about the poet’s parents, but it takes on another level depending on how you read it. It compares well with Before You Were Mine in terms of thinking about parents and their lives, or with Walking Away if you are looking at perspectives in a parent-child relationship. In some ways, you may also want to consider it in comparison with Follower by Heaney, in which the roles have been reversed and the father is “following” the son… in this poem, they are very much encouraging their child to join them.
In terms of the form of the poem, we have six stanzas. Or, rather, we have five stanzas where the final line of the final stanza has been separated from the verse that it is a part of. You can consider it as six stanzas, where four are four-line, regular verses, the fifth is three lines and the final stanza is one line on its own, or you can consider it as five stanzas, where all five are four lines, but stanza five includes a line break between the third and fourth line. Considering it that way, you can see the poet putting a very deliberate break and pause in before that final line, which is not only effective at making the content of that line doubly important and significant, but is going to be important as to the actual meaning of the line in itself. But we’ll get to that when we look at the language and ideas of the poem rather than consider it here.
You might also consider it not to have a rhyme scheme, but it does in a way. There’s clear evidence of a half-rhyme, with vowel shifts but a final consonant that links the words more than you would find without any rhyme at all. Thus, “Rock” and “Jack” would rhyme fully if you changed the vowels, but the final consonant sound is the same, with the “ck”. This works with “suit” and “feet” too and continues through the poem. You have some more direct rhyme in parts, though it is based on sound rather than spelling: “screw” and “blue”. You might want to consider the direct rhyme of these two words more carefully and the effect it has at this moment in the poem to make it more harmonious and sonorific. The other thing to consider is the effect of the half-rhyme, and why Causley has chosen to use it.
For me, half-rhyme creates a kind of “flat” tone, musically speaking. Like the flat in music, it is slightly different. It’s kind of off-key, not pure in pitch, not melodious and not harmonious. It’s not completely different, but it doesn’t sound quite right. It turns the rhymes into weird echoes. I think, had we had full rhyme, it would have sounded too jaunty and melodious, too perfect. The half-rhyme is the perfect way to make it sound off key, like something is not quite right. No rhyme at all would not be worth commenting on particularly, but the half-rhyme throws into focus the idea that something is not quite right here, despite the content. It’s just that little bit eerie and not-quite.
When we’re looking at form, we should also think about how the lines sit with each other, whether ideas run from one to the next, how the poet uses syllables and rhythm in their lines. What IS interesting is that beyond the first stanza and the last line of stanza two, the metre is fairly regular with ten syllables per line. It becomes much more melodious. When you listen to Charles Causley reading the poem he takes you through it clause by clause and instead of the way it looks on paper, he uses the punctuation rather than the lines to determine when to pause and when to start. Still, to my ear, it has a very gentle rhythm, especially in stanza four, “Over the DRIFT/ed STREAM/my FATH/er SPINS” where the dactyl followed by the iamb in “Over the DRIFT” creates a rhythm that has a quicker pace, which we see again in “SEE where/ the STREAM/” – it’s very gentle but playful and harmonious.
Causley’s use of monosyllabic words in the last line, separated from the other bits of the stanza, is also particularly noticeable and draws our attention to those lines. “I had not thought that it would be like this.”
Eden Rock gives us little by way of idea about the theme of the poem, especially when on Poetry Archive, Causley says that he made it up. It’s unusual that he has picked a place as the title of his poem, especially as it is a made-up place. Letters from Yorkshire is the only other poem in the selection that refers to a place in the title. The Yorkshire of that title is very evocative: what do we picture when we think of Yorkshire? It is a place that is both industrial and yet that of a bygone era. It’s rural, without the soft landscapes of other parts of England. I think the “Yorkshire” of that title is very important, but Eden Rock seems a little different. Eden suggests already a sense of paradise, a paradise on earth even. When we understand the “otherworldliness” of this poem, Eden becomes very significant. Unlike a moment or an event, it is perhaps the least likely title – it certainly doesn’t convey the main theme or idea as other titles do. We get no sense from the title of the importance of the relationship between him and his parents or if this is a real moment. Sometimes, there are places that we hold in our hearts as the setting for important moments in our life, like my family’s trips to Hoylake at Easter, or France in the summer. But Eden Rock isn’t a real place: it’s made up. Maybe it’s a real place, just not its real name, if we don’t know where things took place because we were too young. But it does throw into question whether it is an entirely fictional event or whether it’s the remembered pieces of family history. When you read the poem and understand that there is a sense that his parents are dead, it then becomes the setting in which he imagines his parents: their afterlife. That way, it can be a real place and a real, remembered moment, or it can be completely fictional, just the setting of their own afterlife. Place is very important in many of Causley’s poems, and he often uses it as his way of recording events.
The poem is written in first person present tense, which gives it an immediacy – it is as if it is happening in the here and now. The opening is a little cryptic, since we know neither where or what Eden Rock is, or who “they” are, or indeed why they are waiting for him. The colon at the end of the first line springboards us into the answer, his father and his mother. It’s curious how he says “somewhere beyond” Eden Rock which suggests a physical distance, but can also be used to suggest the afterlife too. They could physically be in the space after Eden Rock, or the time after that, but it has overtones of “the life beyond” as well, especially the more we read of the poem.
We know immediately that something is different: the poet cannot be writing if his father is twenty-five, so he is either remembering him at twenty-five and thinking back to that time, or he is imagining him at that age. He says “in the same suit” which makes me think it is a memory rather than an imagined scenario, with his terrier Jack “still” two years old. The feel of it is as if they are very much fixed in time, that the poet is remembering a real scenario, with real details: Eden Rock, how old his father was, what his father was wearing. The poet remembers the details very vividly and very precisely, with his suit of “Genuine Irish Tweed”, and the dog’s “trembling” adds motion and movement to the scene, which would be almost like a photograph otherwise.
It feels as if he is very much writing this poem for the reader, adding extraneous detail such as the age of his father and details about his father’s suit. They are not details that you would need to tell yourself.
In the second stanza, he presents his mother, slightly younger than his father. Like he remembers the detail of his father’s suit, he remembers the fabric of his mother’s dress, covered with flowers. It sounds very rustic, the tweed and the flowered dress. In actual fact, his father died when Causley was six or seven, so this could well be one of his final memories of his father, though it makes him very young indeed. Much of the biographical detail about Causley’s family life tells us that his father returned from the First World War as an invalid, and that he died in 1924 having never recovered from his injuries sustained in the war and dying of tuberculosis, meaning that for the childhood Causley could remember, his father would have been ill. There is no sign of this in the poem, no clue to indicate that his father was not in fine health. Don’t believe, by the way, what the BBC website tells you – he certainly wasn’t 15 when his father died! Perhaps these early memories are all that he has to hold on to of his father.
It makes sense if he has only very limited memories of his father that he would remember his mother at the same point in time. He remembers many details of his mother’s outfit, too, beyond the “sprigged” fabric. It reminds me a little of Carol Ann Duffy’s detail about her mother’s dress in Before You Were Mine. He remembers how her dress fitted, “drawn in at the waist” and the details about her hat, with its ribbon. Apart from the dog “trembling” in the first stanza, we get a sense that this more than just a tableau or montage with the fact that she “has spread” the tablecloth out, although it’s past tense and contains not much by way of motion. We also have the first sense of anything ‘poetic’ about the language in stanza two, when he describes her hair “the colour of wheat” and how it “takes on the light”. The minutiae of the tableau is almost photographic.
As stanza three starts, the scene comes to life, very much in the present moment with the present tense, “she pours”, and if we had the feeling that Causley could have been describing a photograph of his parents, it becomes real in this stanza. What I love most about this stanza are the details, the trivial details of real life, the “tea from a Thermos”, “the milk straight from an old H.P. Sauce bottle”, the paper corkscrew. Fittingly, seeing as stanza one was about his father and stanza two was about his mother, Causley is introduced in this stanza with mention of “the same three plates”. Like the “same” suit and the dog “still two years old”, this “same three plates” is also curious and makes it sound as if it is not a past event that Causley is recalling, but a new event with “the same” features as when it happened in the past. Like I might say, “the same shops line the street” with the implication being that they are the same as some point in the past.
When we move into stanza four, the poem becomes very “otherworldly” and what is arguably the most interesting line of the whole poem starts off the stanza: “The sky whitens as if lit by three suns”. It ISN’T lit by three suns – just gets brighter. Some people say that this poem is about Causley thinking of his death moments and this line makes me think of all the time people have had afterlife experiences and say there was a bright light. After all, he says the sky “whitens” rather than “lightens” or “brightens”. The idea of the three suns isn’t coincidental either, I don’t think. At first, these suns could represent him and his parents (since he was an only child) or they could represent something more “otherworldly”. It brings to mind the play on the word “sun” in Wilfred Owen’s poetry, how he uses it to mean both “the sun” and “The Son” (ie Jesus) in Futility. Either way, the sun is a bringer of life, the reason that this cold star has life upon it, but if you take the three suns to be representative of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Three is a powerful religious number, not least in Christianity, three being the number of days before Jesus rose from the dead, the number of times he was betrayed by Peter, the three temptations of Christ, the three gifts of the kings… And not least the Trinity itself. I think the three suns represent both of those things: the ‘trinity’ of Causley and his parents, as well as the Holy Trinity. It’s perhaps then an indication that this is heaven.
As we move further into stanza four, his mother shades her eyes and looks across the “drifted stream” which separates them from their son. Of course, rivers too are very much part of the symbolism of the poem as the three suns were. A river can represent a journey, a life as its moving waters represent the passage of time and the idea of things moving on, but the river can also represent both life (in that it, like the sun, brings life) and death. The river Styx in Greek mythology was the boundary between life on earth and life in the underworld, the kingdom of the dead. You get water used in this way in Come on, Come back for instance, by Stevie Smith and even in Wind In The Willows. You of course have other places bordered by a river, such as the Elysian Fields, the place where the righteous would live after death, or even Eden (pulling us back to the title) which was bordered also by four rivers. You can see a similarity perhaps between how Roman writer Virgil described Elysium, and how Causley describes this place “beyond Eden Rock”
In no fix’d place the happy souls reside. In groves we live, and lie on mossy beds, By crystal streams, that murmur thro’ the meads: But pass yon easy hill, and thence descend; The path conducts you to your journey’s end.”
There’s a sense of timelessness in the way his parents are described, and the lilt of “drifted stream” which I love. It’s followed by a caesura which forces us to pause mid-line and to consider the words. It also provides a break, reinforcing the gap and distance between Causley and his mother before doing the same thing again in the next line with his father. For me, it stresses the gap between them: his parents and the poet. It feels as if the poet’s mother is looking for him, she “looks my way” whilst his father seems just to be passing time, skimming stones. It feels very much as if they are waiting for him. There’s no impatience here, just the fact that she looks for her son, and her husband is happy to just wile away the time in a meaningless yet pleasurable way. This feeling is reinforced by the word “leisurely”, preceded by a caesura that leaves it dangling at the end of the line, it is a word that is not only preceded by a pause, but followed by two – the pause of the line break and the pause of the stanza break. It makes you really concentrate on that word and think about it. The whole thing, the actions of his father and mother, the unhurried nature of the moment, the passing of time, the extra pauses in the caesuras, they all contribute to a slow pace and a dreaminess.
Stanza four gives way to stanza five, and there’s not just a sense of divide but also a sense of drifting, as the final line “drifts” off into its own stanza. They “beckon” him from the other side and encourage him to pass, showing him the way. There’s an enthusiasm and momentum with the exclamation mark, and the final line of the three, “crossing is not as hard as you might think.” which almost makes me want to compare it with Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night which is a child telling their parent not to give in to death, not to go too easily, to put up a fight. Here, the parents reassure their child, encourage him to join them, make it sound easy to move on.
The final line is strange, standing separate, the only moment of introspection and reflection. It’s the past tense too, and we move from the objective description and narration. The separation marks not just a change in tone for this last line, but also echoes the divide between the poet and his parents. “I had not thought” is the pluperfect, suggesting he has changed his mind now – in the past, he did not think that this is how it would be. Now, he has changed his mind. The monosyllabics of this line make it simple, clear, unpoetic. It’s a mundane and worldly diction, a statement of fact about how he has changed his mind, and we are left wondering by the end of the poem about whether the poet chose to follow his parents’ gentle encouragement. As opposed to Walking Away, this poem is about a rejoining, as the “three suns” come back together again and he is encouraged to walk towards them. You’ve also got a very simple, everyday diction and a dreamy, otherworldliness in the way that he writes. The half-rhyme and the reminiscence give it a dreamy feel too.
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