An Analysis of Eden Rock by Charles Causley

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.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthologyplease 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 Letters from Yorkshire by Maura Dooley

Continuing with a sequence of posts about AQA GCSE English Literature and the new Love and Relationships anthology, this week I’m taking a closer look at Letters From Yorkshire by Maura Dooley. It’s a poem in which she captures a relationship in a moment and all the connections we make even though we are far apart.

Unlike other poems in the anthology the relationship between the poet and the man she is writing about is not exactly clear, but I don’t think that’s very important in most ways.

At first glance, it’s a poem that compares well with Follower or with Walking Away, especially in terms of its format. There is a regularity to it and a sort of ordinariness, a mundane, real-world format, solid and consistent; there’s no particular pattern to these lines, and although they are split up into groups of three across five stanzas and in four of the five stanzas, the ideas carry forward into the next stanza, so in stanza one, the idea of “his knuckles singing” carries into “as they reddened in the warmth” and this does the same in stanza two into stanza three, with the “seasons turning”. Stanza three is end-stopped with the question about life, stanza four begins afresh and runs into stanza five. It does beg the question about why it has been organised in groups of three lines, since there doesn’t really seem to be a purpose for that. For me, I think the form is simply a vehicle for the ideas and the language. It’s black backing paper, a frame to mount it on. That’s my take on it. I think it’s something you have to justify to yourself and consider for yourself, thinking about why she has used this three-line stanza format and if it is significant in any way.

The use of enjambment makes ideas run from line to line, stanza to stanza. The ideas are not contained in separate stanzas, particularly. We have a couple of caesuras, leaving bits of lines dangling on one line and carrying on into the next, which adds a pensive pause to those dangling phrases or perhaps fragments them from the rest of the idea, but this is something better explored when we look at language. I like the way the ideas and sentences don’t have particularly clear boundaries: to me, it mimics the way the letters take ideas from one place and carry them across into another world. It literally is letters (albeit alphabet letters and not the kind you post) that take ideas from one place to another, with no clear boundaries. The enjambment connects the lines and stanzas just as the letters connect the subject of the poem and the author.

The title of the poem is descriptive and neutral. “Letters from Yorkshire” is exactly what the poem is about, and yet it is about so much more than that. We don’t live in an age of letters any more and that’s sad. I’ve still got all the postcards from my mum and grandparents, letters we passed between friends in History class, letters from my best friends when I moved away, as well as all the letters my various boyfriends wrote me in my youth. Those letters do things that emails never will do in the same way. I have one box of letters that really do still smell of one boyfriend – I open that box and it transports me back twenty-five years. When I was clearing out my cupboards the other day, I read a letter from a friend that reminded me of a night out we once had. It made me laugh out loud to remember events that had been forgotten for fifteen or twenty years. People took time over letters in ways they don’t over emails. Getting letters from home was a joyful experience for me and one that many people don’t have any more – including me! This is why I treasure those letters, which do so much more than words on a screen ever can. They’re much more a part of you, with your own handwriting. Sure, they can be trivial and humorous, but there’s a baring of the soul in letters that we don’t see so much in emails or texts. I don’t know whether the letters are those from the past, though parts of the poem are written in present tense, and the poem is narrating events from the past, or whether it’s a modern poem and they still write letters – people still do! The very thought of letters dates it though – and although it may only be 20 years since my last letters stopped arriving as people moved to email, it feels very much like a bygone age.

In the first line, we get a sense of time to go with our sense of place: “In February,” which reminds me of Owen Sheers’ bleak and cold winter swans. Winter is such a symbolic time, a time of lifelessness and coldness. You catch a lot of the poets using weather and seasons in this way. But February is that time just before spring, and we’re given an immediate sense of growth and life with the “planting potatoes” and the lapwings returning. It’s the germination of something positive and optimistic, like the rain giving way to sunshine in Sheers’ poem. The first stanza gives us a really rural atmosphere, similar to Follower and this continues the sense of “Yorkshire” that we get in the title. The writer starts by calling the person “he”, which is interesting, because later we have “you”. I feel very strongly that “he” and “you” are the same person, so she starts writing in the first person about a third person and then turns and addresses the poem directly to this new audience. Instead of the poem being about him, it is to him. This change is curious and purposeful. She starts off with one audience – us – and changes to another – you – before finishing in a way that is addressed at once to both and to neither in stanza five. This is definitely something we have to think about and consider. Why does she start with “he saw the first lapwings… came indoors to write to me” and move to “You out there”? I’m not sure I have an answer, but the general effect is that it moves from the impersonal and objective to the personal and subjective. “He” becomes “you” when the letter arrives.

In the first stanza, there’s also a sense of the closeness between the poet and the man. When he first sees the lapwings, his instinct is to reach out to the poet and tell her, “to write to me”. The way she finishes with the image of “his knuckles singing” is quite delightful: they aren’t just words on a page, but a “song”. We get a sense of the immense joy he feels at seeing the returning birds, this symbol of the arrival of spring, and he reaches out to her to share that feeling. It’s musical and conveys his enthusiasm. It reminds me a little of the philosophical question about a tree falling in the woods and if anyone hears it: if spring starts and the man has no-one to share it with, what is it worth?

In stanza two, we have something of a mystery: “it’s not romance.” What’s not romance? This seems to be a reference to something earlier. So what is ‘not’ romance? The return of the lapwings? The coming indoors to write to her? The way he writes? It seems to refer to something previously stated, and yet it’s also quite vague. To me, it’s a reference to their relationship: this letter-writing. If that’s what ‘it’ is. It’s really up to you to decide what ‘it’ might be to you. And whatever ‘it’ is, it’s ‘not’ romance. She says. If she means this communication, the letter-writing, the reaching out to communicate his joy, there’s a tenderness in it even if she says ‘it’s not romance’. But there are other meanings of the word ‘romance’ as well, which could fit. It doesn’t have to be used in a romantic way. It could mean that it is not ‘Romance’ with a capital R, meaning the kind of ‘Romance’ Shelley and Wordsworth wrote about… emotions, sentiments, and not much to do with love as to do with adventure or passion. Despite the alternative meanings, I still think she means ‘romance’ as in to do with love, and this in itself provides with two mysteries: who is the man who writes her letters, and what is their relationship?

There are lots of times we have to justify a relationship… we’d never have to explain that a family relationship “is not romance” so it sounds as if they are friends. It’s just curious to introduce an idea and say it is “not” that. Despite her saying this, it does seem that they have a real connection. It reminds me of films like  84 Charing Cross Road which is about two people from very different worlds who communicate in a series of letters, their friendship developing only through those letters as they never meet in person. For that reason, along with the “it’s not romance”, I’d like to say this poem is about a warm friendship between the poet and this unnamed man. I like the mystery of who he is and what his relationship is to her, whether they have ever met, whether they are friends who live far from each other. And as much as I like the mystery, it almost doesn’t matter: we can only suppose about their friendship what we can determine from the details in the poem. We have to take thing as they are, just as she does when she says it’s “simply how things are”.

We can also take the idea that the things he describes in his letters are the daily run-of-the-mill hum-drum routine. There’s no romance, for instance, in planting potatoes. She could just mean that “it’s” describes the letter itself, or the general content of the letters.

What we do learn about the friendship is what we read at the end of stanza two and the beginning of stanza three. If stanza one is about “his” world, and him coming in to tell her about what is happening in his life, stanza two gives us a little information about their relationship and ends with her description of his life, turning to second-person address and becoming more personal: “you out there, in the cold, seeing the seasons/turning.”

The poet also poses a question for us to consider in the enjambed stanza and line between stanza two and stanza three. Why put the break between these two lines, the space? Why split up “seasons turning” across not only a line break but a stanza break too? It leaves the word “turning” dangling at the beginning of stanza three, which is curious. It’s even more curious because the rest of that first line of stanza three is about her world, and it’d be arguably more evident if the description of his life was in stanza two, then a line and stanza break, then the description of her life, like this:

You out there, in the cold, seeing the seasons turning,

me with my heartful of headlines

You can see how that break would emphasise the distance between them, leave them distinct and separate. So why move “turning” into the next line and stanza with her? For me, there are a couple of possibilities. One is that by putting that “turning” where she did, it makes us think more about the distance between them (because normally I don’t particularly discuss why ideas are in one stanza and other ideas are in another stanza). Another reason could be that it makes us think about that word “turning” as this is what the stanza does, turns from his world to hers. Perhaps a further possibility might be that the letters bring her a small bit of his life just as the word “turning” comes very much into the bit about her life in the poem. For me, it is definitely something to think about and discuss, because it is unusual and interesting. The enjambment forms a link between his life and her life.

Where her writing about him had been very factual and not particularly poetic or ornate, except for the “singing” knuckles, when she writes about herself, her diction seems a little more poetic and crafted, with the alliteration of a “heartful of headlines”. It’s an unusual turn of phrase, too. “Heartful” is both “heart full” (like ‘my heart is full of headlines’) and instead using the adjective “heartful”, meaning ‘full of heart’ or ‘full of emotion’, or even ‘earnest and sincere’. Technically you can’t say ‘my heartful of headlines’. If I replace it with another adjective, you’ll see what I mean grammatically. It’s like saying ‘my happy of headlines’. ‘My’ is usually followed by a noun. So you can say ‘my heart’ and you can say ‘my heart full of headlines’ but ‘my heartful of headlines’ is not grammatically correct – so what’s she doing here? It’s funny… to me it seems almost like a collective noun. You know, like a pack of wolves, a herd of cows. Some of them are unusual and interesting: a murder of crows is pretty well known to describe a group of crows, but a clowder or clutter of cats and a kindle of kittens. A heartful of headlines sounds like a made-up collective noun for headlines. After all, they are often full of emotion. It means BOTH a heart FULL of headlines (rather than a HEAD full of headlines which would be a bit crass in terms of repetition and imply that her writing was more cerebral and thoughtful than heart-felt) and a HEARTFUL writing of headlines. Does it mean she’s writing headlines? That she is thinking about the headlines? Her heart is full of the things in the newspapers?

She makes her own activities sound mundane in comparison with those of the man who has written to her, “feeding words onto a blank screen” – and she even asks the question, “Is your life more real because you dig and sow?”

The way that this line finishes the stanza and is the only stanza to be end-stopped within the poem (excepting the last verse, of course) makes the question even more powerful. She really makes us stop and think about the real-ness of his life with its more practical, useful and earthy results. It compares well at this point with another Heaney poem not in the anthology, Digging, where he talks about the physicality of his father planting potatoes and seems to go through a poetic crisis over the practicality of his poetry-writing, before coming to a conclusion that poetry-writing can bear fruit too, and that it is a skill of its own. The question is directed towards the penpal, her friend, and she speculates his answer would be “no”. Even so, she finds more of life in his letters which bring her “air” and “light” – making it seem as if she lives an airless, darkened existence. The letters take on a metaphorical quality: they bring her more than just news about lapwings or planting potatoes. They are a metaphorical ‘breath of fresh air’ and although they make her question how ‘real’ and ‘enjoyable’ her own life is, “feeding words onto a blank screen” whilst he is experiencing the world and its “turning”, she doesn’t feel any resentment about that – just only finding pleasure in what the letters bring her.

Stanza five is also interesting in the way that final sentence starts. It reads, without breaks, “So that at night, watching the same news in different houses, our souls tap out messages across the icy miles”. It’s the “So that” which is curious, preceded by a caesura which makes it even more noticeable. It’s strange. We’d take “so that” to mean “in order that” or “because of this”. I’m not sure what the reason is for the “so that” – it feels strange and unusual, unfinished even.

The poem finishes with a closeness. They are no longer writing to each other but their “souls” communicate – expressing thoughts and feelings to each other, bringing them together “across the icy miles”. We finish with the same image of winter, the icy weather, that is woven through the whole poem, from his knuckles red from the cold, being “out there, in the cold”, “breaking ice on a waterbutt,/ clearing a path through snow.” The life and warmth they clearly get from each other is very touching. It is his first instinct to come inside and write to her to say that he has seen the first lapwings and his letters bring her “air and light”. They end the poem connected despite the distance.

To me, it’s a very touching poem that reveals a tenderness in friendship, a closeness and a connected relationship. The word play in there is subtle but we see how much enjoyment and pleasure the poet gets from words and letters, despite her statement that she is “feeding words onto a blank screen” – she suggests her work demanding, thankless and uninspiring, unreal almost yet her words make her a liar: she clearly enjoys word play and the beauty of words. What brings her the greatest pleasure are the shared moments of a friend, even though she is living vicariously.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthologyplease 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 Walking Away by C. Day Lewis

So we leave the couples therapy behind and move back to parent-child relationships for this post, exploring Walking Away by C. Day Lewiswritten for his son Sean. It compares well with other poems in the “Love and Relationships” section of the AQA GCSE English Literature Poetry Anthology, especially poems such as Follower. This one, from a father to his son, is a twist on many, which focus on the feelings of a child towards their parent.

He has a lyric style that is very similar to that of Heaney, which means the poems are interesting to compare, especially in use of rhyme and rhythm. The poem was written in 1956 and recalls his son’s first day at school.

The poem is split into four stanzas of five lines, with an ABACA rhyme scheme, which is sustained throughout the poem. Syllabic length varies from 9 syllables to 12 syllables. The poem is marked by occasional enjambment and caesura, playing with the rhythm a little just as Heaney does in Follower, and it’s more useful to explore those moments as and when they happen in the poem.

Like many other poems in the AQA collection, this one is a deeply personal first-person narrative that is directed at his son, putting the reader into the place of the son. By doing this, we not only get an insight into the thoughts and feelings of the poet, but for the time the poem takes us to read, we too are part of that relationship. It feels kind of ironic that many of the posts about this poem refer to the distant relationship between C. Day Lewis’s surviving family, stemming it would seem from who talks to the public about their father and who doesn’t, when here is their father laying out his feelings to his son in a public poem. As with other first-person poems that are directed to a clear audience, it puts us in an unusual position and we wonder if the poets have chosen NOT to keep the poem private and keep their thoughts and feelings between themselves and their intended audience because these are words they could never say directly, or they are words they cannot say any longer, if someone has died or moved on. Or perhaps the poets find something so very common in what they are saying that they’re sharing it because they know that it’s a sentiment that many people have felt too. For whatever the reason, we must ask ourselves why the poem was published, especially when it is so intensely personal. But many poets lay their thoughts and feelings out on a slab for readers to carve up and dissect – it is often what touches us most about their poems, because they speak about the human experience and something of what they say resonates within any of us who have shared that experience. Like Follower, it is the emotional intensity of the poem that is central to its success. And like the Heaney poem, it too has a brevity and a neatness focusing in on one central moment.

The title is immediately ambiguous, because there’s no subject to it. We don’t know who is walking away. Is it the reader or the poet? The meaning only becomes clear when we have read it: it refers to his son. It’s also ambiguous being the present participle, “walking” which suggests no sense of time – it has an immediacy and feels very much like it is happening in the here and now. But the words suggest a distance and sadness.

This immediacy is continued in the first line, which is written in the present tense, although it refers to the past: “It is eighteen years ago,” in which the narrative is established. The poet is writing about that moment now, although it happened so long ago. It suggests that it has been playing on his mind, that it is an incredibly significant moment. There are few events that stay in our memory so long, that we can remember the exact day and date, and usually ones to do with love or loss. Day Lewis knows: “almost to the day – ” which suggests his memory is exact and precise of this particular occasion.

The pair of parenthetic dashes surrounds an addition, ” – A sunny day with leaves just turning,/the touch-lines new-ruled – ” Like many other poems in the selection, this particular detail of the weather not only sets the time and gives us a sense of setting, but it also evokes a turning point as things move to autumn, the leaves “just turning” are evocative of a changing and a passage of time. Of course, as the seasons move on, the sense of autumn’s arrival is sad and wistful. capturing the pensive mood of the poet perfectly. It is both a literal detail – it is autumn and the leaves were just turning – and a symbol of the change that is about to happen both in the poem and in the poet’s relationship with his child. Upon a first reading, we have no sense yet that this is his child he is writing to. We do get a sense of place, though, with the “touch-lines” evoking a sports field, and couple the autumn with newly marked-out sports pitches and you have the beginning of school term in September. Lines 1-3 run on naturally and easily. The rhythm is natural too. Line 3 runs into Line 4 separating “you play” from “your first game of football,” but the break feels easy and natural too, though it throws a little emphasis on the word “play”, since it falls at the end of a rhymed line. That makes us realise the object, “you” is active, playing football, and the writer, C Day Lewis, is passive, watching from the sidelines. That in itself makes the father/poet a bystander. Heaney uses the same sense in Follower where he recalls his father at work. The tense shifts to the past once more as we are taken back to that moment, almost eighteen years ago.

In line four, the poet uses a simile to convey the moment, “then, like a satellite/Wrenched from its orbit,” The enjambment of the lines splits up this phrase into two, echoing the feeling that the poet has, of his son being pulled away from him. A satellite is a smaller object kept in orbit by gravity around a bigger object, like the moon is a satellite of the earth. There is a sense in this simile of something smaller, something that has been reliant on the major object. When we say something is a satellite of something else, it is also lesser in importance, held in check by the gravity or power of the bigger thing. It conveys both the size of the child (who we begin to discern as being the audience of the poem, the “you”) and the dependence that the child has on the parent. The verb “wrenched” really conveys the power behind that separation. Obviously, to pull something out of the orbit or influence of something else, it takes a very powerful force. There is both a violence and a sense of distress in this word. We feel that separation very powerfully because of this word. At that moment, as the first stanza ends, the father realises his son is “drifting away”, just as a satellite would if it lost its centre. It makes me understand there are two things that can happen here: first the object holding the satellite in orbit might have lost its power. If the earth lost its force of gravity, the moon would go spinning off, for example. Second, there can be other things that exert more of a force in order to pull the satellite away – other influence. Thus, the father may have lost his hold over his child, or the child may be being pulled away by other influences.

The enjambed line from stanza one to stanza two also duplicates this split, “go drifting away/behind a scatter of boys”. The way he writes about the boys is interesting: “a scatter”, which suggests the casual way that the boys are dispersed, almost as if they are the thing that has “wrenched” his son away from the poet. The poem is very visual with both the simile and the description of the boys, and moves back to the present with “I can see/you walking away”. For me, this makes the moment seem very vivid and fresh – the poet can see the child walking away in his memory, which is happening now, and it makes the moment very current once more, a little like Seamus Heaney’s use of tense in Follower. 

The diction here becomes very elaborate, “with the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free”, using a similar th/f alliteration as that in Follower. Look at them all in this line: “with the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free” – lots of those fricatives give it an airy, light sound… rather reminiscent of flight, no? Even if you don’t think all those sounds echo the subject perfectly, you can’t argue that they are gentle and breathy, making it a very wistful, melancholic line. Where Heaney uses it to show the lightness and smoothness with which his father works the plough, C Day Lewis seems to use it to suggest the hotion of his son being “set free”. He’s using “pathos” here to show how emotional he finds this moment: this separation causes him real anxiety. He calls his son “half-fledged” like a baby bird, not ready to fly, immature and unprepared to face the world. It seems to me that he could have easily chosen other words to fit instead of “pathos” and “thing”, and that these words are used to capitalise on that th/f thing.

It’s a fair-old cheesy image, that. If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it was meant to be. But when C Day Lewis wrote the poem, it had not become part of everyday wisdom. All I can find on it is a vague suggestion it might have emerged around the 1950s and had started to be written down in the 1970s, so very unlikely that it was such a cheesy cliché when C Day Lewis first wrote it. Google Ngrams shows it really started to hit paper in the late 1970s.

Day Lewis clarifies further in the poem, writing, “set free/into a wilderness,” – he really feels that he has let his child loose without proper preparation or care; he feels all the concern and doubt that any parent would upon seeing their child move to independence and leave them behind. His worry is almost palpable when he says, “the gait of one/Who finds no path where the path should be” – all mono-syllabic and very terse, tense in fact. His son is aimless, wandering and unsure.

We move into the third image as we move into the third stanza. His son is a satellite out of orbit, a fledgling bird, and now “a winged seed”. Day Lewis picks up on his son’s confusion, calling him a “hesitant figure” and chooses an unusual verb to describe his son’s movements: “eddying away”. The dictionary describes this as “a current at variance with the main current in a stream of liquid or gas” and we get the sense of his son, fighting against the tide of boys, going in the wrong direction almost, at odds and out of sync. It all ties together with his son’s sense of aimlessness and wandering. The phrase “eddying away/like a winged seed” is also enjambed, as we keep finding with these images, splitting the images over two lines. This division seems to perfectly emulate the sense of tearing apart that Day Lewis feels, seeing his son walking off.

Stanza three offers more than a simple description of this “wrenching” apart, saying that his son “Has something I never quite grasp to convey/About nature’s give-and-take – ” when he says he never quite grasps “to convey” the cyclical nature of life – how it brings us children and then they grow up, leave to have their own children or their own lives” – it means he struggles to put it into words. To me, it feels like this is what the poem is really about and he is using the moment as a way of conveying that, of expressing his understanding about the “give-and-take” of life. To be honest, I’m not sold on “grasp to convey” – with the “I never quite grasp” makes sense. “I never quite convey” makes sense. I’m personally unsure how you “grasp to convey” something. If he means “try”, it makes no sense. “I never quite try to convey” – it’s a little awkward. Ironic, really. Here he is struggling with the wording of something which sounds odd and awkward and not-quite-sense, and it’s also him saying how hard it is to communicate that experience. I know I’m not the only one to find it a strange turn of phrase. Google gives only 40000 returns for “grasp to convey” as a search term, and all the first three pages relate to this poem or “…grasp. To convey…” Not a common collocation, by any stretch of the imagination. “Try to convey” has over three million returns. Even “struggle to convey” has three hundred thousand. It feels wrong. I can’t decide if it’s accidental or purposeful. I’ll give our former Poet Laureate the benefit of the doubt as I’m sure his editor wouldn’t have let him get away with something that doesn’t fit like this, and say that I think it must be purposeful to show literally how hard it is to communicate this feeling.

Line four of the third stanza also contains an enjambed line which runs into the next: ” – the small, the scorching/Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay.” Here, he uses a metaphor as an analogy to make clear that we are like soft clay at the beginning of life, and as we go through life like this, experiences like these harden us, or “fire” us. Firing is the process by which clay strengthens and hardens, fixing shape. Normally, though, clay is not “scorched”, and this word, along with others such as “wrenched” suggest how painful the experience is for him. It burns him. But these are the experiences that toughen him up. Day Lewis suggests that it is not the big moments that make us, but those small moments, such as this, where his son walks off after the football match and he realises his son is making his own path now. As he says, “I have had worse partings”. “Irresolute” suggests that we are weak and uncertain until such moments harden us and make us firm and determined.

As we move into stanza four, Day Lewis tells us that even though this moment was not particularly bad, this one “gnaws” at his mind. This present-tense verb tells us that this moment, eighteen years ago, still eats away at him. He struggles again for words to convey his understanding: “it is roughly/saying what God alone could perfectly show – ” that the moment taught him that all creatures “become” by separation, and that our parental love is “proved” in letting our children go. In order to become an individual, we must walk away and make our own path, and our parents can do nothing but watch us leave. The verb “proved” is particularly effective: it means “to test or analyse” but also to establish the truth of a thing. It means both “to confirm” and “to test” which is perfectly apt in both senses of the word.

Overall, then, a poem about a child making his first steps in life whilst his father can only watch. As we end the poem, the similarities between this poem and Follower are evident, but we get a sense of the divide that still remains as a child grows up. I feel, though, that this poem is much richer in terms of imagery, but it feels very much to me that Day Lewis is struggling for the words to express this division, a satellite out of orbit, a fledgling bird, a winged seed, and it feels as if he can’t settle on one image that fits just perfectly, as if he can’t find the perfect way to describe his son and the shift in their relationship. That’s very different from Follower, which is very spartan in terms of figurative language. I do feel that Day Lewis’s failure to settle on one central image that works is very interesting: he says himself that he is (or the moment is) “roughly saying” and it is really as if he can’t find the perfect way to express this “wrenching” and “scorching.”

This is 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.

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An Analysis of The Farmer’s Bride by Charlotte Mew

Further to my analysis of other poems in the Love and Relationships section of the 2016 AQA GCSE English Literature poetry anthology, and following from an exploration of Porphyria’s Lover by Robert Browning, this is one of the four poems in the selection by a female writer. It compares well with Porphyria’s Lover for many reasons, some of which I’ll explore at the end of this post.

Chronologically, Charlotte Mew is writing after Byron, Shelley and the Brownings, even Thomas Hardy, although she was a contemporary of his by the time Neutral Tones was published. Her poem still has some of the features of more traditional poetry, but her style is certainly much more idiosyncratic and personal than others in the collection – if not because of the content rather than the time that the poem was written and published.

At first glance, we might expect The Farmer’s Bride to be a saucy little romp through the countryside. After all, the countryside was long since a metaphor for all things fertile and vibrant. The Country Wife, for instance, is a play from 1675 in which a city man marries a country girl. Less theatre and more Carry On Countryside. With the pastoral images we’ve explored before, and poems such as A Passionate Shepherd To His Love, you can see why the countryside was seen as a sexy hive of reproduction and earthy women who’d grown up with the birds and the bees. After all, how can you fail to be a saucy minx when you’ve grown up so in touch with nature?! Still, the pastoral image of ripe, comely, bosomy women who are a lot less uptight than their city sisters is an image picked up by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It among others.

But The Farmer’s Bride is not a saucy tale of sexy milkmaids. No. It is the story of a marriage that is barren ground.

The first thing we notice about the poem is that it is split into six stanzas of irregular length, varying from four or five lines to ten lines. Already, it’s not quite as even as we might expect. It seems like it’d be a really regular poem from the title, but then it wanders off into irregularities in ways that perhaps we feel like Porphyria’s Lover should, but doesn’t. I think to me that this is the first of many signs with the form, structure and rhythm that much is out of the natural order of things. This is continued in the syllabic lengths of the lines, which are often 8 but sometimes much longer, with one line of sixteen syllables. Again, irregularities that pop out and stand out from ‘the norm’. The poem feels like everything started with the idea of regularity, a narrative ballad like many, but deviates and betrays something peculiar beneath the surface.

The rhyme does this too. What starts as one thing, ABBA, then becomes something else CDCDD. There are couplets woven into a rhyme scheme that is nothing like a pattern. It feels like it wants to be one thing and then is another. It becomes couplets at first, but doesn’t stay that way. I think there’s something very interesting in that, especially when you consider the content about a farmer and his bride, a couple no less, but a couple who are not a couple. No matter how he tries, his bride is not his wife and he has to keep her imprisoned to keep her at all. I think the use of these occasional couplets picks up on the idea. The final stanza of the poem also picks up on rhymes that have been used before, like ‘there’ ‘stair’ and ‘hair’ from stanza two, and ‘down’ and ‘brown’ from stanza five.

For the rhythm, it’s the same again. It has a kind of baseline of eight syllables per line, which are kind of an iambic tetrameter, as you can see here:

At HARvest TIME than BIDE and WOO

but then there are much more complex rhythms at work in places, for instance in:

SHY as a/LEVeret/SWIFT as he

STRAIGHT and/ SLIGHT as a/YOUNG larch tree

which has three dactyls per line. which as a real sense of movement and motion.

As there are so many exceptions to the rhythm and rhyme, it feels more natural to analyse these where they happen in the poem and to consider why Charlotte Mew is doing it, but overall, it’s a poem that has a loose baseline and then many moments that deviate from this, where she varies line length, rhyming patterns and syllabic emphasis. One of the things you have to do is work out why she does this: it is very much in contrast with everything Browning does in Porphyria’s Lover which is SO regulated and metered, eerily so for such a creepy narrator. This narrator kind of does the opposite. It has a normal framework and baseline and then it kind of runs away with itself. Given the content and the final lines, I think for me that it does so because the passions, temper, thoughts and urges of the narrator are not under control. I can’t decide truly whether I think it’s a normal baseline with deviant patterns, or a deviant baseline which tries to be normal. I think the first, to be honest. It has more “regular” than not, and the bits where it becomes irregular in terms of lines, meter and stresses are the bits where the poet seems to be doing it for particular effects. We’ll explore these in more detail as we explore the language.

As I’ve said already, the title hints at something pastoral. The farmer himself is a person who cultivates, under whose hands things grow and flourish. As we come to see in the poem, this is not at all what happens with his new wife. It’s also a very evocative word because the farmer is associated with all that is natural, all that is rural. This is not someone with sophisticated wiles and behaviour. You say ‘farmer’ and there’s an image of someone physical, someone who works with his hands, someone who lives in a world where “the birds and the bees” are very much part and parcel of who they are and what they do. And then, the subject of this poem, his “bride”. Like Curley’s Wife, she is his property, she is only seen in terms of her husband: the possessive apostrophe makes that clear (the same as in Porphyria’s Lover of course, except that in the Browning poem, Porphyria is in possession of the narrator, and the subject of the poem is him, whereas in this poem, the farmer is in possession of his wife, and she is the subject of the poem, not him)

However, unlike Porphyria’s Lover and Curley’s Wife, this woman has never got any further than being his “bride”. And according to the first line of the poem, they have been married for three years, so she should be his wife, not his bride. We learn that the marriage has never been consummated: he has never touched her. She is forever his bride and never his wife. The word “bride” has all of these unspoken associations with what will come after the ceremony, when she moves from being a “maid” to being a “wife” – it’s a word that is rich with meaning.

But there is none of this in their relationship: their relatioship is barren and fruitless.

In the first line, we become more aware that this is a persona narrator. As the poem continues, we realise that the Farmer himself is the narrator of the poem and that Charlotte Mew is writing in character. For this reason too, it compares easily with Porphyria’s Lover, where Browning chooses to do the same thing. Whilst we get no sense of Mew in the poem, just as we had no feeling of Browning in his, we are then asked to believe in the narrator and their experiences. A key feature of this poem is how Mew creates this voice, and how successful she is at being their mouthpiece.

One of the ways she creates this voice is by using the first-person narrative, just as Browning did. In the first line, we have the “I” that marks this. This poem also weaves between the past and the present as Browning does, coming up to the current moment in the same way by the final verse. All the past tense moments, then, benefit from the persona’s hindsight and ability to reflect on things that happened in the past. The present tense gives it a sense of immediacy and we also wonder about the future for the character, just as we do with Porphyria’s Lover.

As the poem opens, the character reflects on how he met his bride, three summers ago. The passage of time is evident in this poem, and you’ll find many seasonal references that help move us on. The seasons are very symbolic too – the summer being the period when things ripen. We realise too that times have changed, but here, it is the man who “chooses” his wife: she has little to do with it. It’s important to remember that in these times, it was not a partnership, by any stretch of the imagination. A woman’s role was to obey her husband and to serve him. She was his property. Still, the poem was written at a time when women were beginning to campaign for the vote, when women’s rights became a central political issue. To me, the poem raises very interesting questions about the necessity of a woman to obey and be ruled by her husband, and its ending makes me very uncomfortable about the future for the Farmer’s Bride – the more she refuses her husband, the less tolerant he is. By the final line of the poem, there’s a very uneasy tone about the future for this woman, who has already been imprisoned by her husband. The poem forces us to consider the traditional roles of men and women within a marriage, and remember that it’s only very recently (in 1991) that men could be convicted of raping their wives. At the time of the poem, the right of a husband to do what he liked to his wife in the bedroom was enshrined in law. But that said, I think Charlotte Mew is very good at capturing the uneasiness of a man who is in the position where he must force his wife to consent.

So from this ‘ripe’ and ‘fertile’ beginning where our previous understanding of the pastoral might lead us to think this will be a sexually suggestive countryside romp, we begin to understand that all is not right.

The second line says, “too young maybe” which suggests an element of regret from the farmer – perhaps the reason she was so skittish about fulfilling her marital duties. It’s perhaps also the reason why, so far, he has left her alone. The heavy iambic beat, essentially monosyllabic diction and the rhyme of “but MORE’S to DO/at HARvest TIME than BIDE and WOO” gives the lines a speed which emphasises the haste of his decision. He had no time to sit about courting her, flirting with her, “wooing” her. The marriage was a hasty one. Even in these lines, there’s a sense of earlier pastoral poems where shepherds are encouraging their girlfriends to get busy with them. “Gather ye rosebuds whilst ye may…” is the over-riding gist of many pastoral poems. Get a move on before you’re past your prime, ladies. Otherwise nobody will want you and you’ll go to your grave a virgin where the worms will have their wicked way with you. Nothing like old poets to encapsulate the fervid reasoning of young men whose girlfriends are not putting out.

We also begin to pick up on the dialect of the character narrator in the fourth line, “when us was wed”, which gives it a rustic, rural sound and a genuine quality to the persona. It’s one of the ways that Charlotte Mew creates an authentic voice for the Farmer. I nearly wrote “Young Farmer” then, but we have no sense of how old the farmer is – who knows what the source is of her fear? In the fourth line, we also get to the heart of her problem, “she turned afraid”. Was she afraid of what would happen on the wedding night? In those days, there was no such thing as Sex Education. Nobody gave young girls science lessons about how flowers reproduce that led into how bunnies reproduce… (as I did! Yes, I am THAT old). And no internet existed where people could find out what things meant without embarrassing themselves. In 1902, What A Young Wife Ought To Know told women that:

“From the wedding day, the young matron should shape her life to the probable and desired contingency of conception and maternity. Otherwise she has no right or title to wifehood.”

You’ll have sex, conceive and have a baby. And if you don’t, you have no right to call yourself a wife. You can find a very insightful article about views of the wedding night from around the period of the poem here. Be warned… it’s a world apart from our world now.

We find out the very nature of her fears in line five: love and me and all things human. It’s like she is a changeling in many ways, and we get the sense from here on in that she is almost not of this world. Later, he calls her “a frightened fay” (fairy) and she seems more animalistic than human, never speaking to him and only ever speaking with the animals.

In the first verse, we’ve also got a simple simile that sums up their relationship and her changing behaviour, like the shut of a winter’s day, and when he says her smile went out, we get the impression that she was “summer” before in comparison, that she smiled. As a simple maid, she was happy; as a married woman, she is not. By the end of the first verse, she has “runned away”.

We get lots of these moments of dialect established in stanza one, from the “us was wed” and “twadn’t”, along with “fall” and “runned away”. These moments intensify our acceptance of the persona as narrator – he becomes more convincing because of this accent.

This is continued throughout the poem, and is certainly evident in stanza two with “her be” and “abed”.

Stanza two begins to show us a little more about the Farmer’s Bride: she feels more comfortable with the sheep. When he says she is normally to be found at night “lying awake with her wide brown stare”, she seems almost haunted, too terrified to even go to sleep. The fifth line in this stanza is highly irregular, shifting the two couplets and introducing a new rhyme with “down” but also giving us a sixteen-syllable line,

so OV/er SEV/en AC/re FIELD/and UP/aLONG/aCROSS/the DOWN

which runs to me like a metronome (tap it out!) speeding up, giving this line a great sense of movement as “the chase” takes place. It is evocative of the images in sonnets of the girl being a “white hart” (deer) and the man being a “hunter” who must pursue her and win her “heart” (like the play on words?) and she’s even taken on the form of a “hare” almost – another aspect that makes me think of a changeling or a witch even. Couple this with the mention of a “leveret” (baby hare) later and you’ve got two comparisons with a hare. Is it just speed that makes her hare-like? (and given the pun on her “hair” in the final lines too). What else do we know of hares? They are often solitary, not living in social groups like rabbits do. They’re also shy and less likely to interact with humans. But hares in British mythology are often linked to witches, which gives her another supernatural element too. You will also find sculptures of the “three hares” in Northern Europe, where it has associations with fertility rites and lunar cycles. In Greek and Roman myth, the hare was a symbol of fertility (as well as the rabbits!) and spring time and birth. Believe it or not, the “three hares” motif is most often found in churches linked to the dialect in this poem and wikipedia, somewhat reliably, informs me that hares were linked to the idea of virginity as it was believed hares could reproduce without sex. It’s just very curious to me that of all the images that Charlotte Mew could have picked up on, this is the one she does. I think that makes it worthy of analysis.

When they find her in stanza two, she is in “Church-town”, as if the church will perhaps protect her, reminding us that in the eyes of the church, it is the woman’s duty to fulfil her marital vows. By the end of the stanza, the Farmer and his friends “turn the key” upon her and thus the start of her imprisonment.

In stanza three, we get the impression that the Farmer’s Wife is fulfilling all of her other “wifely” duties, and we get a better sense of her personality. The simile “like a mouse” is the third simile of the poem, building on her other-worldliness, her “fay”-like qualities, and her similarity more to creatures than to humans. The poet reiterates that she is scared of men, “so long as men-folk keep away”. She seems to have a magical ability to communicate with the animals, who all feel her distress.

The short verse of stanza four is where she seems to come to life and where we feel that the persona is in love with these aspects of her. She is compared once again with a hare, the leveret is a baby hare, and also with a “young larch tree” and here it reminds me of the Greek legends in a way, where women would change into mythical creatures to escape the clutches of the rather randy god, Zeus. Asteria was one of these, who transformed herself into a quail to escape him. Other times, Zeus’s wives and lovers turned other women into animals as punishment, or to protect them. There’s an over-arching sense of how natural she is, how in tune with nature she is, and when the narrator says, “sweet as the first wild violets”, we see his love for her. Violets are, however, a precocious flower, flowering in February and March, so it also gives us a sense of her youth. The way the stanza moves is interesting too, with the couplets – surprisingly at odds with this poem about his desire to “couple”. It also makes use of the dactyllic rhythm to suggest her speed and give her an energy, lightness and grace, which finishes with the question which grounds him: “but what to me?”

In stanza five, we have very much a movement of time… tick, tock, body clock. Winter is coming. “The short days shorten”. We notice too how the poem has moved into the present tense from stanza three onwards, bringing it in to the current moment. There is a scene not dissimilar to that in Porphyria’s Lover, with the “blue smoke” and the “low grey sky”, but in contrast to the stormy passions of that poem, there is an eerie stillness here, as “one leaf” is suspended in the sky and “falls slowly down”. With the seasons passing comes a sense of urgency, and a sense of renewed ‘coldness’ as the frost sets in, “white with rime” and the narrator ponders on his own fruitfulness (or lack of) as even the trees bear fruit, but he does not. “What’s Christmas-time without there be/Some other in the house than we!” which suggests his yearning for offspring.

By the time we arrive at stanza six, we find a familiar Victorian trope, taken right out of Jane Eyre, where the main male character, Mr Rochester, keeps his wife Bertha locked in the attic. The madwoman in the attic is a familiar character that symbolises the repression of desire and the repression of women. The attic is also often a place where the servants slept, but it’s more to the point, NOT the place that she should be sleeping – in bed with her husband. The narrator seems to have a degree of sympathy for her, calling her “Poor maid”, but the word “alone” seems very ominous to me. Why should she be a poor maid because she is alone? It gives me a vague impression that she is vulnerable and unprotected – although there has been no hint of menace or threat at any point in the poem before now. When you add “just a stair” that divides them and the final three lines which reveal a sort of infatuation, it makes me wonder if he is getting to the point, after three summers, with the sensation of time passing and time moving on, his desire for “someone else” (i.e. children) to be in the house too, where he is no longer going to allow her to resist him. And remember, in those days, no law said that there was any reason he shouldn’t. Still, it’s a horrible thought that his obsessions with her skin, her eyes and her hair, that “only a stair” stands between them. It gives us a sense of her vulnerability.

In terms of comparison with Porphyria’s Lover, you have in the Browning poem a threat made real from a weirdly fetishistic lover and in this poem, a threat in waiting for this poor, vulnerable girl who has no voice. Neither women have a voice in either of these poems, and all we get are the insights of minds driven wild. The repetition of “the down”, “the brown” and “her hair” show how these thoughts are building up and spiralling in the persona’s mind – a little different from the ending of Porphyria’s Lover where his only feeling is that at being a little perplexed why God has not turned up to judge him.

I think this poem has much more of a sense of the feminine though, than Porphyria’s Lover. The Farmer’s Bride is presented sympathetically, as is the Farmer to be fair, though we can’t help but feel concern over where his growing passions will end for his wife. It seems much less of the strange Gothic melodrama of a violent man stirred to crazy behaviour and more of the turn-of-the-century malaise about the role of women. The two poems sit easily together though, for many poetic reasons as well as the similarities of content and presentation.

If you’d like to discuss the AQA GCSE English Literature anthology in more detail, 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.