An analysis of the context, language and ideas in Tissue by Imtiaz Dharker

In the last post I was looking at the form and structure of Tissue by Imtiaz Dharker. This popular anthology poet has been on every inception of the poetry anthology at least since I can remember, but she continues to both delight and baffle, so I thought I’d try to write something to settle the nerves of this year’s GCSE students who have asked for some support on this poem.

As I said, there is a crescendo towards the end of the poem, a sense that the poet is building up to something, and we finish with that final statement that reveals the poet’s illusion: the paper is a metaphor for humanity.

Today, I’m going to take a line-by-line approach, looking at the key ideas in the poem, and how they’re explored through the language. You can find Dharker talking about her poem here, and reading it.

She starts straight away with the word ‘Paper’, and the idea of how fragile it is: ‘Paper that lets the light/shine through’. We’ve already thought about how she uses the enjambment there to leave the word ‘light’ dangling at the end of the line, drawing our attention to it. Light is something positive, something that gives hope. Couple that with all the conditionals, and I see a poem that is very much about hope for humanity – and what we must do to save ourselves from the current conflict. This line reminds me of hoary old songster Leonard Cohen, the master of gloom, in his song, Anthem and his line that “there is a crack in everything.;. it’s how the light gets in” – which is a nice way of saying that it is our flaws and imperfections, the broken bits of us that allow the good to seep in somehow. In fact, if you’re feeling adventurous, there is a lot to be added to your understanding of Tissue by considering the great Mr Cohen’s song. It talks about hope too, in a cynical world.

The first quality of paper, then, that she finds interesting, is that it lets the light shine though. Light is such a powerful and well-used metaphor for all that’s good that I shouldn’t have to explain it to anyone. We’re surrounded by that metaphor.

In the second line, we also have a dangling word that is separated from the rest of its line with the enjambed line ‘this/is what could alter things.’ I wrote a little about the word ‘this’ in the previous post, but it’s interesting. We call it a deictic word, a pointing word. It’s a pronoun that refers back to something before. But what is ‘this’? Does she mean it’s the paper that can change things, or letting the light shine through that could alter things? Or a combination of both – paper that lets light shine through?

At the same as being quite a hopeful image, I think there is also a dark side to this image. Paper and skin and light makes me think of another, darker image. Anyone familiar with Lady Lazarus by poet Sylvia Plath (and it’s one of the most well-known post-war poems, so most poets would be) will be aware of a line in that poem, ‘My skin/ Bright as a Nazi lampshade’. This line is a reference to the ugly tale that certain Nazis in charge of concentration camps in World War Two made lampshades out of human skin. Whether it is true or whether it is propaganda, we are reminded in this image of not only the good things that humanity is capable of – our light and goodness – but also the darkness and the evil. What should be an image of beauty, like paper lampshades and light, is a thing that reminds us of the cruelty and depravity of humanity. I don’t think you can read a poem that compares paper to skin and to humanity without thinking of Lady Lazarus and these darker images.

That cruel image alters things too: it is the horrors of what happened in the concentration camps and extermination camps that is largely what has changed warfare around the world and should change how we see others. There are lots and lots of lessons to be learnt from the atrocities of the Second World War, and if that is one of the things that Dharker’s ‘paper’ image is referring to, then she is right indeed. It could alter things.

Still, I like to think of the hopefulness of the light and paper image, not its ugliness. She talks about how she found a connection with her father – and her past – on the paper she found.

Whether she means the way paper lets good shine through, whether she means it as a reminder of of mankind’s atrocities or whether she simply means it as the literal piece of paper she found in the back of a book, where she found a connection to her father.

The final line of the first stanza is also interesting as she describes this paper in a second way: ‘paper thinned by age or touching’ – this is paper that has a value, that has been kept or treasured, paper that is significant.

Now you are undoubtedly not as old as me, and you probably don’t have the stuff I’ve collected over the years, but there is a lot of stuff I can’t throw away. First off, I need to confess that I am an English teacher. That’s not confession material, I know. But English teachers often have a weird thing about books. Like books are our religion. Books are our safety blankets. So we have weird attachments to books that you probably don’t get unless you are a budding English teacher. So I can’t throw out my 40-year-old copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Stories that I got as a Christmas present from my Great Gran when I was a nipper. But I also can’t throw away books that were given to me as presents that people have written in – especially if those people are dead. That means I’m clinging on desperately to my illustrated Children’s Bible that I got from my grandparents in 1977, even though I’m not a child, I’m not religious and I have about 200 other Bibles, which makes me sound like a religious nut, but I can’t throw Bibles away, even if I’m not particularly religious and even though I don’t believe it’s the actual, literal Word Of God on paper. Neither can I throw away the Good News New Testament that I got from our vicar as a present (!) for going to Sunday School in 1981 (which was my parents’ great idea for free babysitting so they could have a Sunday morning without children and listen to The Carpenters or some such). I make no great claims to being religious, but if some day I am found dead and the police come round to my house, they’re going to think I’m a bit of a religious freak since I won’t be able to explain (and I can’t explain now, even being alive and all that) why precisely I have twenty copies of the New Testament and why I’ve got the world’s biggest collection of books signed by vicars.

Anyway, in this age of Kindles and e-books, of disposing of things, this age that lacks sentimentality, I thought it necessary to explain a bit how books, how paper and stuff can hold value for us old people with our whimsy and nostalgia.

In fact, even though I’ve moved house several times, gone through several purges of ‘stuff’ in the name of minimalism and had to squash a whole house-worth of things into a transit van to move abroad, there are some ‘paper’ objects that are still with me – things that are probably incomprehensible in this digital age.

Here, if you didn’t believe me, is my 1981 Good News New Testament (and this is the first time since 1981 that it has probably been opened)

And here is my Children’s Illustrated Bible (not Illustrated Children’s Bible, which sounds like a Jacqueline Wilson tale)

And here are letters I wrote in 1989 in GCSE History (NB: A Cautionary Tale… I got a C in GCSE History – and no doubt my poor performance was related to spending my time passing notes to my friend Pam about boys we liked)

So why do I keep this stuff apart from a weird sentimentality about religious things and holding on to the past?

Because they’re pieces of me. They are pieces of my life. They age, as I do. They get damaged, as I have. But they are the things that make me who I am. They are the reminders that those who have gone once lived. My friend Pam died of cancer in 2017, and although we hadn’t spoken for years, those letters are not just a reminder of one of my most rich friendships, they are physical and real evidence of that friendship. I can’t quantify that friendship. I can’t put it in a bottle and keep it on a shelf. But I can, when I open those letters, remember it and relive it a little. They are literally the only things left of it. They are the physical relics of a life. They are the archaeological artefacts of my past.

Some of those pieces become the artefacts of other people’s past too. I have slide films and photographs, school reports and letters from my other dead relatives. I’ve got my Great Grandpa’s St John’s Ambulance medals, and my Great Great Grandma’s teaching certificate. These artefacts – and stories about them – keep them alive. When I die, those stories may die too, but as long as someone keeps that box of relics from our family’s past, it’s as if those people are still alive.

I know that’s a hard and weird concept to get your head around when you are 16. I mean why not burn the whole stinking lot of it?

I think a lot has to do with our own mortality and how we are but tiny flashes of existence in an enormous chasm of time. Keeping hold of things makes them significant somehow.

It also, like Imtiaz Dharker, allows us to hold on to relationships that are gone. And when people have died, holding on to them is the one thing that becomes the most important of all. Coming back to the ‘lone and level sands stretch far away’ of Ozymandias, we’re a long time dead, and even if you are the ruler of the biggest empire that ever was, even if you were the ‘King of Kings’, give it some time and your life is going to be nothing more than a puzzle to future curious minds, should they trip over some remnant of your life.

Ironic how paper, something so fragile and so easily destroyed, can be as good as stone at preserving the past.

Anyway, a circuitous waffle about the marvels of paper. Like the sculptor in Ozymandias, we may not know the author, the creator of these artefacts as time passes, but what they capture may help us understand ourselves and the world around us. As Dharker says, ‘a hand’, not knowing whose hand was responsible for recording all the details of lives before ours, so we lose connection with the people who create records of the past. But the fact that there are records leaves us something. Whether it’s a painting of someone’s wife, whether it’s a photograph of lives destroyed during war, whether it’s half a statue in a desert, these artefacts aren’t just curiosities about “the way we used to live”, but they are things that hold a mirror up to us in the here and now. We can use them to learn from the past. We can use them to see how times don’t change – how dictators will rise and fall – how people will suffer at the hands of cruel tyrants – how husbands will be jealous of wives – how atrocities are committed across the globe – and if we’re wise, we can learn from these things that don’t change, but could – if only we were to learn from the past! 

Unlike, however, those Bibles that may pass down through the generations recording marriages, births, christenings, confirmations and deaths on the pages themselves, the Koran is different – not to be defaced. This might be why she says these details are written on slips of tissue paper that are perhaps tucked inside. It reminds me too of books I’ve read where I’ve marked the pages with receipts or tickets of the places I’ve been when I read them. I don’t just open a book when I get them out again, I recall all the details about where I was when I read it.

Paper, too, turns sepia with age – it yellows. It does this, as it turns out, even if you don’t look in the book all the time (hence the yellowing of my Good News Bible) and the sepia of the third stanza, like other references to age and use, reminds us that paper ages as we do.

As we move into the fourth stanza, we have the rhyme on ‘drift’ and ‘shift’, where the sounds of those words amplify the meaning, the movement of things, how things are not fixed or secure.

And that, I think, is the central message of Tissue. We might understand how fleeting life is, how brief it is, how easily wiped out, ‘how easily they fall away on a sigh’. And if we understood that life is fragile, we can also understand that, despite that fragility, humanity is still strong. Like paper, it endures. We might stop trying to build permanent things, raising ‘a structure never meant to last’ and start focusing on what is important in life – all those names and details recorded in the backs of books, all the relationships we had with people of whom little physical is now left. If we accept how fragile life is, we might start doing things that are much more meaningful, might fly our lives like ‘paper kites’ and ‘never wish to build again with brick’.

When it comes to it, then, I think the poem explores the pointlessness of building empires – not unlike Ozymandias in fact, and instead of being pessimistic about how ‘nothing beyond remains’ is left of huge empires, we should, instead, embrace what we have when we have it. We too should treasure the lives around us, focusing them until they ‘transparent with attention’, like we pour so much care and love and attention into them that they are worn thin with use. I’m reminded of the line in War Photographer where Duffy says ‘All flesh is grass’ where we are supposed to remember how fleeting and meaningless life is – how our stone empires, the ‘capitals and monoliths’ are pointless, and what really counts are the ‘grand design[s] with living tissue’. We may have made our preparations with our stone houses and our nailed-down rooftops like ‘Storm On The Island’ but the lives inside are fleeting and transient. You can batten down the hatches as much as you like, prepare yourself to ride the storm, but ultimately, you’d be better to remember that we’re paper, not stone, carried slowly on the air currents, like ‘paper kites’, ‘drifting’ and ‘shifting’ like paper ‘in the direction of the wind’.

Instead then of realising that everything will be destroyed by time eventually, we should embrace that. All of those conditionals, the ‘could’ and the ‘might’ reveal a poem of possibility.

We should realise too that something fragile, like paper, has the potential to change things. History – the names, details and inscriptions from the past – has the possibility to change things in the future. We can use it to create, to be an ‘architect’ of things for the future.

Paper has the potential to reconnect you with yourself. Fragile as it is, it connects you with a past that you can never get back again. I will never live a life again where so much lay before me and everything was an exploration. That’s why I keep those letters. I will never again have a friendship that was as silly and free and careless as I did back then. My Nana will never again write an inscription in a book and all I physically have to remember how much I was loved and cared for as a child are those inscriptions in books.

Like Ozymandias and Storm on the Island, I think the poem works as a metaphor about the battle between humanity and time, but instead of reminding us that we are a long time dead and that time will get the better of us eventually, even if we are the ‘king of kings’, we’d be better to ride out the drifting direction of the winds of time as ‘paper kites’ and celebrate ‘the grand design/of living tissue’. She finishes with three imperatives:

Let the daylight break/
Through capitals and monoliths,
Through the shapes that pride can make,

Find a way to trace a grand design

with living tissue, raise a structure
never meant to last

Those three imperatives also build to a conclusion. It’s her advice for life. Let the goodness in. Create something wonderful with people and relationships. Build something that you realise will fade to nothing. The poem, then, serves as instructions for life and guidance about how to resolve the age-old conflict within us related to our own struggles to create a meaningful legacy in life and leave something behind of us when we die. You don’t have to hunker down in a bunker like Heaney to ride out the storm, or build stone monoliths proclaiming how blinking MARV you are… build your legacy in relationships and create something meaningful with the lives around you.

There is so much more to say about this poem – which is why I think it’s such a rich and complex beast. I haven’t even touched on the maps and the paper kites, the irony of how buildings can be destroyed as easily as if they were paper, the importance of the grocery slips, the significance of credit cards… but then you’re gearing yourself up for a brief comparison in 45 short minutes in an exam, and I’ve already said more than you could possibly hope to deal with in that. If I have to focus on anything, go with the light images, the light shining through, the daylight… go with the ‘our lives like paper kites’ to explore the fragility of human lives, go with the imperatives that end the poem and lead up to the Big Reveal of the central metaphor.

And teachers, if you want to really get into it, you may want to look at Denise Levertov’s What Were They Like? about how cultures can be forgotten in the blink of an eye. It’s not in the current AQA anthology, but it sits nicely with this one in order to make it clear how so much history of a culture can be so easily destroyed.

An analysis of the form and structure of Tissue by Imtiaz Dharker

And so we’re back to poetry for AQA GCSE English Literature. Let’s look at one of the two anthology poems that really leave people scratching their head.

The poem works as an extended metaphor, where paper is a metaphor for humanity. Let’s talk about form first, before moving through structure, context, language, ideas and perspectives.

What do I mean by form?

I mean how it’s set out on the page; line length, syllables, rhythm (metre) rhyme, what words are on what line, number of lines, sonnet, couplets, three lines, quatrains, regularity of the number of lines in a verse/stanza, capitals (or lack of) main punctuation at the end of lines or stanzas (, . , .  / , , , . / ; : ; . )  phrase splits and the way the words fall on each line, which ideas are linked within the line or stanza and which are separate, caesura, enjambment.

Form is what makes it a poem and not prose. Why does it look the way it does? What decisions has the poet made about what he has put on one line and what on another? Why this form?

The poem is set out in fairly neat verses – in terms of ‘neatness’, it’s not that different in appearance from London. We have to ask ourselves why she would choose such a traditional and ordinary form. We’ll talk about that last line after. But for me, when you choose an ordinary form, in a world where you can do anything with form, then that’s meaningful, just as it was for Blake; Why would you want something to be so ordinary? Is that the whole point? It’s about something that looks ordinary but can deliver a powerful message? At the very least, the form reflects the content: how something so simple and every-day can deliver a powerful message. Unlike London, whose ideas are restricted by the very lines, penned in and held down to reflect the very ‘mind-forged manacles’ of the people it describes, Tissue doesn’t have the same constraints.

So what else helps London be so restrictive where this is more loose? First the rhyme. There is only occasional rhyme, or half-rhyme. Perhaps a something in the first stanza, with ‘things’ and ‘touching’, which share an ‘ing’ ending, but that could easily be almost accidental, though there is a poetic softness that the rhyme brings to that echoing ‘ing’ sound. Then we have ‘roads’ and ‘mountainfolds’ which is much less subtle, although it still has a flavour of the accidental. Again, it has a kind of sense of a poetic echoing, drawing attention to those words. It gets stronger towards the end, with a sound-alike ‘this’ and ‘luminous’ (maybe! It’s a stretch, I know!) but then more obvious with the half-rhyme of the dissonant ‘brick/break’ – then the ‘break/make’ which sound alike but don’t look alike. It could be accidental, but there is a kind of purposeful grouping of those rhymes in those seventh anud eighth verses which draws attention to them. So why would Dharker want to draw attention to these lines? Could it be a climax to the poem – the bit where the important stuff is? When we explore the language in the poem in more detail, we’ll look at why Dharker might want to bring attention to these words in particular. The form is perhaps used to emphasise key aspects of the ideas in these lines.

We also have some internal rhyme that goes unnoticed on first reading, ‘Koran’ and ‘hand’, and the more obvious ‘weight’ and ‘date’, ‘drift’ and ‘shift’ which adds something to those words, which we’ll explore when we get to them. The way one of those rhymes comes buried in the line disguises it and makes it more subtle, so you have to consider why that is.

So, we’ve explored those ordinary four-line stanzas and the occasional, incidental rhyme here and there, but not the final line which stands apart.

Why is that final line standing on its own at the end there? Again, it’s to emphasise, but that’s such a simple low-grade response. To emphasise what? The words in it, ‘turned into your skin’ are designed by the poet to stand alone, so why would she want to do that? For me, it emphasises the central idea or metaphor of the poem, that the paper represents humankind. It is the first time the metaphor is revealed, which then forces us into a re-read to make sense of the poem now we have finally been told the central idea. It is the second time we find personal pronouns to do with the second person ‘you’. The first of those comes in the second stanza, and it feels very general there, ‘the kind you find’. It’s hard always for us to understand this ‘general’ you, that doesn’t always exist in other languages. In French, for instance, we’d use ‘on’ to be clear that we don’t mean YOU specifically. We just mean ‘you’ as in ‘all people’. The ‘you’ in the second stanza feels general, like you could replace it with ‘the kind people find’ or ‘the kind we find’, whereas – and I can’t say specifically why I think this, it’s just my opinion – that ‘you’ in the final line feels very much like it addresses the reader directly. I think, had I to explain myself, the first instance just sounds very general, like it just means ‘people’, where as the second sounds like she means ‘the reader in particular’.

Suddenly, then, in that final, single stand-alone line at the end, we are addressed directly. The metaphor is revealed like the revelation in a magician’s trick. Another thing that happens there is that it also stands alone as a conclusion. If we want to make a point very clearly and very deliberately, we can use a single-sentence paragraph to make it very clear. Three of the four words there are monosyllabic too, which also helps make it clear and simple. When we look at it, then, Dharker is using a number of ways to make that simple single-line stanza meaningful, reinforcing its position as the central idea of the poem.

The other thing that I might notice about the form is the use of enjambment. Another ‘crossover’ technique that also impacts structure and language from time to time, enjambment can go one of two ways. Either it can leave distinct clauses in ‘run-on’ lines so that the lines function as breath pauses in natural places, giving the poem a conversational feel, making it easy to read and giving it that ‘flow’ that students like to write so often about without really understanding what it is, or it can make it fragmented and fractured if it splits up noun phrases or clauses unnaturally. Sometimes it leaves words dangling at the end of the line so that you are forced to consider them for what they are, rather than ignoring them if they are buried in the middle of something. The first lines are an example of that:

Paper that lets the light
shine through, this
is what could alter things.

Can you see how Dharker could also have set the words out like this:

Paper that lets the light shine through,
this is what could alter things.

It would obviously mean the stanza needed another line, but the comma and the full stop mark out the clauses and the pauses. The way she’s set it out – does it make it fragmented, splitting up those clauses? Not really. For me, it just leaves those lines ‘light’ and ‘this’ dangling at the end of the line. Whatever comes last and first become more interesting, more noticeable because the break adds a little weight. So we think about that word ‘light’, about that word ‘shine’, and ‘this’ emphasises precisely WHAT could alter things.

Paper that lets the light
shine through, THIS
is what could alter things.

In linguistics, we call this a ‘deictic’ word, a pointing word, a word that refers to other words. For me, it’s a word that points back to ‘Paper that lets the light shine through’. It’s the poet’s way of pointing at it and going ‘THIS IDEA! THIS is what could alter things!’ and normally, we’d pay such an ordinary, average little word no attention at all. For me, that dangling little word and its dangling little position just adds an extra pointy ‘this is important’ emphasis to it.

There are other places too where you find these words dangling, with ‘who’ at the end of the first line of the third stanza, ‘might’ and ‘feel their drift’ in the fourth stanza, ‘luminous’ and ‘script’ in the seventh stanza, ‘brick or block’ which are not only split over a line but also a stanza break, making those words particularly noteworthy, and the same with ‘trace a grand design/with living tissue’ over the final stanzas. Like the rhyme, there is a growing sense of something towards the end – a building up to something perhaps. The combination of those features of form – the rhyme, the enjambment – towards the end suggests a change of some sort. They all contribute to the significance of what comes at the end.

So, if I ask myself how the form contributes to the meaning, it is all to point towards the significance of those final lines, to contribute to a sense of importance as the poem comes to a conclusion. The broken noun phrases or clauses towards the end increase in frequency, as does the incidence of rhyme and internal rhyme. Add those things with the final single-line stanza and there’s a definite shift in the form towards the end which suggests a crescendo or conclusion of a sort.

So let’s now think about structure.

What do I mean by structure?

This explores how the ideas are organised and sequenced, shifts in viewpoint/perspective (third person? First person?) TiP ToP – Time Place Topic Person – shifts? Shift in time? Place? Why are the ideas in this order? External actions (happenings) vs internal thoughts? Circular structure? Beginning, middle, end? How does the title weave through the poem? Does the ending link back or develop from the opening?

Structure is the arrangement and sequence of the ideas, as well as some other aspects. I ask myself why here and not there?

Dharker starts with a statement and a possibility.

Paper that lets the light
shine through, this
is what could alter things.

First we have a description of the type of paper she is talking about, and she says ‘this is what could alter things.’ That ‘could’ is interesting to me: a possibility. We don’t know what type of ‘things’ it ‘could alter’, but she seems hopeful that paper could change ‘things’. It leaves us with questions – why is paper important? How could it alter things? What things could it alter? It’s a kind of unusual statement: we don’t normally think of paper altering things. It leaves us in a position where we need her to explain.

The next two stanzas are an embellishment, a description of the kind of paper she is talking about. It gives us lots of detail about the kind of paper she means. We’ll explore that more when we get to language.

The fourth stanza changes again. We have another speculative, a conditional ‘if’ to start off the fourth stanza, and another conditional statement or thought that needs explanation: ‘if buildings were paper’.

Stanza five is another description of the type of paper she is thinking about, as is stanza six. Stanza seven starts with a third statement of condition or possibility: ‘an architect could use all this’. Seven, eight and nine take this idea about buildings, about architects creating things, and runs with it before the final one-line stanza, ‘turned to your skin’. There is again that sense of a crescendo up to that final statement. It’s a final statement that leaves us having to re-interpret everything we read, as we realise the paper is not paper at all, but a metaphor for humanity. Structurally, we have three conditionals that are followed by detail, embellishment or explanation, and that final linking of paper and skin that forces us to go back and reconsider. It feels very much like she is using the poem as a way to explore a thought or an idea.

Dharker is also using tense in an interesting way, much of the poem being written in the speculative, hypothetical conditional: it ‘could’, it ‘might’. Some is past tense, the receipts, the records, the names. And some is a future conditional: what an architect might create. For me, the overall effect is to show how paper takes us from the past into the present, and how it might be used in a hypothetical future. If paper is a metaphor for humanity, then that shows also how things were in the past and how they could be in the future. It is a poem of possibility and uncertainty. Things are, very literally, not set in stone.

That is an image to finish with. The more astute and perceptive of you will be thinking about that. What are the qualities of paper when compared to stone?

And we’ll explore those in the next post about the context, language and ideas of the poem.

 

An analysis of the context, form and structure of Poppies by Jane Weir

This poem looks at a female perspective on conflict, and as such, it offers us our first female voice in the ‘Power and Conflict’ section of AQA’s GCSE English Literature poetry anthology. We see conflict from a mother’s perspective, a position that is both objective, looking on, and subjectively involved. The poet takes on the persona of a mother -it is not important whether she’s writing in character, or writing about her own experiences. It seems ostensibly about a child leaving for school, not a soldier leaving to fight, with the “yellow bias” on the “blazer” which gives it more in common with Cecil Day Lewis’s poem Walking Away in the ‘Love and Relationships’ section of the anthology. She says she deliberately left out any specific war: “after all, there are lots of wars”, which makes it relevant to whichever war – all wars – and she says she was deliberately thinking about mothers, including Susan Owen, Wilfred Owen’s mother. It shows you don’t have to be directly involved in conflict for it to affect you. 

So, when considering the form… When I think about the form of the poem, I think about the following:

Form

How it’s set out on the page; line length, syllables, rhythm (metre) rhyme, what words are on what line, number of lines, sonnet, couplets, three lines, quatrains, regularity of the number of lines in a verse/stanza, capitals (or lack of) main punctuation at the end of lines or stanzas (, . , .  / , , , . / ; : ; . )  phrase splits and the way the words fall on each line, which ideas are linked within the line or stanza and which are separate, caesura, enjambment.

Form is what makes it a poem and not prose. Why does it look the way it does? What decisions has the poet made about what he has put on one line and what on another? Why this form?

So, Poppies… what do we notice this form? What effects might it have on the reader? 

The poem is written in a very natural way. It’s almost like the line breaks are artificial and just there to make it look like a poem. If you remove the line breaks, it’s very hard to know where they would go, and it works well as a piece of prose. In those ways, it just slices the text up to make it look like a poem, without it having much by way of purposeful effect. It makes use of caesura and enjambment, but not for any particularly dramatic effect like Seamus Heaney or Simon Armitage do. It does beg the question about why she does this. For instance, why this: 

Three days before Armistice Sunday
and poppies had already been placed
on individual war graves. Before you left,
I pinned one onto your lapel…

And not this:

Three days before Armistice Sunday
and poppies had already been placed
on individual war graves.
Before you left, I pinned one onto your lapel…

When you aren’t governed by where you put the words, why leave that “Before you left” dangling at the end of the line, hanging after the caesura?

For me, I think there are several effects worth considering. The first is that it makes the form seem almost redundant and accidental, like it doesn’t matter. That’s fine, of course. The form can be just a blank plate to serve words up on, and in the same ways as I discussed in the form of Remains, it could just be a meaningless form on which to serve ideas.

But I don’t think so.

Perhaps it also shows a bit of carelessness. Typesetters in printers are responsible for making the print aesthetically pleasing. They make sure in novels that the justified text doesn’t have massive gaps between words, or if there is hyphenation to make the text nicely justified that the hyphens fall neatly. I’ll justify this paragraph and you can see what I mean.

Perhaps it also shows a bit of carelessness. Typesetters in printers are responsible for making the print aesthetically pleasing. They make sure in novels that the justified text doesn’t have massive gaps between words, or if there is hyphenation to make the text nicely justified that the hyphens fall neatly. I’ll justify this paragraph and you can see what I mean.

But this is not “neat” book justification, just poor computer justification. The typesetter will take much more care than I have over the space between words and making sure the space is exactly even without huge gaps between the words. Poppies seems it’s been arranged by a sloppy typesetter, or a computer algorithm, careless and unartistic. Functional.

In other ways, it could be much more purposeful – when you don’t stick to the ‘natural’ line breaks and you split sentences, use plenty of enjambment and caesura, you end up with something that is quite fragmented and disjointed, with unnatural pauses and hesitations in places you wouldn’t normally find them. For me, this causes the poem to ‘catch’ in strange places, like our breath catches and our sentences jar when we are upset and trying not to show it. We have that little ‘catch’ in a mother’s breath when she says, “Before you left,” where the line break adds weight to that comma pause. If you agree with me about this being the effect, it certainly does seem to catch and jar there.

She breaks down a noun phrase too in the first stanza, “disrupting a blockade/of yellow bias” – when you disrupt a noun phrase with a line break and you’ve even got the word “disrupting” in there, the enjambment and caesura seem much more purposeful.

Again, we have the catch and jar in her voice in stanza two, with the “shirt’s/upturned collar” and how she “steeled the softening/of [her] face” which I think seems to support the notion that the fragmenting, enjambment and caesura are indeed purposeful rather than just being sloppy about what words go where. She is a woman hardening herself so as not to give her emotions away, and the disjointed nature of some of those details makes it seem very much as if she has to stop a second to “steel” herself and gain control over her emotions.

Stanza two runs into stanza three, just like her words…

All my words
flattened, rolled, turned into felt,

slowly melting.

Here the lines do exactly what the words do, slowly melt into one another, adding to that kind of jumbled, formless effect, drifting from line to line before regaining a little compsure. Weir uses the final words at the end of those first lines in stanza three to add emphasis, to leave them hanging a moment for you to think about.

We land on “threw” which becomes so much more dynamic as a result of that line break pause that follows on the page. We do the same with “overflowing” and “a split second”. When we get to line five in that stanza with the full stop at the end, the word “intoxicated” is given so much more emphasis because of it. These are things I’ll discuss and consider further when thinking about the language of the poem.

By the time we get to the run-on lines of the final lines in stanza three, the words drift once more over the lines, just like the bird and the stitching. There’s a freedom and fluidity there which is not constrained by the line breaks or the sense of the lines. The rhyme of “tree… me… busy” also helps these lines speed up and run on into the next, picking up pace. They’re easier to read and more fluid.

The form in the last stanza is more assured. There are fewer unnatural breaks – sometimes verbs split from their object in “traced/the inscriptions” and “hoping to hear/your playground voice” (okay, split from its second object in that, since “to hear” is the first object) but it feels less disjointed than the earlier stanzas, like the poet has found her words and is no longer hesitating over them.

When we think about the stanza breaks, we are also asked to contemplate the structure and organisation of the poem, as well as the voice, tense and tone.

When I think about structure, I think about the following:

This explores how the ideas are organised and sequenced, viewpoint/perspective (third person? First person?) TiP ToP – Time Place Topic Person – shifts? Shift in time? Place? Why are the ideas in this order? External actions (happenings) vs internal thoughts? Circular structure? Beginning, middle, end? How does the title weave through the poem? Does the ending link back or develop from the opening?

Structure is the arrangement and sequence of the ideas, as well as some other aspects. I ask myself why here and not there?

We have four ‘paragraphs’ rather than stanzas, per se. Much of the reasoning behind these seems to fall into the domain of structure and organisation, since they seem to have rough ‘topics’ or ideas. The first is about Poppies in themselves. The second is about the mother’s attempts to care for her child and her final reflections before her child leaves. I’ll refer to the child as ‘he’ by the way, only because there is no real indication of whether it is a boy or a girl, only, perhaps the ‘gelled blackthorns’ of the hair, although girls can of course have a short haircut and wear gel. It could be a male or a female child, of course. I shan’t comment on my own innate sexism that the child ‘must be’ a boy since the poem is about conflict and seems to be set with a backdrop of war.

The poem opens with a mother who is reminiscing about a moment when she pinned a poppy to her child’s lapel, and it ends with an impromptu visit to the war memorial where the mother comes into the present moment. It is all written in the past tense, making it more reflective than a present-tense moment: it is a narrated account of internal conflict, of a mother caring for her child, setting them free and then the anxiety and worry that plague her having done so, as she tries to catch a last remnant of her child in the playground.

The first person narration is ambiguous. We do not know whether it is Jane Weir herself or a persona that she has adopted. It could well be some other mother, or it could be her. The first person narration allows us to see her internal conflict more clearly than an external viewpoint would have done: we get to see the inner workings of her thoughts.

In the next post, I will explore the way Jane Weir uses language and imagery in Poppies to create a moment of tension and conflict.

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An Analysis of the language and imagery in Remains by Simon Armitage

In the last post, I looked at the context, form and structure in Simon Armitage’s poem Remains which is in AQA’s GCSE English Literature ‘Power and Conflict’ Anthology. I’ll pick up on some of those features once again as we look at language and imagery, as language is not divorced from form and structure, but the two work together.

I’ve already explored the start of the poem with the words, “On another occasion,” which acts as a sort of unmentioned exophoric reference to other ‘occasions’ that the persona in the poem has spoken or written about. It sounds like oral history, as I also said before, and it acts as a sort of marker that makes it clear that the events that happen in the poem are part of a series or sequence, or that they are nothing out of the ordinary. It just sounds like he is about to tell us some very matter-of-fact, routine, mundane, everyday sort of event. What comes is very much a surprise following this very conversational and banal phrase. It’s a very ordinary, unsurprising opening. It very much is in keeping with that four-line regular, humdrum verse and the unrhymed blank verse. Conversational and ordinary.

I’ve also already talked about the use of the present tense, which also gives it a conversational feel, but also makes it feel very much as if the persona is reliving the event as much as he is retelling it. It is very much the here-and-now for him. Sometimes the present tense is just a way we talk: it’s just a feature of spontaneous spoken English when we’re narrating a story – a way that we make it vivid. “I see this guy walking towards me and I’m all ‘come on, then!’ and just thinking ‘bring it on, mate. Bring it on!'” So that could be one thing Armitage is doing – making it sound like spontaneous spoken English.

Another thing he could be doing is using it to show how, for the soldier, the event is very much ‘now’ – the effect of which is to show how real and current this event is for the soldier, something that he is reliving and something he is unable to move on from. This very much fits with the notion of post-traumatic stress, that the person suffering from it feels like they can’t put the event behind them and move on from it: they are constantly reliving it.

Another way we could look at that present tense is that it makes this soldier, and this event, something that is current – an event that will never date. There will always be incidents like this in some war zone of some country or other. It makes it now. Wilfred Owen does the same thing in Exposure.

Again, no reason it can’t be doing all three things.

It has a very simple colloquial register to it as well, with the “sent out” and “tackle”. It’s a passive construction of a sort. They are “sent”. We have no idea who is sending them or why. This helps us understand that, like the soldiers in Owen’s poem and the soldiers in The Charging of the Light Brigade, they are not really clear on the reasons why. Theirs is not to reason why, indeed. We also have the plural inclusive “we” which could refer to a large number or a small number. We don’t know who this “we” is. Couple that with the present tense and you’ve got a similar voice and tense to Exposure that generalises it, makes it apply to all soldiers, any soldier, and to all wars, any war.

The word “tackle” is kind of innocuous. It’s reminiscent of a football match. Again, it’s colloquial. It sounds as if dealing with the looting should be easy: an everyday occurrence for the soldiers. Looting in itself is also a kind of petty euphemism. Looting means to steal, particularly during a war or riot. In the past, armies who’d laid siege to a city would loot and pillage, not that I am okay with that kind of practice; it implies opportunistic thievery rather than something downright criminal. Not to underplay it, but they aren’t cutting the heads off babies if they’re looting.

There are plenty of other more colloquial terms in the poem, and we catch one in the next line as well, the looter “legs it”. The verse ends with a contemplation as to whether he is armed, “probably armed, possibly not.” The parallel construction shows the weighing up the soldiers have to do in the instant. You’ve also got an interesting thing with the rhythm here: “POSS-i/bly ARMED,/ PROBab/ly NOT.” where we have a trochee followed by an iamb, repeated twice. It gives it a strong rhythm that seems to give it a bit of speed – not unlike the rhythm in The Charge of the Light Brigade. I think it seems to speed the verse up, both towards the inevitable “remains” and also at that moment, emphasising the spur-of-the-moment choices they have to make.

As we move into verse two, we have the “well” which is so indicative of colloquial spontaneous spoken English, adding to that effect that this is an oral history. Some of the details have become blurred; he can’t remember who he was with. Still, we have that strong rhythmic momentum, “and SOMEbody else and SOMEbody else” which drives us on and shows the confusion of the moment. The enjambment also runs the line on, increasing momentum, as does the lack of punctuation. We speed on through the three lines to the “open fire”, which comes as a complete shock – the “are of the same mind” has kind of foxed us, because we had no idea what they were up to.

There’s a real emphasis on three here, “me and somebody else and somebody else”, “all three of us open fire,” and “three of a kind all letting fly”.  I don’t know why this is. I can tell you the symbolism of three in itself, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, the importance of this number as a religious digit, but that doesn’t seem to sit with me. I really have no explanation at all why this number is so important to him.

This second verse runs on into the next courtesy of the enjambed line leaving the “and I swear” hanging there, wondering what it is he is about to swear. The moment goes into slow motion as he recounts every single detail, the bullets. There’s a bizarre turn of phrase with “rips through his life”, which I could only really find references for that relate to this poem… it’s not a usual expression by any stretch of the imagination. The alliteration on the r in “round” and “rips” also echoes the sound of the machine gun fire. The dash at the end of the line carries us on into the next, the emphasis on “I see” which is now repeated a second time, focusing us on the fact that the unnamed persona in the poem is reliving this, moment by moment, but in some kind of glorious technicolour movie style – he couldn’t possibly have seen every bullet rip through the looter, and where he may have seen it rip through the looter’s body, he uses the metaphorical “life” instead. It’s not just a body to the soldier. You can’t see a bullet rip through an abstraction, like ‘life’ unless you are using it as a synonym for the body. The colloquial “broad daylight” is also part of this slow-motion scene – it’s clearly not possible to see broad daylight in the wake of a bullet, but the event has become hyper-real to the soldier and he is filling in the gaps.

The “sort of inside out” is again very spoken in style. Not poetic. Not imaginative. Not clever use of adjectives or metaphor, simile or alliteration. Just “sort of inside out”, an approximation. He lacks the words to describe how the looter looks after the bullets have torn through him. I’d say it’s a metaphor, but it’s not, is it? He probably had got more of him outside than in.

But then that struggle to voice what the dead looter looks like intensifies as we move on into the next verse. The line and verse break let us pause before moving on into the second attempt by the soldier to describe the body: “pain itself”. I’m struggling to pinpoint the exact language feature here, except to say that it is an almost reverse personification. One abstract idea becomes real in that dead – or dying – body. The same thing happens with the third detail, the “image of agony”. A tripartite image.

Now it becomes difficult to avoid talking about the threes in this poem. I still don’t know what it means though. I don’t in all sincerity think the three images here have much to do with the repeated three of the soldiers who opened fire. I think, in some ways, it has a lot to do with an avant-garde art movement of the early Twentieth Century: Cubism.

Cubism is an art movement that tried to capture the three dimensions of a thing. You find it in Literature too, in some of the works from this period. This is how Wikipedia defines Cubism: “In Cubist artwork, objects are analyzed, broken up and reassembled in an abstracted form” – which is exactly what happens in this image. It is analysed, “sort of inside out”, broken up and reassembled in an abstracted form: “pain itself, the image of agony”. The point of it is that it gives the object being described a more ‘real’ substance, allowing the writer (or painter) to present something in all of what it means to them at one captured moment of time. Writers would do this by using repetition and repeated phrases… kind of what Armitage is doing here. If you want to see this at work in a head-spinning kind of way, Gertrude Stein’s poem, “A Completed Portrait of Picasso” will show you. But other poets picked up on the repetition and the use of multiple perspectives.

Perhaps then, it’s one attempt to describe the body by each one of the soldiers who were involved in the shooting?

Who knows?

What we can definitely say is that the tripartite image allows the persona narrator to really try to fix on what the body looked like, to recreate the image in our mind. It also shows how he’s dwelling on that image, yet he can’t find a way to describe it in ways that please him, which is why he perhaps has three attempts at doing so. Or, it’s his attempt to make it clear to us: we often repeat ourselves when we worry that we will not be understood.

Then the poem slips out of that moment again, “One of my mates goes by”, and the scene comes to life again. There’s a carelessness to the way he “tosses” the “guts back into his body” and he’s “carted off in the back of a lorry”, which is evocative of other things by Wilfred Owen… the image in Dulce et Decorum Est where they “flung” the body of a soldier who had suffered a chemical gas attack into the back of a “wagon”. For me, it’s another of those “everyday” details that makes this seem like a run-of-the-mill event, as if it’s something that happened all the time. It’s not exactly disrespectful, just ‘hurried’, but in that the soldiers in both poems have no time to stop and reflect on the death they have just witnessed, it reminds us of the internal psychological conflict that many soldiers must go through in such circumstances. As Armitage says, “End of story. Except not really.”

For Armitage, the physical and the psychological, the past and the present all merge. It’s the “End of Story” physically… the body has been removed. But it hasn’t, “not really”, since the remains of the looter’s blood stay “on the street”, that “blood shadow”. Physically, it’s not exactly the end of the story for the body. Nor is the body leaving the end of the psychological effects for the soldier. That “blood shadow” is indelibly fixed in his psyche – it’s etched in his mind. He has no way to escape it. It’s not the end of the story psychologically. The past – the death, the killing – stick in the present with that “blood shadow” which reminds the man constantly of what happened, of “the image of agony”.

When the narrator says he has to “walk over it week after week”, we know that it isn’t just the shadow that he’s talking about, but the memory too. He is reliving that week after week. There’s a change of pace towards the end of this verse as the pace becomes more disjointed and choppy. “Then I’m home on leave” is entirely onomatopoeic, curt, brief. A change of scene. I’m imagining he thought that the blood shadow would disappear for good. That caesura followed by “But I blink”, which dangles at the end of the verse and the line, not unlike the technique Owen uses in Exposure. We don’t know what’s coming left. We’re left hanging, waiting for an answer. The connective, “but” sets up a change of direction. We’re guessing that home on leave is a good thing, but the change of direction in this word is as unexpected for us as it probably is for the narrator. Blinking seems such a natural, simple thing. In that blink, we are left, waiting. The enjambment runs us into the next verse hastily for an answer. When the narrator blinks, he sees the incident all over again. He doesn’t just see it. He relives it. It is present tense, at that moment, as real in his imagination as it was in real life. Look at all of those plosive B sounds as well. “But I blink… bursts… bank”

We’ve got other plosive sounds in there as well that makes this particularly abrupt, the K at the end of “blink” and the d in “door”. Those hard sounds add to the intensely monosyllabic line and bring that flashback to life for us just as it comes to life as the narrator blinks. It’s frightening because blinking is such a frequent and natural occurrence. You don’t even have to think about doing it. Also, you can’t stop yourself blinking. So we now that the writer cannot escape the flashbacks that can appear in the flash of an eye.

We have a second time that the flashbacks appear. He can’t even escape when he is asleep. “Sleep”, and we’ve got the repetition of “probably armed, possibly not” (ah, see…. it’s more like Gertrude Stein with her Picasso poem picking up on those repeated images… in fact, it’s at this point that I want to make a little aside to say that I found this poem quite simplistic to start, and seeing these avant-garde Cubist writerly techniques is giving me a new respect for something that felt a bit ‘churned out’, especially in recycling Owen’s body-flinging and tortured reliving of battle…) This repetition is powerful, looping back in. He can’t escape those memories and they haunt him in the exact same way, the exact same loop as happened at the time. He isn’t just remembering, he is reliving it in the present tense. Sleep too reminds me of Macbeth and his tortured “Macbeth shall sleep no more!” speech. “The balm of hurt minds,” Shakespeare called it. Certainly the narrator’s mind is in need of some balm or healing.

“Dream” follows the same pattern, and there’s that three again. “Blink. Sleep. Dream.” This time, it’s a loose rephrasing. “He’s torn apart by a dozen rounds.”

The final line of this verse really conveys that tortured mind so very well. “The drink and the drugs won’t flush him out”. We see what the narrator has been doing to escape this moment, to stop reliving it. It’s woefully inadequate, of course, self-medication. But it is a metaphor that is not a metaphor for the narrator. It feels like the memory is an enemy soldier inside his brain, sitting it out and attacking at random, or even when the narrator is most vulnerable. Of course, he is not physically inside the narrator’s head – it’s just a memory. But it feels real to the narrator, and that’s what’s important. Again, it’s monosyllabic which makes it more simple, more curt, more direct. It also relies on the rhythm of the repeated “dr” sound in “the DRINK and the DRUGS” as well as the stresses which fall on these words. It mixes in the loosely war-time/hunting metaphor about being “flushed out”. I imagine that war-time use of this word came from the hunting term, but it’s hard to know for sure. Simply put, if your enemy has “gone to ground”, is hidden or camouflaged, like a pheasant in the hedgerows, “flushing him out” is one way to get him to appear so that you can kill him.

But “flushing out” has another meaning as well, particularly one associated with liquids. We flush the toilet to “flush out” our waste. You can flush out your eyes if you get a foreign object in there. Detox people will tell you about flushing out your kidneys… it just means using water or liquid to clean something by flooding it and using water to dislodge it. You can see how this works on two levels with the alcohol. He’s using drink to try and dislodge the memory of the event, just as he is with the (non-liquid) drugs.

Particularly evocative word choices there.

As we move into the penultimate stanza, he carries on the image of the looter who has almost taken root in the soldier’s mind, “dug in behind enemy lines”. This works as a metaphor, the enemy lines being the soldier’s mind. A soldier who has “dug in” has dug a trench and is preparing to attack. It feels here as if the soldier is literally under siege from the enemy memory within his own head. It contrasts also with the ease of killing the escaping looter in the street, since this memory is proving much more difficult to eliminate than the looter was in real life.

We follow the same, terse, curt monosyllabic patterns following the enjambed dash between the two stanzas, “he’s here in my head”, where the “h” is a breathy alliteration that perhaps evokes (bear with me on this… It’s a bit of a stretch in terms of an effect, and it’s highly speculative! I wouldn’t want anyone taking it as read that these meanings are why Armitage is using the alliteration here!) the panicked breathing of the soldier (try three sharp “huh – huh – huh” breaths) or even the airy, intangible nature of the looter. I would very much doubt Armitage thought “I am deliberately going to stick in three ‘h’s in a row to make it sound like panicked breathing!” but I think it’s a nice effect nonetheless. It does sound to me like panicked breathing – a little. But the other sounds detract from that of course. You could almost say it sounds like a whisper. That works as well as an explanation of the effect of the alliteration there. Of course the soldier would be whispering if he didn’t want to alert the image in his mind. If that’s the effect you’re going for, there’s no reason at all why you couldn’t say that whispery sound evokes his paranoid state of mind. It certainly could. And there’s no reason at all why it can’t be doing both.

The stanza begins almost to rhyme as well, from “eyes” to “lines”, then a true rhyme in “land” and “sand” – then “hands” in the final couplet. I don’t know why it does that. Armitage does rhyme superbly – he uses it to eerie effect and to emphasise lines in many of his poems. I can’t say with any certainty what I think Armitage’s purpose is in doing so here. It feels to me like he’s using the rhyme to speed us to a final conclusion. It moves from colloquial to poetic, like he’s polished these words in his mind. Armitage likes patterns and plays around with them – it’s something I leave with you to consider, mainly because I don’t have any answers myself. For me, it certainly seems to drive on towards a desperate conclusion and that final line about how it is to take a life. I spent a lot of time on Google this morning looking at a variety of comments on Armitage’s rhyme across his poems (and even an article in The Guardian by Armitage where he seems to revel in the joys of the Arctic Monkeys’ internal rhyme) – there are lots of people, intelligent people, and guide books etc who point out that Armitage likes rhyme, perfect rhyme, internal rhyme and all other facets of rhyme, and not any of them talk about the effect. For me, it’s often pleasure or discomfort where Armitage uses rhyme. I think he uses it like a highlighter in his poetry to draw attention to emotion. But the jury is out and you are very welcome to give me your explanation of the effect of that building climactic perfect rhyme.

Another thing that seems to show a pondering of ideas, a climactic (cubist?!) build-up is the “distant, sun-stunned, sand-smothered land” where you can’t ignore the alliteration on the ‘s’ either…. the ending with its rhyme and alliteration is much more polished than the colloquial opening. The tone changes from the colloquial to the poetically rich. For me, it shows a polishing of those words, a deliberation on them.

We move in the final couplet to the alliterative “near to the knuckle”, which shows that neither time nor space can put distance between the narrator and the incident with the looter. It finishes with the very metaphoric “his bloody life in my bloody hands” which also plays on the rhythms there… “his BLOODy LIFE in my BLOODy HANDS”

We use this clichéd metaphor regularly… “my life is in your hands”. It usually means that we are responsible for whether someone lives or dies – or metaphorically – that we owe them a debt, we’re relying on them – not that our lives really depend on them. It’s a phrase that is at least a good couple of hundred years old, and Armitage uses it to show the narrator feels that he was (or is) responsible for the man’s life. But since we know that the looter died, we understand how profoundly guilty the soldier feels for having taken the life of the looter. It brings to mind the guilt of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, how she feels unable to wash away the spot of blood on her hands, how it tortures her, destroys her sleep and her peace of mind. It leaves us in no doubt that the narrator will forever be tortured by the death of the looter.

Next time, on through the anthology with Jane Weir’s Poppies

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology, please send me an email via the website or Facebook 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 the context, form and structure of Remains by Simon Armitage

Okay lovelies, Simon Armitage is up next with his poem Remains, which appears in AQA’s GCSE English Literature anthology section Power and Conflict for exams from 2017 forward. English teachers love Simon Armitage and he’s become a real stalwart of GCSE courses.

That said, there’s not a lot of stuff out there on this poem, so I’m going to ignore a lot of the context stuff until it appears in the poem. Instead of starting globally as I am wont to do, and narrowing in, I’m going to start with the minutiae and work out. If I come across some stuff that I think you need to know the context of, why I shall go right ahead and tell you.

Just incidentally, when doing a search for the poem, I came across a website that has completely stolen my analysis of other poems. I was reading it and I thought “this sounds awfully like good sense, but they do love a semi-colon,” before I realised that those words were my words. It’s not the first time this has happened, but I do wish people would learn to quote their sources. Or write their own stuff. The latter, preferably. I’m quite proud that someone thinks I write enough sense to steal from.

Anyhow…

The form of the poem.

When I think about form, I think about this:

Form

How it’s set out on the page; line length, syllables, rhythm (metre) rhyme, what words are on what line, number of lines, sonnet, couplets, three lines, quatrains, regularity of the number of lines in a verse/stanza, capitals (or lack of) main punctuation at the end of lines or stanzas (, . , .  / , , , . / ; : ; . )  phrase splits and the way the words fall on each line, which ideas are linked within the line or stanza and which are separate, caesura, enjambment.

Form is what makes it a poem and not prose. Why does it look the way it does? What decisions has the poet made about what he has put on one line and what on another? Why this form?

These are the questions I ask myself. First bit of context: Armitage loves to play around with form. Many of his poems use form in interesting ways.

First, I’m asking myself what is usual and unusual about the poem? Four lines is about as regular a verse structure as you get. So we have regularity and normality. But then we don’t. Those last lines are a couplet, substantially different from the others. So we have to ask ourselves why is this? What is the significance of these things?

Of all the verse structures that Armitage could have picked, he went for four lines. So why this regularity? Is it suggesting a normality for the narrator? The way the poem starts suggests a kind of continuation from other stories – from the way the poem looks on the page, it wouldn’t seem that we were in for any surprises. For me, those four-line verses convey a regularity, a normality – given the colloquial tone, we wouldn’t think that this poem will lead to opening fire on a looter. The choice of form is mundane, hum-drum even. It has an added bonus of not detracting from the ideas and images in the poem either, which is good. For me, it’s a very ordinary form, the most ordinary of forms, so why would you pick such a normal form? I think it does a couple of things. The first is that it makes the event in itself seem mundane and humdrum, like it’s the kind of thing that happens every day. Take that with the opening of “on another occasion” and it sounds like it’s part a series of stories or everyday anecdotes. Having this most commonplace form supports the ‘commonplace’ – ironic, since this kind of event should not be commonplace in anybody’s life. I think in this way, the four-line verses emphasise the absurdity of the situation: it is nonsensical and illogical, unthinkable even, that this sort of event should be so commonplace that you’d a) not mention it first as the most pivotal of your military experiences and b) you’d attach no particularly special importance to it. Armitage is not the first to put ill-matching forms and content together to highlight the meaningless and irrational. Clown Punk is another poem where he does the same.

Another reason that he could have chosen this most commonplace form is that it is simply a vehicle for the content. When you strip the form of all its meaning, it’s kind of like presenting a fancy meal on a white plate or a piece of slate. No busy patterned china or fancy designs to detract from it. The white plate or slate is just a ‘clean’ way to present food in the same way as this commonplace form is a clean way to present the ideas. That way we don’t get bogged down in thinking about the line-breaks and the pace, the rhythm and way the words fall. Ironic that I just spent a good lengthy paragraph dissecting his choice of the four-line verse if that was Armitage’s purpose. In that case, I would be very sorry for pontificating over its significance when Armitage might have wanted to have zero significance at all were he prioritising the content.

There is absolutely no reason he can’t have done both things, by the way… chosen a commonplace form so that it doesn’t distract from the content, but at the same time using that to highlight the way that the narrator describes this event as something normal and ordinary, which highlights how irrational the event is.

And of course, it’s all normal and ordinary except for the finishing couplet which breaks with the rest of the poem.

So why the finishing couplet?

Shakespeare used couplets to finish off a story, to mark an ending, like the curtains drawing on a scene, or as a way to emphasise a character’s lines. It was as if to say “this will give you something to think about.” And the poem certainly does that. I think, perhaps a bit like Exposure, the verse is cut short, just as the man’s life was cut short. When Armitage says earlier “End of Story except not really”, this too feels like there is more that goes unsaid.

Although the first verse starts with neat end-stopped lines, the poem soon falls to enjambment and caesura, which fracture the rhythm just as it does in Bayonet Charge. I’ll explore more about the enjambment and caesura when I explore the language of the poem, because it makes more sense to think about which words he is emphasising and how. We’ll look in more detail at where the enjambment runs those ideas on, where we trip and fall over the rhythm.

Really, that’s as much as I want to say about the form in itself. There will be points when I’m discussing the language when I’ll want to show how he uses form to highlight or underscore a particular idea, but those would be better taken in context with the rest of the content.

So, when I’m thinking about structure, what does that entail exactly?

Structure refers to how the ideas are organised and sequenced, viewpoint/perspective (third person? First person?) TiP ToP – Time Place Topic Person – shifts? Shift in time? Place? Why are the ideas in this order? External actions (happenings) vs internal thoughts? Circular structure? Beginning, middle, end? How does the title weave through the poem? Does the ending link back or develop from the opening?

Structure is the arrangement and sequence of the ideas, as well as some other aspects. I ask myself why here and not there?

So how does this work when I look at Remains?

The first and most noticeable thing about the structure is the title itself. Remains. It’s a very open word. Whose remains? I’m pretty sure here that it is meant as a noun rather than a verb. Remains are the bits left of something. The pieces that are left over when the rest has been taken away. For me, it seems to suggest that what is left is something perhaps discarded. It is what is left when everything else has been removed. It can, of course, refer to a corpse, a dead body. A final sense of the word is the ‘remains’ of a writer: the fragments that are left after their death. All of those leave us with something to think about, to consider what the title means when we have considered the rest of the poem.

It asks more questions than it answers.

It could refer to the looter, of course. He is what is left when the others have escaped. It can be his body, his remains, what is left of him when the shooting has finished, the bit “carted off in the back of a lorry”, or the “blood shadow” on the street where it happened, the physical ‘ghost’ of him.

It could also refer to the idea that this event has had consequences for the narrator. It is about his own ‘remains’ and the bits left over in him following the shooting. I think it’s the “remains” of the man in Armitage’s memory, what is left of him, the fragments that appear when the narrator is “home on leave”. The “remains” of the man are what is left in the narrator’s head, “dug in behind enemy lines”, the memories of the event and of the man that torture the narrator. The title, then, is woven through the physical remains of the man, the physical “blood shadow”, the memories of the man in the narrator’s head.

In terms of structure, I can also think about the way the poem opens. That word “another” is an adjective at its most simple, describing “an occasion”, but it is also a discourse marker in that it’s used usually as a connective. We don’t start a conversation with “another”. It’s like starting it with “And” or “Additionally…”

Yet Armitage does this in other poems. To me, it implies a kind of sequence, that this is taken out of the middle of something. It’s not something we use entirely in speech for fluency, but there is something in this poem that suggests to me that it is the spoken word. It feels to me almost like those wartime oral histories the BBC is a fan of collecting for posterity. I can’t put my finger on why, exactly, but I think it’s a lot to do with the colloquial tone, “one of them legs it up the road,” and the slips of tense, “we get sent out”, as well as the word “Well”, which is a kind of filler here, softening it and making it sound more like a spoken monologue. We also have lots of simple coordinating conjunctions like “and” and “so” as well as the run-on lines and the word “then” which acts as a kind of simple temporal connective. I once listened to a friend’s son telling a story. He started telling it in Paris. Three hours later, he was still telling it. It didn’t have any stopping points at all as every single sentence was spliced together with an “and then”. People use these a lot in speech to help with fluidity. I think that these are some of the ways that Armitage makes it sound more like spontaneous spoken English than a poem as such. The word “another” in that opening acts almost as an exophoric reference, referring to events outside the text that we have no knowledge of as a reader or listener, but we would if we were the “real” audience to whom Armitage’s character narrator seems to be talking to. I think we are asked to be a kind of interviewer, or psychotherapist maybe, psychiatrist or priest. It leaves us with an interesting question… who does Armitage’s character narrator think the reader is? We’re definitely a confidante of some kind. It reminds me in this way of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Stealing a former AQA Anthology stalwart, except that it is less interactive. It’s clear Armitage’s persona is talking, but there is no sense of to whom or even that he is aware anyone is listening. The persona seems isolated and cut off.

Other things I can talk about include the voice and viewpoint: we have a character narrator, a construct Armitage is using to voice the situation. We need to think about the effect of his first-person choice rather than if he had told it as a third person choice. So what’s the effect of that? You can think about how he uses it to give us an insider point of view, how he uses it to make it more personal. Yet, like many poems about conflict, it is an ‘unnamed voice’ that could represent the experiences of a good number of soldiers. GCSE answers could get a lot of mileage out of explaining the effect of that first-person unnamed voice on the reader.

What else is interesting is the tense of the poem. The character narrates it entirely in present tense, even though it is clear it happened in the past. What I think this does is create the notion that the poet is still living this moment, that this event is still ‘now’ for him. It really helps with the “here and now” feeling of the poem.

Other things I might want to comment on in terms of the structure are the way it moves from the past to the present, from an external event to internal feelings. It has a narrative chronological structure, following time order from the past to the present. From this we could assume that it has implications for the soldier’s future too, if we can work off that progression. That present tense helps make it not only “here and now” but ‘always’. It will always be with him. The man will always be “dug in” his memory.

From the innocuous starting tone, a soldier recounting events, it becomes clear that this is no wartime voice, no objective reflection on things that have gone. By the end, we realise that the character narrator will be haunted by what he has done for the rest of his life. There is no escaping that image, even in sleep. It reminds me very much in this way of Mental Cases by Wilfred Owen and Survivors by Siegfried Sassoon, some of the earliest poems about shell-shock (which would go on to be named Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or an Acute Stress Response) Although one thing is different: this not a man who seems on the surface to have had his mind destroyed by what he has done. He is not a skeletal zombie who is haunted to such an extreme that they slobber and drool. He is coherent. He is fluent. Yet he is haunted. I don’t think it loses anything by being less shocking than Mental Cases or Survivors in its imagery. If anything, this man’s haunting, personal hell is all the more unsettling because he seems so coherent. Here, you can’t see what lies beneath, even in the opening lines of the poem, we have no idea.

In the next post, I’ll look at the language and imagery used by Armitage in the poem, exploring how he recreates the event for us.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology, please send me an email via the website or Facebook 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 the language and imagery in Seamus Heaney’s Storm on the Island

Last week, I explored the context, form and structure of Storm on the Island by Seamus Heaney, which is in the AQA GCSE English Literature poetry anthology for 2017 onwards. What we’re asked to consider is to what extent Heaney’s own personal and literary context influenced the poem, whether or not it is in keeping with his poems exploring conflict in Northern Ireland, or whether it is more in keeping with other poems exploring nature. I think it’s perfectly possible to read it as a poem that is very much influenced by contextual conflict, or to read it as a poem about conflict in nature. It’s your choice. The ‘squat’ form, the enjambment and caesura lifting ideas up and putting them down on other lines, the use of sound in the poem… they’re all important in what they contribute to the meaning of the poem. Today, I’ll look at how the context, form and structure work with the language and images to demonstrate Heaney’s viewpoint.

Not unlike Exposure, the poem starts with a first-person plural subject pronoun. Usually we use subject pronouns to replace a subject, avoiding repetition. So if I say ‘Charles’ in one sentence, I can say, ‘he’ in the next. Subject pronouns can be ambiguous when you don’t know what they are referring to. It’s a substitute for a noun. It’s also an anaphoric reference (a reference to something that’s come before), but to anaphora (a thing that’s come before) that does not exist in the poem. That’s all the fancy subject terminology that means that “We” is usually used when the audience or reader would know who “we” are. It implies familiarity or inclusiveness.

But here, we don’t know who “we” are.

Heaney and his family? Heaney and his wife? A friend? The villagers on the Aran islands (there are other poems in this collection relating to the Aran Islands, like Lovers on Aran and Synge on Aran – it’s therefore not unreasonable that “the Island” is not “Ireland” but one of the Aran Isles in Galway Bay) Irish people in general? People in general? The effect of that “we” is that it becomes both inclusive – we means “me and you” – and therefore includes us in the poem – and also kind of ‘shared world’ – it implies we know who “we” are. We as a reader are as prepared as Heaney for the storm on the island. He brings us into the poem with that word. He also makes it universal. It can be us and every single other person in the world. It turns the poem from one about two people – perhaps Heaney and his wife or family – into a poem about every person and what we do when faced with conflict. We prepare.

The first three words are finished by a colon. That colon is like a little signpost leading us to expect an explanation. It tells us that what follows embellishes or adds to that statement. It tells us how they prepare, by doing what. It’s a little mark also that marks a pause. A little stopping point as well as a signpost to something to come. We stop and we consider the certainty of that statement, “We are prepared:” – it sounds confident, like we are ready for the onslaught. There’s a certainty and safety to it, as well as determination.

As it turns out, that preparation is centuries old, not just like my storm preparations of shutting the shutters and moving my car into the garage. It is a way of life. They build their “houses squat” – storm-readiness is a way of life for them. It sounds like they are quite literally ‘safe as houses’ with the foundations in the rock itself. That sounds sturdy, doesn’t it? But hang on. If, and it is an if, this island is one of the Aran islands, it’s limestone rock. Limestone is a bit of a rubbish rock, not like the granite of other places. Karst limestone (and I know this because I live in a karst limestone region) is remarkably soluble. I dissolved some in vinegar for a science experiment once. It’s ironic because the sea will indeed have its way eventually. In the long run, this preparedness is meaningless. However, for generations to come, the islands will certainly still be there. It just makes me think how fragile things really are, like the thousands-of-years-old statue of Ozymandias, how everything will return to sand or sea eventually. All this preparedness is nothing. Even setting the foundations in the island’s bedrock, or roofing with slate, the most waterproof of all roofing materials, we get a sense of how dramatic the storms are on this island.

In the meantime, that lovely word “squat” is such a lovely word to comment on. It has that lovely sound to it – the sibilant ‘s’ followed by the hard plosive ‘k’, the whispery fricative ‘w’, the short ‘o’ and then that plosive ‘t’ – it’s such a noisy word for such a short one. All those sounds really put a focus on the word, as does leaving it at the end of the line – it resonates there. Like that colon, like the “We are prepared”, there’s a force and strength about it, like the houses themselves. It gives us the sense that the houses are crouching, braced against the storm, but it has another meaning too – if you “squat” a place, you’re inhabiting it illegally. It has a sense of something that has no right to be there and gives me the feeling that the people have no real right to be there.

You’ve also got three present-tense verbs, suggesting a permanence, this is something that is timeless – it could be now, it could be the time the poem was written. It seems to suggest that it will always be this way. The actions are simple, “build”, “sink”, “roof”, short and squat as the houses themselves. That brings me to another point. Look at all those monosyllabic words there. All of the second line is monosyllabic. It’s simple, clear, clean. For me, the effect is to stress that determination from the first line, but I have no idea why it makes me think they are resolute, stubborn in the face of the storm and determined to build their houses here, in such a windswept place. There’s a tenacity in those words and a simplicity that not only evokes the houses, but the way they are built, the people who build them and life on the island itself. It’s uncluttered and uncomplicated.

As we move into line 3, we learn a little of the island itself. It is not the kind of place where farming would work: the constant erosion leaves little topsoil. Heaney calls it the “wizened earth”, giving us the sense that it is something older than the rest of the earth, something shrivelled and dried up. It also has the sense of being weather-beaten too. Heaney turns this lack of crops into a positive, it has never “troubled” them – it’s another sense of how hard life is on the island, with no ability to put food away or grow crops for the future. The simplicity and basic standard of living means there is nothing to be lost. The constant wind has also made it impossible for trees to grow.

You can see what a hard and barren landscape it is, also one that is stark and self-sufficient, insular.

On line 4, we (as readers) are invited into the poem – not unlike My Last Duchess in a way. “so as you can see” is an embedded clause, an aside, an address. It sounds as if Heaney is explaining to us, almost showing us around. This little clause is expecting that we are already visualising the place. It sounds as if we are on a guided tour with Heaney, that he is introducing us to the island. In a way, that is also like My Last Duchess, since the Duke too is presenting us (in the role of the marriage-broker) to the painting. We have a different power here, the power of the ‘interpreter’. I use that word loosely, because they are not translating, only presenting, but presenters have their own power. A presenter is an intermediary (just like me, here, in fact) or a curator, picking through everything and selecting things to show to you. There is a lot of power in that act, the choice of what to show, like the editor in War Photographer. Power, here, is in what we are shown and how things are explained to us. Heaney is no different, explaining and justifying the way the houses are built, the life on the island. He sounds like an insider, someone keen for us to understand. That too is no different from the Duke in My Last Duchess, as he explains his views on the relationship. Heaney does it again later with “you know what I mean”, which is very interesting. It’s a sign of informality – I’m struggling for the precise term for it – more than a filler (like um, er) but not a hedge (which softens a direct statement) and seems to be there to invite our understanding, check that we have understood. These parenthetical statements are more conversational. We use them all the time, like ‘you know’, and ‘you see what I mean?’ or ‘you see?’, ‘you get me?’ even ‘innit?’. It’s a discourse marker, but it’s checking if we’re still engaged, if we still understand, even if we are not actively participating at that moment in time. It asks for our silent participation. You can see four instances of this use of “you”, where we are invited into the poem. For me, it gives it a sense of being like a guided tour of a sort, explaining to us something that we wouldn’t understand unless we lived on the island.

Into line 7 and we have a shift, the first caesura, marking that word “Blast” out from the rest of the line, injecting a little power and might into it.

For Heaney, the trees would provide a relief in that you could spend your time in the wind or a storm thinking about the trees, watching the wind in them, distracting you from thinking about how it is affecting your own home. The personification of the wind itself, which “pummels” the houses, as well as the leaves and branches which “can raise a chorus in a gale” is also part of how Heaney, like Wordsworth in Stealing the Boat, brings nature to life and gives it a power beyond the natural. The trees, branches and leaves which would be allies in the resistance against the wind, however, do not exist. There are no allies in this battle, nobody to support them.

The ‘But’ on line 11 marks a turning point, a change. He has been distracted from thinking about the storm by imagining the trees, and how we look at trees in storms. Ironic, really, that he is distracted from thinking about the storm because he’s thinking about the wind in the trees. We start to pick up on the semantic field related to the wind that Heaney uses, from ‘storm’ to ‘blows full blast’, ‘gale’. The verb ‘pummels’ is a particularly appropriate word – the present tense making it constant and immediate, reminding us that the storm is an ever-present concern on the island. It is a word which makes it sound like an unrelenting attack, something that doesn’t give in.

Heaney then looks to the sea, which may also be an ally or “company” against the wind, but realises it is not, “But no:” and without trees, with the sea as much an enemy as the wind, we realise how defenceless the islanders are, despite their “squat” houses. I particularly like that “exploding comfortably” – the oxymoron reveals that the sea is “comfortable”, it is at home in the storm, and in fact takes sides against the islanders. What seems “tame” most of the time turns “savage” with the wind.

The way he describes the sea is particularly interesting with the simile, “spits like a tame cat/turned savage” and the sounds, the “flung spray hits” which I explored in the last post to create a sense of the sea that is unstopping and angry with the monosyllables, the plosives and the fricatives bringing the sounds of the sea to life.

All there is to do is sit it out. The phrase “while wind dives/and strafes invisibly’ has echoes of Owen’s battle against the invisible forces at work in nature, made evident only in the snow flakes. “Strafes” is a verb taken directly from a military vocabulary. To strafe means to attack ground troops from the air with machine-gun fire. That’s such a precise use from Heaney here, where the wind takes on the qualities of a fighter plane – it makes a change from the fighter plane manufacturers naming their planes after weather phenomena (like the Hawker Hurricane, a popular fighter plane and the Hawker Typhoon) – as the wind dives in and attacks, just like a fighter plane would. At this point, it is more than the sea, spitting like a cat, this is an assault. When Heaney says “Space is a salvo” he continues this use of military vocabulary, as a salvo is also related to an attack, this time a persistent onslaught or a multi-weapon assault that happens all at the same time, a simultaneous attack if you like. Finally, we have the word “bombarded” that completes the military images, creating a vision of a wind that acts like a fighter plane, a blitz on the island below.

The final sentence acts as a conclusion summarising Heaney’s thoughts, “Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear” which concludes the poem, a wry statement that points out how silly it seems to be afraid of the wind.

I think what I like most about this poem is the conversational style and the way he portrays this battle with the wind, as the people on the island are completely helpless. It compares well with Exposure, but also with Stealing the Boat in how it presents nature as something primeval and terrifying.

Next week: Bayonet Charge by Ted Hughes

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

 

 

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Understanding the context of Exposure by Wilfred Owen

As we come to the fifth poem in AQA’s GCSE English Literature “Power and Conflict” section of the poetry anthology, we see a turn from the futile glory of Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade and a turn in style. Poetry had changed by the time Wilfred Owen was writing, and Exposure is affected by changes in poetry as much as it was affected by World War I. In this article, I’ll be exploring some of those changes in art, music and poetry, as well as looking at the specific context itself.

When we left the high Victorians with Tennyson in 1854, poetry was largely still poetry. It had verses and rhythms and rhyme schemes. Poetry had rules that people hadn’t broken yet. Art, music, sculpture, poetry… it was all still recognisably governed by the rules that we still think govern creative forms.

Art looked like this:

Here she is, the Lady of Shalott, an 1882 rendition of one of Tennyson’s most famous characters. Looks like a painting, right?

And here’s Vassily Kandinsky’s 1912 painting, Improvisation 27 (Garden of Love II) 

So… that happened in the art world in 30 years…

This is what happened in music. Here’s Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture which was written in 1880.

Sounds like classical music, right? Listen from 11.36 if you want a famous bit!

And this is Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring from 1913. Feel free to dive in a bit around 5 minutes.

Kind of dischordant, right? And then some!

And in sculpture? A Frederic Leighton sculpture from the early 1890s

Still looks like sculpture, right?

Here’s Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain of 1917

Yes, it’s a urinal on its side.

So as you can see, art, music and sculpture underwent quite radical changes in Europe from the late Victorian years of the 1890s. By 1910, rule-breaking and abstraction had become the norm.

Now, the old GCSE syllabus from days gone by would have you believe that World War I was the kind of prime mover in all that. We had pre-1914 writers and post-1914 writers – a very artificial divide that kind of intimated that the beginning of the war was the beginning of the rule breaking, when what we’d still consider ‘traditional’ art forms broke their boundaries.

The war was absolutely not the cause behind the changes though, despite the fact all that civil unrest might well have been. The fact is that very talented pioneers in the arts began breaking boundaries. We saw Elizabeth Barrett Browning begin to do it in her poetry. You can also see it in Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Gerard Manley Hopkins among others.

So by the time we get to Wilfred Owen, writing the bulk of his poetry (or his well-known poetry) after his meeting with another war poet Siegfried Sassoon in late 1917, we’ve got a poet who comes into a world which is already falling apart, figuratively speaking, and into this world, we find writers using poetry to document the war. Arguably the greatest of those poets is Wilfred Owen, who found poetry to be the perfect vehicle for all of his reflections on war.

But Wilfred Owen is not a radical poet by any stretch of the imagination. If you are in any doubt, here are four poems written around the same time or before.

  1. Ezra Pound’s Imagist Epic, In a Station of the MetroYou’re going to love it in the same way you might love a urinal as a sculpture. 1913.
  2. Gertrude Stein’s freaky poetry-prose, Tender Buttons. Because if In a Station of the Metro didn’t show you how much poetry had changed, you maybe need something a little… less poetry? 1914.
  3. Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The WindhoverBecause it starts earlier than the Avant Garde and Imagists. 1877.
  4. T. E. Hulme’s poem The Embankment. Written around 1908 – 1909.

So when we read Owen, we shouldn’t think that his poetry’s form and structure is only influenced by the fractured times in which he lived. Art had changed significantly by the time Owen came along. As to why poetry had changed so much … that’s a little harder to pin down. We had a few isolated pioneers like Dickinson, Hopkins and Whitman who did their own thing, a few under the influence, like Baudelaire and Rimbaud in France. These emerging changes came from all over the globe, most in isolation, and perhaps their pioneering style showed people that they didn’t have to stick to the rules if they had a point to make. The sound effects of poetry became a vehicle in themselves for expression in ways that we saw the beginnings of in Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade. 

Owen’s poetry reflects the trends in poetry as much as it reflects the world of war about which he wrote.

As for Owen himself, he came late to the war, signing up for the Artists’ Rifles on the 21st October 1915, over fifteen months after war had broken out. He’d lived in France since September 1913, teaching English, and he met with a number of French and English poets and had already started writing poetry. He left for the Manchester Regiment on 18th June, 1916 following his training. On 29th December 1916, he arrived at Etaples in France. In January 1917, he assumed command of his platoon after what had essentially been 18 months of training exercises. Many of the big pushes had already happened, such as the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Verdun. Although reportage might have been thin, there’s no doubt Owen knew what the battlefields were like. In his first month, he had two rotations on the front line. The first six months of 1917 saw Owen rotating in and out of the front lines with his battalion and on May 2nd 1917, he was evacuated with shell shock, what we would today call post-traumatic stress. By Christmas, he returned to France. He didn’t see much active duty until later in the year. By September 1918, he was back in the Somme Valley in France, rotating attacks on the Germans.

On the 4th November 1918, Wilfred Owen died, seven days before the Armistice was signed that brought an end to the war.

He has become the voice in many ways for the war: there’s little doubt that his earlier poetry and his non-war stuff would have passed without note into the annals of history. However, the way in which he described the war was so evocative that many other, talented war poets pale in comparison. It’s into this context that Exposure comes. We should remember, too, that Owen didn’t just write poems about war – even in hospital suffering from shell shock, he wrote lots of other poems too.

The poem itself appears to be set in the “Salient”, in Ypres, a part of Belgium. In military terms, a ‘salient’ is a bulgey bit in the dividing line between the two forces. It’s a very vulnerable position because it is a bit like a peninsula into enemy territory, where you are surrounded on three sides by enemy forces. The Ypres Salient was the scene of a number of battles, including the Spring Offensive, which Owen uses as the title of another poem. However, that interpretation is based on Owen’s use of the word “salient” which he uses as a pun (we’ll explore that when we’re looking at language) and in any case, it says “our memory of the salient” which, with its small ‘s’ and reference to a memory might not mean that the poem is set in the Ypres Salient at all.

In itself, it is not one of Owen’s poems that is most frequently studied. It has none of the bitter anger and violent imagery of Dulce et Decorum Est. It has none of the sadness, the pathos of The Sentry. And it has none of the careful choice of words as Futility or Anthem for Doomed Youth. It captures a different kind of war, a war that seems almost to be against a different enemy, against the world itself. This is a war within a war – a battle against Dawn, against the cold, against the snow, against the silence. The conflict itself then is not the war, but the battle to keep sane, to stay alive, to fight off the weather and inertia.

In terms of context, what you need a grasp of before considering the poem in itself is that the rules of poetry had very much changed since the times of Tennyson. What had been a few lone pioneers breaking rules had become the Avant Garde. It’s ironic in many ways that the term Avant Garde is one stolen from the battlefield: it refers to the front-line troops in war, but means also in this sense a radical battle against all that was traditional. Wilfred Owen in this poem is more free to pick and choose the aspects of form, rhythm, rhyme and structure that best suit him rather than being restricted by the verse itself (something we see in London, for instance, in which Blake’s words are as ‘chartered’ as the River Thames and the streets themselves, his words as locked down by the form and structure as the minds of the people that surround him). It’s going to be interesting to explore the effects of those freedoms on Exposure and see how Owen is making choices that support the ideas within his poem.

The other aspect of context that I am sure many students will refer to will be that of the war. However, this is a poem in which World War One is “a dull rumour”, “some other war”, and that in itself makes it difficult to refer to the war as context.

As with all things contextual, your examiners will not be looking for a biography of Owen, a treatise on changes in the Arts, or a history essay about the war. In short, they won’t be looking for you to write the kinds of things I’ve written here. Still, it’s important that you know these things so that you can consider how they influence what Owen has written and so that you can explain the impact of context in your exam response.

Next time, I’ll look at the form and structure of Exposure and explore how this links with the ideas in the poem.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology, please send me an email via the website or Facebook 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 the language and ideas in The Charge of the Light Brigade

In the last two posts, I’ve been exploring the context of The Charge of the Light Brigade by Tennyson as well as the form and structure in AQA’s GCSE English Literature anthology, Power and Conflict. It is a poem that has significant points to be made about historical and literary context, as well as making use of a rather rattling rhythm that probably plays a large part in why the poem has become so memorable. It carries us along through the narrative at a driving pace, making use of the stresses on words, monosyllabic words and syllabic rhythmic patterns to make it particularly memorable. It’s not often I say a poem is memorable, so there you go. 

First, we have the repetition of “Half a league, half a league,/Half a league…” which establishes from the beginning that sense of movement, doubled by the driving, galloping beat to create a real sense of motion and progression. For me, it’s rich with determination and energy, purposeful like they are moving towards a goal. 

The valley of death might be an interesting choice of words, but it is taken from the battle, and not the other way around. This area of the Balaclava was so thick with cannonballs that it had become known as the ‘Valley of Death’

It’s literally a valley. And you could die there. So not very imaginative of the person who gave it that name, who was almost certainly not Tennyson. 

You see, Tennyson’s not just picking up on news reportage, but also the newly invented medium of photography. It helps him truly imagine the place he is writing about in his poem. 

Not only does the person who coined the phrase for this bit of Crimea make use of a particular connection, but also Roger Fenton the photographer and Tennyson himself. The Valley of the Shadow of Death is a well-known line from Psalm 23, “The Lord is My Shepherd” which is probably the most famous psalm of them all – and the one that lots of people have read at their funerals, or in difficult times. Ironically, it’s supposed to be a message of encouragement, that God is with us even – and especially – in the most difficult times of our lives and we should not be afraid. I’m betting that in this God-forsaken hellhole, there were more people afraid than comforted in the belief that God was beside them. I find it a kind of irony too that the psalm is often thought to mean that we shall have eternal life: in this case, it is the poet who has granted the six hundred of the light brigade a kind of immortality. 

The phrase “the six hundred” is also an example of metonymy (as is the Valley of Death, actually), or referring to something by another name that is closely associated with it, like “The Gunners” for Arsenal or “Fleet Street” for the national British newspapers. The six hundred refers to the Light Brigade. It means Tennyson is using “the six hundred” as a substitute for “the Light Brigade.”

It’s up to us, then, to think of the effect of that, to wonder why he might do it. For me, you might think it a technical thing. Do more words rhyme with hundred than brigade? Actually, no. In fact, Tennyson uses ALL the available and useful rhymes for hundred – blundered, sundered, thundered and wondered. Brigade rhymes with a lot more – one of which Tennyson makes use of – dismayed. But there are loads of useful rhymes for “brigade” – crusade, afraid, betrayed, decayed, unswayed and so on. By using “the six hundred”, Tennyson actually handicaps himself and makes it less easy to write. That tells me the “six hundred” is a metonymic switch he wants to make for effect. This kind of substitution is in fact a rhetorical device, but why do it? For me, Tennyson is emphasising the numbers: “the Light Brigade” could mean 11,000 men. “Six hundred” seems a lot fewer. A brigade sounds like a large number. Six hundred men does not. We stop thinking about them as one unit, as well, which is really important. To see them as one unit anonymises them and makes them even more faceless. Although six hundred doesn’t help us to think of them as individuals, it does help us imagine the number a lot more clearly than “the Light Brigade”, so I think Tennyson’s language choice is very purposeful here. Brigade would also emphasise that they are soldiers, rather than just men. Still, they are nameless, like so many of the casualities of war in the other poems of Power and Conflict. Names are quite important in the Power and Conflict section. Do you go naming people like Ozymandias only to show how their names are as likely to fade as their power? Do you go nameless, like the nameless soldier in London? Both have an effect. Here, it’s not important that they are seen as distinct individuals – they will be remembered as a group.

In the second stanza, we have perhaps one of the most famous series of lines in poetry about heroism and war:

Their’s not to make reply,
Their’s not to reason why,
Their’s but to do and die ;

The strong monosyllabic beat, the repetition, the rhyme, the simplicity of the words and the message all make these three lines incredibly memorable indeed. Not often that I say “these words are memorable” (when my head is shouting ‘simple, generalised comment!’) but these really are. So why did Tennyson want these words to be the most memorable words of the whole poem?

For me, it speaks much about loyalty, blind obedience, that unquestioning faith they had in their leaders – even if they had questions about what they were doing – their devotion to service, to their country. This is an act of honour, bravery, courage, faith, integrity… and also sacrifice. A pointless, meaningless sacrifice, throwing themselves before the cannon that surround them. The ultimate offering for their country. A worthless, ineffective, pointless gesture “though the soldier knew/Some one had blundered” which makes it even more sad, even more sorrowful. Their lives wasted for a “blunder”. This to me is the key to the whole poem – and more so because of just how many rhetorical devices Tennyson loads into it. We end stanza 2 picking up the action after Tennyson’s little commentary on the soldiers. The event – and the poem – has become a symbol of valour, patriotism, blind allegiance to the flag. It is seen as the ultimate act of bravery and heroism. Their fearlessness and valiance are seen as noble and courageous beyond measure. This is blind loyalty and allegiance. This is true determination and nobility of spirit. It’s become a symbol of man’s love of his country.

In stanza 3, Tennyson takes us into the heart of the action, bringing the battle to life in very vivid ways with rhyme, vocabulary and rhythm. The refrain about ‘Cannon to the right of them/Cannon to the left of them/Cannon (in front/behind them) is also very quick with a DUM-dee DUM-dee-DUM-dee-DUM/DUM-dee DUM-dee- DUM dee-DUM) rhythm which is quick and exciting. There are lots of very vivid verbs too, like volleyed and thundered and stormed, flashed and sabring. Shattered and sundered have the same effects later on in the poem. They’re strong, powerful words that convey a real sense of the ferocity of the battle. Look at what your mouth does when you say “Volleyed and thundered”. Two fricatives – V and Th – followed by a short vowel – O and U – and then a plosive end to both of them ‘D’. These are really noisy words that convey the cannon shooting through the air. Then you’ve got the sibilant fricatives of the next line, “stormed at with shot and shell” which also conveys the sound of war in ways that Wilfred Owen does too in his own poems, and you can find other poets making use of the sounds of language too, like Heaney and Hughes. This verse is a noisy verse, coupled with all those verbs and you’ve got a verbal equivalent of a battle recreation. Tennyson does his very best to recreate the experience. This is Dolby Surround Sound done by a Victorian poet.

It continues into stanza four with the same fricative-short vowel-plosive pattern. Just make these sounds…

Fffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff – aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa – sssssssssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhhhh-duh.

That D brings it to a right old thuddy stop. Still with the repetition and the sound and fury of war. I think that Tennyson really recreates the noise of battle with all of this. Couple that with the driving rhythm and you’ve got a powerful, noisy, active scene, briefly interrupted by the surprisingly calm “while all the world wondered” with all those breathy “wh” sounds, taking us out of the moment and stepping back to look at the battle before “plunged” plunges us right back into the scene again. Still, Tennyson continues with the sibilants of “sabre stroke”, “shattered” and “sundered” which also create the sounds of the battle, which carries us through into the next stanza with the repeated “stormed at with shot and shell”.

In some ways, it’s graphic, describing the battle, but in other ways it’s euphemistic, glossing over the deaths. It just says: ‘not the six hundred’ for how many rode back. “While horse and hero fell” covers what can only have been a bloody and brutal massacre of six hundred men led unnecessarily up a narrow corridor surrounded by the enemy.

For me, I think it is important that this poem is thin on flowery, poetry language and thick on rhetorical devices and ways to help us remember the poem: Tennyson wants it to be simple, he wants it to be clear. It would serve no purpose to be flowery. It relies on repetition, heavy rhythms, a rhyme that ties it all together, monosyllables, lots and lots of sound play with the alliteration. The effect is a poem that recreates some of the noise and fury of battle, Tennyson’s tribute to a large number of men who died in a pointless exercise. This is a great moment to talk about purpose and effect, or intention and effect, since Tennyson’s purpose is clear by the final stanza in the rhetoric of “When can their glory fade?” and the repeated imperative of “Honour the Light Brigade” with the final flourish of “Noble six hundred!” All that rhetoric, all that sound patterning… it creates something that is heroic and noble.

Now, whether you are affected in the ways Tennyson wants you to be is another matter. Yes, you remember the Light Brigade – we all do every time we read this poem. No doubt we honour the war dead – it’s unspeakable not to do so. But do you see them as heroes, or as courageous in the face of what can only have been the most pointless of “blunders”. This is where you need to think about the poem’s effect on you. Is that the same as the effect Tennyson intended?

 

 

 

 

Despite the ‘blunder’, Tennyson instructs us to ‘honour’ the men and their sacrifice, to remember their bravery and he finishes by calling them ‘noble’. Like Owen who includes an ‘O’, Tennyson includes an ‘O’ as well, but this is an expression of his strong emotion of pride and admiration, as compared to Owen’s ‘O’ of despair and depression. Their reputation and story is everywhere ‘all the world wonder’d’ – unlike the soldier who dies nameless in Futility. Tennyson’s question ‘when can their glory fade?’ is supposed to be answered with ‘never’ – their name and story will be everlasting. To some degree, this is true, though much of their fame is down to films, text and poems such as this one. The charge of the Light Brigade has become a by-word for bravery and heroism in the face of extreme adversity, although perhaps later audiences would think less of the bravery of the soldiers and more of the stupidity of those who sent them to war; we would perhaps think more of the senselessness of these men’s deaths.

What’s important here is that views have changed progressively since the poem was written. Whilst it was seen as a noble, valiant and heroic action, now the generals that allowed this to happen would come under heavy criticism. We see the stupidity and insanity of war; a contemporary audience would have seen something to celebrate and commemorate more than damn. It’s the same kind of heroic spirit that powers 300, the tale of 300 Spartan men who stood up to the invading Persian troops in the graphic novel and film of the same name. It’s seen as supreme sacrifice, dedication, determination, it’s how men fight and die for something that is more important than themselves. If you want another example, it’s Braveheart. Listen to Churchill’s speech following the Battle of Britain – it’s the same kind of heroism and valour we see there. It’s intended as a rousing reminder of the heroism and glory of dying for your country.

But is that what you take from it? 

In the next article, I’ll look at Wilfred Owen’s poem, Exposure. It may be just over sixty years after The Charge of the Light Brigade, but I think you’ll see how very much poetry and our view of conflict changes in those sixty years.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology, please send me an email via the website or Facebook 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 the form and structure of Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”

In last week’s post, I looked at the context behind Tennyson’s poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in AQA’s GCSE English Literature poetry anthology, “Power and Conflict”. The poem was one of the first real-time responses to war reportage in the newspapers, written in Tennyson’s role as Poet Laureate. This post will look in more detail at the form and structure of the poem to help you write about it in any exam.

Some of you may be wondering what I have in my head when I come to a poem to think about the form and structure. I have a kind of loose framework of things I might want to think about:

Form

How it’s set out on the page; line length, syllables, rhythm (metre) rhyme, what words are on what line, number of lines, sonnet, couplets, three lines, quatrains, regularity of the number of lines in a verse/stanza, capitals (or lack of) main punctuation at the end of lines or stanzas (, . , .  / , , , . / ; : ; . )  phrase splits and the way the words fall on each line, which ideas are linked within the line or stanza and which are separate, caesura, enjambment.

Form is what makes it a poem and not prose. Why does it look the way it does? What decisions has the poet made about what he has put on one line and what on another? Why this form? 

Structure

This explores how the ideas are organised and sequenced, viewpoint/perspective (third person? First person?) TiP ToP – Time Place Topic Person – shifts? Shift in time? Place? Why are the ideas in this order? External actions (happenings) vs internal thoughts? Circular structure? Beginning, middle, end? How does the title weave through the poem? Does the ending link back or develop from the opening? 

Structure is the arrangement and sequence of the ideas, as well as some other aspects. I ask myself why here and not there?

So how do I apply this to “The Charge of the Light Brigade”?

One thing I know about Tennyson is that he loves rhyme, rhythm and metre. I’ll be looking at how he uses these three techniques to give a really rollicking rhythm to the poem, and why he does that. I’ll do my usual as well: bit of feature spotting, which is all very well, but not worth very much, and a bit of commentary on the writer’s purpose as well as the effect on the reader.

Firstly, the stanzas. There’s no real regularity, is there? 8 lines, 9 lines… then 9, 12, 11 and 6. Not particularly even. So I can wonder to myself if he’s just used the number of lines that felt natural to use, or whether there’s a kind of sense of build up to something in the fourth and fifth stanzas. Six lines seems like a brief conclusion.

Then there’s also the way it reads, the way Tennyson has used rhythm. We’ll explore more about that later, but it’s a poem that’s very easy to read aloud. That’s very purposeful. It reads like a poem designed for performance, not a poem designed to be constrained by the page. The line breaks, the rhythm, the rhyme and the metre all make the poem very easy to read aloud. You’ll not notice yourself tripping over words.

But when you get down into the mechanics of those techniques, it’s not always so neat. I don’t think you notice the lack of neatness when you are reading it, but it’s not quite so neat as you’d expect.

First the syllables. Well, it’s a bit like the stanzas. Loosely regular, but then not. Lots of six-syllable lines in there, and some sevens. The five-syllable final line might not be all that it looks, so we’ll look at that a little more.

All six stanzas finish with what appears to be a five-syllable line:

Rode the six hundred
Rode the six hundred
Rode the six hundred
Not the six hundred
Left of six hundred
Noble six hundred

But you could actually say “hundred” (normally two syllables, hun-dred) as three syllables: hun-der-ed. According to one of Tennyson’s friends, W. F. Rawnsley, in Lincolnshire, Tennyson’s home county, the pronunciation would have been hun-der-ed. That gives you something else to think about.

Still, there are reasons I like it to be five syllables and not six. The first is that we’ve got another line in each stanza that is most definitely five syllables:

Rode the six hundred
Some one had blundered
Volleyed and thundered
All the world wondered
Shattered and sundered
Volleyed and thundered
All the wold wondered

Now apart from the fact that these lines rhyme with the end line of each stanza, they’re also five syllables. I’m pretty sure, whilst I can accept hun-der-ed as a pronunciation, nobody would say thun-der-ed or won-der-edSo for that reason, I like it as a five.

I’m pretty sure with the rhyme of these two pairs of lines that Tennyson is using them to not only weave the poem together but also to form these pairs of lines, which are a bit like stopping points holding the poem together. Each stanza has at least two. If the stanza has eight lines, the fourth and eighth are these ones. It’s like the mid-point of each stanza (or just before). In my copy, the lines are also indented on the page. That’s three reasons that these lines form neat pairs. So five is what I’m going with.

These lines have a really driving rhythm. Dactyl (STRESS-unstressed-unstressed) and then a trochee (STRESS-unstressed) You start off with a really strong beat and kind of get carried along with it. These are probably random and pointless words to you. But a dactyl was a bit new-fangled. You see it a lot in that crazy-eyed Walt Whitman in the USA, and also in Browning. Not only does this then emphasise certain words but gives it a great pace:

SHATT-ered and SUN-dered
VOLLeyed and THUNDered

In fact, this poem is one of the best examples of dactylic rhythm that there is. The dactyl is the first three syllables and the trochee is the second:

SHATT-ered and /SUN-dered
VOLLeyed and /THUNDered

All of this complicated stuff about rhythm is not so important. Saying there’s a dactyl followed by a trochee won’t impress the examiner any more than identifying a simile would. What is important is that the rhythm is rousing and fast paced, easy to scan and read aloud. It’s a galloping beat. The effect is more important than the techniques. Tennyson used these rhythms to give the impression of the speed and haste of the battle, the confident beat emphasises the ‘charge’.

The other noticeable thing about the form is that it includes such a lot of monosyllabic lines. The first two lines give it a kind of echo of horses at full gallop

DUM-dee-DUM, DUM-dee-DUM
DUM-dee-DUM-dee-dee.

The rhythm and monosyllables give it a real pace, like the men, like the cavalry charge.

In terms of the structure, this is a third-person narrative, so it has an outsider’s point of view: this is Tennyson’s poem and his feelings about the event, narrative as it may be. Where we see words like “noble”, this is Tennyson’s view of the event. Our first question must always be to wonder what his view is, and what his aim is. Why write this poem?

For me, despite the error that caused this catastrophe, it’s a celebration of the battle, a commemmoration. Tennyson wanted to put it onto the historical map. Of all the battles, this is one he thought worth memorialising. What is it about the battle that he finds worth commemorating? The bravery of the men against all odds seems to be the one thing that Tennyson finds worth writing a poem about. Their blind loyalty. Their continued courage despite the fact they know they’re outgunned.

It’s also past tense, which also gives it a quality of a narrative in the same way as the third-person viewpoint. I’m guessing everyone who read the poem at the time would have known the situation and the outcome – a bit like a poem about 9/11 maybe. The ending is never going to be a surprise for someone reading this at the time that Tennyson published it. It might be for a more modern audience – there are few battles that we remember outside of individual events, and most of those are fairly well known… the battle of Hastings… the battle of the Somme… the battle of Agincourt… the battle of Waterloo… the battle of Trafalgar.

But some of those battles fade in our minds or blend into the whole war itself. I’m guessing, unless you are a bit of a history buff, that battles like the battle of Fulford, the battle of Tewkesbury or the battle of Corunna are less well known to you. The Charge of the Light Brigade isn’t even a battle in itself, it’s just an event within a battle within a war. I bet even if I said the Battle of Balaclava and the Crimean War, you might still be none the wiser. It’s through Tennyson’s poem that this event has been remembered.

We start in the middle of the action, with no preamble or introduction to the event. The title itself would be enough for Tennyson to give contemporary readers the knowledge they would need of the who, the what, the where and the when. For modern readers, it’s a little less clear: we might need to do a bit of research to know where this takes place and who was involved, when it happened and what went on. Starting in the middle of the action puts us bang slap in the middle of the action. The technical term for this is in medias res which means to drop you into the middle of the action and fill in the details afterwards. Usually, writers will use flashback or description of past events to tell you what happened, which is exactly what Tennyson does. Starting in the middle of the action makes it really dramatic – it’s a technique used in narrative all the time. Think of how often you get it in films or in fiction.

For this reason, the poem is non-linear. We get stanza one, which inserts us into the action in the moments that the ‘Charge!’ command has been given. In stanza two, we get the backstory behind the charge – “someone had blundered” – and we dip into a little observational comment from Tennyson, “Their’s not to make reply…” before coming right back to the action again with the cannon on either side of them, the sabres flashing. In stanza four, we shift perspective a little as we step back from the battle scene to consider “while/All the world wondered”. In stanza four and five, they also mark their retreat. The final stanza acts as a conclusion, another Tennyson commentary on the events, including some direct commands in “Honour the charge they made” and his final interjection: “Noble six hundred!”

The structure, then, is mostly linear with a tiny bit of exposition about why this happened, but no context at all. The narrative is peppered with Tennyson’s own commentary and feelings as he comments on the events.

The poem takes place in one single setting: the battlefield outside Balaklava in the disputed Russian/Ukrainian province of Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea. It is also one single moment in time: the charge itself. It has a brief exit from the setting and time, when Tennyson steps back to consider how the rest of the world feel about the event and to step back in time to comment that “someone had blundered”. We get a focus on the six hundred as a whole without considering any specific cavalryman individually. As such it sees the troops as one single force.

Tennyson creates a poem that has many threads that hold the narrative together. First, there are rhythmic threads and there are threads held together by rhyme. There are repeated threads, with echoes of the six hundred throughout. We’ll look more at repetition and the language devices used by Tennyson to create a cohesive narrative in the next post which will explore language and imagery in much more detail.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology, please send me an email via the website or Facebook 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 the context of The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Tennyson is a poem that recounts extreme acts of valour and patriotism. It recounts a battle between the British and the Russian forces in the Battle of Balaclava in 1854 and it precedes later poems in the Power and Conflict section of the AQA GCSE English Literature poetry anthology such as Bayonet Charge and Exposure where conflict is explored in a critical way.

In terms of context, what you may want to know is a little about Tennyson and a little about the battle itself. Don’t forget that you are not writing a GCSE History essay and you are not expected to write more than a couple of sentences here and there where it is relevant. Full paragraphs about Tennyson or about the Battle of Balaclava will be treated as if they are an incongruous little physics equation or chemical calculation or artwork in the middle of your essay… nice, but not the domain of English Literature, and fairly unmarkable for the average GCSE English Literature student. If you’re reaching your third sentence on context, you have gone too far! If you are telling your examiner what happened in the Charge of the Light Brigade, you’re also going into an essay dead end. What I want to know is how the context of the poem was important for the content of the poemIn other words, what do you need to know to make sense of the poem? 

Remember too that the mark for context also covers a mark for perspectives and/or ideas. Context and/or perspectives and/or ideas. Your ability to write a page about the causes of the conflict in the Crimea in the 1850s is wonderful. But it’s not relevant.

So when it comes to context, know it but don’t harp on about it. Know it because it’s interesting. Don’t harp on about it because writing too much about it is as effective as drawing a triangle and working out the hypoteneuse.

That said, now I am going to tell you the context, and I am going to harp on about it. Then it’s up to you to think about how much of that is important for how it relates to the poem, just as you will do with Ozymandias and with My Last Duchess.

About Tennyson…

He was born in 1809 in the Lincolnshire Wolds to a father who was the rector in a church. Tennyson was a fan of epics and at the age of twelve, he’d already written an epic 6000-line poem. Certainly beats obsessing over boy bands and reading Judy Blume like I was doing aged twelve, anyway. That early start gave him all the practice he needed to become a poetry giant, if not THE poetry giant of all. The Victorian time gave us epics, and it gave us Dickens. It also gave us Tennyson, who liked a bit of epic himself. He wrote poems about mythology, about England, about King Arthur… all fantastically epic stuff.

What do epics have in common? They are long, lengthy poems about heroic deeds. They’re often about heroic values too – what makes a hero, what does heroism look like to different cultures? Epics feature heroes that embody the qualities of a hero at that time in that country – they very much reflect the ideals and values of the time, how that culture viewed a hero. That’s important here. We need to understand what the poem says about how Victorians viewed heroes, and to know how we view heroes too.

I mean, I get the feeling that we don’t generally consider it to be a brave and noble thing to die for your country. Don’t get me wrong, at all. Soldiers who die in the line of fire are brave beyond brave. Fighting wrong in other countries to help protect people who you’ve never met… that’s something truly indescribable. But our perspective on heroism has changed. We no longer think that it is an honour to DIE for your country (to serve it, maybe) and that is perhaps one reason why we don’t feel comfortable with huge battles like those of World War One and Two, which had more in common with massacre than with honour. I think, and this is very much just my opinion, that the Average Joe on the street will think it quite horrible that anyone should have to die for a cause they believe in. After all, look how our view of terrorists have changed. We call such people radicals and fanatics, and idolise Martin Luther King, or Nelson Mandela, who changed countries with words and protest, not with war. We see soldiers as serving the country and protecting the peace. When they die, it is a horrible tragedy, not something we just write off as glorious and noble.

But the Victorians at the point the poem was written wouldn’t have had much problem accepting the “glory” of these soldiers’ deaths, especially since we British do like to see ourselves as David vs Goliath, George vs The Dragon. We do love stories of how we underdogs beat back the big boys.

So that’s the first thing you have to know about context. This very much embodies how people felt about dying for your country. It was a great and glorious thing to do.

What else about Tennyson and about the epic?

In 1850, he was announced as Poet Laureate, following Wordsworth’s death. This in itself carries a kind of focus within it. He became England’s national poet. You’re literally the poetic voice of Great Britain. It also carries a bit of responsibility: you’re supposed to write vaguely patriotic or British things from time to time, like a poem about the visit of the Queen’s future daughter-in-law, that sort of thing. And Tennyson fulfilled his duties in a – well – dutiful kind of a way. Not his best poetry, but if you need a poem about current events writing, Tennyson did his job admirably, especially since he was third choice for the role.

So in 1854, when he’s reading about the Charge of the Light Brigade in the papers, it probably sounded like it would make a great poem for your old poet-y duties. Not a poem that Tennyson was particularly pleased with or proud of, nevertheless, it was rousingly patriotic in a “Rule Britannia” king of way. Something in the news account obviously interested him and for this reason, you’ve got almost a connection to War Photographer, with an artist (photographer or writer) who tries to use their artistic talents to share a little about the battlefield. For Tennyson, however, that is not his own experience, which came via the newspaper, no matter how vivid you find it. For that reason, the perspective in the poem contrasts well with Owen’s perspective as a soldier rather than an onlooker in Exposure.

He also uses lots of features of the epic in his own poetry, but he is also a poet who likes the sound and rhythm of words. That is obvious to anyone who listens to The Charge of the Light Brigade. You can also see this in a lot of his other poetry. He enjoys the rhythms of poetic language, and the way words sound.

About the battle itself…

The Charge of the Light Brigade took place during the Battle of Balaclava, which took place during the Siege of Sevastopol, which took place during the Crimean War. French, Ottoman (loosely what is some of Turkey now) and English troops fought against Russian troops over a three-year period. A tired old Ottoman empire at the end of its lifespan was bolstered by troops from France and England in what was, on the surface, a battle to protect religious minorities but was in fact a battle that ended up about territory, as these things always do. Russia’s always at that world domination thing, but when you don’t have a great navy because your ports are frozen for a lot of the year, then places like Sevastopol on the warm waters of the Black Sea give you naval access to North Africa, to the Middle East, to the Mediterranean. That’s why they become important. The Crimea may have started out as a scuffle over religion but it soon ended with Britain, France, the Ottomans (and Sardinia!) taking it as an opportunity to put an end to Russia’s attempts to control the Black Sea and expand its rule into Europe. Not much different than today, then.

What else is interesting about the war? First, it was one of the first that was heavily reported in the media, which made the political decisions answerable to public opinion. It was the first time the public got to see and hear stories of what really happened in war. It was also one of the first truly modern wars and there were a great many losses. Public outcry when the war promised to go on for a long time meant that Prime Minister George Hamilton-Gordon resigned, and most people consider the war to be a colossal example of military mismanagement. I don’t know about war stuff so I’ll defer to the historians on that one.

All very interesting, but relevant?

In parts, yes. You’d need to know that Tennyson was THE national poet, writing a nationalistic piece perhaps as part of his role of poet laureate. He didn’t even really like the poem himself, so we can only assume he wrote it out of some kind of obligation to the role.

You also need to know that the general public knew more about what was going on than in any other war previously: it’s this knowledge that allows Tennyson to write the poem but also know that it appealed very much to the things on the front pages of the newspaper. That’s interesting if you compare it to War Photographer or even Ozymandias or My Last Duchess in terms of how the artist has power (if you consider journalists to be artists!) but there’s certainly something about the power to present a situation. That makes this another “popular” poem written about events seen in a newspaper (and in fact, since both Ozymandias and My Last Duchess were inspired by things the poets had read, makes an interesting point of comparison about the power of the poet, which is in many times the way that long-dead historical characters or events have come to be immortalised… would anyone know about the Duke of Ferrara, about Ozymandias, about the Charge of the Light Brigade, if it weren’t for the poets who exercised their power… an interesting essay in there, I’m sure!)

I think the media’s attempts to “report” an event rather than load it full of bias (I say this with heavy irony) is also a contextual detail that affects the poem: Tennyson also presents this event as “warts and all” in ways he wouldn’t have been able to do from his comfy Isle of Wight armchair if it were not for the newspapers.

I think also it’s important to know that at the time Tennyson wrote, Britain had no way of knowing whether we would win against Russia or not. In the long run it ended in an armistice, but does that make the actions of this brigade more heroic or less? I think the fact that it was written when the outcome of the war wasn’t known is interesting. If you ask me, it takes away a little from the heroism because we know how the war ended, but it emphasises the casual way in which lives were lost as a result of the “blunder” or mistake made. When you have the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to say that the battle seemed avoidable, or that it was a pointless waste of life for no gain, but it’s not easy to say that in the months following on from the battle. But we read this poem differently than it would have been read by Tennyson’s contemporary audience, and that’s an important thing to think about. It’s also important to know that he wrote this without knowing whether we would win or lose in Crimea.

In terms of what will help you about the context of this poem, then you have five things that you might want to mention if the opportunity presents itself:

  • Poetic context… what epics are and what epics generally do;
  • Tennyson’s context… why he wrote the poem, how it influenced what he did, what he hoped to achieve, his role as Poet Laureate;
  • Tennyson’s personal poetic context… that he liked to write epics, that he often explored the idea of “The Heroic”, that he was a poet who loved sound and rhythm in poetry;
  • The historical context… that this was written at the height of Queen Victoria’s Empire, maybe the years when Britain is at its peak, that the Crimean War was characterised by blunders and mismanagement, of carelessness and also brave battles where British troops were outmanned and outgunned, that Tennyson had no idea of how it would end when he wrote the poem, that the war itself was the first one reported widely in the media (allowing Tennyson to write the poem);
  • Perspective changes: how pre-World War One British citizens viewed war and death in battle, how that view has changed, how our view of war itself has changed.

So you have plenty – too much, indeed – to think about when it comes to the context of the poem and ways that you might incorporate some of these details. In the following posts, I’ll explore the form, structure and sound of the poem, as well as the language, perspectives and imagery, as well as how the context of the poem affects it.

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