Twenty Iconic Poems – Part IV
The fourth and final in Philip Carr’s series on Iconic Poems, see the first, second and third articles in the series, as he explores poems from W. H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, E.E. cummings, Robert Lowell and Philip Larkin. Philip is a Director of Studies at MPW London and is currently teaching GCSE English Language and GCSE English Literature – find out more about Philip.
Poem 16 “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” by W. H. Auden, 1939
The death of another great poet gives Auden the chance to write incisively both on the death itself and its wider associations. He writes with irony and an innovative originality of language. I have selected three verses. The first verse concludes with a memorable economy of expression:
But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.
With a dryly terse expression and bitter social commentary Auden links the death to the surrounding world:
But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring
like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings
to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself
is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.
Auden alters his verse form as he pays a final tribute from which I am quoting the be-ginning:
Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.
Poem 17, “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas, 1946
In this poem Dylan Thomas relives his life as a child in the Welsh countryside with great empathy and a stunning eloquence. I have quoted three verses. The first verse recalls his childhood games on the farm; the second verse gives us an Edenic sense of natural beauty; the third verse concludes the poem with a reminder of transience and death.
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
Poem 18, “maggy and molly and milly and may” by e.e. cummings, 1956
The apparent simplicity of cummings belies his complexity. The first five verses are structured as an extended polysyndeton, perhaps suggesting a child’s account of a day at the seaside. The poem has a moving directness as in “as large as alone”.
maggy and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day)
and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles, and
milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;
and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles: and
may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.
For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
its always ourselves we find in the sea
Poem 19, “For the Union Dead” by Robert Lowell, 1964
In this poem, Lowell contrasts the heroism and idealism of a Union regiment of black soldiers who gave their lives in the American Civil War and the realities of modern American life. The poem centres on a monument to the regiment. It begins describing the aquarium the poet remembers from his childhood and the excavations near the monument:
…..yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.
Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,
shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens’ shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage’s earthquake.
Two months after marching through Boston,
half the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.
Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city’s throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.
He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man’s lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die—
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.
At the end of the poem the poet makes reference to modern commercialism and the car-centred civilization that the soldiers died for:
There are no statues for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling
over a Mosler Safe, the “Rock of Ages”
that survived the blast.
The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
Poem 20, “An Arundel Tomb” by Philip Larkin, 1964
This poem captures with great observation the passage of time and advent of change as with “snow fell undated” and the reference to “endless altered people” who come to see the tomb (verse 5). The poem is a celebration of human love as when with “sharp tender shock” the poet glimpses the earl’s holding his wife’s hand in verse 2. The final verse is deceptive as it ends with an organ note which we can easily take to be the “message”: “What will survive of us is love.” However, the last verse tells that what is proved by the statue is that our “almost- instinct” is “almost true”, but not, as many perhaps would like, actually “true”.
Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd –
The little dogs under their feet.
Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.
They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.
They would no guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they
Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the grass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-littered ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,
Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:
Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.