The Signpost By Edward Thomas

Having fought and died as a soldier in World War I, Edward Thomas is known as a ‘war poet’. He is famous for his works such as ‘Beauty’, ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’, ‘October’ and more. However, this assumption reflects the style of his poetry that uses unassuming, colloquial vocabulary when underneath lies layers of meaning and message. Thomas was plagued with self doubt about his poetry and even suffered bouts of depression which hides within his poetry. He blends themes of war and the countryside using a lucid style, precision of speech and intelligent observations. The remarkable delicacy with which he writes makes it all the more endearing. One can also find that with Thomas, what is unsaid is more important than what is said. ‘The Signpost’ consists of Thomas’ deliberations on the kinds important junctions one encounters throughout life as well as the illusion of choice in such instances.

Using pathetic fallacy, the poet includes pale, unpromising imagery for the dark themes to come. Everything is dull; the ‘dim sea glints chill, ‘white sun is shy’ by a hilltop of frosty grasses and ‘skeleton weeds’. We even find that the ‘hawthorn berry and hazel tuft’ later ominously lose their leaves.

The poet comes across a signpost at the hilltop initially with a ‘traveller’s joy’ and reads the sign. Trying to make a choice, a voice in his mind tells him that as a twenty year old he ‘would not have doubted so’. ‘Another voice reminds him of his suicidal thoughts at that age. The two voices of hindsight begin to have a conversation of their own, distancing the poet from himself.

The first voice wonders what decision he would make ‘to be sixty by this same post’. With a sinister laugh, the other suggests that he shall soon see, implying that death is near. This is all the more tragic because Thomas sensed his own death and never lived to see sixty. He joins the laughter of the voices for he knows the joke, like death is on him.

The voice assures ‘either before or after’, death ‘must befall’. All shall eventually be buried with ‘a mouthful of earth’. Death is in fact a ‘remedy’ that shall take people to a heavenly place where ‘regrets and wishes shall freely be given’. The only wish that shall not be given is to return to earth. The voices of depression taunt and haunt Thomas. They suggest such a morbid that even heaven is not free from flaw. ‘No matter what the weather’ or age ‘between death and birth’, he shall never revisit. Heaven is just as much a trap as earth. It is depicted as a restricting place of afterlife that only deprives people. It deprives one from ever seeing ‘day or night’, ‘sun and frost’, ‘land and the sea’ or any of the seasons. Yet it is inescapable to any man be him a prince or a pauper. The signpost of death is but a dead end ‘standing upright’ against any stunted idea of choice in the matter.

It is interesting to note that for a man with suicidal thoughts, Thomas loves life and earth. His detailed description of nature’s wonderful elements proves desperation to cling onto it. This is similar to how he finds refuge in the beauty of nature in other poems such as ‘Beauty’. His zest for life comes from nature making him just as much a nature poet than Wordsworth. However, he does leave us with a thought-provoking cliff hanger. If death is so unavoidable, why does man continue ‘wondering where he shall journey, O where?’

© 2016 Pia Krishnankutty & springtidevoice. wordpress.com All Rights Reserved

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The Shield of Achilles by W.H Auden

‘The Shield of Achilles’, based on Homer’s Iliad refers to the shield used by Achilles when he fought against Hector. Hephaestus, the Greek God of blacksmiths made the shield that represented the world of God and men in nine concentric circles. Similarly, the poem has nine stanzas. However, these verses are juxtapositions between ancient Greece and contemporary world. Therefore, Auden alternates between a ballad style, iambic pentameter and rhythm royal to signify change between past and present. Through an anti-thesis of expectation versus reality, Auden brings to light themes of modern day warfare, despair, immorality and makes us question our heroes.

The poem begins with Thetis, Achilles’ mother looking over the shoulder of Hephaestus as he crafted the shield, expecting ‘vines and olive trees’, peace, prosperity, opulence and adventure. However, any hope for ‘ships upon untamed seas’ lay under dark, foreboding clouds in ‘a sky like lead’.

Auden mentions this ‘artificial wilderness’ to bridge a description of empty wastelands after war. These lands were ‘bare and brown’, devoid of vegetation. Yet ironically, an ‘unintelligible multitude’ of innocent men were assembled without any ‘sign of neighbourhood’; frightened, obedient soldiers. The voice of a nameless authority rose in a tone as ‘dry and level as the place’. Without any cheers or discussion, the soldiers almost submissively marched forth. The men become as nameless and faceless as the statistics that justify their vague cause. Just like a mother blinded by the love for her son, soldiers are found blindly ‘enduring a belief’, oblivious to the reality.

Thetis hoped for ‘ritual pieties’, ‘libation and sacrifice’ to the Greek Gods. However instead of any divine blessings, Hephaestus was creating a scene as morbid as concentration camps. Within the ‘barbed wire’ of such camps, lay the bloodiest, brutal cruelties. Auden juxtaposes apathetic ‘bored officials’ cracking jokes beside a silent crowd of enslaved German Jews. This censure on bureaucracy is also found in other works such as ‘Refugee Blues’. The innocent, ‘decent folk’ watched as three men were led to their graves. This Biblical allusion to Jesus who was killed along with two others possibly suggests how religious insensitivity is lost and how the Jews didn’t die as martyrs but as victims. The ‘mass and majesty’ of the human soul lay in the hands of fanatics. In the camps, all hope was lost and ‘no help came’. Such cruel enslavement killed any spirit, pride and dignity. Just like the wastelands, Hephaestus was crafting a ‘weed choked field’ foreshadowing Achilles’ fate while Thetis hoped for athletes and dancers. Auden clever depiction of dancing ‘sweet limbs’ is a contrast to the ‘a million boots’ of marching soldiers.

Auden returns to the blank landscape as described in the beginning. A scruffy young boy walked around ‘aimless and alone’ in this loss of community. Exposed to warfare, rape and murder were ‘axioms to him’. Auden depicts the casualties of war, displaced children orphans, and the psychological trauma endured. It is a tragedy of how men foolishly deprive themselves of ‘a world where promises were kept’ or where ‘one could weep because another wept’. The only world the boy knows is a violent one. It is unsurprising when although bored and loitering, he throws ‘a well aimed stone’ to a bird, ready to inflict pain on a harmless creature.

In the end, Hephaestus hobbled away ‘thin lipped’ for the shield had spoken for itself. The hopeful Thetis ‘cried out in dismay’ for what she saw the prophecy of her son ‘who would not live long’. Though the shield is never described, the badlands and bleak landscapes described by Auden suggest that that was what the armourer was depicting all along. Hephaestus was not only depicting Achilles’ fate but also man’s and how there is only a dark end to conquest and violence. The description of soldiers is critique on blind obedience and passivity. Perhaps the lack of dialogue throughout the poem helps represent the danger of silence. Auden also makes us question our heroes such as Achilles’ in relation to the glorification of war. Where is the nobility in ‘man-slaying’ acts? We call our heroes ‘iron-hearted’ but perhaps their hearts are just made of stone.

© 2016 Pia Krishnankutty & springtidevoice. wordpress.com All Rights Reserved

The Building by Philip Larkin

‘The Building’ is a powerful poem that although seems ambiguous at first, is eventually thought provoking. The poem describes a building which assumed to be as a hospital even though we are not overtly told. Toward the end, Larkin meditates upon ideas of sickness, death as well as spirituality and religion in an attempt to make sense of the former two while maintaining a somewhat flippant and ironic tone throughout.

The building seems ‘higher than the handsomest hotel’; sarcastically described as typical of Larkin. Glass windows shine like a ‘lucent comb’ like a beckoning beacon of light, surrounded by criss-crossing streets. At the entrance arrive vehicles that are ‘not taxis’, which can assume as ambulances. The building represents technological and medical advancement ‘like a great sigh out of the last century’. However, sight can be deceiving while within lingers a ‘frightening smell’.

Like at ‘an airport lounge’, people read paperbacks, ‘ripped mags’, drink tea yet ‘tamely sit’ for a kind of arrival that seems less exciting than travel. Ordinary people have come for check-ups in ‘outdoor clothes and half-filled shopping bags’ with obvious intentions of doing other more important things. Yet they are ‘restless and resigned’ for the possibility of receiving bad news about their health. The busy nurses seem ominous, coming every few minutes to ‘fetch someone away’, during which time people are fidgety and ‘curiously neutral’.

The building is a place of ‘humans’ in which people lose individualities and form a homogeneous group of patients no matter what age. They are reduced to faceless numbers all in fear of sudden ‘abeyance’, ‘the end of choice and ‘the last of hope’; death the great leveller. Some come to ‘confess that something has gone wrong’ in reply to their doctors who reveal an ‘error of a serious sort’ in their health. However, they are just one of several people to endure illness. To house this inexhaustible supply of humans, so ‘much money’ has gone into nurturing the building   so that it may be ‘tall’ with ‘many floors’ and staff working ungodly hours. Yet, it is morbid.

People look around at others, wondering if they too will be wheeled off down a corridor of endless rooms ‘harder to return from’. The fear of death is a ‘new thing held in common’ that suppresses all hopes and makes them quiet. Outside lies the normal world – streets, pipes, traffic, children playing games, a car park and freedom. A ‘locked church’ kills any hope of divine intervention. The hospital could very well be a prison and perhaps that is why Larkin ambiguously calls it a building.

The building strips people of their identity and dresses them in ‘washed-to-rags ward clothes’. Now the world seems like the false illusion of a ‘touching dream’ – its loves and chances ‘unreal’. ‘Self protecting ignorance congeal’ the true sense of death and harsh realities realised when ‘in these corridors’. Some may evade death and leave early but ‘others not knowing it’ would have come to join the non-discriminatory ‘unseen congregations whose white rows lie set apart’.

The building’s purpose is to evoke the realisation of a ‘clean sliced cliff’ from which we shall all inevitably fall from. We may use flowers, prayers, confessions to ‘transcend the thought of dying’ but these efforts are ‘wasteful, weak, propitiatory’ unless of course the supernatural or God contravenes. Until then, the nurse beckons us like a grim reaper, summoning us to die. She offers no hope of faint maternal comfort; an idea which would match well with how we were brought into the world. Yet, the nurse approaches with frigidity; she’s doing her job, it’s a chore these days considering the ungodly hours she has to work. Nothing can placate death; it is a guarantee. Perhaps the only choice is to come to terms with this phenomena until the perception of its inescapability morphs into an acceptance of its inevitability.
© 2016 Pia Krishnankutty & springtidevoice. wordpress.com All Rights Reserved

The Thought Fox by Ted Hughes

‘The Thought Fox’ is one of Ted Hughes’s finest poems that holds a deep metaphor for the process of thought. Foxes are sly, stealthy creatures that are often semi-hidden and slinking around; a fitting image for the nature of thought before it enters one’s mind.

Like a ‘midnight moment’s forest’, the poet imagines his head as dark and still, devoid of thought at the moment. Yet, he has a feeling, almost a sixth sense that ‘something else is alive’. He is joined by the ‘clock’s loneliness’ and a ‘blank page’ upon which his fingers move restlessly, waiting for an idea to pen down. He sees ‘no star’ or light of inspiration as yet. ‘Deeper within the darkness’ a thought is buried under layers of his mind, edging ‘more near’ to consciousness and slowly ‘entering the loneliness’.

‘Cold, delicately as the dark snow’, the poet is witness to brief, tentative movements of the thought. The ‘fox’s nose touches twig’ as the first sign of display but the ‘two eyes’ only reveal and retreat in a tease.

From a vague idea, the thought leaves a more tangible, attainable trail of ‘neat prints in the snow’. Cautiously and ‘warily a lame shadow lags’. The thought seems incomplete but with the hope that it will gain momentum into a ‘body that is bold to come’. From a forest full of trees, the poet sees is able to see with more clarity ‘across clearings’ of his mind.

Then, the thought gains texture and colour like a luminescent glow of ‘deepening greenness’. The fox reveals itself ‘brilliantly, concentratedly’. Any frustration he felt before has become worth the patience. He now watches, detached, as the thought comes ‘about its business’ free from his control. Then, with a ‘sudden hot stink’ the thought ‘enters the dark hole’ and swamps his brain. In a moment, it engulfs his mind and he is able to write.

In comparison to wild adventure in his head, nothing has changed in reality; the ‘window is starless still’ and ‘the clock ticks’. The only difference is that the idea was successful as the page has been printed. Thoughts, imagination and even memories stumble through our minds before they reach prominence but why do they do so? The answer is so blatantly biological but Hughes is able to provide such accurate insight into our psyche through verse.

© 2016 Pia Krishnankutty & springtidevoice. wordpress.com All Rights Reserved