Mrs Lazarus – Carol Ann Duffy – Analysis

Mrs Lazarus

I had grieved. I had wept for a night and a day
over my loss, ripped the cloth I was married in
from my breasts, howled, shrieked, clawed
at the burial stones until my hands bled, retched
his name over and over again, dead, dead.

Gone home. Gutted the place. Slept in a single cot,
widow, one empty glove, white femur
in the dust, half. Stuffed dark suits
into black bags, shuffled in a dead man's shoes,
noosed the double knot of a tie around my bare neck,

gaunt nun in the mirror, touching herself. I learnt
the Stations of Bereavement, the icon of my face
in each bleak frame; but all those months
he was going away from me, dwindling
to the shrunk size of a snapshot, going,

going. Till his name was no longer a certain spell
for his face. The last hair on his head
floated out from a book. His scent went from the house.
The will was read. See, he was vanishing
to the small zero held by the gold of my ring.

Then he was gone. Then he was legend, language;
my arm on the arm of the schoolteacher-the shock
of a man's strength under the sleeve of his coat-
along the hedgerows. But I was faithful
for as long as it took. Until he was memory.

So I could stand that evening in the field
in a shawl of fine air, healed, able
to watch the edge of the moon occur to the sky
and a hare thump from a hedge; then notice
the village men running towards me, shouting,

behind them the women and children, barking dogs,
and I knew. I knew by the sly light
on the blacksmith's face, the shrill eyes
of the barmaid, the sudden hands bearing me
into the hot tang of the crowd parting before me.

He lived. I saw the horror on his face.
I heard his mother's crazy song. I breathed
his stench; my bridegroom in his rotting shroud,
moist and dishevelled from the grave's slack chew,
croaking his cuckold name, disinherited, out of his time.

Carol Ann Duffy (1955 -

This is a poem from her book – The World’s Wife.

It is all about grief and CAD is not short in using powerful words in expressing deep grief at the death of a husband. Her words clearly show that the extent of grief is overwhelming. Not to the extent of a suttee. In that case the return to life would be a really dramatic tragedy – if that was a possibility after the burning!

It is obviously based on the Lazzarus account in the Bible but it is a very different Lazarus in her poem in that the return to life is after quite a considerable time period and not the four days of the Bible.

Looking at some of the ways the grief is expressed …

S1 … clawed at the burial stones until my hands bled, retched his name … self-harm is an indication of strong grief, unfortunately in the past in some societies it has been expected of the wife … and the stones parallel the biblical event

S2 … shuffled in a dead man’s shoes, noosed the double knot of a tie around my bare neck … using the clothes of the parted in relation to grief concentrates the emotional tie and there is the suggestion of suicide.

S3 … the icon of my face in each bleak frame … she reduces herself to an icon = an object of uncritical devotion … and herself just a bleak object – framed

S4 … vanishing to the small zero held by the gold of my ring … this is a very original way to state the finalisation of fading grief … the wedding ring becoming a zero

S5 … Then he is gone in the sense that all that mammoth grieving state has been exhausted and he is gone. Her grieving over. And she was faithful for as long as it took.

S6 … Mrs Lazarus is now at peace with herself … in a field absorbed by the beauty of nature – healed, able to watch the edge of the moon occur to the sky – … but not for long!

S7 … she knows intuitively what is behind the raucous crowd as it comes before her … the introduction to the dramatic conclusion of the last stanza.

S8 … his mother would certainly be crazy if alive herself – a second birth of ghastly sight – I heard his mother’s crazy song … the implication being that Mrs Lazarus has equivalent feelings.   That dramatic last line defines his newfound status – croaking his cuckold name, disinherited, out of his time. It is up to the reader to explore the implication – I wonder if family would relish the return of property for example for the will has been read.

But this poem presents serious consideration on situations when a partner dies or becomes dead in the sense that they leave the relationship never to return. But sometimes there are situations when they do return with dramatic effect. For example consider ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ in the Thomas Hardy story.

Till death do us part is a statement of relational adherence. But I think it mainly concerns the way two people are engaged in life in their transactions. There is that personal question of how long to wait before, and if ever, in developing another relationship especially a sexual one. And because of the religious parallel how much does religion play a part in the decision making.

Well the relationship between Mr and Mrs Lazarus might have been very taught although the text seems otherwise from the Mrs Lazarus point of view. But I doubt if Mr Lazarus would consider Till death do us part in a literal sense. After all the chances of finding another partner look exceedingly bleak for he is bereft of all his possessions and didn’t quite look that attractive!

There is a little bit of humour evident in the poem albeit of a black nature. You must admire the colourful way CAD uses her poetic skills in the build up to the last two stanzas.

Carol Ann Duffy relinquished her role as UK Poet Laureate in May 2019 when Simon Armitage took over.

Carol Ann Duffy on Wikipedia

In the Valley of Cauteretz – Tennyson

In the Valley of Cauteretz
All along the valley, stream that flashest white,
Deepening thy voice with the deepening of the night,
All along the valley, where thy waters flow,
I walked with one I loved two and thirty years ago.
All along the valley, while I walked today,
The two and thirty years were a mist that rolls away ;
For all along the valley, down thy rocky bed,
Thy living voice to me was as the voice of the dead,
And all along the valley, by rock and cave and tree,
The voice of the dead was a living voice to me.
Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809 – 1892)

Tennyson went to the Pyrenees with Arthur Hallam in 1830. This was his favourite valley. Hallam was a very close friend from days at Trinity College Cambridge. Hallam died of a stroke at the age of 22. This had a profound effect on Tennyson and resulted in one of his most memorable of poems ‘In Memoriam’.

Tennyson went to this valley again in 1861. And at the time of his birthday around 6 August Tennyson composed these lines. He wrote the piece ‘after hearing the voice of the torrent seemingly grow deeper as the night grew’. And he said afterwards that ‘I like the little piece as well as anything I have written’.

This is a poem about memory and grief and how personal association can trigger a deep emotional response. He again heard the voice of his dead friend albeit a mind voice. And he was back again when he was first walking with Hallam in the valley – ‘the two and thirty years were a mist that rolls away’.

How do you handle those golden moments of life that assail the mind long after their initial impact? They are precious and a handy resource … for use in meditation perhaps … or any time when you are low and need a lift. A case of distilling the essence from life experience to hold for spiritual sustenance. Hopefully a relive of joy and peace as day to day life continues.

Note … Tennyson appreciated nature. He was an avid walker and at one stage while in Cornwall walked 10 miles each day for ten consecutive days. The poem also poses the question on how the natural environment communicates with us. A background to our definition.

Tennyson became Poet Laureate after Wordsworth.

Alfred Lord Tennyson on Wikipedia – Alfred, Lord Tennyson – Wikipedia

Donal Og – Lady Augusta Gregory – Comments

Donal Og (young Donal)

It is late last night the dog was speaking of you;
the snipe was speaking of you in her deep marsh.
It is you are the lonely bird through the woods;
and that you may be without a mate until you find me.

You promised me, and you said a lie to me,
that you would be before me where the sheep are flocked;
I gave a whistle and three hundred cries to you,
and I found nothing there but a bleating lamb.

You promised me a thing that was hard for you,
a ship of gold under a silver mast;
twelve towns with a market in all of them,
and a fine white court by the side of the sea.

You promised me a thing that is not possible,
that you would give me gloves of the skin of a fish;
that you would give me shoes of the skin of a bird;
and a suit of the dearest silk in Ireland.

When I go by myself to the Well of Loneliness,
I sit down and I go through my trouble;
when I see the world and do not see my boy,
he that has an amber shade in his hair.

It was on that Sunday I gave my love to you;
the Sunday that is last before Easter Sunday
and myself on my knees reading the Passion;
and my two eyes giving love to you for ever.

My mother has said to me not to be talking with you today,
or tomorrow, or on the Sunday;
it was a bad time she took for telling me that;
it was shutting the door after the house was robbed.

My heart is as black as the blackness of the sloe,
or as the black coal that is on the smith’s forge;
or as the sole of a shoe left in white halls;
it was you put that darkness over my life.

You have taken the east from me, you have taken the west from me;
you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;
you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me;
and my fear is great that you have taken God from me!

Anonymous (8th century Irish ballad)
Translated by Lady Augusta Gregory

From WikipediaIsabella Augusta, Lady Gregory was an Irish dramatist, folklorist and theatre manager. With William Butler Yeats and Edward Martyn, she co-founded the Irish Literary Theatre and the Abbey Theatre, and wrote numerous short works for both companies.

From the Guardian
The translation from the Gaelic leaves much of the original’s grammatical structure in place, giving her English remarkable energy

Well, in the 8th century a woman needed a man for financial support and a living apart from love getting in the way.

And it is the same old story of a lover promising the world and the beloved half believing through misty eyes. The promises detailed in terms of agricultural life – that you would be before me where the sheep are flocked. And she giving three hundred cries and none were heard. She knew his promises were meaningless – you promised me a thing that is not possible. But did that matter? Lovers are generally  prone to be forgiving of the faults in others.

And religion joins forces with her passion it being Passion Sunday the day she gave herself to him and to him forever – my two eyes giving love to you for ever.

She is in deep depression at the loss of love; the loss of him – it was you put that darkness over my life.

The counsel of her mother was too late – it was a bad time she took for telling me that; / it was shutting the door after the house was robbed.

That last line brings in religion again – and my fear is great that you have taken God from me! Perhaps she believes that if she does commit suicide God would be taken from her. And perhaps she is feeling suicidal. Commit is not the word to use today in that association.

This lament is the story of love, grief and despair which flows endless through the centuries.

Eavan Boland – Tribute – ‘And Soul’

 

Irish poet Eavan Boland died at the end of April at the age of 75 from a stroke. Born in Dublin in 1944, Eavan Boland is one of the foremost female voices in Irish literature. She created a much needed female balance to Irish poetry on the same level as Yeats and Heaney.

She was known for documenting women’s lives, including their domestic lives. Her work covered the role of women in Irish history and culture. She received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Irish Book Awards in 2017 for what was described as her art, her eloquence and her stalwart advocacy for poetry.

Her first collection of poems was published when she was still a student and she went on to have a long career as a poet, editor and teacher. In recent years, she divided her time between Ireland the US. She was Professor of English and director of the creative writing programme at Stanford University.

For more information

A link to a tribute to Eavan Boland

A link to Wikipedia


I have chosen the following poem because it reflects her love of Dublin and gives her personal thoughts as she drove through wet weather to visit her dying mother. The Liffey is the river that flows through Dublin.

And Soul

My mother died one summer –
the wettest in the records of the state.
Crops rotted in the west.
Checked tablecloths dissolved in back gardens.
Empty deckchairs collected rain.
As I took my way to her
through traffic, through lilacs dripping blackly
behind houses
and on curbsides, to pay her
the last tribute of a daughter, I thought of something
I remembered
I heard once, that the body is, or is
said to be, almost all water and as I turned southward, that ours is a
city of it,
one in which
every single day the elements begin
a journey towards each other that will never,
given our weather,
fail –
the ocean visible in the edges cut by it,
cloud colour reaching into air,
the Liffey storing one and summoning the other,
salt greeting the lack of it at the North Wall and,
as if that wasn’t enough, all of it
ending up almost every evening
inside our speech –
coast canal ocean river stream and now
mother and I drove on and although
the mind is unreliable in grief, at
the next cloudburst, it almost seemed
they could be shades of each other,
the way the body is
of every one of them and now
they were on the move again – fog into mist,
mist into sea spray and both into the oily glaze
that lay on the railings of
the house she was dying in
as I went inside.

Eavan Boland (1944 – 2020)

Quite clearly it is a soaking wet city and enforces the Ireland rain connection to the mind. But it does give a shadowy grey dismal emotive background associated with pending death.

It is interesting for it is almost as if she connects the unending rain with her mother as if there is a transference or absorption – ‘it almost seems they could be the shades of each other, / the way the body is’. This reflection is readily accessible by the reader and her thoughts obviously dominated by having to journey through the city in wet weather and it being the wettest summer ever.

The title ‘And Soul’ is thought provoking. My thoughts are that ‘soul’ is always secondary and latent, if you like behind everything and in this case very much behind this personal experience when driving in the rain. 

This poem contrasts with my previous Post of Wallace Steven’s poem ‘The Snow Man’ where a different transference is involved and where words need much thought.

RIP – absorbed in Ireland beautiful.

Demain, dès l’aube – Victor Hugo

Demain, dès l’aube

Demain, dès l’aube, à l’heure où blanchit la campagne,
Tomorrow, at dawn, at the hour when the countryside whitens,
Je partirai. Vois-tu, je sais que tu m’attends.
I will depart. You see, I know you wait for me.
J’irai par la forêt, j’irai par la montagne.
I will go through the forest and over the mountains.
Je ne puis demeurer loin de toi plus longtemps.
I cannot stay far from you any longer.

Je marcherai les yeux fixés sur mes pensées,
I will trudge on, my eyes fixed on my thoughts,
Sans rien voir au dehors, sans entendre aucun bruit,
Ignoring everything around me, without hearing a sound,
Seul, inconnu, le dos courbé, les mains croisées,
Alone, unknown, back stooped, hands crossed,
Triste, et le jour pour moi sera comme la nuit.
Saddened, and the day will be like night for me.

Je ne regarderai ni l’or du soir qui tombe,
I will neither see the golden glow of the falling evening,
Ni les voiles au loin descendant vers Harfleur,
Nor the sails going down to Harfleur in the distance,
Et quand j’arriverai, je mettrai sur ta tombe
And when I arrive, I will place on your tomb
Un bouquet de houx vert et de bruyère en fleur.
A bouquet of green holly and flowering heather.

Victor Hugo (1802 – 1885)

This is one of French writer Victor Hugo’s most famous poems. It was published in his 1856 collection Les Contemplations

Harfleur – was the principal seaport in north-western France for six centuries, until Le Havre was built about five kilometres downstream. The suffix fleur comes from Old Norse Flöthe meaning ‘estuary or arm of the sea’ – and not flower. The precise meaning of the prefix “har” is unknown.

It was written after the death of his daughter. A fully focused personal journey of communion. It is a very moving poem.

Here is a reading of the french with a musical background.

I took the translation from the internet. I would prefer some less literal minor changes … for example, in the last stanza –

I will neither see the golden glow of falling evening,
nor the sails going down in the distance at Harfleur,
and when I arrive, I will place on your grave
a bouquet of green holly and heather in flower.

However, I do love the french and nothing can equal the beauty of the original language.

Victor Hugo on Wikipedia … he will always be remembered for Les Miserables

The Afternoon Sun – C P Cavafy – Analysis

The Afternoon Sun

This room, how well I know it.
Now they’re renting it, and the one next to it,
as offices. The whole house has become
an office building for agents, businessmen, companies.

This room, how familiar it is.

The couch was here, near the door,
a Turkish carpet in front of it.
Close by, the shelf with two yellow vases.
On the right—no, opposite—a wardrobe with a mirror.
In the middle the table where he wrote,
and the three big wicker chairs.
Beside the window the bed
where we made love so many times.

They must still be around somewhere, those old things.

Beside the window the bed;
the afternoon sun used to touch half of it.

. . . One afternoon at four o’clock we separated
for a week only. . . And then—
that week became forever.

C P Cavafy (1863 – 1933)
translated by E Keeley

I liked this poem on a first reading. The last stanza had a poignancy that only comes from an intimate personal separation. Grief is rekindled by returning to a house and entering a specific room known well from years ago.

Looking at each stanza and the structure of the poem …

S1 – The first sentence tells it all – this room is significant. And the rest of the stanza states what unfortunately has happened to the house.

S2 – This one line stanza returns to the room, and the poet’s familiarity. It has its own space making the one line stand out in thought. We can imagine the person standing at the open door looking into the room and the emotive response as memories flood back.

S3 – Then what follows is a detailed description of how the room used to be – every item gradually brought to the forefront of memory compared to the new look of the room. And then the significant last sentence, remembering the bed near the window where love took place.

S4 –A one line reflection thinking about the items in the room and what happened to them. Time has taken away physical things as well as emotional loss. Again the one line has space making it stand out in thought.

S5 – The bed has now become the main focus of the poem, and how the sunlight played on half of it. Sunlight has wonderful associations and so to the bed of course. And we can imagine the scene without the need for specifics. And the fact that the sun only touched half of the bed just as coming back only touches part of the original experience.

S6 – And then that poignant statement of the partial separation that became the forever. There is no need for any explanation on why this has happened. The reader can bring to mind his or her own personal experience of intimate loss. So both reader and poet share an emotional intensity.

I like the way this poem is structured as the reader walks-through an instant in life. It is a poem of place as well as grief and memory. The poet goes back to a place of great significance. And when we do this we take our time to absorb the new environment holding the image of the past in the mind as a reference. This is why I like the two one line stanzas because they create a sort of time delay in the reading of the event as it unfolds.

For interest, here is a clip of a sung version of this poem in Greek by Yannis Petritsis. It  might bring an emotional response akin to that experienced from reading the poem. (There are subtitles in English.)

C P Cavafy was an Egyptiot Greek poet, journalist and civil servant. He is one of the most important figures in Greek poetry, and in Western poetry. His poems are, typically, concise but intimate evocations of real or literary figures and milieu that have played roles in Greek culture. Uncertainty about the future, sensual pleasures, the moral character and psychology of individuals, homosexuality, and a fatalistic existential nostalgia are some of his defining themes. He was a perfectionist, obsessively refining every single line of his poetry. He left 155 poems plus more that were incomplete. His mature style was a free iambic form, free in the sense that verses rarely rhyme and are usually from 10 to 17 syllables. In his poems, the presence of rhyme usually implies irony.

And more on C P Cavafy fom Wikipedia

I must add as a follow-up that there is a time to move on and look to the future, hard as it might be. And although the world is changing rapidly fast, the new-all-different tomorrow will always provide opportunities to enrich us with joy.

 

The Mower – Philip Larkin – Analysis

The Mower

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling I found
A hedgehog jammed against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably, Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

Philip Larkin (1922 – 1985)

Unmendably – unamendable

We looked at this poem at our U3A Poetry Appreciation Session. The importance of the punctuation was mentioned in any reading of the poem. And comments were made on the word unmendably this being the central word of the poem – when something happens that can never be mended and in this case due to an innocent accident.

And immediate grief is defined so eloquently in that opening line of the third stanza – Next morning I got up and it did not. It is the absence of presence, the empty space that is so hard to accept. There is such irony in the words – is always the same when of course the whole point is that it is not the same but will always be different.

An interesting discussion ensued on whether the last two lines were needed and perhaps the poem should have ended after the third stanza. Is the enjambment after-thought really needed? And after all PL was not unkind to the hedgehog, in fact he was quite kind and used to feed it. Perhaps he is thinking of a human relationship where he would not like to see a sudden death and where he owed that person a little kindness and some mending needed.

Philip Larkin on Wikipedia.

In Memory of Basil, Marquess of Dufferin and Ava – John Betjeman

In Memory of Basil, Marquess of Dufferin and Ava

On such a morning as this
with the birds ricocheting their music
Out of the whelming elms
to a copper beech’s embrace
And a sifting sound of leaves
from multitudinous branches
Running across the park
to a chequer of light on the lake,
On such a morning as this
with ‘The Times’ for June the eleventh
Left with coffee and toast
you opened the breakfast-room window
And, sprawled on the southward terrace,
said: “That means war in September.”

Friend of my youth, you are dead!
and the long peel pours from the steeple
Over this sunlit quad
in our University city
And soaks in Headington stone.
Motionless stand the pinnacles.
Under a flying sky
as though they too listened and waited
Like me for your dear return
with a Bullingdon nose of an evening
In a Sports-Bugatti from Thame
that belonged to a man in Magdelen.
Friend of my youth you are dead!
and the quads are empty without you.

Then there were people about.
Each hour, like and Oxford archway,
Opened on long green lawns
and distant unvisited buildings
And you my friend were explorer
and so you remained to me always
Humorous, reckless, loyal –
my kind heavy-lidded companion.
Stop, oh many bells, stop
pouring on roses, and creeper
Your unremembering peal
this hollow, unhallowed V. E. Day, –
I am deaf to your notes and dead
by a soldier’s body in Burma.

John Betjeman (1906 – 1984)

From 1945 Poems ‘New Bats, And old Belfries’

Marquess – a nobleman ranking between a duke and an earl.
Headington stone is a limestone from the Headington Quarry area of Oxford
V.E. Day – 8 May 1945 – Victory in Europe
The Bullingdon Club – the notorious all-male Oxford University dining club.
Sports-Bugatti – a rather nice sports-car

Basil Sheridan Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, 4th Marquess of Dufferin and Ava died on 25 March 1945 at age 35 at Burma, killed in action. He was educated at Eton College, Windsor, Berkshire, England and at Balliol College, Oxford University. He was an intimate contemporary friend of John Betjeman. He was exceptionally talented and led an extrodinary life.

If, in the first stanza, the poem relates to an image of life on 11 June 1939 then Basil would have been 29 years old and John Betjeman a little older. Clearly they were staying together perhaps near Oxford. The opening of a breakfast window to a beautiful June summer morning reminds me of the opening words of Mrs Dalloway. These words portray a lazy carefree picture of upper-class life. The last line is important in making the contrast link to the pending war which is about to complete destroy this somewhat idealistic picture of England.

JB’s Oxford life is the backdrop of his memory to times with his friend. And he awaits the return of his friend as a he once did when waiting for him to turn up at the Bullingdon Club in a dashing sport car. The bells are ringing out from the steeple and we find out in the last stanza that it is V. E. Day a day of celebration but it is a hollow unhallowed day because JB lost his close friend in the war in March. And the cry goes out to Stop, oh many bells, stop.

JB did not make friends easily but he did he lavish affection upon old friends. In this personal elegy we see him share his deep feelings in the words of this poem.

John Betjeman was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1972 until his death.

JB on Wikipedia