Category Archives: Poetry

Philip Larkin – Poems (1955-1974)

Larkin, along with Amis, Conquest, Gunn, and others, were a group post-war authors christened “The Movement.” Conquest described their mantra as “little more than a negative determination to avoid bad principles,” which is an obvious continuation of Auden’s project: the destruction of error. Larkin’s paired down lyricism–a lyric stunted by discontent and a hyper-active reality principle–is clear in the tight but flexible verse forms, often with minute variations that do not draw attention to themselves. Ironically, Kingsley Amis’s rollicking Lucky Jim  was partially inspired by Larkin’s life, which points to the forms of severe restraint imposed on the expression of emotion–not so much fro the sake of restraint (a la Eliot and Pound) but because of the realization that lyric expressiveness is hollow.

This marks out his difference with Auden. Auden never attempts the honest transparency of Larkin’s expressive attempts (failing not because, like Prufrock, he cannot find the words and take the action, but because he finds the words and they still fail to matter), but holds in secret an identity protected at all costs from systems that might otherwise subsume it. Auden puts the self in question, but in secret: Larkin’s self-deprecation stages this questioning as it central image.

“Church Going” (1955) is a poem about, the way churches (synecdoche for institutional religion) no longer function to unify the basic stages of human life–birth, marriage, death–but how humans till return to these hollowed out skeletons compelled by the sense of a lost unity that needs repair. The speaker stops as a tourist, and failing to be satisfied as a tourists, asks, “What remains when disbelief is gone?” What stands between belief and unbelief? A difference worthy of Hardy poem–the speaker, like the one in Hap, Darkling Thrush and Neutral Tones, yearns for a substantial system that he can negate….but to no avail. Yet something very much like an objective “neediness of the world” (Adorno) persists over and above individual loss of faith:

And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to  be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie around.

If Church Going is commenting on a contemporary lack, then “MCMXIV” (1964), which translates into 1914, pinpoints the loss of innocence as World War I: “Never such innocence again,” the poem closes. The opening line, “Those long uneven lines,” refers to the lines of men waiting to be conscripted, which doubles etymologically with the act of writing itself (script). Throughout Larkin, this sense of lost innocence is repeated again and again; it correlates with the loss of structures that would order everyday activity. So, for instance, “The Importance of Elsewhere,” comments on the difficulty of ascending to an objective viewpoint in relation to “customs and establishments.” In England, “no elsewhere underwrites my existence.” The impossibility of appeal to something beyond.

In “High Windows” (1974), Larkin attempts to link the current generation of youth’s attempts to mark out its own possibilities and opportunities (the sexual revolution of the sixties) to his generation’s attempt to escape the dread of religion. But the particularity of these two experiences, divided by thirty years, cannot be related, or sublated into a universal idea that would explain how each generation acts. The entrance of the lyric voice in the fifth stanza is empty:

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows,
The sun-comprehending grass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

The fiction of the lyric. The deep blue does not connect with broader network of religious symbolism, but merely signifies the lack of representation all together (shows nothing). “Sun-comprehending grass” marks out a pathetic fallacy for the 20th century.




T.S. Eliot – The Four Quartets (1936-41)

Ongoing post:

Frist the title–each poem is a quartet, but the whole thing is also a quartet of sorts. If the whole thing is a quartet, then the “four” is tautologous. Throughout the poem, Eliot will play with tautology, equivalence and difference: ends are beginnings, etc. Also, the “quartets” have five parts each, like the Waste Land. Could the think of the larger four as subsuming the individual fives: from synthesis and progress, to symmetry and order, etc.

Burnt Norton

“All time is unredeemable”: what “might have been” can only be registered as an echo in the rose garden–the past, present and future are one solid whole, which we cannot comprehend, but that nevertheless determines our existence. Past and Future press so hard one on the other that there is room “for little consciousness.” The presentness has a spatial analog–the stillness in the midst of a swirling world. This limited epistemological envelop comprises the limits of our language: poetry, for Eliot, is always too late, and words, once established, will never stay. Art, in other words, is subject to the processes of life and decay that our bodies are subject to.

East Coker

A more earthy section, that talks about seasons while trying out various styles of poetry (Olde English, Vorticists) before admitting that these are all just attempts that always fail. Living “entre les deux-geurres,” Eliot claims that every attempt at poety is a new and fresh attempt bereft of former accomplishments–“a raid on the inarticulate with shabby equipment.” Curious, given the resonance of  The Waste Land throughout. The past, even if does not stay put as a tool for use, reamins that from which we cannot escape even as we continue to lose it.

The Dry Salvages

Draws attention to the changes of the human–not the same when they leave the station, etc. Focuses on image sof water and the sea. Despite being composed while being bombed, the poem is surprisingly hopeful. Connect imagery of boat and drowning to the the “Death by Water” section (the poem that wasn’t written), but also to the image of the boat guided by the craftsman at the end of the Waste Land.

Little Gidding

Circularity and fire are brought together in this final poem, that connects with imagery from Burnt Norton. The image of stillness in the middle of a circulating world is born out as paradigmatic poetic practice. it maintains the tension that runs throughout the poem: between time utterly lost and time redeemed, etc.


humility of thought (cf. Heidegger)

stillness in circle (cf. Yeats)

circular exploration (cf. Molloy)

inter-penetration of the seasons (cf. The Waste Land)

experimental nature of all language (M-P, Ulysses, early modernism)

the little space for consciousness (between past and present)



W.H. Auden – Poems (1929-1948)

“It was Easter as I walked in the public gardens” (October 1929)

Nice analog to the image of Spring as it appears in Eliot (“April is the cruelest month…”). Here Easter is associated with a time of creation, finding altering lines for altering things…the tautological nature of verse is a theme that will run throughout Auden’s poetry (“Poetry makes nothing happen…”). He sees a man like the embryo of a chicken (cf. startling image in Prufrock that disrupts love song, here the elegy is interrupted by the presence of that which is to be mourned). This reminds him of the death that is necessary for this season. A weird line, but one that calls the bluff of war propaganda (connect with Wilfred Owen). The images of decline focus on Oxford (cf. Waugh and all the stuff on I.A. Richards, Quiller-Couch, Empson, etc.). Auden ratchets up the stasis of something like the Wasteland opening, with compressed, abstract gerunds:

Coming out of me living is always thinking,
Thinking changing and changing living,
And feeling as it was seeing.

This a doubled-edged move, as it equalizes the processes of living, thinking, changing, etc. How is anything new produced in this plane of equality? Auden begins to intimate a negative, regulative function for poetry (a poetry of resistance and durability). “Home, a place Where no tax is levied for being there.” His idealized utopia can only be articulated by way of comparison (connect to Auden’s exile, and also to Eliot’s Unreal). Auden’s poetics could be described: “It is time for the destruction of error.” His poetry wants to communicate, clearly. And such destruction includes “the death of the old gang,” which becomes a part of a seasonal metabolic process (imaged as grain…connect to the fields of wheat in “I walked out one evening”).

“As I walked out one evening” (November 1937)

A love poem. Told in ballad style: abcb. The “I” hears another “I” proclaim a love song under an arch of the railway. Already, that the folks on Bristol street are “fields of wheat” intimate that TIME’s scythe  will be making an appearance.  The clocks in the city say: “You cannot conquer time….Time watches from the shadow and coughs when you would kiss.” For Auden, this isn’t just the individual human aging, but the grand forces of time penetrating the everyday: “The glacier knocks in the cupboard.” Despite these realities the poem introduces a great theme of Auden’s: a commitment to the everyday despite its misery: “Life remains a blessing Although you cannot bless….You shall love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart.”

“Musée des Beaux Arts” (December 1938)

Auden is looking at the Icarus painting by Breughel and thinking about how great human suffering is just one small part of a larger world of daily activity. Most often, people don’t recognize the great tragedies [Connect with Lukács].

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window
or just walking dully along.

Note the long prosaic line, characteristic of Auden’s expository predilections (at times). He writes in all sorts of styles, not because he wants to idealize a past, or transmit the impulse of the past (Pound); rather, all these styles are simply tools available for the master craftsman (like Pound in this way). The diminution of the tragic can be read as a critique of Yeats. “Terrible beauty” and the slouching “rough beast” get transformed into a “miraculous birth” that no one registers, and others would prefer not to happen. A horse scratches its butt on a tree [think of this poem as a combination of Easter 1916 and Crazy Jane put together (house of excrement, etc.)]. The legs of Icarus are imaged as “white legs” in “green water,” a sort of generic abstraction of colors devoid of meaning, a flat, uncreative phenomenology.

“In Memory of W.B. Yeats” (January 1939)

Against the pathetic fallacy (cf. Browning on “Porphyria’s Lover” ?? and Ruskin, of course). In short, Yeats dies and it we know it was a cold day, not because of poetry or other forms of representation, but because of instruments like barometers and thermometers that can measure tese objectie conditions. [Interesting to talk about in term sof the scientific metaphors of Eliot, Woolf, etc.]

O all the instruments agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Auden imagines Yeats as his words become digested by his admirers (modified in the guts of the living)…in connection to Pound’s worries over Gaudier-Brezka’s relation to posterity. Yeats, in short, has nto changed much with his poetry; he hasn’t solved the epistemological problems staged in the wasteland [And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom]. The second section slides into pretty strict hexameter, a dramatic shift from the prosodic lines of the opening stanzas. Auden does say that poetry makes nothing happen, but, instead, “it survives In the valley of its saying where executives Would never want to tamper….it survives, A way of happening, a mouth.”  Poetry as RESISTANCE. Talk about in terms of Schiller and Bergson and Arendt.


“In Praise of  Limestone” (1948)

Good example of Auden’s syllabic structuring: 13 syllables, with varying accentual patterns. Lots of enjambment, little rhyme, making this poem very expository. Can be read as a pastoral of sorts, but one that does not place a golden landscape in a receding, hazy past: “examine this region of short distances and definite places.” He is talking about the Mediterranean, the limestone is built up over time, organically, and dissolves quickly because of the calcium deposits. This transience, fluidity, carelessness is contrasted to the Northern cities of England and Germany, associated with destruction and violence:

…accustomed to a stone that responds,
They have never had to veil their faces in awe
Of a crater whose blazing fury could not be fixed.

The theme of sculpture is also played throughout, with reference to Greek sculptures, that somehow mock the poet that confines himself to the “antimythological” tautologies of Auden’s earlier poems, which is associated here with scientist dissecting Nature’s remotest aspects (a Romantic turn?). The religious turn in the end seeks to sublimate God within a realistic vision–sorta like Kafka’s “there is hope, but not for us.” The murmuring of the underground streams picks up the murmuring river at the end of “I walked out on evening.” displacing even more the “stream” of creativity that somehow remains constant (but inaccessible).

Yeats – General Comments and Themes

Ongoing Post


Standard narrative: early period characterized as Irish national visionary, writing himself into a mythic past, writing Ballads, etc. Dressed as an old Irish king whose harp is broken..wandering in the woods, etc. This lure of the aesthetic withdraw, dangerous but irresistible, is rejected because of Yeats’ growing sensibility of the political exigencies of his day. He starts to write in a leaner, colder, more pessimistic style: the “heroic realist.” [But a comparison of Aengus and Fisherman shows something closer to a mere exchange of symbols: one for another. The Fisherman does not exist] Late Yeats is characterized by growing doubts about the efficacy of art and the worries that come with old age. There is a return to Irishness, but in the form of a senile peasant.

Relation to Modernism. Can be seen as a reactionary of sorts. “A Coat” can be seen as both a rejection of his former baroque style, but also of the public that failed to appreciate it. His new style will have a “nakedness” and a “coldness” that is still elite and symbolic. The “terrible beauty” of “Easter 1916” is, well, both terrifying and beautiful. Like the isolated Fergus, Aengus and Fisherman, Yeats imagines his own withdraw from and responsibility to a public that is “changed utterly.” He does not change, but his relationship to them does. The final stanza of Easter 1916 positions the poet as mother that has a duty to the particularity of historical violence. However, this is an aestheticization of violence.

The Occult in Yeats: Wandering Aengus and The Second Coming.


Can track certain images:

– Easter 1916 (makes the heart a stone)
– Circus Animals Desertion (faul rag and bone shop of the heart)

– Wandering Aengus (trout turns into beautiful girl that flees)
– The Fisherman (glorified Irish peasantry)
– Sailing to Byzantium (species and cycles of birth and death: the slamon falls, the mackerel crowded seas)
– Circus Animal Desertion (a wholesale subversion of animal tropes)

Birds (and the abruption of the divine into human history)
– Wild Swans at Coole
-Leda and the Swan
– Second Coming

Helen (Maud Gonne)
– No Second Troy
– September 1913
– Among School Children

– Wandering Aengus
– The Fisherman

Christina Rossetti – “Goblin Market” (1875)

Tells the story of two sisters, the elder Lizzie and the younger Laura. Laura is tempted by the Goblin’s trying to sell her a bunch of exotic fruits. Lizzie holds her back but can only do so for a little while. Laura sells her hair for some fruits, but then cannot quench her appetite and the goblins disappear. She pines away. The goblins return but only Lizzie can hear or see them. To help her sister, she tries to buy some fruit, but the Goblins will only sell it to her if she eats it. They try to force-feed hear and the smashed fruits gets all over her face. They return her penny and she goes to let Laura lick her face. But the taste is bitter. She flies into convulsions and almost dies. But she recovers. Surprise! Both sisters eventually marry, bearing their own “fruit,” to whom they tell the story of the nasty goblin merchants.

Rossetti is obviously worried about the market. Part of the problem is that it is impossible merely to taste–since taste is always already implicated in a cycle of appetite that cannot be quenched on the terms set by the market. Laura becomes listless, yes, but also voracious. Can think of this as a rewriting of the Lotos-Eaters. While males can taste the pleasures of the market and afford to not work, women, in order to taste those pleasures, must bear the burden of labor that is the precondition of something like the male aesthetic dimension.

The eating of fruit as violation of the aesthetic dimension.

Contrasting figures of Eve and Mary. How does Rossetti solve the antinomy of female sexuality: portrayed as always-already fallen but require to be completely pure nevertheless. How does this connect with the discourse of the secret and with purity and virginity more broadly (in Hardy, Brontës, etc.)


Dante Gabriel Rossetti – The Blessed Damozel (1850)

The blessed Damozel leaned out
From the gold bar of heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters stilled at even;
She had three lilies in her hand,
And the stars in her were seven.

The opening stanza sets out many of the major tensions that will frame the rest of the poem: between heaven and earth, depth and surface, stasis and motion. One can think of the gold bar as having a reference to the gold standard that England had recently adopted in 1844–as a universal metric for literal exchange, it allows for the figural exchange between these various oppositions. Indeed, the painting “The Blessed Damozel’ has a gold bar running right through the middle of it, separating the flattened portrait of the lady (a face that according to Christina Rossetti was exchangeable with all of the other portraits in Dante’s studio because he only used one or two models) with the ostentatious depth of the “squashed” scene on the bottom.

144 lines in 24 six-inch stanzas. The striking symmetry of the poem itself rides the line between perfection and pure exchangeability. This is of course what Adorno has to say about the artwork as the ultimate or super-commodity–that which is universal and universally exchangeable.

Time: It seems to the Damozel that she has been in heaven for only a day, which is somehow the same as thousands of years. On earth, of course, time is felt.

The language is meant to be simple and natural, an application of pre-Raphaelite principles to poetry. it therefore verges on the sentimental.

In the final stanza, the speaker uses parentheses to insert his factual declaration of sensation: I saw her smile, I heard her tears. That this enters parenthetically points to subordination of these sensory aspects to a form that flattens sensation, impression, reflection, etc. Sensation would rupture the poetic contract that keeps the real and the aesthetic in two distinct realms.

Gerard Manley Hopkins – Poems

Hopkins died before most of his poems were published. Not until 1918 did his friend Robert Bridges come out with an edition that includes what are considered his greatest works, those written between 1876 and his death in 1889. In the Preface to that collection, Hopkins described the difference between running rhythm (common rhythm) and sprung rhythm–the latter being more natural because closer to speech–it is identifiable by stresses coming together. Pure sprung rhythm cannot be counterpointed. The claim for its naturalness derives from the argument that the impulse (in all but the most “same and tame” poems) to invert and vary something like iambic pentameter eventually leads to sprung rhythm.

The most sustained example is “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” a poem comprised of 35 8-line stanzas, with alternating rhymes, and varying length. In the fifth stanza he introduces the crucial idea of instress, which is able to translate in its wholeness the “inscape“: that which makes some individual thing beautiful:

Since, tho’ he is under the world’s splendour and wonder,
His mystery must be instressed, stressed;
For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.

The poem as a whole is a meditation on the experience and meaning (perhaps lack of meaning) of divine violence. He correlates the inexplicable wreckage of a ship full of nuns with the brutal ascetic requirements of religious devotion:

Thous art lightning and love, I found it, a winter and warm;
Father and fondler of heart thou hast wrung:
Hast thy dark descending and most art merciful then.

The syntactical intensity of the poem is literally compounded by an overflow of hyphenated words–flint-flack, black-backed, white-fiery, whirlwind-swiveled all from stanza 13perhaps miming the “make words break from me here all alone” in stanza 18. The poet wonders whether all of this violence (aesthetic, physical, historical) is somehow perversely pleasing to God, likening it a “harvest.” The concluding stanzas show his indebtedness to the aesthetic theories of Walter Pater, but in Hopkins they are rendered overtly religious:

Now burn, new burn to the world
Double-natured name
The heaven-flung, heart-fleshed, maiden-furled
Mid-numbered he in three of the thunder-throne.

Pretty stunning stuff. Talk about Christ, the notion of failure as success and the connection between religious and aesthetic sacrifice.

“God’s Grandeur” is a Petrarchan sonnet that works out the triple-implication of the first line, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God“: economic, imperative, electric. Hopkins bemoans “trade” which seems to overdraw its account by extracting to much “oil” from the “soil.” The wonderful line–“Generations have trod, have trod, have trod“– syntactically mirrors the sort of repetitive nature of man’s dependence on natural resources. Despite this greed, “nature is never spent.” It remains charged with grandeur, and we are charged to recognize it as such.

“Pied Beauty” contrasts the variety of God’s creativity with the homogenizing drive of human work, “plotted and pieced.” The form of the poem: 10 1/2 lines or a Curtal-sonnet acc. to the Preface. Like the full sonnet, it attempts a fusion of opposites, but in condensed form: listing off binaries–swift, slow; sweet, sour–before positing a God whose beauty is beyond all change–that is, these variations are able to coexist in nature.

“Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” and “To what serves Mortal Beauty” are two later poems displaying Hopkins at his most experimental. Both have long lines, sometimes twenty syllables, with graphic caesurae in each line. The former ruminates on the forms of destruction wrought by death: in general, the apocalyptic vision is one of division and forgetfulness, “disremembering and dismembering,” which leads to moral and aesthetic reductionism: “black, white; right, wrong.” This leads to an internal, subjective dimension, in which thoughts are turned one against another. Interesting to contrast this world of division to the organic variety (not totalizing) of earth’s natural state. The latter poem answers the title’s question: “See: it does this: keeps warm men’s wits to the things that are.” There is a danger inherent to form, however: “the O-so-seal-that feature” that Hopkins correlates with pride, domination, and the harmful reduction of nature’s infinite variety. He proposes something very much like recessive action: “Merely meet it….then leave, let that alone.”