Notes towards a commentary on Tennyson’s allegory
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92) wrote two versions of ‘The Lady of Shalott’. Tennyson’s poem ‘The Lady of Shalott’ exists as both a 20-stanza poem published in 1832, and the revised version of 19 stanzas – which is the one readers are most familiar with – which was published in 1842. The poem, partly inspired by Arthurian legend (hence the presence of the knight, Lancelot) and partly by the epic sixteenth-century poem The Faerie Queene written by Edmund Spenser, remains popular, although the precise meaning of the poem remains elusive. So, a few words of analysis about this enchanting poem may help to clarify things.
The Lady of Shalott
On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro’ the field the road runs by
To many-tower’d Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott.
Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Thro’ the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot. Read the rest of this entry
A commentary on one of the most famous war poems
‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ or, to give the phrase in full: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, Latin for ‘it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country’ (patria is where we get our word ‘patriotic’ from). The phrase originated in the Roman poet Horace, but in ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) famously rejects this idea. For Owen, who had experienced the horrors of trench warfare and a gas attack, there was nothing sweet, and nothing fitting, about giving one’s life for one’s country. Focusing in particular on one moment in the First World War, when Owen and his platoon are attacked with poison gas, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ is a studied analysis of suffering and perhaps the most famous anti-war poem ever written.
Dulce et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time, Read the rest of this entry
A summary of a classic WWII poem
Keith Douglas (1920-44) described his poetry as ‘extrospective’, a neat coinage designed to dovetail with the more usual introspection of much English poetry. Douglas, who was killed during the invasion of Normandy on 9 June 1944, aged just 24, is now regarded as one of the greatest British poets of the Second World War, and ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ is one of his most celebrated poems.
Three weeks gone and the combatants gone
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.
The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadowing. As we came on
that day, he hit my tank with one
like the entry of a demon.
Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht.
in a copybook gothic script. Read the rest of this entry