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Poems You Should Know

The final part of The Spectator’s Guide to . . . .

The 40 poems you should know

WE’RE BOBBING TOWARD our final destination, where we started, on the Thames — did anyone ever doubt that Shakespeare would meet us there? — and I hope it has been a voyage of pleasure for readers; I know it has been for me. Olivia Cole

Canoe Keith Douglas

Keith Douglas (1920-1944) was only 24 when he was killed during the D-Day invasion of Normandy in June 1944. Perhaps his most famous poem is ‘How to Kill’: ‘Now in my dial of glass appears/ the soldier who is going to die./ He smiles, and moves about in ways/ his mother knows, habits of his. . . Death, like a familiar, hears// And look, has made a man of dust/ of a man of flesh. This sorcery/ I do. Being damned, I am amused/ to see the centre of love diffused/ and the wave of love travel into vacancy./ How easy it is to make a ghost.’

‘Damned’, he takes sides with death, catching in his hand the gun passed his way by fate — a ‘gift designed to kill’ — like he would a ball in a cricket match. It remains a poem for any war. The images of play, childish innocence and familiarity become dreadful in the dehumanising context of war. Both men in the poem are casualties of what’s described. When death comes it is as gentle (and terrifyingly frequent) as the brush of a mosquito on the skin. ‘The weightless mosquito touches/ her tiny shadow on the stone,/ and with how like, how infinite/ a lightness...’ death comes.

Another kind of gentle touch is at the centre of ‘Canoe’, written in the summer of 1940 for Antoinette Beckett, another student at Oxford,

where Douglas was studying. In the shadow of imminent war, and his intention to sign up, it was written about messing around on the Thames, wondering if this summer would be his last. The carefree, pastoral idyll seems too lovely to concede that he might not always be a part of it. It’s a heartbreakingly beautiful poem, as their student punt flows inevitably towards an image of the river Styx. A storm in the future will not be a storm, and the rain, will be a kiss, ‘my spirit touching your mouth lightly’. Tom Paulin finds in Douglas’s use of the word ‘if’, buried again in ‘Iffley’, and in ‘lie’ the poetic ‘ifs’ of the last war — Kipling’s and Rupert Brooke’s ‘If I should die, think only this of me’. If there, given the sad truth of Douglas’s intimations of death, it’s an unbearably sad echo. For her part, the innocent girl by the river went on to be part of the team that broke the Enigma codes.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock T.S. Eliot

Canoe Well, I am thinking this may be my last summer, but cannot lose even a part of pleasure in the old-fashioned art of idleness. I cannot stand aghast at whatever doom hovers in the background; while grass and buildings and the somnolent river, who know they are allowed to last for ever, exchange between them the whole subdued sound of this hot time. What sudden fearful fate can deter my shade wandering next year from a return? Whistle and I will hear and come another evening, when this boat travels with you alone towards Iffley: as you lie looking up for thunder again, this cool touch does not betoken rain; it is my spirit that kisses your mouth lightly.

T.S. Eliot: reaching for the transcendent

J. Alfred Prufrock’s dramatic monologue, written when T.S. Eliot was just 27, is a portrait of thwarted passion and prevarication, with an anti-hero all too aware of his minor role as a spear carrier in life’s play. With his would-be important initials, he entered the literary consciousness.

Waiting for the transcendent, the only images he can find are of desolation or sterility; the evening ‘is spread out against the sky/ like a patient etherised upon a table’. For all his ridiculousness, he’s unforgettably sad too, as he wonders at the futility of it all: ‘I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker’, he says, ‘and in short, I was afraid.’ The big questions are always hanging, but he is always wriggling away, distracted, ‘oh do not ask, what is it’... ‘shall I eat a peach?’ When greatness is near (‘In the room the women come and go...’) he hears of it only second-hand.

Victim of the prosaic nature of modern life, Prufrock (created at a time when Eliot was tortured by his virginity) fuses the thwarted lover with the thwarted poet. ‘That is not it at all,/ That is not what I meant, at all’. Time and again he misses his chance, unable to say ‘just what I mean’. Like a good Victorian, poor old J. Alfred does his best trying to conjure a vision of being all at sea with sublime singing mermaids... but they won’t sing for him. For Eliot (1888-1965) perhaps ‘Prufrock’ represents the impossibility of expressing himself in the old ways of the 19th century.

‘On Margate Sands/ I can connect/ Nothing with nothing...’ he wrote in ‘The Waste Land’ seven years later. The whole poem, like Prufrock who reaches for the transcendent only to fumble with the meaningless, finds the postwar world as hellishly broken. ‘The Waste Land’ contained both the wearying present (for instance, the vision of workers, like Eliot, who worked at Lloyd’s, streaming over London Bridge like the damned) and past losses. The city’s millions of voices are contained, as in the woman in the Fire Sermon: ‘Trams and dusty trees/ Highbury bore me. Richmond and Kew/ Undid me. By Richmond I raised my knees/ Supine on the floor of a narrow canoe.’

By 1920 both Eliot and his first wife were in a breakable state — Vivienne, for her part, never recovering. ‘As for “The Waste Land”, that is a thing of the past so far as I am concerned and I am now feeling toward a new form and style,’ he wrote in 1922. However, in its patchwork of lost idealism, its broken cast of characters and, crucially for modern poetry, its broken narrative, and broken metric forms, it far transcended his own particular cause for bleakness. However he might shrink away, blaming his fragile ‘state of mind’ for the poem, the moment of his greatness had flickered and been embraced, however hard the task.

Prufrock’s sense of what might have been versus his fear of ‘disturbing the universe’ remained a key consideration for Eliot, who rephrased those fears in some of the most moving lines of ‘Four Quartets’, ‘Footfalls echo in the memory/ Down the passage which we did not take/ Towards the door we never opened/ Into the rose-garden. My words echo/ Thus, in your mind.’

Poems You Should Know: Part Three I