|Douglas Dunn's poetry - study guide|
I have written this study guide for students taking GCE Advanced level (AS and A2) courses in English literature, and other comparable literature courses. It is suitable for undergraduates and the general reader who is interested in the study of poetry. This guide was originally written to cover a selection of poems prescribed as a set text for exam, but can be used as a way in to the study of Douglas Dunn's poems generally. The poems considered explicitly here are these:
All these poems are available in Douglas Dunn's Selected Poems, 1964-1983 published by Faber, 1986; ISBN 0571146201. On an Advanced level course you should study your chosen text (here a range of poems) in very close detail. In preparing for an exam you need to learn to see the whole wood, as well as look at individual trees. If you wish to obtain copies of Douglas Dunn's poetry collections, please use the links below to purchase from Amazon.com (United States) or Amazon.co.uk (Britain).
In writing about the poems, you will be expected to show a general knowledge of the content of all pieces which are relevant to the subject of your essay, while being able to examine in detail a smaller number of poems (which may or may not be specified by the examiners). It is common for you to be invited to make your own choice of suitable poems, but it sometimes happens that the examiners will specify one title.
It may be convenient to think of the selection in two halves (Elegies and the rest) and this division may be reflected in the two essay questions in an exam. It is not, though, a hard and fast division: Envoi and Courting go well with the poems in Elegies, for instance. It may be wise, therefore, to consider the poems by subject or theme. Past questions have asked students to look at three particular ideas in relation to the text:
One might also be ready to consider Dunn's interest both in the world of man, and in the world of plants and creatures (and the relationships between these).
This collection takes its name from the street in Hull of the same name, the people of which were Dunn's neighbours while he studied at Hull University. The attempt to sympathise with these uneducated people results in some keen observation, but is not wholly free of stereotyping and patronizing attitudes.
Young Women in Rollers
The poem's title evokes a visual cliché; maybe irony is intended but the text does not really support this view. This poem shows well the poet's sense of alienation, how his desire "to be touched by them, know their lives" is frustrated by the young women's indifference and lack of education. Dunn notes how the young women ridicule his culture (Mozart on Radio 3) in mime, while he yearns for "ideal communities", and questions the justice of social divisions : "Why do they live where they live, the rich and the poor?".
Yet he accepts finally his inability to change things: while these women pursue their chosen brand of excitement, on the fringes of the law, he will be "reading books", and he accepts the fact that there are "many worlds...many laws". Dunn has also noted that these outwardly brazen women who call out that "they're not wearing knickers" really lack individual social confidence and "blush when they pass you alone". In their world relations between the sexes are uneasy.
The date of the poem is given, because this is the year in which Dunn's wife, Lesley, died. It appears, therefore, to be an addition to Terry Street, which was first published in 1969. This brief poem expresses regret for the past, and for the poet's conduct towards his wife. Imposing poverty and his own unhappy moods on their relationship, he failed to see how much good there was in their life, and he now reproaches himself, not that he wrote poetry, but that he "did not write with joy". This single idea justifies the rather slight poem, of which the chief interest is its anticipation of the Elegies.
Horses in a Suburban Field
This is a far more subtle poem, which addresses some of Dunn's typical themes: love, and the relationship of the man-made and the natural worlds. Its brevity and form are not unlike those of a sonnet (though each section has an extra line). The lines of trees "planted by noblemen with an eye for order" are a first interference with nature, but have been followed by the débris and rubbish of more recent times. In the second section of the poem, Dunn describes the sad captive horses, unable to move without stepping over "cans" or a "bicycle frame".
In the poem's final line, the horses' aimless wandering "through the dust" is likened to "the dead dreams of housewives". It is clear that Dunn sees these horses, which have lost the freedom they should enjoy, as emblematic of the housewives, whose youthful hopes and romantic aspirations are now "dead dreams" amid the drab reality of their lives. The identification of horses with housewives is apt: the horse is a traditional emblem of vigour and has romantic connotations, while the empathy of women for horses is well known. It is clear that Dunn is concerned as much for the housewives (if not more so) as for the captive horses. Dunn likens the way man damages and spoils nature (plant and animal life) to the way man (or some men) damages the natural aspirations of women.
The title of this collection is suggestive of social and class attitudes, which Dunn discusses in the two selected poems. These are formally-written with skill and humour.
Here Be Dragons
This poem considers the idea of the civilized man and the uncouth or barbarian. Dunn describes the marvels recorded by a Roman geographer, Pomponius Mela, of Tingentera in southern Spain, who published, ca. A.D. 43, De Chorographia, a short handbook for the general reader.In these stories Mela has represented other peoples as savage, barbaric or ridiculous.
Dunn suggests that in telling the stories (whether truthfully or not) Mela "flattered Rome, to keep its regnum (=rule; here Rome's imperial power) sure". Mela's final story, described in the last four lines of the poem, undermines what has gone before, and depicts the barbarians' revenge. This is the tale of a magical well; thirsty and breathless Romans, drinking from this, would "laugh themselves to death". Dunn argues, by means of this mock-historical anecdote, that smugness and over-confidence are essentially self-destructive. The poem depicts the triumph of the uncouth or barbarian over the imperial class. It is clear that Dunn is writing as much about the present day as about ancient times. The "Romans" are those in positions of power and prestige, while the "barbarians" are those disadvantaged by circumstance. The "historical" parallel enables Dunn to avoid confining his argument to any specific contemporary situation.
In this poem Dunn effectively rewrites English history, as it might have happened. There is humour mixed with the wishful thinking in his imagined peasant uprising.
The sub-title of the piece is instructive: "Loamshire" is, of course, an imaginary rural county (akin, say, to Lincolnshire, Leicestershire or Worcestershire); the date of the imagined revolt, 1789, is the year in which the Bastille was stormed, signalling the start of the French Revolution.
The poem explores the conflict between the aristocrat who "owns" the land by legal title — whose family name the estate bears — and the workers who "own" it by virtue of the labour they have expended on it. This explains why the gardens, their handiwork, have not been harmed, though the lord's house has been burned. Though there is some humour in the piece, one feels that the speaker's bitterness against the lord of the manor is shared by the poet: this lord represents a class who own everything, claim credit for directing others' work and try to abase and humiliate their labourers. Against this, the poem affirms the resilience of the common man. There is mixed humour and justice in the choice of the shade, so valued as a cool retreat by delicate fine-skinned ladies and gentlemen, as the place where the lord is hanged.
Though there are formal elements in the earlier collections (notably in the use of stanzas) Barbarians makes extensive use of elaborate rhyme-schemes and the iambic (especially the pentameter) line. This seems very appropriate to the humour and sophistication of these pieces. In Gardeners there is the further device of putting the whole poem into the mouth of one of the workers. His "politeness" to his former master is clearly an ironic affectation (as when a policeman addresses a drunk as "Sir"); but it still comes as a shock when the reader learns that the lord has been hanged in the shade. The device of the surprising ending is also, of course, exploited in Here Be Dragons.
St Kilda's Parliament
St Kilda, to which the title poem refers, is a group of three small islands, the western-most of the Hebrides; though populated since prehistoric times, they were evacuated in 1930. This poem, like many in the Selected Poems, is concerned with questions of identity and nationality, with what it means to live in Scotland.
The Apple Tree
This is an exceptionally cryptic poem. It is obscure because Dunn freely employs unusual dialect terms, makes reference to little-known places and people and gives a subjective and confused account of his subject. The poem examines two sides of the Scottish character: these are related to the landscape, parts of which are said to be barren, while others are fruitful and mild, but chiefly it is reflected in the religious beliefs of the Scots. Dunn contrasts the joyful primitive religion of the Celtic Christians with the stern and joyless protestant faith of later times. The poem is set in Galloway (a peninsula in south-western Scotland). The climate, created by the Gulf Stream, is exceptionally mild here. This area was a centre of Celtic Christianity. Kirkmaiden church contains ancient stones, perhaps the oldest Christian relics of British origin. Dunn appears to refer to these in the poem's final stanza.
Dunn writes of real apple trees, which symbolise the natural bounty of the land, with which earlier, simpler people were more in tune, and makes a new "simple covenant... with love".
In this brief poem, Dunn expresses admiration for the courage of a veteran of the Great War whom he first saw, in "the soldiers' hospital", some thirty years before the writing of the poem. The old soldier has been blind for twice as long as this.In Dressed to Kill (a television programme) Dunn tells us: "I grew up a mile from Erskine Hospital, which is on the Clyde in Renfrewshire...I saw a man who had no legs. He was in a wheelchair which was pushed by his friend, who was blind."
In Dunn's poetry generally, we find pacifist attitudes expressed: militarism is criticised in Ratatouille and in Europa's Lover. The soldier of whom Dunn writes here is an object of sympathy; he is more victim than aggressor. As a Scot, Dunn feels this more keenly: time and again Scotland has supplied large numbers of soldiers who have fallen in battle in essentially English struggles. The man's enlisting at the tables "on the football pitch" hints at the sense of youthful adventure in which so many men entered the army; the second half of this sentence suggests the pointlessness of combat, which ends, for this soldier, with "his eye-blood running in a molten ditch".
The chief interest for Dunn, however, lies in the man's response to his plight. Though profoundly handicapped and, effectively, confined to the hospital's grounds, he has learned skill in his "basketwork" — Dunn bravely uses this term without condescension — and has endured the "terrible longevity" of his plight with exemplary courage: not the reckless momentary courage of battle, but the Stoic fortitude needed to confront years of suffering. Although the poem seems rather loosely-controlled (the central stanzas form a single sentence, its three clauses linked by the repeated "or") it has the logic of a series of striking impressions, with the resulting merit of brevity.
The most poignant image is that, in the fourth stanza, of the two men together "One blind, one in a wheelchair in that park" (the blind man pushing his friend who "sees" for him). The "dignity" of the men is "not forgotten" but helps the poet to confront his own suffering. "This lesser dark" could refer specifically to his wife's death, to the illness which preceded it, or to the general suffering of the human condition. (We know the date of publication, but not of the poem's writing.) Note how Dunn writes plainly, with few embellishments (the "filigree" and "charitable straw"). Many lines run on, so that what is a formal poem in tightly-rhymed quatrains has the fluency of speech. Note, finally, the reluctance to moralize or patronize. Though moved by the old soldier's courage, Dunn admits that the war is "too old" for him to "understand" how the soldier thinks, in recalling the day "when his right hand/Gripped on the shoulder of the man in front".
This poem anticipates some of those in the Elegies, especially the later poems, in which Dunn writes of his revisiting the scenes of his courtship of his wife: while the references to the calendar suggest Anniversaries, the importance of place in the poem is like that in Land Love, with which this piece should be compared.
Each stanza depicts the park at a specified season: the summer's night, the autumn afternoon, a Sunday in winter and a day in spring. Walking in the park becomes a metaphor for remembering: "...we will walk our years/Together". The park is the right place for courtship because it is "Gardened from countryside". As the park has its formal restraints and rules, so courtship has its etiquette. The love to which it leads is free of this, and so is likened to the natural countryside beyond:
"Wilder greens of love,
The delight of courtship is partly found in the awareness of present restraint and the anticipation of the eventual fulfilment (consummation?) of the shared love. The idea of the park as a place with "that path" which "leads nowhere" and "this path" which leads to the "grass" on which one may walk is a skilful (if rather coy) metaphor for passing love, and love which endures. There is also some humour in the allusion to "Keep off the grass" signs as injunctions to proper conduct in love.
This poem has echoes of the Terry Street pieces in the association of nature and human nature (town versus country) notably Horses in a Suburban Field, where love is also identified with the natural world.
In that Dunn looks forward to a future time when he will look back (to a time earlier than the present) Courting is like the "French" and "Scottish" sections of the Elegies.
This simple poem is light-hearted in tone, but expresses a serious belief. Ratatouille — beloved of peasant and yuppie (and perhaps, as Dunn alleges, of the playboy) is benign, cosmopolitan and inoffensive. The jocular claim that it has no enemies (even rival recipes, authentic or "phoney") is linked to the serious topical (in 1981) references to world affairs.
The second section of the poem ("It is a sort of dream...") exploits the unusual device of writing a commentary on the cooking of the dish as a peg on which to hang social and political observations. These are very similar to some of the attitudes we meet in Young Women in Rollers (the desire for "ideal communities") but expressed with a lighter touch here. The patience and skill of the cooks — and their inner thoughts — are unknown to their husbands.
Dunn argues that the cast of mind of such men is what, in effect, leads to war. By showing his own culinary knowledge here, Dunn identifies himself with the "wives" and against the men. "Ail" is garlic; "impassioned" appears to be an indecent reference to the appearance of the aubergine; in ancient times, purple dye (obtained from shellfish) was the most expensive, and so reserved for the emperor — but here, "imperial" is also an allusion to modern world-domination ("imperialism"); "pommes d'amour" are, of course, tomatoes, but the French term enables Dunn to state that the wives "have need" of love, as much as of the tomatoes used in the dish. Although the references to Afghanistan and the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics (by the U.S.A. and others) are dated now, contemporary parallels could be found.
The urgency of the final line ("Quick, before it is too late") does, however, seem less forceful with the demise of Soviet power. This is, though, a most accessible poem: it has a clear central metaphor, which is developed in a light but fluent manner.
In contrast to the brief and simple Ratatouille, this is a series of lyrics in which Dunn attempts a serious and ambitious examination of Europe's history, in terms of racial and ethnic conflict, and of Europe's imperialism in other continents. Dunn's familiar pacifist critique of military aggression appears in these poems, but there is no clear structure or argument. Rather, there is a series of observations, many skilful and interesting enough, and a great deal of name-dropping: Dunn refers to places or events, ostensibly to support his argument; too often, though, the argument is obscure, and not at all illuminated by the reference. This failing can also be found in The Apple Tree and The Stories, though in these poems the obscure allusions can be defended by greater relevance to the poems' subjects.
Europa's Lover XII
"She" in this poem is, it appears, the "Europa" of the title of the collection — not the mythical character of this name — but an omniscient embodiment of all that is European. Like the three spirits in Dickens's A Christmas Carol, she comes to educate — in this case,the narrator and thus the reader. She promises "You will suffer and travel" and one could argue, uncharitably, that the first promise is more than amply fulfilled in the lyrics which follow. This poem (XII) is, in fact, fairly straightforward: the unnatural divisions of politics and country, which caused war and persecution to many in their lives, are at last removed in death; the bleak conclusion is that only the dead are truly equal and truly international: "Released from nationality/They are fraternal...equal at last". Since, Europa/Dunn suggests this is in "the hoax of afterlife", the conclusion is a bleak one, and implies a demand for justice in this life.
Second Opinion | Thirteen Steps and the Thirteenth of March | Arrangements | France | The Kaleidoscope | Sandra's Mobile | Birch Room | Tursac | Empty Wardrobes | Creatures | At the Edge of a Birchwood | The Clear Day | A Summer Night | Reincarnations | Reading Pascal in the Lowlands | Land Love | Home Again | The Stories | Hush | Leaving Dundee
This collection of thirty-nine lyrics (twenty-one are in the Selected Poems) was published in 1985, though many of the poems had first been published on their own in literary magazines. The poems address the death, in March 1981, of Dunn's first wife, Lesley. The Elegies are anticipated by earlier poems: Envoi (dated 1981) was added to the 1969 collection, Terry Street, while Courting is in the 1981 volume, St Kilda's Parliament.
It is important to recognize that these are published and are poems. That is to say, they are not private, subjective meditations, nor are they to be studied as merely or chiefly autobiographical writings. Many people suffer, and simply to record the details might excite a reader's sympathy, but would not necessarily have further literary merit. The value of these poems lies in their capacity to express, within the poet's individual grief, the universal experiences of love and loss. The more subjective and overwrought poems, such as Reincarnations, are thus balanced by the more selfless lyrics, such as Reading Pascal in the Lowlands. Though prompted by death, the poems are affirmations of life: the heightened and intense nature of life for Dunn and Lesley, in her final days; the recreation of shared experience through the action of memory; the poems which articulate grief and incomprehension, followed by those in which, revisiting Scotland, Dunn recollects his courtship of Lesley and becomes convinced of her enduring presence.
In his choice of title for the collection, Dunn boldly identifies himself with a tradition, in English poetry, of elegiac verse, from Milton's Lycidas, through Shelley's Adonais and Tennyson's In Memoriam to Hardy's lyrics on the death of his first wife.
In studying the poems, you should be aware of the variety in the collection, and the progression of thought: we do not know (nor need we) in what order they were written, but the order into which Dunn has arranged them for publication is very clearly deliberate. It is well to know poems from different parts of the selection. The best poems can be read in isolation from the others without losing much; some of the slighter pieces rely on their context among the rest.
This is the third lyric in the complete volume of Elegies but the first in your selection. As in the two following pieces, Dunn writes personal narrative, with commentary. The opening line is blunt and prosaic, but the poet's skill appears in the economy and selectiveness of what follows. Dunn's reluctance to believe and inability to accept the "second opinion" are shown in the third stanza in the evasive language of the doctor and of the husband. The crowded waiting-room and the youth of the doctor add to the sense of social awkwardness, as if such bad news should be delivered in some more dignified setting (this idea reappears in Arrangements).
Dunn waits "among the apparently well": as in Reading Pascal in the Lowlands, he recognizes that suffering is not obvious to the cursory gaze. The last thing Dunn notices, as the professionally sympathetic doctor shows him out, is the man's hand: he wears a wedding ring. Dunn is not, of course, noting anything unusual here: rather, he draws attention to the commonplace which is seen to be valued dearly (as it should be?) when it is threatened.
Thirteen Steps and the Thirteenth of March
The loosely iambic quatrains of Second Opinion are used here too, but with a formal contrivance: noticing the connection between the unlucky date and the number of steps "From door to bed", Dunn writes this poem in thirteen "steps" (stanzas). Essentially a narrative of his wife's last days, the poem is characterized by its economy, symmetry and restraint. As in the previous poem, snippets of conversation are given apparently verbatim.
Against the overwrought diction of the later The Clear Day, A Summer Night and Reincarnations, here all is simple and understated: "It tore my heart out"; "Sad? Yes. But it was beautiful also./There was a stillness in the world." As well as the thirteen stanzas, we note the symmetry in the subject: the poem which opens with Dunn's serving "tea and sherry" to guests, ends with his "mad reprisal" of this, as they come for "tea and sherry" to the Newland Park hotel. This poem has a strangely disjointed quality: its sentences are linked by subject and arranged by time, but frequently fail to follow fluently or logically from one another. This enables Dunn, arguably, to practise one more sleight of hand on the reader. It is not at first apparent, that he has told the reader nothing of the moment of Lesley's death, nor even stated that she has died. The information is obliquely given in the abrupt reference: "After the funeral".
Were this poem about a less harrowing subject, it would be humorous; as it is, it is marked by heavy irony: Dunn draws attention to the conventions of language and the official procedures which attend death, as also to the fact that marriages are solemnized and deaths recorded in the same premises, so that "death...must have looked in" on the Dunns' wedding. Dunn also notes that, though details of the dead are recorded, these are not, in his terms, what matters — the registrar "...does not ask" whether his wife was good. Finally, Dunn observes, as he enters the undertaker's "Sub-gothic premises", that he and Lesley must have passed the place on their "...first day in Hull...", not once seeing anyone "...leave or enter...": again, he recognizes that suffering, though not unusual, is often noticed only by the sufferer.
This poem is one of four sonnets grouped (together with Birch Room) in the early part of the Elegies. We have moved back, in time, to the period before Lesley Dunn's death. In these poems we see how memory and the artistic imagination combine to achieve a kind of transfiguration of the dying woman. The octave of this sonnet tells of how the dying Lesley would stand at her bedroom window beside her husband, watching sparrows and the passers-by. The sestet makes it clear that the view from the window is a substitute for the journey the lovers would have liked to make, to France, which they can only imagine. The conclusion of the sonnet (in which Dunn suggests that this journey will at last be made — "Some other day, my love...") anticipates the later poems in which Dunn imagines that Lesley accompanies him, as he revisits Scotland, and as, at last, he returns south from Dundee.
A kaleidoscope is a device that uses mirrors to reflect complex patterns. (If you don't know what one is, find out!) The name comes from three Greek words: kalos (=beautiful), eidos (=form) and skopos (=watcher or viewer). It means that which sees, or shows, beautiful forms. The kaleidoscope of the title may be purely metaphorical (referring to the beauty the artist sees in external things). The "symmetry" referred to in the seventh line may indicate mirrors, but Dunn does not make this clear. Thematically, the title is apt, as a kaleidoscope suggests beauty and infinite possibility: it thus serves to remind Dunn of the loss of both, as is shown in the past-present structure of the octave and sestet of the sonnet.
Dunn records how, in repeating an action familiar from the time of Lesley's illness (carrying a tray upstairs), he half expects to find her there as she was. "Might" (line 2) indicates what Dunn spontaneously thinks, not what he (to his great cost) knows.
This verb (repeated in line 5) is made doubly poignant by the poem's ending: he will certainly not find Lesley there, and so he is reduced to desperation — to the desire to sacrifice himself in place of his wife, or to seek "absurd" (because unnecessary) forgiveness. He must have done wrong, to be so sorely punished. The idea (as in France) that Lesley would "have liked...to have gone away" is alluded to in the ironic reference to her cataloguing her clothes "as if preparing for a holiday". Her practical outlook (arranging the disposal of her wardrobe) is contrasted with Dunn's fantasy of "redesigned" perfect husbands, as if he is not good enough for this paragon.
Throughout the Elegies, Dunn is interested in the power of the artist's imagination to alter or transfigure. In this sonnet he achieves a kind of beatific vision of the dying Lesley by this means. The humble gift from an artist friend is accepted by the "constant artist", Lesley (who disapproves inhibited art but delights in shape and colour) and she enjoins Dunn to bring the mobile to life by blowing on it. As Lesley lies dying ("she did not wake again") Dunn ("trying to stay awake") sees, in the candlelight and through his tears, how the mobile is transfigured.The sonnet contains several religious allusions: "Blow on them, Love" is ambiguous. While "Love" addresses Dunn, the statement is an invocation of Love as god or goddess, while the breath that brings life is like that of God in Genesis. The dove is the conventional symbol of peace (Lesley is at peace now) and of the Holy Spirit, while the threefold emphatic repetition of "each gull" suggests Christian liturgy. This sanctification of Lesley recurs in Creatures and Reincarnations ("my Lady Christ").
Here the extravagance of the account of love transfigured — "I saw love crowned" — in tears and candlelight is balanced by the decorum and understatement of "she did not wake again". This poem tells (what is omitted from Thirteen Steps and the Thirteenth of March) of the moment of Lesley's death.
Though the references to Lesley and her gift are circumstantial, the poem contains a simple articulation of a more universal experience: the lover's sense of how love — and the beloved — in the moment of death achieve a kind of apotheosis. The fact may arouse our sympathy, but as critics we should note how Dunn has elicited this. The use of the sonnet seems judicious as the extreme statements Dunn makes here are dignified as much by the restraint and economy of this form, as by the circumstances in which they are uttered. This is one of the more positive poems in the Elegies. Its conclusion is as joyful as it is defiant.
This poem seems more remarkable if compared with the bitter, cynical and often rambling content of some of the later pieces, such as The Clear Day or The Stories, in which more common ("human") attitudes of self-pity and bitterness appear too nakedly. Elsewhere, too, Dunn frequently and understandably expresses incomprehension of Lesley's death, asking the rhetorical "Why?" Here, he asks not "Why?" but "How?" and fully satisfies the reader's sympathetic curiosity.
In this short poem, several recurrent ideas from the Elegies appear: time and change, nature and art. The birch trees we meet again in A Summer Day. The scene framed by a second-floor window, which Lesley could no longer see once "bed-bound" on the third floor, is depicted as a piece of oriental art ("chinoiserie") of the kind favoured by her in her curator's rôle.
Lesley would interpret what she could see, as Dunn now interprets, by his art, what he recalls. After the summer spent in the "room like art" came the privations of winter; the scene in the first stanza, which would have delighted Lesley, is one she cannot see, as it comes a month after her death. The pattern of death and rebirth which is seen in the seasonal changes of the tree is contrasted with the impossibility of renewal for Lesley. She invites Dunn, before she dies, to "change round her things" but he wishes to perpetuate the arrangement devised by "nature and her modern inwit": this unusual and archaic noun has several, related, meanings: conscience; intellect or wisdom; heart, soul or mind. Though this poem interrupts the sequence of sonnets, it, too, is most economical in its formal iambic quatrains.
If the sonnet form suggests the poems which precede it, this poem's content is more akin to that of the pieces which follow. It is a short meditation on love, arising out of remembered experience, and makes no reference to death or loss. It is elegiac, partly because of its context in the collection, but chiefly because of its retrospective stance, indicated by verbs in the imperfect (past) tense. In the last four lines, however, the present tense is used, as if Lesley is still speaking to Dunn. In rehearsing Lesley's merits, Dunn seeks the apt poetic phrase: "Propriety she had, preferring grace/Because she saw more virtue in its wit". When he employs the French version of an obscure classical proper noun, she gently mocks his preference for "literary" models, recommending, instead, experience. The poem's conclusion is, in effect, a comment on the depiction of Lesley and of Dunn in all of the Elegies. Coming, as it does, at the end of a sonnet, in speech marks, and with the command to write of experience, it recalls the final line of the first sonnet in Sidney's Astrophel and Stella
"Fool," said my Muse to me,"look in thy heart and write."
The Thebaid was, in classical times, the area around the city of Thebes in what is now Egypt. It was a wilderness at one time inhabited by the Sphinx, and later the home of numerous hermits and holy men. Dunn uses the term in reference to his French idyll, to suggest a remote place of solitude.
He properly notes how this noun is somewhat pretentious, and recognizes that Lesley would have been swift to point this out, as he imagines her doing. Tursac is a small village on the banks of the Vézère, in the Dordogne region of south-west France; this is evidently the same place of which we read in Creatures.
At the heart of this very accessible lyric lies the idea that in choosing or wearing clothes we strike poses and express attitudes. Once again, the past and the present are mixed. Dunn thinks of times when Lesley bought clothes, of how she later sorted them for giving away to her friends, of an earlier time when he refused to buy her a dress and of the present (Empty Wardrobes) in which his grief is personified as the couturier and needlewoman in mourning, for the loss of a customer, perhaps. At first the memories are delightful, as Dunn recalls how clothes were for Lesley "a way of exercising love". He thinks of her being for days "romantic as Rachmaninov", of the "lady-like red gown" of the "career-girl's suit". "A ploy of style" it may be, but the memory is "now not comfortless". Indeed, one feels that he is seeking that exact comfort in smelling (or imagining?) the scent of the pot-pourri packed with the clothes in the "cabin trunk". He finds, though, a less welcome memory, of his "husbandly" refusal to indulge Lesley in Paris. The picture of the man who buys his wife's clothes (or refuses to) seems very chauvinistic. Perhaps Dunn sees this in retelling the tale, but this is not clear.
This poem has the merits of simplicity and clarity, despite the fluid treatment of time, while the colloquial device in the second stanza strikes up an intimacy with the reader who may be supposed to ask the questions: "False? A little. And did she like it? Yes."
In France and Tursac, Dunn describes how he and Lesley, now bedridden, would recall their time together in France; this time is depicted more fully here. Whereas, in some of the later Elegies, Dunn writes of memories evoked by his literally revisiting places in Scotland, Creatures seems to derive wholly from memory. In this poem Dunn depicts an almost mythic scene, full of allusions to paradise, to suggest the notion of perfection in his relationship with Lesley, and a moment of perfect happiness, now recreated by memory and the poet's art. This is a serene poem, far removed from the grimness or desperate beauty of the earlier Elegies. Watching the animals coming out, at night, in the primaeval country of the Vézère valley (in the Dordogne region of south-western France), Dunn and Lesley are like Adam and Eve, the first and only human beings on the scene. This is suggested both by the reference to the "Oldest/Inhabited valley" and the "paradisal stasis" which "filled the dark". The caves in the cliffs (the falaises) of the Vézère were the home of so-called Cromagnon man, and the paintings of animals in the caves of les Eyzies and Lascaux are believed the oldest in the world. There are no other human beings (apparently) on the scene, but the many animals seem unperturbed by Dunn and his wife, as if the creatures understand Lesley's concern for them. Dunn mixes the idea of his wife as a kind of lady of the (French) manor, with that of her as the protector of animals, as he calls her "the châtelaine of her reasonable ark".
By "reasonable", Dunn presumably contrasts the real and, as he sees it, believable, security of the French garden, with the fantastic biblical narrative of the ark. And in this garden the snake is not the embodiment of evil or agent of temptation, but a beautiful if shy and "lazy" creature which also enjoys Lesley's beneficence.
At the Edge of a Birchwood
In this brief lyric, Dunn considers the fragility of life, as he writes of his accidentally stepping on, and killing, a fledgling bird. As he buries the "hand's weight, briefly held," he is reminded of his more serious loss: "Into the cairn...goes half my life". Later, he reflects, perhaps prompted by the sight of the ewes with their lambs, on his and Lesley's "childlessness". Dunn finds a rather bitter irony of circumstance in the fact that the anniversary of Lesley's death has coincided with Mother's Day.
The Clear Day
In the earlier poems, especially those which deal most directly with Lesley's death, Dunn exhibits stoic understatement. Now, with neither practicalities to attend to, nor newly-recalled memories to relate, Dunn depicts his descent into a self-pitying inertia, in this and the next two poems. The title is ironically apt, since the poet's thoughts as depicted here are far from "clear". Dunn writes of drinking himself into a semi-stupor in which immediate impressions (the traffic, a struck match, a piano playing) are mixed with strange imaginings of "blue coastal persons" who "have outflown the wind", all served up to the reader in a "muddle of lost tenses". At the end of the poem, we learn that this is an attempted evasion, of the night, in which the poet will "sieve through" his and Lesley's past until he reaches the painful fact of her death: "the sob in the intellect" which is both "commonplace" but "beyond understanding". The distractions of the day and the palliative of drink cannot ward off such thoughts.
A Summer Night
This is obviously a companion-piece to The Clear Day. It has the same form (blank verse; no stanza-divisions) which is well-suited to its rambling, seemingly shapeless argument. This appears, moreover, to give an account of how "the soul plays over mind/With radiantly painful speculations", as hinted at in the previous piece. Dunn asserts that he is "Outside time" and "On the sensation of a memory" as he goes through the house, recalling the experiences of the past year. His life he sees as unstable ("floating") yet taking fortitude from the sense he still has of his and Lesley's influence on their world which left a "lived touch everywhere we'd been".
This also has similarities of form to The Clear Day, but is briefer, simpler but perhaps more outspoken. It does not immediately follow A Summer Night in the full volume of Elegies. Here is a sense that Lesley is directly and immediately present to Dunn: he feels ashamed to come home late, as she waits for him there; she is present in his actions, as she is in the plants and ornaments of the home.
Dunn states the time for which he must mourn her in apocalyptic terms (till the world's boundaries change, till the sun melts the polar ice) while he blasphemously, almost, describes Lesley as a "Lady Christ", meaning, one presumes, that he believes her spirit to live in him, as Christ lives in the Christian.
Reading Pascal in the Lowlands
This is one of a number of poems which are prompted by Dunn's revisiting places in Scotland which are the scenes of his courtship of his wife. There is some irony in the fact that its is not so much the reading of the Pensées of the philosophical heavyweight Blaise Pascal, as the chance encounter with another man's suffering, which leads Dunn here to a kind of understanding and Stoic acceptance of his lot. While Pascal's work is briefly mentioned, as producing a mood of religiosity and mystic aspirations in Dunn, the chief concern is with the disclosures of the man made talkative by his love for his dying eight-year old son.
The understated way in which Dunn presents this to the reader and his ability to suppress his thoughts of his own sorrow give the poem dignity and make the child's illness seem more poignant still. Dunn suggests that it is not possible to understand such suffering as this: the man asks "Why?" but "Nature is silent on that question", while having said "I am sorry" Dunn asks "What more is there to say?" Nevertheless, in the final stanza, looking down from "a panoptic hill", Dunn does, indeed, see "panoptically", taking in the whole scene, ending with the supposedly "undramatic streets".
The description is in one sense apt, in another ironic: it is apt, as these streets, as is Dunn outwardly, are marked by understatement, and one sees no sign of suffering; it is ironic because, as Dunn well knows, these "undramatic streets" will hold many more stories of suffering to match his own, and that of the man with the dying son. This is a dignified and moving poem; for once, in the reader's view, the poet's own sense of loss is sub-ordinated to someone else's possibly greater suffering.
This poem is similar to Courting in its recollection of moments from the poet's and Lesley's shared past which are strongly connected with the places in which they occurred. The sense of the idyllic, paradisal setting, ennobled by its association with Lesley is akin to that in Creatures. There is an ambiguity in the poem: while Lesley is, of course, present to Dunn in his remembering of their courtship, the poet suggests that she is also immediately present in spirit, so that dusk is "a time that is all ears/For the snapped twig, the strange wind". The rustling in the leaves is seen to be the answer to a request, or "an opening of doors/To a half-heard religious anecdote". Nature, meanwhile, reminds Dunn of his loss, as he sees the "Monogamous swans" as a picture of "the private grace of man and wife". This touching lyric again links past to present: the landscape is the source of memories of Lesley, as well as of present hints of her nearness and of the nature of love. In the final stanza different elements of the scene become identified with Dunn's love, as if his feelings are inseparable from the land (as the poem's title suggests). This idea is expressed with beautiful lyric intensity in the poem's last line. The very traditional verse form used here (terza rima) suits well the highly-wrought lyricism of the piece.
This is a poem in which (as in Reincarnations or Hush) Dunn writes of his sense of Lesley's abiding presence. He has been away (the arrangement of the poems suggests from his home in Hull, revisiting youthful haunts in Scotland) and the house bears the evidence of neglect, while the floral designs on the curtains suggest exotic fantasies of warmer climes. As Dunn sits, feeling the "accusation" in the room's furnishings, he sees (or imagines, as he seems to be studying a vase) a "falling off of...petals". At once Dunn senses "a spirit...in the appled air" and knows "whose it is", as the light "bleaches" his eye "with angelophanous/Secrets". This is a slight, simply-constructed piece, in a form which Dunn uses frequently in the latter part of the Elegies.
Gnosis is a Greek word, meaning knowledge, especially of a profound or religious kind.
This long poem is superficially obscure in its wide range of references, but these mask an essentially simple idea: that the literary and historical examples of those who responded to their loss by undertaking meritorious or courageous adventures, usually abroad, are not open any longer, or at least not to Dunn, who claims he would like to die "In the act of giving", but cannot. He is, rather, "dedicated to the one/Pure elegy". Moreover, he cannot follow "stoic options" of "Yesterday". No stiff upper lip here: "Why be discreet? A broken heart is what I have..."
While few, if any, readers will understand all of Dunn's references here, they are important in setting the tone of the piece, in evoking a dated ideal of fortitude. For your information, most of them are explained below:
This poem is another which considers the idea of time in relation to love. The past is considered in a general abstract sense. Each stanza is in effect a separate poem, linked to an "anniversary". The first stanza recalls the poet's walking with Lesley for the first time, in September. The second anniversary (November) is of their wedding-day; the third (in May) is unspecified, while the final one, in March, appears to be that of Dunn's wife's death (the date is found in an earlier poem: which one?)
Part of the beauty of this poem lies in its sound: it is written for the ear as much as for the eye. After sight-reading quietly (don't worry about obscure vocabulary yet) read the poem aloud, trying to show how its rhythm and other sound-effects convey mood and (maybe) reinforce meaning. (The poem is highly regular, in lines of three or four iambic feet, throughout. How are these arranged?)
Understanding the poem is made difficult by Dunn's range of references and occasionally by unusual vocabulary. Some is briefly explained here, but you should try to follow these up, to further your comprehension: In the first stanza, the places named are evidently beauty spots, apparently in or near Glasgow. Inchinnan is west of the city on the banks of the Clyde.
The bangles on the "powdered wrist" recall famous lines from The Relique, by the Elizabethan poet John Donne
When my grave is broke up againe
Donne is a poet whose work, in general, should be considered by the student of Dunn. John Donne is arguably the first great lyric poet of love, and his work contains a series of poems categorized by his editor as Elegies, while two others are called Anniversaries, and his lyrics, the Songs and Sonets (sic.), contain a poem called The Anniversarie.
The rest of the poem contains some difficult vocabulary, but nothing which a good dictionary will not explain.
Against the apparent orderliness and regularity of time (Dunn refers to dates, days and diaries) which is reflected in the formal outward structure of the poem (stanza form, metre and rhyme) we must set a confusion in the thought: a question without an answer ("What shall I do?"), a hazy memory of drunkenness ("...a null white-out of loss and alcohol...") and psychological and literary impasses: "...This window's a wet stone/I can't see through..." and "...Cancer's no metaphor..." The poem is poignant yet fragmentary, though it ends with a striking image. This seems an oxymoron (the two adjectives are near-opposites). How might it, nonetheless, make sense?
This is another poem in which Dunn writes of his sense of his wife's continued presence with him. Find out which are the other poems in which he does this, and compare how the idea is developed.
Consider the different situations (introduced by "as") in which the poet is aware of the unseen presence. Comment, particularly on the "mourning wooer" and the flowers "asking for water" (see Home Again).
There is a simplicity in the mostly monosyllabic diction of the poem, and a preoccupation — shown in Dunn's choice of onomatopoeic verbs: "Ssh", "sips", "click", "sigh" — with sound, and with the poet's listening for clues. Where some of the earlier Elegies overwhelm the reader with overwrought and obscure imagery embellishing rather disorganized argument, this piece is striking in its clarity and economy, and with Dunn's sense of the irony of his visiting a sick (lady) friend, and of his bearing her flowers.
The poems do not provide a strict autobiographical narrative, but the later poems in Elegies clearly tell of a time spent away from the marital home which figures prominently in the early poems; during this time, Dunn is in Scotland, revisiting old haunts. Which poems refer to this time? This poem supplies something of an explanation while achieving a kind of resolution to the collection, as the poet brings his stay in Scotland to an end, but asserts that he will not "Leave alone".
The use of (irregularly) rhymed iambic pentameters gives the poem a gusto and fluency which suit its mood of energy, its references to travel and to home: the wild geese on their "Fanatic flightpaths" and "mad for home" cry "make way! make way!", while Dunn observes the bridges, the railway, and above all "Across the broad, rain-misted, subtle Tay,/The road home" which "trickles to a house, a door." The poem conveys a sense of urgency in Dunn's returning south from Dundee, while the reassurance that Dunn will not "leave alone" seems an appropriate (if, perhaps, conventional and contrived) flourish with which to end the collection. Inasmuch as the Elegies are an artistic and public discourse on loss and suffering, an articulation of acceptance, however qualified, may be necessary as a poetic resolution of the total collection, and as a kind of full stop to the work, or drying of the tears. In ancient times, as in some alien cultures today, though the mourning was formally prolonged, it was not to be indefinite. In this sense, too, the formal poetic mourning risks its dignity if it never stops. This may justify Dunn's placing this poem at the end of the Elegies, but Leaving Dundee may seem improbably up-beat after the heart-rending quality of so much of what precedes it.
Writing about the poems
In an exam, you are expected to be familiar with the set text. In the case of poetry, you must discuss some poems in very close detail, to illustrate understanding of poetic method, while referring more briefly to a greater number. In an "open book" exam there will be no credit for mere quotation. You should anticipate subjects for questions, and know to which poems you will refer in discussing any of these. It is important to know poems from different parts of the selection, and different kinds of poems.
Some subjects can be seen in real exam questions set in recent years, of which examples follow:
You should note, first, that examiners may well specify poems, so you must be prepared to write about any of the poems set; second, that questions about Elegies require discussion of other pieces. Note, too, that you may have to set your own agenda: to show how and why some poems are "the finest" is far from easy. In the following pages approaches to these and other likely questions will be suggested in outline. Detailed discussion of text will not appear as this has been given already!
Subject, theme and method
These are terms you should understand before you write. Subject is what a poem is "about" in a simple and obvious sense: War Blinded is about a veteran in a hospital, Gardeners is about an imagined revolution, but the theme is the poet's underlying concern: the old soldier's courage and dignity, social injustice and desire for change. In a sense the subject usually contains, and maybe conceals, the theme.
Method is quite different, but may concern how the poet examines theme through subject. The poem is a work of art in which by means of such things as imagery, irony, diction or register, sound effects and structure, or speaking in the persona of an imagined character (as in Gardeners) the poet advances an argument or creates an effect. Complete analysis of technique is not expected, but an honest and thorough attempt is. Discussion of method and theme are far more important than discussion of subject, which mostly means stating the obvious or expanding what's in the title. "The finest" poems are those in which Dunn's artistry is most successful. These may, of course, be poems in which the technique is least obvious. If you find some of the Elegies engage your sympathy, think how Dunn has achieved this.
Reading the question
To avoid the "prepared" essay, examiners set questions in slightly unexpected ways. As a rule of thumb, the question which looks "easy" (like those on the Elegies above) isn't, while a question couched in off-putting language is usually straightforward underneath. Read all the available questions, and make sure you do all of what you are asked. Some questions, like that on alienation, specify a theme but let you choose in which poems to seek it; others may specify poems, but let you set the agenda.
Dunn's two worlds
Dunn, as many educated people do, inhabits two worlds, both of which appear in his verse, which, further, also explores this relationship (explicitly in, say, Young Women in Rollers). On the one hand, we see the poet's immediate surroundings, the everyday and familiar world: the lower middle-class background, Clydeside, the people (stereotypes or caricatures?) of Terry Street, and the more idyllic rural scenes in Scotland or France. But Dunn inhabits a quite different world through his reading: he is fascinated by politics, by history and by culture — he parades his learning repeatedly, in the later poems self-consciously, and even with self-mockery (in Tursac). In the Barbarians pieces history (or pseudo-history) is a cover for contemporary political comment, while Europa's Lover attempts a synthesis of modern European history. Current affairs of the 1980s inform Ratatouille.
The poems in which these worlds interact are mostly successful. In Young Women in Rollers, Dunn (maybe patronizingly) sees his neighbours as disadvantaged by lack of education, while he, being educated, is also disadvantaged in being excluded from their friendship. Dunn's dream of "ideal communities" is noble, but, as he acknowledges in the poem's last line, impractical. In Reading Pascal in the Lowlands, Dunn addresses explicitly his interest in both worlds. But Dunn's profound comments in the poem's last stanza seem to owe more to his encounter with a stranger than his reading of Pascal. Other poems in which Dunn considers what is remote and exotic are The Apple Tree and The Stories.
The Particular and the universal
The relationship between these is the key to the best of Dunn's work: in the particular, individual experience, Dunn discovers the general or universal human truth. Whether a poem arises from Dunn's own immediate experience or from an exploration of ideas arising from knowledge of history and culture, yet, in both cases, Dunn for the most part moves from the account of subjective experience to a perception of the wider or universal quality of such experience. This is especially important in the Elegies: these are accessible because Dunn presents Lesley as a woman transfigured, for him, by love, but otherwise a flesh and blood character, not implausibly idealized. We see some of her idiosyncrasies yet she is more matter-of-fact than Dunn in her attitude to her imminent death. We cannot know the reality but the portrait in the Elegies is of a slightly pompous bookish man occasionally deflated by Lesley's directness: "Write out of me, not out of what you read".
Thus, for the reader, Dunn's experience of loss and his articulation of grief, as presented in the Elegies typify the universal human experience of suffering and its attendant emotions, but with this advantage: that Dunn expresses better than most of us can do what we have either known or feared, in our own experience. In Reading Pascal in the Lowlands this is abundantly clear: Dunn moves from considering the plight of a stranger, while he refrains from telling this man of his "own sorrows" (he has, of course, told his readers, but with these he has no immediate contact) then moves to consideration of the inadequacy of philosophy to solve life's pain, and ends with a description of the view from the "panoptic hill" from which he sees the town with its "undramatic streets": the adjective is meant ironically — Dunn is well aware that suffering is shared not just between him and the man he has met, but is everywhere, as if, in the midst of life we are in death. This explains the attention to what would otherwise seem irrelevant detail: swings squeaking, runners jogging. It is these which create the illusion of "undramatic" life going on, and which conceal the disturbing reality.
It is not only the universal nature of grief which Dunn finds in particular experience. Both the Elegies and poems such as Envoi or Courting explore love, and the general need we have of love appears in Ratatouille and Horses in a Suburban Field. Elsewhere Dunn states universal or general truths of a social or political character. He considers the dignity of labour and the concept of property in the particular (invented) episode narrated in Gardeners. There are many other poems of similar kind: the dignity of two individual soldiers in War Blinded enables Dunn to explore general questions about courage. In Young Women in Rollers Dunn moves from the particular to the general observation, but in Europa's Lover and Ratatouille the focus is general throughout.
As one reads the poems one becomes aware of a number of recurring ideas. Most of these are mentioned in the earlier detailed commentaries; here is an overview or summary.
The writer is often seen as a detached observer who watches life from a distance, and Dunn frequently sees himself in this rôle. In the Terry Street poems generally Dunn is conscious of himself as surrounded by people with whom he has little in common. He attempts to understand his neighbours and expresses a wish to enter their world in Young Women in Rollers. He sees however that his interest is not really returned, and accepts that he "won't be there" but will be "reading books" as the young women set out for nocturnal adventures. Though Dunn wants "to be touched by them" (one hopes a metaphor is intended here!) yet he concedes the unlikelihood of doing so.
In Barbarians Dunn clearly moves away from writing of his own experience and writes with wit and detachment, scoring political points while avoiding topicality. The poetry is more cerebral, less immediate, and suggests that the reading of books has now ousted the attempt to enter the world of the poet's philistine neighbours.
The poems in St Kilda's Parliament for the most part consider the character of a whole people, the Scots. There are some personal and immediate poems, but these are few. In a poem like The Apple Tree we see Dunn attempt the very difficult task of explaining the seeming contradictions of Scotland in terms of her religious history. There is an intimacy with the land, yet not with the people, who are conspicuously absent. This poem in a way anticipates the ambitious Europa's Lover, in which Dunn tries to stand back from, and interpret, modern European history. In Gardeners Dunn has shown how the rebels reclaim the land from which their overlords have alienated them, but here he considers how some people are "at home in twenty corners of the world" while others have no land, or are driven from it. In Ratatouille alienation of a far more simple kind appears: the peaceable friends of ratatouille (mostly women) are outside, and cannot influence, it seems, the world of the warmongers; the idea that women are alienated from men we have met, too, in Horses in a Suburban Field. Necessarily the Elegies show a man in a way isolated from his fellows, as they are highly introspective poems, but they are poems in which life is depicted with great intensity. Here only rarely, as in Reading Pascal in the Lowlands does Dunn strike the pose of the detached outsider.
Time and memory
Dunn writes from experience in many (not all) of his poems. Frequently we see how experience is qualified by the action of memory. In many of these poems, too, Dunn is conscious of time past and of the present. In Courting and Anniversaries different episodes in his and Lesley's lives give the poems their structure (though their conclusions are very different). In the early Elegies Dunn writes of the more recent past, of Lesley's death and its immediate aftermath. But while later events (as the revisiting of Scotland) appear in the later poems, these are increasingly subordinated to recollections of the less recent past, to celebrations of times of happiness before Lesley's illness was diagnosed. In Creatures, for example, there is no reference to Lesley's death, the only clue being in the use of the verb "was". In a quite different way, other poems consider the idea that time could be slowed down: the illness is "too quick" and Dunn "counted days...being kind to them".
Against this brief, and now lost, time there is the time stretching out before Dunn which seems vast and empty: "...in at one end,/Out at the same way in. Same every year" and the terror of the little time which will bring the night where Dunn cannot avoid "the sob in the intellect". References to time are many: "...the muddle of lost tenses/At an o'clock of flowers". In "Leaving Dundee" the qualified optimism Dunn affects is partly achieved by the use of future tenses.
Whereas Dunn relies on immediate experience in Terry Street and the early Elegies, in the rest of Elegies experience is remembered. We do not have a diary or comprehensive or consecutive account but a selective and suggestive treatment. Within each poem what is recalled is interpreted by the poet. But the total arrangement of the pieces is also deliberate (we need not suppose that the lyrics were written in the order in which they appear).
Save in Elegies and a few other personal love lyrics, Dunn returns constantly to mankind's problems and their social and political causes. In Terry Street, he laments the ignorance and poverty of his neighbours, but above all, the fact that rich and poor "live where they live", thus perpetuating inequality. In Barbarians, Dunn attacks authoritarian and imperialist societies, pointing to the smugness of Rome and the inhumanity of the 18th century landed gentry. Clearly, he implies criticism of contemporary smugness, complacency and inherited wealth and power. St Kilda's Parliament shows both how Scotland has, historically, created her own misery (The Apple Tree) and suffered exploitation from England (War Blinded). In Ratatouille we see once more the bellicose attitudes that bedevil attempts to create a better world, though Dunn's suggested remedy (international peace through cookery!) is, as he recognizes, unlikely to succeed. Finally, in Europa's Lover the ideal of the man who loves all lands is contrasted with the realities of intolerance, war, torture and genocide.
© Andrew Moore, 2003; Contact me