Traditionally, poetry in English is marked by a special cadence or rhythm of the language used known as meter. For this purpose every syllable is said to be either stressed or unstressed. The meter consists of the repetition of metrical units known as feet: an iamb, for instance, is a foot consisting of an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable. The most common line of poetry in English is the iambic pentameter, that is, a line consisting of five iambs. It is almost possible to resolve the lines of Heaney’s ‘‘Follower’’ into lines of iambic quadrameter (lines with four iambs), though with a few oddly placed pentameter lines. Given the overwhelmingly iambic character of ordinary spoken English, however, it seems more likely that Heaney is using more contemporary techniques of composition and abandoning meter as an element of the poem. He does use some metrical effects; for example, the last stanza of the poem . . . Read More
Much of Heaney’s work is devoted to what, for want of a better word, may be called tradition. Tradition is the set of customs that are inherited by a culture and give it its identity. In ‘‘Follower,’’ Heaney makes the particular craft of farming—his father’s excellence at its tasks, as well as the close association between father and a son made possible by the traditional way of life in which a son was essentially apprenticed to his father for education—stand for tradition as a whole. A great deal of Heaney’s later work has involved the adaptation or translation into modern English of works vital to the Western tradition including stories from Irish mythology, Greek tragedy, and the AngloSaxon epic Beowulf. In his own poetry Heaney often laments the loss of tradition. ‘‘Follower’’ is one of the most important examples of Heaney’s treatment of tradition. It describes in loving, idealized terms the . . . Read More
‘‘Follower’’ consists of six four-line stanzas, or quatrains. Each stanza follows an abab rhyme scheme, meaning the first and third line of each stanza rhyme, as do the second and fourth. No particular metrical scheme is followed, and the length of the lines is determined by the ideas they contain and by grammatical breaks.
Heaney takes as his subject a description of his father plowing a field. He does not use a tractor. No modern device intrudes on the scene. His father cuts through the field with an old-fashioned hand plow drawn by a horse. The use of horses (most likely a team) indicates some level of prosperity since a less successful farmer would be forced to use a cheaper draft animal such as an ox. The plough horses are well trained and respond to the plowman’s voice command. The metaphor of the second and third lines is somewhat odd. The speaker views his father in profile and describes the curve of his body bent . . . Read More
‘‘The Centaur’’ begins with an air of nostalgia. An adult speaker looks back with some pleasure at her ten-year-old self and the joys of summer adventures. One might expect a sigh over remembrance of things past, but that is not the direction the poem actually takes. Instead, as the poem unfolds, the adult speaker almost disappears and is certainly not there to pine over lost pleasures. Instead, the poem focuses on a specific, though perhaps characteristic, incident that occurred when the ten-year-old girl went down to the willow grove to cut herself a ‘‘horse.’’
This is a quite magical incident that Swenson describes in characteristically full detail, making it come alive for the reader. The speaker’s younger self, the ten-year-old girl, goes down to a willow grove near an old canal, turns a stick into a horse, and then follows up that trick by turning herself into a horse, or at least partly into a horse, creating a hybrid being, part human and part . . . Read More
The Mormons and Utah
Swenson’s parents converted to Mormonism, more properly known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a religion founded by Joseph Smith in 1830 and established itself under Brigham Young in Utah later in that century. The Mormons dominated Utah in Swenson’s childhood, and the rest of her family was strongly devoted to Mormonism, but even as a child Swenson did not feel strongly connected to it. Part of what the girl in ‘‘The Centaur’’ may be escaping is Mormon rules of propriety. According to R. R. Knudson, in her biography The Wonderful Pen of May Swenson, Swenson as a child liked to play cards and later took up smoking, even though both activities were frowned on by Mormons. The Mormons also had strict notions of gender roles, again something that the girl in Swenson’s poem seems to be escaping, or subverting. It is not that Swenson, in this poem or others, attacked the Mormon religion; it is . . . Read More
The poem is written in free verse (a form of poetry in which no formal meter is used) without any rhyme scheme, though perhaps with a rhymed couplet at the end and some internal rhyme at the beginning, but it is not as free as in some of Swenson’s other poems. There is enjambment, meaning that sentences carry over from one stanza to another, creating a feeling of movement in the poem, but most lines end with the end of syntactic units; phrases generally are not broken over two lines, but come to an end when the lines end, so there is regularity as well as movement, order as well as wildness, reflecting the content of the poem.
Metaphors, Symbolism, and Synecdoche
‘‘The Centaur’’ might be said to contain metaphors, in which one thing is described in terms of another: the willow branch is a horse; the girl’s hair is a horse’s mane; and the girl snorts and paws the ground . . . Read More
The poem is in part a nostalgic evocation of childhood and the sort of thing a child might get up to. This at least is how the poem opens, with the adult speaker remembering the summer when she was ten, but though the poem develops several contrasts, this contrast between present and past fades away, and at the end there is no return to the adult’s world and little sense of the adult looking back. In the opening stanzas the very tenses the speaker uses emphasize that she is looking back; she talks of what she would do each day in that distant summer: she would go down to the willow grove, she would ride her horse, and so on. But by the middle of the poem the speaker shifts to the simple past; her hair blew around like a mane; she shied and skittered, reared and galloped; and then she slowed to a walk and entered her house, at which point the conversation with her mother that ends the poem is presented as a specific scene that . . . Read More
The title ‘‘The Centaur’’ refers to a creature from Greek mythology that was half human and half horse. Interestingly, other than in the title, the term is not used anywhere in the poem. Rather than write about centaurs, Swenson’s aim is to depict a metaphorical centaur, a girl who thinks she is part horse.
The poem begins with an adult speaker reminiscing about her childhood, about the summer when she was ten. Right away there is wonder in her voice because she can hardly believe there was only one such summer. This attitude of wonder is typical of Swenson’s poetry; so is her questioning, inquiring approach to life, indicated grammatically by casting the main part of the first stanza as a question. Another grammatical feature of the opening stanza is that it is largely a parenthetical aside; it is as if the speaker, or the poet, is so full of information and so alive to connections . . . Read More
E. E. Cummings’s ‘‘Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town’’ rolls across the tongue like a preschool song. On one hand, the playful rhythm and sound complement nature’s sequences where life cycles rotate throughout the nine stanzas like a merry-go-round, life on a proverbial fast-paced playground. Masked, however, is life’s monotony and death’s certainty as the four-line stanzas, mostly tetrameters that mirror the four seasons, lead, perhaps, to an immutable certainty: everyone dies.
The poem opens with light, harmonious double dactyls in line 1: ‘‘anyone lived in a pretty how town.’’ Playful rhythm continues in subsequent dactyls such as ‘‘women and men (both little and small)’’ (5), ‘‘someones married their everyones’’ (17), and ‘‘many bells down’’ (2, 24) that stream into trochees like ‘‘pretty’’ (1), ‘‘summer autumn winter’’ (3), and iambs like ‘‘with up so floating’’ (2, 24). Bells, which often . . . Read More
Several critics comment that cummings’s writings are transcendental in their overarching themes of individuality and spirituality (the very touchstones of transcendental thought). Certainly, ‘‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’’ is no exception. The poem’s themes of the passing of time and of mortality mirror the transcendentalist ethos of spirituality. Its focus on the individual (whose significance is as lost to society as it is to death) represents the transcendental disgust for conformist society. Furthermore, the exalted love between Noone and Anyone also reinforces a transcendental philosophy. Love, like the seasons, is a driving force in the poem. Anyone and Noone love each other as they age. Their love is set apart from the ordinary marriages of the other townspeople, who marry as mundanely as they live. Certainly, the love between Anyone and Noone becomes the means through which they are further distinguished as individuals.
Noone laughs when Anyone . . . Read More