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“The Bystander” – Rosemary Dobson Essay

“The Bystander” describes the significance of the insignificant characters in paintings. The speaker in the poem is that figure painted behind/beside the subjects of artworks, where he/it speaks out of its existence to us: in the form of a wing, a squire, a distant figure or part of a crowd.

This insignificant character reflects upon several scenes he/it has stood in, such as the two slaughter of Innocents (i.e. the murder of infants from both Old and New Testament Bibles), and settings such as ‘the Garden’ (of Eden). The ignorant speaker who recalls the voice, which said “Eat”, in ‘the Garden’, gives these certain clues to the learned reader.

Dobson has placed remote rhyming in this poem, as the final words of each second and fifth line (of each stanza) are whole rhymes. These rhymes are one-syllable ‘masculine’, which is strong to the ear, however, the rhyming scheme is less obvious due to Dobson’s choosing: a reflection to the distant “Bystander” figure who is barely there in a painting.

In order to emphasise upon the separated rhymes, they lie at the end, where the reader stops to take a breath. This pattern is echoed throughout all four stanzas. There is also the occasional use of capital letters to specify particular examples, as like the “Garden”.

There is a constant reference to Classical Mythology such as Icarus and the slaughtered Innocents. Perhaps these scenes were mentioned to portray the Bystander’s ignorance, as he/it does not describe their great significance to history and therefore only briefly points them out.

To bring attention to some examples of the Bystander’s forms, two lines contain alliteration, “silly soul” and “dullard dreaming”. Furthermore, Dobson has used three types of imagery which all relate, “Rapt at the sky”, “a bird” and “an angel’s wing”.

“Theology” – Ted Hughes

“Theology” refers to the study of God and religion, yet Ted Hughes’ creation is comic. In three short stanzas, the well-known Biblical tale of Adam, Eve and the Apple is turned into a parody, or moreover, the Serpent’s interpretation. It is suggested that the story of Man’s banishment from the Garden of Eden is a “corruption of facts”, where what really happened was “Adam ate the apple. Eve ate Adam. The serpent ate Eve”, and finally the serpent remained in Paradise as he heard “God’s querulous calling”.

“Theology” is a poem made up of three stanzas containing four simple lines without a rhyming scheme.

Hughes has placed two contrasting figures, God and the Serpent, in opposite scenarios. To see this as a joke in this supposed study of God, the serpent is the centre of attention, as it is the only creature mentioned in the first line and three stanzas, while God himself is pictured as the insignificant character mentioned only at the final line.

“Pieta” – James McAuley

“Pieta” compares a mother’s loss of her child to two eminent Christian figures, Mary and Jesus. McAuley has titled his poem after the famous marble depiction of Mary cradling her dead Son, by Michaelangelo in St Peter’s Basilica.

The poet describes a “dark and deep” event he cannot comprehend – A year ago, a child was prematurely born and died after “a day and night”, “no-one to blame”. Its mother only touched it once in its short life, noting its “Clean wounds”. This loss is compared to Mary’s loss of Jesus, who was brutally murdered on the Cross: both terrible and deep, yet death is all the same.

The structure used in “Pieta” consists of two different layouts of stanzas. The first two stanzas are four lines long with the second and third rhyming in strong sound; these reflect upon the death of the infant. The last two stanzas are three lines in length; they describe the Biblical figures, as there is a rhyming sequence to emphasise upon key words such as “deepkeep” and “lossCross”.

McAuley communicates to the infant in ‘second person’ in order to create feelings of intimacy and therefore perhaps, sympathy.

“Leda and the Swan” – William Butler Yeats

“Leda and the Swan” rests on the famous Greek Myth of the rape of Leda. Leda was a beautiful maid who attracted Zeus; the mighty God transformed himself into the form of a swan with his divine powers and raped Leda. The outcome of this was the birth of Helen of Troy. The four stanzas reflect upon the actual scene of the rape, where Zeus (as a swan) attacks Leda.

Yeats uses rhetorical questions to let the reader enter into Leda’s consciousness. Her fingers are “terrified” but “vague”, physically they are blurred because they are buried in the feathers of the swan, and emotionally, “vague” may perhaps indicate she does not know what to do or that she does not take any definite action.

Zeus’ magic and mystery are reflected by word use such as “dark webs” than “black feet” as the colour suggests something sinister and mysterious, and “strange heart” has suggestion of enchantment.

The third stanza recalls the tragedies of the Trojan War in the future history: “the broken wall” (Greek forces breaking through Trojan defences), “burning roof and tower” (the visually dramatic image, where both Leda and Troy have their security violated), “Agamemnon dead” (an emphasis on the cataclysmic chain of events engendered by the rape of Leda and the birth of Helen).

“Keeping Things Whole” – Mark Strand

“Keeping Things Whole” describes one’s own place in the physical world. It is a unique way at looking at one’s existence as matter in space. In the three stanzas, Strand repetitively tells the reader of the role he plays to taking up an area as physical material. Perhaps, the poem may also be stating that language cannot stand alone (in order to make sense), as we see through the structure.

The shortness of each line throughout the three-stanza poem, reinforces space due to the large amount of ‘absence’. The repetition of each topic matter creates a ‘philosophical’ feel for the reader., whereas the constant use of “I” and “I am” throughout the piece places emphasis upon the speaker.

The language is conversational, providing intimacy with the reader through the pronoun “we”.

“The Identity” – Hugo Williams

“The Identity” reflects upon the different ‘soldier’ roles an actor plays in contrast to real war. An actor is sent by his agent to perform one of his numerous characters. Williams describes both the actor’s confidence in playing the role, and his uncertainty to reality – he is unaware of his whereabouts, “or where he’d got his hat”. The actor’s uniform costumes are lined up in his wardrobe, along with his collection of props; these are contrasted to real warfare items, as they stand “Representing the passage of time: past, present and future”, which portray memories of war in the world.

“The Identity” consists of six three-line “a-b-a” stanzas. In order to bring attention towards the loneliness of the actor, a single line, “Progressing through the acts alone”, stands in the middle of the poem by itself, among the other similar verses.

The final line of the first five stanzas do not end a sentence, but instead continues onto the first line of the next, therefore representing the poem as more of a “prose” narrative in long sentences – this poem consists of more physical description than telling of events.


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