‘August Houseplant’ details the encounter of a beautiful and wild philodendron by the protagonist in his backyard. Astounded by the plant’s beauty and wilderness, the protagonist establishes an emotional connection with the plant and contemplates bringing it into his home to protect it from the autumn cold. The narrative perspective and concrete language of the August Houseplant serves to present his themes as experiences associated with society, resulting in highly original and symbolic body of work charged with semantic associations that must be intuitively comprehended by the reader.
The first aspect a reader notices about “August Houseplant” is its irregular structure. August Houseplant is a ‘concrete poem’, in which its poetic structure is used to represent the structural pattern of a philodendron plant. To achieve this irregular structure Levertov generously uses enjambment and caesuras. The purpose of a scattered structure could also be argued to be a rebellion against the neat structure of a regular poem, thus making irregularity an equivalent to the plant’s wilderness.
Through the poet’s diction, use of stylistic devices such as personification, enjambment, structure, and the use of vivid sensory imagery, the poet beautifully depicts the wilderness of the philodendron plant and suggests that the intention of forcefully domesticating the wild would only prove to be naï¿½ve and futile, (even if the intention were good), as it is unnatural to displace the wild of its natural environment. We are first exposed to the plant’s beauty and wilderness in the opening stanza in which the author anxiously questions what may be lurking in his backyard, “Is there someone, an intruder, in my backyard?”
We later realize that the intruder is a wild philodendron plant, and this immediate image brings an aura of “wilderness”; of something that is “untamed”, uncultivated, undisciplined and uncontrollable: it summers on the deck, touches the floor, feels the chair and explores new ground, as if it were a wild animal craving for more space to reside in. The wilderness of the plant is a sharp contrast to the impression of the protagonist’s backyard in which the plant enters. The protagonist’s backyard is a private and domesticated sanctuary, complete with a “deck, a floor, a chair”-all elements pointing to cultivation and civilization, and immediately we sense that the plant has been displaced out of its natural habitat.
We are also drawn by the sheer size of the plant; as the first part of the plant that is seen by the protagonist is its leaves, (“Ah! It’s you, dear leaves”). With this, Levertov has now established the main features of the plant, that it is wild, displaced and large, which leads us to empathize with it when the protagonist contemplates bringing it in for the winter-The fact that the narrator wants to believe that the mouse has actually become his pet, and wants to imagine that it no longer fears him, says more about the narrator than the mouse. He wants the mouse to trust him, and to feel like he is a care-taking figure to it, when perhaps he realizes that it can not perceive him as such.
The narrator states: “And when you’re maneuvered in, how small the room will become; how can I set you where your green questions won’t lean over human shoulders…to enquire, mutely patient, about the walls?” In other words, “Is my plant more comfortable with me now than before?” Here Levertov suggests that the plant might accept captivity, but it is not certain. When the mouse disappears, the narrator is troubled because he feels protective of the mouse, fears for its safety from hawks, owls, snakes and cats. He sees these threats as negative influences, which demonstrates his naivetï¿½ and simplicity, for the fear of them teaches the mouse how to survive. The “hawks” are an essential part of life; even humans cannot live without the existence of threats.
Throughout the poem the protagonist has a tone of awe and anxiety. He is fascinated at the sight of the beautiful plant: (“Ah! It’s you, dear leaves,” / “As if you knew fall is coming, you seem to desire everything that surrounds you, all of air, all of light, all of shade.”) and his thought of bringing the plant in also suggests to the fact that he is fascinated by its beauty. This fascination for the plant establishes an emotional attachment of the protagonist for the plant; he begins to worry what will become of the plant when it gets cold.
“How am I going to carry you in, when it gets cold?” This tone of anxiety is parallel to the tone a protective parent would feel for his child, which ironically, we reject entirely: Levertov has established that the plant is wild, large and already displaced out of its home when in the protagonist’s backyard, yet if the protagonist brings the plant into his home, it is perhaps more likely to be because of his fascination for it, instead of his wanting to protect it; domesticating something that is born wild would do more harm than good to it. Moreover, we realize that the protagonist is aware that the plant is wild and would not adapt to his small home, he states, “It’s those long, ever-longer, reaching arms that don’t fit through the door” This protection is both forceful and naive-the plant is wild and won’t “fit through the door”, thus the protagonist’s intention of domesticating the plant is a naive
The plant is personified; The plant is personified, By allowing the philodendron to plant to have such This personification not only establishes a feeling a wilderness of the plant but also establishes the persona’s emotional attachment to the plant. Finding the plant so beautiful, the protagonist deliberates how he can bring the plant indoors, fearing that it will be cold once autumn arrives (-cold: “How am I going to carry you in, when it gets cold?”).
September 19, 2008 Angelica Tong, 12BJ
“August Houseplant” (Levertov) from A Door in the Hive (1989) English A1 HL (CYeo)