The first poem that I will be examining is Balance Sheet by John Montague. This poem describes a place in Ireland, which has gone through many social changes. Montague is comparing life now with the life of his grandfather many years before. As the title suggests the poem is like a real balance sheet, as it lays out losses and compares them with the gains to see what is left over at the end. When we look more closely at this poem we see that it has a very unusual layout as well as having an uncharacteristic title. When the poem is read we are able to understand why the poet has chosen such a title and layout. The reason being that he is trying to show the reader the change that has occurred through the times. He has done this by separating the poem into two parts, ‘loss’ and ‘gain’. Loss signifies the things that have been lost while gain signifies the things that have been acquired. The poet compares the loss of the countryside for the gain of roads and modern development. Hence the reason for the title, ‘Balance Sheet’.
The poets tries to get the point across that the things that have been lost were in a way more sacred then the resources that have been gained. This is evident in stanzas one to six. Stanza six for example tells us that by the removal of the hillocks and humps (underground burial chambers) the superstition and stories that were created by the local people have been lost; ‘The removal of all hillocks and humps, superstition styled fairy forts and long barrows, now legally to be regarded as obstacles masking a drivers view.’ In stanza five the poet ironically writes about plant names, such as; ‘devil’s bit’ and ‘pee the bed’, that when are read seem to signify wickedness. He has written the names as though the plants have done something wrong.
The reason he has done this may be suggesting to us that even though the plants are bad, there is a loss of soul in nature. Montague might also be indicating that the names of the plants are ones given by the local people, hence together with the plants and local people the local names have been lost. In stanza three Montague tells us about the destruction of the countryside to make way for the development of roads. The road that has been described is a symbol of social change that has happened. As we can see, the poet is focusing on the point of social change that has taken place in the countryside. Montague goes on to say that due to this change the local culture has vanished taking along everything that was associated with it. This is the main thought in the ‘loss’ section of the poem.
In the ‘gain’ section of the poem, we see the things that have replaced the old culture. This is apparent in stanzas one to four. Stanza two for example tells us that even though a driver can gain an extra quarter of an hour it does not make his life any more enjoyable, thus telling us the suggestion of the poem which is that you cannot experience life if you rush it. ‘A man driving from Belfast to Londonderry can arrive a quarter of an hour earlier….’
In stanza three Montague again tells us that change has affected people’s relations with their relatives, as a local is driving ten miles per hour faster (we see again the symbolism of speed and rush between the people) to visit his relatives in a hospital or asylum. This suggests to us that the person wants to get the visit over as quickly as possible whereas before people were cared for by their relatives and community but now the unwell person is placed into hospitals to be looked after by complete strangers, as well as having relatives who want to get the visit over and done with. As we can now see, the things that have been gained do not balance out to the things that have been lost. As the culture that has been lost was more rewarding than the modern gains. At the end of the poem, Montague writes a short passage in italics, which looks like an epitaph (writing on a tombstone). The poet is being ironic as he says his grandfather enjoys observing accidents and it is also humorous in a way, as the poet laughs at the thought of his JP grandfather getting out of his rotting coffin to penalise drivers for going too fast.
The poet uses a large amount of figures (like a balance sheet) in the ‘gain’ section of the poem, this suggests to us that everything now is devalued then it was before the start of social changes. We do not get appreciated for an individual but just the same as everyone else. The meaning of value is just in terms of financial benefit instead of the value of observing the beautiful surroundings and the general beauty of a place.
The poet’s feelings are strong and simple and they are that the change that is happening is not for the good, as the loss of the local culture was more beautiful and in a way more scared then the social changes that have been gained. Like a balance sheet, Montague has balanced everything out by describing each loss and gain with an item and has given a very powerful impression that modern advantages are not really advantages, as we have lost more than we have gained. Montague has conveyed this feeling very well throughout the poem, by mainly describing the losses and gains and by the fact that he has shown more losses than gains.
He has also made the ‘gain’ section of the poem more humorous then the ‘loss’ section of the poem, signifying that he takes the losses to be more serious than the gains. Montague also conveys his feelings about this place by describing the people in each stanza (in the ‘gain’ section of the poem) to be happy only for a short period of time. ’10 men from the district being for a period of time fully employed, their ten wives could buy groceries and clothes to send 30 children content to school for a few months…’. He also could be suggesting that unlike before when people had a certain job for near enough their whole lives; now people only have certain jobs for a short period thus proving that what has been lost contained a better life for the people of today.
The second poem that I will be looking at will be, ‘In Romney Marsh’ by John Davidson. This poem describes a place in England (as Romney Marsh is in the county of Kent) and like the previous poem, ‘Balance sheet’ it talks about a place and about social change. This poem was written in Victorian times (nineteenth century) and could be suggesting the changes that were affecting England at the time. For example in stanza two the poet describes Romney Marsh as a place where a lot of change has occurred, due to the development of telegraph wires it is easily possible to send a message to distant places, whereas before it would have been a huge obstacle to get a message across the country. The telegraph wires are symbolising the big changes at the time of John Davidson. Like the telegraph wires, railways were also a major change that changed the country forever, hence the focus of the poem.
Davidson calls the telegraph wire ‘ringing shrilly, taut and lithe,’ which suggests to us that he is not in favour of the changes that are happening, as he says the telegraph wires are ugly and high pitched. The poem could be indicating change in the historic landscape (the Norman churches) and now the new landscape (the telegraph wires). In stanza six Davidson writes that his is not alone, suggesting that people are communicating across the telegraph wires, ‘Shrill blew the wind; and shrill the wire rang out from Hythe to Romney Town.’ Davidson could also be suggesting that Romney Marsh was a place for him to get away and relax in total peace and harmony but due to the development of the telegraph wires, he feels as though he is not alone, and also due to the fact that people are communicating above him. This poem is in many ways similar Balance sheet as it describes the beauty of Romney Marsh against the social changes that have occurred, and once again, the beauty of a certain place is in a way more victorious than the modern changes. Thus suggesting to us that the social changes that have gradually taken place are ruining the beauty and cultural background of a place.
Davidson also talks about the symbolic beauty of the place, for instance in stanza seven he describes waves continuously clashing onto the shore, which signifies that time never stops hence the eventual arrival of new technology, ‘The beach, with all its organ stops pealing again, prolonged the roar.’ Throughout the poem the beauty of Romney Marsh is shown which enables the reader to understand the poet’s thoughts, which are that how can such beauty be overcome by changes that ruin these very surroundings. Davidson could also be suggesting that God has given us such beauty that by man’s interference with nature we have destroyed God’s bounty.
Davidson uses a lot of poetic language in this poem, such as ‘o’er’ which means over and ‘sing’, which means blow. This is mainly to keep the fluent flow of rhythm within the poem. The main feelings of the poet in this poem are similar to Montague’s in his poem, and they are that everything may be changing but the things that are gradually vanishing from the surroundings are more beautiful than the social changes that have happened. Davidson believes that there is so much beauty, harmony and heritage in Romney Marsh that it should not be tampered with. Davidson conveys his feelings to the reader by describing the beauty of Romney Marsh against the unattractiveness of the social changes, he also does it by the use of descriptive metaphors and the use of symbolic and poetic language.
The third poem that I am looking at is ‘A Major Road to Romney Marsh’ by U.A. Fanthorpe. In this poem, the poet is commenting on a proposed road that may run through the marsh. She offers contrasting descriptions of what the marsh is like now and how it would be if the road came through it. Fanthorpe’s descriptions of the road as it is now are flowing and beautiful in addition to that she makes the road to be self-contained, ‘It is a kingdom, a continent’ furthermore she notes all the fine details, such as ‘windcurled sheep’, which emphasizes the wildness of the place. The descriptions of the new road are harsh, this is evident in the way she abbreviates the names of the roads, such as, ‘Artics, Ind Ests, Juctns, these abbreviations mirror the hectic pace of life led by the people who want the new road. Fanthorpe also mimics road signs that abbreviate place names, for example, C’bury is Canterbury (she uses capital letters for the abbreviated road signs, so that they stand out as real signs do). These abbreviations are common names that make the poem unpoetic. The description of the marsh is longer and more detailed than the description of the new road, suggesting that it is richer and fuller as it is.
In the first stanza of this poem Fanthorpe compares Romney Marsh with a kingdom and a continent, which suggests that it is big and unique and again she describes Romney Marsh as individual and unique in the last stanza; ‘It is itself, and different’. In the description of Romney Marsh, Fanthorpe uses no abbreviations hence signifying that this place is more beautiful and interesting than the common abbreviations contained in the description of the new road.
The lines on the left of the page describe the marsh itself and the lines on the right contain details of what a big new road might bring. This offers us an idea about the effect of the new road, as it may alter things radically, just as the lines in the brackets alter the shape of the poem.
The poet seems to resent the development of the road and is against it totally. The poem is a warning of how beauty can be destroyed by ‘progress’ and by man’s wish to do things faster. Fanthorpe conveys these feelings to the reader by contrasting two different opinions, one of what the marsh is like now and the other of how the road that would go through it would be. Fanthorpe also conveys her feelings by making the description of the marsh more poetic than the description of the road, which is full of abbreviations.
The fourth poem that I will be analysing will be ‘Ninetieth Birthday’ by R.S.Thomas. This poem is based on the poet’s own experiences as a minister in Wales. In this poem, the poet is on his way to visit an old woman celebrating her ninetieth birthday. He describes the natural environment in great detail as he walks on the muddy track to where the woman lives. By choosing to walking instead of going in his modern car to where the old woman lives, the poet is emphasizing age, as to walk is an old- fashioned mode of transport. Age is also emphasized when the poet describes the lichen, ‘…noting the lichen that writes history on the page of the grey rock.’
The poet may be suggesting that the lichen has been there for a long time thus signifying ancient times, he also might be suggesting that the lichen looks like scribbled writing that shows how old the rock is. The poet describes greeting the old woman, but he does not feel that he can connect with her, as there is no bridge between their worlds; she is wise and all you can do is listen to her talking making friendly remarks as she speaks. Thomas suggests this when he says, ‘Yet no bridge joins her own world with yours, all you can do is lean kindly across the abyss to hear words that were once wise.’ He also indicates that there is an ‘abyss’ that is separating his world from the poets. It is not a geographical abyss, but a great gap of time and understanding. This specific metaphor emphasises that this old woman could never link to the modern world.
In stanza one Thomas describes the landscape beautifully as he is appreciating the surroundings on the way to the old woman’s house. He personifies the stream and cloud, making them come alive, ‘…And the stream’s whisper. As the road climbs you will pause for breath and the far sea’s signal will flash, till you turn again to the steep track, buttressed with cloud.’ He also suggests that from here he can see a great distance hence telling us that he has walked steeply up the muddy road. ‘The nightjar’s house: you can hear it spin on warm evenings…’ Thomas is symbolising isolation within the bird, as it lives in isolated areas and hunts at night. He symbolises isolation throughout the poem, an example of this is the way he creates the impression of the mood where we are in the isolated world of the woman.
The poets feelings are strong and simple and they are that there is a huge distance between his own life and the old woman’s. In a way, the woman has been left behind when all the modern changes have happened, she has lost touch with time and that is why the poet cannot connect with her. Due to the changes that have occurred the woman has been left alone thus that is why Thomas emphasizes loneliness and isolation. The poet conveys these feelings to the reader by emphasizing the point of isolation and loneliness; he also uses a large number of commas that allow the poem to be slowed down to a pace such as the one where the poet is walking to the where the old woman lives. Thomas also conveys his feelings by addressing us in a friendly way in the poem. He refers to himself as ‘you’, to make his speech in formal. This also draws us in as we imagine ourselves in a similar situation, trying to connect with the old.
All the poems signify change that has occurred to the place through time but there are still a large number of differences between the poems including the type of language used, the layout and how the poets try to get the point across. For example, ‘Balance Sheet’ and ‘A Major road to Romney Marsh’ have very unusual layouts. For instance, ‘Balance Sheet’ contains two sections, ‘loss’ and ‘gain’, where loss shows the culture that has been lost and gain shows the social changes that have occurred, while the poem by Fanthorpe uses a contrasting layout. Where the left hand side of the poem contains the description of the marsh and the right hand side of the poem contains details of what the new road might bring. ‘Ninetieth birthday’ and ‘In Romney Marsh’ are however different from the other layouts as they are prosaic forms of poetry. But when ‘In Romney Marsh’ is looked at more closely we can see that it contains a very symmetrical pattern, as each stanza contains four lines and every second line in each stanza has a small indent.
The language used by all the poems is different in a certain way. For example ‘In Romney Marsh’ contains beautifully poetic language while ‘A major road to Romney Marsh’ contains in a way less poetic language, as it contains abbreviated words. ‘Balance Sheet’ and ‘Ninetieth Birthday’ both have very simple language, which is poetic and easy to understand. In ‘Ninetieth Birthday’ the poet emphasizes a great deal on age and loneliness, he also addresses the reader in a friendly way, by referring to himself as ‘you’ to make his speech informal. This also draws us in as we imagine ourselves in a similar situation, trying to connect with an old person.
The poets try to get the point across in many different ways. In ‘Balance Sheet’, the poet has separated the poem into two columns, ‘loss’ and ‘gain’. By giving the poem, this specific structure it gives it a great deal of impact. ‘In Romney Marsh’ is a poem where the poet has used beautifully poetic language to describe the beauty of the place while making the social changes to be evil and bad. ‘A major road to Romney Marsh’ is a great example of how the poet is trying to get the point across, as Fanthorpe has used two opinions, one that describes the beauty of the place and the other of what the road will bring.
She makes the description of the marsh beautifully poetic while making the description of the road to be prosaic, by using abbreviated and common words. This is done to show the reader that Romney Marsh is a beautiful place and by building a road through it will destroy its beauty. In the poem by R.S.Thomas we see that he has emphasized the point that the age gap between two people does not allow much connection. By doing this he gets the point across to the reader that as time goes on, change will occur and nothing can be done about it. An example of this is when he says that the old woman was once wise but not anymore hence telling us that change will happen and as well as changing the surroundings it will also change the person.
I have now analysed the poems, and found that change is the main subject of all the poems which suggests to me that we cannot stop the changes that will occur as they are apart of man’s will to progress into the future.