This is a beautiful poem about someone wallowing in their heartbreak induced misery and lamenting the fact that they have to feel this way, not sharing the calm of the natural conditions she observes around her.
However, it twists to a positive and upbeat message when she realises that, just like nature, life is meant to be full of ups and downs – storms and sunshine, if you will. We are meant to feel that passion should be embraced and we should acknowledge that emotional turmoil and ups and downs are a crucial part of our earthly existence.
Forsook – gave up on/abandoned.
Full of desire I lay, the sky wounding me,
Each cloud a ship without me sailing, each tree
Possessing what my soul lacked, tranquillity.
Waiting for the longed-for voice to speak
Through the mute telephone, my body grew weak
With the well-known and mortal death, heartbreak.
The language I knew best, my human speech
Forsook my fingers, and out of reach
Were Homer’s ghosts, the savage conches of the beach.
Then the sky spoke to me in language clear,
Familiar as the heart, than love more near.
The sky said to my soul, `You have what you desire.
`Know now that you are born along with these
Clouds, winds, and stars, and ever-moving seas
And forest dwellers. This your nature is.
Lift up your heart again without fear,
Sleep in the tomb, or breathe the living air,
This world you with the flower and with the tiger share.’
Then I saw every visible substance turn
Into immortal, every cell new born
Burned with the holy fire of passion.
This world I saw as on her judgment day
When the war ends, and the sky rolls away,
And all is light, love and eternity.
Kathleen Raine (1908-2003)
Raine was an English poet who lived through most of the 20th century (1908-2003). She had a relatively interesting life that is well worth reading about on Wikipedia, but we’ll just touch on the key parts of it.
She was a poetry fiend from a young age and had a career not only composing her own poetry, but also as a critic and analyst of other poets – she was a particular fan of William Blake and I’m sure she’d be thrilled to have her work compared next to his!
Her personal life seems to have been full of different loves and quite unusually, given the values of her generation, she was married unsuccessfully twice and had a couple more prominent lovers in her life. Interestingly one of her break ups was caused by her losing her partner’s pet otter. Don’t laugh! The otter subsequently got itself killed. If my wife mucked up and my dog died, I’m not sure our marriage would last.
Anyway, the really important thing to know is about her philosophical leanings. She believed that human beings are deeply spiritual and share a connection with our history and the nature which surrounds us. She was particularly influenced by the rugged landscapes of Northumberland, in the far north of England, where she grew up. This influence and connection with nature can be clearly seen in this poem.
I’d say there are three major themes here: first we have her perspective on heartbreak and the power of love; second we have an exploration of the relationship and similarities between humanity and the natural world; and finally we have a perspective on how we should view and approach life and love.
We begin with the image of a person (presumably a woman, possibly Raine herself) lying on the earth and contemplating the ‘tranquillity’ of the clouds and trees around her. She feels envious, suggesting she feels anything but tranquil in her heart. In the second stanza we learn why.
She is all over the place because she is heartbroken: sitting, waiting for the one she loves to call her, but withering away as the call simply never comes. Notice how she compares her heartbreak to death here, which is a typically hyperbolic response to lovesickness in poetry. If you are a young person in love reading this, please promise me you’ll never be so silly as to actually think like this. PROMISE!
Moving on to the third stanza, we’ve got some complex ideas and imagery here. I’ll explore the specifics below, but she is basically bemoaning the fact she’s lost her literary/poetic inspiration as a result of her love induced misery.
However, it doesn’t take her long to find it again! Nature comes alive to speak to her and tell her that she shouldn’t be moping, wishing for a life of contentment as she’s really got what she wanted.
At first I read this as nature being like a tough talking aunt, telling Raine to snap out of her childish melodrama. However, as the skies continue to preach to her, they tell her that the clouds and trees (the ones she envied in the first stanza) are her kin and experience the world in the same way as she does. The fifth and sixth stanza are basically nature telling her that she can either shrink from the ups and downs of life, or recognise that living a fulfilled life means experiencing blissful summer days alongside the stormy and tempestuous, once in awhile.
This pep talk seems to work and the seventh stanza sees her seeing the good in the world again. In the last stanza this continues and she considers her end of days and realises that when her life ends she will remember the passion she has felt and appreciate the good and the bad together.
Language and techniques
Again, there are loads of lovely things to comment on here.
In the first stanza we have some beautiful imagery used in contrast to the poetic voice’s. While she is ‘full of desire’, which we might usually consider a positive thing, it should be considered here as consuming her completely. It takes over her so completely that she suffers physically from it not being fulfilled as her ‘body grew weak’. Raine uses the calming imagery of clouds floating blissfully in the sky as ‘a ship without me sailing’ to present a contrast to what she is feeling in her breast, the stormy seas of a broken heart.
She personifies these clouds and the tranquil trees, feeling offended by their peace as if they are deliberately ‘wounding me’. So, she is envious of them and blames them for her heartache simply because they are not suffering from it.
Comment on how Raine conveys the power love has to overwhelm us. She speaks about her ‘soul lack[ing], tranquillity’, which shows how deep her pain goes. In my mind, our souls are the very depths of us as people, more crucial to our existence than any flesh and bone. If her soul is being tormented by her her love life, then we appreciate the emotion’s power. Still not convincing? Well, see ‘mortal death, heartbreak’. This means that she thinks death and heartbreak are comparable and the pain inflicted by her hurt has left her on the point of not being able to go on living.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the third stanza left you scratching your head. Me too, initially. She is further exploring the impact of heartbreak. ‘The language [she] knew best’ as a professional poet and critic of poetry is probably poetry itself. Thus if it ‘forsook [her] fingers’ we can presume that she is so wrecked by her romantic situation that she is bereft of poetic inspiration.
She can no longer reach ‘Homer’s ghosts’. Phew, what on earth does this mean? I’m actually pretty happy with my Wikipedia assisted theory. Homer was an ancient Greek writer, The Iliad and The Odyssey, and is possibly the oldest literary superstar. Anyway, his ghosts were described as ‘a vapour, gibbering and whining into the earth’. I think Raine is imagining her inspiration as sounding like these ghosts or the conch (quite a mysterious and other world sound when blown) to her, like she can’t quite catch the words or the meaning that she wants to channel in her poetry.
That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? I’m impressed with myself! Oh, and here is a conch:
You’ve also got the further personification of nature, when the sky starts chatting to her. Well, not her, but to her soul. Again this is the deepest part of her being and obviously the sky isn’t really talking, but she is finding personal inspiration from somewhere deep inside.
Here our contextual understanding of Raine’s belief in the connection between humanity and nature comes in handy. She likens our lives with those of the ‘clouds, winds, and stars’. In the opening stanza Raine moaned about the tranquility of the clouds, but clouds also turn black and unleash their fury on the earth. Wind strokes us and batters us, depending on its mood. Stars shine, but explode and pulse with heat. So she’s basically trying to show how all aspects of nature are controlled by ups and downs; the good times and the bad times; passionate love and passionate heartbreak.
Her soul/the sky gives her a choice to either ‘sleep in the tomb, or breathe the living air’. She is suggesting that we can either try to avoid the world by sheltering in our tombs and not exposing ourselves to the potential pain associated with passion and thus we may as well be dead; otherwise we can embrace the ups and downs of life. She sums up the highs of romance with the imagery of the ‘flower’, but we have to acknowledge that the world also contains the ‘tiger’ and thus danger, potentially sharp pain as it tears at us and gets us between its jaws.
You could also mention the beautiful line at the end of the seventh stanza. Raine recognises that everything on earth ‘Burned with the holy fire of passion’, implying that we are fuelled by passion and the heightened emotions that are particularly associated with love. This idea continues in the final stanza when she talks about ‘her judgement day’ (the day she dies and she meets her maker) seeing the ‘war end’ and ‘the sky rolls away’, leaving only ‘light, love and eternity’. She feels that at the end of our lives all the pain and hurt disappears and what we remember and take with us is the passion, love and joy we have experience.
She could have just summed this all up with the old idiom: It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved for all.
I’m going to be brief here and suggest you go a little crazy when commenting on the structure of this poem.
The poem starts off with the poetic voice contemplating the clouds and their tranquility, but ends with her acknowledging that life isn’t about tranquility, but about the calm along with the storm.
… Yeah!? So? What does this has to do with structure?!…
Well, look at the shape of each stanza. I think the simple three line structure is meant to mirror the clouds she is talking about. They begin as clouds that are very regular and share a calm, repetitive AAA rhyme scheme. However, at times the stanzas spike or become irregular both in terms of shape and also rhyme. From the fourth stanza on we lose the AAA rhyme scheme and veer to AAB, ABB and ABC. In my opinion Raine uses the rhyme and shape to reflect the message of the poem; life is full of pleasure and pain together, calm with the storm.
Clever? Nonsense? You decide.
We begin with a deeply melancholy poem with our poetic voice mourning the loss of the love she had. However, the poem is split in half and the second four stanzas have an uplifting message that values the pleasure of love alongside the pain.