At the very outset of “Two Formal Elegies” by Geoffrey Hill, there is a somber dedication: “For the Jews in Europe.” The poems reflect Hill’s aims in having art reconcile the horrors of history and using poetry as a healing force. “Two Formal Elegies” resurrects, in a way, those who died during the Holocaust, allowing them to speak across time. The two sonnets implore us to never forget what happened, to never stop “knowing the dead” and those who were “disposed” of by the Nazis (583).
The first of the two sonnets speaks of the dead in two different manners. On one hand, the dead are “subdued” and buried, never to be heard from again; on the other, they are active—in the environment around them and in our minds. Through words such as “breathes” and “flourish,” there is a tremendous sense of life at work in the sonnet. This falls in square contrast with the subject itself. With hearts that “command” to be heard, despite being “iced” with death, Hill speaks of countless souls desperate to be remembered.
Hill is careful, however, not to bring them fully to life. “Knowing the dead,” Hill argues, is impossible. However, we are compelled to “grasp, roughly, the song” of their lives, learning what little we can about them. The song is not simply a song of past life; Hill likens the song to the life that springs from the bodies’ decomposition, which “makes flourish young [r]oots in ashes” (6-7). There is genuine activity in the sonnet and a sense of presence.
In the first sonnet’s second stanza, Hill continues his hopeful arc. He attempts to make the horrors of the Holocaust mean something, giving loss a purpose. By using “Jehovah’s hand,” Hill reminds us that God is supposed to keep watch over things, controlling the actions of the world—however ever terrible they might be. However, “[t]his world went spinning from” God’s hand suggests that even the Holocaust is beyond divine control—that this event somehow slipped past. The world is not fully controlled, if at all, though Hill stops short of calling it godless. Instead, he refers to it as a world “[w]ithout the law,” ending the sonnet on a note of distinct sadness. The dead are heard from a song we cannot fully hear nor understand, but it is better than not hearing it at all.
The second sonnet begins with a focus on the dead’s “long death,” which is a perplexing phrase and full of possible meaning. Taken literally, Hill might be referring to the arduous lives spent in concentration camps with “long death.” However, he seems to be echoing the first sonnet’s call for remembrance. Here, death is “[d]ocumented and safe,” which signals not just photographic evidence but the absolute necessity for remembrance. In a world Hill considers “witness-proof”—a world that so easily forgets the past—he calls for us to commit their loss to memory. The opening line (“For all that must be gone through”) sounds like our work is cut out for the reader insofar as going through the dark pages of our history is difficult.
The “midlanders” can be seen as those who have forgotten, vacationing at the sea and not considering the sacrifices that were made for them to “relieve [t]heir thickening bodies.” Hill sees these people as cautionary tales, finally asking if it is worthwhile reminding them of everything that has come before: “Is it good to remind them, on a brief screen, [o]f what they have witnessed and not seen?” Unfortunately, the question is left unanswered, though Hill seems to think it is not enough to erect tombstones, which “ensure[s] some sacrifice.” The sonnet ends with yet another question, asking if people will continue to remember the dead and give meaning to their sacrifices. The final line “(At whose door…)” charges them with the moral responsibility in carrying forward the things they have witnessed. Hill’s sonnets mourn the Holocaust victims, certainly, but they also mourn an ever-increasing loss of history and memory.
Seamus Heaney’s “Death of a Naturalist” mourns the death of innocence, chronicling an event that triggers a boy’s coming of age. The poem, while short, manages to capture the shift from boyhood to manhood. In fact, the poem is broken into two distinct parts: one dedicated to childhood and innocence, the other dedicated to adulthood and fear. “Death of a Naturalist” shows, more than anything, the transformative power of experience.
The opening of the poem is that of a countryside in spring or summer “in the heart [o]f the townland.” Heaney paints a vivid portrait of the area, detailing what the narrator would do as a boy: collecting tadpoles and bringing them to school by the “jampotfuls.” The atmosphere Heaney creates is heavily detailed; at first, it seems like he is regarding his childhood with an overbearing amount of nostalgia, like celebrating a snapshot from his past. Heaney describes the many insects, ranging from dragonflies to butterflies, to evoke the landscape. However, not all is thriving with beauty; Heaney focuses on the decay and decomposition going on, using words like “festered” and “sweltered” as the flax-weed rots in “the punishing sun.” Not all is perfect, Heaney is telling us, and this summer-world is fading.
This notion of decay carries into the second part of the poem, serving to foreshadow the fade of childhood into the autumn of adolescence. The second part of the poem features a different tone, far removed from idylls of summertime as a youth. Here, Heaney employs sharp, heavy-handed words like “angry” and “obscene” and “farting.” The poem itself, like the world around Heaney, is degenerating into something darker. The world is no longer filled with the bright promise of youth; the “nimble-[s]wimming tadpoles” have become “great slime kings” that frighten the boy.
Heaney imbues the second part of the poem with a distinct sense of danger and threat. Yet, despite the two stanzas’ opposition between life in bloom and life in decay, Heaney manages to subtly mention that the world has not changed. Instead, the poem suggests that the boy’s perspective of the world around him has shifted. Perhaps the use of tadpoles and frogs are not merely incidental to the poem—window dressings for the natural world—and serve an entirely different function. At the end of the first stanza, the boy’s teacher points out “how the mammy frog [l]aid hundreds of little eggs and this was [f]rogspawn.” The boy learns about procreation and sexuality here, which almost ushers the stanza’s abrupt end.
Things will transform, the boy learns, and he is distantly aware that he is changing, too. Bringing the “frogspawn” to his classroom amounts to abduction, the boy realizes in the second stanza. The frogs are now “gathered there for vengeance” for the boy’s theft of their children. The simplicity of his youth has fallen away to the despondency of adulthood. He is self-actualized and self-aware now, reflecting on what he has done. This is a transformative moment—one that galvanizes the entire poem into a delicate exploration of a child’s coming of age.
Sylvia Plath’s poem “Daddy” explores the tortured feelings she has for her dead father, exploring not only her fears while he was alive but her emotions in his absence. In “Daddy,” she speaks directly toward her father and, shockingly, confesses that he died before she had the chance to kill him: “Daddy, I have had to kill you / You died before I had time” (6-7). The first stanza is preoccupied with the notion of having “lived like a foot” in a black shoe. The shoe symbolizes her feelings of being suffocated by her father and “barely daring to breathe.” The second stanza, by contrast, makes the first stanza seem upbeat; Plath’s narrator not only contends that she would have killed her father but casts him as a “[g]hastly statue.” Her tone is pointed and cruel in the third stanza, though she admits to “pray[ing] to recover you” when she was younger, signaling that she used to love him at an earlier time.
Over the course of the next few stanzas, Plath draws parallels between her father as a Nazi and herself as a Jew. Plath is focused on language and miscommunication here, referring to “the German tongue” and that she “never could talk to you / The tongue stuck in my jaw.” By using Nazi Germany to metaphorize the relationship between herself and Daddy, she casts herself as the victim. Plath seems less angry with her father than the fact that he has died; in doing so, there remains a great deal that is unresolved. His absence leaves her tongue “stuck in a barb wire snare,” as though all that is left of the Nazi metaphor are empty concentration camps—the symbolic architecture her father built.
“Daddy” continues along the same path, with Plath stating that “I have always been scared of you” and still seeing her father in this domineering, almost dictatorial role. However, the Nazi metaphors begin to gradually disappear near the end of the poem; the tone shifts into one of confusion and blind rage. The end is both bitter and punctuated by the line: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.” Plath is exhausted here, purging herself of the memories she has of her father. All of the anger built up throughout the poem rises to a deliberate crescendo here, as though she’s emotionally worked herself up to the point of being done with everything about him. (In many ways, this is the complete opposite of Hill’s “Two Formal Elegies” in that memories are damaging, painful, and not worth the trouble.)
With “Daddy,” Plath reverts to being a little girl once again, retreating not only from her “evil dictator” of a father, but from herself. She can only look at their relationship in adolescent terms, during the time when she prayed “to recover you.” Plath has some perspective on her father’s death, but not enough. Her father’s death is still too new and too raw—it is too much to consider directly. She needs to substitute herself with the younger version of herself in order to review it all. Difficult as it might be to consider, “Daddy” truly is a mournful piece. It is a poem alternately filled with longing and unbridled anger; Plath’s caustic, bruised poetry is the only way she knows how to fill the void left by her father’s death.
Ramazani, Jahan, Richard Ellmann, and Robert O’Clair. The Norton Anthology of Modern and
Contemporary Poetry. New York : W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.