Exercise 16 - Poetry
Read the poem by Richard Church below and answer the questions at the end.
In these latter days
Few poets have the habit
Of singling out for praise
But I am old enough
And of a generation
To vaunt, though crabbed and gruff,
Her attributes are such
As most men take for granted,
Until death comes to clutch
She is of quiet glance;
But O, her spill of laughter!
All joy is summed by chance
In one woman
Yet when she hears a tale
Of suffering and evil,
She’ll tremble and grow pale
Beyond all laughter’s end,
And past the reach of sorrow;
Lover and working friend,
But words are too cross-grain
For me to tell the secret
Of what makes her remain
The one woman
Vaunt = ‘praise highly’, ‘extoll’; crabbed = ‘irritable’
Copied from The Harrap Book of Modern Verse, George Harrap and Co.Ltd, London 1964
1 Show that you understand this poem by writing a short prose text that sums up its content.
2 Why is this poetry?
3 What do you think the gradual change in the last line of each stanza implies?
- Richard Church’s poem is particularly interesting in the way he uses one woman, this woman and finally the one woman. We understand it to mean that he is not saying that all men love the same individual, but rather that each man has his own very special woman who possesses the qualities he describes. Here is an attempt to give the gist of the poem in normal prose.
In these modern times few poets single out and praise one particular woman. But I am old enough to adore one woman, even though she might be grumpy and hard to please. Most men see nothing special in that one woman until suddenly death leaves them single. All joy of summer happens to be reflected in the woman’s laughter and calm eyes. Yet, when she hears a sad tale, her empathy absorbs other people’s suffering to the extent that she will tremble and grow pale. When laughter subsides and sorrow remains intense, that woman is still my companion in love and work. But words are too crude to explain why she continues to be my one woman.
- First of all, it is written in stanzas with short lines where the first and third line of each have end-rhymes.
Further, the repetition in the last line has a strong cumulative effect, making it clear that there is no doubt about the speaker’s devotion to his one woman.
A word like vaunt is formal, otherwise the diction (= choice of vocabulary in poetry) is relatively simple.
In some places normal grammar has been changed to serve a poetic purpose, e.g. the end-rhymes in stanzas 1 and 2. Normal grammar would be:
the habit of singling out one woman for praise
…of a generation to vaunt one woman, though crabbed and gruff.
In stanza 4 the form But O, her spill of laughter! shows that the speaker is emotionally moved.
In many places the language is so compact that we can rightly talk about poetic images, e.g.
All joy is summed by chance in one woman
Beyond all laughter’s end, and past the reach of sorrow; lover and working friend…
- We think that the change in the last line from one woman to this woman and to the one woman is a way of gradually zooming in on the unique woman that is the speaker’s love. above.