Analysis: The Cockroach by Kevin Halligan

Kevin Halligan was born in Toronto, Canada, in 1964. His collection Blossom Street and Other Poems is based on his travels.

On the surface the poem is about the speaker watching and describing a ‘giant’ cockroach and, in particular, its movements. In the final lines, however, the speaker identifies himself with the cockroach: ‘Except I thought I recognised myself’.
This connection made by the speaker suggests the metaphorical significance of the cockroach in the poem. The movements suggest different stages in his life. Indeed a number of time references add to the impression that this is a reflection by the speaker on stages in his own life: ‘At first’ (line 3), ‘But soon’ (line 5), ‘After a while’ (line 10).

There is a sense of direction and purpose, perhaps, in the early stage:
‘At first he seemed quite satisfied to trace
A path between the waistcot and the door’.
But later ‘He looked uncertain where to go.’
The octave is tightly structured with a regular rhyme scheme (ABABCDCD). The ‘But’ at the start of the second quatrain signals an important turning-point, as the cockroach’s movements become less certain (‘jog in crooked rings’).
There is use of enjambment at the end of the octave and beginning of the sestet, which it may be fruitful to explore: ‘a mild attack / Of restlessness’. Interesting, too, is the irregular rhyme scheme of the sestet (EFGEGF). How do the rhymes contribute to specific effects in the poem?

Discuss the meaning of the last three lines.
What do they make of the allusion to reincarnation: ‘due payment for some vicious crime’?
What do you understand by the poem’s final sentence: ‘I don’t know / Except I thought I
recognised myself’?

Begin with ‘start to pace’ and end with ‘stopped. He looked uncertain where to go.

How might the various movements described convey stages in the speaker’s life? What happens to the
movements as time passes? Do these descriptions have a more universal
application?

What change in the movement of the cockroach takes place in lines 5-8?

…soon he turned to jog in crooked rings’
‘flipping right over to scratch his wings’
‘As if the victim of a mild attack / Of restlessness that worsened over time.’
What does the word ‘restlessness’ reveal about the way the speaker views his own life?

Thematic links with set poems
Personal reflection: A Different History, Continuum, Summer Farm, Where I Come
From
Sonnet: Composed Upon Westminster Bridge

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Analysis: The Woodspurge by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

This poem is written by Christina Rossetti’s brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 – 1892). Leading light of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, he was as famous for his painting as for his poetry. This poem was written in 1856.
Like Christina Rossetti’s A Prayer, this poem also employs images drawn from nature but without the poetic and sensuous intensity of his sister’s poem. The title suggests that the woodspurge will be at the centre of the poem, but there is in fact no detailed description of this wild plant. Having stared at it during a mood of depression, the speaker learns just one thing about it: ‘The woodspurge has a cup of three’. The tone is matter-of-fact. The earlier mentions of ‘grass’ and ‘ten weeds’ are not described in any poetic detail either.

What there is of nature in the poem is used as a backdrop for the speaker’s depressed state of mind. He is carried along somewhat aimlessly by the wind until it stops. He sits down, his hair touching the grass, and among the weeds he notices the woodspurge. He seems to be in this position for some time: ‘My naked ears heard the day pass’. We do not, however, learn what has caused him to be so sad and miserable.

The relative lack of description (compare his sister’s poem) and the simple language perhaps serve to reinforce the speaker’s gloomy state of mind. There is an unusual insistent rhyme scheme (AAAA, BBBB etc.) and many of the lines are monosyllabic.

These features, too, may play a role in conveying the speaker’s unhappy state of mind.

Consider the force of the end rhymes and the use of monosyllables in conveying the mood in the first stanza, explore the description of the wind (the word ‘wind’ appears four times) and the effect it has on the speaker.
What impression do you have of the speaker from the first two stanzas?  Does stanza three depict an authentic picture of depression? Or might it seem contrived?

What effect is created by the use of oxymoron ‘perfect grief’? Do these lines provide the key to the poem’s meaning? Or do other lines provide the key?
Thematic links with set poems
Nature: Pied Beauty, Horses, Hunting Snake, Summer Farm, Where I Come From, Composed Upon Westminster Bridge
Personal reflection: A Different History, Continuum, The Cockroach, Where I Come From
Anti-romantic: Pike

Analysis: Birthday by Christina Rossetti

Christina Rossetti was born in England in 1820 and died in 1894. She wrote this poem when she was twenty-seven. Perhaps nowadays she is more famous for her poem Remember and the words of the Christmas carol In the Bleak Midwinter.

The title of the poem makes sense when the final two lines of the poem are read. Here her
love coming to her is described as ‘the birthday of my life’.

The poem is saturated with sensuous vocabulary.
Unfamiliar words such as ‘dais’ and archaic words such as ‘vair’ are explained in the glossary. 

There is a clear contrast between the content of each stanza. The first deals with actual images of nature and the second with the artificial and exotic images of nature (e.g. ‘gold and silver grapes’).

The first stanza describes the extent of the speaker’s happiness. The final line makes it clear that she is happier than all the things she describes because her love is coming to her.
In the second stanza she wishes to immerse herself in rich and beautiful surroundings in order to celebrate her love coming to her.

How would you read the three imperative verbs which relate to the act of creating something (‘Raise’, ‘Carve’, ‘Work’) in the second stanza? What other features of sound can you identify, and what effects do they create?

Explore the idyllic natural images in the first stanza: of the singing-bird, apple-tree and rainbow shell. What do the words (and sounds) reveal about the speaker’s mood? Do they think this is all about happiness, as the last two lines of the first stanza would seem to suggest: ‘My heart is gladder than all these’?
Consider how Rossetti vividly conveys the exotic nature of the things she
describes in stanza two.

Note contrasts between the two stanzas, both in their content and style.
Compare the last two lines of each stanza. 

Thematic links with set poems
Nature: Pied Beauty, Horses, Hunting Snake, Pike, The Woodspurge, Summer Farm,
Where I Come From, Composed Upon Westminster Bridge
Religion: A Different History, Pied Beauty

Analysis: Pike by Ted Hughes

Ted Hughes was born in Mytholmroyd in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England in 1930. His poetry discards Romantic notions about the natural world. He became British Poet Laureate in 1984 and was so until his death in 1998.

In Pike Hughes offers a far from Romantic view of nature in his depiction of this primitive and malevolent fish.
Stanzas 1 – 4 offers a mix of objective description (‘green tigering the gold’) and subjective description (‘their own grandeur).
Stanzas 5 – 7 include what appears to be personal anecdote of three pike kept at home inside an aquarium and then the grisly description of two large pike that had been locked in deadly combat: ‘One jammed past its gills down the other’s gullet’.
Stanzas 8 – 11 mingles personal recollection (‘A pond I fished, fifty years across’) with reflection.

Hughes reading the poem:

http://www.poetryarchive.org website:
http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoet.do?poetId=7078
Stanzas 1 – 4
How does the use of colours add to the dramatic impact of Hughes’ description?
Explore the effects of particular words or phrases: e.g. ‘Killers from the egg’, ‘malevolent aged grin’, ‘submarine delicacy and horror’, ‘The jaws’ hooked clamp and fangs’, ‘gills kneading quietly’. What do they make of the chilling line ‘A life subdued to its instrument’?
What qualities do you think Hughes attributes to pike?
Stanzas 5 – 7
Ted Hughes is economic with words, your explanation of what is happening might be longer than the actual poem.

What impressions are conveyed by the use of the word ‘jungled’?
This is another instance of a noun being made into a verb (see ‘tigering’ in the first stanza) –
What does the simile ‘as a vice locks’ add to the description?
Stanzas 8 – 11
Account for the shift in content and tone that occurs with stanza eight. The pond where the speaker went fishing in his youth is described as ‘deep as England’. Consider this simile with its connotations of England’s rich history and also the more immediate context of a boy fishing.
Explore how Hughes conveys the eerie atmosphere and the boy’s fear in the final three stanzas. Ask them to look at the words and also to listen to the sounds. It is interesting to hear the long ‘o’ sound in ‘rose slowly towards’ in the last line. How effective do you find this use of assonance and other uses of sound devices in adding to the drama of the situation?
Consider the ambiguity of the poem’s final two words: ‘me, watching’. Who is watching whom?
Thematic links with set poems
Nature: Pied Beauty, Horses, Hunting Snake, Summer Farm, Where I
Come From
Romantic v anti-romantic: Pied Beauty, Horses, Hunting Snake, A Birthday, Upon
Westminster Bridge
Time: A Different History, Continuum, Horses, The City Planners,
The Planners, Summer Farm

Analysis: Hunting Snake by Judith Wright

Judith Wright was an Australian writer, born in 1915; she died in 2000. She celebrated nature in many of her poems. In her later life she was a conservationist and campaigned for the rights of Aboriginal peoples.

Wright’s poem recalls something of D. H. Lawrence’s poem Snake. There is the same awestruck observation, a sense of stopping dead in one’s tracks.
There are three useful areas of content to focus on:
the description of the snake itself
the effect the snake has on the speaker and her walking companion
the brief mention of the creature being hunted.

Each stanza has four lines; each line has eight syllables; the rhyme pattern is similar for the first three stanzas but not the last: these are of course statements of the blindingly obvious. WHy does the poet write like this?

Ask students to picture the scene depicted in the first stanza. What do the words ‘grace’ and ‘gentlest’ convey? How is the suddenness of their stopping suggested? Consider the contrast between ‘Sun-warmed’ and ‘froze’. 

Discuss the words which describe the physical qualities of the snake. The word ‘reeling’ is interesting. In
what ways might it apply to the people as well as the snake?

The majestic qualities of the snake. They might consider the force of ‘the parting grass’, ‘glazed’, ‘diamond’ and ‘we lost breath’.
Consider the effect of the alliteration in ‘food’, ‘fled’ and ‘fierce’ (in stanza three).

Chart the reactions of the speaker and her companion to the snake as described in each stanza. How do the words used convey their reactions? What do you make of the poem’s final two lines and their relationship to the rest of the poem?

Some lines are monosyllabic and others almost so. Are there any lines where this feature particularly complements or reinforces the content?
Thematic links with set poems
Nature: Pied Beauty, Horses, Pike, The Woodspurge, Summer Farm,
Where I Come From, Upon Westminster Bridge
Personal reflection: A Different History, The Woodspurge, The Cockroach, Summer Farm,
Where I Come From

Analysis: Horses by Edwin Muir

Muir was born in 1887 on a farm in the Orkney Islands, where he lived a happy childhood. At the age of 14, he moved with his family to Glasgow, which he came to regard as a descent from Eden into hell. He became a critic and translator as well as poet. He died in 1959. This poem Horses should not be confused with his later more frequently anthologised poem The Horses.

The sight of horses now, in the present, leads the speaker to consider his feelings towards horses when he was a child: ‘Perhaps some childish hour has come again’.

The main focus is likely to be the various descriptions of horses and the speaker’s feelings towards the horses. There is an other-worldliness about them, something magical. Admiration and fear are mixed. There is a clear Romantic feel about the poem: e.g. ‘And oh the rapture…’
Some archaic words are explained in the glossary. Here are other words that students might usefully probe more closely:
Stanza 1: ‘lumbering’ gives the impression that the horses are moving in a slow, heavy and awkward way.
Stanza 2: pistons in the machines in an ancient mill are used to describe the movement of the horses’ hooves as the child ‘watched fearful’. The use of imagery drawn from the early industrial age is interesting in what it tells us about the child’s fear.
Stanza 3: the word ‘conquering’ suggests a reference to an even earlier age. The word ‘ritual’ and the descriptions ‘seraphim of gold’ and ‘ecstatic monsters’ hint at something pagan or pre-historic.
Stanza 4: the ‘rapture’ conveys a Romantic sense of worshipping these natural creatures:  see lines 2 – 4.
Stanza 5: ‘glowing with mysterious fire’ links with the ‘magic power’, which describes the horses he sees in the present day (in the first stanza).
Stanza 6: the powerful force of the horses is captured in the eyes gleaming with a ‘cruel apocalyptic light’. The religious imagery follows on from the ‘struggling snakes’ of stanza 5.Stanza 7: the repetition of ‘it fades’ suggests loss, straightforwardly the fading of his memory. ‘Pine’ means to feel a lingering, often nostalgic desire. 

In Stanza 2 there is a shift in time. The rest of the poem deals with the speaker’s recollection of his feelings as a child. What impression do you feel is created by the simile of the ‘pistons’? 

Stanza 3: The references in this stanza are to a pre-industrial age. 
Consider the effects of these words: ‘conquering hooves’, ‘ritual’, ‘seraphim of gold’ and ‘mute ecstatic monsters’. 
Stanzas 4 and 5: What contrast is signalled by the use of ‘But when at dusk…’ at the beginning of stanza five? What do they make of ‘mysterious fire’ here and the ‘magic power’ attributed to the present-day horses in stanza one?
Stanza 6: Analyse the effectiveness of the imagery: the ‘cruel apocalyptic light’ of their eyes and the personification of the wind.
Stanza 7: How is the tone different?

Thematic links with set poems
Nature: Pied Beauty, Hunting Snake, Pike, The Woodspurge,
Upon Westminster Bridge, Summer Farm
Time: A Different History, The Cockroach, The City Planners,
The Planners

Analysis: Continuum by Allen Curnow

Allen Curnow was one of New Zealand’s most celebrated poets. He died in 2001 at the age of ninety. He once said that some of his poetry tried to explore ‘the private and unanswerable’.

The poem begins with the personification of the moon: ‘rolls over’, ‘falls behind’ – except the speaker tells us he’s describing himself, and not the moon after all.

The second and third stanzas capture a certain restlessness and the man’s inability to sleep or ‘think thoughts’. From his porch he looks across the privets and palms of his garden at the night sky, ‘a washed-out creation’ – ‘a dark place’. Both of these phrases have metaphorical associations as well as literal meaning.

He observes two clouds: ‘one’s mine / the other’s an adversary’. This observation is likely to be at the heart of student discussions. Why is one cloud his, and in what way? In respect of the other cloud, dictionary definitions of ‘adversary’ are helpful: ‘opponent in a contest or conflict’, ‘a force that opposes or attacks’, ‘enemy’. Which of these meanings do they feel is most suitable here, and why?
He seems unaware of the time and cold: ‘A long moment stretches’, and ‘the chill of / the planking underfoot’. Finally he returns to bed. The poem ends with an image of the poet observing himself as it were: ‘cringing demiurge, who picks up / his litter and his tools’. This description of himself is central to the poem and its original observations about the nature of poetic inspiration. A demiurge is a craftsman plying his trade for the use of the public – which is an interesting metaphor for the poet. But why is the demiurge described as ‘cringing’?

Consider the mood of the first two stanzas. What are their first impressions of the speaker? What does personification of the moon and the man’s identification with the moon reveal about the speaker?

What meaning and effects created by sound in the phrase
‘Better barefoot it out…’? What is he trying to escape from?

Lots of examples of enjambment but say WHY the poet uses this. Ask them to look closely (and listen attentively) to the end of stanza two and the beginning of stanza three, and also the end of stanza three and the beginning of stanza four. What are the effects of the enjambment at these points in the poem?

‘washed-out creation’ and ‘a dark place’. What do these descriptions reveal about the speaker’s mood?

‘A long moment stretches, the next one is not / on time’
‘…for its part the night sky empties / the whole of its contents down’.
What is the night sky’s ‘part’ is in all of this?

The end of the poem has the poet describing himself in a detached and objective way, as if looking at another person. The speaker closes the door behind on the author, we are told.

Why is he ‘cringing’? What are ‘his litter and his tools’? What does ‘stealthily in step’ suggest about the poet’s state of mind? It might be useful to look at the different meanings a dictionary gives for ‘stealthy’.

http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoet.do?poetId=133
Thematic links with set poems
Personal reflection: A Different History, The Cockroach, Summer Farm, Where I
Come From
The natural world: Pied Beauty, Horses, Hunting Snake, The Woodspurge,
Summer Farm, Where I Come From, Upon Westminster
Bridge