Sparrow and Rose – Critical analysis

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In this essay I intend to look at two poems: Sparrow by Thom Gunn and Rose by Walter de la Mare. I will analyse each poem in terms of their tone, treatment, subject and verse technique and then compare them to see if there are any significant similarities or differences between them. Both poems are examples of lyric poetry. The main features of lyric poetry are strong emotional feeling and extensive use of imagery. Lyric poetry covers everything from hymns, lullabies, and folk songs to the huge variety of love songs and poems. The content of lyric poetry is as varied as the concerns of people in every period and in every part of the world.

Attitude and manner were the distinctive aspects of 20th century poetry. Gunn felt that to sentimentalise was to diminish the meaning within a poem. His poem Sparrow completely exemplifies this opinion and the overall style of 20th century poetry. It is written as a speech from a homeless beggar and it gives the reader an outlook on his life. The title of the poem is the nickname of the beggar, Sparrow. Gunn is using a nature comparison by comparing the beggar to the bird; he perhaps feels that sparrows are scavengers and are as helpless as the beggar is. It could also be because living on the streets means the beggar is close to nature. The poem is structured into seven stanzas, each with four lines. This is quite a simple structure, which could serve to represent the intellect of the beggar. The first stanza stands out on the page, as it is slightly indented and also has a different rhyme scheme to the rest of the poem (a, a, b, b). This has the effect of drawing the reader’s attention to it and making it seem more significant than the other stanzas. Its tone differs from that of the other stanzas in the poem, as it acts as a soliloquy; it is the cry of the beggar. Gunn uses the repetition of “change Sir” to create emphasis and add to the desperation of the tone. Using ‘Sir’ to address the person he is pleading to, suggests that Sparrow is polite and respectful, which allows the reader to sympathise with him more. If he were being aggressive the reader would feel that he deserved to be homeless and ultimately would not be moved by the poem. Moreover, I feel that the poet himself empathises with Sparrow’s situation and is subtly coaxing the reader into sharing his empathy. The following quote backs up my opinion, and outlines the underlying intentions of Gunn’s poetry:

“flowing like a vein of lava under the surface is a burning empathy — a ferocious outrage over so much meaningless human pain; the kind that lovers inflict upon each other, society upon the homeless, what is felt by AIDS victims, the lonely, and everyday outcasts.”

The style of the first stanza is quite childish as it is in the third person, which could again represent his level of intelligence and make him sound even more pitiful. The use of alliteration in “pity poor” could be a rhythmic device to help the poem flow, and it could also be used to link the two key words to give the overall idea of the poem, i.e. Sparrow is poor, therefor we should pity him.

The other six stanzas of the poem form the beggar’s speech and are written in first person. The rhyme scheme is a, b, a, b and is made up of full rhyme, which makes it very simple and clear. A negative lexical set is used throughout the poem; ‘bruised’, ‘dirty’, ‘sour’, ‘stale’. This makes Sparrow a perfect example of the way in which modern, 20th century poetry addressed the ugly and dirty things in life. Gunn appeals to the senses of the reader throughout the poem by describing smells, tastes and appearance. This helps to create another dimension to the poem; a vivid picture of what life is like for Sparrow which helps in the reader’s understanding of his situation. The beggar is very honest in the way he describes himself:

“in a loose old suit bruised and dirty

I may look fifty years old

but I’m only thirty”

His direct and brutal honesty helps in his (and the poet’s) bid for the audiences sympathies. There is a noticeable and complete lack of punctuation throughout the poem, which creates a ‘rambling’ effect and helps the poem to flow along continuously. This gives an idea of how Sparrow would be speaking.

The third stanza is where Gunn uses the most vivid descriptions. He uses consonance where he repeats the harsh, sibilant ‘s’ sound to reflect the harsh and cruel nature of Sparrows existence on the street:

“My feet smell bad and they ache

the wine’s gone sour and stale in my pores

my throat is sand I shake

and I live out of doors”

The poet doesn’t just use a simile to say Sparrows throat was like sand, he uses a metaphor; “my throat is sand” which makes it very powerful and direct. It is also an example of hyperbole, which is deliberate over exaggeration to create more sympathy. In the fourth stanza it says “in a leaky doorway in leaky shoes”, the poet uses repetition of the word ‘leaky’ to create emphasis and sympathy because even though he has tried to shelter from the rain it is in vain. Sparrow makes a pathetic attempt to deny his alcoholism in the fifth stanza, which makes him sound nave and innocent like a child:

“I need some change for a drink

of sweet wine Sir a bottle of sherry

it’s the sugar in it I think

will make me merry”

Sparrow then goes on to fantasize about what he would become once he is drunk. His dreams are hopelessly vague and pathetic, as the reader knows he could never fulfill them. It is significant that longer words are used in this stanza like ‘daredevil’ and ‘millionaire’ because they draw out the length of the lines which represents the beggar not wanting his dreams to end. There is also a significant use of soft nasal sounds created by the use of the consonants ‘m’, ‘n’ and ‘l’, which represent the change from harsh reality to the calm of dreams.

The final stanza of Sparrow is, in my opinion, the most significant:

“The bastard passed me by

fuck you asshole that’s what I say

I hope I see you cry

like Sparrow one day”

After all of the honesty and pleading, the man passes the beggar by and has no sympathy for him. The poet again uses repeated ‘s’ sounds along with fricatives: ‘ck’ and ‘c’, to create a harsh tone. Shocking expletives are used which help to emphasize the anger and astonishment that Sparrow feels at the way the man treats him. All the way through the poem Sparrow has been polite and harmless, so although he swears and shouts it seems to restore his dignity as a human being and secure the reader’s sympathies. His final hope of seeing the man suffer as he is suffering is the most pitiful of all, as the reader knows that there is no chance he will. I feel that the powerful and explosive nature of this last stanza highlights the strong feelings of Gunn himself about the way in which society treats the homeless. You get the impression that Gunn is using Sparrow as his mouthpiece in the end to express his own anger.

I turn now to consider Rose by Walter de la Mare. Walter de la Mare was a poet, novelist, composer and editor of the 20th century. This poem is about memories of the sister of Thomas Campion whose name was Rose. Thomas Campion was a poet and composer of the 16th century whose poems were mainly about beauty and contained a lot of nature imagery. Examples of these poems are Rose cheeked Laura and There is a Garden in her Face. I think it is significant that De la Mare mentions Campion in this poem. De la Mare was not a typical 20th century poet, as he was not effected by the Modernist changes in poetry. Instead he wrote traditional, sentimental poems like the style of Thomas Campion’s poetry. I feel that Campion was a big influence on De la Mare and the first three lines of Rose support my point:

“Three centuries now are gone

Since Thomas Campion

Left me his airs, his verse, his heedful prose.”

The fact that De la Mare says Campion left him those things suggests that he felt the need to continue in the style of Campion’s work. The repetition of ‘his’ creates a sense of possession and is also an example of a persuasive technique, the rule of three. The fact that he describes Campion’s prose as ‘heedful’ suggests that he feels Campion’s work is worth paying attention to and remembering.

The poem is split into three stanzas with six lines in each. The poem is quite complex in terms of its rhyme scheme: a, a, b, c, c, b which is made up mainly of half rhyme. The rhyme scheme represents the unusual layout on the page where the third and sixth line of each stanza (the ‘b’ rhymes) are significantly longer than the rest. This makes you pay attention to the content of those particular lines. Each stanza ends with ‘Rose’ which is a technique used to emphasise the subject of the poem so that you never forget whom De la Mare is talking about. In the second stanza, De la Mare goes into more descriptive detail and appeals to the reader’s senses. He uses romantic, nature imagery to compare Rose to flower fragrance. I dont feel that using ‘Woodruff’ is very effective because not everyone would have smelt the flowers of the plant so would not be affected by the description. Soft, nasal sounds are used which create a gentle and peaceful tone, which is a great contrast to the harsh tone of Sparrow. The fricatives sounds in “brittle dust” makes it more like the sort of bleak description you would find in Gunn’s poetry, but De la Mare dismisses harsh nature and follows it with ‘blossoming’ which contains gentle, nasal sounds. I feel that “rarest beauties” could be a reference to the beauties of the nature in the garden but because he says they ‘meet’, I feel that he is really referring to Campion and his sister.

The last stanza of Rose is a reflection of the memories and has a more sombre tone than the rest of the poem. The use of words such as ‘Faded’ and ‘changing’ suggests that memories fade over time, in particular the memories of Rose’s face; “Cheek, mouth, and childish brow”. Describing her face as ‘childish’ also suggests that Rose was young when she died. There seems to be a loss of hope because De la Mare says, “Where, too, her phantom wanders no man knows”, but hope is then renewed in the last three lines:

“Yet, when in undertone

That eager lute pines on,

Pleading of things he loved, it sings of Rose.”

De la Mare is saying that when you lower your voice you can hear the “eager lute”. The lute, which is an old stringed instrument, is personified as being ‘eager’ to represent Campion’s eagerness for his sister to return. The lute is significant because Campion write both words and music for his many songs with lute accompaniment. De la Mare says that the lute ‘pines on’ and is ‘pleading’ to create the sense of sadness and yearning that Campion felt at his loss of the “things he loved”

I move now to compare the two poems because I feel that they have some significant similarities and differences between them. Although Sparrow and Rose are very different poems, by very different poets, they still have significant similarities between them. Firstly, both poems are about people and have the names of their subjects as the title. Gunn and De la Mare both use the technique of appealing to the reader’s senses in order to draw them into the poem and they both compare their subject to nature (although De la Mare does this a lot more than Gunn). Both poems also end on a more sombre note compared with the rest of the poem. Although the poems have a few similarities, it is their differences that are more significant. Despite the fact that both poems were written around the same time, on studying their tone and treatment you wouldnt think this were true. Sparrow is typical of 20th century poetry, an unsentimental, modern poem that describes the dirty and ugly aspects of life. 20th century poetry was opposed to the sentimentality of previous poetry movements but although De la Mare was a 20th century poet, his outlook on the world was completely different to that of Gunn. He was not affected by (and ignored) the modern changes in poetry. Instead he wrote traditional poetry with sentimental values. An explicit and direct contrast between the two poems is the way in which smell is described. In Sparrow it says “my feet smell bad” but De la Mare describes a “fragrant smell”. Punctuation is used in Rose; whereas it is non-existent in Sparrow and the rhyme scheme of Rose is a lot more complex, which could suggest that the memory of Rose is much more complex than the existence of Sparrow. The structure of Rose on the page is also more complex and technical.

I feel that it has been worth studying and comparing these two poems as it has allowed me to understand that poems can be written at the same period in history but still be very different. De la Mare was obviously very bold to ignore the poetry ‘trend’ of his time and to write poetry in the style that he enjoyed in Campion’s poetry. De la Mare’s outlook on life was very different to that of Gunn and he would never be able to (or want to) write a poem like Sparrow. It could be said that De la Mare is more positive and optimistic in his poetry, but on the other hand Sparrow is a much more gritty and realistic poem that deals with real issues in society. I dont feel that anything significant is really said in Rose, it is just made up of memories that cannot be De la Mare’s true memories as he was not alive at the same time as Campion, therefor he could not have known Rose. I feel that this makes the poem falsely sentimental. On the other hand, De la Mare could be placing himself in Campion’s position after the death of his sister. Rose is a much more organised poem in terms of its form and diction but I feel that Sparrow is much more powerful in its meaning.


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