Five pounds fifty in change, exactly,
a library card on its date of expiry.
A postcard stamped,
unwritten, but franked,
a pocket size diary slashed with a pencil
from March twenty-fourth to the first of April.
A brace of keys for a mortise lock,
an analogue watch, self winding, stopped.
A final demand
in his own hand,
a rolled up note of explanation
planted there like a spray carnation
but beheaded, in his fist.
A shopping list.
A giveaway photograph stashed in his wallet,
a keepsake banked in the heart of a locket.
no gold or silver,
but crowning one finger
a ring of white unweathered skin.
That was everything.
This poem is perfectly suited to the Unseen Poetry Question for your English Literature Examination, whether you are AQA, WJEC or IGCSE.
The poet/narrator describes a dead man through the items found ‘About his person’ as the title suggests. These items evoke a sense of the dead man’s life through the use of the list, and perhaps (progressively) provide a reason for his untimely death which we come to believe may have been suicide.
I do find the detached tone and the clearly delineated list of contents found about the dead man’s person engender a sense of near scientific authority or investigation, making me wonder if the poet is operating like a Police Detective at a crime scene, investigating an untimely death, piecing together the evidence that is (ironically) a summary of the man’s life.
The list that represents the dead man is a bleak form of METONYMY as ‘things’ suggest the totality of a human being, yet these objects cannot speak of the entirety of a human being as they are mere objects and thus we sense a feeling of alienation and desolation because of the metonymical representation of character., which displaces who the dead man is, ever away from us and even from himself too.
But how to go about exploring the poem as an unseen?
Here’s a few suggestions!
- Always use verbs of ‘seeming’ that suggest uncertainty.
- You could also say ‘perhaps or ‘appears’. This gives you flexibility in terms of reading and allows for an easy change of opinion if you suddenly have a revelation about the poem and don’t want to cross half your answer out in the middle of your examination!
- Read through the poem slowly HEARING/LISTENING to its sounds as these give away so much in terms of TONE and MOOD…and MESSAGE. ( In this poem the regularity of the structure and form give pathos to the death of the unnamed character as the objects are the left overs of a regulated but finally despairing life?
- Pick out a word or phrase that seems STRANGE to you and think about its STRANGENESS and its EFFECTS.
- One student picked out the word ‘stopped’ and suggested that this was powerful as it mirrors the life/death through the literal and metaphorical reference to the watch. Time is suggestive of mortality and even of the heart beat, the very ‘pulse’ of life itself.
- ‘Stopped’ is also positioned literally at the end of a line and is end stopped (through the full stop after the word) thereby giving considerable impact to the idea of ending. Once we notice ‘stopped’ we track back to ‘expiry’ and also notice ‘ final demand’ and of course the grotesque ‘beheaded’ note.
- The word ‘beheaded’ infers an unnatural ending to life. It encourages a revision of our assumptions about the dead man. Perhaps the ‘final demand’ and the ‘explanation’ suggest suicide?
- I am struck by the oddity of the beheaded ‘spray’ of ‘carnation’. Has the dead man slashed his wrists? So the blood is sprayed about his wrists like a beheaded flower?
- We arrive at the poem’s end with the bleak, moving declaration of the ironically ‘unweathered skin’ suggestive of the absence of the wedding ring and then we pause through the end stopped line before the revelation, movingly unassailable, ‘That was everything.’
- We hear the truth of the last line and then know its power. The past tense ‘was’ reminds us how relationships can destroy us, hijacking us away from equilibrium, revealing our vulnerability and leaving us fragile even to the most mundane daily routine.
- A fabulous poem, where Armitage’s use of metonymy quietly unsettles before leaving us certain that as Larkin once write, ‘Home is so sad. and in Aubade, ‘this is a special way of being afraid.’
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