The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

Post-war poetry

BEFORE

1945 Anglo-American poet W H Auden’s Collected Poetry includes work on public politics and the start of his religious imagery, reflecting the crisis of modern society.

1957 In The Hawk in the Rain, English poet Ted Hughes explores love and war through and alongside the symbolic lives of animals, showing a world of struggle mirroring the one of humanity.

1964 English poet Philip Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings is a series of poems conscious of the decline of established familial and social relations.

1965 US poet Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, published posthumously, sees a shift to a dark and unsettling flow of imagery, borrowing from the horrors of war crimes.

The political, cultural, and personal landscape of the generation of poets that sprang up after World War II was one scarred by the war’s atrocities and filled with guilt. Writers and other artists had a troubled relationship with the past, whether public or personal. In the work of poets such as W H Auden, Ted Hughes, and Philip Larkin, personal relationships often stood in for wider interactions, and the memory of the war insinuated itself in imagery, references, poetic forms, and style.

Memory and change

The first major poetry collection by Irish poet Seamus Heaney (1939–2013), the successful and acclaimed Death of a Naturalist, explores the schism between childhood and adulthood, past and present as a version of the division between a pre-war and a post-war world. Themes and imagery invoke nature, family, human labour, and rural Irish landscapes in poems such as “Blackberry Picking” and “Churning Day”. While there is no progression of a narrative in the collection, the 34 poems all revolve around similar elements of style and thematics, with natural imagery used to highlight the effects of the war upon external and internal spaces. In the second poem, “Death of a Naturalist”, a boy encounters frogs that Heaney likens to grenades of mud, rupturing the childhood connection with nature.

The past is also incarnated in Heaney's family members, his father in particular. In “Digging” he shows their now outmoded link to manual labour and expertise in older ways of life, recalling his father digging for potatoes and his grandfather digging turf. Yet their labour, after all, is perhaps not too different from his own, as Heaney almost apologetically recognizes writing as a link to his earthier, more “useful” forebears.

Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past”.

See also: The Waste Land • The Bell Jar • Crow