Love is one of the most intense emotions felt by man, and poems capture, explore and enhance this intensity. This genre of poetry is not only the most powerful, but also the oldest, dating back to far beyond Shakespeare’s eternal sonnet form. It is part of our cultural and literary heritage, for all to enjoy and express. Although many poems may bear resemblance to other poems, each has its own unique features. These will be explored and analysed in my essay, looking at the poems ‘The Barrier’ and ‘I Shall Return’ by Claude McKay and ‘The Sick Equation’ by Brian Patten. This analysis will identify the similarities and differences portrayed in relation to each other; as they all identify the prominent feature of love.
‘The Barrier’ expresses a form of painful, forbidden love between a man and woman, who unfortunately come from different racial backgrounds. The phrase “I must not” is repeated constantly as he reflects on each aspect of her beauty and wonder. By repeating this is shows he is resisting temptation, and this is a indication of the difficulty and the pain that is caused just for loving her. McKay’s love is portrayed in the way that he constantly refers to her with views of perfection, eyes that do not see flaws, evident in statements such as “Your sun illumined way”, “The fascinating note” and “You’re fair”.
Another powerful way in which McKay intensifies his emotional experience of love is through natural imagery. He compares his loved one’s eyes to the “dawning day”, which depicts his need for her, in the same way that the earth needs the sun, and is enlightened by each dawning day. The poet compares her voice to a “fluting river reed”, which conjures the image of pureness, sweetness and perfection. In the last stanza McKay focuses on her face, seeing and hoping to ignore “Loves softly glowing spark.” This ends the poem on a final note of despair, hopelessness for their love.
In ‘The Barrier’, McKay’s love is requited by the object of his desire, which makes their love even more heart-rending – the lovers presented in this poem love each other, however the simple division of race stops their love. The powerful, intense emotion that is focused on and heightened through the poem is highly effective, as the reader does not actually know the poem is about racism and the race barrier.
This is because although it is fairly evident that the poem is presenting forbidden love, it is not clear why McKay’s love is not allowed to grow and freely reign. The suspense increases until the final lines, where a door slams shut on the hope that has been formed throughout the poem. The final statement “For theres a barrier of race, You’re fair and I am dark” is the emotional climax of the poem, and brings out the suppressed pain of forbidden love in relation to the racial barrier.
‘I Shall Return’ is another Claude McKay poem, however is quite different from the forbidden love presented in the previous poem. In this poem a sense of patriotism is evident. The poem reflects McKay’s personal experiences, describes his move to America to fight for his beliefs, and his desperation to return to his homeland of Jamaica. This form of love is a yearning, longing love, a love for ones country.
Although both McKay poems are about topics that appear to be close to the poets heart , the fundamental difference is the fact that ‘The Barrier’ focuses on a person, whereas a ‘I Shall Return’ focuses on the importance of a place. Once again as he did in ‘The Barrier’, McKay uses repetition, in the use of the statement ‘I Shall Return’, the poem’s very title, at the opening of each stanza to emphasize the focus point of the poem. In this way McKay writes about his desire to return to his country. This goal appears nothing more than a distant dream, but with is repeated use of the phrase “I Shall Return” it becomes a mantra, and his dream seems to be within his reach. The use of repetition, in this case, instigates hope; whereas in ‘The Barrier’ it is a reminder of his resolve to avoid his true love.
The use of natural imagery to enhance his love seems to be a distinctive Claude McKay style. As with his description of the girl in ‘The Barrier’, McKay uses organic imagery to glorify Jamaica, make it appear beautiful and tempting to the reader. This is apparent in the way he describes simple features such as the noon as “golden”, or skies as “sapphire”.
His culture and background are focused upon in the last stanza. McKay, talks of native dances and tribal tunes are depicted as “delicious tunes”. The intense, vivid imagery aids the reader to understand McKay’s love of Jamaica and his desperation to return.
As with ‘The Barrier’, ‘I Shall Return’ presents a painful and heartbreaking form of love as a prominent feature. This is evident in the way McKay describes his return to Jamaica as a way to “ease his long, long years of pain” as with ‘The Barrier’, this final statement is an emotional climax to the poem, and enhances the suppressed pain of being torn from ones home.
‘The Sick Equation’ by Brian Patten is quite different from the McKay poems. Where both McKay poems depict a form of love, ‘The Sick Equation’ portrays a fear of love, a life without love and a lack of love. The poem is written in first person, like the McKay poems, and describes Patten as a young boy being forced to experience his parents’ world of hate, and believing that no marriage could be happy. The pain of his upbringing is palpable, in statements such as “all that household’s anger and its pain stung more than any teachers cane”. It is obvious that this belief was instigated from a young age, as Patten compares his parents’ lesson to a child’s equation, that one would learn at school. This equation states that where in school 1 + 1 = 2. However, at home, 1 + 1 must remain 1 + 1 and must never join to become 2. This is the lesson he learned from his parents.
As with both Claude McKay poems, Patten uses natural imagery to accentuate his cynicism towards love. This is evident in the way he forms an obsession with flight, comparing ones desire to love to flight. This is proved in the second stanza:
One among the many, whose dreams of flight
Weighed down by the soul,
And kept it down,
Because to the flightless
The dreams of flight’s an anguish
This is a clear representation of his fear of love. He believes that to hope to find true love is like dreaming of flying – the more one dwells on the dream, the more aggravated they become when it does not come true. Further examples of his comparisons to flight include the parallel he draws between divorce and the albatross, when he states “The shadow of that albatross – divorce – fall over groom and bride”. This confirms his belief that all marriage will end in divorce – it states that any bride and groom, when engaging in marriage, are inviting the “albatross of divorce” to destroy their love. Patten uses the comparison with an albatross for a purposefully contradictory effect – the albatross is a bird that watches over, protecting, according to story ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (the albatross watched over a ship’s crew, protecting them from the harmful sea). But in Patten’s poem it is used in a negative sense, as an assurance that divorce would follow newly-weds until it caught up with them.
Another example of natural imagery used to conjure an image and emphasize a point is in the statement “In that raw cocoon of hate”. The term “cocoon” gives the image of a protective casing, for a young being to grow inside. It is the place, or the time where one forms their beliefs, habits and basic nature. By describing this developmental stage as a “raw cocoon of hate”, it implies that this protection, this nurture and care was somewhat lacking. It shows, at the beginning of the poem itself, what Patten’s home life as a child was really like, and how this initial, early hatred was the seed in his growth, till he too was drawn into his parents’ hate.
Where both McKay poems end with a note of despair, and pain, ‘The Sick Equation’ ends with hope, a lesson learned. This lesson is introduced in the last stanza:
I was wrong of course,
Just as those who brought me up were wrong.
It’s absurd to believe that all others are damaged as ourselves,
And however late on, I am better off for knowing now
That given love, by taking love all in time can refute
The lesson that our parents taught,
And in their sick equation not stay caught
This instigates a shadow of sadness, because the line “And however late on” informs us that Patten spent years believing that love was pointless and painful. However, hope is established in the line “I am better off for knowing now…” – he now knows that love is a gift, and one cannot let one destroyed relationship dictate the fate of all lovers. This stanza states that he believes he was “wrong of course” and also knows his parents were wrong to expose their problems to him.
Patten realized the equation he learnt at home, so different from school was “sick” and should not have been dwelled upon. He eventually learns, and the lines “Given love, by taking love all in can in time refute the lesson that our parents taught” suggest that this has been learned from experience, that love can make one forget, or at lease ignore the pain that their parents caused and felt from their broken marriage. He realizes that not all marriages end badly, not “all others are as damaged as ourselves”. This lesson ends the poem on a positive note, different from the distress displayed in the last lines of the McKay poems. It restores faith in love.
The three poems analysed above present love in several different ways, from the temptation, risk and pain displayed in ‘The Barrier’; the patriotic yearning portrayed in ‘I Shall Return’; to the pain and distrust depicted in ‘The Sick Equation’. The natural imagery used in all three poems is evidently a highly effective way of intensifying the emotion. This stirs the reader’s sentiments, and instigates empathy and fascination. ‘The Barrier’ instigates frustration at the injustice of society and their prejudgements, at the realization of the power it has to hurt. ‘I Shall return’ brings out temptation; one truly wishes to see the wonders of Jamaica, expressed by the poet’s love for the country.
‘The Sick Equation’ activates sympathetic emotions, as most would believe that a life without love is a terrible thing – this is exactly what Brian Patten experienced due to his parents’ negligence. It also instigates a sense of happiness at the happy ending – Patten found love and realized he could not blame marriage for his and his parents’ misery. It is true that poems have the power to move, touch and inspire, and where all three poems had similar features, each was truly unique.