Stormcock in Elder by Ruth Pitter

Stormcock in Elder by Ruth Pitter is a Romantic poem in a traditional style. Even though written much after the Romantic movement in England, this poem is a perfect fit for those times when a lot of poems were written about birds and most of the writers adhered to themes which pivoted around far away and long ago situations. The theme of this descriptive poem is clear from the title itself. However, in the very first line of the poem, the word ‘dark hermitage’ about which there is no other reference gives the poem its Romantic quality. The reader too is left to imagine the situation for himself. In the same stanza,

From the world’s sight and the world’s sound,

reminds us of the escapism common among Romantic poets. Terry Eagleton, a famous critic accuses such poems of misleading the public into a kind of hallucination and thereby mitigate the effect of the immediate surrounding on them. He argues that the Romantic movement was one of the reasons why there was no revolt against the life of misery led by the poor in England after the Industrial revolution. In the lines following, the satisfaction of celestial presence is presented as a compensation for food which is one of the crucial basic needs.

Having stated her stance thus, the poem goes on to describe the bird and the situation in vivid detail.

In these lines we see the poet herself singing a Romantic strain in a world where other poets are exploring the miserable human conditions of the twentieth century.

The old unfailing chorister
Burst out in pride of poetry

Apart from the rich visual imagery, we also come across several references to wealth in these lines:

Gold sequins, spots of chestnut, shower
Of silver,

And then,

Full-fed in February, and dressed
Like a rich merchant at a feast.

Such references to affluence cannot be considered coincidences in poetry but a clue to the perspectives on life that the poet takes. Like silence, the absence of certain kind of images also speak louder in a poem, when they are conspicuous by their absence.

In the last stanza the poet seems to express her compassion for the doomed but actually she is siding with the others here:

One-half the world, or so they say,
Knows not how half the world may live;

This other half of the unknown world is the privileged half and the poet asks the bird to sing of those. In most of her poems, she herself has chosen to sing solely and soulfully about them only.

The craft of the poet is commendable though it is out of time. Crammed with visual and auditory images which do pull their weight, the poem’s consistent rhyme scheme ababcc hold the stanzas together and helps in making meaning. The words have been chosen mostly with a keen ear to how they sound. This is evident in how well the poems fits the metre as well as how well it rhymes. The divine effect of the reference to Gabriel in the end is a little marred by the reference to the broken tile.

As bright as Gabriel to smile
On elder-spray by broken tile

It is possible that the phrase ‘broken tile’ was chosen for its rhyming potential. But the word broken refers also to shifting grounds since she has already made a religious reference to the myth of Gabriel.

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