Learn English » English Literature » Poem 'Song for a Birth or a Death' by Elizabeth Jennings
Song for a Birth or a Death
Last Night I saw the savage world
And heard the blood beat up the stair
The fox’s bark the owl’s shrewd pounce
The crying creatures all were there
And men in bed with love and fear
The slit moon only emphasised
How blood must flow and teeth must grip
What does the calm light understand
The light which draws the tide and ship
And drags the owl upon its prey
And human creatures lip to lip?
Last night I watched how pleasure must
Leap from disaster with its will
The fox’s fear, the watchdog’s lust
Know that all matings mean a kill
And human creatures kissed in trust
Feel the blood throb to death until
The seed is struck, the pleasure’s done
The birds are thronging in the air
The moon gives way to widespread sun
Yes but the pain still crouches where
The young fox and the child are trapped
And cries of love are cries of fear
Song for a Birth or a Death (1961) by Elizabeth Jennings offers a novel look at love, and is confessional in nature.
The speaker describes an experiential world in which she “saw the savage world”. The author paints a picture that is feral and wild, where she can hear the “fox’s bark and “the owls shrewd pounce”. These creatures were in the throes of some pain and violence, and the world of human beings is no better. In keeping with the savagery in the animal world, there are “men in bed with love and fear”.
In the second stanza, the speaker continues to paint the picture of violence and savagery. The “slit moon” is connected in violence to “blood must flow and teeth must grip”. The night appears to be ‘calm’ but in fact, actually the moon “drags the owl upon its prey”. In the same savage and violent way, human love is also portrayed. The moon draws “human creatures lip to lip”. The writer seems to imply that human love is every bit as instinctual as the owl being drawn towards its prey.
The third stanza has a reference to a personal experience; it begins with “last night”. The experience has shown the writer how “pleasure” is blended with “disaster”. In other words, that which brings pleasure to human beings has an element of savagery to it. However, the pleasure leaps from “disaster” due to sheer power of will. This perhaps is the difference between animal instincts and human behaviour. In the animal world, there is “the fox’s fear” and “the watchdog’s lust” and “all matings mean a kill”. However, “human creatures kissed in trust” but animal instincts still reside in man. The writer’s own experience has given her the idea that human beings have will power to raise their experiences from a feral level, but they hide their animal instincts underneath.
In the final stanza, the writer refers to the culmination of human love as “the seed [was] struck” with which “the pleasure’s done”. Soon as the pleasure is over, she describes the birds as “thronging in the air” and “the moon gives way to widespread sun”. even though this should suggest happiness, the writer seems to imply that the sun is shedding light on the pain and fear which “still crouches where the young fox and the child are trapped”. The writer ends the poem by asserting that “cries of love are cries of fear”. Even though human beings are capable of rising above their animal instincts, they are not free of the fear and pain that is part of love.
Language and imagery
The poem is replete with animal imagery and choice of words that are of a violent and savage nature. Words such as “blood”, “beat”, “bark”, “pounce”, “slit”, “grip”, “disaster” and “crouch” are all indicative of the basic idea that the writer wants to convey, which is that love is essentially, under the surface, savage and instinctual, just like that of animals. The irregular rhyming scheme contributes to the lack of ‘sweetness’ of the poem. It talks about tough matters.