Thetheme of suffering is often a sensitive subject to most people. This is becausethe word itself may invoke negative thoughts or memories which people wouldusually want to ignore. Poetry frequently utilises the theme of suffering togive a voice to the voiceless as while the theme is sensitive, it also forcespeople to perceive the true reality that they often ignore. The poems ‘WarPhotographer’ by Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Prayer Before Birth’ by Louis MacNeice and’Mother in a Refugee Camp’ by Chinua Achebe present this theme conscientiouslythrough the eyes of a person who is not suffering themselves but is a witnessto it. In War Photographer the protagonist isforced to bear witness to the pain of the people around him, but he cannotexpress his own agony as it is his job to only spectate not commiserate. Oneway that the poem does this is through its language; the line “The only lightis red and softly glows” contains religious imagery which is used to portraysuffering.
The “red light” could allude to the red light used in confessionchambers, enlightening the reader of the fact that the photographer feelsguilty of not being able to help the victims and also going so far as to takepictures of their corpses. Additionally, the stanza ends with the line “Allflesh is grass” which is taken from the New Testament. The line informs thereader of how gruesome the war zone actually is as the sight of “flesh” orbodies layering the earth is as common as seeing grass. Thestructure of War Photographer presentssuffering through the stanza length. There are four stanzas with each havingsix lines.
The stanza lines in the poem are about the same length which couldrepresent the pictures that the photographer takes. The lines being similar inlength could symbolize the pictures being in “ordered rows” or it could also illustratehow alike the contents of each photograph is, with each depicting suffering indifferent situations. This could also be reflective of pews in church, thusemphasising the religious theme.
Duffy’s intention when planning out thestructure may have been to also show that the photographer tries to establishorder in the pandemonium of the society that seems to crumble to pieces aroundhim. Thepoem also characterises the idea of suffering through its form. To convey this,Duffy uses Enjambment to emphasise the poem’s form as it improves the flow ofthe poem and makes it seem more story-like. This technique is also used tocontrast the peace felt by the photographer with the pain felt by the millionsof dying people. Another technique used is Caesura particularly in the line “.
Rural England.” The periods before and after Rural England almost seem toseparate England from the rest of the poem, representing how ‘protected’England is from all the chaos that takes place in other countries. Similarly,the poem Nettles expresses the agonyof a father when he sees his child injured due to falling into a Nettle bed. Heeventually then cuts down and burns the nettles as he seeks vengeance. The line”And went outside and slashed in fury with it. Till not a nettle in that fierceparade, Stood upright anymore.
” effectively depicts the father’s rage andhatred towards the nettles, as he sees himself as the only person who can’save’ or ‘avenge’ his son. The line is also an extended metaphor alluding tothe theme of war, where the phrase “fierce parade” may symbolise a battlefield,hence comparing the father’s violent actions to that of a soldier fighting forhis country. The line “But in two weeks the busy sun and rain. Had called uptall recruits behind the shed” uses the extended metaphor to inform the readerof the fact that conflict is never resolved and soon another “war” will beginagain. It makes the reader think about how no matter how many soldiers arekilled more will eventually take their place, hence any action taken againstthem is rendered futile.
This is similar to the war photographer never beingable to stop taking photographs as there will always be war and suffering inanother place. Thelanguage used in Prayer before Birthportrays suffering to be a fear in the mind of an unborn foetus who begs for alife without misery and torment. The poem also portrays the theme of suffering through thecontrast of imagery in each stanza. The imagery depicted in phrases such as “inblood baths roll me” and “when they murder by means of my hands” have verynegative and gruesome connotations and the imagery helps to present the idea ofnot having any freedom and hence being controlled by society. On the otherhand, stanza 2 contains phrases such as “sky to sing to me” and “birds and awhite light”.
These lines have very positive connotations and also depict somereligious imagery, with the phrases creating the idea of heaven and words like”white” referring to purity and “water” may refer to baptism which is a processthat in which people are absolved of theirsins. The juxtaposition between these two types of imagery adds emphasisto the contrast of reality and a paradise. This in turn enhances the theme ofsuffering, as the contrast tells the reader how terrible the real world is, andhow people are forced to do things against their will. Another way in whichsuffering is presented in Prayer before birth is through the phrase “would makeme a cog in a machine, a thing with one face” in which the foetus is comparedto an insignificant object such as a cog. The symbolism used further emphasiseshow the narrator is controlled by society where he is seen as unimportant andirrelevant. Suffering is also effectively portrayedparticularly through the structure in the poem Prayer Before Birth.
This is evidently done through the use ofimperatives such as “console”, “guide”, “forgive” and “kill”. This is done tosupport or reinforce the idea of the poem being a prayer and the imperativesused are pleas. Another important element in the structure of the poem is therepetition of the phrase “I am not yet born” except in the last stanza. Thephrase establishes the concept of the narrator being an unborn foetus hence it compelsthe audience to think of the innocence of the foetus contrasting with itsthoughts and prayers to be free of corruption, which in turn emphasises thetheme of the poem. The sentence being excluded in the last stanza which is alsothe shortest stanza adds particular significance to the notion of its contents.
The last stanza ends the poem abruptly perhaps in a last plea to the higherbeing. It adds emphasis to the word “kill” which is also the most powerful andgrim imperative in the poem. Theform that Louis MacNeice utilises in his poem Prayer before Birth is that of a psalm. A psalm is hymn which isalso used while praying. MacNeice writes in this form to portray the poem as aprayer which is also blatant in its title. Suffering is presented this way as inreality people often pray when they are suffering in a dilemma of some sort, hencewriting the poem as a prayer has a large effect on the audience, who areobliged to take a look at the prayers of someone other than themselves.
Prayer Before Birth’s form also depictssuffering through the layout of each stanza. The lines in each stanza slowlydescend with the contents of each line being more horrific the lower the lineis. This could connote to slowly going down the steps to hell, which would beanother form of religious imagery.
This helps the audience visualise how righteousnessslowly turns into immorality, and makes them thoroughly reflect on the world welive in today which is also the poet’s intention. Thepoem Manhunt by Simon Armitage alsoportrays suffering through several comparisons of the human body to inanimateobjects creating a lexical field. One clear example of this is the line “Onlythen could I bind the struts, and climb the rungs of his broken ribs”. In thiscase, the man’s ribs are compared to a ladder and each rung on the ladder couldrepresent the steps the woman takes to return to their normal life. This showsthe reader that even though they are partners, the man’s new self seemsunfamiliar and the wife is hesitant to take each step, which is also impliedthrough the phrase “Only then”.
Furthermore, the comparison of the man’s bodyto artificial objects characterises him to seem less human or entirely depicthim to have lost his humanity and he is now more like an object that islifeless. The word “bind” is used to portray how the wife is trying to slowlyheal him and help him return to their prior life by mending his ribs. Sufferingis also depicted extensively in Mother ina Refugee Camp where a mother slowly comes to terms with her child’s eventualdeath, while other mothers in the camp are apathetic towards the death of theirown children. One way that this is shown is through the language that Achebeuses to elevate the protagonist over the other mothers in the line “Othermothers there had long ceased to care, but not this one.” Achebe uses emotivelanguage to depict suffering through familial love to place emphasis on thefact that the other mothers in the camp do not care about the survival of theirchildren and have perhaps accepted and have gotten used to the idea of theirchildren dying. However, the protagonist in the poem is portrayed to have onlyone concern: her child. The phrase “ghost smile” uses an oxymoron whichprovides a contrast between life and death, and helps to place particularsignificance on the little happiness the mother has left. This phrase alsoforeshadows the bittersweet end to the poem where the child passes away, and istherefore a representation of the mother’s feelings of despair towards theson’s spirit or ‘ghost’.
Mother in a Refugee Camp has a veryunique structure which contributes to the theme of suffering illustrated in thepoem. Achebe structures the poem in one continuous stanza to portray and symbolisethe idea of the refugee camp being a place where suffering is continuous. This couldalso have been done intentionally so that the reader is forced to focus on themessage of the poem as the poem slowly delves into the death of the child.Another technique used to emphasise suffering in the structure of the poem isthe powerful use of juxtaposition in their life before with their current life.For example, the line: “In their former life this was perhaps, a little dailyact of no consequence” is used to remind the reader that all the refugees inthe camp had normal lives once and weren’t condemned to live in their currentsituation.
This in turn makes the reader imagine themselves in this situationmore clearly, highlighting the Pathos element in the poem as they feelsympathetic towards the refugees particularly the mother who was forced to livein such terrible conditions despite doing nothing wrong. Theform in Mother in a Refugee Camppresents suffering through Achebe’s use of free verse. The poem being writtenin free verse has the effect of having a story-like structure which in turnabsorbs the reader into the poem’s plot and setting. Free verse is also knownto sound similar to natural speech and hence suggests the notion of freedom. Inthis way, Achebe portrays the refugees in the poem as wanting to be free whichheavily contrasts against the strong theme of suffering also presented in thepoem.
Thepoem Kamikaze written by BeatriceGarland presents similar themes to that of Mother in a Refugee Camp such assuffering through Familial Love, although the poem presents this is a differentway. While Mother in a Refugee Camps portrays this type of suffering throughthe death of a loved one, Kamikaze on the other hand illustrates this kind ofsuffering through the Familial rejection, due to cowardice. The last line “hemust have wondered which had been the better way to die.” effectively conveysthis to the reader.
This tells the reader how poorly the father or ‘Kamikaze’was treated when he returned, enough to make him contemplate death. Tohighlight the theme of suffering Garland also uses emotive language. The line “onlywe children still chattered and laughed” is immediately contrasted by the line”to live as though he had never returned, that this was no longer the father weloved.” in the next stanza. This tells the reader that even though the childrenloved their father they need to act as if he never existed, similar to theother mothers in the refugee camp. Inconclusion, the theme of suffering is effectively utilised by poets in order toillustrate the true reality to a society that is shielded. The theme is oftencomplemented by language techniques such as emotive language to convey theoverall moral of the poem.