Below, you will find a full poem and analysis of Rhyme of the Dead Self by ARD Fairburn. The speaker of the poem uses a dark tone in the poem, and there is an extended metaphor throughout the poem which suggests that it was not the man’s physical self which died, but in fact, his personality and psychology underwent a process of transformation.
Rhyme of the Dead Self
Tonight I have taken all that I was
and strangled him that pale lily-white lad
I have choked him with these my hands these claws
catching him as he lay a-dreaming in his bed.
Then chuckling I dragged out his foolish brains
that were full of pretty love-tales heighho the holly
and emptied them holus bolus to the drains
those dreams of love oh what ruinous folly.
He is dead pale youth and he shall not rise
on the third day or any other day
sloughed like a snakeskin there he lies
and he shall not trouble me again for aye.
- Stanza 1: Tonight I have taken everything that I used to be, and strangled that boy whom I was – that pale lily-white lad, I’ve choked him to death with my hands, these claws, catching him as he was dreaming in his bed.
- Stanza 2: Then, laughing, I dragged out his stupid brains that were full of pretty love stories – singing ‘heighho the holly’ – and emptied them all at once into the drains, the dreams of love, oh how destructive and stupid they were.
- Stanza 3: He is dead pale, that young boy, and he will not rise up on the third day or any other day – he lies there, cast off like a snakeskin, and he will not trouble me again for anything.
The speaker in the poem uses a dark tone to convey his anger and frustration at the ‘lily white boy’ that he used to be; he murders his former self while he lay ‘a-dreaming’ in his bed because the boy was prone to ‘folly’ – foolishness. There is an extended metaphor throughout the poem which suggests that it was not the man’s physical self which died, but in fact, his personality and psychology underwent a process of transformation. The boy is characterised as idealistic, with a head ‘full of pretty love tales’, whereas the speaker, who now considers himself to be a mature man, rejects the idea of love and sees is only as ‘ruinous folly’. The effect is to suggest that the speaker wants to break from his past self, and reform his character in a way that is stronger and more emotionally numb so that it can no longer be hurt by the world – this is often a response that young, idealistic individuals take when they experience an intense love that goes wrong, so we can infer that the speaker’s wish to kill his former self is born from a traumatic experience.
Animalistic imagery – ‘these my hands these claws’, ‘chuckling’, ‘sloughed like a snakeskin’ – the continued use of animalistic references are combined with ideas of violence and brutality, suggesting that violence is inherently part of the natural world, and perhaps that to do violence to oneself in the form of killing the version of ourselves that we used to be is a normal or natural process for maturity.
Symbolism – ‘pale lily-white lad’ – the characterisation of the speaker’s former self as ‘pale’ and ‘lily white’ symbolises a sense of weakness and sickness, suggesting that the boy was not strong or confident in himself. The ‘lily’ is also used often in literature to symbolise death and decay.
Repetition – ‘he shall not rise’ / ‘he shall not trouble me again’ – the assertive tone in the final stanza presents a sense of finality and closure – the speaker is very sure that he does not want to be reminded of the boy he used to be, and that he wants to change dramatically.
STRUCTURE / FORM
Title – the poem’s title alludes to the notion that the topic is metaphorical rather than literal; it is about killing the ‘self’ – the psychological process of changing one’s character and personality in a conscious way to be different from how one was before.
ABAB Rhyme scheme – as the poem is a ‘rhyme’, it naturally contains a regular rhyme scheme – perhaps to emphasise the speaker’s desire for control. The poem has a lilting, musical quality to it that is reminiscent of a folk ballad (see the context for more info).
To grow, we must let go of our former selves – the poem asserts that an entire break from the past is needed for an individual to grow and change into their mature, adult self. In the poem, this comes in the form of violence, which allows the speaker to entirely cut off from his past way of being. There are various approaches to maturity, and not all of them require a person to make a clean break from their former self – this is usually only employed in extreme cases, where the person is extremely unhappy about themselves and everything in their life – and even then, we should question whether this advice because it could leave the person feeling lost and confused about their own identity.
|TASK: What does the process of growth and maturity mean for you? Do you think you have to cut off entirely from your childhood and younger self? Or is there a way to keep the parts of yourself that you like, whilst changing the parts that you’d prefer to be different?
Write out a timeline of yourself and how you were at different stages of your life, in stages that are 5 years apart, including projections for how you think you will be in the next 5 years, and the next 10 years.
Sometimes it is better to consciously fashion a new persona, rather than feeling trapped in a previous way of being – The process of maturity and growth can happen gradually, or quickly – it can also be subconscious or a deliberate, conscious decision. Here, the speaker actively makes a choice to change his ‘self’ and say goodbye to his former self, albeit in a violent manner where he envisages killing the boy that he was in order to become an unemotional, toughened individual. The poet does not necessarily agree with the speaker in the poem – the effect is more to help us question our own process of growth and change, and how we respond to negative experiences.
Traumas and bad experiences can cause a drastic change in personality – from a psychological perspective, we can see that the speaker suffered a shock which caused him to feel like he had to ‘toughen up’, to change from the sweet and innocent boy that he was in his youth. While not all may agree with this response to shock, we can see that it’s a defence mechanism he crafts in order to never feel so hurt again.
Folk Ballad Allusions – The poem draws much of its tone and imagery from folk ballads, which are often dark and tell tales of murder. The term ‘lily-white lad’ is possibly a reference to the folk nursery rhyme ‘Green Grow the Rushes Oh’, which mixes Christian and Pagan references and is intended to help children understand the wider spiritual cosmology of the world. Furthermore, the term ‘heigho the holly’ references another song, a folk carol that expresses sadness and regret, based around the phrase ‘most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly’ – the idea that friendship and love don’t last and are based on pretences. This sentiment echoes the speaker in the poem’s wish to do away with his youthful idealistic foolishness, embracing a more realistic and mature way of being.
Christian Allusions – the phrase ‘rise up on the third day’ relates to the story of Jesus’ resurrection, where he came back to life after having died from crucifixion – the message in the Christian tradition tends to be that Jesus transcended his suffering and was born anew. However, the young boy in the poem will not rise, like Jesus, there seems to be no opportunity for rebirth or transcendence in the poem, the speaker has suffered a loss or trauma that requires him to entirely kill his former self and fashion a completely new adult self that has no connection with his past.
|TASK: Pick two of the themes below, make a mind map and add four separate quotations that relate to it. Make short notes of analysis, explaining how and why each one relates to your theme. What, in your opinion, is the poet’s final message or statement about each theme that you chose?|
- Unrequited love
POSSIBLE ESSAY QUESTIONS
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