These two poems were written about ninety years apart, Charles Hamilton Sorely wrote The River in 1913 and in the nineteen nineties Andrew Motion (Poet Laureate) wrote Fresh Water. Both poems are about rivers, which isn’t exactly surprising, but also much more. Poetry as a genre is generally used to say something else, an ulterior message; poetry is used as a metaphor, and these poems are no exception.
Continually moving forwards, some times speeding up, some times slacking, meandering gently or going through a rough patch. Its course unchangeable and inevitable, eventually coming to an end and becoming something bigger…
Sorely’s poem The River is set at the same time it was written in nineteen thirteen. In brief it describes the constant fore coming, inevitable darkness of the first world war, the poet would have seen the political situation of Europe at the time and had realised there was going to be a momentous war.
Fresh Water is set throughout the poet’s life. He uses his experiences to describe the story of another, to set the scene for a bigger picture.
The River’s protagonist is a young man, looking into the not so distant future and predicting the death of not only his self but also civilisation as a whole. The poem is semi-autobiographical as the poet could see death in the Great War was not only the fate of his character but his own as well.
Fresh water is also semi-autobiographical, the author appears in every part of the poem but the purpose of this verse is not to tell his story but a story that runs parallel to his own, that of Ruth Haddon who died in The Marchioness disaster on the Thames, and to whom the poem is dedicated.
It is not autobiographical in the same way The River is; Fresh Water may have the author appearing in the poem but the verse does not suggest where his life is going, only where his past has been. The River has both.
The atmospheres the two poems are quite different. The River is a very dark poem, the word black appearing in most verses. It centres on darkness and despair, the poet sharing his emotions with his audience, to convey the anxiety he feels about the mounting inevitability of his death in a war that seems to be on an unchangeable course, constantly moving towards him, a river of death. The use of words like black invoke emotion, when some one describes them selves as going through a ‘dark’ or a ‘black-time’ it means they have had experienced some great emotional upset; stress, depression, bereavement, and the author uses certain words to cause the audience to remember these times and feel the same emotions again, emotions the author is going through. The author connects with his audience using shared experiences.
Fresh water is a different type of poem all together; it is progressive as The River is static. The River is set in one time, one place, where as fresh water takes one on a journey through both time and space. The atmosphere that Fresh Water has about it is far more contemplative, it shows one situation and then gives an entirely different view point to it at the end of the poem, giving the poem another layer and causing the audience to think about it a lot more, making the poem resonate in their heads so they will always remember the emotion they felt when think of it. The River on the other hand describes its situation as it is. The only other layer to this poem is the metaphor of war and the fate of death.
Fresh Water does become increasingly sadder as it progresses but still does so in a beautiful way. At the beginning the two characters seem to have great naivety about them. As the poem moves on the characters involved use the river for fun, as they punt on it, it then becomes more serious as everybody hurried away from the banks as the police dredge the bed. This is the point the poem changes direction, speed and purpose, at exactly the same time the river does. Here the poet looks back on past memories of the river and realises the before now it has only been used for pleasure, now it has to take on a much more serious role, he will never look at the Thames in the same way again. As the setting moves on, so does the river, further and further away from the source.
Even though the characters in the first section of Fresh Water are nineteen there is still a certain ‘childness’ about them, watching a river emerge from nothing with total fascination. As the poem moves on further we see them mature into ‘young lads’ even though they are probably in their mid-twenties. As the poem moves onto section three and the police are diving into the water the protagonist reaches near adulthood, here he has to look at his life and decide where he wants to go.
We see with Fresh Water that the characters, and indeed the entire poem, develop as the river does. They grow side-by-side, always moving and expanding, always flowing in one direction. So when the poem comes to its final part, we see a totally new view of it, a new life emerges from the river, right at the end of it’s flow, a baby is born. The poem describes the birth of a new human being, even though the ‘baby’ is in his forties he feels alone, scared and completely knowledgeless, just like a new life.
But with this new arrival the river is still portrayed as moving in one direction as it has been throughout the entire poem until the death of Ruth Hendon. When the poem get to this point it is given a completely different view point, for the first time the river is shown as travelling backwards, unlike life, because it is not life the poem is dealing with anymore, it is dealing with death. The poets depicts Ruth Hendon’s moving backwards up stream, passing scenes from the poets and therefore her own life, moving back in time, only to be taken right back to the source of the river and taken down into the earth, always going against the current, to eventually emerge one more and start the cycle of growing up with the river all over again.