Anne Hébert Poetry: British Analysis

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Anne Hébert published five major collections of poetry, Les Songes en équilibre, The Tomb of the Kings, Mystery of the Verb, Day Has No Equal but the Night, and Poèmes pour la main gauche, from 1942 to 1997, spanning her life. Two of her collections, Mystery of the Verb and Day Has No Equal but the Night, begin with an essay on poetry. She defines poetry as an escape from solitude, as the poet releasing the self into the world. The poet, she says, lives twice: Once in the everyday reality of normal human existence and a second time in the retelling of the world that both surrounds and exists within the poet. For Hébert, poetry comes from a mysterious combination of the poet’s life experiences and the poet’s surroundings, which insist on being voiced and being expressed cloaked in the poet’s emotions. These beliefs are reflected in her poems.

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Hébert’s poetry is written in free verse; she employs unexpected juxtapositions of adjectives and nouns and creates images that have much in common with those of Surrealism. Images drawn from nature dominate her poetry. Her verse is filled with images of sun, gardens, birds, and especially water—rain, sea, rivers, and fountains. Other important images include night versus day, silence, noises, death, dead people, souls, hands, and cities.

Les Songes en équilibre

Written when Hébert was still living at her parents’ country home in rural Quebec and before the death of her cousin Saint-Denys Garneau, the poems of Les Songes en équilibre reflect both her happiness in the company of her family and the sadness and loneliness brought about by the isolation and inertia of her life. They are the expression of a self not wishing to escape what is possessed but desperately in need of expansion, of discovery of something new and different. The poems also show the strong influence of Saint-Denys Garneau. There is a soft melancholy about the verse, which was replaced by a sharper, harder, more intense feeling in her later poetry.

The poems of Les Songes en équilibre are traditional and even conservative in comparison to her later ones. There is a strong religious overtone and an emphasis on suffering that leads to joy. Although the style and themes of these poems evidence external influences, especially her religious upbringing and Saint-Denys Garneau, in the final section, “L’Oiseau du poète,” she is beginning to investigate the poet’s inspiration, purpose, and role in society. These concerns are the subjects of her two essays on poetry that preface Mystery of the Verb and Day Has No Equal but the Night.

The Tomb of the Kings

The poems in The Tomb of the Kings were written and published before and after the deaths of her cousin and her sister and the refusal of Canadian publishers to publish The Torrent. The poems reflect a very different Hébert, an individual in revolt against death, suffering, and oppression. The poems are filled with dark surrealist images of salty eyelids, burned hands, hands adorned with pain or sorrow, a dead bird’s voice, small towns held in hands and up-ended, heavy echoes of silence, the day that rots, and hands cut off and planted in a garden. The poems mirror her despair at the loss of loved ones and in the shattering of her life and her ever-growing need to escape from the suffocating isolation and stagnation of her life.

The poems also deal with Hébert’s struggle to move forward from her continuing connection with her childhood and to embrace fully her vocation as a poet. In the poems, she uses images of water, closed rooms, silence, death, and dead birds who sing in order to address her struggle. Day, night, death,...

(The entire section contains 974 words.)

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