The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Brief Journey West” is a meditative poem of twenty-eight lines divided into seven stanzas. The title suggests not only a particular journey, but a frontier push and, most important, the brevity of human life. The iambic pentameter of the poem gives it a formal, almost elegiac quality, which suits the subject of aging and death.

Written in the third person, the poem features an omniscient speaker with the stately quality of a court storyteller, an Anglo-Saxon “scop,” or bard. The “fathers” of the poem represent the fathers of any nation, movement, or race; the decline refers both to the pioneers and to their visions.

The poem opens with a description of the fathers coughing and spitting in a room by a “dry road.” Both the illness of the fathers and the arid land outside their “room” convey impotence and sterility. The reader is reminded that these ineffectual men once so conquered and crushed their environment that they “hung/ That bloody sun upon the southern wall.” Now, however, as the second stanza reveals, they are so old that the wrinkles of their skin duplicate the maps they made when, forging new territory, they drained wild swamps. They wanted to make a place for themselves in history, but now youth and discovery have vanished—they are only history’s “cracked precipitate.”

The poem’s third verse describes the decay of youth and vision through images of shattered glass and a sun that...

(The entire section is 461 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

References to destruction and a somber tone give “The Brief Journey West” its power. Words that convey aridity and heat express both the shriveling of the fathers and of the world as “apple in the hand of God.” The first three stanzas contain varied images of sterility resulting from lack of moisture. There is the “dry road,” and the fathers’ skin, which is “seamed and dry” as a drained swamp, presumably now so dry that all that is left is “cracked precipitate”—like the fathers themselves, who are now so scorched with age that they are “black cinders.” The “cracked precipitate” image refers to both swamp and man. As a drained swamp leaves deposits, so the “black cinders” of the fathers are the aged residue of history. Not only are the fathers scorched into black cinders, but their triumphs are also withered because the “bloody sun” has burned “the prosperous flesh away/ Of the filthy world.”

These references to withering heat are followed by equally harrowing images of cold, hardness, and brokenness. Metaphors of hardness and cold imply death through the deadening of desire. The “black cinders” of the fathers are so lifeless that they are no longer moved by much of anything. When women pass, their flesh are “Cold gleams” that provoke only the “custom of desire” in the fathers’ eyes, which have hardened into the likeness of cold gems. The triumph of the mind over lust is “sarcastic,” because the...

(The entire section is 481 words.)