The Poem

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 461

“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.

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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 “burn[s] the prosperous flesh away/ Of the filthy world, so vilely fathered on/ The fathers.” These lines suggest that decay results in part from corruption of the fathers’ ideals. These fathers are now so old that they are only “black cinders, sitting there.”

In the fourth stanza, the poem’s speaker then addresses the fathers, asking them what vitality, specifically “lecheries,” remain. He comments mournfully that nothing flows in the blood of the old fathers except, “When schoolgirls pass,” the “custom of desire.” Instead of being disturbed by passion, the fathers now enjoy “the sarcastic triumph of the mindletting their lust alone,” because age has robbed them of passion.

“The Brief Journey West” becomes increasingly somber in the final two stanzas. The sixth stanza states that the aged fathers, no longer naïve or passionate, wish neither for “reformation of the past” nor for inevitable disease. Instead, in the silence of the wise, they recognize a world that is “A shrivelled apple in the hand of God.” The last verse shows these once impassioned trailblazers routinely hanging their “somber flags” and pursuing “their theme/ Of common images,” through the night in sleep. Completely spent, these old men hope for nothing more than sleep. They want to be through with all crises but “the one,” the inevitable disaster of death.

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 481

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 fathers have no choice but to twist the cooling of desire into a triumph. These images of cold stones coupled with those of brokenness, crushed beetles, “the cracked precipitate,” and shattered glass add to the poem’s desolation.

The most powerful metaphor of the poem, however, is of the world as a “shrivelled apple in the hand of God,” a comparison that functions on several levels. The world is round like an apple, and it has become old and corrupt as a withered apple. This line is also a biblical allusion to the Garden of Eden apple, the consumption of which led to the Fall.

The poem’s concluding images refer to sleep and the oblivion it brings. In the last stanza, the fathers desire only sleep. Sleep, as a symbol for oblivion, emphasizes not only the old men’s disintegration but also their resignation. They want only to sleep, not to fight or blaze new trails. The words “somber,” “dark,” and “sleep” suggest the old men’s slide into death. They are unwilling to deal with any other challenges, but “the one”—death.

The images in “The Brief Journey West” progress from active to passive images of decay, an advance that imitates the sequence of aging. The poem starts with coughing and spitting, a road, a room, and trophies in the room. Glass shatters, sun burns. Thereafter, the images slowly become more passive: cooling desire, silence, sleep, death.

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Themes