Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513

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When The Memory of War (1982), the volume including “Children in Exile,” first appeared in Britain, many readers were immediately reminded of the 1930’s political poetry of W. H. Auden. (Fenton makes this debt clear in “Children in Exile” by citing Auden’s 1962 prose book The Dyer’s Hand in the latter portion of the poem.) Fenton, like Auden in the 1930’s, was a young poet writing about conflicts in distant countries and making them immediate for the British reader, but there are certainly differences between them. Auden often implied that he was essentially an apolitical poet whom the onslaught of fascism in the Spanish Civil War and after had forced into a partisan position. Fenton, on the other hand, had gone to Vietnam and Cambodia as a working journalist, freelancing for several newspapers and magazines. Among other things, he was a witness to the fall of Saigon to the Communist North Vietnamese in 1975. This event came only days after the Communist takeover in Cambodia that occasioned the suffering from which the Cambodian children in the poem are fleeing.

Although Fenton displays political sympathies of a center-left sort in the poem (as evinced by his giving the United States partial blame for the problems of Cambodia after 1975, a position with which some on the right would disagree), the poem is not a politically committed poem in the manner of Auden’s “Spain” (1937). The poem’s most explicit sympathies are noncontroversial; they are for civilization and common human decency. These values are made newly cogent by the suffering from which the children have escaped.

The poem should be read at least twice, once to comprehend its surface meaning and again to appreciate the considerable feeling that Fenton puts into the poem, as well as the way he uses whimsy and slight-of-hand to make the children’s experience both special to them and also somehow representative. The setting of the Italian landscape, for instance, might be bypassed on the first reading in order to focus on the agony and redemption of the children, yet Fenton’s laid-back evocation of this landscape is a crucial prerequisite of the poem’s sense of earned affirmation.

The poet, insofar as he projects himself in the poem, is successful at empathizing with the children yet distancing himself from them. One recognizes that he sees the children’s dreams of Jesus and America as naïve, yet he does not mock these ideals or the childlike innocence, marred by untold suffering yet still resilient, that inspires them.

Despite his clear aspirations to emulate Auden, Fenton’s techniques are also reminiscent of those used by his contemporaries, particularly Craig Raine, who in A Martian Sends a Postcard Home (1979) applied a metaphorical perspective to ordinary phenomena, and Andrew Motion, who in Secret Narratives (1983) related skewed verse-tales similar to Fenton’s. Fenton’s imaginativeness helps ballast his poem’s political wisdom. The directly committed Auden was compelled to repudiate “Spain” within five years once his views had changed, but the humanity and compassion of Fenton’s poem persist decades after the events they describe.