The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Children in Exile” is written in forty-nine stanzas of four lines each, an extra line space being inserted in the last stanza. The poem begins with a direct quote from a child in exile, who states one of the keynotes of the poem, that what one is is less important than what one does. Readers then are made aware of the general subject of the poem—that it involves children from Cambodia in exile in a strange country (readers later learn that this is Italy) in roughly the late 1970’s. Though still children, the exiles “have learnt much.” Far from being innocents, they have experienced ordeals that most of the adults who take care of them cannot even begin to imagine. They have escaped from the mass killings perpetrated by the Cambodian regime of Pol Pot, in power from 1975 to 1979, which was preceded by a civil war (in which the United States intervened) in which many were also killed and wounded. The children have physically escaped from their ordeal, but psychologically they are still wounded, and their dreams are troubled.

The “I” of the poem, a friendly Western adult observer, sees that the children are still in pain from their experiences. He muses on the tragic situation; these children were punished not for their own actions but because they happened to be children of people who were political opponents of the regime or who were otherwise persecuted. The children also, in a way, symbolize the entire Cambodian nation, which was so rent...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The most striking aspect of “Children in Exile” is that it is at once a serious political poem and an old-style, melodic ballad. Its stanzas are quatrains (four lines each), of which the second and fourth line rhyme. This form allows tremendous clarity, but it also allows breeziness and wit. Most of all, it connotes the poet’s desire to tell a story. Given the subject of the poem, this is by no means an inevitable choice: The poem could be an elegy for the dead in Cambodia, for example, or a lament for the psychological trauma sustained by the children. However, the ballad form structures the poem as the story of the children’s recovery in exile. It provides a kind of reassurance to readers, shielding them from the horrors of war much as the lush Italian landscape begins to shelter the children in the poem.

Fenton often plays havoc with the reader’s expectations, as with the long digression about Duschko the dog and the doves in the hayloft, which not only provides a lighthearted, almost nonsense element that alleviates the poem’s seriousness but also lulls the reader into accepting the children’s safety and happiness, rather than their suffering, as a given. There is an exuberance about the poem that gives it an air of celebration despite its stern witness to the horrors of the Cambodian killings that have forced the children so far from home.

There is also a mock-epic aspect to the poem, as when Duschko the dog goes “mad”...

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Children in Exile

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

James Fenton began his poetic career as a prodigious youth, publishing his first two chapbooks—Our Western Furniture (1968) and Put Thou Thy Tears into My Bottle (1969)—while he was still a student at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry. As did W. H. Auden, the poet to whom he is most often compared, Fenton published his first book of poems at the age of twenty-three: Terminal Moraine (1972). This book brought him immediate attention and acceptance in British poetry circles, but it was the publication of his The Memory of War: Poems, 1968-1982 (1982) that triggered what his American publishers call “an extraordinary onrush of critical enthusiasm” in Great Britain. Children in Exile: Poems, 1968-1984, his first American collection, contains all of the poems in The Memory of War with the addition of poems published in the chapbook Children in Exile (1983).

The comparison to Auden is an apt one, not only because of their parallel starting points and the high pitch of critical excitement generated by their work, but also because Fenton is, for all his individuality and genuine freshness, a thoroughly Audenesque poet. He shares Auden’s diction, his formal virtuosity, his seriocomic tone, and what Stephen Spender referred to in a review of Fenton’s book as “the manner of Auden’s poetry of psychoanalytic parables mixed with an ominous sense of the neurotic forces moving through contemporary history.” Fenton’s poems are, when they take a political stance, quietly leftist, but he has few illusions and finds himself (to use Auden’s words in “Sonnets from China”) “Chilled by the Present, its gloom and its noise.” Also like Auden, he is an Englishman who went out to view the world (as a journalist in Indochina and then in Germany) and found it a dangerous and often senseless place in which children are forced by war into an exile made bearable only by the absurd dreams by which people, all of mankind, manage to thrive amid the continuing memory and fact of war.

Fenton’s ways of dealing with this world may bring poets other than Auden to mind. His “Letter to John Fuller,” a brilliant and hilarious demolition of A. Alvarez and the cult of poetic suicide, will certainly remind readers of Lord Byron or, among more recent poetry, of George MacBeth’s “Doctor Crippen’s Elimination Kit” and of David R. Slavitt’s “Another Letter to Lord Byron.” Fenton’s nonsense poems will surely bring to mind those of Edward Lear, his Victorian countryman, as well as the American nonsense poems of William Jay Smith, who made similar discoveries in the uses of nonsense in dealing with a dark world, and whose Poems, 1947-1957 (1957) offers many interesting parallels with Children in Exile, both books by poets at the same point in their respective careers. None of these comparisons does more than show readers that James Fenton is a poet whose work is of the great tradition of English and American poetry; the distinctive use he has made of that tradition is what has brought him the acclaim of the critics and of his fellow poets in the United States and in Great Britain.

Fenton was born after the close of World War II and the direct experience of devastation from the air which was the major event in so many twentieth century British lives. The first poem in this collection, “A German Requiem,” is concerned with that war and bombing raids, not on London or Coventry, as one might expect of an older poet, but rather of the British and American aerial attack on Germany. The epigraph from Thomas Hobbes makes it clear that the position of the poet is outside the direct experience, that the poet’s role is to re-create a reality grown dim and imprecise from the memories and reports of others reformed in and by the imagination. The poet’s task is made more difficult, however, by the true horror of the war experience being buried in the necessarily forgotten and the necessarily unspoken.

“Oh, if I were to begin, if I were to begin to tell you,” says the German speaker to the inquiring poet near the end of “A German Requiem,” “The half, the quarter, a mere smattering of what we went through!” The poet realizes that the unspoken truth is “not what he wants to know./ It is what he wants not to know,” and yet the force of the poem lies in the little that is spoken, in Fenton’s selection of precise detail to convey absurd horror. When the bombing was at its peak and the dying occurred at too fast a pace for cemetery burials, the dead were buried in parks, and nameplates unscrewed from doorways were used as grave markers—“Professor Sargnagel was buried with four degrees, two associate memberships/ And instructions to tradesmen to use the back entrance.” The humor of this detail is chilling, as the poem as a whole is chilling, as much from...

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(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXX, June 15, 1984, p. 1433.

The Georgia Review. XXXVIII, Spring, 1984, p. 166.

Library Journal. CIX, May 1, 1984, p. 902.

The New Republic. CXC, May 14, 1984, p. 31.

New Statesman. CVI, December 16, 1983, p. 39.

The New York Review of Books. XXXI, October 25, 1984, p. 40.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, September 30, 1984, p. 45.

Poetry. CXLV, November, 1984, p. 111.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, February 10, 1984, p. 192.