Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474

In his early poetry, Tomlinson concentrated on a meticulous observation of the external world. The subjects of nature and of art were especially prominent. In poems such as “On the Hall at Stowey” and “Farewell to Van Gogh,” Tomlinson combined a gorgeously exact scenic vividness with a declared poetic goal. This goal was to take the lead from the masters of the Modernist movement, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, who were prominent influences on Tomlinson, in rejecting a purely subjective view of experience. Tomlinson was far more sensitive to nature and to visual detail than the earlier poets, yet their influence combined with his own distinct personality to create an unusual and fascinating way of approaching the world. Instead of placing the self at the center of the universe, Tomlinson wished to direct his attention to objects whose appeal lay in the fact that they were external to the self. Tomlinson rejected what he saw as the Romantic self-indulgence of painters such as Vincent van Gogh. Instead of advertising himself, Tomlinson sought to enter into a proper relation with the world, one that would not simply subjugate all phenomena to an egoistic self-infatuation. This does not mean the self is renounced. For the poet to humble himself before the outside world is still a gesture of the poetic self. It is Tomlinson’s dedicated poetic mission to move readers closer to the world as it is.

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In this poem, though, Tomlinson is not depicting tangible objects, such as houses, trees, or paintings. Instead, he concentrates on their very opposites: the impalpabilities. He regards the impalpabilities in a cool, discriminating light, not with an excess of emotional energy. They do not reside in a distinct landscape, the way objects would ordinarily, yet they are placed in a sharply contoured landscape, not in a free-floating void. The poet’s aim here is to break down the barrier between the opposites of the knowable and the unknowable. Tomlinson does not celebrate the impalpable because it cannot be fully known, nor does he resign himself to looking merely at what is apparent because it is all that can be fully understood. Tomlinson makes a distinction between what can be approached and what can be explained, and insists that the latter should not be mistaken for the former. To retrench from the orchestral undertow or from the looming wood at twilight would be shallow; to fantasize about it as something dark and inexplicable would be overly heated and melodramatic. Tomlinson takes the middle course, but he does not achieve a simple reconciliation between extremes. The tension and liveliness in the poem convey the strange paradox that what may be most gripping are those very phenomena on which the readers find it hardest to maintain a stable grip. In a sense, things are most palpable when they are impalpable.

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