A Staffordshire Murderer

by James Fenton

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 733

Fenton once commented that the postwar poets’ most workable posture is not as the reliable voice next door giving depth to the familiar. Rather, the poet acts as a visitor, an alien-outsider who interacts with the familiar landscape like an anthropologist or, in the most extreme expression, like an invader. Fenton termed such poetry “Martianism,” and, in this poem, he functions in such a mode, observing with detachment the murderer’s mind-set without tidily rendering a theme or two. The reader is left to observe the act of the poem itself, how the poem conducts its lexical experiment: What would a killer think, a logical act, as he prepares to kill, a most illogical act?

In the first twenty-eight lines, the killer, his van nearby, meditates without irony on the ghastly intimacy that exists between killer and victim. Although he acknowledges his fears, he also finds such fears stimulating and the act unstoppable—he compares his fear to the last whirring seconds before a clock strikes the hour. He is coolly philosophical, impeccably epigrammatic, extending well-turned bromides to his to-be-selected victim, such as “every journey begins with a death” and that while a “suicide travels alonethe murderer needs company.” Suddenly, the killer abandons narrative to speculate on the rapid changes in the geographical makeup of the Staffordshire countryside, how so many trees now stand nearly underwater with fish in their branches and how elsewhere, virtually unnoticed, an entire pond suddenly drained dry, killing its fowl with nature’s cool precision. Thus, the killer meditates on the inexplicability of change and the inevitability of sudden extinction.

That pattern of violent, sudden change is extended within the killer’s logic to history itself as he then ranges about more than a thousand years of bloody acts that each center about the Staffordshire district: William Palmer, the infamous poisoner of Rugeley, a physician hanged in 1856 for killing his family over a gambling debt; James Rush, who in 1848 shot his family in Stanfield Hall; the devastating havoc wreaked on the centuries-old Lichfield Cathedral by the Puritan Oliver Cromwell during the bloody English civil wars; and the deaths under the order of the Roman emperor Diocletian (c. 245-316) of more than a thousand Christians in the fields around Lichfield. It is reminder that against such a vast and violent backdrop, the killer’s anticipated act shrinks in its barbarity and even in its significance. Moreover, these others acted out of self-serving agendas. By contrast, Fenton’s murderer kills without motive, without provocation, aesthetically a purer act. At any rate, the killer rationalizes, death quiets everyone, the infamous and the good, poisoners and preachers (he mentions specifically hymn writers Ira Sankey and Dwight L. Moody and the religious leaders John Wesley and George Fox). Thus, by his logic, it is easy to dismiss death. He even offers a digression in which a knifing victim, whose attacker speaks Elizabethan diction, moves, bloodied and dying, through the Lichfield marketplace. Violence, the reader begins to see, has long rested at the dark heart of the Midlands.

The poem returns abruptly to the present. “It is hot.” Even as the reader surmises that the killer is in the process of actually abducting the victim, the killer trains his attention on the healthy growth of cowparsley, the fetid bubbling water in the canal, and the clumsy movements of a slow-flying coot as it hurries across the towpath. The heavy chiming of the cathedral and a final bit of encouragement—“Keep calm”—closes off the abduction, which itself happens without actually being recorded. The poem then quickly cuts to the killer’s house, where he dispassionately shows the victim the niche in his basement where he will dispose of the body before bricking it up. Now in complete command (“God and the weather are glorious”), the killer sardonically brags to the victim about the long, perhaps exaggerated, record of his other murders before the killing is done.

Spending one hundred lines locked within this killer’s logic is a disquieting experience. When the killer observes that “History murders mallards, while we hear nothing// Or what we hear we do not understand,” he surely indicates the effect of the poem itself. A mind such as this demands scrutiny—in a violent age such realities cannot be ignored. It is, Fenton suggests, the sobering responsibility of such an age to grapple with just such a monstrous mind.

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