The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“A Staffordshire Murderer,” James Fenton’s dense, often enigmatic narrative poem, explores the aberrant mind of a nameless serial killer as he prepares to kill yet again. Despite expectations that a man who at poem’s end brutally knifes a helpless victim would be quite emotional, Fenton’s killer—and the poem itself—is intricately cerebral, even calm. Even as he strolls about the gardens near Lichfield’s magnificent three-spired cathedral to select his victim (his “accomplice”), the killer pauses to observe ducks and flowers. Erudite, he ponders historical references that reveal his familiarity with the blood-soaked history of the Staffordshire countryside—he acknowledges the shadow-company of these other “Staffordshire murderers” who wait metaphorically alongside him.

The poem deliberately frustrates any clear narrative line. Fenton only indirectly indicates the action: the wait for the victim; the abduction and removal of the victim by van to the killer’s house; and then the killing itself, accomplished in the ninety-ninth line of a one-hundred-line poem. In deploying a series of intricately related digressions that cohere only loosely, like a cubist collage, Fenton reveals an interest in the mind of the murderer rather than in the bloody act itself—that is, after all, redundant to the point of cliché as attested not only by the killer’s allusions to the bloody history of the Staffordshire region but also by his acknowledgment of his own previous killings.

Thus, the real horror of the poem is not the murder but rather the mind that creates the context that makes such an act inevitable, acceptable, even logical. Fenton never intrudes to suggest any wider moral frame that might temper the ghastly event by suggesting that such evil will be punished—the poem closes only with the killer’s flush of triumph and the disquieting expression of his creepy logic: that he is liberating the victim into a “new life.”

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem rejects the traditional notion that poetry is confessional, thus tightly bound to its poet. This poem, rather, is a voyeuristic projection and speculation: Fenton himself is no murderer. Influenced by the psychoanalytical poetry of W. H. Auden, Fenton’s poem effectively effaces the poet. As such, the poem is best approached as an experiment in what language can do, specifically whether it can contain the dark logic of murder itself.

Thus, without authorial intrusion, the killer reveals his character indirectly through the vehicle of his labyrinthine speculations. It is not always possible to determine exactly the reference or to follow the killer’s obscure train of thought. Passages with clear narrative intent shift without transition into fragmentary speculations that in turn shift into historical and literary glosses. To so deliberately frustrate the reader’s traditional act of “understanding” a poem is a strategic necessity to convey the inaccessible logic of the mind of a serial killer. Fenton cannot allow clarity; his subject will not permit it. The poem consistently maintains this distance from the reader. Fenton is not interested in creating psychological depth that might encourage sympathy for either the killer or the victim.

“A Staffordshire Murderer” is a sort of interior monologue without the interior, a monologue without the “I.” The killer never even directly contemplates what he is preparing to do; it...

(The entire section is 525 words.)