Sentenced to Life – Clive James – Analysis

Sentenced to Life

Sentenced to life, I sleep face-up as though
^^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^^ ^ ^
Ice-bound, lest I should cough the night away,
^^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^^
And when I walk the mile to town, I show
^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^
The right technique for wading through deep clay.
^ ^ ^^ ^ ^^ ^ ^ ^
A sad man, sorrier than he can say.
^ ^ ^ ^^^ ^ ^ ^ ^

But surely not so guilty he should die
Each day for knowing that his race is run:
My sin was to be faithless. I would lie
As if I could be true to everyone
At once, and all the damage that was done

Was in the name of love, or so I thought.
I might have met my death believing this,
But no, there was a lesson to be taught.
Now, not just old, but ill, with much amiss,
I see things with a whole new emphasis.

My daughter’s garden has a goldfish pool
With six fish each a finger long.
I stand and watch them following their rule
Of never touching, never going wrong:
Trajectories perfect as plain song.

Once, I would not have noticed; nor have known
The name for Japanese anemones,
So pail, so frail. But now I catch the tone
Of leaves. No birds can touch down in the trees
Without my seeing them. I count the bees.

Even my memories are clearly seen:
Whence comes the answer if I’m told I must
Be aching for my homeland. Had I been
Dulled in the brain to match my lungs of dust
There’d be no recollection I could trust.

Yet I, despite my guilt, despite my grief,
Watch the Pacific sunset, heaven sent,
In glowing colours and in sharp relief,
Painting the white clouds when the day is spent,
As if it were my will, and testament –

As if my first impressions were my last,
And time had only made them more defined,
Now I am weak. The sky is overcast
Here in the English autumn, but my mind
Basks in the light I never left bebhind.

Clive James (1939 –

Clive James wrote this poem in 2014 at a time when his health had deteriorated to the extent where time is a very precious commodity. Walking into Cambridge was a great effort. The person he met on this walk was Germaine Greer and she describes this meeting when she selected this poem for the anthology ‘Poems That Make Grown Women Cry’. She does not specifically recall asking CJ whether he aches for his Oz homeland but she certainly remembers the meeting. Germaine Greer was a contemporary of CJ from his Cambridge University days.

Looking at the title ‘Sentenced to Life’ … well that is one way of looking at life for we are forced into life … but to what extent it is a ‘sentence’ is another matter. Of course it is very much a play on words for one who has made much of life through writing and words … whether or not CJ has been happy with his ‘sentencing’ is another matter. But according to his website writing was very important for completion of the translation of Dante’s Inferno kept him alive. In a BBC interview broadcast on 31 March 2015, James described himself as ‘near to death but thankful for life’. However, in October 2015 he admitted to feeling ‘embarrassment’ at still being alive thanks to experimental drug treatment.

It is a very will crafted poem with flowing pentameter rhythm and a rhyming scheme ‘ababb’. CJ is very appreciative of ‘poetic skill’ and I recommend reading his ‘2006 -2014 Poetry Notebook’ for an excellent discussion on poetry.

Looking at the poem –
S1 – his health situation is explained … ice-bound equating to frozen (a death position) …
he feels sorry for himself … a challenge to walk into town  … (from the GG commentary on this poem he was walking into Cambridge for breakfast)
S2,S3 – he doesn’t mind death because his race has been run … but his sin, his guilt is being faithless … note – he was thrown out of the family home by his wife after he admitted on a TV show that he had been having a relationship with another woman for eight years – being true to everyone (is this possible) – but he has to come to terms with his failing health and lack of mobility … this gives a new emphasis on life … a lesson to be learnt
S4, S5 – so now he has an appreciation for all the little things he never noticed … he has time to count the bees … he sees things in detail as he watches from his room
S6 – the recall of his birth homeland sunset is not affected by his health problem, his mind can still be trusted … in glowing colours, sharp relief
S7 – so in answer to the question of whether he had an ‘ache for his homeland’ … he gives a clear description of the Pacific sunset from memory – this is sufficient perhaps … ‘heaven sent’ … he is thankful for the power of his mind
S8 – in this way his homeland is forever meaningful … will always be with him … despite the overcast environment – sky and health … his mind basks giving sunshine to the few remaining days

To what extent do expats ache for their homeland origins – to what extent can memory compensate for any ache?

Clive James (1939 – ) is an Australian author, critic, broadcaster, poet, translator and memoirist, best known for his autobiographical series Unreliable Memoirs, for his chat shows and documentaries on British television and for his prolific journalism. He has lived and worked in England since 1962.

A link to Clive James on Wikipedia

It is nice to look back and cherish key memories … those that still give comfort as we age … perhaps this is a natural process as we look back on life. Sharing such a moment from my life, reflecting back on my days in England before I came to Australia …

Stopping One Day

I remember one day in June.
The height of summer and the sun
still rising on one of those days
that calls all nature into song.

Biking the back lanes of the Hampshire countryside.
Stopping on a bridge over a stream
the clear sparkling chatter below, while beyond
the fields praising their contentment.

Japanese Maple – Clive James – Comments

Clive James is nearing the end of his life. Last year he wrote the poem ‘Japanese Maple’ and he had time to put a lot of thought into the text. It is very much a testimony of his personal state at that time as he considered his approaching ending.

I have broken the poem into six stanzas of four lines and then the closing line. My comments in italics …

‘Japanese Maple’

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.
^ ^ ^ ^ ^ / ^ ^ ^^ ^
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
^ ^ ^ ^^ / ^ ^ ^ ^ ^
Breath growing short
^ ^^ ^
Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain
^ ^ ^^^^ / ^ ^ ^ ^
If you have read his ‘Poetry Notebook’ you will be aware how much he appreciates form and it is not surprising to encounter rhyme and rhythm and the attention to the syllable structure. But what I like is the break in the third line corresponding to his difficulty in breathing. You can join his shortness in breath when reading that line. Clearly, at the time of writing, he was not in pain.

Of energy, but thought and sight remain:
Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see
So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls
On that small tree

In fact he is experiencing a golden time in the highlighting of his senses. And looking at the Japanese maple in the light rain gives great joy – he obviously has to spend time sitting observing because of his failing health. And again we see that short line occur.

And saturates your brick back garden walls,
So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?
Ever more lavish as the dusk descends
This glistening illuminates the air.

And he can watch the changing garden as night approaches and find delight in little things such as the way the falling light picks up the wet precipitation. (The Amber Room is a world famous chamber decorated in amber panels backed with gold leafs and mirrors, located in the Catherine Palace of Tsarskoye Selo near Saint Petersburg. – from Wikipedia)

It never ends.
Whenever the rain comes it will be there,
Beyond my time, but now I take my share.
My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.

This time the short line is at the start. Reflective words on not being around – nature will continue regardless of his demise – then reflecting again, this time bringing to mind his daughter who chose the tree.

Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that. That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same:

Then looking to the future, how the tree will look in autumn and setting a goal to see the autumn colours– that will be sufficient. (He did achieve this).

Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colours will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone

He know equates his very last days with the ‘flood of colours’ – colours that will live on. His mind is ‘burned’ showing how much value he has taken from the world – a shining world -and more recently appreciating the ‘flame’ of the tree.

So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

And the last line with emphasis on how much joy he has encountered in his end days. It is interesting that his enforced change of pace due to illness has given him a new perspective on life and time to really appreciate his limited environment and to look back on the beauty of life with gratitude.

Clive James

Rhyming scheme – abab bcdc ddea eaaf ghgg ijij j

Clive James would like to be more known as a poet and he is a very fine poet but I guess he will be better known as a broadcaster and commentator with that wry twist and sardonic humour. But this poem will surely be one of his classics.

Here is a link to his Website – and a link to information about Clive James on Wikipedia –

Terra Australis – James McCauley – and Clive James

AustraliaDTwenty One Gun Salute at Regatta Point, Commonwealth Gardens Canberra

It is Australia Day today and below is the poem ‘Terra Australis’ by James McCauley. Clive James comments on this poem in his ‘2006 -2014 Poetry Notebook’  highlighting

‘Australia is within you as a land of imagination’ and quoting directly from his book … Armed with that language you are always coming home, even when you stay away. A treasure more important than nationalism, a fully developed poetic language is the essence of only patriotism that matters. It can do without red-back spiders and crocodiles, although those are nice too. What it can’t do without, what it embodies, is a way of speaking about freedom and justice both at once.

These words are apt as Clive James is nearing the end of his life and he will never be able to return to Sydney. However, the final stage of his life appears golden and according to recent interviews he is appreciating daily life with a new intensity. He quotes from Romeo and Juliet at the front of the above book –
How oft when men are at the point of death
Have they been merry! Which their keepers call
A lightning before death …

Here is the James McCauley poem with some comment after each of the four stanzas …

Terra Australis (see footnote)

Voyage within you on the fabled ocean,
And you will find that southern Continent,
Quiros’ vision – his hidalgo heart
And mythical Australia, where reside
All things in their imagined counterpart.

Quiros – In March 1603 the Portuguese navigator Queirós best known for his voyages with the Spanish fleet was authorized to return to Peru to establish another expedition, with the intention of finding Terra Australis, the mythical “great south land,” and claiming it for Spain and the Church.
hidalgo – a Spanish nobleman
counterpart – resembles another in a different system

It is your land of similes: the wattle
Scatters its pollen on the doubting heart;
The flowers are wide-awake; the air gives ease.
There you come home; the magpies call you Jack
And whistle like larrikins at you from the trees.

simile – a figure of speech drawing comparison between two different things
Jack – used to address a man who is a stranger
larrikins – disrespectful person behaving noisily in public

There two the angophora preaches on the hillsides
With the gestures of Moses; and the white cockatoo,
Perched on his limbs, screams with demoniac pain;
And who will say on what errand the insolent emu
Walks between morning and night on the edge of the plain?

Angophora – of the myrtle (myrtacea) family … Australian hills are covered in trees.
Moses – Hebrew prophet who led the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to the promised-land
(re: translate to convict slavery in the establishment of Australia)
errand – small job going to collect or give something
insolent – not showing respect … they collected my sausages at a BBQ several years ago!

But northward in the valleys of the fiery Goat
Where the sun like a centaur vertically shoots
His raging arrows with unerring aim,
Stand the ecstatic solitary pyres
Of unknown lovers, featureless with flame.

valleys of the fiery Goat – religious connotation, the land of hell-fire
centaur – Greek mythology – half man, half horse
pyres – a pile of burning wood on which a dead body is cremated

The unknown lovers of freedom and justice continue to burn in the flame of that intense Australian sun.

James McCauley (1917-1976)

Footnote … taking text from Wikipedia …

Terra Australis (Latin for South Land) was a hypothetical continent first posited in Antiquity and which appeared on maps between the 15th and 18th centuries. Although the landmass was drawn onto maps, Terra Australis was not based on any actual surveying of such a landmass but rather based on the hypothesis that continents in the Northern Hemisphere should be balanced by land in the south.[1] This theory of balancing land has been documented as soon as the 5th century on maps by Macrobius, who uses the term Australis on his maps.[2]

In the early 1800s, British explorer Matthew Flinders had popularized the naming of Australia after Terra Australis, giving his rationale that there was “no probability” of finding any significant land mass anywhere more south than Australia.[3] The continent that would come to be named Antarctica would be explored decades after Flinders’ 1814 book on Australia, which he had titled A Voyage to Terra Australis, and after his naming switch had gained popularity.

… and on the foundation of Australia – the reason today is the National Day …

The first recorded European sighting of the Australian mainland, and the first recorded European landfall on the Australian continent, are attributed to the Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon. He sighted the coast of Cape York Peninsula in early 1606, and made landfall on 26 February at the Pennefather River near the modern town of Weipa on Cape York.[50] The Dutch charted the whole of the western and northern coastlines and named the island continent “New Holland” during the 17th century, but made no attempt at settlement.[50] William Dampier, an English explorer and privateer, landed on the north-west coast of New Holland in 1688 and again in 1699 on a return trip.[51] In 1770, James Cook sailed along and mapped the east coast, which he named New South Wales and claimed for Great Britain.[52] With the loss of its American colonies in 1783, the British Government sent a fleet of ships, the “First Fleet”, under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, to establish a new penal colony in New South Wales. A camp was set up and the flag raised at Sydney Cove, Port Jackson, on 26 January 1788,[15]a date which became Australia’s national day, Australia Day although the British Crown Colony of New South Wales was not formally promulgated until 7 February 1788. The first settlement led to the foundation of Sydney, the establishment of farming, industry and commerce; and the exploration and settlement of other regions.