Jane Draycott’s “Lent” – a reading


The bailiff winds are at the door.
Alcohol and cigarettes must go. Abstain,
repent. No meat, no chocolate, no more
obsessive checking of your phone
like the pulse of a dying friend. Refrain.
No more taking photographs of pictures.
Let the world go like Michelangelo’s sculpture
made of snow that no one framed.

The house lies purged and empty. Still the winds blow.
Now give up the wilderness, the wandering.
Retreat instead to that windless winter morning
when a young man stood in the gardens of the palazzo,
lips glistening, hair shining at the nape,
before the bomb-blast of sun, not anyone’s to keep.


This poem finely illustrates how well the sonnet form can combine the sense of a clean, swift drive to a conclusion with imaginative range and scale.

The drive is in the structure. Eight lines repeat instructions to give things up, then six reflect on what’s been achieved and propose a new approach. In this way the development follows a logical course. For all the differences and sweeping changes of direction between octave and sestet, it feels like a single dramatically evolving arc of thought.[1]

The sense of scale comes from the fluency with which the poem brings together different ways of using language and different kinds of imagery, interweaving glimpses of different worlds and ways of thinking. For example, “The bailiffs are at the door” might be said in a modern social documentary. Adding “winds” and making “bailiff” an adjective fuses the modern situation with an archaic personification, as if we were hearing a contemporary voice and an eighteenth century one at the same time. In addition, “winds” introduces something elemental, like a cry from King Lear’s heath. There’s also a subtle tension between content and expression. The rhythm and syntax of lines two to seven suggest urgency, but their substance is just a series of ordinary Lenten resolutions. This disparity creates suspense, making us feel more must be at stake than we’ve realized[2]. And of course there’s the surreally disruptive simile in line five, “like the pulse of a dying friend”[3]. This throws us off balance, opening our imaginations and preparing them for other surprises[4].

Changes of direction in the sestet vastly extend our sense of how much this short poem encompasses. The house implied in line 1 now seems to stand alone on a windswept moor. Rhythm and syntax underpin the sense of a sudden imaginative widening. Containing two emphatic statements, line 9 seems longer and fuller than any previous one[5]. Where the settings of the octave seem to be indoors, the settings of the sestet are outside, open to the weather. Above all, anxious negations are replaced by joyous acceptance. The octave seems to interpret the title as “Lent” in the ecclesiastical sense, the time of fasting and abstinence before Easter. The sestet reinterprets it as the past participle of “to lend”, inviting us to accept the transience of all things. Though there’s sadness in the final line, the still, radiant vitality of lines 12 and 13 make me feel we’re invited to accept transience in a spirit of gratitude and joy. The young man is presumably Michelangelo’s sculpture made of snow, described by Vasari as very beautiful. Snow is the epitome of transience. Standing there, though, the youth seems almost violently alive, sensuous, sensitive and vulnerable, with his glistening lips and his nape exposed to the sun. Various paradoxes about life and art, transience and eternity seem to me to be involved[6]. However, my immediate point is merely to suggest that the contradictory ways in which we see this image is the final example of how the poem includes wide imaginative vistas by interweaving different, even contradictory perceptions and making our minds shimmer among them.

[1] The essential point is to feel the effect. There’s a subordinate pleasure to be got from looking at the artistic means. One is the way octave and sestet are held together not just by the thrust of the argument but also by imagery. There’s something deeply satisfying about this. Picking up the metaphor of “The bailiff winds”, the empty house in the first line of the sestet makes us feel we’re living through the poem as participants in a drama, at one moment hearing the bailiff winds at the door, then looking round us at the emptiness they’ve left behind and hearing them outside still howling for more.

[2] We get a glimpse of what it might be with the first suggestion of a much more radical spiritual and religious renunciation (“let the world go”) though we still don’t know how seriously to take it. There’s a dancing between tones and imaginative possibilities. Said one way, the phrase sounds like high-spirited overstatement; said another, it anticipates line ten’s allusion to Christ’s forty days of wandering in the wilderness (the Biblical origin of Lent).

[3] This is as startling as Eliot’s image of the evening as like a patient etherized upon a table in “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”, and unlike Eliot’s image not yet tamed by familiarity.

[4] We see its deeper sense at the end of the sestet.

[5] Even though it has fewer syllables than line 7. In metrical terms, line 7 hurries by, with many unstressed syllables crammed between four stresses. Line 9 is most naturally read with six or even seven stresses (“house”, “lies”, “purg”, “emp”, “still”, “winds”, “blow”). The principle of isochrony – the fact that we tend to perceive stresses as equally spaced however many unstressed syllables come between them – means that  a higher proportion of stressed to unstressed syllables produces a slower-moving line and vice versa – the more unstressed syllables come between the stresses, the faster the words move.

[6] These are Keatsian themes. Nothing in the phrasing or rhythms of this poem particularly remind me of Keats, but he’s a presiding spirit in “Lost” in the same collection. The way this poem’s snow sculpture is made to seem sentient and alive finely develops the paradoxical life in inanimacy of the figures on the urn in Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”.


I would like to thank Jane Draycott for generously allowing me to reproduce her poem here, and Peter and Ann Sansom for allowing me to repost this piece from The North 59, where it appeared without the footnotes.

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