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Steve Whitaker
Literary Editor
@stevewh16944270
12:00 AM 6th July 2024
arts

Poem Of The Week: Innocence By Thom Gunn (1929-2004)

 
Innocence
(to Tony White)

He ran the course and as he ran he grew,
And smelt his fragrance in the field. Already,
Running he knew the most he ever knew,
The egotism of a healthy body.

Ran into manhood, ignorant of the past:
Culture of guilt and guilt’s vague heritage,
Self-pity and the soul; what he possessed
Was rich, potential, like the bud’s tipped rage.

The Corps developed, it was plain to see,
Courage, endurance, loyalty and skill
To a morale firm as morality,
Hardening him to an instrument, until

The finitude of virtues that were there
Bodied within the swarthy uniform
A compact innocence, child-like and clear,
No doubt could penetrate, no act could harm.

When he stood near the Russian partisan
Being burned alive, he therefore could behold
The ribs wear gently through the darkening skin
And sicken only at the Northern cold,

Could watch the fat burn with a violet flame
And feel disgusted only at the smell,
And judge that all pain finishes the same
As melting quietly by his boots it fell.


Thom Gunn’s beautifully worked poem of the uses and misuses of innocence breaks no new ground, except in illuminating the burgeoning presence of corrosion with age, of an inexorable drive towards experience, towards complacency and the perverting of a moral sense into a desire for self-preservation.

Tracing a boy’s progress in six rhymed and half-rhymed quatrains, whose iambs gently actuate each stage of a journey without salvation, ‘Innocence’ is Blakean in title, and in a world of crushing binaries, scarred with a terrible prescience.

Exquisitely paced, with resonant metaphors and images that rebound with symbolic force, somehow encapsulating a state of mind, or a transition between stages of experience, the poem nails the freshness of youth as it begins to envision cruelty, viewed as though through a range-finder, its impact tempered by psychological distance and at the cost of emotional engagement.

And what moments: Gunn’s brilliant images fizz with an ambiguity that precisely captures the many-handed complexity of youthful self-discovery: ‘The egotism of a healthy body’; ‘the bud’s tipped rage’. As the child becomes embryonic man and learns the military ‘virtues’ of ‘Courage, endurance, loyalty and skill’, as hardened and resilient as steel, the notions of ‘morale’ and ‘moral’ become terminally conflated as though they aspired to the same plain of elevation.

Gunn’s astonishing final stanzas, set, perhaps, on the Russian Front of the last war, ironise such virtues in an end-game that shadows the soldier’s progress with the brutal efficiency of a rifle butt. The immolation of the partisan’s body is a startling, complex image of nihilistic violence, punishment and hideous, deformed brutality, counterpointed by the observer’s indifference to any feeling beyond that of the cold and the smell of melting flesh. The tableau is utterly devoid of consolation.



‘Innocence’ is taken from Selected Poems of Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes, re-published by Faber & Faber (1983)