The power of Romanticism, radicalism, anti-racism, and the urge for human survival imbue the Power poems in Power and Conflict Cluster of the AQA anthology for GCSE English Literature

An article and commentary on the Power poems from the Power and Conflict cluster of the AQA GCSE English Literature course to assist in revision for GCSE students

Powerful spectres, phantasms and shadows lurk in the power cluster poems, which conjure images of abject human polities before awesome, tyrannical figures. Shelley, the radical; the anti-authoritarian poet, evokes a fictional representation of Rameses the Second, “king of kings” whose “sneer of cold command” and “wrinkled lip” conjure a portrait of a cruel, tyrannical leader. Blake, the visionary, composes a bleak vision of an impoverished London population, who “cry”, “sigh” and “curse” the shadowy oligarchies of the monarchy, the church, the government and ruling society who imprison them through bans, “chartered streets”, child labour, prostitution, and exploitation. Browning, some decades later, explores the egoistic, supremacist mind of a fictional Duke of Ferrara in My Last Duchess. Through the dramatic monologue, and through supreme understatement and euphemistic expressions (“I gave commands/ And all smiles stopped”), Browning horrifies us with this man, who kills off his duchess as he deems her love of life dishonourable and her carefree attitude an insult to his rank and status (“My gift of a nine hundred years old name”).

So far, the power poems caution us on the follies of human arrogance, hubris and corruption.

We see the futility of Ozymandias’s self-worship through the enduring supremacy of time and nature. His memory, in Shelley’s imagination, is but a “Half sunk, shattered visage”. The powerful elites in London fail or even refuse to perceive their abuse of power and their unjust privileges, which deafen them to the struggles of the poor. Blake’s sensory evocations of “sighs”, cries, curses, “blasts” and “marks of weakness” perhaps foreshadow the coming centuries of working-class uprisings, the development of democracy and the disintegration of pyramidal societal structures. We are being warned of an oncoming storm of human uprisings.

A storm also consumes Heaney’s imagination, but he conveys a sense of survival and equilibrium in his islanders, who have learned to weather the tempests of nature, and perhaps the Northern Ireland troubles. Heaney’s islanders, with a sense of solidarity, prepare for the winds as they have built their houses “squat” and roofed their houses with “good slate”. For these islanders, they have come to a realisation that it is “a huge nothing that [they] fear”. Gone are tyrants, the despots and barons on this island, and now they learn as a polity how to survive through the inevitable storms of life, and power of nature.

Wordsworth, sharing his anecdote as a young boat thief in the Lake District, reveals an unforgettable and paradigm-shifting encounter with the power of nature and the human imagination. His narrator’s youthful escapade with the “elvin pinnace” begins with a euphonic promise: “small circles glittering idly in the moon” and “one track of sparkling light”. But the “huge peak / black and huge”, the immense physical presence of the mountain, and symbolically, nature’s spirit and imagination, haunts him, stalking him back to shore. Until all that is left is “huge and mighty forms” which are a “trouble to his dreams”. In this, Wordsworth encounters a supreme power that we perhaps should not rally against, like Ozymandias and the Duke. Instead it is a force that we must come to terms with and bow to with a degree of respect: the unearthly power of nature and the imagination.

The imagination and particularly memories and history drive Carol Rumens and John Agard in their poems to speak out against the spectres of racism and exile. Carol Rumens narrator is an emigree or an exile, who faces hostility in their new city, whilst being drawn back to the “impressions of sunlight”, the “tastes” and the “evidence” of sunlight of their native city. Despite their city being “sick with tyrants” and accusations of being “dark” in their adopted city, this narrator cannot avoid seeing the daylight of their memories, in stark contrast to the figures of degradation in Blake’s London. Rumen’s oppressed wanderer possesses a power of will and survival through their turmoil.

Agard’s voice also speaks with a passionate pride for his Black history and his resignation and mockery of “Dem tell me / Wha dem want to tell me”. His voice acknowledges the suffocation of his history through the supremacy of  Western education, but now is standing firmly against this bias and is “carving out [his] own identity”. Now we can see power structures fading behind the rising spirits of historically oppressed voices and communities. 

And finally, the rug, or should we say, the tissue, or the paper is pulled from under the feet of all these power structures through Dharker’s musings upon the power of tissues, and how they can “let the daylight break through capitals and monoliths / through shapes that pride can make”, through egoistic statues, through covetous paintings, through palaces, through the corridors power and history books. Human tissue, for Dharker, is both vulnerable and, like paper, “thinned to be transparent” which raise structures that are at peace with their mortality, with nature and with the human soul.