Close Reading: The Revenant

An occasional series looking in detail at how a poem achieves its effects. This time, Fiona Sampson’s haunting “Sonnet Seven – The Revenant” from Coleshill, quoted below by kind permission of the author.

Sonnet Seven – The Revenant (Fiona Sampson)

Downhill…and I met myself,
a pale ghost glimmering
the way a poacher’s torch shines
there – now there – between the trees

so it seems at moments as if
they too are ghosts, walking
in a new light, coming
out of memory towards you…

When we met, myself and I,
each cast the other into a kind
of shining shadow,

my younger self ascending through me
like a shiver, as I turned
toward the house below.

Until this poem was published, the most disturbing English-language sonnet about a double was arguably Auden’s “The Third Temptation” from his sequence “The Quest” (“Approaching down a ruined corridor, / Strode someone with his own distorted features / Who wept, and grew enormous, and cried Woe”). Sampson’s poem positions itself within a long tradition of doubles and doppelgangers stretching back to folktales and beyond. Behind it lie not only the widespread superstition that to meet one’s double signifies approaching death, but the deep psychological certainty (brilliantly analysed in Ursula Le Guin’s essay “The Child and the Shadow”) that meeting and accepting one’s shadow is essential to living any kind of balanced adult life.

The poem achieves a startling amount with just 74 words but never feels overladen. Structurally it is made up of two sentences – one for the octet and one for the sestet – with much of the work done subtly in subordinate clauses.

It’s worth looking closely at the syntax and how skilfully it adds to the poem’s unnerving atmosphere. The first sentence moves from the isolated adverb/adjective “Downhill” to a (grammatically) simple clause: “I met myself”. Everything else is subordinated to this: “a pale ghost glimmering” is in apposition to “myself” (or, as we ponder the poem further, possibly to “I”), and the rest of the sentence is an extended simile describing the glimmering. But within this extended simile is nested a second simile: “so it seems…as if / they too are ghosts”, which in turn expands on “ghosts” with the participial phrases “walking in a new light” and “coming out of memory towards you”.

The layering here is extraordinary: I meet myself, who either is or is like a ghost, the glimmer of which is like a poacher’s torch, the effect of which is to make trees seem like (other) ghosts, who walk out of memory. We’re left faintly dislocated from that superficially simple “I met myself”, and meanwhile the subordinate clauses have smuggled in a disturbing cluster of connotations: ghosts (twice); not just any torch but a poacher’s torch (trailing associations of trespass and theft, but also of hunting and trapping); the flit of the torch between dark trees, a familiar cinematic trope of chase and flight; and the closing suggestion that these ghosts are in fact a product of memory. Plus for good measure there’s a nod to the opening lines of The Waste Land, unavoidable when two lines end with enjambed participles in close proximity to the word “memory”.

As readers we can be hypnotized by this and almost fail to notice that “you” smuggled in at the end of the octet. I’ve written before about the importance of the octet/sestet pivot in a good sonnet, and it’s no accident here that the only second person pronoun in the poem occurs at exactly that point. The rest of the poem is saturated with the first person: “I” three times, “myself” twice (but in fact three times – see below); plus one each of “my”, “we” and “me”. All of which is to be expected in a poem about meeting oneself, where the subject and object are the same, but which nonetheless leaves a delightful ambiguity around that “you”. Is it simply the colloquial you meaning “one”? Well, maybe…

The more we look at this poem, the more ambiguity it reveals. Not just the alternative meanings of words like “cast”, but a fundamental ambiguity about what’s actually going on. On first reading “I” meet “myself” then continue on my journey. But look again:

Downhill…I met myself
my younger self ascended through me
[…] as I turned
towards the house below.

Aside from the beautiful patterning that has the poem begin with “down” and end “below” (moving from “hill” to “house” in the process), there’s an unnerving ambiguity around the pronouns. Prosaically, if “I” am going downhill and meet “myself” coming up, then how can “I” then turn towards a house that’s “below”? There are many equally prosaic ways to answer this (maybe the person I met hailed me from behind and I’d previously turned around; maybe the hill twists and turns; etc), but if we look solely at what’s there in the poem we’re confronted with another disturbing possibility: that “I” and “myself” have in fact changed places during that unheimlich ascent through “me”. It would be wrong to push this too strongly as a primary reading of the poem, but the more I come back to it, the more I’m convinced it’s there in the background.

There’s a lovely bit of word-play in the sestet that backs this up: “my younger self ascending through me” enacts what it describes, with the word “younger” severing the two halves of the word “myself” as it ascends through to leave “my younger self“. But this inevitably associates “myself” with the “me” who is the accusative of the “I” who met “myself” in the first place. We’re not meant to puzzle this out: the ambiguity is the whole point and the wise reader will simply let it be.

I’ve spent the majority of this post on syntax but there’s so much else here to love. The poem’s title is not “The Ghost” or “The Double” but “The Revenant” – literally a ghost, but etymologically “one who returns”, a word that made the jump from French to English in the early 19th century (and has perhaps never fully shaken off a vestigial pun on rêve/dream, which for English poets tugs it into the gravitational field of Joyce’s riverrun/reverons – noting that arguably this poem describes a dream as much as a ghost).

The poem’s sound-play is wonderful. Its tensile use of the sonnet form is especially skilled: it has long been acceptable (or even normal) to use lines shorter than pentameters in an English sonnet, but the ghost of the pentameter is always there. In a fascinating interview with Maitreyabandhu at Poetry East, Sampson half-jokingly refers to herself as “a four-stress girl”, and “The Revenant” bears this out – although only six of the poem’s lines are unambiguously four-stressed, two unambiguously three-stressed, and the remaining six could be either tetrameters or trimeters depending on how you sound them. This is a poem where even the metrics delight in the shimmer of ambiguity.

Coleshill, Fiona Sampson, Chatto & Windus, 2013

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