Donald Hall

Epistolary Poems


            I enjoyed reading some epistolary poems in class, particularly Letter in Autumn by Donald Hall and I also listened to the Letter with No Address also by Donald Hall (posted on blackboard). I don’t normally like long poems, especially ones that don’t rhyme but I really enjoyed these two. Both poems deal with the very relatable subject of loss, which keeps me interested, but I most liked that these poems were written in epistolary form. You can feel an immediacy of emotion in these poems because their form gives Hall a lot of freedom, he can speak directly to the person he is writing about instead of an audience, we don’t need to know all the back story because what really care about in these poems in the raw emotion, the relationship between Hall and his wife, and the hollow feeling of loss.


            I cannot discard

Your jeans or lotions or T-shirts.

I cannot disturb your tumbles

Of scarves and floppy hats.

Lost unfinished things remain

On your desk, in your purse

Or Shaker basket. Under a cushion

I discover your silver thimble.

Today when the telephone rang

I though it was you (Letter in Autumn)


This stanza is a good example hollow feeling of loss that Hall demonstrates using the epistolary form. I don’t think that this effect could be achieved as well with out it because the scarves, hats, thimble, and all the other small details Hall mentions don’t mean anything to the reader, but they mean something to him and his wife and this clearly shows their strong relationship was.


While I was listening to Letter with No Address I found myself having a pretty strong emotional reaction, which is uncommon for me when it comes to poetry.  In this poem Hall doesn’t put as much emphasis on everyday objects, but he does talk about their memories and important people in their lives. Again, this is all back-story that the reader only cares about because it shows the close bond between Hall and his wife.


Your presence in this house
is almost as enormous
and painful as your absence.
Driving home from Tilton,
I remember how you cherished
that vista with its center
the red door of a farmhouse
against green fields.


This stanza shows the empty loss that Hall is feeling and it also shows how he sees his wife everywhere. Every thing he sees is tied into her, or into a memory that they share, and he consistently illustrates this using the epistolary form. Seeing this one sided conversation tells more from Hall to his dead wife shows more about their relationship and they way he felt about her more than any other form could. 


Empson: Telling it like it is

On 24 August 1945 Empson writes to George Orwell about Animal Farm. I really like this letter because it gives us some insight into the editing process of Animal Farm and the Russian Revolution. I personally like to read letters like this because it reminds me that even the best writers need criticism and need to edit. I think it would be really interesting to see the draft Orwell gave to Empson and then see the changes he made based on Empson’s feedback. While reading Empson’s letters I came to appreciate his straight talk, no matter whom he is writing to.  In his letter to Orwell his feedback was direct and to the point. Later in a letter to T.S. Eliot (17 May 1948) Empson is writing to explain a letter he previously wrote which Eliot considered to be “the most insulting letter which I have ever received” (pg. 159)


I am myself a very incompetent man at this kind of thing, and people are always telling me that I am making a muddle, and that my efforts are doing more harm than good. It never crosses my mind to that this is a mortal insult, and that all relations must be broken off for it. I do hope most earnestly that you are not taking this kind of attitude; I never though you were that kind of man at all; it would be a most painful discovery […] it is very bad for a great writer to refuse to be treated like other people […] I am only trying to point out that there are two very clear-cut alternatives. Either I was accusing you of an underhand trick or I was simply complaining that you had let things get into a muddle (pg. 161).


I like that even though he is writing to T.S. Eliot, he is still going to call him out on his temper tantrum and self-righteousness, but he does leave T.S. Eliot a chance to show some humility.


On 05 May 1962 again shows his “tell it like it is” attitude in a letter to Christopher Ricks, “It is extremely kind of you to send me this horrible book [David Holbrook, LLareggub Revisted: Dylan Thomas and the state of modern poetry (1962)] after I had forgotten to ask you for it; I have tried to finish it quickly.


While I was reading these letters I really appreciated Empson’s honesty and straightforwardness because it doesn’t pander to inflated egos. Empson doesn’t take up the whole of his letters trying to figure out the most delicate way to deliver criticism. That being said, through a semester’s worth of reading letters by famous authors I have learned that who you know can be really important, which is unfortunate for Empson, because I can imagine his style didn’t always win him friends.


Source-Empson, William, and John Haffenden. Selected Letters of William Empson. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.


Henry David Thoreau and Henry James: Dwelling on Nothing

Henry David Thoreau and Henry James: Dwelling on Nothing


            In class we spent some time talking about Thoreau’s idea of practicing yoga, being a yogin, and his response to Blake about being lonely; “No, I am nothing”. While reading through James’s letters letter 47 to his brother William James reminded me of Thoreau’s ideas about wisdom and breaking yourself from conventional life and the cycle of suffering. In this letter James tells his brother William James and is talking about the fast pace of London life.


When it comes to the point, in giving any account of London days & London doings, one hardly knows where to begin, I suppose this is a proof that such days are full, such doings numerous, & that if one could, by a strong effort detach one’s self from them & look at them as objectively, as a person living quite out of it & far away from it like yourself would do – there would be many more things worth dwelling upon than one falls here into the way of seeing (James pg 107).


It seems that he is saying that when he tries to describe life in London, he doesn’t know where to begin, and that’s proof that the days are full, but if you could remove yourself from the city you could think of much better things to do.

            “To dwell on nothing, indeed, comes to be here one’s desire as well as one’s habit – & half the facts of London life are tolerable only because they exist to you just for the moment of your personal contact with them” (James pg 1070). James seems to be saying that to dwell on nothing is ideal, and that the reason why some of the inconveniences of city life are tolerable is because we only think about it in the moment we encounter the inconvenience. James’s idea of nothing does not seem to match up with Thoreau’s and sounds more self-centered. Thoreau seemed to believe that to “be nothing” you had to remove yourself from everything that was unnecessary and surround yourself in more eternal things like the nature.

Thoreau- Working for passion

Henry Thoreau

Life without Principle

The aim of the laborer should be, not to get his living, to get “a good job,” but to perform well a certain work; and, even in a pecuniary sense, it would be economy for a town to pay its laborers so well that they would not feel that they were working for low ends, as for a livelihood merely, but for scientific, or even moral ends. Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it (pg. 2018).

According to Thoreau one of the aims of the laborer should be to work doing something you love, not something you just do for the money. This raises the question that every college student faces: what do I want to do with my life? This is a question we have all struggled to answer, and ideally the answer that we come up with is similar to what Thoreau advises; follow a passion. Unfortunately the reality is that many of us do not end up with jobs where we work for love and not for money.

A point that Thoreau makes is that employers should only hire people who love their jobs and employees should be paid well. If only more managers in the world thought like Thoreau, maybe we would all make little more money, and have to deal with grumpy employees a lot less.

Later on starts talking about “community”, but I struggled with this section,

The community has no bribe that will tempt a wise man. You man raise money enough to tunnel a mountain, but you cannot raise money enough to hire a man who is minding his own business. An efficient and valuable man does what he can, whether the community pay him for it or not (pg 2018).

Before this he was talking about workers doing what they love, employers hiring only people who love the work, and employers paying people better, but here it sounds like Thoreau is talking about possible free services. That is, one can’t raise enough money to hire a man who has other work that he loves to do. When Thoreau says “An efficient and valuable man does what he can, whether the community pay him for it or not (pg 2018)” Is he saying that an efficient and valuable man will do what he can with a job, whether or not he gets paid? This seems to be slightly contradictory to what Thoreau was saying earlier.