‘Exile’ by Conrad Aiken is a four stanza poem separated into sets of 5, 6, 9 and 10 lines. Aiken has not chosen to structure this piece with a consistent pattern of rhyme or rhythm. Throughout the stanzas the lines contain a strikingly similar number of syllables. This is seen to its greatest effect in stanza one where the lines only range from nine to twelve syllables per line.
One should also take note of the similar end sounds scattered throughout this stanza. This is another way the lines connect to each other without necessarily rhyming. There is a notable link between the words such as “Crows” and “brilliance” Although they are not rhymes, there are elements of consonance that connect the words. The ending “s” sound links them together. The same can be seen in “daybreak” and “tracks” with the “k” or in the final stanza with “unnumbered” and “starved”. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of Exile
The poem begins with the speaker describing the surroundings he has access to. The land is exceedingly grey and desolate. There is nothing much for him to see, expect the lack that comes to haunt him. He is not alone though, there are crows, rabbits and men who have become as withered as the land is. In the next lines he addresses the listener and asks that this person bring water, mountains, a well and even singing birds with them to the speaker’s new unhappy home. That is, if they come.
The speaker is dying for lack of things to see, do and care about. There is nothing to stimulate his mind in any way besides deeper into darkness. The poem concludes with his prediction that one day he will have to submit himself fully to the landscape, like a spider wrapped in its own web.
Analysis of Exile
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by giving the straightforward and necessary details about his surroundings. These are the most basic sights and sensory elements a reader needs to imagine the land. While it is never fully specified, Aiken did have a particular listener, or type of listener in mind when crafting this work. This person is addressed for the first time in the second stanza.
First, before another person comes into the narrative, the speaker lays out everything one needs to know about the “dismal” place he is in. The descriptions are so vivid and poignant that one will have no trouble picturing the world Aiken is crafting. The “hills” around him are “sandy” and all the trees, which should be monumental are “dwarfed” by the sky. He is not alone, there are also “Crows” which are “Caw[ing].”
The elements of this place are given to the reader so quickly the text forms a kind of list. It is hard to take in every line without going back and looking them over again. The “slopes” of the land are “brown” but the “daybreak” is “Yellow.” As the sun rises one can see the “Dew” and the “rabbit tracks” that are within it. This beautiful element of an otherwise depressing landscape disappears after the sun has been up for a time. The speaker asks,
[…] what good does it do?
This is a very defeatist statement and portrays the mindset of the narrator well. The next line introduces an additional human presence into the scene. There are “houses” on this particular slope that are “grey and shrivelled.” They hold men who are remarkably similar to their own abodes. He describes them as being “small and withered, spider-like, with large eyes.”
The second stanza is much shorter than the first, at only six lines. In the first line the speaker immediately turns to the listener. It becomes clear that the speaker is living in this land against his will. One might’ve suspected that was the case with consideration of the title, ‘Exile.’
The speaker is going to spend the next lines telling the reader, or his intended listener, what they should do if they come to “live here.” From what one knows of this place, that does not seem like a great idea. If one does come though, they should bring “Cold tinkling cisterns” filled with water. Or, alternatively, the speaker says it would be great if they could bring,
[…] wells so deep
That one looks down to Ganges or Himalayas.
These lines allude to the fact that the speaker is without some kind of nourishment he needs. It could simply be water. On the other hand, it could be the desire to see something different he is looking for. He would like to be able to peer through the earth and see the Ganges River in India and the Himalayas in south central Asia.
The speaker goes on to ask the listener to “bring mountains.” They should be “white” and have a “moon” they “bear.” Ideally, the speaker would like them to be made of “ice.” It is the “wet and cold” he needs. Here, a reader should be noticing a repetition of the image of water. The speaker is craving it and the coolness that comes along with it. This fact should tell one what his environment is lacking.
The third stand is the shortest of the four with only five lines. In this section he turns away from the obsession with water to describe the “Birds” that one should bring as well. They should come in a “cage of wire or osier.” Osier is type of willow tree that has flexible branches and can therefore be sculpted into a cage-like structure.
The speaker is seeking out birds of “a golden color.” It is likely thy would be strikingly different from his surrounding “grey” landscape. This is another indication that the speaker is looking for anything that could break the monotony of his “exile.”
Ideally, he would like the bird to,
Of leaves that do not wither, watery fruits
These are other things he is missing. He would love to at least hear and think about the fruits and how they hang “heavily” from the “boughs” of trees. There is a “blue-silver forest” somewhere he is longing for.
In the final stanza of the poem the speaker turns away from the landscape to address his own personal and physical situation. The first line poses a question to the listener. It is one the speaker is utilizing to emphasize how long he has been in this place. He states that he does know, it has been “Years unnumbered.”
Since he came here, and he began suffering, his hands have become like “claw[s]
and his eyes have grown “large and starved.” He is becoming more like an animal due to the physical and emotional things he is lacking. The speaker states that he did not bring those things he has asked the listener to. He does not have a “cistern” to see the reflection of the moon. Nor does he have possession of a golden bird. There is no wealth in his land nor is there beauty to relish in. The exile is one of the mind as much as the body.
In the final lines of the poem the speaker crafts a disturbing, yet beautiful description of his worst case scenario. If he decides he cannot live without these things he is going to ‘spin a web” and wrap himself up like a “spider.” He will hang between two tress and be,
[…] blown as lightly
As ghost of leaf.
He will make himself into a piece of the landscape for the crows to caw at and the dew to settle on. If he has to stay here, it is for the best that he turn himself over fully to the land.