Song for a Birth or for a Death

Elizabeth Jennings


Elizabeth Jennings

Nationality: English

Elizabeth Jennings was a British poet and writer known for her lyrical and introspective style.

Her first collection was Poems in 1953.

Jennings explores interesting themes with this poem, ‘Song for a Birth or for a Death’. Literary critics, humanitarians, and people of various religious beliefs have long argued over the condition of humanity. Some have believed that humans are inherently bad. Others believe that humans are inherently good. Some have believed that human beings are no more than a more advanced form of the animal, while others have believed that humanity is inherently different from the animal world. With this poem, the speaker explores the ways in which human love is similar to animal instinct. The title of this poem is fascinating. Upon first reading ‘Song for a Birth or for a Death’, it seems as if the title is unrelated. However, because the human act of love often leads to birth, the title is fitting. The speaker implies that love brings on death. However, readers are also aware that the human act of ultimate pleasure also can produce birth. Thus, the speaker’s words apply to birth and to death, though her themes and ideas center around fear, instinct, and pleasure.

Song for a Birth or for a Death by Elizabeth Jennings


Song for a Birth or for a Death Analysis

Stanza One

Last Night I saw the savage world
And heard the blood beat up the stair
The fox’s bark the owl’s shrewd pounce
The crying creatures all were there
And men in bed with love and fear

The speaker begins ‘Song for a Birth or for a Death’ from a first person point of view, allowing the reader to enter into this experience with her. She makes it clear that she has experienced something first hand, and this experience has had an effect on her. By relying on what she saw, she invites the reader into her experience. She claims that in only one night, she “saw the savage world”. This reveals that the scene she is about to relay was intense and “savage” and somehow indicative of the rest of the world. The speaker’s details are vivid, yet her message is vague. The readers do not yet know why she “heard the blood beat up the stair”. Nor is it made clear exactly what the “fox’s bark” or “the owls shrewd pounce” represent. However, she makes it clear that all of these creatures were “crying” and that among the rest of the crying creatures, she saw “men in bed with love and fear”. The remaining stanzas will further explore the themes of love and fear and how they are intertwined.


Stanza Two

The slit moon only emphasised
And human creatures lip to lip?

The speaker continues to create imagery that conveys human and animal instincts. She describes “the slit moon” as something that “emphasised how blood must flow and teeth must grip”. This seems to describe the effect of the moon on the wolf. The speaker then asks, “What does the calm light understand…?” This question implies that the calm light does not understand that which the “slit moon” understands. She suggests that there is no calm in the night, only fear. The speaker then describes the way the moon “drags the owl upon its pray” and she compares that the way that the moon also draws “human creatures lip to lip”. This implies that human love is every bit as instinctual as the owl’s prey drive.


Stanza Three

Last night I watched how pleasure must
Feel the blood throb to death until

At the beginning of this stanza of ‘Song for a Birth or for a Death’, the speaker reminds her hearers that she has experienced something first hand. She repeats the phrase, “last night” to remind her listeners that this is a recent as well as first-hand experience. She says that she “watched how pleasure must leap from disaster with its will”. It is yet unclear the exact details of the scene she experienced. However, she has implied that this experience revealed a savage side to human nature. It revealed human instinct and caused her to believe that humans were as instinct driven as other wild animals. She has seen something regarding human love and pleasure. She claims that she watched as this pleasure was forced to leap “from disaster” out of sheer will power. Perhaps here is the difference between human love and animal instinct. Whatever she saw “last night” the speaker is certain that she watched the use of human will to leap from disaster. She then describes “the fox’s fear” and “the watchdog’s lust” in comparison to what she saw “last night”. In the animal world, she suggests that “all matings mean a kill”. She compares this savage animal instinct to the idea that “human creatures kissed in trust” also “feel the blood throb to death”. The speaker implies that there is an instinct that remains deep inside the human heart, and that pleasure and love are associated with fear because animal instincts still reside in the sub-concious. Whatever scene she observed has given her the idea that human beings, though they may have a will power that animals do not, still harbor subconscious instincts that cause them to associate pleasure and love with fear- even fear of death.


Stanza Four

The seed is struck, the pleasure’s done
And cries of love are cries of fear

With the final stanza, the speaker offers a little more insight into the scene she experienced. She saw it as “the seed [was] struck”. This seems to refer to the climax of human pleasure. She says, “the pleasure’s done”. When it is over, she notices the noises around her, and they bring on fear. It is unclear whether her experience was one that she watched or partook in. In either case, the speaker is keenly aware that at the end of pleasure, fear set in. She describes the birds as “thronging in the air”. Whereas some may describe the noises of birds as sweet singing, the speaker purposefully uses the word “thronging” to suggest the multitude of birds which created an irritating noise. The word itself produces a sense of anxiety. She then proceeds to describe the way in which “the moon gives way to widespread sun”. One might assume that a sunrise would produce feelings of calm and happiness. However, this speaker experiences the sun as something which sheds light on “the pain” which she describes as something that “still crouches where the young fox and the child are trapped”. Therefore, after the speaker experienced this since in which human pleasure was brought to completion, she felt an intense fear. She felt the fear of the fox, and the fear of the trapped child.

She then ends ‘Song for a Birth or for a Death’ by claiming that “cries of love are cries of fear”. This speaker reveals her belief that human beings are no more capable of true love than animals. She associates love with fear, entirely. She admits that human love can bring pleasure, but concludes that the pleasure ends in fear. She traces this back to instinct, claiming that mating, in the wild, means the loss of life somewhere, somehow. Thus, she attributes her sense of fear of human love to the fact that humans are instinct driven creatures, and that at the core of humanity, instinct is still alive and well. Thus, pleasure and love must always be followed by fear.

Allisa Corfman Poetry Expert
Allisa graduated with a degree in Secondary Education and English and taught World Literature and Composition at the high school level. She has always enjoyed writing, reading, and analysing literature.

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