In this poem, a speaker, who may or may not be the poet himself, has a revelatory and emotionally memorable experience in a Pontefract liquorice field. The poet uses a tone that is elaborative, dedicated, and upbeat to craft a nostalgic and worshipful mood. ‘The Licorice Fields at Pontefract’ delves into themes of love, passion, and memory.
Explore The Licorice Fields at Pontefract
The poem takes the reader into a speaker’s memory. He recalls being in a liquorice, or “licorice,” field. There, he saw a woman who filled him with an immediate passion. The poem takes its time describing how she captured him with her eyes and red hair. There are also fulsome descriptions of the town and an only slightly misdescribed image of liquorice blooms.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Poetic Techniques
‘The Licorice Fields at Pontefract’ by John Betjeman is a three-stanza poem that’s divided into sets of eight lines, known as octaves. These octaves follow a rhyme scheme of ABABCCDD, changing end sounds as the poet saw fit.
Betjeman makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The Licorice Fields at Pontefract’. These include alliteration, anaphora, enjambment, and repetition. The latter, repetition, is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone or phrase within a poem. For example, the structure in lines six and seven of the first stanza in which the speaker depicts a woman’s “lips” and “legs”.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For instance, “burdened,” “bush,” and “blooming” in lines three and four of the first stanza as well as “sulky,” “sturdy,” “shaped,” and “sin” in the seventh line of that same stanza.
Betjeman also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession.For instance, the word “Her” starts lines six and seven of the first stanza and the word “And” at the beginning of the last three lines of stanza two, as well as the last two lines of the third stanza.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines four and five of the second stanza and three and four of the third.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
In the licorice fields at Pontefract
My love and I did meet
Her sturdy legs were flannel-slack’d
The strongest legs in Pontefract.
In the first lines of ‘The Licorice Fields at Pontefract,’ the speaker begins by setting the scene and describing his lover. He and his lover met up in the “licorice fields at Pontefract,” a town in West Yorkshire, England. The area is renowned for its licorice and gave its name to the famous Pontefract cake.
The speaker paints an image of plenty as he describes the heavy bushes of licorice, blooming at their feet. So far, the mood is positive, nostalgic, and happy. He goes on, adding in some descriptions of his lover. The speaker describes her “flannel-slack’d” legs” and her “red hair”. These lines are spoken with passion and admiration.
The light and dangling licorice flowers
Gave off the sweetest smells;
And lowly streets where country stops
And little shuttered corner shops.
In the next three lines, the speaker turns back to the licorice plants. He speaks on their “light and dangling flowers” and the smell they gave off in his memory. The images in this line are based on senses. The first utilizes smell, then the poet tries to get the reader to hear the “Sunday evening bells”. This phrase brings with it images of the setting sun and a calm town.
From where he was with his lover, he could hear the bells echoing “over dales and hills”. The perfect rhymes in these lines make the scene feel idealistic and improbably peaceful.
She cast her blazing eyes on me
And plucked a licorice leaf;
And held in brown arms strong and bare
And wound with flaming ropes of hair.
In the last three lines of ‘Licorice Fields at Pontefract,’ the speaker turns his attention back to his lover. While they were there, she “cast her blazing eyes” on him and pick a leaf from the bushes. It is clear from just this first line the hold she has over him. Her eyes make sure he follows her with his own. This is depicted in lines two and three. He was her “slave and she / [His] red-haired robber chief”. The word “red” is reused here, emphasizing again the brightness of her hair in juxtaposition to the green plants.
The images of fire, burning, and heat fill these lines are the speaker “wilts” in this woman’s presence. She controlled him at that moment and consumed him with a feeling of love and passion.
‘Licorice Fields at Pontefract’ concludes with the speaker depicting love and its ability to wound itself around him “with flaming ropes of hair”. These lines also contain an example of an apostrophe. This is an arrangement of words addressing someone/something that does not exist or is not present, in the poem’s immediate setting. The exclamation, which often utilizes “Oh,” is addressed as though that person/thing can hear and understand the speaker’s words. In this case, he speaks about “love” as though it can understand his exaltations.