It could be seen that ‘Harmonium’ by Simon Armitage, whilst on the face of it is about a musical instrument, is actually a metaphor for the narrator’s father. The name of the instrument used is interesting in itself as it makes you think of something that is harmonious. This might be why the narrator chooses to personify the instrument, because it represents, in the narrator’s eyes, an actual person. The informal language and uplifting descriptions in ‘Harmonium’ prevent it from becoming a dirge and keep the tone light-hearted and “chirpy” but ultimately if the poem is about the son’s relationship with his father it is also about the fact that the father will one day face his mortality; as do we all.
Form and Tone
‘Harmonium’ is presented in four unequal stanzas which are 4 lines, 8 lines, 5 lines, and 10 lines long respectively. Although there is no formal rhyming pattern, rhyme is used frequently throughout the poem and this helps give ‘Harmonium’ a light, happy feeling. Although there are wistful, perhaps regretful undertones to this poem it is generally quite an uplifting piece. The rhymes and the colloquialisms help to accomplish this.
Analysis of Harmonium
The Farrand Chapelette was gathering dust
in the shadowy porch of Marsden Church.
And was due to be bundled off to the skip.
Or was mine, for a song, if I wanted it.
It is interesting how Armitage uses the brand of the harmonium in the poem. This might make the poem appear “dated” in the future, but perhaps that is the intention? Maybe this poem is supposed to be representative of a particular age. If giving the brand name dates the poem then giving the name of the chapel it is stored at locates it. Marsden Church is a church in Armitage’s home county of Yorkshire lending further credence to the suggestion that this poem could be autobiographical. Note the half-rhyme of “skip” and “it”. This gives the poem a nice flow and the use of the colloquial phrase “going for a song” helps give the start of ‘Harmonium’ a slightly “cheeky” feel. Not only is the phrase going for a song (meaning going cheaply) a regionalized phrase, but it also a music-based pun. Very clever Mr. Armitage!
Sunlight, through stained glass, which day to day
could beatify saints and raise the dead,
where the organist’s feet, in grey, woollen socks
and leather-soled shoes, had pedalled and pedalled.
A partial rhyme is used at the end of the first and third stanza. I think this is to solidify the description of the aged case into its own section. There is an interesting paradox here as he describes the beauty of the sunlight but then the negative effect that it has had on the case of the instrument. The narrator then continues to describe the instrument that on the face of it has seen better days! Personification is used throughout this stanza to help bring the instrument to life. Its keys are described as fingers and the broken note is referred to as the instrument losing its tongue. These descriptions give the instrument importance but also suggest that the instrument itself could be a metaphor for a person.
But its hummed harmonics still struck a chord:
and gilded finches – like high notes – had streamed out.
In the previous stanza the narrator had managed to create an image of an instrument that was very worn down; although never in a fashion as to make a reader mournful of the condition of the instrument. In this stanza we see the instrument being lauded. The alliteration in the first line adds to the flow of this stanza and helps to make the instrument sound magnificent. The phrase “struck a chord” being used is very clever, once again it is a piece of informal language, but could be used in a figurative or very literal manner here. The first mentions of a father and son relationship appear in this stanza and ‘Harmonium’ veers more into this area in the proceeding stanza.
Through his own blue cloud of tobacco smog,
with smoker’s fingers and dottled thumbs,
some shallow or sorry phrase or word
too starved of breath to make itself heard.
This describes the narrator carrying the case with his dad assisting him. The very first line describes his dad in a cloud of tobacco smoke. This may well be pertinent as this stanza, and indeed ‘Harmonium’ develops and the idea of the father’s life eventually ending becomes more and more prominent. It’s quite clear that his father is a joker as he claims; one would assume flippantly, that the next time his son is carrying a heavy case that the father will probably be in it; making the comparison to the case is like a coffin. There is a nice parallel here as the narrator describes what their dad says using the phrase “and he being him” and then describes his own words with “and I, being me” I think this parallel is to emphasize the “circle of life” (cue the lion king music!) I think the suggestion is that as the son grows into a father himself, one day his own time will be running out. It is kind of poignant but ‘Harmonium’ never gets bogged down in being wistful and I think that is a mirror of the narrator’s father’s passion for life.
The language used is very deliberate in this stanza. The narrator uses the word shallow to describe his own words. I for one associate the word shallow with a grave and I don’t think this is a coincidence. He then uses the phrase “starved of breath”, another allusion to death, although he could just be out of breath from carrying a heavy instrument! Death was explicitly mentioned in the second stanza. Perhaps the organ itself is a metaphor for the narrator’s dad. A person who is clearly old and worn out but still has a sense of life in him as made clear by his sense of humor, he addresses his own eventual demise, not in a gloomy, but a humorous way. Much like the instrument, the old man can still strike a chord!
About Simon Armitage
Simon Armitage is a British poet who was born and raised in the county of Yorkshire. His local heritage and dialogue are often imbued into his poetry giving it a comical or personal feel. As well as poetry Armitage is a man of music and is often lauded as having a good ear for rhythm in his poetry. This is perhaps unsurprising as he also a songwriter for his own band. This raises the question as to whether ‘Harmonium’ is autobiographical.