Felo de se

Thomas Blackburn


Thomas Blackburn

Thomas Blackburn was a British poet born in 1916.

He is remembered for his memoir, A Clip of Steel, and his collections of poems that explored identity.

Within ‘Felo de se’ Blackburn speaks on themes of relationships, the treatment of women, and death. The tone varies throughout the text. It is at points sarcastic, surprised, and withdrawn with the overall being dark and confused. The title of this piece, ‘Felo de se’ is Latin for “felon got himself”. This is an older legal phrase used to describe kill oneself. 

Felo de se by Thomas Blackburn


Summary of Felo de se

Felo de se’ by Thomas Blackburn depicts the aftermath of a woman’s suicide attempt and the emotionless world she’s returned to. 

The poem starts with the doctor addressing the speaker. He is cold, heartless, and completely withdrawn from all emotion. The doctor doesn’t care what happens to the woman after she’s no longer under his care. Blackburn’s speaker, from whom the rest of the story is told, is similar. He knows that the woman tried to kill herself but he has trouble caring about it other than how it immediately affects him. He’s sent to get some of her things and is more focused on the task at hand than on what’s going on in her mind and heart. 

When the speaker picks up the woman from the hospital he doesn’t know what to say or how to act. The same is true for the friend that y meet at the apartment. The poem ends with the speaker leaving the woman’s apartment and feeling relief that he no longer has to pretend he’s someone he’s not or is feeling something he’s not. 


Structure of Felo de se 

Felo de se’ by Thomas Blackburn is a four stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza contains twenty-one and the second, third, and fourth each contains ten. Blackburn’s poem is structured as a dramatic monologue. This refers to a story told from the voice of a single narrator. They are unnamed and the only clues to their identity come from the text itself. 

The lines of ‘Felo de se’ are quite different from one another in length but they do follow a rhyme scheme. It vaguely conforms to the pattern of ABABCDCD, and so on, changing end sounds as the poet saw fit. There are several moments in which Blackburn uses half-rhyme rather than full rhyme. Also known as slant or partial rhyme, half-rhyme is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line, or multiple lines of verse. 


Poetic Techniques in Felo de se 

Blackburn makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Felo de se’. These include alliteration, simile, enjambment, and caesura. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. 

For example, “situation” and “shed” in line fifteen of the first stanza. There is another example in line ten of the second stanza with “behind” and “back”. 

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. There are examples throughout the poem, such as in the transition between lines eleven and twelve in stanza one. 

Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might proceed an important turn or transition in the text. Examples include the last line of stanza two that reads: “I changed the gear. Who drives behind my back?” 

A simile is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. There is an example in the fifth line of the second stanza. It reads: “I took her arm, though, like a helpful friend”. 


Analysis of Felo de se 

Stanza One 

Lines 1-10

‘Thirty,’ the doctor said, ‘three grains, each one,
‘That’s quite a lot of sodium-amytol!
Then flicked through Punch and waited the event;
It was, you see, no time for sentiment.

In the first lines of ‘Felo de se,’ the reader is brought immediately into the story of a woman who has tried to kill herself. But, all the information is second hand. It is from the doctor that we learn how much medicine she took and the woman is just an unknown “she” in the fourth line. The doctor expresses his curiosity about the suicide attempt, wondering if the woman really meant to kill herself. But, either way, he concludes, it’s not his business. The doctor’s personality and words are cold. He expresses nothing close to regarding his patient’s health, he’s clearly just happy to be done with the job for the day. 

The person to whom he has been speaking is not the reader, but the narrator and main character of the poem. Rather than discuss with the doctor what needs to be done for the patient next, they simply relay the necessities and move on. The tone is straightforward and emotionless. This is made all the more obvious by the next lines in which the speaker describes reading “Punch” a satirical magazine. He is avoiding the real problem and even says to himself, that this is “no time for the sentiment”. 


Lines 11-17

Her things, though, had been much in evidence
Back in the flatlet when I searched through drawers
(It is the cause, my soul, it is the cause)
I found her slippers underneath the bed

Rather than consider the woman, her pain, or the chance that she might harm herself again, he focuses on her “things”. They had been “much in evidence” when he went to her home to seek out what she needed. She lived in a  “flatlet”. This suggests a very small, cramped space that was no doubt intentionally added by the poet in order to expand a reader’s understanding of her life. 

He looked through her drawers and took note of a “nightgown”. When he saw it, the first thing that came into his head was that it’s blue “for romance”. This is ironic as there is nothing sweet or passionate about what the woman did. He is again becoming distracted and sidelined by other things that are easier to comprehend. 

There is another moment of irony as the speaker says that “such tears / As in the situations must be shed”. He’s very far from crying, or so it seems on the outside, but acknowledges that it is a tragic situation. This speaks to his disconnection from what’s going on or perhaps the inability to truly understand the life of the woman who tried to kill herself.

There is another important moment in the sixth line where the speaker quotes Othello by William Shakespeare. This phrase is spoken by Othello after he’s just murdered his wife. He is trying to shake off the blame for the death, just as the speaker might be doing the same. 


Lines 18-21

Where we had … where she drained her bitter cup
Put out the light, ‘and then put out the light’.

Their bed, which he looks around to find her slippers is a place of love and death. They just had sex there, but she also tried to kill herself there. This is something he’s having a hard time reconciling as is noted by the use of the ellipse in the middle of line seven. 

He refocuses himself on what he’s able to, the act of seeking out items and packing a suitcase. The last line of this stanza is another quote from Othello that is also from around the time of Desdemona’s murder. 


Stanza Two

‘So,’ the nurse said, ‘you’ve come. She may go out.’
I noticed that my shoe-lace was untied,
But though some words climbed up into my throat
Nor who is playing it or what we are,
Her landlord came in time and that was luck.
I changed the gear. Who drives behind my back?

At the beginning of the second stanza of ‘Felo de se’ the speaker relays the halting, emotionless words of the nurse at the hospital. The woman is being discharged and the emotional turbulence of her suicide attempt is juxtaposed with the fact that the man’s “shoe-lace was untied”. 

In what is a revealing moment, the man explains that he tried to think of something to say to this woman who is his wife, partner, or lover, but he can’t. There’s nothing that comes into his mind that’s “appropriate to suicide”. 

Using a simile, he describes how he took her arm like a friend and does his best to mentally reconcile with what’s happened and its importance. His brief emotional depth in the last lines of this stanza is juxtaposed with the statement about her landlord and their arrival. There is also an interesting metaphor as he compares life to driving a car, the control of which he has lost to someone else. It is as if he’s realized for the first time that everything is not under his control. There is someone driving behind his back. 


Stanza Three

Her friend was waiting for us at the flat
With tea and so on. This I had arranged.
Knowing too well such passion spun the plot,
(There are some shadows which take long to pass)
Her friend poured tea, and slowly, drop by drop,
In solitude we drained our acid cup.

The reference to plays and stage performance is continued in the third stanza. Here, he describes their arrival home and how the plot was spun. Her friend was there “With tea and so on” (another moment of flippancy). It was his choice in these moments to change the story and make sure that “Death was” not the end. He chose to change the scene but the only way he could do it was to “tear apart the script”. This speaks to the turbulence of their relationship and how it certainly was not helped by this trauma. 

The woman is finally the focus of the poem in the second half of this stanza. She was white-lipped and sat kneading her hands as if unsure what to do with herself. In parenthesis, he speaks of her suicide attempt and the emotions associated with it as a “shadow” that’s hard to pass. The environment is not a healthy one. It’s quiet, no one knows what to say, and they all felt alone in that room together. 


Stanza Four

We had exhausted words as well as touch,
Therefore at half past ten I said goodbye,
The blue stone I recall on her left hand;
Just what it means I do not understand.

In the last stanza of ‘Felo de se,’ the speaker reiterates the fact that they’re all having a hard time communicating. They quickly ran out of words “as well as touch”. It’s clear that this woman has been living in a cold, emotionally stunted environment. The pain she was going through was ignored or went unseen and even then, after she tried to kill herself, no one knows what to do. 

To his relief, the speaker gets to leave the apartment at half-past ten. He’s able to lift off the burden of her suicide attempt and be himself again. This shows how little he really cares about how she is. 

There are several questions left unanswered at the end of the poem. The relationship between the speaker and the woman is only one. He thinks back to the “blue stone” on her “left hand”. This hints at an engagement, but is it to the speaker or someone else? Even he seems confused about what she has just gone through and what it means for him. 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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