Glossary charnel-house (line 26) – a vault where dead bodies or bones are piled up Belsen Camp (line 30) – Bergen Belsen was one of the mot notorious concentration camps of the Second World War. It became a camp for those who were too weak or sick to work and many people died because of the terrible conditions. Anne Frank was interned there and died of typhus in 1945. The camp was liberated in 1945. a) Discuss the poet’s portrayal of the vultures, paying close attention to his use of imagery and other poetic devices. – the poet describes the vultures in a bleak and depressing setting: ‘greyness’ and ‘drizzle’ of one ‘despondent dawn’.
His choice of words paint a picture of a miserable environment – it is in this environment that the vultures perch, and by beginning his poem with the description of this bleak environment, he prepares the reader for the scene of horror which is to come – the alliteration in ‘drizzle’ of one ‘despondent dawn’, where the heavy consonant sound ‘d’ is repeated, reinforces the gloomy atmosphere – dawn is supposed to be a symbol of renewal and a new beginning, but the presence of the vultures seem to negate this positive association.
– the vultures are ‘unstirred’ by ‘harbingers of sunbreak’, as if they are cold and dispassionate, unfeeling and unmoved by the light. They seem to embody darkness here, immune to the positive effects of light, and by analogy, the effects of hope and goodness – they are perched on the ‘broken bone’ of a dead tree. This metaphor suggests that the tree is like a carcass itself, and it’s bare, bleached branches akin to bones picked clean by the vultures. This makes it seem as though the vultures presence and activities have a corrupting effect on their surroundings.
They feed on death, and their presence seems to cover their environment in a deathly shroud – the imagery used so far matches the vulture’s reputation as a harbinger of death. In many cultures, vultures symbolize death and decomposition. The image of vultures circling overhead has long represented impending doom or fast approaching death. – the poet also uses terrifying imagery to describe the vultures and their culinary habits – their heads are ‘smooth’ and ‘bashed-in’, a picture of an unnatural, misshapen shape.
‘Bashed-in’ also suggests violence, and one may imagine the feeing frenzy of a flock of vultures descending on a corpse contributing to this ‘bashed-in’ condition, as ravenous vultures thrust their heads in and out of the horde of feeders – By describing their heads as ‘a pebble on a stem’, ‘rooted in a dump of gross feathers’, the poet reinforces the image of deformity and abnormality. The chaotic nature of their feeding is reflected by the ‘gross feathers’, pointing outwards haphazardly. This image also presents a darkly comical effect. – The matter of fact way the poet mentions that ‘Yesterday they picked the eyes of a swollen corpse…
’ is horrifying in the almost banal, trivial way it is mentioned. – The poet’s placing of the phrase ‘Yesterday they picked’ at the end of the line enhances the shocking effect of the subsequent words that follow it in the next line. Because the poet delays the revelation of what they were actually doing, the reader might expect something completely different, especially as the poet uses the terms ‘nestled’ and ‘inclined affectionately’ just before that line. These terms are in stark contrast to the gruesome imagery elsewhere in the description of the vultures.
The tenderness of the vultures’ behaviour towards each other is jarring, as it is at odds with our stereotypical impressions of vultures. By using those terms, the vultures seem like a loving couple. – One could imagine the lines ‘Yesterday they picked’ being followed by ‘.. a new sofa set’ or ‘… (picked) out new curtains’. This couple however were involved in a much more horrifying activity. – This activity is described in gruesome detail – the vultures pick out the eyes of a swollen corpse, bloated from decomposition in a water-logged trench. They ‘gorged’ themselves on ‘the things in its bowel’.
The poet has created an almost unholy scene of terror. The typical human would find this scene abhorrent but to the vulture this would just be a typical breakfast, a routine process. – ‘Full gorged’, they proceed to roost on the tree, still keeping an eye on the remains of their meal, with ‘cold, telescopic eyes’. The poet seems to portray them here as almost mechanical and robotic, with cold and unfeeling eyes. – The poet presents the vultures as vicious figures, and their brief moment of tenderness surprises the reader. This contrast prepares the reader for the dual nature of the Commandant later in the poem.