‘Fantasia on a Theme of James Wright ‘ by Sean O’Brien is a personal poem which looks at the idea of coal mining in the Newcastle area of North England, contemplating the impact on the earth and communities of this traditional profession. O’Brien was born in London in 1952, however he grew up in Hull and now lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, showing his personal connection to this poem. He described the poem as an “elegy for the pitmen, but also a celebration of their life and labour” when introducing it as part of his Forward Prize winning collection “The Drowned Book”.
This poem is no longer part of the set of prescribed poems that could be included in the Edexcel English Literature exam, however it is still useful for practice as an unseen poem. Click here to see a full list of revision notes for the examined poems.
Interpreture gives ‘Fantasia on a Theme of James Wright’ a difficulty rating of 3, meaning that it is deemed to be of average difficulty. The difficulty of the poem is spread relatively evenly across the different factors, with the range of structure and language techniques enabling a variety of interpretations and analysis. The meaning may be difficult at first if the context is not apparent to students, but once this is appreciated the meaning of the poem becomes much clearer.
‘Fantasia on a Theme of James Wright’
A “Fantasia” typically refers to a musical composition with familiar styles and mix of forms, indicating that the poem will be something that readers can relate to in some form. In poetry, to write “on a Theme” means to be inspired by an individual’s work, in this instance James Wright who wrote about local steelworkers and miners around Ohio. Many poems within the Poems of the Decade collection have quite obscure titles, so this certainly breaks the overall trend by being specific. That said, the impact of this is limited to those with knowledge of these references, and even then there is still potential for there to be a relatively broad range of possible subjects.
The layout of ‘Fantasia on a Theme of James Wright’ is generally consistent, with nine stanzas with three lines in each. This presents an idea of consistency on an initial impression of the poem, however on closer analysis it is clear that this initial impression isn’t entirely accurate. As such, it could be interpreted as representing the decline of traditional jobs and industries in the UK such as coal mining. In addition, some readers may also hold that view in conjunction with the idea of cycles in employment and society as a whole, showing how the bigger picture does not change as otherwise might be anticipated.
One aspect which may not be immediately obvious is how short the poem is; while there are many stanzas, there isn’t a huge amount of lines, with some of them very short with only three or four words. This means that a reader would frequently be switching lines when reading, making transitions feel faster. This is also supported by the use of enjambment between lines and stanzas. Some readers may interpret this as being a representation of time, showing how the world develops and moves on from different occupations.
Similar ideas can also be interpreted from the inconsistent rhythm and rhyme, with only small hints of rhyme such as “still” and “Palmersville” in the first stanza. This could be seen as a deliberate choice by O’Brien with the aim of making the poem more difficult to read due to the lack of a consistent supporting rhythm, encouraging readers to spend longer considering the range of imagery and the poem’s message.
Dark imagery accompanied by an extended metaphor of water and drowning add a negative tone to parts of ‘Fantasia on a Theme of James Wright’. For example, there is the description of “rivers” “black pools” and “flooding”. The threat of flooding and drowning was ever-present when coal mining as underground rivers could be broken into and quickly flood a mine, with the descriptions showing the dangers of this working environment. In addition, there are relatively disturbing descriptions such as “gargling dust” designed to generate empathy for these mine workers. Some readers may see these factors as helping to generate a sad tone, in keeping with many examples of eulogies.
The poem achieves a personal tone and connection due to the specific references to locations, such as “West Moor and Palmersville” which are two places in the Newcastle area. There is also reference to previous works, such as the title of the poem, and also “Hedley’s Coming Home” referring to a painting by Hedley called “Coming Home” which depicts two miners walking home after a day at work. In addition, the general semantic field of mining terminology including “cap-lamps” all combines to make the poem feel much more realistic and accurate, enabling a deeper connection with a reader. However, while many of these references would have a big impact on readers from this area of the country, it would be less impactful for others who do not know of the significance.
Although there is limited rhyme in the poem, techniques such as plosives and alliteration are still used to help shape the sound of various lines. One key example is “black-braided banners” in the fourth stanza, with the alliteration of the plosive ‘b’ sound very noticeable, particularly when read aloud. This may be interpreted by some readers at sounding like the repetitive sound of mining, or alternatively in this case the sound of drowning if linked to the extended metaphor throughout the poem. There is another case of repeated sounds in the seventh stanza, however this is split across three lines as the first word on each, making the similar sounds less obvious audibly but perhaps clearer visually.
“They are sinking slowly further”
The sibilance of “sinking slowly” helps to give a sinister tone to this line, highlighting the danger in the idea of “sinking” particularly in the context of mines and being underground. Some readers may interpret this as tomb-like imagery, or alternatively may see it more as a representation of memory, with coal miners “sinking” further to the depths of society’s collective memory. This would create sympathy for the forgotten industry and workers.
“tiny corridors of the immense estate”
The juxtaposition of the claustrophobic description of “tiny corridors” which has connotations of industry and business against the idea of an “immense estate” which in turn has connotations of a traditional class society would be intriguing for a reader, encouraging them to consider how coal miners may have dedicated their lives to working for a very low wage so that the rich could benefit. It could also be interpreted as showing that individually a miner may be relatively insignificant, but collectively they have had a large impact on society.
“The singing of the dead inside the earth”
The connection between “singing” and “dead” may evoke imagery of funerals and memorials, highlighting the ways in which ‘Fantasia on a Theme of James Wright’ acts as a elegy to the mining industry. However, it is interesting to note it being a living action “inside” of the earth, which could be interpreted as representing the ongoing impact of dead who have helped to change society into what it is today as a result of mining.
‘Fantasia on a Theme of James Wright’ Key Themes
- Society and Culture: A key point being addressed in this poem is the shifts of society away from coal mining, particularly from the traditional coal heartlands of Northern England. O’Brien demonstrates the impact of the coal miners through the way in which their impact is described throughout the poem.
- Work: A specific industry is addressed, and the impact it has had on the workers is also referenced. Their impact is shown through the last phrase, “history done”.
- Past and Present: For a reader, the mines are a distant memory with the areas referenced having stopped production several decades ago. As such, the transition between past society to today’s world is a key aspect to consider.
Quick Focus Questions
- How could a different structure have been more or less effective for this poem?
- What impact would the final line of ‘Fantasia on a Theme of James Wright’ have on a reader?
- Find a semantic field within the poem and explain how it impacts a reader.
The structure of this poem may not be overly ‘exciting’ however the ways in which language has been used with the intriguing imagery and semantic fields makes this poem interesting to picture. O’Brien’s use of water rather than purely focusing on typical interpretations of mining also create an additional element of interest in the poem. While ‘Fantasia on a Theme of James Wright’ may have a limited amount of initial comparisons to other poems, it links with ‘From the Journal of a Disappointed Man’ by addressing ideas of work, and ‘Material’ with the idea of changes in society. To a certain extent, the shifts in society could also be compared to ‘The Fox In the National Museum of Wales’.