Author logo Simon Armitage - study guide

About the poet
Mother, any distance greater than a single span...
My father thought it...
Those bastards in their mansions...
I've made out a will; I'm leaving myself...
Introduction to the Anthology
Poems from Different Cultures
Poems by Seamus Heaney
Poems by Gillian Clarke
Poems by Carol Ann Duffy
Pre-1914 Poetry Bank
Printing and copying this guide
Introduction to prose Fiction


This guide is written for students and teachers who are preparing for GCSE exams in English literature. It contains detailed studies of the poems by Simon Armitage in the AQA Anthology, which is a set text for the AQA's GCSE syllabuses for English and English Literature Specification A, from the 2004 exam onwards.

The guide gives detailed readings of poems by Simon Armitage, with ideas for study. For a general introduction to poetry in the Anthology with extensive guidance for students and teachers, then please see the Introduction to the Anthology by clicking on the link below. For a reading of some other poems by Simon Armitage, in the previous Anthology, follow the link below:

On this page I use red type for emphasis. Brown type is used where italics would appear in print (in this screen font, italic looks like this, and is unkind on most readers). Headings have their own hierarchical logic, too:

Main section headings look like this

Sub-section headings look like this
Minor headings within sub-sections look like this

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About the poet

Simon Armitage was born in Marsden, West Yorkshire in 1963. He studied Geography at Portsmouth, and Psychology at Manchester, qualified as a social worker and worked for six years as a probation officer. He has also worked as a shelf stacker, disc jockey and lathe operator. He is now a freelance writer and broadcaster. He has taught creative writing in various universities. His work includes song lyrics, plays and scripts for TV and radio.

Simon Armitage's first collection, Zoom, appeared in 1989, published by Bloodaxe. Subsequent poetry books, all published by Faber, include Kid (1992), Book of Matches (1993), The Dead Sea Poems (1995), Moon Country (1996), Cloud Cuckoo Land (1997). Killing Time (The Millennium Poem; 1999), Travelling Songs and The Universal Home Doctor (both 2002).

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From Book of Matches,
“Mother, any distance greater than a single span”

Book of Matches (1993) is a collection of poems without titles. Each poem is meant to be read in the time it takes a match to burn down - about twenty seconds, unless you want to burn your fingers. There is a pun in the title: we call a packet from which we tear out the matches a book, but this is also a book in the normal sense, with words for us to read.

The speaker in the poem (who may be the poet himself) is measuring up a house - it appears that he is moving in, and is measuring for curtains and carpets. His mother has “come to help” him as he needs “a second pair of hands” to measure distances greater than the span of his two arms. (“Span” as a measurement traditionally refers to a handspan, from thumb to little finger when the hand is splayed.)

While his mother stays put, he reels out a tape measure, calling figures for her to record. Eventually he reaches the limit of the tape - as he looks at an open hatch, opening on an “endless sky”. He imagines himself passing through this - “to fall or fly”.

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The poem explores the emotional connection of mother and child (we may assume it is a son, but if the poem is not autobiographical, there is no real reason why the speaker should not be a daughter). The tape measure becomes a metaphor for this. Now the child is ready to let go, but is unsure whether he can succeed on his own.

The reeling out of the tape is like the passing of the years - and the poet compares it to other kinds of line. Perhaps his mother is an anchor and he is a kite - this may bring security but may also limit his freedom to fly. Yet another image of attachment comes in the suggestion that the poet is space-walking - the phrase is a pun, as he is also walking through the “empty” space of the bedroom.

The “last one hundredth of an inch” marks the limit of the tape measure - beyond this, the speaker has to let go (or break the tape). The conclusion of the poem is ambiguous, but reflects a real experience most of us undergo, not knowing whether independence is a chance for us to thrive or to fail. The mother's fingertips “still pinch” - she has come to help the child measure up, but now may be reluctant at the last to let go.

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The poem has an irregular rhyme scheme - including occasional internal rhyme. The speaker suggests the sense of adventure in leaving home with images of vast space “acres” and “prairies”, and “reporting...back to base”. The mother is seen as a fixed point in an uncertain world, but she is not stopping her child from moving out.

  • What do you think of the poem's central image of the tape measure's unreeling? Explain what it means in your own words.
  • How does Simon Armitage present the relationship of mother and child in this poem?
  • How do you understand the image of the “hatch that opens on an endless sky”? Is this exciting or alarming or both at once? Or do you read it in any other way?
  • How does the poet capture a universal experience - whether specifically setting up house on one's own, or more generally becoming independent of parents?
  • What do you like or dislike about this “match” from the book?

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From Book of Matches,
“My father thought it...”

The situation in this poem shows the relations between parents and children very differently from “Mother, any distance...” - this time we see the familiar tale of

  • the son's assertion of independence, and
  • the father's disapproval.

The speaker in the poem (who again may well be the poet himself) has his ear pierced, and earns his father's scorn. But the gesture is half-hearted, the piercing becomes infected and the speaker now thinks he ought to remove the earring “and leave it out”.

There are no speech marks but we can suppose that “bloody queer” is what the father said as well as thought. He suggests that his son (we assume from the reaction that the earring wearer is a young man) is “easily...led” with the sarcastic addition that the ring should have been through his nose. (The father does not, perhaps, foresee the time when nose rings, too, will become fashionable for some people.)

The speaker in the poem contrasts his timid approach with that of others who pierce their own ears with a needle - he gets help from a friend, and makes a mess of the job.

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The poem expresses the dilemma for the young - the son's attempt to free himself of the values of his parents is not really a discovery of himself. And he is not standing up for some noble principle in which he believes - but he perhaps has to wait until long after he has left home, before he can remove the earring, because to do so is an admission of his mistake in putting it in.

The poem is ambiguous in its ending - some readers will see the removal of the ring as a sign of wisdom and maturity; others may regret the way the speaker has become sensible and ready to conform. And the voice at the end is the speaker's own voice, but it seems very much like what his father or mother might have said, once they had realized that the earring was not coming out in a hurry. It may be that, while he sees that he was wrong, he still regrets losing the will to rebel or to find his real self.

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Like other “matches” in the book, this is a short poem in a conversational style, but with frequent irregular rhymes. The subject may seem quite a trivial one, but it conceals a more deeply-felt struggle of the young for independence of the common sense and prudence of parents - often felt as negative criticism.

  • In reading the poem, do you take sides? Have you had any experiences like that of the speaker in the poem?
  • Does the young man in the poem come across as a sympathetic rebel-without-a-cause character or does he seem weak and insecure? Or would you describe him in some other way?
  • What is the effect of the poet's wordplay in the poem? (Look at “nerve” and “wept” for instance - can you find other examples of wordplay?)
  • The poet describes the decision to take out the earring as a “voice breaking like a tear” and water being released from the ear where it has been trapped. Does this suggest that this is a welcome relief or a regretful acceptance of defeat?
  • When the father calls the ring “bloody queer”, do you think he merely means that it is stupid, or is he frightened that it is a sign of effeminacy - as if he worries that his son may be gay? (Queer has often been used as a disapproving term for gay people, though now it is used widely in an ironic or neutral way).

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This poem is a puzzle for the reader - there are some things the poet has not told us, and without them, our reading of the poem relies on guesswork. This seems deliberate, as the first thing the poem invites us to do is to look at two things separately, then put them together. The poem is written mostly in the second person, addressed to “you”. This may at first seem to be the general reader, but later in the poem, Armitage writes “I” and “we” - and it seems that here he speaks to a particular individual. The context and other clues suggest this is a lover or friend (someone he meets “sixteen years” after the incident he describes in the second section of the poem). Perhaps he wants the reader not so see this as something that happened once to another person, but as something all of us can, and maybe should, do.

The first stanza - after the opening line - is quite easy to follow. The poet invites us think of a trust game. (Teachers and students of drama may know this game. Readers of the poem will perhaps have played it, or something like it.) “Those in front” spread their arms wide, and “free fall” backwards, while those behind catch them and “take their weight”. The point of the game is for those in front, to overcome the instinct to bend their legs and fall safely. The “right” way to fall is only safe because there is someone to catch us.

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The second stanza is far more puzzling, but will be familiar to anyone who knows school cloakrooms. A yellow cotton jacket has come off its hook. On the “cloakroom floor” it is trampled on - “scuffed and blackened underfoot.” The sequel to this is that “back home”, a mother (presumably the mother of the child whose jacket this is) “puts two and two together” and gets the wrong answer (“makes a...fist of it” in the dialect phrase). We do not know what the right answer would be. One possible reading is that the mother blames the child for being careless and not checking that the jacket was hung on its hook. What follows is accusation, tempers flaring and the child's being sent to bed:

“...Temper, temper. Questions
In the house. You seeing red. Blue murder. Bed”

There is a further sequel - the child sneaks out of the house at midnight. She does not go far (“no further than the call-box at the corner of the street”). We do not know whom she rings, or what becomes of it. We may suppose that she goes back home - but in some way her relationship with her parents is damaged.

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At this point the poem becomes confusing - the poet introduces a first-person speaker, who is “waiting by the phone” for this call. But his phone does not ring - “because it's sixteen years or so before we'll meet”. (So we may suppose that the two people here are very close - lovers or friends - and that she has told him about this family row, many years later. In fact the poet does not even indicate the sex of either character, so the incident here could have happened to a boy or girl, and the “I” of the poem could be male or female. The “cotton jacket” may be a clue to its owner, however.

What follows may be what happened, but seems more like what should have happened (but didn't) or what should happen now. The poet uses an imperative verb (giving an instruction or command) and tells the “you” character to go back home - “Retrace that walk towards the garden gate.”

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What happens next seems to be an idealized act of reconciliation - the embrace of welcome is likened to putting on a garment, which becomes the “same canary-yellow cotton jacket”. And, magically, it still fits - though years have passed. The point of the title becomes clear now. The “you” character can only come home (emotionally and psychologically) when the source of her quarrel has been removed. Putting the jacket back on her is a way of saying that everything is all right. We can be fairly sure that this is not literally the same jacket, because the poet does not know what it is like in detail - the “you” character is to say whether the fingers of the hands holding her are to make a “clasp”, a “zip” or a “buckle”.

We do not know whether the real father ever did make this reconciliation, or whether it is a scene that Armitage imagines. But at the least, he suggests, the father wanted (or should have wanted) to do this. What remains unclear to the reader is whether the imagined reconciliation here ever took place for the characters in the poem. If we see the poem as an account of something more universal - how children and parents fall out over relatively unimportant things, that become serious obstacles, then the biographical details are less important. The poet is telling us, to make our peace while we can.

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The final stanza contains a beautiful image of someone - the “father figure” - embracing his child, while clothing her in an imagined garment. (It is not clear whether the “ribs” and “arms” are those of the person doing the holding or the person being held - but the former seems to make better sense. What do you think? It is also not quite clear whether the person “making” the jacket is facing the “you” character or behind her - which would be more like what happens in the trust game.) The “father figure” may not be the real father, but the “I” of the poem, restoring trust that another has lost - in which case, the “homecoming” may be to a new home, rather than the old one where the trust was lost. Stepping “backwards” suggests not only the spatial direction of the movement, but also a going back in time, to put right an old wrong. And “it still fits” suggests that the love of the father (or the “father figure”) is something out of which the child never grows.

This is a very tender poem - it seems that the poet writes from the heart and his own experience, and that the “you” is someone he knows and loves. (But it is quite possible that he writes of an imagined experience - poetry does not need to be literally true to tell the truth about human nature.) It is also a fair poem - the “I” character does not take sides, but sees how parents, even the “model of a model”, let down their children, yet this does not mean that they love them the less.

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The poet treads delicately here - his task is to set right a wrong. But he cannot be too direct about it, as the “you” figure may resist any attempt at reconciliation. On the other hand, he does in some ways lead the reader through the poem.

The poem has a regular metre (the iambic pentameter), while the sections vary in length. There are occasional rhymes but they are not very intrusive. The effect of this is to give the poem a serious tone. There is some drama in the second section, where the mother's anger and the child's defiance flare up - shown in the short sentences, and the infantile language of “Temper, temper” and parents' command: “Bed.” The contrast of “seeing red” and “blue murder” seems almost violent (we have already had the “yellow” of the jacket, and its being “blackened”).

The poem, on the page, is broken into four sections. But its structure comes more from its argument and from indications of time. The introduction of the “I” character, waiting by a phone that doesn't ring, is a dividing point between then and now, between the damage done and the remedy, or between what did happen (once) and what should happen (now and for the future).

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As so often, we find Armitage writing in lists - here he lists features of a garment and corresponding body parts. There are adjectives of colour, but mostly the vocabulary is simple and understated. Until the end of the poem most of the images to be taken literally - like the “silhouette” of the father figure. In the final stanza this changes, though we do not find conventional poetic metaphor here, either. Instead we can envisage someone acting out a demonstration - pointing to ribs and saying they are “pleats or seams”. In fact, we cannot properly understand this stanza unless we visualize the physical actions and gestures.

  • In reading this poem, do you identify mostly with the “you”, the “I” or the parents? Or do you find that the poem allows you to see all viewpoints equally?
  • How far is this poem about a particular quarrel and how far does it show the way parents and children commonly (or always) fall out?
  • Do you think that the people in the poem are the poet and someone he really knows or characters he has invented? Why do you think this?
  • It is possible (since the poet is a man) that we read the poem and assume the “I” to be a man and the “you” to be a girl (when the argument happened) and now a young woman, to whom the “I” is very close (lover or partner). Does this make sense, or can we alter these roles without affecting the essential meaning of the poem?
  • There are eight of Simon Armitage's poems in the Anthology - but this is different from all the others. It's far more serious and we see the poet's real feelings for once. Do you agree with this judgement?
  • Do you like or dislike this poem? Give reasons why.

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Here are some further suggestions for responding to the poem.

  • There is a story in and behind this poem. Try to tell it in different forms - perhaps as a storyboard for a TV film, a comic strip or the script for a radio play.
  • Read the poem several times. Then work out ways (in pairs or small groups) to perform it. You may use props - but probably do not need them. You certainly will want to use actions and gestures. You may need to look very closely at the last stanza to work out how to put the jacket that “still fits” onto its wearer.
  • If you are studying this poem in a school, then you might try the trust game described in the opening stanza of the poem. (Make sure you do this under supervision, and somewhere where you are not going to hurt yourself if you fall.) Repeat the game - note how you feel before you let go for the first time, when you are caught, and then on subsequent occasions.

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The speaker in this poem is perhaps one of two people who have taken the other's grandmother into a care home - perhaps the pair are partners or man and wife, as they go back to the same house for a recovering drink (but they could be, for example, mother and son). Alternatively, the speaker may be Simon Armitage speaking in his own person, while John is a friend or relation, to whose house both go, to drink in silence after taking the old woman to the home. This is the reading of Jan Truswell, a teacher from Yorkshire, who comments:

“Doesn't it make more sense if he's simply helping a friend take his Gran to the old people's home? ...I think a pair of blokes are more likely to drown their inarticulateness in booze. The journey to John's house doesn't seem like a journey to a shared home, too.”

The speaker in the poem addresses the other person as “John”. John's own feelings are not directly shown, but the speaker's reassurance of him (using his name three times in a few lines) suggests that John is uneasy about what he is doing, whereas the speaker thinks “it is time” to do it.

  • What do you think is the relationship depicted here? Can you give reasons for your view?

The poem has a rather brutal honesty - from the start we read that “we have brought her here to die, and we know it”. There is a contrast between

  • the apparent concern shown in checking that the grandmother has her washing things and “trinkets”, paring her nails and tucking her up in bed, and,
  • on the other hand, leaving her to sink into “her incontinence”.

As the couple leave, the old woman's grandson (“John”) is “shattered” - presumably not by any great physical effort but by the strain of getting rid of his “grandma”. The poem closes with a comfortless scene of the speaker and John drinking themselves “numb”, terrified of “the dusk” (their own mortality) and unable even to speak.

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The speaker is repelled by the physical appearance of old people - dwelling on things like their weak short paces (“four steps to our two”), their “incontinence”, “slack breasts” and “baldness” - as well as their loss of vitality (“pasty bloodless smiles”) and of mental powers (“stunned brains”).

The poem is set out formally in triplet stanzas with occasional half-rhymes (“trinkets” and “blankets”, “begin” and “again”), ending in a couplet. Alliteration abounds - as with the “s” and “b” sounds in “bloodless smiles/...slack breasts...stunned brains ...baldness. These may make the speaker's words seems even more harsh and bitter.

Armitage plays on the phrase “twilight zone” - the light is fading both literally and metaphorically, but he also alludes to the famous TV series of this name. This Twilight Zone speculates on life, death and the afterlife, yet in ways that are grim and disturbing.

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Most interesting, perhaps, are various references to time and date - beginning with the title: “November”, “twilight”, “dusk” and “evening”. All these add up to a sense not only of the grandmother's facing death, but of its approach for the speaker and “John”. The last line of the poem brings little comfort, only a sense of occasional moments of pleasure and happiness as “the sun spangles and we feel alive”. Experiencing these appears not as a simple joy but almost as an obligation, something “we have to get...out of this life.”

  • How far does the poem suggest that the two people in the poem agree on what they are doing, and how far do we see a difference between the speaker and John?
  • What, in your view, does “It is time” mean? Does this refer to the grandmother, the couple in the poem or everyone in the world?
  • What is suggested by “we let it happen” and “We can say nothing”?
  • Do you think that the poet speaks in his own person here, or expresses another viewpoint?
  • Does this poem tell the truth as you see it? Or can you find something more to say apart from the suggestion here of enjoying the rare moments of sunshine?

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This is a comical monologue, spoken by Robin the Boy Wonder, sidekick to Batman, the Caped Crusader of Gotham city, in the comic strip, TV series and various feature films.

The form of the poem matches its humour - every line ends with the unstressed “-er” syllable, leading naturally in the final line to “the real boy wonder”. (Where the lines rhyme, as most of them do, either with half or full rhyme, it is called a double or feminine rhyme.) As the similar line endings accumulate, the reader wonders how the poet will keep it up. On the page, we can see this, but the poem is ideal for spoken performance, as the listener tries to guess what is coming next. Perhaps, when we finally hear “boy wonder”, we will not be totally surprised, since mention of “Batman” may have put it into our heads. The rhythm (basically trochaic with occasional dactyls - this is the metre used famously by H.W. Longfellow, in his American epic Hiawatha) accentuates the final word. It places a heavy stress on the last-but-one syllable: “order”, “wander”, “yonder” and so on, so we cannot miss the effect.

Armitage imagines that Batman has separated from Robin, who has succeeded without him, and now gives away some of the hero's secrets - “scotched” the “rumour”, “blown the cover” and “let the cat out”. Having spent his earlier years as Batman's “shadow”, Robin has succeeded on his own, while Batman is bored and barely able to fend for himself (no food in his outsize “larder”).

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As a poem that sends up Batman, this is a light-hearted and amusing piece. Perhaps Armitage is making a slightly more serious comment about heroes and icons generally - that they do not live up to their reputations, while they depend on others for their continued success. Among humorous features of the poem we find:

  • Scandal or bad taste - the report of Batman's adventure with a married woman
  • Punning - for example “caper” (which suggests Batman's and Robin's capes, and Batman's nickname of the Caped Crusader) or the word association of “robin-redbreast-nest-egg”
  • Parody - using Batman's favourite adjective “holy” in extravagant noun phrases
  • Incongruity - Robin's using British slang (“motor” for the Batmobile), naval jargon (“wander leeward”) and referring to “jeans” and a “crew-neck jumper”
  • Self-ridicule - mocking the superhero outfit, the “off-the-shoulder/Sherwood-Forest-green and scarlet number”
  • Bathos - Batman's near-empty larder - showing how he used to rely on Robin to shop for food (not something mentioned in the original stories)

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In thinking about this poem, you might like to consider

  • whether it is about Batman specifically or all heroes (and heroines)
  • what other icons might deserve this kind of ridicule

Alternatively, you could write your own comic monologue by a sidekick dishing the dirt on a more famous hero (Tonto on the Lone Ranger, say or Little John on Robin Hood).

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From Book of Matches,
“Those bastards in their mansions”

This is a puzzling poem - the speaker remains a mystery to us, and we don't know how or why he has offended the “bastards” of the first line. Instead we get a list of things that “to hear them shriek” you might suppose he had done.

The poem polarizes society into the wealthy property owners and their shadowy enemy. We can suppose that mention of “mansions” and “palaces and castles” is hyperbole (great exaggeration). But perhaps we are meant to read this literally - and to see the speaker as a kind of universal outlaw or revolutionary - since there are other details that suggest the poem is set in a past time - the “burning torches” and the “cuffs and shackles”.

It appears at first that the speaker's offence is against the homes and property of the wealthy - that he has poisoned their dogs and broken into their homes. But in fact it seems that those “bastards” are angry as they might be, if he had taken “the gift of fire” from them and passed it on to others.

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This was the great crime (from the gods' point of view) of Prometheus - one of the Titans who lighted his torch at the chariot of the sun, and brought it to man. For this offence he was punished horribly, chained to a rock where a bird of prey fed on his liver. (Usually the bird is depicted as a vulture, but Simon Armitage may have Prometheus in mind when he writes “picked at by their eagles”. ) The speaker in the poem, it seems, has done something, which, in the eyes of “those bastards”, is like bringing fire to ordinary men and women - “heat and light”, and the knowledge of how to lose their “cuffs and shackles” and turn them into weapons.

The poem has some interesting technical features - ten of the first eleven lines end with a unstressed syllable; where the last word rhymes we call this a feminine or double rhyme - as on “ditches/britches” and “porches/torches” or the part rhyme of “shackles” and “ankles”, “castles” and “beagles” (which has an internal true rhyme in “eagles”). At the end of the poem we get short lines and true rhyme on one syllable (strong or masculine rhyme) - “sun” and “gun”. This may suggest the power of the shadowy outlaw, who eludes his wealthy foes.

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The poem reads like a mythic version of the class struggle - or a reworking of the Robin Hood legend.

  • Do you find the speaker in this poem a sympathetic character?
  • Do you think this poem is about a specific person from the past or is it about social divisions that are timeless?
  • What might the speaker really have done to upset the “lords and ladies”?
  • The tone of the poem is quite light - do you think that it is meant to be comical, serious, both at once or something else?
  • Does Simon Armitage, in your opinion, identify with, or want the reader to identify with the speaker in the poem? Why do you think this?

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From Book of Matches,
“I've made out a will; I'm leaving myself”

This poem is about an organ donor with a reservation. The speaker in the poem explains how he has decided to donate his body to the National Health service - all except his heart. Not only is the speaker here going to donate his organs, but he has “made out a will” to ensure that his wishes are carried out. He lists the body parts that he “is sure they can use”. (While some, like blood, might be useful for other recipients, most of the things he lists are suitable only for research - “nerves and veins” and “brains”. In fact, his blood will not be useful - we need to take it from living donors, who can spare a limited amount, and make more over time.)

At the end of the first eight-line section, the speaker concludes his list with the one exception - “but not the heart, they can leave that alone”. And at the end of the poem, he repeats this: “but not the pendulum, the ticker/leave that where it stops or hangs.”

The speaker does not explain why the heart is excepted - we can see that it is important to him, but must guess for ourselves why that is. (From the viewpoint of “the National Health” the heart is the most valuable organ.)

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Like “Those bastards in their mansions”, this piece is fourteen lines long, but it is not strictly a sonnet in form. It has irregular rhymes (full and half rhymes) and is split into sections - the first of eight lines (as in a Petrarchan sonnet), while the final six lines are split again, so the poem ends with a couplet (as in a Shakespearean sonnet). Some readers insist that, to qualify as a sonnet, a poem must strictly match one of the conventional forms. For other readers, the value of the sonnet is in making the argument fit into the compact form, but without enforcing so precisely the “rules” of rhyme, metre and structure.

The poem has a series of vivid metaphors for the different body parts: “jellies”, “tubes”, “syrups” and “glues” suggest different body fluids. Often these appear in lists.

  • Some of the images have medical overtones - “tubes”, “stitches” and “wounds” (these suggest that the speaker foresees dying in some kind of accident, and receiving surgery).
  • Some suggest the workshop - “glues” and “chassis”.
  • Others suggest food or cookery - “jellies”, “syrups”, “loaf” and “gallon...of bilberry soup” (the poet notices that the quantity of blood more or less corresponds to a commonly used measure for drink).

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Sometimes there are alternative images for the same thing - so the skeleton (or the thorax, anyway) is “chassis” (as in a motor vehicle), “cage” (the traditional image) and “cathedral of bone” (it is a holy or spiritual place). The second part of the poem contains an extended metaphor - of the workings of a clock (some of the names for these are taken from body parts, anyway, such as “face” and “hands”). But the part that makes the clock keep going is to be left alone - and here Armitage recalls how this is not an original image, but found in popular speech, where the heart is called the “ticker”.

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The poem mostly shows the human body as being merely so many parts, veins and fluids - or like some kind of mechanism. These seem to have no vitality or value - so we may guess that having this is what makes the heart special.

  • It may be that the speaker values the heart because it is the most important part of a mechanism - the “pendulum” or “ticker” - and therefore he sees it as the thing that really gives him his life.
  • Or it may be that he values it as a symbol of all the things that make life worth living - love, desire, energy, affection, creativity and much more.
  • Perhaps he feels that he owes a debt to this wonderful organ that has given him life, and that he has a debt of honour.
  • Perhaps he feels that whatever he (as a person) really is, this is located in the heart - and that he cannot give this up without somehow losing himself or his soul.

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Whatever the answer, it seems that the reasoning is not negotiable - it's his body, and he's not giving up the heart, nor giving up his reasons for keeping it.

  • How far is this poem interesting for what it doesn't say?
  • Do you think that Armitage speaks for himself here, or as some other person? Why?
  • What might be the speaker's reasons for not giving his heart up for transplantation?
  • How far does the poem present the human body as a physical mechanism?
  • Is the heart valuable because it is the source of physical life (pumping the blood) or because of the things it symbolizes (love, our emotions generally, our vitality)?
  • What do you think we should do with human bodies after death? What different practices do we find in various societies and cultures?

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This poem comes from Book of Matches but is a longer poem than the “matches” - and has its own title. It is a monologue of sorts, in which a man confesses to murder. We notice that he is at once like, and yet unlike, his victim. Briefly, the speaker in the poem has been taking time off work - feigning illness and not answering his phone. Being threatened with the sack (losing his job), he goes in to work again. He gets a lift to his hired car (a short distance we suppose). As he drives out of Leeds he picks up a hitchhiker who is travelling light and has no set destination. Some little way later (coming out of Harrogate) he attacks his passenger, and throws him out of the still-moving car. The last he sees of the hiker, he is “bouncing off the kerb, then disappearing down the verge” - we do not know if he is dead or just badly injured. The driver does not care.

The two men have some things in common - what are they?

  • Both hitch lifts, and
  • They are more or less of the same age.

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Can you think of anything else? On the other hand, they differ in lots of ways:

  • One hitches to a specific place for a specific reason; the other is following the sun.
  • One is going to work; the other appears not to work.
  • One navigates by town and city names; the other by points of the compass.
  • One is a victim of his work; the other has a carefree attitude.
  • One learns about weather from the forecast; the other loves sun and wind.

The contrast also appears in the way the men speak. The driver repeats the language of the weather forecast “moderate to fair” and the driverspeak of dropping “into third” while the hitcher uses hippie clichés about the good earth as his bed, about the truth, in the words of Bob Dylan's song “blowin' in the wind” and even a metaphor of the breeze running “its fingers/through his hair”. The driver is quite materialistic - he refers to the ansaphone, the Vauxhall Astra, the krooklok and the mirror.

We may judge the driver not only by his violent attack but also by his boss's threat - this suggests that he is not really ill, but is a malingerer. So “tired” and “under the weather” are not convincing - though “weather” here has an echo in the “outlook for the day” in the final stanza. And the driver is a coward - his argument is with his boss or his own way of life. But he attacks the hitcher, whose carefree values seem almost to mock him.

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The poem is arranged in five stanzas, each of five lines - and most end with a full or half rhyme. But the arrangement is more for the eye than the ear - the lines are not all end-stopped and the poem, read aloud, sounds as expansive as natural speech.

  • In reading the poem do you agree with the views of the hitcher or do you share the driver's annoyance at them?
  • How does the poem suggest the selfishness of the driver? What other qualities does it show him to have?
  • What do you think of the way Armitage uses contrast in this poem?
  • What is the effect in the poem of
    • proper nouns - places (Leeds and Harrogate) and brand names (ansaphone, Vauxhall Astra, krooklok) and of
    • quoting from the radio (the weather forecast)?
  • Is this is a serious poem or is the violence meant to be comical? Why do you think this?
  • What is the effect of the references to the sun and wind in the poem? What do the hitcher and the driver think of them?
  • What might be the sequel to this story (what happens next)? Why has the poet not told the reader this? Is the poem complete without it?
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Can I print this guide and photocopy it?

This guide is free for individual users - for example, teachers or students working from home - in any part of the world. You can print out the guide, but it is not ideal for printing and photocopying, and may run to many more pages than you expect.

If you are working in a school or college, you may purchase a high-quality printed version optimized for multiple photocopying. The cost of the printed version includes permission for unlimited reproduction within your institution - if you expect to make multiple copies, this will probably save on your bulk photocopying and printing costs. To obtain the printed guide, contact:

  • ZigZag Education and Computing Centre Publications
  • Greenway Business Centre
  • Doncaster Road
  • Bristol
  • BS10 5PY
  • Tel: +44 (0)117 950 3199

Click on the link to go to the ZigZag Education Web site:

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