Vy Phan is scrumptiously excited to learn more about literary works. She has got a BA in English Literature and Culture.
The Great Storm, illustrated by Sue Gent
Structure of the poem
The poem is free verse with unusual rhyme scheme and uneven length of stanzas. There are seven stanzas in total, all of which conforms to the structure of thoughts. By moving from third-person perspective to first-person perspective, “Hurricane hits England” seems to start with an overview of what happens, including the speaker as “her,” the time as “the night” and her action as “laying awake,” then shifts to a mental monologue that encompasses questions and exclamatory expressions, for example, “Tell me why you visit / An English coast?” or “Ah, sweet mystery.” It is as though readers have been invited to the journey of self-discovery initiated by a storm, swinging back and forth between conflicts and resolves to find the answer. This process is prolonged by the use of enjambment, but it evokes in the audience a moment of contemplating and feeling as what the speaker experiences is likely to us all.
The first stanza opens up with a bizarre statement:
“It took a hurricane, to bring her closer / To the landscape,”
This intrigues us because we don’t know who “her” is, and how a storm can yield such power to connect a person with a geographical location. However, as we progress through the poem, we gradually understand the first and second lines have already summarized what the speaker actually means about her mental change and emotional connection with the place she lives in. It can be seen that the sentence structure “it took” enhances the active role of “hurricane” in bridging the gap between the fictionalized character and “landscape.” “To bring” is a metaphorical action because the hurricane can’t carry someone physically (they will die), indicating how the speaker is connected with the place in thoughts, in emotions and perhaps in attitude as well. This is to such an extent that she “lay awake” “half the night,” and listens to “the wind,” “its gathering rage.” The rest of the stanza signals the poem’s setting and the storm’s destruction, but with limited room for further description. Probably, the wind screams with extreme fury, creating the ghastly sound and uncontrollable force that can drive humans mad; but still the poem maintains a calm narrative tone, revealing how scared, puzzled, mindful the speaker becomes in face of not a storm, but a storm of reminiscence. The use of simile “like some dark ancestral spectre / fearful and reassuring” denotes a sense of antiqueness and denial, which seems to imply a ghastly figure emerging from the past to haunt the speaker. Her fright is echoed in a paradoxical juxtaposition “fearful and assuring,” showing how conflicted she is feeling in the presence of the storm, something that horrifies yet secures her, something that recalls a bygone memory yet comforts her in that nostalgic stream.
In the second stanza, an imperative sentence has been repeated three times: “Talk to me …,” followed by names of African and West Indies Gods “Huracan,” “Oya,” Shango,” “Hattie” strikes a sense of extreme urgency, illustrating a woman in desperate need to contact with omnipotent presence to get her questions answered. Her lack of honorific titles expresses a proximity or familiarity between the close-knit, as though she didn’t call up someone faraway or imaginative, but she called up her sisters or her brothers. All the names belong to the Gods of wind, of lighting of thunders and storms of the Caribbean islands, which I presume to be her not-England homeland. In the moment of self-contemplation, her cry of unheard-of names proves a habit of praying, and a reliance on religious deities that secludes herself from this Christian country and alludes her to a Caribbean heritage. Our conjecture is then confirmed by “my sweeping, back-home cousin.” The storm, though so dreadful and monstrous, is dearly a companion, a relative and a representation of her homeland. Perhaps she used to live on an island where hurricanes so frequented that she can call them a family member, and now, living in a new country, storms have anchored to her home memoir and induced her perplexity that only Gods can untie.
Two questions are raised in the next stanza, “why you visit / An English coast?” and “What is the meaning / of old tongues / reaping havoc / in new places?” It is now apparent that the speaker is having a direct conversation with hurricane, or with the gods of nature. The speaker wonders why it appears in the country where its sight has been a rare occasion. The verb “visit” extends the sense of familiarity between herself and the storm, as if talking to an old friend, or a “cousin.” This synchronizes with the previous stanzas. Additionally, the next question forms deeper layers of thoughts. On the surface, the speaker is seemingly talking about how “old tongues,” a indication of previously mentioned God names that regards to the hurricane, has been detrimental to England, perhaps begetting her constant preoccupation and mild homesickness. However, a deeper examination of the question can complicate the general understanding, because “old tongue” might relate to the speaker’s meager use of native language in “new places.” So long since the last time she uses it that it fears her. To the speaker, the attachment to her homeland, illustrated through language or culture, remains forcefully light and discreetly kept, a matter of fact to immigrants, and once this lenient affection grows strong, she confronts a disorientation in identity. Which place does she belong to spiritually and emotionally, her homeland or England? Is she able to connect with her homeland whereas living in a whole new place?
Stanza 4, 5
The fourth and fifth stanzas further depicts hurricane’s destruction, ranging from “short-circus” to “trees falling heavy as whales” by using consistent rhetorical questions and personification. The storm heavily damages the electrical lines that leads to “darkness,” and hunts down numerous trees creating “crusted roots” and “catered crates.” The storm’s aggressiveness reflected in the effective imagery “crusted roots” and “catered crates,” a battered graveyard of trees showing how ruthlessly natural disaster savages its fellows, not to mention humans. The speaker has been greatly affected by the status-quo, striving to decipher why her old folk turns brutal to her new place: “What is the meaning of trees / falling …?” It can be connotatively inferred that she might have been intimidated by the hurricane’s scheming revenge to the lost child who denies her home identity, and forges an alien persona. This deep interpretation stages a sentimental outburst in the next stanza when she eventually finds a way out.
Stanza 6, 7
Starting the last two stanzas with onomatopoeia “O” and “Ah,” the speaker makes a fierce expression because she can’t bear harboring a yearn for an embrace of homeland, something that has long been oppressed and now has been elicited in the presence of a storm. She can’t stop herself from uttering:
“O why is my heart unchained?”
She starts self-doubt, turning the question’s subject from her “cousin” to herself, and asking whether “heart” becomes “unchained.” “Unchained” is subtly a suggestion of emotional freedom, disconnection and separation, seemingly referring to how bonded she used to be with the Caribbean roots, even after migrating to England, and how unbound she becomes now in the face of the representation of her homeland. This confuses her perfectly, because that is what a child to the motherland should do, but she doesn’t. That gratitude and appreciation truly impresses the audience of how pure and loyal her soul appears and how conflicted for her to be freed! This marks the cornerstone of conflict entrenching from the start, a struggle to retain her identity, an attachment to the old country that is in constant reformation in the new country. However, the existence of the storm suddenly sets her free. Three declaration statement “I am aligning myself / I am following … / I am riding …” confirms her exuberance over the release and a sense of companionship with the hurricane. So far, we have known that she has been released out of the moral imprisonment derived from conflicted identity, but what notion that enlightens her? What embodied in the hurricane that consoles her? It is “that the earth is the earth is the earth.” Her inner life since migration has been “a frozen lake,” metaphorically meaning the emotional stiffness and dispassion because of suppressed homesickness and forced adaptation but now being broken. Furthermore, “the foundations of the trees within me” is also “shaken,” suggesting a severe fluctuation of the equilibrium deep down her soul, changing her whole worldview inside out. These two actions accompanied by an invitation “come and …” reflect an active attitude, different from passive position when initially the speaker is visited by the storm. If you pay close attention, the hurricane has been assigned an active role, exemplified by personification “you visit,” “you short-circus” but now it no longer takes the initiative. It allows the speaker to understand an instrumental point:
“That the earth is the earth is the earth.”
This repetition at first seems illogical, but it actually conveys a life philosophy, although you are away from your homeland, you can always connect with it because it is still a child of Mother Nature, a part of Plant Earth. What’s most important is that you always bear it in mind, have it in heart and it will always be yours. The speaker knows that she can now bond with her home one way or another, either the storm, or rain, as long as she loves her home dearly and imprint it in every corner of her life.
The poem encloses with a meaningful message, enabling us as readers to maintain a positive mindset and a truehearted manner whenever we travel to. In doing so, we can for life be anchored to a tender sanctuary that will provide us comfort and hope through the vicissitudes of human beings. Grace Nichols has crafted a genuine yet creative perspective to the Great Storm, giving a historical calamity a blessing in disguise.