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Poetry Analysis for "The Possibility" by James Fenton


James Fenton's "The Possibility" has a somewhat misleading title; it should perhaps be called "The Impossibility," since its imagery, its figurative language and its straightforward commentary -- coming directly from the poet and infusing the poem with his own negativity -- all point to an overwhelming nihilism, a belief that there is nothing worth believing.

Nature has No Possible Good

"Possibility" begins with natural imagery, akin to Emily Dickinson's nature poems, with the author noting the movements of a lizard, the beauty of a flower, a silent forest; these, in most poets, might awaken appreciation, awe or reverie. In Fenton, however, they demonstrate that "I have lost the possibility of good." Nature and solitude awaken feelings of loss, depression and the sense of a void in life, the exact opposite of the classical and romantic response.

Good Work is Not Good

The poet personifies the flower in simile, opening to him "like a crimson hand," but "it was not beautiful to me." In a sense, Fenton refuses nature's -- or God's -- handshake. He goes on to personalize his own recognition of this by calling his work "a boon ... a good. / Unless my working were a way of squandering my solitude." The silence and self-absorption that most poets treasure is absent in Fenton; we do not know how he would use his solitude, but it is of no value to him.

Good Things Decline into Bad

The poem climaxes with self-analysis: all of these things were beautiful, including solitude, "when I was sure that I was strong." Now, his strength departed, the "medium" in which he hoped to grow is lost, and his images cheapen and rot: the birds "swear," the lizard "moves with ugly speed," the flower "closes like a fist" and the responses of reverie, of awe and of inspiration become impossible for him. The void inside Fenton seems to extend, while his "possibilities recede."

Fenton's "Possible" Response

"The Possibility" is Fenton's renunciation of both human and natural happiness. However, one critic of his work, Anis Shivani, sees his nihilism as a legitimate response to both his idolatry of W.H. Auden, the most profound of separatist poets, and his own "self-willed withdrawal," the way he chose to live in what he saw as a cold and alienating world.

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About the Author

Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.

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