A Tale

This youth too long has heard the break
Of waters in a land of change.
He goes to see what suns can make
From soil more indurate and strange.

He cuts what holds his days together
And shuts him in, as lock on lock:
The arrowed vane announcing weather,
The tripping racket of a clock;

Seeking, I think, a light that waits
Still as a lamp upon a shelf, —
A land with hills like rocky gates
Where no sea leaps upon itself.

But he will find that nothing dares
To be enduring, save where, south
Of hidden deserts, torn fire glares
On beauty with a rusted mouth, —

Where something dreadful and another
Look quietly upon each other.

Writing Ideas

1. What happens when “something dreadful and another” finally face each other? Write a poem imagining the outcome of the poem’s cliffhanger that suggests what happens as a result of that final confrontation.

2. When Bogan writes: “But he will find that nothing dares/To be enduring” except “torn fire glares/On beauty with a rusted mouth,” do you agree? Write a poem exploring what you think dares to endure.

3. Think more deeply about Bogan’s unnamed “youth”: what other kinds of journeys might he undertake and why?

Discussion Questions

1. What kind of “tale” is Bogan’s “A Tale”: a fairy tale, or a cautionary one? Is it an allegory or metaphor for something larger?

2. What reasons does Bogan give for the youth’s unhappiness in his current situation? What is he escaping from in one world and what does he find in the other?

3. What are the landmarks of the imaginative landscape Bogan describes? How would you characterize such a place: as warm and welcoming, or cold, forbidding, and strange?

4. Marianne Moore called Louise Bogan’s work “compactness compacted.” How does Bogan’s strict adherence to a regular rhyme scheme and to tight meter impose a sense of order and purpose on this barren, deserted landscape?

Teaching Tips

1. Before teaching, review Caitlin Kimball’s poem guide for this poem. Model Kimball’s process of exploring the sonic and semantic connections found in the end-rhymes by placing the words “Make” and “Break” on the board and asking how the word “Make” is similar to and different from the word “Break.” Have students search for other pairs of words that have both sonic and semantic connections, looking up words and roots such as “dur” as necessary. See this Etymology Dictionary.

2. Have students listen to the poem. Then in small groups, let them read the poem aloud and develop a summary of the action of the tale, including a description of this character’s circumstances, his motives, and the truth he discovers. Debrief in a large group, inviting groups to share the ways in which this tale reveals a universal truth or makes commentary on the nature of the human condition.

3. Have students create a storyboard or comic strip to depict the sequence of images in each scene in this tale. A storyboard depicts the action of a story in pictures. Ask students to incorporate the text that inspired each image in their storyboard. Free software programs for creating storyboards are available to teachers and students on the internet.

4. Have students compare W.B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming” to Louise Bogan’s “A Tale,” two poems that explore the themes of change and revelation. Both were written in the turbulent and uncertain era of World War I and share similar images. Ask students to consider how each poet uses provocative imagery convey the rather dark view of humanity that the era evoked for many artists, including the expressionist painters. The Scream (1893) by Edvard Munch is often considered an inspiration for the movement. You may extend the discussion of the poems by asking students to explore the work of expressionist painters and consider how this visual art movement may have influenced the imagery of the poems.

More Poems by Louise Bogan