Unseen Text: The Bat by Ruth Pitter
Literary Genre: Poetry
Guiding Question: Comment on the development of the speaker’s attitude towards the bat.
You might recognise Ruth Pitter from your IGCSE studies; she wrote the poem Stormcock in Elder, about how an encounter with a little bird taught her unexpected lessons about life and drew her closer to God. In fact, many of Pitter’s poems can be interpreted in light of her religious faith; after the Second World War Pitter experienced a religious awakening. That’s definitely a theme in today’s poem, which tells of an encounter with another seemingly insignificant animal – a tiny bat. As an unseen textual analysis, it’s not expected that you’ll have any knowledge at all of the poem or poet, but that won’t stop you from sensing the religious undertone to this poem, particularly in the demonic diction and imagery of the opening verse or two. Read through the poem and the sample response underneath to see how you might integrate this understanding into a complete answer. And, if you don’t think you would have noticed the religious allegory, don’t worry – there’s more than one way to skin a cat (or a bat) and alternative approaches to this poem can be equally valid. Just make sure you focus your response on a suitable range of words, images and devices that support your argument in view of whatever text and guiding question you are given.
The speaker in Ruth Pitter’s poem experiences a transformation as she closely examines a bat brought into her house by her wilful cat. The poem can be read in two parts, a mirrored description of the same bat using entirely contrasting imagery and diction. The two halves are linked by a transition during which the poet’s attitude transforms: she calls this transformation a ‘revelation’, a word that means a sudden realisation of knowledge or understanding. Therefore, the first half of the poem demonstrates revulsion at the thought of encountering the eponymous bat, an ugly creature she compares to a demon. However, in the second half of the poem, as a result of her revelation, the speaker’s attitude towards the bat softens and she comes to appreciate that, while not typically beautiful, the bat too is one of God’s creatures. She even begins to feel an affinity with the tiny animal, recognising the shared mother’s instinct between them.
The reader’s appreciation of this development rests primarily on the contrasting diction employed by the poet, especially between the first two and last two stanzas. As the poem opens, Pitter employs a hellish lexical field imbued with anti-religious words and images: ‘unholy’ and ‘eldritch,’ which means sinister and connotes something supernatural, combine with ‘demon’ to create a sacrilegious impression of an unholy, twisted creature. The diction she uses disassociates the bat from human understanding – words like ‘aspect’ and ‘stuff’ suggest that even the organic material of the bat’s body is artificial or unrecognisable. The images she creates in the reader’s mind are similarly twisted and ugly: the way the bat ‘swoops so sickeningly’ brings to mind the sudden lurching dive of a dangerous predator, and the list of tactile words in line seven (‘dirty, clammy, cold’) arouse feelings of disgust and revulsion in the reader. All in all, the bat is presented as antithetical to both the human realm and God’s grace.
By contrast, later in the poem the words Pitter uses to describe the bat are entirely different. A clear example is in the mirroring of the list of three, which now reads ‘warm, clean and lovely’, direct oppositions to the descriptions at the end of verse one. Even the small, grammatical addition of the word ‘and’ into this new list softens the tone of the line, removing a jagged caesura and making it more pleasant to read. The word ‘aspect’ is now transformed into ‘piteous face’; the adjective ‘piteous’ is associated with ‘empathy’ and is important in revealing how the speaker has drawn closer to the creature. Noticeably, ‘face’ is a word that can be used to describe a person rather than a creature. Pitter extends this personification by comparing the wings of the bat to ‘a lady’s things’ and recognises ‘a mother’s care’ in the hunting movements of the bat. This last is important as the faint allusion to Mary, the mother of Jesus, is a direct reversal of the demonic and unholy diction of the opening stanza.
Pitter’s use of contrast and opposition extends to the imagery she creates as well. In another list of three similes, she compares the bat to ‘milk’, ‘flowers’, and ‘silk’ – all of which are soft, nurturing and pleasing to the eye. The tactile imagery she now employs has a fine, delicate quality which feels pleasant to the touch, such as the ‘crapy’ material of the bat’s wings or the ‘smooth as silk’ feel of its fur. The delicacy of the bat reflects itself not only in the speaker’s thoughts but in her movements too; when she helps the bat she uses careful movements such as ‘stoop…’ ‘grasp it gently,’ ‘carry’, and ‘place.’ In this way, the poem implies that her newfound connection to the bat has wrought a change not only in her mind, but in her actions also. Arguably, it is this shared mother-instinct that prompted this change most powerfully. Lines twenty-six and twenty-seven, in which she notices a baby bat clinging to the body of its mother, is embroidered with a dramatic hyphen, an exclamation mark and an alliterative cry: ‘O’
Pitter supports these developments by subtly altering the way she employs rhyme between the opening and closing stanzas. In the first two stanzas, while using rhyming couplets, she also occasionally employed half-rhymes to create a feeling of discomfort in the reader’s ear. For example, neither‘stuff / waterproof’ or ‘painfully / fly’ quite rhyme and have a dissonant quality. Furthermore, the rhyme scheme features a caesura between the last word of line 7 (‘cold’) and its rhyme (‘old’) in line 8. This caesura creates a physical ‘disconnect’ between words on the page, which resembles the disconnect between speaker and subject in the opening half of the poem. By contrast, an analysis of the rhymes in the final two verses reveals only full rhymes (for example, ‘milk / silk’ or ‘wings / things / clings’), suggesting the speaker has bridged the gap between herself and the bat, and successfully drawn closer to her subject.
Therefore, Pitter’s poem suggests a complete transformation not in the bat, but in herself. In the last verse, she admits that the bat is not typically beautiful (‘though not fair’); nevertheless, she has come to recognise aspects of a shared existence between herself and the little creature, especially when it comes to motherhood. It is in this awakening of sympathy for the bat’s struggles that she comes to appreciate that it too is one of God’s creations and she ends the poem by giving her blessing not only to this bat, but ‘all your kind in air.’ Indeed, it turns out that beauty is in the eye of the beholder after all.
Categories:Paper 1 Analysis
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