1 October 2021 Susannah

James Stephens & Hate

James Stephens (1880 – 1950) was an Irish novelist and poet. He was a friend of Thomas MacDonagh, one of the men executed for the Easter Rising in Dublin, 1916. To know his friend had been killed, and his knowledge of the incredibly troubled and bitter history of Ireland, must have given Stephens reasons for hate. That is the title of his unusual and thought-provoking poem.

Hate by James Stephens

My enemy came nigh,
And I
Stared fiercely in his face.
My lips went writhing back in a grimace,
And stern I watched him with a narrow eye.
Then, as I turned away, my enemy,
That bitter heart and savage, said to me:
“Some day, when this is past,
When all the arrows that we have are cast,
We may ask one another why we hate,
And fail to find a story to relate.
It may seem then to us a mystery
That we should hate each other.”

Thus said he,
And did not turn away,
Waiting to hear what I might have to say,
But I fled quickly, fearing had I stayed
I might have kissed him as I would a maid.

This poem was clearly written by a man who has lived with cats and knows their ways. He depicts the daily wait for the milk, the feeding and then the deeply satisfied sleep afterwards of a black cat with green eyes.

It’s an evocative snapshot, written with a lovely fluidity and empathetic observation. It’s a poem to make any cat-fancier purr with satisfaction.

The poem, published in 1909, is a rewriting of William Blake’s poem A Poison Tree, a poem about the danger of keeping anger against someone buried inside you, where it will fester and grow. Stephens’ poem is about the ferocity of hatred and the way it builds on itself, damaging the hater. When the poet is forced to think about his hate lasting into eternity, he is made to realise its futility.

The last line of the poem is intensely surprising. Is he feeling gratitude for the lesson he has just learned? Has his hatred suddenly turned to love? Is there such an intensity of emotion that it desperately needs release in some way? Or does the poet feel such relief at letting go of his hatred that he simply needs to kiss someone?

What does this poem teach you about hate? Were you surprised by its final line? Tell me what you think by leaving a comment.

You can listen to the poem being read here:

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Featured image credit- James Stephens, 1935, photo by Lady Ottoline Morrell, National Portrait Gallery, London, https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp04285/james-stephens

Comments (2)

  1. The poem teaches us that hate is self defeating for us all.

    I did find the final line surprising.

    His “savage” enemy had pointed out a truth that surprised him.

    An explanation of the final line may be that the truth of his enemy’s words overwhelmed him, as it became a very deep emotional experience for which he had no words.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I do like your explanation of the final line.
      Yes, hatred is pointless and damaging and the poem makes that very clear.

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