The following is a brief discussion of my poem The Pride of Lions, which I hope will be helpful to those of you who are studying this poem for your exams. Please keep in mind though that this will not replace the discussions you have in class about the poem, or the things your teachers may tell you to focus on – your teachers have a far better idea of what the examiners will be looking for. But this should provide you with some additional context for the poem, and may be able to suggest ways of looking at things that you hadn’t yet considered. If there are specific questions you have that are not covered here, let me know and I’ll see if they can usefully be added. However – and I can’t emphasise this enough – don’t ask me to do your homework for you!
The Pride of Lions
But before we could marry, he became a lion –
thick pelted, and rich with the musk of beast.
The switch to all fours was not easy – all his weight
slung from the blades of his shoulders.
His deltoids knotted like teak burls,
and I burnished them as he slept.
Burrs matted his mane, and for days
he wouldn’t let me groom him –
slapped me away with a suede paw,
snarled against my throat.
He would not eat fruit, or drink milk,
but tore meat from the bones I provided.
His claws caught in the carpet,
so I stripped the rugs from the floor
and polished the boards until they gleamed
and rang with the chime of his nails.
I stroke his saffron hide
and tangle my fingers deep in his ruff,
draw him up around me, ardent
as the gleam of his topaz eyes
– the hypnotic lash of his tail,
the rasp of his tongue on my thighs.
The Pride of Lions is from my first collection, The Summer King, and is the first poem in the Venery sequence. Each poem was written in response to one of the collective nouns that first appeared in the The Book of St Albans, published in 1486. Attributed to a Dame Juliana Berners, it contained essays on hunting, hawking and heraldry – things that every fifteenth century nobleman was expected to know. It also contained a list of collective nouns, many of which have survived into modern English – “a pride of lions” being one of the best known. Venery – the title of the sequence – is an old English word that refers to the arts of the chase, and has two origins. From venari, meaning to hunt, to pursue. But also from veneris, meaning sensual pleasure, and sexual desire.
What prompted this particular poem?
The poem started from a bit of trivia – I came across a reference to the surname Singh meaning lion, and being a name that a Sikh man takes when being baptised into that faith. (Apologies for the simplification.) I started to wonder what it would be like if someone literally became a lion – the physical consequences, as well as the emotional and psychological.
From the very first drafts, the poem was from the point of view of a female partner. The first line of the poem came very early on, and set the rest of the poem in motion as a series of consequences – the question of what would it be like to transform into a lion? morphing into what would it be like to have the one you love decide to transform into a lion?
What’s the poem about?
It’s about twenty-two lines long.
No, what does it mean?
What it says.
That’s not what I meant.
I know. But here’s the secret – any poem is only 50% what the poet had in mind. If I’ve done my job properly, there will be a general poem that you take from the page, but from there it gets filled with your own experiences and thoughts and beliefs. What it means to me is going to be different – even if only very slightly – to what it means to you. So read it. Think about it. Check the text to see if your ideas are supported by things in the poem, or ruled out by the words of the poem. (For a discussion of this exact thing in relation to this poem, have a look at this post from early 2021.)
Not helpful? Ok. Some questions to consider, a couple of pointers and a soundtrack.
How early on does he transform into a lion? Before, during, or after the poem? How do you know?
How does she feel about his transformation? Does her attitude change? How do you know?
Is their relationship healthy or not, emotionally speaking? Again, how do you know?
Have a look at the way the poem puts things in opposition: male and female, human and animal, domestic and wild. What other binaries are there, how does the poem move from one to the other, and what do they suggest?
What does the poem say about gender politics?
What does the poem say about power within a relationship?
What does the poem suggest about sex and desire?
How does the title relate to the story of the poem?
How much time passes during the course of the poem?
What stories, fairy tales, myths etc can you see in there?
I often use a piece of music on repeat to help set the emotional tone of a poem, and the soundtrack to this one was Lou Reed’s Ecstasy. Don’t worry about the lyrics too much – this one was just for the overall feel of the thing.
My own life is not going to help you much – the speaker of the poem is not me, nor is she anyone I know. But … the poem does say things I believe in, including some things I hadn’t realised I’d put in there. So for what it’s worth, I’m a Gen X, white, sis-het woman. I’m a feminist, a greenie, a liberal, a Leo (on the cusp of Virgo), and a humanist/rationalist/atheist.