She uses the notion of contrast through three main couples of themes: life and death, nature and human nature, and the pragmatic and the poetic.
The first main couple of themes, life and death, gives a sense of reality in the poem, but athe same time can be related to unreality. This is because of the aspects of pragmatism and poetry.
Dart starts by giving an identity concept: a walker is physically and psychologically discovering himself. The expression “moving alive” shows a detailed exploration of life; it show us the unusual logic of the poet: in this case unmoving but alive and moving but dead. The poet wrote this to emphasize the visual aspect of the man, what she sees when looking at him. In fact, the voice of the poem itself stands for identity: “summoning itself by speaking”. We notice, in parallel, the contrast between life and death through several words: “alive” and “bones” for example.
The notion of time -in link with life and death- is as well important, and in a number of different ways; firstly we can see a contrast between the youth of the river and the old age of the man, and this can be related to the metaphorical word couple “morning” and “evening”. Secondly there is a notion of personal time, which is the walker’s sense of time: “an hour in the morning is worth three in the evening”. We can literally understand through this quotation that there is a preference for mornings and this can be linked to tiredness as the man is qualified as “old”. Thirdly, the poet mentions an idea of eternity, and this suggesting cycles of life from generation to generation; it is life issuing from nature, from earth.
Concerning the water, the river, we notice many sides if it which are expressed through positive aspects: reality and dream, as well as pragmatism and poetry; but also through a negative aspect: it is that a river is calm at the source of it but it can become dangerous later on and kill, hence the notion of death importantly present in the poem.
There is a complicity, a union, a relationship between men and nature. And this is what Alice Oswald is trying to show us. The only contrast is that nature is benign, condescending (even if the water is shown, at times, to be dangerous, almost hungry for a life), while men sometimes use the water and the nature for his personal needs, not caring for the nature’s personal comfort; men own, control, and even pollute rivers and nature. For short, men disturb the peace of nature. So we have here two sets of voices: one poetic, where the man respects the nature, and one pragmatic, where the man disturbs the nature.
The second main couple of themes, nature and human nature, is as well very effective in creating contrast in the poem. This is because both of these themes have several meanings and each of these definitions affect different parts of the poem.
One of the meanings of nature is that it is a wild primitive state of existence, untouched and uninfluenced by man, civilization and artificiality. This especially concerns the forester and the woodnymph passage: the forester’s tells let us know what he observes and sees, while the nymph explains what she feels. She’s the persona who represents nature and wild living; we see this through her lines which are more poetic, rhymed, visually well written and structured than the forester’s lines. This definition as well concerns the stonewaller extract because we see here that Oswald gives importance to stones and that she knows them well -as it is a pure and natural object-: “I can read them”, “but it’s not just stones”. This efficiently shows that she respects nature and that she won’t let it be touched or influenced by man and civilization. And finally, the swimmer passage is also concerned because we notice a real link, relation built up between the swimmer and the water: “I steered through rapids like a canoe” suggests that he’s in control and guiding the water, but right after, “digging my hands in” shows how powerful the water might be and how fast the stream is, and “what am I, spelling the shapes of the letters with legs and arms” makes us feel like the body is becoming an onomatopoeia and part of the water, and this suggests a lack of control, unlike the first quotation. And again, this extract shows us how the river is preserved as well as nature, and that they have kept their wild and natural side.
Another signification of nature is that it represents the fundamental qualities of a person or a thing. Identity and the presence of an essential character are implicated here; and this is why the walker extract has to be noticed. It is the very first passage of the poem and the walker is the first character evoked: “Who’s this moving along the moor? An old man seeking and finding difficulty”. So we can say that, in a way, he ‘opens’ the poem. Moreover, the author describes him: “An old man, fifty years a mountaineer”, “ listen to the horrible keep-time of a man walking, rustling and jingling his keys at the centre of his own noise”. So the notion of identity is clearly present here, as well as in the naturalist part. Indeed, we know what he’s interested in, that he admires nature which makes this passage rather poetic than pragmatic. In parallel, the sound patterns such as “she loves songs, she belongs to the soundmarks of larks” express her relationship with nature and its beauty. We also notice some identity in the poacher and the fisherman and the bailiff passages; the poacher show us a particular attitude to the river. He seems possessive, uncaring and resentful of others. We notice as well the structure of this passage with short phrases to convey excitement: “On a S-bend. Not a sound.” Moreover, the use of informal language gives a colourful sense of character and identity: “pissed”, “tosser”, “leg it downriver”. In the fisherman and the bailiff extract we can see there is more a lack of confidence: “I fish like hell”. So he tries to find reassurance and contact with himself; he isolates himself in a natural world for this. But at the beginning we notice a confusion and a lack of individual identity; we move from one private and lonely voice (the fisherman’s voice), to a public role, in the bailiff’s. This extract is about nature and fishing.
After an identity meaning of nature, another signification is that it is the whole system of the existence, arrangement, forces and events of all physical life that are not controlled by man. This definition applies to the naturalist, the fisherman and the bailiff, the dreamer and the sealwatcher passages. The naturalist because all the natural aspects she observes and admires are totally independent from her and from man in general. The fisherman and the bailiff because, as for the naturalist, the event of the massive quantity of salmon coming up is entirely natural and independent from man. For the dreamer, the fact is that it is a complete imaginative exploration. He actually looses control of his weight: “not quite in full possession of his weight”, exactly like in water. And this is as well a kind of force of physical life that we can’t control. Finally, the sealwatcher is also concerned because he talks about animal reproduction: “there the musky fishy genital smell of things not yet actual”, which is something in link with nature as well.
The main definition of human nature also affects some of the extracts.
Human nature can be defined as the unique elements that form a basic part of human life and distinguishes it from other animal life. We recognize this signification particularly through the naturalist and the swimmer parts: because in the swimmer passage we notice a reference to an animal: “we change ourselves into the fish dimension”. The word “into” particularly emphasizes the transformation implicated. And the naturalist extract is the one where we find the more animal enunciations: “frogs”, “Butterflies”, “heron”, “eel”, “otter”. In fact we notice that he pays no attention to capitals at the start of the sentences but that he does care capitalising animals; the importance given to nature and animals is then clearly shown and proved here.
So Alice Oswald does talk about nature at first, and then builds up human nature theme with and through it. By the way, her poem ends up with the part of the sealwatcher; the verb ‘to seal’ also means to close up securely. So we can say that, at the end, the author seals her poem.
Alice Oswald uses the notion of contrast through the whole poem and especially within three main couples of themes (life and death, nature and human nature, and pragmatism and poetry) and these essentially help feeding the poem with emotion and to communicate these feelings to the reader.