Stifled Air – Analysis

Analysing the poem Stifled Air.

The poem opens with Chopin playing his Nocturnes, indicating that it is nighttime and the air is full of music. Chopin’s music comes from the vinyl player, suggesting that it is the late 19th Century or the post-industrial revolution world. But the sound of the vinyl is as good as a live performance. Through the use of the words ‘there’ and ‘here’ it is implied that the narrator is not on ground, but is floating in the sky, close to the celestial bodies. The Moon symbolises Love and Mars symbolises War. Both the Moon and Mars are close together and at the centre of the sky (zenith), thus, suggesting that it represents a balanced world with a mixture of good and evil. The “yet far” puts things into perspective by giving a rough distance between the narrator and the sky suggesting that the narrator can see both the worlds in their entirety.

Photo by James Sutton on Unsplash

In Greek mythology, Orion, the Hunter, has many parallel stories revolving around him, all of which lead to him being put into the sky as a constellation. In one version, Orion falls in love with Pleiades, the seven sisters, daughters of Atlas and Pleione. When he tried to pursue them, Zeus put all of them on the sky. Orion can still be seen chasing the sisters across the sky at night. But in the poem, Pleiades are pranking the mighty Hunter, suggesting that times have changed and the sky has a relaxed environment. In another myth, Orion instructs his “Greater Dog” (The constellation Canis Major or Sirius) to chase a hare. Thus, Canis Major is depicted as a dog standing on its hind legs, pursuing Lepus, a Hare.

stars long exposure image
Photo by Yash Raut

Canis Jr is a word play on the constellation Canis minor or the “Smaller Dog” that followed Orion. In one myth, the dog jumps off a cliff after being overwhelmed with the sorrow of his owner’s death. But here Canis Jr has found peace and is shown to play with Taurus. In Sumerian mythology, specifically in the myth of Gilgamesh, Orion is the best Hunter who fights the bull of Heaven – Taurus. Taurus is usually depicted as a ferocious and formidable bull, but ironically in the poem is shown to be playful with a small dog. The brightest star of the Boötes constellation, Arcturus, was not visible from Earth until about half a million years ago. It has been moving towards the solar system and will be its nearest in 4000 years; and after another half-million years, it will not be visible to the naked eye at all.

Because of the constant rotation and revolution of the Earth, at any given night, only half of all the constellations are visible from one location, the rest can be seen from the diametrically opposite location in the other hemisphere. For constellations night is like the start of their day, and the presence of Sun (or day on Earth) is like their bed-time. As the Orion family of constellations are visible at night in this poem, constellations like Boötes, Lyra, Cygnus, etc would be on the other side of the Earth or just setting down below the horizon, which is why they are having their dinner. Thus, the poem is set in the winter sky (assuming Northern hemisphere).

So far the scene that has been set is that the night has come to life with music and playful stars and constellations. Almost like Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night. And the narrator observes everything while being suspended between Earth and sky.

Slowly a distant whistle is heard which gradually grows louder and gets high pitched. The adjective ‘out-of-tune’ has been used in a didactic sense: not in sync with the nocturnes playing in the background and out-of-place from the joyous celebratory air of the sky. The whistle grows into a perpetual screech originating from a fleet of jets. This represents noise-pollution and signifies how machine-sounds disturb nature.

The visual imagery is that the jets are carrying a huge cloth behind them and covering the hemispheric dome of sky from horizon to horizon. This cloth is a metaphor of air pollution. White-grey in colour, obfuscating in nature. As if the sky was a ‘starry ocean’ which suffered from an oil-spill; or a war trench drowned in deadly toxic gas. Zyklon was one of the poisonous gas discovered/manufactured during the World Wars to suffocate the enemy trench. Chlorine, Sarin, Zyklon B were the most used.

Coincidently, Zyklon is German for a ‘Cyclone’; This metaphorical cloth which looks so smooth and appears to be clean (as in white) is a cyclone in disguise that will make sure that no one (referring to the life-like celestial bodies) makes it out alive.

air jet smoke
Photo by Greg Bulla
Stifled Air - Analysis - Aryan Tiwari
Photo by Aabhas Senapati

This cloud of pollution obstructs most of the sky and only Septentrio, Jupiter and Venus can be seen.
Septentrio refers to Ursa Major, popularly known as the big dipper. The Romans used the words Aquilo and sometimes Septentrio to refer to the cold north wind. The Greeks called it Boreas, and it is one of the four winds of Anemoi. In the poem it mainly refers to the constellation Ursa Major (The Greater Bear constellation) to represent endangered animals and an ever-growing list of extinct animals, while also referring to Winter and Aquilo (the North Wind) to represent a change in climate and, thus, referring to the effect of global warming caused due to air pollution.

Jupiter, a God of sky and thunder, is the Roman parallel of the Greek God, Zeus, who ruled over all the other deities. The supreme deity of the Roman Pantheon, Jupiter represents power, authority and control or rule over some place or people.

Venus is the Roman Goddess of love, passion and desire, often linked with eroticism. The name “Venus” is Latin for “love.” This noun was often used to indicate particularly sexual love or desire. But in the post-industrial world, it represents greed, constant dissatisfaction and lack of control over desires.

Stifled Air - Analysis - Aryan Tiwari
Photo by Ivan Bertona

Lastly, Septentrio, the constellation Ursa Major was used as a guide to orient a ship or figure out the cardinal directions. Although, now all the seven stars in the big dipper are faint, thus, making it very difficult to reorient and find a way, at the same time they are faintly visible which gives hope that some day we will find our way back and would be able to resuscitate nature.

All the three celestial objects are obscured by the cloud of air pollution, which hampers there actual significance and shows the effect of humans on nature. All other celestial objects are drawn into this ‘oblivious’ black-hole, out-of-sight. Previously, the Moon was at the zenith, which is now absent; this shows an absence of love, brotherhood and benevolence in the society. Even Mars is behind this curtain, it used to represent the wars between people and countries/communities; but now, the sense of conflicts and wars has been internalised: we are fighting ourselves – through hypocrisy, cowardice, high expectations and misunderstanding ourselves and our surroundings. Constellations have disappeared into thin air now, which is an illustration of light pollution and didactically represents how we neglect our history, heritage and culture.

Encore is “a repeated or additional performance of an item at the end of a concert, as called for by an audience”. Here, ironically, Chopin ends his encore (or performance) with a Prelude. The Prelude Op. 28, No. 20, in C minor by Frédéric Chopin was captioned as the “Funeral March” by Hans von Bülow. It is a solemn, grim and slow piece having a mix of three main emotions: frustration, grief and eventual acceptance. The ‘Funeral March’ represents the beginnings of end of nature.

The poem is written such that the number of lines in each stanza decreases by one consecutively, like a countdown to destruction. The first stanza has 5 lines and the last has just 1 line. Rhymes are present but used more like an ornamental decoration instead of a strict form. Starting with the 19th Century (Chopin Nocturne Op. 9 in 1832, vinyl records in ~1870s etc), the poem travels to the Ancient Greeks then to the 20th Century of World Wars and back to the Romans before ending with Chopin again in the late 19th Century (Preludes Op. 28 in 1839) – which was the start of the post-industrial period – from which point the Earth saw a massive spike in air pollution.

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  1. Vimarsh

    Wooooooooooooooooah… This is amazing! It makes so much sense. I am just surprised by the detailed and amazing knowledge you have about Greek mythology.

    The poem technicalities are also very 🆒.

    What I personally made out of this was how progressing society slowly hid the elements that made us truly human – things that brought us happiness.