I know I’ve already pushed the boundaries by including a poem, but I have to finish with this. Frost’s poem feels like a story, reads like a story. This one is undoubtedly not just a poem but a song. Part of the storytelling is Johnny Cash’s voice – gravelly and old, weighed down with guilt, backed by the metronomic swell of the music as the title is repeated again and again. But it is also nothing if not a narrative – and one that proceeds with astonishing, sparse vigour. The images are crystal clear, the story vivid and precise even as the central mystery – why does the speaker shoot? – is never touched. The moment of realisation is a proper epiphany – “I orphaned his children; I widowed his wife” – that is devastatingly blunt and totally heartbreaking.
Original version by Sting from Mercury Falling, 1996; Johnny Cash version from American IV: The Man Comes Around