Saturday, 14 December 2013

A Comparative Analysis of Hardy's and Armitage's versions of 'The Convergence of the Twain'

Simon Armitage was born over a century after Thomas Hardy, who wrote the original ‘The Convergence of the Twain’ in 1915. Both poems are focused on major disasters, Hardy’s being about the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and Armitage’s being about the destruction of the twin-towers on 9/11. Armitage decided to keep the three-line stanza structure, and his poem, like Hardy’s, also has 11 stanzas. Hardy’s poetry, although not Romantic, still features many of the ideas typical of the Romantic era.

Both poems have openings that focus on the epic characteristics of nature, with Hardy starting his poem with ‘In the solitude of the sea’ and Armitage beginning with ‘Here is an architecture of air’. Both poets then use certain words (such as ‘unlimited’, ‘sheer’ and ‘deep’) to emphasise the colossal extent of nature, in comparison with the insignificance of humanity. This is again highlighted in Armitage’s poem by the words ‘nothing stands but free sky’, which demonstrate the transience of humanity, which has clearly been defeated. The transience of human life and man-made creation is also shown by Hardy when he writes ‘stilly couches she’, which accentuates the fact that the Titanic has been overwhelmed by nature, and is now still and unmoving. By using the words ‘couches’ and ‘smart’, Hardy is personifying the ship, again emphasizing the its role as a symbol of humanity, suggesting the transience of human nature compared to nature itself; this is not as central a theme in Armitage’s poem.

Hardy also seems keen to emphasize the solitude of nature and the silence of the natural world throughout the poem. He uses words such as ‘silent’ and ‘shadowy’ to accentuate the contrast between nature and the hectic man-made world. We do not experience this while reading Armitage’s poem, which focuses more on the chaos of the event, making less reference to nature, other than in the first three lines.

Hardy, unlike Armitage, seems keen to blame civilisation for the disaster that has taken place, and to show this he writes: ‘Deep from human vanity’ and ‘the Pride of Life that planned her.’ Both of these phrases accentuate the fact that these deaths were caused by the vain ambitions and narcissism of the designers of the great ship, whereas Armitage doesn’t seem to blame anyone. Armitage recognises the inevitability of these two alien cultures (i.e. the East and the West) coming together by fate (‘locked on a collision course’), but doesn’t seem to hold anybody liable for the events that happened on 9/11. Instead, he focuses his poem on the imagery and description of the incident, thus adding a sense of realism to the poem.

Fate is a prevalent theme of Hardy’s poem, and he makes reference to ‘The Immanent Will’ and ‘the Spinner of the Years’. The two titles have capital letters, which suggests that Hardy sees them as his own pagan Gods. ‘The Immanent Will’ implies the inevitability of the disaster, and suggests that fate played a significant role in the event. Again, ‘the Spinner of the Years’ (i.e. destiny) commands both the ship and the iceberg to come together (‘Till the Spinner of the Years/said “Now!” And each one hears…’) which implies that the event was destined and planned by this God. Fate, although not quite as central as in Hardy’s poem, is also a theme of Armitage’s poem, and a lot can be inferred by the reader in lines such as ‘whatever distance…thinned to an instant.’ It seems as if the disaster was caused simply by fate, and that there was no ulterior reason.

Hardy uses a significant amount of Victorian diction (such as ‘salamandrine’ and ‘stilly’). This use of strange, out-dated language is held in direct contrast to Armitage’s employment of more modern diction (words such as ‘junk’ and ‘fused’). Armitage’s modern language helps to emphasize the fact that nature (a more old-fashioned topic of poetry) played little or no role in this disaster, and that it was due almost entirely to humanity. Words such as ‘pick’ and ‘aftershock’ also help to elucidate the imagery of modern carnage due to their hard, unpleasant sound.

Another significant difference between the two poems is the use of rhyme. Hardy uses rhyming triplets, whereas Armitage uses off-rhyme. Armitage does this because the images he is recounting are those of modern, man-made chaos, and so to use a neat, old-fashioned rhyme scheme would perhaps seem slightly odd. The off-rhyme gives the poem a certain abruptness and rigidness which is not seen in Hardy’s version, and it has been suggested that Armitage wanted to escape the Romantic concepts of nature’s influence by using a more modern style.

Both poets use a significant amount of imagery and metaphorical language (for example ‘Smoke’s dark bruise’), which serves to elucidate and add a sense of realism to the description of the disasters that took place. Armitage also refers to ‘a curved thought’ (when describing the plane’s flight-path) from which the reader can infer a number of things: perhaps Armitage is suggesting the incomprehensibility of the terrorist’s decision, or intends to show the progression of their thoughts. Hardy also employs metaphors, and he presents the disaster as a somewhat menacing sexual encounter, describing the ice-berg as the ships ‘mate’, and referring to their ‘intimate welding’ - perhaps the description of the ice-berg ‘growing’ is a phallic reference. The ice-berg, the male in the encounter, conquers the ship in the ‘consummation’, and escapes unscathed; Hardy uses this as another example of nature overcoming humanity.

The poems differ in tone at points, but both share the same sense of helplessness and exposure that is felt after a disaster takes place. For example in Hardy’s poem he depicts the ship lying defenceless at the bottom of the sea, calling it a ‘vaingloriousness’ – this also implies that the ship, or indeed the makers of the ship, were boastful and over-ambitious. The jewels of the great ship now ‘lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind’ and this polysyndeton serves to emphasize the fact that the ship has been defeated. This concept is also seen in Armitage’s version of ‘The Convergence of the Twain’; his use of the phrase ‘as if’ suggest that the hopes of survivors are unrealistic, and the fact that a ‘half-excoriated Apple Mac’ is still, in vain, quoting the Dow Jones, reinforces the sense of helplessness.

Another theme of Hardy’s poem is irony. He seems to be ridiculing that infamous quote: ‘Not even God can sink this ship’. Hardy’s repeated reference to fate and the interference of his Gods (‘The Spinner of the Years’ for example) is perhaps his method of mocking those boastful designers who designed their ship ‘to ravish the sensuous mind’, but were forced to witness their unsinkable ship descending into the depths of the ocean.

Both poems describe the coming together of two somewhat alien worlds. Hardy describes this event as the jarring of ‘two hemispheres’, and Armitage defines the disaster as the two worlds (i.e. the East and the West) colliding and the fusion of ‘earth and heaven’ upon contact. It is therefore clear that where Hardy is describing nature’s violent encounter with a vain human-race, Armitage is relating the clash of two diverse cultures with opposing political and religious ideals, although this is not explicitly mentioned. Through his modern diction and off-rhyme Armitage is moving away from Romantic, old-fashioned ideals of nature and transience, and is replacing them with more modern particulars, such as the hostility of two nations. His use of religious diction (such as ‘grace’ and ‘heaven’) serves to emphasize the different beliefs about God, and explicitly heaven, between the East and the West. In summary, Hardy seems more intent on highlighting nature’s authority, whereas Armitage hopes to describe the plight of a nation caused by the inevitable clash of ideals – both, therefore, regard fate and destiny as the cause.

Teleological Argument Essays

a.)    Give an account of the design argument from Aquinas and Paley [25]

The design argument, otherwise known as the Teleological Argument (from the Greek word ‘telos’ meaning ‘end’), attempts to prove the existence of God by observing the complexity and purpose of nature. Cicero once posed the question: ‘What could be more clear or obvious when we look up to the sky and contemplate the heavens, than that there is some divinity or superior intelligence.’ Early forms of the argument were put forward by the Ancient Greek philosophers and the Stoics, and were expanded and revisited much later. It was particularly popular during the Enlightenment, and supported Newton’s suggestion that the universe follows mathematical principles. It was also appealing for deists (people who believe in a transcendent God) because they believe God’s only role was that of a designer.

The argument was formulated by St Thomas Aquinas, a 13th Century Italian Theologian, in his work Summa Theologica. It is evident from Aquinas’ Fifth Way (The Argument from Design) that he was strongly influenced by Aristotle, the Ancient Greek philosopher. Indeed Aristotle’s teleological views of nature including the idea of a Final Cause (purpose) are apparent in Aquinas’ writing, and he linked these ideas with the Classical Theistic God. It is a Design Qua Purpose argument (in that it seeks to show that the universe has purpose), uses inductive logic (which is concerned with probability), and a posteriori knowledge (knowledge from experience).

Aquinas begins his argument by saying: ‘The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world.’ Here he is clearly stating that his argument is a posteriori, and that it will be based on the natural order of our universe. He then goes on to say that things that ‘lack knowledge, such as natural objects, act for a purpose’. When he refers to natural objects Aquinas means anything in nature, including human beings and animals. He says that all things act ‘in the same way to obtain the best result’, and this is the first premise of his Teleological Argument.

Aquinas then comes on to his second premise, and he states that ‘they achieve their end by design and not by chance’. He is suggesting that nature works towards a goal not by itself, but because it has been designed that way, and because it has a specific purpose, or end as he calls it. He declares that nature would not work towards a purpose ‘unless it were directed by a being with knowledge and intelligence’, and this is the crux of his argument. His use of the term ‘intelligent being’ means a being that knows its purpose or end. He then makes use of an analogy of an archer, which makes it more relatable for the reader. He states that the world is guided by an intelligent being ‘just as an arrow is directed by an archer’. Finally, Aquinas concludes that this intelligent being is God, and therefore that the Christian God exists as a designer.

William Paley revisited Aquinas’ Teleological Argument almost six centuries later in his book Natural Theology. Paley’s argument (also Design Qua Purpose) is not dissimilar from Aquinas’ Fifth Way, and indeed Paley also uses inductive logic and a posteriori knowledge.

We immediately know that Paley’s argument features an analogy because it starts: ‘In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone.’ He goes on to say that it is not impossible for that rock to have been in the same place for all eternity, but that one could not say the same regarding a watch. He writes: ‘I should hardly think of the answer which I had given before…’ Paley says this because ‘when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose’. The watch, therefore, has a purpose (or design), which is to tell the time, and this is the first premise of Paley’s argument.

Paley puts a lot of emphasis on the fact that the watch (i.e. the universe) is shaped in such a way that it works perfectly. He states that ‘if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, or placed after any other manner’ then they would not move and achieve their purpose, and in this way he is elucidating the first premise. Paley’s second premise is that all complex things, such as watches, or indeed the universe, must have been designed – this is why the watch could not have been in the same spot forever. He concludes, therefore, that the universe, just like the watch, must have been designed, and that God is the designer.

Many scholars claim that Paley, in writing his argument, is simply explaining and making better sense of Aquinas’ fifth way, and this is because they are very similar indeed. Both are Design Qua Purpose arguments, both use inductive and analogous logic, and both use our experience (a posteriori) of the world to come to a conclusion about God – this is an example of Natural Theology. They also both conclude in the same way – that God designed our universe. However, Aquinas seems to focus more on the Regularity of Succession, emphasising the fact that nature is ‘directed’ like an arrow, whereas Paley makes more use of the purpose argument and the idea that all the parts of the universe are ‘put together’ to achieve an unknown end. Finally, Paley’s argument is focused more on the analogy, rather than the natural world.

b.)    ‘Hume’s comments about design in the universe destroy Paley’s arguments’ Discuss. [10]

Hume’s comments about design in the universe, which can be found in his work Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (written before Paley reformulated Aquinas’ Teleological Argument), destroy Paley’s arguments because they single out the particular weaknesses of the design argument.

Hume first rejects the use of analogous and inductive logic. He points out that analogy is limited in strength: just because a house needs a builder, this does not mean the universe needs one, and this idea is very similar to the Fallacy of Composition. He writes that nothing in the universe can be compared to the universe as a whole, and that any analogy given (such as the watch) is insignificant. Philo, the character who expresses Hume’s opinion, states that our experience is ‘so imperfect in itself and so limited both in extent and duration.’ Hume claims that we cannot draw metaphysical conclusions from our physical experience; here, Hume is criticising the leap in logic. He goes on to ask: ‘Have worlds ever been formed under your eye?’

Early supporters of the Teleological Argument would still question the design and complexity of parts of the universe, if not the whole universe itself. Paley referred to things such as the human eye, a natural object, as an example of intricate design and purpose; they questioned who made the eye, and indeed who made the whole human body. Supporters claimed that Paley was not just comparing a watch to the universe, but that he was questioning how the individual parts of nature were so complex; they believed that Hume missed the point of the analogy. Some would also argue that the analogy was only Paley’s method of explaining himself, and that it was not the basis of his argument.

However, Hume pre-empted this response and explained that any animal that didn’t have such complex design and adaptation would not survive. He said that the only reason the world is so efficient is because anything inefficient would lose out in the fight for survival. In Hume’s dialogue, Philo announces: ‘I would fain ask how an animal could subsist unless its parts were so adjusted?’ He believed that animal adaption cannot be used to prove that animals are designed by an intelligent designer. For example, if humans had no eyes, they could not see and so it is likely that they would have been preyed on, and therefore would be extinct. Darwin backed this up with his theory outlined in The Origin of Species, in which he said that the world’s complexity could be explained by evolution and natural selection.

Hume draws on the ideas of the Epicurean Hypothesis. Epicurus, an Ancient Greek philosopher, famously stated that matter tends to move to order from disorder, and therefore that we could get an ordered world in which to live in, out of chaos in the past. Hume states that matter and energy (which, Einstein proved, are everlasting) could have been arranged at random at first, and that chance and time led things into order. He also stated that because matter is everlasting, in an infinity number of combinations our world would be created by chance alone. This would then explain design in the universe and destroy Paley’s arguments.

A number of Theologians rejected the idea that the universe was created simply by chance. F.R. Tennant presented the Anthropic Principle as a rejection of Hume’s criticism. He claimed that there were far too many Anthropic Coincidences that had to be fulfilled for the universe to be created, and that all the evidence pointed to an intelligent being. Amongst others, Brandon Carter claimed our universe showed clear evidence of what he called ‘fine-tuning’, and indeed both Carter and Swinburne said that God was the more probable cause. Swinburne believed that God was the ‘simplest’ and therefore best explanation for the world.

Richard Dawkins, the modern face of atheism, responded to Swinburne in a typically vehement manner, labelling him as nothing but a professor at Oxford who knew nothing of Biology. He said that Swinburne knew nothing of the natural world and so should not tell people what the most reasonable explanation is. He believed Swinburne to be nothing but an ignorant academic of Philosophy – how should he have known where the universe comes from? What entitled him to say God is the best reason, when he knew none of the other possibilities?

Hume’s last main criticism of the Teleological Argument questioned why God was necessarily the answer. He said that there could be a wide variety of causes for the universe, saying that philosophers should be different from the ‘precipitate march of the vulgar’. He believes that philosophers shouldn’t just conclude that God is the answer, and in stead they ought to investigate further.  He then elucidates this point, suggesting that there could be a number of designers (as there is with a ship, and this is the analogy he uses). He then explains the possibility of an ‘infant deity’ who created our planet through trial and error, meaning that we could be part of one of many botch-job universes - this is known as The Many Worlds Hypothesis. Some philosophers, including J.S Mill, claimed that the universe (which features suffering) suggests either a sadistic God, or a limited God – i.e. not the Christian God.

However, many philosophers would rule this criticism out as it goes against Ockham’s razor, the belief that the simplest explanation is likely to be correct. Ockham explained that one ought not to ‘multiply entities beyond necessity’, and therefore Ockham would say that God is the most likely explanation. Paley also rejected this criticism claiming that the issue is not centred on the characteristics of the designer(s), but rather the universe’s design. Hume is not saying that there is no God, but rather that it may not be the Christian God – that is why Paley rejects it.

Nonetheless, this still means that Paley’s argument is flawed – Paley rules out any other possibilities, and he makes an inductive leap, concluding the existence of the Classical God of Theism. He should not just ignore the prospect of multiple designers, and there is no evidence to suggest the ‘unity of the deity’. Furthermore, many philosophers would claim that Ockham’s razor is flawed: just because it is ‘likely’, this does not necessarily mean it is true. Again, this is making an inductive leap, and does not look at all of the possibilities. Kant said that the conclusion of the argument, because of its inductive nature, is not apodeictically certain, meaning that there is no proof.
Hume’s criticisms of the Design Argument destroy Paley’s case when backed up by the points of other philosophers, such as Mill and Dawkins. 

Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Decline of Local News (The Oundle Chronicle)

Local newspapers are under threat. With print advertising in decline and the internet becoming a more popular means for communicating news, the number of local newspapers has fallen significantly. Michael Pelosi, president of the Newspaper Society said: “This is a very difficult time for everyone in our industry”.

In our net-driven world, a major age divide is growing. Young people tend to use blogs and other web sources for their news, whereas older people prefer papers. Furthermore, younger people are less concerned about local news, and are much less involved with their communities. What will this mean for the future of local news, or is there one at all?

Nene Valley News is East Northamptonshire Council’s free community newspaper, and focuses its news and information solely on East Northamptonshire. It is written for the residents, and indeed anybody can submit articles to the editor. As it is free, it is delivered to over 37,000 homes and businesses, every two weeks as a public service.

Due to national legislation to be introduced next year, Nene Valley News will no longer be published. It has announced that its last edition will be in March 2014. Nene Valley News would be in violation of the legislation if it continued to be published, because it is subsidised by the council, rather than self-funded, which is considered to be anti-competitive to newspapers which have to rely on advertising and sales.

In the past few years, over 60 local newspapers have been forced to close throughout the country due to the fall in advertising and sales. The legislation aims to create more opportunities for local newspapers to thrive.

Nevertheless, many residents in the region value the Nene Valley News, and will be disappointed to learn of its demise.

There may be private individuals or partnerships that wish to step into the void. The new Town Manager would like to see a replacement paper and is considering how to attract commercial interest in a local newspaper.

East Northamptonshire Council has set up a survey asking readers to report how they prefer to receive local news, whether it be over the radio or in print. Of course, the internet is certainly an option for local news, and most newspapers have an online edition. It will certainly be interesting to find out how the council can continue to inform its constituencies about local issues.

National Cycle Tour Starts in Oundle (The Oundle Chronicle)

Oundle has been chosen as the location for the Grand Depart of the first ever Women’s Cycle Tour of Britain. Heather Smith, a Northamptonshire County Councillor, played a key-role in securing this privilege for Oundle. She said: “We are very excited that Northamptonshire has been chosen to host the first stage of The Women’s Tour. This is an opportunity to showcase our beautiful county to the rest of the world, as well as promote cycling and women’s sport locally, and will be the start of a summer of cycling events.”

The inaugural event has been given the top status possible by cycling’s governing body, the UCI. British Cycling’s director of Cyclesport Jonny Clay said: “We worked with SweetSpot to identify the best calendar slot and lobbied the UCI for the highest category a start up event could attain. The fact that the event has been granted 2.1 status, putting it in the top echelon of races, is welcome news.”

Top female cyclists from all over will be flocking to Oundle next May, and Mayor George Higgins says that he is determined to make them feel welcome. The fact that the race has a 2.1 status means that it will attract a significant number of leading riders.

The race will begin in Oundle on 7 May, and will be based entirely in Northamptonshire. It will consist of five stages, and will end on the 11 May, with the exact route yet to be decided. Guy Elliott, director of event organiser SweetSpot, said that Northamptonshire “is a fantastic county for racing.” The Women’s Tour is the first major tour that has ever been hosted in Northamptonshire. It is anticipated to be “a fantastic addition to the British racing calendar.”

George Higgins was one of many who pushed for Oundle to be the start of the race, and is extremely proud that we have been chosen. He said: ‘The picturesque surroundings of our historic town will provide a stunning backdrop to the Grand Depart for cyclists and supporters alike. We are also planning to organise an exciting programme of activities to celebrate this significant event.”

Camilla Sherwin, the coordinator of the local environmental group Transition Oundle, and also part of Oundle-On Your Bike!, told the Chronicle: “Over the past two years, Transition Oundle has been promoting cycling as a healthy, efficient, low cost and low carbon form of local transport for people of all abilities through our Oundle-On Your Bike! project. Whilst we cannot all be elite athletes, the Grand Depart of the Women’s Tour will raise the profile of cycling in the area and hopefully encourage more people to switch to pedal power."

The Northampton Clown (The Oundle Chronicle)

The Northampton Clown is becoming a well-known face around Northants, and is now a rather controversial topic. With over 160,000 likes on Facebook, he has been spotted in various streets (Elm Street included) throughout Northampton, and has provoked a number of varying responses. In fact, the clown is now world famous, and has been featured on news stations in countries all over the world.
In an interview with The Northampton Chronicle and Echo he explained that he was 298 and that he awakes every 30 years. Clearly he thinks himself to be a rather witty man.
Would you be scared if you bumped in to a Stephen King-esque clown skulking around darkened alleys? One Oundle resident told me that he would find the experience ‘blood-curdling’. In fact, the Northampton Clown (who remains nameless) disclosed that he has received over 1000 death-messages from frightened Northampton residents. However the clown continues to claim that it is just “a bit of harmless fun”. It would seem that some people do not agree.
The clown is one of the oldest professions to survive to the modern day. Clowns were first recorded in the fifth dynasty of ancient Egypt, but that is not where the word comes from. In fact, the word “clown” stems from a Scandinavian linguistic root meaning “clumsy”.
It is quite common for people to have a fear of clowns, technically known as coulrophobia. In fact, studies have showed that children find clown motifs “frightening and unknowable”.
The recurring reason for being scared of clowns is their mask. People of all ages have coulrophobia because there could be anybody behind the paint or the mask, and they are not always the smiley, jolly people they seem. People often blame films such as It or Saw for causing this peculiar fear of clowns, who used to represent laughter and enjoyment.
There have been many rather sinister claims on Facebook, and a number of people insist that The Northampton Clown was seen holding a knife, and therefore posing a real threat to residents. One resident even claimed that he offered to paint their windowsills, despite not having any painting utensils whatsoever. All of these claims have been denied profusely.
The Northampton Clown has certainly caused a lot of controversy, but not as much as The Mirror’s unmasking of his identity. Hundreds of fans began objected to the “inconsiderate media”, complaining that the fun of The Northampton Clown was its mystery, and that this had been ruined.
I won’t reveal the true identity of the clown for those of you lucky enough to not know yet, just in case he does make an appearance in our little market town.

The Just-Down-The-Road Poet (The Oundle Chronicle)

John Clare was born, lived and is buried in Helpston, a village six miles north of Peterborough, in what was once within the boundaries of Northamptonshire.  Often called a minor romantic poet, he is undoubtedly among the most important of the 19th century poets.  
The biographer, Jonathan Bate, called him “the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced”. Bate said: “No one has ever written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self.”
Clare would have known Oundle quite well, as he had an unsuccessful stint with the Northamptonshire militia in 1812, and was briefly stationed in Oundle. The battalion comprised 1,300 “lawless fellows” prone to public disorder. With a shortage of accommodation in town for such numbers, Clare complained that the rents were correspondingly high. He later wrote: “I was obliged to be content with the quarters allotted to me, which were at The Rose and Crown Inn, kept by a widow woman and her two daughters, which happened to be a good place.”
Clare’s fellow recruits were “of the lowest rabble” and their behaviour was so bad that “in consequence of strong remonstrances made by the good people of Oundle, about the insecurity of their property, and even their lives, the thirteen hundred warriors were disbanded soon afterwards and never called together again.” Clare had never seen so much rioting and debauchery as during his time in Oundle, and he returned to Helpston vowing to live a more respectful life of rural pursuits. All was not in vain, from this experience, however. His first biographer, Frederick Martin reported that while in Oundle he purchased copies of Paradise Lost and The Tempest from a local “broker”, equipping himself with the means for self-improvement.
Clare made a name for himself as a poet with his first, highly praised work, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, published in 1820 by the same publisher of none other than John Keats.
Part of Clare’s success was due to London literary society’s curiosity about a man from such a modest and uneducated background who could write such sublime poetry. His reputation was built on his origins as “The Northamptonshire Peasant Poet”. He was invited to the best literary salons, and reluctantly endured this notoriety, although he believed he was above other “peasants” of his class, who he looked down upon as “ignorant” and “careless”.
Clare is perhaps best-known for his lamentations on the industrialisation of the English countryside and the enclosures which destroyed traditions and rural livelihoods.
The John Clare Cottage, Clare’s home in Helpston, was purchased and refurbished by the John Clare Trust in 2005 with funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The Cottage is now open to visitors every day from 10:30 to 4:00, and one can also enjoy tea in the lovely garden.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

'Ode On a Grecian Urn' - A Brief Analysis of Keats's Poem

The Romantic Movement came to prominence towards the end of the 18th Century; the likes of Blake, Wordsworth, and Keats reacted against the more socially committed poetry of the Augustan age, also known as the ‘Age of Reason’. They insisted that poetry ought to be personal and about one’s emotions, and indeed Wordsworth famously described poetry as ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’. Romantic poetry was all about nature, emotions, imagination, inspiration and freedom – all of which would have made the Augustans uneasy.

‘Ode On a Grecian Urn’ is one of John Keats’ many odes, the most famous being ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. Many of Keats’ poems, particularly his odes, focus on the transience of human-life, and ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is no exception. This was such a common topic of his largely because he witnessed the death of his younger brother from Tuberculosis, and also contracted the disease later on. It was as if death encompassed his life, and so the fragility of humanity became a recurring feature of his poetry. ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is in varied iambic pentameter, with ten lines per stanza. Throughout the poem the speaker, presumably Keats, is standing before and addressing a Grecian urn, questioning the pictures it displays.

Keats begins his poem with the famous lines: ‘Thou still unravished bride of quietness/ Thou foster-child of silence and slow time.’ Keats is highlighting the fact that, even though the urn is ancient and has experienced thousands of years, it exists outside time in the human sense – it does not age or die. This idea is continued by the use of the word ‘historian’, which shows Keats’ interest in the urn’s story, and also its age. We must remember that Keats was particularly interested in Greek mythology and Classical literature (due to its magical and timeless ideas), and so being presented with a Grecian urn would have fascinated him. He implies that the urn, has been around so long that it has hundreds of stories to tell. As he is detached from the time of the painting, he wonders at the pictures on the urn, which depict a group of men and women in ‘mad pursuit’. Keats employs a number of questions that he addresses to the urn, which accentuate his pure wonder and engagement with the static art form – it also highlights the silence and immutability of the urn, and its inability to tell him more. This stanza, therefore, ends rather abruptly with no reply, making his questions seem almost rhetorical and frustrated.

In the first three stanzas Keats is keen to highlight the beauty of the urn and its pictures. He describes its pattern as a ‘leaf-fringed legend’, and says that the urn ‘canst thus express/A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme…’ He explains that a silent tale is far more beautiful simply because the narrator will remain ‘unwearied’, and will be ‘forever piping songs forever new’. This idea is then repeated by Keats’ saying: ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter.’ He explains that the ‘ditties’ of the urn’s depiction are far sweeter than any played by pipes, even though they cannot be heard. Again this underlines the theme of transience, and he believes that a melody in one’s spirit will last forever, whereas a melody heard by a ‘sensual ear’ will not. The urn is satisfying his spirit and imagination, and not just his senses. This is a typical theme of Romantic poetry, and imagination is key to Keats’ odes; he focused on the idea of being led away from reality (which he did not particularly enjoy), and this is precisely what the urn is doing to him.

The second stanza sees the introduction and examination of a new painting: two lovers sitting beneath a tree. Again, Keats emphasizes that those in the painting are transcendent and unaffected by time, and he writes ‘nor ever can those trees be bare’. Keats is then confronted with a rather strange paradox, in that the lovers are free from time, but are also frozen in time, so that they cannot experience things, and Keats emphasizes this by writing: ‘never, never canst thou kiss’. However, on further consideration Keats comes to the conclusion that this is a good thing (‘yet, do not grieve;’), and that because they are unaffected by time the girl ‘cannot fade’ and he adds that both she and their love will forever be fair. Again Keats is focusing on the unfortunate transience of humanity, and this is possibly a reference to his lover, Fanny Brawne, whom he was forced to leave when he contracted Tuberculosis. Keats was engaged to Fanny at the time of his death, and in his love sonnet ‘Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art’ he expresses his wish to ‘live ever’ in Fanny’s ‘ripening breast’. In ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ Keats is expressing his distress that human life and love cannot be eternal, like the images on the urn.

The third stanza focuses on the transience and short-life of human passion. He employs the words ‘unwearied’ and ‘new’ to emphasize that the love of the images is eternal, and we infer this again from the repetition of the word ‘forever’. This contrasts with the lines about human love, which is introduced by ‘All breathing human passion far above’. This juxtaposition is used to stress the imperfection of human passion and sex, that ‘leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed’, and as it is so brief it leaves ‘a burning forehead, and a parching tongue’. Keats is showing his wonder and envy of those youths in the painting, who are able to have love that is ‘forever warm’ and ‘forever panting’. He is jealous that he and Fanny could not experience this same love, but in stead had to part from one another. However, he is also appreciating the beauty of the urn’s eternal life, and this is suggested by his repeated use of the word ‘happy’. Nonetheless, this is particularly overshadowed by Keats’ experience of unfulfilled desire.

The fourth stanza sees Keats examining a new image, one of a group of villagers leading a heifer to be sacrificed. The stanza begins with a question, which again implies the tone to be one of wonder and curiosity, and the employment of the word ‘mysterious’ supports this. Keats’ use of pastoral language (such as ‘sea shore’ or ‘lowing at the skies’) here is a theme very common to the Romantics, who found most of their inspiration through nature, and it gives the reader a slight sense of realism. Keats looks at the stanza as if the villagers are experiencing time, and he asks the villagers where they are coming from, and where they are going. This sees the introduction of another interesting paradox: as they are frozen in time, they are unable to return to their village, which presumably will remain empty (‘thy streets for evermore/Will silent be’). Keats then realizes that they are unable to return (‘not a soul to tell/…can e’er return’) and at this point he reaches the limit of static art, and asks no more questions. He recognises that the villagers, although free from time, are also frozen in time, and can therefore experience nothing.

In the last stanza Keats contemplates what he has seen and what he has learnt from it. He suddenly grows excited again, and indeed his repeated exclamations (‘O Attic shape! Fair attitude!’) underline his wonder, a central theme of the ode. He seems to be angry at the urn for being ‘overwrought’ (complicated) and crowded with ‘forest branches’ and ‘trodden weed’, which seem to be encompassing both the poem and the urn. He then addresses the urn saying that it is so mysterious that it ‘dost tease us out of thought’, emphasizing his wonder, and he then compares this to eternity, which is also extremely hard to understand. This juxtaposition and contrast has been set up throughout the poem, with constant references to ‘forever’.

The next exclamation ‘Cold Pastoral!’ is considered the crux of the poem, and it throws the reader completely off. Pastoral scenes are usually deemed to be warm and homely, and so to juxtapose the word with ‘Cold’ is a direct oxymoron. Keats intends to show the reader his turbulent and unsettled thoughts by employing this oxymoron. Perhaps he finds the pictures on the urn comforting and warm (‘Pastoral’) but is also envious (‘Cold’) and feels ‘teased’ – as he says before – by its distance from reality and its perfection. This could also be a rejection of the urn’s temptation, and he is perhaps realising that it is better to have experienced and then to have lost, rather than not to have experienced at all. Perhaps while writing this he is thinking fondly of his experiences with Fanny Brawne, rather than regretting them.

However, this contradicts the majority of the poem’s message, and so it seems as if Keats is more perplexed at the end than he was at the beginning. The imagery of the sacrifice in stanza four perhaps suggests that Keats understands that humanity must make a sacrifice; we must either give up our immortality, or we must give up our chance of experience, and it seems as if Keats himself has not yet come to a decision, but due to his Negative Capability, he is able to simply accept his doubt.

The urn is described by Keats as ‘a friend to man’ that will give its advice to new generations. The final two lines of Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ are two of the most complicated in the entirety of the Keats canon. Perhaps this final line is Keats’ way of saying that we don’t need to know the truth, but that beauty is the only absolutely necessary idea. It could also be a way of admitting the urn’s superiority: it tangled and teased Keats’ thoughts, making Keats unable to discover its truth. However, the urn’s beauty was enough for him, and so he accepted it.

Keats’ lexical choice, particularly regarding both his Classical (‘legend’ and ‘Attic’) and pastoral (‘flowery’ and ‘mountain-built’) language, is very typical of the Romantic style. Also, Keats’ use of archaic diction (such as ‘adieu’ and ‘lead’st’) is very common amongst the other Romantic poets because of its timelessness. Furthermore, Keats’ repeated juxtaposition and contrast of the human senses and the human spirit is characteristic of Romantic poetry, particularly because both the senses, and also the imagination, were central themes of the Romantic period.

However, it is undeniable that the main theme of the poem is transience, and indeed the ‘Big Six’ often focused their poems on this concept, and often contemplated on the idea of eternity and immortality. It is also possible that Keats was greatly influenced by the philosophy of Plato, and that the notion of escaping reality either through music or art could be a direct reference to leaving the world of appearances, and entering the world of the forms. Keats, particularly displayed by his last two lines, was the most radical of the Romantics, and was considered by some as a wild-eyed liberal. Overall, Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is not only typically Romantic, but is perhaps the sum of all the Romantic concepts and contemplations, and therefore the apotheosis of Romanticism.

Monday, 25 November 2013

How Does Austen Present Harriet Smith at the Opening of 'Emma'?

As with all of Jane Austen’s novels, one can learn a lot about the themes and qualities of the plot (or indeed certain characters) in the first few chapters, so it is sensible to pay particular attention to the opening of this novel. Harriet Smith is introduced by Austen in the third chapter, and is certainly not presented as the centre of attention. We first meet Harriet in paragraph seven, and she is described as ‘a most welcome guest’ and Austen writes that Emma ‘had long felt an interest in’ her ‘on account of her beauty’. This tells the reader that Harriet is a very pretty girl, but also implies that Harriet is perceived as rather insignificant in the society of Highbury, as she is not already well-known to Emma.

Harriet is introduced properly in the eighth paragraph, which suggests that, unlike Emma, she is not self-obsessed or confident. Her name is, however, emphatically placed at the beginning of the paragraph, which tells the reader that she is an important character in the novel. Austen writes that Harriet is the ‘natural daughter of somebody’ and the word ‘somebody’ is repeated on a number of occasions, which highlights the fact that Harriet does not come from a respected family, and has few connections, unlike Emma. This begs the question of why Emma wants to be friends with Harriet, who has ‘no visible friends’. Harriet is also described as ‘a very pretty girl’. This is the second descriptive fact we learn about Harriet, whereas Emma is introduced as a ‘handsome’ girl before we learn anything else about her – this suggests Emma’s extreme vanity, and Harriet’s lack of it.

Furthermore, Austen tells us that Harriet was a scholar at Mrs Goddard’s school, which was earlier described as a place ‘where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price’, indicating that it is an average school. Harriet’s education will therefore be no match for Emma’s high intelligence. Again we question Emma’s motives for being Harriet’s friend, and the contrast between the two girls is emphasized. Many scholars have suggested that Harriet Smith’s name was chosen intentionally so that she is displayed as rather boring. ‘Miss Smith’, a rather dreary name, suggests that she is a rather dull character, who lacks a certain wit, intellect or humour that is so evident in Emma Woodhouse.

Harriet’s stupidity is then supported by Austen’s writing: ‘She was not struck by any thing remarkably clever in Miss Smith’s conversation’. Again, this contrasts with Emma (who is previously described as ‘clever’) and so Austen is keen to present Harriet as particularly mediocre. In Chapter four it is then repeated that ‘Harriet certainly was not clever,’ and that she was ‘only desiring to be guided by any one she looked up to.’ Harriet is painted by Austen as oblivious and in need of guidance. Her stupidity is also emphasized by Austen’s employment of short sentences in Harriet’s speech. In Austen’s novels, characters that use short sentences (such as Miss Bates) are particularly stupid and trivial, and this is what Austen is keen to highlight.

One thing we immediately learn about Harriet is her respect for Emma. Emma befriends Harriet because she feeds her ego, and revels in Harriet’s praise. Austen shows this by writing that Harriet seemed ‘so pleasantly grateful for being admitted to Hartfield’. Austen again suggests that Harriet’s role is as Emma’s protégé by using the phrases: ‘She would notice her; she would improve her.’ Emma sees Harriet as her next distraction from her uneventful life. This makes Harriet look rather stupid for entering the relationship so eagerly, oblivious of Emma’s true intentions. But despite Harriet’s flaws, Emma is still keen on befriending her, and believes Harriet’s earlier acquaintances to be ‘unworthy of her’. The reader can infer that Harriet’s intelligence could be wishful thinking on Emma’s part; she is so desperate for a new friend that sheis prepared to overlook her naivety. We see again that Harriet is nothing but a game to Emma when Jane Austen writes: ‘Harriet would be loved as one to whom she could be useful.’ Again, because Harriet does not realise this, her ignorance is highlighted.

Overall, we see Harriet as rather ignorant and oblivious to Emma’s real intentions, but still keen to be raised above her rank – and she will do anything to achieve this. She hopes for nothing more but to be friends with Emma, who is, unlike her, very intelligent and well educated. Austen is keen to paint Harriet as a character with a significant amount of beauty (and this is perhaps suggested by the portrait of her by Emma), but with a huge lack of intelligence. She needs everything explained for her, and has a need for knowledge of the upper class. In spite of her naivety, the reader feels a certain amount of sympathy for Harriet, because in contrast with Emma’s manipulative attitude, and along with her beauty, she is presented as a rather amiable character.