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.


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