Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Vision of Nature

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. In fact, Wordsworth famously described poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. Romantic poetry was enthused by emotions, imagination, and freedom – all of which would have made the Augustans uneasy.

Nature was one of the central themes of Romantic poetry; the Romantics, artists and poets alike, disliked the scientific rationalisation of nature during the Enlightenment, and so they reacted against it by depicting the sublimity of untamed nature and its picturesque, beautiful qualities. The Romantics were distrustful of the modern human world, and indeed much of their writing (particularly Blake’s) was in response to the Industrial Revolution, which they saw as an invasion of nature. They were writing in a time when travel to areas in North America and Europe became much more common, and so people were able to see and explore the wild landscapes of distant lands. For example, in his poem “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”, Keats describes the “realms of gold” and staring into the Pacific “upon a peak in Darien”.

Alone and surrounded by nature, the Romantic poets were able to harness their most powerful thoughts regarding human nature and the human condition. John Keats, one of the more prominent Romantics, in his poem “Ode to a Nightingale”, reflects upon the transience of human life and the perils of death. He enviously addresses the nightingale, writing: “Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird! / No hungry generations tread thee down…” Through admiring nature, Keats is able to initiate a meditation upon life and death. William Wordsworth is perhaps the Romantic poet who wrote and reflected upon nature the most; in his poem “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey”, Wordsworth expresses his belief in a pure communion between nature and humanity through childhood, and the importance of memory in maintaining that communion. His writing is full of picturesque imagery, expressed through simple language:

                  “Five years have past; five summers, with the length
                  Of five long winters! and again I hear
                  These waters, rolling with their mountain-springs
                  With a sweet inland murmur. – Once again
                  Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
                  Which on a wild secluded scene impress
                  Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
                  The landscape with the quiet of the sky.”

Both Wordsworth and Keats, as well as the other Romantic poets, clearly view nature as a thing to be respected and revered; it was, for them, a harmonious place for reflection, and they felt that technological progression was threatening their sanctuary.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was no exception; he too revered nature, and it was a predominant theme in much of his writing. Coleridge described poetry as “the mediatress between, and reconciler of, nature and man,” and so the effect of the natural world upon his poetry is unsurprising. Wordsworth and Coleridge published their collection of poetry “Lyrical Ballads” in 1798, and it is said to mark the beginning of the Romantic era. The two poets are, therefore, seen as pioneers of the Romantic Movement.

Coleridge favoured lyricism and a highly musical tone. This adds a strikingly stylized effect to his writing, which is overwhelmed by alliteration and assonance, as he believed that common diction did not do justice to the sublimity of nature. It is true that he and Wordsworth set out to “ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purpose of poetic pleasure,” but Coleridge was still able to enliven his writing through complex poetic techniques. Clearly his vision of nature is of some magnificent being worthy of the utmost praise, and the beauty of lyricism is needed to present its true glory.

Both Wordsworth and Coleridge see nature as a teacher. In Wordsworth’s poem “The Tables Turned”, he boldly writes:

“Books! ‘tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.”

The two poets even go so far as to capitalise the word nature, so as to present it as a sort of divinity, just as Rumour and Fortune are gods in Virgil’s Aeneid. Coleridge sees nature as an educator, and this seems to be a common theme of the Romantics: they clearly hold nature in a very high regard. In his poem “Frost at Midnight” he writes:

                  “…so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God

Coleridge therefore sees nature as a preacher of the word of God, revealing to man the laws and language of the Classical Theistic deity. Moreover, he addresses nature as “Great universal Teacher!” thus stressing his reverence.

Obviously, one of the major themes of Coleridge’s poetry is the glory of nature. His writing is filled with imagery and descriptive language, describing the unfathomable depths of the natural world. In “Kubla Khan” he writes, memorably: “And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills, / Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree.” Nature is, in all of his poems, presented as a sublime and beautiful thing. Furthermore, Coleridge insists in “The Nightingale” that nature should be a thing of endless joy, rather than a medium onto which humans can reflect their feelings. He writes: “In Nature there is nothing melancholy.” He addresses nature as a friend, and also views it as a comforter to his baby. He writes: “And I deem it wise / To make him [his son] Nature’s play-mate.” Clearly he views nature as a great, loving entity, and believes that it should be both cared for and respected.

William Wordsworth, as aforementioned, saw childhood as an inevitable link with nature, and indeed he believed that as one grows older, they become more disconnected from nature. Moreover, he thought that we must use our memories in order to relive that oneness with nature. Coleridge, however, saw that link as fragile and precious, and indeed it is one of which he was deprived. In his poem “Frost at Midnight”, Coleridge writes: “For I was reared / In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim, / And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.” He then goes on to compare this childhood with an idyllic Wordsworthian upbringing, saying that his child “shalt wonder like a breeze / by lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags / of ancient mountain…” While Wordsworth viewed childhood and a connection with nature as almost synonymous, Coleridge did not. He did, however, hope that his son would have and experience that connection.

Coleridge, in a number of his poems, seems keen to emphasize the differentiation between the human mind and the natural world. In “Dejection: An Ode” (which, because it was originally written to a lover, is clearly a revelation of his own feelings) Coleridge emphasizes that human feelings come from within, and are separate from nature, and this idea is also seen in “Frost at Midnight”. No matter how long he gazes at “the western sky, / and its peculiar tint of yellow green,” he cannot escape his “stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief”. Despite this, Coleridge still manages to compare his mind to the natural world through metaphor, writing: “The hope grew round me, like the twining vine, / And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seemed mine.” Coleridge is, through his poem, expressing his anger in not being able to be comforted by nature, something that Wordsworth rejoiced in. This contrasts with the theme of “The Nightingale”, in which Coleridge says that nature should not be described as the embodiment of human feelings. He writes:

                  “(And so, poor wretch! filled all things with himself,
                  And made the gentle sounds tell back the tale
                  Of his own sorrow)...”

Another common theme of Romantic poetry, which often features in Coleridge’s poems, is transience. Although transience is not so common with Coleridge as it is with Keats, it is still a recurring idea. The insignificance of humanity with regard to nature is often emphasized, and indeed in “Kubla Khan” Coleridge writes: “Through caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea. / So twice five miles of fertile ground…” His epic language accentuates the extent and size of the natural world, and emphasises the irrelevance of humanity. Moreover, in “Frost at Midnight” Coleridge uses words like “eternal”, “all”, and “ancient” to insinuate the transience of the human condition, and in “The Nightingale” he refers to “Nature’s immortality”; this is a common trait of Romantic poetry. For instance, Shelley writes in “Ozymandias”: “‘Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.’”

Overall, Coleridge’s vision of nature is very similar to that of most of the Romantics – he sees it as an entity not only to preserve and care for, but also to respect, to immerse oneself in, to learn from, and to rejoice in. 

Sunday, 23 February 2014

A Defence of Studying Literature

It is true that the study of literature is self-indulgent; people have been reading for pleasure for thousands of years. However, this does not necessarily mean that the study of literature should not be considered a serious venture, and it certainly does not mean that it should not be done. The study of literature is, amongst other things, vital to the understanding of human nature, and the written word has transcended time due to its ability to portray ideas and emotions like no other medium.

The first form of literature to be studied in England was that of religious texts. Until relatively recently, the study of Theology was the only study that could be undertaken at University. The influence that the Bible has had on orthodox conventions in our country is indubitable, and indeed it would be hard to argue that our understanding of religious texts is unimportant. Without Biblical scholars and students of religious literature, many of the mores and teachings of texts like the Bible or Aquinas’ Summa Theologica would be ignored. The study of religious literature is therefore vital if the common person is to understand their own faith; without it, our views would be completely controlled and governed by the likes of Chaucer’s Pardoner and Summoner, who used the peasants’ lack of Latin knowledge to make money. Moreover, if we did not read or study religious or scientific literature, it would all inevitably be lost. Imagine if nobody had ever studied Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy or Galileo’s revolutionary works: knowledge that is central to our lives would vanish. Therefore, the study of literature is important to discover and retain the knowledge that binds us together as a society.

From books, particularly novels, we learn things that we cannot learn elsewhere. The study of literature is not only a source of pleasure, but it also teaches us about the human condition, and about the nature of love and death, amongst other things. Literature teaches us that the society we live in today is not the only society that has undergone turbulence, change and revolution. In fact, William Nicholson, British playwright, screenwriter and novelist, said, “we read to know that we are not alone”. Literature teaches us that people are concerned with the same things now as they were when the book was written; although historical intricacies may differ, the human condition and human nature remains unchanged. Even in the Victorian period, when sexual and polite mores were very strict in comparison to modern conventions, comparisons can still be drawn between the concerns of contemporary authors, and those of, for example, Thomas Hardy or Charles Dickens. Literature ought to be studied if only to enlighten us about ourselves and about the lives we live.

Literature shows us the flaws of human nature, and encourages us to improve not only ourselves, but also the societies in which we live. For example, novels which show a particularly loathsome hero or heroine can inspire the reader to distance themselves from that type of behavior, and so gives them the ability to improve themselves. Moreover, many of Dickens’s novels had a gravitational effect on attitudes to the poor, engendering more sympathy for those living in poverty, and this is another example of how literature can promote progression and improvement in society. Through the medium of literature, new ideas and passions can be channeled and directed at society, and through the study of literature, they will be heard.

Arguably, all kinds of art are self-indulgent, whether it be literature, music or painting. The reading of literature is, like other art forms, a pursuit that entertains our minds and sets us thinking. Literature can pose intriguing questions that excite our thoughts and feelings, and this is precisely what sets us apart from the animals and makes us human. We extract from literature emotions that are hard to find elsewhere – feelings like empathy, communality and pleasure – and if we turn our back on these we turn our back on our innate characteristics and desires as humans. Because humans are social creatures, with a curiosity about not only ourselves, but about each other, we must study literature to satisfy that curiosity. Our needs are not met by factual or scientific treatises – it is art that can intrigue our minds and teach us about one another.

There is also a Utilitarian reason for reading and studying literature: it is enjoyable. J. S. Mill taught that there are certain ‘Higher Pleasures’ (intellectual pleasures rather than physical pleasures) that ought to be pursued in order to increase utility and happiness. Surely all students are self-indulgent since they choose what to study because they enjoy it, or because they inevitably get some pleasure from it. Even if somebody becomes a doctor to save lives, they still get pleasure from saving lives, just as students of literature may not enjoy the intense study of books, but they may get pleasure from the knowledge they learn or the reading itself. Because there is value in learning and because it promotes human pleasure, we ought to study literature.

‘L’art pour l’art’ (‘Art for art’s sake’) is a concept (credited to Gautier) that originated in the 19th Century. It suggests that we should admire art, particularly literature, for no reason other than its fundamental and intrinsic value. Edgar Allen Poe, the famous novelist, wrote: “The simple fact is that would we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls we should immediately there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified, more supremely noble, than this very poem, this poem per se, this poem which is a poem and nothing more, this poem written solely for the poem's sake.” Poe is suggesting that art has a value that is separate from its moral and spiritual teachings, and that is simply the fact that it is intrinsically good. Poe and others would defend the study of literature even without all the collateral benefits that it brings. Surely, for this reason alone, art should be read, studied and cared for. 

As aforesaid, the study of literature is indulgent. However, there are a number of undeniable benefits of studying literature, and it would be a travesty if great works of literature were to be ignored. All art should be treasured and respected simply because it is what makes us human.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Is 'Tess of the d'Urbervilles' a Gothic novel?

The Gothic novel (also often referred to as Gothic horror) typically consists of a number of themes: entrapment, passionate love, sublime scenery, menacing descriptive writing, and danger. The term is often used to refer to the novels of Horace Walpole (The Castle of Otranto), Ann Radcliffe (The Mysteries of Udolfo), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Bram Stoker (Dracula) and many more. The term Gothic refers to the medieval buildings that these novels take place in, but it is clear that the Gothic novel has come to represent and involve a lot more than castles and abbeys.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles, written by Thomas Hardy, was first published in The Graphic newspaper in 1891. The novel relates the trials and tribulations of a young girl struggling to help her family, find a husband and escape her past. The first edition was highly censored because at the time sex was considered to be something that ought not be talked about. Despite this censorship, the novel still received mixed reviews due to it’s handling and challenging of Victorian sexual mores.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles takes place in the rural English countryside, and its pages are very often filled with bucolic descriptions of pastoral scenes – peculiar for a Gothic novel. Moreover, Hardy was a writer of the Victorian period, a period that is very distinct from the Romantic period of the Gothic novel. So can Tess really be described as Gothic?

Hardy is known as a Victorian realist, and Tess is a pastoral tragedy. However, the novel’s themes are very often synonymous with those of a Gothic novel. The first and most obvious theme that is consistent with the Gothic novel is the idea of entrapment. Tess Durbeyfield is, throughout the novel, trapped by her past. She cannot forget the dreadful memories she harbours, nor can she escape what she describes as “the gloomy spectres that would persist in their attempts to touch her—doubt, fear, moodiness, care, shame.” In the same chapter, Tess’s ominous and omnipresent memories are compared to hungry wolves: “She knew that they were waiting like wolves just outside the circumscribing light, but she had long spells of power to keep them in hungry subjection there.” It’s true that she is able to ignore her past, but she can never truly escape it. The events have such an effect on her life that they cause Angel Clare to desert his newly wedded wife, and indeed her family are looked down on by other families in their village. Not only is Tess unable to distance herself from her memories, she is also unable to distance herself from the very man that has caused her all her distress: Alec d’Urberville. He is extremely persistent about making Tess his wife, and in the end she succumbs to his urgings. This persistence in itself is yet another disaster in her life: Angel Clare returns soon after to find his beloved Tess with another man. Unlike the heroine of a typical Gothic novel, Tess is not physically trapped. However, it is impossible to deny that she is imprisoned by the blemish that Alec has imposed upon her purity. Hardy describes Tess’s so called blemish as “a course pattern” on her “beautiful feminine tissue.” The events of her past have had such an impact on Tess that she is doomed to remember and be affected by them forever.

Another Gothic theme that is undoubtedly present in Tess of the d’Urbervilles is the particularly menacing descriptive writing. For instance, Hardy’s description of The Chase on the night that Tess is raped by Alec: “Darkness and silence rules everywhere around. Above them rose the primeval yews and oaks of The Chase…” The silence and darkness of the forest is typical of the Gothic novel; Hardy’s description is extremely sinister and almost supernatural, foretelling the events to come. The name of the forest, The Chase, could very well serve to emphasise Tess’s entrapment: she is chased by the events of her past. This ominous description is also seen in Hardy’s description of Flintcomb-Ash, described as “the remains of a village”. Moreover, Hardy uses pathetic fallacy to emphasise the gloomy nature of the farm and its contrast with the jovial Talbothays. The d’Urberville manor near Trantridge also has a hint of the Gothic: its vast size and empty rooms suggest an element of menace.

The heroine of a Gothic novel is very typically overwrought with distress, and the same could certainly be said about Tess.  Tess, speaking to Alec, describes her life as “bitter and black with sorrow”, and the reader sympathises with her (as they do with the heroines of typically Gothic novels) because she has not done anything to deserve her plight. For example, the reader empathises with the troubles of so and so in Stoker’s Dracula because she suffers for no obvious reason. This is, therefore, another theme that Tess of the d’Urbervilles shares with the Gothic tradition.

Passionate love, and the danger of that love, is also a very common Gothic theme (most notably seen in Bronte’s Wuthering Heights) that also features in Hardy’s novel. For instance, Tess is so in love with Angel Clare that she will do anything she says and has absolute trust in him: “I agree to the conditions, Angel; because you know best what my punishment ought to be…” The dangers of that love are obvious: she becomes lost without him, and at one point in the novel, almost attempts to drown them both. Furthermore, at the end of the novel she is so impassioned that she murders Alec d’Urberville so that she can return to Angel.

Finally, the men in Hardy’s tale are very similar to those seen in Gothic novels: both Alec and Angel attempt to control Tess in different ways. Alec endeavours to control Tess physically, and this is demonstrated by his raping her, and also by his constant presence around her while she is at Frintcomb-Ash. Angel, on the other hand, attempts to control her in a very different way. He tries to educate her in such a way that she has no mind of her own, and simply repeats what he has told her. This idea becomes very prominent when Tess is talking to Alec about religion and is almost ignorant of what she herself is saying. Moreover, both men judge her and treat her harshly, turning her into something she is not. Alec views her as an evil temptress, something she has no intention of being, and Angel sees her as an impure, scheming adulterer. In this way, both men could be compared to Byronic heroes like Heathcliff or Edward Rochester.

Although Tess is certainly not a Gothic novel, it has a huge number of Gothic themes. Tess is trapped by her mind, and indeed the protagonists of the novel are very similar to those typical of a Gothic. Hardy’s writing is menacing and ominous, and this in itself suggests the novel’s Gothic nature.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

The Dress (The World's Slave)

I am a sad sapphire, with waves and valleys.
Most of the time I languish in a dark, shadowed cupboard.
It is hampered, with no smile. I linger so long
Sometimes I’m loath to leave. But that never lasts.
I am worn again and feel admired, needed.
Whatever I do the eyes of culture stare,
As if I was a reason for their lives.

But when I shone in the ballroom, I was blind to the truth.
Fashion has stirred, changed. I no longer stand out.
My mistress, with her fingers, passes over me.
Then she turns to those liars; the fashionable trends.
I was worn to feel needed, but now I am not.
She has been groomed to follow the crowd.

Now I understand that I never had value, no true cost.
No product of nature am I,
Only a price tag; the man-made epitome of style.
I am but a trend, so when I pass, I pass forever.
In lifeless suspension, my lustre fades away.

The Pen (The World's Slave)

I used to leave my mark on ancient walls,
To show a bout or tell a tale of war,
Display a yarn in words a man recalls,
Recording what has happened long before.
A story shown on faded cuts of leaf,
I cast my soul upon a manuscript,
I give a voice to those who couldn’t speak,
They now express themselves without their lips.
With scribes of God I wrote the prodigy,
My point is moved by hands of famous men,
I tell the past with brutal honesty,
Then from my body flows the ink again.
A path of love I poured upon a page,
To hopeless music, writ and sold today.

A Cold Indifference

To start, they show a gruesome sight:
Two brothers beaten black and blue,
And next, a soldier killed in war,
And after this, disaster too,
A pain, a hurt, a wound, the gore;
In but a flash we see their plight.

The images of blitz are shown
Within a realm of bliss. Will men
In distant countries choose to show
A happy scene? Or yet again
Will every reel be filled with woe?
These empty men have slowly grown

Accustomed to such dark delights.
A thousand lives in but a thought,
The trifling, petty final breath
Reduced by news to almost nought.
The everlasting pains of death
Are scorned by separated minds.

Such huge events to trivialise;
Such gravities belittled!

Reticence - Chapter 1 (Austen Recreative)

Henry Chandler and his wife, Elizabeth, were known throughout England for their extravagant dinner parties and their indulgent balls. Mr Chandler, whose father had earned his fortune with the East India Company, and had purchased a considerable portion of land near Salisbury, being the only son, inherited his father’s estate upon his death. While his father was on his travels, Henry was raised alone by his somewhat doting mother, and had managed to become ruler of the household, with few restrictions and impediments. For this reason, he grew to be a particularly haughty man. His wife, a handsome, intelligent woman, was much the same, often keen to show off her wealth and beauty; and so the Chandlers held their famous balls for the district, not simply for their own enjoyment and pleasure, but rather to satisfy their self-inflated egos. The Chandler estate, Great Nast Hyde, was the biggest in all the surrounding area, encompassing over 250 acres.

On the evening of one December ball, the weather had been so ruthless that the anxious friends and town acquaintances of the Chandlers were unable to venture through the village to Great Nast Hyde. At first it seemed that the ball would be cancelled; but this would not do. Mr Chandler, whether out of pure vanity or stubbornness I am not sure, insisted that the several carriages of the household be sent out to collect their more disadvantaged guests, so that the ball could go ahead. Once the majority had arrived, the rest were left to persist through the cold by their own means. The entirety of the district recalls this night, and indeed Mrs Chandler was never afraid to mention the occasion to her friends: ‘Do you remember when my kind husband sent out all of his carriages to collect our guests? Twelve carriages in all!’ Most of her listeners understood that this was by no means an act of compassion, but rather a typically Chandler act of flaunting the family’s wealth to their guests.

Mr and Mrs Chandler’s first daughter, Louise, inherited all those characteristics that her parents encompassed – vanity, pride, beauty, and intelligence. Her frequent trips to town had helped her to become a more than respected young lady, and indeed she had numerous admirers both in Salisbury and London. By the time she was 21, rumours of Louise’s beauty had spread so widely that every young girl desired to be her, and every young man desired to be of her acquaintance. Louise had, for a long time, been familiar with the novels of Mrs Radcliffe and the poetry of Thomas Gray, and was so well read that she often found her parent’s conversation somewhat dull and misinformed. She had loved, she had lost, and in her imagination she had overcome every problem she had ever encountered. She relished the balls her parents held, and adored to be the centre of attention. She was, in every way, the perfect heroine.

But, despite my best wishes, my real heroine is far from typical of the novels of Mrs Hoyt or Mrs Radcliffe. In fact my heroine, naturally, has yet to show her face. Jane, the Chandler’s second and youngest child, is to be at the centre of my tale. In no possible way could she have been any more different from her sister. Jane was two years younger than Louise, and was not pretty, but her features were on the whole agreeable. Unlike her parents, Jane was neither proud nor vain, but rather a shy and nervous girl. She was by no means intelligent, but she made up for her deficiencies in academia with her emotional intelligence, and she handled every situation with a good heart and a steady nature. She was adored by all of the villagers, and was particularly loved by the humble spinster, Miss Susan, whom Jane was accustomed to accompany whenever possible. The two could often be found sitting together in trivial conversation, reflecting upon the weather or telling one another tales of their imagination. Jane noticed with compassion that the poor were dissatisfied, and with reason: can one wonder what discontents lurk beneath their bosom?

The Chandler family were astounded by Jane’s peculiar, empathetic pursuits; for the Chandlers had few interests other than their income and their place in society, their concern for the poor being rather small. Jane, for her part, was perplexed at how one could be so intent on climbing the social hierarchy and showing off prosperity, two major concerns of the Chandler family. Jane would rarely attend the illustrious Chandler balls, and instead could be found sewing in her room, or visiting the village workhouse. In fact Jane showed her face so little on social occasions that, when asked about her, the local gentry from the nearby estates would prove to be completely ignorant of her existence. Despite her frequent visits to Bath, Jane had never ventured into the Pump Room or the Upper Rooms, preferring to remain in her own company. It was not because she did not enjoy Bath society, but rather because she was an incredibly reticent and discerning heroine, rare characteristics for a girl to have of such a tender age. She was dragged along unwillingly by her parents, who adored Bath society simply because they found it a comfortable setting in which to entertain, and one in which they hoped to be seen and noticed by as many people as was possible. Despite her parent’s censuring and attempts to alter her opinions, Jane kept a steady head, and refused to yield.

I am afraid to inform the reader that my heroine was no lover of literature, nor did her imagination roam free – she was no Anne Elliot or Catherine Morland – she was loathe to open a novel, for she found that they stole away the clock and left her feeling rather jaded. With her lack of literary awareness and social capabilities, one would think Jane’s experience was wanting. Her admirable characteristics of her discretion and her agreeable nature made up for her faults in the eyes of those who are to become prominent in the unfolding of my tale.

There was one family who noticed Jane – the Bateses, relations of the Chandlers, were particularly fond of her, and Louise often wondered why they favoured Jane so much. Mrs Bates, Elizabeth Chandler’s sister, had been the less fortunate of the two cordial women, marrying the village’s humble pastor.  Catherine and Anne Bates, the two daughters, both held pleasant countenances and easy manners – very similar to Jane in their characters. They often invited Jane to walk with them on sunny afternoons, but were perpetually declined. Jane was shy of her cousins’ kindnesses and unaffected conduct, sensations she rarely experienced. Their kindness to Jane was destined to change her situation in society, and this is precisely what my tale is going to relate.

A Comparative Analysis of Larkin's 'Dockery and Son'

“Dockery and Son” was written by the English poet Philip Larkin, and is part of his highly celebrated collection The Whitsun Weddings. The poem is an interior monologue, and follows a very similar structure to that of his poem “Church Going”: it starts with mundane detail and transmogrifies into a profound reflection on the state of Larkin’s life, or indeed life itself. “Dockery and Son” is an autobiographical poem, and it is an account of his visit to his old Oxford College and his subsequent journey home. It follows a basic ABABCDCD rhyme scheme, and is written in iambic pentameter; there are occasional lines that do not follow the same metre (“Locked. The lawn spreads dazzlingly wide.”) and this manipulation allows the poem to be read in a languid, meditative way. The reader is immediately struck by the title of the poem, “Dockery and Son”, which suggests business and commerce, a particularly melancholy outlook on life. This theme, and indeed the theme of life and death, is central to the poem.

The first stanza begins with the Dean addressing Larkin in direct speech. This is a technique also seen in Larkin’s poem “Mr Bleaney”, in which the landlady addresses Larkin himself; the use of direct speech dramatizes the poem and engages us into dialogue which meanders into his own thought pattern. The word “junior” in the first line implies that age will be a recurring theme in the poem, and indeed this is supported by the reference to “his son” in the second line. Larkin uses the phrases “keep in touch with”, “used to” and “remember” to emphasize the time that has passed since he was at college, and the irretrievable nature of the past. He ends the stanza with a colon, and the second stanza begins with the word “Locked”. This use of enjambment gives the reader a certain expectancy that is suddenly deflated with the first word. This emphatic placement also highlights the fact that Larkin’s past is lost forever, and that he is therefore unable to relive it. This technique is also seen in “Church Going” when Larkin writes: “Or will he be my representative, / Bored, uninformed…” The emphatic placement of this word at the start of the stanza helps to stress his boredom.

In the second stanza of “Dockery and Son”, Larkin gives us a number of pastoral and picturesque images (“The lawn spreads dazzlingly wide.” and “Canal and clouds and colleges subside.”) This sudden burst of imagery from Larkin is also seen in his poem “The Whitsun Weddings”, which also takes place on a train, allowing him to reflect and observe. He writes: “The river’s level drifting breadth began.” This method helps the poem to seem more immediate, and it makes the reader feel as if they too are on the train, passing by these occasional bucolic glimpses of nature; they can also be seen as relief from his intense pattern of thought. The languid tempo of the line “Canal and clouds and colleges subside,” created by Larkin’s use of alliteration and polysyndeton again supports the poem’s meditative tone. Words like “known” and “subside” suggest age and passing of time, and this nostalgia for the past is also seen in his poem “MCMXIV”; Larkin’s use of Roman numerals in the title immediately indicates not only grandeur but also age. Larkin refers to himself as “ignored”, and this implies that he feels cut off and separated from society. This is also seen in his poem “Ambulances”, when he employs the word “unreachable”, suggesting detachment from the outside. He then begins to compare himself to Dockery, just as he compares himself to Mr Bleaney.

In the third stanza, Larkin, in the middle of his languid, meditative state, falls asleep on the train, and he writes:

“Well, it just shows
How much… How little… Yawning, I suppose
I fell asleep…”

Before he falls asleep, Larkin sees beautiful, pastoral sights; when he wakes up, however, he is presented with “the fumes / and furnace-glares of Sheffield,” where he eats “an awful pie”. This antithesis of beautiful landscape and grotty industrialised sights suggest that Larkin, in falling asleep, missed out on the best parts of the journey. This train journey could indeed be a metaphor for his life, which would imply that Larkin lived his earlier and most valuable years in a disconnected state; he could be lamenting the time that he has lost, and this is emphasized by his use of ellipsis. Larkin then describes “the ranged / joining and parting lines.” He uses symbolism to compare his life to Dockery’s. The lines of the track represent the journey of life, and the number of diverging directions one can take.

In the fourth stanza, Larkin makes use of enjambment again, and indeed the words “Unhindered moon” serve to accentuate the fact that time cannot be stopped or slowed down. This is supported by the words: “how much had gone of life.” He then continues to compare himself to Dockery, writing: “To have no son, no wife, / No house or land still seemed quite natural.” This idea of having nothing is also seen in “Mr Bleaney” when Larkin writes: “And at his age having no more to show / than one hired box…” In comparing himself to Dockery, Larkin believes that he has done nothing with his life, and registers this idea of waste with “only a numbness”. He has noticed the huge lacuna in his life, and regrets that he hasn’t experienced the typical stages of human existence. Larkin uses the phrase “taken stock”, which again reinforces the idea that life is like a business or an enterprise, a rather depressing idea typical of Larkin. However, he then realises that he has not wasted his life, and he writes: “No, that’s not the difference…” This change of thought pattern is also seen in his poem “Toads” (and indeed “Toads Revisited”) when he writes, following a full stop: “Ah, were I courageous enough…”

In the fifth stanza, Larkin then realises that he himself is in a better position than Dockery, and indeed he writes:

Convinced he [Dockery] was he should be added to!
Why did he think adding meant increase?
To me it was dilution.”

Larkin has an extremely offensive stance against the idea of family; he never got married, nor did he have any children. He strongly agreed with Cryril Connolly’s famous quotation: “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” Larkin’s use of direct questions (“Why did he think adding meant increase?” and “Where do these / innate assumptions come from?”) is also seen in “Church Going”, and it creates a sense of surprise, and adds to the force of his words. Larkin then goes on to explain that we do not have children because it is what we “want to do” or because it is what “we think truest”, but rather because it is normal, and then becomes a habit. This again emphasizes his isolation from society (like in “Mr Bleaney”), but this theme is also seen in his poem “Toads”, in which he explains that nobody wants to work, but that they do it for stability and because it is the norm. This time, however, Larkin is ironically avoiding stability and the norm by not conforming to orthodox stereotypes and expectations.

In the final stanza, Larkin concludes his meditative reflections. His repetition of “nothing” again emphasizes his lack of a family, and indeed repetition for emphasis is used in a number of his poems. For example in “MCMXIV” Larkin repeats the word “never” to support the main theme of the poem, just as he does in “Dockery and Son”. He then writes: “Life is first boredom, then fear.” This is one of Larkin’s many aphorisms, and indeed it encompasses the main theme of the poem. He concludes with the somewhat melancholy thought that death (or indeed “the only end of age”) is inevitable, and that there is nothing we can do to prevent it. He also accentuates the fact that this is the same for everybody, whatever they do with their lives (“Whether or not we use it…”) The final stanza, in a way, makes the preceding stanzas seem rather trivial in that the events of life are of no importance, because we all die anyway. The tension of life and death is prominent throughout the poem, and he uses various words and phrases (“Death-suited”, “With Cartwright who was killed?” and “gone of life”) to stress the tension. Death is also the main theme in his poem “Ambulances”, and indeed he uses various words and phrases (including “come to rest” and “loss”) to remind the reader of its inevitability. Larkin seems to be far more concerned about his death than what he has done with his life, and this sudden change of thought is similar to the one seen in “Faith Healing”, when the women are hit with a sudden sense of realisation and emptiness. The poem, like so many other Larkin poems, is an account of a personal experience that has been made into a universal contemplation of life. The final lines of the poem evoke pathos in the reader, and we feel sympathetic for Larkin, and indeed the sad, transient nature of humanity. Larkin once said in a letter to Monica Jones: “I feel the only thing you can do about life is to preserve it, by art if you’re an artist, by children if you’re not.” This seems to summarise the overall impression that the poem leaves on the reader.

An Analysis of Gunn's 'Tamer and Hawk'

Gunn’s poem makes use of a prolonged metaphor, comparing a hawk and its tamer to two lovers. The poem, comprised of four stanzas, has an ABACCB rhyme scheme and is written in non-uniform iambic trimeter. The poem describes a hawk’s growing love for its tamer, and thus its growing obedience and compliance; we are immediately presented with a tension between the hawk’s desire for absolute freedom, and its will to please its tamer. The poem moves in a straightforward manner, with each stanza expanding the hawk’s thoughts. Thom Gunn was a homosexual, and so the reader can infer that Gunn’s persona (the hawk) is addressing another man (the tamer). The poem’s taut structure and the short lines suggest the hawk’s lack of liberty and freedom, and indeed the title ‘Tamer and Hawk’ instantly indicates the inequality of the relationship.

The first stanza introduces the feelings of the persona, and its somewhat bewildered state; he is confused as to why he is so eager to impress his lover, and Gunn writes: “I thought I was so tough.” He obviously doesn’t like the idea of obedience, but still wants to please his lover. The hawk loves to do as his tamer desires, and Gunn writes that the hawk “Cannot be quick enough / To fly for you.” We immediately get the impression that Gunn’s persona is under some disillusion and that he has become a somewhat heteronomous being, doing only what his lover asks. This is supported by Gunn’s words: “I go / At your commands.” The hawk, in liking or even loving its tamer, has already begun to lose its freedom as a wild bird; thus the tension is expanded. Gunn’s employment of the words “gentled at your hands” suggests that the lover has the power to ‘tame’ Gunn’s persona, and implies that he is becoming less and less wild. The contrast between the words “tough” and “gentled” serves to show that the hawk’s nature is being compromised by the relationship. Gunn uses very little punctuation in the first stanza (only one comma and one full-stop), and this cadence represents the dwindling autonomy that Gunn’s persona still has. Finally, Gunn ends the stanza with “commands”, and this simply insinuates the ominous dominance that the tamer has over the hawk.

The second stanza serves to support the first, and indeed Gunn’s persona is now seen as a slave-like figure, describing himself as “no longer free”. Gunn uses symbolism here, and the use of the words “flight above” and “no longer free” introduce a paradox, because one of the connotations of flight is freedom. The juxtaposition of the two words “longer” and “free” suggest the hawk’s desire, or indeed longing, to be a free bird. The two words “seeled” (blinding of birds) and “hooded” both suggest captivity and their harshness imply that he is being kept cruelly or against his will. Gunn has used the word “seeled”, not only because it suggests captivity, but because the seeling of birds was seen as extremely cruel. Moreover, the word “seeled” encourages the reader to think of Gunn’s persona being sealed off and isolated. The phrase “I am blind to other birds” suggests that the persona is so infatuated by his lover that he finds it hard to think of other men, and indeed this is quite an ominous idea. It suggests that his thoughts are eternally occupied by his lover, a possibly dangerous scenario. Gunn also uses word play when he refers to his lover’s “habit” hooding his persona; a habit is also a large, hooded cloak worn by monks. One of the ideas associated with monks is seclusion and lack of freedom, and so this promotes the ideas of the poem. Gunn’s use of more punctuation in the second stanza implies that the persona is becoming less and less free, and that he is becoming more and more of a captive.  

In the third stanza, the author for the first time uses the imagery of the bird flying, perhaps to suggest that the persona’s freedom is simply a thing of the past. Gunn writes: “As formerly, I wheel / I hover and I twist,” all of which indicate liberty. In fact, the word “twist” often suggests escape, and the reader therefore imagines Gunn’s persona struggling for freedom. Gunn’s use of the polysyllabic word “possessive” stands out in the middle of the fourth line, and it serves to emphasise that Gunn’s persona is now simply a possession of his lover. The phrase “But only want to feel” does however suggest that Gunn’s persona is deeply in love with his lover, and it implies that he is so in love that he will do anything for him – thus he is a “possession”. The words “catcher” and “caught” again suggest captivity, and imply that Gunn’s persona is only concerned with his lover, and is intent on pleasing him. Punctuation has steadily increased, decreasing the cadence of the lines and thus suggesting the persona’s decreasing freedom.

In the fourth stanza, Gunn’s persona says: “You but half-civilise,” which suggests that the hawk is still half wild, and therefore still violent and dangerous. Again, this is an ominous idea. The persona is presented as a monomaniac (“having only eyes / for you”), again making Gunn’s persona seem more and more menacing. The last three lines support this:

     “…I fear to lose,
     I lose to keep, and choose
     Tamer as prey.”

Because Gunn’s persona has been tamed in such a way that he only has eyes for his lover, and it is his lover that occupies all of his thoughts, he is so afraid of losing him. And so, just as Othello kills Desdemona (his wife), Gunn’s persona chooses to “lose” (kill) his lover in order “to keep” him; he thinks that if he kills him, their love will be eternal and immutable. He thinks that, rather than losing his lover in another way, death will not necessarily bring an end to their love.

The metaphor of the tamer and the hawk is extremely effective; the theme of the poem is the danger of love, and so the metaphor of a hawk, a wild and dangerous predator, is particularly appropriate. It allows Gunn to paint a picture of love as a steady loss of freedom and independence, just as the tamed hawk steadily loses its violent and wild nature. Moreover, the practices of tamers are seen as particularly cruel and so the ideas of one-sided dominance and authority are apparent; Gunn is able to represent the cruelty and governance of inequitable love very easily. The metaphor also lends itself to the idea of dependence; the hawk starts to grow dependent on its tamer (“only want to feel”), just as a lover might grow more and more dependent, a precarious scenario.

The poem was certainly intended to be a love poem, but Gunn suggests that love accompanies a number of dark connotations; Gunn implies that being in love is similar to being “seeled” by your partner, and being, in many ways, trapped. This is supported by Gunn’s phrase “I go / at your commands.” This poem expresses many of the views seen in Larkin’s poem ‘Self’s the Man’; Larkin writes: “He has no time at all.” Both Larkin and Gunn suggest that love (or indeed marriage) takes away one’s freedom and independence, much like when a hawk is being trained. Not only does Gunn’s poem, like Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, show the inevitable claustrophobia of passionate love, but it also shows the dangers inherent in such a one-sided relationship of dominance. Gunn seems keen to emphasize the perils of such an impassioned and wild love between two people, and his poem suggests that it often has a bad result. It also reflects the famous line of the final stanza of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’: “And all men kill the thing they love…” Both Gunn and Wilde suggest that men will kill their lovers either by leaving them, or indeed by loving them too much.

The tension of containment is gradually increased throughout ‘Tamer and Hawk’, and this is achieved by Gunn’s language and use of punctuation. Although the poem suggests that love is like slavery, the overriding message is one of danger. Gunn is telling the reader that impassioned love can be very risky, and that when someone becomes so consumed and obsessed by their lover, it seems better to kill them than to lose them by some other means. In death, love never ends whereas in life, it may. In striving to retain their lover, men will often lose them.

Social Class and Hierarchy in Austen's "Emma"

Jane Austen lived a quiet life. She was the unmarried daughter of a rector in Steventon, and her only source of personal income came from the four books she published during her lifetime. She was on the lower-fringes of the English landed gentry, and after her father’s death Jane, her sister Cassandra and their mother lived together in a small house paid for by Jane’s brother, Edward. However, this does not mean that she was oblivious to the goings on of the upper-class: Jane’s cousin, Eliza, married a French count and lived out an illustrious lifestyle in France and London;  her brother Edward was adopted by the very wealthy Knight family (relatives of the Austens), and after marrying he went on to become High Sherriff of Kent, living at Godmersham, a very large estate; Jane often visited him there, giving her a glimpse of the lives of the wealthier members of society.

The heroine of the novel Emma is presented as particularly egocentric, and indeed the novel’s opening describes Emma as “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home”. By putting this information in the first line of the novel, the reader infers that Emma prides herself on her wealth and class, an extremely unattractive characteristic. Mr Knightley’s behaviour is held in direct contrast with Emma’s; Mr Knightley is one of the wealthier members of Highbury society, living at the luxurious Donwell Abbey. However, he is not introduced as a rich man, nor is he presented in that way; he is extremely kind and charitable, and, unlike Emma, is not concerned with social hierarchy whatsoever. For instance, in Chapter Eight of Volume Two Emma suggests that it would be “a very shameful and degrading connection” (page 221) for Miss Bates to live at Highbury; Emma would see it as a degrading connection, but Mr Knightley would not. Mrs Weston supports this by saying (page 221): “I do not think Mr Knightley would be much disturbed by Miss Bates.” Moreover, Mr Knightley is seen as being extremely charitable towards the Bateses, and indeed he is described as both “considerate” and “gallant” (page 219). Austen’s appraisals of Mr Knightley suggest that she highly esteems the traditional values of both modesty and charity, particularly in the rich; her praise also serves to accentuate the privation of these values in the heroine. The reader can infer, therefore, that Austen has no true qualms with those people who are wealthier than others, as long as they are charitable and modest.

Emma’s lack of sympathy for more impoverished characters is again emphasised by the introduction and presentation of Miss Bates, the local spinster. Austen takes care to present Miss Bates as Emma’s polar opposite, describing her as “neither young, handsome, rich” (page 19) and living “in a very small way” (page 19). This considered, you would expect Emma to feel somewhat sympathetic for the Bateses, and you would hope that she pitied their plight; however, she does not. Although she sends Miss Bates a leg of pork, her meagre act of charity is somewhat overshadowed by Mr Knightley’s gallant behaviour: not only does he provide the Bateses with an abundance of apples (finishing his supply), but he also provides them with a carriage. Emma is also described as “not contributing what she ought to the stock of their scanty comforts” (page 151) and although Emma does go and visit the Bateses, it is only to improve Highbury’s opinion of her, rather than to help or please the Bateses. Austen is again criticising the selfish and unsympathetic behaviour of many of England’s gentry.

Emma’s mind is constantly filled with the importance of social hierarchy, and again we see Emma as a loathsome figure.  For example, Emma, when visiting the Bateses, expresses her fear of “being in danger of falling in with the second rate and third rate of Highbury.” (page 151) Moreover, Emma seems to think that the only reason for marrying is to raise oneself in social position; Austen, representing Emma’s thoughts, writes (page 133): “He only wanted to aggrandize and enrich himself.” She thinks that everybody is as concerned with hierarchy as she is. This emphasizes Emma’s preoccupation and eternal concern with social class, but there are two more pressing examples of Emma’s prejudice. Emma refuses to allow Harriet to marry Robert Martin, described by Mr Knightley as “a respectable, intelligent gentleman-farmer” (page 60), on account of him being not “Harriet’s equal” (top of page 59) and nothing more than a farmer; she describes the match as “a degradation” (page 60). Furthermore, Emma’s attitude towards the Coles (page 226) presents her as extremely proud and self-absorbed on account of her wealth. Austen is amused at Emma’s self importance, and she writes: “Emma did not repent her condescension in going to the Coles.” Emma exclaims through the narrator: “She must have delighted the Coles…” and we see Emma as extremely arrogant because of this. Emma thinks that the presence of a wealthier member of society must have pleased the Coles, when in fact they are not worried by such petty concerns. This is supported by Austen’s writing (page 203):

“The Coles were very respectable in their way, but they ought to be taught that it was not for them to arrange the terms on which the superior families would visit them.”

Emma’s utter snobbery paints a particularly dislikeable figure of the English upper-class, and Austen makes Emma’s attitude seem extremely scathing. Her pretentiousness reminds the reader of Persuasion’s Sir Walter Elliot. Austen writes:

Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot's character; vanity of person and of situation… He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliot, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion.”

Not only is Austen criticizing Emma and Sir Walter Elliot’s pretentiousness, she is also ridiculing it; she makes a joke of their arrogance and snobbery, thus making her views somewhat obvious.

Austen puts a lot of emphasis on the fact that social hierarchy often prevents certain relationships; for example, it seems perfectly obvious that Jane Fairfax and Emma should be very good friends, but they are not. Mr Woodhouse exclaims: “‘It is a great pity that their circumstances should be so confused!’” (page 168) He wishes for Emma and Jane to be friends, but his exclamation suggests that they are not able to be because of their differences in class. Austen views this as wrong, and presents it as one of the dangers of social hierarchy. This is supported by Austen when she says that Miss Bates “enjoyed a most uncommon degree of popularity for a woman neither young, handsome, rich, nor married.” (page 19) This again shows Emma’s snobbery: she believes that Miss Bates’s position in society and lack of money should have more of an effect on her social life, but it doesn’t. Miss Bates is almost Jane Austen’s fictional parallel; both were poor, both unmarried, and both spent their lives living with their mothers. We can therefore infer that Austen herself loathes Emma’s snobbery, and that she viewed social hierarchy as a thing to be ignored, rather than a thing to be adhered to. Mr Knightley and Miss Bates are almost certainly the two most moral and amiable characters of the novel; they are both almost always right, particularly when it comes to Emma’s mistakes. For example, Mr Knightley warns Emma of the peril she is putting Harriet in, and indeed Miss Bates is one of the first to notice that Harriet had hopes of marrying Mr Elton (on page 172 she says “What is before me, I see.”) The fact that these two characters have the least concern for social hierarchy suggests that Austen herself wished to present it as somewhat unimportant and loathsome.

Austen also makes a spectacle of Highbury’s particularly high reverence of Frank Churchill; Highbury holds Frank in very high regard on account of his wealth and respectability, even though they have never met him. This is extremely comic, and the fact that Frank turns out to be a deceptive, abhorrent character only serves to emphasize that wealth and class should have no sway on people’s opinions. This encourages the reader to question whether Emma is simply respected in Highbury because of her wealth, or whether it is because she is actually a likeable figure; Austen clearly thinks the former to be true. The reader also questions whether Emma would be so esteemed if she were in the same position as Miss Bates, old and poor. Emma’s judgment, which is very often wrong (i.e. in her match-making), is always listened to and respected by the people of Highbury; for instance, Mr Knightley tells Emma that Highbury “would be entirely guided” (page 369) by her treatment of Miss Bates. The respect that Emma commands is held in direct contrast with that of Miss Bates, who is very often right, but who says: “Oh! as for me, my judgment is worth nothing.” (page 172) Not only is Austen criticizing Emma for thinking so highly of her own opinions, but she is also criticizing society; why should Emma’s opinion be more esteemed than that of Miss Bates?

Austen also criticizes Emma’s opinion of the Coles. Despite being Emma’s neighbors for ten years, and of a “good sort of people” (page 203), they still did not receive her respect. She describes them as “of low origin”, and even though they are “second only to the family at Hartfield” (page 203), Emma still looks down on them. She thinks them not worthy of her admiration on account of the fact that they are newly wealthy (“the last year or two had brought them a considerable increase of means” (page203)), and because they made their money through trade. Emma speaks of them extremely scathingly, and determines that she should reject their invitation on account of their being “only moderately genteel” (page 203). Emma even goes so far as to take her not being invited “as a compliment”, and to say that she would rather remain “in solitary grandeur” (page 204). Austen is ridiculing Emma, and her sardonic humor amuses the reader, but accompanies a more serious message: social class and wealth should not affect people’s judgment as much as it does.

Sir Walter Scott, an author writing at the same time as Jane Austen, praised her for “the peculiar tact with which she presents characters that the reader cannot fail to recognize”.  Austen clearly experienced characters like Emma (pretentious and arrogant), allowing her to represent them so well in her writing. Austen’s novel Emma is by no means criticizing the wealthy, but it is criticizing the uncharitable members of the upper-class, and Austen is also showing her disapproval of the class system. Through characters like Jane Fairfax and Miss Bates, Austen is able to condemn orthodox attitudes to status and hierarchy, and she is able to question the norms of society. For example, she questions whether the wealthy should be held in such high regard simply on account of their wealth, and she questions whether hierarchy should be a concern at all. She makes fun of Emma for her attention to social status, where Austen herself thinks it ought not to matter. The reader sees her views clearly throughout the novel, and they get the opinion that Austen does not care for hierarchy, and thinks it a petty, unimportant concern.

Translating and Reading Medieval Literature

Medieval Literature is an extremely broad subject: it consists of anything written during the Middle Ages (circa 6th – 15th Century). Beowulf and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales are some of the most famous works of Medieval Literature, but are unusual in that they were written in the authors’ vernaculars. Most literature throughout the Middle Ages was written in Latin, but more common people would write in Old English, Old French or Middle English. French Literature had a huge influence on English writing, and indeed many English writers and poets chose to write in French, if not in Latin.

Both Old English and Middle English are almost unrecognizable as part of the English language. We are therefore faced with a language barrier that must, one way or another, be overcome before we can begin to read and interpret Medieval Literature. There are of course many scholars who have learnt Old or Middle English in order to be able to read and enjoy Medieval Literature in its original form; however, this is obviously not possible for everybody. For those who have not learnt Old or Middle English, this problem cannot be overcome by simple translation. There are a number of words that are not translatable into contemporary English, as well as numerous long-forgotten idioms that are hard to translate.

The fact that the majority of Medieval Literature is written in verse only serves to make translation even harder. Both the rhyme and the metre must be considered, and it is almost impossible to have a literal translation of the words whilst also keeping rhyme and metre. Robert Frost once said: “Poetry is what gets lost in translation”, and indeed Yevgeny Yevtushenko said: “Translation is like a woman. If it is beautiful, it is not faithful. If it is faithful, it is most certainly not beautiful.” The inevitable question must then be asked: what is more important, the beauty of the poem, or the accuracy of the translation?

If beauty is more important, then it must be accepted that the exact words of the author are not what is being read; the reader must also accept that they are reading a translator’s own interpretation of the poem, and that they are, in fact, reading the translator’s own work of art. Conversely, if the reader accepts that accuracy is more valuable, then the magnificence and beauty of the poem may be lost, and beauty is, after all, the predominant reason for reading poetry. Furthermore, a literal translation does not allow for techniques like alliteration and rhyme, which help to create the tone and mood of the writing and stress certain words – without the use of rhetorical devices, the poem’s meaning can often be lost. The sound of particular words may help to add a certain mood to the poem, and unless similar sounds can be used (which is unlikely) the mood will be lost. Translators are inevitably faced with a dilemma, and it is up to them to set the balance right between tone, accuracy and beauty. However, it is undeniable that the original work of art can never be replicated exactly in both beauty and meaning; otherwise, there would be nothing remarkable about the work itself.

However, language is not the only difficulty; to fully appreciate Medieval Literature, it must be read and understood in context. C.S. Lewis once pointed out that we must approach Medieval Literature with a deeper understanding of the past in order to fully appreciate the text. He compared a superficial reader to an English tourist who “carries his Englishry abroad with him and brings it home unchanged.” There are many unremarkable aspects of medieval life (pilgrimages, holy martyrs, measuring of time and date by means of reference to the signs of the zodiac) that seem extremely peculiar and strange to the modern reader, and so an effort of understanding is required to fully appreciate their significance. There is also the question of medieval morals and opinions; for example, Chaucer’s Knight is very highly esteemed on account of his taking part in numerous wars throughout Europe. However, this would not necessarily be a reason to respect somebody so highly in modern society. Contemporary values are extremely different from those that feature in medieval literature, and therefore the modern reader might not fully comprehend the meaning of particular stories.

Furthermore, a number of medieval writers (particularly Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales) wrote criticisms of certain sects of society. For instance, Chaucer is indirectly criticising the position of Pardoner in the Church, as he saw this role as a scam and morally wrong. However, there is no contemporary equivalent to this, and so it is hard for a modern reader to appreciate Chaucer’s meaning. Moreover, a number of medieval writers allude to certain people and events that would have been well known at the time; it requires a lot of effort for the modern reader to take all of this in.

Of course, the best approach to reading Medieval Literature is to read the original. However, for those who cannot do this, it is best to read the original accompanied by a translation, with notes from scholars explaining the numerous allusions, or indeed a list of medieval vocabulary. Furthermore, the reading of Medieval Literature is most effective when accompanied by an extensive knowledge of its context and the mores of the time.