Saturday, 29 March 2014

What is rhyme for?

Rhyme is defined by the Collins English Dictionary as the ‘sameness of the final sounds at the ends of lines of verse, or in words’. For example, the word ‘hill’ rhymes with the word ‘still’. There are, of course, many different types of rhymes, including ‘eye rhyme’ (the rhyming of ‘love’ and ‘move’ for example), ‘feminine rhyme’ (the rhyming of ‘hollow’ and ‘follow’ for example), and ‘identical rhyme’ (the rhyming of ‘gun’ and ‘begun’, or ‘sea’ and ‘see’ for instance). Rhyme does not necessarily have to be at the end of lines – when the word at the end of the line rhymes with another word in the same line this is known as ‘internal rhyme’; when Edgar Allan Poe wrote: “Once upon a midnight, dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,” he was making use of internal rhyme. The Chinese Classic of Poetry (circa 10th Century BC) is the earliest example of rhyme, and it was not until the 7th Century AD that rhyme was introduced to Europe. Although there are traces of it in the Bible and the Qur’an, it was not a common feature of European poetry until around the 11th Century.

Rhyme was originally used as a mnemonic device. Before poetry was written down and recorded, the poets themselves had to be able to remember and recite their poetry by heart. The use of rhyme in the poems made it easier for the poets to remember the next line, since they knew how it would sound. This sort of rhyme is used by children and adults alike to remember laws of grammar or the order of the planets, amongst other things. For instance, this mnemonic is used to remember how many days are in each month:

30 days hath September,
April, June, and November. 

All the rest have 31

Except February my dear son.
                 It has 28 and that is fine
                 But in a Leap Year it has 29.

Rhyme has therefore been an integral part of poetry since its very beginnings, and it has grown to become a part of poetic tradition. It is no longer simply used as an aid to memorization, but that is what rhyme was originally for.

Rhyme is also used to improve the sound of poems when read aloud. Rhyme formalizes and establishes a structure to the poem that makes it sound much more aesthetically pleasing, and indeed many ‘poetry purists’ believe that free-verse is incredibly lacking in organisation. Rhyme has the ability to turn simple prose into excitingly lyrical poetry. Moreover, many poems, particularly limericks and other witty forms of verse, wholly rely on the poet’s ability to rhyme certain words with one another. In fact, rhyme often enables the reader to preempt the next line, which makes it all the more amusing when it comes. Consider Nic Aubury’s short poem “Green Fairy Tale”:

             With every glass her eyes looked bluer,
             lips looked redder, hair looked blonder.
             Never was a maxim truer:
             absinthe makes the heart grow fonder.

Without rhyme, the poem would be wholly lacking in its humour and skill. Rhyme also brings a certain authority and gravity to poetry, and it helps to make the imagery and description of the poetry seem all the more powerful. For example, the beautiful imagery of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” is complemented by the prominent rhyme scheme:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
   Down to a sunless sea.

If this poem did not rhyme it would still be a very successful piece of writing; nonetheless, the rhyme certainly improves the poem. Rhyme can also be used to help the audience or the reader of a poem. Rhyme can indicate to the reader which words to stress while reading the poem aloud, and indeed this stress can emphasise a link between certain words. This allows the poet to suggest connections without having to juxtapose the connected words.

Although this may seem to be a cynical response to the question, poets undeniably use rhyme to display their skill. In fact, without rhyme and metre poetry becomes little more than prose separated into different lines. A poet’s adherence to complicated and tricky rhyme schemes allows them to show off and to rise to the challenge of not only conveying their message, but also presenting it in a traditional format. The majority of John Donne’s early poetry was written to please his friends, and so we can assume that his constant use of rhyme was simply to impress. In his poem “The Flea” Donne uses rhyme for just this reason:

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?   
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?  

Thus, rhyme becomes a medium by which poets can flaunt their ability, by staying true to their inspiration while also following strict rules.

Finally, rhyme can be used as a method of conveying a message. For example, if the poet aims to depict an ordered and formal, or even traditional society, they will make use of a very formal and coherent rhyme scheme. If however they wish to show a society in disharmony, they may use a much more complicated, hidden rhyme scheme, or may even neglect rhyme all together. Philip Larkin, in his poem “High Windows” (which discusses liberty and freedom in youth culture), makes use of very light rhyme, and this only serves to emphasise the lack of formality and rules in society. It is worth noting that Larkin was part of “The Movement”, a poetic group who promoted traditional poetry and it’s adherence to metre and rhyme. Larkin’s lack of rhyming therefore contributes to the poem’s overall effect.

There is, of course, no one reason why some poet’s decide to use rhyme and why some do not. It is true that rhyme has become a part of the poetic tradition and that it is used to show the poet’s skill, but these are certainly not the only reasons. Rhyme’s most interesting effect is to convey a message, or indeed to support the poem’s overall meaning. Rhyme achieves this by drawing connections between certain words, by giving the poem a sense of coherence (or indeed incoherence), and finally by improving the sound of a poem, and thus making its descriptive language much more impressive. Rhyme is one of poetry’s tools that allow it to indicate something beyond its words, and indeed a poet’s rhyming of two words can be used to indirectly evoke certain thoughts in the reader.

'Jerusalem' and Contradiction

William Blake’s ‘And did those feet in ancient time’ was converted into a hymn as a patriotic morale-booster during the First World War; the third and fourth stanzas particularly are said to represent traditional nationalist virtues. Blake would be turning in his grave, I assure you.

The poem was originally part of the preface to Blake’s epic ‘Milton’, one of his Prophetic books; the epic was an appraisal of John Milton, the anti-establishment, nonconformist intellectual and poet. Based on the apocryphal story of Jesus’ supposed journeys to England, ‘And did those feet in ancient time’ reads thus:

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England's mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England's pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green & pleasant Land.

The sarcastic questions almost stare you in the face, do they not? Peter Porter, an Australian poet and researcher, put forward the proposition that, rather than being a reference to the Industrial Revolution, these “dark Satanic Mills” are in fact an allusion to the institution of the Church, and that the Mills themselves represent the “great churches”; at the time the Church held a doctrine of conformity to the social order that Blake opposed. However, Blake was unable to oppose the Church as openly as he would have liked, nor could he show his support for the French Revolution for fear of arrest or death. Stonehenge and other megaliths also feature in Blake’s poem ‘Milton’, and so we can assume that Blake is referring to the oppressive power of priesthood and the institutionalisation of religion. In fact, in Blake’s ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ he writes: “a system was formed, which some took advantage of and enslaved the vulgar… thus began priesthood.” The fact that our beloved hymn Jerusalem poses not only as a patriotic anthem, but also as an anthem for the Church, would make Blake shudder, considering he had big issues with organised religion.

Accompanying the poem ‘And did those feet in ancient time’ there was written the following quotation from Numbers, Chapter 11: “Would to God that all the Lord’s people were prophets.” Blake was not referring to the prophets who tell of impending doom or relate the word of God, but rather the prophets who speak out about oppression and tell truth about what they see and perceive. Christopher Rowland, a Professor of Theology at Oxford University, writes:

“Blake wanted to stir people from their intellectual slumbers, and the daily grind of their toil, to see that they were captivated in the grip of a culture which kept them thinking in ways which served the interests of the powerful.”

Blake was promoting an anti-patriotic, individualist movement; he particularly hoped that people would unite in support of the French Revolution. Blake was such a Nonconformist and maverick that he even went so far as to call himself a ‘liberty boy’. His poem ‘The Garden of Love’ depicts a church invading his “Garden of Love”, and he writes, provocatively: “Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds, / And binding with briars, my joys and desires.” His anti-authoritarian stance does suggest that his magnificent poem has long been misunderstood. To claim that the hymn is a nationalist anthem would be utterly farcical; it seems a mistake has been made that cannot be undone.

Despite popular opinion, the poem is not calling people to build a great country, and ‘make England great again’, but it is in fact a critique of the society in which Blake lived. His poem ‘London’ tells how capitalism has ruined England, and depicts the bleak and wretched lives of the poor. Blake had quite radical sympathies for those living in poverty; ‘And did those feet in ancient time’ was in fact calling for people to show compassion, to fight for equality and against the establishment, and thus build a free, equal state.

Robert Bridges, who turned the poem into a hymn, wasn’t the only one who misinterpreted its meaning; the BBC embarrassingly aired a TV Programme called Jerusalem: An Anthem for England, when indeed it is almost the opposite of that. Moreover, public schools throughout the country, including Oundle, have taken to singing it for good-luck before important sports fixtures, no doubt as a nod to traditional and nationalist values. Given Blake’s thinking when he wrote the poem, it is surprising that so many people have been taken in and missed the great irony of “Jerusalem”. Such misunderstood verse is, in my mind, only likely to invite bad luck.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

A More Bitter World (Creative Writing Coursework)

It is a chilly Serbian morning in 1987; shivering, Sasa and Pili are sprawled across the pavement in a small backstreet. It is five a.m. Sasa lights up a cigarette, and exhales the smoke between the glinting stars. He watches it rise and slowly fade into the darkness. The grey graffitied walls clutch the street with a cold indifference. Thump thump thump: the town’s nightclub resonates in the background. The occasional drunken shout echoes down the road, forlornly searching for familiar ears. The two men were tired of Novi Sad; they were tired of being poor; they were tired of life. The worsening political unrest and economic turbulence had rendered them hopelessly jobless. Their families struggled to survive on little or no food each day. The government had no concern for people like Sasa’s parents, who writhed and tussled against the plights of starvation and desperate poverty every day. The once great city of commerce and progression had been reduced to nothing more than a battleground between the wealthy and the hunger-stricken labourers. The rich were ignorant of the country’s discontent. Sasa squirmed in his oppression, and gazed at the stars on that bleakest of nights as if his mind held the key to his escape. That was it. Escape. The redundancy of his situation dawned on him as he realized what his life had become. There was a distinction to be made that he had refused to face until now – he wasn’t living to live, he was living to survive. His mind was away; Pili was describing a girl he’d seen at the club, but Sasa was oblivious. As the moon drifted across the dark sky, he stared unseeingly at the canvas of filth and vandalism that stretched out on the wall before him, buried in his thoughts.

“… Trust me man, all I needed was five more minutes!” Pili glanced at Sasa and noticed he had been talking to himself. “Oi!” Pili shouted. Sasa returned to reality and looked at his friend.

“I wonder what it’s like outside – outside of Novi Sad. I mean, what’s life like outside of Serbia? In America or England, or France or Amsterdam…”

“You’re talking crazy, man! Come on, we gotta go to bed.” Their eyelids drooped and their bodies resembled ragdolls, dangling from their weary heads.

“Can you imagine what it’s like outside of the Eastern Bloc? You know I’ve heard they’ve got pocket telephones… Hey, look at me! Imagine their lives – no repression, hunger, poverty, fear.” Pili’s eyes widened as he contemplated Sasa’s words, dreaming of far away lands and distant countries. “Why don’t we go to Amsterdam? Better yet, why don’t we go to London?” The words seemed to leave Sasa’s mouth by themselves. The two men stared at each other in heavy silence, their minds juggling their animated thoughts.

“Are you drunk?” Pili laughed.


“Are you high?” A large grin plastered his face, eyes wide.







“Now.” And that was it: they were decided. They lolled against the cold stone and continued to lounge on the dusty pavement until their fatigue overwhelmed them and the dawn began to break. The snow had come. Pili rose and purposefully walked across the street to his apartment. When he reached the door he glanced back. Sasa was watching him with a smile.

“I’ll see you in an hour, mate.” Pili waved goodnight, closing the door silently. The dust from the pavement had dirtied Sasa’s hands and the back of his legs. He mindlessly wiped his palms on the front of his trousers as he got up and stumbled down the road in a wistful daze. His thoughts were cloaked from the physical world by the darkness of the shadowed street. He felt safer in the dark. The snow began to furnish the ground with a luminous white carpet as he reached his block; he stepped inside and climbed the stairs towards his flat. In complete silence, he opened the door to the communal bedroom, determined not to wake his parents. They would be leaving for work within the hour, and they needed all the sleep they could get. His mouth was parched; he could still taste the alcohol on the back of his tongue. His body was craving water, but he knew that he would have to wait until tomorrow to quench his thirst: the taps froze over on cold nights like tonight. The cramped room was pitch black, and he squinted in the gloom to make out the figures of his brothers pressed to the floor. Stepping over their motionless bodies, he approached his corner of the room. His family’s breathing soothed his mind. For now, while they slept, they were dreaming. And while they dreamt, they were at peace, happy.

Sasa hurriedly stuffed his few possessions into a flimsy rucksack. He felt something he had never known before: hope. World weary as he was, even as he lay down on his mattress and shut his eyes he knew he would not be able to sleep. He lay on his back, tracing the cracks in the ceiling while his heart pulsed with untamed and unknown emotions. The generator’s low and steady murmur, accompanied by his brothers’ snoring, battled the silence of the otherwise quiet apartment. As he watched a rat scurry silently across the floor, his confident thoughts turned to anger. What had his family done to deserve such vicissitudes? His parents were paid next to nothing for their endless shifts at the factory, and Sasa’s brothers were far too young for manual labour. He had spent weeks searching for a job, but nobody wanted an amateur, unskilled worker. He knew he had to leave. He had to get out of Novi Sad, if only just to help his family. He did not want his brothers living in a hostile, dangerous environment, and that is precisely what Novi Sad had become. When he closed his eyes, he could hardly open them in a more bitter world.

One of the lumps on the ground began to turn into a person as his father stood up, stretching his arms and legs. His eyes glinted as he mechanically dressed himself. Sasa moved on his knees towards his mother, careful to be as quiet as possible. She was sitting up on her mattress, shivering from the chill of a new day.

“Mother,” Sasa whispered, moving towards her. He had not considered what she might say. “Mama, I’ve decided to go to London.”


“Pili and I, we’re going to England.” He said, his voice growing louder in his excitement. “I’ll be gone no longer than two weeks, I promise!” His mother’s face fell. In the back of his mind, he knew that he would not see his mother again for a long time. She knew it too. “Only two weeks, mama, I swear.” She began to voice her objections. “I have to go, mama.” Although she could not consent, she had to accept that his mind was made up. “I’ll write to you,” he promised, as he embraced her frail, shivering body. The darkness hid her face, but he knew that she was crying. He could hear her tears dripping onto the floor as he glanced at his watch: 6:30 a.m. He kissed his mother goodbye and, rising, he whispered goodbye to his father, who had overheard their conversation. Fully clothed and with his entire life on his back, he said his last farewell to the still-slumbering apartment.

He hopped down the stairs with a new energy in his step. Stepping outside into the cold, he glanced across the street; Pili stood leaning against the opposite wall, his ragged clothes hanging from his body like a flag draped across a coffin. His feeble backpack sagged over his left shoulder; he grinned, but Sasa could tell he was anxious, nervous, worried. They both were. The two men walked down the street in the morning light to a rundown cafĂ© where they assembled their paltry collection of worldly possessions. They had no visas, no passports, next to no money, and a change of clothes each; other than that, just hope, and trust in each other. They did not know how, they did not really know why. They just knew that they were leaving. And that is how their journey began. To this day, it hasn’t truly finished.

Sasa’s mother rings him up every year on his birthday and says the same thing:

“Sasa, when are those two weeks going to be over?” Even now, over one thousand weeks later, Sasa gives the same answer: “Soon!” The only difference is that the tone has changed and the anxiety has gone. Sasa is now a successful London businessman with a wife and two delightful boys. The journey that began so tentatively and desperately is now complete. Sasa overcame his struggles. Whatever life had thrown at him, he had not given up.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Ambition and Failure in Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus"

Christopher Marlowe’s most famous play, Dr Faustus, relates the tale of a man who sells his soul to the devil. In exchange for his soul, Faustus is granted the service of one of Lucifer’s devils, Mephostophilis, for 24 years. After that time is up, Faustus is condemned to eternal damnation.

In the play’s first few scenes Faustus outlines his reasons for wanting these magical powers. He explains his desire to learn the intricacies of the world and the universe, requesting a book containing “all characters of planets of the heavens” and “all plants, herbs, and trees that grow upon the earth,” all of which Mephostophilis is able to provide. Faustus’s scholarly ambition seems to the audience to be admirable and even commendable, and the sincerity of these wishes is reinforced by the eloquence of his earlier soliloquies. However, he also seems to be perpetually concerned with the power and authority he can gain through his new magical pursuits; for instance, he says: “By him [Mephostophilis] I’ll be great emperor of the world…” Although the audience is somewhat inspired by his hopes to “make a bridge thorough the moving air…” and to “join the hills that bind the Afric shore,” his ambitious schemes are wholly motivated by a desire for power, and indeed he tells the audience: “And make that country [Afric] continent to Spain, / And both contributory to my crown…” Moreover, Faustus seems to revel in the authority of “that damned art” and says:

“Letting him [i.e. himself] live in all voluptuousness,
Having thee ever to attend on me,
To give me whatsoever I demand…”

Faustus appears to be driven to sign the contract by his egocentric and selfish wish for personal power.

Faustus’s horizons seem to narrow even more once he has been granted his magical powers. He suddenly loses all his ambition to change the world for the better and to obtain those things that he most desires. Instead, he turns to making practical jokes on the fools of the play, including the Clown [Robin], the Horse-courser, Carter, and Dick. He even goes so far as to free one of the Pope’s prisoners, resulting in two innocent cardinals being sent to the dungeon. Although these tricks are amusing for the audience, Faustus seems to be using what he calls his “wit” for entirely the wrong reasons. He puts his powers to a particularly unworthy ends in Scene XII when he produces horns on Benvolio’s head, motivated by nothing other than spite. Faustus uses his unlimited power for his own amusement and to deceive others, rather than to achieve any respectable end. His power has not turned him into a wicked and evil magician, but rather it has turned his great ambitions into petty amusements and delights.

Faustus also uses his powers to impress. We see him presenting the Duke and Duchess of Vanholt with “pleasant sights” that “so delighted” them. He is determined to receive their praise and says: “Madam, I will do more than this for your content.” He continues to call the two of them “your Grace” or “my good lord”, even though he is the most powerful man in the world. The audience is bemused; why is Faustus seeking the praise of lowly dukes and duchesses when he could be “great emperor of the world”? He has lost his vision entirely, and his unlimited power has rendered him utterly lost and confused as to what to do with it. Indeed, Lord Acton famously said: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We see this demonstrated early on in the play when Faustus orders Mephostophilis to fetch him a wife. After Mephostophilis has warned him against having a wife, Faustus changes his mind and says: “No, I’ll no wife.” He is entirely unsure of what he really wants with his powers, and therefore he is content with using them for unworthy ends. Moreover, the way in which Faustus refers to himself in the third person may suggest his own lack of power and autonomy. He is under the control of some other force, and this could explain his loss of ambition.

When Faustus summons “Sweet Helen” of Troy she is depicted sucking his soul from his body. In this way, Faustus is being tricked by his own art. This is reinforced by Mephostophilis when he says: “His store of pleasures must be sauc’d with pain.” Although Faustus has unlimited power, he can never escape the pact he made with the devil. His unlimited power has left him as nothing more than “a man condemned to die”. Because of his rejection of God and God’s salvation, and because of his hardened heart and unwillingness to repent, he is condemned to mediocrity. He is lost in his unlimited power, and so his awe-inspiring plans become trivial games and a hunger for praise; Marlowe is suggesting that power takes away all vision and ambition. He seems to have wasted his magical gifts, and that is perhaps why we pity him at the end of the play. He knew what he was doing when he made the pact, and he is entirely to blame; however, the audience can’t help sympathising with Faustus. Despite his selfish motivations and spiteful tricks, the audience still likes him. Perhaps it is because he never became “great emperor of the world” that we sympathise with him. It is because his time runs out so fast, and because he never really achieves anything, that we pity him in his eternal damnation.

Faustus is “born of parents base of stock”. Could Marlowe’s play be a warning to the middle-classes about the advancement of commoners through education? Many people believe that the play is simply suggesting that those of humble beginnings have no right to have such power and ask such questions, and they suggest that this is the reason for Faustus’s inevitable downfall. Was Marlowe trying to praise his superiors by implying that such power only belongs to them?

Friday, 14 March 2014

Is the problem of evil fatal to traditional theism?

It would be a contradiction in terms to say that the problem of evil, logical or evidential, is fatal to traditional theism, since we know that people throughout the world still believe in the classical theistic God. In fact Nelson Pike asserted that ‘when the existence of God is accepted prior to any rational consideration of the status of evil in the world, the traditional problem of evil reduces to a non-critical perplexity of relatively minor importance.’

The problem of evil was first constructed by the Greek philosopher Epicurus, and is an argument that seeks to debunk the classical God of Theism. Because of its logical consistency and a posteriori evidence, the problem of evil has proved hard to defeat. However, it is by no means fatal to traditional theism. There are two significant weaknesses of the problem of evil – one, the assumption that evil exists; two, the assumption that evil is fundamentally bad.

The Abrahamic religions share the belief in an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent entity known as God; any belief in Cosmic Dualism is rejected. Aquinas’ Third Way, based on the principle that nothing comes ex nihilo, states that God exists as a creator. The theistic God is also considered to be an immanent entity concerned with the development of the universe and humanity. If we accept that God’s characteristics result in his willingness and ability to prevent evil, then, because we experience evil in our lives, we are confronted with an inconsistent triad. Epicurus formulated his argument thus:

‘Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?’

David Hume shows his support for the logical problem of evil in a case against the teleological argument. Hume even described it as “The Rock of Atheism”. It threatens the belief in the theistic God by questioning his intrinsic nature.

The problem of evil is only a problem if we know for certain that evil exists in the world as its own entity. St Augustine of Hippo argued that the world was created good, citing Genesis 1:31: ‘God saw all that he had made, and behold it was very good.’ He therefore argued that the genesis of the world contained no evil, and that evil simply stems from a privatio boni.  Augustine said that ‘evil is not a substance’, and that the lack of good in our world was caused by Adam and Eve’s ‘first disobedience’. He said that The Fall disrupted the order of the universe, and that this disharmony caused the privation of the good. By saying this, Augustine is removing all blame from God, as he has not created any evil; thus, the problem of evil is not necessarily fatal, if the existence of evil is not certain.

However, many critics of Augustine would question why God would allow a privation of the good in the universe. Surely upon creation the omniscient God knew the inevitability of The Fall and the results of disharmony (i.e. suffering). Does this not, therefore, support the problem of evil’s proposition that the theistic God is malevolent rather than benevolent? F.D.E Schleiermacher said that God was responsible for this lack of good, and for the suffering that stems from it. He also said that it was a logical absurdity to say that a perfect world is lacking in goodness. Moreover, Calvin said that if humans are predetermined by God (because he is omniscient) they cannot be held accountable for The Fall, and so God is still to blame for evil.

Nonetheless, the existence of evil is still questionable. The Privation of the Good links closely to Plato’s Aesthetic Defence, which greatly influenced Augustine. Plato, as a dualist, believed that we have a limited perspective, like the prisoners of his cave; Augustine draws on this idea, stating that only God, due to his omniscience, knows what is good and what is evil. He says that we see some things to be evil (e.g. a scorpion’s sting), which may actually be good (i.e. for the scorpion to survive). Augustine writes: ‘All these things… cannot be called evil: for all such things as far as they exist, must have their existence from the most high God, for as far as they exist they are good.’ Augustine would therefore argue that the suffering we experience in the universe is not real, and that we do not have a true perspective of reality. Consequently, this would justify God in the face of evil.

Alvin Platinga states that the proper theistic rebuttal to the problem is not to argue that all evil is justified, but to argue that it is logically possible that there is a reason for God’s permission of what we perceive to be evil. Platinga, Pike, Yandell, Mavrodes and others insist that these ‘greater goods’ of evil don’t need to be true, but that they need to be possible. One of the significant flaws of the problem of evil is its assumption that suffering is necessarily bad. Irenaeus says that God is responsible for evil in the world, but that it is teleologically good; this is known as the belief in ‘necessary evil’. John Hick supported this idea and referred to the world as a ‘vale of soul-making’ (Keats). Hick writes: ‘For moral and spiritual growth come through response to challenges.’ He says that evil is necessary to allow humans to develop, and that we were ‘made in God’s image in order to become his likeness’. A more modern response to the problem is that of Barry L. Whitney, outlined in his essay An Aesthetic Solution to the Problem of Evil: ‘Evil, given by God to secure good ends, by whatever means (punishments, tests of faith, discipline, etc.), would no longer be genuinely evil.’ This justifies the existence of evil in our world, and so the problem is not fatal to traditional theism.

In response, many people have adopted Mackie’s line of argument and questioned why God couldn’t create a ‘vale of soul-making’ without evil. Surely as an omnipotent being he could do this? Moreover, scholars have claimed that the belief in necessary evil gives no comfort to those experiencing extreme suffering. Richard Swinburne notes that ‘the crux of the problem of evil… is not the fact of evil or the kinds of evil… it is the quantity of evil.’ Similarly, Dostoevsky questions whether God can justify the extreme evil in the world. Even if our eschatological fulfilment is eternal and glorious, does this justify the suffering of innocent children?

Many Christians, however, would argue against this response. They would claim that the suffering experienced in the world is insignificant compared to the fulfilment we will experience in Heaven. Religious scripture supports this belief; in Matthew 5, the eight Beatitudes explain that those who experience pain on earth will receive salvation in heaven. This belief in a greater good in heaven is supported by Roderick Chisholm:

‘If the evil in the world is defeated and contained in a larger whole that is absolutely good, one should rather say that, if God had been able and unwilling to create such evil then he would be malevolent.’

This approach can also be used for the argument of soul-making. Others might argue that evil is justified by the gift of free will. Augustine and Irenaeus both argue that free will is good, and that evil and our concupiscence are by-products of our autonomy. Evil is, therefore, not necessarily bad. Consequently, the suffering of the world is not considered a valid argument, and the problem of evil does not defeat belief in God.

Overall, the problem of evil is significantly flawed. Its main fault is that it relies on the premise that evil exists in the world, and that it is necessarily a bad thing. The problem also relies on our human senses, which cannot be trusted because of the subjective nature of human experience. Moreover, it doesn’t take into account the benefits of suffering, like a father’s punishing his child. Its flaws, therefore, render it a weak argument, and one can conclude that it is not fatal to traditional theism.

Monday, 10 March 2014

William Blake as a 'man of ideas'

The Romantic Movement came to prominence towards the end of the 18th Century. The ‘Big Six’ were a group of Romantic poets who wrote in reaction to the Enlightenment ideals of the day, and indeed they challenged the imposition of science upon nature by the likes of Isaac Newton. The Romantics saw themselves as freethinking intellectuals, and William Blake was at the forefront of this movement. Blake was raised in London by his somewhat dissenting family who belonged to the Moravian Church, a Protestant denomination. Not only was he a poet, but he was also a painter and a printmaker. He was known at the time for his particularly idiosyncratic and individual beliefs, and indeed the 19th Century scholar William Rossetti (editor of The Germ literary magazine) described him as a “glorious luminary” and “a man not forestalled by predecessors, nor to be classed with contemporaries, nor to be replaced by known or readily surmisable successors”.

Blake, despite his devout commitment to Christianity and his reverence of the Bible, challenged the institutionalisation of the Church. He hated any kind of organised religion. Blake opposed the Church’s doctrine of conformity to social order, and indeed his poem “The Garden of Love” depicts a Chapel with the words “Thou shalt not” above the door. He goes on to write: “And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds, / And binding with briars, my joys & desires.” He loathed the restrictions of organised religion and conformism. His main qualm was the fact that religion suppressed the natural desires of humanity. In “A Vision of the Last Judgement” Blake writes:  

“Men are admitted into Heaven not because they have curbed and governd their Passions or have No Passions but because they have Cultivated their Understandings. The Treasures of Heaven are not Negations of Passion…”

His anger at the Church for suppressing sexuality and the pursuit of joy features in a vast amount of his poetry. In “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” he writes: “Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity. / He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.” In “London” he says that “Every blackening church appals.” At the time, his opposition to the Church’s teachings was considered extremely radical and unorthodox.

Not only did Blake resist certain aspects of Church teaching, he even designed his own mythology. In his prophetic books (culminated by his epic “Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion”) he describes characters such as “Urizen” and “Luvah”. Rather than clashing with or contradicting Christianity, he saw these figures as part of the religion. Blake, particularly in his later life, had frequent and often religious apparitions. In a letter to William Hayley, he wrote:

“Thirteen years ago I lost a brother, and with his spirit I converse daily and hourly in the spirit, and see him in my remembrance, in the region of my imagination. I hear his advice, and even now write from his dictate.

He had these visions from a very early age, and indeed he is said, at the age of four, to have seen God, and later on in his life he claimed to have seen “a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars”. Whether these visions were simply the product of a lively imagination or not, they had a profound effect on not only his poetry, but also his etching. For instance, one of his images depicts the mythological god “Urizen” praying before the world he has just created. These are not the imaginings of an unquestioning traditionalist; these are the ideas of a freethinking individual.

Blake did not only speak out about religion: he also opposed the Industrial Revolution, which he saw as an invasion of nature and the pastoral, bucolic English countryside. In his poem “And did those feet in ancient time” Blake describes “the dark Satanic Mills” which could represent the industrialisation of England and the invasion of our country’s idyllic scenery. Blake was not the only Romantic to fear nature’s demise due to the development of technology: in his poem “The Tables Turned” Wordsworth writes:

“Let Nature be your Teacher
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:--
We murder to dissect.”

Blake also saw nature as a teacher, and he strived to protect it from advances in technology. Moreover, his work was a response to the discoveries of the Enlightenment, particularly the rationalisation of nature by the likes of Newton. In one of his most famous etchings, “Newton”, he shows his opposition to Naturalism by depicting Newton using a compass to write on a scroll that seems to project from his own head. Blake also exhibits this belief in his poem “Jerusalem” in which he writes:

I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe
And there behold the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire
Washd by the Water-wheels of Newton. black the cloth
In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation; cruel Works
Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic
Moving by compulsion each other: not as those in Eden: which
Wheel within Wheel in freedom revolve in harmony & peace.

He did not view nature as scientific in any way, but rather he saw it as an entity that worked both aesthetically and spiritually.

Blake was also a part of what is known as the “free-love” movement, which believed that love and marriage should have all restrictions removed. It supported the removal of limitations on homosexuality, promiscuity, prostitution and adultery. Blake saw the Church’s institution of marriage as a sort of slavery:

“Till she who burns with youth, and knows no fixed lot, is bound
In spells of law to one she loathes? and must she drag the chain
Of life in weary lust?” (“Visions”)

Blake’s wife, Catherine, was unable to bear children, and this could have motivated his attitude. He even wrote a poem entitled “Why should I be bound to thee, O my lovely Myrtle-tree?” which promoted the beliefs of sexual libertarianism. Again, this was a somewhat avant-garde belief for a Christian in the 19th Century to have. This reiterates the fact that William Blake was much more than a poet, and that he was indeed a “man of ideas”.

Blake’s poetry also depicts the harsh lives of the poor, and many of his poems seem to have an anti-Capitalist stance. For instance, in his poem “London” he describes “each chartered street” and the “marks of woe” upon the faces of the poor and the chimney sweeps. Moreover, a number of his poems speak out about slavery and the repression of certain races. In his poem “The Little Black Boy” Blake explains that both divine love and revelation transcend the limitations of race and ancestry. He writes: “For when our souls [the soul of the black boy and the soul of the white boy] have learn’d the heat to bear / The cloud [of race] will vanish we shall hear his voice.” He did not agree with the belief that certain races were better than others, nor did he believe that the white race was more favoured by God or any other divine power. In his eyes, all were equal, and this shows that he was a freethinking and compassionate individual.

The Romantics, Blake particularly, did not only write about nature or the transience of life; rather they discussed relevant political ideals and beliefs, as well as commenting on the church and many other accepted institutions. Blake’s ideas were very progressive for his time; he was, therefore, a man of ideas who presented his ideas through the medium of verse.