Saturday, 31 December 2016

The Poetic Style of Edward Thomas

Ted Hughes once described the poet Edward Thomas as ‘the father of us all’. Due to the overwhelming emphasis placed on the role of ‘modernism’ in twentieth century poetry, this claim may seem surprising. When we think of the most influential ‘modern’ texts we are perhaps more likely to think of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Ezra Pound’s Cantos than of Thomas’s pastoral English lyrics. And yet, there really are few poets who have influenced contemporary poetry more than Thomas has – Auden, Larkin, Hughes and many others have admitted to his influence. In fact, he is so influential that various collections of poetry have been put together by poets wishing to celebrate Thomas’s impact on their verse. The aspect of Thomas’s poetry that these writers refer to most frequently is his conversational style and loose rhythm, both of which were relatively innovative in the early twentieth century but are commonplace now. The meditative colloquialism of Thomas’s verse lends itself to the exploration of uncertainties and ambiguities, a recurring theme in his poems and indeed in modern literature in general. But this colloquial style does not hamper the musical cadences of Thomas’s verse, often overlooked by critics stressing his speech-like intonations. It is perhaps in this sense that Thomas is most influential: in combining a conversational and meditative style with a richly rhythmical musicality.

Edward Thomas and Robert Frost spent about a year together over 1913-14. During that time, Frost encouraged Thomas to start writing his own verse and arguably influenced Thomas’s views on poetic style. Frost’s mantra that ‘a poet needs to capture the spoken word’ is clear not just in Thomas’s verse but also in his prose: he once said he wanted to ‘wring all the necks of my rhetoric’ and purge his prose writing of all mannerisms. In his famous poem ‘Adlestrop’, this colloquialism and ambition towards the ‘spoken word’ is clear. The poem opens with the words ‘Yes. I remember Adlestrop –’ as if Thomas is in the middle of a conversation or answering a question. In the poem, there are very few ‘poetic’ terms (apart from the word ‘whit’) and obscurities, reflecting Thomas’s Wordsworthian commitment to poetry for the common man. Similarly, the poem ‘But these things also’, opening as it does with a conjunction, suggests it is some sort of response to an unidentified interlocutor, again adding to the sense of a relaxed, conversational style which draws us into the poem. This poetic intimacy felt by the reader is enhanced by Thomas’s use of relatively loose metres – ‘Adlestop’ is written in iambic tetrameter, but the first line begins with a trochaic foot (‘Yes. I…’) and the third line has nine syllables. These are just two example of the numerous metrical variations in Thomas’s verse. His rhymes vary, too – in ‘Gone, Gone Again’ his rhyme scheme flits from ABCB to AABC to ABCA. Moreover, his rhymes are often, in the words of Walter De La Mare, the ‘faintest of echoes’ – in the aforementioned poem, he rhymes ‘dead’ with ‘interested’ and ‘sun’ with ‘one’. This loose formality not only shows how innovative Thomas was in his time, but it also augments the colloquial style of his verse, drawing the reader in with its speech-like appearance. As Edgell Rickword wrote in the Daily Herald, ‘To read him is like listening to a friend in the completest intimacy…’

Directly connected to this aspect of Thomas’s style is the reflective nature of his verse. ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ is a good example of this. Through the repeated use of enjambment (‘we two walked / Slowly’, ‘started / Again’, and ‘parted / Each night’), we get the sense of a fluidity of thought. It is as if Thomas is letting his thoughts run over the lines in speech-like cadences as he walks with his companion, his words reflecting what Newlyn calls ‘the momentary lulls that are part of companionable walking and talking.’ This may also be clear in Thomas’s use of repetition. In ‘Old Man’, for example, certain words are repeated, perhaps to suggest an intensifying rumination. Thomas writes:

the names
Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is:
At least, what that is clings not to the names
In spite of time. And yet I like the names.

The repetition of the word ‘names’ seems unnecessary here, possibly suggesting that Thomas is coming to terms with his own mind and organizing his thoughts. Perhaps, too, as J.P. Ward argues, these repeats imply the limitations of thought and of the human mind. Thomas also asks various questions in his verse, demonstrating the uncertainty of his contemplations. For example, in ‘The Unknown Bird’ Thomas asks ‘Was it but four years / Ago? or five?’ He goes on to say: ‘But I cannot tell / If truly never anything but fair / The days were when he sang, as now they seem.’ This questioning and sense of ambiguity clearly influenced Philip Larkin who, in his poem ‘Dockery and Son’, asks questions like ‘… did he get his son / At nineteen, twenty?’ In Larkin’s ‘Mr Bleaney’ a similar uncertainty manifests itself in the poem’s final words ‘I don’t know.’ Wells is right, then, when he suggests that Thomas has a ‘scrupulous inability… to conceal uncertainty.’ (65) It runs throughout his poetry, demonstrating how his verse stems from contemplation rather than from sheer energy of insight.’ (De La Mare) So what effect does this colloquial and contemplative style have on our reading of Thomas’s verse? Well, to some extent it brings the poet down to our level – he is not preaching to us in aloof terms or handing us fully-formed theories on life or the mind. He draws us in with his lack of posturing. As Motion argues, through his ‘sympathetic quiet-speaking’ and his emphasis on uncertainty, he creates ‘poems which appear to think aloud rather than be a means of delivering finished thoughts’. We feel directly the personality of the poet – his questionings, his anxieties, the very movement of his thoughts.

But this relaxed and ‘quiet-speaking’ style does not necessarily mean that Thomas’s verse is somehow ‘unpoetic’. True, his poetry is very different from that of Tennyson, for example, but it is still beautifully lyrical and musical. As Newlyn argues, ‘Thomas had a natural, un-taught musicality, which came from his love of ballads, folk songs, and English poetry.’ In fact, he was so infatuated by folk tradition and ballads that, in 1907, he compiled The Pocket Book of Poems and Songs for the Open Air, a collection of ballads, folk-songs, and contemporary poetry. This infatuation clearly fed into his verse: ‘Will You Come?’, for example, is ballad-like in its repetitions and quick rhythms, and his poems are full of harmonious lines, like the ending of ‘November’ (‘Renounce all brightness to the skies’) with its perfect metre and echoing assonance and sibilance. Given the influence of song on Thomas’s poetry, it’s no wonder that 19 of his poems were set to music by Gloucestershire composer Ivor Gurney (his rendition of ‘Snow’ is particularly poignant). A quick look at Thomas’s prose supports this view of his melodic writing style. In The Woodland Life (1897), Thomas describes how the ‘robins rustle gently and fly a yard or two, or a blackbird blusters out’. The alliteration, along with the trochaic rhythm of ‘robins rustle gently’, is prophetic of Thomas’s conversion into a poet.

The ending of ‘Adlestrop’ is similarly rhythmic. As John Bayley explains, the third and fourth stanzas abandon ‘the short choppy sentence structure of the first two’ developing into more flowing, effortless lines of iambic tetrameter. This fluidity is most obvious in the line ‘No whit less still and lonely fair’, which with its repeated ‘l’ and ‘o’ sounds seems to roll off the tongue with ease. In the final stanza, Thomas describes how ‘for that minute a blackbird sang / Close by,’ and then the poem cinematically zooms out to take in ‘all the birds / Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.’ This echoing final line, referring to specific places Thomas knew well, carries with it a subtle sense of nostalgia. The whole stanza does, in fact, particularly with the phrase ‘for that minute’, immediately suggesting the transiency of human experience. Perhaps, too, the words ‘mistier’ and ‘farther’ suggest not only a physical distance but also a temporal distance. This uneventful train journey took place about a month before the First World War began, but Thomas only started writing poetry about five months later, once the war had begun, so possibly this sense of nostalgia is one of anxiety that ‘This England’ may be destroyed by the war. After all, when he was asked why he had become a soldier, he is said to have picked up a handful of English soil and said ‘Literally, for this’. Just as Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ expresses a fear that there may not be ‘Beauty yet to find’ and there may not be ‘honey still for tea’ in the village of his childhood, so ‘Adlestrop’ captures a single moment of quietness and of calm before the ‘Guns of August’ wrought havoc across Europe. Like Larkin, Thomas worried that there would be ‘Never such innocence again’. As Andrew Motion argues, ‘Behind every line [of Thomas’s poetry], whether mentioned or not, lies imminent danger and disruption.’

Though Thomas did employ the occasional Georgian inversion in his poetry (‘Women he liked, did shovel-bearded Bob…’ or ‘Fast beat / My heart’), it would be hard to argue that he was not innovative for his time. As David Gervais put it, he should be read as a modern poet rather than as a revisionist Georgian. His style is perhaps the most distinctly modern aspect of his work – his reconciling of the speaking voice with traditional forms, whilst also allowing for bursts of lyrical vitality. But it’s also important to note his modern sensibility – throughout his poetry, Thomas emphasizes his sense of solitude and loneliness, so much so that J.P. Ward has referred to him as an early existentialist. In fact, various comparisons could be drawn between Thomas the poet and J. Alfred Prufrock, the bundle of inhibitions in Eliot’s eponymous poem. Likewise, the words ‘I should be glad of another death’ (Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’) could really have come from either poet’s pen, which goes to show how modern Thomas really was, in content as well as style. But it’s not as if Thomas was trying to break down barriers, to ‘Make it new’. His close friend and fellow poet Walter De La Mare summarized Thomas’s poetry best when he said: ‘His chief desire was to express himself and his own truth – and therefore life and humanity…’ Thomas, with his thorough knowledge of contemporary poetry and poetic criticism, with his history of depression and anxieties about his turbulent marriage, and most importantly, with his love of nature and his fear of its war-time destruction, was bound to write great poetry. Perhaps if he had not died in Arras, and if he had kept writing years after, we would now see Thomas as the greatest of all the twentieth century poets.

Friday, 30 December 2016

The Portrayal of Marriage in George Eliot’s 'Middlemarch'

Throughout history, marriage has been central to the lives of both men and women – from the Wife of Bath’s Prologue in Chaucer’s Tales to Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, the question of matrimony has always been a pervasive theme in the trajectory of literature. It is no surprise, then, that marriage is the most ubiquitous subject of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, with five marriages taking place during the novel and other relationships being analysed. But whilst many female novelists at the time would use marriage to bring their novels to joyful conclusions – Austen’s Emma and Bronte’s Jane Eyre are clear examples – Eliot was more interested in exploring the realities of matrimonial life. In so doing, Eliot distanced herself from the tropes of conventional romance derided in her essay, Silly Novels by Lady Novelists. Eliot opposed the falsely-romantic and idealized view of life and of love, and so her novels adopt a realist approach to nuptial union. Her protagonists do not always end their trials and tribulations ‘with a complexion more blooming and locks more redundant than ever’. This essay shall discuss the marriages of Rosamond and Dorothea to show how Eliot not only rejects idealistic views of marriage and of femininity, but also how she criticises marital conventions in a patriarchal and class-obsessed society.

The marriage between Rosamond and Lydgate exemplifies the problems caused by ideals of romance and femininity. Lydgate wants a wife with ‘that feminine radiance, that distinctive womanhood which must be classed with flowers and music.’ This description embodies the conventional model of womanly beauty, and so we see how Lydgate has been manipulated by ideals, leading him to choose a wife for the wrong reasons. It is no wonder, though, that having adopted this interpretation of femininity, Lydgate falls for Rosamond. Owing to her education at Mrs Lemon’s school, Rosamond represents the supposedly perfect lady: she has ‘excellent taste in costume’ and a ‘nymph-like figure’ accompanied by ‘pure blondness’. Lydgate has been deceived into believing that Rosamond would be the best wife for him, simply because she fulfils a societal stereotype, rather than because her personality suits his. But Rosamond is also deceived by ideals and conventions – she is obsessed with appearances, and she arguably chooses her husband because of his aristocratic connections. In fact, she is so concerned with impressing Lydgate’s upper-class relatives that she wants him to get a ‘first-rate position elsewhere than in Middlemarch’ so that they are not shocked by her family. Again, this idea of marrying into the aristocracy is typical of ‘silly novels’, which have clearly influenced Rosamond. Hence, she estimates her interaction with Lydgate as ‘the opening incidents of a preconceived romance’.

Despite the fact that, according to the narrator, ‘Each lived in a world of which the other knew nothing,’ and even though she has only known him ‘through the brief entrances and exits of a few imaginative weeks called courtship’, Rosamond convinces herself that meeting Lydgate is ‘the great epoch of her life’. Because of the brevity of their acquaintance, and because they are misled by ideals of femininity and of love, their marriage fails. They do not actually know each other (Rosamond is ‘by nature an actress of parts’), so Lydgate is forced to admit that ‘the tender devotedness and docile adoration of the ideal wife must be renounced, and life must be taken up on a lower stage of expectation.’ Society, along with the ‘Many-volumed romances of chivalry’, has created false ideals, and both Rosamond and Lydgate suffer for it. Their marriage is rife with conflict, with neither husband nor wife accepting the judgements of the other, leading to a stale-mate. Rosamond is not the ‘docile’ or ‘devoted’ wife that Lydgate desired, and she even begins to think that ‘if she had known how Lydgate would behave, she would never have married him.’ It’s clear, then, that Lydgate and Rosamond, conditioned as they have been by society, married for the wrong reasons, and so they writhe under the failure of ideals and conventions.

Dorothea’s marriage to Casaubon is similarly driven by dishonest ideals and flawed conventions. Of course, neither Dorothea nor Casaubon resemble the heroine or hero of a Victorian romance novel. And yet, both still cling to certain ideals of femininity, concerned not so much with beauty or taste, but with the patriarchal stereotype of submissive women (which Lydgate also seems to uphold). Casaubon thinks that Dorothea ‘might really be such a helpmate to him as would enable him to dispense with a hired secretary’, showing the lack of equality in his marital expectations. Dorothea, though ambitious in what Rosemary Ashton calls her ‘idealistic attempt to find a role’, feels similarly. She finds her role in the vocation of wife and, in the words of Cara Weber, ‘internalises the ideal of wifely duty’. Hence, she often compares her ideal relationship to that between a father and daughter. She wishes for the ‘freedom of voluntary submission to a guide who would take her along the grandest path.’ This ideal of wifely duty, combined with her Theresa-like ‘passionate, ideal nature’ which ‘demanded an epic life’, leads her to marrying Casaubon, with whom she is utterly incompatible. We only have to compare the speech of the two to see how very different they are. Derek Oldfield argues that, whilst Casaubon’s speech is characterised by intricate constructions and subordinate clauses (as in his proposal letter), Dorothea’s speech is constituted of simple sentences and childish exclamations (“Oh, how happy!” she says to her uncle).

Perhaps Dorothea thinks that, in helping Casaubon with his ‘Key to all Mythologies’, she will achieve the ‘epic life’ she so desires, cultivating her intelligence towards some higher end. But there is a tension here: Dorothea’s energetic personality is surely incompatible with her religious commitment to subservience, arguably influenced by the inequality of Victorian society. She has attempted to conform to a stereotypical role she simply cannot play. This is why ‘the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband’s mind’ become ‘anterooms and winding passages’ leading ‘nowhither.’ The metaphorical ‘anterooms and winding passages’ seem an apt description of her married life, trapped as she is in Casaubon’s ‘small windowed and melancholy-looking’ abode. In this sense, her confession to Celia that she is “rather short-sighted” is symbolic of her illusions about the virtues of marrying a secluded old man. It is when she is in Rome, confronted by the ‘ruins and basilicas’ that she realises her mistake. Rather than being charmed by the city’s antique beauty, she is shocked by a ‘vast wreck of ambitious ideals’ and ‘a glut of confused ideas’. Here she comprehends the foolishness of her marriage with Casaubon and her desire to be a submissive wife – her marriage is a ‘wreck of ambitious ideals’. Things worsen when she returns to Middlemarch from her lonely honeymoon only to be even more separated from her husband: they inhabit different spheres within the house, Casaubon’s domain being his library, Dorothea’s being her blue-green boudoir. This separation arguably reflects the 19th Century distinction between masculine and feminine spheres, which Dorothea fights against in other ways (planning housing and trying to set up the hospital).

The other problem in the Dorothea-Casaubon marriage is that, as with Lydgate and Rosamond, their courtship is extremely short. Dorothea meets Casaubon in chapter two, and after ‘three more conversations with him,’ she is ‘convinced that her first impressions had been just.’ Dorothea receives Casaubon’s engagement letter in chapter five, and they are married five chapters later. As Bernard Paris argues, ‘Dorothea is a victim of the conditions of civilised courtship, which do not allow the parties to gain much knowledge of each other.’ And so we see again how dangerous these conventions can be. It is because they hardly know each other that they fail to trust one another properly – hence Casaubon’s ‘disgust and suspicion’ about Ladislaw. Moreover, their lack of closeness as a couple is evident throughout (‘She was as blind to his inward troubles as he to hers’), especially when compared to the Garth relationship, who are touchingly communicative – Caleb’s habit is to ‘take no important step without consulting Susan’. And so, Eliot is not just pointing out the failings of ideals and feminine stereotypes – she also condemns the brevity of modern courtship, since it deceives expectations. After embarking on the voyage of marriage, we discover ‘that the sea is not within sight – that, in fact, you are exploring an enclosed basin.’ This is why the marriage between Mary and Fred is a ‘solid, mutual happiness’ – they have known each other from childhood, and as Fred says, “I have never been without loving Mary.”

So what, in Eliot’s view, constitutes a successful marriage? Romantic idealism and societal conventions certainly do not – we see from the Cadwalladers that marriages across social classes can still succeed, even if they are unorthodox. It’s clear from the above examples that the happiest marriages follow on from lengthy courtships and also some sort of mutuality. Mary and Fred become published authors later in life, both giving credit to the other for their help – this alone demonstrates the value of mutuality. The Garth’s are also mutually happy, both working to provide for the family (Susan is a teacher). Susan Garth feels she married the cleverest man she has ever known whilst Caleb thinks he has a woman he is not worthy of. This illustrates the importance of mutual admiration and love in a marriage, something that can only be certain after a long courtship. This love is clear in Dorothea’s marriage to Will – as she tells her sister, “you would have to feel with me, else you would never know,” showing how ineffably strong her love is. The problem with her first marriage was its lack of love, and as we discover later, ‘No life would have been possible to Dorothea which was not filled with emotion’. Moreover, she has something worthwhile to do in her second marriage: she lives ‘a life filled… with beneficent activity’ helping Will in his political work. This explains the historical placing of the novel, since we might argue that the passing of the Great Reform Bill was directly influenced by Will Ladislaw and Dorothea’s help.

And yet, as aforementioned, Eliot’s novels do not end in idealistic perfection. There is still much unhappiness and ambiguity in the Finale. Harriet Bulstrode is martyred in her extreme loyalty to her husband, and we see her at the end of the novel with greying hair and black clothing. Rosamond and Lydgate’s marriage continues turbulently until Lydgate dies at 50, having achieved none of his great ambitions. Even the happiness of Dorothea and Will seems uncertain. The narrator makes a particularly sarcastic comment about Dorothea’s loss of agency in life: ‘she had now a life filled… with a beneficent activity which she had not the doubtful pains of discovering and making out for herself.’ She may be doing great things, but she is only doing them in terms of ‘wifely help’ rather than making independent changes, as the novelist herself has done. She has sadly been ‘absorbed into the life of another’ and is ‘only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother’. But perhaps this is unfair: after all, Dorothea’s influence is clear in that, in the Finale, her epithet is used to describe Will as an ‘ardent public man’. Moreover, as Kathleen Blake argues, ‘the novel’s focus on the disabilities of a woman’s lot’, and thus Eliot is showing that, despite all of her ambitions, the best Dorothea could hope for was a productive and happy marriage to the man she loved. To suggest her marriage is a submission to patriarchy is to miss the point – she has done the best she could within societal restraints, refusing to consider Will’s ‘low-birth’ and instead marrying for love.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Wealth and Corruption in Charles Dickens’s 'Our Mutual Friend'

Our Mutual Friend is one of Dickens’ most complicated novels, made up of a complex of interrelated plots and sub-plots. This multi-layered storyline enables Dickens to give a comprehensive vision of the breadth of London life, from the aristocrats and nouveaux riches to the teachers and paupers. In Our Mutual Friend, Dickensian London becomes most whole, bringing alive what Deborah Wynne described as ‘a disturbing vision of Victorian society’ fissured by ‘class divisions’ and ‘greed’. Because every echelon of society has its representatives in the novel, wealth and class are central to the narrative. As the plot develops, Dickens demonstrates the corrupting power of money and wealth in the context of an ‘unjust, commercialized, and de-naturing society’ (Barbara Hardy). And yet, the novel is far too complex to be branded as a straightforward didactic tale about how ‘money corrupts’. Our Mutual Friend seems to be more of a study of values and principles and how they work in Victorian society, rather than a complete satire on the upper classes. What Dickens seems to be suggesting is that, whilst modern society is both corrupt and corrupting, depravity and corruption can be navigated in certain ways, namely the avoidance of greed and the pursuit of love.

Still, it is important to consider Dickens’s presentation of the rich before we move onto his exploration of counteracting values. The Veneerings are the novel’s most obvious example of the shallow rich, suggested by their name alone. They are first introduced in Chapter 2, which slips into the present tense and mimics the clipped and lazy speech of the privileged: ‘Reflects Veneering; forty, wavy-haired, dark, tending to corpulence, sly, mysterious, filmy…’ It is interesting that the Veneerings are described through their presentation in a mirror, again implying that they are incomplete and without depth – they are characterised by superficiality and surface appearances. Hence, they only exist in relation to their ‘bran-new’ home full of ‘bran-new’ objects. Even their ‘friends’ (who are not really friends at all) become objects, with Twemlow becoming ‘an innocent piece of dinner furniture’. And so, our first view of the rich (in this case, the nouveau riche) is one of shallow façades, reminiscent of Gilbert Osmond in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, for whom life is only ‘a thing of forms, a conscious, calculated attitude.’ The Podsnaps are similarly satirised, with Mr Podsnap’s arrogance being emphasised throughout: he is ‘happily acquainted with his own merit and importance’ and stands ‘very high in Mr Podsnap’s opinion’. This sardonic humour was possibly influenced by the biting satire of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, a novel which likewise mocks the superficiality and arrogance of the rich. We might also recall Browning’s mockery of the bishop in “The Bishop Orders His Tomb”, a poem that shows a Veneering-like obsession with appearances. To some extent then, Dickens depicts an unattractive group of wealthy individuals, perhaps suggesting that money is apt to corrupt, leading to egotism or ostentation. This is also implied in his novel Great Expectations, which tracks Pip’s descent into snobbishness and ungratefulness due to his ‘great expectations’. 

And yet, in Our Mutual Friend, money does not always have this same corrupting effect. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the Boffins, who acquire the wealth of the old, misanthropic John Harmon, but avoid corruption and stick to their values. They are described as ‘unpolished people’, immediately contrasting them with the highly-polished Veneerings. Their surface might not be ‘bran-new’ but they are motivated by kindness and good will, as is seen in their adoption of Bella. Mrs Boffin explains: “Next I think… of the disappointed girl; her that was so cruelly disappointed, you know, both of her husband and his riches. Don’t you think we might do something for her?” Mr Boffin even offers to help Silas Wegg to set up a new stall, despite all the Machiavellian scheming Wegg has done to blackmail him – Boffin would not like to see Wegg “worse off in life” than when they first met. This shows a genuine generosity so clearly lacking in the Podsnaps and Veneerings of Dickens’s world. But it’s not just the newly-wealthy Boffins that avoid the corrupting effect of wealth. Although Mr Twemlow comes across as relatively spineless throughout most of the novel, he can be read as another example of a comparatively rich man who has not been corrupted by money. At the end of the novel, it is Twemlow who resists the ‘Voice of Society’ and the cruelty of Lady Tippins, who mocks Lizzie Hexam and is outraged by Eugene Wrayburn’s decision to marry her – she describes them as “savages” and questions whether Lizzie was dressed “In rowing costume” at her wedding. But Lightwood and Twemlow both defend them, with Lightwood describing Lizzie as “a brave woman” and Twemlow arguing that wealth and class do not matter in the case of marriage. Wrayburn married her out of “feelings of gratitude, of respect, of admiration, and affection” – the feelings of a gentleman, a rank which “may be attained by any man”. And so, Twemlow and Lightwood show that it is not necessarily money that has led to the corruption of society – wealth does not necessitate Podsnappery, Dickens seems to suggest here – but a lack of ‘gentlemanly values’ and an over-obsession with both wealth and class. Their handshake at the end of the novel can be seen as a silent act of resistance against the more prevalent tones of societal injustice.

It is clear, then, that money in and of itself is not the corrupting force of the novel, though Dickens has shown that it is dangerous. Arnold Kettle is to some extent right when he argues that “The corrupting force in Our Mutual Friend is not money but bourgeois attitudes to it.” And yet, though bourgeois attitudes do play a role in the corruption of society (Lady Tippins and the Podsnaps are examples), the primary force of corruption seems to be greed – the desire for wealth, leading to jealousy and cruelty. Kenneth Muir argues that, in Our Mutual Friend, ‘Radix malorum est cupiditas’. For example, the Lammles marry for money only to discover that they had both been deceiving each other. Coming to terms with their relative poverty, they instigate insidious schemes to boost their wealth, such as their attempts to marry Georgiana Podsnap with Fascination Fledgeby. As Mrs Lammle later admits to Twemlow, Georgiana was to “be sacrificed” in “a partnership affair, a money speculation”. The greed of the Lammles is again reminiscent of James’s Portrait of a Lady, with Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle planning marriages (Isabel to Osmond, and Pansy to Warburton) simply for monetary gain. This leaves us with what Marx called a ‘cash nexus’ – the reduction of all relationships to financial exchange, also realised in Dickens’s Dombey and Son. The other villains of the novel, Roger Riderhood and Silas Wegg in particular, are similarly driven by greed. Riderhood unjustly blames Hexam for the murder of John Harmon in the hope of a reward, and Silas Wegg tries to blackmail Boffin with a second will, despite all the good that Boffin has already done for him. Dickens’s comment on Wegg’s actions is cogent: ‘Such was the greed of the fellow, that his mind had shot beyond halves, two-thirds, three-fourths, and gone straight to spoliation of the whole.’ Evidently, it is greed that drives these characters to their cruel and criminal acts.

Another study of yearning for wealth is that of Bella Wilfer, who begins the novel (in her own words) “the most mercenary little wretch that ever lived in the world.” It is her desire for money that leads to her cruel and haughty refusal of Rokesmith/Harmon, whom she rejects only on monetary and class terms. She tells him: “It is not generous in you, it is not honourable in you, to conduct yourself towards me as you do,” and asks him “not to pursue me”. Her obsession with money makes her a relatively unattractive character, though we cannot help being drawn in by her coquettish charm. It is only when Mr Boffin adopts the pose of unpleasant miser that she realises the dangers of her mercenary viewpoint. As she tells her father, “Mr Boffin is being spoilt by prosperity, and is changing every day.” When Boffin accuses Rokesmith of “impudent addresses” and states that Bella is motivated only by money, she has her heroic moment in the novel, telling Boffin, “you don’t right me… You wrong me, wrong me!” She calls him a “hard-hearted Miser” and, having seen how an obsession with money can corrupt, abandons her monetary ambitions, choosing Rokesmith’s love over the pursuit of wealth. This is, perhaps, the crux of the novel, since it shows the values that Dickens truly champions: love over pecuniary gain.

All of this demonstrates that Dickens’s novel is not simply an attack on the rich. Dickens shows that money does not always corrupt, though it often can. The novel is, in fact, an attack on a society which is governed largely by an obsession with money and class. Such a society has no time for real human values and promotes the Machiavellian scheming we see from Riderhood and Wegg, amongst others. So the divide in Dickens’s view is not so much based on class or wealth, but rather on principles: there are members of the upper classes whom Dickens’s satirises ruthlessly, whilst there are members of the lower classes to whom the reader is immediately averse, and vice versa. The novel does not present us with a black-and-white view of the problems in Victorian society. Rather, it stresses the importance of certain values and the possibility that there can indeed be hope: money and class will not always get the upper-hand. Hence, Eugene rejects societal conventions and marries Lizzie, and Bella and the Boffins reject monetary gain for kindness and love. As Kettle argues, Dickens has “an almost childlike faith in Low Church goodness” valuing “kindness, patience, the innocence and elation of youth, the power of love…”. This is clear throughout the novel, and the final handshake arguably demonstrates Dickens’s hope that class distinctions will diminish over time and that, one day, people will be judged on their actions and principles rather than on their wealth or status.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Conflict in the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Poetry, said Yeats, is made out of a “quarrel with ourselves”. This statement seems to exemplify Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poems, rife as they are with internal religious conflict. The two major conflicts or tensions in Hopkins’ verse are between aestheticism and asceticism, and between doubt and belief. The first of these tensions is due to the fact that Hopkins, as a Jesuit priest, always felt guilty for his love of beauty, creating in Hopkins what many critics call the poet-priest divide. The second is caused by the existence of suffering, which Hopkins struggles to reconcile with the idea of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God. He is faced, like many other Christians, with the Problem of Evil. Perhaps these tensions explain why his style is so enigmatic: only through sprung-rhythm, neologisms, omissions, and idiosyncrasies could he reveal the struggles that wracked his soul. But Hopkins’ poetry does not simply present these two conflicts to the reader. As George M. Johnson argues, through poetry, Hopkins attempted to unify the divisive elements of his mind and to manage his “world within”. This arguably explains his use of the sonnet form: often, he presents a problem in the octave, and a solution in the sestet. So for Hopkins, poetry became a sort of literary therapy, a medium in which he attempted (not always successfully) to explain away or rationalize his various fears or doubts.

The tension between sensuousness and asceticism was a constant throughout the Victorian age. Browning’s “The Bishop Orders His Tomb” shows the irony of materialism in a religious man, and Rossetti’s “The Goblin Market” demonstrates the danger of pursuing sensuous joy. But this conflict was exacerbated in Hopkins far more than in any other Victorian poet, arguably because of his upbringing: his father was allegedly autocratic, and his headmaster at Highgate was said to be a cruel tyrant. Hopkins escaped both of these authority figures, but he could never truly escape the self-accusatory spirit they had instilled in him, exemplified in his approach to beauty – he once wrote to Robert Bridges that certain kinds of beauty are “dangerous” and abandoned his wish to become a painter precisely because of this sentiment. This feeling that worldly beauty is somehow anti-religious is what led him to burn his poetry in 1868, just days after he decided to become a Jesuit. I.A. Richards is right in his assertion: “the poet in him was often oppressed and stifled by the priest”.

But seven years after the poetry-burning, Hopkins began writing once more. During the years of silence, Hopkins seems to have concluded that aestheticism and religion are not entirely incompatible. In this sense, he was particularly influenced by the thinking of Duns Scotus, whose concept of ‘haecceitas’ or ‘thisness’ is very similar to Hopkins’ theory of ‘inscape’ – “the outward reflection of the inner nature of a thing” (W.A.M. Peters). Scotus’ theories helped Hopkins to make his own sensuality more acceptable to himself and to link the world’s beauty with God, as in poems like “God’s Grandeur” – “The world is charged with the grandeur of God…” His poems seem to draw on various religious ideas, including the teleological (or design) argument and the concept of panentheism, most clear in Sonnet 57 where Hopkins writes: “Christ plays in ten thousand places…” Through these ideas, that beauty is representative of God’s skill and that God is in all of the world, Hopkins reconciled his love of the sumptuous world with his strict adherence to religious customs.

But these arguments by no means solve the tensions. Perhaps, to an extent, Hopkins’ poetry was simply a literary enactment of self-deception in which he wrote what he wanted to believe. Frederick Page argues along these lines, suggesting that Hopkins felt uneasy about his love of beauty and felt the “imperious necessity of connecting it with God…” Although Hopkins wrote poems like “Pied Beauty” in which he praises God for ‘fathering forth’ a variety of beauty, he also wrote “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves”. The poem begins with a description of the “stupendous / Evening” with its “fond yellow hornlight”, but later Hopkins says: “… let life wind / Off hér once skéined stained véined varíety | upon, áll on twó spools”. These “twó spools” are “black, white” or “right, wrong”, and he warns us to “mind / But thése two…” Rather than beauty in nature, we could infer that he wants morality. So here the “counter, original, spare, strange” is replaced by the asceticism of simple monochrome, “black, white”.

We may also find a similar conclusion in his most famous poem, “The Windhover”, in which he describes the “mastery” of a kestrel’s flight. At the start of the sestet, the speaker says: “Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here / Buckle!” This word “Buckle” is the ambiguous crux of the poem. We do not know exactly what the word should be taken to mean, but if, as Robert Rehder argues, we take the word to be an imperative meaning ‘submit’, then Hopkins could be seen as rejecting the world’s outward beauty. When the bird does submit, the fire of God will be “a billion / Times told lovelier, more dangerous…” If the bird (possibly a metaphor for Hopkins) buckles under God’s authority, its “brute beauty” becomes divine beauty. Of course, there are other interpretations, but this reading is succinct with the aesthetic-ascetic tension we see in Hopkins’ letters, and it also answers the question of the two comparatives, “lovelier, more dangerous” – the change will come in rejecting superficialities and embracing spiritualties. And so, we can see that, despite adopting Scotist thought, and despite attempting to rationalise his inner conflicts through poetry, his anxieties about sensuousness never truly disappeared.

The other major tension in Hopkins’ work is that of doubt and belief and the attempt to understand suffering. This conflict is most evident in “The Wreck of the Deutschland”, in which Hopkins tries not only to understand the suffering of those on the ship, but also to come to terms with his own suffering during his conversion. He compares himself to “soft sift / In an hourglass,” with God (the hourglass) sifting and testing him. The suffering we experience, he argues, can either bring “the best or worst” out of us. Like with a sloe that bursts “sour or sweet” in our mouths, we can either submit to God in the face of suffering, or we can reject him. God must “Wring thy rebel… / Man’s malice, with wrecking and storm,” and so encourage sinners to beg for salvation. Hence, he is “lightning and love,” both authority and mercy, and it is through his authority that we come to find his mercy – we are like metal on an anvil to be shaped to “thy will”. This blacksmith imagery recalls Donne’s “Holy Sonnet XIV” which begins with the emphatic words “Batter my heart…” as Donne begs God to save him, through his mastery, from the devil.

In this way, “The Deutschland” is a theodicy in which Hopkins explains suffering as teleologically good – we suffer in order to find God. Hopkins clarifies the nun’s cry in the same way: though God did not rescue her, by her cry and by her belief in Christ’s agency, she “reincarnated Christ afresh, brought his real presence, alive, into the scene of the shipwreck.” (Helen Vendler) And so, because of Christ’s presence, the others who drowned on the Deutschland are “not uncomforted” – the nun’s cry brought “the poor sheep back” and the shipwreck became “a harvest” of souls for God. The shipwreck brought faith to the faithless, a theodicy which justifies the deaths of those on the ship. At the end, Hopkins hopes that the same faith will be instilled in the people of England and “be a dayspring to the dimness of us”. The same can be said for some of Hopkins’ other poems. In “Felix Randal”, Hopkins grieves at the death of his parishioner – “O is he dead then?” But again he explains this suffering with another theodicy, arguing that “seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears” and that through his sickness, Randal went from his “boisterous years” to a man with “a heavenlier heart”. Again, Hopkins argues that suffering led Randal to God, and so we see that many of his poems are an exercise in rationalising pain.

However, Hopkins shows more doubt in “The Loss of the Eurydice”, which begins: “The Eurydice – it concerned thee, O Lord…” (the rhyme of Eurydi-ce and thee emphasising God’s culpability). Hopkins cannot understand why God would let three hundred brave men die – “I need to deplore it.” He struggles to find an explanation, and he grieves that these men were not Catholics, though good men. The only hope he proposes is that suffering leads men to drive “full for righteousness”, and he implores the people of England to pray that those on the ship may be granted “pity eternal”. This doubtfulness recurs in the ‘Terrible’ sonnets, poems written in a time of deep distress, when his state was “much like madness.” Vincent Turner says this distress was due to “the sight of physical and moral evil” in the world, and most importantly, the suffering Hopkins himself experienced. In “Carrion Comfort” Hopkins questions why God would “rude on” him his “wring-world right foot rock” and “lay a lionlimb” against him. But he justifies this with another theodicy, employing the metaphor of harvest. He is buffeted like corn in the wind so that his “chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.” Suffering is necessary for the harvest, and this again recalls the imagery of “The Deutschland”.

But Hopkins is not always so successful in explaining away his pain. In “To seem the stranger” he laments that “dark heaven’s baffling ban / Bars” his words and so, without his poetry and his ability to rationalise his suffering, he is left “a lonely began”. In “I wake and feel the fell of dark” he reaches a similar stalemate, the only comfort being that “The lost are like this… but worse.” He, at least, believes in God, even though his cries are “like dead letters sent / To dearest him that lives alas! away.” Here, as before, we see that Hopkins could never completely overcome these conflicts. Johnson argues that “By hammering out his emotions… into the sonnet form, Hopkins can manage to a degree the cries which well up from within.” But the doubts were always present in him, and poetry often failed to aid him. Though he tried to understand what Jennings calls “the ennobling power of suffering”, he could never really reconcile himself to “the blight man was born for” (“Spring and Fall”).

To an extent, then, Hopkins was rather like T.S. Eliot, though the comparison seems unusual. In The Waste Land, Eliot searches for hope in this “stony rubbish”, and he finds that hope in “Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.” And yet, because of all that has come before, Eliot’s romantic conviction that a better world is possible if we ‘give, sympathise, control’ seems somewhat forced. Certainly this is what Eliot hopes: but does he believe it could happen? Perhaps we can say the same about Hopkins’ rationalisations and theodicies: he wants to believe that aestheticism can be reconciled with religion, and he wants to believe that suffering is part of God’s plan. Whether he really believes his arguments, though, is uncertain, and this uncertainty is augmented by the fact that, in poems like “Spelt From Sibyl’s Leaves” and “To seem the stranger”, he can find no justification for sensuous delight and he can find no explanation of his suffering. And so it’s clear that, throughout his life, Hopkins was haunted by these tensions, and he tried to resolve them through poetry. J Hillis Miller argues that poetry must “make something happen.” Hopkins’ poetry often tried to make something happen, namely the conclusion of his inner conflicts. Sometimes he succeeded. Sometimes he failed. But he is no less a poet for that. 

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Trump History X

Originally published before the election on Cambridge's 'Varsity' website:

“We need to open our eyes. There are over two million illegal immigrants bedding down in this state tonight! This state spent three billion dollars last year, on services for those people who have no right to be here in the first place. Three billion dollars! 400 million dollars just to lock up a bunch of illegal immigrant criminals… Our border policy’s a joke! So, is anybody surprised that south of the border, they’re laughing at us? Laughing at our laws?”

Donald Trump made this speech a few weeks ago at one of his infamous rallies, where black people are spat on and Mexicans are considered the scum of the earth. To rapturous applause from his supporters, Trump went on to talk about “decent, hard-working Americans falling through the cracks” because of “a bunch of people who aren’t even citizens of this country!” Typical Trump, right?

Well, I’m afraid I have a confession to make: this speech wasn’t actually made by Trump. These are the words of Derek Vinyard, the neo-Nazi protagonist of Tony Kaye’s cinematic masterpiece, American History X. The film tells the story of Derek Vinyard’s gradual realisation that the bigoted beliefs he has held for most of his adult life are mistaken. He then tries to prevent his little brother Danny from following in his footsteps and becoming embroiled in the race-related gang-violence that was rife in parts of the US in the 1990s.

The film’s 18th Anniversary falls on the 30th October, and yet it couldn’t be more relevant to our current political climate. We only have to look at Trump’s rabble-rousing rhetoric to see how closely related his sentiments are to the type of white supremacist vitriol that Vinyard preaches during the film. 

Trump has branded all Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists; he called for a ban on Muslim immigration to the USA; he refused to rule out special forms of identification for Muslims living in the States; he wavered in his condemnation of a retired KKK leader; he claimed the Chinese made up global warming; he argued that Obama wasn’t a US citizen; the list goes on. And on. And on.

I know what you’re thinking: we’ve heard it all already. Just another article about what a terrible man Trump is and how we should all be very scared. But that Donald Trump and Derek Vinyard espouse almost exactly the same attitudes calls for some more reflection. Before his transformative time in prison, Vinyard believes that white people are intrinsically superior to every other race. He thinks black people are inherently drawn to crime because of the colour of their skin. He has a swastika tattoo and he hates Jewish people.

I’m not trying to say that Trump is sworn to Hitler and that he believes in a supreme Aryan race. He also doesn’t go around trashing Mexican supermarkets and curb-stomping African Americans, as Vinyard does in the film. But the ethnocentric and isolationist parallels, and similar style of rhetoric, between Trump and an imagined character in the realm of American political fiction is cause for concern. It highlights how Trump plays on the same fears and prejudices as neo-Nazi Mein Kampf readers. Many of his supporters are just Vinyards reincarnate, sucking up the predictable patriotic platitudes that spew forth from Trump’s gob as if they’re the words of God. 

It’s unlikely that Trump will win the election, and even if he did he’d struggle to get much through Congress. But that’s not the point. Indeed, the parallels between the pair’s rhetoric at the beginning of this article show how most of the damage has already been done. Trump’s campaign has already polluted the political landscape of the States and other countries. Over the last few months, he has succeeded in proliferating his xenophobic and bigoted discourse, espoused with all of the same demagogic rhetorical questions and casual slurs as his fictional counterpart. 

Vinyard-esque remarks are now a part of the mainstream. There no longer seems to be a clear divide between white supremacists and the Republican party – their beliefs may not be the same but, as American History X shows, they share a dialogue of hatred and intolerance. Racial slurs and sexist insults now seem acceptable in the political arena, and if Trump does somehow win on the 8th, they may even become the norm.

Worryingly, it’s not just trump. The Kippers spread the same sort of racial hatred. Andre Lampitt, the star of UKIP’s European Election TV campaign, once said that “most Nigerians are generally bad people”. Joseph Quirk, a former UKIP candidate, said he reckons dogs are “more intelligent, better company and certainly better behaved than Muslims”. This is the party that 3.9 million people voted for in 2015.

And so it seems the important message of American History X, that “hate is baggage” and that “life’s too short to be pissed off all the time”, has been forgotten by many. The politics of division are thriving across the world, and we will all suffer for it.

The Reader-Speaker Relationship in Robert Browning's Dramatic Monologues

It was the criticism that Robert Browning’s early poems received, particularly Mill’s harsh remarks on Pauline, that encouraged Browning towards the form for which he is most famous, the so-called dramatic monologue. His early poems were largely denounced for being too confessional and revealing, and so he strove towards a form that would distance his personality from his verse – hence the disclaimer that his dramatic monologues were “so many utterances of so many imaginary persons, not mine.” This style that Browning adopted, which stood in opposition to the Romantic lyric so prevalent in the early 19th Century, shifted the focus of the reader’s interaction with the poem. Because Browning dissociates himself from so many of his speakers, the reader’s relationship with the poet becomes less important than the reader’s relationship with the speaker – the same can be said of Chaucer’s Tales. Though Browning is present in the dramatic monologues as creator, it is not so much his own mind that we interact with or judge – it is that of the ‘imaginary person’ his mind has conjured up. Indeed, our judgement of the speaker is central to the reading of a dramatic monologue, partly because of the repugnance of many of Browning’s speakers, and partly because of Browning’s use of dramatic irony (a central part of the post-Romantic movement). This irony stems not only from the differences between the speaker’s understanding and the reader’s understanding, but also from the recurrence of revelation, ignorance of the self, and casuistry, all of which make the reader-speaker relationship particularly worthy of note.

In Browning’s dramatic monologues, it is often the reader who seems to have the upper-hand in the reader-speaker relationship. To some extent, the reader understands the speaker more than the speaker understands themselves. This is most obvious in “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister”, the title of which is in itself ironic – just as we might mistakenly expect a love song from Prufrock, so here we might expect a religious soliloquy of some sort, when really we get neither. Indeed, the supposedly religious speaker of Browning’s poem is so consumed by hatred that he seems to forget himself, cursing Brother Lawrence (“Hell dry you up with its flames!”) and calculating methods of securing his enemy’s damnation: he imagines he could “trip him just a-dying” to “send him flying / Off to hell…” The speaker even considers making a Faustian pact with Satan in order to damn Brother Lawrence. These curses and manipulative plans exemplify the poem’s central irony: that the speaker’s criticism of Brother Lawrence’s supposed flaws does nothing other than reveal the flaws of the speaker himself. He appeals to the minutiae of religious observance, attacking his enemy for drinking his “watered orange pulp… at one gulp” and for not crossing his knife and fork after dinner. But as the poem develops, we realise that though Brother Lawrence might not be as ostensibly formal in his piety, he is probably infinitely more pious than the speaker, who makes use of pagan curses (“Hy, Zy, Hine”) and who mixes up his prayer to Mary (“Plena gratia / Ave, Virgo!”), perhaps suggestive of his twisted mind state. Moreover, the speaker’s anger is in itself ironic, since one of the central tenets of his religion (which he does not seem to care about except on a superficial level) is that of Matthew, “Love your enemies”. Thus, the reader’s understanding of the speaker exceeds the speaker’s own – we see that it is he, not Brother Lawrence, who is worthy of criticism. In attempting to discredit his adversary, the speaker unknowingly damns himself.

“The Bishop Orders His Tomb” is another poem in which the reader sees what the speaker fails to see in himself. The Bishop is blind to his flaws, all of which are obvious to the reader. The Bishop’s most palpable weakness is his materialism (typical of the Renaissance, as Ruskin pointed out), particularly ironic for a religious man, whose focus should be on the spiritual. This materialism is evident in his wish for an elaborate tomb (he wants “nine columns” round him and a lump of lapis lazuli “Big as a jew’s head”), and also in his obsession with the sensual trappings of religion. His description of mass exemplifies this:

 “And hear the blessed murmur of the mass,
And see God made and eaten all day long,
And feel the steady candle-flame, and taste
Good strong thick stupefying incense-smoke.”

Almost all of the senses are mentioned in this quotation, demonstrating the sensuality of the Bishop, amplified by the vividness of the final line, the first two spondaic feet reflecting the incense’s thickness. But the overt materialism of the speaker is not the central irony of the poem. Rather, it is the Bishop’s failure to realise his own powerlessness that most illuminates the reader-speaker relationship. As King argues, the irony comes from the juxtaposition of “his pride in the exercise of authority” and “the ineffectualness of his ‘order’.” Just as we know that the monk in the Spanish cloister is inevitably powerless to harm Brother Lawrence, so we know that the Bishop’s orders will never be fulfilled (something he realises in a moment of revelation towards the poem’s end – “Gritstone, a-crumble!”). We know, too, that his sons do not really love him, despite the Bishop’s self-deceptive claims (“Nay, boys, ye love me…”) In fact, it is clear to us that he is incapable of love – he is so egotistical that the words he uses most are “I” and “mine”, and the only reason he prizes his wife is that she made Gandolf envious. He can only exhibit love on a superficial level, by bequeathing wealth to his sons. What he does not realise, though, is that this is not real love, and that their refusal to build his elaborate tomb is not “ingratitude” at all.

In this sense, the reader has an advantage over the Bishop, not only because we recognise his flaws, but also because we can understand his sons’ reactions to their father’s vain request. The final irony, though, is even more poignant. Even though the poem ends with a supposed victory for the Bishop over Gandolf (“As still he envied me, so fair she was!”), the reader knows that Gandolf is now nothing more than dust, as the Bishop will soon become. Elaborate tombs cannot prevent the inevitability of death and, for the religious speaker, the imminence of God’s judgement. So, again, we seem to have the advantage over the speaker in this poem – we understand the meaning of the poem’s first line (“Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity!”), the meaning of which the Bishop ironically fails to grasp. It’s interesting to note the frequency of religious hypocrisy in Browning’s speakers – Johannes Agricola is similarly vain. Browning was a Protestant, and he would have witnessed the 1830s Oxford Movement’s gravitation towards the more ritualized and sensuous worship of the Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps this is what these poems are criticising by mocking the speakers’ materialism.

But there are also instances in Browning’s work where the speaker seems to have the upper hand on the reader. Though it might not be immediately apparent, “My Last Duchess” is a possible example of this. The common critical opinion of this poem is that the Duke accidentally reveals his flaws to the reader, and to some extent this is true – the reader gradually discovers the Duke’s delusional jealousy and his mercilessness to his last duchess. But, as Rader argues, these revelations actually seem calculated. After all, he has drawn back the curtain of the portrait specifically to show it to the envoy. Perhaps the Duke’s description of how his last Duchess was “too soon made glad” is a warning to the new Duchess that she must respect his “gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name”. But in warning the envoy rather than the new Duchess, the proud Duke has not had to “stoop” – it is a subtle warning. The subtlety is accentuated at the end of the poem when the Duke stops to show the envoy “Neptune… / Taming a sea horse”, suggesting that he has simply been exhibiting art rather than making threats. But the image of the strong God taming a sea horse also reinforces this idea of power – another warning, perhaps. Thus, though the elusive and yet threatening words, “I gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together,” may seem like an accidental revelation of his evil deeds and of his jealousy, it is more likely that the Duke is in control – he knows exactly what he is doing. Thus, the reader-speaker relationship seems to have been reversed here so that, unlike in the two aforementioned poems, the reader must come to understand the speaker.

The same could be argued for “Porphyria’s Lover”. The words “And strangled her” come as a complete shock to the reader, made even more surprising by the contrastingly jolly rhymes of “wound” and “around”. Once we learn that the speaker has killed Porphyria, we are eager to understand his motive for doing so. Like the Duke, he killed her to overcome his jealousy and to preserve her love not just for “That moment”, but forever. He is clearly delusional: it is unlikely that Porphyria really was “Too weak” to overcome her pride (she went “through wind and rain” to him), and it is doubtful that she really “felt no pain”. And yet, despite this, the speaker’s words carry so much conviction (her “smiling rosy little head” is “So glad it has its utmost will,” he tells us) that we almost believe him. But then again his delusion prevents us from completely adopting his perspective, and so we are caught between understanding and judgement. Still, he knows exactly what his motives were in killing Porphyria, and as Langbaum argues, just as we are intrigued by the Duke’s conviction of superiority, so we are interested in the lover’s logic, even if it is pure casuistry. Thus, “Porphyria’s Lover” introduces the reader to another interesting dynamic of understanding. We know his jealousy is probably unfounded, and we know that he is ‘mad’ to some extent (though he is not mad in the sense of ‘other’, since we have all felt his emotions at some point). And yet, in the moment of the poem, the balance of power seems to be in the lover’s hands – he understands himself, while we do not, at least until he has revealed his motives. Both the lover and the Duke have got what they want, killing their lovers whilst preserving their beauty, and neither of them show any remorse. The difference between the Duke and Porphyria’s lover is that the Duke is probably aware of his sinfulness, whereas the lover is not – he thinks God condones his actions.

Thus, the role of revelation in the poems is always changing. In “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister”, the monk only comes to realise his powerlessness at the end of the poem, a realisation perhaps suggested by his final futile outburst, “Gr-r-r – you swine!”. This is something the reader could guess before, but that the speaker gradually acknowledges. Conversely, it is the reader that must gradually acknowledge and understand the motives of the Duke and Porphyria’s lover – the speakers are aware of them all along. Arguably, this is what makes the Duke and Porphyria’s lover more interesting characters, not only because they are more threatening and less comic, but because, as Langbaum argues, we yearn to understand them, despite their flaws. Though we do not quite empathise with them, we enter the poem from their point of view, and so the form necessitates a will to apprehend in the reader. And so, it is clear that these ideas of knowledge and understanding, and indeed the fluctuation of understanding in those moments of revelation, are central to the development of Browning’s dramatic monologues. 

Sunday, 18 September 2016

7 Great Poems Every Radical Should Know

This article was originally published on The Radical Tea Towel Company's blog:

This selection of poems is by no means exhaustive. There are hundreds and hundreds of radical poems I could’ve included, but these are just a few of my favourites – I hope you’re inspired by them too!

1) Dulce et Decorum Est – Wilfred Owen

Though this poem has become an absolute classic over the years, its radical pacifist message shouldn’t be ignored. Indeed, few poems could be more relevant in today’s world. At this very moment, people’s lives are being ravaged and devastated by violence and war. Soldiers are killed and innocent civilians are slaughtered every day.

Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” is one of the few poems that truly encapsulates the real horrors of war. He begins with a description of soldiers marching through sludge until, nine lines in, the men are gassed and fumble about looking for their gas masks.

His carefully chosen words and ingenious use of rhythm bring to life the terror experienced by the men of the First World War. For example, his image of “someone still yelling out and stumbling, / And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…” is frighteningly vivid, testament to Owen’s skill as a writer and to the realism of his verse.

But Owen, having spent time in the trenches, realised that the realities of war are all too often ignored. Rather than focusing on the fearful nature of conflict and violence (evident in Owen’s description of blood “gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs” and of “incurable sores on innocent tongues”), we tend to aestheticize and glorify the act of going to war.

We instil patriotic ardour into our people, and we present the death of young men as a sacrificial and heroic act. For Owen, though, war is not heroic, nor is it glorious. Indeed, it is precisely the opposite – a horrifying and terrible waste of young life.

So it is Owen’s own experiences of war that led him to see that Horace’s ode was wrong: it is not “Sweet and right to die for your country.” Rather, Horace’s aphorism is just an “old lie” perpetuated to accentuate the false necessity of war. That’s why this poem is so important for pacifists and radicals today.

2) Jerusalem (And did those feet in ancient time) – William Blake

This is yet another classic poem, and you may think it an odd choice. Before I actually began to concentrate on Blake’s words, I imagined this was simply some patriotic and nationalistic call to arms. But the poem is actually far more than that.

True, the poem is certainly a rallying call to the people of England. But when Blake exclaims that ‘his sword will not sleep in his hand’ and that he will not ‘cease from Mental Fight’, rather than advocating war or imperialism, Blake is actually imploring us to devote ourselves to the improvement of our country. He hopes that we might turn England from the land of ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ into the New Jerusalem, a socialist utopia.

This may seem somewhat far-fetched, but if you look at some of Blake’s other poems, his progressive and liberal values become clear. For example, his poem ‘London’  (another great poem for radicals) depicts the bleak and wretched lives of the poor – hence he describes the “chimney-sweeper’s cry” and the “hapless soldier’s sigh”.

It’s clear, then, that Blake had quite radical sympathies for those living in poverty. Thus, it can be inferred that, when he dreamt of the ‘New Jerusalem’, he probably envisioned a land of equality and affluence, not plagued by capitalism or neo-liberalism.

So, to me the poem seems to express the hope that an anti-establishment, socialist movement might be created to bring about real change in England’s “green and pleasant land.” What could possibly be more radical?

3) The Masque of Anarchy – Percy Bysshe Shelley

Shelley wrote this poem in 1819, the year of the Peterloo massacre, when a group of peaceful protesters were charged down by cavalry in St Peter’s Field, Manchester. They were demanding the reform of parliamentary representation – back then, the ‘democratic’ system was fundamentally undemocratic, with only a handful of men being able to vote.

In the poem, Shelley describes the rule of Murder, Fraud, Hypocrisy, Destruction, and finally, Anarchy – all of these represent the false authorities of “God, and King, and Law”. Shelley, seeing this injustice, beseeches the people of England to recognise the wrongs in their society and to act upon them:

“Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few!"

He lists the inequalities of life, the struggles of hunger, low pay, and slavery, and calls all the people of England together from their “daily strife” and their “woes untold”. Spurred on by a vision of Hope, they must refuse to succumb to the injustice of these authorities. But Shelley urges against vengefulness and violence. Rather, the people of England must form a “great assembly… of the fearless, of the free” and engage in non-violent protest, despite the bloodthirsty actions of their oppressors.

Once they have united, they must “Declare with measured words” that they are free. And even if some are killed by tyrannous authorities (as in the Peterloo Massacre), they will act as a source of inspiration to all who came after. They must demand their freedom, and they must demand change, says Shelley, but without becoming violent tyrants themselves.

This poem was one of the first ever arguments in favour of non-violent action, and it was often quoted by Gandhi during his campaign for a free India. This alone shows what a great radical poem it is, one that inspires us to change the world we live in for the better.  

4) The New Colossus – Emma Lazarus

This poem, part of which is etched onto the base of the Statue of Liberty, has a beautiful message of love, compassion, and warmth.

Emma Lazarus describes how the statue shall stand as a “Mother of Exiles” with a beacon glowing “world-wide welcome,” and shall cry with silent lips the poignant and moving words:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

This message of sympathy and hospitality is one that all progressives can share. Indeed, the poem is particularly pertinent today in light of the current refugee crisis and the huge swathes of people currently travelling across land and sea to escape war. If anyone, it is those people that should be welcomed with open arms.

5) Still I Rise – Maya Angelou

This poem, like no other, seems to encapsulate the opposing forces of struggle and perseverance, suffering and hope. This dichotomy is clear from the very start of the poem with the lines: “You may trod me in the very dirt / But still, like dust, I’ll rise”.

Angelou, as a black woman living in the USA, has suffered from persecution and mockery (“You may shoot me with your words, / You may cut me with your eyes, / You may kill me with your hatefulness”), but she refuses to let that hold her back: still, she will rise. She refuses to give up her supposed “haughtiness” and “sexiness” – in fact, she revels in it, acting as if she had a gold mine in her back yard and diamonds between her thighs. She rejects stereotyping, and she refuses to be restrained.

She refuses, too, to be held back by the suffering of her ancestors and their pasts. Thus, “Out of the huts of history’s shame” and “Up from the past that’s rooted in pain” she rises. She turns that struggle into ambition and optimism, a resolution expressed in one of the poem’s most inspiring lines: “I am the dream of the hope of the slave.” In these words, she conveys the determination and hopefulness of all those who have been tormented and anguished, and this is what makes her message into such a great radical, hopeful poem.

6) Mushrooms – Sylvia Plath

This poem is slightly less well known, but likewise inspiring and encouraging in its hopefulness. What Plath is actually talking about is hard to define, but its clear that the poem is about a movement of some sort, perhaps feminism, that is fighting against persecution and tyranny.

Like the mushrooms, those who partake in this movement fight for freedom, quietly acquiring the air, heaving the needles and the pavement above them, a metaphor for their oppressors. The freedom-fighters have struggled (they “Diet on water, / On crumbs of shadow, / Bland-mannered, asking / Little or nothing”) but still there are so many of them, and their struggling will not have been in vain.

Indeed, one day they will succeed: they are “nudgers and shovers” who will multiply and, one day, “Inherit the earth”. If this poem is about the plight of women and their struggle for emancipation, then Plath is attempting to incite a silent revolution amongst the women of the world. She hopes that one day, women will no longer be seen as “meek” and even “edible” but will in fact be equal to their male counterparts. In this sense, the poem is yet another radical and inspiring call to arms.

7) The Man With the Hoe – Edwin Markham

This poem was originally inspired by Millet’s famous painting, “L’Homme a la houe”, but the poem is now just as famous as Millet’s work. Socialist and compassionate in its themes, the poem depicts a haggard man working in the fields with the “burden of the world” on his shoulders. He suffers despair and he never has any source of hope, working as he does all day in the fields.

Markham questions and laments the injustice of this way of life, and argues that this image demonstrates “the world’s blind greed” that has led to such inequalities and inhumanity. Humanity itself, he says, has been betrayed.

In the final two stanzas, Markham questions the “masters, lords and rulers in all lands” and asks them how they will “Make right the immemorial infamies, / Perfidious wrongs, immedicable woes” that have led to this man’s suffering and poverty. He asks, too, how the human race will be judged in light of these inequities.

Though this poem seems bleak, it can also be read as another source of inspiration. We, the people of the world, can change things. We can end the inequality that blights so many lives. We can bring about the “whirlwinds of rebellion” of which Markham speaks!