Thursday, 26 May 2016

"The Garden of Love" - A Brief Analysis of Blake's Poem

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not, writ over the door;
So I turn'd to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore. 

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.

I can’t quite put my finger on what makes this poem so wonderful. My grandmother, a rebelling ex-Catholic, used to read it to my mother when she was a child, and my mother subsequently read it to me as I was growing up. I suppose that’s why this poem has stuck with me for such a long time – I have a personal connection to it. Hopefully, though, I can try to explain my affection for it in more objective terms.

Clearly, the poem is about Blake’s struggles with religion, particularly the stringent rules of the orthodox Anglican Church. But it’s also about the change he himself has gone through in his movement from “innocence” to “experience” as expressed in the titles of his books (Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience).

Hence, with experience, he sees what he “never had seen” – the harsh rigidity of church authority. Where previously he could “play on the green” (recalling the themes of innocent freedom in his earlier poem “The Echoing Green”), there is now a threatening Chapel with shut gates and with “Thou shalt not, writ over the door…”

Likewise, graves and tombstones now stand “where flowers should be.” In Blake’s mind, the church has destroyed everything good in the world – the freedom of childhood, the freshness of the natural world, and, inevitably, the beauty of love. These are things he could enjoy in his childhood innocence, but now that he has matured, his freedom has been torn from him.

There’s a strong sense of nostalgia that lingers throughout the poem, mostly because of the contrasts between the present and the past – the chapel contrasted with green grass, and graves contrasted with flowers. But this nostalgia is also created, perhaps, by the buoyant anapestic trimiter (“A Chapel was built in the midst,” – “Du-dum du-du-dum du-du-dum”). This metre shares the rapid and somewhat cheerful sound of the dactyl, perhaps signifying Blake’s attempts to recall his past innocence and exuberance.

And yet, the rhyme scheme may imply that Blake’s yearning for his past will never be fulfilled, just as the rhyme scheme is never fully fulfilled: only two lines per stanza rhyme, and the rhyme scheme collapses completely in the final stanza. Likewise, the metre changes in the last two lines, moving to an anapestic tetrameter. This symbolizes two things: the failure to recall past innocence (reflected in the return to a slower, less lighthearted metre), and the change that has taken place in the Garden itself. It’s this metrical variation in the poem that I find so exciting.

Thus, the green of the garden has been replaced by the “black gowns” of the priests. Here we recall Blake’s words in his poem “London” where he says that “Every blackening church appals” (my italics). In his mind, the Church brings decay and sadness to all that we should champion. Therefore, the priests are seen “binding with briars” Blake’s “joys and desires”.

So, in his experience, Blake realizes the austere control placed on people by the Church and, as a non-conformist, he rallies against this. Blake may also be attacking a new chapel that was built in Lambeth near his home at the time. It was built by subscription, meaning that parishioners paid for their pews, and Blake was appalled by this. Like Chaucer, he hated the idea that those who could not pay would be excluded from eternal life with God – “the gates of this Chapel were shut”.

Blake takes arms against the authoritarian nature of the Church and the fact that it consumes all goodness in the world. Although he was technically a Christian, he hated the Church for its attempts to suppress sexuality and desire, both of which he saw as central to the human condition. So, 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.”

“The Garden of Love” is, in many ways, representative of Blake’s rebellious spirit, evident in both his mythological artwork and his more avant-garde poetry. I suppose that is really what I love about this poem, and I guess that’s why it was adored by my mother and my grandmother before her. Blake, as a Romantic poet, was ahead of his time, forever a champion of equality and freedom. For that, at least, he should be remembered.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

"When I heard the learn'd astronomer" - A Brief Analysis of Whitman's Poem

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

“When I heard the learn’d astronomer” is one of Walt Whitman’s most famous works, not least because it featured in an episode of the hit TV show Breaking Bad. In my mind, the poem is a yet another lyrical representation of Wordsworth’s famous aphorism, “We murder to dissect” (The Tables Turned). Just as Wordsworth calls us to close the “barren leaves” of scientific study, so Whitman urges us to appreciate the natural world for what it is.

But what is it that makes this such a powerful poem? How does Whitman reinforce the potency of his plea? Well, the answer is: contrast. The entire premise of the poem is built upon the distinction between science and the natural world. Hence, the poem begins in a lecture-hall with a “learn’d astronomer” presumably talking about constellations and planetary systems. Notice how jarring the first five lines are: there’s no constant metre, and line four goes on for so long we almost have to pause for breathe. There’s a certain irony in this first section in that the “charts and diagrams” which aim to give order to nature end up as a jumbled, jolting selection of words.

It is these “proofs” and “figures” that make Whitman “tired and sick” because they try to represent nature falsely and because they fail to clarify its many complexities. They ignore nature's wholesome beauty, and focus too much on its details. Whitman, having left, can escape this false representation of the natural world to enjoy nature’s reality, “the mystical moist night-air” and “the perfect silence of the stars”. These descriptions undeniably recall the lyrical beauty of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” or Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight”.

This is where the contrast comes in. Rather like a sonnet, this poem has a volta (or turn) after the fifth line. The mood of the poem changes dramatically with Whitman’s rhyming echoes “rising and gliding out”, banishing the previous jarring tone and beckoning in a new, more elegant and graceful mood. This is suggested also by the ballerina-esque movements of "rising and gliding" - the words, like Whitman, rise and glide gracefully. These ideas are reinforced in the echoes of “m” and “st” sounds in the two words “mystical moist,” and then finally by the almost perfect iambic pentameter of the poem’s last line: “Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.” This fluency of rhythm, when contrasted with the previous jolting pulse, reflects Whitman’s belief in the incomparable beauty of the natural world.

There are other contrasts, too, in the ideas of noise and solitude. Whereas before he sits amongst academics in a busy lecture-hall, he later goes outside by himself to judge the magnificence of the stars for himself – he, unlike most people, finds no beauty in facts and figures. And whilst previously his ears rung with “much applause in the lecture-hall,” outside he can stand “in perfect silence.” These contrasts exemplify the peacefulness of the natural world, uncorrupted and undissected by scientists and their calculations. This is what the Romantic poets adored: the freedom, solitude and tranquility of nature, unperturbed by the cruelties of human nature. This, in essence, is what Whitman illustrates, and thus glorifies.

Monday, 2 May 2016

In Defence of Anti-Zionism

Perhaps I ought to start this article by saying that this is not a defence of Ken Livingstone, Naz Shah, Malia Bouattia (the new NUS President), or any other public figures recently accused of anti-Semitism. Rather, I simply hope to defend my own position: that of opposing the policies of Israel and the ideology of Zionism in its current form. Through this article, I want to demonstrate that, despite what many suggest, my views do not in any way equate to anti-Semitism.

I’ll start by outlining my basic objections to Zionism. I was having a conversation recently with a friend of mine about the state of Israel and the role of the Holocaust in its foundation: “No wonder they want a homeland,” she argued, and she had a point: we must sympathise with the desire for a group of people to found a homeland and form a nation, particularly a group of people that have, throughout history and throughout the world, been persecuted. I recently visited Auschwitz Concentration Camp and I was harrowed by the brutal suffering of those who lived and died under Nazi rule.

But one question ultimately arises: where will this homeland be founded? Well, when Zionism began as an ideology in the late 19th century, Palestine was the obvious choice: it was the birthplace of Judaism, once controlled by the Israelites, and referred to in the Torah as the ‘Promised Land’. But according to the Ottoman census of 1878, there were over 400,000 Muslims living in Palestine during this period, comprising 87% of the population. Jews, on the other hand, comprised only three or four per cent. What is more, Justin McCarthy estimated that by 1946 there were 1,339,763 non-Jews living in Palestine. Despite what many Zionists claim, Palestine was not an uninhabited land.

Now, though, Arabs only constitute 18.5% of Israel’s population, and an astonishing one in three refugees worldwide is Palestinian. In 1947, Israel was given 56% of Palestine and since then the state has expanded to over 80% of what was once Palestinian land. What is more, there are almost half a million Jews living in occupied territory, and there are 121 settlements officially recognised as illegal by the United Nations. It seems that Israel is determined to continue its expansion indefinitely, hence Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent announcement that the Golan Heights will forever remain under Israeli sovereignty.

Now, I’d like to pose a few questions to the reader. If a homeless family want a home, of course that desire should be fulfilled; but would you be content with that homeless family kicking your own family out of your home and killing one of your children in the process? Let me pose another question: if a book was “found” that said the UK belonged to the Mormons, would they be justified in taking over our country and forcing so many of us to flee? Of course not, and it worries me that the absurd it-says-so-in-the-Torah argument is used by Zionists so frequently.

This Zionist ideology of settler-colonialism has led to constant violence and brutality in the region, stemming also from the desire to ethnically cleanse Palestine, hence the 1948 Nakba which saw 700,000 Palestinians expelled from their homes and hundreds of Palestinian towns and villages destroyed. Since then, though, things have only grown worse: Gaza, described by many as “the world’s largest open-air prison”, has been reduced to piles of rubble, and as bombs go off in Palestinian land, Israelis cheer and applaud (literally applauding: watch the video here). The Israeli Government say that they act in self-defence, but between 2000 and 2013, a Palestinian child was killed every three days on averagedid these children pose a threat? You only have to look at the death tolls to see who is most in the wrong: in 2014, for example, 86 Israelis were killed compared to 2262 Palestinians.

Perhaps, though, one could argue that Israel is in fact fighting in self-defence. After all, Hamas militants do often fire missiles over the border into Israeli territory. But not only does Hamas support a two-state solution in accord with international consensus, they also agree to and respect ceasefires over and over again. As Noam Chomsky writes, "The regular pattern is for Israel, then, to disregard whatever ceasefire is in place, while Hamas observes it - as Israel has officially recognised - until a sharp increase in Israeli violence elicits a Hamas response, followed by even fiercer [Israeli] brutality." So in reality, Israel seems to be acting less for self-defence and more for their ideology. This is why, on July 9th 2014, about two thirds of those killed were innocent women and children and only a few Hamas targets were hit - the idea that this was 'self-defence' bemuses me.

Arabs are discriminated against in every branch of life, and from an early age many Israeli children are encouraged to see their Arab counterparts as “other”. In her book “Palestine in Israeli Schoolbooks: Ideology and Propaganda in Education”, Nurit Peled-Elhanan states that in Israeli schoolbooks Arabs are only represented as “refugees, primitive farmers and terrorists” and that, in “hundreds and hundreds” of books, there was not one photograph that showed an Arab as a “normal person”. A shocking 36% of Jews believe that non-Jews in Israel should have no right to vote.

Indeed, many have drawn parallels between the way in which Palestinians in occupied territories are treated and the way in which black people were treated in South Africa during apartheid. To an extent, the Israelis control the lives and movement of all those living in the West Bank through a system of ID cards, military checkpoints, and the West Bank barrier. What is more, around some settlements there are separate roads for Palestinian citizens, and in occupied territories, Palestinians are discriminated against in terms of infrastructure, legal rights, and access to land and resources. Perhaps this is why in 1975, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 3379 (now replaced by later resolutions), which concluded that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination,” epitomised by the racist annexation wall. Though Zionism itself may not be a racist ideology, the policies that stem from it certainly are. 

So it's not just the fact that Palestinians have been driven from their homes and their countries, it's also that they are still subject to violence and discrimination. But does the suffering of the Jewish people in the past justify the suffering of the Palestinian people in the present? The answer is, unequivocally, no. This quotation from Jewish anti-Zionist Norman Finkelstein should suffice to defend my position:

“My late father was at Auschwitz concentration camp, my late mother was at Majdanek concentration camp. Every single member of my family, on both sides, was exterminated. Both of my parents were in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and it is precisely and exactly because of the lessons my parents taught me and my two siblings, that I will not be silent when Israel commits its crimes against the Palestinians. And I consider nothing more despicable than to use their suffering, and their martyrdom, to try to justify the torture, the brutalisation, the demolition of homes, that Israel daily commits against the Palestinians.”

And that brings me to my next point. This week, many Zionists have claimed that those who oppose Zionism also oppose Judaism: they say that anti-Zionists are anti-Semites, and the word Jew has simply been replaced by the word Zionist. Does that mean, then, that those Jews who oppose Zionism are anti-Semitic? Ilan Pappe, Norman Finkelstein, and all those Jewish men and women who turn up to pro-Palestinian rallies – are they anti-Semites too? Or do they, as I do, simply oppose the brutality of Zionist ideology?

I hope I have outlined here my reasons for opposing the state of Israel in its current form: because its actions are racist, violent, and, perhaps most importantly, illegal. I could give hundreds more examples about violence and discrimination against Palestinians, but I don’t want to bore you. The facts and statistics I have given speak for themselves and are, I hope, representative of the whole. I’m sure that many will call me a terrorist-sympathiser and all that, so I ought to say that I condemn all unnecessary violence (whether it is Israel, Hamas, or Hezbollah), even if it is for a cause that I believe in.

I was surprised and shocked to be called an anti-Semite and a racist this week, despite having consistently and unequivocally opposed all forms of racism throughout my life. I cannot speak for everyone who supports Palestinian rights and opposes Israel, but I can say with certainty that being anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic are not one and the same – the two must not be conflated. Opposing Zionism, as I do, does not in any way make you an anti-Semite.