Review of ‘Boyhood – Scenes from Provincial Life’ by J.M. Coetzee

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Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life, offers us great opportunities to explore the world of a young boy who is trying to make sense of the adult world around him.  Coetzee’s novel is set in South Africa between 1945 and the 1960’s and indeed, it is amazing how uncannily similar boyhood in South Africa and boyhood in small-town Ireland in the late 40’s and 50’s seems to have been!  On every page one experiences successive soft shocks of recognition: BSA bicycles, the Meccano set, Superman and Mandrake the Magician on the radio, The Rover and Reader’s Digest, Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson, the circus, the head colds in winter and the summer visits to the farm, the secret storms in the heart.  As Philip Larkin ruefully has it, in one of his many marvellous poems about childhood, ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’

Coetzee is admirably honest in his refusal to romanticise his childhood or to portray it as a time of the trembling veil before the adolescent artist stepped forth in all his glory.  There was, it seems, precious little bliss in that South African dawn.  The young John in Boyhood defines childhood as follows:

Childhood, says the Children’s Encyclopaedia, is a time of innocent joy, to be spent in the meadows amid buttercups and bunny rabbits or at the hearth-side absorbed in a storybook.

This vision of childhood, faintly reminiscent of De Valera’s 1930’s vision of Ireland with ‘comely maidens dancing at the crossroads’, is utterly alien to Coetzee.  Nothing he experiences in Worcester, at home or at school, leads him to think that childhood is anything but a time of gritting the teeth and enduring the pain and the shame.

School plays an important role in the growth of our young protagonist.  The young John (Coetzee) works hard in school, not out of any real love of learning, but in order not to attract attention, to remain unremarked, untouched:

So this is what is at stake.  That is why he never makes a sound in class.  That is why he is always neat, why his homework is always done, why he always knows the answer.  He dare not slip.  If he slips, he risks being beaten: and whether he is beaten or whether he struggles against being beaten, it is all the same, he will die.

(Note: Where Coetzee is concerned, for every ‘he’ read ‘I’!)

The school scenes are very good, catching with shiver-inducing accuracy, the intense, humid, faintly indecent relation that exists between teacher and pupils.

He has three favourite books, Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson and Scott of the Antarctic.  He is unable to work out if Long John Silver is bad or good and, ‘he only likes the bit about Titus Oates (in Scott of the Antarctic), the man with frostbite who, because he was holding up his companions, went out into the night, into the snow and ice, and perished quietly, without fuss.  He hopes he can be like Titus Oates one day.’ !!

Race and religion feature strongly in the novel as you would expect.  There are many religious categories and they do not live in harmony, ‘That is how Jews operate, says Norman, you must never trust a Jew.’  In one passage, the young John must choose at school between religious affiliations: ‘Are you a Christian or a Roman Catholic or a Jew?’,  he is asked by an impatient teacher.  From this multiple-choice quiz, the boy from an atheist family picks Roman Catholic and is thereafter (to his relief) exiled from the school’s official Protestant devotions.  But now he has to deal with more than occasional persecution by Protestant bullies – he also arouses the suspicion of his fellow exiles, the Catholic boys who want to know why he is absent from catechism!

A strong feature of the culture of Boyhood is people’s belief in old tales and stories.  This again, has great echoes for me of the stories picked up by the young narrator in Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark classic.  Remember the story told of a local couple who married and the husband went away to sea and was presumed dead?  The sailor’s spirit comes back to torment his wife who had taken up with another man while he was away.  The priest drove the spirit out, yet at night, the image of a child in pain could be seen in the window.  The house concerned was a local one, so people continued to tell that story and the young boy is entranced by it.  Similarly, in Boyhood, John welcomes the visits to his grandfather’s sheep farm and the family gatherings that take place there and he listens avidly to the old stories.

Boyhood, I suppose, could be said to be a Portrait of the Artist type novel although the epiphanies are not as major as in Joyce’s work.  It is written, like much of Coetzee’s work, in the third person, in the continuous present.  In my mind it has great similarities with other favourite novels of mine, Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane and Mark Haddon’s masterpiece The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  Indeed, all three novels share a dystopian view of the world but Coetzee more than the other two has a particularly potent brand of stoic desperation in the face of the world!  I suppose it has to be allowed that his claim to despair is impeccable: South Africa, after all, where he was born and lives and writes, was until recently a very graphic working model of a dystopian, dysfunctional society.  In such richly dreadful circumstances, what novelist could resist writing directly or indirectly about the politics of the day?  However, it has to be said that Coetzee’s fiction is also exemplary in the way in which the author flies by the nets of politics and shows, ‘how not to play the game by the rules of the state’. It surely must be both a curse and a blessing for an artist to live in the ‘interesting times’ of a totalitarian regime, as Coetzee is well aware.  His real achievement is, however, that all his books are so concentrated, so poised, that they do not solely depend for their power on our knowledge of where and in what circumstances they were written.  Surely this is one of the identifying marks of authentic, enduring works of art.

 Coetzee recalls the trials and tribulations of growing up in a provincial South African town at a time when apartheid was on everyone’s lips.  Indeed, the book could be renamed, Portrait of the Artist as an Afrikaner!  South Africa in the 40’s and 50’s was a place very similar to Seamus Deane’s Derry, a place of oppression and cruelty.  Coetzee, however, like Deane in the Irish situation, treats apartheid obliquely, distilling its violence in dark fables of devastation that point a finger at South Africa.  His themes, like Deane’s, lie where the political, spiritual, the psychological and the physical converge: the nightmare of bureaucratic violence; our forlorn estrangement from the land; and a Shakespearean anxiety about nature put out of its order.  Coetzee, in Boyhood, considers it both a curse and a blessing for an artist to live in the ‘interesting times’ of an oppressive regime.  Indeed, it can be said that we are given a very subtle ‘Political Education’ in both novels!

 For most of Boyhood, the young boy has this sense of being ‘unnatural’, ‘damaged’, and ‘deformed’.  But gradually it dawns on him where this apprenticeship in fear and loathing will take him.  The young Coetzee is very perceptive and reflective and he has a very close relationship with his mother.  Walking one day with her he sees a boy running past, absorbed in himself.  The boy is Coloured, as distinct from Native, and is unremarkable, despite having a body that is, ‘perfect and unspoiled, as if it had emerged only yesterday from its shell.’ John knows that if his mother were to call out ‘Boy!’ the coloured boy would have to stop and do whatever she bade him to, such as carrying her shopping basket, and he realises that this boy, ‘who is slim as an eel and quick as a hare,’ is a living reproof to him, and embarrassed, ‘he squirms and wriggles his shoulders and does not want to look at him any longer, despite his beauty.’

He oscillates in his allegiances between his father and his mother.  He joins his father in mockery of his mother when she buys a bicycle and tries to ride it, yet he has never worked out the position of his father in the household, and in fact ‘it is not obvious to him by what right his father is there at all’.  He wishes his father would beat him, ‘and turn him into a normal boy,’ yet he knows too that if his father were indeed to beat him, ‘he would become possessed, like a rat in a corner, hurtling about, snapping with its poisonous fangs, too dangerous to be touched.’  By the close of the book, when the family has moved to Cape Town, the father has sunk into debt, failure, and alcoholism, and as he sinks, the mother rises: ‘It is as though she is inviting calamities upon herself for no other purpose than to show the world how much she can endure.’

However, the young Coetzee is strident in his acknowledgement that he owes much to his upbringing, especially to the influence of his mother.  She has bequeathed to him an artistic vision, an ability to reflect and observe.  He hates the dull, uninspiring essays he is asked to do in class and admits that if he could he would write something far darker, stranger, far more mysterious: ‘Like spilt ink, like shadows racing across the face of still water, like lightening crackling across the sky.’

On the other hand, his father is a major disappointment.  He has waged war on him from an early age but it is only towards the end of the novel that we realise how serious the situation is.  The family are bankrupt as a result of his gambling and alcoholism and he pours scorn on what he considers to be a pathetic figure.  His mother continues to support her husband, to the boy’s amazement, defending him with the barbed comment, ‘Wait until you have children’.  He comes to realise, however, that she is the rock at the centre of his precarious existence and in one of the many epiphanies in the book he comments: ‘This woman was not brought into the world for the sole purpose of loving him and protecting him and taking care of his wants.’  He has huge respect for her and he says towards the end of the novel, ‘he would rather be blind and deaf than know what she thinks of him.’

Overall, Boyhood presents us with a rather bleak vision.  Coetzee has written elsewhere that South African literature is precisely what you would expect from people living in prison.  Boyhood gives us a clear insight into the prison that the notoriously private Coetzee has himself inhabited: drab suburban housing estates; an alcoholic, distant father, his business career decaying; an overly intimate long-suffering mother.  This is the story of millions of 20th. century families everywhere in the developed world.  But Boyhood is more than this.  However, it is primarily an internal account, the story of an exquisitely painful – almost autistic – self-consciousness, a subjectivity so sensitive and so tender that it seems like ‘a crab pulled out of its shell, pink and wounded and obscene.’  The novel seems to suggest that the best we can do is to try to keep ourselves sane by continuous reflection.  No hope is offered.  There is no happy ending and we do not observe an improvement in John’s relationship with his father or his mother.  If anything he manages to maintain a cold detachment from both throughout.

Tony Humphreys, a noted clinical psychologist, author and all-round guru, has written a very popular book called, The Family: Love it and Leave it.  This is the great adventure which the young protagonist in Boyhood undertakes.  He is endeavouring to cope with his family situation as best he can.  Coetzee ends up writing to make sense of the world he lives in. In fact, he appears to be casting about in his childhood for the roots of his success as a writer: Did it spring from his marginal social position as an English speaker from an Afrikaner background; or from his intensely passionate, sentimental attachment to his father’s family farm; or from the smothering affection of his mother, which made him feel like a solitary specimen, both protected and deformed?  Whichever is the correct version, he feels compelled to write his way out of his own South African prison; and we all benefit from his struggle.

About the Author….

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John Maxwell Coetzee is a South African novelist, essayist, linguist, translator and recipient of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature.  Before receiving the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature, Coetzee was awarded the Jerusalem Prize, CNA Prize (three times), the Prix Femina Étranger, The Irish Times International Fiction Prize and the Booker Prize (twice), among other accolades. He relocated to Australia in 2002 and lives in Adelaide. He became an Australian citizen in 2006.

 

 

 

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An Analysis of the Character of Christopher Boone

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is set in an ordinary suburban street in Swindon sometime in the late twentieth century.  Christopher, the main character, suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome and is confined to his house and his mainly scientific hobbies.  He rarely ventures into his neighbourhood and his main venture each day is to attend a special school.  However, later in the novel, he undertakes a major adventure, which leads to his exploring the city of London and discovering its ways.

Christopher’s family unit is under a lot of pressure – mainly due to the stress involved in bringing up a young boy with autism.  Christopher’s parents separate and other family’s in the neighbourhood also experience marriage break-up.  His father lies about the disappearance of Christopher’s mother.  She eventually leaves because she can no longer cope.  She has an affair with her neighbour, whose wife, in turn, has an affair with Christopher’s dad.  He doesn’t really understand these developments and he is more of a loner than a family member.  It can be said that the comings and goings, the trials and tribulations, which befall Christopher are similar to those that befall many who live in a present-day urban setting.

Christopher’s life revolves around maths and what colour cars he sees in the morning. He is innocence in its subtlest form. He lives with his Father. When he finds his neighbour’s dog dead in the garden with a garden fork sticking out of his stomach, he sets out to find who the murderer is. This leads him to many a revelation and a world that Christopher isn’t used to. So, he decides (as does his helper Siobhan) that he should write a book about the events that occur after the dog’s death. So, that’s what he does. And that’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time by Mark Haddon.

This debut novel by Mark Haddon introduces us to the irresistible voice of his fifteen-year-old narrator, Christopher Boone, and this is what elevates this novel to fantastic heights.

It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs Shears’ house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog. The points of the fork must have gone all the way through the dog and into the ground because the fork had not fallen over. I decided that the dog was probably killed with the fork because I could not see any other wounds in the dog and I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some other reason, like cancer for example, or a road accident. But I could not be certain about this.

I went through Mrs Shears’ gate, closing it behind me. I walked onto her lawn and knelt beside the dog. I put my hand on the muzzle of the dog. It was still warm.

The dog was called Wellington. It belonged to Mrs Shears who was our friend. She lived on the opposite side of the road, two houses to the left.

Wellington was a poodle. Not one of the small poodles that have hairstyles but a big poodle. It had curly black fur, but when you got close you could see that the skin underneath the fur was a very pale yellow, like chicken.

I stroked Wellington and wondered who had killed him, and why.

“This is a murder mystery novel,” Christopher explains a few pages further on.  Reading was for him a way of opening the doors of his imagination and allowing it to run free.  As a child, he had the ability to think things out in detail.  This ability helped him piece the truth together from the flimsy snippets of information he had acquired.  Christopher Boone is a great fan of Sherlock Holmes and especially his detective masterpiece, The Hound of the Baskervilles.  Indeed, it is this novel which gives him the idea that he should become a detective and investigate the killing of his neighbour’s dog, Wellington.  “In a murder mystery novel someone has to work out who the murderer is and then catch them,” he reasons. “It is a puzzle.”

Christopher is quite good at puzzles.

****

His discovery of letters written by his ‘dead’ mother leads him to try and solve another mystery.  His father tries to protect his son by telling him that his mother has died when in fact they have separated and she has gone to live with her new partner in London.  Christopher’s discovery of letters written by his mother after her ‘death’ gives rise to a major breakdown in trust between himself and his father and also to his heroic efforts to be reunited with his mother.

Christopher is also very good at mathematics, and at remembering, and he proves to us many times in the book how good he is. For fun, and to calm himself down, he squares the number two over and over again. At times it’s rather scary that he can do it, and you wonder what it must be like to be like that. To be so capable of one thing – doing mathematics – and being so incapable of another thing – living a life. It’s heartbreaking. Even when it comes to numbering the chapters in his book the chapter numbers don’t go in order of ascending numbers, as is usual, but Christopher instead uses prime numbers.

Christopher is entirely incapable of delineating among the various grades of human emotion on the scale between happy and sad, which makes for a curious, if not altogether perplexing narrative perspective. Reporting on the conversations and interactions around him with virtually no understanding of their portent, Christopher surely ranks among the most hard-boiled detectives in all of literature. Logic dictates, indisputably. His brain is a one-party political system with no room for checks and balances – no fifty shades of grey here!

Christopher may not recognize them, but emotions lurk behind virtually every clue he uncovers. Still, his pitch never varies. Christopher never slips off course. That dissonance, the weighty, shifting space between the story Christopher is telling and the one we are reading exposes depths of insight and feeling no simple, straightforward narrative could hope to provide in so few pages.  At certain times in the novel we feel great empathy for Christopher’s  father: after all, Christopher is quite content with who he is and it is his father who has to watch him be how he is.

***

The Curious Incident is a unique novel, as Christopher’ narration gives us a powerful insight into the autistic mind.  So while he is brilliant at science and maths (at one point, he quickly calculates 2 to the power of 15!) its people he finds complicated.  With their devious ways and moods, people aren’t ‘logical’.  By allowing us to observe Christopher’s thought processes, Mark Haddon shows us our illogical world in all its duplicity, while at the same time witnessing Christopher’s awkward behaviour getting him into countless rows with his family, friends, and teachers.

“Not liking yellow things or brown things and refusing to touch yellow things or brown things” is, in fact, one of Christopher’s Behavioural Problems. He does not like dirt, gravy, wood, or poo, or anything brown for that matter, including Melissa Brown, a girl at his school. And if on the bus ride to school he was to see four yellow cars in a row, to cite one extreme manifestation of his dislike for all things yellow, it would be “a Black Day, which is a day when I don’t speak to anyone and sit on my own reading books and don’t eat my lunch and Take No Risks.” To Christopher, despite sensible arguments to the contrary, this behaviour makes perfect sense.

Mrs Forbes said that hating yellow and brown is just being silly. And Siobhan said that she shouldn’t say things like that and everyone has favourite colours. And Siobhan was right. But Mrs Forbes was a bit right, too. Because it is sort of being silly. But in life, you have to take lots of decisions and if you don’t take decisions you would never do anything because you would spend all your time choosing between things you could do. So it is good to have a reason why you hate some things and you like others. It is like being in a restaurant like when Father takes me out to a Berni Inn sometimes and you look at the menu and you have to choose what you are going to have. But you don’t know if you are going to like something because you haven’t tasted it yet, so you have favourite foods and you choose these, and you have foods you don’t like and you don’t choose these, and then it is simple.

***

“This will not be a funny book,” Christopher warns readers. “I cannot tell jokes because I do not understand them.” And it’s true: Christopher cannot process anything but the most literal statements. Metaphors, to his way of thinking, are lies. Implying that one thing is another — it’s more than confusing; it’s downright dishonest.

One of the great triumphs of the novel is the way Christopher’s hyper-logical voice comes across to the reader as a brilliant brand of dry, deadpan humour. The story, quite funny to begin with, gets funnier still upon rereading, without the distractions and misdirection imposed by its underlying suspense.

If the book’s economical (and spot-on) dialogue allows a reader to see through Christopher’s obfuscating narration and straight into the heart of the characters — it’s only when we hear the characters speak that we gain a proper context for Christopher’s severely limited perspective — Haddon’s dialogue also provides tremendous opportunities for comedy. Christopher’s exchange with a policeman in a station of the Underground could well have been lifted directly from the vaudeville stage. Christopher is the straight man, nonpareil.

And I said, “What does single or return mean?”

And he said, “Do you want to go one way, or do you want to go and come back?”

And I said, “I want to stay there when I get there.”

And he said, “For how long?”

And I said, “Until I go to university.”

And he said, “Single, then,” and then he said, “That’ll be £32.”

Christopher’s narration can be hilarious on one page, then two pages later you want to cry!

****

When Christopher sets out on his brave but dangerous journey to London, the minutia finally overwhelms him. The swarming crowds, noise raging in every direction, and everywhere signs bearing alien, incomprehensible messages… it’s all too unfamiliar, and before long it’s too much for him to manage.

Here, not for the first time, Christopher’s investigation inadvertently exposes raw, difficult truths about our modern lives. In the bustling train station, Christopher practically collapses from sensory overload; you can almost hear his fuses pop (it sounds like groaning). We don’t exactly empathize with Christopher. There’s a border we can’t cross, despite Mark Haddon’s virtuoso performance. However, at the end of the novel, we finally realize, no matter how great our efforts at empathy, that nothing could ever make us truly appreciate the unending alienation Christopher suffers.

***

And finally, I come to the writing. One of the best elements of the book. As I’ve mentioned its simplicity is its brilliance. Haddon, somehow or other, obviously through months, if not years, of research has managed to get into the mind of a boy who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome. He’s managed to write an insightful, unbelievably fascinating novel that is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, if not ever. Books like The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time don’t come along very often, so we must cherish it like it’s gold. Because, really, it is. To not read The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time is most certainly the biggest crime of all. To not learn about Asperger’s Syndrome afterwards is an even bigger one.

***

“Here is a narrator who seems to be hugely ill-equipped for writing a book,” the author  Mark Haddon aptly notes, “He can’t understand metaphor; he can’t understand other people’s emotions; he misses the bigger picture. And yet it makes him incredibly well suited to narrating a book. He never explains too much. He never tries to persuade the reader to feel about things this way or that way. He just kind of paints this picture and says, ‘Make of it what you will.'”

Yet, while there are pessimistic elements in the novel: his family is dysfunctional; he is anti-social; he imagines humans becoming extinct; on his journey to London he experiences many of the negative aspects of human behaviour, yet I think the overall vision is a positive one.  He fulfils his life plan and gains an A Grade in his A-Level exams, he solves the murder mystery, he discovers the truth about his ‘dead’ mother and is safely reunited with her, he succeeds in writing a book, and he triumphs over his fears on his London journey.  Christopher’s father makes up with him by buying him a dog, the first step in re-establishing the trust that had been badly damaged by his father’s lying to him.

The greatness of Haddon’s novel is that when we come to understand the young Christopher’s view of the world, we understand his responses and we see the validity and richness of Christopher’s interpretations.  And we come to believe him when after getting an A Grade in his Maths A-Level he says, towards the end, that he WILL go to university and WILL live in a flat with a garden along with his new dog Sandy, his books and his computer.  And he WILL get a First Class Honours Degree and WILL become a scientist.  ‘And I know I can do this because I went to London on my own and because I solved the mystery of Who Killed Wellington … and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.’

 

 

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Analysis of Patrick Kavanagh’s Use of the Sonnet

Patrick Kavanagh

Patrick Kavanagh’s bronze commemorative seat near Baggott Street Bridge in Dublin

Kavanagh is very comfortable and skilled in his use of the sonnet in his poetry.  He manages to express an authentic and simple vision of life and communicate it successfully using the sonnet form.  Indeed, this simple vision has often led to Kavanagh being underestimated and undervalued among his peers.  He never aspired to the greatness of Yeats and neither has he the subtlety of Kinsella.  But within the poetic limits, he set for himself Kavanagh presents a new, inimitable, and sometimes disturbing way of viewing life.  His sonnets are informed by a unique personal vision.

A criticism often levelled at Kavanagh is that often his statements fall into predictable patterns.  His sonnets, for example, do not develop – what we get from him is a series of sincere repetitions of a few basic perceptions.  In the last of his Dublin sonnets, he is saying, in more or less the same way, what he was saying in the first, and his greatness is that he moves us by repetition.  It is this sincerity that prevents his repetition from becoming commonplace.  However, this integrity does not hide the fact that there is little or no growth in his poetic ability.  There is, instead, a kind of lyrical repetition that constantly commands attention.  Kavanagh is stuck in a personal rut of poetic honesty.  He seems almost to be writing the same poem always!

On reading his sonnets one notices how, for him, perception has become an obsession, and how he clings to the importance of delineating visual scenes:

A swan goes by head low with many apologies

Fantastic light looks through the eyes of bridges

And look! a barge comes bringing from Athy

And other far-flung towns mythologies.

Visual perception has assumed an almost religious fascination which will not permit him to remain at rest with one statement of it.  He must tell it to the world all the time and invite others to share in his views:

O commemorate me with no hero-courageous

Tomb – just a canal-bank seat for the passer-by.

Within these limits, however, Kavanagh maintains a moving, coherent and intimate vision of life.  Indeed, the success of his method is particularly noticeable when he tries to break away from it.  As a poet without learning, Kavanagh sometimes tries to overcome or transcend his limitations by placing learned words, ideas or references in his poems.  The intended effect is either to heighten the tone and increase the sense of personal tension, or else to bring a visual image more vividly to mind.  Sometimes he only partly achieves the desired effect; more often he fails completely.  A good example of this occurs in ‘Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal’ where two exaggerated comparisons mar an otherwise perfect poem.  The word Niagariously in line 5 is meant to convey an audible image of sound as water rushes through the locks, and is in contrast to the ‘tremendous silence’ of the next line.  The image of the Niagara Falls is, however, surely too exaggerated a comparison to make with the quiet splash of water over a lock on the Grand Canal.  On a technical level, the word is almost impossible to pronounce and it destroys the gentle rhythm of the opening lines.  Similarly, the allusion to ‘these Parnassian islands’ is inserted too boldly into a poem which depends on simplicity for its effect, rather than on weighty, learned references.  In each case, there is a certain lack of integration of the image.  By way of contrast, however, the reference to Alexander Selkirk in ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’  is seamlessly integrated with the overall theme of the poem.  It expresses an idea repeated by Kavanagh in many of his poems: namely, his separateness, his detachment, the sense that he can participate but never belong.

I have what every poet hates in spite

Of all the solemn talk of contemplation

Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight

Of being king and government and nation.

Kavanagh’s poetic preferences are stated clearly in his prose works.  In From Monaghan to the Grand Canal, he defines the limits of his themes and subject matter.  He states, ‘The things that really matter, are casual insignificant little things.’  Co-existing with this sense of the importance of insignificance is the contrasting idea of the world’s grandeur.  Kavanagh is indeed a nature poet, but not in the manner in which we usually apply the term.  There are no sweeping descriptions of majestic landscapes; only the unseen beauty encountered on an evening’s stroll.  ‘Canal Bank Walk’ is the best presentation of his method.  The still, canal waters ‘pour redemption’ on him.  He thinks of its beauty in terms of religious images.  He feels ‘redeemed’, born again, after his long life of hardship in Monaghan.  God ordained that men should work and suffer.  But even in his inaction, Kavanagh feels that he can clarify the beauty of the ordinary world (‘the habitual’) and that this, too, is the ‘will of God.’  His duty as a poet is seen by himself as a religious vocation.  This spiritual frame of reference continues into line 4 when he says that he will now:

Grow with nature again as before I grew.

He then lists a group of visual images which stress, again, the beauty of unimportant objects.  Indeed, the central portion of this sonnet is characterized by its visionary impact.  Its simplicity stems from a totally coherent and lucid vision:

The bright stick trapped, the breeze adding a third

Party to the couple kissing on an old seat,

And a bird gathering materials for the nest…..

God and the idea of God dominate this sonnet.  In his essay entitled Pietism and Poetry Kavanagh says ‘the odd thing about the best modern poets is their utter simplicity.’  Of  Kavanagh himself, it may be said that he is the only great modern poet who never wrote an obscure poem.  He recognized that, in many cases, obscurity is merely a failure of the poet’s imagination and of his ability to communicate.  Kavanagh saw his simplicity as a gift from God.  He obviously thought a great deal about the nature of simplicity.  In ‘Canal Bank Walk’ he asks for a poetic style that is passive, reposed and serene:

                                 …………………………, give me ad lib

To pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech.

He also asks for a consuming intimacy with the natural world – a twentieth-century version of Wordsworth’s Pantheism:

For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven

From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.

For Kavanagh, in this sonnet, the rewards of liberty are twofold.  First of all, his sense of wonder deepens, and his expression of it becomes more assured.  The second reward for the liberated, independent imagination is a kind of poetic faith that is inextricably linked with this deepened sense of wonder.  This sense of well-being is described in religious terms and phrases – Kavanagh, after all, is a deeply religious poet: ‘redemption’, ‘God’, ‘the Word’, ‘pray’, ‘soul’.  This poem is deceptively simple.  Its simplicity is achieved with consummate art, through the poet’s personal involvement in the scene.  It is not so much that he observes real things as that he feels the physical presence of these things with a total and alert consciousness:

O unworn world enrapture me….

He does not simply describe the scene, he recreates it, and it is unforgettable.  This is very similar to Wordsworth’s notion of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ and this exploitation of the power of suggestion in ordinary subjects is the most striking of Kavanagh’s special gifts.

Kavanagh’s poems fall naturally into three divisions: those about the countryside (the Monaghan poems); those about the city (the Dublin poems); and those which, broadly speaking, attempt to express a kind of personal philosophy, or which try to define the nature of personal vision (the sonnets).  There have been many previous attempts to define poetry and I suppose each of us must really define it for ourselves.  Kavanagh found it impossible to define but fascinating to describe.  In ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’ he sees it basically as a celebration of human inadequacy and failure.  All poets are at times taken up, directly or indirectly, with being different from the rest of society, and Irish poets are especially preoccupied with this problem.  A poet is, almost by definition, an individualist: he stands for the private, as distinct from the public values, and for the protection of private feeling ‘against the tyranny of society’.  ‘Inniskeen Road’ could be seen as Kavanagh’s defense of poetry, as a compressed statement of poetic belief.  The octave stresses public concerns, the second line imitates the plain language of village people and is in some sense satiric.  But Kavanagh is never completely at home in satire and in the sestet the tone changes.  The mood becomes meditative with the poet’s feeling of regret and detachment.  What is stressed here is his separateness, his isolation.  The paradox is of course that only by thus withdrawing can he discover himself and his mission as a poet.  He has withdrawn from the world in order to be able to understand it and value it truly.  His observation, therefore, becomes acute, and his power of selecting significant details remarkable.  Though feeling, at first, the weight of his loneliness, the mood changes again in the last line as he suddenly understands himself, and his situation:

                                                            ………..       I am king

Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.

 The sonnet entitled ‘Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal’ is basically different from the other two.  It has neither the sense of frustration communicated by ‘Inniskeen Road’ nor the delicate imagery of ‘Canal Bank Walk’.  It is a public sonnet, a direct address from the poet to the reader and as such its tone is serious.  Its style is very elegant but really more closely akin to prose rather than poetry:

O commemorate me where there is water,

Canal water preferably….

In ‘Inniskeen Road’ Kavanagh tries to define his own relationship with Irish society.  In ‘Canal Bank Walk’ he has rejected society for the intimacies of private experience.  Now, in this last sonnet, there is a new sense of communication: there is a wish to renew his links with others and to share with them his experience and this is why he addresses his listener/reader using terms of affection:

Brother

Commemorate me thus beautifully…

As usual with Kavanagh, the sonnet creates a visual scene.  He has not time to entice his listener with lengthy descriptions but he provokes his interest through simple images; a swan, the light under bridges, a barge.  Compared to ‘Canal Bank Walk’ we notice the economy and compression gained from the absence of adjectives.  Also, this sonnet shows less dependence on imagery and relies more on factual statements.

Indeed, the formal demands of sonnet writing brought out the best of Kavanagh’s poetic ability and many of his poems are superb personal statements.  His imagery often seems plain and unremarkable when compared to that of Yeats or Kinsella, but the images are sharp, descriptive, and precisely used.  In the best of his sonnets, he speaks of a certain time and place; he expresses experiences in the context of his own world.  It is unlikely that he will ever be the source of the industry that has grown up around Yeats: there is so little to unravel, his greatness seems not in himself but in the world he expresses.  And yet it is true to say that, though Yeats is a more universal poet, Kavanagh is, at times, much more Irish, in that he expresses a theme that is less remote from ordinary people’s experience.  It is this simple immediacy of Kavanagh’s poetry that is part of his special appeal.

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The Grand Canal in Dublin. Image by Kaihsu Tai via Wikimedia Commons.

This essay is an edited version of one written by Joseph Ducke for the Inscapes Series (Inscape17: Poetry 2) entitled Patrick Kavanagh, (p.73) and published by The Educational Company of Ireland in 1980.

Some Recurring Themes in the Poetry of Patrick Kavanagh

 

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Those hungry hills….

Patrick Kavanagh, like Yeats, is constantly ‘stitching and unstitching’ old themes in his poems.  These themes can be listed as follows, without giving them any particular order or ranking:

  • Loneliness and isolation;
  • Regret at the thought of lost innocence since the passing of childhood;
  • Meditations on the vocation of the poet and how this vocation has been frustrated;
  • The relationship between the poet and nature;
  • Religion;
  • Meditations on the poet’s poor, deprived background, and on the impoverishment of the spirit induced by the life of the Irish countryside of his youth.

It helps if we distinguish between two distinct phases of Kavanagh’s poetic career.  Put simply his career can be divided between what we will call ‘the Monaghan poems’ and ‘the Dublin poems’.  The poems dealing with life in the grim, forbidding farmlands of Monaghan (‘Stony Grey Soil’   and ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’) are remarkable for their attitude of disillusionment and discontent.  Life in the Irish countryside and its effects on sensitive souls are portrayed with savage realism:

You sang on steaming dunghills

A song of coward’s brood

You perfumed my clothes with weasel itch

You fed me on swinish food.

The tone of this poem, ‘Stony Grey Soil’, is predominantly one of disgust and rebellion.  The poet’s mind has been embittered and stunted by the drudgery of life on a small farm.  His high ambitions and ideals have been frustrated.  He might have pictured himself as a graceful young man, talented and destined to succeed, but the reality has been much different:

You clogged the feet of my boyhood

And I believed that my stumble

Had the poise and stride of Apollo

And his voice my thick-tongued mumble.

There is a kind of savage comedy in the self-mocking contrast between Apollo, the god of light, beauty, poetry and music, and the rustic, awkward, ugly and ill-spoken young poet scraping a miserable living from a poor farm.  It is, however, important to notice that this poem is not uniformly disillusioned in tone.  Life may have been poor, nasty and brutish, but it has to be remembered that in those dark fields of Monaghan, Kavanagh had his first poetic inspiration:

The first gay flight of my lyric

Got caught in a peasant’s prayer.

Another poem which deals with the less attractive aspects of the poet’s early life is ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’.  Again we have the theme of the lonely, suffering, misunderstood poet living in a place where the inhabitants cannot be expected to understand or sympathise with him.  He is an isolated figure on the Inniskeen road as the carefree groups of young people pass him on their way to a dance.  They share the ‘half-talk code of mysteries’, and the ‘wind and elbow language of delight’.  He is pointedly excluded.  He must pay this price for being a poet; he must be prepared to be an outcast from the company of those who cannot share his interests and who are overawed by the power of the poet in their midst.  This poem features one of Kavanagh’s characteristic mannerisms: his tendency to use literary allusion (Selkirk on his island the ‘monarch of all I survey’) to illustrate a point.  The pun on ‘blooming’ in the line ‘Of banks and stones and every blooming thing’ is in doubtful taste: Kavanagh is (too) often liable to lapses of this kind.

There is a world of difference between the two poems just discussed and two later poems dealing with the Grand Canal and its surroundings.  Kavanagh’s attitude to the environment changed dramatically following his operation for lung cancer.  He said: ‘As a poet, I was born in or about 1955, the place of my birth being the banks of the Grand Canal’.  The Canal Bank poems show us that he has left behind him the inhibitions and restrictions featured in the earlier poems, and achieved a new freedom of imagination and a new, more positive outlook on life and nature.  The rural nature of Monaghan reminded him of his loneliness; the urban nature of the canal bank offers redemption and hope.  He sits on the canal bank enjoying the sunshine ‘pouring redemption’ for him.  There is a powerful sense of enjoyment, of gratitude and of wonder at the new beauty he is able to feel all around him.  Remember, he has only recently been discharged from hospital after successful treatment for lung cancer.  He now feels as if he has been reborn.  He is almost delirious with joy at the sight of the simple, yet beautiful, natural objects which pass before his eyes.  Even the most commonplace things take on a new meaning for him; he is now content to ‘wallow in the habitual, the banal’.  Nature is now capable of healing his wounds, of giving him the kind of happiness he has always longed for:

O unworn world enrapture me, enrapture me in a web

Of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech

This poem, ‘Canal Bank Walk’, is full of a deeply religious awareness of nature, associated with ‘the will of God’, ‘redemption’, ‘eternal voices’, ‘the Word’.

The same joyful mood is present in ‘Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin’.  Here again, the tone is optimistic.  Nature and its sights and sounds fill the poet with the deep contentment he finds in ‘the tremendous silence of mid-July’.  It is this close communion with nature that leads him to ask for commemoration near water.  Whereas in his Monaghan poems, the ordinary things of nature, the fields, the soil, the ditches, the hedges, the hills, tended to provoke unpleasant reactions, in his later work he finds novelty, excitement and new inspiration in the most ordinary and banal sights and sounds: the noise of the canal lock gate, the greenness of the trees, the barge, the swan.  This child-like wonder at the sight of common objects is a distinctive feature of his later work.  The discontent, the disillusionment, the loneliness, of his early poems have given way to a new poetry of acceptance, of happy enjoyment of life and nature.

‘Advent’ is a good example of Kavanagh’s treatment of a religious theme.  It is obvious that the poet is very much influenced by traditional Catholic teaching and practice and this may pose problems for some modern readers who may be unfamiliar with these beliefs. It is really a sequence of two sonnets, which do not, however, follow the usual rules observed by writers of sonnets. (It is interesting to note that the poem has twenty-eight lines and that there are twenty-eight days in Advent). This poem, in fact, has much in common with the Grand Canal poems.  Here Kavanagh longs to return to the wonder of childhood, to be able to experience again ‘the newness that was in every stale thing / when we looked at it as children’.  In those far off days of infancy, he could experience wonder at the sight of a hill, a bog-hole or a cart-track.  However, as he has aged and matured, this childhood sense of wonder has been eroded and destroyed.  The poet, like other adults, has allowed contact with the world and with the pleasure of the senses (‘We tested and tasted too much, lover’) to dissipate what he calls ‘the luxury of a child’s soul’.  The problem posed in the poem is how can he recapture this childhood happiness again.  There is, I sense, another more selfish reason for this quest during Advent: this new-found wonder will also help him as a poet.  Now, everything he sees will be suitable subject matter for his poems.  Kavanagh finds the answer in penance, for which Advent (and Lent) were traditional seasons.  ‘The dry black bread and the sugarless tea’ of penance will help to charm back the childhood attitudes to experience.  Now, he will find happiness in looking at the simple, even banal, things of life.  By undergoing penance during the Advent season, the poet sees himself returning sin where it came from and now he will no longer need to go searching ‘for the difference that sets an old phrase burning’.  He will now see everything in a new light, even the talking of an old fool, previously tedious, will now seem delightful.  The sight of men barrowing dung in gardens will be a joyful sign of God’s plenty.  Advent penance and the renewal of religious feeling and fervour will lead to a new found peace of mind.  Metaphorically he is born again!  Now, he will no longer seek reasons or explanations for mysteries, or for griefs experienced.  He will not try to over-analyse the reasons for his new mood now that he has cast off sin.

This newly-acquired delight and celebration of simple, banal things are what connects ‘Advent’ with the Canal Bank poems.

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Patrick Kavanagh by Paul McCloskey

This essay is an edited version of one written by Patrick Murray for the Inscapes Series (Inscape16: Poetry 1) entitled ‘Patrick Kavanagh Some Themes’, (p.78) and published by The Educational Company of Ireland in 1980.

Austin Clarke – Three Poems Revisited

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My beloved copy of Soundings

Recently I was browsing through my precious, dog-eared and scribbled-on copy of Soundings and came across the three Austin Clarke poems featured in that anthology.  ‘The Lost Heifer’, ‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’, and ‘The Planter’s Daughter’ brought back fond memories of English classes long ago!  The Clarke poems selected in Augustine Martin’s infamous Interim (!) Anthology don’t give a comprehensive view of his range as a poet but they do display his enthusiasm for Gaelic poetry. The three poems selected by Martin are, however, good examples of the way many Irish poets transposed some of the stylistic devices associated with this type of poetry into English verse.  It is also interesting to note that ‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’ has as its main theme the conflict between pagan and Christian values, here represented by an imagined conversation between St. Patrick and the ‘pagan’ blackbird.  This theme occupied Clarke for much of his poetic career.

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‘The Lost Heifer’

In my experience as a frazzled English teacher ‘The Lost Heifer’ always provoked puzzled reactions from my students.  The title of the poem, taken in conjunction with Clarke’s well-known fondness for Gaelic poetry, gives a clue as to what it may be about.  The cow or heifer in Gaelic poetry, especially in the Jacobite era, was often used as a secret code name for Ireland, as, for example, in such poems as ‘An Droimeann Donn Dílis’.  However, even when we are aware of this background knowledge, useful as it is, it does not get us very far into the heart of the poem.  Clarke himself has told us that the poem had its origins in the Irish Civil War of the 1920’s.  It was written at a time when, as Clarke saw it, the noble ideals and aspirations of the patriots of the War of Independence were lost or obscured in the intense bitterness and disillusionment of the war of brothers.  The heifer of the poem stood for a vision of Ireland, obscured for the moment by mist and rain, which stood for those grim forces already referred to: forces which made it difficult for those who shared the patriotic vision to find it in those grim times.

In defence of my often bemused Leaving Cert students in the 80’s and 90’s, it would be very difficult to arrive at this interpretation without the help of the poet himself!  There are certainly no obvious clues, however cryptic or obscure, to anything like a civil war background, or, indeed, to any other political backdrop whatever.  Without the poet’s explanation no student of mine, lacking the information given above, could conceivably sub-title the poem, ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’.

Part of the reason the poem defies logical explanation is that it is a symbolic representation and therefore impossible to render in logical terms.  Most attempts to convey the ‘meaning’ of such a poem are doomed to failure.  Indeed, no prose analysis could do justice to the impressionistic landscape evoked by Clarke in the poem, or to his tremendous rhythms or delicately suggested sound effects.  The notion that the heifer stands for some obscured ideal of Ireland is certainly borne out in the imagery through which the heifer is suggested, rather than presented or realised.  There is no direct glimpse of the heifer.  He builds up a picture using colour, light and shade and this contributes to the mood.  She is brought to mind; she evokes an image of loss and beauty; her presence is inferred by her tracks in the dark grasses, and by her soft voice coming across the meadow.  These delightfully delicate symbolic evocations of Ireland and of misty Irish landscapes certainly owe something to the poetry of Yeats:

I went out to the hazel wood

Because a fire was in my head

And cut and pulled a hazel wand…

It had become a glimmering girl

Who called me by my name and ran

And faded through the brightening air….

As in all symbolist or quasi-symbolist poems, the imagery is mysteriously echoic, capable of more than one interpretation.  A good example of this is, the implied metaphor in lines 5 and 6, ‘I thought of the last honey by the water / That no hive can find’.  At the symbolic level, one assumes that here we have an image of the heifer (and thus the idealised Ireland) as something remote and inaccessible.  But what is the precise meaning of the words?  The last honey by the water may be wild honey near a stream or river that will never be found by man, or it may be nectar that no hive of bees can reach.

The poem is a fine illustration of Clarke’s ability to manipulate vowels and consonants to provide wholly pleasing sound-effects.  Here he is indebted to features of the Gaelic poetic tradition.  He strives here to copy the Gaelic poets’ use of internal rhyme, consonance and assonance with great dexterity:

When the black herds of the rain were grazing….

And the watery hazes of the hazel….

That no hive can find…..

Brightness was drenching through the branches….

Indeed, the poem has a very elaborate and ingenious sound pattern.  The poet uses rhyme, line-length and sound correspondence in the shaping of this lyric. (You can explore this further by following the ‘ay’ sound through the poem).  And by comparing the first and last lines of the poem I feel that there is a progression, a sense of completeness, and a sense of hope for the future, as the ‘black herds’ in line one, lost and obscured by the mountain mist,  become clearer as the mist becomes rain.

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‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’

‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’ is somewhat easier to comprehend than ‘The Lost Heifer’.  Clarke based this poem on another famous poem in the Irish language called ‘Lonn Doire an Chairn’, a standard anthology piece taken from the Irish in a sequence known as the ‘Colloquy of the Old Men’.  Anyone familiar with Clarke’s source will realize that his poem is not a direct translation, but a very free adaptation.  In the Irish poem, Oisin is the speaker, and his main theme is the joyful, carefree life of the Fianna, symbolised by the glorious singing of the blackbird, this life being contrasted with the devout austerities of St. Patrick, who is encouraged to forgo his asceticism for the beauties of the natural life.  Clarke’s poem sets the Christian and pagan ways of life in sharp contrast.  His speaker is the blackbird, who tries to persuade Patrick to abandon the rigours of his religious practice and participate in the joys of nature.  The argument or dialogue, however, is very one-sided and Patrick’s values are given short shrift.  Religion is represented by ‘God’s shadow in the cup’, the ‘mournful matins’, and the handbell ‘without a glad sound’.  Against this, we have the lively evocation of happy nature: the bright sun, the singing of the birds, Fionn’s keen response to the sights and sounds of the natural world.

The most interesting thing about the poem is the twist Clarke provides us with at the end which is not in the original.  The Irish source has no hint of the blackbird’s threat to Patrick and all he represents.  The ‘knowledge’ that is found among the branches is presumably, the kind available to those who give themselves up to the spontaneous enjoyment of, and involvement in, nature.  At the end, the blackbird is suggesting that this knowledge will ultimately overcome the Christianity which now threatens to overthrow it, and will send Christians and their faith packing for good.  The line ‘will thong the leather of your satchels’ seems to mean ‘will cause you to pack your bags and go’.

Here in this poem Clarke again makes use of the main stylistic devices of Gaelic poetry: alliteration, internal rhyme, assonance and consonance: note for instance in the opening stanza the poet uses,

(a) cross-rhyme – ‘bough-top’ / ‘cup now’;

(b) assonance – ‘brighter’ / ‘nightfall’, and the more unexpected internal echoes like, ‘whistling’ / ‘listen’;

(c) alliteration – ‘Mournful matins’ and so on.

You have my permission to explore the other stanzas yourself!

The last two stanzas juxtapose the free and easy life of Fionn and the Fianna and the restrictive and unattractive austerity of the Christian monks in their prayer cells.  The final two lines see a return to the beginning.  The blackbird has the last word and this suggests that the blackbird’s view holds sway and very soon the monks and their asceticism and prayers will be sent packing.  In the light of recent returns from our Central Statistics Office maybe we can say that the poet is being prophetic here!

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‘For the house of the Planter / Is known by the trees’

 ‘The Planter’s Daughter’

The most interesting feature of ‘The Planter’s Daughter’, a very slight poem, is the indirectness of Clarke’s method of presentation of his subject.  She is not named and her family is referred to in a somewhat derogatory manner – they are Planters.  The planter’s daughter, like the lost heifer, is suggested rather than described.  Again, Clarke shows his command of delicate sound effects, particularly internal rhyme and half-rhyme:

They say that her beauty

Was music in mouth

And few in the candlelight

Thought her too proud….

It is a simple lyric and her beauty is registered indirectly, culminating in the three powerful metaphors in the final lines:

As a bell that is rung

Or a wonder told shyly

And O she was the Sunday

 In every week,

The society depicted in the poem is one reminiscent of images of Ireland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The Big House belongs to the planter, a landowner brought in by the British and settled on the good land which had already been confiscated.  We have all read in our history books about these Plantations – the most famous or infamous being the Plantation of Ulster.  The planter has so much land he can afford to plant trees around his house for decoration, unlike the peasants who farm the barren hillsides.  Clarke himself commented: ‘In barren Donegal, trees around a farmstead still denote an owner of planter stock’.

The planter’s daughter evokes differing responses in those who see her passing on her horse on in her carriage.  The men admire her elegance and her beauty and the women are jealous and gossip among themselves.  This clever, subtle juxtaposition is very well observed by the poet: the men ‘drank deep and were silent’, suggesting a toxic mix of resentment, envy and awe, while ‘The women were speaking / Wherever she went’.

His indirect treatment of the planter’s daughter creates a mystique around her.  The locals don’t really know her so they fantasise and use their imaginations to fill in the blanks of her life.  She is placed on a pedestal by them and they admire and envy her in equal proportions.  The poet manages to balance this admiration for the planter’s daughter with a sense of a latent resentment among the local population.

So, rummage around in the old familiar places, your bookshelves or even the attic for your own copy of Soundings and take a trip down memory lane…….

About the Poet….

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Austin Clarke (1896 – 1974)
Austin Clarke was born in 1896 in Dublin and educated at Belvedere College and University College Dublin.  He succeeded Thomas McDonagh, who had been executed for his part in the 1916 Rising, as a lecturer in the English Department there in 1917 and continued to work in this position until 1921.  He spent the next 12 years in England working as a critic and book reviewer, until his final return to Ireland in the nineteen thirties.  Clarke was one of the leading Irish poets of the generation after W. B. Yeats.  he also wrote novels, plays and memoirs.  His main contribution to Irish poetry was the rigour with which he used technical means borrowed from classical Irish language poetry when writing in English.
Effectively, this meant writing English verse based not so much on metre as on complex patterns of assonance, consonance, and half rhyme. Describing his technique to Robert Frost, Clarke said: “I load myself down with chains and try to wriggle free.”  His later verse is inclined to be increasingly satirical.  He is regarded by many as one of Ireland’s greatest poet since Yeats.

An Analysis of ‘Follower’ by Seamus Heaney

                             

Follower

 

My father worked with a horse plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horses strained at his clicking tongue.

An expert. He would set the wing
And fit the bright-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck.

Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.

I stumbled in his hobnailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back
Dipping and rising to his plod.

I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow around the farm.

I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.

– from Death of a Naturalist, 1966

 

Commentary:  This poem appears in Heaney’s first collection, Death of a Naturalist, published in 1966. In this collection, Heaney is keen to introduce himself and tell us where he comes from. The collection includes poems such as ‘Digging’, ‘Churning Day’, ‘Early Purges’, ‘The Diviner’ and ‘Follower’.  All of these poems reflect his farming background and they depict a world view and country crafts and skills that are now redundant and no longer to be readily seen in the Irish countryside.  We are introduced to men who dig in gardens, men who cut turf, who sell their cattle at the local fair, and who rid the farmyard of unwanted kittens.  Heaney tells us that he intends to follow in their footsteps – to dig ‘down and down for the good turf’, to plough his lonely furrow as a poet.

The theme of this poem is the relationship between father and son.  In poetry, fathers are constant ghostly shadows offering nostalgic, intimate images of a safe and tender childhood.  Heaney explores this theme here in ‘Follower’ and in many other poems like ‘Digging’ and ‘The Harvest Bow’.  In ‘The Harvest Bow’, Seamus Heaney’s father, Patrick, emerges as a strong ‘tongue tied’ man, a man of action and of few words.  He has fashioned the harvest bow for his son as a ‘throwaway love-knot of straw’.  The poem is a tender exploration of the Father/Son relationship and it is clear that an unspoken understanding has grown between them, lovingly expressed by the harvest bow which Heaney fingers and reads ‘like braille ….. gleaning the unsaid off the palpable’.  Heaney then translates what he has read and puts it into words which he fashions and plaits and weaves into a tender ‘love-knot’ of a poem.  In ‘Digging’ he explores other aspects of this same theme.  He looks down from his window and paints a rather unflattering picture of his father, ‘his straining rump among the flowerbeds’ reminds him of a scene twenty years earlier as his father was digging out potatoes on the home farm.  Here, in ‘Follower’ he juxtaposes his father’s patience with him as a child with his own grown up impatience and annoyance,

                                                But today

It is my father who keeps stumbling

Behind me, and will not go away.

The poem is titled ‘Follower’ and Heaney invites us to explore the various meanings of the word as it is used today – he follows in his father’s footsteps, we follow Man United, she is a follower of Christ, a disciple.  The poem ends with a denouement when the roles are suddenly reversed and now the father is seen ‘stumbling behind me’.  The great irony here, of course, is that Heaney was not a follower – he was a trailblazer, a man outstanding in his own field, so to speak!  Mark Patrick Hederman OSB,  former Abbot of Glenstal Abbey, County Limerick, uses a lovely analogy to describe poets and other artists in his book, The Haunted Inkwell– he says that artists are like the dove that Noah released from the Ark after 40 days to check if the waters were receding. Eventually, the third dove brought back an olive branch – we need trailblazers and scouts like that to go before us, to take the risks, and help us explore our unchartered waters.  Heaney is a poet, like Kavanagh and Hartnett, who has remained attached to his home place and the values and the traditions of his parents, ‘All I know is a door into the dark’.  We can be grateful that our poets are pioneers, working at the frontier of language.  They are translators, translating for us events that we cannot grasp.

These early poems in Death of a Naturalist are all metaphors, endeavouring to crystallise the meaning of art and the role of the artist in our world – the poet is described as gardener, turf-cutter, as diviner, as smithy, as ploughman.  He celebrates this local craftsmanship – the diviner, the digger, the blacksmith and the breadmaker and he hankers back to his childhood and the community of that childhood for several reasons.  Indeed, part of the excitement of reading his poetry is the way in which he leads you from the parish of Anahorish in County Derry outwards in space and time, making connections with kindred spirits, both living and dead, so that he verifies for us Patrick Kavanagh’s belief that the local is universal.  For example in  ‘The Forge’, he appears at first glance to be looking back with fond nostalgia at the work of the local village blacksmith, Barney Devlin.  However, the real subject of the poem is the mystery of the creative process – writing poetry is like ‘a door into the dark’.  The work of the forge serves, therefore, as an extended metaphor for the creative work and craftsmanship of poetry.

In ‘Follower’, like ‘Digging’, he continues to use this extended metaphor as he focuses on his father as farmer and ploughman.  His father is ‘an expert’.  He recalls precious scenes and memories from his childhood with great accuracy.  He mentions the plough and all its individual parts, ‘the shafts’, ‘the wing’, ‘the bright steel-pointed sock’, the horse’s ‘headrig’.  The opening lines cleverly introduce the simile of his father’s shoulders ‘globed like a full sail’ and he then follows this with the exquisite metaphor of his father as ancient mariner using angles and eyesight ‘mapping the furrow exactly’ while the young Heaney struggles and stumbles ‘in his hob-nailed wake’.  His childhood is spent in his father’s shadow and he decides that ‘I wanted to grow up and plough’.  Similar to ‘Digging’, the very first poem in Death of a Naturalist, he wants to follow in his father and grandfather’s footsteps and dig except he realises that ‘I’ve no spade to follow men like them’.  Instead, he decides that he will follow in their footsteps but instead of a spade he will dig with his pen:

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.

‘Follower’ ends with a jolt.  The poet is suddenly back in the present, the childhood reverie over.  He juxtaposes the past with the present: his youthful self,

.. was a nuisance, tripping, falling,

Yapping always.

This memory is sharply contrasted with the awkward reality that time has passed and now it is his ageing father who is the ‘nuisance’,

It is my father who keeps stumbling

Behind me and will not go away.

During the last three verses, the poet returns to the present time and he says that nowadays his father is the one who is stumbling behind him because of his age. The word ‘Behind’ used by Seamus Heaney in the last verse, forces us to accept the total reversal of roles which have taken place.  The poet is no longer the follower and now his once stoical and patient father struggles to keep up as his impatient twenty-seven-year-old son sets sail on his own adventure.  He has finally moved out of his father’s shadow and now must plough his own unique and lonely furrow.

The poem is one of many which pays homage to the poet’s humble beginnings in Bellaghy, Mossbawn, and Anahorish.  It is interesting to note that many of the later poems in this collection, Death of a Naturalist, describe his developing relationship with Marie Devlin, his future wife (the collection is dedicated to her).  Surefooted, he begins his odyssey away from Mossbawn and on to Belfast, Glanmore, Oxford and Harvard, and into our hearts forever.

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Analysis of ‘Spring Pools’ by Robert Frost

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Spring Pools

By Robert Frost

These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.

The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods –
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.

Analysis:  

Robert Frost was very much influenced by the Romantic and Victorian poets who had gone before him.  As with the Romantic poets, Frost sees the natural scene, accurately observed, as the primary poetic subject.  Nature is not described for its own sake but as a thought provoking stimulus for the poet, leading him to more insight or revelation.

Romantic nature poems, such as ‘Spring Pools’, were usually meditative poems.  The landscape was sometimes personified or imbued with human life as it is in this beautiful lyric.  The Romantics subscribed to Wordsworth’s belief that poets should ‘choose incidents and situations from common life’ and write about them in ‘language really spoken by men’ who belong to ‘humble and rustic life’.  Frost puts many of these principles to good use in this poem.

Unlike many American poets in the twentieth century, Frost upheld formal poetic values during turbulent and changing times, when formal practices were widely abandoned.  He emphasised the importance of rhyme and metrical variety, observed traditional forms and developed his technical skills.  He could claim without fear of contradiction that ‘I am one of the notable craftsmen of my time’.  His poetry was written so that the rhyming ‘will not seem the tiniest bit strained’.  He used terza rima, end-of-line rhymes, and full and half rhyme.

This short lyric poem opens as Spring begins to take hold of the landscape.  The forest pools formed by the last of the melting snows and rain still mirror the cloudy sky.  The poet informs us that these pools will not last long because the roots of the mighty trees in the Vermont forest will very soon greedily soak up these pools in order to encourage leaf growth.  This is a rather unusual and disturbing perspective on Nature – the poet sees an ominous, dark side to Nature.  The trees soak up the Spring pools and within a short period of time, they are covered in leaves that blot out the flowers on the forest floor and the pools of water which gave them sustenance.  This is symbiosis in reverse and reflects Frost’s unusual perspective on Nature.

Frost demonstrates to us here that he was a keen observer of the natural world.  Plants, geographical features and the seasons have their place in his poetry: the physical world of spring pools, winter snows, the sky, brooks, Vermont mountains are all part of the rich landscape he describes for us.

However, we must realise that the natural world is rarely described for its own sake or as a background against which the action of the poem takes place.  Instead, nature leads the poet to an insight or revelation.  Often a comparison emerges between the natural scene and the psyche, what Frost called ‘inner and outer weather’.  His descriptions of nature are not sentimental.  He describes a world that is bleak, empty and cold.

The imagination enables the poet to see the world in this new way.  In brief, intense moments he may enter a higher, visionary state.  This allows him to regenerate his imaginative and creative capability and provides him with fresh insights and new inspiration for his poetry.  This state cannot be sustained for long, however, and he must return to the real world.

The poet is being very philosophical here and looks at Nature in an unusual way.  Yet he is very balanced in his thinking and this balance is reflected in the structure of the poem.  Stanza One describes the coming of Spring in all its glory.  We see his efforts at balance in his use of repetition in the lines,

And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,

Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,

In Stanza Two, Spring gives way to Summer and again Frost shares with us his understanding of the delicate and finely balanced relationships within nature.  He writes of nature with a keen eye and respects her beauty and her peculiar ways.  The poet observes that the ‘trees have it in their pent-up buds / To darken nature and be summer woods’.  He goes on to personify nature adding that the trees should ‘think twice before they use their powers / to blot out and drink up and sweep away’ the spring pools.  It is a very direct poem, a poem with purpose.

The main theme of this poem is mutability and the transience of time.  These are important, weighty concepts in poetry in general but especially here.  This poem, ‘Spring Pools’,  sees time as being destructive.  For him, yesterday’s flowers wither, Winter snows melt, spring pools are drained by trees, trees lose their leaves in Autumn.  The unpalatable epiphany for the poet is that Time destroys beauty.

Therefore, we see the imagery in some of Frost’s poems is deceptively simple.  There are images from the natural and the human worlds.  Some are everyday and ordinary, some are grotesque and macabre.  In this poem the imagery carries the meaning. Frost uses precise details to re-create the colour, texture and sounds of the world within the poem. This makes his poetry richly sensuous.  Yet, using the same technique, he can paint a cold, bleak scene that is chillingly realistic.  So, beware: simple poems can be symbolic of ideas that are more profound!

Nevertheless, in his beloved Vermont countryside, Frost himself tends to work ‘alone’, he walks alone, and plays alone, being ‘too far from town to learn baseball’.  His main concern, it would appear, is not with community but with the individual identity – of pools, of fences, of apples, and of himself.  Through his poems, we imagine a man who values self-sufficiency and individualism.  He chooses the road ‘less travelled’.  He can be seen turning, not outward towards community but inward towards his inner self in such poems as ‘After Apple-Picking’ where he reflects that ‘I am over-tired / Of the great harvest I myself desired’.  His inward quest is also balanced by his outward journey towards familiar things in nature, giving his verse a reflective and meditative quality, whether he speaks of himself or of nature.

Check out my overview of Robert Frost’s poetry here

 

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Contemporary Aspects of the Novel ‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens

 

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Hard Times is unusual in several respects. It is by far the shortest of Dickens’ novels, barely a quarter of the length of those written immediately before and after it.[1] Also, unlike all but one of his other novels, Hard Times has neither a preface nor illustrations. Moreover, it is his only novel not to have scenes set in London.[2] Instead, the story is set in the fictitious Victorian industrial Coketown, a generic Northern English mill town, in some ways similar to Manchester, though smaller. Coketown may be partially based on 19th-century Preston.

While the novel is neither gripping nor memorable it is interesting to examine it from a 21st-century standpoint.  And as we try to fathom the political manoeuvrings of  Mr Trump (a very Dickensian character!) and Lady May (another one!) we begin to realise that the more things change the more they stay the same!  The family theme is a perennial one as is education.  Everyone has problems with them and there are always controversial views about them which lead to much debate. The Environment and the workplace are central to modern life.  We are all too aware that some of our world leaders today are in denial about such issues as global warming and climate change – and you know what they say: ‘De Nile is not just a river in Egypt’!  Industrialisation and its effects were seen as major problems in Dickens’ time, as they still are today.  Trade Unions are still an important force in our modern workplaces. Teenagers are big business today and a central core of modern society.   In Louisa and Sissy Jupe we can recognise the first faint traces of the modern teenager, with minds of their own, rebellious attitudes and a power of expression.  Marriage breakdown is certainly one of the major social problems in our modern world.  Louisa’s tragic and arranged marriage foundered on the rock of incompatibility, which is the most frequently cited reason for the breakdown of marriage in the modern divorce court.

The Gradgrind family, around whom the story evolves, are no more curious than any comparable family in the present era.  While the imagination and the spiritual side is stifled they are well-fed, as well-educated as the narrow curriculum and method permitted and live in a comfortable house.  The father, Mr Gradgrind, is an authoritarian figure to his teenage son and daughter.  Yet halfway through the story, he is there when his daughter needs him.  He is willing to support and harbour her in her hour of need.  He also learns from his mistakes and is ready to admit them.  I think he is a very good father.  He is basically a very good human being.  Professionally he is stifled by the constraints of a utilitarian system of education.  Is he any different from today’s teacher who cajoles, pushes, and encourages students towards those elusive points for College entrance?   Is he any different from today’s ambitious parents who make great sacrifices to give their offspring a good start in life?  He is, in a sense, a ‘single’ parent due to his wife’s inability to function as a normal mother.  She is a pitiful hypochondriac who seems to derive no pleasure whatsoever from life.  Mr Gradgrind is a gentleman and a patient one.  He seems to have the patience of Job.  He gets on with his job and provides for his family.  He rarely raises his voice to his offspring and certainly never his hand, which we must admit is a curious and admirable situation, certainly in a Victorian household.  One of the most contemporary aspects of Mr Gradgrind is his very generous fostering of Sissy.  He has a sense of responsibility towards young people.  He is prepared to take Sissy into his home and provide her with education and sustenance and a family life.

In the opening chapters of Hard Times, the education system is hammered home.  Facts alone count.  The imagination cannot be given free rein.  It must be stifled.  The education system is not child-centred, but facts-centred.  Before we proclaim our horror let us scrutinise the modern day pressures of imparting knowledge.  Are students today still considered to be ‘vessels’ into which teachers pour the main points of novels, poems, and drama?  Now and again teachers dream of being inspirational but then the grim shadow of the curriculum hovers (and visions of A’s, B’s and C’s) and their dreams of emancipating the shackled student fade into oblivion.  If we sat for awhile and compared and contrasted the square classroom where facts predominated with its modern counterpart we might end up concluding that very little indeed had changed.

One of the most interesting characters in the novel is Louisa, a teenager in the beginning of the novel who bears a remarkable resemblance to her modern counterpart.  Louisa emerges as a real live girl of the 19th. Century.  She is a bright girl who has an imaginative and spiritual side despite attempts to suppress it both at home and at school.  The friendship that develops between her and Sissy is solid.  They have little in common financially, socially or intellectually, but both have kind hearts.

There is a nice balance of giving and receiving in the friendship.  It is mutually advantageous.  In the earlier section of the novel, Louisa listens to, encourages and comforts Sissy when she confides in her over her learning difficulties at school.  The two teenagers closeted together in the study is a nice touch.  As talent and ability continue to vary in every age surely similar scenes are replicated today in many a home and classroom.  Later in the novel, Sissy Jupe will amply repay her loyal friend.  As young women now, Sissy will become a tower of strength to Louisa in her emotional turmoil.  The teenage friendship has matured.  It will last a lifetime.  Many a modern woman must find solace in the comfort and chat of a woman friend, when life strikes at them, when they are experiencing difficulties with the opposite sex, be it husband, fiancé, partner or friend.  The urge to confide is intrinsic to the human psyche.  It is an enduring trait.

Recent times have seen marriage under attack on all sides.  Louisa’s leaving her husband is a prelude to the modern dilemma of marriage breakdown.  There are thousands of solutions put forward.  Marriage guidance counselling is available and yet we are no nearer to resolving the situation than Louisa was on that terrible night of her life, when confused and desperate, she returns to her father’s house.

Work is a major part of life throughout the ages.  There have always been problems associated with work and labour.  The gruelling conditions of the workers in the factories are in sharp contrast to working conditions today.  Yet there are some echoes from the Dickensian age in our world today.  Air pollution is still a problem in many industrial areas today.   All around, even in some rural areas, there are chilling reminders that the problems of environmental pollution are far from solved.  When we see the murky waters of our major cities and the inevitable accompanying stench we can wonder if we are any different from the grim industrial smoke-filled Coketown.  The workers had practically no rights in the Victorian age.  The small beginnings of a Trade Union, whose principles were orchestrated by Slackbridge, have gathered such momentum over the intervening years that the clout and power of the Trade Union movement is a dominant feature of modern society.  Yet we only have to look at some recent disputes such as between Ryanair and its ‘baggage-handlers’ to realise that there are still employers who would refuse their workers what modern society considers a basic right – the right to be represented by a Trade Union.

To conclude, maybe we begin to realise, having read the Hard Times, that the more things change the more they stay the same!  Our world still revolves around the home, the school and the workplace.  Environmental influences are as important and far-reaching then as now and the stifling of the imagination and the emotions can often set in train a chain of tragic circumstances from which there is no escape.

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Notes on ‘Hard Times’ – by Charles Dickens

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 THE THEME OF HARD TIMES IN THE NOVEL

  • The theme of ‘hard times’ applies to all characters in the novel – those exploited and those who exploit.
  • Coketown is depicted as a cage that imprisons all – it is a microcosm that comprises of good and evil.
  • Hard times evolve from the greed for wealth and power. The Government Inspector is ready to fight all England instead of trying to help all England.
  • The educational system is geared only to service industry and to maintain the status quo (Nothing to do with the rock group!). Children are deprived of their childhood fantasies – in school, they become ‘little pitchers’, ‘vessels’ into which facts are poured.
  • Workers and children are both depersonalised by the system- all are mere cogs in the system. They are referred to only as ‘Hands’.
  • Kindness and charity are frowned upon. Betrayal of workmates is encouraged – they are asked to spy on one another, Tom sets up Stephen as a fall guy.  Slackbridge ensures that workers boycott Stephen – ‘Private feelings must yield to common cause’.
  • Stephen’s life is plagued by his drunken and immoral wife, he is too poor to pay for a divorce.
  • Gradgrind is a prisoner of his own system and is unable to visualise the humiliation that lays in store for Louisa. His ‘hard times’ come at the end of Book II when he realises what he has done to her and Tom: ‘And he laid her down there, and saw the pride of his heart and the triumph of his system, lying, an insensible heap, at his feet’.
  • Sissy has her ‘hard times’ at school and when she suffers the loss of her father.
  • Coketown is ugly, a mirror of the hard times associated with those who live there. The river is black – the town a blur of soot and smoke. It is a triumph of FACT.  Monotony is the keynote – the streets are all alike.
  • There is, however, an underlying craving for music and dancing and amusement – the circus will shortly come to fulfil this desire. ‘There is some love in the world and it is not all self-interest.’  With these words, Mr Sleary sets the standard of the circus world of which he is the Clown King.  His philosophy of ‘people must be amused’ (without the lisp!) is in sharp contrast to the Hard Fact men who only succeed in bringing ‘hard times’ for all.

 

IMAGERY AND SYMBOLISM IN ‘HARD TIMES’

 Nature Imagery

  • Sowing, Reaping, Garnering.
  • In the opening Chapter: ‘plant nothing but else but facts – root out everything else.’
  • Gradgrind’s hair is described as a ‘plantation of firs’
  • The ray of light irradiating Sissy and Bitzer.
  • Light/Darkness: the inner radiance of Rachael lifts the gloom from Stephen: ‘the light of her face shone upon the midnight of his mind.’ Rachael’s candle.  In Book III Chapter I  Sissy is described as ‘a beautiful light’.
  • In Book I, Chapter 10 nature has been replaced by wheels and the machines are described as ‘mad elephants’.
  • In Book ii, Chapter 7 Bounderby grows cabbages in his flower garden! This is typically Utilitarian – you can eat cabbages.

 

Mathematical Imagery

  • This is first used to symbolise the educational system: ‘Girl number 20’
  • Gradgrind is described in mathematical terms – ‘square finger’, a man of calculations, ‘rule and scale and multiplication tables in his pocket ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature – a mere question of figures, of simple arithmetic.’
  • Stone Lodge is seen as ‘a calculated, cast up, balanced and proved house – all ruled straight like a botanical account book.’
  • ‘metallurgical Louisa’ and ‘mathematical Thomas’ (Indeed we can go further and say that Tom is only interested in Number One!)
  • Gradgrind proves by statistics that the disparity in ages between Louisa and Bounderby is no bar to a successful marriage.
  • The Government Inspector sets out the requirements for wallpaper and carpets – these are combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures ‘which are susceptible to proof and demonstration.’ There is no beauty outside of mathematical exactitude.
  • The ‘monotonous vault of a schoolroom’ kills Fancy.
  • Of Gradgrind it is said, ‘his head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts within.’ The children are described as ‘vessels’.

Animal Imagery

  • Bitzer’s eyes are described as ‘the antennae of busy insects.’
  • Sparsit – a hawk concealed beneath the mildness of a dove;
  • she is seen as a ‘dragon’ – she watches Louisa and Harthouse with ‘hawk’s eyes’. She is associated with nasty, creepy things – worms, snails, adders as she goes through the woods to spy on them.
  •  In the novel, the machinery in Coketown is compared to ‘mad elephants.’
  • There is much Fairytale imagery in the novel – the teacher is seen as ‘a dry ogre’, ‘a monster in a lecturing castle.’ Louisa is the Snow Queen with a frozen heart.  Coketown is seen as a ‘monstrous serpent’ by day.  The Blue Books are reminiscent of Bluebeard.  Sparsit considered herself to be the ‘Bank Fairy’. The people of Coketown referred to her as the ‘Bank Dragon’.

Symbolism

  • In the novel, there is a war being waged between the Heart and the Head, between Fairytales and Mathematical imagery, between Fact and Fancy.
  • The mill is symbolised by the ‘mad elephants’ – the factory is a living thing.
  • The characters are symbolic: Sissy represents simplicity; Gradgrind symbolises materialism; Harthouse represents cynicism/lack of principle; Stephen Blackpool stands for all victims of social oppression; Sleary stands for imagination and true love; Rachael represents virtue, goodness, compassion; she is ‘sweet-tempered and serene’.
  • Dickens overdoes the symbolism with many of his characters and there is little doubt in anyone’s mind who Choakumchild, Bitzer, Slackbridge or Bounderby represent.
  • Sparsit’s Staircase (Chapter 27) is hugely symbolic: it charts Louisa’s approach to moral ruin as she descends Lower and Lower (Chapter 28) until she is Down (Chapter 29) ‘lying insensible at his (Gradgrind’s) feet.
  • The smoke and soot from the serpentine chimneys symbolise the uncertainty of the workers.
  • The sun symbolises the freedom of the next world which can only be attained by suffering.

 

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Two Sample Answers on ‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens

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It has been suggested that Dickens, the social crusader, outdoes Dickens the novelist.  Discuss with apt reference from the text of Hard Times. Discuss.

 Sample Answer:

Dickens is rightly regarded as a crusader against injustice; all his novels are concerned with one or more of the defects of society as a whole or of the individual human being.  ‘Hard Times’ is a case in point.  There is a formidable list of points raised in this novel to suggest that Dickens is attacking various aspects of society or the attitudes of individual human beings to particular groups of their fellow men.

In his opening chapters, there is a clear criticism of the educational system that encourages or permits little children to be treated as receptacles for Facts poured into their heads and forbids or discourages the exercise of their imagination.  He refers to the children as ‘little vessels’ ready to have gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.  With this, he associates the process of depersonalisation that is carried into the factory.  At school Sissy Jupe ceases to be a person; she becomes ‘Girl Number Twenty’.  In the factory, Stephen Blackpool, like his co-workers, is merely one of the depersonalised ‘Hands’.  In the confrontation between him and Bounderby in the chapter ‘Men and Masters’, Dickens puts words into Stephen’s mouth that show that the greatest grievance of the working class is that the employers look on them as so much power and treat them as figures in a sum, without feelings or souls.  Dickens makes the point himself when he shows that even Louisa when she visits Stephen to offer him help, realises that she has never thought of the working class as individuals, but by hundreds and by thousands – as ants and beetles.

Dickens, however, may not be attacking merely the upper middle class but also the attitude of people to their fellow men.  M’Choakumchild and Bounderby may not be upholding a system, but may be merely indifferent to the children and the workers – or perhaps being merely selfish: ignorant workers are less likely to be troublesome than educated ones.  To support the argument that Dickens is attacking the attitude of individuals to their fellow men, Dickens has created Slackbridge, the Trade Unionist who is painted as a rather dangerous demagogue who attacks the oppressors of the working class while himself hounding one of his fellow workers.  Dickens’s intentions are clear: he condemns Slackbridge by his description of him; he is less honest, less manly, less good-humoured than the workers he addresses.  He is cunning rather than simple, and his words are ‘froth and fume’.  In his condemnation of Stephen as a thief, he places himself alongside Bounderby who, like him, finds Stephen guilty without evidence or without trial.

Dickens also attacks theoretical political economy, (or the economic system based on self-interest).  He ironically points out the inhuman aspect of the theory of political economy through Sissy who considers the first principle of this science to be ‘to do unto others as I would that they should do unto me’, and who cannot say whether a nation is prosperous or not until she knows who gets the money.  Statistics, to her, are ‘stutterings’ and percentages cannot be applied to people.  (There are often echoes of this in our day: the ideal family is said to consist of 2.4 children!)  To support her, Dickens shows the Circus people as a closely-knit, interdependent people who, besides relying on one another in the Ring, have an untiring readiness to help and pity one another.  They are outside the Utilitarian system and are a living criticism of it.

It is clear therefore that Dickens carries the crusader’s banner.  However, this is not to say that this aspect of his work outdoes his importance as a novelist.  (You are free to argue otherwise if you wish.)  He was not just a reformer or a sentimentalist.  His genius lay in his ability to create a world.  He tells a story peopled by characters – good and bad.  The good ones, like Sissy and Rachael, may not be totally acceptable to modern readers because the cynical twentieth-century cannot accept a human being who never has an impulse to be ungenerous; the bad ones are nasty and always acceptable.  Dickens, with his brilliant use of imagery, makes them real: Bounderby, the Bully of Humility, the bag of wind who is deflated (temporarily) by the revelation of his real origins; Harthouse, with his vicious assumption of honesty in dishonesty who is finally overcome by one whose only weapons are virtue and a complete lack of sophistication.

In between these are the more credible characters.  Louisa and Tom are victims of a stifling and cruel educational system.  Our reactions are perhaps of pity rather than rage at the system.  Bitzer, too, evolves from it; he is a victim rather than a villain.  He rejects Gradgrind’s bribe to free Tom, not because he is heartless or cruel, but that he is the perfect product of his education.  The test of the success of a novel is the reader’s response to the characters depicted.  So, if one rages at Bounderby and Mrs Sparsit and gloats over their exposure; if one is pleased that the Circus Folk, who are natural enemies of the utilitarian system, overcome Bitzer; if one suffers with Louisa and hopes that Gradgrind will mellow, then the novel is, for that reader, a novel, not an attack on a political system.

Even though he laughs ‘with a touch of anger in his laughter’ Dickens makes us laugh at the boy who would not paper a room with representations because he would not paper a room at all, he would paint it.  We laugh at the Circus Folk and the idiocy of Mrs Gradgrind.  Such things are above and beyond a social documentary.  Perhaps if he seems to over-emphasise certain points by repetition e.g. ‘No little Gradgrind…’ it is primarily to elicit sympathy for his good characters or to make us condemn his villains.

He may be over-anxious to point to the flaws in society as he is when he interpolates his own views directly, but he reflects his own age, his own life and his own thinking.

 

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Josiah Bounderby of Coketown

Whereas Bounderby is incapable of change and ends as he began, a monster of Utilitarianism, Gradgrind learns from experience, and when he changes it is for the better.   Discuss.

 Sample Answer:

This statement is true for a number of reasons.  Bounderby is incapable of change, largely because he is a caricature.  Gradgrind is forced to change and ends the novel a sadder and wiser man.

 Bounderby is the quintessential ‘self-made man’.  He is inflated like a balloon – full of wind.  He is the villain of the novel.  Dickens ensures that we abhor this ‘Bully of Humility’.  He is physically repellent and he has an obnoxious manner.  His ‘humility’ is false.  He is a liar.  He exploits his employees.  To him they are mere ‘Hands’.  His attitude to Stephen is disgraceful when he asks for advice on getting a divorce and later he tries to exploit him further.  When Stephen refuses to co-operate he is sacked and when money is stolen from his bank he accuses Stephen and puts a price on his head.

 Bounderby, the industrialist, is indeed a monster.  He is aided and abetted in his efforts by his friend Thomas Gradgrind MP  Dickens savagely attacks this attitude which puts profit before all other considerations.  Indeed it can be said that both these men have much in common.  They are intimate friends and desire to be closer through the marriage of Louisa to Bounderby.  They are both pompous, self-opinionated and insensitive to the feelings of others.  Gradgrind worries about Bounderby’s disapproval, ‘What would Mr. Bounderby say?’  However, there are also serious differences between these two men.  Foremost among these is the fact that Gradgrind is not a hypocrite.  He does act in good faith.  He thinks that Thomas and Louisa are getting the best education.  By the end of this novel he acknowledges the failure of his system and takes responsibility for it, ‘I only entreat you to believe, my favourite child, that I have meant to do right.’

Dickens ensures that Bounderby is caricatured as a comical ‘Mr. Pickwick’ figure and he is cruelly exposed at the end of the novel.  He behaves very badly in Book III when Gradgrind is confronted.  He is seen to be crude and intolerant.  He acts the Bully to the end whereas Gradgrind is patient, submissive and humble.  Bounderby’s end is ignominious – he makes a vainglorious will, he dies in a fit, and his estate is whittled away by the courts.  He has no redeeming qualities.

It must be emphasised that Gradgrind, too, is a monster of utilitarianism and he indeed is the chief apostle and promoter of this rather inhuman political philosophy.  He, too, is the focus of attack by Dickens.  He puts his faith in statistics and in the ‘enlightened self-interest’ proposed by the evangelists of Utilitarianism – Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus.  (Two of his sons are called Adam and Thomas!)  He is shown to be a man of ‘realities’, of ‘fact and calculations’.  We first see him in the Model School.  His aim is to prepare his pupils for a mechanical world – his graduates are robotic creatures devoid of sympathy, love or imagination.  He raises his five children (two daughters and three sons) by these rigid principles.  They grow up on a diet of ‘-ologies’.  He becomes a leading MP in the ‘party of weights and measures’ – one of the Hard Fact men.  He is an ’eminently practical man’.

However, he is not all bad – he has virtues such as courage, honesty and charity.  He takes in Sissy despite Bounderby’s protestations.  He is forced to admit the failure of his system with Louisa and Tom.  By the end of the novel, his world, so carefully built, is collapsing around him.  He is pained by Louisa especially since he agreed to the marriage and he proved by statistics how successful it should be.  Ironically, he is the one who introduces Harthouse to Louisa and Bounderby, thereby destroying the marriage he had done so much to promote.

Gradgrind, therefore, unlike Bounderby is capable of change and development.  He is forced to face unwelcome facts (!).   He is no longer certain.  He is a humbled man: ‘The ground on which I stand has ceased to be solid under my feet.  The only support on which I leaned …. has given way in an instant.’  The Gradgrind we see in Book III is hardly recognisable.  He has abandoned his philosophy of facts and becomes a caring father to his children.  This change comes and he is saved when Stephen dies and he realises that Tom is the bank robber.  He seeks help from Sleary.  He pleads emotionally with Bitzer to have ‘mercy and pity’.  He acts to clear Stephen’s name.  He realises that Sissy – the great ‘failure’ of his system – is now indispensable to his household.  His younger children will be spared the worst effects of his system. (Isn’t this always the case?!!).  Dickens is at pains to show how disastrous this system is but he is also at pains to point out that Gradgrind and the other promoters of the system were not evil – they were often caring and well-intentioned, even.  At the end – in the future – we see him ‘converted’ as he makes his facts and figures subservient to Faith, Hope and Charity.

Gradgrind, now, unlike Bounderby, is a much sadder, wiser man.  He now knows the meaning of love.  He realises that there is a ‘Wisdom of the Heart’ as well as a ‘Wisdom of the Head’.  He benefits in the end from a form of ‘poetic irony’ in that his early isolated act of kindness to Sissy proves to be the means of his redemption.  He has changed for the better while poor Bounderby, our other monster, is cruelly depicted as a ‘Noodle’!

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