Imagery in ‘Silas Marner’

 

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The function of imagery in everyday speech or writing is, primarily, to explain some point, or to make more vivid an idea or sentiment.  Imagery helps to heighten the atmosphere and to develop a theme.  Many of these images may symbolise for the author some significant occasion or thought that is not so easy to grasp by the reader.  The following ideas may help in developing a deeper understanding of the events and characters which make up this novel.

NATURE IMAGERY

In ‘Silas Marner’ nature imagery is used extensively.  Eliot compares the Lantern Yard sect and its interminable discussions on salvation to ‘young, winged things fluttering forsaken in the twilight’.  It is a vivid image of the misguided young people who seek without success a way to God.

Silas’s life in Raveloe is compared to a spider weaving ‘from pure impulse, without reflection’.  This conjures up a vision of a creature in mental semi-darkness working to a fixed pattern without joy or without understanding of what he is doing.  Later, his life is described as an ‘insect-like existence’: he sits weaving ‘towards the end of his web’.  The spider image suggests an unlived-in, musty, dusty, soul-less house.  In the Rainbow Inn the farrier tells him that his eyes are like an insect’s so that he can’t see much at a time.

Godfrey, should the Squire disinherit him, would be ‘as helpless as an uprooted tree’.  We are given the idea of dead wood, useless for anything but burning, unable to grow or develop.

In Chapter II Eliot contrasts the rich world of Raveloe with the frugality of Lantern Yard: ‘orchards looking lazy with neglected plenty’, ‘careless abundance’.

Silas’s love of his earthenware pot shows that ‘the sap of affection is not all gone’.  He gives life to the pot; it has been ‘his companion’, ‘always lending its handle to him’, wearing an expression of ‘willing helpfulness’.  This personification sadly emphasises how starved of human affection Silas is.

The presence of a wife and mother in the home is described as ‘the fountain of wholesome love and fear in parlour and kitchen’.   This suggests the continuous outpouring of love and fear of God given as a kind of nourishing food.

Nancy Lammeter is equated with the sun – the Lammeter household is ‘sunned’ by her smile.  She would have drawn Godfrey safe to the green banks where it was easy to step firmly, but he allows himself to be dragged back ‘into the mud and slime’ by his association with Molly.  The contrast is vivid.

The loss of Silas’s gold left his soul ‘like a forlorn traveller on an unknown desert’.  The desert may be associated by contrast with the plant images – growth and fruitfulness – that occur regularly in the story.

In relation to Silas’s first visit to the Rainbow Inn and his involvement with the villagers, Eliot says, ‘Our consciousness rarely registers the beginning of a growth within us any more than without us; there have been many circulations of the sap before we detect the smallest sign of the bud.’

In connection with Godfrey’s reliance on Chance, Eliot says of Chance that ‘the evil principle deprecated in that religion (i.e. Chance) is the orderly sequence by which the seed brings forth a crop after its kind’.  This is an image of the Biblical notion that bad seed brings forth bad fruit.

Eliot introduces the notion of Eppie’s mind growing into knowledge and Silas’s mind growing into memory.  This is a striking image of the future and the past growing towards one another; she clings to him, he to her.

The Squire’s anger is compared to ‘fiery volcanic matters that cool and harden into rock’.  It is an excellent image of a man who decides explosively in anger  and will not change his decisions even though reason tells him he is wrong.

In spite of Dolly’s efforts to befriend him, Silas is still the ‘shrunken rivulet’ with only this difference, ‘that its little groove of sand was blocked up, and it wandered confusedly against dark obstruction’.  This is an excellent image as it helps us to see him in terms of the rise and fall of a river.  It also points to the flood that will be released with Eppie’s coming.

The story of Eppie’s arrival and Silas’s new relations with the villagers is shown by Dolly in the imagery of Nature: ‘…..It’s like the night and the morning, the sleeping and the waking, and the rain and the harvest – one goes and the other comes, and we know nothing how or where.’

In Chapter XVII when Nancy’s attention has been drawn to the people heading towards the Stone-pit, she looks out on the churchyard.  Her uneasiness is compared to the raven ‘flapping its slow wing across the sunny air’.  It is a realistic image; the raven is a symbol of death and disaster.

There are some remarkably descriptive nature images in the novel, e.g. in Chapter II there is the picture of the Raveloe world.  In Chapter X there is a striking picture of Christmas Day.

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IMAGERY OF GOLD

The image of gold is important.  As money it represents the downfall of Silas; in the form of Eppie’s golden hair it brings about his salvation.  The story commences with the theft of the money from Lantern Yard and Silas’s loss of faith in God and his fellow-men.  In Raveloe his future is all dark: ‘the little light he possessed spread its beam so narrowly, that frustrated belief was a curtain broad enough to create for him the blackness of night’.  Later we read that his future was all dark, for ‘there was no unseen love that cared for him’.  This darkness will be replaced by the shining life of his new God – gold!   ‘How the guineas shone!’  When he loses his new god  he will be dark again until the real gold – Eppie – will save him.  He loves his gold for itself, not for what he can buy.  When it is stolen he has nothing left.  It had given him a purpose; it had been a ‘clinging life’.

There is an image of a locked casket with its treasure inside to describe Silas before the theft.  Now the casket is empty and the lock broken.  A casket keeps things in and his heart is imprisoned with his gold.  The empty casket shows that his love has fled, but it also leaves a way open for his love for Eppie.

His first sight of Eppie is startling.  Before his fit he has been thinking of his gold; the first thing he sees when he recovers is gold.  ‘Gold! – his own gold brought back to him as mysteriously as it had been taken away!’  A contrast is made between the soft warm curls of the child and the hard coins.  He believes that the child has come instead of the gold – that the gold has turned into the child.

Later, Eliot contrasts the dead world of Silas with his gold and Eppie’s living gold which forces his thoughts onwards.  The gold demanded that he should stay increasingly longer at his monotonous weaving; Eppie calls him from it.  Money is no longer important since Eppie has replaced it.

The finding of the gold in the quarry infects Godfrey and Nancy with such a feeling of shame that Dunstan has been a thief.  It has already caused Dunstan’s death.

Silas admits to Eppie that, at times, he had missed the gold, but that now it means nothing, so when Godfrey tries to use it as a lever to persuade Silas to surrender Eppie, he is doomed to failure on this point.

It is only at the end Godfrey realises that he himself had rejected the most precious gold of all.

 

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IMAGERY OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS

Light and darkness have a symbolic meaning in the novel.  The symbolism is uncomplicated.  It first appears in Eliot’s description of the young men in Lantern Yard as young birds ‘fluttering forsaken in the twilight’ – people who have lost their way in the semi-darkness.  In Lantern Yard the blackness of the night may symbolises Silas’s ‘frustrated belief’ – suggesting a kind of hell on earth.  Even the future is all dark because, paradoxically, there is no Unseen Love that cares for him.

The description of Squire Cass’s parlour with the fading grey light falling dimly on the walls may symbolise the decadence of the Cass family and the absence of the guiding hand of a mother and wife.

Eliot prepares us for the theft of Silas’s gold by her description of the mist turning to rain.  Dunstan’s dark deed is in contrast to the bright fire in Silas’s cottage.  The darkness will hide him, but it will also make his way so hazardous that he will slip.  The light from the cottage may symbolise the gold that has tempted him.  Light will later save Silas from his greed.

When the child, Eppie, crawls towards the light in Silas’s cottage she is leaving the blackness of Molly’s life as well as the darkness outside.  She may symbolise the light she will bring to Silas so that he, too, can leave his darkness.  The end of the snowfall and the parting of the clouds may symbolise the beginning of the break in the clouds that have overhung his life.

Dolly says of Eppie’s coming – ‘it’s like the night and the morning’ – the one goes, the other comes and ‘we know nothing how or where’.  Eliot contrasts the dead world of Silas and his gold with Eppie’s m world of life – the former has been hidden in the darkness and the latter loves sunshine.  There is also a contrast between the brightness in Silas’s eye and the light of the candle that falls on the gold (after the gold has been found).  The light in his eye is an inner light; the candle-light is dim by comparison.

On the visit to Lantern Yard, Eppie is uneasy at the darkness of the place.  This may also symbolise the lack of spiritual light there.  When they return to Raveloe, Silas says that he has had ‘light enough to trusten by’.  Light has overcome darkness.

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SYMBOLISM

Some of the characters and many of the things in the story may have a symbolic function, e.g. the broken piece of pottery that Silas puts together may symbolise the spark of affection that still exists within him.  We have already dealt with light and darkness as symbols.

Among the characters, Eppie may symbolise salvation.  Dunstan – evil; Squire Cass – the decadence of the landed gentry; Dolly Winthrop – faith.  The villagers in the Rainbow Inn may symbolise certain types in our own world.

Lantern Yard may represent the gloom in the lives of the members of the sect.  The proximity of their place of worship to the jail may also stand for the restrictions and lack of freedom there.

When the child, Eppie, is carried to the Red House by Silas there is a symbolic and prophetic rejection of Godfrey by the child and an acceptance of Silas when she looks away from Godfrey and slowly turns to Silas.

The furze-bush where her mother had been found is a symbol to Eppie of her own past and also perhaps of her mother.  The furze is thorny, as Molly’s life had been.

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Themes in ‘Silas Marner’

 

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  1. Theme of Redemption

This theme may be divided into two parts, (a) the salvation of Silas Marner from the mental and spiritual disintegration which is taking place within him because of his disillusionment with and rejection of God, and because of his miserliness and withdrawal from society, and (b) the salvation of Godfrey Cass from spiritual destruction because of his secret marriage to Molly Farren and, later, his decision to disown his own child.

There is the notion of the purging of a tragic hero through suffering in the case of both of these characters, but one of them – Godfrey – is, in the end, denied what he demands most.  Yet both of them come to acquire self-knowledge.  Silas says, ‘I’ve had light enough to trusten by; and now she says she’ll never leave me, I think I shall trusten till I die.’  Godfrey, too, has consolation, ‘And I got you Nancy, in spite of all, and yet I’ve been grumbling and uneasy because I hadn’t something else – as if I deserved it.’

Eliot may be trying to point out that, without contact with other human beings, the heart dries up.  Silas rejects the notion of a loving God and of belief in his fellow-man as a result of his experiences in Lantern Yard.  God turned from him in the drawing of the lots; William Dane and Sarah betrayed him at the human level.

In Raveloe ‘there was nothing that called out his love and fellowship toward the strangers he had come amongst, and the future was all dark, for there was no Unseen Love that cared for him.’  Even his simple impulse to help Sally Oates rebounds on him, and he becomes more isolated.  Money now becomes his new God.  What affection he has left is bestowed on inanimate things – a small brown pot and his gold.  He becomes a miser.

The theft of his gold is the beginning of his salvation.  It brings the sympathy of the villagers – especially Dolly Winthrop.  He feels conscious of ‘dependence on their goodwill.’  The coming of Eppie (perhaps an Act of God) brings him consolation for his suffering.  He begins again to trust a human.  He accepts Dolly’s advice that Eppie should be christened, although he does not know what this means.  With Eppie he lives again.  When he brings her to the village he is met with ‘smiling faces and cheerful questioning.’  She has replaced his gold.  He has been out of touch with Nature as he was in Lantern Yard.  It is Eppie who brings him back to it.  There is no more betrayal.  When Godfrey asks Eppie to come with him, she stands with Silas.

Godfrey’s faults are the result of his weakness of character.  He has a ‘natural irresolution’, ‘moral cowardice’, and is ‘indecisive’.  His marriage to Molly is a result of weakness but also of pity for her.  His motives for concealing the marriage are selfish – fear of discovery, his father’s anger, the loss of his inheritance and of Nancy.

His silent reaction to the news that Molly is dead is a sinful fear that she may not be dead.  His rejection of Eppie is a spoken one.  He disowns his moral and paternal obligations and lacks the moral courage to give up Nancy.  He is now living a lie and tries to justify it by assuring himself that he is thinking only of Nancy’s happiness.  He is punished by a childless marriage.  He has, however, a conscience about Eppie and almost accepts his childlessness as a punishment.  Further punishment and suffering come with the shame of Dunstan’s theft, but he accepts God’s will for the first time and admits his secret to Nancy.  He bitterly realises that Nancy would have gladly accepted Eppie had she known the situation.  He is further punished by Eppie’s rejection of him. His redemption comes in his realisation of the truth that ‘there’s debt we can’t pay like money debts.’  He has suffered, but recognises the injustice of it.  He, too, has some consolation in Nancy.

  1. Theme of Isolation and Communication

The degrees of isolation and communication through which the central character – Silas – passes are extreme.  One might divide his life into four distinct parts – distinct because he is subject to a change of disposition each time.

  1. There is his period in Lantern Yard.
  2. Then his first fifteen years in Raveloe during which he becomes dedicated to his gold and so more isolated.
  3. Next comes the short period after the theft of his gold when he is deprived of any comfort and has only limited communication with the people of Raveloe.
  4. Finally, Eppie arrives and Silas is no longer isolated.

In Lantern Yard he is immersed in the life of the sect.  He shares the rigid, Calvinistic society of his fellow-believers, the companionship of William Dane and the company of Sarah.  His self-doubting is offset by William’s certainty – although in the end of this period God seems to desert him.  William falsely accuses him of theft and Sarah deserts him, he has been relatively contented.

When he arrives in Raveloe he is a stranger and, so an object of suspicion.  He hates ‘the thought of the past’; there is ‘nothing that calls out his love and fellowship towards the strangers in the village.’  He contributes to his own isolation in his failure to invite anyone to visit him and his failure to mix with others except on business.  The riches of Nature are in contrast with the narrow, frugal life (physical and spiritual) of Lantern Yard.  There is no ‘Unseen Love’ that cares for him.  The children fear him and the villagers wonder at his solitary isolation.  The results of his impulsive desire to help Sally Oates are disastrous. He refuses to exploit the villagers and they drive him back to isolation.  His attempt to establish a relationship has, through no fault of his own, driven a wedge between the villagers and him.  Money now becomes his god.  He still retains a spark of affection but it is for inanimate things like his broken pot.  When his gold is stolen, the disaster seems worse than that of Lantern Yard.  His soul is ‘like a forlorn traveller on an unknown desert.’  Yet his impulse is to go for help.  He goes to the Rainbow Inn.  It is here that he communicates with others.

Afterwards the neighbours try to ‘get through’ to him.  He is not yet one of them, but is affected by their anxiety to help.  He feels that people might help him.  Their kindness may spring from their recognition of suffering – ‘pain and mishap present a far wider range of possibilities than gladness and enjoyment.’  Although he still feels desolate he is now aware that he depends on others.  Yet he is not cheered by Dolly as ‘human love and divine faith have not yet been released in him.’

The coming of Eppie changes everything.  It makes the villagers more actively sympathetic.  She unlocks the door to his happiness within the community when he determines to meet the neighbours for her sake.  He acquires knowledge of life from his new acquaintances.  As he grows older, his eyes ‘seem to have gathered a longer vision as is the way with eyes that have been short-sighted in life.’  This may be symbolic of his spiritual outlook.  Eliot says that a sense of presiding goodness and human trust come with all pure peace and joy.  The human trust is important; he had lost it after Lantern Yard.

He has a bad moment when Eppie speaks of marriage.  Is his gold again being stolen?  But she reassures him.  His final trial comes when Godfrey arrives to ask for Eppie.  Silas’s decision not to stand in her way is heroic, but he has no need to fear; he will never again be isolated.

Godfrey Cass may be included as one whose failure to communicate contributes to his unhappiness.  The Red House atmosphere is not conducive to communication, as love does not exist within it.  His lack of true communication with Nancy prevents him getting to know her until it is almost too late.  He is afraid to tell Squire Cass of his marriage to Molly, a social inferior, because he fears the Squire’s reaction and because he feels that he will lose Nancy.  He again fails to communicate when he denies knowledge of Molly and then rejects his child.  When he finally tells Nancy of the marriage, she tells him that she would have accepted Eppie.  He now realises that his reticence has been for nothing.

Again, when he calls Silas to surrender Eppie, he shows his inability to understand Silas by speaking in terms of bodily warts and money and by painting Eppie’s future as a lady and contrasting it with the rough life before her if she remains with Silas.  It is only when he faces the truth and accepts the justice of his punishment that he is saved.  He now knows himself and is rewarded when Nancy’s eyes and his ‘meet in trust’.

  1. Theme of Chance

In Chapter XI Eliot personally intervenes to comment on Chance – ‘In this point of trusting to some throw of fortune’s dice, Godfrey can hardly be called old-fashioned.  Favourable Chance is the god of all men who follow their own devices instead of obeying a law they believe in.’  she personifies Chance as a deity, ‘the mighty creator of success and its worship is a religion of these people.’

Godfrey is always hopeful that something will turn up to save a dangerous situation.  As a result he finds it hard to make a decision about anything.  So he falls back on ‘casualties’ (accidental happenings).  He fails to admit his marriage to Molly Farren because he feels that, the longer the interval before revelation, the more chances there are of deliverance from some of the unpleasant consequences to which he may have subjected himself.  When Dunstan fails to return from the sale of Wildfire, Godfrey asks himself why he should cut off his hopes by his own admission of his misdeeds.  If Dunstan fails to return soon everything may blow over.  When the Squire tells him to propose to Nancy with the half-threat that the Squire may himself speak to Nancy’s father he flies to ‘his usual refuge, that of hoping for some unforeseen turn of fortune, some favourable chance which would save him from unpleasant consequences – perhaps even justify his insincerity by manifesting its prudence’.  Not until Eppie rejects him does he face the truth and accept the consequences.

 Silas Marner, too, at one stage leans on Chance.  He, like the Lantern Yard brethren, believes that Chance in the form of ‘trial by lot’, reflects God’s judgement.  When his innocence is not borne out, he rejects God.  Later, after Eppie’s coming, he agrees with Dolly that there is good in the world.  He feels that the ‘lots’ were compensated for by Eppie.  ‘There’s dealings with us – there’s dealings.’  Eppie, too, has arrived by Chance.

  1. Theme of Love

Love runs through the novel as a recurring motif.  It is associated with other themes.  Its absence may be noted in Lantern Yard where the devotees have been taught that they are miserable sinners, so that they are prepared to believe in the sinfulness of their brethren and to punish it without an impulse of charity or human pity.  Each thinks only of his own salvation.  Lantern Yard also suppresses Silas’s love of Nature.

Yet, in Raveloe, Silas feels ‘a rush of pity’ for Sally Oates.  He also shows grief for his broken pot, but his affection is for inanimate things.  At first the villagers in Raveloe, because of their superstition, contribute to Silas’s loveless life by withholding whatever neighbourliness they might normally bestow on a fellow-human.  His miserliness saps his love for other human beings; gold is his true love.

His love is rekindled, albeit slowly when his gold is stolen.  He feels pity for Jem Rodney whom he accuses of the theft, realising the injustice of the accusation. (This is an echo of what befell himself in Lantern Yard).  His apology is, in effect, a gesture of love.  The kindness of the villagers to someone in trouble is an indication that love is there if he can meet it half-way.  Dolly Winthrop is in the vanguard of human compassion; she is ‘mild and patient’ and helps those who need help.  This is true love.

The coming of Eppie brings true love into Silas’s life; not alone the love she gives to him and the love which he bestows on her, but also the friendship and sympathy of the villagers.  Her pranks and naughtiness make him realise that love makes claims on him, yet he cannot really find it within himself to punish her.  After sixteen years with her he has acquired the ‘mild, passive happiness of love-crowned age in his face.’  Eliot says that, because of his love and the seclusion of his cottage, she has been preserved from the coarseness of village talk and habits, so that she has a touch of refinement.  In the end his love for her is repaid by her declaration of love for him and her rejection of Godfrey.  He now asserts his trust in God.

Godfrey and Dunstan have been deprived of love since their mother’s death.  Their father is weak in character and self-indulgent.  He rules his household by fear.  He lacks courtesy and makes no attempt to understand his sons.  Dunstan has no saving graces; he is entirely lacking in love.  Godfrey shows his weakness in marrying Molly Farren, but he is conscious of the harm he has done to her.  He loves Nancy Lammeter and sees her as his loving wife, but even in his love he has no real knowledge of her and so postpones admitting to her his unfortunate marriage.

Eliot says ‘…..the yoke a man creates for himself by wrong-doing will breed hate in the kindliest nature’, and that the affectionate-hearted Godfrey is becoming bitter and subject to cruel wishes (presumably for the early death of Molly).  When he hears that she is dead, his fear is that she may not really be dead.  He then rejects his own child – Eppie.  This is the antithesis of love.  There is happiness and love in his marriage to Nancy, although it may be asked if Nancy falls short of love in her refusal to adopt the child.  When Godfrey finally admits to his marriage to Molly, their eyes meet ‘ with awe in them, as at a crisis which suspended affection.’  Is there a temporary cessation of love here on Nancy’s part?  She speaks of a chance lost of having a child to love her.  After their abortive attempt to persuade Eppie to live with them, they again look into one another’s eyes.  It is now that, although Eppie has rejected him, he knows that Nancy truly loves him, ‘And I got you, Nancy, in spite of all.’

 5. Theme of Nature

Eliot believed that Nature is an influence in developing the human person.  Silas rejects Nature in Lantern Yard, briefly returns to it to aid Sally Oates and then, under the influence of Eppie, finally returns.  Eppie’s wish is for a garden.  This may indicate her simplicity and that Nature is sufficient for her.  It is also possible to discuss human nature under this theme.  (See further notes on Nature Imagery here.)

 

  1. The Theme of Knowledge

The theme of Knowledge has some importance in the novel.  There is a suggestion that knowledge of oneself and others, or the lack of it, plays an important part in both characterisation and plot.  Eliot, speaking of the Lantern Yard sect with its constant discussions on the possibility of salvation, says it resembles ‘young winged things fluttering forsaken in the twilight.’  This suggests a misdirected search for knowledge that is in contrast with Dolly Winthrop’s certain trust in ‘Them above’.

The superstition of the villagers in Raveloe that helps keep Silas in isolation is a result of their fear that Silas possesses knowledge that they do not have, and their belief that knowledge and skill come from the devil.  When his gold is stolen, the villagers see him as without knowledge and so, godly.

With the coming of Eppie, Silas acquires knowledge from his now sympathetic neighbours. His discussions with Dolly also help him towards religious contentment.  He also gains self-knowledge when Godfrey cannot begin to understand why Silas might not wish to part with Eppie.  Yet Eliot says that it is only the want of sufficient knowledge that allows him to be deliberately unkind.

Godfrey also undergoes a journey towards self-knowledge.  You might try to map this journey yourself using the incidents in the novel.

 

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“Roosters” by Elizabeth Bishop – A poem whose time has come again?

 

 

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Taking recent political events in America into account,  this poem seems to me to be one whose time has finally come round again!  In 1938, as another war threatens to engulf the world, Elizabeth Bishop stops off in Key West for almost a decade on her slow, leisurely migration South.  In 1941, shortly after the tragic events of Pearl Harbour, she produced this classic poem, a poem which many claim depicts American chauvinism at its worst and a poem that was read with interest by millions of returning soldiers and marines as they undertook the challenging reintegration back into civilian life after its publication in 1946 as part of her collection North and South – a collection of quintessential Bishop poems about waking up and the sea.

It is one of her ‘long narrow poems’ (44 stanzas) and yet Colm Tóibín in his analysis of the poem states rather controversially that, ‘it is important to insist that the poem “Roosters” is about roosters’.  He goes further and insists that ‘more exactly, it is about roosters in Key West’.  This may be so but even a cursory reading, in these revisionist times, will no doubt point up the presence of many other important sub-themes which are scrutinised and analysed here by the poet, such as militarism, male/female roles, war-mongering, forgiveness, and waking up to reality.  However, her treatment of the roosters is generally subtle, though not always so, and I have to agree with Tóibín’s final assessment that, ‘she managed to write one of the great poems about power and cruelty by not doing so.’

The poem was written at a time when the navy was gearing up for a war in Europe and other far-flung theatres of war.  Key West had been chosen as a new navy base and she was at one stage, much to her annoyance, forced to rent her beloved property to navy personnel.  In other areas of Key West, property was being purchased compulsorily and some houses were being demolished.  Therefore, it is no wonder that the poem has been read as an anti-war poem and a poem condemning arbitrary authority, ‘what right have you to give / commands and tell us how to live.’

The poem opens in Key West with the town waking to a morning light which she characterises as militarised, the morning is ‘gun-metal blue dark’.  The poet and her lover, the ‘we’ of the opening stanza, are rudely awakened from their slumbers by a martial rooster. This initial call is soon echoed by others and within a short time, there is a cacophony of strident roosters calling the sleepy Key West community to face a new day.  In a letter to Marianne Moore, Bishop wrote that she wanted the opening to represent the baseness of military warfare, and had in mind, too, Picasso’s Guernica.  From the weaponized colour of dawn to the macho “first crow of the first cock,” Bishop lures us into the poem as if from sleep, from non-consciousness, and forces us to face our own new (political) reality post November 8th!!

The macho roosters, symbolic of American chauvinism, ready themselves for another day of domination, of seeing off rivals, and indulging in some megaphone diplomacy.  They are depicted as ‘stupid’, using their ‘traditional cries’ and she personifies their behaviour, ‘their protruding chests’, ‘their green-gold medals dressed’; she ridicules their efforts ‘to command and terrorise the rest’.  One of the many things that makes Bishop’s anti-war argument in “Roosters” so interesting is her rare lack of reticence to disclose the struggles of women to survive against the rhythms of male competition, rivalry, discord, the taking up of arms, and combat.   She is anything but subtle here and, in my opinion, it is one of the times when her customary reticence and use of understatement goes out the window.  This is very evident in her unflattering depiction of the roosters’ wives:

The many wives

Who lead hens’ lives

Of being courted and despised;

She uses the traditional image of the ‘tin rooster’ as weather vane on ‘our little wooden northern houses’ to introduce the concept of militarism again.  She uses military imagery to depict their battles and skirmishes.  The roosters make ‘sallies’, setting out their territory, ‘marking out maps’, and the image of a great operations centre with maps ‘like Rand McNally’s’ with ‘glass-headed pins’ and military uniforms is created with imagery like ‘oil-golds and copper greens’.  The roosters are compared to the ‘scarlet majors’ in Sassoon’s anti-war poem, ‘Base Details’, who send their “glum heroes up the line to death”.   Again they are personified, they are ‘screaming’ at the inhabitants of Key West to ‘Get up! Stop dreaming!’.  The poet refers to the idea that the Greeks used these ‘very combative’ birds for their cock fighting spectacles.

There follows more imagery of roosters fighting, flying, dying – the blood has gone to their heads, which are ‘charged with all your fighting blood’.  She disapproves of their ‘virile presence’ and their paradoxical ‘vulgar beauty’.  Bishop is playing with us here: is she not saying, ‘Whatever else we say about these roosters, they’re not chicken’!

All my adult life I have been aware of America as having a predisposition to enter conflicts all over the world.  My memories of the 60’s and 70’s are of harrowing television clips from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos.  In recent years, especially since 2003, America has been mired in military intervention, military deployments  and full blown wars which seem to be unwinnable despite the seeming one-sided nature of the contests. Nothing, Bishop’s poem reminds us, is ever won from war.  This poem is a perfect example of her honesty and here she shows her nerve to review human nature honestly and she also  portrays a steely resistance to duplicity and coercion.

Bishop, up to this point, has looked at roosters from many different angles but now she focuses on an association between the rooster and St. Peter in the Gospel account of the denial of Jesus before his Crucifixion:

And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly.

In the Latin version of the Bible “gallus canit” means “the cock crowed,” and “flet Petrus” means “Peter wept.”  So this is one of the reasons why roosters are so often used ‘on basilica and barn’ to depict, not so much Peter’s denial and humanities overall frailty, but the unconditional forgiveness offered by Christ.  The climax of the poem is beautifully rendered as we witness the literally “cocky” roosters subside in the last part of the poem to become an image of peace, ‘The cocks are now almost inaudible’.   Morning has returned, with immense hope, to the world.  By poem’s end, the rooster crows and Peter weeps as the poem shifts from remorse to salvation to inescapable hope—like a re-enactment of civilisation’s transformation from militancy to humility—so that the rooster’s call is a symbol of forgiveness.

The final five stanzas take us back to the beginning – morning has broken and the master craftswoman uses beautiful slender ‘l’ sounds to depict a new dawn, a new beginning:

In the morning

A low light is floating

In the backyard and gilding

Colm Tóibín so rightly asserts that ‘In ‘Roosters’, she … managed to produce one of the great poems about the morning’.  ‘The sun climbs in’ and transforms ‘the broccoli leaf by leaf’ and ‘the tiny floating swallow’s belly’.  She uses the beautiful simile ‘like wandering lines in marble’ to depict the creeping rays of sunshine.  The only discordant note to this otherwise idyllic, hopeful ending is the ambiguous role played by the sun – it can be seen as either an ‘enemy’ or a ‘friend’.

This literary tour de force broke new ground in its attitude to, and treatment of, war and pacifism on the one hand and the sometimes fraught relations between men and women in a post-war world on the other.  If there is hope, and the poem ends with a new dawn, then Bishop is bold enough to suggest that it lies with women.  She sees a future America where hope lies in the power of women to seize a greater share in mapping out the future destiny of the nation and wrestle it away from stubborn, war-mongering men.  I said at the beginning of this piece of commentary that I thought this was a poem whose time had come again – I hope America have not lost their chance to carry out Bishop’s manifesto with the recent defeat of  a strong female candidate in the Presidential Election.  Time will tell but it adds to the cachet of this poem that it has had the power to continue to shape America from its first publication in 1941 until the present day.

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Works Cited:

Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems, 1927 – 1979.  New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroix, 1983

Tóibín, Colm. On Elizabeth Bishop, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015. Digital

See also Reviews Rants and Rambles:  https://vinhanley.com/2015/08/28/themes-and-issues-in-the-poetry-of-elizabeth-bishop/

Reviews Rants and Rambles: https://vinhanley.com/2016/11/29/commentary-on-sandpiper-by-elizabeth-bishop/