Observations on ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T. S. Eliot

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No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; / Am an attendant lord, one that will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two ….

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, commonly known as “Prufrock”, was the first professionally published poem by American-born British poet T. S. Eliot (1888–1965). Wikipedia tells that Eliot began writing “Prufrock” in February 1910, and it was first published in the June 1915 issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse at the instigation of Ezra Pound.  It was later printed as part of a twelve-poem pamphlet titled Prufrock and Other Observations in 1917.   The poem has come to represent a generation, an epoch, much in the same way as The Great Gatsby, Waiting for Godot and Ulysses are also seen as seminal works which seek to define an age.

Rightfully, it is regarded by many as one of the very first great modern poems.  It is modern in theme because it expresses the confusion and indecision arising from the self-doubt of modern man facing a world in which the traditional religious and social certainties were losing force.  It is also modern in method, making its impact by means of images and symbols which are not held together by any strict or obvious logic, but by the free association of ideas.  In other words, the confusion and incoherence of Prufrock’s mind and of his world are to some extent reflected in the apparent incoherence of the poem.  Close study of the poem (by you, hopefully) will reveal that it has, in fact, a coherence and logic all of its own.

‘Let us go then, you and I’[1] – and analyse the poem!

While the two opening lines of the poem might well belong to a conventional love poem I don’t think anyone is going to rush out and put it on their Valentine’s Day card – not even Jacob Rees-Mogg!  The essential point to make about Prufrock is that it is a dramatic monologue.  Like many of Hamlet’s soliloquies, the purpose of this monologue is to light up his own mind rather than illuminate ours!  He is using his utterances not so much to expound the meaning of his life as to pursue it.  The meaning he extracts may surprise him, and puzzle him, as much as it does the reader.  This meandering quest to find his life’s meaning accounts for the tone of improvisation in the dramatic dialogue, as well as the speaker’s absorption in what he is saying, and also for his strange lack of any real connection with his audience.  Indeed, in Eliot’s monologue, the listener is mainly Prufrock’s other self.

It is interesting to notice how little dramatic situation there is in Prufrock.  There is, in fact, barely enough situation to serve as a springboard for Prufrock’s self-revelation.  There is the ‘journey’ through ‘half-deserted streets’ to a drawing room where the ladies ‘talk of Michelangelo’ make it easy to avoid ‘the overwhelming question’, and a final retreat to the sea-chambers of fantasy where Prufrock can spend the rest of his days listening to the song of the mermaids.  The relative unimportance of the actual situation is underlined by the fact that Prufrock does not really direct his utterance to the situation at all.  It is important to remember that his utterance is not contemporaneous in tense with the situation.  He speaks, not to alter this situation, but to extract from it the pattern of his life.  In fact, the use of tenses in the poem is a vital element: Prufrock’s utterance is framed almost entirely in the perfect and future tenses.  Thus the crucial situation, the putting of the question, appears not in actuality but as anticipation (‘there will be time’) or as recollection (‘would it have been worth it after all … I have known them all already’).  After the evocation of the tea-party, there is no situation at all, not even the implication of a present tense.  There is only the pattern of the future, blended with the pattern of the past (‘I shall wear white flannel trousers … I have heard the mermaids singing’).

The use of tenses, combined with the Hamlet references, may be considered significant in relation to Prufrock’s indecisive, fearful nature.  As already mentioned, Prufrock’s monologue achieves something of the same effect as Hamlet’s soliloquies.  It reveals a private hell from which there is no escape, not even through fantasy.  There is also another Hamlet-like dimension to Prufrock: fearful anticipation (1-69) and retrospective excuses for failure (70-131), coupled with self-laceration.

Another interesting feature of the poem is that while there is often little sense of logical continuity between its parts, Eliot pays detailed attention to syntactical continuity.  The poem gains in coherence through the extensive use of linking words, phrases and expressions.  No fewer than twenty-one lines are introduced by and, which introduces seven of the verse-paragraphs.  To link the major paragraphs, Eliot makes use of sporadic word-repetition, which in Prufrock is a more significant device than rhyme.  There are repetitions within the paragraphs and echoes linking each paragraph to its successor (yellow fog, yellow smoke, evening, they will say, voices dying with a dying fall, each to each ….).  The word ‘time’ appears ten times in the third and fourth paragraphs.

The voice of the poem is, mainly, one of shadowy, uncertain identity.  The presiding image is of a dream labyrinth (the landscape, the fog, the streets, the sea), an image created by an uncertain mind vainly endeavouring to find itself.  One occasional weakness is illustrated by the Hamlet passage (‘I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be’).  This is, perhaps, too abstract, too clever, too sharp a definition for the generally uncertain and vague identity of the ‘voice’ we have been listening to up to this point.

Many of us, students of the poem, perhaps coming to it for the first time are almost certain to be puzzled by Eliot’s method here.  However, even after several readings, Prufrock can still remain as obscure as ever!  The sources of difficulty are easy enough to identify.  The principal one is the absence of a straightforward sequence of thought and of continuity between the various fragments which go to make up the poem.  The physical appearance of Prufrock reflects Eliot’s method of composition.  It was not composed as a unit: as befitting a poem we have earlier described as ‘one of the very first great modern poems’, some lines were written in America, some in Paris and some in Germany; added to this was the fact that it underwent a good deal of editing and re-arranging of lines before the present version emerged.  One looks in vain for logical connections between the parts.  The speaker proceeds by indirection, implication, suggestion.  Indeed, at one point he declares that it is impossible for him to say just what he means (105).  A good deal of what one might think necessary for an understanding of the speaker and his situation is omitted or else merely hinted at or vaguely implied; even the nature of the ‘overwhelming question’, apparently a central issue in the poem, is left obscure.

The disjointed fragments, put together in an apparently arbitrary fashion, can, however, be related to one another and made to take on the appearance of parts of a unified structure provided that a certain amount of ingenuity is exercised by the reader.  Indeed, it is only by means of such an exercise, involving the discovery of the missing links in the broken chain of events and ideas that Prufrock can be made to acquire the kind of ‘meaning’ that most people look for in any work of literature.  Reading Prufrock in this fashion for its ‘meaning’ is rather like playing a game of charades, solving a puzzle or doing a piece of detective work.  Clues are seen to be left lying around: a journey of some sort is in question; a man seems to be facing a difficult predicament; an urban landscape is described; details of the man’s appearance and character are, apparently, revealed.  The poet’s peculiar use of pronouns is noted.  The reader will naturally try to combine these elements into as orderly and intelligible a sequence as he can, discover logical relations between them, and make out his version of the ‘story’ of the poem.  Each reader’s version may, of course, be somewhat different from that of his neighbour; each will marshal the ‘clues’ to different effect.  The number of possible versions of the poem as a ‘story’ is obviously endless.

What kind of poem, then, is Prufrock? One of Eliot’s images gives us a useful clue to the poet’s method:

It is impossible to say just what I mean!

But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on

a screen ….

The magic lantern will serve as a symbol of Prufrock.  The fragments of the poem are like separate, isolated slides projected onto a screen.  The voice of the speakers invites us to follow it on a dream-like progress from the half-deserted streets to the room full of fashionable women, through the yellow fog, to the staircase and finally to the mermaids in the chambers of the sea.  The only place in which all these different locations could exist together is in the mind of the speaker.

If Prufrock has unity it is not a unity of idea or incident: the streets, stairways, rooms and ‘chambers of the sea’ clearly cannot belong to a single, visible world.  Instead of trying to relate the fragments of the poem to such a world, one should regard them as projections of various states of feeling, some of them contradictory, all originating in a single mind.  This is the only sense in which it is possible to speak with confidence of the ‘unity’ of the poem.  The images of Prufrock correspond to these states of feeling: they objectify them.  The experience of reading the poem should be like that of listening to music: moods and feelings are communicated, emotions stimulated.  It does not really matter where the room is in which the women talk of Michelangelo, or whether this can be the room towards which the speaker may be going; nor does it matter whether the fog has formed before the projected ‘journey’ or after it.  The physical details of the poem, the relationship between its people, places and objects, are as unsubstantial as those in a dream; they dissolve and reappear quite arbitrarily.  The time-sequence is equally chaotic.  Therefore, if Prufrock can be said to be about anything, it is primarily about a state of mind.

 

 

Footnotes

[1] It is essential for our understanding of the poem to realise that the ‘you’ and ‘I’ refer to two aspects of Prufrock’s personality.  The ‘you’ stands for the timid, apologetic, public side of Prufrock; the ‘I’ stands for the inner man with his passionate desire for a more heroic and splendid mode of life.  There is a third person in the poem, the woman, who is the object of Prufrock’s love.  She is constantly referred to as the ‘one’.

Prufrock_And_Other_Observations

Further Reading

You might also like to read a brief analysis of Eliot’s Religious Poetry featuring ‘Journey of the Magi’ and ‘A Song for Simeon’ here.

Three Poems by Thomas Hardy

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Courtesy of AwestruckWanderer -Wordpress.com

For many years during my chequered career as an English teacher, I taught a very limited selection of poems by Thomas Hardy which featured in the interim anthology, Soundings, edited by Augustine Martin.  This was as part of the then Leaving Poetry Certificate course – where the only requirement for selection was that the poet had to be dead!  How times have changed – for the better.   Having now retired I have been able to revisit the poems and glory anew in their darkness – a rather sad, pathetic version of  ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’!

During his lifetime, Thomas Hardy was much engaged with the great issues which exercise the minds of all thinking men; time, death, suffering, immortality.  Three of his finest poems (‘Afterwards’, ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’, ‘During Wind and Rain’) deal with these matters.  Students of Hardy’s oeuvre will already know that he was not a particularly cheerful or optimistic observer or commentator on the human condition.  He could not, for example, believe that the universe was the work of a benevolent Creator.  At different times in his writings we can see that he thought creation to be a cruel joke, or as an accident, and he even once suggested that some ‘Vast imbecility / Mighty to build and blend / But impotent to tend / Framed us in jest, and left us now to hazardry’ (‘Nature’s Questioning’).  Human life appeared to him to be devoid of any clear plan or purpose, and personal immortality was clearly an illusion.  He could find nothing to give meaning to the weight of suffering in the world, to the ravages of time, or to the cruelty of death.

The three poems mentioned above embody varying reactions to the predicament of human beings in the face of the remorseless forces of destruction.  In ‘Afterwards’ we find a calm, stoical acceptance; while ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’ he affirms the continuity of everyday life against a background of war and turmoil, while in ‘During Wind and Rain’ he portrays a relentless picture of absolute desolation and despairing,  tragic anguish.

Recited by Jeremy Irons

‘Afterwards’

‘Afterwards’ happens to be one of my own personal favourite poems of all time.  The poem was written in 1917 (the same year as Eliot’s, ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’, was published).  Hardy was 77 at the time.  It is not really a poem about death, but about the world Hardy feels he will soon be leaving, and about the ways in which he would like to be remembered after he has gone.  It is a sincere, truthful poem, showing Hardy’s resignation and stoicism, as well as embodying his modest view of his own significance.  At the time of writing, Hardy was nearing the end of a long and illustrious career, as poet and novelist.  In the poem, however, he hopes not for universal remembrance after death, as a great man of letters, but instead that a few kind people will remember him for his lifelong interest in nature and for his fondness for living things.  He does not look forward to death with terror or dread, or even with excitement; he greets the prospect of his ‘bell of quittance’ with quiet detachment.  Detachment, indeed, is the keynote of the poem.  It is as if Hardy were observing his own fate from a distance; the fact that he talks so much about himself in the third person (a la J.M. Coetzee in more recent times) lends force to this impression.

One way of reading ‘Afterwards’ is as the utterance of one returned to life from the past, as a kind of tolerant, objective, kindly observer.  The major focus of interest in the poem is not the poet himself but the things he used to notice while he lived: there is a beautiful tension between the things so lovingly observed and the idea of death which broods over the poem.  Hardy’s ability to be objective about his own demise is finely suggested in the second line:

            And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings

Instead of using morbid nature imagery to portray his death, as he does in poems like ‘The Darkling Thrush’, he instead evokes the joys of early summer.  Furthermore, his claim to have been a close observer of nature during his lifetime is validated in the beautiful image of the hawk in lines 5 – 6:

            Like an eyelid’s soundless blink

This beautiful and powerful simile, combining as it does speed and soundlessness, would occur only to one who had, indeed, looked long and closely at the minutest details of a scene.

The third stanza is both endearing and sad.  Hardy was a firm believer, whether in regard to humans or animals, that the chief aim of man should be to strive to keep pain down to a minimum by loving kindness.  His lifelong campaign against cruelty to animals and birds, referred to here, in this stanza, will, he suggests, come to nothing once he has passed away:

            But he could do little for them, and now he is gone.

I find that it is impossible to read this line in its context without feeling a pang at the absurdity of isolated human effort in the face of the relentless progress of evil in the world.

In the fourth stanza, Hardy moves from the contemplation of every day, local details to glance momentarily at the mysteries of creation and record his interest in such matters.  He is content to contemplate them with due wonder and to reserve his comment for the more homely things he does understand.  There doesn’t seem to be any religious significance to his contemplation of created things or of matters after death other than his reference to the ‘bell of quittance’, obviously the bell of his local parish church.  The very modesty of his hopes and claims make them all the more moving and impressive.  Yet, the long sonorous lines of the poem help paint a picture of Hardy the man: a good neighbour, a keen observer of nature, a man who will be missed when he goes – a man who had an eye ‘for such mysteries’

Recited by Judi Dench

‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’

Along with ‘Afterwards’, ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’, despite its brevity and simplicity, ranks as one of Hardy’s finest achievements.  In three short stanzas, Hardy makes a profound comment on war, and on the basic permanence of simple, everyday things.

Although the poem was written during the First World War in 1915, the subject occurred to Hardy as early as 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, as we read in his The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy.  He was in Cornwall when he wrote:

On the day that the bloody battle of Gravelotte was fought they were reading Tennyson in the grounds of the rectory.  It was at this time and spot that Hardy was struck by the incident of the old horse harrowing the arable field in the valley below, which, when in later years it was recalled to him by a still bloodier war, he made into the little poem of three verses (p. 84).

The poem makes its powerful, telling and timely point by sharply juxtaposing the momentary aberration of war against a background of centuries of human history.  Hardy asserts the pre-eminence of simple human values in the face of the misuse of power and the disintegration brought about by war.  According to Hardy, there are two kinds of history: that of war, political events and the rise and fall of Dynasties, and the humbler history of obscure people and everyday life.  The man and the old horse ploughing the field, the thin smoke rising from the field, and the two lovers, represent the second kind; the Dynasties represent the first kind.  The Great War (To End All Wars) was meant to mark the passing of these Dynasties, but the ‘maid and her wight’ have greater significance than all the dynasties, since, through their children and their descendants down the generations, they will continue the story of humanity long after dynasties and their wars have passed into oblivion.

Read by Tom O’Bedlam

‘During Wind and Rain’

‘During Wind and Rain’ is a very pessimistic, indeed despairing, comment on life and death, providing an interesting contrast with ‘Afterwards’ and ‘At Time of the Breaking of Nations’.  It is quintessentially Hardy.  As in the other two poems, the powerful effects are achieved largely through contrast and juxtaposition.  Here, each of the four stanzas has the same structural features.  The setting of the poem is a wild, tempestuous autumn day which bears an obvious weight of symbolism.  In each stanza, a happy, beautifully depicted scene from the past is followed by a pathetic refrain whose theme is the havoc wrought by the years, while each final line brings forcefully to life the wildness of the autumn day.

It is said that Hardy wrote the poem with his first wife, Emma Gifford, in mind.  She is seen with her family in a series of happy scenes, the security and comfort of which are shattered in turn by the intrusive, tortured refrain on ‘the years’.  There is a wealth of implication in the first stanza, with its cheerful family music-making followed by the image of the sick leaves which ‘reel down in throngs’, which seems both to describe the autumn day and to suggest the deaths of the participants in the happy gathering.  Again, in the beautiful garden of Stanzas Two and Three, ‘the rotten rose is ript from the wall’, a glance, apparently, at the family’s tendency to madness.

In this poem – one of his darkest and despairing – Hardy finds the origins of death and despair in the past.  Time enjoys a cruel triumph, and a total one here, obliterating without a trace not only the most stable and fortunate families and their carefully tended surroundings, but even those remains which might serve to perpetuate their memories.  This latter idea is graphically conveyed in the great last line, which is almost a poem in itself:

            Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs

Even the very names of the dead carved on their tombstones are not exempt from the erasing hand of time.  The absolute desolation of this poem is appropriately summed up in the slow, lingering pathos of this line, with its crushing air of finality.

 

Works Cited

Hardy, Thomas. The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy ed Michael Millgate (1984). London: The Macmillan Press Limited, 1984.

Martin, Augustine (ed). Soundings: Leaving Cert Poetry/Interim Anthology.  Gill and Macmillan Limited and The Educational Company. 1969.

Further Reading

My overall analysis of the poetry of Thomas Hardy can be accessed here

The Religious Poetry of T. S. Eliot (with a particular focus on ‘Journey of the Magi’ and ‘A Song for Simeon’)

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T.S. Eliot portrait by Baltimore Maryland artist Jerry Breen.

 

‘Journey of the Magi’ (1927) and ‘A Song for Simeon’ (1928) both arose from the poet’s spiritual struggles which eventually gave rise to his conversion to the Church of England.  In an essay first published in 1931, Eliot gives us a fairly vivid account of the process of conversion as he understands it:

The Christian thinker proceeds by rejection and elimination.  He finds the world to be so and so, but he finds its character to be inexplicable by any non-religious theory.  Among religions, he finds Christianity accounts most satisfactorily for the world, and thus he finds himself inexorably committed to the dogma of the Incarnation (Selected Essays, 408).

This description helps us understand Eliot’s personal development during the 1920s, and helps us see how his conversion was not a sudden transformation but an inevitable culmination of a long drawn out process.  His early poetry had been pervaded by a lament for his loss of faith and sometimes hinted that it might someday be recovered.  Thus, even a decidedly secular poem such as ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is interspersed with familiar Christian references.  In the poem we see references to Lazarus: ‘I am Lazarus, come back from the dead’.  Later we come upon a reference to St. John the Baptist: ‘though I have seen my head …. brought in upon a platter’.  Part of the greatness of Eliot’s Prufrock is that it depicts in a very honest way a personal state of mind and it also serves as an example of normal human misery and Roaring Twenties angst.  In the second section of Prufrock (‘The yellow fog that rubs its back…’) there is a beautiful, extended image of Prufrock’s own individual awareness.  For him, normal day-to-day apprehension is like a fog, but occasionally he feels that just beyond his field of vision there is a different order of reality – a parallel universe.

In ‘A Song for Simeon’ this order of reality is described and clearly defined.  What first strikes us is that Eliot very often has a peculiar tendency to express religious ideas in predominantly secular terms.  Both ‘A Song for Simeon’ and ‘Journey of the Magi’ rely on this relationship between biblical and secular language.  Thus, ‘A Song for Simeon’ is based on the story of Simeon in St. Luke’s Gospel, (Luke 2:25 – 35) while ‘Journey of the Magi’ is modelled on St. Matthew’s account (Matthew 2: 1 – 12).  Both poems could be described as apocryphal, reminiscent of other written accounts of the life and works of Jesus during his life on earth, such as The Gospel of St. Thomas and others, which were seen by Church authorities as being of questionable provenance. 

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Journey of the Magi by Graham Pope

‘JOURNEY OF THE MAGI’ (1927)

St. Matthew begins his Gospel account with an elaborate genealogy that places Jesus as an ancestor of King David and Abraham. Here already Matthew shows his special interest and the intended audience for his Gospel. He is writing for a Jewish audience and presents Jesus as a King, better than David and a teacher greater than Moses.

It is Matthew that tells us about the Three Wise Men (Eliot’s Magi) that came to worship, bringing gifts fit for a king.  Matthew, in his powerful birth account, presents Jesus, in fulfillment of the prophecies and hopes of the Hebrew Scriptures, as the King of the Jews who has been given all authority in Heaven and Earth. He is Emmanuel, God with us.  Matthew, however, is making a powerful distinction for his Jewish audience – the Magi represent those outsiders, those wise men, magicians, or astrologers from the East, from Persia who will now be saved by this Christ child.  The Good News of Matthew, therefore, is that this Christ has come for all people and not just for the Chosen People of Israel.  Eliot sees in the Magi a metaphor for his own conversion – he too has made a long and tortuous journey and has finally made his decision to bow down before the Christian God.

‘Journey of the Magi’ – one of the great classic Christmas poems – is told from the perspective of one of the Magi (commonly known as the ‘Three Wise Men’, though the Bible makes no mention of their number or gender – although it does mention that they brought three gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh). The poem examines the implications that the advent of Christ had for the other religions of the time, and it emphasizes this pivotal moment in human history.  In the Christian calendar, the coming of the Wise Men or Magi is celebrated on January 6th – the Twelfth Day of Christmas.  It is often referred to as the Feast of the Epiphany, when Jesus is revealed to all, Jew and Gentile, as the Saviour of the World.

This is an apocryphal account of the journey made by the Three Wise Men which eventually led them to a humble stable in Bethlehem where the Christ Child lay.  It is narrated to us by one of their number, perhaps over a glass of wine, after their return home.  The story, and it is a beautifully told story, is told not in Biblical language, but in the language of everyday speech and with an amount of detail not found in the Gospel story of St. Matthew.

The opening quotation comes from one of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes’ Nativity Sermons, preached at Christmas during the 1620s. The speaker, one of the Magi, talks about the difficulties encountered by the Magi during the course of their journey to see the infant Christ. It is unconventional in that it  focuses on the details of the journey: their longing for home (and for the ‘silken girls’ bringing the sweet drink known as ‘sherbet’), their doubts about the purpose of the journey they’re undertaking, the unfriendly people in the villages where they stop over for the night, and so on. The hardships of the journey are recounted in some detail.  The details underline the absurdity of the journey in the first place but stress the strong impulses that made them undertake the journey in the middle of winter. The hardship is further stressed by the sharp juxtaposition between what they faced on their journey and what they had left behind in their ‘palaces’. 

Eventually, the Magi arrive at the place where the infant Christ is to be found. The weary travellers trek through a ‘temperate valley’ – a kind of Garden of Eden – and eventually arrive at a tavern with its drunkenness and gambling. The description of the valley is akin to a movie still – the camera pans slowly over the landscape lingering on sharply etched details such as the running stream, the watermill, the three trees, and the old white horse.  Then the camera moves on and picks out the gamblers and the empty wineskins.  There is no mention of Bethlehem or the stable in this account and the narrator simply states that they ‘arrived at evening, not a moment too soon / finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory’.  Neither is there any mention of the star which – the Gospels and a million children’s Nativity Plays tell us – guided the Magi to the spot where Christ lay in a manger. The words ‘not a moment too soon’ are important here because the narrator seems to realize that they, like Simeon later, because of their advanced years, were unlikely to survive to witness the Crucifixion or the Resurrection of Christ and that they can only count themselves lucky to have witnessed the beginning of this powerful new religious movement.

The poem ends with its narrator reflecting on the journey some years later, saying that if he had the chance he would do it all again, but he remains unsure about the precise significance of the journey and what they found when they arrived. Was it the birth of a new world (Christianity) or the death of an old one (i.e. the Magi’s own world)? The speaker then reveals that, since he returned home following his visit to see the infant Christ, he and his fellow Magi have felt uneasy living among their own people, who now seem to be ‘an alien people clutching their gods’ (in contrast to the worshippers of the newly arrived Jesus, who worship one God only, in the form of the Messiah). The speaker ends by telling us that he is resigned to die now, glad of ‘another death’ (his own) to complement the death of his cultural and religious beliefs, which have been destroyed by his witnessing the baby Jesus.

Jesus himself, however, is absent from this poem. One reason for this may be that we are, of course, all too familiar with the story of the Nativity and we don’t need reminding here.  Another possible reason is that the focus here in this account is on the journey, the quest, and the hardship of the search.  Eliot places himself here among and alongside the Persian astrologers as they seek out the face of the baby Christ. The poet empathises with the ‘Wise Men’ who are seeing their once deeply held beliefs being called into question by this new Messiah.

No study of the poem would be complete without reference to the imagery used by the poet.  In carrying out such an analysis we also need to remember that the narrator is one of a band of ‘wise men’, ‘astrologers’ who are learned in the study of signs and omens.  Sadly, it seems, the Magi miss the significance of almost all the images mentioned in the poem!  Much of the imagery foreshadows Christ’s later life: the three trees suggesting Christ’s crucifixion on Calvary; the vine, to which Jesus will liken himself; the pieces of silver foreshadowing the thirty pieces of silver Judas Iscariot will receive for betraying him; the wine-skins foreshadowing the wine that Jesus would beseech his disciples to drink in memory of him at the Last Supper. Even though the narrator is a priest or astrologer, someone trained to look for the significance in the things around him, to read and interpret signs as symbols or omens, he fails to pick up on what they foreshadow.  We, however, living in a Christian (or even a post-Christian) society, can read their significance all too well – and modern society, despite the aid of hindsight’s 20/20 vision seems equally oblivious to the significance of those momentous events in Bethlehem. At poem’s end, the narrator is left feeling perplexed and troubled by his visit and by the advent of Christ: he wonders whether Christ’s birth has been a good thing since his arrival in the world has finally signalled the death of his own old religion and the religion of his people. Now, he and his fellow Magi, like Simeon, are left world-weary and longing for life’s end.

So, therefore, ‘Journey of the Magi’ is partly about belonging, about social, tribal, and religious belonging: the speaker of the poem reflects sadly that the coming of Christ has rendered his own gods and his own tribe effete, displaced, destined to be overtaken by the advent of Christ and Christianity. It is tempting to see the poem – written in 1927, the year Eliot converted to the Anglican faith – as a metaphor for Eliot’s own feelings concerning secularism and the Christian religion, Christianity having itself been rendered effete in the face of Darwin, modern physics, and secular philosophy. The poem, about a people’s conversion from one religion to another, is equally bound up with Eliot’s own conversion.

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Simeon’s Moment by Ron DiCianni

 ‘A SONG FOR SIMEON’ (1928)

‘A Song for Simeon’ relies heavily on the account given in the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel and phrases from this gospel echo throughout the poem.  Simeon comes to see the Christ child as he is being presented in the Temple by Mary and Joseph and he utters his famous Nunc dimittis: ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.  For my eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people’.  Joseph and Mary marvel at this and Simeon addresses Mary: ‘This child is set for the fall and rise of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed’. 

The poem is not, however, a simple restatement of Simeon’s prophecy.  Indeed, the purpose of the religious references is not to analyse religious experience into a series of logical or dogmatic statements, but to reflect a state of mind.  Eliot diminishes somewhat Simeon’s role as a prophet and brings into focus his human characteristics.  The poem, therefore, has considerable realism.  Simeon is tired and old; like all ordinary men, he neither longs for martyrdom nor for the ‘ultimate vision’ of Christ’s triumph on earth.  He just wants to die peacefully, with no heroics and no rhetoric.  Eliot’s ‘Song’, unlike the original in Luke, is the ordinary prayer of a tired old man who has accomplished his task on earth and who hopes for God’s salvation.  This tone of contemplative piety is maintained until the end, ‘Let thy servant depart / Having seen thy salvation’.  Throughout the poem, the coming of Christ is seen as a victory over the powers of darkness.  Yet, characteristically, the advent of Christ is also seen as involving a painful transformation of attitude. 

This idea is central to all of Eliot’s religious poetry and in particular to ‘A Song for Simeon’; namely that all Christians must endure hardship and suffering in this life if they are truly Christ’s followers.  The quiet strength of the poem enables the allusions to suffering to be used in such a way that the reader is forced to pause and to consider.  Take for example the reference ‘And a sword shall pierce thy heart / Thine also’.  In his address to Mary, Simeon foretells her grief and that of Christ.  But here in their new context, the words extend in meaning to cover the sufferings of all Christians who bear the derision as well as share in the glory of the passion and resurrection.  Thus, Eliot suggests, every Christian enacts the martyrdom of Christ in his own life: this, now and in the future,  will be a prime condition of his life as a Christian. 

Simeon’s case, however, is a special one.  He is the only Christian whose life does not involve participation in the suffering and death of Christ (He will, after all, be dead long before the Crucifixion) – ‘Not for me the martyrdom … / Not for me the ultimate vision’.  Eliot sees Simeon standing at that unique crossroads in human history when the pagan world gives way to the Christian.  Simeon grew up in the old dispensation, and yet he has the foresight to welcome the new Christian age but he knows that he cannot share in it.  He has to be content with the ‘ultimate vision’, the consolation of recognising that he has achieved salvation in the figure of the Christ child whom he has held momentarily in his arms.

Any close analysis of this poem must involve some mention of Eliot’s use of symbols.  As his interest in religious topics increased he continued to invent a symbolic language so as to express his ideas in poetry.  What he does in ‘A Song for Simeon’ is to translate his experience partly into traditional Christian images, and partly into his own private symbols.  Throughout the poem, the presence of familiar Christian references is obvious enough.  Groups of them appear in the third stanza:

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation

Grant us thy peace.

Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,

Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,

Low at this birth season of decrease,

Let the Infant, the still unspeaking the unspoken Word,

Grant Israel’s consolation

To one who has eighty years and no tomorrow.

Next to these familiar images, however, Eliot places various symbols which express very forcefully the waning of the old pagan world and the imminent coming of Christianity.  Stanza One, in particular, is filled with images drawn from nature.  The Roman world, the world of the old dispensation, continues to move in its accustomed way: the hyacinths are ‘blooming in bowls’, but the light of the old beliefs represented here by the winter sun is weak and fading – ‘The winter sun creeps by the snow hills’.  In the fourth line, Simeon is introduced to us using natural imagery – ‘My life is light, waiting for the death wind’.

Another significant feature of Eliot’s poetry after his conversion is his discovery of heroes – as opposed to anti-heroes like Prufrock.  Indeed, one modern critic has summarised Eliot’s religious poetry as ‘explorations of the meaning and nature of heroism’.  In ‘a Song for Simeon’, heroism is seen primarily in a Christian context.  Throughout the poem the coming of Christ is associated with images of desolation and hardship; he is the ‘wind that chills towards the dead land’; he brings ‘cords and scourges and lamentation’; he announces salvation to all men in terms of death and suffering.  The placid images of stanza one  (‘hyacinths’, ‘feather’, ‘dust and sunlight’, ‘snow hills’) give way to images of torment that represent the lives of all succeeding generations of Christians.  Death is the source of life (‘this birth season of decrease’).  This, says Eliot, is the law of sacrifice and renunciation, a law which can be seen mirrored in nature and which is the essence of the Christian way.  This is the essence of the challenge which Eliot outlines in ‘A Song for Simeon’.

Like Simeon, Eliot has longed to find Peace – ‘Grant us thy peace’.  Peace (Shalom) was a sacred word for Jews denoting a positive state of wholeness and productivity rather than our merely negative notion of an absence of hostilities.  It is in this wider sense that Eliot means the word to be understood.  Indeed, the entire poem must be seen in a Christian context, if its message is to be fully understood and appreciated.

________ *************________

Therefore, these two poems, ‘Journey of the Magi’ and ‘A Song for Simeon’, deal with different journeys: the Magi come from the East and traverse difficult landscape at an inhospitable time of the year to seek out their new Messiah.  The hardships experienced on their journey are emphassised by words like ‘cold’, ‘worst time of year’, ‘the ways deep’, ‘weather sharp’, ‘dead of winter’.  Simeon, too, has ‘walked many years in this city’ in order to carry out his religious and charitable works (‘Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor’).  Simeon also foresees persecuted Christians fleeing ‘from the foreign faces and the foreign swords’.  This is closely followed by the stark image of Christ’s journey to Calvary – probably the most poignant expression of the journey-metaphor in all of Eliot’s poetry:

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation

Grant us thy peace,

Before the stations of the mountain of desolation.

 Both poems are set in winter representing not only the old age of the narrators but also signifying the end of the ‘old dispensations’ and the advent of the new.  There is also, of course, the underlying notion of the journey which the poet has undertaken during the course of his conversion to his new faith.

To sum up, we can say that ‘A Song for Simeon’ and ‘Journey of the Magi’ mark a decisive turning point in Eliot’s religious faith.  They also mark a change in his poetic style as well as a total shift in his outlook on life. 

 Works Cited

Eliot, T.S., “The Pensées of Pascal”, Selected Essays (3rd Edition), London: Faber and Faber, 1951.

 

Macduff’s Character Explored

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Shakespeare uses the character of Macduff largely as a foil to show the shortcomings of his tragic hero Macbeth. He is a man of great integrity yet he is portrayed as very one-dimensional in the play. He is also a man of ‘high degree’, a Thane and as such he represents a role of freely given allegiance and service to his King. He is without any vestige of personal ambition and is simply content to loyally serve Duncan, his King.

It is Macduff who is the first of the innocent bystanders to discover the fact that Duncan has been murdered. His reaction is one of horror at the sight of Duncan’s body and it conveys clearly his profound sense of the sacredness of majesty, of that ‘divinity that doth hedge a king.’ This emphasises for us the enormity of what has just happened and that the murder of a king is no ordinary crime. To Macduff, Duncan’s murder seems like the ‘great doom’s image’, it signals the end of the world as he had known it.

‘Confusion now hath made his masterpiece!
Most sacrilegious murder has broke ope
The lord’s anointed temple, and stole thence
The life o’ the building.’

We realise from the beginning that Macduff would never be capable of the equivocation that Macbeth has already begun the master following the death of Duncan. This sense of integrity and loyalty is further ratified when we learn that he will not make the journey to Scone to see Macbeth crowned. It is clear that he is already suspicious of the man who is going to succeed Duncan as king, and that he is not prepared to feign a loyalty he does not feel.

‘Well may you see things well done there…
Lest our old robes sit easier than our new’.

An important aspect of Macduff’s role is now already becoming clear at this stage of the play: he is to be seen as the principled dissenter, too honest and too sincerely concerned with Scotland’s welfare to be capable of giving unquestioning allegiance to the new regime under Macbeth. Macduff’s moral courage and ‘manliness’ is shown in the fact that he takes a stance against Macbeth at a time when even Banquo has remained silent.
The next time we hear about Macduff in the play is when he goes to England to interview Malcolm who is Duncan’s son and rightful heir to the throne of Scotland. Lennox tells us in Act IV Scene i that ‘Macduff is fled to England’. He goes there to plead with Malcolm to return to Scotland and restore order and legitimate rule there. It is clearly evident that Macduff’s role has become much more significant in terms of the play’s plot. He is emerging as a pivotal character, a king-maker, in mobilising the forces for good against Macbeth’s corrupt rule. As Act IV progresses, we begin to realise that Macbeth is threatened by the existence of Macduff because he is a respected and mature figure among the Scottish Thanes. The issue of manliness is an important one here. Shakespeare seems to want us to understand, through the principled stance of Macduff, that a single brave man’s opposition can have an effect even in the face of the barefaced exercise of tyrannical power.

Macbeth, it is clear, is not surprised when the first apparition tells him ‘to beware Macduff’, and he comments ‘Thou has harped my fear aright.’ When he hears of Macduff’s flight to England, in an act of temper and fury, he decides to wipe out his enemy’s family as a proxy for Macduff himself. Thus, in a fit of insanely misdirected violence, Macbeth commits a crime against the innocent and uninvolved. In this act of gratuitous violence, he alienates the audience from himself as no other of his earlier crimes have done.

Macduff in deciding to go to England has had to choose between the safety of his family and the safety of his country. Thus Macduff, in being true to Scotland, seems, to his own wife, to be a traitor.

‘To leave his wife, his babes … in a place
From whence himself does fly?
He loves us not, he wants the natural touch.’

Later on, Macduff himself will exclaim with a bitter sense of guilt:

‘Sinful Macduff! They were all struck for thee.’

When we encounter Macduff in England in Act IV Scene iii we again see him in the role of practical patriot seeking to encourage Malcolm to take up arms against Macbeth:

‘Hold fast the mortal sword …
Bestride our downfall’n birthdom.’

In this powerful scene Shakespeare also seems to use Macduff as a spokesperson for suffering Scotland:

‘Each new morn
New widows howl, new orphans cry; new sorrows
Strike heaven on the face… ‘

Macduff’s patriotism is severely tested by Malcolm. Despite the false catalogue of sins which Malcolm claims to have committed, Macduff is too honest and too principled a man to be able to take any more, ‘Fit to govern?’ he exclaims angrily and concludes ‘No, not to live.’ Turning away in misery and despair his thoughts turn towards Scotland:

‘O nation miserable, with an untitled tyrant bloody-sceptered
When shalt thou see thy wholesome days again?’

Once again, it has been made clear in the play that Macduff’s dominant quality is his blunt honesty. This man could never have hung about Macbeth’s court paying him ‘mouth honour’ as many have been doing up to now. The equivocation and hypocrisy associated with the world of evil would always have been alien to this man’s nature.
When he learns shortly after this about the death of his wife and all his children Macduff is shown at his most affectingly human and paradoxically also at his most manly. He cries out in agony:

‘All my pretty ones? O hell kite
Did you say all? All?
What all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?’

When Malcolm tells him to ‘Dispute it like a man,’ he replies in a tone of quiet dignity and telling rebuke:

‘I shall do so
But I must also feel it as a man
I cannot but remember such things were
That were most precious to me.’

Here, at this point, we cannot but recall Lady Macbeth’s words earlier and of her resolve to dash her baby’s brains out rather than be forsworn. Here, through Macduff, Shakespeare is reminding us that true manliness is not divorced from feelings or diminished by tears.

What follows is Macduff’s determination to bring Macbeth to justice:

‘Front to front
Bring on this fiend of Scotland and myself
Within my sword’s length; if he ‘scape
Heaven forgive him too.’

Macduff is now aware of only one solemn religious duty which is the elimination of Macbeth. When he and Macbeth finally meet, it becomes obvious that we are intended to see Macduff as the instrument of divine retribution. His sense of duty is uppermost in his mind right up to the end:

‘If thou beest not slain and with no stroke of mine
My wife and children’s ghosts will haunt me still.’

The irony of Macbeth’s end is that he is killed by a man whose birth was rationally impossible; Macduff was from his mother’s womb ‘untimely ripp’d.’ Yet the man confronting Macbeth is undeniably real and undeniably ‘manly’. It is therefore appropriate that Macbeth would be ‘unmanned’ by what he has just heard:

‘It hath cowed my better part of man.’
Only now does he realise that the witches were truly ‘juggling fiends that palter with us in a double sense.’

Macbeth’s death at the hands of Macduff now becomes inevitable, as he himself and the audience are fully aware. It is appropriate that at the play’s conclusion it should be left to Macduff the unswerving and selfless patriot, the unassuming manly warrior, the man of absolute integrity to proclaim Malcolm as rightful king and announce at last that Scotland is liberated from tyranny:

‘The time is free.’

In the case of Macduff, Shakespeare has ensured that at every stage in the plot Macduff is credibly human. This was important in the context of this play’s emphasis on the terrifying and real power of evil. Shakespeare reminds us here through his depiction of Macduff that even when a country is enslaved to tyranny and subjected to a reign of terror, a single honest man by his refusal to compromise and by his principled and morally courageous dissent can be seen for what he is, and can certainly make a difference.

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Commentary on ‘A Tuft of Flowers’ by Robert Frost

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Tuft of Flowers by Ken Fiery

The Tuft of Flowers

       

         By Robert Frost

I went to turn the grass once after one

Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

 

The dew was gone that made his blade so keen

Before I came to view the levelled scene.

 

I looked for him behind an isle of trees;

I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

 

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,

And I must be, as he had been,—alone,

 

‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart,

‘Whether they work together or apart.’

 

But as I said it, swift there passed me by

On noiseless wing a ‘wildered butterfly,

 

Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night

Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.

 

And once I marked his flight go round and round,

As where some flower lay withering on the ground.

 

And then he flew as far as eye could see,

And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

 

I thought of questions that have no reply,

And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;

 

But he turned first, and led my eye to look

At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

 

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared

Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

 

I left my place to know them by their name,

Finding them butterfly weed when I came.

 

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,

By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

 

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.

But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

 

The butterfly and I had lit upon,

Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,

 

That made me hear the wakening birds around,

And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,

 

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;

So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

 

But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,

And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

 

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech

With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

 

‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,

‘Whether they work together or apart.’

Commentary:

Robert Frost is reputed to have said that ‘a poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom’.  This statement is definitely true of this beautiful lyric which was written in 1913.  He tells us that the poem reflected ‘my position between socialism and individualism’.  Indeed, the poem ends with a wonderful epiphany which suggests that he is leaning more towards socialism!

This lovely nature lyric creates a wonderful allegory on the position of the poet and his place in the modern world which, for me, is equally as profound as Heaney’s allegory in ‘Digging’.  Frost uses the mower in this poem to represent the artist, the poet, the painter, the creator of beautiful thought-provoking things.   The mower has left a tuft of flowers, just as poets leave their life’s work, as a reminder to all who follow that there is beauty in the world.  However, very often in Frost’s poetry humans are depicted as isolated figures in the landscape.  Not only are they isolated but they represent loneliness, and thereby acquire symbolic status.  Loneliness can be seen as a human condition and man’s efforts to communicate effectively are at best difficult as seen in this beautiful lyric.  This is why poets and artists are still needed by us to act as our trailblazers and scouts, to go before us, to take the risks, and help us discover the hidden beauty that lies in our meadows and pastures, leaving us many ‘a message from the dawn’.

Frost describes how he sets out to ‘turn the grass’ after the mower has earlier cut the meadow with his scythe in the early morning, ‘in the dew before the sun’.  He looks in vain for the mysterious mower who has disappeared and has presumably moved on to another meadow.  Then unexpectedly ‘a bewildered butterfly’ stumbles on the scene.  The poet has a sudden moment of epiphany when he beholds the sight of flowers that have been left untouched by the scythe:

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared

Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

Even though the two men are working separately the poet realises that in this tuft of flowers which have been spared by the mower is a message from the man who has gone before him.  Frost realises that the mower too has a deep appreciation of nature’s beauty and has left the tuft of flowers by the brook as a reminder and as a sign of solidarity.  This leads him to believe that he is no longer alone, that in some way he is linked to this enigmatic mower:

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;

So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

So, from an ordinary everyday experience Frost has moved to the appreciation for the need for fellowship in his life:

‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,

‘Whether they work together or apart.’

This epiphany strikes Frost like a thunderbolt as he turns the new-mown hay in the meadow but it also strikes the reader and further serves to reinforce for us the simple wonders and powers of nature.  ‘A Tuft of Flowers’ highlights for us how joy can return to the poet’s soul through work and companionship with other people, often through little, unremarkable random acts of kindness.  It reinforces for me how life can offer many different possibilities for choice and human companionship, and how rich and glorious the whole world of nature is.

tall tuft

Stephen Dedalus and Sex

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James Joyce traces Stephen’s sexual development with great care in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  As an infant Stephen is aware that his mother smells nicer than his father does. As a small schoolboy,  he dreams of being kissed by her when sickness makes him long for home.  As a young boy, he imagines that he will marry his playmate Eileen when they grow up.  It is Eileen’s soft white hands and golden hair that first stirs his romantic boyish notions of idealised womanhood, but the way she puts her hand in his pocket and runs away is the first instance of what his relations with attractive girls are to be.  He lacks the maturity to take the initiative in practice or to respond when a girl takes the initiative.  Instead, he glamorises the experience in words.  For Stephen this mental romanticisation of love is one thing; the experience of living girls is another thing altogether!  The two experiences are never brought into harmony.  Thus Stephen indulges in these romantic dreams about Dumas’ Mercedes, but it is significant that he pictures himself grandly rejecting her approaches because she had earlier slighted his love.  This pose of grand, offended isolation is all too attractive to him.

The first fully recognisable sexual encounter occurs when Stephen goes to the party at Harrold’s Cross.  He withdraws from the other children, relishing his isolation, while Emma glances repeatedly and invitingly in his direction.  She rouses him to feverish excitement, and after the party, she goes with him to the tram-stop.  They stand on the tram steps, he a step above hers, and as they talk she keeps coming up to join him on his step.  He knows that she is making an offer; he also knows that the experience is like the occasion when Eileen ran laughing away from him.  But for all his sense of her beauty and his knowledge that she is ready to be held and kissed, he does nothing.  The failure depresses him.  Then, next day, he begins to turn the whole experience  – which should have had a living climax – into a literary matter.  He tries to write a poem to Emma and consciously brushes the realities of the scene out of his mind.  He turns the memory into an exercise in vague, conventionalised poetic verbalism.  And after that, he goes and stares at himself in the mirror.  His own pose as a romantic poet is more fascinating to him than the living girl who has inspired it.

Two years later, on the occasion of the school play, Stephen works himself up into an excited romantic mood in the belief that he will meet Emma after she has seen the play.  Once more the devotion is an uncommunicated obsession based symbolically on a dramatic performance.  After the play, in which he excels in the world of imaginary self-projection, Emma is nowhere to be found and he is plunged into despair.  Stephen’s awakening sexuality, then, is blocked off from real human relationships and diverted into romantic dreams fed by his reading.  The Count of Monte Cristo and Bulwer Lytton’s The Lady of Lyons supply him with imaginary situations of romantic love.  As a result, his suppressed physical urges produce a perverted urge to sin and to force someone else into sin.  The consequence is that when he meets a prostitute in the street one night, he is readily lured to her room and as she takes the initiative and embraces him he finds not only relief from the urges of lust but a new self-assurance.

For a time sexual experience with prostitutes runs alongside his romantic adoration of the Virgin Mary until the retreat sermons convince him of his wickedness and he repents.  We are not told whether, after his loss of faith, he returned to the habit of visiting prostitutes.  But clearly, he fails to make a connection between the romantic sexuality in his mind, which is stirred so deeply by the sight of the wading girl, and the life of real contact with women.  The wading girl becomes the ideal to move the artist to creative dedication.  Real human relationship is not involved.

The fitful references to Emma in the last chapter of the book suggest a very slight interest in living beauty compared to the passionate intellectual interest in the theory of beauty.  Though Stephen chooses to imagine that Emma flirts with Father Moran, the sight of her by the library door stirs the thought that she may be innocent and there is another uprush of emotion – but it all goes into dreams and words, not into real contact with her.  He writes an extravagantly rhetorical poem to her and pictures himself, the priest of the imagination, listening to her confession.  Stephen’s mental life and his concept of himself as the heroic lonely artist are plainly incompatible with a sympathetic understanding of others.  He indulges the notion that Emma is consciously rebuffing him and that Cranly is pursuing her when she ignores him outside the library.  In consequence, he mentally washes his hands of her: ‘Let her go and be damned.’  But the reader lacks evidence to know how far Stephen is deceiving himself.  Indeed the last references to Emma in his diary giver the impression of a girl who is trying hard to make contact with him.  She wants to know why she sees so little of him and whether he is writing poems, and his reply is a churlish rebuff calculated to embarrass her.  Stephen’s final observation, ‘I liked her and it seems a new feeling to me’, is one of the most revealing sentences in the book.  Stephen has expressed a liking for another human being and has conceded that the feeling is a new one to him.

Therefore, it can be said that Stephen’s relationships with girls suffer because of his egotism.  He cultivates an image of himself as an isolated artist.  His sexual instincts are satisfied with prostitutes.  His romantic yearnings are channelled into poems and day-dreams.

 

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James Joyce’s use of Humour and Irony in ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’

 

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Irish writers are often noted both for their irony and for their humour, and Joyce uses a great deal of comic irony in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  Irony is not always comic.  It is ironic when a hero kills his own son not knowing who he is, but this irony is wholly tragic.  It is ironic that a Christmas party meant to be the occasion of peace and goodwill should turn into a violent family row and a virulent exchange of abuse.  It is sad too, and Stephen feels its sadness, but it also has its comic side.  We smile when Dante, a rather self-important person conscious of her own dignity, is turned into a screaming virago quivering with rage, and when Mr Dedalus lets off steam in comic abuse of Church dignitaries.

Humorous irony in literature often revolves around the way self-important people are brought down to earth with a bang.  In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen is the main concern of the author and he happens to be a rather self-important and pretentious person.  Joyce often punctures his pretentiousness – not in his own eyes and not in the eyes of other characters, but in the reader’s eyes.  For instance, when Stephen makes his righteous protest against being unjustly punished by Father Dolan, he pictures himself like some great public figure of history standing up against tyranny.  The little boy appealing to his headmaster sees himself in this grand light and when his protest has been accepted, he resolves not to take advantage personally of his vanquished foe, and we smile at his childish self-importance.

Stephen’s romantic dreams often evoke this indulgent smile in the reader.  He pictures himself, at the end of a long series of heroic adventures, proudly declining Mercede’s offer of grapes.  When he helps to lead a gang of boys, he sets himself apart from the others by not adopting their symbols and uniform, because he has read that Napoleon also remained unadorned.  These comic comparisons made by the little boy are rich in ironic humour.

These are of course the kind of imaginative exaggerations which are common to childhood.  But they lead to less usual extravagances in the growing artist.  When a boy sits down, as Stephen does, to write a poem to a girl, and begins it by imitating Lord Byron’s habit of entitling such poems, but finishes up staring at himself admiringly in the mirror, the gap between supposed intention and reality is wide.  Later Stephen imagines a stage triumph before Emma’s eyes and rushes off to claim his due of feminine admiration only to finish up in a squalid corner of the city amid the smell of horse urine.  These contrasts are the stuff of irony.  So is the contrast between the boy’s glamorous dreams of himself as a romantic lover and the actual experience to which they lead in a city brothel.

The retreat sermons are a sustained ironic piece, and the irony this time is not primarily at the expense of the hero but of the Catholic Church and its clergy.  The sermons seem to start reasonably enough but gradually become a burlesque (the Tommy Tiernan treatment!) of the kind of teaching given in retreats.  That is to say, they follow the course of traditional moral exhortation but push the examples to such an extreme that the effect is laughable.  A further irony is that the ingenuity with which torments are seemingly devised by God and the relish with which they are described by the priest are not congruous with notions of a loving God and a religion of love.  Equally ironic is the meticulous and literal way in which Stephen tries to mortify his senses and discipline his mind.  The sermons plainly have had the effect on him which the priests had hoped for.  Now that Stephen is repentant we naturally warm to him in sympathy, but we still smile at the degree of vanity and self-centeredness he shows in trying to model himself anew.

In some respects, the irony at Stephen’s expense is sharpest in the last chapter of the book.  For when he becomes a student his aspirations are aimed higher and higher.  The contrast between these aspirations and the reality around him is often laughably sharp.  At the end of Chapter 4, for instance, Stephen has enjoyed raptures expressed in language of lyrical beauty.  At the beginning of Chapter 5, he is drinking watery tea and chewing crusts of fried bread at a dirty kitchen table.  Joyce puts these two episodes together with comic intent.  Again Stephen propounds his high doctrine of beauty to his fellow students who, for the most part, have only crude and vulgar witticisms to contribute to the conversation.

Stephen dismisses real living beauty from his mind in order to theorise about beauty with his intellect.  Inspired suddenly by Emma’s beauty, he writes a poem in a language utterly removed from the idiom of living human relationships.  It is poetry so precious and “high-falutin” that real feeling is left out.  The irony of praising Emma so richly in secret and virtually snubbing her when she makes natural friendly approaches is both amusing and rather sad.  Not for the first time, we want to shake Stephen to try to knock some sense into him; above all to make him a little more human.

Pic One

Why Does Stephen Dedalus Choose Exile from his Native Land?

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James Joyce

Stephen chooses exile from his native land mainly because of his growing disenchantment with Irish society on many levels.  Indeed, his final decision to fly the nets which are impeding his development as an artist is achieved following a series of struggles with authority from which he ultimately decides to flee.  His sense of injustice is first stirred when he is a young schoolboy.  When Wells asks him if he kisses his mother at bedtime, he discovers that whether he should say Yes or No he will be laughed at.  Wells has already shouldered him into the ditch, and this first experience of school bullying makes him ill.  Christmas at home, which is expected to be all warmth and friendship and happiness after the chilly misery at school, turns out to be a time of angry political quarrels among adults who are all supposed to be devoted to Ireland.  When Stephen returns to school after suffering the misfortune of having his glasses broken he suffers the injustice of being punished for it.  Priests are supposed to be good, he thinks, but they get angry and behave cruelly.  To make things worse, he later discovers that his bold protest against injustice becomes a subject for laughter among those responsible for the injustice.

Stephen’s confidence in the moral authority of the powers-that-be in Clongowes is thus undermined and this is also accompanied by the undermining in his respect for his father.  The visit to Cork reveals Mr Dedalus as a boastful, flattery-loving, gas-bag and feckless drunkard, drinking and boasting while all the time his financial affairs are deteriorating and the home is getting more squalid.  Stephen’s boyish attempt, when he gets his prize money, to stem the tide of sordid poverty that seems to be sweeping over his family proves absurdly inadequate.  His attempt, after confession, to remodel himself on the pattern of perfection taught by the church, leads to extravagant feats of self-discipline that deny his most powerful aspirations towards life and beauty.  When the suggestion is made that he should consider a vocation to the priesthood, an instinctive inner conviction assures him that his future cannot be in subjection to an ordered system like that of the Church.  The vision of the wading girl stirs the religious outburst, ‘Heavenly God!’ and we recognise in the way the landscape calls up in him poetic phrases that satisfy his thirst for harmony between the outer world and his inner emotional life, that he is to be a future artist and not a future priest.

It is from a sordid scene at home and past the mad cries from a nunnery that Stephen makes his symbolic progress across Dublin to the university, where study opens up a world of exciting philosophical thought.  But even here there is no prospect of ultimate life-long satisfaction.  He quickly comes to realise that the university teachers are also limited and unimaginative, and the students’ enthusiasm is stirred by causes with which Stephen cannot sympathise.  The idealistic support for the Czar’s peace initiative strikes him as sentimental.  He feels unable to commit himself to corporate demands or protests.  The enthusiasm of students such as Davin for the cause of national independence, the revival of native culture, the enmity against England seems to require a commitment that mortgages life in advance of living it.  Stephen senses his own Irish inheritance, not as a great blessing, but as a series of fetters imposed by history willy-nilly on his generation.  Moreover, he knows from the past that Irish nationalist movements tend to lead, not to victorious achievements by the leaders, but to their betrayal and martyrdom.

Stephen himself demands of life, above all, freedom in which he can work creatively as an artist.  Closely associated with the demand for freedom is his sensitive responsiveness to beauty in the spoken and written word.  He has found in his home an increasing sordidness and crudity that are the antithesis of beauty.  He has found in the Church a cruelty hostile to justice and freedom, for the caning with the pandybat at Clongowes is of a piece with the horrendous torments pictured in Father Arnell’s sermons as the future eternal lot of millions of fellow human beings.  He has found in the political life of Ireland a collection of inherited attitudes and passions that embitter family relationships, which turn young students into obsessed fanatics, and that claim people’s thoughts and energies before they have had time to develop their own individualities.

The upshot is that Stephen turns the rebellious slogan of Lucifer, in turning against God, ‘I will not serve’, into his own motto in rejecting the demands of home, fatherland, and Church, and dedicating himself to the task of expressing himself freely as an artist.

The decision takes shape in his mind in association with thoughts of the career of his mythical ‘ancestor, Daedalus, who found escape in flight from imprisonment in a labyrinth.  Stephen has often trod the maze of Dublin streets seeking escape of one kind or another, whether in the confessional or the brothel.  Only when he crosses the bridge to Bull Island and stares out to sea does he glimpse the vision of true fulfilment.  He cannot find this fulfilment without flight.  His mother prays, he says, that, ‘I may learn in my own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels.’  So he sets out, ‘to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.’  His final prayer is not directed to God but to his role model, Daedalus.  He prays: ‘Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.’

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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: An Introduction

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James Joyce

 

Background

In 1904 the magazine DANA made an important contribution to world literature by rejecting a short story by a then-unknown Irishman called James Joyce.  Joyce sought the advice of George Russell (AE), who suggested that he should rewrite it as a novel.  Joyce took his advice so seriously that he eventually produced a huge work of fiction which he titled Stephen Hero.  This book was never published during his lifetime; most of it was destroyed by its dissatisfied author who decided to try again, reworking and reducing the material into five chapters.  Twenty publishers rejected this new version before it finally appeared in 1916.  Joyce gave his first novel the same title as that of the rejected short story: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  In 1944 three years after his death, the surviving fragment of the original novel was published as Stephen Hero.

Brief Bio of James Joyce

Since A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is largely autobiographical, it is worth knowing something of the life and works of its author. James Joyce was born in Dublin in 1882, the eldest of eleven children.  His father, John Joyce, came from a wealthy Cork family and had inherited a small private income.  He was an ardent admirer of Charles Stewart Parnell, for whom he had worked as an election agent.  He was rewarded with the post of Tax Collector in Dublin, a lucrative position which allowed him and his growing family to live in considerable comfort and send his eldest son to Clongowes College.  However, his fecklessness, his extravagance and his fondness for drink cost him his job and reduced his family to poverty.  James was withdrawn from Clongowes and sent to Belvedere College, also run by the Jesuits.  He proved a hard-working student, winning a number of scholarships, which in a manner typical of his father he squandered on expensive family outings.

From 1898 to 1902 Joyce was a student at University College Dublin, then run by the Jesuit order.  When he graduated with a degree in languages he decided to continue studying as a medical student.  However, unhappy at UCD, he went to Paris but returned to Ireland when he received news of his mother’s imminent death.  To provide himself with a livelihood he took up a teaching post.

Then he met Nora Barnacle and his life was transformed.  He persuaded her to elope with him to Trieste where he worked as a teacher of languages.  There his children, Giorgio and Lucia, were born.  His brother, Stanislaus, joined them in 1905, giving Joyce invaluable financial and moral support.

Joyce returned to Dublin on two occasions.  On his first visit, he tried to set up the first cinema in Ireland, but the project failed.  In 1914 he came home again to publish Dubliners, but once again his trip was in vain.  Bitterly disappointed at his treatment, Joyce vowed never to set foot in his native land again.  He was true to his word.

In 1914 Joyce took his family to Zurich, remaining there for the duration of the Great War.  He then returned to Trieste but soon left for Paris, where he was to live until the Second World War forced him to move back to safety in neutral Zurich.

Meanwhile, in 1916 Dubliners was finally published, followed soon afterwards by A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  Then on his fortieth birthday, his masterpiece, Ulysses, appeared, and almost immediately established his reputation as the foremost writer of his time.

Joyce’s great success as an author was marred by personal tragedy.  His daughter Lucia’s mental health deteriorated to the point where Joyce could not care for her himself and had to have her committed to an institution.  In 1931 his father died.  All this time his eyesight was weakening, and though he underwent many painful operations, his sight continued to fail until he was almost blind. Having returned to Zurich on the outbreak of the Second World War he continued to write, working on his great experimental novel Finnegan’s Wake.  His health continued to decline and he eventually died on 13th January 1941 of a perforated ulcer.

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A Note on the Structure of the Novel

The novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a carefully constructed novel divided into five chapters or episodes.  Each of these sections deals with an important stage in the development of the hero, Stephen Dedalus, from early childhood to adulthood.

In Chapter One we meet Stephen as a baby-talking infant.  We learn of his first years in Clongowes College, where he is unjustly caned by Father Dolan.  An important event is the Christmas dinner, during which a bitter argument between Dante and Mr Casey reflects the troubled state of Ireland after the Parnell Split.

In Chapter Two, Stephen’s family suffers a decline in living standards due to Mr Dedalus’ feckless ways and is forced to move from Bray to Blackrock.  Young Stephen is taken out of Clongowes and sent to Belvedere College.  Important incidents are the encounter with Emma Cleary, the school play, and Stephen’s visit to Cork with his father, Simon.  This chapter ends with Stephen’s sexual awakening as seen in the episode with the prostitute.

Chapter Three is largely concerned with religion.  Filled with sexual guilt, Stephen listens to the famous sermon on Hell.  He resolves to end his sinful life and seeks grace through confession and self-mortification.  As a result, he achieves peace of mind and inner calm.

Chapter Four sees Stephen invited to become a Jesuit when his piety is noticed by his teachers.  He rejects the call, opting instead for Art.   This turning away from religion and back to the world is symbolised by the girl on the beach at the end of this section.

In Chapter Five, Stephen is now a student at University College Dublin.  Through his discussions with fellow students, we discover his rejection of nationalism and the nationalistic art that was then in vogue.  He expounds for us his theory of aesthetics.  The novel ends with his defiant refusal to serve God or country.  Instead, he will seek through exile to find the freedom he needs to create his own art.

Major Themes in the Novel

Joyce’s first novel is concerned to show the stages in the development of the artist.  We are presented with the hero Stephen Dedalus first as a child, then as a schoolboy, later as a devout Catholic, and finally as a university student.  Family, teachers, sex, religion, and country, forge fetters for the would-be artist; to create he must break free and become his own person.  This he achieves in the end with his famous declaration: “Non serviam” (I shall not serve), thereby turning his back on his family, his country, and his religion to devote himself totally to his new religion of Art.

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Johnston 21 – Double Portrait of James Joyce

Style and Technique in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a naturalistic novel narrated by an invisible author who remains aloof and apparently removed from his tale.  However, the viewpoint through which we see things is clearly Stephen’s.  This not only makes him the focus of our attention but it also invites us to sympathise with him throughout.  The language is also used to reflect Stephen’s central role and importance.  Thus in the opening chapter, we read the prattle of childhood as the infant Stephen tries to come to terms with his surroundings.  Later the schoolboy slang reveals his perceptions of life in a boarding school.  At all times the language is suited to whatever stage Stephen is then at.

Religious symbols and liturgical terms abound in Chapter Three.  They also help in the final chapter to elevate the tone and solemnise the young artist’s preoccupation with aesthetics at that stage.  Even though Joyce is at great pains to reject his Catholic faith he displays here a deep appreciation of Catholic rituals.  His friend Cranley points out this apparent inconsistency:

It is a curious thing, do you know, how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.

This accusation, which could also be levelled at many other Irish novelists, is very relevant.  They, including James Joyce, seem determined to reject Catholicism because it seems at variance with their artistic imagination.  Yet, as Eamon Maher states ‘they cannot avoid being ‘supersaturated’ with its vestiges’.[1]

Symbols, including religious ones, are important to Joyce as a method of heightening his themes and maintaining links throughout the narrative.  For example, Stephen’s name reminds us of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and the significance of this is seen in the young man’s willingness to sacrifice all for the sake of his art.  His surname, Dedalus, evokes the labyrinth-maker, the inventor, the flier who dared to aspire too high.  Other symbols used by Joyce in this novel are water, representing death, cleansing and renewal; the Church as mother; Ireland as the ‘sow that eats her farrow’.

To create a real and convincing background for Stephen, there is a painstaking attention to detail.  Names of actual places are numerous in the text, e.g. Clongowes, Belvedere, Lower Mount Street.  Real people are also introduced, such as Parnell, and Michael Davitt, W.S. Gilbert.  The squalor of Stephen’s home life is vividly captured in Joyce’s description of the meal table.  He is not content just to appeal to our sense of sight.  We hear the sound of cricket balls hitting bats in Clongowes; we smell horse’s urine, and while we listen to the sermon on Hell in Chapter Three we feel the horrific torments of the Damned.

Walter Pater, the author of Renaissance, who had such an enormous influence on Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic Movement, also affected Joyce in his attitude to Art.  Pater and the followers of the Aesthetic Movement believed that art should be of paramount importance.  That Joyce was especially sympathetic to this view is most apparent in the final section of the novel.  Another writer much admired by Joyce was Cardinal Newman, the founder of University College Dublin whose style he sought to emulate.

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A Detailed Analysis of a Sample Passage from the Novel

“He looked northward to Howth.  The sea had fallen below the line of seawrack on the shallow side of the breakwater and already the tide was running out fast along the foreshore.  Already one long oval bank of sand lay warm and dry amid the wavelets.  Here and there warm isles of sand gleamed above the shallow tides and about the isles and around the long bank and amid the shallow currents of the bridge were lightclad figures, waving and delving.

In a few moments he was barefoot, his stockings folded in his pockets, and his canvas shoes dangling by their knotted laces over his shoulders and picking a pointed salteaten stick out of the jetsam among the rocks, he clambered down the slope of the breakwater.

There was a long rivulet in the strand and as he waded slowly up its course, he wondered at the endless drift of seaweed.  Emerald and black and russet and olive, it moved beneath the current, swaying and turning.  The water of the rivulet was dark with endless drift and mirrored the highdrifting clouds.

The clouds were drifting above him silently and silently the seatangle was drifting below him; and the grey warm air was still: and a new wild life was singing in his veins.”

 Commentary:

This fine piece of writing, which occurs at a crucial point towards the end of Chapter Four, illustrates many of the features of Joyce’s writing style.

  • Firstly, we notice his attention to detail; e.g.: ‘the pointed salteaten stick’. The word ‘salteaten’, like ‘jetsam’, ‘lightclad’, ‘seatangle’ shows the author’s fondness for coining new words.
  • Secondly, we view the scene through Stephen’s eyes, and so his feelings as he observes the seascape are subtly revealed, while the narrator himself remains invisible and aloof.
  • Repetition is another device to concentrate our minds and create connections in the writing. Notice how often we meet the words ‘warm’, ‘silently’, ‘clouds’ and ‘drifting’.
  • Symbolism is everywhere. The clouds are the difficulties of the past, now seen drifting away; the rivulet is a new life beginning; the sky is the greatness the young artist seeks and aspires to, as well as being associated in our minds with Dedalus.
  • There is also a sense throughout the piece that we are building towards a climax. The feelings of Stephen are conveyed by words like ‘warm and dry’, ‘new wild life’ and ‘singing’.  The final mood is one of joyous freedom.
  • Sound is also important, as we would quickly realise were we to read the passage aloud. Its lyricism is enhanced by alliteration (‘salteaten stick’) and assonance (‘wild life’).  Stephen has arrived at a crucial moment in his life.  His decision not to become a Jesuit has just been made, and now he sees his future as an artist calling him like a vocation.  It is the turning of the tide for him.  He is exhilarated by the prospects ahead: he has now freed himself from the restraints of family, country, and religion.  That is why he feels ‘a new wild life was singing in his veins’.

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CONCLUSION

Having completed A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce too had arrived at a new stage in his development.  He was now forever finished with conventional fiction.  Already his mind was preoccupied with the book that was to become his great masterpiece.  Ulysses was about to be born, and with its birth, the young exile from Dublin would be hailed as the greatest novelist of the century and one of the greatest innovators of all time.

However, Stephen Dedalus had survived and it is the same Stephen we meet on the first page of Ulysses.  However, he is not the hero this time; that role is reserved for Leopold Bloom, but Stephen is second only in importance to him.  Thus Joyce links together two of the finest works of fiction ever written.  The hero of the rejected short story lived on in the imagination of his creator for more than twenty years to become one of the best known and most written about characters of all time.

[1] Eamon Maher writing in The Ticket in The Irish Times, ‘The half-life and death of the Irish Catholic novel’, Saturday, December 23rd, 2017.

You might also like to read a more detailed character sketch of Stephen here

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro: A Review

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Kazuo Ishiguro’s recent elevation as Nobel Laureate will surely prompt avid readers to explore his repertoire further. They could do worse than lose themselves in this offering from 2015.  The novel took me back to my undergraduate days in UCC in the 1970’s studying classics like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf.  Ishiguro’s tale sets out to be a classic Arthurian fable depicting Sir Gawain himself, and others on various quests. Ishiguro exploits the avalanche of recent interest in this genre as seen in Peter Jackson’s cinematic telling of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga. While the novel may not lend itself to a film blockbuster, it does have all the attributes for one of those all-consuming RPG’s (an acronym I’ve just newly acquired!) in which you work your way through various adventures and levels and perils on your journey to eventually achieving your Holy Grail.

 

The novel is set at a certain indistinct time after the death of the legendary Arthur.  Britons and Saxons enjoy a fragile peace: the first tentative steps being taken to assimilate both opposing forces in villages and communities throughout the realm.  However, we soon learn that this peace is maintained only because each community is afflicted by a collective loss of memory surrounding their horrendous war-torn past.  The she-dragon Querig is said to be responsible for this collective amnesia by the spreading of a mysterious mist which envelops the countryside and the hamlets.  Indeed, the novel explores the rather vexed issue of memory, and race memory in particular, in maintaining peace in a fractured – and fractious – post-war political landscape.  This idea, of memory and its loss, is dealt with by Ishiguro on two fronts – the geopolitical and the personal.

The novel has a number of narrators, principally Axl and Beatrice – but others including Sir Gawain, Sir Wistan and the various boatmen also provide necessary insights, observations and reveries as the story unfolds.  The early chapters introduce us to Axl and Beatrice, his princess.  They are Britons who live in an underground, warren-like community, surrounded by monsters and ogres and never-ending mists blowing in from the mountains and fens.  They live ‘on the edge of a vast bog’, where ‘the past was rarely discussed’ because ‘it had faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes’.  However, they are being increasingly marginalised by their elders in the Great Chamber and eventually decide to leave to seek out their son who has left for some forgotten reason.  Thus begins the great adventure.

Early in their journey, they come upon a mysterious boatman. Their conversation with him lays the foundation for their fears that restored memory will bring disaster and a possible end to their solid, loving relationship.

We meet Sir Gawain who has been given a quest by Arthur to slay the she-dragon Querig.  He has spent his life wandering the hills getting to know her ways and her guile, so much so, that he eventually becomes her protector.  He is mocked by the women for his inactivity in fulfilling his quest, and we find him wandering the foothills on his trusted warhorse Horace, a rather pathetic figure of ridicule – a forlorn relic of a chivalrous past.

We also encounter the warrior, Wistan, and his young protégé Edwin, who it is feared has been affected by a dragon bite.   We learn that Wistan has been sent by his Saxon king in the eastern fens, to seek out Querig and slay her. The motivation behind this seems to be that once Querig has been slain and the people’s memory fully restored, the long-suppressed divisions and hatreds will resurface to aid the king in his quest to gain Saxon control over the kingdom.

Axl and Beatrice continue their journey, accompanied by Sir Gawain and the young boy Edwin.  They detour to visit the wise Father Jonus who lives in a monastery in the mountains, on the pretext of receiving a cure for Beatrice’s mysterious ailment.   The monastery, once a Saxon citadel, holds further dangers for the party as they are forced to escape through secret passages to freedom.  They continue relentlessly upward to the Giant’s Cairn, where Querig reputedly has her lair.  Once Sir Gawain and Querig have been slain by Sir Wistan, Beatrice and Axl are made aware of the tragic consequences which will follow: memory will soon be fully restored and the dogs of war loosed again, with devastating consequences. Once again Britons will be set upon by their Saxon neighbours, ushering in another period of war and unrest, the fragile peace put in place by King Arthur shattered forever.

Axl and Beatrice make their way from the dragon’s former lair and again meet another boatman. Beatrice reveals – her memory now restored – that in fact, their son is dead and is buried on a nearby offshore island.  They undergo the dreaded solitary test administered by the boatman and the novel ends in sadness, as Axl is left on the shore, while the boatman ferries the ever-weakening Beatrice to the mysterious island.

In this novel Ishiguro provides us with a  thinly veiled modern allegory – his thesis seems to be that a collective loss of memory is necessary in the various trouble spots around the world where untold savagery and genocide have been unleashed if reconciliation is to take place.  We can only imagine the difficulties that daily face communities which were once suffused with hatred and division.  The situation in Northern Ireland obviously springs to mind. We see regularly on our televisions and newspapers the efforts made to normalise peace in these communities after almost a quarter of a century of atrocity, a process which requires a near Orwellian stretching of credibility on our behalf.  In fact, we may wonder has Ishiguro’s mist been replaced there with the modern version – sterling, euro and dollar?  We may also remember other recent trouble-spots such as Israel/Palestine, South Africa, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Syria and question: how can normality be restored, how can society pick up the pieces again? Can Humpty Dumpty ever be put back together again?

As well as the geopolitical implications Ishiguro applies the same thesis to the more private area of marital love.  The touching tenderness and faithfulness exhibited by Axl and Beatrice belie the difficulties they have had to face in their long lives together. This has included a period of infidelity by Axl which has been glossed over, and also, the death of their only son.  Surely, this mysterious yet fortuitous amnesia has been a Godsend to them in maintaining their closeness and their touching intimacy. Surely their relationship would not have otherwise endured but for the benign balm of amnesia.

Consider then the gargantuan achievement of Ishiguro in The Buried Giant: it is a masterpiece about characters who all suffer from various degrees of memory loss, and yet we as readers are able to piece the story together, to read between the lines….  It is, however, an allegory in wishful thinking.  In reality, there are no quick fixes to help us cope with our post-traumatic stresses. We cannot rely on the temporary balm of forgetfulness. If anything, in our world we are left to deal with generation after generation of bequeathed toxic memory.  Atrocity on the world stage or infidelity on a personal relationship level are not so easily forgotten, nor forgiven.

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