It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.
A comet that was lost
Should be visible at sunset,
Those million tons of light
Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips,
And I sometimes see a falling star.
If I could come on meteorite!
Instead I walk through damp leaves,
Husks, the spent flukes of autumn,
Imagining a hero
On some muddy compound,
His gift like a slingstone
Whirled for the desperate.
How did I end up like this?
I often think of my friends’
Beautiful prismatic counselling
And the anvil brains of some who hate me
As I sit weighing and weighing
My responsible tristia.
For what? For the ear? For the people?
For what is said behind-backs?
Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conductive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls
The diamond absolutes.
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner emigre, grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne
Escaped from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows;
Who, blowing up these sparks
For their meagre heat, have missed
The once-in-a-lifetime portent,
The comet’s pulsing rose.
– Seamus Heaney
‘Exposure’ was written in 1975 and significantly is the last poem in the poet’s volume, North. Not only that, but ‘Exposure’ is the final poem in a six poem sequence grouped under the title The Singing School, a phrase borrowed from W. B. Yeats’ famous poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, which concludes that great collection. The poem itself is, to an extent, a reflective self-analysis, as Heaney takes stock of his life and poses a series of questions about his role and function as a poet. The poem depicts Heaney’s anxiety and discomfort with his position in society and with his role as a poet. The poem explores Heaney’s dilemma as ‘The Troubles’ detonate and resonate and invade his artistic space. He has removed himself from the North and like his friend Michael Longley, who had already moved to Carrigskeewaun in Mayo, he has thus acquired a new perspective from his cottage in Glanmore in County Wicklow. He is, however, troubled by self-doubt and uncertainty and hurt by the whispers, the innuendo, the charge that he hasn’t taken sides, that he has abandoned his people and taken the English ‘shilling’.
It is a ten stanza poem that is separated into quatrains. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme. They are composed in free verse, meaning there is no pattern of rhyme or rhythm. The poem opens, ‘It is December in Wicklow.’ December is deep winter in Ireland, characterised by its cold bracing wet weather, it is also the end of a year. This sets up a peaceful and tranquil scene providing time for self-reflection and a chance to reappraise his situation. This time affords him an opportunity to analyse his obvious anxiety and discomfort and the horrible tension that has arisen between his private persona and his very public career as a poet. It is a rainy, wintry month, the ‘alders [are] dripping,’ the ‘birches’ are fighting for the ‘last light,’ and ‘the ash tree’ is bare, too cold ‘to look at.’
It is obvious that his main source of frustration is that he feels that he is being dragged unwillingly into the current fraught political situation in his own native place. His former neighbours in Bellaghy have all been forced by circumstances to take sides and here, Bellaghy’s most famous son is seen to be ambivalent and non-committal. Earlier on in North, in the poem ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’, he has made the famous statement:
Northern reticence, the tight gag of place
And times: yes, yes. Of the ‘wee six’ I sing
Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, say nothing.
In ‘Exposure’, then, we see the poet is under pressure from all sides to say something and he feels that he is being used by all sides for their own political ends. How then can he solve this dilemma? He tries to wrestle with this dilemma in his solitary walk in the Wicklow hills. He considers the inherent differences between a comet and a meteorite. A comet is predictable and appears after sunset on a set date once every four years or four hundred years. A ‘falling star’ or meteorite is totally unpredictable and appears randomly in the evening sky. The comet ‘visible at sunset’ is expected, it ‘should’ appear. Yet, the ‘falling star’ only ‘sometimes’ appears. Heaney himself admires the meteorite, the ‘falling star’. This is shown through the use of the exclamation mark. Unlike the comet which typically follows a cycle, a meteorite is free, it does not need to keep to a designated orbit. Rather, it is able to float and fall whenever and wherever it wishes. Here, Heaney is making the metaphorical comparison between the comet and the meteorite and his own role as a poet. He wishes to be able to express himself freely yet the political circumstances in Northern Ireland do not allow for such, it forces him to choose sides, and tries to drag him into the conflict. Here, Heaney poses an important question – is he to be simply another insignificant individual pushed around by politics or is he to be an independent figure able to freely voice his own thoughts?
In the next two stanzas, Heaney further ponders his role as a poet. He plaintively asks ‘How did I end up like this?’ There is a certain degree of torment shown through this as he sits, ‘weighing and weighing’ his worth. This repetition places emphasis on his vulnerable psychological state. He identifies two opposing groups: the rational ones with their ‘beautiful prismatic counselling’ and his enemies with their impenetrable ‘anvil brains’. He feels isolated from all groups and becomes an ‘inner émigré’ as he is unable to satisfy the demands of one, without conflicting with the others. Heaney is frustrated that he is unable to change the perceptions of those people, close-minded and devoted to their own beliefs. Once again, he questions his role as a poet; he questions himself as to who he is to please, who should he be serving – the minority, the various political groups or society as a whole?
This poem helps him resolve his dilemma and therefore it is a seminal poem in which he takes his lonely stand as an artist and refuses to be drawn in and forced to take sides – he will be his own man – the epiphany comes like Austin Clarke’s ‘The Lost Heifer’ appearing out of the mist. He clarifies the reference to ‘the alders’ in stanza one and this time the image is clearer and more definite:
Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conductive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls
The diamond absolutes.
This is more hopeful as Heaney gradually comes to terms with himself. He realises, despite the rain causing ‘let-downs and erosions,’ it is able to ‘(recall) the diamond absolutes.’ Through his self-imposed ‘exile’ in Wicklow, he has ‘grown long-haired and thoughtful.’ He repudiates both extremes – the fanaticism of ‘the internee’ languishing ‘on some muddy compound’ in Long Kesk and the despicable betrayal of ‘the informer’. He emphatically states that ‘I am neither’. Instead, he has gained wisdom and realised that like the ‘wood-kerne,’ the Irish soldiers of old who having lost the battle retreat to the woods to regroup, he is able to use his writing as a way of controlling and fighting for his voice in society. His solitary trek through the winter woods has given him a deeper insight into his role as a poet in a society devastated by violence and divisions.
In ‘Exposure’, Heaney reflects on his changed circumstances and on his present situation living and writing in the quiet backwater of Glanmore in County Wicklow. He reflects on the great expectations being placed on him as a poet of standing. This marks a drastically different approach to that seen in earlier collections such as Death of a Naturalist. In this final poem of The Singing School sequence and the final poem in the collection, North, Heaney wonders whether his move South will have any effect. Will it give him the perspective he craves or will he be exposed to ridicule like the king without clothes in the children’s fable. He knows he is taking a risk and giving his critics and the ‘anvil brains’ ammunition to mortally wound him. What if after all the brouhaha he only produces the odd spark to illuminate the daily atrocities taking place further North when what the situation really needs is the arrival of a ‘comet’s pulsing rose’?
There are two very strong fairy-tale motifs underlying the novel Persuasion. The most obvious one is the Cinderella story; the other is that of Sleeping Beauty. Some central aspects of each of these tales are reflected in the story of Anne Elliot.
To take the Cinderella aspect of Persuasion first, a brief outline of the main details of the story may help to make the parallels clear. In the fairy-tale, the gentle, good-natured Cinderella is cruelly treated by her stepmother and two stepsisters, and when she has performed the most menial household tasks, is left to sit among the cinders at the hearth. Her stepsisters have gone to the ball, while she is left at home crying, only to be rescued from her plight by her fairy godmother, who sends her to the ball where the Prince falls in love with her, loses her for a time, but finally finds and marries her.
In Chapter 1, Jane Austen places the Cinderella-like Anne side by side with a callous parent, Sir Walter Elliot, and her two self-centred, uncaring sisters. The parallels are almost explicitly drawn:
Anne with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding, was nobody with either father or sister; her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way – she was only Anne.
Jane Austen produces a fairy godmother figure in the person of Lady Russell, Anne’s real godmother, but also an ironic version of the fairy godmother, since her well-meaning intervention in Anne’s affairs, far from helping her, has led to a seven-year spell of lonely frustration. Captain Wentworth is, of course, the principal figure who is separated from the heroine but recognises her worth and rescues her from her uncongenial environment. The story progresses, like the Cinderella one, towards the triumph of the heroine and the embarrassment of her tormentors.
The second fairy-tale motif, that of the Sleeping Beauty, whose fate it is to fall into a sleep of a hundred years, only to be awakened by a prince. Anne’s fate is to be the victim of a seven-year period of loss and isolation, deprived of the possibility of playing an active role. Her state is presented as a condition akin to sleep, which she must endure as best she can until she is reawakened to new life by Wentworth, the prince of the story. Here, for example, is how she appears after her father has gone to Bath with Elizabeth and Mrs Clay: ‘Anne walked up, in a sort of desolate tranquillity, to the lodge, where she was to spend the first week’.
The themes of sleep and re-awakening are also underlined in the nature imagery of the novel. One dark November day, the silent, pensive Anne is rescued from her dismal meditations by Lady Russell, who seems to find her much improved in appearance:
And Anne, in receiving her compliments on the occasion, had the amusement of connecting them with the silent admiration of her cousin, and of hoping that she was to be blessed with a second spring of youth and beauty (Chap 13).
Whereas Lady Russell’s role is an ironic comment on the fairy godmother theme, Louisa Musgrove’s mishap can be read as a parody of the Sleeping Beauty story. After her fall at Lyme, she falls into an unconscious state, from which she is awakened to love, not by the man she loved before the event, but by another one, Captain Benwick.
The critic, D.W. Harding argues that throughout her novels Jane Austen was fascinated with the Cinderella story, albeit with the fairy godmother omitted. He proposes that if we look closely we can see the same pattern that is evident in Persuasion repeated in Pride and Prejudice:
The heroine is in some degree isolated from those around her by being more sensitive or of finer moral insight or sounder judgement, and her marriage to the handsome prince at the end is in the nature of a reward for being different from the rest, and a consolation for the distresses entailed by being different.
However, in Persuasion, Harding suggests, Jane Austen provides us with an interesting development of the Cinderella theme: ‘She brings the idealised mother back to life and admits that she is no nearer to perfection than the mothers of acute and sensitive children generally are’. In Lady Russell, he argues, ‘she provides a godmother, not fairy but human, with whom Anne Elliot can have much the relationship of a daughter with a greatly loved, but fallible mother’, and through the novel ‘there runs a lament for the seven years’ loss of happiness resulting from Anne’s having yielded to her godmother’s persuasion’.
If Harding is correct, then the pattern of events in Persuasion reflects Jane Austen’s attempt to tell the full truth about the Cinderella situation, of which the traditional version tells only part of the truth.
Harding, D. W. ‘Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen’ reprinted in Jane Austen, A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Ian Watt, Twentieth Century Views, 1963.
Murray, Patrick. Persuasion in Inscapes 13, The Educational Company of Ireland, 1978
Jane Austen places all her heroines in difficult situations. Their ultimate goal is happiness and self-fulfilment to be achieved through marriage to a compatible and worthy partner, but this can be reached only after numerous formidable obstacles have been overcome.
Persuasion is Anne Elliot’s book. And like other Austen heroines, she too labours under various major difficulties. She lacks material resources and is, therefore, less eligible than she might otherwise be, particularly in a society which places a high value on financial competence in both partners in a marriage. This is best exemplified by the fact that Captain Wentworth has no fortune when he first proposes to Anne and this fact tells heavily against him in the eyes of Lady Russell and Anne’s family. Her own family situation is little better and, despite Anne’s best efforts to give her father prudent advice, she is ignored and he continues to live beyond his means. There is no member of her family in whom she can confide, and her sisters are cruelly insensitive. She has refused to marry Wentworth, the one man she can love, on the mistaken advice of her godmother, Lady Russell. As the novel opens, seven years have elapsed since her rejection of Wentworth, who again enters her world, still resentful and bitter over her past treatment of him. Her present circumstances seem to offer her little or no scope for achieving reconciliation with Wentworth. Two important factors combine, however, to see her through: her own considerable resources of character and personality, and, last but not least, some good fortune.
As already mentioned Anne is central to the novel and every other character we encounter is significant only in relation to her: Wentworth and William Walter Elliot as her admirers; Lady Russel as her adviser; Mrs Smith as her informant about William Walter Elliot; Louisa as her rival, and so on. Everything that happens is seen as having some relation to Anne’s concerns, and what the readers see, they see through her eyes and from her point of view.
The only recorded comment from Jane Austen about Persuasion was that she felt that Anne was almost too good to be true. She is presented from the outset as an admirably sensible young woman, loyal, self-reliant, with a sound and penetrating judgement and the highest ideals. Indeed, all she has to achieve through the course of the novel is a greater reliance on the soundness of her own judgement, and the rightness of her own principles. She learns from her mistake in following Lady Russell’s earlier advice when she refuses Charles Musgrove, although this time around Lady Russell is in favour of the match. Her strong feelings and sensitive, emotional nature, are balanced by sanity and intelligence. She doesn’t give in to being over-sentimental and she doesn’t allow herself to become despondent or depressed. She busies herself with cataloguing the books and pictures at Kellynch, visits the tenants, nurses her nephew, frequently acts as accompanist for the Musgroves, advises Captain Benwick about his reading programme, and visits the unfortunate Mrs Smith. Her strength of character is revealed in the degree of self-discipline she has achieved during the seven-year separation from Wentworth. Her eyes may fill with tears at the sight of Captain Wentworth dancing with Louisa, but she allows nobody to notice this. Instead, she offers her services as a musical accompanist, ‘extremely glad to be employed, and desiring nothing in return but to be unobserved’. Her intelligence, good sense and self-control, then, are always to the fore.
She gets a unique opportunity to demonstrate her practical good sense, quickness of wit and self-control after Louisa’s accident on the Cobb at Lyme. While everybody around her panics and falls to pieces, and even Wentworth displays an alarming loss of nerve, she assumes control and does all the appropriate things. There can only be one verdict, Wentworth’s: ‘No one so proper, so capable as Anne’.
But this is only one aspect of her character. Jane Austen is successful in communicating her emotional nature, her intensity of feeling. This is all the more impressive in the light of her normally restrained and controlled manner. One good example of her strong feeling finding an outlet is her impassioned declaration to Captain Harville that women (for the reader and the listening Wentworth this means Anne) are capable ‘of loving longest when existence or when hope is gone’. Again, when reconciliation with Wentworth seems to be on the cards, we learn that ‘she had some feelings which she was ashamed to investigate. They were too much like joy, senseless joy’.
Anne approaches as near to perfection as any fictional character could, while still retaining some measure of credibility. However, she has her weaknesses. When all hope seems lost, she plunges into a sentimental self-indulgent reverie, recalling literary works appropriate to her melancholy state, and generally feeling sorry for herself. She has enough self-control, however, to put an end to such musings and to face reality. Again, she experiences ‘exquisite’ gratification at the thought that Wentworth is jealous of Mr Elliot’s attention to her. She sometimes resorts to harmless and endearing female wiles, as when she wants to give Wentworth an opportunity to talk to her at the opera: ‘by some other removals and a little scheming of her own, Anne was enabled to place herself nearer the end of the bench than she had been before, much more within reach of a passer-by’. She is human after all!
From a casual reading of Jane Austen’s novels, it does seem that most of the eligible men are indeed eagerly and with great enthusiasm contemplating marriage and are searching for a suitable life partner. We all remember that famous quote from Pride and Prejudice: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife’. Wentworth’s tendency in this regard is made explicit in his comments to his sister:
Yes, here I am, Sophia, quite ready to make a foolish match. Anybody between fifteen and thirty may have me for asking. A little beauty, a few smiles, and a few compliments to the navy, and I am a lost man (Chap 7).
So, we gather that Wentworth is indeed in search of a wife. In fact, unknown to himself, he is the one being pursued, the thrust of the entire novel is towards the creation of a set of circumstances in which he must recognise the inevitability of taking Anne as his wife. Anne may appear to be confined, Cinderella-like, to a state of immobility, imprisoned by the conventions of the time, and powerless to take direct action in her own cause, and Wentworth to have total freedom of movement, choice and initiative. Circumstances, however, conspire to Anne’s advantage by opening Wentworth’s eyes to his true position in relation to Anne, and to his true emotional state, which he is finally forced to acknowledge in his letter to her:
I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you (Chap 23).
Wentworth is an ideal hero, ‘a remarkably fine young man’, having ‘a great deal of intelligence, spirit and brilliancy’. Socially, he represents the rising bourgeois class: independent, aggressive, speculative, becoming rich through enterprise. In Persuasion, this class, whose other representatives are Admiral Croft and Captain Harville, is contrasted with the Elliots, who represent the entrenched establishment, inheritors rather than creators of wealth. Like Anne, and in contrast to the other Elliots and Charles Musgrove, Wentworth has an active busy temperament: ‘It was a great object with me, at that time, to be at sea, a very great object. I wanted to be doing something’. This is after Anne’s rejection of him. His reaction to this episode reveals two aspects of his character: his confidence and independence of mind which cause him to despise over-cautious temperaments, and his pride, both emerging in the following:
She had used him ill; deserted and disappointed him; and worse, she had shown a feebleness of character in doing so, which his own decided, confident temper could not endure. It has been the effect of over-persuasion. It has been weakness and timidity.
Wentworth is a man of considerable tact and social grace. His treatment of the embarrassing Miss Musgrove is a model of kindness and discretion. He attunes himself perfectly to the elegant world at Bath. Elizabeth Elliot recognises him as a decided social asset. His manners, conversation and commanding social presence set him apart from the other male characters. Such is his power over Anne that she bases her judgement of all other men on the standards he has set. What she admires in William Walter Elliot, for example, is what she has found in Wentworth; what she finds lacking in Elliot, Wentworth has exemplified. She sees Elliot as,
‘rational, discreet, polished but not open. There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others. This, to Anne, was a decided imperfection … She prized the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character beyond all others. Warmth and enthusiasm did captivate her still’.
Captain Harville reveals to Anne a strain of compassion and tenderness in Wentworth which may surprise us as we read. Knowing that the death of Captain Benwick’s fiancée has plunged him into misery, Wentworth rushes top comfort his friend, he
‘travelled night and day till he got to Portsmouth, rowed off to The Grappler that instant, and never left the poor fellow for a week; that’s what he did, and nobody else could have saved poor James. You may think, Miss Elliot, whether he is dear to us!’.
This, of course, is not his only spontaneous act of kindness; he sees to it that Anne is given a place in the Crofts’ carriage, something she owes ‘to his perception of her fatigue, and his resolution to give her rest’. This affects Anne deeply, as does his consideration in removing Mary’s troublesome child from her back!
William Walter Elliot
William Walter Elliot is a necessary part of the mechanism of the novel’s plot. He is a foil to Wentworth and is the means of arousing the latter’s jealousy, of making him realise the strength of his feelings for Anne and eventually acting accordingly. Elliot serves to expose the false values of Sir Walter and Elizabeth and to underline the basic unsoundness of Lady Russell’s judgement, while at the same time confirming the soundness of Anne’s judgement. He has snubbed the Elliot family by neglecting to seek Elizabeth’s hand in marriage, settling instead for ‘a rich woman of inferior birth’. Despite this, they all welcome him back with alacrity when he re-appears as an impressive looking widower, pleasant, courteous, anxious to please. Anne, as we might expect, has her doubts about him, experiencing ‘the sensation of there having been more than immediately appeared, in Mr Elliot’s wishing, after an interval of so many years, to be well received by them’. Lady Russell thinks him admirable, a fit husband for Anne, whose evaluation, after a month’s acquaintance, is perceptive. Her conclusions tell us much about her powers of judgement, and also give us a glimpse of Jane Austen the moralist. Her judgement, ‘on a serious consideration of the possibilities of such a case, was against Mr Elliot’, even before Mrs Smith’s revelations. But why? She has to acknowledge that Elliot, ‘talked well, professed good opinions, seemed to judge properly and as a man of principle’. But the problem is that she cannot answer for his conduct, as distinct from his professions. His past remains doubtful. She knows that for long periods of his life he had been ‘careless on all serious matters’. She cannot be sure that his mind has been ‘truly cleansed’. One aspect of his doubtful past has been his Sunday travelling: an interesting reflection of the standards of Jane Austen’s day.
The real Mr Elliot emerges late in the novel. Even Anne is astonished at Mrs Smith’s revelations of the wickedness concealed beneath the mask of gentility. It is at this point that Mr Elliot turns from the shadowy relative into the villain of melodrama, almost too bad to be true:
Mr Elliot is a man without heart or conscience; a designing, wary, cold-blooded being, who thinks only of himself; who, for his own interest or ease, would be guilty of any or any treachery, that could be perpetrated without risk of his general character. He has no feelings for others. Those whom he has been the chief cause of leading into ruin he can neglect and desert without the smallest compunction (Chap 21).
It is significant that even after this, Anne is beginning to find Mr Elliot something of a bore, despite her fleeting moment of happiness at the thought of being Lady Elliot of Kellynch. During the concert, he flatters her excessively and makes her an oblique proposal of marriage: ‘If I dared, I would breathe my wishes that the name (of Anne Elliot) might never change’ (Chap 20). But the sight of Wentworth dissipates Anne’s interest in Elliot’s company: ‘She had no longer any inclination to talk to him. She wished him not so near her’ (Chap 20).
The Minor Characters
The other characters in Persuasion serve their purpose in the scheme of the story, but none of them gives a very powerful illusion of life. Sir Walter is a caricature: one or two striking features of his character are highlighted to the virtual neglect of all others. This is made clear in the manner of our introduction to him: ‘vanity of person and situation’, we are told, are the clues to his character. For the remainder of the novel, he is obsessed with himself, his social position and his personal appearance, taking all of these with such intense seriousness that he becomes an absurdity. He does not develop with the progress of events and learns little or nothing from his experiences. In the end, he is as vain, self-obsessed and trivial as he was at the beginning. A telling detail about his narcissistic nature is provided by Admiral Croft, who finds it necessary to remove some of the large mirrors from Sir Walter’s dressing room: ‘Such a number of looking-glasses! Oh, Lord! There was no getting away from one’s self’ (Chap 13). He becomes reconciled to Wentworth largely because of his fine appearance and well-sounding name. Jane Austen deprives him of Mrs Clay, his companion, and leaves him with the Dalrymples. She cannot resist the final ironical comment on the fate of such people as Sir Walter and Elizabeth, who ‘must long feel that to flatter and follow others, without being flattered and followed in return, is but a state of half-enjoyment’ (Chap 24).
The is little that one can say about Elizabeth except that in almost everything she reflects the manners and attitudes of her father, who thinks more highly of her than he does of his other daughters because he finds her most like himself – a sufficiently damaging and damning indictment of her character! Her attitude to Anne exposes her total incapacity for decent human feeling: ‘then I am sure that Anne had better stay, for nobody will want her at Bath’ (Chap 5).
Mary is rather more interesting. Like her father, she is a caricature rather than a fully-rounded, vividly-realised character, but she is still a familiar and easily recognised type: spoiled, easily upset, wilful, self-centred, and a hypochondriac to boot! When she has her way, she is pleasant; when anything interferes with her wishes, she becomes difficult, bored, ill or irritable. True, she is not ‘so repulsive and unsisterly as Elizabeth’, but her comments to Anne are sometimes as distressing as Elizabeth’s.: ‘This is the end, you see, of Captain Benwick being supposed to be an admirer of yours’. The cruelty here is not deliberate and calculated like Elizabeth’s: it is as a result of limited awareness, a lack of sensitivity. Her immaturity appears in her behaviour during the November outing:
Mary sat down for a moment, but it would not do; she was sure Louisa had found a better seat somewhere else, and she would go on till she overtook her (Chap 10).
In spite of all her obvious failings, she still feels the family’s sense of social superiority, looking down ‘very decidedly upon the Hayters’. The following passage puts her social attitudes in their place: ‘It is very unpleasant having such connections! But, I assure you, I have never been in the house above twice in my life’. The neurotic side of her character is beautifully suggested in a letter to Anne: ‘My sore throats are always worse than anybody’s’ (Chap 18).
Captain Benwick is the most interesting of the minor characters. The loss of his fiancée appears to have rendered him inconsolable. He is driven, as a consequence, to read poetry, to which he responds with profound and tender feelings. All this is observed by Anne with amused tolerance. His tastes are, of course, unbalanced, his poetical education still not far advanced:
He showed himself intimately acquainted with all the tenderest songs of the one poet and all the impassioned descriptions of hopeless agony of the other; he repeated with such tremulous feeling the various lines which imagined a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness (Chap 11).
He luxuriates in his own grief and welcomes any literary occasion which may seem to reflect or intensify it. Anne does her best for him, ironically recommending ‘a large allowance of prose in his daily study’, and some ‘memoirs of characters of worth and suffering’. Benwick, however, is reluctant to abandon the literature of distress and self-pity. Anne is at first astonished when Benwick’s shallow grief evaporates and he turns his attention to Louisa Musgrove, but on reflection, she finds an explanation:
She was persuaded that any tolerably pleasing young woman who had listened and seemed to feel for him would have received the same compliment. He had an affectionate heart (Chap 18).
Jane Austen treats all such self-deceivers as Benwick with the same mild irony.
She does little enough to individualise her other characters. The Crofts are hearty, open and unpretentious; the older Musgroves pleasant, hospitable and kind; their unmarried daughters lively but shallow, and Charles decent, pleasant and unsubtle. Lady Russell’s personality does not impress us at all: she functions as a useful and important part of the mechanism of the plot, since it is she who advises Anne to reject Wentworth, but after this, although she remains Anne’s confidante, she is of little importance in the development of events, and never really comes alive as a character. The same may be said of Mrs Clay, whose freckles and insinuating manner are her distinguishing characteristics. Mrs Smith seems a careless piece of characterisation, at one stage appearing harmless and long-suffering, at another cynical and worldly-wise. Again, of course, her shadowy character matters little; her chief role in Persuasion is mainly as the means by which Anne learns the truth about William Walter Elliot.
Murray, Patrick. Persuasion in Inscapes 13, The Educational Company of Ireland, 1978
Like many of Jane Austen’s novels what you see is what you get and the major theme of the novel is usually helpfully pointed out in the title! In Persuasion, Jane Austen presents Anne Elliot, her father, her sisters, her friends and her acquaintances in terms of their persuadability or ‘unpersuadability’. Therefore, we are here invited by Austen to judge the characters of Persuasion within this narrow frame of reference provided by its title.
Anne Elliot’s seven years of suffering arise directly from her having been persuaded by Lady Russell to end her association with Captain Wentworth. The cautious Lady Russell, we are told, regarded the connection with Wentworth as ‘a most unfortunate one’, and ‘deprecated the connection in every light’. The central passage follows; in which we find the key to Anne’s subsequent misfortunes:
Such opposition, as these feelings produced, was more than Anne could combat. Young and gentle as she was, it might yet have been possible to withstand her father’s ill-will, though unsoftened by one kind word or look on the part of her sister; but lady Russell, whom she had always loved and relied on, could not, with such steadiness of opinion, and such tenderness of manner, be continually advising her in vain. She was persuaded to believe the engagement a wrong thing; indiscreet, improper, hardly capable of success, and not deserving it (Chap 4).
This is where the theme of persuasion is first raised and the plot develops from here. The second example of persuasion is largely devoted to attempts to persuade Sir Walter to live within his means. Lady Russell draws up plans to help the family economise: ‘If we can persuade your father to all this, much may be done’. She has no success, and Mr Shepherd, ‘who was perfectly persuaded that nothing could be done without a change of abode’, is able to have his plan for retrenchment accepted, not on its merits, but because it seems to Sir Walter to entail the least sacrifice. They move to Bath because Sir Walter and Elizabeth ‘were induced to believe that they should lose neither consequence nor enjoyment by settling there’. Louisa Musgrove tries to impress on Captain Wentworth the contrast between Anne and herself. She knows that Anne’s persuadability has caused her to forfeit Wentworth’s esteem. She is determined, therefore, to appear unpersuadable, at least temporarily. Anne overhears her making her point:
What! Would I be turned back from doing a thing that I had determined to do, and that I knew to be right, by the airs and interference of such a person, or any person, I may say? No, I have no idea of being so easily persuaded. When I have made up my mind, I have made it (Chap 10).
Wentworth responds with warm admiration, and the listening Anne can take his comment on what she fancies he must think of her earlier conduct:
It is the worst evil of too yielding and indecisive a character that no influence over it can be depended on. Let those who would be happy be firm (Chap 10).
This last comment is somewhat ironic in the light of the incident at Lyme when Louisa’s vaunted firmness causes her to crack her skull!:
And instantly, to show her enjoyment, she ran up the steps to be jumped down again. He advised her against it, thought the jar too great; but no, he reasoned and talked in vain; she smiled and said: I am determined I will; he put out his hands; she was too precipitate by half a second, she fell on the pavement on the Lower Cobb and was taken up lifeless (Chap 12).
We learn from Louisa that Henrietta is persuadable to the point of having no mind of her own:
And Henrietta seemed entirely to have made up her mind to call at Winthrop to-day; and yet she was as near giving it up out of nonsensical complaisance (Chap 10).
We can see clearly from these examples that persuasion is central to the novel and some critics find this limiting in that we, the readers, are being manipulated mainly to illustrate this abstract principle; or to make a moral point just as the writer of a traditional fable might arrange his or her materials. However, there is more to the novel and indeed the novel is most enjoyable when Jane Austen forgets about this notion of persuasion and entertains us with closely observed social comedy and satirical touches.
There are also a number of other subsidiary themes in Persuasion. All of Jane Austen’s novels are social comedies, and much of the comedy arises from the follies and absurdities of her comic figures. At some points in the novel, the comedy takes on the harsher tones of satire, whose main victims are Sir Walter and Mrs Musgrove. Among the recurring sources of comedy and satire in Persuasion are Sir Walter’s false pride, his exaggerated notions of his own importance, his condescending attitude to those he considers inferior to himself, and his vanity in his personal appearance. Sir Walter is sometimes described as a snob. This is a person whose ideas and conduct are prompted by a vulgar admiration for wealth or social position. There are elements of snobbery in sir Walter and Elizabeth. Both of them do, indeed, defer to those of superior social standing. Sir Walter wonders whether they should present the worthy Admiral Croft and his wife at Laura Place to meet Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret:
Situated as we are with Lady Dalrymple, cousins, we ought to be very careful not to embarrass her with an acquaintance she might not approve. If we were not related, it would not signify; but as cousins, she would feel scrupulous as to any proposal of ours. We had better leave the Crofts to find their own level. There are several odd-looking men walking about here, who, I am told, are sailors. The Crofts will associate with them (Chap 18).
Sir Walter also displays another prejudice of the snob: contempt for those below him on the social scale. Anne has been visiting Mrs Smith with the approval of Lady Russell, but Sir Walter is disgusted:
A widow, Mrs Smith, lodging in Westgage Buildings! A poor widow, barely able to live, between thirty and forty – a mere Mrs Smith – an every day Mrs Smith, of all people and all names in the world, to be the chosen friend of Miss Anne Elliot, and to be preferred by her to her own family connections among the nobility of England and Ireland! Mrs Smith – such a name! (Chap 17).
In Sir Walter, we are presented with a portrait of the quintessential egotist. His self-esteem and self-contemplation make it easy for us to label him a narcissist; proud of his fine appearance, anxious to preserve it, and frequently admiring it in his large collection of mirrors! Jane Austen damns him with faint praise:
Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter’s character – vanity of appearance and of situation. He had been remarkably handsome in his youth, and, at fifty-four, was still a very fine man. Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did, nor could the valet of any new made lord be more delighted with the place he held in society. He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliot who united these gifts was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion (Chap 1).
Another recurring theme in Persuasion is introduced in the opening chapter, where we learn that ‘a few years before, Anne had been a very pretty girl, but her bloom had vanished early’. In a sense, Persuasion is about the loss and return of youthful beauty and vigour. Again and again, we find references to physical appearance, the ravages of time, the vain struggle to avert its consequences. Sir Walter thinks Elizabeth and himself,
as blooming as ever, amidst the wreck of the good looks of everybody else; for he could plainly see how old all the rest of his family and friends were growing. Anne haggard, Mary coarse, every face in the neighbourhood worsting; and the rapid increase of the crow’s feet about Lady Russell’s temples had long been a distress to him (Chap 1).
On the steps at Lyme, Anne, ‘the bloom and freshness of youth restored by the fine wind’, wins the admiration of Mr Elliot and Captain Wentworth. The latter seems to see ‘something like Anne Elliot again’. The ‘new’ Anne Elliot appears in all her radiance as she is finally secure in Wentworth’s love, ‘glowing and lovely in sensibility and happiness and more generally admired than she thought about or cared for’.
Old Age/Human Decay
The theme of advancing age and human decay are underlined in the numerous references to the rhythms of nature. The following is an impressive example; the reference is to Elizabeth:
Thirteen winters’ revolving frosts had seen her opening every ball of credit which a scanty neighbourhood afforded; thirteen springs had shown blossoms, as she travelled up to London with her father, for a few weeks’ annual enjoyment of the great world. She had the remembrance of all this; she had the consciousness of being nine-and-twenty, to give her some regrets and some apprehensions; she was fully satisfied of being still quite as handsome as ever (Chap 1).
The Somerset chapters are also coloured by references to the autumnal landscape, which reflects Anne’s moods as she waits, without much hope, for ‘a second spring of youth and beauty’ (Chap 13).
The visitors to Lyme are impressed by the romantic landscape, described in almost guide-book fashion, ‘green chasms between romantic rocks, scattered forest trees and orchards of luxuriant growth’. They are also invigorated by ‘the fresh-feeling breeze’ by the sea. The most moving ‘natural’ passage is that conveying Anne’s feelings as she prepares to leave for Bath:
An hour’s complete leisure for such reflections as these, on a dark November day, a small thick rain almost blotting out the very few objects ever to be discerned from the windows, was enough to make the sound of Lady Russell’s carriage exceedingly welcome; and yet, though desirous to be gone, she could not quit the Mansion-house, or look adieu to the Cottage, with its black, dripping and comfortless verandah, or even notice through the misty glasses the last humble tenements of the village, without a saddened heart (Chap 13).
Passages such as these make Persuasion the most poetic of Jane Austen’s novels. The descriptions are not there simply for atmosphere and background; in passages like the last one there is profound interaction between external nature and the mind of the character who beholds it; for the reader, Anne’s mood becomes part of the gloomy November landscape.
Murray, Patrick. Persuasion in Inscapes 13, The Educational Company of Ireland, 1978
King Lear is set in England – an England before history, a country of swirling mists and violent tempests where ancient gods hold sway. It has been sometimes described as a Christian play with a pagan setting. For us Irish, even the name Lear/Lir conjures up legendary tales from Irish mythology. The Children of Lir, for instance, is a tale from the early Christian period that mixes magical elements such as druidic wands and spells with a Christian message of faith bringing freedom from suffering. This is very similar to the underlying theme in Shakespeare’s King Lear.
We also need to be aware of the historical events taking place in England around 1605 when this play was written. Queen Elizabeth I had died in 1603 without a direct heir to the throne. She was succeeded by James VI of Scotland who later became James I of England, Scotland and Ireland – the first early version of the United Kingdom. Shakespeare’s company was known as The King’s Men and many of the plays were produced with a Royal Command Performance in mind. It is interesting that Macbeth – set in Scotland – was first performed in 1606 for the same monarch.
Even a casual reader of King Lear is bound to notice the frequency with which the gods are invoked or discussed by many of the characters in the play. More striking perhaps, is the great variety of distinct points of view on the gods and their dealings with men expressed from beginning to end of the play. Some of these are merely passing references, as, for example, Albany’s amazed reaction to Lear’s behaviour towards Goneril: ‘Now gods that we adore, whereof comes this?’. Others are obviously ironic or insincere, as when Edmund, in conversation with Gloucester, claims that he tried to dissuade Edgar from his murderous intent by telling him that ‘the revenging gods / Against parricides did all their thunders bend’; or when Regan invokes ‘the blest gods’ in response to Lear’s curses. But such casual references are rare enough: elsewhere, whenever the gods are mentioned, the tone is almost invariably serious, betraying the concern of the speakers with the nature and attributes of the ultimate Power, and their awareness of the problems of affirming cosmic justice in the face of the evil and suffering so rife in their universe.
Many commentators have remarked on the number of conflicting theories on the nature and disposition of the gods that are advanced by the different characters, sometimes indeed, by the same character, during the course of the play. Almost every major point of view is expressed. Gloucester in his despair sees men as the victims of a capricious and malevolent divinity: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods’. At other times, particularly after suffering has awakened his religious sense, he addresses heartfelt prayers to the ‘ever-gentle gods’ and speaks feelingly of ‘the bounty and the benison of heaven’. Edgar pictures the gods as dispensers of a merely retributive justice:
The gods are just and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us.
But his other, and more characteristic, religious utterances reveal a deep faith in supernatural goodness, and his view of the gods is best seen in his encouraging words to Gloucester after he has saved him from suicide:
Therefore, thou happy father,
Think that the clearest gods, who make them honours
Of men’s impossibilities, have preserved thee.
The speeches of the other characters also help to enlarge and diversify the range of references about the gods. When Kent, who normally expresses faith in the just dealings of the heavenly powers, is momentarily overwhelmed by the apparent triumph of wickedness and injustice in the play and dismayed by the unnatural dealings of Lear’s daughters, he falls back on an astrological determinism, ‘It is the stars’, he cries, ‘the stars above us govern our conditions’. Edmund’s deity is a nature-goddess while Lear appeals to primitive magic when he disinherits Cordelia ‘by the sacred radiance of the sun / The mysteries of Hecate and the night’, and he calls on Nature, his ‘dear goddess’ to curse Goneril, as if he believes that the heavens are at the service of man’s evil whims. In his great speech on the heath (III, iv, 28ff), he implies that the wretched condition of the poor is an indictment of divine justice. By exposing himself to feel what naked wretches feel, and by sharing his superfluous goods among them, he hopes to ‘show the heavens more just’.
For many students of the play, Gloucester’s cry of despair, ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods /They kill us for their sport.’, strikes the keynote of the play and sums up its spirit. There is indeed much in the play to justify this point of view. Time after time Shakespeare seems to underline the futility of looking to the heavenly powers for help, pity or the alleviation of suffering. He throws into the sharpest possible relief the bitter and ironic contrast between the seemingly justifiable aspirations of men, so often nourished by belief in divine goodness, and the apparent indifference and blindness of the gods to even their most urgent and insistent demands. Some of the juxtapositions contrived by Shakespeare seem to make a mockery of prayer and faith in providential justice. Lear invokes the heavens against the ingratitude of his daughters and begs them to make his cause their cause, to come down and take his part, but the heavens are silent and Regan adds to his misery by demanding that he dismiss half his train. His next prayer, ‘You see me here you gods, a poor old man’ is answered by the sound of the approaching storm, and soon after, the elements let fall their ‘horrible pleasure’ and join with his two evil daughters in punishing ‘a poor, infirm, weak and despised old man’.
Edgar on the heath thinks that ‘the worst returns to laughter’: he is immediately confronted with the bleeding face of his blinded father. Just before the battle he urges Gloucester to pray that the right may thrive, and assures him ‘If ever I return to you again I’ll bring you comfort’. He returns only to lead his father away; his prayers have not been answered: ‘King Lear hath lost, he and his daughter ta’en’. The most dreadful example is reserved for the last scene. Edmund has repented. He reveals his plan to have Cordelia murdered in prison, and Edgar hastens to save her life. Albany’s prayer, ‘the gods defend her’ is at once followed by the stark stage-direction: Enter Lear, with Cordelia dead in his arms. By means of deliberate effects like these, the play seems to suggest that there is no basis for faith in heavenly justice or benevolence, that the Powers who control the universe are either hostile or indifferent to the good of man.
The idea of universal justice is most sharply challenged by the ending of this play. The wasteful deaths of Lear and Cordelia following their long exposure to suffering and torture inevitably make us wonder what conception of the universe caused Shakespeare to impose so ‘cheerless, dark and deadly’ an ending on a play which, in the Fourth Act, seemed to be heading to a reasonably happy ending True enough, Lear has sinned, but he is, in his own words, ‘more sinned against than sinning’, and the punishment he is made to undergo seems absurdly disproportionate to his original fault. It is not enough that he should humbly repent and willingly renounce the name and the trappings of a king for life in prison with Cordelia, that his pride should be broken and he is driven to madness but also during his last moments on earth he must endure the overwhelming sorrow of Cordelia’s death. This grim ending has horrified many critics. Samuel Johnson rebuked Shakespeare for having ‘suffered the virtue of Cordelia to perish in a just cause, contrary to our natural ideas of justice, and to the hope of the reader’. There are those who argue that the ending in King Lear destroys any basis for faith in a god or gods, and quenches the notion that in our universe the good thrive and the wicked will be eventually punished.
This pessimistic view of the Lear universe is not universally held. There are those who argue, that, far from being a bitter indictment of cosmic justice and of providence, the play offers a profoundly Christian comment on the dealings of providence with men – that it is, in fact, a Christian play about a pagan world. These critics point to the fact that the play’s attitude toward human suffering is, in fact, a Christian one. It has always been part of Christian teaching that man is perfected through suffering and the image of the Cross is central to this idea. Christians believe that any painful experience is good when it leads the sufferer, however unwillingly at first, along the path of righteousness and humility; that, in fact, suffering leads to redemption and enlightenment as is the case with Lear and Gloucester in the play.
The failure of ‘the gods’ to answer many of the prayers addressed to them throughout the course of the action has been interpreted by some critics as evidence that Shakespeare pictured the Lear universe as one in which the gods are indifferent to man’s needs. Here, however, it is possible to find the values of the play are very compatible with those of traditional Christianity. With regard to prayer, it seems to make the point, one which very few Christian scholars would disagree with, that prayers are sometimes answered as the suppliant wishes, but that it is often otherwise, that the answer can take a totally unexpected form, or that no direct answer may be forthcoming. At the end of the blinding scene (III, vii) the Third Servant prays for Gloucester: ‘Now Heaven help him’. His prayer is answered. Almost at once we see him reunited with Edgar, who saves him from despair and suicide and restores a measure of happiness to his tortured mind. On the other hand, when Lear prays that the vengeance of heaven may fall upon the head of Goneril, his demand recoils upon himself, and he becomes the victim of the elements during the storm. And there is no answer to Albany’s prayer that Cordelia’s life may be spared.
Edgar’s is perhaps the best expression of the general attitude of the play towards the gods. As R.B. Heilman points out, he consistently shows his faith in human justice, but he ‘does not presumptuously expect divinity to be a magical servant’. With regard to Lear’s pleadings, the same critic argues that in the scheme of things as Shakespeare has here conceived it, he can expect justice, but he cannot dictate terms. Samuel Johnson, dissatisfied as he was with Shakespeare’s decision to allow Cordelia to die in spite of the justice of her cause, nevertheless believed that the play convincingly exposed the self-destructive and abnormal nature of evil.
What the play seems to be saying to us concerning cosmic justice is not that ‘the gods’ wait for man to fall into the most trivial error in order to punish him, but that once man has wilfully embraced a wrong course of action, he is liable to set in motion a long train of disasters over which he has little control. There is also the notion that it is in the nature of evil to spread its influence far and with fearful rapidity, visiting both good and bad with misery and ruin, and that once the evil has been let loose man has no control over the consequences. Furthermore, the sufferers in the Lear universe cannot expect the gods to grant them or their fellows immunity from further suffering, as soon as they have repented, and it is part of the order of things in that universe that individual evil can never remain individual. The main point to be made about the idea of cosmic justice as seen in King Lear is that it is quite distinct from the poetic justice that so many critics seem to think that Shakespeare should have preserved. Poetic justice ensures that rewards and punishments are carefully distributed and bear as exact a relationship as possible to the nature of the deed. King Lear makes no attempt to establish such a relationship. It suggests, instead, that the notion of a purely retributive justice is one of mankind’s illusions, and that although evil may be ultimately self-destroying, being good and virtuous provide us with few guarantees or protection against evil in the world.
Nature and its Meaning in King Lear
Shakespeare often focuses on major philosophical issues in his tragedies. For example, the famous critic and scholar, Wilson Knight, declares that ‘the theme of Hamlet is death’. However, no Shakespearean play is so consistently devoted to a single central idea as King Lear is to the exploration of the meaning of the concept of ‘Nature’. The play explores the idea of human nature, the natural world, what is natural and unnatural, and the many references to monsters and monstrous deeds, and so on, are numerous and occur throughout the play.
The events of the play and the behaviour of most of the character’s underline Shakespeare’s preoccupation with the idea. Lear disowns his one loyal and loving daughter in favour of two who will turn savagely on him. Gloucester, with that deep irony so characteristic of almost every major statement of its kind in the play, calls the utterly treacherous Edmund his ‘loyal and natural boy’, and disowns his totally devoted son Edgar. Each parent severs the bond of nature with animal ferocity, then, with grim irony, invokes nature as a reason for doing so. Lear’s argument: Cordelia is a wretch whom nature is ashamed ‘Almost to acknowledge hers’; Gloucester’s: Edgar is ‘an unnatural, detested, brutish villain: Worse than brutish’.
Lear and Gloucester, in Shakespeare’s scheme of things, commit mortal sins against nature, and the rest of the play is mainly concerned with the awful revenge that nature will take on the two offenders, who act from brute instinct and in blindness. But Lear and Gloucester, however we may weigh their moral guilt, will each pay a price that bears little proportion to the admitted evil of their parallel actions.
Each will be largely cut off from the kindness, generosity and protection which human beings naturally afford each other. They will be forced to wander in a storm, one of the great Shakespearean symbols of disorder. They will learn the lessons of their folly through pain and suffering. Gloucester, paradoxically, must be blinded in order to see; Lear, paradoxically, must be driven to madness to achieve an understanding of himself and his acts.
The following are some examples of the many and varied aspects of the term ‘Nature’ as seen in the play:
Allow not nature more than nature needs
Man’s life is cheap as beasts. (II, iv, 265)
Here nature means the primitive condition of mankind before civilisation.
Thou has one daughter
Who redeems nature from the general curse
Which twain have brought her to (IV, vi, 210)
Here we have the idea of an originally innocent nature before the Fall of Adam and Eve which requires a redemption.
That nature, which contemns in the origin
Cannot be bordered certain in itself (IV, ii, 32)
Nature here is used to define the bond between child and parent. Goneril’s unnatural treatment of her father involves the breaking of this bond. Albany warns Goneril that in so doing she will, like a branch severed from a tree, ‘wither and come to deadly use’.
The characters in the play embody quite different conceptions of the meaning of nature. Cordelia represents an ideal: human kindness, the sense of a close kinship between human beings. Her sisters and Edmund see Nature as red in tooth and claw, and all men, irrespective of family ties, at war with others for personal advantage.
The Death of Lear
What is Lear’s state of mind at the moment of his death? The answer we give depends on whether we believe Shakespeare meant the play to close on a bleak and cheerless note or whether (if Lear is seen to die happy if deluded) that he intended the play to end on a more hopeful note. The crucial lines are these:
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips.
Look there, look there. (V, iii, 312-3)
A. C. Bradley, the great Shakespearean scholar, suggests that Lear dies of joy, believing Cordelia to be still alive. Bradley pointed out that when Lear was still in doubt as to whether she was alive or dead he declared:
She lives! If it be so
Its is a chance which does redeem all sorrows
That ever I have felt.
If, in other words, she was still alive, this would counterbalance for him all the miseries he had endured up to this. Bradley distinguished between what the reader must feel as he watches Lear’s pathetic deception and what the deluded Lear himself is experiencing:
To us, perhaps, the knowledge that he is deceived may have a culmination of pain, but if it brings only that, I believe we are false to Shakespeare, and it seems almost beyond question that any actor is false to the text who does not attempt to express in Lear’s last accents and gestures and look, an unbearable joy (Shakespearean Tragedy).
This analysis has often been criticised as being too sentimental, but it has two fairly strong supports. One is the fact that in Shakespeare’s source for the play, Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, Lear’s heart is described as being ‘stretched so far beyond his limits with this excess of comfort’. The other is that we are almost certainly intended to see Gloucester’s last moments as providing a parallel to Lear’s, all their other major experiences being parallel. And here is how Gloucester dies;
His flawed heart
Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief,
Burst smilingly (V, iii, 196).
In recent times, strong voices have been raised against the view that joy is the keynote of Lear’s departure from this life. One point that should be borne in mind is that Lear’s illusion that Cordelia still lives recurs three of four times in the last scene:
She’s dead as earth. Lend me a looking glass.
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why then, she lives….
Here there is a heart-breaking tension in Lear between an absolute knowledge that Cordelia is dead, and an absolute inability to accept it. When his test with the looking-glass fails, he snatches a feather and tries a second test:
This feather stirs; she lives! If it be so,
It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows
That ever I have felt…
This effort, like the last one, fails. Then again he tries to prove that she is alive by putting his ear to her lips in the hope that she might be speaking:
Cordelia, Cordelia, stay a little. Ha,
What is’t thou sayest? Her voice was ever soft.
Gentle, and low – an excellent thing in woman …
He dies vainly seeking (or thinking he finds) life in her lips (‘Look there, look there’). What comfort can be extracted from the manner of his death? It might well be argued in response to Bradley that, given the cycle of despair, insanity and the illusion of hope, it hardly matters very much at what point of it Lear expires. One bleaker version is that of J. Stampfer, who argues that,
Gloucester died between extremes of joy and grief, at the knowledge that his son was miraculously preserved. Lear between extremes of illusion and truth, ecstasy and the blackest despair, at the knowledge that his daughter was needlessly butchered. Gloucester’s heart burst smilingly at his reunion with Edgar; Lear’s, we are driven to conclude, burst in the purest agony at his eternal separation from Cordelia (Shakespeare Survey, 1960, p.4).
Whatever the relative merits of the views expressed by Bradley and Stampfer, it is perhaps going too far to say that at the moment of Lear’s death, joy is in equal balance with grief. What is safe to say is that Lear’s heart breaks. The words of Kent make this clear (‘Break heart, I prithee break’). It is also clear that we are meant to see his death as the culmination of an ordeal of torment renewed beyond reasonable endurance. Again Kent is our authority:
Vex not his ghost. O, let him pass! He hates him
That would upon the rack of this rough world
Stretch him out longer.
King Lear: The Spirit of the Play
When one tries to describe one’s overall impression of King Lear, its spirit, its overall mood, one can easily fall into the trap of imposing a pattern based on one’s own preferences and attitudes. Many critics have seen, and described, King Lear as the embodiment of utter despair, chaos and cynicism. Others see it as Shakespeare’s endorsement of love as the supreme and absolute human value. Both these extreme views fail to do justice to the range of issues so deeply touched on by Shakespeare in this tragedy.
The spirit of the play cannot be wholly pessimistic. At play’s end, Lear has been reconciled to Cordelia and Gloucester to Edgar. Evil, as represented by the wicked quartet, Edmund, Cornwall, Goneril and Regan, has prospered for a while, taken possession of the Lear universe, caused men to descend to sheer bestiality, but has, by the close, destroyed itself. But is it too much to say that good has enjoyed a corresponding triumph? The ‘good’ characters, Lear, Cordelia, Edgar, Gloucester, Kent, must suffer, and even when their sufferings seem no longer supportable suffer again until the two chief characters die in harrowing circumstances.
Where, then, do we look for an ‘optimistic’ note in King Lear? It is easy, after all, to define the pessimistic ones: the forces of suffering and evil have possessed the play so long, and have so steadily enjoyed their various triumphs, that it may seem false to the overall tone of the play to underline the less despairing indications that offer themselves, if even tentatively, and almost apologetically. It may be too much to claim that Lear’s reunion with Cordelia is the final seal on the salvation he has begun to achieve through suffering and deprivation. His real salvation is, perhaps, a more prosaic one: release at last from the torture of his life. The major theme of the play is what men must endure at the hands of those forces, inner and outer, which govern the courses of their lives. The play shows these forces as capable of almost continuous cruelty and torment. But it also sounds another note. The entire course of events in King Lear suggests that the forces of life perform another function. John Holloway, in his excellent study, puts the matter as follows:
To follow the master, to sustain the state, top bless one’s child, to succour the aged and one’s parents – the idea of being brought back to rectitude is what the play ends with. These are the things which it falls to living men to do; and if the play advances appositive, I think it is that when men turn away from how they should live there are forces in life which constrain them to return. If anything rules creation, it is (though only, as it were, by a hairsbreadth) simply rule itself. What order restores, is order. Men tangle their lives; life, at a price, is self-untangling at last (The Story of the Night).
Faced with the overwhelming depravity of the four chief villains, and the relative success of their schemes, it is easy to lose sight of the depth of human goodness and decency in King Lear. Kent and the Fool remain loyal to Lear to the end; Albany grows in moral stature as the plot develops; Edgar at times reaches heights of selfless perfection. Lear learns to recognise goodness and love for what they are, and his gratitude at this revelation is one of the more memorable things in the play. It is true that the lessons learned by Lear and Gloucester have involved a huge amount of suffering, and a terrible waste, a cosmic upheaval. But this in itself may be seen as offering grounds for optimism about man’s place in the overall scheme of things. That the forces of life and nature should so disarrange themselves to teach two old men how to live is powerful testimony to the fundamental worth of human beings. Lear recognises this. Even the Supreme Powers, he feels, witness the events in which he is the central figure with awe and reverence:
Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense …
As I pointed out earlier, King Lear is set in England – an England before history, a country of swirling mists and violent tempests where ancient gods hold sway. This new cinematic adaptation of the play places it at some unknown time in the future – although recent political events in Westminster suggest that the United Kingdom may not be united for much longer! Ironically, this was one of the major reasons why Shakespeare gave us the great tragedies – he was saying to his audience: ‘This is what happens when you mess with order – do not go there!’. Four hundred years later ……. the Bard is still relevant! Study well!
Bradley, A.C., Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: Meridian Books, 1955.
Granville Barker, Harley. Prefaces to Shakespeare, Vol 2. King Lear, Cymbeline, Julius Caesar. Atlantic Publishers and Distributors (P) Ltd, 2006.
Heilman, R.B., This Great Stage: Structure in King Lear. Louisiana State University. 1948.
Holloway, John. The Story of the Night: Studies in Shakespeare’s Major Tragedies. Routledge: London and New York. 1961 (Reprinted 2005).
Murray, Patrick. King Lear in Inscapes published by The Educational Company of Ireland. 1980
Schucking, Levin L., Character Problems in Shakespeare’s Plays: A Guide to the Better Understanding of the Dramatist. First published by George G. Harrap in July 1922.
Spurgeon, Caroline F. E., Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us, Cambridge Univesity Press, 1935.
Stampfer, J., The Catharsis of King Lear’ in Shakespeare Survey 13, Cambridge, 1960
You might also like to read my ‘Single Text Study Notes on King Lear’ here.
Also, you might like to have a look at ‘Image Patterns in King Lear’ here.
These notes are an effort to give you some extra food for thought in your preparation for your Single Text question in June. The focus of your study should be on character, theme and image patterns. As far as Shakespeare was concerned the most important character in the play is Lear himself. We must keep this in mind when making our preparations. You will, in effect, have to talk about Lear and his relationships with all the other characters in the play. That is to say, you cannot discuss the character of Cordelia, or Gloucester, or Kent or the Fool without discussing their relationship to Lear.
You will also have to have some understanding of what is meant when we talk of Shakespearean Tragedy. You might like to read my short explanation of the term here.
Most of Shakespeare’s tragedies are set abroad – Hamlet in Denmark, Othello in Venice and Cyprus, Macbeth in Scotland, Coriolanus in Rome, etc. Some critics say that the reason for this ploy was because he was often dealing with very serious matters such as murder, even the murder of kings and queens. He didn’t want to be seen to be inciting people to rise up against his main benefactor, Queen Elizabeth or King James I. However, King Lear is set in England – an England of swirling mists and violent tempests, and it has been sometimes described as a Christian play with a pagan setting.
Interestingly, the underlying theme in King Lear, like the ongoing, excruciating Brexit saga, is of a United Kingdom being divided up to satisfy the egotistical whim of an ageing monarch. Fintan O’Toole, writing in an Irish Times opinion piece on Saturday 7th September, 2019 compares the Brexit goings-on in Westminster with the tragedy of King Lear. He says that recently ‘a little bit of King Lear was playing out in the House of Commons’ and that some of the scenes being acted out and relayed to us from Westminster and its environs even resembled some of the madness scenes in Lear:
The play, after all, is about the collapse of political authority in Britain, caused by nothing more than a caprice (a whim). It shows the potentially terrible consequences of political self-indulgence.
So, there you have positive proof if it was needed, that this Single Text you are studying this year is as relevant now as it was in 1605!
The Main Characters in King Lear
The best point about Shakespeare’s extraordinary achievement in presenting Lear is that made by Granville-Barker in his fine preface to the play:
For this massive fortress of pride which calls itself Lear, for any old man indeed of eighty or upwards, there could be no dramatic course but declension (to go downhill, to decline, to deteriorate). Who would ever think of developing, or expanding, a character from such overwhelming beginnings? Yet this is what Shakespeare does (in King Lear).
Lear indeed begins as an almost superhuman figure, marking out the map with the ponderous gestures of some god, and making his pronouncements with godlike authority and power:
Come not between the dragon and his wrath …
The bow is bent and drawn, make from the shaft …
Nothing: I have sworn; I am firm …
The most obvious feature of Lear’s character, and the dominant one from the beginning is his arrogance, which everybody agrees, has been nourished by a long career of absolute power. (You might, if you find yourself with a minute to spare, tune in to Sky News and their minute-by-minute coverage of Brexit at Westminster and see if you can identify any modern-day proponents of this self-same arrogance!). Like Boris, the slightest opposition makes Lear fly into a towering rage. Those who question his pettiest whim, or dispute his judgments, are exposed to incredible retaliation. It is not enough for Lear to banish Kent: he also threatens him with capital punishment. Not only does he withdraw his favour from Cordelia: he treats her as if he has never known her: she is now ‘new adopted to our hate’. These traits are still evident after he has abdicated and when he abandons himself to the ‘charity’ of Goneril and Regan. Indeed, if anything, his unpredictability and tempers worsen. He is remarkable at this stage for his impatience, his lack of self-control, his arrogance and mood swings. Even faithful followers like the Fool and Kent are treated very poorly; he threatens the Fool and makes little of Kent’s loyalty and faithfulness. Those who provoke his anger fare even worse. He strikes Goneril’s gentleman and insults Oswald. His curses on Goneril are fearsome. After Regan has disappointed him, he is seized by a terrible frenzy of passion which finds its outlet in a kind of madness.
Yet, even though we must always bear in mind that Lear is our tragic hero, no account that fails to point out these repellent aspects of his character can do justice to the portrait that Shakespeare wants to put before us. Some commentators are content to see him almost exclusively as a noble, suffering old man cruelly treated by his daughters. The other side of Lear is at least half the truth. Shakespeare goes to considerable rounds to underline his brutality, bitterness, fierceness, egotism, self-pity and fickleness. There is also the fact that he often tends to desire vengeance on all those (including his daughters) who injure or annoy him. It is interesting to notice that, early in the play, Shakespeare allows Goneril and Regan to comment on Lear’s hotheadedness, on the fact that ‘the best and soundest of his time hath been but rash’. They also feel that age has further weakened his already poor judgement and that his angry nature can break out in ‘inconstant starts’. This is the one instance (and the only one) where we see things from their point of view.
It is important to bear in mind, however, that the entire tendency of the play is to cause the reader or spectator to discount Lear’s failings and to regard him with compassion, sympathy and understanding. One major factor in Shakespeare’s presentation of Lear is that all the characters we admire look on his situation from his point of view, and this is clearly what Shakespeare wants us to do also. He is, after all, the tragic hero and Shakespeare wants us to view Lear very much as a man ‘more sinned against than sinning’. In a way, Lear’s faults and failings are not the things we are invited to concentrate on. Shakespeare is concerned less with the personal weaknesses and shortcomings of his main character than with the monstrous insult offered by Goneril and Regan and their allies to some of the most sacred values of human beings: fatherhood, old age and kingship. The German critic Levin Schucking makes this essential point about this aspect of Shakespeare’s presentation of Lear as tragic hero:
Lear … appears like an old, gnarled, stubborn oak tree, vigorously resisting the tempest, unyielding, majestic, deep-rooted, upheld only by its own strength, and towering above all its fellows. His weakness may almost be said to be the necessary concomitants of his strong qualities. His vindictiveness appears to be the result of his strength; his savage maledictions seem due to his fiery temperament. He is meant to be seen as a sublime and truly noble figure.
Many critics and scholars have found the real heart of the play, its essential ‘meaning’, in Lear’s movement from pride, egotism and spiritual blindness to understanding, insight and love. This is often seen as a process of purification, by means of which, through suffering, Lear is led out of his severely limited vision into a proper recognition of the true values of life. Through the course of his misery, Lear achieves a degree of spiritual apprehension and insight which he never achieved in the years of his prosperity. At the outset, we see him as a proud and angry old man for whom love is merely an instrument of self-glorification. After he has felt humiliation and endured the fury of the storm he becomes increasingly aware of his own faults and of the needs and sufferings of others. In the great transitional scene on the heath, he shows kindness towards the Fool (‘Poor Fool and knave, I have one part in my heart that’s sorry for thee’), and he urges Kent and the Fool to go before him into the hovel. Before sleeping he will pray, and in his prayer, he thinks of the poor naked wretches of whose misery he has never before been sufficiently aware: ‘O, I have taken too little care of this’.
In Lear, religious feeling grows out of suffering and disappointment with worldly hopes; before he gains his soul, he must first lose the world. His final two speeches before he goes to prison are deeply religious. He renounces all power and earthly prosperity; he is contrite of heart; with Cordelia he will pray and meditate on heavenly things; he talks of blessing, forgiveness and sacrifices. His long and painful trial, far from giving one cause for doubting divine benevolence, may be interpreted in quite the opposite sense. A.C Bradley realised this, and in a celebrated passage, he argued that Lear owes his own spiritual awareness,
to those sufferings which make us doubt whether life was not simply evil, and men like the flies which wanton boys torture for their sport. Should we not be at least as near the truth if we called this play, The Redemption of King Lear, and declared that the business of the gods with him was neither to torment him, nor to teach him a noble anger, but to lead him to attain through apparently hopeless failure the very end and aim of life.
The main stages of Lear’s spiritual development can be charted as follows:
His efforts to practice self-control and patience
His repentance for his treatment of Cordelia
His speech on ‘true need’
His pity for the ‘poor naked wretches’
His recognition of the falseness of flattery and of the brutal nature of authority
His consideration for the Fool (‘In boy, go first’)
His ‘I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep’ in the hovel, in contrast to his earlier vehement cursing and crying for vengeance
His discovery of love and its true meaning
His new notion of happiness (‘Come let’s away to prison’) with Cordelia
His ‘conversion’ is not an altogether simple, straightforward process. Against the idea that he is converted during the course of the play from a proud, fierce egotist into a patient, suffering Christian martyr, one has to bear in mind his outbursts of anger, hatred and vindictiveness to the very end:
A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all ….
I killed the slave that was a hanging thee ….
I have seen the day, with my good biting falchion ….
I would have made them skip ….
Similarly, his madness is not a straightforward process either. Madness is one of the central themes of the play. Lear’s madness is part of its paradoxical structure. What is most striking about Shakespeare’s presentation of this theme is that during his mad scenes, Lear’s lunacy is allowed co-exist with his deepest insights. The matter is well expressed by Edgar in the most powerful paradox of the play; ‘o matter and impertinency mixed / Reason in madness’ (IV, vi, 178). Like Gloucester’s blindness, Lear’s madness becomes a positive value. Because he is mad, Lear is set free from conventional restraints and limitations and can see the defects of society from a new perspective. He reaches a degree of understanding which he never achieved while he was sane. He now understands how flatterers obscured his view of reality; he understands the hypocrisy of society with regard to crimes of lust; he rails against the common treatment of criminals, and against his own long neglect of the poor and defenceless. He sees, too, that the human condition is inevitably tragic:
When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools …. IV, vi, 179
Lear is not the only character who exemplifies the play’s preoccupation with reason in madness. Shakespeare chooses a trinity of men to suggest that the greatest wisdom may belong to those whom the world may regard as either mad or useless. Lear is a doting old man even before he descends into madness; the Fool is unbalanced, and Edgar a pretended madman, an outcast beggar, an incompetent manager of worldly affairs. The comments and attitudes of these three embody most of the wisdom that the play has to offer on questions of life and living.
The following are the main stages in Lear’s madness, which is induced by a series of shocks:
The rebuff by Cordelia
The attack by Goneril, which makes him pretend not to know her and not to know himself
He begins to realise how he has wronged Cordelia
In Act I, Scene v, there is full recognition of his folly
At the end of Act I, he has his first serious premonition of insanity, ‘O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven…’
The third great shock comes when he finds Kent in the stocks. This insult to his royal dignity causes the first physical symptoms of hysteria (hysterica passio: II, iv, 55).
The fourth great shock is his rejection by Regan. The storm is the projection on the macrocosm (the universe) of the tempest in the microcosm (the human mind) … ‘O, Fool, I shall go mad’.
He identifies with the storm … a sign that reason has been overthrown by passion.
He is on the verge of madness when he invokes the storm to destroy the seeds of matter … ‘My wits begin to turn’.
The appearance of Poor Tom drives him over the edge. Poor Tom is both a living embodiment of the ‘naked poverty’ and one who is, apparently, what Lear has feared to become. In acting out the madman’s role, Edgar brings on Lear’s madness. Exposure to the elements and physical exhaustion hinder his recovery from the shocks he has so far endured.
He is soon trying to identify himself with unaccommodated man by tearing off his clothes.
A. C. Bradley saw the real beginning of Lear’s madness in ‘Hast thou given all to thy two daughters?’ (II, iv, 49), which marks the dominance of a fixed idea or obsession.
The madness of the elements, the professional ‘madness’ of the Fool, the pretended madness of Edgar, the madness of the King – all exemplify the break-up of society and the break-up of the universe itself under the impact of ingratitude and treachery. Then Gloucester appears, almost mad with grief at his son’s treachery, and only Kent is wholly sane.
The ‘trial scene’ is the peak of Lear’s madness. He imagines he sees Goneril and Regan … ‘She kicked the poor King her father …’. Cordelia describes him at the peak of his madness (‘Crowned with rank fumiter and furrow weeds…’). The whole tableau marks a reversion to childhood.
Lear recovers his wits at the end of Act IV. His cure comes with sleep, music and Cordelia’s love … and finally with his confession and kneeling to her.
After his recovery, Lear never really returns to the world of time and space. Cordelia becomes his whole world, and he lives in a kingdom that she creates for him by her presence.
Cordelia can be misunderstood. She is not to be seen as a totally meek, saintly sufferer, or as a totally passive victim. In many ways, if you think about it, she is very like her father! She has inherited his pride and like him, she too can be obstinate and stubborn. She responds to his pride with her own pride at the beginning. There is one detail in the reconciliation scene which tells us much about her character. While her father is still asleep, she can address him eloquently, and in a way which leaves her love for him in no doubt. But when he is awake, she finds it difficult to express her love and can speak only in monosyllables. There is one main line of development in her character: by the end, pride, though still evident, is submerged in love.
Cordelia appears in only four of the twenty-six scenes and speaks only about a hundred lines. Her influence on the overall effect of the play is, however, out of all proportion to this small contribution. For many readers, not all of them sentimentalists, her very presence in the play goes far in the direction of counterbalancing the evil represented by her sisters and their allies. She can be eloquent enough at times, but her characteristic feature, emphasised more than once, is silence, or quiet, economical speech. Lear remembers her voice as having been ‘soft, gentle and low’. She herself recognises her inability to find words to express her deepest feelings:
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth.
Her motto is ‘Love and be silent’. All she can manage by way of verbal reaction to Kent’s letter is the repetition of the name of ‘Father’, and then she goes off ‘to deal with grief alone’. Her reticence during the reconciliation scene is again characteristic (‘And so I am, I am … No cause, no cause …’). In fact, her only response to his final speech is one of tearful silence.
Kent wonders how Cordelia, Goneril and Regan could be the children of the same parents:
It is the stars,
The stars that govern us, govern our conditions;
Else one self mate and mate could not beget
Such different issues ….
There is, however, a sense in which Cordelia can be seen as embodying some aspects, good and bad, of Lear’s character. She is as R.B. Heilman remarks, the side of Lear capable of tenderness, love and insight, but she also embodies some, though not all, of his proneness to error. His rash abdication amounts to a refusal of responsibility, a fatal withdrawal from the world of action. But Cordelia’s refusal to co-operate in his childish scheme for the distribution of power also amounts to a withdrawal from responsibility. The combined withdrawal of Lear and Cordelia, through pride and self-will, allows power to pass into the hands of Goneril and Regan. As A.C. Bradley puts it, ‘at a moment where terrible issues join, Fate makes on her the one demand which she is unable to meet’.
In the thematic scheme of the play, she is an embodiment of a concept of Nature totally opposed to that represented by Edmund, Goneril, Regan and Gloucester. For her, the natural bond between father and daughter is central to human existence. Her absolute fidelity to this is her most obvious claim on our attention and admiration. Her sisters break all the natural bonds and pursue their egotistical ends with remorseless energy. She upholds the principles on which civilised life must ultimately depend. Her role in this regard is defined by the Gentleman:
Thou hast a daughter
Who redeems Nature from the general curse
Which twain have brought her to.
The meaning of these lines is that Cordelia, through her selfless clarity with regard to her erring father has corrected the gross imbalance in Nature which Goneril and Regan have brought about.
Goneril and Regan
Lear’s two wicked daughters cannot quite be classified together as indistinguishable partners in evil. They are distinguished in various significant ways. Goneril, the elder, is the more active of the two in the pursuit of crime. She commits murder and adultery and plots the murder of her husband. She appends her name to Edmund’s on the death-warrant for Lear and Cordelia. She has the more forceful character of the two, and as far as one can judge, fears nothing or nobody, either in this world or the next. She pays no heed to Lear’s curse and, significantly, she is the only one of the major characters who never mentions the gods. Her suicide following her exposure and the collapse of her schemes is undertaken without hesitation and without any sign of inner turmoil. On the other hand, Regan’s wickedness is not on as grand a scale as Goneril’s. She is more petty, she is meaner, and she is weaker in character. She resorts to telling a lie about Edmund’s intentions towards Gloucester, something Goneril would scorn doing. On the other hand, it is the ‘weaker’ Regan who becomes, in the end, the more violent in cruelty, turning even more savage than even Cornwall her husband. She jeers at the blinded Gloucester, telling him with relish that his son has betrayed him.
Perhaps the most important quality of mind that Goneril and Regan have in common is that they are rationalists and realists, totally unhampered by any moral sense or family feeling. Their aim in life is to satisfy their own desires. They are shrewd and practical and, within limits, most effective operators. What they lack above all is imagination. They have no time whatever for sentiment and fail to see why Lear should want to enjoy the outward symbols of status. They are prepared to use his old age as a justification for taking these away from him. In their logical scheme of things, old age has no use or function, and old men are superfluous nuisances.
Goneril, in particular, exhibits considerable cunning in bringing about Lear’s humiliation. Regan would prefer a more cautious approach; Goneril acts to bring trouble to a head and gets things over quickly and ruthlessly. She first tells Oswald that he and his fellows may adopt a ‘weary negligence’ in attending to Lear’s needs because she would ‘breed occasions’. She then complains to Lear, with much show of reason and in a righteous tone about the behaviour of his men. Regan’s dishonesty follows a similar pattern. She is mistress of the technique of guilt by association. When, for example, Gloucester comments on Edgar’s supposed treachery, she asks, ‘Was he not companion with the riotous knights / That tend upon my father’ (II, I, 96).
Lear touches on an essential feature of both his daughters when in his madness he wonders about Regan’s conduct: ‘Let them anatomize Regan, see what breeds about her heart. Is there any cause in Nature that makes these hard hearts?’ Hardness of heart is, of course, a mild term for what Goneril and Regan exhibit as they grow in power. When they hear of Gloucester’s defection, they react spontaneously with brutal directness:
Regan: Hang him instantly.
Goneril: Pluck out his eyes. (III,vii, 4)
It is appropriate that some of the more revolting images of the play are used in connection with the two, Goneril in particular. She is a kite, her ingratitude has a serpent’s tooth, she has a wolfish face; in her sharp-toothed unkindness, she is like a vulture attacking her father. Albany sees her as a gilded serpent; Gloucester says she has the fangs of a boar.
Both Goneril and Regan are efficient managers of the operations against their father and Gloucester. They prove effective in serving their own interests – up to a point. The turning point in their fortunes is reached when their strongest weapons – coolness and calculation – are destroyed by passion. When Goneril, seeing Edmund, gives him ‘strange oeilliads and most speaking looks’, she rouses Regan’s jealousy. The passion they both feel for Edmund cannot be controlled or manipulated in the same way that their other activities could. But even before this passion clouds their reason, they are beginning to lose control. This is evident in their dealings with Gloucester, where their wildness and loss of emotional balance contrast with their coolly efficient attitude to Lear. Their intense rivalry over Edmund causes them to behave rashly and even foolishly, to abandon the careful, pragmatic approach that ensured their worldly success up to now. As Granville-Barker observed, ‘Regan with a little law on her side, presumes on it, and Goneril poisons her, as she might a rat’. There is, of course, a fundamental irony in the fate of the two, particularly in the fact that children who could entertain no particle of feeling for their aged father who loved them should be destroyed by a consuming passion for an egotistical monster who cared nothing for either of them: ‘Which of them shall I take? Both? One? Or neither?’ (V, ii, 57).
Edgar is easily the most puzzling character in the play. There are those who suggest that he is not really a character at all, and that the name Edgar covers a sequence of roles rather than a stable personality. One can identify five different Edgars over the course of the play:
The simple-minded victim of Edmund’s scheming
The Bedlam Beggar
The chivalrous champion who takes on Edmund in single combat; and
The choric commentator on the action of the play
Those who wonder about Shakespeare’s intentions with regard to Edgar ask how one is to believe that the foolish, pitiful figure of the first few scenes can become the impressive, authoritative one who lends distinction to the closing scenes. The commonest explanation is to see the change in terms of the kind of moral development exhibited in other characters: Lear, Gloucester, Cordelia, Albany. Edgar, if he is to be seen as a single, consistent character, must then be understood as one who learns by experience, and by exposure to suffering, his own and that of others.
It is best, however, not to look too closely at Edgar’s ‘personality’, or the lack of it, but to emphasise his functions as a choric commentator and as the play’s wise philosopher. He embodies much of the religious feeling of the play, as can be seen from his numerous pronouncements on the relations of the gods with men. He has a deep and cheerful faith in the ultimate triumph of goodness, and in the benevolence of the Powers who govern man’s destiny on earth. He is the one who can see beyond temporary changes in human fortune to some grand design. His function with regard to Gloucester is to save him from despair. It is appropriate that he should be the one to provide the answer to Gloucester’s black indictment of the gods as no better than boys who kill flies for sport:
therefore, thou happy father
Think that the clearest gods, who make them honours
Of men’s impossibilities, have preserved thee ….
It is possible, at times, to find Edgar’s moral stance a bit chilling and stern. One comment that springs to mind in this regard is his verdict on his dead father, delivered to the dying Edmund:
The gods are just and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us:
The dark place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes …
Moralising comes naturally to him, but he is, on the whole, a compassionate moralist, feeling deeply for his father (Act IV, Scene i), acting as his guide and tutor, and repaying evil with kindness and sympathy. Those who read King Lear as a Christian play with a pagan setting can point to Edgar’s behaviour, attitudes and comments. A striking instance is his treatment of the dying Edmund:
Let’s exchange charity
Little wonder that Granville Barker called Edgar ‘a very Christian gentleman’.
Edmund is one of the most imposing ‘personalities’ of the play. He is endowed by Shakespeare with singular force and energy. He has a distinctive point of view, a distinctive attitude to everybody and everything around him, and a highly individual mode of expression. He is perhaps the most evil of all of Shakespeare’s characters, quite amoral, devoted exclusively to his own interests, and prepared to destroy anything or anybody that might interfere with his plans. There is, however, a significant contrast between him and Lear’s evil daughters. Nobody has ever been able to come up with anything even moderately favourable to say on their behalf; in his case, on the other hand, one is compelled to acknowledge a certain superficial attractiveness, a range of interesting attitudes, a liveliness of mind, a real, if perverted, sense of humour, qualities which make it possible for one critic to call him the ‘wittiest and most attractive of villains’! His ‘wit’ is, of course, exercised at the expense of his ‘credulous father and brother noble’, the first a man of limited intellect to begin with, the second an incredibly naïve victim. His positive qualities include a considerable strength of will, an excellent presence, and enough charm and plausibility of manner to impress a variety of observers, including Goneril and Regan.
Our first view of him is as a rational, cynical observer of the follies and superstitions of other men, particularly Gloucester. He is very much the ‘modern’ man, with no time for traditional values or for the accepted view of things. He is an atheist. He denies any relationship between the ‘orbs from whom we do exist’ and his own destiny. He also refuses to accept the central notion of an organic universe, with all the bonds and relationships that this implies. He recognises no ties between himself and others, no obligations on his part. He thus rejects the scheme of values represented by Cordelia and Albany. The latter, in a famous comment, holds that a strong bond of natural sympathy binds human beings to each other, like twigs to the branches of a tree.
Edmund has no principles of any kind, nor does he pretend to have. He places no value on anybody else. The claims of blood-relationship, friendship or loyalty mean nothing to him. He looks on others either as the means of helping him to make his way in the world, or as hindrances to his advancement, and he acts accordingly (‘Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land’). His attitude to Goneril and Regan illustrates both his total heartlessness and his cynical humour:
To both these sisters have I sworn my love
Each jealous of the other, as the stung
Are of the adder. Which of them shall I take?
Both? One? Or neither?
He never allows himself to be distracted from his aims, his eventual one being the crown. He takes his chances as they come. He is master (like some in Westminster and Washington today) of the technique of plausible lying and this is most evident in his undoing of Edgar. Even as he betrays his own father to Cornwall he talks of loyalty!
Shakespeare provides various subtle touches in his portrait of Edmund. As he advances in the world he becomes a snob. ‘If thou art noble’, he tells the masked Edgar, ‘I do forgive thee’. He finally exposes himself to ridicule and humiliation when he begins to regard himself as Albany’s equal, and tries to patronise him (‘Sir, you speak nobly’). Albany, however, is more than a match for him here, and puts him firmly in his place:
Sir, by your patience
I hold you but as a subject of this war
Not as a brother
Half-blooded fellow, yes …
Perhaps the ultimate sign of Edmund’s worthlessness as a human being is his belated gesture in attempting to save Lear and Cordelia, and his motives for the attempt. The significant point about the episode is that it is only after Goneril confesses to poisoning Regan and then commits suicide that Edmund, believing that he was loved, thinks of trying to save Lear and Cordelia:
Yet Edmund was beloved.
The one the other poisoned for my sake
And after slew herself …
I pant for life. Some good I mean to do
Despite of mine own nature … V, iii, 240
It is worth noticing that in the presence of the dead bodies of those he supposes loved him, he says nothing about them but thinks only of himself, and even at this late hour of his life enjoys the luxury of being ‘loved’ in so extreme and dramatic a fashion. There is a note of sentimental vanity and self-congratulation in his closing speech. It is also characteristic of him that he talks impressively about meaning to do good, and that his only real effort in this direction comes too late to be of any use. It may, perhaps, be idle speculation about his motives for wanting to save Lear and Cordelia. One suggestion is that he is moved by Edgar’s account of his father’s death. Another is that surrounded as he is at this point by ‘good’ characters, he takes on some of the qualities of his environment. Another way to see his action is that having lost everything he cared for (his own life and worldly position), he can perform his dramatic gesture to impress the onlookers, without any loss to himself, but without any real commitment either. There is also the possibility that we are to take Edgar’s last dramatic gesture as Shakespeare’s way of saying that even the most morally depraved can sometimes display unaccustomed virtue in certain circumstances.
One of Gloucester’s main functions in the play is as a parallel to Lear. Like Lear, he is betrayed by the child he loves, and supported by the one he unjustly rejects. His sufferings may be traced to human folly and injustice, and, like Lear’s, these sufferings purify his character and enlighten him. He dies a better man than he is when we first meet him. There are also parallels of character and temperament between the two: like Lear, Gloucester is credulous, hasty and affectionate. It must, of course, be remembered that Gloucester is built on a very much smaller scale than Lear. He has nothing of Lear’s tempestuous force and energy. He is the kind of man one might encounter anywhere in fiction or, indeed, in Westminster or Washington: sensual, careless of the moral code, easy-going, and easily prone to deceit. One aspect of his behaviour is difficult to credit: the ease with which he falls a victim of Edmund’s deception. Granville-Barker has suggested that no human being could be as gullible as Gloucester is here, but that Shakespeare asks us to allow him the fact of the deception, just as we have allowed him Lear’s partition of the kingdom. Such a starting-point, the dramatists ‘let’s pretend’, is essential to the process of getting the story going. In any case, Shakespeare also makes Gloucester a believer in astrology, ‘these late eclipses of the sun and moon’: if he can believe these things, we feel, he can believe anything.
There are strong indications that Gloucester is not a man of firm moral purpose. His flippant attitude to his ‘fault’ in begetting Edmund is a clear indication of this, as is the fact that the illegitimate Edmund is younger, not older, than Edgar. (Think about it!).
It is only when prosperous times change to bad, when multiple suffering strikes, that the ‘new’ Gloucester begins to emerge. He tries to fight against the facts of his predicament and of those nearest to him. Rather than be conscious of his ‘huge sorrows’, he would choose madness like Lear’s. His conversion from benevolent, helpless neutrality to tentative support for Lear is not exactly heroic. He does his best to ensure that his help for the king will not be noticed by the dangerous Cornwall. ‘If he asks for me’, he tells Edmund, ‘I am ill and gone to bed’. The irony here is that in confiding in Edmund he is ensuring not his own safety but his destruction, his blinding and casting out of doors.
The essential point to make about Gloucester is his transformation from a weak, erratic sensuality and a feeble-minded devotion to astrology into an impressive witness to the just dealings of Providence with men, and to the power of filial love. Like Lear, Gloucester attains a higher conception of himself and of man’s destiny through appalling suffering. He grows better through suffering which elicits from him a profoundly religious response. His astrological superstition is the nearest he gets to a sense of the supernatural until after he has endured torture and deprivation. His real transformation begins during the horrible scene in which he is blinded by Cornwall; the extremity of his suffering causes him to call on the gods for help: then he prays for Edgar and asks forgiveness for his own sins. Before he casts himself down to what he thinks will be his death, he kneels and prays to the ‘mighty gods’ and in their sight, he renounces the world. After he has been saved from death by Edgar his sense of heavenly goodness deepens. It is, paradoxically, through his own pain and sorrow and the misery of others that he is at last made aware of ‘the bounty and the benison of heaven’. It is surely worth remarking that after all he has suffered Shakespeare has him utter this prayer at the end:
You ever-gentle gods, take my breath from me:
Let not my worser spirit tempt me again
To die before you please.
It is necessary to distinguish between the character of the Fool and his role. There is really little enough that one can say about the personality of the Fool, or about his distinctive qualities; there is a good deal to be said about his function in the play, particularly in relation to Lear.
Shakespeare inherited the Fool from the drama of his predecessors – the court jester, the clown. His most obvious function was to entertain the vulgar members of the audience (‘the groundlings’) with his antics, songs, jokes, quibbles and dances. There is an element of this in the Lear Fool, who provides some lively entertainment. Those who write about the character of Lear’s Fool all point out his utter fidelity and loyalty to his master, in good times and in very bad ones. There is also his touching devotion to Cordelia, reflected in the words of the attendant Knight to Lear (‘Since my young lady’s going away into France, Sir, the Fool hath much pined away’).
There has been a good deal of debate on whether the Fool is sane, mad, pretending to be mad, or just half-witted. A.C. Bradley has an excellent comment on the matter, particularly in relation to the storm scenes, where the Fool’s role becomes vital. Bradley asks the question:
Are we to suppose that the insanity of the third character, the Fool, is a mere repetition of that of the beggar – that it, too, is a mere pretence?
He argues that the Fool lives in a logical world of his own, and does not observe the normal distinctions between sense and nonsense, what is the wise thing to do and the unwise. He is a being, in Bradley’s words,
… to whom a responsible and consistent course of action, even responsible use of language, is at the best of times difficult.
Therefore, a good summary of his mental state might be that he is ‘quick-witted though not whole-witted’.
In the overall scheme of the play, the Fool’s main task is to expose the folly of all those who are supposed to be fully sane and capable in a world of practical affairs from which he is, being a Fool, excluded. His relationship with Lear in the storm scenes is the real justification for his role. He is Lear’s conscience, his inner voice, which consistently cries out against Lear’s error and foolishness. He is also seen to be Lear’s tutor, giving his master many bitter lessons on the realities of life. When Lear, in Kent’s words, ‘falls to folly’, the Fool must rise to wisdom. There is continuous and subtle irony in the Fool’s remarks about folly, a keyword in the play, and in the contrast between these remarks and his own behaviour. On the one hand, he comments severely on the lack of practical wisdom shown by Kent in taking the side of Lear, whose cause is a lost one (‘If thou wouldst follow him, thou must needs wear my coxcomb’). Here, of course, he is arguing exactly as Goneril and Regan might: he sees folly as not watching one’s own interests. Again, when he finds Kent in the stocks, he lectures him on the folly of adhering to the losing side, and the wisdom of abandoning one’s loyalty when self-interest points to this course: ‘Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill, lest it break thy neck with following it; but the great one that goes upward, let him draw thee after’. This, of course, is rich in irony: the Fool’s words here are mainly a parody of similar sentiments in the speeches of Goneril, Regan and Edmund. He will not take his own advice, nor will Kent. Both elect to turn their backs on ‘practical’, selfish wisdom, and instead, they choose unselfish, devoted folly:
But I will tarry; the Fool will stay
And let the wise man fly …
It is worth noticing that nearly all of the Fool’s numerous references to fools and folly are directed at Lear’s poor management of his own interests. The Fool is not concerned with worldly success or failure; he is much more concerned with the fact that Lear has acted out of a false sense of values, has failed to understand essentials, and, like many contemporary politicians in England at this time, has shown incredibly poor judgement in his dealings with the division of his kingdom and in his dealings with his daughters. It is the essential task of the Fool to set Lear thinking on the meaning of his actions, and to stimulate in him a re-appraisal of his attitudes.
Albany is another of those characters (Lear and Gloucester being the other great examples) who develop in moral stature during the course of the action. There are two distinct phases in his career in the play. In the early one, he is clearly under the sway of his strong-minded wife Goneril. Such, indeed, is her dominance that he is at first is unable to act independently of her will, however differently he may feel. He does not want to be cruel to Lear and is almost certainly telling the truth when he protests that he does not know the reason for Lear’s violent rage. On the other hand, there is a strong hint that he shows himself less than enthusiastic about Lear’s stay at his house; the Knight tells Lear that ‘the abatement of kindness’ appears in the Duke himself also and your daughter’.
When Lear does decide to leave, Albany makes a half-hearted stand against Goneril’s decision, only to be brushed aside contemptuously:
Albany: I cannot be so partial, Goneril,
To the great love I bear you ….
Goneril: Pray you, content …
A little later, Goneril gives her frank assessment of her husband’s character:
This milky gentleness and course of yours
Though I condemn not, yet, under pardon,
You are much more attax’d for want of wisdom
Than praised for harmless mildness …
Little wonder that she leaves him behind when she goes to seek Regan’s help. She regards him (and at this point in their relationship, not without cause) as an inoffensive, negative, dull spirited man, wanting to leave well alone. Indeed, this seems to be his motto:
Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.
However, the ‘new’ Albany who recoils in horror from what has been done to Gloucester is quite a different character from the earlier one. Granville-Barker makes a good point when he says that Albany is one of those, ‘who let their wrath gather beneath a placid surface till on a sudden it boils over, and if the cause of it lies deep they are never the same again’. Goneril makes herself intolerable to him and he determines to avenge Gloucester’s wrongs:
See thyself devil!
Proper deformity shows not in the fiend
So horrid as in woman … Gloucester I live
To thank thee for the love thou show’st the king,
And to revenge thine eyes….
Albany has by now cast aside his timidity and begun to exert a moral authority that justifies Oswald’s ‘never man so chang’d’. Goneril can no longer put him in his place; her heaped insults no longer cow him or even greatly impress him. He is far from ‘the milk livered man’ she still believes him to be; he answers her in something like her own kind of language; his hands ‘are apt enough to dislocate and tear / Thy flesh and bones’.
In the last moments of the play, he becomes a major force, a calm, noble presence presiding over the course of events. The landing of Cordelia’s French army places him in a dilemma: he must fight against her soldiers because they are invaders, but he is reluctant because Cordelia represents her father. Shakespeare, however, underplays the difficulty of giving Edmund the leading part in the action against Cordelia’s forces. Albany’s real strength of character emerges in his dealings with Edmund after the battle. He puts the adventurous upstart in his place (‘I hold you as a subject of this war / Not as a brother’). In the end, Shakespeare preserves Albany’s dignity and superiority by giving Edgar the task of disposing of Edmund.
Bradley, A.C., Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: Meridian Books, 1955.
Granville Barker, Harley. Prefaces to Shakespeare, Vol 2. King Lear, Cymbeline, Julius Caesar. Atlantic Publishers and Distributors (P) Ltd, 2006.
Heilman, R.B., This Great Stage: Structure in King Lear. Louisiana State University. 1948.
Holloway, John. The Story of the Night: Studies in Shakespeare’s Major Tragedies. Routledge: London and New York. 1961 (Reprinted 2005).
Murray, Patrick. King Lear in Inscapes published by The Educational Company of Ireland. 1980
Schucking, Levin L., Character Problems in Shakespeare’s Plays: A Guide to the Better Understanding of the Dramatist. First published by George G. Harrap in July 1922.
Spurgeon, Caroline F. E., Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us, Cambridge Univesity Press, 1935.
Stampfer, J., The Catharsis of King Lear’ in Shakespeare Survey 13, Cambridge, 1960
You might also like to read an analysis of Image Patterns in King Learhere.
You might also like to read ‘Some Central Themes in King Lear’ which touches on topics like The gods in King Lear, Nature in King Lear, The Death of Lear, etc…. here.
‘Bogland’ is the final poem in Seamus Heaney’s second collection Door into the Dark (1969). The poem fittingly brings to a head his emerging, extended exploration of his rural upbringing and all the dying rural crafts associated with it. It also signals to us that his interest in the Irish landscape is being brought into sharper focus. The placing of the poem as his final offering in this, his second collection, is no coincidence and we must always be aware that the placing of poems by Heaney in his collections is never accidental. The poem is a deepening and focusing of his early poetic efforts and it is seen as one of his most important early poems. In it, the poet finally plucks up the courage to speak for Ireland and in its nine sentences the poem sets out new possibilities and directions for his future writing.
‘Bogland’ turns on a comparison between the American prairies and Irish bogs. In America, the eye has an unlimited vista, its history immortalises those young men who went West to conquer the wild frontiers and in recent history, those intrepid explorers have continued to explore space as The Final Frontier! However, in Ireland, the eye is drawn to features of the landscape which continually encroach on our view – here we live in a saucer island with mountains on the rim and ‘bottomless’ bog in the centre! In America, as the poet sees it, the early pioneers (many of them Irish) moved West across vast empty spaces – save for the occasional presence of Native Americans, Sioux, Apache, Commanche, Arapaho and members of the Cherokee nation who were then being given salutary lessons in oppression and dispossession. In Ireland, however, Heaney suggests that our pioneers (poets) explore downwards, cutting through the layers of bog, ‘going down and down for the good turf’ (‘Digging’). Therefore, from early on in his career (1969) he clearly identifies with the bog and by implication, he identifies himself as a Bogman and in this poem he finds his voice to speak on behalf of all Bogmen.
The word ‘pioneer’ has many connotations but here it suggests adventure and discovery – he seems to be suggesting that our pioneers are poets and that poetry is an adventure. He also seems to be suggesting that the complex work of exploring our past and our complicated national identity is yet another such hazardous adventure.
The issue of Irishness or of not being ‘Irish’ enough has long bedevilled Heaney’s legacy – without great justification, in my opinion. Heaney deals with the issue in these early collections and in Door into the Dark there are two outstanding examples: ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ and ‘Bogland’. In reality, of course, he cannot win this argument and his position has been misunderstood by many. It is the equivalent of our answer to the question, ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ In my reading, his poetry constantly explores the divisions tearing the Ulster of his youth apart. His position has often met with criticism from all sides regarding his treatment of contemporary Ulster history. Some critics say he has too much politics in his poetry, while others say he should stand up for his people and take sides. He has been accused of obscuring the horrors of sectarian killings; of endorsing a ‘tribal’ position, or of not endorsing it enough; he has also been accused of evading the issues and being non-committal in his writing. For many critics, like Elmer Andrews, Heaney doesn’t go far enough: ‘Heaney’s art is fundamentally an art of consciously and carefully cultivated non-engagement’. However, surely in ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ (1966) and ‘Bogland’ (1969), he clearly steps up to the plate and is unashamedly ‘tribal’.
In these poems, Heaney steps off the fence and he takes sides. For him, Bogland is synonymous with Ireland – just as many of the surrounding countries are also named, such as Iceland, England, Greenland, etc. Indeed, other countries can have their uplands, and Lowlands and Highlands so why can’t we have our Boglands? Because of his upbringing in rural Ulster, he is only too aware of the pejorative terms used to describe Irishmen such as ‘bogger’ or ‘bogman’. That is why in this poem he embraces the bog and all its cultural nuances and he is proud to be associated with the bog and all that it represents for him. He is aware that in Ireland’s recent colonial past the Irish were for centuries oppressed and confined to the bogs and uplands. These boglands and uplands were also, therefore, the centres of resistance and traditionally the bogs were used as hiding places for weapons and bodies and where the Irish rebels, the Croppies, the pikemen of ’98, looked out like the snipe, the grouse and the pheasant, all the hunted, the marginalised, and all were fair game.
So here in Door into the Dark, Heaney is going deeper than he has already; in hurling parlance, he is ‘lowering the blade’. He uses the first line from the poem ‘The Forge’ as the title for the overall collection of poems. This sonnet celebrates the simple, everyday hard work of the local blacksmith, Barney Devlin, who daily undertakes the strenuous task of turning the rough metals into fine works of art and everyday utensils for the local farming community. Barney’s ‘anvil’ is turned into an ‘altar’ which is set ‘somewhere in the centre’, ‘horned as a unicorn’. Here Heaney touches upon God’s work, the artist’s work and a blacksmith’s work and weaves them together as in a garland. The sonnet is an analogy for the creative, poetic impulses which are gestating beneath the surface in Heaney’s subconscious.
One of Heaney’s famous poems in this second anthology is ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ which deals directly with an historical event of war and violence. The terrible battle of ‘Vinegar Hill’ (1798), fought between Irish rebels and the English colonial rulers is the subject of the poem. One major achievement of the poem is that it craftily conjoins the centuries of Irish violence and political struggle and achieves an organic, indeed germinal resolution: ‘And in August the barley grew up out of the grave’. Heaney himself gives an elaborate account of the composition of the poem, its historical and political relevance:
“[It] was written in 1966 when most poets in Ireland were straining to celebrate the anniversary of the 1916 Rising …… The poem was born of and ended with an image of resurrection based on the fact that sometime after the rebels were buried in common graves, these graves began to sprout with young barley, growing up with the barleycorn that the ‘ croppies’ had carried in their pockets to eat while on the march. The oblique implication was that the seeds of violent resistance sowed in the year of Liberty had flowered in what Yeats called ‘the right rose tree’ of 1916. I did not realize at the time that the original heraldic murderous encounter between protestant yeomen and Catholic rebel was to be initiated again in the summer of 1969, in Belfast, two months after the book was published” (Preoccupations, 56).
The poem’s patriotic fervour and humanitarian zeal are noticeable. The first person narrator is a rebel who has been killed and who hails their uprising as resurrection. The rebels may be killed, but the struggle for justice and liberty would continue. Although on many occasions he is accused of remaining passive and detached from the cause of Irish independence, this poem is a fitting reply to this unjust criticism of Heaney.
In ‘Bogland’ Heaney reverses his approach and method of presentation. He gives up monologue and refuses to refer to any particular historical-political event. Instead, he takes recourse to symbol, metaphor, allegory and myth. ‘Bogland’ stands as a metaphor for Ireland. The poet speaks of a voyage ‘inwards’, and ‘downwards’. This journey throws up many possibilities. The foremost, of course, is the journey back to the primordial Irish past, its folk history and myth. The psychic residue or the racial memory of a great people is excavated through the inward journey of the poet. This inward journey may also suggest a spiritual exploration of a plundered nation. It is noteworthy that the poet uses the plural term for the great journey ‘inwards’ and ‘downwards’. Through the extended allegory of ‘bogland’, the poet simultaneously lays bare the greatness and beauty as well as the suffering and agony of his motherland.
It is obvious that the poet has reflected deeply on the notion of bogs and he uses memorable images such as the Great Elk and bog’s ‘black butter’ to capture (or recapture) his own childish sense of wonder. This is akin to the elation the poet feels when he excavates a poem from the bog of memory. The bog is generous in that it preserves and returns the past to us, in the form of ordinary, domestic gifts:
Butter sunk under
More than a hundred years
Was recovered salty and white.
The bog with its watery element is soft and accommodating:
The ground itself is kind, black butter
Melting and opening underfoot.
‘Bogland’ is, therefore, a seminal poem in which Heaney opens himself up to new possibilities, and he delves deeper into the bog of autobiography and history. The bog contains the history of the island:
Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
Therefore, in this way, the bog acts as the memory of the Irish race. To dig the bog, by ‘striking inwards and downwards’, is to search into the bottomless centre of Irish history. Although not stated explicitly here (as he does in ‘Digging’, for example), it is clear that the action of digging the bog is seized on by the poet as a symbol of his work as a poet. The landscape of the poem, therefore, is both the natural landscape of Ireland but also a cultural/visionary landscape. ‘Bogland’ is a poem that is poised between the literal and the symbolic and the reader must constantly shift between the literal and metaphorical reading of the text.
The bog, as a symbol of Irish history, allows Heaney, in future poems, to speak about the Troubles in Northern Ireland (1969 – 1998). One of the insights gained in this poem, and developed in his third collection, Wintering Out (1972) in the poem ‘Tollund Man’, is that the soil of Ireland contains its past, including all the spilt blood and the broken bones and bodies of ‘The Disappeared’ and all the other remnants of its violent history. In both ‘Bogland’ and ‘The Tollund Man’ Heaney, like the ‘pioneers’ who keep ‘striking / Inwards and downwards’, prompts us to think across thousands of years. ‘Bogland’ speaks of how our ancestors’ lives are recorded and contained within the bog. ‘The Tollund Man’, though it also speaks of a bog find, is a more complex poem in that it compares and contrasts a violent death that took place two thousand years ago in Jutland to the violent deaths which occurred almost daily in Northern Ireland from 1969 until the signing of the Belfast Agreement on Good Friday in 1998. The Danes weren’t the only ones to bury their dead in the bog – there were numerous victims of violence ‘disappeared’ during ‘The Troubles’ and buried in remote, windswept locations on this island also. Heaney himself has said that he has searched for ‘images and symbols adequate to our predicament’. And despite what some of his critics say, he never shirks or avoids the savage reality of violence: in ‘The Tollund Man’ he writes with stark realism of how the mutilated bodies of four young brothers were dragged along the train tracks, their skin and teeth flecking the railway sleepers.
I suppose it is fitting for a poem written in the late ’60s in Ireland that there is no sense of closure in ‘Bogland’. In describing the ground of the bog as bottomless, the poem is also describing itself and the endless possibilities of the bog as a symbol. ‘Bogland’ seems to suggest that poems are found having lain hidden in the subconscious of the poet, awaiting discovery. In his own words, Heaney states:
‘I have listened for poems, they come sometimes like bodies out of the bog, almost complete, seeming to have been laid down a long time ago, surfacing with a touch of mystery’ (Preoccupations, 34).
‘Bogland’ sees a more confident and spare style emerge and the nine phrases in the poem open and meld into one another, in imitation of the yielding ground of the bog. The epiphany to be taken from the poem is that there is no bottom to the well of imagination; there is no end to the exploration of the past. The poem is delivered with a new air of assurance and confidence. Heaney, like James Joyce in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is now finally ready and prepared to speak, with no hint of self-consciousness, on behalf of his race – ‘We have no prairies’, ‘Our unfenced country’, ‘Our pioneers keep striking’…..
Therefore, this is a groundbreaking poem which lays down deeper nuances to the original ideas first expressed in ‘Digging’ and other poems. Heaney identifies with the bog – he takes on board the implied insult that he is ‘a bogman’ and he owns it! The bog, with all its implications, becomes a kind of subconscious racial memory for him, providing him with inspiration for his poetry.
 Andrews, Elmer (ed). The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: Essays, Articles, Reviews. Columbia University Press (Icon Books Limited), 1998.
Seamus Heaney talks about why he wrote the ‘bog’ poems.
Andrews, Elmer (ed). The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: Essays, Articles, Reviews. Columbia University Press (Icon Books Limited), 1998.
“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’ – 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.
 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’.
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.
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’ 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 TheLife 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.
Hardy, Thomas. TheLife 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.
My overall analysis of the poetry of Thomas Hardy can be accessed here
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.
Eliot, T.S., “The Pensées of Pascal”, Selected Essays (3rd Edition), London: Faber and Faber, 1951.