‘My November Guest’ by Robert Frost

My November Guest (2)

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,

Thinks these dark days of autumn rain

Are beautiful as days can be;

She loves the bare, the withered tree;

She walks the sodden pasture lane.

 

Her pleasure will not let me stay.

She talks and I am fain to list:

She’s glad the birds are gone away,

She’s glad her simple worsted grey

Is silver now with clinging mist.

 

The desolate, deserted trees,

The faded earth, the heavy sky,

The beauties she so truly sees,

She thinks I have no eye for these,

And vexes me for reason why.

 

Not yesterday I learned to know

The love of bare November days

Before the coming of the snow,

But it were vain to tell her so,

And they are better for her praise.

Commentary

This poem, “My November Guest”,  is taken from A Boy’s Will, the first published volume of Frost’s poetry (1913). This is among the best of Robert Frost’s poems where he speaks of the Fall in rural New Hampshire.

The poet at some point of time must have experienced extreme pain and sorrow in the month of November. There is an air of familiarity created by the poet and he and his guest have walked and talked along the ‘sodden pasture lane’.   Sorrow is personified as a woman – a friend, companion, and she is considered a regular visitor and ‘a guest’ in the poem.  He is very comfortable in her company and doesn’t wish to be separated from her – ‘She talks and I am fain to list’.  She is dressed for the weather – that time of year in New England before the first snows of winter – wearing ‘simple worsted grey’.

As the poem commences, Sorrow is personified as a woman and someone whom the poet dearly loves.  In the very first line, “My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,” marks the peak of the poet’s togetherness with sorrow.

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;

Walking with the poet, she (Sorrow) speaks of the beautiful Autumn days, finds ecstasy in the withered trees, and the autumnal browns! Fall is a season marked with desolate earth, deserted trees, the sodden pasture lane and the departure of the birds. The poet’s Sorrow finds beauty in the Autumn days. She reprimands the poet for not being able to experience the joy in Autumn and asks for an explanation. The phrase “Simple worsted grey is silver now with clinging mist” reflects the mood of the poem, the coexistence of joy and sorrow.

Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise

In the first three stanzas the poet is forced to listen to his ‘guest’ extol the virtues of Autumn, ‘the dark days of autumn rain’ and she seems convinced that he has ‘no eye for’ the beauty that surrounds him at this time of year.  Those of us familiar with the poetry of Frost know this to be false and we know that he does appreciate these beauties.  However, the constant repetition of ‘She’ creates a sense of easy familiarity with his guest, ‘She walks’, ‘She talks’, ‘She thinks, ‘She’s glad’ and, therefore,  out of respect or deference, he doesn’t make any effort to correct his companion, for ‘they are better for her praise’.  In actual fact, it was not just yesterday that he discovered this fact, he has known it for many a long day:

Not yesterday I learned to know

The love of bare November days

The poem is lucid, characterized by a tone which is musical – is written in iambic tetrameter. The poem expresses the poet’s love for November days in an extremely original way. The poet seems to happily embrace the November Guest (Sorrow) and seems to enjoy her company.  The pictorial imagery in the poem is easy, vivid, simple, and rich.

The intriguing question here is, of course, who, if anyone, is being referred to when he speaks of ‘My Sorrow’?   Maybe ‘Sorrow’ represents someone close to him, his wife perhaps, who despite her closeness to him fails to recognise that he too finds November beautiful.  In a famous letter written by Frost in 1939 to his daughter, Lesley, he refers to a letter written by his wife Elinor to their children:

“My, my, what sorrow runs through all she wrote to you children.  No wonder something of it overcasts my poetry if read aright.  No matter how humorous I am, I am sad.  I am a jester about sorrow.  She coloured my thinking from the first just as at the last she troubled my politics.  It was no loss but a gain of course.  She was not as original as me in thought but she dominated my art with the power of her character and nature” (Latham : 397-8).

If we are to assume – and this is dangerous ground – that the speaker is Frost himself then we can sieve through biographical details for clues as to the identity of this Sorrow.  Any such survey, however, will show that Frost’s personal life was plagued by grief and sorrow and loss.  By the time this poem was published in 1913 Frost had buried two of his children: his son Elliot died of cholera in 1900 aged four and his daughter Elinor Bettina died just three days after her birth in 1907.  His mother who had cancer had also passed away – co-incidentally in November 1900!  Maybe it is one of these losses that caused Frost such sorrow?

However, Frost’s life, even after the publication of A Boy’s Will in 1913, continued to be plagued with sorrow and heartache. In 1920, he had to commit his younger sister Jeanie to a mental hospital, where she died nine years later. Mental illness apparently ran in Frost’s family, as both he and his mother suffered from depression, and his daughter Irma was committed to a mental hospital in 1947. Frost’s wife, Elinor, also experienced bouts of depression.   She also suffered from heart problems throughout her life.  She developed breast cancer in 1937 and eventually died of heart failure in 1938.  His son Carol, born in 1902, committed suicide in 1940.

In my view, it is highly unlikely that any of these tragic biographical events formed the basis for this poem – although the loss of his mother in November 1900 may indeed have been a catalyst.  While this literary detective work may have some foundation, I am more inclined to believe that the ‘Sorrow’ in question here may be simply a melancholic mood that comes over the poet during the long month of November, a sense of resignation that Winter is at last upon him.  He tells us that Sorrow’s visit is only a temporary visitation and that it is hugely influenced by the bleakness of nature and the greyness of the weather.  However, the poet owns this blue mood that comes over him during November.  He says it’s ‘My Sorrow’ and it has come to visit annually during November. Indeed, November and Thanksgiving are synonymous and Frost sees the bright side here:  Sorrow teaches him how to appreciate Nature at this time of the year and he is a willing student.

The poem is living proof of that old saying, ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ and that at this time of year these ‘dark days’ hold their own beauty: ‘the withered tree’, ‘the sodden pasture’, ‘the clinging mist’ evoke a powerful and distinctive feeling or emotional memory in the poet.  Even his ‘Guest’ chides him that he cannot see that even in November every cloud has a silver lining!

Frost’s world, the world we perceive in his poetry, is largely a rural world, a world of nature and trees, and soil, and pasture.  His poetry, like that of Kavanagh, Heaney, and others, recreates a local and familiar landscape in which Frost, as a poet and as a person, is in communion.  We sense that he knows nature’s spaces.  We believe that his is a voice of integrity that invites us into fields and pastures and along the brooks of New England.  And we occasionally feel that along the way, we may even discover something of Frost himself.

Works Cited

Latham, Edward, ed., Robert Frost: A Biography, New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1981.

Wikipedia page on Robert Frost

 “My November Guest”,  is taken from A Boy’s Will, the first published volume of Frost’s poetry (1913).  Here it is read by the poet himself.

FURTHER READING:

For a more detailed analysis of Robert Frost’s poetry see here

For commentary on ‘Spring Pool’ by Robert Frost check here

For commentary on ‘A Tuft of Flowers’ by Robert Frost check here

Check out some reflections on Robert Frost’s ‘The Road not Taken’ here

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To Kill a Mockingbird – Characters, Themes, and Motifs

 

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To Kill a Mockingbird is a modern reinterpretation of the old fable The Emperor Has No Clothes.  We are given a glimpse of modern American society through the eyes of a seven-year-old girl called Scout.  Even she can see the injustice and yet the adults fail to see the criminal miscarriage of justice and toxic levels of racial prejudice that lie at the heart of the novel.

The novel is a classic bildungsroman where Scout, the central character and narrator, is taken from a state of innocence and brought to a state of enlightenment as a result of a series of misadventures that are recounted in the novel.  A classic bildungsroman forces the young character at its heart to grow up and face harsh adult realities long before he or she should normally have to cope with life’s harsh lessons.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is, therefore, a novel that deceives the reader with its apparent simplicity.  Beneath the surface, however, there exist a number of complex and very important themes and motifs.  Rather than its being simply a novel that explores and exploits the topic of racial prejudice in a small town in the Deep South, it makes Maycomb, Alabama, a microcosm of American society in the 1930’s.

I want to focus for a little while on the setting of both of Harper Lee’s novels, To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman.  It is clear to me that the real-life Monroeville, Alabama of her youth becomes the fictional Maycomb, Alabama of her novels.  She tells us that one went to Maycomb, ‘to have his teeth pulled, his wagon fixed, his heart listened to, his money deposited, his soul saved, his mules vetted’.  She describes it as an isolated place, in effect it is an Everyplace – the town, ‘had remained the same for a hundred years, an island in a patchwork sea of cotton fields and timberland’.  It is, in effect, a remote backwater bypassed by progress, the perfect playground of her youth, and the perfect cauldron for change.

In Go Set a Watchman she says that Maycomb County is, ‘a wilderness dotted with tiny settlements’, it is, ‘so cut off from the rest of the nation that some of its citizens, unaware of the South’s political predilection over the past ninety years, still voted Republican.’  It is so remote, ‘no trains went there’.  In fact Maycomb Junction, ‘a courtesy title’, was located in Abbott County twenty miles away!  However, she tells us that the ‘bus service was erratic and seemed to go nowhere, but the Federal Government  had forced a highway or two through the swamps, thus giving the citizens an opportunity for free egress.’  However, Lee tells us that few took advantage of this opportunity!  Then in one of those Harper Lee epiphany moments, one of those lightning bolts she releases now and then, she perceptively describes her hometown as a place where, ‘If you did not want much, there was plenty.’

In To Kill a Mockingbird she continues in the same rich vein.  Maycomb is, ‘a tired old town’. People moved slowly, ‘they ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything’.  She tells us that, ‘There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County’.

To Kill a Mockingbird is dominated by two very contrasting characters and our first task is to explore in some detail the part played by Scout and Atticus in conveying the difficult and often divisive subject matter to the reader.

SCOUT

Scout is the narrator of the story, and the impressions we get of all the other characters must, therefore, be filtered through her point of view.  All the activities and opinions in the novel are expressed through the mind of this innocent child who does not always understand the significance of the events she is narrating and, as a result, much of the comedy in the book comes from her misunderstandings.  Typical of the central character in a bildungsroman novel Scout changes and matures and gains greater insight as the novel progresses and she learns – as do her readers, young and old – a great deal from her experiences.

She is a very open-minded and clever girl who accepts the people around her at face value.  For example, she is able to go to Calpurnia’s church without making any social distinctions.  Furthermore, she accepts people like the Cunninghams and the Ewells as equal, but during the course of the novel, she learns to make a distinction between these two groups of people.  Ironically, the distinctions that she has to learn involve the differences between different types of whites such as the Cunninghams and the Ewells, and do not involve any judgements about the Negro race.  Eventually, however, she learns not only about the complex white social relationships, but she also learns about the prejudices harboured by the white man for the Negro.

Throughout the novel, we watch Scout as a character change from a belligerent young girl who is always ready to fight her corner to a person with a certain degree of understanding for those around her.  For example, at the beginning of the novel she is willing to play any type of prank on Boo Radley, but by novel’s end she walks him back to his house and she realises that things look the same from Boo Radley’s porch as they do from hers.  She also has the insight to see that Sheriff Heck Tate is right in not charging Boo with the murder of Bob Ewell.  In her view, it would be like killing a mockingbird and at that stage in the novel, one dead mockingbird (Tom Robinson) is enough.  This is one of the many valuable lessons learned by Scout in the course of the novel.

Scout is a very clever girl and she can read and write before she goes to school.  She tends to react emotionally to events, ready to fight first and think later.  As the novel opens she accepts people as they appear on the surface, but later she learns that society is complex and that people can be very prejudiced.  Her own upbringing and personality give her an appreciation of justice, but Tom Robinson’s trial shows her that others are not so fair-minded.  The self-control she has to exercise at this time helps her to mature.  She feels that she would be letting her father down if she were to lose her temper.

She is naturally warm and friendly.  She wants to visit Calpurnia in her home, she rushes in to talk to Mr. Cunningham outside the jail and tries to be polite and put him at his ease even though he is part of a mob.  She can be very sensitive to other people’s feelings.  She feels guilty about the games the children played on Boo Radley and she takes great care to treat Boo with courtesy and dignity when they finally meet.  Because she is a girl, Scout is expected to behave in a way that she finds constricting.  She is more comfortable in her overalls than in a pretty dress, but as she matures she learns that it can take courage to be a real lady.  This is brought home to her at Aunt Alexandra’s tea party on the day of Tom Robinson’s death.

At novel’s end, we see just how sensitive to other people Scout has become.  She realises that Boo Radley is a shy man and that to draw any more unwelcome attention to him would be like killing a mockingbird.  She has also learned how to see things from another person’s point of view.

ATTICUS

Atticus Finch represents the rational man in a world of highly emotional people.  Atticus is a stable and mature figure who is able to cope with the unreasonable and highly emotional element of the town.  He can handle the prejudiced white people and still deal justly with the underprivileged Negro population.  He is one of the few people in Maycomb who understands the individual worth of a person regardless of the color of their skin.  He is able to defend Tom Robinson solely on the basis of justice and does not allow the colour of Tom’s skin to prejudice him against Tom’s case.

It is necessary to have a man with a high and ideal view of justice defending Tom Robinson because even Atticus knows that the case is hopelessly lost before it begins.  He is wise enough to know that the prejudices of the Deep South will never allow justice to be done, but at the same time, he is determined that the truth will be told so that those who convict Tom will be aware that they are convicting an innocent man.

Atticus is also Harper Lee’s spokesman of the moral philosophy of the novel.  He teaches his children that they must learn to be compassionate and understanding of the problems and conditions of life faced by other people.  He frequently advises Scout that she must be able to step into the shoes of others such as the Ewells, Boo Radley, and the Cunninghams.  Consequently, he will not allow the children to torment Boo Radley and wants Scout to try to see things from Boo’s point of view.

Atticus’ relationship with his children is very important in understanding his character.  He has an outstanding rapport with his children because he treats them as mature adults and tries to explain to them how to meet the problems that are presented to them in an adult world.  All of Atticus’s relatives feel that he is bringing up his children incorrectly, and they challenge his methods of handling the children.  However, the incident with Uncle Jack illustrates that his methods are for the best.  Uncle Jack punishes Scout without listening to her side of the story, whereas Atticus always gives her the opportunity to explain her point of view.  As a parent, therefore, he is easy-going but wise, not worrying about petty things, but instead teaching his children important values.

He teaches them to be sensitive to other people like Mrs. Dubose and Boo Radley and above all to be able to step into other people’s shoes and see things from their point of view.  He teaches by example and his children learn kindness, tolerance, courage, self-control, and forgiveness from observing their father.  He listens to them, has patience with them and always tells them the truth.  They respond by loving and respecting him; they worry about him when he is tired or troubled and try their best not to cause him grief.

Therefore, Atticus is the voice of reason and justice in the novel whether he is dealing with the grim ingrained prejudices in Maycomb or whether he is trying to handle a minor problem of discipline with his own children.  He is portrayed by Harper Lee as a responsible citizen, a loving parent, and a true Christian.  He is a just man who deals fairly and sensitively with all people and he is completely lacking in prejudice.  His physical courage is seen when he shoots the rabid dog and also when he faces down the mob outside the jail, while his moral courage becomes obvious in his sincere defense of Tom Robinson, even when he knows he is unlikely to win the case.

He gives us his own powerful definition of courage: ‘It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what’.  He hopes that although they will not admit it, the people of Maycomb will realise that they are convicting an innocent man.  He is modest and never boasts about his talents and even his own children are unaware that he is an exceptional marksman until he is called upon by Sheriff Tate to shoot the rabid dog.  Scout also realises his bravery when she sees how he deals with Mrs. Dubose: ‘It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived’.

‘I do my best to love everybody’, Atticus tells Scout and Miss Maudie recognizes that he is a real Christian.  She says of him: ‘We’re so rarely called on to be Christians, but when we are, we’ve got men like Atticus to go for us’.  He treats all people with respect and as equals: Mrs. Dubose at her most contrary, young Walter Cunningham when he is a guest in the house, Mayella Ewell on the witness stand.  His kindness and consideration never fail and even in an emergency he is thoughtful; he remembers to rescue Miss Maudie’s favourite chair from the fire that engulfs her home.  His character is such that he may, with some justification, be considered the hero of the novel.

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MAJOR THEMES AND MOTIFS IN THE NOVEL

Several themes and motifs run through the novel and serve to underscore the basic reality of prejudice in both Maycomb and in the rest of America during the 1930’s.

THE MOCKINGBIRD MOTIF

(A motif is a recurring idea or thought that acts as a unifying device in a novel and sometimes develops as a commentary on characterisation or on the action of the novel).

The mockingbird motif, in this case, gives the novel its name.  It represents innocence in the novel and both Miss Maudie and Atticus feel that it would be a great sin to kill a mockingbird because this bird only sings a beautiful song and does not harm anyone.  When Atticus gives the children air rifles for their Christmas presents, he reminds them again that it would be dreadful to kill such an innocent bird:

“Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’

That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.

‘Your father’s right,’ she said.

This motif is also the device by which the two plot elements are unified in the novel by Harper Lee.  The first part of the novel is concerned with the Boo Radley mystery and the second part is concerned with the Tom Robinson trial.  Both of these characters can be viewed as being mockingbirds: both are harmless members of society and both are innocent people, yet in some way, both are persecuted by society.

Scout herself comes to realise that Boo Radley is a mockingbird figure because when he rescued her at the end of the novel, he was forced to kill Bob Ewell.  But to bring such a retiring and bashful man to trial would be just like killing a mockingbird.  It is also evident that Tom Robinson is a mockingbird figure because he is destroyed by his willingness to help Mayella Ewell.  His efforts to help her got him into trouble and finally cost him his life.

Ultimately, to kill a mockingbird is equated with performing a deliberately evil and mean act.  Atticus, at one point in the novel, thinks that there is nothing worse than a white man who will take advantage of a Negro.  Yet the entire town is partly responsible for Tom Robinson’s death, which must be viewed as a senseless act of injustice.

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THE GUN MOTIF

In a country which now sees a mass shooting on average every 60 days the time for gun control in the USA is long overdue  Many of the most notorious of these mass shootings have taken place in schools: we remember with sadness the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999 where 24 were killed; Virginia Tech in 2007 where 33 were killed; Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 where 28 were killed; and Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 where 17 were shot and killed.  Recently, churches and synagogues have been easy targets for depraved gunmen with their own myopic agendas and easy access to automatic weapons.  Harper Lee, writing in what many would consider less dangerous times in the late Fifties and early Sixties thought fit to raise the issue of guns in To Kill a Mockingbird.   In the novel, guns represent false strength. According to Atticus, guns do not prove manhood or bravery, rather they come from a man’s ability to persevere and fight using his wits, his heart, and his character.  Early in the novel, we learn that Atticus does not approve of guns.  He believes that guns do not make men brave and that the children’s fascination with guns is unfounded.

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 EDUCATION

In this novel, the process of education occurs both inside and outside the classroom.  It is not limited only to the education of Scout, for it affects both adults and other children in the story.  Harper Lee’s thesis is that it is education that separates the whites from the blacks, the Cunninghams from the Ewells, and it is education which further separates the Finches from the Cunninghams.  Education – and the lack of education – are responsible for creating and re-enforcing a sort of caste system in Maycomb, a caste system which decrees that black children don’t sit in the same classroom and receive the same education as white children do.

Early in the novel, and several times later in the story, the reader is taken into the classroom with Scout to view the school system in operation.  As Jem tells Scout, the new way of teaching which Miss Caroline is practicing is one which the entire school will use eventually, and is one in which ‘ you don’t hafta learn that much out of books that way’.

And while Miss Caroline is officially the teacher, there is great irony created when we realise that it is she who must actually learn the most during her first few days at school.  The learning-by-doing approach advocated by Miss Caroline has been practiced naturally by Scout and Jem since they were very young and they learned to read by simply observing their father and by reading along with him in the evenings.  Miss Caroline ironically criticises both Scout and her father, Atticus, as having done it all wrong! Yet Atticus’ method is the very same one that she presumes to espouse!

For the children, then, learning has come not from formal teachers such as Miss Caroline and Miss Gates, but through the common-sense wisdom of Atticus, Calpurnia and Aunt Alexandra.  These ‘teachers’ have presented the children with real experiences that over the course of the novel, shapes their beliefs, their opinions,, and actions.  Outside of the classroom, the children enact the very methods which the formal teachers attempt to impart.

Harper Lee does not appear to be criticising education so much as she is attacking those teachers who possess erroneous, rigid beliefs about human nature.  Miss Caroline presumes to teach others, yet she herself knows next-to-nothing about getting along with other people.  Rather than attempting to blend her teaching and her classroom philosophy to suit the young people of Maycomb, she tries to change the students to fit her perceptions.  She fails miserably in her encounters with Burris Ewell and Walter Cunningham and even though Scout does feel some pity for her she won’t offer her any comfort because there has been no friendliness offered in exchange.

Miss Gates teaches the children little about life.  Theoretically, she espouses a system of democracy yet she worries about the Negroes who seem to be trying to ‘get above themselves’, and in particular, she fears that they might start marrying whites!  She is keen to point out examples of racial prejudice in Hitler’s Germany yet fails to point out the obvious prejudice closer to home in Maycomb itself.

In essence, it is Atticus who personifies the attainment of true education, in contrast to the formal schooling offered to the children.  It is left to Scout to make the final assessment of formal education.  At the end of the novel, now in third grade, Scout says, ‘… I thought Jem and I would get grown but there wasn’t much else left for us to learn, except possibly algebra.’ !!!

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 STANDING IN ANOTHER PERSON’S SHOES – A NEW PERSPECTIVE

When Scout comes home after her first day at school she is determined never to return there, because it has been a disaster.  Atticus explains to her that she will get along much better in life if she learns to understand another person and to do this she must consider things from that person’s point of view.  He advises her to ‘climb into his skin and walk around in it’.

When Scout doesn’t understand Jem, Atticus encourages her to try to understand how he might be feeling.  Usually, Scout finds this advice helpful, and her attempts to gain insight into other people’s perspectives on life and the world broaden her moral education and understanding.

When Mrs. Dubose, the mean old woman who lives down the street from the Finch family yells insults at Jem and Scout on her way to town, Jem reacts by returning and cutting up all the flowers in her front yard.  His punishment is to read to Mrs. Dubose for a specific time period every day.  He complains to Atticus that she is an awful woman, but Atticus tells Jem and Scout to try to understand Mrs. Dubose’s point of view.  She is an old woman, very set in her ways, and she is entirely alone in the world.  Jem and Scout agree to visit her.  After her death, Atticus reveals that by reading to her each day, the children were helping her break her morphine addiction.  Atticus explains that she was fighting to regain control over her life even as she knew that she was dying.  Because of this, Atticus says that she is the bravest person he has ever known.  He explains this to the children to try to make them understand the terrible pain she was experiencing, and how their presence helped her to defeat her addiction.  Although she may have said some horrible things to them, Atticus encourages Jem and Scout to try to see the world from her perspective and to realise how brave and strong she was.

It is Atticus’s own ability to do this which makes him such a fair-minded, honourable man.  Even when he disagrees with them he can sympathise with other people’s feelings.  He knows how people like the Cunninghams feel, he understands Mrs. Dubose and her fight against morphine addiction and why Mayella Ewell acts as she does in accusing Tom Robinson of rape.  It is this sympathy for and empathy with other people that he tries to pass on to his children.  We know that he has been successful in doing so when we see Jem’s sensitive nature and also at the end of the novel when Scout stays for a moment on the Radley porch and stands as it were in Boo Radley’s shoes, we know that she too has absorbed Atticus’s and Harper Lee’s message.

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 ‘THE HELL PEOPLE GIVE EACH OTHER’

When Mr. Dolphus Raymond talks to Scout and Dill outside the courthouse during Tom Robinson’s trial, he understands why Dill is upset.  He talks about, ‘the simple hell people give other people – without even thinking.  Cry about the hell white people give coloured folks, without even stopping to think that they’re people too’.  By this, he means the cruelty people inflict on each other in their racial, social and family relations.

Racial prejudice is very clearly depicted in the novel.  Black people are discriminated against in Maycomb.  They are not treated as equals by the white community and even in a law court, they cannot expect to receive justice.  The trial of Tom Robinson illustrates this very clearly.  The teacher, Miss Gates, who is very much aware of racial prejudice in other countries, like Germany, is prejudiced herself towards black people.  Scout hears her outside the court during the Tom Robinson trial saying that she thought it was, ‘time somebody taught them a lesson, they thought they were getting way above themselves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us’.  Scout can see straight away that this statement is in clear conflict with her teaching (about Germany) in her classroom.

There are also many examples of social snobbery among Maycomb people.  Aunt Alexandra is very conscious of family backgrounds and she will not allow Scout to invite young Walter Cunningham to the house because she does not consider him to be from the proper social background.  It is also snobbery that is responsible for the Radleys’ refusal to allow their son, Arthur, to be punished in the same way as the other boys when he gets into trouble with the law as a teenager.

The novel shows us that even families can be extremely cruel places to survive.  The Radley family treat Arthur with great cruelty by keeping him locked up for fifteen years because of a minor misdemeanour he committed as a boy.  Dill’s mother and stepfather neglect him and leave him to the care of his Aunt Rachel who is a secret drinker.  The Ewell children live in squalid circumstances while their father spends his welfare money on drink.  The Ewell children are not sent to school and Mayella, the eldest girl who tries to look after the younger children is abused by her father.  This is probably the most poignant moment in the trial when we are given a horrific image of what goes on inside the Ewell family compound.  This is just one of the masterful storytelling devices used by Harper Lee. In these days when stories of sexual abuse are everywhere in our media, how salutary to come across the true barbarity of it here, revealed in one tiny phrase: ‘she never kissed a grown man before an’s she might as well kiss a nigger.  She says what her papa do to her don’t count.’

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GROWING UP

As mentioned already, the novel To Kill a Mockingbird belongs to a genre of novel called Bildungsroman, or a ‘novel of maturation’.  In such a novel the central character is usually a very young person, and they are usually taken from a state of childhood innocence and brought to a state of experience and enlightenment as a result of a series of misadventures which are recounted in the novel.  He or she should, thus, be ready for adulthood.  In this novel, which covers a period of three years, Scout develops from a state of childish innocence to a state of maturity.

Early in the novel, she learns the meaning of real courage as she witnesses Mrs. Dubose’s struggle to overcome her addiction to morphine.  She also learns to appreciate her father’s physical courage and skill as he saves the town from a mad dog by killing it with one shot.  Up to then she and Jem had looked on Atticus as a feeble, ageing man.

More important to her development is the moral courage her father displays in his fight for justice for Tom Robinson when the black man is accused of raping a white woman.  Most people are ready to condemn Tom because of his colour and race, but Atticus defies the majority opinion and makes every effort to see that justice is administered.  When he fails and Tom is wrongly convicted Scout has to learn that the law is not always fairly applied and that there is a great deal of prejudice in the society in which she lives.  Even her teacher, Miss Gates, who can find fault with people in other countries for being racially prejudiced, shows by her remarks outside the courthouse that she does not recognise prejudice in her own town.  As she matures Scout learns to control her emotions and to act more sensitively to other people.  At the beginning of the story, she is afraid of Boo Radley and she believes all sorts of nonsensical tales about him.  She takes part in schemes to make him ‘come out’ of his house and plays games that make fun of him.  Later she comes to see him as a real person, who not only gives her presents but who also saves both her life and Jem’s.  She even learns to stand in Boo Radley’s shoes and see the world from his point of view.

By novel’s end, she realises that it is like shooting a mockingbird to harm a person who is harmless, that it is possible to understand another person if you see things from his point of view and that ‘nothin’s real scary except in books’.

******

I mentioned at the very beginning that To Kill a Mockingbird could be considered as a modern re-imagining of the old fable The Emperor Has No Clothes.   The reason I said this is that the novel masterfully exposes the grim reality of what first appears as a sleepy old southern town.  By novel’s end Harper Lee, mainly through her precocious young narrator, reveals the true nature of the place:  she presents us with a classic tragedy of injustice, prejudice and man’s inhumanity to man.  But it is told to us matter-of-factly by a mere child, ignorant of what rape is, and in whom the ingrained teaching of an upbringing in Alabama in the 1930s has left a belief that black people are only slightly superior to farm animals.  Our greatest fear, as readers, is that Scout and Jem will feel quite differently about these subjects when they eventually grow up!!!

 

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The full list of Junior Cycle English Texts for Second and Third Year is available here

Commentary on ‘A Tuft of Flowers’ by Robert Frost

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Tuft of Flowers by Ken Fiery

The Tuft of Flowers

       

         By Robert Frost

I went to turn the grass once after one

Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

 

The dew was gone that made his blade so keen

Before I came to view the levelled scene.

 

I looked for him behind an isle of trees;

I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

 

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

And I must be, as he had been,—alone,

 

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

‘Whether they work together or apart.’

 

But as I said it, swift there passed me by

On noiseless wing a ‘wildered butterfly,

 

Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night

Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.

 

And once I marked his flight go round and round,

As where some flower lay withering on the ground.

 

And then he flew as far as eye could see,

And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

 

I thought of questions that have no reply,

And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;

 

But he turned first, and led my eye to look

At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

 

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared

Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

 

I left my place to know them by their name,

Finding them butterfly weed when I came.

 

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,

By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

 

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.

But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

 

The butterfly and I had lit upon,

Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,

 

That made me hear the wakening birds around,

And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,

 

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;

So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

 

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

And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

 

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech

With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

 

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

‘Whether they work together or apart.’

Commentary:

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

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

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

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared

Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

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

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;

So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

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

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

‘Whether they work together or apart.’

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

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Analysis of ‘Spring Pools’ by Robert Frost

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Spring Pools

By Robert Frost

 

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

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

Analysis:  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,

Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,

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

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

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

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

Check out my overview of Robert Frost’s poetry here

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Stoner by John Williams – A Belated Review

 

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Better late than never I suppose!  But then it seems I’m in good company!  My son suggested Stoner as part of my required reading on a recent week of rest and relaxation, good food and daily rambles by the sea.  His only comments were that it was achingly sad and that it came with a glowing imprimatur from John McGahern.  He was right – it is a stunning page-turner of a book, depicting the life, and indeed the death, of William Stoner, who lived his life in the quad and in the rooms and classrooms adjacent to Jesse Hall in Columbia University, Missouri.  Stoner’s time at the fledgling University, as student and as instructor and finally professor, spans a half century from 1914 and the outbreak of the Great War until the mid-nineteen fifties when another war, the Korean War, threatens to thin the ranks in Columbia’s hallowed halls for a third time in the one century.

John Williams’ novel is a deceptive masterpiece of writing – he manages by inference and sustained inner dialogue and by being confessional to evoke an era and to allow us close as he suffers the slings and arrows of a life which has been enriched by the study of literature.  His lack of confidence in his own ability as a teacher, his constant self-doubt and soul-searching in his own ability, struck a resonant chord with me – the hours of preparation, the repetition of courses, the grading of tests, the hours of mentoring and supervising post grads as they finalise their dissertations and theses, all necessary but removing him from his own specialisation, Renaissance Literature.

William Stoner is an unglamorous, hardworking academic who marries badly, is estranged from his child, toils manfully teaching sophomores and freshmen, year in year out, as his parents before him toiled in the arid, unproductive soil of their Missouri farmholding. Then he dies and is forgotten: a failure, an anti-hero.

A feature of the novel for me was the seamless continuity, the effortless move from one life period to the next as the story unfolds. We pass from Great War to The Roaring Twenties to the Wall Street Crash to Depression to World War as the backdrop to a humdrum life lived well.  Stoner’s life is ordinary, he doesn’t achieve a great deal, nor is he remembered often by his students or colleagues. Stoner isn’t a novel about a man achieving great heights or altering the world, it’s far more personal than that. The novel examines the quiet moments of a person’s life, their small victories and crushing defeats. A life may seem unremarkable on paper, but look a little closer and you will always find hidden depths. John Williams is, in effect, exploring the concept of heroism in twentieth century America.

As we read we find ourselves, then, to use Heaney’s phrase, ‘gleaning the unsaid off the palpable’ as the story unfolds, or to use Stoner’s phrase, we become aware of, “the epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words.” I can only vouch for the fact that there are moments in its reading when the hairs on the nape of my neck stood on edge and I was transported to glimpse eternity through the darkening view from an office window on a winter’s evening as the shades of night come down.

 The novel’s values seem old-fashioned, and William Stoner is cocooned within the university milieu, cloistered would probably be a better description.  He finds his calling and labours conscientiously with little acclaim or recognition.  There are echoes of C.S. Lewis’s work in Oxford here and I also find echoes of Steinbeck and Salinger in John Williams’s depiction of a world view which no longer exists but is attractive for its simplicity and old world charm.

At times in my reading, I was left with the nagging suspicion that the novel is autobiographical and depicts and mirrors Williams’s own academic odyssey. I don’t know enough about John Williams’s life to support or refute this theory but if true his wife, his ‘Edith’, must be glad that the novel has remained obscure and neglected!  It definitely is a paean to his idea of a university and he extols the virtues of university life, a life sharply juxtaposed with the shortcomings and periodic savagery of the world outside the hallowed halls. I am also reminded of Heaney’s beautiful ‘Villanelle for an Anniversary’, commissioned for the three-hundredth anniversary of Harvard University, which evokes the pioneering work of the founder of that great university:

A spirit moved. John Harvard walked the yard,

The atom lay unsplit, the west unwon,

The books stood open and the gates unbarred.

The novel is a kind of masterclass in creative writing.  At times it is subtle and at other times – in its structure, for example – it can be almost brutal, cruelly juxtaposing characters, indeed at times tending to caricature rather than characterise.   For me, the craftsmanship is reminiscent of George Eliot or Dickens.  The juxtaposition of the two women in Willaim Stoner’s life is a very good example of this.  There are no shades of grey here!  Edith and Katherine Driscoll are cruelly juxtaposed as in a melodrama. Edith, has been raised in an emotional vacuum, taught only useless ornamental skills, sheltered as wholly as possible from reality, and “her moral training … was negative in nature, prohibitive in intent, and almost entirely sexual” – effectively cultivated to become a brittle, conniving hysteric. Also, to add to the unsubtlety of the novel’s structure, two of Stoner’s antagonists are disfigured and maimed: Hollis Lomax, Stoner’s bête noir and academic adversary and Lomax’s protégé, Charles Walker.

Stoner isn’t an easy read – not because it’s dense or abstruse but because, as I’ve mentioned earlier, it’s so painful and achingly sad. In a vengeful act, Stoner’s wife, Edith, undertakes a deliberate campaign to separate him from his daughter, the one person he truly loves. Later on, after his daughter has been lost to him, Stoner finds real love again with a young student, Katherine Driscoll, his intellectual equal – and once again an enemy, seeing his happiness, sets out to take it from him. At the university, his superior, Hollis Lomax, contrives to make his teaching life a hell, a horrendous endurance test, a battle of wills.  Williams contrives to forcibly deprive his hero of happiness in his marriage, his daughter, his lover, even his vocation. Here again, there are echoes of Silas Marner and it all feels grindingly inevitable, like the notion of the gods in Tennyson’s ‘Lotus Eaters’ or a Greek tragedy.

Part of the novel’s greatness is that it sees life whole and as it is, without delusion yet without despair. The confessional inner dialogue is sustained and Stoner realises at the last that he found what he sought at the university not in books but in his love and study of them. His life has not been in vain, he has had a Pauline conversion and has discovered the joys of literature and he has also loved and lost in his relationships with his parents, his wife, Edith, his daughter, Grace, and his lover, Katherine. The book’s conclusion, such as it is, is that there is nothing better in this life. The line, “It hardly mattered to him that the book was forgotten and served no use; and the question of its worth at any time seemed almost trivial,” in reference to his own published text on Renaissance Literature, could be seen as the novel’s own epitaph. As he slips quietly towards oblivion he gives us one of the most beautiful sentences in the novel, as his book falls from lifeless fingers into silence:

“The fingers loosened, and the book they had held moved slowly and then swiftly across his still body and fell into the silence of the room.”

 Every word is perfect.

**************

After finishing Stoner, my son thrust the Vintage copy into my hands and told me I just had to read it straight away.  Now, days later having finished it myself, I sit here at my laptop desperately trying to find the right words to describe how John Williams’ novel Stoner has affected me.  I’m speechless, I’m in awe,  I’m wide awake, and all I know for sure is that my head is buzzing way too much for me to get to sleep.

Stoner-Quote

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

The many wives

Who lead hens’ lives

Of being courted and despised;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the morning

A low light is floating

In the backyard and gilding

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

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

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Works Cited:

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

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

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

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

Commentary on ‘Sandpiper’ by Elizabeth Bishop

Sandpiper

 

By Elizabeth Bishop

The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
And that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
In a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
Of interrupting water comes and goes

And glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

– Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
Where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
Rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
He stares at the dragging grains.

The world is a mist. And then the world is
Minute and vast and clear. The tide
Is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.

His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

Looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
Mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

A “music video” treatment of the Elizabeth Bishop poem, “Sandpiper” produced by Pink Dog Productions

Commentary: This exquisitely constructed poem sees the poet compare herself in an extended analogy to the lowly sandpiper. The poem is inspired by observations made on a return visit to Nova Scotia in 1965 and in it she personifies the bird, giving it human characteristics and eccentricities.  She tells us that ‘he’ is ‘a student of Blake’, referring to the great English poet and painter, William Blake, who famously celebrated seeing ‘a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower’ in his poem, ‘Auguries of Innocence’, which, by the way, is a poem from one of his notebooks now known as The Pickering Manuscript.

We sense the continuous, nervous movement of the bird as ‘he runs to the south’, searching, exploring, discovering.  The bird is ‘finical’ or finicky and ‘awkward’ as it ceaselessly searches for the perfect grain, the discarded morsel.  The movement ‘south’ in turn mimics Bishop’s own migration south from Nova Scotia to Boston to Key West and later further south to Rio de Janeiro and Brazil.

Colm Tóibín in his effortlessly scholarly work, On Elizabeth Bishop, mentions that the ‘search for pure accuracy in her poems forced Bishop to watch the world helplessly, as though there was nothing she could do’.  She shares this trait with many other poets and artists.  This debilitating feature is also evident in Hemingway and Hopkins, this ceaseless search for the perfect word or phrase, and also features and is dramatised in the content and unique structure of Emily Dickinson’s poems with her use of dashes and capitalisation and other structural tricks to highlight the honing and triple distillation of each poem.  It also reminds me of something my son wrote very honestly  in one of his blogs, writing about his own writing process and that famous Irishman, Jack O’Metty!:

I’m the type of person who makes casual reference to Alberto Giacometti in everyday conversations. I have a vivid childhood memory of watching a Euronews cultural vignette which outlined the great sculptor’s methods: starting from a large scale he would pare down and reduce his sculptural figures until almost nothing remained save only the most minimal of features which could be said to represent man.  Giacometti’s problem was knowing when to stop before his clay figures, once larger than himself, disappeared to nothingness.  I use this as a metaphor for my own critical thought.  I consider and consider and pare and reduce until sometimes nothing remains. The trick is to create some academic content before this happens. I don’t always succeed. https://nicholasstreet.wordpress.com.

Many of the places she visited (Nova Scotia, the Straits of Magellan, the Amazon Estuary, Key West, Florida) stand at the boundary between land and sea and this tension between land and sea is very evident here in ‘Sandpiper’ and also in such poems as   ‘At the Fishhouses’, ‘Questions of Travel’ and ‘The Fish’, with the sea viewed as a strange, indifferent, encircling power.  In this poem, the sandpiper patrols that dividing line between sea and land and perhaps this is a metaphor for the conflict between the artist and life.

Bishop is fascinated by geographical extremities: straits, peninsulas, promontories, wharves, bights, mountains, jungle, outback, attracted to the near-isolation of these places.   Colm Tóibín makes the very astute observation that she, ‘made her homes on a single line of longitude, or close to one: Massachusetts, Nova Scotia, New York, Key West, Rio de Janeiro, Boston’.

In 1976, three years before she died, she wrote:

All my life I have lived and behaved very much like that sandpiper – just running along the edges of different countries ‘looking for something’.  I have always felt I couldn’t possibly live very far inland, away from the ocean; and I have always lived near it, frequently in sight of it …. timorously pecking for subsistence along coastlines of the world.

The second stanza opens with the domestic simile, ‘the beach hisses like fat’ and the caesura which follows is meant to demarcate the dividing line between left and right, sea and land, north and south.  A feature of her style is her continuous self-correction and search for exactness and greater precision in her description of the scene:

He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

– Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
Where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
Rapidly backwards and downwards.

This is immediately followed by another feature of her poetic work and craft: contradiction and deeper clarification of what has gone before:

The world is a mist. And then the world is
Minute and vast and clear. The tide
Is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.

The poem ends with the poet again personifying the bird and it is clear to us that if we but simply change the gender, she could be talking about herself and the poetic process, just as Heaney does so eloquently in such poems as ‘Digging’ and ‘The Forge’:

His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

Looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!

Perhaps we can say, ‘Poor bird, (s)he is obsessed!’ with the impossibility of the task which she has undertaken as a poet: It’s as if the sandpiper who has been looking for ‘something, something, something’ suddenly sees the drab beach (with its millions of differing grains of sand as opposed to Blake’s one grain) transformed into a dazzling bejewelled walkway glistening with diversity and riches,

The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
Mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

Bishop (7)

Works Cited:

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

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

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

Some Personal Thoughts on ‘The Road not Taken’ by Robert Frost

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The Road Not Taken

 

by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

‘The Road not Taken’ has always been a very popular poem and despite 21st Century developments such as Google Maps and iPhones and Sat Navs it still bears a relevance for the modern reader.  Then again not all journeys are easily mapped and some take place off-road!  This lyric poem, a first-person narrative tale, describes  a key moment in the poet’s life.  In the poem, the speaker, whom we can assume is Robert Frost himself, is faced with a choice that appears quite suddenly as he walks along a forest track.  Imagine walking through beautiful woodland in upstate New York or Vermont as the Fall takes hold and imagine at this moment, the route on which you travel diverges into two separate paths.  This mirrors the poet’s dilemma in the poem and he faces a difficult decision that has to be made for the moment, yet may have repercussions that last a lifetime.  This is what makes the decision so difficult.

If you consider, briefly, some decisions you make in your own life, you know that you might make hundreds of choices in any one day, most without even noticing!  Deciding where to go for lunch is usually not too difficult; however, a much more difficult decision is the career to follow after your Leaving Cert or A Levels.  Your choice may affect your life for many years and so you tend to take time and effort in arriving at that decision.

So, Frost comes to a fork in the road.  If taken on a literal level, the choice is simply the path along which to continue.  However, if these paths are seen in a symbolic or allegoric way, then the choice is more challenging.  Great poetry and literature have always given us many examples where life is seen in terms of a journey on which we will meet many twists and turns.  So, therefore, the moment described so beautifully in the poem could be such a moment in anyone’s life.

The poet considers his options carefully.  He looks down both paths, ‘as far as I could’ in an attempt to see what they might offer.  But his view is limited by the bend as the track veers into the undergrowth.  It is, in other words, impossible to foresee what future may lie ahead – and Frost did not seem to have the luxury of a Change-of-Mind slip!  At first, each alternative is equally appealing or ‘just as fair’.  Similarly, both roads diverge into ‘a yellow wood’ – Vermont in all its Autumnal glory!  The first path, however, is a more popular route, while the other less-traveled path is overgrown and ‘wanted wear’.  The choice is clear but not at all simple: the common, easy path or the unusual, more challenging path?  The first road might prove more reliable, even reassuring, for others have gone that way.  The more difficult road, however, may produce a less predictable outcome yet perhaps a more fulfilling and individual one.

The poet is aware that the minor difference between the paths at this time will become major differences as the paths diverge further into the woods and into the future.  Each path is attractive and alluring in its own way, but he cannot travel both.  You can’t have your cake and eat it!  This he regrets.  Nonetheless, he decides.

Even as he travels his chosen path he still wonders about the path he has rejected and hopes to keep ‘the first for another day’.  Yet, he knows in his heart that ‘way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back’.  The poem, in this way, suggests that we can only hope to explore a very limited number of life’s possibilities.  Finally, the poet ‘sighs’, happy with his choice, yet wondering what if…..?  What experiences might have occurred along the other path?  Certainly, his choice has ‘made all the difference’.  That is gratifying; the decision has had a positive effect on his life and he is thankful for that and overall seems pleased with the road he has chosen.

This poem reminds us that important decisions in life are not exact predictions.  We base our choice on reflection of what might be encountered along the way.  Like Frost, we all hope that our major decisions will make ‘all the difference’ in our lives.  We need to believe they will.

Frost believed that each poem was a ‘little voyage of discovery’; a path to something else, rather than an end in itself.  Perhaps, the road not taken is just such a voyage?

 FROST (7)

Introducing ‘The Great Gatsby’

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A novel of the ‘Roaring Twenties’

This novel lays claim to being (probably) the most memorable fictional evocation of  America of the ‘roaring twenties’, the jazz-age America which came to such a devastating end with the Wall Street Crash at the end of that crazy decade.  Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s finest achievement, is interesting as the record of an era and  of the disillusionment felt by thoughtful, sensitive people with established institutions and beliefs and in their sense of moral chaos in America after the Great War of 1914-1918.

Such was Fitzgerald’s success in expressing what was widely regarded as the spirit of the twenties that he was virtually credited with inventing the period.  It was inevitable that he should be honoured with such dubious titles of distinction as ‘the laureate of the jazz age’ and ‘the novelist of the American dream’.  It is true that he is remarkably successful in rendering some of the essential features of an exciting time.   Sometimes it seems that Gatsby captures the moment and renders a more convincing account of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ than many a historical document.

The fragile, rich, drifting world of the twenties was the emotional heart of Fitzgerald’s life, the source of his happiness as well as his misery.  Gatsby is a reflection of his passionate involvement in the issues of his day, but also of his ambivalent attitude to what he saw and experienced.  It is, however, more than that.  In 1950, the critic Lionel Trilling remarked that  The Great Gatsby was still as fresh and as relevant as when it first appeared in 1925, and that it had even gained in stature and relevance, something that could be said of few American novels of its time.  Sixty five years after Trilling’s comment, there is little evidence that interest in the novel has in any way declined.  Indeed, its popularity has been enhanced by Hollywood film producers who have brought the novel and the era to the silver screen with great success and acclaim.

The American Dream

The Great Gatsby is, like many American novels, about an American dream, one dreamed by the romantic, wealthy bootlegger who gives the book its title.  Gatsby’s dream begins when, as a poor young man, he falls in love with Daisy, a girl whose charm, youth and beauty are coloured and made glamorous in his eyes by a lifetime of wealth, whose very voice, he notes, ‘is full of money’.  His dream that Daisy may become accessible to one of his class and background is nourished by two circumstances: the war makes him an officer, and his post-war activities elevate him to riches.  Gatsby must, however, learn that such things will not bring Daisy wholly within his reach and that however ardently he may pursue it, his dream cannot be realised simply because he wills it.

Class differences

In Gatsby, Fitzgerald is dealing with an important social theme.  He is fascinated by class distinctions and their relationship with the possession of wealth.  This places him firmly in the tradition of the great classical novelists.  The English novel originated in an age (the early eighteenth century) when class structures were drastically disturbed.  Most of the major English novelists have since continued to be absorbed by class differences, and to draw heavily on these and their influences on human behaviour and attitudes.  Think of the dominance of class and money in the novels of Jane Austen.  Although there is an evident ambiguity in Fitzgerald’s attitude to those who possess great wealth, the established rich, they still represent what Lionel Trilling calls, ‘the nearest thing to an aristocracy that America could offer him’.  Fitzgerald deals with the trappings and symbols of this American aristocracy, the great one being money.  In one of his stories, The Rich Boy, there is this telling comment:

Let me tell you about the very rich.  They are different from you and me.  They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them.

Readers of Gatsby will recognise that it is mainly about what money does to those who possess it in abundance.

There are, of course, two main versions of wealth in The Great Gatsby, dramatically contrasted throughout.  This contrast gives the book much of its interest.  Gatsby himself is the newly-rich tycoon, the boy from Dakota who thought he had to get rich quickly to win the love of a rich girl.  His wealth gives him a vulgar neo-Gothic mansion, an incredible car, and garish clothes; it causes him to assume uncharacteristic stances and attitudes, including ‘an elaborate formality of speech’.  All of these things placed side by side with the grace and ease associated with the representatives of the established rich, Daisy and Tom Buchanan, appear ludicrous.  Gatsby is, from one point of view, a vulgar upstart who purchases his standing in society by giving mammoth parties patronised by all and sundry.  (Check out Fitzgerald’s descriptions of these parties).  His great wealth, for all his efforts,  cannot imitate the effects produced by that of the Buchanans.

The world of the Buchanans

But the contrast is not entirely, or even mainly, in favour of the established rich.  Gatsby, for all his lavish vulgarity, turns out all right in the end in the eyes of the reader; the Buchanans do not.  Gatsby is using his money as an instrument with which to achieve something, to further his aim of enriching his life; he has a capacity for wonder, for excitement, not shared by the Buchanans.  Their wealth and that of their associate Jordan Baker is sterile, which induces a tired, bored attitude to life.  “We ought to plan something,” yawns Jordan, ‘sitting down at the table as if she were getting out of bed’; and again, “You see I think everything’s terrible anyhow … Everybody thinks so.”

What Fitzgerald establishes in the scenes involving the Buchanans is that their money has drained away their emotions.  Daisy’s pattern of living, based as it has always been on the security of possession, has given her the habit of retreating in the face of responsibility into ‘their money or their vast carelessness’.  This aspect of the mentality of the established rich is more than once contrasted with Gatsby’s heroic, if ludicrous, romantic idealism.  He watches outside the Buchanan house after the accident, seeking to shelter Daisy from its unpleasant consequences.  She is seated with Tom over a plate of cold chicken and two bottles of ale (‘an unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the picture’) when Nick arrives.  Gatsby looks at the latter ‘as though his presence marred the sacredness of the vigil’.  The vulgar tycoon can also be the chivalrous, incorruptible upholder of ideals, however, mistaken these may be.

Gatsby’s world

The superficial beautiful world of Tom and Daisy is just as ludicrous in its way as the one Gatsby creates around himself.  Gatsby’s world is, of course, a pathetic attempt to reproduce that of people like the Buchanans; by aping its surface, he fondly imagines that he can capture its heart.  His provision for himself of an acceptable background is part of the elaborate, absurd pretence.  As he reveals these fictional details, his speech becomes stiff and stilted, he chokes and swallows on the phrases:

I am the son of some wealthy people in the Middle west – all dead now.  I was brought up in America but educated at Oxford, because all my ancestors have been educated there for many years.  It is a family tradition.

Almost all of this is false, of course, the truth being less flattering: ‘An instinct towards his future glory had led him to the small Lutheran college of St Olaf’s in Southern Minnesota’.  His stay at Oxford is short and undistinguished.  But the attitudes of the Buchanans are exposed by Fitzgerald to as pitiless a scrutiny.  Here is a sample of what passes for thinking among them on ‘serious’ issues:

This idea is that we’re all Nordics.  I am, and you are, and you are, and – After an infinitesimal hesitation he included Daisy with a slight nod, and she winked at me again – And we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilisation – oh, science and art and all that.  Do you see?

The narrator Nick caraway remarks at the beginning that one of the things his father told him was that ‘a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.’  It is, oddly enough, in the socially deprived Gatsby rather than the long-established Buchanans that the ‘fundamental decencies’ are most in evidence.

 Balancing two worlds in the novel

‘The test of a first-class intelligence,’ Fitzgerald remarked, ‘is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.’  In The Great Gatsby, he holds contrasting ideas simultaneously on some major aspects of his material and successfully integrates opposing arguments and points of view.  The most obvious instance of this is when he oscillates between imaginative identification with the splendours of rich society and a recurring tendency towards objective analysis of its limitations.  The boredom, limited emotional range and narrowness of mind of the Buchanan set is very cleverly conveyed in the dialogue, but against this, he can also convey in a very sensuous way the attractions of being very wealthy:

All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the ‘Beale Street Blues’; while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust.  At the grey tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with the low, sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor.

But a more significant tension is that between the responses called forth by the two sides of Gatsby’s nature, as they are revealed in a few critical episodes and mediated to us through the play of Nick’s judgement of the events and his responses to them.  The central passage of the novel, taken in conjunction with Gatsby’s own account of his background, provides a good example of the ambivalence with which the hero is regarded by his creator:

I suppose he’d had the name ready for a long time, even then.  His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people – his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all.  The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself.  He was a son of god – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that – and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.  So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would like to invent, and to this conception, he was faithful to the end.

The obscene, gargantuan vulgarity of his weekend parties is evoked with sober irony:

Every Friday, five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York – every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves.  There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb!

 Gatsby as a tragic figure

If this were all there was to Gatsby, we would read the novel as a satire on contemporary manners.  Fitzgerald’s first publishers did, indeed, call the book a satire, but it is only incidentally so: principally in the contribution of the minor characters, and in the occasional comment on the incongruous activities of the major ones.  But the story and the main character are tragic.  The tragic implications of story and character arise chiefly from Gatsby’s redeeming qualities.  Like Fitzgerald himself, Gatsby is a romantic, and in the end meets the fate of all romantics: disillusion, a sense of inadequacy in the face of experience, a deeply felt sense of failure.  His romantic dream is centred on Daisy, an unworthy object as he finds out too late.

Gatsby’s romanticism is stressed throughout the book.  It sometimes involves an endearingly childlike attitude to experience, a sentimental attachment to anything associated with those he loves, not found in any of the other characters.  ‘If it wasn’t for the mist,’ he tells Daisy, ‘we could see your house across the bay.  You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.’  This green light acquires a symbolic force.  In a famous passage at the close of the novel, we are reminded of the sense of wonder Gatsby experienced when he first noticed the light at the end of daisy’s dock; it comes to stand as a memorial to his romantic idealism:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.  It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther …  And one fine evening – So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

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A sense of the past

Gatsby has the characteristic romantic preoccupation with the past.  This is beautifully evoked by Fitzgerald in a telling passage, which reveals some of the hidden springs of his failure and of his tragedy.  His great delusion is a sad and common one: that the past can be restored and duplicated, and the effects of the passage of time erased.  Gatsby wants Daisy to abandon Tom Buchanan so that, after she is free, she may go back with him to Louisville to be married from her house, ‘just as if it were five years ago’.  When caraway tells him he can’t repeat the past like this he can see no reason whatever why: ‘I’m going to fix everything just as it was before.’  His longing to do so is perfectly comprehensible.  His life has been disordered since his parting with Daisy: he wants to ‘recover something, some idea of himself, perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy’.  He returns in his poignant day-dream to a starting place, to a scene with Daisy, described in heightened, poetic, emotionally-charged language, that can make sober realities pale into unimportance.  The incident takes on almost an absolute value, for us readers as well as for Gatsby.  Little wonder that he wants to begin again from such a point:

One autumn night, five years before, they had been walking down the street when the leaves were falling, and they came to a place where there were no trees and the sidewalk was white with moonlight.  They stopped here and turned toward each other.  Now it was a cool night with that mysterious excitement in it which comes at the two changes of the year …

His vain hope of recapturing such a past is finally extinguished by Tom Buchanan’s exposure of his activities during the intervening years.  The romantic cavalier is mercilessly stripped of his glamour: ‘He and Wolfstein bought up a lot of side-street drug stores here and in Chicago and sold grain alcohol over the counter … I picked him for a bootlegger the first time I saw him.’  Tom reduces Gatsby’s thrilling aspirations to the level of the sordid: ‘I think he realises that his presumptuous little flirtation is over.’  The end of the quest for lost happiness is tellingly rendered:

But with every word she was drawing further and further into herself, so he gave that up, and only the dead dream fought on as the afternoon slipped away, trying to touch what was no longer tangible, struggling unhappily, undespairingly, towards that lost voice across the room.

Fitzgerald the moralist

Scott Fitzgerald was at heart a moralist.  He once gave as his reason for writing fiction ‘a desire to preach at people in some acceptable form’.  Moralists often find their natural outlet in satire, and Fitzgerald was gifted with a keen satiric eye and a keen sense of the absurdities of human nature.  Tom’s defence of ‘civilisation’ against the ‘inferior’ races provides a good example.  There are more good satiric portraits of minor figures like Catherine and Mr. McKee:

Her eyebrows had been plucked and then drawn on again at a more rakish angle, but the efforts of nature toward the restoration of the old alignment gave a blurred air to her face … He informed me that he was in ‘the artistic game’, and I gathered later that he was a photographer and had made a dim enlargement of Mrs. Wilson’s mother which hovered like an ectoplasm on the wall.  His wife was shrill, languid, handsome and horrible.

But these, and the description of the massive vulgarity of the Gatsby residence are isolated patches; Fitzgerald was much more attracted to the affirmation of what he saw as the good than to the denunciation of the bad.  The positives celebrated in The Great Gatsby are the simple virtues: the hopeful, wondering, questioning attitudes of mid-Western America, o the ‘broad, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio’, over against which, in rich contrast, is the urban sophistication, culture, boredom and corruption of the jaded East.

 Flaws in the novel

The significance of the title of the book in relation to all this is often missed.  Gatsby is great is so far as he stands for the simplicity of heart Fitzgerald identified with the mid-West; he is a vulgar, contemptible figure in so far as he revels in the notoriety that his worldly success lends to his name.  He is, of course, a man of limited understanding, failing at once to appreciate his own real claims to recognition (his idealism, his high romantic aspirations) and to recognise his error in thinking that he really belongs to the world he has entered.  In its way, too, the novel is limited in its treatment of its central figure.  After all, we are expected to find the supreme value of the story and its hero in its romantic aspirations, in his ‘heightened sensitivity to the promises of life’.  There is no voice in the novel, no point of view which seems to question the adequacy of this attitude.  To many readers, it must seem a poor enough one in face of the complexities of actual living.  What is perhaps more disturbing is that the novelist himself seems to find Gatsby’s romantic stance entirely adequate.  A remark of his seems to bear this out:

That’s the whole burden of the novel, the loss of those illusions that give such colour to the world so that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.

If this is the best that can be set over against the amoral world of the established rich, many readers will leave the book down with a sense of disappointment.

Merits of The Great Gatsby

Against this, however, one must stress the considerable virtues of The great Gatsby: its poetic quality (Fitzgerald was a devoted reader of T.S. Eliot, who influenced him here), its almost flawless structure, Fitzgerald’s mastery of technique.  His use of detail to suggest symbolic meaning is particularly impressive.  Here it is interesting to note that one of the best symbols in the book, the grotesque eyes of T.J. Eckleburg’s billboard came to him by chance.  His publisher had a dust jacket designed for The Great Gatsby, a poor quality picture intended to suggest, by means of two enormous eyes, Daisy brooding over an amusement-park version of New York.  Fitzgerald’s brilliant reworking of this in the book is a tribute to his intuitive skill.  Again, the slow, gradual presentation of Gatsby is a tour de force.  We are more than half-way through the book before we know the important things about him.  The evocation of atmosphere and background is memorable and utterly satisfying; a detail or two will often suffice to fix indelibly a scene, a character or a mood:

With an effort Wilson left the shade and support of the doorway, and, breathing hard, unscrewed the cap of the tank.  In the sunlight his face was green.

One must not ignore the intelligent use by Fitzgerald of Carraway as narrator; a good deal of the colour and subtlety of the novel arises from the response of the narrator’s judgement and feelings to the events he describes.

Finally, the power and impact of the book are greatly enhanced by Fitzgerald’s concentration of his story and theme into a relatively few telling scenes.

About the Author....

f__scott_fitzgerald_2_by_echaz

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (September 24, 1896 – December 21, 1940), known professionally as F. Scott Fitzgerald, was an American novelist and short story writer, whose writing gives us a memorable fictional evocation of  America of the ‘roaring twenties’ and  of the Jazz Age. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century.  Fitzgerald is considered a member of the “Lost Generation” of the 1920s. He finished four novels: This Side of ParadiseThe Beautiful and DamnedThe Great Gatsby (his best known), and Tender Is the Night.  A fifth, unfinished novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, was published posthumously.  Fitzgerald also wrote numerous short stories, many of which treat themes of youth and promise, and age and despair (Wikipedia).

 

 

An Introduction to ‘The Catcher in the Rye’

 

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This novel, first published on this day, 16th July in 1951, by the enigmatic J. D. Salinger, belongs to a category of fiction made popular by writers as diverse as Dickens and Joyce.  It is Bildungsroman, or novel about upbringing and education – a novel of maturation.  The heroes of novels of this type are invariably young people or children seeking to find their identities and roles in the big bad world.  Nineteenth-century examples are David Copperfield (1850) and Great Expectations (1861), both by Charles Dickens.  The most famous twentieth-century example is James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916).  Probably the most famous example from American fiction before Catcher in the Rye was the classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.  Many of these novels go far beyond the treatment of the educational development of the central figure, and concern themselves with profound spiritual and moral experiences.

 The Catcher in the Rye is the story of the efforts of an adolescent American to relate to a grown-up world that he finds deeply flawed and fundamentally unsympathetic.  The central figure, Holden Caulfield, leaves his boarding school and spends a weekend in New York City.  Here he finds himself alone in what he sees as a grown-up world of corruption, unkindness and hypocrisy.  The main theme of the novel is Holden’s resistance to growing up into this kind of world, which, as he sees it, undermines youthful innocence and integrity.  The novel has no real plot.  It consists mainly of the observations of Holden on his experiences, particularly on the ‘phoniness’ of those he encounters.  His attempt to reconcile himself to the values of the adult world is a failure.  He retreats from this failure into mental illness, and writes his story while under psychiatric treatment.

Resistance to loss of innocence

The title of the novel is a glance at Holden’s dream of protecting other, younger children from the curse of maturity, of saving such innocents before the world corrupts them.  One of Robert Burns’s most famous songs has the line, ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’, Holden has misheard the words and thinks the line should go, ‘If a body catch a body coming through the rye’.  He uses the mistaken version as a slogan for his own dream-activity.  He will catch the innocent children who play in the ryefield because they are in danger of falling over the unseen edge of a cliff.  His vision of his saving role is pathetic in its futility:

 ‘I thought it was “If a body catch a body”,’ I said.  ‘Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all.  Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me.  And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.  What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going.  I have to come from somewhere  and catch them.  That’s all I’d do all day.  I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.  I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.  I know it’s crazy.’

 An uncaring adult world

Part of Holden’s depression arises from his awareness of himself as an innocent abroad in a world of phoney values, a world which, like Holden himself, needs love but does not know where to find it.  It is, in many of its manifestations, a world that believes that it can get on without love, or even without decency.  What passes for love in the adult world through which he moves is little better than selfish exploitation.  Most of those with whom he comes in contact are crudely dismissive of him and his concerns (the taxi-drivers, for example), try to exploit him for money, like the offensive pimp in the hotel, or seem ready to abuse him sexually, like Antolini, his former schoolmaster, to whom he turns in desperate need for help and advice.  It is not surprising that Holden cannot form a viable or stable relationship with adult society.  That society cannot give him the love and affection for which he craves.  These values seem to be associated in his mind with two things: death and the innocence that disappeared with the loss of childhood.

The death-motif and its association with love appear from time to time in Holden’s references to his much-loved brother, whose death from leukemia has blighted his family.  His longing to preserve innocence in a world given over to destroying it makes him the idealist who rubs obscenities off walls so that small girls will not have to see them.  In The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger, who clearly approves of his hero, raises fundamental questions about man’s inhuman treatment of his fellow-men.  What, we are forced to ask, makes New York an abode of indifferent, uncaring individuals?  Is the answer to be found in some radical flaw at the heart of human nature, or in society?  The novel suggests that human nature is not primarily to blame for the sufferings which Holden and others like him have to endure.  Salinger conveys a sense that the world is populated by fallible, foolish, pompous, careless, morally weak individuals rather than by evil ones, and that human beings are potentially loving and joyful if only society will permit them to satisfy these basic longings.  It was this aspect of The Catcher in the Rye that caused it to appeal most widely to a generation of American students in the nineteen-fifties.  As Anthony Burgess has pointed out, the novel was,

‘a symptom of a need, after a ghastly war and during a ghastly peace, for the young to raise a voice of protest against what the adult world was doing, or failing to do’.

Holden’s depression

The Catcher in the Rye has a single unifying theme: the nervous breakdown or intensifying depression of a sixteen-year-old boy.  The progress of Holden’s psychiatric illness is chronicled not from its origins but through its critical phase.  This is done with remarkable understanding of how depression actually works, and how it affects behaviour and the processes of thought.  Salinger is particularly impressive in his handling of the correlation between depressive illness and physical symptoms.  As his depression intensifies, Holden experiences psychosomatic symptoms, which feature a morbid fear of painful death (‘I figured I’d be dead in a couple of months because I had cancer’) and much physical distress (‘The thing is, if you get very depressed about something, it’s hard as hell to swallow’).  What we learn about him from his own narrative of his life makes his depressed state comprehensible enough.  The death of his much-loved brother Allie from leukaemia is one major influence on his mental and emotional states, leaving him with a grievance against the unfairness of things.  His emotional difficulties are not eased by his relationship with his parents.  His mother has been depressed since Allie’s death, and is not a positive force in his life, while his father, preoccupied with being successful, never discusses problems with him.

Holden is thus deprived of the parental guidance every adolescent needs.  His lack of emotional stability is not surprising.  The boarding school to which he is sent is no substitute for his parents.  His primary need is for the kind of understanding and sympathy that will see him through a difficult period in his life.  Whenever he seeks this from his acquaintances he is rebuffed or ignored.   As he ruefully remarks, Stradlater is not interested in a person’s ‘lousy childhood’, while Ackley will respond only if yelled at.  Both Ackley and Stradlater make little of the few achievements that might give Holden some badly needed self-confidence and self-esteem.  When Holden puts a heartfelt question to his history instructor (‘Everybody goes through phases and all, don’t they?’), the latter cannot answer him.  His old girl-friend Sally Hayes can do no better than the others in providing the understanding he needs if he is to keep depression at bay.  Carl Luce, an ex-schoolmate now at Columbia University, responds coldly and unfeelingly to Holden’s plea for help in sorting out his mental and emotional confusion, callously advising him to see a psychiatrist.

As a final despairing gesture, Holden turns to a man he respects, his teacher Mr. Antolini.  The latter can help him no more than the others could.  He lectures him at length, but fails to notice how deeply disturbed he is.  At this stage, Holden is at breaking-point, descending to deeper levels of depression, while Antolini is telling him that an academic education will give him an idea what size of mind he has.  Salinger provides some obvious pointers to Holden’s lack of mental stability in his numerous self-contradictions.  Our hero tells Antolini, for example, that a teacher at Pencey, ‘was intelligent and all, but you could tell he didn’t have too much brains’.  He also claims that there were a couple of classes he didn’t attend for a while, but that he didn’t cut any.  The outcome of the episode with Antolini is that Holden is more depressed than ever.  Convinced that society has finally failed him, he decides to run away and pretend to be a deaf mute, so avoiding, ‘any goddam stupid useless conversations with anybody’.  He will make no further efforts to gain the understanding of other people, and will renounce the ‘phoney’ world.

Phoebe, an agent of redemption

If he is to be redeemed from his hopelessly depressed state, this must now be through the voluntary, unsolicited intervention of somebody else.  His sister Phoebe becomes the agent of his redemption from total despair.  When Phoebe insists on running away with him, he comes to the conclusion that he cannot take responsibility for her, and decides that he must go home, not for his own sake, but for hers.  This gesture of submission is rewarded with a fleeting spell of intense happiness, lovingly described.  The sight of Phoebe going round and round on the carousel fills him with inexplicable joy and tranquility, although the contradictory account of how he fares in the rain is a sinister indication of his confused mental state:

‘My hunting hat really gave me quite a lot of protection, in a way, but I got soaked anyway.  I didn’t care, though.  I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going round and round.  I was damn near bawling.  I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth.  I don’t know why.  It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going round and round, in her blue coat and all.  I wish you could’ve been there’.

 After his painful quest, involving disappointment, frustration, bitterness, depression and disillusionment, Holden has at last found something beautiful in a world he has so often condemned as ‘phoney’.  This does not necessarily mean that he novel has a happy ending.  We know that the carousel will have to stop, and Holden and his sister will have to return to the world from which all his instincts have been urging him to escape.  The best things that life has to offer him are the few fleeting moments of exaltation he has experienced watching Phoebe on the carousel.

Holden’s distorted view of the world.

The Catcher in the Rye is often read as a sympathetic account of a good-natured, sensitive boy confronted by a cruel, dishonest world, populated by freaks, exploiters and phoneys.  The following is typical of his view of other people:

 I was surrounded by jerks.  I’m not kidding.  At this other tiny table, right to my left, was this funny-looking guy and this funny-looking girl.

It is clear from the novel that Salinger likes Holden and expects his readers to like him, but the question must be asked, how likable is he?  Does he deserve to be taken at his own valuation as an idealist who suffers at the hands of others?  Are we to applaud his trenchant exposures of virtually all those who cross his path?

The presentation of Holden involves an obvious paradox: the childlike idealist with the vulnerable, sensitive nature can appear heartless and cruel in his comments on almost everybody else.  There is the curious fact that although he is constantly protesting against the phoniness of almost everybody else, he himself is far from exempt from this fault.  In this context, phoniness means hypocrisy, empty, insincere moralising and fraudulent attitudes and behaviour.  It is true that Holden is upset by such things; as he puts it, they cause him to ‘puke’.  The only people he can think of as being free from phoniness are his sister Phoebe, the two nuns he meets in the sandwich bar, and children in general.  Were he also to look more closely at himself, he would have to acknowledge that he shares the qualities he condemns in others.  He often tells lies, often pretends to be someone he is not, and can be quite bitter in his comments on his friends, while at the same time pleading for charity and kindness towards himself.

The key to Holden’s character is his mental confusion.  This shows itself particularly in his inability to see people and their activities in proportion.  Again, his lack of a proper sense of proportion expresses itself in an outrageously exaggerated habit of speaking.  By referring to almost everybody and everything in grossly inflated language, he can make relatively innocuous circumstances sound wicked and dangerous.

It is not enough for him to describe a woman who sits next to him at the cinema as the slightly inconsiderate person she is; he feels obliged to describe her as being ‘about as kind-hearted as a goddam wolf’.  He doesn’t like Ossenburger the undertaker, and takes exception to the man’s religious inclinations.  His dislike vents itself in great crude fantasies in which Ossenburger features as a monstrous fraud who shoves corpses into a sack and dumps them in the river, who prays fervently to Jesus to send him more corpses and who bores a captive audience with ‘about fifty corny jokes’.  He describes places and their atmospheres in the same wildly exaggerated fashion, particularly when their impact on him is unfavourable.  A hotel lobby cannot seem merely stale-smelling to him; it must convey the impression of ‘fifty million dead cigars’.  No wonder Phoebe tells him, ‘You don’t like anything that’s happening.’  This is because his view of reality is hopelessly distorted; his depressed state makes him so utterly negative about experience that he cannot see that even the worst people and situations have some redeeming qualities.

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