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’.

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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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Analysis of ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ by William Wordsworth

 

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The Romantics, and especially Wordsworth, were unlucky not to have lived in the smartphone era!  Then again maybe we’re lucky that no such modern technology existed in 1802!  If Wordsworth were alive today his camera phone would surely be filled to capacity and the scenes and events he captured would be relived and enjoyed later in the comfort of his study – ’emotion recollected in tranquility’ brought into the twenty-first century!

This poem is noteworthy in particular because of its location.  Instead of the leafy banks of the Wye or the rolling hills and dales of Cumbria, he brings us to the heart of the city in the early morning.  He wants to stress to us that his philosophy of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ will work just as well in the grubby city as it would by the shores of Lake Windemere.

In this case, he is inspired by the view he saw from Westminster Bridge on the morning of 31st July 1802, although he didn’t write the poem until September of the same year.  In fact, the more correct title of the sonnet is ‘Composed on Westminster Bridge, September 3rd, 1802’.  He and his sister, Dorothy, were crossing the bridge on a coach taking them to a boat for a trip across the English Channel to France.  We know all this because Dorothy mentions the event in her diary:

‘We mounted the Dover Coach at Charing Cross.  It was a beautiful morning.  The City, St. Paul’s, with the river and a Multitude of little boats made a most beautiful sight …. The houses were not overhung with their cloud of smoke and they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly with such pure light that there was even something like a purity of Nature’s own grand spectacles.’

I’m sure we have all experienced a city in the early morning before the sleeping giant awakes.  The early morning light gives the impression that the city has been recently washed and is now clean in the morning air.  The gaudiness of the night before with its neon lights flashing on the water and the constant rumbling and screeching of traffic has yet to begin anew.  This fleeting moment of peace before the storm is what Wordsworth is describing here as he crosses London Bridge on an early morning stagecoach.

The theme of the poem is London as it lies asleep in the early morning sun. We get the impression here of a sleeping giant, perhaps rather terrifying when awake as some cities tend to be, but, now it sleeps so peacefully that those who see him are no longer afraid and are able to admire his elegance and splendour.

The tone of the poem is one of awe and breathless admiration at the sight before him.  He feels a deep sense of peace and contentment at the sight of such man-made things as ships and towers.  These sights are made even more wonderful in his eyes because of the closeness of Nature herself – the fields, the sky, the sun, and the river Thames itself.

His opening line shows that to him this is the ultimate in beauty; he cannot understand how anyone could ignore such a sight.  We must remember that the poem, like most of Wordsworth’s poetry, is one of feelings and emotions.  He refers to this scene of grandeur (‘majesty’) as ‘touching’ whereas often we consider grand and majestic things to be somewhat cold and distant.  The city, to him, is a living thing; it is clothed in the ‘beauty of the morning’.  The city is also silent at this time of the morning and this impression is reinforced by his use of the sibilant ‘s’ sounds in ‘silent’, ‘ships’, ‘sky’, ‘smokeless’ and also in the line:

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples….

There is a lovely juxtaposition when he uses the word ‘bare’ to describe the ships and towers without their human activity in sharp contrast to the city wearing its beautiful morning ‘garment’.  Wordsworth is suggesting to us that all these man-made things are ‘bright and glittering’ only because they are exposed to Nature; that the air is clean only because man is not yet awake to stain it with his smoking fires.  The idea of the sharp, clear and clean air is suggested by the words ‘sky’, ‘bright’ and ‘glittering’.

His long list of man-made objects conveys to us what makes the city different: not just one ship but many; not just one tower but tower blocks.  The use of alliteration in ‘towers’, ‘theatres’, ‘temples’ also conveys a sense of wonder in the reader and adds to their importance.

There is a sense that the sun is dressing the city to meet another day and that it has never steeped the countryside in the same manner as it does the sleeping city.  Gradually the city comes alive: the river is moving gracefully (‘glideth’), unimpeded by the small boats who ply their trade up and down the Thames all day long.  The houses have yet to come alive and they will do so as soon as their eyes (windows) are touched by the sun’s rays.

The poet’s prayerful exclamation of ‘Dear God!’ is ambiguous and it seems as if the thought has entered his head that everyone in the houses is also dead.  This is a striking example of the poet’s imagination.  The final line reintroduces us to the idea of the heart of the city, our sleeping giant.  The ‘mighty heart’ suggests something huge, whose heart is gently and soundlessly beating.  We all have seen what happens next on our TV screens as the camera uses time-lapse shots to show the ever-increasing flow of people and traffic and shops opening their doors, as the city slowly, relentlessly comes to life – the great giant stirs.

The poem presents us with a very compact series of images.  His use of the classic Petrarchan Sonnet formula shows his discipline and craft.  (The rhyming scheme is abbaabba cdcdcd).  His use of run-on lines suggests the movement of the rising sun over the city.  They also emphasise the poet’s use of ordinary speech rhythms, which was a strong feature of Romantic poetry.  The run-on lines may also mirror the poet’s rush of emotions as he encounters and strives to capture the scene before him.

A poem with such feeling must be musical.  Note his use of broad ‘o’ sounds in the first quatrain, ‘show’, ‘more’, ‘so’, ‘doth’.  These broad vowel sounds combined with the long ‘i’ sounds in ‘by’, ‘sight’, ‘like’ also convey the poet’s sense of awe and wonder.  I have already mentioned the sibilant ‘s’ sounds that occur throughout the poem and these are associated with the silence and calm of the early morning scene.  Finally, in the final three lines, this harmony is brought out by the assonance in ‘sweet’, ‘Dear’, ‘seem’, and ‘asleep’ and in ‘glideth’, ‘mighty’, and ‘lying’.

This poem is similar to ‘Daffodils’ and other masterpieces like ‘Tintern Abbey’ in that it furthers Wordsworth philosophy of what poetry is.  He is yet again storing up photographic images using his ‘inward eye’ so that they can be recalled and enjoyed again in the peace and quiet of his own study at a later time.  Nature is here presented from a different perspective.  It is a delight to the senses and a source of aesthetic beauty and its pleasures can be evoked through memory to fortify the poet at times of distress and amid the ‘din’ of towns and cities.  It is a comforter to those in despair, and it can enrich our physical well-being and restore our mental health, prompting him to exclaim as he does here on Westminster Bridge that he never before ‘saw, never felt, a calm so deep!’

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Read a more comprehensive analysis of William Wordsworth’s poetry here

Read a detailed analysis of Tintern Abbey by William Wordsworth here

Commentary on the poem ‘The Diviner’ by Seamus Heaney

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“Seamus Heaney in Toner’s Bog” by Liam O’Neill

THE DIVINER

 

By Seamus Heaney

Cut from the green hedge a forked hazel stick

That he held tight by the arms of the V:

Circling the terrain, hunting the pluck

Of water, nervous, but professionally

 

Unfussed.  The pluck came sharp as a sting.

The rod jerked down with precise convulsions,

Spring water suddenly broadcasting

Through a green aerial its secret stations.

 

The bystanders would ask to have a try.

He handed them the rod without a word.

It lay dead in their grasp till, nonchalantly,

He gripped expectant wrists.  The hazel stirred.

 

Commentary: Dr Andrew Barker called ‘Digging’ – the first poem in Heaney’s first collection – his Mission Statement Poem.  If that is so, ‘The Diviner’ is an early codicil to that Mission Statement!  It is yet another of Heaney’s poems about rural crafts and craftsmen.  These earlier poems focussed on his rural roots and the local crafts which were synonymous with his local place.  Similar to ‘Digging’ and ‘The Forge’, and ‘Follower’, this poem also explores the poet’s early search for poetic inspiration.  Heaney discovered his own gift by seeing the connection between the local craftsmen and his own burgeoning desire to be different yet the same.

The first thing to notice here is that Heaney doesn’t name the poem ‘The Water Diviner’ – instead, he uses the more generic title ‘The Diviner’.  This allows him to make ancient connections with the meaning of the word.  In the ancient world of Greece and Rome, a diviner was a wise man, a seer, a prophet, a mystic, an oracle.  Even in ancient Ireland in the Bardic tradition, the diviner was a saoi, literally a ‘wise one’, a poet at the pinnacle of his powers.  So, it is evident that Heaney here is making a clear analogy between the work of the local diviner in Bellaghy and the work of a poet.  Heaney is making this connection very early on in his career and so he has already accepted the onerous responsibility of following in the ancient footsteps of the Filí and Bards who had gone before him.

Water is, of course, a vital element and it has to be understood by the modern reader that in Ireland even in the 1950’s, houses, especially in rural areas, did not have water on tap as they do today.  Instead, water for daily household use was still being drawn by bucket from communal wells in each locality.  Therefore, it is no surprise that the person who could locate the presence of water in such springs and wells would be given great recognition and elevated status in the community.

Heaney speaks of this in some of his early poetry in such poems as ‘Personal Helicon’ and ‘Sunlight’.  In ‘Sunlight’, one of two poems dedicated to his Aunt Mary’s home place in Mossbawn, he speaks of the ‘helmeted pump in the yard’; this pump which was the centre of his boyhood universe, where ‘water honeyed in the slung bucket’.  In ‘Personal Helicon’ he tells us that he is inspired by and attracted to the water in wells and springs.  He tells us that as a child ‘they could not keep me from wells’.  However, as an adult, it seems that this activity is frowned upon, so instead, he became a poet!  In a beautiful concluding sentence, he says, ‘I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.’  There is a clear connection suggested here between the young Heaney’s activities and the older Heaney’s poetry.

The diviner in this poem is seen in the same light as his father and grandfather are in ‘Digging’.  The diviner is exploring the hidden depths, the unexplored layers of landscape, seeking out water-bearing aquifers.   This is similar to his father or grandfather toiling in the bog, ‘going down and down for the good turf’.

The jury is still out on whether it is even possible to divine the presence of water by holding a forked hazel stick in one’s hands!  Scientists still seem to frown on the idea yet in Heaney’s home place of South Derry there would have been one or two men with this innate power, just as there would have been a person who had a cure for burns or had the ability to fix a bad back or rid a person of warts.  These cures or remedies had been handed down through the generations from father to son, from mother to daughter.  Heaney has realised that he too has a rare gift and he normalises his own talent as a poet by comparing it to those with rare gifts in his own rural community.

The diviner described here was a real expert and he put on a performance for the onlookers present.  His actions were ceremonial, just like a priest at the altar on Sunday – he refers to the diviner ‘Circling the terrain’. The poet creates a mood of tension as the ritual performance commences; words like ‘tight’, ‘hunting’, ‘pluck’, ‘nervous’, sharp’, ‘sting’, ‘jerked’, ‘convulsions’, convey tension, urgency, doubt, and expectation in the reader.  The tone of the final stanza is far more relaxed and of course, this is because the diviner has been successful in his quest for water and so he ‘nonchalantly’ grips the ‘expectant’ wrists of those who have asked to have a turn and see if the hazel stick will work for them.

Notice the poet’s clever use of the word ‘nervous’ here in stanza one.  He is referring to the fact that our nervous system carries messages to the brain – but here it is the diviner who is the path along which the message from the underground water will be carried.

The poet tries to demystify the work of the diviner by using the analogy of a radio signal picking up foreign radio stations as one turned the dial on the old cumbersome radios that were a feature in many rural homes in the Fifties.  The hazel stick is likened to ‘a green aerial’, which picks up the unseen signals the water gives off from underground caverns.  We know the diviner has picked up the signal when Heaney says in the second stanza, ‘The rod jerked with precise convulsions’.  This image of the water broadcasting its position presents us with the notion that the diviner is the receiver and interpreter of messages that ordinary mortals cannot experience or understand.  In Heaney’s view, this is also an exact analogy with his work as a poet.

The word ‘convulsions’ suggests to me that the diviner is not in control of his movements and of course the fact that these ‘convulsions’, these involuntary movements, are visible to the bystanders adds to their sense of wonder and awe.

The style of the poem is very matter-of-fact – as if the poet is reporting for his local newspaper!  There is also the subtle innuendo that it’s all some kind of hoax that is being perpetrated here by the diviner – that he is some kind of charlatan, pulling the wool over the eyes of his unsuspecting, gullible audience.  These notions are finally dispelled and underlined by the final short sentence: ‘The hazel stirred’.

Another interesting feature of the poem that we need to explore is that we are not told what the diviner looks like.  This helps the poet to create the feeling of awe and wonder.  This is in marked contrast to other poems such as ‘The Forge’ and ‘Digging’, for example, where we are given little pen pictures, sometimes uncomplimentary, of his father and the blacksmith.  In ‘Digging’ he looks down from his upstairs study window and sees his father digging in the flower garden: ‘I look down / Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds / Bends low’.  In ‘The Forge’ he describes the blacksmith, Barney Devlin, in a very Chaucerian manner: ‘Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,  / He leans out on the jamb, …’.  However, in ‘The Diviner’ he refrains from making any of these derogatory comments and therefore the mystique of the diviner is maintained right to the end.

The reason Heaney is drawn to these rural craftsmen and their various trades is that he is in awe of the power of the diviner, the turf-cutter, the ploughman, talents that he doesn’t possess but ones that he admires.  In ‘Digging’ he tells us, ‘But I’ve no spade to follow men like them’.  He is drawn to these people who divine for water, dig in gardens and plough the land and shoe horses because he wants to follow in their footsteps but in his own unique way.

In many ways, these poems, particularly the ones from the collection Death of a Naturalist, are efforts to pacify and appease worried parents who have suspicions that their young son is different.  In this, his first collection, he is reassuring them that he’s not that different but that they will have to accept his choice of career: he will be a poet to be reckoned with, he will dig and plough and divine – but with his pen.  Fittingly then, thirty or so years later, The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Seamus Heaney in 1995, “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past’.

Works Cited

Seamus Heaney.  100 Poems, Faber and Faber, 2018

The Nobel Prize in Literature citation 1995:

<https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1995/summary/&gt;

Further Reading by the same author:

A more comprehensive analysis of ‘The Forge’ is available here

A more comprehensive analysis of recurring themes in the poetry of Seamus Heaney (with particular benefit to Leaving Cert Students) is available here

Commentary on ‘Pied Beauty’ by Hopkins

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Rebecca Vincent Art (@printreb)

Pied Beauty

 

By Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things –

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stiple upon trout that swim;

Fresh–firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

 

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift,  slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He father’s-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise Him.

Commentary

The poem shows Hopkins at his innovative best.  Everything is condensed, distilled, pared back to the bare essentials.  His use of comma and semi-colon, compound words, alliteration and simile are examples of his craft.  The poem packs a huge amount of detail and contrast and comparison into its ten short lines.

The theme of the poem is the gratitude he expresses to God for the variety and imperfection in Nature, in the implements used by man, for the lesser earthly things, for the two-tone things in life that add beauty by simply being different.  He may also be pointing out that God is perfect in sharp contrast to all the imperfection seen on earth.  Maybe the message is that variety is the spice of life!

The overall tone of the poem is one of praise and wonder – wonder at the variety and contrast to be seen everywhere in God’s creation.  The word ‘pie’ is of Medieval Latin origin and here it means spotted, two-toned or striped.  We still use the word today in words like magpie or piebald; someone is said to be pie-eyed drunk; we’ve all heard of pie in the sky; of course Simple Simon met a pieman going to the fair; and where would we be today without our pie charts? When dealing with Hopkins we need to give ourselves permission to think outside the box and there is even room to think of a pastry pie made of assorted fruits – mother’s award winning apple pie even!

The opening line introduces us straight away to the idea of variety and mixture with the word ‘dappled’ (streaked) and, from then on we are among things that have two aspects, the ‘couple-coloured’ are compared, by way of a simile, to a spotted (‘brinded’) cow.  We have no problem with this comparison today because all our Irish cows are ‘couple-coloured’ anyway but this wasn’t always the case.  The ‘rose-moles’ on the sides of the speckled trout are compared to the once fashionable moles applied to a woman’s cheeks to enhance her beauty.  The sound of the word ‘dappled’ is echoed through the poem in words like ‘couple’, ‘stipple’, ‘tackle’, ‘fickle’, ‘freckled’, ‘adazzle’.  Hopkins’ use of compound words like ‘fresh-firecoal’ and ‘chestnut-falls’ adds to the overall sense of compression in the poem.  The coals of the fire are both red and black, and the windfall chestnuts are often mahogany and beige.  The similarity between the coals and the chestnuts is classic Hopkins.  Some of these innovative compound words are very unusual, but their very oddness helps the poet to convey the idea of diversity, variety and imperfection as well as adding freshness to the poem.

Hopkins then mentions the birds with their variety of feathers.  He is ever the priest looking for good material for his Sunday homily and he once spoke of the sun, stars, birds and bees giving glory to God without their realising that they were doing so.  Man can also give this glory to God and mean it.  Perhaps he is contrasting and juxtaposing his own intentional praise of God in this poem with the finches instinctive song of praise.

Next we are given the beautiful patchwork quilt image of the landscape with its pastures, meadows, cornfields and ploughed fields.  ‘Fold’ suggests a sheepfold, ‘fallow’ suggests land being rested after producing a crop and ‘plough’ suggests land newly tilled and ready for a new crop.  It should be very easy for us today to imagine such a sight with our ever increasing use of aerial photography and the use of drones to take photographs from the air.  Hopkins, on the other hand, seems to be suggesting that this is a God’s-eye view looking down on the things He has created.

In the fifth and sixth lines the poet is praising the work of man and here also there is an infinite variety in the different types of work performed by man and also a great variety in the implements he uses to carry out his various tasks.  All these also give glory to God.

The final five lines are a masterclass in the compression of ideas: God creates all the varying contrasts in life, all things odd, original, spotted.  We are then dramatically ordered by the poet to praise God for these things.  ‘Fathers-forth’ is a strange compound word.  To me this suggests and echoes the creation story in Genesis: God magically clicking his fingers and saying ‘Let there be light!’  ‘Counter’ means contrasting with what is usual, as in ‘counter argument’, ‘spare’ can mean both ‘scarce’ or ‘more than enough’ or ‘left over’.  This is exactly what Hopkins is about here: he is trying to show us that there are contradictions within things (even in words).  Hopkins uses great technique here in line 9 by placing these contrasting words together side by side without any connecting word or verb and also with his use of alliteration.

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Rebecca Vincent Art (@printreb)

A FURTHER NOTE ON HOPKINS’S TECHNIQUE

Hopkins deliberately set out to be innovative and to create a new type of verse, and so he broke many of the accepted ‘rules’ of poetry – rules of grammar, the order of words in the sentence, making up his own words, especially compound words, and so on.  In fact, to give further credence to the idea of compression used here, the poem actually reads like a ten line sonnet!  His words and phrases are actions as well as sounds, ideas and images.  He uses very few verbs and this is accommodated by his repeated use of the semi-colon.  The words must be read with the ear and the body as well as the eye.  He obviously feels what he sees.  This is the challenge for us when we come to study any poem by Hopkins.  In coming to our own interpretation of the poem we must not forget the music, and his appeal to our sense of sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell.

Hopkins has been called ‘the poet of energy’. Notice the rush of words in the first three lines and then he pauses as he ticks off his ‘shopping list’ as it were: ‘fold, fallow and plough; / And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim’.  The energy is also made possible by the scarcity of verbs and by his use of alliteration.  In his great poem, ‘God’s Grandeur’, he says that the earth and all things in it are ‘charged’ with God (like a battery – and long before they were even invented!).  This poem, too, like many others is full of God – it is, in fact, a prayer, a spiritual meditation.

As I said earlier the poem reads like a shortened sonnet and Hopkins called it a ‘Curtal Sonnet’ (curtailed).  There are only ten and a half lines instead of the usual fourteen lines and unlike the usual sonnet, which is concerned with the number of syllables, Hopkins here is only concerned with stressed syllables.  Therefore, in this poem, there are five stressed syllables to each line, with two in the final line.  This, however, is just something for you to know; don’t let it interfere with your enjoyment or reaction to the poem.

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Rebecca Vincent Art (@printreb)

A more comprehensive analysis of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins is available here

Analysis of ‘The Windhover’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins

 

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Hopkins said that ‘The Windhover’ was ‘the best thing I ever wrote’.  We should first get the feel of the poem by reading it more than once silently and then aloud.  Then we begin to realise what a superb description we are given of a bird in flight.  His words and phrases seem to mime or mimic the energy and grace of the falcon’s flight.  This sight of a hovering falcon is again a relatively common sight today so hopefully, the next time we see such a sight we can recall the words of Hopkins. Hopkins once said that we should read his poetry with our ears, which seems like an impossibility but is not, since many of the sounds we hear create images in our mind.

In ‘The Windhover’, Hopkins uses recurring images of royalty.  The high-flying solitary falcon is a monarch of the sky, surging through the steady air.  The poet uses chivalric terms such as ‘dauphin’, and ‘minion’ to capture the elegant and dignified ‘striding’ falcon, the prince of the daylight.  God, too, is visualised as a ‘chevalier’.  Indeed, there are so many images given to us in these eight lines it is hard to know where to begin! The words ‘rolling level underneath him steady’ are best taken as a compound adjective, qualifying ‘air’.  Next, we find the falcon ringing ‘upon the rein of a wimpling wing’.  Here the bird, by means of a mixture of metaphors, seems to become a bell, hanging by its wings in mid-air.  ‘Wimpling’ means quick beating, fluttering or rippling.  Therefore, we have an image of the falcon, bell-like, swinging back and forth in a wide arc (‘on a bow-bend’), having mastered ‘rebuffed’ the big wind.

However, Hopkins’ imagination is turbo-charged here and the phrase ‘to ring upon the rein of a wimpling wing’ may also be a metaphor from horse-training, the term being applied in a riding school to a horse circling on the end of a long rein held by its trainer.  Also, we must remember that ‘to ring’ is also a technical term used in falconry and this then leads on to the image of a skater doing a figure of eight on the ice!  He compares the swooping movement of the falcon to an ice skater and this image also conveys the speed of the bird’s flight.  At any rate, the idea of the falcon as a hanging bell, filling the heavens with joyful news (‘In his ecstasy’) is confirmed in that other beautiful sonnet ‘When Kingfishers Catch Fire’ where he says:

each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name

The main feature of Hopkins’s images, then, is the way in which they are loaded with unlimited possibilities.  It is as if Hopkins intended to create multiple ideas in some of his images, each interesting and valid in its own way.  For example, the image of the falcon on a ‘rein’ may represent the motion of a horse at the end of a trainer’s long rein.  However, the term, being ambiguous, could also suggest the spiral climb of the bird.  Perhaps, Hopkins is encouraging us to ‘Buckle’ several ideas in our engagement with the poem.  What is not in doubt, at any rate, is the powerful and original representation, through the falcon, of Christ’s beauty and nobility.  In essence, the poet is like an Impressionist painter striving to capture the essence (the inscape) of the bird.

The word ‘Buckle’ is pivotal in the poem.  This word has been the subject of discussion and debate for many years.  Some believe that the word means ‘Challenge!’ or ‘Tackle!’ or ‘Come to grips with!’ adversity; others believe that it means ‘Collapse’ or ‘Crumple’ before the assault of evil.  There is even a third interpretation which proposes that it means to clasp, fasten together into a single unity all the skills and aspirations.  My own interpretation of the word is that the majestic beauty of the bird as described in the octet of the poem crumbles into insignificance when compared to the beauty and majesty of Christ as we see him in the sestet.

Other original images include that of ‘blue-bleak embers’ representing self-sacrifice and the ‘plough down sillion’ that evokes the hardship and perhaps tedium of daily labour.  In ‘The Windhover’, therefore, Hopkins employs images of flight, of majesty, of sacrifice and of glory ranging from a ‘dauphin’ to a ‘skate’s heel’, from a ‘fire’ to ‘blue-bleak embers’.  Such remarkable and wide-ranging imagery reflects the vivid and precise response of the poet’s imagination to the sight of the falcon at dawn.  More importantly, perhaps, the imagery reveals that the moment created a response of deep spiritual insight.  There is nothing particularly novel in taking a falcon as subject matter.  However, what is original is the way Hopkins engages with the falcon, observes it and concentrates on it in a deeper way and articulates what it revealed to him through an interesting range of original imagery.  The priest-poet is praying!

The last three lines give us two images which stand for triumph arising out of defeat and this echoes the essence of the Christian mystery – Crucifixion gives way to Resurrection.  He uses words like ‘fall’ (Jesus fell three times on his way to Calvery), ‘gall’ (referring to the stale wine or vinegar offered to Jesus on the cross), and ‘gash’ (an open wound), to reinforce this connection in our minds.  The soil that has been ploughed and trodden on gives off a splendid ‘shine’ or radiance; the embers of the fire when they part and fall produce a victorious ‘gold-vermillion’ brightness.

‘The Windhover’ provides us, therefore, with an excellent example of the unique concepts associated with Hopkins: inscape and instress and sprung rhythm.  The effort to describe the bird goes beyond mere description of its physical form or appearance (‘wimpling wing’): there is almost a scientific attempt to ‘capture’ its movements (‘Of the rolling level underneath him steady air’).  This, however, is only part of the process.  The inner form of the bird, its virtues or strengths, are identified (‘Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume’).  There is more.  The hidden ‘meaning’ or symbolic significance of the falcon is uncovered in a moment of mystical recognition that Joyce would call an ‘epiphany’.  T. S. Eliot called it ‘the intersection of the timeless with time.’  It is the moment when the observer recognises God’s plan for mankind in the action of a bird in flight.

To simplify matters, remember this: Hopkins believed in the idea of incarnation.  Christ was both man and God; so, too, the world is a combination of the material and the divine.  Seeing the divine in the world is the same as seeing its inscape.  Feeling the divine presence is the same as feeling its instress.  Sprung rhythm is a poetic device used to reveal the energy of God that pulses through the world.

Now look back again over the poem and note the use of detail that goes to make the poem’s eloquence: note that the poem is a sonnet, with octet and sestet; note his extensive use of alliteration and assonance, his use of exclamation; note the tension between line and sentence, form and sense, by the use of colour and the use of heraldic imagery, the passionate rise and fall of the meditation, by the expert daring of it all.

I can’t get it out of my mind that Hopkins lived and died in the nineteenth century and yet he is one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century.  Hopkins valiantly tries to describe perfection in this beautiful poem yet he once said, ‘Perfection is dangerous because it deceives us – because there is no perfection on this earth’.   As another later twentieth century poet, Leonard Cohen,  says, echoing Hopkins’ image of the falcon as a bell:

Ring the bells that still can ring,

Forget your perfect offering,

There is a crack in everything,

That’s how the light gets in.

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A more detailed analysis of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins can be found here

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Pope Francis, a fellow Jesuit of course, is obviously very familiar with the poetry of Fr. Hopkins S.J.!

Macduff’s Character Explored

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The time is free.’

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

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Commentary on ‘A Tuft of Flowers’ by Robert Frost

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Tuft of Flowers by Ken Fiery

The Tuft of Flowers

       

         By Robert Frost

I went to turn the grass once after one

Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

 

The dew was gone that made his blade so keen

Before I came to view the levelled scene.

 

I looked for him behind an isle of trees;

I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

 

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

And I must be, as he had been,—alone,

 

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

‘Whether they work together or apart.’

 

But as I said it, swift there passed me by

On noiseless wing a ‘wildered butterfly,

 

Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night

Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.

 

And once I marked his flight go round and round,

As where some flower lay withering on the ground.

 

And then he flew as far as eye could see,

And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

 

I thought of questions that have no reply,

And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;

 

But he turned first, and led my eye to look

At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

 

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared

Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

 

I left my place to know them by their name,

Finding them butterfly weed when I came.

 

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,

By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

 

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.

But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

 

The butterfly and I had lit upon,

Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,

 

That made me hear the wakening birds around,

And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,

 

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;

So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

 

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

And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

 

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech

With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

 

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

‘Whether they work together or apart.’

Commentary:

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

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

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

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared

Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

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

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;

So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

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

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

‘Whether they work together or apart.’

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

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Why Does Stephen Dedalus Choose Exile from his Native Land?

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James Joyce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Brief Analysis of Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Death of a Naturalist’

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 Death of a Naturalist

By Seamus Heaney

All year the flax-dam festered in the heart

Of the townland; green and heavy headed

Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.

Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.

Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles

Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.

There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,

But best of all was the warm thick slobber

Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water

In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring

I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied

Specks to range on window sills at home,

On shelves at school, and wait and watch until

The fattening dots burst, into nimble

Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how

The daddy frog was called a bullfrog

And how he croaked and how the mammy frog

Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was

Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too

For they were yellow in the sun and brown

In rain.

Then one hot day when fields were rank

With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs

Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges

To a coarse croaking that I had not heard

Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.

Right down the dam gross bellied frogs were cocked

On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:

The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat

Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.

I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings

Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew

That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

Commentary:
In the title poem of his first ever collection, Death of a Naturalist, Seamus Heaney gives a very sensuous and sumptuous description of the goings on at his local flax-hole.  This hole or ‘flax-dam’ contained the flax which had been harvested and was now being soaked in a man-made hole in the corner of the flax-field in August.  When the process was complete the flax was taken out and became the raw material for the thriving linen industry which had long flourished in Northern Ireland but was now showing some signs of decay in the nineteen fifties.  The poem has an added resonance for me because I live in a beautiful part of West Limerick and next door to me is the townland of Ahalin, or Achadh Lín in Irish, which means the ‘field of the flax’. Each time I read this poem I am reminded that at some time maybe in the 1800’s or before just over the road from me was our very own flax-field with its festering flax-dam!

 In this poem, ‘Death of a Naturalist’, Seamus Heaney gives a brilliant description of the local flax-hole.  It is a memory poem, one of the many poems written about his childhood and early school days.  Heaney, in this first collection of early poems mines a rich vein of childhood memory.  It is, however, embellished memory – childhood through a rosy adult lens.  The poem is extremely sensual and evokes the senses of sight and sound and smell to perfection.  Indeed, the poem invites the reader to read it aloud such are the myriad examples of assonance and alliteration scattered throughout.

The flax-dam or flax hole came into its own each August when the flax crop was ready for harvest.  Flax pulling by hand was a backbreaking job, taken on by casual, often transient workers. Hand pulling was necessary because the whole stem, from root to tip, was required to give the longest fibre, for the finest quality linen cloth. The pulled flax was tied up in beats (sheaves) and put in rows or stooks on the flax field.  The stooks were collected and put into flax holes, or dams, and kept under water for ten to fourteen days. This was to `rat’ or `rot’ the inside wood part from the outside fibres.

The ‘flax-dam’ festered and ‘sweltered in the punishing sun’ in high Summer.  We can almost hear the bluebottles as they,

Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell’.

Each August the flax was immersed in the flax hole and sods of earth were used to keep it submerged.

The flax hole may have only been used by the farmers during the harvest but of course, it lay there unused all year round. The young poet, as naturalist, is obviously drawn to the pool at other times of the year as well, especially when there were great clots of frogspawn evident each Spring.  He also visits in May to see the dragonflies and every July and August to spot the butterflies:

There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,

But best of all was the warm thick slobber

Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water

In the shade of the banks.

The poet uses onomatopoeia to great effect to aid his description: ‘bubbles gargled’, ‘slobber of frogspawn’, ‘coarse croaking’, ‘the slap and plop’, and the brilliant ‘blunt heads farting’.  We are also reminded of his age with the use of the word ‘jampotfuls’ and by the childish simile ‘Poised like mud grenades’.

Like all other budding young naturalists, he is lucky to have a great teacher! ‘Miss Walls’ encourages him and provides him with the necessary information, always appropriate to his age of course!

Miss Walls would tell us how

The daddy frog was called a bullfrog

And how he croaked and how the mammy frog

Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was

Frogspawn.

Her ecology classes sent him out to the meadows to collect samples for the classroom and for the windowsill at home in his kitchen in Mossbawn.  Miss Walls also imparted other vital pieces of information which are seized upon by the young eager naturalist:

You could tell the weather by frogs too

For they were yellow in the sun and brown

In rain.

There is a sense of childhood foreboding and fear of the flax hole and the mating frogs which is recreated with great accuracy by the poet – he knew, or he had been told by his elders, that ‘if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it’.  These stories were obviously very effective in keeping inquisitive young boys away from the vicinity of these dangerous flax dams and he feels threatened and frightened by the scene that confronts him at the flax-dam.

The great slime kings

Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew

That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

Indeed, the whole poem can be seen as a metaphor for growing up, laden with imagery which could be interpreted as sexual: we sense a child’s revulsion as he discovers the facts of life and his ensuing loss of innocence. He will never feel the same again about the countryside after this encounter with the bullfrogs!  As the poem’s title suggests,therefore, his days as a naturalist are drawing to an end!

 

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… and I knew / That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Author….

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