Characters and Relationships in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’

 

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Since Gar is the central character in this play it is important to consider his character in relation to the other characters.  What first strikes us about the play is, perhaps, the dominance of the male characters. There are only three female characters in the play – Madge, Kate Doogan, and Lizzie Sweeney – and they take up only a small part of the plot.  We could see this absence of women as an important aspect of the play – and of course, it is a failing which Friel rectified in later plays such as Dancing at Lughnasa.  Here, however, it points, we could suggest, to the absence of even greater things – warmth, love, affection, tenderness, sincerity – and this is partly correct. Gar, we notice, is motherless.  His only love affair has ended in failure.  He looks to his father for affection only to be disappointed.  Madge can only partly fulfil this need for affection which Gar so strongly expresses.  Significantly one of the few uses of the word ‘love’ in the play is in a casual and incidental context, namely, in the letter Gar has written to his Aunt Lizzy accepting her invitation (p. 56).  It would seem, therefore, that Friel is attempting to describe a world in which the ordinary affections that bring people closer together are absent.

So, we have established that female characters are missing from this play and so too are the human qualities they represent.  But a close reading of the text reveals that women seem often to be hovering in the background.  They appear as topics of conversation on more than one occasion.  Some of these occasions are slight, although others are more important.  At different instances in the play,  Gar thinks of ‘the gorgeous American women’ he will meet in Philadelphia.  In more serious moods, however, he questions Madge about his mother, and he recalls in detail his ‘love-affair’ with Katie Doogan.  Each of these occasions is accompanied by a sense of loss.  The Canon also – the epitome of the single male – is a totally emotionless character.  When ‘the boys’ come in to visit Gar, the conversation soon turns round to women.  Ned relates a story of a rather crude sexual adventure, and the boys all join in and laugh.  However, Private gives the true version of Ned’s story.  After that, Ned’s comments about ‘picking up a couple of women’ at the dance sound hollow and even pathetic.

With these points in mind, we can now consider Gar’s character in more detail.  Gar is the protagonist of the play and the entire action revolves around him.  At the start, we get a sense of his enthusiasm and his youth.  He looks forward to his departure with a keen sense of delight.  His old life is over, and he looks on his release from his father’s shop as an escape.  Typically, he thinks of America in extravagant terms: the cities, the women, the affluence, the tremendous opportunities.  These are the things he wants to experience.  But they are also the things he has no real affection for.  When Private makes his first entrance (p. 17), little episodes from the past begin to crop up in the play, past events which begin to dim Gar’s bright future.  As he thinks of his life in Ballybeg, Gar says with relief, ‘It’s all over’ (p. 17).  To this Private adds, ‘And it’s all about to begin’.  This simple sentence, Private’s first statement in the play, is truer than it first appears.  For Gar, everything does begin again, and before the play is over he relives many important episodes in his life.  From this point, the play goes on to describe his mother’s death, then the episode with Katie Doogan.  Later he will remember his childish affection for his father, the day they spent in the blue boat, as well as the nights and days he spent with ‘the boys’.

As all these memories come back to Gar his enthusiasm for America begins to wane.  When he feels hurt or threatened his principal defence is to pass it off with a laugh.  During the tea-time episode, while he sits with his father in silence, Private moves about the stage with comments directed at S.B.: ‘O God!  Priceless!  Beautiful!  Delightful!  Isn’t he a scream!’  We see the same sort of behaviour during the game of draughts, and when ‘the boys’ come to visit.  On other occasions, however, Gar’s enthusiasm deserts him.  He feels humiliated, alone, threatened, unable to laugh at his situation or to deflate it with humorous comments.  There are numerous instances of this in the play.

For example, towards the end of Episode Two, after the scene with Katie Doogan, Gar is feeling upset and confused.  Her cosy description of family life – ‘Mammy and Daddy.  They’re all at home tonight’. – is strangely disturbing to Gar who has no experience of these things.  As is usual for Gar he tries to hide his feelings, to laugh and to whistle.  His mind races over the day’s happenings and we get a confused speech from Private describing a mixture of past, present and future events.  He tries to console Gar that his situation ‘isn’t as bad as that …. Isn’t as bad as that’.  Then suddenly Gar’s mind turns back to S.B. and we get a poignant climax to the speech just before the curtain drops, ‘….say something!  Say something, father!’

For the rest of the play, Gar struggles to regain his composure.  In the rosary scene he diverts his attention by thinking of ‘those Yankee women’ and of girls with exotic names, ‘Karin and Tamara’ (p. 88).  But memories from the past keep crowding into his mind.  He remembers, ‘that wintry morning in Bailtefree and the three days in Bundoran….’  He also recalls his most precious memory, the day he spent fishing with his father on the lake, ‘and you were happy too, you began to sing….’

Music and song are important aspects of Gar’s world, indeed of the play in general.  The play’s title comes from the words of a song, and music and singing are introduced on several occasions in the play.  These musical interludes have several functions.  In the first place, they add realism to the action and are an important bridge between the characters and the audience.  Secondly, they suggest the contrast that exists within Private and Public.  While Public’s affection is for Mendelssohn and for softer Irish ballads, Private prefers ceili music and coarser Irish songs.  Thirdly, musical interludes serve to recall past events to Gar’s mind, events that he had hidden away in his memory but which music and song evoke again.  One particular touching example of this is the evocative ballad, ‘All round my hat I’ll wear a green coloured ribbon O…’.  Gar recalls this song with tremendous affection.  His father sang it at the end of their fishing trip on the lake.  For Gar, it symbolises the happiness of that day so long ago.  At the end of the play, he shyly approaches his father about this song, feeling sure that it would rekindle his memories also.  As usual, however, Gar’s efforts end in disappointment, ‘All round my hat?  No, I don’t think I ever knew that one….’.

One important aspect of Gar’s personality is seen in his relationship with the other characters in the play, particularly his father.  He criticises and parodies his father’s behaviour, and makes him the subject of humorous comments.  But he still feels a strong bond of affection for him.  It is necessary that Friel should depict Gar in this way.  If Gar rejected his father outright, his friends, and his past life in Ballybeg, then much of the drama would be lost.  The success of the play comes from the tension in Gar’s feelings towards his father, his friends and his past life.  Thus, he can laugh at his father, make fun of him verbally, but he can never reject him.  Gar calls him ‘Screwballs’, and that, if anything, is certainly a term of abuse.  But he also refers to him affectionately as ‘father’ on numerous occasions in the play.  All the efforts at reconciliation are made by Gar.  When he is rejected, we find him using words like, ‘It doesn’t matter… It doesn’t matter.  Forget it’ (p105).  W might reasonably expect that this rejection might lead to a complete loss of affection on Gar’s part.  But in fact, it never does.  Right up to the end of the play we never lose our esteem for him.  Even in the last lines, we find him expressing his concern to Madge about his father’s welfare:’….you’d led me know  if – if he got sick or anything?’

This very human side to Gar’s character is seen also in his relationship with other people in the play.  When Master Boyle enters, for example, Gar thinks: ‘God, but he’s a sorry wreck too, arrogant and pathetic’ (p.44).  In spite of this, however, he proceeds to treat Master Boyle with tremendous courtesy and respect.  The Master is in trouble with the Canon, but Gar affectionately takes his side (‘Sure everyone knows the kind of the Canon, Master’ (p.44).  He also accepts the present of his poems and helps him out with the loan of some money.  Finally, he agrees to send the Master the names of newspapers and magazines where his poems might get published.

We get an extended look at this aspect of Gar’s character in his dealings with Madge throughout the play.  We notice, for example, that he never once criticises her in any way.  Neither does he treat her as a figure of fun as he does his father and Canon 0’Byrne.  His behaviour towards her is always good-natured and affectionate.  When she tells him the news about her niece’s new baby, Gar is delighted for her sake. In Episode One we get a long speech in which Gar’s affection for Madge is clearly expressed.  Private addresses Gar with the following words: ‘And now what are you sad about?  Just because she lives for those Mulhern children, and gives them whatever few half-pence she has.  Madge, Madge, I think I love you more than any of them.  Give me a piece of your courage, Madge’ (p.38). The final scene of Episode Three provides a touching conclusion to Gar’s affection for Madge in the play.  As usual Gar’s feelings are hidden under his casual, indifferent comments, just as Madge’s true feelings are camouflaged by her gruffness.  But Gar watches her attentively in a way that he will remember for the rest of his life: ‘Watch her carefully, every moment, every gesture, every little peculiarity: keep the camera whirring; for this is a film you’ll run over and over again..’(p.110).

In the scene with ‘the boys’ Gar’s polite, submissive character is again shown quite clearly.  At the beginning of this scene, Gar is flattered that ‘the boys’ have come to see him: ‘They were on their way when I ran into them’ (p.69), he says, happily.  Soon Ned, the loudest and most boorish member of the group, dominates the conversation.  He belches, slaps his knees, talks in a loud aggressive manner.  His behaviour to Gar is somewhat uncivil, and at one point he turns on him gruffly: ‘Are you calling me a liar?’ (p.70.).  Yet Gar tries to raise our esteem for his friends by saying: ‘The boys….They  weren’t always like this, were they?  There was a hell of a lot of laughing, wasn’t there?’ (p.71).  In particular, Gar is polite and civil in his comments on Ned.  When Private tells the true version of Ned’s story (p. 73), he does so without verbal censure or abuse.  Indeed whatever element of criticism there is in this speech, it is directed at Gar himself as well as at ‘the boys’.  In the end, he accepts and is impressed with Ned’s present (‘the broad leather belt with the huge brass buckle’).  In the speech that concludes this scene, Gar thinks of his friend in amiable terms (‘Joe and Tom and big, thick, generous Ned..’). His memory of them is ‘distilled of all its coarseness; and what’s left is going to be precious, precious, gold..’ (p.79).

There are two scenes in the play, which describe Gar’s relationship with Katie Doogan.  Each of these scenes is completely different to the other.  In the first (pp. 27-32), Gar thinks of Katie with tenderness and blames himself for the failure of their relationship.  As he looks at her picture, all the details of their courtship come back to his memory.  Some of the few manifest displays of affection in the play are shown in this scene.  Gar thinks of Katie as ‘gentle and frail and silly’.  Here they make plans for their future, the money they will have to live on, the number of children they will have.  There is a lot of tender kissing and cuddling as they discuss and exchange ideas.  But the scene suddenly changes its tone when Gar goes to visit Katie’s father.  This is apparently Gar’s first experience of upper-class society and he feels self-conscious and ill-at-ease.  Surveying the affluence of Katie’s house, Gar’s plans for her future suddenly seem pathetic.  Even before he hears about Francis King, the rich medical student, Gar’s confidence is deflated and he is suddenly stuck for words.  Friel is obviously making an important social comment at this point.  Senator Doogan welcomes Gar quite courteously, but he doesn’t want Gar to marry Katie.  Though Gar and Katie have tremendous affection for one another, a strong class barrier separates them.  It is the prerogative of the rich to manipulate their sons’ and daughters’ lives, and that is what happens here.  Marriages are arranged with a view to money and status; emotional issues are irrelevant.  In such circumstances, Gar’s relationship with Katie was a failure from the beginning.

Katie’s second entrance in the play in Episode Two and here Gar’s behaviour is in complete contrast to their first appearance together.  Kate has since married Francis King, ‘the king of the fairies’, just as her father had planned.  Gar’s conversation at this point revolves around references to money.  He tells Katie how he hopes to study medicine, to make a lot of money, to come home when he has made his first million.  All of this is a cover-up, a pretence, as the comments of Private make clear.  Gar suddenly gets loud and aggressive.  His words and his behaviour are in complete contrast to his tender exchanges with Katie in Episode One.  The division between them is now complete.  Yet the tragedy of the situation is that he still has some feelings for her, despite his outward behaviour.  When he leaves, he is in a state of confusion.  He repeats her name and thinks about what might have been (‘seven boys and seven girls – and our daughters will be all gentle and frail and silly like you…Kate… Sweet Katie Doogan…my darling Kathy Doogan’) (p. 82).

Throughout the play, Gar’s feelings are a mixture of jubilation and misery.  By subjecting him to these conflicting emotions, Friel ensures that Gar retains the audience’s attention and sympathy.  In the play, Gar’s character is drawn in a very human and believable manner.  He is a typical, exuberant youth, prepared to take risks, unwilling to let life’s opportunities pass him by.  But there is also a deeply emotional side to his character.  He feels the need for affection, recognition and sympathy.  His character is far from perfect, as his aggressive treatment of Katie makes clear, but his relationship with others is always courteous and affable.  Katie reminds him of his past, of what might have been, and he is bitter for this reason.  She is also wealthy and established in life, while he is forced by circumstances to emigrate.

The emigration theme was a popular one in Irish literature before Friel returned to it again in Philadelphia, Here I Come!  He gives this theme tremendous emotional interest.  Gar’s reasons for emigrating have only partly to do with financial matters.  When he speaks of money or affluence his words are hollow.  So too are his numerous references to ‘the American women’.  Somehow, the image of Gar as a wealthy paramour – ‘as American as the Americans themselves’ – does not seem to fit his character as it is presented to us in the play.  His outward statements and behaviour are often belied by his inward feelings.  In his aggressive conversation with Katie, for example, he utters the following words: ‘All this bloody yap about father and son and all this sentimental rubbish about “homeland” and “birthplace” – yap! Bloody yap!  Impermanence – anonymity – that’s what I’m looking for; a vast restless place that doesn’t give a damn about the past’ (p. 81).

Gar’s words here are in complete contrast to his own personal outlook in the play.  On this statement, he is actually describing the things he cares about most, while apparently rejecting them.  If we look at individual items in Gar’s statement we see how this is true.  This ‘bloody yap about father and son’: yet he spends the greater part of the play trying to communicate with S.B., and his childhood memories of his father are all precious ones.  Gar says he wants a place ‘that doesn’t give a damn about the past’: yet in the play, we see that the past is still very much alive for him and he carefully reconsiders it at different moments.  He rejects ‘homeland’ and ‘birthplace’ as meaningless sentimental words: yet he listens attentively to Madge’s account of his own birth, and on one occasion he gives a poignant description of Ballybeg, ‘watching the lights go out over the village…’ (p. 78).  Similarly, Gar’s quest for ‘impermanence’ and ‘anonymity’ (Master Boyle’s words) is totally belied by his character in the play.  What he wants, in fact, is the exact opposite to these words: a permanent home, an individual identity, to be wanted and cared for.  In particular,  he needs to feel that he is his father’s son.

We get an interesting glimpse of Gar’s need for affection in the ‘returned emigrants’ scene in Episode Two.  Outwardly Gar rejects these people.  They are wealthy, vulgar and loud.  But what he responds to is their offer of affection, in particular, Lizzie’s gushing exuberant words: ‘My son, Gar, Gar, Gar….’ (p. 64).  Private points to this occasion as the real beginning of Gar’s wish to emigrate: ‘and this was your mother’s sister, remember.  And that’s how you were got!’  But we also feel that Lizzie Sweeney will be a poor substitute for the affection that Gar needs.  While S.B. shows too little emotion, Lizzie shows too much, and both are disconcerting to Gar.  He is put off by her mawkish kisses and her constant groping and touching.  Her physical appearance is also slightly repulsive to him.  She is small, overweight, and heavily made-up.  She is also slightly tipsy and incoherent.  Yet her display of affection for Gar is better than no affection at all and he accepts (though with certain reservations) her invitation to go to America.

His decision, however, is not irreversible.  One feels that if S.B. responded to Gar’s tentative efforts at communicating, the latter would reverse his decision, and the play would end differently.  As it is, however, the play avoids this happy resolution.  There is no easy reconciliation between father and son.  Gar, the play’s hero and victim, remains in a state of confusion to the end. Public, Private and S.B. take up the greatest part of the play.  All the important focus is centred on them, and other characters, by contrast, are less significant.  Madge occupies a position between the major characters on the one hand (Public, Private, S.B.) and the minor ones on the other hand (Canon, Master, ‘the boys’).  In Madge, Friel presents a portrait of a typical good-natured housekeeper.  She is hard-working, sometimes surly and often taken for granted.  She is also given her own distinctive voice.  Her characteristic manner of expression is through short, curt, orders.  We notice this on her first entrance in the play (‘Gar!  Your tea!…..Ah! will you leave me alone….Let me get on with my work!’).  She is constantly organising the male characters, fussing over them, yet often reprimanding them with sharp remarks.  Canon O’Byrne is obviously impressed with Madge’s witty comments (‘She’s a sharp one, Madge’).  Her function in the play is to be much more than a simple housekeeper, preparing meals, and the like.  She is also an independent voice; she stands back and assesses the principal statements and actions.  Often when the male characters are getting carried away in their conversations (as, for example, the rather loud conversation between Gar and ‘the boys’), Madge’s presence serves to dampen their enthusiasm slightly with her short, sarcastic interjections.  On other occasions, her statements point to even larger issues in the play.  In Episode One, for example, as Gar and his father sit together in total silence, Madge enters and says with cutting irony: ‘A body wouldn’t get a word in edgeways with you two’.

Madge is gruff and somewhat domineering but there is also a delicately human side to her.  She has an obvious affection for Gar, while he, is kind and gentle with her.  He confides in her, asks her questions about the past, particularly about his mother.  She is obviously saddened by Gar’s decision to leave for Philadelphia, but she puts a brave face on it and keeps her feelings hidden.  Close attention to the play shows how Friel balances Madge’s roughness with her more gentle characteristics.  Apart from her conversations with Gar, there are two other occasions in the play where we get a glimpse of the human side of Madge.  In Episode Two, after the second entrance of S.B. in the play, Madge watches his predictable movements with indifference.  Then suddenly, ‘on the point of tears’, she accuses him: ‘You sit there night after night, year after year reading that oul paper and not a tooth in your head!  If you had any decency in you at all you would keep them plates in while there’s a lady in your presence’ (p. 67).  This outburst comes as a surprise to S.B. and to the audience also.  S.B. looks on Madge in simple, functional terms.  She is his housekeeper and nothing more.  But Madge articulates the need for recognition and human contact, which the play presents so forcefully, here.  Even she has a human side to her that needs to be recognised.

The second occasion in the play when we see Madge in a similar light is in Episode One when she announces to Gar ‘with shy delight’ that her niece Nelly ‘had a baby this morning…and they’re going to call this one Madge’ (p. 37).  She is obviously elated at this simple gesture of recognition.  But later in the play, her happiness turns to disappointment.  In Episode Three she returns from her visit to Nelly’s.  She is very weary and upset.  Even S.B., who is generally not sensitive to other people’s feelings, senses that something is the matter.  ‘There’s nothing wrong is there?’ he asks.  Hesitantly Madge tells him, ‘They’re going to call it Brigid’.  There are many occasions in the play where Friel is a master of understatement, and this is certainly one of them.  He does not exaggerate Madge’s disappointment here.  But by giving it a quick fleeting mention he nevertheless draws attention to it in quite an important way.  Even gruff ageing housekeepers like Madge, he suggests, are subject to human emotions also.

Postscript: Reflecting on my first sentence in this essay a thought struck me.  The sentence reads, ‘Since Gar is the central character in this play it is important to consider his character in relation to the other characters’,  Brian Friel is very innovative in his presentation of Gar’s story and he uses the Public and Private voices of the central character in much the same way as Shakespeare used the soliloquy in his great plays.  So, the audience is given the added advantage of being able to hear the inner voice of Gar – his alter ego –  giving us an added insight into this repressed individual.  However, the thought that struck me was: what if SB was given the same facility?

 

You might also like to read ‘The Theme of Escape in Philadelphia Here I Come!here

You might also like to read ‘The Theme of Communication in Philadelphia Here I Come! here

 

 

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Portrait of Irish playwright and dramatist Brian Friel by Donegal artist Stephen Bennett

 

 

 

 

 

The Theme of Communication in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’

 

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Joe Dowling, who directed productions of ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’ at the Abbey and Gaeity Theatres has said that the play deals primarily, ‘with the failure of people to communicate with each other on an intimate level.  It also makes us examine the nature of Irish society dominated by the church, the politician and the schoolmaster’.  Gar is being forced to leave Ballybeg because Ballybeg (and Ireland) has failed him and his generation. However, Friel is too subtle to allow us to imagine that the world Gar is about to enter in Philadelphia will be any better.

One of Brian Friel’s most important and most visited themes is that of communication. We are all familiar with the phrase ‘non-verbal communication’ and whether we are watching the referee demonstrate that he wants the TMO to view an incident at a rugby match or whether we empathise with Patrick Kavanagh as he visualises the ‘wink and elbow language of delight’ in Billy Brennan’s Barn, we can see its value.  Friel, however, introduces us to a wholly different type of communication in his plays, and especially here in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’.  This type of communication, almost exclusively Irish in origin, is what I would call ‘verbal non-communication’!

There are many striking examples of this throughout the play, probably best encapsulated by S.B. in such phrases as ‘Sure, you know I never take a second cup’ during his unchanging evening routine and  also ‘Did you set the rat traps?’ or ‘How many coils of barbed-wire came in on the mail-van this evening?’.  There are also many examples, as Gar Private reaches sensory overload, when he regresses and recites a rather quaint and obscure mantra which he obviously learnt in school during English class!:  “It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the Queen of France, then the Dauphiness, at Versailles”.  This oft-repeated phrase has no context or meaning within the play as a whole and its only function is as a perfect example of verbal non-communication!

The principal theme in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’ is, therefore, the breakdown of communication between Gar and his father, S.B.O’Donnell.  This theme is the centre around which the entire play revolves.  At times it is presented very directly and forcefully.  On other occasions, it is hinted at indirectly and very subtly.  In all cases, however, it is the principal focus of attention in the play.

The communication theme is presented very dramatically in the description of Gar’s relationship with his father.  In Episode One, we saw the following exchange of dialogue between Gar and Madge:

MADGE:      He said nothing since I suppose?

PUBLIC:      Not a word.

PRIVATE:    The bugger.

MADGE:      But he hasn’t paid you your week’s wages?

PUBLIC:      £3.15S – that’ll carry me far.

MADGE:      He’ll have something to say then, you’ll see and maybe he’ll slip you a couple of extra pounds.

PUBLIC:      Whether he says goodbye to me or not, or whether he slips me a few miserable quid or not, it’s a matter of total indifference to me, Madge.

In this short dialogue, certain essential items of information are communicated to the audience.  S.B. has not yet appeared in the play, so it is necessary that we get some preliminary description of his character.  The picture that emerges here is of a person that is cold, uncommunicative, and slightly (!) miserly.  Also, we get the first indication of the conflict between Gar’s outward behaviour and inward thoughts.  While outwardly Gar pretends that his father’s lack of communication is a ‘matter of total indifference’ to him, his inward comments express anger and bitterness.  Madge arouses Gar’s expectations, and those of the audience as well, when she says, ‘He’ll have something to say….you’ll see’.  This is precisely the climax to which the whole play is directed.  The audience’s attention is engaged from the outset.

This theme becomes more obvious as the play progresses.  Its first emphatic expression is during the tea-time routine – a perfect example of what we have referred to earlier as verbal non-communication.  S.B. enters from the shop and goes through his nightly routine.  He hangs up the shop keys, he looks at his pocket watch and checks its time with the clock on the wall, he takes off his apron, folds it carefully and leaves it on the back of his chair.  Then he sits down to eat.  During all these ponderous jobs Private keeps up an endless chatter.  As the meal commences Private says, ‘ Now for a little free conversation’ (p 39.).  The tone of this is ironic, but with a touch of bitterness and sarcasm.  What we get is not, ‘a little free conversation’ at all, but precisely the opposite.  S.B. converses sporadically on boring impersonal topics.   He directs no personal remarks at Gar, nothing whatever that is even slightly intimate – this on the night before he leaves for Philadelphia, possibly forever.  As the scene continues all trace of humour fades from Private’s voice, and he makes a direct plea for communication (‘So tonight d’you know what I want you to do?  I want you to make one unpredictable remark…Go on Say it! Say it! Say it!).  This scene gives the first prolonged description of Gar and S.B. together.  What should be an occasion for communication and contact becomes, in fact, a series of embarrassing moments.   In this scene and elsewhere in the play Friel uses stage silence very skilfully.  This use of silence, of intermittent conversation only, is somewhat missed in reading the play, but it would be an important ingredient in the play’s performance. During a performance, we would notice how the tea-time scene is punctuated by long silences –  silences that are filled by Private’s comments or by the tick of the clock in the background.  This would serve to underscore the communication theme in a dramatic way by drawing attention to the large gaps in the tea-time conversation.  It also explains Madge’s ironic comments to S.B. and Gar,  ‘The chatting in this place would deafen a body.  Won’t the house be quiet soon enough – long enough?’  (P. 41).

The first of Gar’s attempts to bridge the gap between himself and his father is made in this scene, though in a slight and hesitant way.  It also meets with the usual rejection from S.B.  After a slight contention about money Gar tries to extend a hand of friendship to his father by offering him more tea. This meets with the following, predictable, remark: ‘Sure you know I never take a second cup’ (p. 41).  Gar accepts this rejection and thinks,  ‘You can’t teach new tricks to an old dog’.  Following this, Private launches into a long speech that is full of obvious humour, but which has an important serious core: ’Let me communicate with someone… communicate.. pour out your pent-up feelings into a sympathetic ear.  So all I ask for the moment is that you listen  – just listen to me…’ (p. 43)By means of such comments as these, Friel keeps the theme of communication to the forefront of our attention.

We next see S.B. and Gar together at the start of Episode Three, during the rosary sequence, and the game of draughts that follow it. There is an interesting juxtaposition of past and future events in this scene.  As the rosary is being said Gar’s mind wanders.  He thinks of the future in America, and characteristically, his ideas are all exaggerated and somewhat unreal: ‘Swaggering down 56th Street… with this big blonde nuzzling up to you.  You’d need to be careful out there boy; some of those Yankee women are dynamite…’ (p.87-8).  The reverie continues with statements comparable to this.  Things of this sort are, however, remote from Gar’s experience and for this reason they fail to engage his feelings.  The real interest of Private’s speech here, is his surmising on a life in America without intimacy or friendship: ‘But you’ll never marry; never; bachelor’s written all over you.  Fated to be alone, a man without intimates; something of an enigma’ (p.88).

From here, Gar’s mind wanders back to previous incidents in the past, and his feelings are engaged more fully.  In this part of the speech, Gar’s boyhood affection for this father is the centre of interest:  ‘Do you ever dream of the past, Screwballs, of that wintry morning in Bailtefree, and the three days in Bundoran? ‘ (p. 89). Gar goes on to give the first of many descriptions in the play of the fishing trip with S.B.  He doesn’t, he admits, remembers every detail, ‘but some things are as vivid as can be’.  This occasion recalls to Gar’s mind the former sympathy between himself and his father, which is described in highly emotive terms: ‘between us at that moment there was this great happiness, this great joy – you must have felt it too – it was so much richer than a content – it was a great, great happiness, and active, bubbling joy…’  (p. 80-90).

Following this magnificent speech, one of the most poetic in the play, Gar decides to force the issued by asking S.B. if he remembers this fishing trip also.  He adopts his usual nonchalant tone as if the matter was one of indifference to him, when in fact, it’s his most precious memory: ‘‘Whatever happened to that aul boat on Lough na Cloc Cor… an old blue thing – do you remember it? (p.9).  This hesitant attempt at communication is interrupted by the Canon’s entrance. During the draughts game, Gar slips into the background.  Only one passing comment is directed at him (‘It’s getting near your time, Gareth’).  Here again, Friel makes use of silence to underline the communication theme.  Apart from the chatter of Private, the Canon and S.B. sit in almost total silence making only sporadic, predictable remarks about insignificant topics.  Private, meanwhile, hovers in the background commenting on the scene from his usual witty perspective.  But always in his speeches, there is an explicit earnestness that points to wider issues: ‘there’s an affinity between me and Screwballs that no one, literally, no one could understand…….’ (p.96).  As the Canon and S.B. sit motionless and in silence, oblivious to Gar’s presence, Private relates again the story of the fishing trip.  As often in the play, music excites Gar’s memory, reminding him of previous occasions, so also in the touching speech that ends this scene: ‘Listen! Listen! Listen! D’you hear it? D’you know what the music says? It says that once upon a time, a boy and his father sat in a blue boat on a lake on an afternoon in May, and on that afternoon a great beauty happened, a beauty that has haunted the boy ever since..’ (p.98).  For Gar, time is slowly running out.  He has patiently, waited for S.B. to make some sort of gesture towards him, some small demonstration of affection.  But as the play moves into its final scenes, the lack of communication is still firmly established.

In the last episode of the play Gar makes one final effort to reach out to his father.  Throughout the play, their spoken comments to each other have been impersonal and superficial. Now, in ‘the small hours of the morning’, Gar takes up the issue of the fishing trip in a final attempt to provoke a reaction.  Gar and S.B. are surprised and slightly embarrassed to be in each other’s company.  At the start, their conversation falls back onto the usual impersonal topics.  They talk about fencing posts, plug tobacco, tinker’s cans, ‘cookers and ranges and things’.  All personal issues are carefully avoided.  Also, we notice the same irritable behaviour on S.B.’s part.  When Gar asked him will he have more tea, S.B. gives his typical response: ’Sure you know I never take a second cup’ (p.101). Yet there is some slight hint of affection in S.B. at this point.  Here, as so often in the play, Friel is a master of understatement, and in this scene, his description of S.B. is delicately and skilfully drawn.  S.B. is unable to sleep, and though we are never told why, the implication is that he is disturbed by Gar’s departure.  He awkwardly tells Gar the day’s weather forecast and he has at least enough interest in his welfare to advise him to ‘sit at the back’ of the plane, in case there was ‘an accident or anything’.  Gar notices the slight affection suggested by these remarks and he tries once again to introduce the subject of the fishing trip and the blue boat.  For a short space, their conversation takes on a new dimension.  Gar describes his memories with growing enthusiasm and S.B. listens attentively.  Then comes the final important question, and the inevitable let-down: ‘D’you remember?… No.. No.., then, I don’t.. ‘(p.105).  Here Friel raises our hopes slightly so that he can demolish them again.  This is the final appearance together of Gar and his father in the play. The same communication problems, the same misunderstandings are apparent up to the end.

Throughout the play, S.B. is depicted as a cold, uncommunicative character.  This is the picture that emerges from his initial entrance, and this picture of him lasts throughout the play.  Lizzy Sweeney’s comments in Episode Two contain brief but appropriate reference to S.B.: ‘That was the kind of us Gallagher girls wasn’t it…either laughing or crying….you know, sorta silly and impetuous, shooting our big mouths off, talking too much, not like the O’Donnell’s – you know – kinda cold…’ (p. 64).  But before the end of the play, Friel gives one last look at S.B. which shows him up in a different perspective, and which arouses the audience’s sympathy for him in a way that was not done in the rest of the play.  Indeed, S.B.’s comments in his conversation with Madge are all the more pathetic because they are unexpected.

In this final scene (pp. 106 – 108) S.B. is shown to be very human.  Because of Gar’s departure, he will have a lot more work to do himself, but he insists that he’ll ‘manage rightly’.  Suddenly we see the extra chores which Gar had to do (p. 16) in a different perspective.  In Gar’s absence, a lot more responsibility falls on S.B.’s shoulders, but he still doesn’t go against Gar’s wishes by asking him to stay.  There is also a slight hint that S.B.’s business is going into decline, ‘It’s not like in the old days when the whole countryside did with me; I needed the help then, but it’s different now…’ (p. 107).  In this matter also S.B. looks to Madge for reassurance, ‘I’ll manage by myself now. Eh?  I’ll manage fine, eh?’

The most striking reversal of sympathy for S.B. comes about through the description he gives of Gar’s first day at school.  S.B.’s memories of this event are as sharp in focus as Gar’s remembrance of the fishing –trip.  S.B. describes how he and Gar went ‘hand in hand’ to school, ‘as happy as larks, and him dancing and chatting beside me…’ (p. 107).  Their easy spontaneous communication in this scene from the past is in sharp contrast to their predicament in the play as a whole: ‘You wouldn’t get a word in edgeways with all the chatting he used to go through…’.  S.B. is aware of the sad decline in their relationship, but he places all the blame on his own side: ’Maybe, Madge, maybe it’s because I could have been his grandfather, eh?….I was too old….’.  S.B.’s last words in the play again refer to Gar, in another image of happier days: ‘In the wee sailor suit – all the chatting he used to go through…’  Both Gar and S.B., so unlike in many ways, have one common characteristic: they both hold memories of the past and of each other, but unfortunately they are different ones.  The contrast in the play is not between depth of feeling on the one hand and absence of feeling on the other.  Communication is the real problem in this play, namely the channels through which personal feelings are expressed.  Gar wrongly assumes that S.B.’s failure to remember the fishing trip suggests a lack of feeling or affection.  In fact, S.B. has his own private memories that Gar knows nothing of.  The tragedy of the play is that they are unable to communicate these memories to one another.

The communication theme of the play is principally expressed through the relationship of Gar and his father.  But it is also seen in the presentation of other episodes and characters.  A close look at the language of the play reveals an interesting feature of Friel’s use of dialogue.  Conversation is difficult for the play’s characters.  Communication of personal feelings is almost totally impossible.  The most prolonged dialogue in the play is that between Gar and his private self.  Dialogue with other people is much more difficult to achieve.  In fact, what Friel presents us with in the play is not really dialogue at all, but a series of monologues.  Characters who start talking to each other usually end up talking to, or about, themselves, and what they say is usually untrue.  We can see examples of this interesting technique on two important occasions in the play.

The first of these is in the scene with Master Boyle.  Ostensibly, the Master has called to pay his farewell to Gar.  But after a brief mention of Gar’s departure, ‘Tomorrow morning, isn’t it?’ (p. 44), Boyle’s conversation is completely given over to matters concerning himself.  He talks about his controversy with the Canon, about his poems and his own possible emigration to America.  He is also slightly formal and ill-at-ease, though we detect that unspoken feelings lurk just below the surface.  The problem of self-expression, so dominant throughout the play, is evident here also.  After a very awkward handshake and quick embrace, Boyle makes a hasty exit from the stage.

We notice a comparable use of dialogue and self-expression in ‘The Boys’ scene.  Here again what we get is not so much a dialogue but a series of short monologues punctuated by silence.  Gar’s friends speak loudly and enthusiastically about insignificant matters.  They relate stories and episodes (mostly untrue) in which the principal characters are themselves.  When they are not engaged in these personal monologues, embarrassing silences develop, which they desperately try to fill by even louder and more exaggerated accounts of their adventures.  These silences occur ‘like regular cadences’, and to defeat them, someone always introduces a fresh theme.  However, when the time comes to say good-bye to Gar, they are all pathetically stuck for words.  Tom leaves without any word of good-bye at all, whereas Ned’s farewell is embarrassed and awkward.  He stands casually at the door and says, ‘So long, Gar’ (p. 75).  He then throws his parting gift – the belt with the big brass buckle – across the room to Gar.  Despite all the loud talk about his exploits, Ned is incompetent when it comes to real displays of affection.  Here again, the problem is not that he feels no affection for Gar, but that he is unable to communicate it properly.  Joe, the youngest member of the group, makes the only sort of proper farewell to Gar.  When the others have left, Joe stays behind as a gesture of his friendship.  But even his final words to Gar are casual and superficial: ‘Send us a card, Gar, Sometime, Eh?…..Lucky bloody man….so long….’ (pp. 77-78).

The communication theme can also be seen in the episode describing Gar’s visit to Senator Doogan.  Here the theme is placed in a slightly wider context.  The scene in Doogan’s house describes not only the breakdown in communication between individuals but also between different social classes.  (Is this similar to Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘thick-tongued mumble’ in his poem, ‘Stony Grey Soil’?).  The conversation with Senator Doogan is presented as a monologue.  Doogan wanders on about his personal successes and his important family connections.  He also wants the same successes and connections for Katie.  Consequently, Gar is excluded from this upper-class world.

The most extended ‘monologue’ in the play, however, is Lizzy Sweeney’s prolonged description of the events that brought about Gar’s decision to emigrate.  Like other characters in the play, Lizzie is garrulous and she is also the centre of her own conversation.  She wanders through her story about her past life, speaking incoherently, and often losing her train of thought.  She is also irritated when someone interrupts her, and even casual interjections cause her annoyance.  While she speaks, the other characters sit quietly.  Eventually, she breaks down, starts to cry, and stumbles into silence.

What makes Gar O’Donnell’s situation so tragic then is not so much that he is so publicly inarticulate towards his father but that he fails to allow for a similar complexity in his father!  All the lines uttered by Private on Gar’s behalf might just as easily have been said on behalf of his father.  As Declan Kiberd has said, ‘Language is what comes between Gar and his freedom of expression – his education has left him fluent but not articulate and so his skill with words is greatly in excess of his emotional development’.

Friel’s concern with communication is, therefore, central to this play.  Gar has this crazy notion that language and talking and dreaming about something is the equivalent to living life.  On the one hand, Friel presents us with characters who speak too much, and on the other hand with those who speak too little. Gar’s mistake is that he foolishly equates emotion with its expression: if a feeling isn’t stated by his father, he won’t believe it’s there at all.  This has impeded their relationship and so genuine communication is virtually impossible and the end result is tragic.  The final words of both Gar and S. B. – “I don’t know” – captures their shared bewilderment and the sad fact that it is precisely this bewilderment that both connects and separates them.

You might also like to read “Characters and Relationships in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!'” here

You might also like to read ‘The Theme of Escape in Philadelphia Here I Come!here

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The Theme of Escape in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’

 

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One of the most frequently recurring themes in Anglo-Irish literature is the flight or escape from a harsh environment.  The linked themes of escape, exile and emigration are frequently found in drama, prose and poetry.  One of its well-known representations is Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s,  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, who chooses exile from his native land because he cannot come to terms with the authorities that hold its people in their grip.  So, Stephen 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.’  In Philadelphia Here I Come!, Friel also explores the nature of Irish society fifty years after Joyce’s novel was written.  This society is still governed by the church, the politician and the schoolmaster.  The society that Gar is leaving has failed him and his generation.  The question is will things be any better for Gar when he moves to Philadelphia?

Similarly, in an article in The Irish Times in the 1970’s local poet Michael Hartnett turns his hand to social commentary when he stated that Newcastle West in County Limerick,

‘is an Irish town that is not dying.  It has kept its economic stability at a terrible price, the constant exportation of human beings.  It is the example of a town that is alive because the young leave, a town that would certainly be ruined if those people born in the 30’s and 40’s had stayed at home en masse.

In Philadelphia Here I Come!, Brian Friel gives another particular instance of the ‘flight from the land’ theme in the story of Gar O’Donnell’s proposed emigration to America.  Here, Friel shows his awareness of an older, oral tradition.  Emigration is the subject of a vast number of Irish songs and ballads.  It is particularly close to the Irish spirit, having been forced on us by the circumstances of our history.  In this oral tradition, emigration is always viewed ambiguously. On the one hand, it offers escape from a hopeless environment, promising new opportunities that were unavailable at home.  But on the other hand, it is also viewed with nostalgia and sadness, as the emigrant says his last farewell to his home, his family and his friends.  It is this double aspect that makes emigration a suitable subject for drama and which Friel exploits with such effect in Philadelphia Here I Come!

However, Friel is also making a political point here.  Many see the play as a covert criticism of De Valera’s vision of a self-sufficient Ireland of cosy homesteads and comely maidens dancing at the crossroads.  S.B and Máire marry on New Year’s Day 1937, the very day that De Valera’s new Irish Constitution comes into effect.  Twenty-five years or so later and the product of that marriage, Gar O’Donnell, is packing his suitcase to head for Philadelphia in the morning.

The escape theme is emphatically present in the play right from the start.  The first Episode begins in an optimistic mood as Gar considers his departure on the next morning.  Life in Ballybeg is monotonous and offers little scope for his ambitions.  America is considered to be the land of opportunity, where ambitions are fulfilled and fortunes are made.  The thrust of this opening Episode is entirely towards release, freedom, escape: ‘Think ….up in that big bugger of a jet, with its snout belching smoke over Ireland…’ (p. 17).  S. B. makes a brief entrance at this point in the play, and through him Friel expresses the type of life Gar wishes to escape from.  S. B. is elderly and somewhat out of place in the modern world.  So too is the business he owns.  Gar emphatically rejects S.B.’s old-fashioned world.  He speaks on numerous occasions of the weariness and boredom of weighing up sacks of flour and sugar, cleaning and salting fish, unloading barbed wire and sacks of spuds.  To all of these unpleasant chores, he contrasts the broader horizons offered by American life.  Initially, at least, he is in no doubt about the wisdom of his decision to emigrate.

Other events in the play serve to strengthen this decision even further.  The characters of the play are seen by Gar as a somewhat pathetic group.  As he sees it, they are all the victims of the restrictions imposed on them by their lives in Ballybeg.  Gar wishes to escape to America before he too becomes like them.  This emerges quite clearly in his conversation with Katie Doogan in Episode Two.  Indeed in this conversation, the escape theme is most pronounced.  Earlier in the play, Gar rejects Ireland in his reference to it as, ‘the land of the curlews and the snipe, the Aran sweater and the Irish Sweepstakes’ (p. 18-19).  In his conversation with Katie his rejection is more emphatic, ‘I hate the place, and every stone, and every rock, and every piece of heather around it…’ (p. 81).  (This is reminiscent of Kavanagh’s outburst in ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’, ‘I am king of banks and stones and every blooming thing’).  On this occasion, it is principally the people of Ballybeg who lead him to this outburst.  For example, Gar is impressed with Master Boyle’s visit; he is also impressed by the visit of ‘the boys’ later in the play.  But on both these occasions, there is a common element to Gar’s reaction.  He is not blinded to the failings of ‘the boys’ or of Master Boyle.  The latter in particular has sacrificed his ideals for a life of quiet boredom in Ballybeg.  Like Gar, he once had the opportunity to emigrate, but unlike Gar, he was unwilling to take it.  There is a marked feeling of regret in Boyle’s conversation with Gar, a sense of having let life’s possibilities slip by.  Boyle’s character is pathetically drawn.  He is an isolated figure, unhappy with his situation, a lonesome bachelor, and a secret drinker.  He is determined to escape from the environment that produces such characters as Master Boyle.

Indeed, it must be said that the escape theme is inextricably linked to the theme of escapist fantasy used by Friel in this and other plays in his oeuvre.  At the root of this escapist fantasy lies a deep-seated dissatisfaction within every character with themselves and their environment.  Gar has not attained a sufficient identity for himself in Ballybeg. Pulled towards the future and yet drawn backwards towards a sentimental vision of the past, he seeks to escape by running away to Philadelphia, which represents the solution to all his problems.

Ironically, as the play unfolds and we begin to glean insights into his character, we realise that escape will only intensify rather than solve any of his problems. He condemns Ballybeg for the very things which will solve his problems, love, affection, identity and warmth. Gar is no better at the conclusion of the play. Escape to Philadelphia, as Madge tells us, will solve nothing.

Master Boyle also compensates for his failure as a schoolteacher by dreaming up challenging professional situations in Boston. He tells Gar he has been offered a ‘big post’ in a ‘reputable university’ in Boston. Unable to face the reality of his own alcoholism he hides behind imaginative dreams of another world and unrealistic achievements.

The boys also indulge in this escapist fantasy. They come to say farewell to Gar on the night before he departs yet they spend their time indulging in monologues about themselves and their imagined exploits. Life in Ballybeg is more bearable when it is relieved by fantasy and escapism. Rather than admit their own inadequacies they hide behind bravado and loud talk.  The visit of ‘the boys’ also confirms Gar in his decision to escape from Ballybeg.  Superficially at least, ‘the boys’ and Master Boyle have little in common.  They make a noisy entrance, speak loudly and with arrogance, whereas Master Boyle is quiet and soft-spoken.  But Gar is aware of the characteristics shared by each of them.  They are all ‘lost souls’.  The future, which faces ‘the boys’, is as dim as that which has faced Master Boyle.  They speak enthusiastically about themselves and their situation, but to Gar these words sound hollow.  In the end he is forced to admit that they are ‘ignorant bloody louts’ who cover the meaninglessness of their situation with pretence and lies.  Significantly, in his speech with Katie, Gar groups ‘the boys’ with Master Boyle, S.B., and Canon O’Byrne: they are all pathetic figures.  They all confirm his decision to emigrate.

The escape theme in Philadelphia Here I Come! is not a simple one, however.  To create a sense of drama Friel explores the theme from a contrary point of view.  Friel uses the same technique as Kavanagh in ‘Stony Grey Soil’, a poem in which the escape theme is also evident.  Kavanagh enumerates the aspects of his life in Monaghan, which led to his decision to leave.  But he also provides a contrary statement at the end of the poem.  In spite of all the hardships, which have been inflicted on him, he still feels some affection for Monaghan.  The same feeling of affection is evident in Philadelphia Here I Come!, in spite even of Gar’s emphatic statements of rejection.  As the play opens Gar is confirmed in his decision.  But as the action progresses he is subjected to numerous situations, which remind him of the more pleasant aspects of Ballybeg and its people.  As these situations continue to arise in the play, the desire to escape is made more complicated, and even meaningless.  In the play, a definite bond of affection unites the characters, which is all the more touching because it is left unspoken.  Gar’s relationship with Master Boyle, ‘the boys’, and S.B. is characterised by rejection.  They have all, in part, contributed to his desire to escape.  But his relationship with them also contains traces of affection.  He is moved by the visits of Master Boyle and ‘the boys’ and is in a distressed state when they leave.  His affection for S.B. is secretly expressed by Private throughout the play and is openly articulated to Madge at the end (p. 109).  But in particular, his relationship with Katie Doogan represents a part of his life he is sorry to leave behind.  As is usual with Gar, he speaks casually and with forced nonchalance.  But his decision to emigrate, to become ‘100 per cent American’ (p. 82), is complicated by the affection he still feels for the ordinary mundane life of Ballybeg.  In this way the escape theme is fully dramatised by Friel.  Gar’s need to escape, coupled with the affection he feels for the people he is leaving, constitutes one of the effective conflicts of the play. Indeed, the ending is very inconclusive and we are left to wonder as we leave the theatre: well, did he ever leave or did he continue to live a life of futility fuelled by fantasy?

Private: God, Boy, why do you have to leave? Why? Why?

Public: I don’t know. I – I – I don’t know.

There is also a double-dimension to all Friel’s work. He tends to illustrate the same theme from different points of view – Gar leaving for Philadelphia and Lizzie who has come home.  Like other characters in the play, Lizzie is garrulous and she is also the centre of her own conversation.  She wanders through her story about her past life, speaking incoherently, and often losing her train of thought.  She is also irritated when someone interrupts her, and even casual interjections cause her annoyance.  While she speaks, the other characters sit quietly.  Eventually, she breaks down, starts to cry, and stumbles into silence giving us a perfect cameo of the reality behind many a ‘returned Yank’. and a rather stark reality check for Gar as he prepares to leave.  Friel returned to this theme later in The Loves of Cass McGuire which explores the psychology of Cass as she returns from her emigration and exile.   Gripping, often humorous, but steeped in compassion, Friel scripts a rich and complex portrait of a marginalised emigrant returning home.   We can all easily empathise with Cass’s dilemma.  She has returned to a world she cannot recognise and the play explores the difficulties she has in coming to terms with a life not as she imagined and the exclusions society now imposes upon her.  Whereas, Philadelphia Here I Come! dealt with Gar’s physical act of emigration, The Loves of Cass McGuire deals with the psychology of returning and this  marks it out as a very relevant work – indeed, it can be said of Cass, like many a returning exile, she comes back to a home that does not exist except in her fantasy.

So, we can see that the linked themes of escape, exile and emigration (and eventual return) are as relevant today as ever.  Friel’s plays are at times caustic commentary on successive governments for their failures to provide for the people in their care.  As Michael Hartnett also suggested in the 70’s we have been able to maintain our economic stability at a terrible price: ‘the constant exportation of human beings’.

Philadelphia Here I Come!, therefore, contains considerable political and psychological insights. Gar is a kind of ‘split-personality’ and we sense that he will have great difficulty coping with this schizophrenia wherever he ends up. He can escape from Ballybeg, from the small-town people who annoy him, but he can never be free from his own inner voice, constantly exploring, questioning,  and rebuking.

Author’s Note: My favourite production of this play was by the Ardagh Drama Group in County Limerick, which was staged some time in the 1990’s.  It featured a superb tour de force of a performance by Jim Liston as Gar Private.  He was ably supported by sterling performances from Garry McMahon as SB, Margaret Enright as Madge, Senator Doogan was played by Sonny Crowley (RIP), Rory O’Donnell (RIP) was Lizzie’s browbeaten husband, Master Boyle was played by Tom Madigan and ‘the boys’ were superbly marshalled by Mike O’Flynn.

You might also like to read ‘The Theme of Communication in Philadelphia Here I Come!’   here

You might also like to read “Characters and Relationships in Philadelphia Here I Come!” here

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‘Water Baby’ by Michael Hartnett

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Water Baby

By Michael Hartnett

Already the chestnuts, each a small green mace,

fall in the rusted chainmail leaves.  The swifts,

like black harpoons, fail against the whaleskin sky.

Wasps in this skyless summer have no place,

small quarrels swell to great and flooded rifts;

lime trees, prematurely old, decide to die.

The heavy steel-wool curtain never lifts.

Many cling to rafts of music but I,

I am not happy with the human race

aching for its sun-god – he kills as well –

I skip dripping in the shining rain

and feel the minute fingers tap my face

and breathing in St. Bartholomew’s bell

I look up to the sky and kiss the rain.

Commentary:

Some day I hope to write a fitting analysis of this beautiful sonnet – a commentary that will do it justice.  In the meantime, I have to agree with my son Don who has suggested that this is Michael Hartnett’s best sonnet and a poem for which Hartnett deserves acclaim and greater recognition.  Leaving Cert English Poetry course developers please note!

 

Shakespearean Tragedy Defined

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Modern definitions of the word tragedy don’t help when trying to explain the niceties of Shakespearean tragedy.  Our sensationalist news channels such as Sky and CNN are very quick to bring us the latest tragedy; a passenger jet crashes with the loss of all on board; a bridge collapses causing mayhem for home-bound commuters; a school is in lock-down after a young student kills his teacher and many of his fellow students before turning his gun on himself.   Our modern definition of ‘tragedy’, therefore, is usually synonymous with the word ‘disaster’;  or an event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress, such as a serious accident, crime, or natural catastrophe.

These modern definitions do not help us greatly when trying to describe the action in one of Shakespeare’s tragedies.  The good news is that Shakespeare is clearly following a template, one laid down centuries earlier by Aristotle and others – in fact, it can be said that he invented the sequel!  So, therefore, if you have studied one tragedy well,  you have a huge advantage when you come to study the next one!  However, the sad news for all you aspiring young actors is that all Shakespeare’s tragic heroes are men and secondly, if you happen to be playing the title role in one of these tragedies, then universally you will meet a rather gruesome end.

Shakespeare, the consummate businessman, tended to rotate his dramas, so he knew the audience could only take so much comedy, or history or tragedy in any one season.  As opposed to his Comedies or Histories, his Tragedies always dealt with tragic events and always had an unhappy ending i.e. the tragic hero dies.

Spoiler Alert!  Sometimes, however, Shakespeare’s genius is evident as in Macbeth when the tragic hero suffers a gruesome beheading at the end (sad ending!) but the audience leave the theatre with the knowledge that order has been restored in the kingdom and so Scotland has been rescued from a murderous tyrant (happy ending!).

So, to summarise, no one tragedy fits perfectly any one definition, but the conventions of tragedy require certain tragic elements.  Aristotle considered tragedy to be ‘the fall of princes’.  Macbeth falls into this category: he is a thane and he becomes king.  Generally, in Shakespearean Tragedy, the tragic hero sets out on a course of action but because of a flaw in his character evil enters and is the cause of the catastrophe.  Shakespeare believed that his tragedies, including Macbeth, depicted the struggle between good and evil in the world.

The notion of the tragic hero is also problematic.  It seems, at face value, to be a paradoxical term, an oxymoron like Groucho Marx’s famous ‘military intelligence’.  Our dramas today, in our cinemas, in particular, give us loads of suited heroes from Spiderman, to Superman, to Batman and these modern heroes always win.  Tragic heroes, on the other hand, always die!

Shakespeare’s tragic heroes all possess definite characteristics and hopefully, the extreme sexism of the following statements will be understood by members of my female audience!  After all, we have to realise that Shakespeare was writing in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s so, inevitably, his tragic hero is always a man of exceptional nature, a great man such as a King or a great General or a Prince, with a more powerful consciousness, deeper emotions and a more splendid imagination than mere ordinary mortals.  He is a sensitive being with a spiritual bias.  He has a divided soul, he is torn by an internal struggle.  However, this tragic hero has some weakness, some fatal flaw that contributes to his downfall.  Aristotle called this internal weakness of the hero the ‘hamartia’, the tragic flaw, an essential element in tragedy.  Macbeth’s tragic flaw is his ambition.  He succumbs to this powerful failing in his nature and is destroyed by it.  His ambition pushes him into a sequence of action which inevitably leads to his death.  Macbeth attempts the impossible, to usurp the lawful king, and because the means he employs are evil and against the natural law, the inevitable consequences of his actions work themselves out and the result is tragedy.

Aristotle’s criterion for good tragedy was that the members of the audience should experience ‘catharsis’, that is, pity and terror for the tragic hero.  The sensitive, conscience-stricken, tortured Macbeth inspires pity, and the tyrannical Macbeth, ‘in blood stepp’d in so far’ inspires terror.

Therefore, Shakespeare, in Macbeth, does a wonderful balancing act between the audience having sympathy for Macbeth while also recognising the reality that evil must be destroyed and good must triumph in the end and order must be restored to the kingdom.

 

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“A sense of loss pervades much of Patrick Kavanagh’s poetry” – Discuss

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Patrick Kavanagh by Paul McCloskey

Kavanagh is very adept at reflecting the common, everyday occurrences in the rural area of Monaghan in which he grew up.  He writes in a direct way about his own experience with the land.  He celebrates the beauty of nature’s commonplace things.  And yet, a sense of loss also pervades much of his poetry.

In one of Kavanagh’s earlier poems, ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’, he stands on his mile of kingdom, insisting with pride, or perhaps defiance, that he is king of ‘banks and stones and every blooming thing’.  The poem explores the nature of being a poet and in this regard,  Kavanagh acknowledges the reality of his ‘plight’, in spite of the grandiose notion of poetic ‘contemplation’.  The poet shares with us his deep sense of loss.  It is a loss of companionship as others rush past him in ‘Twos and threes’.  Other young men and women make no attempt to communicate with the poet who stands alone on the roadside.  At the dance, he imagines their own coded communications, from which, once again, he is excluded.  The hurt is felt as the poet stands in solitude, isolated from his community, with ‘no shadow thrown / That might turn out a man or woman’.  Kavanagh has been reduced to being a spectator and he sees that this is the high price he must pay for his poetic gift.  The bustle of the dance is in stark contrast to the silence of the mile of road where not even a ‘footfall’ can be expected.

The exploration of the loss of companionship is further developed in ‘The Great Hunger’.  In this poem, Kavanagh explores and also explodes many of the romantic images of the simple, contented rural peasant in Ireland.  He exposes the inadequacies of a social system which stifles the emotional and sexual needs of Patrick Maguire, who becomes entrapped by his clay bride, the land.  Similar to the poet in ‘Inniskeen Road’, Maguire is unable to communicate his needs to others; his only reason for shouting at his farm labourers is to extend his orders for the day.  He is bogged down in empty promises: ‘Who was it promised marriage to himself / Before apples were hung from the ceilings for Halloween’.  He attempts to console himself for his loss of fertility, without wife, without children, pretending to his soul ‘That children are tedious in hurrying fields of April’.

In this society, the lie that ‘Clay is the word’ is perpetuated and so Maguire ‘lives that his little fields may stay fertile’.  In moments of frustration and despair he cries out ‘if I had been wiser!’ but he knows he can never escape ‘the grip of irregular fields’.  Tragically, Maguire’s cries are unheard and unheeded.

A further exploration of loss is evident in ‘Advent’.  In this poem, the concern is with the loss of innocence and wonder.  Kavanagh employs religious association to suggest his yearning to return to a state of innocence in which the ordinary and the commonplace are ‘spirit-shocking’.  It is a poem that declares the poet’s regret at having been corrupted by experience – ‘we have tested and tasted too much’.  Although the poem details the poet’s loss, it does not plummet into despair.  The loss is balanced by the uplifting mood of hope in the third stanza that after Christmas the poet will once again take possession of that ‘luxury’ he had previously lost, ‘And Christ comes with a January flower’.

Kavanagh’s verse is usually self-revealing.  In ‘On Raglan Road’ yet another aspect of loss is related to us.  Once more Kavanagh opens his mind and heart with honesty, cautioning in the first line of the lyric that his love’s ‘dark hair would weave a snare’.  Despite his awareness of the ‘danger’, the poet begins his courtship and enthusiastically woos his friend with gifts ‘of the mind’ such as poems.  A major concern of the poem, however, is lost love, and so despite the poet’s attempts to win his friend’s trust and love, the courtship fails.  Loss of faith in women is replaced with loss of faith in the land in the poem ‘Shancoduff’.  Hills which are looked upon with affection and some pride, are re-evaluated in light of the cattle-drovers’ denouncement that they are ‘hungry’ and ‘forsaken’.

It is abundantly clear, therefore, that in his poetry Kavanagh speaks his mind in praise and in condemnation.  In his subjective verse, his feelings run very deep.  Certainly, he may share with us his celebrations but he does not ignore his sense of loss and isolation.  He records his resentment at being an outcast in his own community in ‘Inniskeen Road’. He denounces the privation of opportunity and fulfilment in ‘The Great Hunger’. He yearns for his lost innocence and wonder in ‘Advent’ and he agonises over his lost love and lost faith in ‘On Raglan Road’ and in ‘Shancoduff’.

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‘Oh, can I still stroke the monster’s back or write with unpoisoned pen…’

“Patrick Kavanagh is a very Religious Poet” – Discuss

 

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A portrait of Kavanagh by Paul McCloskey. http://www.paulmccloskeyart.com

There is a major religious element to Kavanagh’s poetry.  Kavanagh is clearly deeply influenced by his early Catholic upbringing and all that this entails.  He finds inspiration in the liturgical seasons such as Advent.  His poems contain references to Genesis in the Old Testament and to the sacrament of Baptism.  Examples of this orthodox Catholic theology is clearly evident in such poems as ‘Advent’ and ‘Canal Bank Walk’, ‘A Christmas Childhood’ and many more.

In the poem ‘Advent’, Kavanagh feels that he has been corrupted by the whole process of living.  He has ‘tested and tasted too much’.  By ‘testing’ and ‘tasting’, of course, he means that he has indulged in pleasure for the mind and pleasure for the body.  Kavanagh feels too that he has lost the wonder of things, ‘through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder’.

In order to purify himself, Kavanagh is going to use traditional religious methods: ’the dry black bread and the sugarless tea of penance’.  He wants to win back lost innocence, to ‘charm back the luxury of a child’s soul’.  He is going to make a new spiritual beginning; he is going to leave the apple of sin back on the tree and start again in innocence: ‘We’ll return to Doom the knowledge we stole but could not use’.

In this poem, Kavanagh feels that the world has grown sour and stale.  He wants to reawaken the newness that was once in the world for him before he lost wonder and innocence.  This newness and spiritual renewal is to be achieved through penance and self-denial.

Once he has been purified and spiritually regenerated, the ordinary world around him will be new.  It will be new because he will have been spiritually renewed.  He will now find newness and wonder in the ordinary ‘banal’ things – in something as common as the sound of a churning, in the very ordinary almost clichéd sight of the village boys ‘lurching’ at the street corner or in the sight of decent men ‘barrowing dung in gardens under trees’.

Now Kavanagh will be rich – spiritually rich: ‘Won’t we be rich, my love and I’.  And he vows that he will not destroy his new-found wonder and innocence by analysis, by questioning, by intellectualising.  He will not ask for ‘reason’s payment’.  He will not ask the ‘why’ of things.  He will be content to wonder.  As he says in another poem, ‘to look on is enough in the business of love’.

Kavanagh has now discarded his old self – the self that ‘tested’ and ‘tasted’, the self that was obsessed with the worthless pursuit of pleasure and knowledge: ‘We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour’.  There is going to be a new beginning: ‘And Christ comes with the January flower’.

The poem, ‘Canal Bank Walk’ is equally religious.  The year is 1955 and Kavanagh has recently emerged from hospital having undergone a sort of religious experience or spiritual renewal.  The natural world around him is wonderful.  The canal banks are ‘leafy with love’ and the canal water has taken on a religious significance.  It is now Baptismal; water, baptising the poet’s new-born soul.

From now on Kavanagh is going to do the will of God and God’s will is that he steep himself in the ordinary world, ‘wallow in the habitual, the banal’.  God’s will is that he go back to that state of oneness with nature which he had in the innocence of childhood.  He must ‘grow with nature’ again.  For Kavanagh the very breeze takes on a personal dimension: it is adding a third party to the couple kissing on an old seat; it is making up a threesome.

In this poem, Kavanagh’s view is deeply religious.  A bird preparing to build a nest is no longer just a bird building a nest.  It has taken on a religious dimension.  The bird is, in a spiritual sense, preparing a place for the Word to be made flesh.  In Kavanagh’s new-found spiritual view of the world, all new life is a manifestation of God.  It is God Himself visible in physical terms.  The bird is ‘gathering materials for the nest for the Word’.

Kavanagh now wants to live in total oneness with God’s creation, with nature.  He will live life at the level of the senses.  There will be no more intellectualising.  He wants to be trapped forever in the world of sight and sound: ‘enrapture me in a web of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech’.  He seems to feel that he has lived too long and too much in the world of questioning, testing and analysis.  He has neglected the world of sensual contact with nature; ‘feed the gaping need of my senses’.

Finally, in this poem, Kavanagh wants to return to the innocence and simplicity of childhood where he could pray without inhibition: ‘Give me ad lib to pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech’.  He wants his new-born soul to be dressed in green and blue things.  This is the green of the earth and the blue of the sky, the totality of nature, of God’s creation.  There will be no searching for answers. He will settle for ‘arguments that cannot be proven’.

Kavanagh then, in the poems ‘Advent’ and ‘Canal Bank Walk’, is deeply religious.  He is religious in two ways; he is spiritually renewed personally and nature itself takes on a very religious significance.  He wants, as it were, to begin again in innocence – to be, in effect, the very first Born-Again-Christian in 1950’s Catholic Ireland! 

Patrick Kavanagh

Patrick Kavanagh’s bronze commemorative seat near Baggott Street Bridge in Dublin

“Patrick Kavanagh’s Poetry is full of Honesty, Integrity and Simplicity” – Discuss

 

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Patrick Kavanagh by Barnie Maguire on ArtClick.ie

An important element in Kavanagh’s poetry is his obvious honesty, integrity and simplicity.  According to Kavanagh, simplicity is the ability to be content and satisfied with oneself no matter how ridiculous or silly or commonplace one may appear to others.  A simple man is not a poser; he has no need to look over his shoulder to see what others think; there is no desire to seek the approval of the experts or of one’s peers.  To have simplicity is to have what Kavanagh called ‘the philosophy of not caring’.

Kavanagh manifests simplicity in his poetry in three ways:

  • First, we have the simplicity of subject matter or theme.
  • Secondly, he writes about things and experiences that other poets might be ashamed to write about.
  • Thirdly, there is simplicity of language and technique, in his rhymes and in his rhythms.

The simplicity in his subject matter and themes is easily seen.  He writes unashamedly about the ordinary, commonplace world around him; he does not search for lofty, intellectual themes.  He writes about ‘whins’, ‘bogholes’, ‘cart-tracks’, barn dances, farming, ‘men.. who barrow dung in gardens under trees’.  He draws from the ordinary but authentic world of his own experience.  He tells us of the awful loneliness of being a poet in a peasant community, about being ‘king of banks and stones and every blooming thing’.  He recalls bitterly how he, as a poet, had been ‘soul destroyed’ by an uninspiring environment, how Monaghan ‘burgled his bank of youth’, how it ‘flung a ditch on my vision’.  He tells too of his deep human need for love and romance, ‘lost the long hours of pleasure, all the women that loved young men’.  This is all the ‘stuff’ of reality and ordinary reality at that. It may not be a great heroic world, it’s not earth-shattering, but it is the world of authentic experience and he is content with it.  That’s simplicity.

In his poetry, Kavanagh writes about things and experiences that other poets might be ashamed to write about.  He finds wonder in a barge coming up the canal, in a swan going by ‘head low with many apologies’, in ’the bright stick trapped’, in the light which comes ‘through the eye of bridges’.  Everywhere he is satisfied with his world, he does not need to go searching for a theme, they are all around him.  He finds a message in ‘the whispered argument of a churning’ or in the street ‘where the village boys are lurching’.  He finds his God being revealed in incidents as ordinary as a bird building a nest or in decent men ‘who barrow dung in gardens under trees’.

This same simplicity is to be found in his language and diction.  He has little time for poetic diction or flowery pompous language.  He uses ordinary everyday colloquial language, ‘the bicycles go by in twos and threes, there’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn tonight.’  There’s nothing very poetic about that!  Other examples of his ordinary language are numerous: ‘Every old man I see reminds me of my father’, ‘Commemorate me where there is water, canal water preferably’. Etc. etc. etc.  There is nothing pretentious about this poetic voice, rather it is honest.  He is content with his own language, however ordinary, and doesn’t care how he is perceived by the literary ‘purists’.

We can also see examples of his simplicity in his rhythms and rhymes – his technique.  His rhymes are often imperfect.  For example he rhymes ‘water’ with ‘brother’, ‘roars’ with ‘prose’, ‘silence’ with ‘islands’, ‘bridges’ with ‘courageous’, ‘lover’ with ‘wonder’, ‘weather’ with ‘father’, ‘musician’ with ‘London’, and ‘web’ with ‘lib’.  These rhymes would not, I’m sure, meet with the approval of the ‘experts’.  But Kavanagh is not concerned.  He is content with himself, he is not trying to be polished.  After all, he is simply an honest peasant poet writing about ordinary, unsophisticated, personal things.  Over-polished rhyming would surely be out of place here, it would be seen as less authentic

His rhythms are often, too, coarse and rugged.  This is only to be expected since, as I have already stated, he is not using poetic diction but ordinary, colloquial language which is not always musical.  Listen to a few examples: ‘O commemorate me where there is water..’, ‘I have what every poet hates, in spite of all this solemn talk of contemplation’, ‘that man I saw on Gardner Street was one’.  All these lines have the ruggedness of ordinary speech.  Kavanagh is, however, content with them.  He has discovered in his life the ability to be satisfied with himself no matter how others may come to regard him.  That’s honesty.  That’s integrity.  That’s simplicity.

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The Grand Canal in Dublin. Image by Kaihsu Tai via Wikimedia Commons.

“Patrick Kavanagh is a poet of the Ordinary” – Discuss

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Bikes on the Road to Billy Brennan’s Barn, Inniskeen – courtesy of http://www.fisherbelfast.wordpress.com

Kavanagh writes about the ordinary world around him; about a world of ‘whins’ and ‘bogholes’ and ‘cart-tracks’ and ‘old stables’. He has learnt anew to look at the ordinary in an extraordinary way.   This is part of Kavanagh’s greatness as a poet: he is content with his own world, his own reality.  It may not be a sophisticated world, but no matter.  This willingness and ability to be faithful to himself and his world is part of his simplicity.  Simplicity, after all, is just the ability to be satisfied with oneself, no matter how ridiculous one may seem to others.

All through his poetry, Kavanagh has a respect for the commonplace, the ordinary.  He wants to ‘wallow in the habitual’.  In ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’  he tells us what it was like to be a poet in a peasant community where he was an outsider.  It’s a July evening and all the locals are celebrating at the local barn dance.  Kavanagh is alone on the road.  He knows now the price that is to be paid for his gift of poetry; the price is isolation and loneliness.  Poet or no, he has human needs, the need for human contact, the need for romance.  He dismisses the pretentiousness of the intellectuals, ‘I have what every poet hates in spite of all the solemn talk of contemplation’.  This is the ordinary, it is the authentic voice of the outsider who yearns to be loved.

In his poem ‘Advent’, he feels that he may perhaps have lost some of the wonder that lies in the ordinary.  He may be beginning to lose respect for the everyday world because of over-familiarity, ‘we have tested and tasted too much…..’  he sets out to recapture that fascination that he once found in the ordinary.  He is going to renew himself through suffering during the penitential season of Advent by eating only ‘the dry black bread and the sugarless tea of penance’.   He has decided to regain his state of childish innocence and then he will once again revel in the ordinary, in ‘the whins, the bogholes, the cart-tracks, old stables …’  the ordinary will once again be wonderful, a ‘black slanting Ulster hill’ will be spirit shocking’; it will touch his soul.  The boring chat of an old fool will no longer be tedious.  It will again have a newness; it will contain ‘prophetic astonishment’.  The common everyday world will fascinate him; there will be wonder in the ‘whispered argument of a churning’.  From now on his interest will be ‘wherever life pours ordinary plenty’.  He is going to settle for the ordinary, ‘the banal’.  Instead, he will now no longer over-analyse the world of the senses, ‘please God we shall not ask for reason’s payment’.  He won’t ask the ‘why’ of things, ‘nor analyse God’s breath in common statement’.

There is nothing pompous or pretentious about Kavanagh.  He respects the commonplace, whether it is in the Monaghan of his youth or in the canal area around Baggot Street of later years.  He enthuses about the swan going by ‘head low’ or the fantastic light ‘that looks through the eyes of bridges’, or again the common sight (in Kavanagh’s day) of a barge on the canal. When he dies he wants no ‘hero courageous tomb’.  He’ll settle for something much more humble, ‘just a canal bank seat for the passer-by’ – for the ordinary man in the street.

There is more to be said about Kavanagh’s treatment of the ordinary: he often takes the ordinary and elevates it to a new level; he gives it a heroic dimension.  The little waterfall on the canal becomes Niagara Falls.  Even the little patch of grass at Baggot Street Bridge becomes his Mount Parnassus, his place of inspiration.  The barge on the canal is also given legendary status.  It is bringing ‘mythologies’ from afar like Jason’s Argos no doubt.  The barge men, too, will have yarns to tell in Dublin pubs, these yarns may be just well-made lies about strange sights they claim to have seen in that world beyond Sallins!  Kavanagh elevates these events and now they become ‘mythologies’.  Athy may be a not-very-important little town some forty miles from Dublin but it is elevated by Kavanagh to the status of heroic places like Athens and Rome.  Athy becomes a ‘far-flung’ place.

Elsewhere in his poems, we have the same elevation of the ordinary.  His own humble plight as a lonely soul becomes equated with that of Alexander Selkirk.  A bird building a nest is an ordinary sight but in his poem ‘Canal Bank Walk’ it takes on a greater significance.  In that nest, new life will be born and through that new life God will reveal himself; in that nest, the Word will be made Flesh.  In this poem we also see that the canal water is no longer mere canal water; it is now elevated to the Jordan (where Christ is baptised by John), ‘the green waters of the canal pouring redemption for me’.  In ‘Advent’ he can see Christ in a January flower and the ‘decent men who barrow dung to gardens under trees’ are engaged in great work, they are helping God to continue the work of ongoing creation.  They are, he proposes, co-creators with the Almighty.

Finally, we come to Kavanagh’s language and diction.  His language is not strictly poetical, not pompous, not sophisticated.  It is the language of every day, it is colloquial.  We don’t find Kavanagh resorting to poetic diction.  He uses the phrasing and rhythms of ordinary speech.  The result, of course, is that his poetry has often been adversely criticised for its rugged rhythms.  Kavanagh would not be over-concerned about this.  He had, he said, developed ‘the philosophy of not caring’.  ‘The bicycles go by in twos and threes, there’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn tonight’ – that’s a perfect example of ordinary, colloquial language. Examples like these occur everywhere in Kavanagh’s poetry.  This ordinary diction conveys the simplicity, integrity and total lack of pretension in Kavanagh.  He is, indeed, a poet of the ordinary.

Patrick Kavanagh

Patrick Kavanagh’s bronze commemorative seat near Baggott Street Bridge in Dublin

Commentary on ‘Sandpiper’ by Elizabeth Bishop

Sandpiper

By Elizabeth Bishop

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

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

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

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

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

His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

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

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

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

Bishop (7)

Works Cited:

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

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

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