Like many of Jane Austen’s novels what you see is what you get and the major theme of the novel is usually helpfully pointed out in the title! In Persuasion, Jane Austen presents Anne Elliot, her father, her sisters, her friends and her acquaintances in terms of their persuadability or ‘unpersuadability’. Therefore, we are here invited by Austen to judge the characters of Persuasion within this narrow frame of reference provided by its title.
Anne Elliot’s seven years of suffering arise directly from her having been persuaded by Lady Russell to end her association with Captain Wentworth. The cautious Lady Russell, we are told, regarded the connection with Wentworth as ‘a most unfortunate one’, and ‘deprecated the connection in every light’. The central passage follows; in which we find the key to Anne’s subsequent misfortunes:
Such opposition, as these feelings produced, was more than Anne could combat. Young and gentle as she was, it might yet have been possible to withstand her father’s ill-will, though unsoftened by one kind word or look on the part of her sister; but lady Russell, whom she had always loved and relied on, could not, with such steadiness of opinion, and such tenderness of manner, be continually advising her in vain. She was persuaded to believe the engagement a wrong thing; indiscreet, improper, hardly capable of success, and not deserving it (Chap 4).
This is where the theme of persuasion is first raised and the plot develops from here. The second example of persuasion is largely devoted to attempts to persuade Sir Walter to live within his means. Lady Russell draws up plans to help the family economise: ‘If we can persuade your father to all this, much may be done’. She has no success, and Mr Shepherd, ‘who was perfectly persuaded that nothing could be done without a change of abode’, is able to have his plan for retrenchment accepted, not on its merits, but because it seems to Sir Walter to entail the least sacrifice. They move to Bath because Sir Walter and Elizabeth ‘were induced to believe that they should lose neither consequence nor enjoyment by settling there’. Louisa Musgrove tries to impress on Captain Wentworth the contrast between Anne and herself. She knows that Anne’s persuadability has caused her to forfeit Wentworth’s esteem. She is determined, therefore, to appear unpersuadable, at least temporarily. Anne overhears her making her point:
What! Would I be turned back from doing a thing that I had determined to do, and that I knew to be right, by the airs and interference of such a person, or any person, I may say? No, I have no idea of being so easily persuaded. When I have made up my mind, I have made it (Chap 10).
Wentworth responds with warm admiration, and the listening Anne can take his comment on what she fancies he must think of her earlier conduct:
It is the worst evil of too yielding and indecisive a character that no influence over it can be depended on. Let those who would be happy be firm (Chap 10).
This last comment is somewhat ironic in the light of the incident at Lyme when Louisa’s vaunted firmness causes her to crack her skull!:
And instantly, to show her enjoyment, she ran up the steps to be jumped down again. He advised her against it, thought the jar too great; but no, he reasoned and talked in vain; she smiled and said: I am determined I will; he put out his hands; she was too precipitate by half a second, she fell on the pavement on the Lower Cobb and was taken up lifeless (Chap 12).
We learn from Louisa that Henrietta is persuadable to the point of having no mind of her own:
And Henrietta seemed entirely to have made up her mind to call at Winthrop to-day; and yet she was as near giving it up out of nonsensical complaisance (Chap 10).
We can see clearly from these examples that persuasion is central to the novel and some critics find this limiting in that we, the readers, are being manipulated mainly to illustrate this abstract principle; or to make a moral point just as the writer of a traditional fable might arrange his or her materials. However, there is more to the novel and indeed the novel is most enjoyable when Jane Austen forgets about this notion of persuasion and entertains us with closely observed social comedy and satirical touches.
There are also a number of other subsidiary themes in Persuasion. All of Jane Austen’s novels are social comedies, and much of the comedy arises from the follies and absurdities of her comic figures. At some points in the novel, the comedy takes on the harsher tones of satire, whose main victims are Sir Walter and Mrs Musgrove. Among the recurring sources of comedy and satire in Persuasion are Sir Walter’s false pride, his exaggerated notions of his own importance, his condescending attitude to those he considers inferior to himself, and his vanity in his personal appearance. Sir Walter is sometimes described as a snob. This is a person whose ideas and conduct are prompted by a vulgar admiration for wealth or social position. There are elements of snobbery in sir Walter and Elizabeth. Both of them do, indeed, defer to those of superior social standing. Sir Walter wonders whether they should present the worthy Admiral Croft and his wife at Laura Place to meet Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret:
Situated as we are with Lady Dalrymple, cousins, we ought to be very careful not to embarrass her with an acquaintance she might not approve. If we were not related, it would not signify; but as cousins, she would feel scrupulous as to any proposal of ours. We had better leave the Crofts to find their own level. There are several odd-looking men walking about here, who, I am told, are sailors. The Crofts will associate with them (Chap 18).
Sir Walter also displays another prejudice of the snob: contempt for those below him on the social scale. Anne has been visiting Mrs Smith with the approval of Lady Russell, but Sir Walter is disgusted:
A widow, Mrs Smith, lodging in Westgage Buildings! A poor widow, barely able to live, between thirty and forty – a mere Mrs Smith – an every day Mrs Smith, of all people and all names in the world, to be the chosen friend of Miss Anne Elliot, and to be preferred by her to her own family connections among the nobility of England and Ireland! Mrs Smith – such a name! (Chap 17).
In Sir Walter, we are presented with a portrait of the quintessential egotist. His self-esteem and self-contemplation make it easy for us to label him a narcissist; proud of his fine appearance, anxious to preserve it, and frequently admiring it in his large collection of mirrors! Jane Austen damns him with faint praise:
Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter’s character – vanity of appearance and of situation. He had been remarkably handsome in his youth, and, at fifty-four, was still a very fine man. Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did, nor could the valet of any new made lord be more delighted with the place he held in society. He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliot who united these gifts was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion (Chap 1).
Another recurring theme in Persuasion is introduced in the opening chapter, where we learn that ‘a few years before, Anne had been a very pretty girl, but her bloom had vanished early’. In a sense, Persuasion is about the loss and return of youthful beauty and vigour. Again and again, we find references to physical appearance, the ravages of time, the vain struggle to avert its consequences. Sir Walter thinks Elizabeth and himself,
as blooming as ever, amidst the wreck of the good looks of everybody else; for he could plainly see how old all the rest of his family and friends were growing. Anne haggard, Mary coarse, every face in the neighbourhood worsting; and the rapid increase of the crow’s feet about Lady Russell’s temples had long been a distress to him (Chap 1).
On the steps at Lyme, Anne, ‘the bloom and freshness of youth restored by the fine wind’, wins the admiration of Mr Elliot and Captain Wentworth. The latter seems to see ‘something like Anne Elliot again’. The ‘new’ Anne Elliot appears in all her radiance as she is finally secure in Wentworth’s love, ‘glowing and lovely in sensibility and happiness and more generally admired than she thought about or cared for’.
Old Age/Human Decay
The theme of advancing age and human decay are underlined in the numerous references to the rhythms of nature. The following is an impressive example; the reference is to Elizabeth:
Thirteen winters’ revolving frosts had seen her opening every ball of credit which a scanty neighbourhood afforded; thirteen springs had shown blossoms, as she travelled up to London with her father, for a few weeks’ annual enjoyment of the great world. She had the remembrance of all this; she had the consciousness of being nine-and-twenty, to give her some regrets and some apprehensions; she was fully satisfied of being still quite as handsome as ever (Chap 1).
The Somerset chapters are also coloured by references to the autumnal landscape, which reflects Anne’s moods as she waits, without much hope, for ‘a second spring of youth and beauty’ (Chap 13).
The visitors to Lyme are impressed by the romantic landscape, described in almost guide-book fashion, ‘green chasms between romantic rocks, scattered forest trees and orchards of luxuriant growth’. They are also invigorated by ‘the fresh-feeling breeze’ by the sea. The most moving ‘natural’ passage is that conveying Anne’s feelings as she prepares to leave for Bath:
An hour’s complete leisure for such reflections as these, on a dark November day, a small thick rain almost blotting out the very few objects ever to be discerned from the windows, was enough to make the sound of Lady Russell’s carriage exceedingly welcome; and yet, though desirous to be gone, she could not quit the Mansion-house, or look adieu to the Cottage, with its black, dripping and comfortless verandah, or even notice through the misty glasses the last humble tenements of the village, without a saddened heart (Chap 13).
Passages such as these make Persuasion the most poetic of Jane Austen’s novels. The descriptions are not there simply for atmosphere and background; in passages like the last one there is profound interaction between external nature and the mind of the character who beholds it; for the reader, Anne’s mood becomes part of the gloomy November landscape.
Murray, Patrick. Persuasion in Inscapes 13, The Educational Company of Ireland, 1978
King Lear is set in England – an England before history, a country of swirling mists and violent tempests where ancient gods hold sway. It has been sometimes described as a Christian play with a pagan setting. For us Irish, even the name Lear/Lir conjures up legendary tales from Irish mythology. The Children of Lir, for instance, is a tale from the early Christian period that mixes magical elements such as druidic wands and spells with a Christian message of faith bringing freedom from suffering. This is very similar to the underlying theme in Shakespeare’s King Lear.
We also need to be aware of the historical events taking place in England around 1605 when this play was written. Queen Elizabeth I had died in 1603 without a direct heir to the throne. She was succeeded by James VI of Scotland who later became James I of England, Scotland and Ireland – the first early version of the United Kingdom. Shakespeare’s company was known as The King’s Men and many of the plays were produced with a Royal Command Performance in mind. It is interesting that Macbeth – set in Scotland – was first performed in 1606 for the same monarch.
Even a casual reader of King Lear is bound to notice the frequency with which the gods are invoked or discussed by many of the characters in the play. More striking perhaps, is the great variety of distinct points of view on the gods and their dealings with men expressed from beginning to end of the play. Some of these are merely passing references, as, for example, Albany’s amazed reaction to Lear’s behaviour towards Goneril: ‘Now gods that we adore, whereof comes this?’. Others are obviously ironic or insincere, as when Edmund, in conversation with Gloucester, claims that he tried to dissuade Edgar from his murderous intent by telling him that ‘the revenging gods / Against parricides did all their thunders bend’; or when Regan invokes ‘the blest gods’ in response to Lear’s curses. But such casual references are rare enough: elsewhere, whenever the gods are mentioned, the tone is almost invariably serious, betraying the concern of the speakers with the nature and attributes of the ultimate Power, and their awareness of the problems of affirming cosmic justice in the face of the evil and suffering so rife in their universe.
Many commentators have remarked on the number of conflicting theories on the nature and disposition of the gods that are advanced by the different characters, sometimes indeed, by the same character, during the course of the play. Almost every major point of view is expressed. Gloucester in his despair sees men as the victims of a capricious and malevolent divinity: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods’. At other times, particularly after suffering has awakened his religious sense, he addresses heartfelt prayers to the ‘ever-gentle gods’ and speaks feelingly of ‘the bounty and the benison of heaven’. Edgar pictures the gods as dispensers of a merely retributive justice:
The gods are just and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us.
But his other, and more characteristic, religious utterances reveal a deep faith in supernatural goodness, and his view of the gods is best seen in his encouraging words to Gloucester after he has saved him from suicide:
Therefore, thou happy father,
Think that the clearest gods, who make them honours
Of men’s impossibilities, have preserved thee.
The speeches of the other characters also help to enlarge and diversify the range of references about the gods. When Kent, who normally expresses faith in the just dealings of the heavenly powers, is momentarily overwhelmed by the apparent triumph of wickedness and injustice in the play and dismayed by the unnatural dealings of Lear’s daughters, he falls back on an astrological determinism, ‘It is the stars’, he cries, ‘the stars above us govern our conditions’. Edmund’s deity is a nature-goddess while Lear appeals to primitive magic when he disinherits Cordelia ‘by the sacred radiance of the sun / The mysteries of Hecate and the night’, and he calls on Nature, his ‘dear goddess’ to curse Goneril, as if he believes that the heavens are at the service of man’s evil whims. In his great speech on the heath (III, iv, 28ff), he implies that the wretched condition of the poor is an indictment of divine justice. By exposing himself to feel what naked wretches feel, and by sharing his superfluous goods among them, he hopes to ‘show the heavens more just’.
For many students of the play, Gloucester’s cry of despair, ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods /They kill us for their sport.’, strikes the keynote of the play and sums up its spirit. There is indeed much in the play to justify this point of view. Time after time Shakespeare seems to underline the futility of looking to the heavenly powers for help, pity or the alleviation of suffering. He throws into the sharpest possible relief the bitter and ironic contrast between the seemingly justifiable aspirations of men, so often nourished by belief in divine goodness, and the apparent indifference and blindness of the gods to even their most urgent and insistent demands. Some of the juxtapositions contrived by Shakespeare seem to make a mockery of prayer and faith in providential justice. Lear invokes the heavens against the ingratitude of his daughters and begs them to make his cause their cause, to come down and take his part, but the heavens are silent and Regan adds to his misery by demanding that he dismiss half his train. His next prayer, ‘You see me here you gods, a poor old man’ is answered by the sound of the approaching storm, and soon after, the elements let fall their ‘horrible pleasure’ and join with his two evil daughters in punishing ‘a poor, infirm, weak and despised old man’.
Edgar on the heath thinks that ‘the worst returns to laughter’: he is immediately confronted with the bleeding face of his blinded father. Just before the battle he urges Gloucester to pray that the right may thrive, and assures him ‘If ever I return to you again I’ll bring you comfort’. He returns only to lead his father away; his prayers have not been answered: ‘King Lear hath lost, he and his daughter ta’en’. The most dreadful example is reserved for the last scene. Edmund has repented. He reveals his plan to have Cordelia murdered in prison, and Edgar hastens to save her life. Albany’s prayer, ‘the gods defend her’ is at once followed by the stark stage-direction: Enter Lear, with Cordelia dead in his arms. By means of deliberate effects like these, the play seems to suggest that there is no basis for faith in heavenly justice or benevolence, that the Powers who control the universe are either hostile or indifferent to the good of man.
The idea of universal justice is most sharply challenged by the ending of this play. The wasteful deaths of Lear and Cordelia following their long exposure to suffering and torture inevitably make us wonder what conception of the universe caused Shakespeare to impose so ‘cheerless, dark and deadly’ an ending on a play which, in the Fourth Act, seemed to be heading to a reasonably happy ending True enough, Lear has sinned, but he is, in his own words, ‘more sinned against than sinning’, and the punishment he is made to undergo seems absurdly disproportionate to his original fault. It is not enough that he should humbly repent and willingly renounce the name and the trappings of a king for life in prison with Cordelia, that his pride should be broken and he is driven to madness but also during his last moments on earth he must endure the overwhelming sorrow of Cordelia’s death. This grim ending has horrified many critics. Samuel Johnson rebuked Shakespeare for having ‘suffered the virtue of Cordelia to perish in a just cause, contrary to our natural ideas of justice, and to the hope of the reader’. There are those who argue that the ending in King Lear destroys any basis for faith in a god or gods, and quenches the notion that in our universe the good thrive and the wicked will be eventually punished.
This pessimistic view of the Lear universe is not universally held. There are those who argue, that, far from being a bitter indictment of cosmic justice and of providence, the play offers a profoundly Christian comment on the dealings of providence with men – that it is, in fact, a Christian play about a pagan world. These critics point to the fact that the play’s attitude toward human suffering is, in fact, a Christian one. It has always been part of Christian teaching that man is perfected through suffering and the image of the Cross is central to this idea. Christians believe that any painful experience is good when it leads the sufferer, however unwillingly at first, along the path of righteousness and humility; that, in fact, suffering leads to redemption and enlightenment as is the case with Lear and Gloucester in the play.
The failure of ‘the gods’ to answer many of the prayers addressed to them throughout the course of the action has been interpreted by some critics as evidence that Shakespeare pictured the Lear universe as one in which the gods are indifferent to man’s needs. Here, however, it is possible to find the values of the play are very compatible with those of traditional Christianity. With regard to prayer, it seems to make the point, one which very few Christian scholars would disagree with, that prayers are sometimes answered as the suppliant wishes, but that it is often otherwise, that the answer can take a totally unexpected form, or that no direct answer may be forthcoming. At the end of the blinding scene (III, vii) the Third Servant prays for Gloucester: ‘Now Heaven help him’. His prayer is answered. Almost at once we see him reunited with Edgar, who saves him from despair and suicide and restores a measure of happiness to his tortured mind. On the other hand, when Lear prays that the vengeance of heaven may fall upon the head of Goneril, his demand recoils upon himself, and he becomes the victim of the elements during the storm. And there is no answer to Albany’s prayer that Cordelia’s life may be spared.
Edgar’s is perhaps the best expression of the general attitude of the play towards the gods. As R.B. Heilman points out, he consistently shows his faith in human justice, but he ‘does not presumptuously expect divinity to be a magical servant’. With regard to Lear’s pleadings, the same critic argues that in the scheme of things as Shakespeare has here conceived it, he can expect justice, but he cannot dictate terms. Samuel Johnson, dissatisfied as he was with Shakespeare’s decision to allow Cordelia to die in spite of the justice of her cause, nevertheless believed that the play convincingly exposed the self-destructive and abnormal nature of evil.
What the play seems to be saying to us concerning cosmic justice is not that ‘the gods’ wait for man to fall into the most trivial error in order to punish him, but that once man has wilfully embraced a wrong course of action, he is liable to set in motion a long train of disasters over which he has little control. There is also the notion that it is in the nature of evil to spread its influence far and with fearful rapidity, visiting both good and bad with misery and ruin, and that once the evil has been let loose man has no control over the consequences. Furthermore, the sufferers in the Lear universe cannot expect the gods to grant them or their fellows immunity from further suffering, as soon as they have repented, and it is part of the order of things in that universe that individual evil can never remain individual. The main point to be made about the idea of cosmic justice as seen in King Lear is that it is quite distinct from the poetic justice that so many critics seem to think that Shakespeare should have preserved. Poetic justice ensures that rewards and punishments are carefully distributed and bear as exact a relationship as possible to the nature of the deed. King Lear makes no attempt to establish such a relationship. It suggests, instead, that the notion of a purely retributive justice is one of mankind’s illusions, and that although evil may be ultimately self-destroying, being good and virtuous provide us with few guarantees or protection against evil in the world.
Nature and its Meaning in King Lear
Shakespeare often focuses on major philosophical issues in his tragedies. For example, the famous critic and scholar, Wilson Knight, declares that ‘the theme of Hamlet is death’. However, no Shakespearean play is so consistently devoted to a single central idea as King Lear is to the exploration of the meaning of the concept of ‘Nature’. The play explores the idea of human nature, the natural world, what is natural and unnatural, and the many references to monsters and monstrous deeds, and so on, are numerous and occur throughout the play.
The events of the play and the behaviour of most of the character’s underline Shakespeare’s preoccupation with the idea. Lear disowns his one loyal and loving daughter in favour of two who will turn savagely on him. Gloucester, with that deep irony so characteristic of almost every major statement of its kind in the play, calls the utterly treacherous Edmund his ‘loyal and natural boy’, and disowns his totally devoted son Edgar. Each parent severs the bond of nature with animal ferocity, then, with grim irony, invokes nature as a reason for doing so. Lear’s argument: Cordelia is a wretch whom nature is ashamed ‘Almost to acknowledge hers’; Gloucester’s: Edgar is ‘an unnatural, detested, brutish villain: Worse than brutish’.
Lear and Gloucester, in Shakespeare’s scheme of things, commit mortal sins against nature, and the rest of the play is mainly concerned with the awful revenge that nature will take on the two offenders, who act from brute instinct and in blindness. But Lear and Gloucester, however we may weigh their moral guilt, will each pay a price that bears little proportion to the admitted evil of their parallel actions.
Each will be largely cut off from the kindness, generosity and protection which human beings naturally afford each other. They will be forced to wander in a storm, one of the great Shakespearean symbols of disorder. They will learn the lessons of their folly through pain and suffering. Gloucester, paradoxically, must be blinded in order to see; Lear, paradoxically, must be driven to madness to achieve an understanding of himself and his acts.
The following are some examples of the many and varied aspects of the term ‘Nature’ as seen in the play:
Allow not nature more than nature needs
Man’s life is cheap as beasts. (II, iv, 265)
Here nature means the primitive condition of mankind before civilisation.
Thou has one daughter
Who redeems nature from the general curse
Which twain have brought her to (IV, vi, 210)
Here we have the idea of an originally innocent nature before the Fall of Adam and Eve which requires a redemption.
That nature, which contemns in the origin
Cannot be bordered certain in itself (IV, ii, 32)
Nature here is used to define the bond between child and parent. Goneril’s unnatural treatment of her father involves the breaking of this bond. Albany warns Goneril that in so doing she will, like a branch severed from a tree, ‘wither and come to deadly use’.
The characters in the play embody quite different conceptions of the meaning of nature. Cordelia represents an ideal: human kindness, the sense of a close kinship between human beings. Her sisters and Edmund see Nature as red in tooth and claw, and all men, irrespective of family ties, at war with others for personal advantage.
The Death of Lear
What is Lear’s state of mind at the moment of his death? The answer we give depends on whether we believe Shakespeare meant the play to close on a bleak and cheerless note or whether (if Lear is seen to die happy if deluded) that he intended the play to end on a more hopeful note. The crucial lines are these:
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips.
Look there, look there. (V, iii, 312-3)
A. C. Bradley, the great Shakespearean scholar, suggests that Lear dies of joy, believing Cordelia to be still alive. Bradley pointed out that when Lear was still in doubt as to whether she was alive or dead he declared:
She lives! If it be so
Its is a chance which does redeem all sorrows
That ever I have felt.
If, in other words, she was still alive, this would counterbalance for him all the miseries he had endured up to this. Bradley distinguished between what the reader must feel as he watches Lear’s pathetic deception and what the deluded Lear himself is experiencing:
To us, perhaps, the knowledge that he is deceived may have a culmination of pain, but if it brings only that, I believe we are false to Shakespeare, and it seems almost beyond question that any actor is false to the text who does not attempt to express in Lear’s last accents and gestures and look, an unbearable joy (Shakespearean Tragedy).
This analysis has often been criticised as being too sentimental, but it has two fairly strong supports. One is the fact that in Shakespeare’s source for the play, Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, Lear’s heart is described as being ‘stretched so far beyond his limits with this excess of comfort’. The other is that we are almost certainly intended to see Gloucester’s last moments as providing a parallel to Lear’s, all their other major experiences being parallel. And here is how Gloucester dies;
His flawed heart
Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief,
Burst smilingly (V, iii, 196).
In recent times, strong voices have been raised against the view that joy is the keynote of Lear’s departure from this life. One point that should be borne in mind is that Lear’s illusion that Cordelia still lives recurs three of four times in the last scene:
She’s dead as earth. Lend me a looking glass.
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why then, she lives….
Here there is a heart-breaking tension in Lear between an absolute knowledge that Cordelia is dead, and an absolute inability to accept it. When his test with the looking-glass fails, he snatches a feather and tries a second test:
This feather stirs; she lives! If it be so,
It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows
That ever I have felt…
This effort, like the last one, fails. Then again he tries to prove that she is alive by putting his ear to her lips in the hope that she might be speaking:
Cordelia, Cordelia, stay a little. Ha,
What is’t thou sayest? Her voice was ever soft.
Gentle, and low – an excellent thing in woman …
He dies vainly seeking (or thinking he finds) life in her lips (‘Look there, look there’). What comfort can be extracted from the manner of his death? It might well be argued in response to Bradley that, given the cycle of despair, insanity and the illusion of hope, it hardly matters very much at what point of it Lear expires. One bleaker version is that of J. Stampfer, who argues that,
Gloucester died between extremes of joy and grief, at the knowledge that his son was miraculously preserved. Lear between extremes of illusion and truth, ecstasy and the blackest despair, at the knowledge that his daughter was needlessly butchered. Gloucester’s heart burst smilingly at his reunion with Edgar; Lear’s, we are driven to conclude, burst in the purest agony at his eternal separation from Cordelia (Shakespeare Survey, 1960, p.4).
Whatever the relative merits of the views expressed by Bradley and Stampfer, it is perhaps going too far to say that at the moment of Lear’s death, joy is in equal balance with grief. What is safe to say is that Lear’s heart breaks. The words of Kent make this clear (‘Break heart, I prithee break’). It is also clear that we are meant to see his death as the culmination of an ordeal of torment renewed beyond reasonable endurance. Again Kent is our authority:
Vex not his ghost. O, let him pass! He hates him
That would upon the rack of this rough world
Stretch him out longer.
King Lear: The Spirit of the Play
When one tries to describe one’s overall impression of King Lear, its spirit, its overall mood, one can easily fall into the trap of imposing a pattern based on one’s own preferences and attitudes. Many critics have seen, and described, King Lear as the embodiment of utter despair, chaos and cynicism. Others see it as Shakespeare’s endorsement of love as the supreme and absolute human value. Both these extreme views fail to do justice to the range of issues so deeply touched on by Shakespeare in this tragedy.
The spirit of the play cannot be wholly pessimistic. At play’s end, Lear has been reconciled to Cordelia and Gloucester to Edgar. Evil, as represented by the wicked quartet, Edmund, Cornwall, Goneril and Regan, has prospered for a while, taken possession of the Lear universe, caused men to descend to sheer bestiality, but has, by the close, destroyed itself. But is it too much to say that good has enjoyed a corresponding triumph? The ‘good’ characters, Lear, Cordelia, Edgar, Gloucester, Kent, must suffer, and even when their sufferings seem no longer supportable suffer again until the two chief characters die in harrowing circumstances.
Where, then, do we look for an ‘optimistic’ note in King Lear? It is easy, after all, to define the pessimistic ones: the forces of suffering and evil have possessed the play so long, and have so steadily enjoyed their various triumphs, that it may seem false to the overall tone of the play to underline the less despairing indications that offer themselves, if even tentatively, and almost apologetically. It may be too much to claim that Lear’s reunion with Cordelia is the final seal on the salvation he has begun to achieve through suffering and deprivation. His real salvation is, perhaps, a more prosaic one: release at last from the torture of his life. The major theme of the play is what men must endure at the hands of those forces, inner and outer, which govern the courses of their lives. The play shows these forces as capable of almost continuous cruelty and torment. But it also sounds another note. The entire course of events in King Lear suggests that the forces of life perform another function. John Holloway, in his excellent study, puts the matter as follows:
To follow the master, to sustain the state, top bless one’s child, to succour the aged and one’s parents – the idea of being brought back to rectitude is what the play ends with. These are the things which it falls to living men to do; and if the play advances appositive, I think it is that when men turn away from how they should live there are forces in life which constrain them to return. If anything rules creation, it is (though only, as it were, by a hairsbreadth) simply rule itself. What order restores, is order. Men tangle their lives; life, at a price, is self-untangling at last (The Story of the Night).
Faced with the overwhelming depravity of the four chief villains, and the relative success of their schemes, it is easy to lose sight of the depth of human goodness and decency in King Lear. Kent and the Fool remain loyal to Lear to the end; Albany grows in moral stature as the plot develops; Edgar at times reaches heights of selfless perfection. Lear learns to recognise goodness and love for what they are, and his gratitude at this revelation is one of the more memorable things in the play. It is true that the lessons learned by Lear and Gloucester have involved a huge amount of suffering, and a terrible waste, a cosmic upheaval. But this in itself may be seen as offering grounds for optimism about man’s place in the overall scheme of things. That the forces of life and nature should so disarrange themselves to teach two old men how to live is powerful testimony to the fundamental worth of human beings. Lear recognises this. Even the Supreme Powers, he feels, witness the events in which he is the central figure with awe and reverence:
Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense …
As I pointed out earlier, King Lear is set in England – an England before history, a country of swirling mists and violent tempests where ancient gods hold sway. This new cinematic adaptation of the play places it at some unknown time in the future – although recent political events in Westminster suggest that the United Kingdom may not be united for much longer! Ironically, this was one of the major reasons why Shakespeare gave us the great tragedies – he was saying to his audience: ‘This is what happens when you mess with order – do not go there!’. Four hundred years later ……. the Bard is still relevant! Study well!
Bradley, A.C., Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: Meridian Books, 1955.
Granville Barker, Harley. Prefaces to Shakespeare, Vol 2. King Lear, Cymbeline, Julius Caesar. Atlantic Publishers and Distributors (P) Ltd, 2006.
Heilman, R.B., This Great Stage: Structure in King Lear. Louisiana State University. 1948.
Holloway, John. The Story of the Night: Studies in Shakespeare’s Major Tragedies. Routledge: London and New York. 1961 (Reprinted 2005).
Murray, Patrick. King Lear in Inscapes published by The Educational Company of Ireland. 1980
Schucking, Levin L., Character Problems in Shakespeare’s Plays: A Guide to the Better Understanding of the Dramatist. First published by George G. Harrap in July 1922.
Spurgeon, Caroline F. E., Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us, Cambridge Univesity Press, 1935.
Stampfer, J., The Catharsis of King Lear’ in Shakespeare Survey 13, Cambridge, 1960
You might also like to read my ‘Single Text Study Notes on King Lear’ here.
Also, you might like to have a look at ‘Image Patterns in King Lear’ here.
These notes are an effort to give you some extra food for thought in your preparation for your Single Text question in June. The focus of your study should be on character, theme and image patterns. As far as Shakespeare was concerned the most important character in the play is Lear himself. We must keep this in mind when making our preparations. You will, in effect, have to talk about Lear and his relationships with all the other characters in the play. That is to say, you cannot discuss the character of Cordelia, or Gloucester, or Kent or the Fool without discussing their relationship to Lear.
You will also have to have some understanding of what is meant when we talk of Shakespearean Tragedy. You might like to read my short explanation of the term here.
Most of Shakespeare’s tragedies are set abroad – Hamlet in Denmark, Othello in Venice and Cyprus, Macbeth in Scotland, Coriolanus in Rome, etc. Some critics say that the reason for this ploy was because he was often dealing with very serious matters such as murder, even the murder of kings and queens. He didn’t want to be seen to be inciting people to rise up against his main benefactor, Queen Elizabeth or King James I. However, King Lear is set in England – an England of swirling mists and violent tempests, and it has been sometimes described as a Christian play with a pagan setting.
Interestingly, the underlying theme in King Lear, like the ongoing, excruciating Brexit saga, is of a United Kingdom being divided up to satisfy the egotistical whim of an ageing monarch. Fintan O’Toole, writing in an Irish Times opinion piece on Saturday 7th September, 2019 compares the Brexit goings-on in Westminster with the tragedy of King Lear. He says that recently ‘a little bit of King Lear was playing out in the House of Commons’ and that some of the scenes being acted out and relayed to us from Westminster and its environs even resembled some of the madness scenes in Lear:
The play, after all, is about the collapse of political authority in Britain, caused by nothing more than a caprice (a whim). It shows the potentially terrible consequences of political self-indulgence.
So, there you have positive proof if it was needed, that this Single Text you are studying this year is as relevant now as it was in 1605!
The Main Characters in King Lear
The best point about Shakespeare’s extraordinary achievement in presenting Lear is that made by Granville-Barker in his fine preface to the play:
For this massive fortress of pride which calls itself Lear, for any old man indeed of eighty or upwards, there could be no dramatic course but declension (to go downhill, to decline, to deteriorate). Who would ever think of developing, or expanding, a character from such overwhelming beginnings? Yet this is what Shakespeare does (in King Lear).
Lear indeed begins as an almost superhuman figure, marking out the map with the ponderous gestures of some god, and making his pronouncements with godlike authority and power:
Come not between the dragon and his wrath …
The bow is bent and drawn, make from the shaft …
Nothing: I have sworn; I am firm …
The most obvious feature of Lear’s character, and the dominant one from the beginning is his arrogance, which everybody agrees, has been nourished by a long career of absolute power. (You might, if you find yourself with a minute to spare, tune in to Sky News and their minute-by-minute coverage of Brexit at Westminster and see if you can identify any modern-day proponents of this self-same arrogance!). Like Boris, the slightest opposition makes Lear fly into a towering rage. Those who question his pettiest whim, or dispute his judgments, are exposed to incredible retaliation. It is not enough for Lear to banish Kent: he also threatens him with capital punishment. Not only does he withdraw his favour from Cordelia: he treats her as if he has never known her: she is now ‘new adopted to our hate’. These traits are still evident after he has abdicated and when he abandons himself to the ‘charity’ of Goneril and Regan. Indeed, if anything, his unpredictability and tempers worsen. He is remarkable at this stage for his impatience, his lack of self-control, his arrogance and mood swings. Even faithful followers like the Fool and Kent are treated very poorly; he threatens the Fool and makes little of Kent’s loyalty and faithfulness. Those who provoke his anger fare even worse. He strikes Goneril’s gentleman and insults Oswald. His curses on Goneril are fearsome. After Regan has disappointed him, he is seized by a terrible frenzy of passion which finds its outlet in a kind of madness.
Yet, even though we must always bear in mind that Lear is our tragic hero, no account that fails to point out these repellent aspects of his character can do justice to the portrait that Shakespeare wants to put before us. Some commentators are content to see him almost exclusively as a noble, suffering old man cruelly treated by his daughters. The other side of Lear is at least half the truth. Shakespeare goes to considerable rounds to underline his brutality, bitterness, fierceness, egotism, self-pity and fickleness. There is also the fact that he often tends to desire vengeance on all those (including his daughters) who injure or annoy him. It is interesting to notice that, early in the play, Shakespeare allows Goneril and Regan to comment on Lear’s hotheadedness, on the fact that ‘the best and soundest of his time hath been but rash’. They also feel that age has further weakened his already poor judgement and that his angry nature can break out in ‘inconstant starts’. This is the one instance (and the only one) where we see things from their point of view.
It is important to bear in mind, however, that the entire tendency of the play is to cause the reader or spectator to discount Lear’s failings and to regard him with compassion, sympathy and understanding. One major factor in Shakespeare’s presentation of Lear is that all the characters we admire look on his situation from his point of view, and this is clearly what Shakespeare wants us to do also. He is, after all, the tragic hero and Shakespeare wants us to view Lear very much as a man ‘more sinned against than sinning’. In a way, Lear’s faults and failings are not the things we are invited to concentrate on. Shakespeare is concerned less with the personal weaknesses and shortcomings of his main character than with the monstrous insult offered by Goneril and Regan and their allies to some of the most sacred values of human beings: fatherhood, old age and kingship. The German critic Levin Schucking makes this essential point about this aspect of Shakespeare’s presentation of Lear as tragic hero:
Lear … appears like an old, gnarled, stubborn oak tree, vigorously resisting the tempest, unyielding, majestic, deep-rooted, upheld only by its own strength, and towering above all its fellows. His weakness may almost be said to be the necessary concomitants of his strong qualities. His vindictiveness appears to be the result of his strength; his savage maledictions seem due to his fiery temperament. He is meant to be seen as a sublime and truly noble figure.
Many critics and scholars have found the real heart of the play, its essential ‘meaning’, in Lear’s movement from pride, egotism and spiritual blindness to understanding, insight and love. This is often seen as a process of purification, by means of which, through suffering, Lear is led out of his severely limited vision into a proper recognition of the true values of life. Through the course of his misery, Lear achieves a degree of spiritual apprehension and insight which he never achieved in the years of his prosperity. At the outset, we see him as a proud and angry old man for whom love is merely an instrument of self-glorification. After he has felt humiliation and endured the fury of the storm he becomes increasingly aware of his own faults and of the needs and sufferings of others. In the great transitional scene on the heath, he shows kindness towards the Fool (‘Poor Fool and knave, I have one part in my heart that’s sorry for thee’), and he urges Kent and the Fool to go before him into the hovel. Before sleeping he will pray, and in his prayer, he thinks of the poor naked wretches of whose misery he has never before been sufficiently aware: ‘O, I have taken too little care of this’.
In Lear, religious feeling grows out of suffering and disappointment with worldly hopes; before he gains his soul, he must first lose the world. His final two speeches before he goes to prison are deeply religious. He renounces all power and earthly prosperity; he is contrite of heart; with Cordelia he will pray and meditate on heavenly things; he talks of blessing, forgiveness and sacrifices. His long and painful trial, far from giving one cause for doubting divine benevolence, may be interpreted in quite the opposite sense. A.C Bradley realised this, and in a celebrated passage, he argued that Lear owes his own spiritual awareness,
to those sufferings which make us doubt whether life was not simply evil, and men like the flies which wanton boys torture for their sport. Should we not be at least as near the truth if we called this play, The Redemption of King Lear, and declared that the business of the gods with him was neither to torment him, nor to teach him a noble anger, but to lead him to attain through apparently hopeless failure the very end and aim of life.
The main stages of Lear’s spiritual development can be charted as follows:
His efforts to practice self-control and patience
His repentance for his treatment of Cordelia
His speech on ‘true need’
His pity for the ‘poor naked wretches’
His recognition of the falseness of flattery and of the brutal nature of authority
His consideration for the Fool (‘In boy, go first’)
His ‘I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep’ in the hovel, in contrast to his earlier vehement cursing and crying for vengeance
His discovery of love and its true meaning
His new notion of happiness (‘Come let’s away to prison’) with Cordelia
His ‘conversion’ is not an altogether simple, straightforward process. Against the idea that he is converted during the course of the play from a proud, fierce egotist into a patient, suffering Christian martyr, one has to bear in mind his outbursts of anger, hatred and vindictiveness to the very end:
A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all ….
I killed the slave that was a hanging thee ….
I have seen the day, with my good biting falchion ….
I would have made them skip ….
Similarly, his madness is not a straightforward process either. Madness is one of the central themes of the play. Lear’s madness is part of its paradoxical structure. What is most striking about Shakespeare’s presentation of this theme is that during his mad scenes, Lear’s lunacy is allowed co-exist with his deepest insights. The matter is well expressed by Edgar in the most powerful paradox of the play; ‘o matter and impertinency mixed / Reason in madness’ (IV, vi, 178). Like Gloucester’s blindness, Lear’s madness becomes a positive value. Because he is mad, Lear is set free from conventional restraints and limitations and can see the defects of society from a new perspective. He reaches a degree of understanding which he never achieved while he was sane. He now understands how flatterers obscured his view of reality; he understands the hypocrisy of society with regard to crimes of lust; he rails against the common treatment of criminals, and against his own long neglect of the poor and defenceless. He sees, too, that the human condition is inevitably tragic:
When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools …. IV, vi, 179
Lear is not the only character who exemplifies the play’s preoccupation with reason in madness. Shakespeare chooses a trinity of men to suggest that the greatest wisdom may belong to those whom the world may regard as either mad or useless. Lear is a doting old man even before he descends into madness; the Fool is unbalanced, and Edgar a pretended madman, an outcast beggar, an incompetent manager of worldly affairs. The comments and attitudes of these three embody most of the wisdom that the play has to offer on questions of life and living.
The following are the main stages in Lear’s madness, which is induced by a series of shocks:
The rebuff by Cordelia
The attack by Goneril, which makes him pretend not to know her and not to know himself
He begins to realise how he has wronged Cordelia
In Act I, Scene v, there is full recognition of his folly
At the end of Act I, he has his first serious premonition of insanity, ‘O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven…’
The third great shock comes when he finds Kent in the stocks. This insult to his royal dignity causes the first physical symptoms of hysteria (hysterica passio: II, iv, 55).
The fourth great shock is his rejection by Regan. The storm is the projection on the macrocosm (the universe) of the tempest in the microcosm (the human mind) … ‘O, Fool, I shall go mad’.
He identifies with the storm … a sign that reason has been overthrown by passion.
He is on the verge of madness when he invokes the storm to destroy the seeds of matter … ‘My wits begin to turn’.
The appearance of Poor Tom drives him over the edge. Poor Tom is both a living embodiment of the ‘naked poverty’ and one who is, apparently, what Lear has feared to become. In acting out the madman’s role, Edgar brings on Lear’s madness. Exposure to the elements and physical exhaustion hinder his recovery from the shocks he has so far endured.
He is soon trying to identify himself with unaccommodated man by tearing off his clothes.
A. C. Bradley saw the real beginning of Lear’s madness in ‘Hast thou given all to thy two daughters?’ (II, iv, 49), which marks the dominance of a fixed idea or obsession.
The madness of the elements, the professional ‘madness’ of the Fool, the pretended madness of Edgar, the madness of the King – all exemplify the break-up of society and the break-up of the universe itself under the impact of ingratitude and treachery. Then Gloucester appears, almost mad with grief at his son’s treachery, and only Kent is wholly sane.
The ‘trial scene’ is the peak of Lear’s madness. He imagines he sees Goneril and Regan … ‘She kicked the poor King her father …’. Cordelia describes him at the peak of his madness (‘Crowned with rank fumiter and furrow weeds…’). The whole tableau marks a reversion to childhood.
Lear recovers his wits at the end of Act IV. His cure comes with sleep, music and Cordelia’s love … and finally with his confession and kneeling to her.
After his recovery, Lear never really returns to the world of time and space. Cordelia becomes his whole world, and he lives in a kingdom that she creates for him by her presence.
Cordelia can be misunderstood. She is not to be seen as a totally meek, saintly sufferer, or as a totally passive victim. In many ways, if you think about it, she is very like her father! She has inherited his pride and like him, she too can be obstinate and stubborn. She responds to his pride with her own pride at the beginning. There is one detail in the reconciliation scene which tells us much about her character. While her father is still asleep, she can address him eloquently, and in a way which leaves her love for him in no doubt. But when he is awake, she finds it difficult to express her love and can speak only in monosyllables. There is one main line of development in her character: by the end, pride, though still evident, is submerged in love.
Cordelia appears in only four of the twenty-six scenes and speaks only about a hundred lines. Her influence on the overall effect of the play is, however, out of all proportion to this small contribution. For many readers, not all of them sentimentalists, her very presence in the play goes far in the direction of counterbalancing the evil represented by her sisters and their allies. She can be eloquent enough at times, but her characteristic feature, emphasised more than once, is silence, or quiet, economical speech. Lear remembers her voice as having been ‘soft, gentle and low’. She herself recognises her inability to find words to express her deepest feelings:
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth.
Her motto is ‘Love and be silent’. All she can manage by way of verbal reaction to Kent’s letter is the repetition of the name of ‘Father’, and then she goes off ‘to deal with grief alone’. Her reticence during the reconciliation scene is again characteristic (‘And so I am, I am … No cause, no cause …’). In fact, her only response to his final speech is one of tearful silence.
Kent wonders how Cordelia, Goneril and Regan could be the children of the same parents:
It is the stars,
The stars that govern us, govern our conditions;
Else one self mate and mate could not beget
Such different issues ….
There is, however, a sense in which Cordelia can be seen as embodying some aspects, good and bad, of Lear’s character. She is as R.B. Heilman remarks, the side of Lear capable of tenderness, love and insight, but she also embodies some, though not all, of his proneness to error. His rash abdication amounts to a refusal of responsibility, a fatal withdrawal from the world of action. But Cordelia’s refusal to co-operate in his childish scheme for the distribution of power also amounts to a withdrawal from responsibility. The combined withdrawal of Lear and Cordelia, through pride and self-will, allows power to pass into the hands of Goneril and Regan. As A.C. Bradley puts it, ‘at a moment where terrible issues join, Fate makes on her the one demand which she is unable to meet’.
In the thematic scheme of the play, she is an embodiment of a concept of Nature totally opposed to that represented by Edmund, Goneril, Regan and Gloucester. For her, the natural bond between father and daughter is central to human existence. Her absolute fidelity to this is her most obvious claim on our attention and admiration. Her sisters break all the natural bonds and pursue their egotistical ends with remorseless energy. She upholds the principles on which civilised life must ultimately depend. Her role in this regard is defined by the Gentleman:
Thou hast a daughter
Who redeems Nature from the general curse
Which twain have brought her to.
The meaning of these lines is that Cordelia, through her selfless clarity with regard to her erring father has corrected the gross imbalance in Nature which Goneril and Regan have brought about.
Goneril and Regan
Lear’s two wicked daughters cannot quite be classified together as indistinguishable partners in evil. They are distinguished in various significant ways. Goneril, the elder, is the more active of the two in the pursuit of crime. She commits murder and adultery and plots the murder of her husband. She appends her name to Edmund’s on the death-warrant for Lear and Cordelia. She has the more forceful character of the two, and as far as one can judge, fears nothing or nobody, either in this world or the next. She pays no heed to Lear’s curse and, significantly, she is the only one of the major characters who never mentions the gods. Her suicide following her exposure and the collapse of her schemes is undertaken without hesitation and without any sign of inner turmoil. On the other hand, Regan’s wickedness is not on as grand a scale as Goneril’s. She is more petty, she is meaner, and she is weaker in character. She resorts to telling a lie about Edmund’s intentions towards Gloucester, something Goneril would scorn doing. On the other hand, it is the ‘weaker’ Regan who becomes, in the end, the more violent in cruelty, turning even more savage than even Cornwall her husband. She jeers at the blinded Gloucester, telling him with relish that his son has betrayed him.
Perhaps the most important quality of mind that Goneril and Regan have in common is that they are rationalists and realists, totally unhampered by any moral sense or family feeling. Their aim in life is to satisfy their own desires. They are shrewd and practical and, within limits, most effective operators. What they lack above all is imagination. They have no time whatever for sentiment and fail to see why Lear should want to enjoy the outward symbols of status. They are prepared to use his old age as a justification for taking these away from him. In their logical scheme of things, old age has no use or function, and old men are superfluous nuisances.
Goneril, in particular, exhibits considerable cunning in bringing about Lear’s humiliation. Regan would prefer a more cautious approach; Goneril acts to bring trouble to a head and gets things over quickly and ruthlessly. She first tells Oswald that he and his fellows may adopt a ‘weary negligence’ in attending to Lear’s needs because she would ‘breed occasions’. She then complains to Lear, with much show of reason and in a righteous tone about the behaviour of his men. Regan’s dishonesty follows a similar pattern. She is mistress of the technique of guilt by association. When, for example, Gloucester comments on Edgar’s supposed treachery, she asks, ‘Was he not companion with the riotous knights / That tend upon my father’ (II, I, 96).
Lear touches on an essential feature of both his daughters when in his madness he wonders about Regan’s conduct: ‘Let them anatomize Regan, see what breeds about her heart. Is there any cause in Nature that makes these hard hearts?’ Hardness of heart is, of course, a mild term for what Goneril and Regan exhibit as they grow in power. When they hear of Gloucester’s defection, they react spontaneously with brutal directness:
Regan: Hang him instantly.
Goneril: Pluck out his eyes. (III,vii, 4)
It is appropriate that some of the more revolting images of the play are used in connection with the two, Goneril in particular. She is a kite, her ingratitude has a serpent’s tooth, she has a wolfish face; in her sharp-toothed unkindness, she is like a vulture attacking her father. Albany sees her as a gilded serpent; Gloucester says she has the fangs of a boar.
Both Goneril and Regan are efficient managers of the operations against their father and Gloucester. They prove effective in serving their own interests – up to a point. The turning point in their fortunes is reached when their strongest weapons – coolness and calculation – are destroyed by passion. When Goneril, seeing Edmund, gives him ‘strange oeilliads and most speaking looks’, she rouses Regan’s jealousy. The passion they both feel for Edmund cannot be controlled or manipulated in the same way that their other activities could. But even before this passion clouds their reason, they are beginning to lose control. This is evident in their dealings with Gloucester, where their wildness and loss of emotional balance contrast with their coolly efficient attitude to Lear. Their intense rivalry over Edmund causes them to behave rashly and even foolishly, to abandon the careful, pragmatic approach that ensured their worldly success up to now. As Granville-Barker observed, ‘Regan with a little law on her side, presumes on it, and Goneril poisons her, as she might a rat’. There is, of course, a fundamental irony in the fate of the two, particularly in the fact that children who could entertain no particle of feeling for their aged father who loved them should be destroyed by a consuming passion for an egotistical monster who cared nothing for either of them: ‘Which of them shall I take? Both? One? Or neither?’ (V, ii, 57).
Edgar is easily the most puzzling character in the play. There are those who suggest that he is not really a character at all, and that the name Edgar covers a sequence of roles rather than a stable personality. One can identify five different Edgars over the course of the play:
The simple-minded victim of Edmund’s scheming
The Bedlam Beggar
The chivalrous champion who takes on Edmund in single combat; and
The choric commentator on the action of the play
Those who wonder about Shakespeare’s intentions with regard to Edgar ask how one is to believe that the foolish, pitiful figure of the first few scenes can become the impressive, authoritative one who lends distinction to the closing scenes. The commonest explanation is to see the change in terms of the kind of moral development exhibited in other characters: Lear, Gloucester, Cordelia, Albany. Edgar, if he is to be seen as a single, consistent character, must then be understood as one who learns by experience, and by exposure to suffering, his own and that of others.
It is best, however, not to look too closely at Edgar’s ‘personality’, or the lack of it, but to emphasise his functions as a choric commentator and as the play’s wise philosopher. He embodies much of the religious feeling of the play, as can be seen from his numerous pronouncements on the relations of the gods with men. He has a deep and cheerful faith in the ultimate triumph of goodness, and in the benevolence of the Powers who govern man’s destiny on earth. He is the one who can see beyond temporary changes in human fortune to some grand design. His function with regard to Gloucester is to save him from despair. It is appropriate that he should be the one to provide the answer to Gloucester’s black indictment of the gods as no better than boys who kill flies for sport:
therefore, thou happy father
Think that the clearest gods, who make them honours
Of men’s impossibilities, have preserved thee ….
It is possible, at times, to find Edgar’s moral stance a bit chilling and stern. One comment that springs to mind in this regard is his verdict on his dead father, delivered to the dying Edmund:
The gods are just and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us:
The dark place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes …
Moralising comes naturally to him, but he is, on the whole, a compassionate moralist, feeling deeply for his father (Act IV, Scene i), acting as his guide and tutor, and repaying evil with kindness and sympathy. Those who read King Lear as a Christian play with a pagan setting can point to Edgar’s behaviour, attitudes and comments. A striking instance is his treatment of the dying Edmund:
Let’s exchange charity
Little wonder that Granville Barker called Edgar ‘a very Christian gentleman’.
Edmund is one of the most imposing ‘personalities’ of the play. He is endowed by Shakespeare with singular force and energy. He has a distinctive point of view, a distinctive attitude to everybody and everything around him, and a highly individual mode of expression. He is perhaps the most evil of all of Shakespeare’s characters, quite amoral, devoted exclusively to his own interests, and prepared to destroy anything or anybody that might interfere with his plans. There is, however, a significant contrast between him and Lear’s evil daughters. Nobody has ever been able to come up with anything even moderately favourable to say on their behalf; in his case, on the other hand, one is compelled to acknowledge a certain superficial attractiveness, a range of interesting attitudes, a liveliness of mind, a real, if perverted, sense of humour, qualities which make it possible for one critic to call him the ‘wittiest and most attractive of villains’! His ‘wit’ is, of course, exercised at the expense of his ‘credulous father and brother noble’, the first a man of limited intellect to begin with, the second an incredibly naïve victim. His positive qualities include a considerable strength of will, an excellent presence, and enough charm and plausibility of manner to impress a variety of observers, including Goneril and Regan.
Our first view of him is as a rational, cynical observer of the follies and superstitions of other men, particularly Gloucester. He is very much the ‘modern’ man, with no time for traditional values or for the accepted view of things. He is an atheist. He denies any relationship between the ‘orbs from whom we do exist’ and his own destiny. He also refuses to accept the central notion of an organic universe, with all the bonds and relationships that this implies. He recognises no ties between himself and others, no obligations on his part. He thus rejects the scheme of values represented by Cordelia and Albany. The latter, in a famous comment, holds that a strong bond of natural sympathy binds human beings to each other, like twigs to the branches of a tree.
Edmund has no principles of any kind, nor does he pretend to have. He places no value on anybody else. The claims of blood-relationship, friendship or loyalty mean nothing to him. He looks on others either as the means of helping him to make his way in the world, or as hindrances to his advancement, and he acts accordingly (‘Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land’). His attitude to Goneril and Regan illustrates both his total heartlessness and his cynical humour:
To both these sisters have I sworn my love
Each jealous of the other, as the stung
Are of the adder. Which of them shall I take?
Both? One? Or neither?
He never allows himself to be distracted from his aims, his eventual one being the crown. He takes his chances as they come. He is master (like some in Westminster and Washington today) of the technique of plausible lying and this is most evident in his undoing of Edgar. Even as he betrays his own father to Cornwall he talks of loyalty!
Shakespeare provides various subtle touches in his portrait of Edmund. As he advances in the world he becomes a snob. ‘If thou art noble’, he tells the masked Edgar, ‘I do forgive thee’. He finally exposes himself to ridicule and humiliation when he begins to regard himself as Albany’s equal, and tries to patronise him (‘Sir, you speak nobly’). Albany, however, is more than a match for him here, and puts him firmly in his place:
Sir, by your patience
I hold you but as a subject of this war
Not as a brother
Half-blooded fellow, yes …
Perhaps the ultimate sign of Edmund’s worthlessness as a human being is his belated gesture in attempting to save Lear and Cordelia, and his motives for the attempt. The significant point about the episode is that it is only after Goneril confesses to poisoning Regan and then commits suicide that Edmund, believing that he was loved, thinks of trying to save Lear and Cordelia:
Yet Edmund was beloved.
The one the other poisoned for my sake
And after slew herself …
I pant for life. Some good I mean to do
Despite of mine own nature … V, iii, 240
It is worth noticing that in the presence of the dead bodies of those he supposes loved him, he says nothing about them but thinks only of himself, and even at this late hour of his life enjoys the luxury of being ‘loved’ in so extreme and dramatic a fashion. There is a note of sentimental vanity and self-congratulation in his closing speech. It is also characteristic of him that he talks impressively about meaning to do good, and that his only real effort in this direction comes too late to be of any use. It may, perhaps, be idle speculation about his motives for wanting to save Lear and Cordelia. One suggestion is that he is moved by Edgar’s account of his father’s death. Another is that surrounded as he is at this point by ‘good’ characters, he takes on some of the qualities of his environment. Another way to see his action is that having lost everything he cared for (his own life and worldly position), he can perform his dramatic gesture to impress the onlookers, without any loss to himself, but without any real commitment either. There is also the possibility that we are to take Edgar’s last dramatic gesture as Shakespeare’s way of saying that even the most morally depraved can sometimes display unaccustomed virtue in certain circumstances.
One of Gloucester’s main functions in the play is as a parallel to Lear. Like Lear, he is betrayed by the child he loves, and supported by the one he unjustly rejects. His sufferings may be traced to human folly and injustice, and, like Lear’s, these sufferings purify his character and enlighten him. He dies a better man than he is when we first meet him. There are also parallels of character and temperament between the two: like Lear, Gloucester is credulous, hasty and affectionate. It must, of course, be remembered that Gloucester is built on a very much smaller scale than Lear. He has nothing of Lear’s tempestuous force and energy. He is the kind of man one might encounter anywhere in fiction or, indeed, in Westminster or Washington: sensual, careless of the moral code, easy-going, and easily prone to deceit. One aspect of his behaviour is difficult to credit: the ease with which he falls a victim of Edmund’s deception. Granville-Barker has suggested that no human being could be as gullible as Gloucester is here, but that Shakespeare asks us to allow him the fact of the deception, just as we have allowed him Lear’s partition of the kingdom. Such a starting-point, the dramatists ‘let’s pretend’, is essential to the process of getting the story going. In any case, Shakespeare also makes Gloucester a believer in astrology, ‘these late eclipses of the sun and moon’: if he can believe these things, we feel, he can believe anything.
There are strong indications that Gloucester is not a man of firm moral purpose. His flippant attitude to his ‘fault’ in begetting Edmund is a clear indication of this, as is the fact that the illegitimate Edmund is younger, not older, than Edgar. (Think about it!).
It is only when prosperous times change to bad, when multiple suffering strikes, that the ‘new’ Gloucester begins to emerge. He tries to fight against the facts of his predicament and of those nearest to him. Rather than be conscious of his ‘huge sorrows’, he would choose madness like Lear’s. His conversion from benevolent, helpless neutrality to tentative support for Lear is not exactly heroic. He does his best to ensure that his help for the king will not be noticed by the dangerous Cornwall. ‘If he asks for me’, he tells Edmund, ‘I am ill and gone to bed’. The irony here is that in confiding in Edmund he is ensuring not his own safety but his destruction, his blinding and casting out of doors.
The essential point to make about Gloucester is his transformation from a weak, erratic sensuality and a feeble-minded devotion to astrology into an impressive witness to the just dealings of Providence with men, and to the power of filial love. Like Lear, Gloucester attains a higher conception of himself and of man’s destiny through appalling suffering. He grows better through suffering which elicits from him a profoundly religious response. His astrological superstition is the nearest he gets to a sense of the supernatural until after he has endured torture and deprivation. His real transformation begins during the horrible scene in which he is blinded by Cornwall; the extremity of his suffering causes him to call on the gods for help: then he prays for Edgar and asks forgiveness for his own sins. Before he casts himself down to what he thinks will be his death, he kneels and prays to the ‘mighty gods’ and in their sight, he renounces the world. After he has been saved from death by Edgar his sense of heavenly goodness deepens. It is, paradoxically, through his own pain and sorrow and the misery of others that he is at last made aware of ‘the bounty and the benison of heaven’. It is surely worth remarking that after all he has suffered Shakespeare has him utter this prayer at the end:
You ever-gentle gods, take my breath from me:
Let not my worser spirit tempt me again
To die before you please.
It is necessary to distinguish between the character of the Fool and his role. There is really little enough that one can say about the personality of the Fool, or about his distinctive qualities; there is a good deal to be said about his function in the play, particularly in relation to Lear.
Shakespeare inherited the Fool from the drama of his predecessors – the court jester, the clown. His most obvious function was to entertain the vulgar members of the audience (‘the groundlings’) with his antics, songs, jokes, quibbles and dances. There is an element of this in the Lear Fool, who provides some lively entertainment. Those who write about the character of Lear’s Fool all point out his utter fidelity and loyalty to his master, in good times and in very bad ones. There is also his touching devotion to Cordelia, reflected in the words of the attendant Knight to Lear (‘Since my young lady’s going away into France, Sir, the Fool hath much pined away’).
There has been a good deal of debate on whether the Fool is sane, mad, pretending to be mad, or just half-witted. A.C. Bradley has an excellent comment on the matter, particularly in relation to the storm scenes, where the Fool’s role becomes vital. Bradley asks the question:
Are we to suppose that the insanity of the third character, the Fool, is a mere repetition of that of the beggar – that it, too, is a mere pretence?
He argues that the Fool lives in a logical world of his own, and does not observe the normal distinctions between sense and nonsense, what is the wise thing to do and the unwise. He is a being, in Bradley’s words,
… to whom a responsible and consistent course of action, even responsible use of language, is at the best of times difficult.
Therefore, a good summary of his mental state might be that he is ‘quick-witted though not whole-witted’.
In the overall scheme of the play, the Fool’s main task is to expose the folly of all those who are supposed to be fully sane and capable in a world of practical affairs from which he is, being a Fool, excluded. His relationship with Lear in the storm scenes is the real justification for his role. He is Lear’s conscience, his inner voice, which consistently cries out against Lear’s error and foolishness. He is also seen to be Lear’s tutor, giving his master many bitter lessons on the realities of life. When Lear, in Kent’s words, ‘falls to folly’, the Fool must rise to wisdom. There is continuous and subtle irony in the Fool’s remarks about folly, a keyword in the play, and in the contrast between these remarks and his own behaviour. On the one hand, he comments severely on the lack of practical wisdom shown by Kent in taking the side of Lear, whose cause is a lost one (‘If thou wouldst follow him, thou must needs wear my coxcomb’). Here, of course, he is arguing exactly as Goneril and Regan might: he sees folly as not watching one’s own interests. Again, when he finds Kent in the stocks, he lectures him on the folly of adhering to the losing side, and the wisdom of abandoning one’s loyalty when self-interest points to this course: ‘Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill, lest it break thy neck with following it; but the great one that goes upward, let him draw thee after’. This, of course, is rich in irony: the Fool’s words here are mainly a parody of similar sentiments in the speeches of Goneril, Regan and Edmund. He will not take his own advice, nor will Kent. Both elect to turn their backs on ‘practical’, selfish wisdom, and instead, they choose unselfish, devoted folly:
But I will tarry; the Fool will stay
And let the wise man fly …
It is worth noticing that nearly all of the Fool’s numerous references to fools and folly are directed at Lear’s poor management of his own interests. The Fool is not concerned with worldly success or failure; he is much more concerned with the fact that Lear has acted out of a false sense of values, has failed to understand essentials, and, like many contemporary politicians in England at this time, has shown incredibly poor judgement in his dealings with the division of his kingdom and in his dealings with his daughters. It is the essential task of the Fool to set Lear thinking on the meaning of his actions, and to stimulate in him a re-appraisal of his attitudes.
Albany is another of those characters (Lear and Gloucester being the other great examples) who develop in moral stature during the course of the action. There are two distinct phases in his career in the play. In the early one, he is clearly under the sway of his strong-minded wife Goneril. Such, indeed, is her dominance that he is at first is unable to act independently of her will, however differently he may feel. He does not want to be cruel to Lear and is almost certainly telling the truth when he protests that he does not know the reason for Lear’s violent rage. On the other hand, there is a strong hint that he shows himself less than enthusiastic about Lear’s stay at his house; the Knight tells Lear that ‘the abatement of kindness’ appears in the Duke himself also and your daughter’.
When Lear does decide to leave, Albany makes a half-hearted stand against Goneril’s decision, only to be brushed aside contemptuously:
Albany: I cannot be so partial, Goneril,
To the great love I bear you ….
Goneril: Pray you, content …
A little later, Goneril gives her frank assessment of her husband’s character:
This milky gentleness and course of yours
Though I condemn not, yet, under pardon,
You are much more attax’d for want of wisdom
Than praised for harmless mildness …
Little wonder that she leaves him behind when she goes to seek Regan’s help. She regards him (and at this point in their relationship, not without cause) as an inoffensive, negative, dull spirited man, wanting to leave well alone. Indeed, this seems to be his motto:
Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.
However, the ‘new’ Albany who recoils in horror from what has been done to Gloucester is quite a different character from the earlier one. Granville-Barker makes a good point when he says that Albany is one of those, ‘who let their wrath gather beneath a placid surface till on a sudden it boils over, and if the cause of it lies deep they are never the same again’. Goneril makes herself intolerable to him and he determines to avenge Gloucester’s wrongs:
See thyself devil!
Proper deformity shows not in the fiend
So horrid as in woman … Gloucester I live
To thank thee for the love thou show’st the king,
And to revenge thine eyes….
Albany has by now cast aside his timidity and begun to exert a moral authority that justifies Oswald’s ‘never man so chang’d’. Goneril can no longer put him in his place; her heaped insults no longer cow him or even greatly impress him. He is far from ‘the milk livered man’ she still believes him to be; he answers her in something like her own kind of language; his hands ‘are apt enough to dislocate and tear / Thy flesh and bones’.
In the last moments of the play, he becomes a major force, a calm, noble presence presiding over the course of events. The landing of Cordelia’s French army places him in a dilemma: he must fight against her soldiers because they are invaders, but he is reluctant because Cordelia represents her father. Shakespeare, however, underplays the difficulty of giving Edmund the leading part in the action against Cordelia’s forces. Albany’s real strength of character emerges in his dealings with Edmund after the battle. He puts the adventurous upstart in his place (‘I hold you as a subject of this war / Not as a brother’). In the end, Shakespeare preserves Albany’s dignity and superiority by giving Edgar the task of disposing of Edmund.
Bradley, A.C., Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: Meridian Books, 1955.
Granville Barker, Harley. Prefaces to Shakespeare, Vol 2. King Lear, Cymbeline, Julius Caesar. Atlantic Publishers and Distributors (P) Ltd, 2006.
Heilman, R.B., This Great Stage: Structure in King Lear. Louisiana State University. 1948.
Holloway, John. The Story of the Night: Studies in Shakespeare’s Major Tragedies. Routledge: London and New York. 1961 (Reprinted 2005).
Murray, Patrick. King Lear in Inscapes published by The Educational Company of Ireland. 1980
Schucking, Levin L., Character Problems in Shakespeare’s Plays: A Guide to the Better Understanding of the Dramatist. First published by George G. Harrap in July 1922.
Spurgeon, Caroline F. E., Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us, Cambridge Univesity Press, 1935.
Stampfer, J., The Catharsis of King Lear’ in Shakespeare Survey 13, Cambridge, 1960
You might also like to read an analysis of Image Patterns in King Learhere.
You might also like to read ‘Some Central Themes in King Lear’ which touches on topics like The gods in King Lear, Nature in King Lear, The Death of Lear, etc…. here.
‘Bogland’ is the final poem in Seamus Heaney’s second collection Door into the Dark (1969). The poem fittingly brings to a head his emerging, extended exploration of his rural upbringing and all the dying rural crafts associated with it. It also signals to us that his interest in the Irish landscape is being brought into sharper focus. The placing of the poem as his final offering in this, his second collection, is no coincidence and we must always be aware that the placing of poems by Heaney in his collections is never accidental. The poem is a deepening and focusing of his early poetic efforts and it is seen as one of his most important early poems. In it, the poet finally plucks up the courage to speak for Ireland and in its nine sentences the poem sets out new possibilities and directions for his future writing.
‘Bogland’ turns on a comparison between the American prairies and Irish bogs. In America, the eye has an unlimited vista, its history immortalises those young men who went West to conquer the wild frontiers and in recent history, those intrepid explorers have continued to explore space as The Final Frontier! However, in Ireland, the eye is drawn to features of the landscape which continually encroach on our view – here we live in a saucer island with mountains on the rim and ‘bottomless’ bog in the centre! In America, as the poet sees it, the early pioneers (many of them Irish) moved West across vast empty spaces – save for the occasional presence of Native Americans, Sioux, Apache, Commanche, Arapaho and members of the Cherokee nation who were then being given salutary lessons in oppression and dispossession. In Ireland, however, Heaney suggests that our pioneers (poets) explore downwards, cutting through the layers of bog, ‘going down and down for the good turf’ (‘Digging’). Therefore, from early on in his career (1969) he clearly identifies with the bog and by implication, he identifies himself as a Bogman and in this poem he finds his voice to speak on behalf of all Bogmen.
The word ‘pioneer’ has many connotations but here it suggests adventure and discovery – he seems to be suggesting that our pioneers are poets and that poetry is an adventure. He also seems to be suggesting that the complex work of exploring our past and our complicated national identity is yet another such hazardous adventure.
The issue of Irishness or of not being ‘Irish’ enough has long bedevilled Heaney’s legacy – without great justification, in my opinion. Heaney deals with the issue in these early collections and in Door into the Dark there are two outstanding examples: ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ and ‘Bogland’. In reality, of course, he cannot win this argument and his position has been misunderstood by many. It is the equivalent of our answer to the question, ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ In my reading, his poetry constantly explores the divisions tearing the Ulster of his youth apart. His position has often met with criticism from all sides regarding his treatment of contemporary Ulster history. Some critics say he has too much politics in his poetry, while others say he should stand up for his people and take sides. He has been accused of obscuring the horrors of sectarian killings; of endorsing a ‘tribal’ position, or of not endorsing it enough; he has also been accused of evading the issues and being non-committal in his writing. For many critics, like Elmer Andrews, Heaney doesn’t go far enough: ‘Heaney’s art is fundamentally an art of consciously and carefully cultivated non-engagement’. However, surely in ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ (1966) and ‘Bogland’ (1969), he clearly steps up to the plate and is unashamedly ‘tribal’.
In these poems, Heaney steps off the fence and he takes sides. For him, Bogland is synonymous with Ireland – just as many of the surrounding countries are also named, such as Iceland, England, Greenland, etc. Indeed, other countries can have their uplands, and Lowlands and Highlands so why can’t we have our Boglands? Because of his upbringing in rural Ulster, he is only too aware of the pejorative terms used to describe Irishmen such as ‘bogger’ or ‘bogman’. That is why in this poem he embraces the bog and all its cultural nuances and he is proud to be associated with the bog and all that it represents for him. He is aware that in Ireland’s recent colonial past the Irish were for centuries oppressed and confined to the bogs and uplands. These boglands and uplands were also, therefore, the centres of resistance and traditionally the bogs were used as hiding places for weapons and bodies and where the Irish rebels, the Croppies, the pikemen of ’98, looked out like the snipe, the grouse and the pheasant, all the hunted, the marginalised, and all were fair game.
So here in Door into the Dark, Heaney is going deeper than he has already; in hurling parlance, he is ‘lowering the blade’. He uses the first line from the poem ‘The Forge’ as the title for the overall collection of poems. This sonnet celebrates the simple, everyday hard work of the local blacksmith, Barney Devlin, who daily undertakes the strenuous task of turning the rough metals into fine works of art and everyday utensils for the local farming community. Barney’s ‘anvil’ is turned into an ‘altar’ which is set ‘somewhere in the centre’, ‘horned as a unicorn’. Here Heaney touches upon God’s work, the artist’s work and a blacksmith’s work and weaves them together as in a garland. The sonnet is an analogy for the creative, poetic impulses which are gestating beneath the surface in Heaney’s subconscious.
One of Heaney’s famous poems in this second anthology is ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ which deals directly with an historical event of war and violence. The terrible battle of ‘Vinegar Hill’ (1798), fought between Irish rebels and the English colonial rulers is the subject of the poem. One major achievement of the poem is that it craftily conjoins the centuries of Irish violence and political struggle and achieves an organic, indeed germinal resolution: ‘And in August the barley grew up out of the grave’. Heaney himself gives an elaborate account of the composition of the poem, its historical and political relevance:
“[It] was written in 1966 when most poets in Ireland were straining to celebrate the anniversary of the 1916 Rising …… The poem was born of and ended with an image of resurrection based on the fact that sometime after the rebels were buried in common graves, these graves began to sprout with young barley, growing up with the barleycorn that the ‘ croppies’ had carried in their pockets to eat while on the march. The oblique implication was that the seeds of violent resistance sowed in the year of Liberty had flowered in what Yeats called ‘the right rose tree’ of 1916. I did not realize at the time that the original heraldic murderous encounter between protestant yeomen and Catholic rebel was to be initiated again in the summer of 1969, in Belfast, two months after the book was published” (Preoccupations, 56).
The poem’s patriotic fervour and humanitarian zeal are noticeable. The first person narrator is a rebel who has been killed and who hails their uprising as resurrection. The rebels may be killed, but the struggle for justice and liberty would continue. Although on many occasions he is accused of remaining passive and detached from the cause of Irish independence, this poem is a fitting reply to this unjust criticism of Heaney.
In ‘Bogland’ Heaney reverses his approach and method of presentation. He gives up monologue and refuses to refer to any particular historical-political event. Instead, he takes recourse to symbol, metaphor, allegory and myth. ‘Bogland’ stands as a metaphor for Ireland. The poet speaks of a voyage ‘inwards’, and ‘downwards’. This journey throws up many possibilities. The foremost, of course, is the journey back to the primordial Irish past, its folk history and myth. The psychic residue or the racial memory of a great people is excavated through the inward journey of the poet. This inward journey may also suggest a spiritual exploration of a plundered nation. It is noteworthy that the poet uses the plural term for the great journey ‘inwards’ and ‘downwards’. Through the extended allegory of ‘bogland’, the poet simultaneously lays bare the greatness and beauty as well as the suffering and agony of his motherland.
It is obvious that the poet has reflected deeply on the notion of bogs and he uses memorable images such as the Great Elk and bog’s ‘black butter’ to capture (or recapture) his own childish sense of wonder. This is akin to the elation the poet feels when he excavates a poem from the bog of memory. The bog is generous in that it preserves and returns the past to us, in the form of ordinary, domestic gifts:
Butter sunk under
More than a hundred years
Was recovered salty and white.
The bog with its watery element is soft and accommodating:
The ground itself is kind, black butter
Melting and opening underfoot.
‘Bogland’ is, therefore, a seminal poem in which Heaney opens himself up to new possibilities, and he delves deeper into the bog of autobiography and history. The bog contains the history of the island:
Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
Therefore, in this way, the bog acts as the memory of the Irish race. To dig the bog, by ‘striking inwards and downwards’, is to search into the bottomless centre of Irish history. Although not stated explicitly here (as he does in ‘Digging’, for example), it is clear that the action of digging the bog is seized on by the poet as a symbol of his work as a poet. The landscape of the poem, therefore, is both the natural landscape of Ireland but also a cultural/visionary landscape. ‘Bogland’ is a poem that is poised between the literal and the symbolic and the reader must constantly shift between the literal and metaphorical reading of the text.
The bog, as a symbol of Irish history, allows Heaney, in future poems, to speak about the Troubles in Northern Ireland (1969 – 1998). One of the insights gained in this poem, and developed in his third collection, Wintering Out (1972) in the poem ‘Tollund Man’, is that the soil of Ireland contains its past, including all the spilt blood and the broken bones and bodies of ‘The Disappeared’ and all the other remnants of its violent history. In both ‘Bogland’ and ‘The Tollund Man’ Heaney, like the ‘pioneers’ who keep ‘striking / Inwards and downwards’, prompts us to think across thousands of years. ‘Bogland’ speaks of how our ancestors’ lives are recorded and contained within the bog. ‘The Tollund Man’, though it also speaks of a bog find, is a more complex poem in that it compares and contrasts a violent death that took place two thousand years ago in Jutland to the violent deaths which occurred almost daily in Northern Ireland from 1969 until the signing of the Belfast Agreement on Good Friday in 1998. The Danes weren’t the only ones to bury their dead in the bog – there were numerous victims of violence ‘disappeared’ during ‘The Troubles’ and buried in remote, windswept locations on this island also. Heaney himself has said that he has searched for ‘images and symbols adequate to our predicament’. And despite what some of his critics say, he never shirks or avoids the savage reality of violence: in ‘The Tollund Man’ he writes with stark realism of how the mutilated bodies of four young brothers were dragged along the train tracks, their skin and teeth flecking the railway sleepers.
I suppose it is fitting for a poem written in the late ’60s in Ireland that there is no sense of closure in ‘Bogland’. In describing the ground of the bog as bottomless, the poem is also describing itself and the endless possibilities of the bog as a symbol. ‘Bogland’ seems to suggest that poems are found having lain hidden in the subconscious of the poet, awaiting discovery. In his own words, Heaney states:
‘I have listened for poems, they come sometimes like bodies out of the bog, almost complete, seeming to have been laid down a long time ago, surfacing with a touch of mystery’ (Preoccupations, 34).
‘Bogland’ sees a more confident and spare style emerge and the nine phrases in the poem open and meld into one another, in imitation of the yielding ground of the bog. The epiphany to be taken from the poem is that there is no bottom to the well of imagination; there is no end to the exploration of the past. The poem is delivered with a new air of assurance and confidence. Heaney, like James Joyce in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is now finally ready and prepared to speak, with no hint of self-consciousness, on behalf of his race – ‘We have no prairies’, ‘Our unfenced country’, ‘Our pioneers keep striking’…..
Therefore, this is a groundbreaking poem which lays down deeper nuances to the original ideas first expressed in ‘Digging’ and other poems. Heaney identifies with the bog – he takes on board the implied insult that he is ‘a bogman’ and he owns it! The bog, with all its implications, becomes a kind of subconscious racial memory for him, providing him with inspiration for his poetry.
 Andrews, Elmer (ed). The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: Essays, Articles, Reviews. Columbia University Press (Icon Books Limited), 1998.
Seamus Heaney talks about why he wrote the ‘bog’ poems.
Andrews, Elmer (ed). The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: Essays, Articles, Reviews. Columbia University Press (Icon Books Limited), 1998.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, commonly known as “Prufrock”, was the first professionally published poem by American-born British poet T. S. Eliot (1888–1965). Wikipedia tells that Eliot began writing “Prufrock” in February 1910, and it was first published in the June 1915 issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse at the instigation of Ezra Pound. It was later printed as part of a twelve-poem pamphlet titled Prufrock and Other Observations in 1917. The poem has come to represent a generation, an epoch, much in the same way as The Great Gatsby, Waiting for Godot and Ulysses are also seen as seminal works which seek to define an age.
Rightfully, it is regarded by many as one of the very first great modern poems. It is modern in theme because it expresses the confusion and indecision arising from the self-doubt of modern man facing a world in which the traditional religious and social certainties were losing force. It is also modern in method, making its impact by means of images and symbols which are not held together by any strict or obvious logic, but by the free association of ideas. In other words, the confusion and incoherence of Prufrock’s mind and of his world are to some extent reflected in the apparent incoherence of the poem. Close study of the poem (by you, hopefully) will reveal that it has, in fact, a coherence and logic all of its own.
‘Let us go then, you and I’ – and analyse the poem!
While the two opening lines of the poem might well belong to a conventional love poem I don’t think anyone is going to rush out and put it on their Valentine’s Day card – not even Jacob Rees-Mogg! The essential point to make about Prufrock is that it is a dramatic monologue. Like many of Hamlet’s soliloquies, the purpose of this monologue is to light up his own mind rather than illuminate ours! He is using his utterances not so much to expound the meaning of his life as to pursue it. The meaning he extracts may surprise him, and puzzle him, as much as it does the reader. This meandering quest to find his life’s meaning accounts for the tone of improvisation in the dramatic dialogue, as well as the speaker’s absorption in what he is saying, and also for his strange lack of any real connection with his audience. Indeed, in Eliot’s monologue, the listener is mainly Prufrock’s other self.
It is interesting to notice how little dramatic situation there is in Prufrock. There is, in fact, barely enough situation to serve as a springboard for Prufrock’s self-revelation. There is the ‘journey’ through ‘half-deserted streets’ to a drawing room where the ladies ‘talk of Michelangelo’ make it easy to avoid ‘the overwhelming question’, and a final retreat to the sea-chambers of fantasy where Prufrock can spend the rest of his days listening to the song of the mermaids. The relative unimportance of the actual situation is underlined by the fact that Prufrock does not really direct his utterance to the situation at all. It is important to remember that his utterance is not contemporaneous in tense with the situation. He speaks, not to alter this situation, but to extract from it the pattern of his life. In fact, the use of tenses in the poem is a vital element: Prufrock’s utterance is framed almost entirely in the perfect and future tenses. Thus the crucial situation, the putting of the question, appears not in actuality but as anticipation (‘there will be time’) or as recollection (‘would it have been worth it after all … I have known them all already’). After the evocation of the tea-party, there is no situation at all, not even the implication of a present tense. There is only the pattern of the future, blended with the pattern of the past (‘I shall wear white flannel trousers … I have heard the mermaids singing’).
The use of tenses, combined with the Hamlet references, may be considered significant in relation to Prufrock’s indecisive, fearful nature. As already mentioned, Prufrock’s monologue achieves something of the same effect as Hamlet’s soliloquies. It reveals a private hell from which there is no escape, not even through fantasy. There is also another Hamlet-like dimension to Prufrock: fearful anticipation (1-69) and retrospective excuses for failure (70-131), coupled with self-laceration.
Another interesting feature of the poem is that while there is often little sense of logical continuity between its parts, Eliot pays detailed attention to syntactical continuity. The poem gains in coherence through the extensive use of linking words, phrases and expressions. No fewer than twenty-one lines are introduced by and, which introduces seven of the verse-paragraphs. To link the major paragraphs, Eliot makes use of sporadic word-repetition, which in Prufrock is a more significant device than rhyme. There are repetitions within the paragraphs and echoes linking each paragraph to its successor (yellow fog, yellow smoke, evening, they will say, voices dying with a dying fall, each to each ….). The word ‘time’ appears ten times in the third and fourth paragraphs.
The voice of the poem is, mainly, one of shadowy, uncertain identity. The presiding image is of a dream labyrinth (the landscape, the fog, the streets, the sea), an image created by an uncertain mind vainly endeavouring to find itself. One occasional weakness is illustrated by the Hamlet passage (‘I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be’). This is, perhaps, too abstract, too clever, too sharp a definition for the generally uncertain and vague identity of the ‘voice’ we have been listening to up to this point.
Many of us, students of the poem, perhaps coming to it for the first time are almost certain to be puzzled by Eliot’s method here. However, even after several readings, Prufrock can still remain as obscure as ever! The sources of difficulty are easy enough to identify. The principal one is the absence of a straightforward sequence of thought and of continuity between the various fragments which go to make up the poem. The physical appearance of Prufrock reflects Eliot’s method of composition. It was not composed as a unit: as befitting a poem we have earlier described as ‘one of the very first great modern poems’, some lines were written in America, some in Paris and some in Germany; added to this was the fact that it underwent a good deal of editing and re-arranging of lines before the present version emerged. One looks in vain for logical connections between the parts. The speaker proceeds by indirection, implication, suggestion. Indeed, at one point he declares that it is impossible for him to say just what he means (105). A good deal of what one might think necessary for an understanding of the speaker and his situation is omitted or else merely hinted at or vaguely implied; even the nature of the ‘overwhelming question’, apparently a central issue in the poem, is left obscure.
The disjointed fragments, put together in an apparently arbitrary fashion, can, however, be related to one another and made to take on the appearance of parts of a unified structure provided that a certain amount of ingenuity is exercised by the reader. Indeed, it is only by means of such an exercise, involving the discovery of the missing links in the broken chain of events and ideas that Prufrock can be made to acquire the kind of ‘meaning’ that most people look for in any work of literature. Reading Prufrock in this fashion for its ‘meaning’ is rather like playing a game of charades, solving a puzzle or doing a piece of detective work. Clues are seen to be left lying around: a journey of some sort is in question; a man seems to be facing a difficult predicament; an urban landscape is described; details of the man’s appearance and character are, apparently, revealed. The poet’s peculiar use of pronouns is noted. The reader will naturally try to combine these elements into as orderly and intelligible a sequence as he can, discover logical relations between them, and make out his version of the ‘story’ of the poem. Each reader’s version may, of course, be somewhat different from that of his neighbour; each will marshal the ‘clues’ to different effect. The number of possible versions of the poem as a ‘story’ is obviously endless.
What kind of poem, then, is Prufrock? One of Eliot’s images gives us a useful clue to the poet’s method:
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on
a screen ….
The magic lantern will serve as a symbol of Prufrock. The fragments of the poem are like separate, isolated slides projected onto a screen. The voice of the speakers invites us to follow it on a dream-like progress from the half-deserted streets to the room full of fashionable women, through the yellow fog, to the staircase and finally to the mermaids in the chambers of the sea. The only place in which all these different locations could exist together is in the mind of the speaker.
If Prufrock has unity it is not a unity of idea or incident: the streets, stairways, rooms and ‘chambers of the sea’ clearly cannot belong to a single, visible world. Instead of trying to relate the fragments of the poem to such a world, one should regard them as projections of various states of feeling, some of them contradictory, all originating in a single mind. This is the only sense in which it is possible to speak with confidence of the ‘unity’ of the poem. The images of Prufrock correspond to these states of feeling: they objectify them. The experience of reading the poem should be like that of listening to music: moods and feelings are communicated, emotions stimulated. It does not really matter where the room is in which the women talk of Michelangelo, or whether this can be the room towards which the speaker may be going; nor does it matter whether the fog has formed before the projected ‘journey’ or after it. The physical details of the poem, the relationship between its people, places and objects, are as unsubstantial as those in a dream; they dissolve and reappear quite arbitrarily. The time-sequence is equally chaotic. Therefore, if Prufrock can be said to be about anything, it is primarily about a state of mind.
 It is essential for our understanding of the poem to realise that the ‘you’ and ‘I’ refer to two aspects of Prufrock’s personality. The ‘you’ stands for the timid, apologetic, public side of Prufrock; the ‘I’ stands for the inner man with his passionate desire for a more heroic and splendid mode of life. There is a third person in the poem, the woman, who is the object of Prufrock’s love. She is constantly referred to as the ‘one’.
You might also like to read a brief analysis of Eliot’s Religious Poetry featuring ‘Journey of the Magi’ and ‘A Song for Simeon’ here.
For many years during my chequered career as an English teacher, I taught a very limited selection of poems by Thomas Hardy which featured in the interim anthology, Soundings, edited by Augustine Martin. This was as part of the then Leaving Poetry Certificate course – where the only requirement for selection was that the poet had to be dead! How times have changed – for the better. Having now retired I have been able to revisit the poems and glory anew in their darkness – a rather sad, pathetic version of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’!
During his lifetime, Thomas Hardy was much engaged with the great issues which exercise the minds of all thinking men; time, death, suffering, immortality. Three of his finest poems (‘Afterwards’, ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’, ‘During Wind and Rain’) deal with these matters. Students of Hardy’s oeuvre will already know that he was not a particularly cheerful or optimistic observer or commentator on the human condition. He could not, for example, believe that the universe was the work of a benevolent Creator. At different times in his writings we can see that he thought creation to be a cruel joke, or as an accident, and he even once suggested that some ‘Vast imbecility / Mighty to build and blend / But impotent to tend / Framed us in jest, and left us now to hazardry’ (‘Nature’s Questioning’). Human life appeared to him to be devoid of any clear plan or purpose, and personal immortality was clearly an illusion. He could find nothing to give meaning to the weight of suffering in the world, to the ravages of time, or to the cruelty of death.
The three poems mentioned above embody varying reactions to the predicament of human beings in the face of the remorseless forces of destruction. In ‘Afterwards’ we find a calm, stoical acceptance; while ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’ he affirms the continuity of everyday life against a background of war and turmoil, while in ‘During Wind and Rain’ he portrays a relentless picture of absolute desolation and despairing, tragic anguish.
Recited by Jeremy Irons
‘Afterwards’ happens to be one of my own personal favourite poems of all time. The poem was written in 1917 (the same year as Eliot’s, ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’, was published). Hardy was 77 at the time. It is not really a poem about death, but about the world Hardy feels he will soon be leaving, and about the ways in which he would like to be remembered after he has gone. It is a sincere, truthful poem, showing Hardy’s resignation and stoicism, as well as embodying his modest view of his own significance. At the time of writing, Hardy was nearing the end of a long and illustrious career, as poet and novelist. In the poem, however, he hopes not for universal remembrance after death, as a great man of letters, but instead that a few kind people will remember him for his lifelong interest in nature and for his fondness for living things. He does not look forward to death with terror or dread, or even with excitement; he greets the prospect of his ‘bell of quittance’ with quiet detachment. Detachment, indeed, is the keynote of the poem. It is as if Hardy were observing his own fate from a distance; the fact that he talks so much about himself in the third person (a la J.M. Coetzee in more recent times) lends force to this impression.
One way of reading ‘Afterwards’ is as the utterance of one returned to life from the past, as a kind of tolerant, objective, kindly observer. The major focus of interest in the poem is not the poet himself but the things he used to notice while he lived: there is a beautiful tension between the things so lovingly observed and the idea of death which broods over the poem. Hardy’s ability to be objective about his own demise is finely suggested in the second line:
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings
Instead of using morbid nature imagery to portray his death, as he does in poems like ‘The Darkling Thrush’, he instead evokes the joys of early summer. Furthermore, his claim to have been a close observer of nature during his lifetime is validated in the beautiful image of the hawk in lines 5 – 6:
Like an eyelid’s soundless blink
This beautiful and powerful simile, combining as it does speed and soundlessness, would occur only to one who had, indeed, looked long and closely at the minutest details of a scene.
The third stanza is both endearing and sad. Hardy was a firm believer, whether in regard to humans or animals, that the chief aim of man should be to strive to keep pain down to a minimum by loving kindness. His lifelong campaign against cruelty to animals and birds, referred to here, in this stanza, will, he suggests, come to nothing once he has passed away:
But he could do little for them, and now he is gone.
I find that it is impossible to read this line in its context without feeling a pang at the absurdity of isolated human effort in the face of the relentless progress of evil in the world.
In the fourth stanza, Hardy moves from the contemplation of every day, local details to glance momentarily at the mysteries of creation and record his interest in such matters. He is content to contemplate them with due wonder and to reserve his comment for the more homely things he does understand. There doesn’t seem to be any religious significance to his contemplation of created things or of matters after death other than his reference to the ‘bell of quittance’, obviously the bell of his local parish church. The very modesty of his hopes and claims make them all the more moving and impressive. Yet, the long sonorous lines of the poem help paint a picture of Hardy the man: a good neighbour, a keen observer of nature, a man who will be missed when he goes – a man who had an eye ‘for such mysteries’
Recited by Judi Dench
‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’
Along with ‘Afterwards’, ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’, despite its brevity and simplicity, ranks as one of Hardy’s finest achievements. In three short stanzas, Hardy makes a profound comment on war, and on the basic permanence of simple, everyday things.
Although the poem was written during the First World War in 1915, the subject occurred to Hardy as early as 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, as we read in his TheLife and Work of Thomas Hardy. He was in Cornwall when he wrote:
On the day that the bloody battle of Gravelotte was fought they were reading Tennyson in the grounds of the rectory. It was at this time and spot that Hardy was struck by the incident of the old horse harrowing the arable field in the valley below, which, when in later years it was recalled to him by a still bloodier war, he made into the little poem of three verses (p. 84).
The poem makes its powerful, telling and timely point by sharply juxtaposing the momentary aberration of war against a background of centuries of human history. Hardy asserts the pre-eminence of simple human values in the face of the misuse of power and the disintegration brought about by war. According to Hardy, there are two kinds of history: that of war, political events and the rise and fall of Dynasties, and the humbler history of obscure people and everyday life. The man and the old horse ploughing the field, the thin smoke rising from the field, and the two lovers, represent the second kind; the Dynasties represent the first kind. The Great War (To End All Wars) was meant to mark the passing of these Dynasties, but the ‘maid and her wight’ have greater significance than all the dynasties, since, through their children and their descendants down the generations, they will continue the story of humanity long after dynasties and their wars have passed into oblivion.
Read by Tom O’Bedlam
‘During Wind and Rain’
‘During Wind and Rain’ is a very pessimistic, indeed despairing, comment on life and death, providing an interesting contrast with ‘Afterwards’ and ‘At Time of the Breaking of Nations’. It is quintessentially Hardy. As in the other two poems, the powerful effects are achieved largely through contrast and juxtaposition. Here, each of the four stanzas has the same structural features. The setting of the poem is a wild, tempestuous autumn day which bears an obvious weight of symbolism. In each stanza, a happy, beautifully depicted scene from the past is followed by a pathetic refrain whose theme is the havoc wrought by the years, while each final line brings forcefully to life the wildness of the autumn day.
It is said that Hardy wrote the poem with his first wife, Emma Gifford, in mind. She is seen with her family in a series of happy scenes, the security and comfort of which are shattered in turn by the intrusive, tortured refrain on ‘the years’. There is a wealth of implication in the first stanza, with its cheerful family music-making followed by the image of the sick leaves which ‘reel down in throngs’, which seems both to describe the autumn day and to suggest the deaths of the participants in the happy gathering. Again, in the beautiful garden of Stanzas Two and Three, ‘the rotten rose is ript from the wall’, a glance, apparently, at the family’s tendency to madness.
In this poem – one of his darkest and despairing – Hardy finds the origins of death and despair in the past. Time enjoys a cruel triumph, and a total one here, obliterating without a trace not only the most stable and fortunate families and their carefully tended surroundings, but even those remains which might serve to perpetuate their memories. This latter idea is graphically conveyed in the great last line, which is almost a poem in itself:
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs
Even the very names of the dead carved on their tombstones are not exempt from the erasing hand of time. The absolute desolation of this poem is appropriately summed up in the slow, lingering pathos of this line, with its crushing air of finality.
Hardy, Thomas. TheLife and Work of Thomas Hardy ed Michael Millgate (1984). London: The Macmillan Press Limited, 1984.
Martin, Augustine (ed). Soundings: Leaving Cert Poetry/Interim Anthology. Gill and Macmillan Limited and The Educational Company. 1969.
My overall analysis of the poetry of Thomas Hardy can be accessed here
The Romantics, and especially Wordsworth, were unlucky not to have lived in the smartphone era! Then again maybe we’re lucky that no such modern technology existed in 1802! If Wordsworth were alive today his camera phone would surely be filled to capacity and the scenes and events he captured would be relived and enjoyed later in the comfort of his study – ’emotion recollected in tranquility’ brought into the twenty-first century!
This poem is noteworthy in particular because of its location. Instead of the leafy banks of the Wye or the rolling hills and dales of Cumbria, he brings us to the heart of the city in the early morning. He wants to stress to us that his philosophy of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ will work just as well in the grubby city as it would by the shores of Lake Windemere.
In this case, he is inspired by the view he saw from Westminster Bridge on the morning of 31st July 1802, although he didn’t write the poem until September of the same year. In fact, the more correct title of the sonnet is ‘Composed on Westminster Bridge, September 3rd, 1802’. He and his sister, Dorothy, were crossing the bridge on a coach taking them to a boat for a trip across the English Channel to France. We know all this because Dorothy mentions the event in her diary:
‘We mounted the Dover Coach at Charing Cross. It was a beautiful morning. The City, St. Paul’s, with the river and a Multitude of little boats made a most beautiful sight …. The houses were not overhung with their cloud of smoke and they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly with such pure light that there was even something like a purity of Nature’s own grand spectacles.’
I’m sure we have all experienced a city in the early morning before the sleeping giant awakes. The early morning light gives the impression that the city has been recently washed and is now clean in the morning air. The gaudiness of the night before with its neon lights flashing on the water and the constant rumbling and screeching of traffic has yet to begin anew. This fleeting moment of peace before the storm is what Wordsworth is describing here as he crosses London Bridge on an early morning stagecoach.
The theme of the poem is London as it lies asleep in the early morning sun. We get the impression here of a sleeping giant, perhaps rather terrifying when awake as some cities tend to be, but, now it sleeps so peacefully that those who see him are no longer afraid and are able to admire his elegance and splendour.
The tone of the poem is one of awe and breathless admiration at the sight before him. He feels a deep sense of peace and contentment at the sight of such man-made things as ships and towers. These sights are made even more wonderful in his eyes because of the closeness of Nature herself – the fields, the sky, the sun, and the river Thames itself.
His opening line shows that to him this is the ultimate in beauty; he cannot understand how anyone could ignore such a sight. We must remember that the poem, like most of Wordsworth’s poetry, is one of feelings and emotions. He refers to this scene of grandeur (‘majesty’) as ‘touching’ whereas often we consider grand and majestic things to be somewhat cold and distant. The city, to him, is a living thing; it is clothed in the ‘beauty of the morning’. The city is also silent at this time of the morning and this impression is reinforced by his use of the sibilant ‘s’ sounds in ‘silent’, ‘ships’, ‘sky’, ‘smokeless’ and also in the line:
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples….
There is a lovely juxtaposition when he uses the word ‘bare’ to describe the ships and towers without their human activity in sharp contrast to the city wearing its beautiful morning ‘garment’. Wordsworth is suggesting to us that all these man-made things are ‘bright and glittering’ only because they are exposed to Nature; that the air is clean only because man is not yet awake to stain it with his smoking fires. The idea of the sharp, clear and clean air is suggested by the words ‘sky’, ‘bright’ and ‘glittering’.
His long list of man-made objects conveys to us what makes the city different: not just one ship but many; not just one tower but tower blocks. The use of alliteration in ‘towers’, ‘theatres’, ‘temples’ also conveys a sense of wonder in the reader and adds to their importance.
There is a sense that the sun is dressing the city to meet another day and that it has never steeped the countryside in the same manner as it does the sleeping city. Gradually the city comes alive: the river is moving gracefully (‘glideth’), unimpeded by the small boats who ply their trade up and down the Thames all day long. The houses have yet to come alive and they will do so as soon as their eyes (windows) are touched by the sun’s rays.
The poet’s prayerful exclamation of ‘Dear God!’ is ambiguous and it seems as if the thought has entered his head that everyone in the houses is also dead. This is a striking example of the poet’s imagination. The final line reintroduces us to the idea of the heart of the city, our sleeping giant. The ‘mighty heart’ suggests something huge, whose heart is gently and soundlessly beating. We all have seen what happens next on our TV screens as the camera uses time-lapse shots to show the ever-increasing flow of people and traffic and shops opening their doors, as the city slowly, relentlessly comes to life – the great giant stirs.
The poem presents us with a very compact series of images. His use of the classic Petrarchan Sonnet formula shows his discipline and craft. (The rhyming scheme is abbaabba cdcdcd). His use of run-on lines suggests the movement of the rising sun over the city. They also emphasise the poet’s use of ordinary speech rhythms, which was a strong feature of Romantic poetry. The run-on lines may also mirror the poet’s rush of emotions as he encounters and strives to capture the scene before him.
A poem with such feeling must be musical. Note his use of broad ‘o’ sounds in the first quatrain, ‘show’, ‘more’, ‘so’, ‘doth’. These broad vowel sounds combined with the long ‘i’ sounds in ‘by’, ‘sight’, ‘like’ also convey the poet’s sense of awe and wonder. I have already mentioned the sibilant ‘s’ sounds that occur throughout the poem and these are associated with the silence and calm of the early morning scene. Finally, in the final three lines, this harmony is brought out by the assonance in ‘sweet’, ‘Dear’, ‘seem’, and ‘asleep’ and in ‘glideth’, ‘mighty’, and ‘lying’.
This poem is similar to ‘Daffodils’ and other masterpieces like ‘Tintern Abbey’ in that it furthers Wordsworth philosophy of what poetry is. He is yet again storing up photographic images using his ‘inward eye’ so that they can be recalled and enjoyed again in the peace and quiet of his own study at a later time. Nature is here presented from a different perspective. It is a delight to the senses and a source of aesthetic beauty and its pleasures can be evoked through memory to fortify the poet at times of distress and amid the ‘din’ of towns and cities. It is a comforter to those in despair, and it can enrich our physical well-being and restore our mental health, prompting him to exclaim as he does here on Westminster Bridge that he never before ‘saw, never felt, a calm so deep!’
Read a more comprehensive analysis of William Wordsworth’s poetry here
Read a detailed analysis of Tintern Abbey by William Wordsworth here
Hopkins said that ‘The Windhover’ was ‘the best thing I ever wrote’. We should first get the feel of the poem by reading it more than once silently and then aloud. Then we begin to realise what a superb description we are given of a bird in flight. His words and phrases seem to mime or mimic the energy and grace of the falcon’s flight. This sight of a hovering falcon is again a relatively common sight today so hopefully, the next time we see such a sight we can recall the words of Hopkins. Hopkins once said that we should read his poetry with our ears, which seems like an impossibility but is not, since many of the sounds we hear create images in our mind.
In ‘The Windhover’, Hopkins uses recurring images of royalty. The high-flying solitary falcon is a monarch of the sky, surging through the steady air. The poet uses chivalric terms such as ‘dauphin’, and ‘minion’ to capture the elegant and dignified ‘striding’ falcon, the prince of the daylight. God, too, is visualised as a ‘chevalier’. Indeed, there are so many images given to us in these eight lines it is hard to know where to begin! The words ‘rolling level underneath him steady’ are best taken as a compound adjective, qualifying ‘air’. Next, we find the falcon ringing ‘upon the rein of a wimpling wing’. Here the bird, by means of a mixture of metaphors, seems to become a bell, hanging by its wings in mid-air. ‘Wimpling’ means quick beating, fluttering or rippling. Therefore, we have an image of the falcon, bell-like, swinging back and forth in a wide arc (‘on a bow-bend’), having mastered ‘rebuffed’ the big wind.
However, Hopkins’ imagination is turbo-charged here and the phrase ‘to ring upon the rein of a wimpling wing’ may also be a metaphor from horse-training, the term being applied in a riding school to a horse circling on the end of a long rein held by its trainer. Also, we must remember that ‘to ring’ is also a technical term used in falconry and this then leads on to the image of a skater doing a figure of eight on the ice! He compares the swooping movement of the falcon to an ice skater and this image also conveys the speed of the bird’s flight. At any rate, the idea of the falcon as a hanging bell, filling the heavens with joyful news (‘In his ecstasy’) is confirmed in that other beautiful sonnet ‘When Kingfishers Catch Fire’ where he says:
each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name
The main feature of Hopkins’s images, then, is the way in which they are loaded with unlimited possibilities. It is as if Hopkins intended to create multiple ideas in some of his images, each interesting and valid in its own way. For example, the image of the falcon on a ‘rein’ may represent the motion of a horse at the end of a trainer’s long rein. However, the term, being ambiguous, could also suggest the spiral climb of the bird. Perhaps, Hopkins is encouraging us to ‘Buckle’ several ideas in our engagement with the poem. What is not in doubt, at any rate, is the powerful and original representation, through the falcon, of Christ’s beauty and nobility. In essence, the poet is like an Impressionist painter striving to capture the essence (the inscape) of the bird.
The word ‘Buckle’ is pivotal in the poem. This word has been the subject of discussion and debate for many years. Some believe that the word means ‘Challenge!’ or ‘Tackle!’ or ‘Come to grips with!’ adversity; others believe that it means ‘Collapse’ or ‘Crumple’ before the assault of evil. There is even a third interpretation which proposes that it means to clasp, fasten together into a single unity all the skills and aspirations. My own interpretation of the word is that the majestic beauty of the bird as described in the octet of the poem crumbles into insignificance when compared to the beauty and majesty of Christ as we see him in the sestet.
Other original images include that of ‘blue-bleak embers’ representing self-sacrifice and the ‘plough down sillion’ that evokes the hardship and perhaps tedium of daily labour. In ‘The Windhover’, therefore, Hopkins employs images of flight, of majesty, of sacrifice and of glory ranging from a ‘dauphin’ to a ‘skate’s heel’, from a ‘fire’ to ‘blue-bleak embers’. Such remarkable and wide-ranging imagery reflects the vivid and precise response of the poet’s imagination to the sight of the falcon at dawn. More importantly, perhaps, the imagery reveals that the moment created a response of deep spiritual insight. There is nothing particularly novel in taking a falcon as subject matter. However, what is original is the way Hopkins engages with the falcon, observes it and concentrates on it in a deeper way and articulates what it revealed to him through an interesting range of original imagery. The priest-poet is praying!
The last three lines give us two images which stand for triumph arising out of defeat and this echoes the essence of the Christian mystery – Crucifixion gives way to Resurrection. He uses words like ‘fall’ (Jesus fell three times on his way to Calvery), ‘gall’ (referring to the stale wine or vinegar offered to Jesus on the cross), and ‘gash’ (an open wound), to reinforce this connection in our minds. The soil that has been ploughed and trodden on gives off a splendid ‘shine’ or radiance; the embers of the fire when they part and fall produce a victorious ‘gold-vermillion’ brightness.
‘The Windhover’ provides us, therefore, with an excellent example of the unique concepts associated with Hopkins: inscape and instress and sprung rhythm. The effort to describe the bird goes beyond mere description of its physical form or appearance (‘wimpling wing’): there is almost a scientific attempt to ‘capture’ its movements (‘Of the rolling level underneath him steady air’). This, however, is only part of the process. The inner form of the bird, its virtues or strengths, are identified (‘Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume’). There is more. The hidden ‘meaning’ or symbolic significance of the falcon is uncovered in a moment of mystical recognition that Joyce would call an ‘epiphany’. T. S. Eliot called it ‘the intersection of the timeless with time.’ It is the moment when the observer recognises God’s plan for mankind in the action of a bird in flight.
To simplify matters, remember this: Hopkins believed in the idea of incarnation. Christ was both man and God; so, too, the world is a combination of the material and the divine. Seeing the divine in the world is the same as seeing its inscape. Feeling the divine presence is the same as feeling its instress. Sprung rhythm is a poetic device used to reveal the energy of God that pulses through the world.
Now look back again over the poem and note the use of detail that goes to make the poem’s eloquence: note that the poem is a sonnet, with octet and sestet; note his extensive use of alliteration and assonance, his use of exclamation; note the tension between line and sentence, form and sense, by the use of colour and the use of heraldic imagery, the passionate rise and fall of the meditation, by the expert daring of it all.
I can’t get it out of my mind that Hopkins lived and died in the nineteenth century and yet he is one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. Hopkins valiantly tries to describe perfection in this beautiful poem yet he once said, ‘Perfection is dangerous because it deceives us – because there is no perfection on this earth’. As another later twentieth century poet, Leonard Cohen, says, echoing Hopkins’ image of the falcon as a bell:
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
A more detailed analysis of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins can be found here
Commentary: This is a lyric in which Hardy describes how the song of a bedraggled thrush suggests a note of faint hope in the midst of the desolation of winter all around him. The poem was reputedly written on New Year’s Eve 1899 and published in 1900. (It was originally titled ‘By the Century’s Deathbed, 1900’). Many of us will remember the great sense of foreboding and prophesies of doom which accompanied the impending Millennium in 1999 so we can empathise with Hardy’s mood of uncertainty and near despair as the year and the century come to an end.
The death of the nineteenth century seems to be mirrored in the winter bleakness of the wood, and the general decay and hopelessness find an echo in the poet’s heart. ‘The Darkling Thrush’, laments the passing of a golden age, in this case, the great era of Romantic poetry. Hardy seems to suggest that as the twentieth-century dawns, with its science and machines, the great age of art and literature is sliding into oblivion. Poetry, he suspects, will have little place in the new technological age. The tone is, therefore, for the most part, despondent and gloomy and, of course, this is very much in keeping with Hardy’s perpetual pessimism, nihilism, and atheism. Indeed, it has to be noted that Hardy’s most common theme is humanity’s struggle against fate. Hardy is pessimistic in the way he portrays humanity’s futile struggle against cosmic forces. His work has a tragic vision; a sense that human life has to be endured. Hardy’s vision is often described as stoical.
Hardy is typically morose here and he builds up the scenes of death and desolation with several stark images: ‘Frost was spectre grey’ and ‘Winter’s dregs’. The personification of the sun, ‘The weakening eye of day’, contributes to this atmosphere of decline and death. Hardy was conscious of awesome cosmic forces, the dread power of nature, the ominous signs of nature’s disasters and the amazing beauty of nature. The confusion of trailing plants, ‘the tangled bine-stems’, resemble the broken strings of lyres, this simile adding to the general atmosphere of hopelessness.
The gauntness of the landscape is described in ‘the land’s sharp features’ and again personification is repeated in ‘The Century’s corpse’. Hardy is keenly aware that civilisations and political arrangements last a limited time, pass and are replaced. Equally, he knows that childhood and youth make way for a different future. Hardy frequently glorifies the past in order to emphasise its passing or to contrast it with the present. Sometimes Hardy ironically suggests people don’t learn from the past.
The contrast in stanza three is striking, but it is only the thrush’s song that contrasts with ‘broken lyre’s’ and ‘death-lament’. Just like the landscape, the thrush is gaunt, bedraggled, old. However, his song is ‘full-hearted’, of ‘joy illimited’ despite his appearance and this also contrasts sharply with the poet feeling ‘fervourless’ in stanza two.
Modern readers familiar with our Victorian Christmas imagery must find this poem deeply troubling and pessimistic. Our Christmas Cards may have replaced Hardy’s thrush with a robin redbreast but there are few signs of Christmas cheer here. The bird’s ‘carolings’ seem to be at odds with the gloomy human and political landscape both near and further afield – indeed, with the benefit of hindsight they are eerily prophetic. The poet’s emotion is made evident to us in the subtle onomatopoeia of ‘That I could think there trembled through’, and this suggests to us that it is a spiritual rebirth and renewal that the poet longs for.
Hardy shows an awareness of mutability in politics and human affairs. The present differs from the past, often regrettably. Hardy often displays nostalgia for childhood or for a more innocent time. Yet, one thing that doesn’t change in his view is the stupidity of war and human vanity. Sometimes nature illustrates change through its cycles: ‘The ancient pulse of germ and birth was shrunken hard and dry’. At other times, forces of nature represent permanence, in contrast to human feelings and prosperity.
In ‘The Darkling Thrush’ Hardy comes across as a conventional scientific atheist. He seems to lament the fact that scientific discoveries have made it harder and harder for a rational person to believe in God. The bleakness and coldness in this poem, it has been suggested, spring from its somewhat grim atheistic world-view. It presents us with a universe that has no God and no afterlife, nothing beyond our tiny human lives.
The main purpose of these notes is to assist you in forming an overview of Heaney’s work. For this reason, the material is structured as a series of ‘thinking points’, grouped under general headings. These cover the poet’s main preoccupations and methods, but they are not exhaustive. Neither are they ‘carved in stone’, to be memorised: ideally, they should be altered, added to or deleted as you develop your own set of notes. This priceless pearl of wisdom is relevant for Heaney BUT it equally applies to all the other poets on your course as well!
The following ‘grace notes’ presuppose a basic knowledge of the following poems by Heaney on your Leaving Cert Poetry Syllabus:
The Tollund Man
A Constable Calls
The Harvest Bow
IRISHNESS – HISTORY, MYTHS, POLITICS
In his early poems, Heaney was preoccupied with local history, with communicating the experience of his own place with its numerous customs, rituals and ancient rural crafts (See ‘Sunlight’ and ‘The Forge’).
Then he began to think of history as landscape, exploring downwards, finding evidence of history in the bogs and the very contours of the land, exploring what myth and prehistoric evidence revealed about Irishness (See ‘Bogland’)
Exploring back in time, he makes historical connections between the Iron Age and the present. He draws parallels between ancient human sacrifices and the contemporary violence which was engulfing his native Ulster at the time. He seems to be saying that violence is indeed endemic in all societies throughout history, that human sacrifice is necessary for the integrity of territory, that myths, however savage, are an integral part of the creation of the identity of a people (See ‘The Tollund Man’).
Overall, Heaney’s position has been seen as ambivalent and has been misunderstood by many. His poetry constantly explores the divisions tearing present-day Ulster apart. His position has often met with criticism from all sides regarding his treatment of recent Ulster history. Some critics say he has too much politics in his poetry, while others say he should stand up for his people and take sides. He has been accused of obscuring the horrors of sectarian killings; of endorsing a ‘tribal’ position, or of not endorsing it enough; he has also been accused of evading the issues and being non-committal in his writing.
For many critics, like Elmer Andrews, Heaney doesn’t go far enough: ‘Heaney’s art is fundamentally an art of consciously and carefully cultivated non-engagement’. Do you agree? Is Heaney completely uncritical of his own side? (See ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘A Constable Calls’).
PLACE AND LANDSCAPE
Like Patrick Kavanagh, who is synonymous with his native Inniskeen, Heaney too has immortalised his native place and Mossbawn and Anahorish are mentioned often, especially in those poems which deal with childhood. ‘Sunlight’ presents us with a picture of an idealised childhood, his aunt Mary Heaney’s kitchen is depicted as enveloping him in a womb-like security. His earlier poems, especially those from his collections Death of a Naturalist (1966), Door into the Dark (1969), North (1975), and Field Work (1979), focus very much on home and family, his relationship with his father and mother and the need for continuity between the generations (See ‘Sunlight’, ‘The Harvest Bow’)
Anybody who has read ‘Blackberry Picking’ or ‘Death of a Naturalist’ and other such poems by Heaney will need no convincing that he is a fine descriptive nature poet. Terence Brown says that he has an ‘extraordinary gift in realising the physical world freshly and with vigorous exact economy. Heaney can bring everyday natural events before the readers’ eyes with such telling precision that his images are both recognition and revelation’ (See any of his poems!).
Landscape for Heaney is more than just a subject to be painted: it is a living presence, an ever-present force, a sort of third party to human activity in the poems. This is the same immediate personal presence that we also find in Kavanagh and Wordsworth (See ‘Postscript’, ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’).
He shows us differing aspects, different faces, of the landscape: from the life force (‘spirit of the corn’) to the threatening, menacing aspect (‘the bottomless bog’). When writing about the farming traditions of his community he also presents us with the juxtaposing ideas of growth and decay.
Heaney believes that people have a human and a religious relationship with the landscape (See ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘The Harvest Bow’).
The landscape is seen as essentially female, often with erotic associations in its relationship with man (Examine ‘The Tollund Man’ closely).
Heaney’s landscape is dominated by the earth rather than the sky, with the bog providing a metaphor for Irish consciousness (See ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’).
‘The landscape for me is an image and it’s almost an element to work with as much as it is an object of admiration or description’. Heaney often uses nature metaphors to express his feelings of frustration and loneliness. For example, in ‘The Harvest Bow’ he describes his frustrating attempts at communicating with his father like this: ‘your stick / Whacking the tops off weeds and bushes / Beats out of time, and beats, but flushes / Nothing’ (See also ‘Postscript’).
Driving out west along the now famous Wild Atlantic Way, along by Flaggy Shore near Ballyvaughan on the West Coast of Clare, the poet explores the beauty of the Irish landscape as a tourist would. Heaney describes the beauty of the landscape and the changing light and the feelings it will inspire. It is a journey poem where the poet finds himself caught between wild things and settled things, between things earthed and things in flight. The sonnet-like structure of the poem gives it a postcard quality ending with simple and powerful words: ‘And catch the heart off guard and blow it open’ (‘Postscript’)
Above all, the landscape for Heaney is a source of creativity and insight: ‘poems … come up … like bodies out of the bog of my own imagination’ (See ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’).
TRADITION AND IDENTITY
For Heaney, an awareness of one’s tradition is fundamental to a sense of identity. He explains and explores his own roots, celebrating the ancient skills and crafts that sustained the farming community that nurtured him and his family for generations: the digging, the ploughing, the water-divining, the bread-making, the skills of the farmer, the blacksmith, etc. These skills are described in a reverential way as if they were sacred rituals. (See ‘Sunlight’, ‘The Forge’).
Sometimes he still hankers back to the womb-like security of that life of early childhood. Some interpret these poems describing his Aunt Mary’s kitchen in Mossbawn as a form of regression or escapism from the daily horrors of life in Northern Ireland in the Seventies and Eighties (See ‘Sunlight’). Sometimes he needs to re-forge, reinterpret and understand his links with family in order to rediscover his identity (See ‘The Harvest Bow’ where he says, ‘I tell and finger it like braille’).
‘Our sense of the past, our sense of the land and perhaps even our sense of identity are inextricably interwoven,’ according to Heaney (The Irish Press, June 1st 1974). Therefore, finding and maintaining a sense of continuity is vital to Heaney: family, traditions, customs and values come to him as memories in his poetry and reassure and comfort him amidst the mayhem and uncertainty of daily atrocities in his home place (See ‘Sunlight’, ‘The Harvest Bow’).
He explores his Catholic roots too, as set against the other traditions. According to Robert Welch: ‘Heaney is engaged upon a cultural and tribal exploration; he is testing out his cultural inheritance to see where the significant deposits are located; but he is not engaged upon a mindless submission to the old tradition of the goddess or whatever.’ (See ‘Sunlight’, ‘The Harvest Bow’, ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’).
There are times in his writing when his personal identity has overtones of victimhood about it. He certainly seems to identify with victims: ‘something of this sad freedom … should come to me.’ (See ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘A Constable Calls’).
IDENTITY AND POETRY
Heaney’s identity as a poet is inextricably linked in with his historical and cultural identity. The autographical voice we encounter in his first collection, Death of a Naturalist, becomes the spokesperson of his people in the later collection, Door into the Dark (See ‘Bogland’).
He identifies with the bog – he takes on board the implied insult that he is ‘a bogman’ and he owns it! The bog, with all its implications, becomes a kind of subconscious racial memory for him, providing him with inspiration for his poetry. The Danes weren’t the only ones to bury their dead in the bog – there were numerous victims of violence ‘disappeared’ during ‘The Troubles’ and buried in remote, windswept locations on this island too (See ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘Bogland’).
Elmer Andrews describes Heaney’s method in this way: ‘He is proposing an idea of poetry which combines psychic investigation with historical enquiry’. In an essay entitled ‘Feeling into Words’, Heaney himself spoke of ‘poetry as divination, poetry as revelation of the self to the self, as restoration of the culture to itself; poems as elements of continuity, with the aura of authenticity of archaeological finds, where the buried shard has an importance that is not diminished by the importance of the buried city; poetry as a dig, a dig for finds that end up being plants’ (Preoccupations, 1980) (See also ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘Bogland’).
Heaney sees the craft of poetry not just as something mechanical but rather a ‘combination of imagination and skill. He uses a brilliant analogy to describe a poem as ‘a completely successful love act between the craft and the gift’ (See ‘The Forge’).
Heaney’s voice in his poems is often indecisive, timid and ambiguous, his position is that of a hesitant observer on the fringes of the scene. For example, in The Forge he is outside looking in, afraid of the darkness within.
Heaney and other Northern poets such as Montague, Mahon, and Longley have come to prominence because of their efforts to make poetry relevant in a difficult political backdrop. He feels at times that poetry may be powerless to influence politics but nevertheless, it is vital to a sense of identity.
SAMPLE ANSWER: What are the recurring themes in the poetry of Seamus Heaney?
Heaney’s poetry brings us to our senses! There is a tactile, sensuous quality to his poetry and his poetry is often multi-layered. When he says that he will ‘dig’ with his pen he is referring to how layer after layer of meaning can be revealed in the act of writing. In ‘The Forge’ he records a changing way of life as the horse and car make way for the motorcar, but the poem also reveals a growing awareness of the mystery of the creative process. It becomes, therefore, a poem about poetry.
His poetry often draws on childhood memories of growing up on a farm in Co. Derry. In ‘Sunlight’ and ‘A Constable Calls’ he presents us with two contrasting memories, one beautifully tranquil, the other troubled and uneasy. Place is of vital importance, as in Kavanagh’s poetry, but so too are the people associated with that place: the exhumed Tollund man, his Aunt Mary in the family kitchen, his father ‘making tillage returns /In acres, roods and perches’, and his father making the harvest bow.
There is, therefore, a preoccupation with the past and a fascination with it. In both ‘Bogland’ and ‘The Tollund Man’ Heaney, like the ‘pioneers’ who keep ‘striking / Inwards and downwards’, prompts us to think across thousands of years. ‘Bogland’ speaks of how our ancestors’ lives are recorded and contained within the bog. ‘The Tollund Man’, though it also speaks of a bog find, is a more complex poem in that it relates a violent death that took place two thousand years ago in Jutland to the violent deaths which occurred almost daily in Northern Ireland from 1969 until the signing of the Belfast Agreement on Good Friday in 1998. Though Heaney writes about contemporary events, he does so sometimes at a tangent. Heaney himself has said that he has searched for ‘images and symbols adequate to our predicament’. And despite what some of his critics say, he never shirks or avoids the savage reality of violence: in ‘The Tollund Man’ he writes with stark realism of how the mutilated bodies of four young brothers were dragged along the train tracks, their skin and teeth flecking the railway sleepers.
Heaney’s lyric voice is often straightforward. Lines can be plain, unadorned, and deceptively simple: ‘His bicycle stood at the windowsill’, but these opening lines open up and at the same time deepen our understanding of a particular experience. In Heaney’s own words a poem preserves an experience, but ‘it should also open experience up and move it along … so that, first of all, the poet and then the reader, hopefully, gets carried away a little.’
‘So’ is a key word in Heaney’s poetry. It signals a clear-sighted focus on the scene before. For example, in ‘Sunlight’ he says, ‘So her hands scuffled / over the bakeboard’. By his use of this simple word, he achieves an immediate, direct, warm tone in his poetry. Also in ‘Sunlight’, we can see how his use of a shift in tense from past to present indicates how memory or a remembered event can be given a living quality within the poem. The poem begins in the past – ‘There was a sunlit absence’ – but ends in the present – ‘Now she dusts the board … now sits broad-lapped …
And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.
Throughout his career, Heaney was very interested in poetic form and structure. ‘The Forge’ is a sonnet and other poems on our course reveal a mastery of many forms – a variety of line lengths and differently shaped stanzas. In ‘The Harvest Bow’ the intricacies of the making of the bow is mirrored in the intricacies of the poem itself: in a line such as ‘brightens and tightens twist by twist’, with its perfect example of internal rhyme and repetition.
Heaney’s poetry is both sensitive and sympathetic. He identifies and understands others. Relationships are at the heart of his poetry, his relationships with loved ones, family, and also his relationship with significant places such as Mossbawn and later Glanmore. He recognises what is good and he cherishes and celebrates it. In his poems he is capable of delight and astonishment; the ordinary becomes marvellous, and such moments are conveyed with wonder, humility and gratitude.
You might also like to read some of the following:
Andrews, Elmer (ed). The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: Essays, Articles, Reviews. Columbia University Press (Icon Books Limited), 1998.
Brown, Terence. The Literature of Ireland: Culture and Criticism. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Heaney, Seamus. The Government of the Tongue, Faber and Faber, 1989.
Heaney here scrutinizes the work of several poets, British and Irish, American and European, whose work he considers might call into question the rights of poetic utterance. The author asks whether the voice of the poet should be governed, or whether it should be the governor.
Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney’s first collection of prose, Preoccupations, begins with a vivid account of his early years on his father’s farm in Northern Ireland and his coming of age as a student and teacher in Belfast. Subsequent essays include critical work on Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Robert Lowell, William Butler Yeats, John Montague, Patrick Kavanagh, Ted Hughes, Geoffrey Hill, and Philip Larkin.
Welch, Robert (ed). Irish Writers and Religion, Rowman and Littlefield, 1992