Major Themes in Wuthering Heights

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Readers of Wuthering Heights have long been struck by the complexities it throws up. Some see it as representing the tensions which were becoming evident in nineteenth-century capitalist society while others glory in the story of human passion, love and the personal lives of the various characters and families. Others read it for its emphasis on the theme of revenge, the power of education and the supernatural.

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‘Wuthering Heights’ by American artist Robert McGinnis

NATURE VERSUS CIVILISATION

The main action of the novel is divided between the two houses, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Wuthering Heights reflects the character of Heathcliff with its gloomy, dull and primitive outlook. It seems appropriate that he should live in the cold atmosphere and bare surroundings of the Heights. Thrushcross Grange is very different, reflecting a harmonious – if superficial – way of life which is characterised by civilised habits and behaviour. The residents of Thrushcross Grange, the Lintons, possess qualities of refinement and kindness, cushioned by their surroundings from the harsher realities of life. At the Grange, there is no room for the passion and natural energy of Heathcliff.

In the early stages of the novel, when Catherine and Heathcliff first enter the confines of the Grange, they find it a hostile place, repugnant to their values. As they look through the window at Edgar and Isabella they are surprised to find them quarrelling over a pet dog. ‘We laughed outright at the petted things, we did despise them’. Heathcliff’s contempt for the civilised life of the Lintons remains with him throughout his life. He and Catherine were brought up at Wuthering Heights where they were exposed to the wild and natural energies of the moors and deprived of the luxuries and codes of behaviour which prevailed at Thrushcross Grange. The world of Thrushcross Grange is an enclosed one, while the world of Wuthering Heights is an exposed one. The Grange is a house surrounded by walls, protected by servants and bulldogs, cut off from nature: the Heights is exposed to the elements in a wilderness, it is bare and merely serving the function of providing accommodation. In contrast, the Grange is expensively furnished, decorated with carpets and ornaments, its inhabitants placing a high value on the comforts of life.

Catherine stays at Thrushcross Grange for five weeks after she is attacked by the bulldogs. During this time, she is subjected to an environment very different from that of Wuthering Heights. She adopts some of the values of the Lintons and returns home looking like a lady. Her view of Heathcliff changes on her return and she now sees him as ‘black’, ‘cross’, ‘funny’ and ‘grim’. Her stay at the Grange is a crisis point in her life, a form of discovery which captivates her. She is not completely changed, as is evidenced on the second day of her return when she leaves the company of Edgar Linton in order to be with Heathcliff. Nevertheless, under the influence of the Thrushcross Grange ‘civilisation’, Catherine believes that it would degrade her to marry Heathcliff and she later marries Edgar Linton after Heathcliff’s sudden departure from Wuthering Heights.

The contrast between the two houses remains central to the main story after Heathcliff returns. When he calls to Thrushcross Grange Edgar asks that he is shown into the kitchen signifying that he is of ‘a lower social order’. It is only when Catherine orders the laying of two tables, one for the ‘gentry’ Isabella and Edgar, and one for the ‘lower orders’, herself and Heathcliff, that Edgar finally submits to her wishes. Catherine shows by this that she does not accept the codes of the Lintons but upholds her own values in their place. Though married to Linton and living at Thrushcross Grange, Catherine’s love for him satisfies only the superficial part of her nature, the more powerful and natural passions in her repudiate Linton and attract her to Heathcliff. She is ultimately consumed by this raging conflict between the two rivals for her affections.

The two houses are united in the next generation, through the marriage of the young Cathy and Linton Heathcliff, but this union makes Thrushcross Grange subject to Wuthering Heights and its master Heathcliff.  The union of the two houses is achieved by the domination of one and not yet through the reconciliation of the two. This process of reconciliation begins after Linton Heathcliff’s death through the relationship that develops between Cathy and Hareton. As their love grows, Heathcliff’s destructive inclinations diminish. Heathcliff describes his changed attitude in Chapter 33:

An absurd termination to my violent exertions – I get levers and mattocks to demolish the two houses and train myself to be capable of working like Hercules, and when everything is ready and in my power, I find the will to lift a slate of either roof has vanished. My old enemies have not beaten me, now would be the precise time to revenge myself on their representatives: I could do it and none could hinder me. But where is the use? I don’t care for striking: I can’t take the trouble to raise my hand.

Heathcliff realises that he is going to join Catherine in eternity and he, therefore, allows the union between Cathy and Hareton to flourish.

Nelly Dean reports that ‘Hareton Earnshaw was not to be civilised with a wish’, but the younger Cathy succeeds in redeeming him from the degradation to which he was subjected by Heathcliff. While Heathcliff goes to join Catherine in death, Cathy and Hareton resolve their animosities as the worlds of civilisation and nature are submerged and consummated in the human dignity of their marriage.

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“My great thought in living is Heathcliff. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be… My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks… Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure… but as my own being.”

REVENGE AND DEGRADATION

There is no limit to the depths of degradation and revenge in Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff is monstrously inhuman: what he does to Hindley, Isabella, Cathy and Hareton is cruel, brutal and unnatural. His revenge is inventive and refined, reflecting a twisted mind. No interpretation of the story can fail to recognise the revenge motif, particularly after the death of Catherine. Despite the inhumanity of the revenge we retain our sympathy for Heathcliff; we are kept sympathetic towards him despite his repulsive inhumanity by a series of sudden reversals in the story.

Heathcliff resolves to get his revenge on Hindley for his treatment of him when he says in Chapter 7 – ‘I am trying to settle how I shall pay Hindley back. I don’t care how long I wait if I can only do it at last. I hope he will not die before I do’. When he returns to Wuthering Heights, after his three years’ absence, he is in a position to get his revenge on the drunken Hindley. He then embarks on his revenge on the Lintons with his marriage to Isabella. He promises revenge when he says to Catherine in Chapter 11: ‘If you fancy I’ll suffer unrevenged, I’ll convince you to the contrary, in a very little while’. His marriage to Isabella is a cruel blow to Edgar Linton, especially since he treats her so cruelly. His only reason for marrying Isabella, who is infatuated with him, is to bring suffering to the Lintons. He proceeds to arrange the marriage of the younger Cathy and Linton Heathcliff after Catherine’s death, thus placing her under his power. As a result of this marriage, he succeeds in acquiring Thrushcross Grange as his property on the death of Linton Heathcliff. One of the objectives of his revenge plan was to gain both the Heights and the Grange as his own property. His other objective is the degradation of both the Lintons and Earnshaws. He continues with his plan as he keeps Hareton as an ignorant, illiterate slave.

Even though Heathcliff appears to be the epitome of evil and inhumanity in the manner in which he carries out his revenge, we tend to justify his behaviour since Emily Bronte makes us understand why he is inhuman! We recognise that he has suffered, has been deprived and has rebelled unsuccessfully against the treatment meted out to him by Hindley in his earlier life; all of which helps us to identify with Heathcliff in a way that allows us to justify his actions, even though this justification does appear irrational on an objective level.

Emily Bronte also manipulates our feelings through the use of sudden reversals. Heathcliff acts in a more degrading manner as the second part of the novel progresses but then suddenly in Chapter 29, without any warning, we are plunged into Heathcliff’s revelation of his sufferings during the previous eighteen years since Catherine’s death. We learn about the intensity of his yearning for Catherine and about his opening of her grave in the search for unity with her spirit. This retrospective glimpse into Heathcliff’s soul modifies our disgust at the depravity of his revenge since Catherine’s death and we tend to view his actions in a new light. Through such a reversal, which puts Heathcliff into a new perspective, Emily Bronte manipulates our sympathy in his favour at a time when we feel that Heathcliff has gone beyond all decent limits in his revenge.

Heathcliff abandons his revenge in his final days realising its meaninglessness. His obsession with Catherine’s spirit increases as his death approaches and, according to Nelly Dean, his change of heart is associated with the resemblance to Catherine which he sees in Hareton and Cathy:

They lifted their eyes together to encounter Mr Heathcliff: perhaps you have never remarked that their eyes are precisely similar and they are those of Catherine Earnshaw. With Hareton, the resemblance is carried even further: it is singular, at all times – then it was particularly striking: because his senses were alert, and his mental faculties wakened to unwonted activity. I suppose this resemblance disarmed Mr Heathcliff (Chapter 33).

Heathcliff’s dehumanising revenge plan for Cathy and Hareton fails, therefore, because he has ‘lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction’, as he contemplates his hoped-for eventual union with Catherine in the grave.

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LOVE AND THE SUPERNATURAL

In her interview with Nelly Dean in Chapter 9, Catherine elaborates on her idea of love, explaining the difference between her love for Edgar Linton and her love for Heathcliff. She loves Edgar, ‘because he is handsome and pleasant to be with’, but she also loves his status in life, his wealth and his love for her. Without these attractions, she would only ‘pity him – hate him’. In contrast, she says of Heathcliff, ‘I love the ground under his feet, and the air over his head, and everything he touches and every word he says, I love all his looks and all his actions and him entirely and altogether’. It is obvious here that her description of her love for Heathcliff bears no resemblance to the language she uses to describe her feelings for Edgar: ‘if all else perished and he (Heathcliff) remained, I should still continue to be, and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the world would turn to a mighty stranger’.

She ends her description with the powerful assertion, ‘I am Heathcliff’. Her love for Heathcliff is mysterious, it is beyond a mere relationship, it is a union of being. Catherine can only exist in Heathcliff and he in her. She considers the idea of their separation impractical and absurd, yet she intends to marry Edgar Linton believing that he will allow her to carry on her relationship with Heathcliff. It can be said that at this stage in the novel Catherine speaks of Edgar in the language of the Grange and of Heathcliff in the language of the Heights: she loves Edgar in the romantic manner of civilised behaviour and she loves Heathcliff in the very depths of her soul. Catherine has here adopted a dual vision of love and life.

After Catherine’s marriage to Edgar, Nelly Dean says in Chapter 10 that ‘she seemed almost over-fond’ of him. Her harmonious relationship with Edgar ends with the sudden return of Heathcliff and again she adopts a dual personality. She still loves Heathcliff although she considers him ‘a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man’. Her love for Heathcliff is in the realm of the supernatural and she rejects Edgar. ‘My soul will be on that hill-top before you lay hands on me again. I don’t want you, Edgar’. In their desperation at their positions, Catherine and Heathcliff act in a hysterical, delirious, irrational manner, as he pursues his revenge on the Lintons despite the fact that it is killing Catherine (Chapter 15). He accuses Catherine of betraying their love by her marriage to Edgar: ‘You loved me, then what right had you to leave me? What right – answer me – for the poor fancy you felt for Linton?’ On hearing of her death, Heathcliff exclaims: ‘I cannot live without my life. I cannot live without my soul’ – BUT he does and he even pursues his revenge with even greater ferocity!

Catherine and Heathcliff remain spiritually united after her death. This raises the question of the role of the supernatural in the novel. In Chapter 29, Heathcliff relates how he dug up Catherine’s coffin in order to convince himself that she was still in the grave and bring himself some peace of mind.

No! she has disturbed me, night and day through eighteen years, incessantly, remorselessly – till yesternight; and yesternight I was tranquil. I dreamt I was sleeping the last sleep by that sleeper with my heart stopped and my cheek frozen against hers.

After her death, he had also dug up her grave and felt her presence by him and leading him home. He feels that her spirit pervades the surroundings of Wuthering Heights. This ‘presence’ of Catherine recalls to us the experience of Lockwood as he slept in Catherine’s room in Chapter 3.

Before Heathcliff’s death, Nelly reports that he stayed awake throughout the night and she heard him speak alone and use the name Catherine, ‘spoken as one would speak to a person present’ (Chapter 34). The country folk believed that Heathcliff and Catherine walked the moors after his death and reported seeing them. Despite the volume of evidence which would indicate that Emily Bronte deliberately intends us to be conscious of the supernatural in the story, many critics reject this interpretation and point to Lockwood’s scepticism at the end, considering his view to be reliable when he says that he believes that Catherine and Heathcliff are quiet sleepers in a quiet earth:

I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth (Chapter 34).

 

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REFERENCES

Gregor, Ian. The Brontes – Twentieth Century Views, Prentice Hall, 1970.
(A collection of critical essays – five devoted to Wuthering Heights).

Jennings, John. Wuthering Heights, in Inscape 10 (ed. Patrick Murray), Educational Company of Ireland, 1975

Leavis, F.R. and Q.D. Lectures in America, Chatto and Windus, 1969.
(The essay by Mrs Q.D Leavis, ‘A Fresh Approach to Wuthering Heights’ gives a comprehensive study of the novel and is worth a read).

FURTHER READING

You might also like to read Grace Notes on Wuthering Height

and The Depiction of Childhood in Wuthering Heights – Some Observations on Characterisation in the Novel

and Imagery and Symbolism in Wuthering Heights

Grace Notes on Wuthering Heights

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The Life and Times of Emily Bronte

Emily Bronte’s father, Patrick Bronte, was the son of a Northern Ireland farmer. Initially, he earned a living as a blacksmith but by sheer determination and ambition gained a degree from Cambridge and at the age of twenty-nine was ordained a clergyman. He married Maria Branwell in 1812 and in 1818 their daughter Emily was born. Maria Bronte died in 1821 and her sister, Elizabeth, a strict disciplinarian, took on the care of the young Brontes. They were living in the parsonage at Haworth at this time.

Emily, like Catherine in Wuthering Heights, developed an independent spirit as she grew up: she left her school, Roe Head, after only three months, worked as a teacher for six months and left her school in Brussels after eight months. Their father, Patrick, who had had a number of literary works published encouraged a love of books and learning and Emily began to build her own imaginary world called Gondal which contains most of her best poetry. She spent her time helping with the housework, reading, and creating Gondal, until 1845, when her sister, Charlotte, upon reading the Gondal poems for the first time, suggested that they be published. Eventually, they were published but only two copies were sold!

Within a year Emily had finished and published Wuthering Heights and her sister Anne had written Agnes Grey, both following Charlotte who had already published Jane Eyre in 1847, which was very successful. However, Wuthering Heights was not well received by the critics receiving only one good review. Within a year of publication of what was later to become a huge literary success, Emily Bronte died in December 1848. Indeed, her brother Branwell, Emily, and Anne all died from various forms of tuberculosis between September 1848 and May 1849. To put her death into a historical timeline, she died one year after the death of Daniel O’Connell who passed away in Genoa in 1847 and in the same year as Marx and Engels published ‘The Communist Manifesto’.

However, it has to be said that Emily Bronte’s short life (1818 – 1848) coincided with major epochs in Britain, namely The Romantic Movement, led by William Wordsworth and others and also the increasing growth of urbanisation. Cities like Liverpool, from which Heathcliff was brought by Mr Earnshaw, had doubled in size between 1800 and 1830. This era also saw great changes in the countryside also. Agriculture became more efficient with most of the open fields and commonages being enclosed and worked by the estate owners like the Lintons. The cottagers and small farmers who had traditionally farmed these common areas were marginalised after the lands were enclosed and they frequently migrated to the industrial cities. More than likely, Heathcliff’s parents were from this disinherited class.

This new and changing social scene in the nineteenth-century which was no doubt much influenced by the fallout from the French Revolution (1789) also bred a new generation of philosophers and social influencers. One of these was John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) who rejected the utilitarian creed of industrialisation and was an inveterate advocate of human liberty, urging people to develop their individual potential and talents. He believed that it was necessary to bring about many reforms in society before people could achieve this freedom. One of his causes was a campaign for popular education which he believed to be necessary if people were to attain true personal liberty. It is clear from the pages of Wuthering Heights that Emily Bronte’s views on education and freedom and her own spirit of freedom and independence are a reflection of this philosophy which was in vogue at the time.

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Introducing Wuthering Heights

It is difficult to pigeon-hole Wuthering Heights neatly into just one genre alone. These ‘grace notes’ do not seek to be dogmatic and rather try to analyse the novel from different viewpoints. And after all, we have always to give some weight to the views of the individual reader who comes to this novel, probably because it has been prescribed by powers on high, and who brings his/her own values and attitudes to the mesmerising conflicts and contrasts in the story.

• The novel can be interpreted as a love story, but it can also be interpreted as a revenge story, an autobiographical story or a saga depicting the conflict between differing civilisations. If anything, there are elements of all of these views contained within it.

Conflict is elemental and central to this novel. It is the source and origin of the plot and the novel has scarcely begun when the peace and harmony at Wuthering Heights is disturbed by the arrival of Heathcliff bringing discord and conflict to the Earnshaw household. Initially, this conflict centres on Hindley and Heathcliff but it develops and eventually envelops all the characters and ultimately becomes a conflict between Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. This conflict engulfs the novel and only shows signs of subsiding in the third generation at the end of the novel.

Wuthering Heights also has an unusual structure and method of narration. Nelly Dean, a servant, relates the history of three generations to Lockwood, the new tenant at Thrushcross Grange. He in his turn records in his journal the story as told to him by Nelly and also some of his own reminiscences. Wuthering Heights is then presented to us in this rather complicated form in a novel spanning thirty years in time. (See further analysis below).

• Critics and scholars have long argued as to which literary genre the novel belongs. Some claim that it is a Romance, while others claim that it is a Saga and others still that it is a Gothic Romance. Certainly, there are reasons for saying that aspects of the relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff constitute a typical romance story, but this view is open to question considering the tragic death of Catherine, Heathcliff’s revenge and the supernatural aspects of their relationship. The novel also follows some of the patterns of a Saga in presenting the history of the three generations of the two families told through the eyes of the servant in both families. Gothic influences are also evident in the story. Emily Bronte was an avid reader of Gothic romances in her childhood, feeding her mind with the horror and sensationalism of their mysterious setting and their evil ghost-like characters. The mysterious circumstances surrounding Lockwood’s dream and Heathcliff’s death are two of the more prominent occurrences in the novel which are classic Gothic in their inspiration, but the physical surroundings and settings of the novel bear no comparison with the mysterious castles and unknown lands typical of the Gothic romance. We can also say that even though Heathcliff’s origins are unknown and his actions at times seem demonic, he is a human creature displaying human qualities.

• In all our discussions of Wuthering Heights, we are continually drawn to the characters of Catherine and Heathcliff. At first, we see their idyllic love relationship which is subjected to many trials and pressures, as a result of which we find Heathcliff turning into a fiendish monster. This transformation in Heathcliff fascinates and sobers us. Despite the evil of Heathcliff, we still maintain some shreds of sympathy for him even as he reaches the worst depths of his degradation. (See further analysis below).

• If we take a telescopic view of the novel (or maybe, we could use a drone!), we have on the one hand Wuthering Heights in the Yorkshire Moors, surrounded by the world of raw nature with its calms and storms, an untamed world whose inhabitants live in an untamed manner. At the centre of life at the heights we have Catherine, Heathcliff and Hindley. On the other hand, we have Thrushcross Grange, representing the world of civility, surrounded by beauty, protected from the untamed world. The inhabitants of this world live a life of civilised gentility with the benefits of education and society. At the centre of life at the grange are Edgar and Isabella Linton. The Heights and the Grange provide the setting in which the story is acted out by each generation in its turn.

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Structure in Wuthering Heights

The opening chapters give us certain details about Heathcliff, Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights. However, the essential story only begins in Chapter 4 when Nelly starts to relate it to Lockwood. The novel begins with the date 1801, but Nelly tells the story to Lockwood of events which happened in the past, beginning with the arrival of Heathcliff to Wuthering Heights, thirty years earlier (1771).

The story records the events in the lives of three generations at Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights. This naturally presented an overwhelming problem of structure for Emily Bronte in selecting and organising the events in such a manner so as not to confuse the reader. She is also faced with the problem of retaining the reader’s interest throughout the lives of the three generations.

The most interesting aspect of the structure is the composition of the two families. The Earnshaws at Wuthering Heights have one son, Hindley, and one daughter, Catherine. The Lintons at Thrushcross Grange have one son, Edgar, and one daughter, Isabella. Edgar Linton marries Catherine Earnshaw, while Isabella Linton marries Heathcliff, Earnshaw’s adopted son. Edgar and Catherine’s only daughter Cathy, marries first, Heathcliff and Isabella’s son, Linton Heathcliff, and later marries Hindley Earnshaw’s son, Hareton.

It is obvious that Emily Bronte was very conscious of the necessity for a pattern in the selection and composition of the two major families. The list of relationships above may cause some confusion but if you examine the family tree you will see the pattern clearly. We can see that there were three marriages in the second generation and one child by each marriage.

The novel can be divided into two parts: the first part dealing with Catherine, Heathcliff, Hindley, Edgar and Isabella, the second part dealing with young Cathy, Linton Heathcliff, Hareton and Heathcliff’s revenge. Unifying both parts is the character of Heathcliff, a mixture of evil and romance in the first part, a dehumanised, revengeful recluse in the second part. Nelly and Lockwood, the narrators, also help to give unity to the novel, Nelly because, like Heathcliff, she is present through the history of the three generations. Lockwood is present at the beginning and the end, he introduces us to Heathcliff at the beginning of the novel and leaves us at his grave at the end.

A further pattern in the story, contributing to the formality of the structure, is the series of young romances. Catherine has two romances, one with Edgar the other with Heathcliff, while the young Cathy also has two romances, one with Linton Heathcliff, the other with Hareton. This pattern of romances ensures a continual inter-relationship between the Heights and the Grange.

As the novel opens there is no contact between the Heights and the Grange, but from the moment Catherine is taken in by the Lintons after being bitten by the dogs, conflict between the two houses begins. When Catherine returns after her stay with the Lintons she is further estranged from Heathcliff. This separation and Catherine’s marriage to Edgar gives rise to Heathcliff’s revenge. The revenge story increases the sense of tension and this tension helps to maintain our interest and curiosity.

The novel begins with harmony and ends with harmony. Heathcliff is a disruptive force. The disharmony and conflict between the two houses and between the characters continue through the novel until the young Cathy succeeds in becoming a civilising influence over Hareton. Heathcliff’s determination in his revenge fades and he is unsuccessful in gaining his revenge over Hareton. Cathy teaches Hareton and brings him under her influence, the values of the Grange and book values. They are described in Chapter 32 as ‘one loving and desiring to esteem, the other loving and desiring to be esteemed, they contrived in the end to reach it’. She succeeds where the first Catherine failed and with her marriage to Hareton the reconciliation of the conflict in the novel is achieved and harmony is once more restored to both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange.

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Victorian lady: Emily Bronte

Narrative Technique

There were two methods of writing a novel in common use among Emily Bronte’s contemporaries: one method involved the narration of the story in an autobiographical manner by a character who was involved in the action of the story; the other method involved the use by the author of an omniscient third person who had sufficient knowledge of the events to be in a position to narrate the story. Emily Bronte’s method is similar to the latter except she uses two narrators; Nelly Dean who is the servant at Wuthering Heights and later at Thrushcross Grange, and Lockwood who acquires the tenancy of Thrushcross Grange from Heathcliff.

The novel opens with the date 1801 as Lockwood becomes a tenant at the Grange. He is an outsider and a city man who claims to be unsociable by nature, but his curiosity about Heathcliff and Catherine is aroused by his two visits to Wuthering Heights and his ghost-like experience of Catherine during his second visit. After these experiences at the Heights, described in the opening three chapters, he makes enquiries of Nelly Dean about Heathcliff and the other residents at the Heights on his return to Thrushcross Grange. Lockwood tells us:

‘Under the pretence of gaining information concerning the necessities of my establishment, I desired Mrs Dean when she brought in supper, to sit down while I ate it, hoping sincerely that she would prove a regular gossip and either rouse me to animation or lull me to sleep with her gossip’.

Thankfully for us, Nelly Dean does prove to be ‘a regular gossip’, satisfying Lockwood’s curiosity by responding to his questions and proceeding to tell him about her childhood at Wuthering Heights and the arrival of Heathcliff from Liverpool as a child. In this manner, Emily Bronte lulls us into the story of Catherine and Heathcliff as Nelly continues to narrate her story to Lockwood.

Nelly Dean’s story, covering a period of thirty years in the lives of three generations of the Earnshaws and Lintons, occupies most of the novel and there are only brief interventions in the story by Lockwood. Nelly Dean is in a perfect position to tell the story since she was either directly involved in the events, was an observer of them or was told about them directly by a confidant on the rare occasions when she was not present at the scene of the action. She, therefore, has the authority to tell the story and we accept it as authentic. She grew up at Wuthering Heights with Heathcliff and Catherine; she lived at Thrushcross Grange after Catherine’s marriage to Edgar and before Heathcliff’s death she is again living at Wuthering Heights. She is not a direct observer of the events at Wuthering Heights after Isabella’s marriage to Heathcliff, but she learns about their life together from Isabella’s letter to her (Chapter 13). She learns about Heathcliff’s re-opening of Catherine’s grave and his suffering after her death from his own lips (Chapter 29) and she learns about the life of the young Catherine at Wuthering Heights from the account of Zillah (Chapter 30). Heathcliff’s description of his suffering in Chapter 29 is an excellent example of the use of a reversal which influences our feelings towards Heathcliff by giving us a flashback to earlier events in the story. Isabella’s letter as a literary device is unobtrusively woven into the story so that we learn about events which Nelly Dean could not have otherwise known about.

Lockwood records in his journal the entire story as told to him by Nelly Dean and also adds his own experiences. He records his first impressions of Wuthering Heights and his reading of Catherine’s diary in the first three chapters and then records Nelly Dean’s story with only minor interruptions until his visit to Wuthering Heights before his departure for the city (Chapter 31). On his return, in September 1802, he discovers about the growing relationship between the young Catherine and Hareton. He meets Nelly again and she continues to narrate the story until Lockwood leaves us in the final paragraph as he lingers by the graves of Catherine, Heathcliff and Edgar. Lockwood, a sceptical outsider like us, the readers, lends an air of authenticity and realism to this tale from the Yorkshire moors and therefore gives the story added credibility for the reader: the reader can identify with him and his curiosity arouses our curiosity also.

Whether we consider the narrative technique too complicated or not, we have to agree that it does achieve its aim in presenting a strange gothic world in such a manner as to make it interesting and familiar to the reader. The two narrators, Nelly Dean and Lockwood give the story a credibility and a plausibility which it might not have had Emily Bronte chosen to present it in an autobiographical manner without their intervention.

 

 

Author’s Note: The term ‘Grace Notes’ comes to us from the world of Irish Traditional music where they are used as embellishments, added extras to further personalise the tune. Here they are used in a similar fashion – maybe the nuggets unearthed here could be the difference between H1 or H2!

REFERENCES

Gregor, Ian. The Brontes – Twentieth Century Views, Prentice Hall, 1970.
(A collection of critical essays – five devoted to Wuthering Heights).

Jennings, John. Wuthering Heights, in Inscape 10 (ed. Patrick Murray), Educational Company of Ireland, 1975

Leavis, F.R. and Q.D. Lectures in America, Chatto and Windus, 1969.
(The essay by Mrs Q.D Leavis, ‘A Fresh Approach to Wuthering Heights‘ gives a comprehensive study of the novel and is worth a read).

FURTHER READING

You might also like to read Major Themes in Wuthering Heights

and The Depiction of Childhood in Wuthering Heights – Some Observations on Characterisation in the Novel

and Imagery and Symbolism in Wuthering Heights

Exposure by Seamus Heaney – An Analysis

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“In the Attic”, a portrait of Seamus Heaney by the artist Jeffrey Morgan now hanging in the HomePlace Centre in Bellaghy, Co. Derry.

Exposure

 

It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.

A comet that was lost
Should be visible at sunset,
Those million tons of light
Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips,

And I sometimes see a falling star.
If I could come on meteorite!
Instead I walk through damp leaves,
Husks, the spent flukes of autumn,

Imagining a hero
On some muddy compound,
His gift like a slingstone
Whirled for the desperate.

How did I end up like this?
I often think of my friends’
Beautiful prismatic counselling
And the anvil brains of some who hate me

As I sit weighing and weighing
My responsible tristia.
For what? For the ear? For the people?
For what is said behind-backs?

Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conductive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls

The diamond absolutes.
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner emigre, grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne

Escaped from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows;

Who, blowing up these sparks
For their meagre heat, have missed
The once-in-a-lifetime portent,
The comet’s pulsing rose.

– Seamus Heaney

 

Commentary
‘Exposure’ was written in 1975 and significantly is the last poem in the poet’s volume, North. Not only that, but ‘Exposure’ is the final poem in a six poem sequence grouped under the title The Singing School, a phrase borrowed from W. B. Yeats’ famous poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, which concludes that great collection. The poem itself is, to an extent, a reflective self-analysis, as Heaney takes stock of his life and poses a series of questions about his role and function as a poet. The poem depicts Heaney’s anxiety and discomfort with his position in society and with his role as a poet. The poem explores Heaney’s dilemma as ‘The Troubles’ detonate and resonate and invade his artistic space. He has removed himself from the North and like his friend Michael Longley, who had already moved to Carrigskeewaun in Mayo, he has thus acquired a new perspective from his cottage in Glanmore in County Wicklow. He is, however, troubled by self-doubt and uncertainty and hurt by the whispers, the innuendo, the charge that he hasn’t taken sides, that he has abandoned his people and taken the English ‘shilling’.

It is a ten stanza poem that is separated into quatrains. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme. They are composed in free verse, meaning there is no pattern of rhyme or rhythm. The poem opens, ‘It is December in Wicklow.’ December is deep winter in Ireland, characterised by its cold bracing wet weather, it is also the end of a year. This sets up a peaceful and tranquil scene providing time for self-reflection and a chance to reappraise his situation. This time affords him an opportunity to analyse his obvious anxiety and discomfort and the horrible tension that has arisen between his private persona and his very public career as a poet. It is a rainy, wintry month, the ‘alders [are] dripping,’ the ‘birches’ are fighting for the ‘last light,’ and ‘the ash tree’ is bare, too cold ‘to look at.’

It is obvious that his main source of frustration is that he feels that he is being dragged unwillingly into the current fraught political situation in his own native place. His former neighbours in Bellaghy have all been forced by circumstances to take sides and here, Bellaghy’s most famous son is seen to be ambivalent and non-committal. Earlier on in North, in the poem ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’, he has made the famous statement:

The famous

Northern reticence, the tight gag of place
And times: yes, yes. Of the ‘wee six’ I sing
Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, say nothing.

In ‘Exposure’, then, we see the poet is under pressure from all sides to say something and he feels that he is being used by all sides for their own political ends. How then can he solve this dilemma? He tries to wrestle with this dilemma in his solitary walk in the Wicklow hills. He considers the inherent differences between a comet and a meteorite. A comet is predictable and appears after sunset on a set date once every four years or four hundred years. A ‘falling star’ or meteorite is totally unpredictable and appears randomly in the evening sky. The comet ‘visible at sunset’ is expected, it ‘should’ appear. Yet, the ‘falling star’ only ‘sometimes’ appears. Heaney himself admires the meteorite, the ‘falling star’. This is shown through the use of the exclamation mark. Unlike the comet which typically follows a cycle, a meteorite is free, it does not need to keep to a designated orbit. Rather, it is able to float and fall whenever and wherever it wishes. Here, Heaney is making the metaphorical comparison between the comet and the meteorite and his own role as a poet. He wishes to be able to express himself freely yet the political circumstances in Northern Ireland do not allow for such, it forces him to choose sides, and tries to drag him into the conflict. Here, Heaney poses an important question – is he to be simply another insignificant individual pushed around by politics or is he to be an independent figure able to freely voice his own thoughts?

In the next two stanzas, Heaney further ponders his role as a poet. He plaintively asks ‘How did I end up like this?’ There is a certain degree of torment shown through this as he sits, ‘weighing and weighing’ his worth. This repetition places emphasis on his vulnerable psychological state. He identifies two opposing groups: the rational ones with their ‘beautiful prismatic counselling’ and his enemies with their impenetrable ‘anvil brains’. He feels isolated from all groups and becomes an ‘inner émigré’ as he is unable to satisfy the demands of one, without conflicting with the others. Heaney is frustrated that he is unable to change the perceptions of those people, close-minded and devoted to their own beliefs. Once again, he questions his role as a poet; he questions himself as to who he is to please, who should he be serving – the minority, the various political groups or society as a whole?

This poem helps him resolve his dilemma and therefore it is a seminal poem in which he takes his lonely stand as an artist and refuses to be drawn in and forced to take sides – he will be his own man – the epiphany comes like Austin Clarke’s ‘The Lost Heifer’ appearing out of the mist. He clarifies the reference to ‘the alders’ in stanza one and this time the image is clearer and more definite:

Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conductive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls

The diamond absolutes.

This is more hopeful as Heaney gradually comes to terms with himself. He realises, despite the rain causing ‘let-downs and erosions,’ it is able to ‘(recall) the diamond absolutes.’ Through his self-imposed ‘exile’ in Wicklow, he has ‘grown long-haired and thoughtful.’ He repudiates both extremes – the fanaticism of ‘the internee’ languishing ‘on some muddy compound’ in Long Kesk and the despicable betrayal of ‘the informer’. He emphatically states that ‘I am neither’. Instead, he has gained wisdom and realised that like the ‘wood-kerne,’ the Irish soldiers of old who having lost the battle retreat to the woods to regroup, he is able to use his writing as a way of controlling and fighting for his voice in society. His solitary trek through the winter woods has given him a deeper insight into his role as a poet in a society devastated by violence and divisions.

In ‘Exposure’, Heaney reflects on his changed circumstances and on his present situation living and writing in the quiet backwater of Glanmore in County Wicklow. He reflects on the great expectations being placed on him as a poet of standing. This marks a drastically different approach to that seen in earlier collections such as Death of a Naturalist. In this final poem of The Singing School sequence and the final poem in the collection, North, Heaney wonders whether his move South will have any effect. Will it give him the perspective he craves or will he be exposed to ridicule like the emperor without clothes in the children’s fable. He knows he is taking a risk and giving his critics and the ‘anvil brains’ ammunition to mortally wound him. What if after all the brouhaha he only produces the odd spark to illuminate the daily atrocities taking place further North when what the situation really needs is the arrival of a ‘comet’s pulsing rose’?

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Fairy-Tale Motifs in Persuasion by Jane Austen

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There are two very strong fairy-tale motifs underlying the novel Persuasion. The most obvious one is the Cinderella story; the other is that of Sleeping Beauty. Some central aspects of each of these tales are reflected in the story of Anne Elliot.

To take the Cinderella aspect of Persuasion first, a brief outline of the main details of the story may help to make the parallels clear. In the fairy-tale, the gentle, good-natured Cinderella is cruelly treated by her stepmother and two stepsisters, and when she has performed the most menial household tasks, is left to sit among the cinders at the hearth. Her stepsisters have gone to the ball, while she is left at home crying, only to be rescued from her plight by her fairy godmother, who sends her to the ball where the Prince falls in love with her, loses her for a time, but finally finds and marries her.

In Chapter 1, Jane Austen places the Cinderella-like Anne side by side with a callous parent, Sir Walter Elliot, and her two self-centred, uncaring sisters. The parallels are almost explicitly drawn:

Anne with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding, was nobody with either father or sister; her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way – she was only Anne.

Jane Austen produces a fairy godmother figure in the person of Lady Russell, Anne’s real godmother, but also an ironic version of the fairy godmother, since her well-meaning intervention in Anne’s affairs, far from helping her, has led to a seven-year spell of lonely frustration. Captain Wentworth is, of course, the principal figure who is separated from the heroine but recognises her worth and rescues her from her uncongenial environment. The story progresses, like the Cinderella one, towards the triumph of the heroine and the embarrassment of her tormentors.

The second fairy-tale motif, that of the Sleeping Beauty, whose fate it is to fall into a sleep of a hundred years, only to be awakened by a prince. Anne’s fate is to be the victim of a seven-year period of loss and isolation, deprived of the possibility of playing an active role. Her state is presented as a condition akin to sleep, which she must endure as best she can until she is reawakened to new life by Wentworth, the prince of the story.  Here, for example, is how she appears after her father has gone to Bath with Elizabeth and Mrs Clay: ‘Anne walked up, in a sort of desolate tranquillity, to the lodge, where she was to spend the first week’.

The themes of sleep and re-awakening are also underlined in the nature imagery of the novel. One dark November day, the silent, pensive Anne is rescued from her dismal meditations by Lady Russell, who seems to find her much improved in appearance:

And Anne, in receiving her compliments on the occasion, had the amusement of connecting them with the silent admiration of her cousin, and of hoping that she was to be blessed with a second spring of youth and beauty (Chap 13).

Whereas Lady Russell’s role is an ironic comment on the fairy godmother theme, Louisa Musgrove’s mishap can be read as a parody of the Sleeping Beauty story. After her fall at Lyme, she falls into an unconscious state, from which she is awakened to love, not by the man she loved before the event, but by another one, Captain Benwick.

The critic, D.W. Harding argues that throughout her novels Jane Austen was fascinated with the Cinderella story, albeit with the fairy godmother omitted. He proposes that if we look closely we can see the same pattern that is evident in Persuasion repeated in Pride and Prejudice:

The heroine is in some degree isolated from those around her by being more sensitive or of finer moral insight or sounder judgement, and her marriage to the handsome prince at the end is in the nature of a reward for being different from the rest, and a consolation for the distresses entailed by being different.

However, in Persuasion, Harding suggests, Jane Austen provides us with an interesting development of the Cinderella theme: ‘She brings the idealised mother back to life and admits that she is no nearer to perfection than the mothers of acute and sensitive children generally are’. In Lady Russell, he argues, ‘she provides a godmother, not fairy but human, with whom Anne Elliot can have much the relationship of a daughter with a greatly loved, but fallible mother’, and through the novel ‘there runs a lament for the seven years’ loss of happiness resulting from Anne’s having yielded to her godmother’s persuasion’.

If Harding is correct, then the pattern of events in Persuasion reflects Jane Austen’s attempt to tell the full truth about the Cinderella situation, of which the traditional version tells only part of the truth.

Works Cited
Harding, D. W. ‘Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen’ reprinted in Jane Austen, A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Ian Watt, Twentieth Century Views, 1963.

References

Murray, Patrick. Persuasion in Inscapes 13, The Educational Company of Ireland, 1978

Further Reading:

You might also like to read Some Themes in Persuasion by Jane Austen

and  Characterisation in the novel Persuasion

 

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In Jane Austen’s Persuasion fairy tales meet biting feminist critiques

Characterisation in the novel Persuasion

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Jane Austen places all her heroines in difficult situations.  Their ultimate goal is happiness and self-fulfilment to be achieved through marriage to a compatible and worthy partner, but this can be reached only after numerous formidable obstacles have been overcome.

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Sally Hawkins as Anne Elliot in Persuasion (TV Movie 2007) – directed by Adrian Shergold.

Anne Elliot

Persuasion is Anne Elliot’s book.  And like other Austen heroines, she too labours under various major difficulties.  She lacks material resources and is, therefore, less eligible than she might otherwise be, particularly in a society which places a high value on financial competence in both partners in a marriage.  This is best exemplified by the fact that Captain Wentworth has no fortune when he first proposes to Anne and this fact tells heavily against him in the eyes of Lady Russell and Anne’s family.  Her own family situation is little better and, despite Anne’s best efforts to give her father prudent advice, she is ignored and he continues to live beyond his means.   There is no member of her family in whom she can confide, and her sisters are cruelly insensitive.  She has refused to marry Wentworth, the one man she can love, on the mistaken advice of her godmother, Lady Russell.  As the novel opens, seven years have elapsed since her rejection of Wentworth, who again enters her world, still resentful and bitter over her past treatment of him.  Her present circumstances seem to offer her little or no scope for achieving reconciliation with Wentworth.  Two important factors combine, however, to see her through: her own considerable resources of character and personality, and, last but not least, some good fortune.

As already mentioned Anne is central to the novel and every other character we encounter is significant only in relation to her: Wentworth and William Walter Elliot as her admirers; Lady Russel as her adviser; Mrs Smith as her informant about William Walter Elliot; Louisa as her rival, and so on.  Everything that happens is seen as having some relation to Anne’s concerns, and what the readers see, they see through her eyes and from her point of view.

The only recorded comment from Jane Austen about Persuasion was that she felt that Anne was almost too good to be true.  She is presented from the outset as an admirably sensible young woman, loyal, self-reliant, with a sound and penetrating judgement and the highest ideals.  Indeed, all she has to achieve through the course of the novel is a greater reliance on the soundness of her own judgement, and the rightness of her own principles.  She learns from her mistake in following Lady Russell’s earlier advice when she refuses Charles Musgrove, although this time around Lady Russell is in favour of the match.  Her strong feelings and sensitive, emotional nature, are balanced by sanity and intelligence.  She doesn’t give in to being over-sentimental and she doesn’t allow herself to become despondent or depressed.  She busies herself with cataloguing the books and pictures at Kellynch, visits the tenants, nurses her nephew, frequently acts as accompanist for the Musgroves, advises Captain Benwick about his reading programme, and visits the unfortunate Mrs Smith.  Her strength of character is revealed in the degree of self-discipline she has achieved during the seven-year separation from Wentworth.  Her eyes may fill with tears at the sight of Captain Wentworth dancing with Louisa, but she allows nobody to notice this.  Instead, she offers her services as a musical accompanist, ‘extremely glad to be employed, and desiring nothing in return but to be unobserved’.  Her intelligence, good sense and self-control, then, are always to the fore.

She gets a unique opportunity to demonstrate her practical good sense, quickness of wit and self-control after Louisa’s accident on the Cobb at Lyme.  While everybody around her panics and falls to pieces, and even Wentworth displays an alarming loss of nerve, she assumes control and does all the appropriate things.  There can only be one verdict, Wentworth’s: ‘No one so proper, so capable as Anne’.

But this is only one aspect of her character.  Jane Austen is successful in communicating her emotional nature, her intensity of feeling.  This is all the more impressive in the light of her normally restrained and controlled manner.  One good example of her strong feeling finding an outlet is her impassioned declaration to Captain Harville that women (for the reader and the listening Wentworth this means Anne) are capable ‘of loving longest when existence or when hope is gone’.  Again, when reconciliation with Wentworth seems to be on the cards, we learn that ‘she had some feelings which she was ashamed to investigate.  They were too much like joy, senseless joy’.

Anne approaches as near to perfection as any fictional character could, while still retaining some measure of credibility.  However, she has her weaknesses.  When all hope seems lost, she plunges into a sentimental self-indulgent reverie, recalling literary works appropriate to her melancholy state, and generally feeling sorry for herself.  She has enough self-control, however, to put an end to such musings and to face reality.  Again, she experiences ‘exquisite’ gratification at the thought that Wentworth is jealous of Mr Elliot’s attention to her.  She sometimes resorts to harmless and endearing female wiles, as when she wants to give Wentworth an opportunity to talk to her at the opera: ‘by some other removals and a little scheming of her own, Anne was enabled to place herself nearer the end of the bench than she had been before, much more within reach of a passer-by’.  She is human after all!

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Rupert Penry Jones as Captain Wentworth. He starred alongside Sally Hawkins in the 2007 remake of Persuasion for TV – directed by Adrian Shergold.

 

Captain Wentworth

From a casual reading of Jane Austen’s novels, it does seem that most of the eligible men are indeed eagerly and with great enthusiasm contemplating marriage and are searching for a suitable life partner.  We all remember that famous quote from Pride and Prejudice: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife’.  Wentworth’s tendency in this regard is made explicit in his comments to his sister:

Yes, here I am, Sophia, quite ready to make a foolish match.  Anybody between fifteen and thirty may have me for asking.  A little beauty, a few smiles, and a few compliments to the navy, and I am a lost man (Chap 7).

So, we gather that Wentworth is indeed in search of a wife.  In fact, unknown to himself, he is the one being pursued, the thrust of the entire novel is towards the creation of a set of circumstances in which he must recognise the inevitability of taking Anne as his wife.  Anne may appear to be confined, Cinderella-like, to a state of immobility, imprisoned by the conventions of the time, and powerless to take direct action in her own cause, and Wentworth to have total freedom of movement, choice and initiative.  Circumstances, however, conspire to Anne’s advantage by opening Wentworth’s eyes to his true position in relation to Anne, and to his true emotional state, which he is finally forced to acknowledge in his letter to her:

I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago.  Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death.  I have loved none but you (Chap 23).

Wentworth is an ideal hero, ‘a remarkably fine young man’, having ‘a great deal of intelligence, spirit and brilliancy’.  Socially, he represents the rising bourgeois class: independent, aggressive, speculative, becoming rich through enterprise.  In Persuasion, this class, whose other representatives are Admiral Croft and Captain Harville, is contrasted with the Elliots, who represent the entrenched establishment, inheritors rather than creators of wealth.  Like Anne, and in contrast to the other Elliots and Charles Musgrove, Wentworth has an active busy temperament: ‘It was a great object with me, at that time, to be at sea, a very great object.  I wanted to be doing something’.  This is after Anne’s rejection of him.  His reaction to this episode reveals two aspects of his character: his confidence and independence of mind which cause him to despise over-cautious temperaments, and his pride, both emerging in the following:

She had used him ill; deserted and disappointed him; and worse, she had shown a feebleness of character in doing so, which his own decided, confident temper could not endure.  It has been the effect of over-persuasion.  It has been weakness and timidity.

Wentworth is a man of considerable tact and social grace.  His treatment of the embarrassing Miss Musgrove is a model of kindness and discretion.  He attunes himself perfectly to the elegant world at Bath.  Elizabeth Elliot recognises him as a decided social asset.  His manners, conversation and commanding social presence set him apart from the other male characters.  Such is his power over Anne that she bases her judgement of all other men on the standards he has set.  What she admires in William Walter Elliot, for example, is what she has found in Wentworth; what she finds lacking in Elliot, Wentworth has exemplified.  She sees Elliot as,

‘rational, discreet, polished but not open.  There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others.  This, to Anne, was a decided imperfection … She prized the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character beyond all others.  Warmth and enthusiasm did captivate her still’.

Captain Harville reveals to Anne a strain of compassion and tenderness in Wentworth which may surprise us as we read.  Knowing that the death of Captain Benwick’s fiancée has plunged him into misery, Wentworth rushes top comfort his friend, he

‘travelled night and day till he got to Portsmouth, rowed off to The Grappler that instant, and never left the poor fellow for a week; that’s what he did, and nobody else could have saved poor James.  You may think, Miss Elliot, whether he is dear to us!’.

This, of course, is not his only spontaneous act of kindness; he sees to it that Anne is given a place in the Crofts’ carriage, something she owes ‘to his perception of her fatigue, and his resolution to give her rest’.  This affects Anne deeply, as does his consideration in removing Mary’s troublesome child from her back!

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William Walter Elliot – the least favourite Austen character?

William Walter Elliot

William Walter Elliot is a necessary part of the mechanism of the novel’s plot.  He is a foil to Wentworth and is the means of arousing the latter’s jealousy, of making him realise the strength of his feelings for Anne and eventually acting accordingly.  Elliot serves to expose the false values of Sir Walter and Elizabeth and to underline the basic unsoundness of Lady Russell’s judgement, while at the same time confirming the soundness of Anne’s judgement.  He has snubbed the Elliot family by neglecting to seek Elizabeth’s hand in marriage, settling instead for ‘a rich woman of inferior birth’.  Despite this, they all welcome him back with alacrity when he re-appears as an impressive looking widower, pleasant, courteous, anxious to please.  Anne, as we might expect, has her doubts about him, experiencing ‘the sensation of there having been more than immediately appeared, in Mr Elliot’s wishing, after an interval of so many years, to be well received by them’.  Lady Russell thinks him admirable, a fit husband for Anne, whose evaluation, after a month’s acquaintance, is perceptive.  Her conclusions tell us much about her powers of judgement, and also give us a glimpse of Jane Austen the moralist.  Her judgement, ‘on a serious consideration of the possibilities of such a case, was against Mr Elliot’, even before Mrs Smith’s revelations.  But why?  She has to acknowledge that Elliot, ‘talked well, professed good opinions, seemed to judge properly and as a man of principle’.  But the problem is that she cannot answer for his conduct, as distinct from his professions.  His past remains doubtful.  She knows that for long periods of his life he had been ‘careless on all serious matters’.  She cannot be sure that his mind has been ‘truly cleansed’.  One aspect of his doubtful past has been his Sunday travelling: an interesting reflection of the standards of Jane Austen’s day.

The real Mr Elliot emerges late in the novel.  Even Anne is astonished at Mrs Smith’s revelations of the wickedness concealed beneath the mask of gentility.  It is at this point that Mr Elliot turns from the shadowy relative into the villain of melodrama, almost too bad to be true:

Mr Elliot is a man without heart or conscience; a designing, wary, cold-blooded being, who thinks only of himself; who, for his own interest or ease, would be guilty of any or any treachery, that could be perpetrated without risk of his general character.  He has no feelings for others.  Those whom he has been the chief cause of leading into ruin he can neglect and desert without the smallest compunction (Chap 21).

It is significant that even after this, Anne is beginning to find Mr Elliot something of a bore, despite her fleeting moment of happiness at the thought of being Lady Elliot of Kellynch.  During the concert, he flatters her excessively and makes her an oblique proposal of marriage: ‘If I dared, I would breathe my wishes that the name (of Anne Elliot) might never change’ (Chap 20).  But the sight of Wentworth dissipates Anne’s interest in Elliot’s company: ‘She had no longer any inclination to talk to him.  She wished him not so near her’ (Chap 20).

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The Minor Characters

The other characters in Persuasion serve their purpose in the scheme of the story, but none of them gives a very powerful illusion of life.  Sir Walter is a caricature: one or two striking features of his character are highlighted to the virtual neglect of all others.  This is made clear in the manner of our introduction to him: ‘vanity of person and situation’, we are told, are the clues to his character.  For the remainder of the novel, he is obsessed with himself, his social position and his personal appearance, taking all of these with such intense seriousness that he becomes an absurdity.  He does not develop with the progress of events and learns little or nothing from his experiences.  In the end, he is as vain, self-obsessed and trivial as he was at the beginning.  A telling detail about his narcissistic nature is provided by Admiral Croft, who finds it necessary to remove some of the large mirrors from Sir Walter’s dressing room: ‘Such a number of looking-glasses! Oh, Lord! There was no getting away from one’s self’ (Chap 13).  He becomes reconciled to Wentworth largely because of his fine appearance and well-sounding name.  Jane Austen deprives him of Mrs Clay, his companion, and leaves him with the Dalrymples.  She cannot resist the final ironical comment on the fate of such people as Sir Walter and Elizabeth, who ‘must long feel that to flatter and follow others, without being flattered and followed in return, is but a state of half-enjoyment’ (Chap 24).

The is little that one can say about Elizabeth except that in almost everything she reflects the manners and attitudes of her father, who thinks more highly of her than he does of his other daughters because he finds her most like himself – a sufficiently damaging and damning indictment of her character!  Her attitude to Anne exposes her total incapacity for decent human feeling: ‘then I am sure that Anne had better stay, for nobody will want her at Bath’ (Chap 5).

Mary is rather more interesting.  Like her father, she is a caricature rather than a fully-rounded, vividly-realised character, but she is still a familiar and easily recognised type: spoiled, easily upset, wilful, self-centred, and a hypochondriac to boot!  When she has her way, she is pleasant; when anything interferes with her wishes, she becomes difficult, bored, ill or irritable.  True, she is not ‘so repulsive and unsisterly as Elizabeth’, but her comments to Anne are sometimes as distressing as Elizabeth’s.: ‘This is the end, you see, of Captain Benwick being supposed to be an admirer of yours’.  The cruelty here is not deliberate and calculated like Elizabeth’s: it is as a result of limited awareness, a lack of sensitivity.  Her immaturity appears in her behaviour during the November outing:

Mary sat down for a moment, but it would not do; she was sure Louisa had found a better seat somewhere else, and she would go on till she overtook her (Chap 10).

In spite of all her obvious failings, she still feels the family’s sense of social superiority, looking down ‘very decidedly upon the Hayters’.  The following passage puts her social attitudes in their place: ‘It is very unpleasant having such connections!  But, I assure you, I have never been in the house above twice in my life’.  The neurotic side of her character is beautifully suggested in a letter to Anne: ‘My sore throats are always worse than anybody’s’ (Chap 18).

Captain Benwick is the most interesting of the minor characters.  The loss of his fiancée appears to have rendered him inconsolable.  He is driven, as a consequence, to read poetry, to which he responds with profound and tender feelings.  All this is observed by Anne with amused tolerance.  His tastes are, of course, unbalanced, his poetical education still not far advanced:

He showed himself intimately acquainted with all the tenderest songs of the one poet and all the impassioned descriptions of hopeless agony of the other; he repeated with such tremulous feeling the various lines which imagined a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness (Chap 11).

He luxuriates in his own grief and welcomes any literary occasion which may seem to reflect or intensify it.  Anne does her best for him, ironically recommending ‘a large allowance of prose in his daily study’, and some ‘memoirs of characters of worth and suffering’.  Benwick, however, is reluctant to abandon the literature of distress and self-pity.  Anne is at first astonished when Benwick’s shallow grief evaporates and he turns his attention to Louisa Musgrove, but on reflection, she finds an explanation:

She was persuaded that any tolerably pleasing young woman who had listened and seemed to feel for him would have received the same compliment.  He had an affectionate heart (Chap 18).

Jane Austen treats all such self-deceivers as Benwick with the same mild irony.

She does little enough to individualise her other characters.  The Crofts are hearty, open and unpretentious; the older Musgroves pleasant, hospitable and kind; their unmarried daughters lively but shallow, and Charles decent, pleasant and unsubtle.  Lady Russell’s personality does not impress us at all: she functions as a useful and important part of the mechanism of the plot, since it is she who advises Anne to reject Wentworth, but after this, although she remains Anne’s confidante, she is of little importance in the development of events, and never really comes alive as a character.  The same may be said of Mrs Clay, whose freckles and insinuating manner are her distinguishing characteristics.  Mrs Smith seems a careless piece of characterisation, at one stage appearing harmless and long-suffering, at another cynical and worldly-wise.  Again, of course, her shadowy character matters little; her chief role in Persuasion is mainly as the means by which Anne learns the truth about William Walter Elliot.

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References:

Murray, Patrick. Persuasion in Inscapes 13, The Educational Company of Ireland, 1978

Further Reading:

You might also like to read Some Themes in Persuasion by Jane Austen

and Fairy-Tale Motifs in Persuasion by Jane Austen

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Some Themes in Persuasion by Jane Austen

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The Theme of Persuasion in Persuasion

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.

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Snobbery

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).

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Physical Beauty

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’.

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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.

 

References:

Murray, Patrick.  Persuasion in Inscapes 13, The Educational Company of Ireland, 1978

Further Reading:

You might also like to read Characterisation in the novel Persuasion

and Fairy-Tale Motifs in Persuasion by Jane Austen

 

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‘Dances With Wolves’ by Michael Durack

Kevin Costner in Dancing With Wolves

Dances With Wolves

 

By Michael Durack

Watching ‘Dances With Wolves’ in Pass English,

the buffalo hunt has our undivided attention

until Teacher (aka Knows It All) pauses the video

to draw attention to a clever camera angle and to share

a priceless nugget about Native American tribal customs.

Cue outburst from Darren (aka Talks through His Hole).

The tape rolls again while Dunbar courts Stands With A Fist

and logs his emotions in that classy leather-bound journal

beloved of lieutenants and stocked in Waterstone’s.

Then Eddie (aka Breaking Wind) uncorks a silent rasper;

the braves groan and swear, and fan themselves

with A4 copy books of the type beloved of fifth-years

and purchased in Tesco’s.  But peace comes dropping slow

before the bell rings, when all of us, including me

(aka Keeps A Low Profile) and Barry (aka Sleeps Through English)

Spring from our desks, and the entire Sioux nation sets off

On its Trail of Tears to French and German or Ag. Science.

Comment

This is an extremely funny poem by Michael Durack (aka Poet Who Keeps A Low Profile).  Michael quietly taught English for many years in Nenagh CBS in County Tipperary. His work has appeared in journals such as Boyne Berries, Skylight 47, The Stony Thursday Book and Poetry Ireland Review. His publications include a memoir in prose and poems, Saved to Memory: Lost to View (2016) and a poetry collection, Where It Began, published by Revival Press in 2017.

Little did the unsuspecting ‘braves’ who sat before him every day in his English class realise that they were in the presence of a very keen observer of the human condition, and someone with a very wry sense of poetic humour to boot.  In this poem he captures beautifully the mood in a (double) Pass English class on a Friday evening with the young male ‘braves’ of Nenagh and its hinterland!

One of the great emancipations in the Noughties for all English teachers was the rejuvenation and re-imagining of the Leaving Cert English Syllabus brought about by such luminaries as Hal O’Neill and others in the NCCA. One such early new arrival on the English Syllabus was the epic Western, Dances with Wolves, which starred, Kevin Costner  as Lieutenant Dunbar.  Indeed, the film was also produced and directed by Costner.  In the film, Dunbar is depicted as a Civil War soldier who develops a relationship with a band of Lakota Indians. Attracted by the simplicity of their lifestyle, he chooses to leave his former life behind to be with them. Having observed him, they give the name Dances With Wolves. Soon he is a welcomed member of the tribe and falls in love with a white woman, Stands With A Fist, who has been raised in the tribe. However, tragedy soon ensues when Union soldiers arrive with designs on the land.

Looking back now from 2019, those halcyon days seem Dickensian!  The changes in mass media and communications that have taken place since 2000 are simply mind-boggling!  In those days the efforts harried teachers made to ensure that their students could avail of these new developments was often Herculean.  Firstly, you had to come by a VHS copy of the film and then you had to search the school to find a television and a tape machine and wheel it in to your designated classroom.  This was not an easy task as these trolleys containing big, bulky 28” TV’s and a VCR player were like gold dust, in high demand.

TV and Tape Deck on Trolley
The eponymous TV and Video Cassette Recorder (VCR) – the staple piece of equipment long before the arrival of the laptop in every classroom and long before the arrival of the interactive whiteboard, or Netflix or …..

And for those nostalgic for that great, epic Western – sit back and enjoy the trailer to Dances with Wolves (1990).

Bogland by Seamus Heaney

 

Commentary:

 ‘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[1], 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.

 

[1] 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.

 

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https://youtu.be/ZDT2ZdNL9CM

 

Works Cited

Andrews, Elmer (ed). The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: Essays, Articles, Reviews. Columbia University Press (Icon Books Limited), 1998.

Heaney, Seamus. Preoccupations: Selected Prose, 1968 – ’78. London: Faber and Faber, 1980.

 

‘My November Guest’ by Robert Frost

My November Guest (2)

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,

Thinks these dark days of autumn rain

Are beautiful as days can be;

She loves the bare, the withered tree;

She walks the sodden pasture lane.

 

Her pleasure will not let me stay.

She talks and I am fain to list:

She’s glad the birds are gone away,

She’s glad her simple worsted grey

Is silver now with clinging mist.

 

The desolate, deserted trees,

The faded earth, the heavy sky,

The beauties she so truly sees,

She thinks I have no eye for these,

And vexes me for reason why.

 

Not yesterday I learned to know

The love of bare November days

Before the coming of the snow,

But it were vain to tell her so,

And they are better for her praise.

Commentary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not yesterday I learned to know

The love of bare November days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

Wikipedia page on Robert Frost

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

FURTHER READING:

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

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

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

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