Contemporary Aspects of the Novel ‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens

 

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Hard Times is unusual in several respects. It is by far the shortest of Dickens’ novels, barely a quarter of the length of those written immediately before and after it.[1] Also, unlike all but one of his other novels, Hard Times has neither a preface nor illustrations. Moreover, it is his only novel not to have scenes set in London.[2] Instead, the story is set in the fictitious Victorian industrial Coketown, a generic Northern English mill town, in some ways similar to Manchester, though smaller. Coketown may be partially based on 19th-century Preston.

While the novel is neither gripping nor memorable it is interesting to examine it from a 21st-century standpoint.  And as we try to fathom the political manoeuvrings of  Mr Trump (a very Dickensian character!) and Lady May (another one!) we begin to realise that the more things change the more they stay the same!  The family theme is a perennial one as is education.  Everyone has problems with them and there are always controversial views about them which lead to much debate. The Environment and the workplace are central to modern life.  We are all too aware that some of our world leaders today are in denial about such issues as global warming and climate change – and you know what they say: ‘De Nile is not just a river in Egypt’!  Industrialisation and its effects were seen as major problems in Dickens’ time, as they still are today.  Trade Unions are still an important force in our modern workplaces. Teenagers are big business today and a central core of modern society.   In Louisa and Sissy Jupe we can recognise the first faint traces of the modern teenager, with minds of their own, rebellious attitudes and a power of expression.  Marriage breakdown is certainly one of the major social problems in our modern world.  Louisa’s tragic and arranged marriage foundered on the rock of incompatibility, which is the most frequently cited reason for the breakdown of marriage in the modern divorce court.

The Gradgrind family, around whom the story evolves, are no more curious than any comparable family in the present era.  While the imagination and the spiritual side is stifled they are well-fed, as well-educated as the narrow curriculum and method permitted and live in a comfortable house.  The father, Mr Gradgrind, is an authoritarian figure to his teenage son and daughter.  Yet halfway through the story, he is there when his daughter needs him.  He is willing to support and harbour her in her hour of need.  He also learns from his mistakes and is ready to admit them.  I think he is a very good father.  He is basically a very good human being.  Professionally he is stifled by the constraints of a utilitarian system of education.  Is he any different from today’s teacher who cajoles, pushes, and encourages students towards those elusive points for College entrance?   Is he any different from today’s ambitious parents who make great sacrifices to give their offspring a good start in life?  He is, in a sense, a ‘single’ parent due to his wife’s inability to function as a normal mother.  She is a pitiful hypochondriac who seems to derive no pleasure whatsoever from life.  Mr Gradgrind is a gentleman and a patient one.  He seems to have the patience of Job.  He gets on with his job and provides for his family.  He rarely raises his voice to his offspring and certainly never his hand, which we must admit is a curious and admirable situation, certainly in a Victorian household.  One of the most contemporary aspects of Mr Gradgrind is his very generous fostering of Sissy.  He has a sense of responsibility towards young people.  He is prepared to take Sissy into his home and provide her with education and sustenance and a family life.

In the opening chapters of Hard Times, the education system is hammered home.  Facts alone count.  The imagination cannot be given free rein.  It must be stifled.  The education system is not child-centred, but facts-centred.  Before we proclaim our horror let us scrutinise the modern day pressures of imparting knowledge.  Are students today still considered to be ‘vessels’ into which teachers pour the main points of novels, poems, and drama?  Now and again teachers dream of being inspirational but then the grim shadow of the curriculum hovers (and visions of A’s, B’s and C’s) and their dreams of emancipating the shackled student fade into oblivion.  If we sat for awhile and compared and contrasted the square classroom where facts predominated with its modern counterpart we might end up concluding that very little indeed had changed.

One of the most interesting characters in the novel is Louisa, a teenager in the beginning of the novel who bears a remarkable resemblance to her modern counterpart.  Louisa emerges as a real live girl of the 19th. Century.  She is a bright girl who has an imaginative and spiritual side despite attempts to suppress it both at home and at school.  The friendship that develops between her and Sissy is solid.  They have little in common financially, socially or intellectually, but both have kind hearts.

There is a nice balance of giving and receiving in the friendship.  It is mutually advantageous.  In the earlier section of the novel, Louisa listens to, encourages and comforts Sissy when she confides in her over her learning difficulties at school.  The two teenagers closeted together in the study is a nice touch.  As talent and ability continue to vary in every age surely similar scenes are replicated today in many a home and classroom.  Later in the novel, Sissy Jupe will amply repay her loyal friend.  As young women now, Sissy will become a tower of strength to Louisa in her emotional turmoil.  The teenage friendship has matured.  It will last a lifetime.  Many a modern woman must find solace in the comfort and chat of a woman friend, when life strikes at them, when they are experiencing difficulties with the opposite sex, be it husband, fiancé, partner or friend.  The urge to confide is intrinsic to the human psyche.  It is an enduring trait.

Recent times have seen marriage under attack on all sides.  Louisa’s leaving her husband is a prelude to the modern dilemma of marriage breakdown.  There are thousands of solutions put forward.  Marriage guidance counselling is available and yet we are no nearer to resolving the situation than Louisa was on that terrible night of her life, when confused and desperate, she returns to her father’s house.

Work is a major part of life throughout the ages.  There have always been problems associated with work and labour.  The gruelling conditions of the workers in the factories are in sharp contrast to working conditions today.  Yet there are some echoes from the Dickensian age in our world today.  Air pollution is still a problem in many industrial areas today.   All around, even in some rural areas, there are chilling reminders that the problems of environmental pollution are far from solved.  When we see the murky waters of our major cities and the inevitable accompanying stench we can wonder if we are any different from the grim industrial smoke-filled Coketown.  The workers had practically no rights in the Victorian age.  The small beginnings of a Trade Union, whose principles were orchestrated by Slackbridge, have gathered such momentum over the intervening years that the clout and power of the Trade Union movement is a dominant feature of modern society.  Yet we only have to look at some recent disputes such as between Ryanair and its ‘baggage-handlers’ to realise that there are still employers who would refuse their workers what modern society considers a basic right – the right to be represented by a Trade Union.

To conclude, maybe we begin to realise, having read the Hard Times, that the more things change the more they stay the same!  Our world still revolves around the home, the school and the workplace.  Environmental influences are as important and far-reaching then as now and the stifling of the imagination and the emotions can often set in train a chain of tragic circumstances from which there is no escape.

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Two Sample Answers on ‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens

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It has been suggested that Dickens, the social crusader, outdoes Dickens the novelist.  Discuss with apt reference from the text of Hard Times. Discuss.

 Sample Answer:

Dickens is rightly regarded as a crusader against injustice; all his novels are concerned with one or more of the defects of society as a whole or of the individual human being.  ‘Hard Times’ is a case in point.  There is a formidable list of points raised in this novel to suggest that Dickens is attacking various aspects of society or the attitudes of individual human beings to particular groups of their fellow men.

In his opening chapters, there is a clear criticism of the educational system that encourages or permits little children to be treated as receptacles for Facts poured into their heads and forbids or discourages the exercise of their imagination.  He refers to the children as ‘little vessels’ ready to have gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.  With this, he associates the process of depersonalisation that is carried into the factory.  At school Sissy Jupe ceases to be a person; she becomes ‘Girl Number Twenty’.  In the factory, Stephen Blackpool, like his co-workers, is merely one of the depersonalised ‘Hands’.  In the confrontation between him and Bounderby in the chapter ‘Men and Masters’, Dickens puts words into Stephen’s mouth that show that the greatest grievance of the working class is that the employers look on them as so much power and treat them as figures in a sum, without feelings or souls.  Dickens makes the point himself when he shows that even Louisa when she visits Stephen to offer him help, realises that she has never thought of the working class as individuals, but by hundreds and by thousands – as ants and beetles.

Dickens, however, may not be attacking merely the upper middle class but also the attitude of people to their fellow men.  M’Choakumchild and Bounderby may not be upholding a system, but may be merely indifferent to the children and the workers – or perhaps being merely selfish: ignorant workers are less likely to be troublesome than educated ones.  To support the argument that Dickens is attacking the attitude of individuals to their fellow men, Dickens has created Slackbridge, the Trade Unionist who is painted as a rather dangerous demagogue who attacks the oppressors of the working class while himself hounding one of his fellow workers.  Dickens’s intentions are clear: he condemns Slackbridge by his description of him; he is less honest, less manly, less good-humoured than the workers he addresses.  He is cunning rather than simple, and his words are ‘froth and fume’.  In his condemnation of Stephen as a thief, he places himself alongside Bounderby who, like him, finds Stephen guilty without evidence or without trial.

Dickens also attacks theoretical political economy, (or the economic system based on self-interest).  He ironically points out the inhuman aspect of the theory of political economy through Sissy who considers the first principle of this science to be ‘to do unto others as I would that they should do unto me’, and who cannot say whether a nation is prosperous or not until she knows who gets the money.  Statistics, to her, are ‘stutterings’ and percentages cannot be applied to people.  (There are often echoes of this in our day: the ideal family is said to consist of 2.4 children!)  To support her, Dickens shows the Circus people as a closely-knit, interdependent people who, besides relying on one another in the Ring, have an untiring readiness to help and pity one another.  They are outside the Utilitarian system and are a living criticism of it.

It is clear therefore that Dickens carries the crusader’s banner.  However, this is not to say that this aspect of his work outdoes his importance as a novelist.  (You are free to argue otherwise if you wish.)  He was not just a reformer or a sentimentalist.  His genius lay in his ability to create a world.  He tells a story peopled by characters – good and bad.  The good ones, like Sissy and Rachael, may not be totally acceptable to modern readers because the cynical twentieth-century cannot accept a human being who never has an impulse to be ungenerous; the bad ones are nasty and always acceptable.  Dickens, with his brilliant use of imagery, makes them real: Bounderby, the Bully of Humility, the bag of wind who is deflated (temporarily) by the revelation of his real origins; Harthouse, with his vicious assumption of honesty in dishonesty who is finally overcome by one whose only weapons are virtue and a complete lack of sophistication.

In between these are the more credible characters.  Louisa and Tom are victims of a stifling and cruel educational system.  Our reactions are perhaps of pity rather than rage at the system.  Bitzer, too, evolves from it; he is a victim rather than a villain.  He rejects Gradgrind’s bribe to free Tom, not because he is heartless or cruel, but that he is the perfect product of his education.  The test of the success of a novel is the reader’s response to the characters depicted.  So, if one rages at Bounderby and Mrs Sparsit and gloats over their exposure; if one is pleased that the Circus Folk, who are natural enemies of the utilitarian system, overcome Bitzer; if one suffers with Louisa and hopes that Gradgrind will mellow, then the novel is, for that reader, a novel, not an attack on a political system.

Even though he laughs ‘with a touch of anger in his laughter’ Dickens makes us laugh at the boy who would not paper a room with representations because he would not paper a room at all, he would paint it.  We laugh at the Circus Folk and the idiocy of Mrs Gradgrind.  Such things are above and beyond a social documentary.  Perhaps if he seems to over-emphasise certain points by repetition e.g. ‘No little Gradgrind…’ it is primarily to elicit sympathy for his good characters or to make us condemn his villains.

He may be over-anxious to point to the flaws in society as he is when he interpolates his own views directly, but he reflects his own age, his own life and his own thinking.

 

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Josiah Bounderby of Coketown

Whereas Bounderby is incapable of change and ends as he began, a monster of Utilitarianism, Gradgrind learns from experience, and when he changes it is for the better.   Discuss.

 Sample Answer:

This statement is true for a number of reasons.  Bounderby is incapable of change, largely because he is a caricature.  Gradgrind is forced to change and ends the novel a sadder and wiser man.

 Bounderby is the quintessential ‘self-made man’.  He is inflated like a balloon – full of wind.  He is the villain of the novel.  Dickens ensures that we abhor this ‘Bully of Humility’.  He is physically repellent and he has an obnoxious manner.  His ‘humility’ is false.  He is a liar.  He exploits his employees.  To him they are mere ‘Hands’.  His attitude to Stephen is disgraceful when he asks for advice on getting a divorce and later he tries to exploit him further.  When Stephen refuses to co-operate he is sacked and when money is stolen from his bank he accuses Stephen and puts a price on his head.

 Bounderby, the industrialist, is indeed a monster.  He is aided and abetted in his efforts by his friend Thomas Gradgrind MP  Dickens savagely attacks this attitude which puts profit before all other considerations.  Indeed it can be said that both these men have much in common.  They are intimate friends and desire to be closer through the marriage of Louisa to Bounderby.  They are both pompous, self-opinionated and insensitive to the feelings of others.  Gradgrind worries about Bounderby’s disapproval, ‘What would Mr. Bounderby say?’  However, there are also serious differences between these two men.  Foremost among these is the fact that Gradgrind is not a hypocrite.  He does act in good faith.  He thinks that Thomas and Louisa are getting the best education.  By the end of this novel he acknowledges the failure of his system and takes responsibility for it, ‘I only entreat you to believe, my favourite child, that I have meant to do right.’

Dickens ensures that Bounderby is caricatured as a comical ‘Mr. Pickwick’ figure and he is cruelly exposed at the end of the novel.  He behaves very badly in Book III when Gradgrind is confronted.  He is seen to be crude and intolerant.  He acts the Bully to the end whereas Gradgrind is patient, submissive and humble.  Bounderby’s end is ignominious – he makes a vainglorious will, he dies in a fit, and his estate is whittled away by the courts.  He has no redeeming qualities.

It must be emphasised that Gradgrind, too, is a monster of utilitarianism and he indeed is the chief apostle and promoter of this rather inhuman political philosophy.  He, too, is the focus of attack by Dickens.  He puts his faith in statistics and in the ‘enlightened self-interest’ proposed by the evangelists of Utilitarianism – Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus.  (Two of his sons are called Adam and Thomas!)  He is shown to be a man of ‘realities’, of ‘fact and calculations’.  We first see him in the Model School.  His aim is to prepare his pupils for a mechanical world – his graduates are robotic creatures devoid of sympathy, love or imagination.  He raises his five children (two daughters and three sons) by these rigid principles.  They grow up on a diet of ‘-ologies’.  He becomes a leading MP in the ‘party of weights and measures’ – one of the Hard Fact men.  He is an ’eminently practical man’.

However, he is not all bad – he has virtues such as courage, honesty and charity.  He takes in Sissy despite Bounderby’s protestations.  He is forced to admit the failure of his system with Louisa and Tom.  By the end of the novel, his world, so carefully built, is collapsing around him.  He is pained by Louisa especially since he agreed to the marriage and he proved by statistics how successful it should be.  Ironically, he is the one who introduces Harthouse to Louisa and Bounderby, thereby destroying the marriage he had done so much to promote.

Gradgrind, therefore, unlike Bounderby is capable of change and development.  He is forced to face unwelcome facts (!).   He is no longer certain.  He is a humbled man: ‘The ground on which I stand has ceased to be solid under my feet.  The only support on which I leaned …. has given way in an instant.’  The Gradgrind we see in Book III is hardly recognisable.  He has abandoned his philosophy of facts and becomes a caring father to his children.  This change comes and he is saved when Stephen dies and he realises that Tom is the bank robber.  He seeks help from Sleary.  He pleads emotionally with Bitzer to have ‘mercy and pity’.  He acts to clear Stephen’s name.  He realises that Sissy – the great ‘failure’ of his system – is now indispensable to his household.  His younger children will be spared the worst effects of his system. (Isn’t this always the case?!!).  Dickens is at pains to show how disastrous this system is but he is also at pains to point out that Gradgrind and the other promoters of the system were not evil – they were often caring and well-intentioned, even.  At the end – in the future – we see him ‘converted’ as he makes his facts and figures subservient to Faith, Hope and Charity.

Gradgrind, now, unlike Bounderby, is a much sadder, wiser man.  He now knows the meaning of love.  He realises that there is a ‘Wisdom of the Heart’ as well as a ‘Wisdom of the Head’.  He benefits in the end from a form of ‘poetic irony’ in that his early isolated act of kindness to Sissy proves to be the means of his redemption.  He has changed for the better while poor Bounderby, our other monster, is cruelly depicted as a ‘Noodle’!

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

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Patrick Kavanagh by Paul McCloskey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Patrick Kavanagh is a very Religious Poet” – Discuss

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Patrick Kavanagh by Barnie Maguire on ArtClick.ie

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

Kavanagh manifests simplicity in his poetry in three ways:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patrick Kavanagh

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

The Theme of Marriage in ‘Pride and Prejudice’

 

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Marriage is the focal point of Pride and Prejudice.  The plot concerns a series of marriages (Four Weddings and a ….. ?), the characters are revealed and developed through marriage and the lessons Jane Austen teaches us are centred around marriage.

Why does Jane Austen choose marriage as her main theme?  In her world, marriage was the ‘only honourable provision’, infinitely preferable to the dependency of spinsterhood or the near slave-labour of being a governess.  Socially, it marked maturity.  When she married and started a family, a woman took her place in society.  So marriage is obviously the focus of interest in Austen’s world.

How does she present her view?  Against a background of conventional contemporary attitudes on the subject, she places a series of actual and possible relationships.  Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingley, Lydia and Wickham, Mr Collins and Charlotte Lucas all marry.  Some couples, such as the Bennets and the Gardiners, are already married, and there are a variety of potential marriages throughout the novel.  Through all of these Jane Austen shows us, and Elizabeth, what she considers to be worthwhile in marriage and life.  Elizabeth eventually reaches a real understanding of what a good marriage involves, and she finds it with Darcy.

At first, Jane Austen seems to disapprove strongly of such arrangements.  From the opening sentence of the book, she mocks the link between marriage and money made by Mrs Bennet when talking about Bingley.  Wickham’s fortune hunting is condemned by Mrs Gardiner; his eventual marriage, the result of a bribe, is doomed from the start.  Darcy’s awareness of the ‘inferiority of (Elizabeth’s) connections’ is seen as a major flaw in his character.  All those who scheme for arranged marriages are condemned: Mrs Bennet, Lady Catherine, and Caroline Bingley.

From the start, Elizabeth despises those who wed to be ‘well-married’.  She defends before Mrs Gardiner her right to marry without a fortune and implies the same to Mr Collins when he proposes.  She is determined to choose her husband for love, rather than money.  Jane Austen’s influence seems quite clear here.

However, Elizabeth must learn that love is not enough.  Without financial stability, in Jane Austen’s world, people literally starved to death, and the building of a family circle with a sound economic base was therefore highly important.  For example, Mr Collins wishes to marry for his own ‘happiness’, to set an example, to gain Lady Catherine’s approval.  His reasons are selfish, but his intention is sound.  When he meets Charlotte, someone with equal aims, they marry.  Elizabeth is horrified, but the Hunsford visit reveals a marriage that works.  Possessions take the place of affection, but it is a stable social unit and therefore valid.  Charlotte has ‘a degree of contentment’ and by the end of the novel the couple are expecting a child, fulfilling the purpose of this kind of marriage and offering the couple an established place in society.

The success of this marriage helps change Elizabeth’s mind.  After Darcy’s letter and her self-realization, she matures further.  Soon the Wickham she was prepared to marry without money seems ‘mercenary’ for wanting an unequal match.  She still retains her basic belief in marriage based on love rather than practicalities, as when she refuses to agree to Lady Catherine’s marriage arrangements and maintains her right to choose a husband for herself.  But she now also realises how essential practical considerations are, and when she marries Darcy and moves to the comfort and elegance of Pemberley, she has also achieved an adult view of marriage as a practical and necessary financial contract.

It is very obvious to the modern reader, however, that Jane Austen’s view of sexuality seems very old-fashioned.  There is little examination of the feelings and responses sexual attraction can bring.  Sexual attraction comes way down the list of priorities in all but one of the marriages arranged during the course of the novel and then even though we see that Darcy is infatuated with Elizabeth the idea of sex or a sexual relationship seems not to have ever entered her head! (Or am I completely wrong here??). Once respect, regard and love were established and validated by marriage, then sexuality was acceptable and taken for granted.  Outside marriage, sexuality was merely self-indulgent, and therefore a threat to society.

Her views on marriage based on sexual attraction alone changes little through the novel.  She at first responds to Wickham’s ‘beauty… countenance … figure’, but very soon realises that appearance is not everything.  It has to be matched by real worth.  She realises, too, that Darcy’s goodness more than compensates for any lack of ‘appearance’, while he, at first thinking her ‘not handsome enough’, in the end, finds her ‘loveliest Elizabeth’.  Elizabeth continues to question Lydia’s marriage and in the midst of general rejoicing she alone sees the difference between a physically-based marriage and a working relationship.  ‘For this, we are to be thankful?’ she asks.  All this shows what Elizabeth and Darcy eventually learn – that obvious physical attraction may mislead, but once affection brings knowledge of and respect for one’s partner, true love follows.

Jane Austen obviously sees her heroine’s marriage as a model one, the outcome that her readers have been hoping for, and one that rises above the other marriages in the book.  What makes it so ideal?

Their marriage is primarily a sound personal relationship where each person gives something and helps the other to mature.  Secondly, the marriage marks a step to this maturity for each of them.  By learning to put the other first, they have advanced from the self-centeredness of their unmarried lives.  They have learnt to accept responsibility for  each other, and to put their relationship first.  In Elizabeth’s case, this means accepting the importance of marriage as a sound financial and social contract; for both it means realising that infatuation is not the basis for a lifelong commitment.

Chiefly, however, they have matured by casting aside their main faults – pride and prejudice – through their developing relationship.  This maturing of Elizabeth and Darcy culminates in their marriage.  Now the ‘proud’ Darcy and ‘wild’ Elizabeth can take their rightful place in society and form a true family.

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The Poetry of Seamus Heaney

Digging

by Mary Hanley

(Note:  Leaving Cert Poetry questions have in recent years become more sophisticated and focused on particular aspects of the poet’s work.  The first ever question on Heaney simply expected the candidate to give their personal reaction to his poems – today the focus is given in the question and these are the major aspects which you must address in your answer.  This is then policed firmly by the Examiner’s by their application of the PCLM marking criteria.)

Sample Answer:  Would you agree that Seamus Heaney is an essentially backward looking poet, finding answers only in the past?

Soundbites are dangerous and the thesis stated above does not do Heaney or his poetry justice.  I agree that Seamus Heaney is “an essentially backward looking poet”.  However, I remain steadfastly reserved about Heaney “finding answers only in the past”.  This statement does not give the whole scope of his poetry true justice.  It only skims the surface, and using Heaney’s own analogy, if we are to truly understand his work we must go “down and down for the good turf” before we can get a true estimation of his worth.

Irishness, tradition and identity remain the cornerstones of Heaney’s poetry.  He celebrates local craftsmanship – the diviner, the digger, the blacksmith and the breadmaker.  He hankers back to his childhood and the community of that childhood for several reasons.  Indeed, part of the excitement of reading his poetry is the way in which he leads you from the parish of Anahorish in County Derry outwards in space and time, making connections with kindred spirits, both living and dead, so that he verifies for us Patrick Kavanagh’s belief that the local is universal.  For example in ‘The Forge’ he appears at first glance to be looking back with fond nostalgia at the work of the local village blacksmith.  However, the real subject of the poem is the mystery of the creative process.  The work of the forge serves as an extended metaphor for the work and craftsmanship of poetry.  Even the uncouth and uncommunicative blacksmith of his childhood can create!

Heaney has been branded a nostalgic romantic, a poet whose head remains steadfastly stuck in the sand, and a man when confronted with political violence and trauma regresses back in time to the womb-like warmth of his aunt’s kitchen in Mossbawn.  “Sunlight” is seen as a prime example of Heaney’s romanticism and escapism.  This poem was, after all, written at the height of the ‘Troubles’.  Yet, seemingly in denial of such violence, he hankers back to the security of his childhood.  Can it therefore be said that he is essentially a backward looking poet, finding answers only in the past?  Undoubtedly, Heaney travels back in time but it is to find answers for the present day realities.  On another level, this poem is a search for alternative human values, values no longer to be found in present day society.  Heaney can draw strength from his picture of childhood Eden – ‘the helmeted pump’, ‘scones rising to the tick of two clocks’ and ‘love, like a tinsmith’s scoop sunk past its gleam’.

Heaney is a poet, like Kavanagh and Hartnett, who has remained attached to his home place and the values and traditions of his parents.  ‘All I know is a door into the dark’.  Poets, too, have to force themselves to go into the dark, the unknown.  Their craft is multi-faceted.  They are pioneers, working at the frontier of language.  They are translators, translating for us events that we cannot grasp.  He translates the atrocities of Northern Ireland by excavating and exploring the past.  Heaney can travel through ‘the door into the dark’ only by drawing strength from the past.

The bog plays a major role in the poetry of Heaney.  This soft, malleable ground is ‘kind black butter.  Melting and opening underfoot’.  The bog is the memory of the landscape.  It draws us inwards, downwards and backwards through history.  Our bogs are as deep as the American prairies are wide.  Heaney talks about the ‘Great Irish Elk’ and ‘butter sunk under’.  In offering the poet an opportunity to consider its hoard from the past it affords him some deeper understanding of the present.

It is obvious from his poetry that Heaney needs to distance himself from the immediate face of danger.  Unlike Longley, Heaney is not eager to touch it, to write about it, to feel its flank and guess the shape of an elephant.  He needs space.  He uses the rich tapestry of history to give him perspective and a parallel to confront ‘the Troubles’.  In ‘The Tollund Man’ the discovery of a book gives Heaney a new perspective to explore the past and examine the present.  Make no mistake about it, Heaney here is talking about Northern Ireland.  It is difficult to interpret but this poem is a direct response to the continuing murders and violence of the 70’s and 80’s.  Heaney’s style may not be as direct as Longley’s, but I believe it is still very effective.  I believe he is saying here these atrocities, albeit sometimes more brutal, are just modern day versions of an age old custom.  In every society, people are sacrificed to a political or religious goddess, whether it is the goddess Nerthus or Kathleen Ni Houlihan.  One common motif linking the three parts of the poem is that of a journey.  The sacrificial journey of the Tollund Man, the journey of the brothers ‘flecked for miles along the lines’ and the pilgrimage of Heaney in the final part.  I believe there is one more journey to be made and this Heaney skilfully passes on to the reader.  We, the readers, have to make the final journey ourselves to discover and interpret, to read between the lines and around the happenings of the time the poem was written, to get at the true meaning of the poem.  This analogy can be transferred to all of Heaney’s poems.  He doesn’t do all the work for us but the meaning is more valued when we get to the essence of the poem ourselves.

                   ‘Out there in Jutland in the Old Man killing parishes,

I will feel lost, unhappy and at home.’

No one can deny that Heaney is “essentially a backward looking poet”.  Yet he makes no apologies for it.  The influence of Kavanagh and his writings on Monaghan gave him a strength to continue writing about the traditions and customs of his local community.  The cynic may see it as escapism but Heaney finds inspiration about the present in his wealth of memory.  He finds a metaphor for the finely crafted work of the poet in such poems as “The Forge”.  The bog offers Heaney a perspective.  In “Bogland” and “Tollund Man” Heaney finally turns to the security of his youth to find an answer to the shocking realities of violence and death.  It stands as an antidote to the brutal reality of the wider society.  Heaney’s poetry also stands as an antidote, dealing with harsh issues in a gentle retrospective yet effective way.

                   ‘Then grunts and goes in with a slam and flick

To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.’

Therefore, I would be in agreement with The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing when it says of Heaney’s poetry that it is, ‘excavating in every sense, reaching down into the ground and back into the past’.

Digging by Seamus Heaney copy