Nothing is so beautiful as Spring — When weeds in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush; Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing; The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
What is all this juice and all this joy? A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning In Eden garden. — Have, get, before it cloy, Before it cloud, Christ, lord and sour with sinning, Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy, Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.
As we know Hopkins wrote The Terrible Sonnets but here we have one of the best of his ‘bright sonnets’ in which he celebrates the beauty of nature and the glory of God. Hopkins loved to use the sonnet because he felt it suited his style. He wrote ‘Spring’ in May 1877 while studying theology in North Wales. ‘Spring’ is a Petrarchan sonnet, consisting of an octet which is primarily descriptive, and a sestet which is typically more reflective. The sonnet can only be described as being quintessential Hopkins.
The octet describes nature and Hopkins’ appreciation of it shines through in his descriptive language. He gives many examples of how beautiful and fresh the world is, such as weeds, birds’ eggs, lambs, blue skies and lush greenery. Many of Hopkins’ poems read like sermons and homilies and this is not unusual seeing as he was a Jesuit priest. So we are not surprised, therefore, when he compares the beauty which surrounds him to the Garden of Eden. The sestet reflects upon the meaning of this wonderful nature. As I said earlier there is always a spiritual dimension to Hopkins’ poetry and in the sestet he reflects on the sorry end of the Garden of Eden and he uses the last lines of the poem to ask God to protect the innocence of spring and also that of young children.
Many of the trademark conventions which define Hopkins’ poetry are to be found in this poem, such as alliteration, assonance, inscape, instress and sprung rhythm. We are presented with an innovative and technically accomplished poem which is written in a unique and distinctive way.
It might be important to define some of these concepts because some of them are unique to Hopkins’ poetry:
Inscape: For Hopkins, every single thing in the universe was unique. Everything contained qualities that helped to define that uniqueness, and to distinguish it from all other things. He called thisinscape. Hopkins believed that God was responsible for each unique thing. For him, inscape was the essential essence of each thing, that unique quality that set it apart from everything else.
Instress: Hopkins also believed that each living thing had its own unique energy which was also derived from God. In the octet of this sonnet, therefore, he tries through language and imagery to capture the instress, the unique energy that defines Spring.
Sprung Rhythm: Hopkins invented this unique kind of rhythm and used it extensively in his poetry. Basically, Hopkins stresses the important word in a line of poetry and this can be surrounded by any number of unstressed syllables e.g. the line ‘When weeds in wheels shoot long and lovely and lush’.
Octet Hopkins begins the poem with a very bold statement of his philosophy. He won’t listen to any debate or argument as he declares with absolute conviction that Spring is the most beautiful season of the year. He then proceeds to give evidence in support of this contention, by presenting the reader with a series of images, which try to capture both the beauty and vibrancy of Spring.
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
He immediately surprises us by celebrating the beauty of weeds, a type of plant we traditionally frown upon. He uses alliteration and sprung rhythm to capture both the essence (inscape) and energy (instress) of these particular plants. The word ‘wheel’ causes us to pause as we try to understand what he means. It may be the way briars and other weeds send out tendrils to curl around other shrubs and plants as they climb or indeed it may be a reference to the cyclical nature of the seasons, each one giving way to the next.
He then describes the thrush in the next few lines. Again he tries to capture for us in words the inscape and instress of the birds as they build their nests and lay their eggs. The bird’s eggs are compared to the heavens, as Hopkins subtly introduces a spiritual dimension to the poem. There are examples of sensuous imagery in evidence also, while the onomatopoeic “wring” further captures that elusive inscape. Notice his constant use of alliteration, ‘rinse and wring’. There is a very clever metaphor in the third line when he compares the speckled thrush’s eggs to the heavens at night. It nearly would have been easier for him to use the simile, Thrush’s eggs look (like) little low heavens, but he resists the temptation!
He does use a simile in lines four and five when he tries to describe the effect of birdsong on the human ear,
… it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing
Further intense images follow, as Hopkins champions this particular season. We are told “that blue is all in a rush,” as he tries to capture the instress, the energy, that defines that season. The final line, with its rather quaint, colloquial language, is also designed to produce a similar effect.
By the end of the octet, the reader has been swept along by Hopkins in his description of nature. His use of sprung rhythm , coupled with the absence of any full-stops in the entire octet, ensure that the reader is made fully aware of the breathtaking beauty and vitality associated with Spring.
Sestet The poem becomes much more reflective in the sestet. Hopkins begins by posing a question: What does all of this beauty of nature actually signify? This rhetorical question signifies the poet’s own confusion and uncertainty. The reader is invited to slow down and contemplate the answer to this question. Hopkins suggests to us that springtime is an image of what the world would have been like in the beginning, in the Garden of Eden, before the fall of Adam and Eve and the entrance of sin into our world.
In a series of complex and very theological images, Hopkins manages to suggest what is wrong with the world, provides a vision of the type of world he would like to see, and advocates a return to that time of innocence in Eden Garden. He suggests our loss of innocence by using the image of fruit becoming overripe and decaying.
Traditionally also it must be remembered that May was always linked to Mary the Mother of God – the month of May was Mary’s month. He proceeds to use different images of innocence to present his image of the world he would like to see, and finally, he advocates a return to that world of innocence. In my mind’s eye I can see children innocently dancing around the traditional Maypole on an English village green when I read these final lines. For his English audience there would have been no better representation of childhood innocence!
This darksome burn, horseback brown, His rollrock highroad roaring down, In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam Flutes and low to the lake falls home.
A windpuff-bonnet of fawn-froth Turns and twindles over the broth Of a pool so pitchblack, fell-frowning, It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.
Degged with dew, dappled with dew, Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through, Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern, And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.
What would the world be, once bereft Of wet and wildness? Let them be left, O let them be left, wildness and wet; Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
The initial response of a class hearing Hopkins for the first time – in my long experience – can only be described as a kind of muted sniffling, an uneasy shuffling! Indeed, I am reminded of a scene from Roddy Doyle’s novel, TheVan. In the novel, Darren is studying Hopkins’s poetry for his Leaving Cert. He reads one of the poems – probably Inversnaid – and wonders when Tippex had been invented and he concludes, ‘Gerrah Manley Hopkins had definitely been sniffing something.’ Not all students are as negative as Darren but given a chance most conclude that this poetry is old but yet new and surprising. This difference is what opens the paths to further exploration. Here we have someone experimenting and stretching the outer limits of language just like a modern rapper would do.
Inversnaid, while not one of his best poems, shows how he continually explores the possibilities of words. A good class will enjoy puzzling out the images, rather like trying to solve a cryptic crossword. There may even be arguments about which sense of ‘comb’ is intended. However, the average class will need a lot of help with this poem.
Finally, by way of introduction, this poem does not end with a homily like many of Hopkins’ poems but instead takes on a very modern plea and could have been written in 2021 by any one of a range of eco-warriors from David Attenborough to Greta Thunberg. However, while the spiritual dimension, so explicitly treated in ‘Spring’ and other poems, may be hidden from the reader, here one senses that it is never far from the poet-priest’s mind.
The poem was written in 1881 while Fr Hopkins, the Jesuit priest, was ministering to his flock in inner city Glasgow. On one of his rest days he paid a hurried visit to the little village of Inversnaid near the shores of Loch Lomond in the Scottish Highlands and was inspired to write this poem.
The poem was written at the height of the Industrial Revolution in England and Scotland and the poet makes a very prescient and prophetic appeal that such places should not be destroyed forever by man’s search for wealth at any price. The poet praises the special and irreplaceable beauty of the ‘wetness and wildness’ of the world.
Hopkins wrote the poem at a time when the Industrial Revolution in England was beginning to destroy the countryside. There was also a counter move by Victorians to set aside areas of great beauty so that people who could afford it could escape to enjoy the beauty of nature. Victoria herself had her Scottish royal retreat at Balmoral and this is still in use to this day. Elsewhere places of particular scenic beauty such as the Lake District in England and Killarney in Ireland were making a name for themselves as soothing spa resorts where the rich and famous came to relax and enjoy the restorative power of nature in all its glory and wildness. Here Hopkins pleads that such places should be spared and were, in fact, essential. He attempts in the first three stanzas to convince people of the wonder of such areas; this he does by using all his word-power to describe what he sees in an exciting way. In the final stanza he presents his plea in repetitive and almost desperate terms.
The structure of the poem, unlike its language, is very simple. The first three stanzas convey a lively and exciting picture in our minds. The final stanza then is a plea that such beauty be preserved. Each stanza contains four lines, and each line has four stresses. Hopkins stresses the important word and this can be surrounded by any number of unstressed syllables. This unique form of rhyming scheme he called sprung rhythm.
Hopkins is describing a river rushing and roaring down the Scottish hillside to reach Loch Lomond. The river begins high in the hills and flows powerfully down over the rocks, then eases into lower land and flows gently into the lake. There are many pools and eddies filled with froth so dark that they suggest despair. Dew sparkles on the banks beside the river where wild plants grow such as heath and fern and ash trees. The last stanza is a passionate plea to his fellow man to leave such wildness and beauty alone, and let them survive.
Hopkins language can be difficult because he is constantly experimenting. In this poem, for instance, he is obviously infatuated by the Scottish accents all around him and we can see this in the continual use of ‘r’ alliterative sounds throughout the poem. Hopkins tries to capture the inscape and instress of a fast flowing stream in the rural landscape of Inversnaid. He makes use of a number of important techniques to capture the true essence and energy of the stream such as compound words, sprung rhythm and alliteration to great effect. He also invents new words, and makes use of local colloquial and dialect words freely.
To fully appreciate the beauty of the poem you really need to read it aloud in your best Scottish accent! From the very beginning he sets the scene,
This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
These lines suggest the river’s steep rush through the highlands. The hard vowel sounds convey the rush and roar of the water over the rocks. The essence and energy of the river (its inscape and instress) is compared in a lovely metaphor to a wild horse careering downhill at great speed.
The final two lines in the first stanza are calmer
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam Flutes and low to the lake falls home.
The poet uses alliteration to suggest a peaceful pool with foam like ‘fleece’ gently circling as in a whirlpool. ‘Coop’ and ‘comb’, ‘fleece’ and ‘foam’ convey multiple images if we allow them in. The energy of the river is now ‘cooped up’ in a rockpool and the water gently ‘combs’ over the rocks and falls with lovely sibilant ‘s’ sounds to the lake.
In the second stanza the focus switches to these stiller shallow pools. The ‘fleece’ of stanza one is now a ‘windpuff-bonnet’ of ‘fawn-froth’. These are lovely examples of compound words made up by the poet to describe the scene before him. The poet is after all trying to describe or inscape a whirlpool and he invents a new verb to describe the motion of the pool – it ‘twindles’. This swirling motion produces very ominous, dark emotions in the poet: the pool is now a ‘broth’, a ‘pitchblack’ soup of seething river in flood. The darkness or shadows of the area also help induce a mood of despair – Hopkins gives it even added importance by giving it a capital ‘D’. ‘Fell-frowning’ has many layers of meaning. Again it is a compound word invented for the occasion: Hopkins often uses ‘fell’ in his poetry and usually it means foul or evil. The stanza is a perfect example of sprung rhythm, a unique Hopkins invention. (Read the stanza again – out loud – to get a feel for this rhythm).
The focus now switches to the banks of the stream and the abundance of plants and shrubs and trees that exist there. He uses a very precise set of words to capture the essence, the inscape of the gorge through which this stream is flowing. It is a glorious description of nature in all its wildness:
Degged with dew, dappled with dew,
Are the groins of the braes that the brook threads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.
We get the sense of the river picking up speed again in the first two lines before it slows again before the stanza ends.
In the last stanza, Hopkins uses many words beginning with the letter ‘w’. This, combined with all the repetition, conveys a mood of anxiety and pleading. The use of the rhetorical question also gives a sense of his uncertainty. He ends by issuing an appeal, asking us to preserve the natural landscape. Yet again, one can detect the intensity of the emotion in his pleading and in his poetry. Hopkins finishes with a rallying cry, almost a call to arms, similar to what Greta Thunberg has done in recent times, in which he champions the natural world and pleads with us to respect it. That call is now nearly 150 years old and, unfortunately, is more pertinent today that ever before.
You might like to have a read of the following blog which explains the various terms such as ‘inscape’, ‘instress’ and ‘sprung rhythm’ used in the above notes. Just click on the link.
This week the Government announced that schools would remain closed until February 1st, and that Leaving Cert students would be able to attend school for three days a week, beginning on Monday January 11th. That Government decision remained in force for all of twenty-four hours! Because of this continuous disruption and uncertainty, no doubt caused by the Covid-19 upsurge in the community, but not helped by Government indecision, I have brought together here in one post links to a series of relevant notes which you may consider useful in your English course studies for 2021. These notes are not exhaustive but focus mainly on Single Text, Comparative and Poetry Sections.
Caveat Emptor! Leaving Cert Student Beware !! These are resources which you should use wisely. They are personal responses to the various texts and you should read and consider them if you find them useful.
IN OTHER WORDS, MAKE YOUR OWN OF THEM, ADD TO THEM OR DELETE FROM THEM AS YOU SEE FIT. ALSO, YOU MIGHT SPREAD THE WORD, DON’T KEEP THEM ALL TO YOURSELF!
THE SINGLE TEXT AND A SELECTION OF TEXTS PRESCRIBED FOR THE COMPARATIVE STUDY 2021
A FEW OBSERVATIONS ON THE COMPARATIVE STUDY QUESTION IN 2021
MODES OF COMPARISON For each Leaving Certificate course, three modes of comparison will be prescribed. This means that the texts chosen for comparative study must be studied under these particular modes (headings).
This year the modes of comparison at Higher Level and Ordinary Level are as follows:
Theme or Issue
General Vision and Viewpoint
This year there will be two questions on EACH of these modes of comparison. In reality this means that because of the time constraints and limited time given to you to study the syllabus properly you only need to focus on ONE mode of comparison.
FYI the following adjustments have been made to the Comparative Section in the Leaving Cert English Syllabus for 2021: next June the Comparative Section will include questions on all three modes prescribed for examination in 2021 – namely, Theme or Issue, Cultural Context, and General Vision and Viewpoint.
Candidates will be required to answer on one mode only. This will allow you to concentrate your efforts because in effect, if you wish, you can simply concentrate on one mode of comparison only and you can be guaranteed that there will be a choice of two questions for you to answer on that chosen mode of comparison. Remember, the standard required won’t alter but you are being given greater choice this year in your Comparative Study.
The internal question choice within modes will remain the same. Single questions (marked out of 70) will require candidates to refer to AT LEAST TWO texts in their response. The same criteria for assessment will apply to candidates irrespective of whether they refer to two texts or to three texts when responding to 70 mark questions. Two-part questions (marked out of 30 and 40) will require candidates to refer to ONE text in answer to part (a) and to TWO other texts in answer to part (b).
Theme or Issue
This involves comparing texts on a prescribed theme(s). These would have to be themes that were pervasive and central to the texts chosen for study e.g.
Isolation and Loneliness Relationships Family Childhood Fantasy and reality
These themes/issues will be the messages or concerns that the writer or film director wishes to impart to the audience. In most texts, there will be a number of themes/issues worth considering
Your task, therefore, in this section is to compare and contrast the same theme as it is treated by different authors or film directors.
Compare the texts focusing on social rituals, values and attitudes. This is not to be seen as a sociological study of the texts alone. It means taking some perspectives, which enable the students to understand the kind of values and structures with which people contend. It amounts to entering into the world of the text and getting some insight and feel for the cultural texture of the world created. This would imply considering such aspects as the rituals of life and the routines of living, the structures of society, familial, social, economic, religious and political: the respective roles of men and women in society, the position of children, the role and nature of work, the sources and structures of power and the significance of race and class.
Vision and Viewpoint
The term, general vision and viewpoint, may be understood by candidates to mean the broad outlook of the authors of the texts (or of the texts themselves) as interpreted and understood by the reader – excerpt from Marking Scheme, 2003
When approaching this mode of comparison it is important to examine each text to discover what particular vision or view of life is presented by the novelist, playwright or film director. We need to find the overall view of the writer as it is reflected through the themes and issues raised in the text. We will probably realise that we as readers or as an audience have been given a privileged position by the author and that we often know more than the characters in the novel or the actors on the stage or film set. We are, after all, entitled to our own viewpoint also! Commonly, we are expected to judge whether the text is positive or negative, optimistic or pessimistic, realistic or dystopian, etc., etc.
When you answer a question in the Comparative Section remember that you have to be selective in emphasising the most meaningful similarities and differences between texts. The more similar they appear to be, the more provocative and challenging it is to contrast them and to draw out differences between them. Remember also that when you draw out surprising or disputable similarities or differences, you require detailed support from the texts.
In a Comparative answer, it is vitally important to compare and contrast these different ways of looking at life, or to examine if there is coherence or a lack of coherence between all these differing viewpoints.
THE POETRY SECTION IN 2021
I include links to SIX of the eight poets on your course here – simply click on the link. Again, in this area, the Department and the Examinations Commission have made very generous adjustments to the Syllabus for 2021. So, this year, ONE additional poetry question will be included i.e. candidates will be required to answer one of five questions instead of the usual four. In reality, therefore, instead of having to have at least FIVE poets prepared for examination, you now will need to have at least FOUR poets studied at Higher Level this year. (Two extra poems will also be included in the Ordinary Level paper).
John Donne’s poetry experienced a great resurgence in the Twentieth Century, thanks mainly to T. S. Eliot’s influential essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ originally published in 1921. This new found recognition went far in correcting the fact that for the previous two centuries his poetry had been largely overlooked. Added to this, of course, we must take into account Donne’s own apparent disinterest in his own poems, particularly with regard to their publication. This disinterest has always been put forward by academics as a reason for this early neglect. It is well documented that he only published three or four poems in his own lifetime, preferring instead to pass round manuscripts of his work among his friends at the universities and at the Inns of Court.
Ben Jonson (c. 11 June 1572 – c. 16 August 1637), the most learned poet of his time, was the closest of such friends. Like T.S. Eliot many generations later, Jonson left all in no doubt about the admiration he felt for Donne’s poetry; he regarded him as an innovator, ‘the first poet in the world in some things’, and the leader of a new school of poetry in Elizabethan London – this school of poetry has since been called metaphysical poetry.
Donne was certainly not a poet of popular taste. As far as he was concerned poetry was not for the masses but was an intellectual pursuit where the poet attempted to impress others with his knowledge and education. He deliberately restricted his audience to those whose education and background equipped them to appreciate a new, more obscure type of poetry. It is clear that Donne’s poetry shocked his contemporaries just as it still does to this day. When his poems were first published in 1633, two years after his death, the printer introduced them with a dedication, not to ‘the Readers’ but to ‘the Understanders’. One can see from this how from the beginning, Donne’s poetry was regarded as being among the most difficult in English literature.
The writers who followed Donne and who were most influenced by his work have since been called the metaphysical poets. This term was of course first used by Dr Samuel Johnston in his famous discussion of Donne, Herbert, Vaughan and Marvell. In his Life of Cowley (1779) Johnston observed that ‘about the beginning of the seventeenth century appeared a race of writers that might be termed the metaphysical poets’. Since then the term metaphysical poetry has come to imply a type of poetry that has certain unique characteristics. Indeed, so widespread has the term become that there is no longer much doubt as to whom we mean when we speak of the metaphysical poets, namely, John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and Andrew Marvell in particular.
Dr Samuel Johnston’s Life of Cowley did more than establish the term ‘metaphysical poets’; it also contained the first detailed discussion of their works. Donne’s poetry can be considered in three main groups: the love poetry (The Good Morrow, The Anniversary), the miscellaneous poems and verse letters, and the religious poetry (A Hymn to God the Father, Holy Sonnets), all of which correspond roughly to the early, middle, and later periods of his career. The first group contains the work for which he is probably best known. The poetry is remarkable for its realism and its variety, and has all the characteristics by which metaphysical poetry is generally recognised.
What therefore are the main characteristics of the metaphysical poets in general and of Donne in particular?
What first strikes most readers of metaphysical poetry is its concentration. Poems in this category tend to be brief and closely woven. This allows various ideas, words and references to be condensed into groups of short lines, sometimes even into single lines and phrases. For example, in the opening stanza of The Anniversary, Donne introduces groups of associated images drawn from the royal courts and palaces to suggest the transience of earthly glory:
All kings and all their favourites,
All glory of honours, beauties, wits,
The sun itself, which makes time, as they pass,
Is elder by a year now than it was
When thou and I first one another saw.
Everything, he suggests, is subordinate to love, and he describes in detail the intensity of his feelings. What need has he of kings and princes when they are inconstant and subject to decay? Even the sun which appears to measure time, is itself subject to destruction, while love has the power to outlive these mortal things. Behind this opening stanza, therefore, there is intense personal feeling. This anniversary represents a permanent moment: it is not an anniversary in the ordinary sense, a looking back on something passed. It is rather an ‘everlasting day’ which is not affected by the passage of time. So while man’s world and the world of nature are slowly growing old, the persons in the poem enjoy forever the vitality and permanence of love. To further his argument Donne makes good use of paradox which acts as a sort of clinching device which upholds and strengthens his argument. The first stanza of The Anniversary ends with an important paradox which expresses the permanence of love in a world of change:
Running it never runs from us away,
But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day.
The idea that love unites people in a spiritual bond which even transcends death is expressed throughout The Anniversary.
His use of concentration is also very evident in The Good Morrow where we see not only Donne’s love of learning, but also his inclination for using it out of context, applying many references to serve his own purposes in the poem. The greatest concentration of language is confined to the second stanza. Man, Donne suggests, is concerned with broadening his physical horizons, but is neglecting to expand his knowledge in a spiritual direction. Love, in the end, binds all things together and allows man to attain his true destiny. Suggested in this poem is the idea of the fundamental, and not accidental, limitations of our knowledge. Science can explain the physical, but not the spiritual universe. Astronomers may spend their lives studying the heavens but they are always fearful of what they might find. Similarly, geographical discoveries have brought to man’s attention objects of experience that are not always pleasant (“sharp north”, “declining west”), and the progress of science cannot experiment enough to conquer death (“whatever dies, was not mix’d equally”). Connected to each of these images is the idea of isolation and lack of real purpose: the lonely astronomer forever watchful, the explorer who spends his life going round the world only to arrive back where he started, the scientist alone in his laboratory making many discoveries, none of which effect the real destiny of mankind. Donne, therefore, sees the world outside as a symbol of man’s weakness and isolation. In contrast to this he presents his own rational theory which is itself the result of considerable previous study. As with The Anniversary, he proposes that the only true art is the art of love which requires knowledge, patience and effort, which overcomes death and prepares man for eternity.
A second characteristic of metaphysical poetry is its vividly dramatic quality, particularly in the opening lines. Donne’s poetry, in particular, is always, in a special sense, dramatic. Indeed, all metaphysical poetry springs from the great era of Elizabethan drama dominated, in particular, by Shakespeare. Donne, we are told, was ‘a great frequenter of plays’ in his youth. The rhythms of his verse, so misunderstood by many readers, are closer to the ordinary speech found in Shakespeare’s plays than to that of most lyrical poems. For this reason, Donne’s poems – and those of George Herbert also – are often best considered as dramatic monologues, almost like the soliloquys of an actor on the stage. Donne specialises in forceful, dramatic openings, e.g. ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God’ (Holy Sonnets XIV); ‘I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I / Did, till we lov’d’ (The Good Morrow); ‘Wilt thou forgive the sin where I begun …’ (A Hymn to God the Father), etc., etc., etc.
(Probably one of the most daring and dramatic of his opening lines occurs in the sonnet, At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners where he conjures up a marvellous vivid picture of the Last Judgement. We have to remind ourselves that when this sonnet, often referred to as Holy Sonnet 7, was published in 1633, it was less than 150 years after Columbus had discovered The New World. Yet here, Donne shows off his new found knowledge that the world is round and yet plays with the old notion that the world was flat and had four corners!)
This dependence on drama leads to a third characteristic of metaphysical poetry which is their constant use of dialogue. The Good Morrow and The Anniversary depend for their success upon our recognising the presence of an individual speaker involved in each poem. Indeed, the speakers can even be distinguished by the manner of their speech and by the nature of their arguments. In the opening lines of The Good Morrow the speaker adopts a very colloquial, unpoetic manner. He is capable, however, of sudden shifts in attention, and in the second stanza begins to change his tone and emphasis. The poem suddenly becomes more serious, then very learned in its use of obscure references and peculiar logic, until finally the speaker presents his audience with a definite conclusion:
If our two loves be one, or thou and I
Love so alike that none can slacken, none can die.
In contrast to The Good Morrow, Donne’s The Anniversary is much more contemplative. What is common to both poems is not only their theme but also their resolution: true love is constant because it is essentially a relationship of minds. What is uncommon, however, is Donne’s presentation. In The Anniversary the speaker is not so much intent on displaying the great depth of his knowledge as in arguing his ideas with simple wisdom. Despite the fact that he sometimes appears to be frivolous and insincere, Donne always wished to express universal truths in his poetry. Like Shakespeare, when he expresses something profound, Donne often does it quite simply. The subject of universal destruction is one of the central themes in The Anniversary, and the death of princes is used to symbolise it. Indeed, the references to princes, kings and courtly life bring this poem very close to the underlying theme expressed in nearly all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, all of which ‘tell sad stories of the death of kings’ (Richard II, Act III, Sc ii, 155). The dramatic impact of the opening lines of The Anniversary depends upon the emphasis suggested by the word all:
All kings and all their favourites,
All glory of honours, beauties, wits …
All other things to their destruction draw.
The grandeur of princes must inevitably pass away; kings must live in fear of misfortune, treason and death. The Anniversary has none of the learned references and peculiar logic of The Good Morrow. He uses a uniform set of royal images throughout the three stanzas, and details of diction reveal ordinary common nouns. While The Good Morrow displays a superb use of unpoetic words and references the impact of The Anniversary is less rhetorical and more sincere.
A fourth characteristic of metaphysical poets is their use of Wit. The word ‘wit’ has undergone a remarkable transformation in modern day English. Our modern idea of a witty comment or image, even though there may be some original thought, does not do the Elizabethan meaning of the word full justice. The metaphysical poets like Donne, Herbert, Marvel and Vaughan always tried to present brilliant or arresting lines of poetry which surprise the reader by means of unexpected ideas, expressions or associations. This tendency led in turn to the development of conceits. A conceit is a comparison made between things which at first sight seem to have little in common: it is a comparison which is more striking than correct. There are numerous examples of such far-fetched comparisons to be found in the work of the metaphysical poets. Indeed, it very easy to agree with Dr Samuel Johnson’s remark that in the work of these poets ‘the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together’. Many of Donne’s best poems depend for their effect on the extensive use of conceits. The Good Morrow, for example, contains a number of paradoxes which are grouped together in the second stanza: ‘And makes one little room an everywhere’; ‘Let us possess one world; each hath one, and is one.’ This poem also contains what is perhaps the most well-known and most famous of Donne’s conceits:
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Together the lovers make one world, each being as hemisphere. But unlike the real hemispheres, they suffer no shortcomings; their love undergoes neither misery (‘sharp north’), nor cooling of affection (‘declining west’).
A fifth characteristic of metaphysical poetry is its striking use of imagery and tone. The principal advantage of the conceits Donne uses in his poems is the degree of inclusiveness they make possible. They are a means of bringing into his poetry all his interests, activities and new found knowledge. No part of his experience is regarded as unworthy of poetic investigation, and he prefers to engage our attention not through expected images and associations, but through unusual ideas and comparisons. Whatever poetic licence is taken, the general effect is to reinforce, modify and generally heighten the reader’s response to each poem.
The Good Morrow is an excellent example of this method. The poem begins with a realistic description of a morning bedroom. The poet is waking up beside his mistress and he therefore uses words and images which suggest sleep (‘snorted’, ‘sleepers’, ‘dream’). In his initial meditation on love there is a strong emphasis on physical activities (‘wean’d’, ‘sucked’, ‘country pleasures’). Indeed, the number of words relating to physical activities in Donne’s poetry is always very high. Here, he freely admits to having mistresses in the past (‘If ever any beauty I did see / Which I desired and got,’) but indicates that the pleasures he experienced with them were inadequate (‘pleasures fancies’). We can see immediately how this stanza with its strong emphasis on sexual fulfilment must have come as something as a shock to Donne’s friends and contemporaries who were used to a completely different, more refined type of love poetry.
This first stanza alone, with its sense of openness and honesty Donne dissociates himself from the dominant sixteenth-century tradition of Platonic love. This poem, in contrast, is aggressively personal and ‘muscular’. We notice the frequent use of personal pronouns which emphasise the presence of an individual speaker. The overall tone is personal and enthusiastic. The three stanzas correspond to three stages of his experience: there is a very definite progression from past to present to future. In the first stanza he defines reality exclusively in physical terms; the questions are abrupt and present striking images of physical activity.
The second stanza presents a sudden shift from past to present, and contains examples of Donne’s characteristic choice of imagery. Whereas the Elizabethans relied on images from Greek and Roman mythology for their love imagery, Donne relies heavily on more ‘modern’ sources such as geography, science, history and philosophy. In this regard, the imagery of The Good Morrow has always impressed readers with its range and variety. Indeed, this poem illustrates beautifully the range and variety of metaphysical imagery. From the ordinary activities of breast-feeding and heavy sleeping, Donne progresses to the more exotic activities of explorers, geographers and philosophers. However, the sea-discoverers with all their topical glamour and novelty are introduced only to be dismissed as lacking in true exploration compared with the relationship he is describing. Nevertheless, they continue to be present in the poem and eventually lead to the image of ‘sharpe north’ and ‘declining west’.
The image at the beginning of the third stanza is a simple presentation of the fact that people gazing into each other’s eyes can see themselves reflected there. It is made more complicated and more meaningful by the line that leads up to it (‘And true plain hearts do in the faces rest’).
Usually the titles of Donne’s poems generally suggest the central image around which the poem revolves. Therefore, The Good Morrow deals with awakening and with discovery and we can follow how this basic image of discovery is sustained throughout the poem. Likewise, the major image suggested by The Anniversary is royal and heraldic. Groups of words appear in each stanza which relate to kings, princes and courtly life. Donne’s imagery, especially in his religious sonnets is always striking, and always extends the range and understanding of each poem.
Eliot in his influential essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ refers to the metaphysical poets’ ability to combine disparate kinds of experience and he goes on to say that these poets possess ‘a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience’. Donne’s great achievement, according to Eliot, was to have substituted a natural conversational idiom for a conventional one, carrying out a revolution of the kind ‘which has to occur from time to time … if the English language is to retain its vigour’ (Winny, 52).
With Herbert, Marvel, Vaughan, and the Catholic poet Crashaw, Donne explored the complex relationships between God and man, lover and beloved, time and eternity. The Metaphysicals used language in a manner as complex as their themes, drawing their comparisons from astronomy, philosophy, theology and natural science, working out their images with a rigorous logic which still to this day demands great alertness from the reader. At its worst the metaphysical method of writing resulted in what Dr Johnson called ‘heterogeneous ideas …. yoked by violence together’. At its best, it resulted in the exciting and muscular poetry well represented by the poems mentioned here.
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The Retreat of Ita Cagney / Cúlú Íde was first published in 1975 by the Goldsmith Press, shortly after Michael Hartnett’s pronouncement from the stage of the Peacock Theatre in Dublin that he would henceforth write only in Irish. Appropriately, the publication contains an Irish version and an English version of the poem, as perhaps befitted the poet’s conflicted state. In effect, this poem serves as a Rubicon: the last English poem he would publish, for the time being at least, and the first of his Irish poems. The poet is in transition and is now back in West Limerick and in this poem, he explores deep and ancient resentments and wrongs. Allan Gregory says that the poem, in its bilingual format, ‘expresses to the reader themes of social and historical oppression, sex, pregnancy and birth, protection, exposure and secrecy, and is the finest poem in this period of Hartnett’s writing’ (McDonagh/Newman 145).
Hartnett has documented the ‘schizophrenia’ associated with this new poetic direction and he has said that this poem, in particular, caused him great distress:
‘The Retreat of Ita Cagney, for example, almost broke my heart and indeed my mind to write, because both languages became so intermeshed. I would sit down and write a few lines of the poem unthinkingly. I’d come back to it and see that it was half in English and half in Irish or a mixture. … One is not a translation of the other. They are two versions of the same poem; but what the original language is I don’t know’ (O’Driscoll 146).
Whatever the mental turmoil generated by the artistic struggles of the poet, the resulting poem is one of Hartnett’s most powerful from this period of his career. In his review of the poem following publication, fellow Munster poet, Brendan Kennelly, says it was,
‘a probing, dramatic exploration of a woman’s loneliness and isolation in a callous and hostile society. This, to my mind, is Hartnett’s finest achievement to date: he pays a relentless imaginative attention to this woman’s fate, and he presents with admirable dramatic balance her loneliness, independence and state of severed happiness. In this condition, Ita Cagney becomes a visionary critic of the society that hounds and isolates her’ (Poetry Ireland Review, Issue 15, p. 26).
The Retreat of Ita Cagney is a pained celebration of a woman’s enforced isolation due to her refusal to conform to the demands of her society. We can surmise that in delving into Ita Cagney’s situation the poet finds common cause with another rural outcast in light of his own recent ‘retreat’ to Glendarragh to dwell ‘in the shade of Tom White’s green hill / in exile out foreign in ‘Glantine’ (A Book of Strays 41). This lonely cottage in Glendarragh was for the next ten years to serve as basecamp for what Declan Kiberd describes as ‘retracing his way to the common source’ (McDonagh/ Newman 37). However, far from being a ‘retreat’ to obscurity, as some of his critics predicted, his return to West Limerick precipitated what was arguably the most productive period of his career. Adharca Broic was published in 1978, followed by An Phurgóid in 1983, Do Nuala: Foighne Crainn in 1984 and his fourth collection in Irish, An Lia Nocht, appeared in 1985. During this period, he also undertook the translation of Daibhi Ó Brudair’s poems which were published in 1985.
The publication of this dual language version of The Retreat of Ita Cagney / Cúlú Íde in 1975 was a bold step by Hartnett. For added effect, the Irish version was printed in the Old Gaelic script (An Cló Gaelach) which was by then obsolete and no longer being used in schools as it had been up to the 1960s. This probably also had the effect of further isolating the poet and limiting his audience. However, as he told Elgy Gillespie in an interview in March 1975: ‘Listen, it’s impossible to limit my audience, it’s so small already’ (Gillespie 10). However, academic John Jordon wrote a positive review of Cúlú Íde suggesting that it was ‘a small-town mini-epic, so redolent of Hardy’ (Jordon 7). Cúlú Íde was again published as part of Hartnett’s first collection in Irish, Adharca Broic, in 1978. This time he chose Peter Fallon’s Gallery Books and this new publishing relationship was to last until A Book of Strays was published posthumously by the same publisher in 2002. Adharca Broic received generally positive reviews and Allan Gregory declared that the twenty-one lyrical poems in the collection ‘oozed with the confidence of a speaker who felt that at last he was being heard’ (McDonagh/Newman 146).
In this analysis, I will focus mainly on the English version of the poem with occasional sorties into the Irish version, especially where they diverge. There are some similarities between The Retreat of Ita Cagney and Farewell to English. Both poems have a sequence-structure and The Retreat of Ita Cagney is divided into nine dramatic scenes. Both poems were published in 1975. However, there is one major difference: whereas Farewell to English is a public poem with political overtones, The Retreat of Ita Cagney is an intensely private poem. Though it begins with a quintessential public event, the traditional Irish funeral, it quickly transitions to the act of retreat alluded to in its title. On the face of it, it is a ‘retreat’ from a public event to a more private life, and Hartnett teases out the societal and psychological implications which this act brings about. However, the poem itself may also be read as an act of ‘retreat’ for the poet, away from public pronouncement, towards a more private poetry, which would focus on his own domestic life. If critics presumed that the blunt polemic of Farewell to English would be a constant in his writing in Irish The Retreat of Ita Cagney would seem to set them straight. As with Ita, Hartnett’s ‘retreat’ was a once-off symbolic gesture and as such there was no need to repeat the tonic, rather the wisdom or otherwise of that choice would be borne out by the life retreated to, and of course, for Hartnett, the poems which would come from living that life to its fullest.
The English version is composed in free-verse while the Irish version is more formal and adheres to the classical conventions of the Dánta Grá (McDonagh/Newman 144). This divergence in styles between the two languages is perhaps a direct reason for the mental turmoil he encountered during the composition of this poem – there is a constant battle raging between the more disordered English version and the more tamed and formalised Irish version.
As well as being a poet of international standing, Hartnett was also a master translator having translated the Tao, the Gypsy Ballads of Lorca, and later the poems of Ó Haicéad and Ó Bruadair which will forever stand the test of time. Here we find him ‘translating’ his own work and the effort induced in him a kind of artistic schizophrenia. Declan Kiberd argues that in this way, Hartnett suffered from a kind of ‘double vision’:
Every poet senses that all official languages are already dead languages. That was why Hartnett said farewell to English while knowing that Irish was itself dead already too. As he wrote himself in ‘Death of an Irishwoman’, ‘I loved her from the day she died’. Likewise, with English – no sooner did Hartnett write it off than he felt all over again its awesome power, for it had become again truly strange to him, as all poetic languages must (McDonagh/Newman 38).
This poem, then, is an initial effort to find his voice – in two languages.
In this, his last poem in English pro tem and his first poem in Irish, the poet very dramatically tells us the story of a recent widow (the Irish version says that she has been married only a year) who leaves her home in the dead of night and goes to live in secret with another man in his West Limerick cottage and bears him a child out of wedlock much to the disapproval of the locals and the Church.
The poem is not set in any recognisable historic timeframe but maybe there were echoes of some such local ‘scandalous’ incident in the ether when the poet made his return to West Limerick in and around 1975. However, the poem stands on its own and there doesn’t need to have been any particular incident which inspired the poet to take on this subject matter. Hartnett’s prose writing and poetry show him to be a very insightful social commentator and it is not hard to find echoes of Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger in this poem. Here, however, the main subject is a formidable woman which further helps to give the lie to the accepted stereotypes of the day. Readers familiar with Irish poetry will also be aware that in the old Aisling poems Ireland was often depicted as a woman: sometimes young and beautiful, sometimes old and haggard. In effect, Ita Cagney can be read as a modern Bean Dubh an Ghleanna, Gráinne Mhaol, Roisín Dubh or Caithleen Ní Houlihan – a symbolic representation of Ireland. Hartnett concisely captures a portrait of the society to which he had returned in the 1970s but crucially chooses to depict Ita’s inner life and not merely as a cypher without agency, whilst also refusing to idealise rural Ireland by showing the repressive and oppressive views which pertained at that time, especially towards women.
The Retreat of Ita Cagney is a more focused portrayal of small-farm Ireland than the broader panorama offered by Patrick Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger. That said, they are very similar and both Ita Cagney and Maguire have to cope with the two conflicting forces of spirituality and sexual mores in the world of their time. Maguire’s idea of sex is deformed, largely due to Church teaching and a repressive society in the Ireland of the 1930s and 40s. In contrast, Ita Cagney’s sexuality liberates her and The Retreat of Ita Cagney is a more recent reminder to all and a typical Hartnett barbed rebuff to De Valera’s notorious St. Patrick’s Day broadcast of 1943 in which he fantasised about a rural Ireland ‘joyous with sounds of industry, the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, the laughter of comely maidens; whose firesides would be the forums of the wisdom of serene old age’ (Moynihan 466-9). Whereas Maguire is beaten down and is forced to live within the strictures imposed by the Catholic Church and the 1937 Constitution, in a sense, Ita Cagney benefits from the work of such women as Nell McCafferty, Mary Kenny, and others in bringing about significant change in how young couples lived their married lives as a result of the McGee v. Attorney General Case. This landmark case was heard in the Supreme Court in 1973 (two years before the publication of this poem) and established the right to privacy in marital affairs, giving women the right to avail of contraception, thereby giving them control over their own bodies.
Another factor which may be relevant here also was that while Kavanagh was a bachelor (and almost certainly a virgin) when he wrote The Great Hunger, Michael Hartnett was happily married (at the time) and living with his wife Rosemary and their two young children, Niall and Lara, ‘in exile out foreign in Glantine’. Patrick Kavanagh wrote about the destitution and despair of Irish country life of the 40s and 50s and though Michael Hartnett knew that world also from his childhood (for example in A Small Farm) he depicts a changing Ireland in The Retreat of Ita Cagney, an Ireland where women play a more central role.
The poem opens in a very dramatic style. We are present at an old-style Irish wake – a scene very common in Hartnett’s poetry (Collected Poems 103). The narrator informs us that ‘their barbarism did not assuage the grief’. These ‘barbarians’ paradoxically are dressed in ‘polished boots’ and ‘Sunday clothes’ and accompanied by the ‘drone of hoarse melodeons’ – all typical features of a traditional Irish wake. It is night-time and it is raining. The poet uses rich similes to describe the atmosphere; ‘snuff lashed the nose like nettles’ and the local keeners fulfilled their ‘toothless praising of the dead / spun on like unoiled bellows’. Now we are introduced to Ita Cagney, the dead man’s widow. Her name is a Saint’s name; Ita or Íde is synonymous with West Limerick, particularly West Limerick’s ancient past. Her grief on the death of her husband has taken her by surprise and she gives a hint as to their relationship when she says ‘the women who had washed his corpse / were now more intimate with him / than she had ever been.’ This may suggest a great disparity in ages between them although the Irish version gives a slightly different perspective on her grief when it reveals that they had only been married a year: ‘a bhean chéile, le bliain anois’ (his wife, now for only a year). Now, on a whim, she leaves the raucous wake and beats her hasty retreat. This is emphasised by the metaphor, ‘the road became a dim knife’. She has not planned this move but ‘instinct neighed around her / like a pulling horse’.
The second movement follows the strict requirements of the Dánta Grá and there are striking stylistic differences between the English and Irish versions. The Irish version consists of eight quatrains each describing Ita Cagney’s classical appearance. The English version is in free-verse and describes in minute detail Ita Cagney’s head from ‘her black hair’ to her throat which ‘showed no signs of age’. Her hair is black save for a single rib of grey which stands out ‘like a steel filing on a forge floor’. The poet here obviously calling on his Maiden Street childhood and scenes from John Kelly’s forge which he had already immortalised in verse (Collected Poems 104).
He then describes her brow, her eyebrows, her eyes, ‘her long nose’, ‘her rose-edged nostrils’, her upper lip, her chin and jawline and finally her throat. The reason for this detail is to give us a sense of the formidable woman at the centre of this poem. She is described as having an almost aristocratic beauty. Having described her head in exact detail the final singular line comes as an anti-climax: ‘The rest was shapeless, in black woollen dress’. The over-riding sense, however, is of a woman in black as befits a woman in mourning but a woman nonetheless with a kind of Patrician beauty, a sense of being noble in her bearing beyond her class: ‘Her long nose was almost bone / making her face too severe’. Ironically, from my own limited meetings with Michael Hartnett, he too had this aura of nobility and even some extant photographs of the poet show that he wore his hair like a Senator of Rome – in my eyes, at least, it is imaginable that he too saw himself as a Patrician character!
I would point out also that there is a difference between the way Hartnett describes Ita Cagney and the way he introduces us to the raven-haired barmaid in the first section of Farewell to English. The barmaid, Mary Donavan, worked behind the bar in Windle’s pub in Glensharrold, a few miles outside Newcastle West. She is described with exaggerated classical phrases such as ‘mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach, álainn, caoin’. Gabriel Fitzmaurice tells us that ‘here we have the poet Michael Hartnett, possessing his locality, his muse, and his lost language’ (Limerick Leader, 1999). Here in this poem, however, Hartnett does not indulge in this kind of hyperbole in his description of Ita Cagney. She is not idealised or clichéd and Michael Hartnett is at pains to describe her as a real person and this realism makes the symbolism more rich and complex. Deep unhappiness and sadness have furrowed her brow: ‘One deep line, cut by silent days of hate’. Her first marriage was obviously not a happy one and there is even a hint that it was an arranged marriage as was the custom in the past: her ‘eyes / that had looked on bespoke love / seeing only to despise’.
In this section of the poem, Ita has reached her destination – by accident or design we do not know. She has turned her back on a society that doesn’t value her and in a sense, the poem is about breaking with convention – as the poet himself has also recently done. Ita Cagney has rejected the old world of snuff and melodeons and observance of religious rituals and she is about to embrace a more sensual world. The half-door of this isolated cottage is opened by a man ‘halving darkness bronze’. The ‘bronze’ light of the gaslight gives way to ‘gold the hairs along his nose’. He is wearing classic labourer’s garb, a blue-striped shirt without a collar with a stud at the neck which ‘briefly pierced a thorn of light’. This chink of light in the dark night echoes Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘Advent’ where he says ‘through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder’. Whereas Kavanagh, in his poetry, comes across as the quintessential 1950s Catholic, Michael Hartnett, in contrast, sees the ‘chink’ or open doorway as a new beginning in Ita Cagney’s life and not something to abstain from.
The poet uses juxtaposition here also to sharply contrast the male-dominated kitchen with its ‘odours of lost gristle / and grease along the wall’ and the arrival of a female whose ‘headscarf laughed a challenge’. The man closes the door on the world and both begin a relationship which will last ‘for many years’. Again, here we are reminded of the parallels that exist between Ita and the poet who had only recently turned his back on the Dublin literary scene and a burgeoning poetic reputation and had moved with his young family to rural West Limerick to follow his own ‘exquisite dream’ (Walsh 100).
In this section, the couple have both decided ‘to live in sin’ ignoring the religious and social mores of the time. Their experience has taught them that having a big wedding for the sake of the neighbours ‘later causes pain’. Ita has already learnt to her cost that a very public wedding can, within a year, end ‘in hatred and in grief’. The expenses incurred in buying ‘the vain white dress’, in having to pay ‘the bulging priest’ and endure ‘the frantic dance’ is not for them. For them, it would be akin to undergoing physical torture, as the insincere well-wishes of their neighbours would ‘land / like careful hammers on a broken hand’. Anyway, in this house organised religion was not important; here ‘no sacred text was read’. Instead, life was rudimentary and simple: ‘He offered her food: they went to bed’. Here, there was no ‘furtive country coupling’, hiding affections from friends and priest. Their only sin was that they had chosen ‘so late a moment to begin’.
This is the sensual ideal: their ‘Love’ doesn’t have to be transmuted and elevated to a higher level by the clergy; they don’t seek anyone’s blessing or approval for their actions. However, they are aware that there are consequences to their decision and that their actions will offend the locals and particularly the local clergy: ‘shamefaced chalice, pyx, ciborium / clanged their giltwrapped anger in the room’. The couple have made their bed and now they must lie in it. They have decided to defy society and do their own thing.
Section five sees the woman in labour and being taken by donkey and cart (or pony and trap) to the local town to be delivered. It is night-time and it is raining. She is shielded by her shawl and oilskins to protect her but all these layers cannot deflect the ‘direct rebuke and pummel of the town’. The couples secret intimacy now becomes a public matter as they have to call on outside help with the delivery. Even now at this delicate moment as Ita prepares to give birth, disapproval is vehement:
and sullen shadows mutter hate
and snarl and debate
and shout vague threats of hell.
However, the ‘new skull’ will not wait, and ‘the new skull pushes towards its morning’ and Ita’s hopes and dreams are for the future as a new beginning and a new dispensation beckons.
Section six is both a love song and a lament. Ita Cagney addresses her new-born with love and trepidation. She knows what will be said and she will try and protect her son from the venom and vitriol which she knows will come because of her actions. Her newborn is described lovingly with his ‘gold hair’ and ‘skin / that smells of milk and apples’. She wishes to cocoon her baby son and protect him from all the wickedness of the outside world as if he were in Noah’s Ark. However, she knows in her heart that just as in the Bible story ‘a dove is bound to come’ with messages from the outside world ‘bringing from the people words / and messages of hate’. She knows that the ‘stain’ of what she has done will be passed like a baton of toxic shame, the preferred Irish weapon to ensure conformity, to the next generation:
They will make you wear my life
Like a hump upon your back.
She is also tormented by the fear that her son may come to blame her for the hatred he will be forced to endure and that he may internalise that hatred and that the cycle of hatred will continue.
Section seven has echoes of the Garden of Eden. The child is growing up in splendid isolation in the West Limerick countryside. The language is sensual and earthy, ‘each hazel ooze of cowdung through the toes, / being warm, and slipping like a floor of silk…’. There are echoes here also of earlier Hartnett poems depicting his own idyllic childhood, ‘we were such golden children, never to be dust’ (Collected Poems 102). The young boy grows up and learns the lore of the countryside, gathering mushrooms ‘like white moons of lime’ and working the land with his father. His mother watches him grow ‘in a patient discontent’. The seasons come and go, spring, autumn, harvest, Christmas and their little cottage becomes ‘resplendent with these signs’. There are echoes of an Edenic existence, unspoilt and idyllic, as ‘apples with medallions of rust / englobed a thickening cider on the shelf’.
In section eight Ita speaks in a confessional manner. She is preparing for Christmas and decorating her little cottage with the traditional homemade crepe decorations. She is in a reflective mood and Hartnett uses a beautiful image to convey her reverie as she watches ‘the candles cry / O salutaris hostia’. There is a potent mix of residual religious imagery in these lines; the Christmas candles remind Ita of the traditional Catholic hymn sung at Benediction. The hymn invites us to ask for God’s help to persevere in our often difficult spiritual journey. The next image is also very traditional and every small farmhouse in Ireland contained at one time a red Sacred Heart lamp with its flickering flame:
I will light the oil –lamp till it burns
like a scarlet apple
This is clearer in the Irish version and stands as a good example of how both versions complement each other:
Anocht lasfad lampa an Chroí Ró-Naofa
agus chífead é ag deargadh
mar úll beag aibí
We notice here that while Ita Cagney may reject the public rites associated with the Catholic Church she still maintains elements of the traditional Christian practices. In some sense, I think we are also being given a glimpse of Michael Hartnett’s own views on religion here. Traditional religious symbols and half-forgotten phrases from old Latin hymns are residual echoes of his own early religious experience: and for Michael Hartnett, and for many others of his generation, Catholicism was very much a child’s thing (see ‘Crossing the Iron Bridge’ ).
There then follows Ita’s ‘confession’ where she declares that she has not insulted God but that she has offended the ‘crombie coats and lace mantillas, / Sunday best and church collections’ – she has offended public morality and her chief offence has been that her happiness has not been blessed by the church and condoned by society at large. This is the climax of the drama and encapsulates the enduring tension that exists between the rights of the individual in society and the pressures on that individual to conform to acceptable social mores, especially as it applies to sexual love. As Allan Gregory sees it, ‘The poem shows, with imaginative sympathy and ethical discernment, how Ita Cagney, a widow, lives in a new free union, unblessed by the church and how, because of this, she is feared and loathed by society’ (McDonagh/Newman 145).
The final movement in the poem sees the neighbours advance in a concerted ‘rhythmic dance’ to lay siege to Ita’s cottage. The language is violent and carries connotations of evictions carried out in the neighbourhood by the landlord class in the not too distant past. We are told that ‘venom breaks in strident fragments / on the glass’ and ‘broken insults clatter on the slates’. The neighbours are described as a ‘pack’, a mob, who ‘skulk’ and disappear into the foothills in order to regroup and to muster their forces for a final onslaught – waiting ‘for the keep to fall’. Ita, a virtual prisoner in her own home, protects ‘her sleeping citizen’ and imagines the final attack ‘on the speaking avenue of stones / she hears the infantry of eyes advance’. The Irish version gives us further food for thought and is even more redolent with echoes of recent Irish history. In the Irish version the phrase ‘she guards her sleeping citizen’ is rendered as ‘í féin istigh go scanrach / ag cosaint a saighdiúrín’ (herself inside terrified / protecting her little soldier boy’). Furthermore, the final line ‘she hears the infantry of eyes advance’ is translated as ‘ó shúile dearga na yeos’. This word ‘yeos’ refers to the yeomanry, the infamous English Redcoats, and carries very loaded associations in the Gaelic folk memory – they were as hated as the Black and Tans or the Auxiliaries were in more recent history. The use of these words, especially in the Irish version of the poem emphasise and reinforce again the themes of social and historical oppression which are central to Hartnett’s thesis in this major statement of intent.
This poem was the first to be written by Hartnett during the transitional phase in the mid-seventies after he had set up home in Glendarragh. He realises that little has changed since he wrote ‘A Small Farm’ – all the ‘perversions of the soul’ are still to be found in Camas and Rooska and Sugar Hill and Carrickerry. However, he does seem to hint in this poem that a better way is possible if we are brave enough to take it, like Ita Cagney, like Michael Hartnett himself, and like Mary McGee.
If we accept that Ita Cagney ‘retreat’ is a parallel for his own ‘retreat’ from English, then it seems that he is prophesying tough times ahead for himself and his new artistic direction. His ‘retreat’ will not be received well by either side. In earlier poems, he has depicted the old Gaelic world, represented by Brigid Halpin and Camas, as a perverse, pagan and ignorant place. He will have to be as strong-willed and stubborn as Ita Cagney has been in order to survive, but for Hartnett as for Ita embracing the life retreated to is worth this sacrifice.
The poem depicts Ita Cagney as the modern-day Saint Ita / Naomh Íde, and an able successor to his grandmother Bridgid Halpin, who, according to Hartnett, never adjusted to the ‘new’ Ireland which emerged in the twentieth century. Hartnett looks towards the hills and the wooded slopes of the Mullach a Radharc Mountains for answers to an age-old torment which has been a blemish on the Irish psyche. And he sees that there is hope – Ita Cagney, a young widow, ‘retreats’ to a new life and though her union is unblessed by the church she is prepared to defend her decision despite the disapproval of society. She becomes, as Kennelly suggests, ‘a visionary critic of the society that hounds and isolates her’. In effect, she was, like Hartnett himself, a half-century at least before her time and she deserves to be feted as the patroness of a more modern and liberated Ireland which she longed for instinctually. Those instincts beckoned her to forsake her old life of convention and conformity and create a new beginning and a new world for herself where love reigned over hate, victorious.
Fitzmaurice, Gabriel. ‘Let’s drink to the soul of Michael Hartnett’, in The Limerick Leader, October 23rd., 1999.
Hartnett, Michael. The Retreat of Ita Cagney (Cúlú Íde). Dublin: Goldsmith Press, 1975.
Hartnett, Michael. Adharca Broic, Gallery Books, Oldcastle, County Meath, 1978.
Hartnett, Michael. Collected Poems, ed Peter Fallon, Gallery Books, Gallery Press, Oldcastle, County Meath, 2001.
Hartnett, Michael. A Book of Strays, Gallery Books, Oldcastle, County Meath, 2002.
Hartnett, Michael., ‘Why write in Irish?’, Irish Times, (26th August 1975).
Gillespie, Elgy., ‘Michael Hartnett’, The Irish Times, (5th March 1975), p.10
Jordan, J., Review, Irish Independent (3rd. February 1979), p.7.
Kennelly, Brendan. reviewing Michael Hartnett, Collected Poems, Volume I, Poetry Ireland Review Issue 15.
O’Driscoll, Dennis., Interview, Metre Magazine, II (2001).
McDonogh, John and / Newman, Stephen. (eds), Remembering Michael Hartnett, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2006.
Moynihan, Maurice., Speeches and Statements of Eamon de Valera, Dublin, 1980.
Walsh, Pat. A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett’s Farewell to English, Mercier Press, Cork, 2012.
Other Works Referenced
Patrick Kavanagh, The Great Hunger: A Poem, Cuala, 1942, Irish University Press, 1971.
I would like to acknowledge the considerable assistance given to me by my son, Don Hanley, a Hartnett scholar in his own right, in the preparation and editing of this blog post – one of the many welcome positives emerging from the COVID-19 Lockdown!
Sometimes, when she didn’t have the time
to write long letters, my mother would roll up
a copy of the Limerick Leader, wrap a brown
envelope around the middle and address it:
PO Box 10, Mapoteng, Kingdom of Lesotho.
Printed material was cheaper than letter post, much
cheaper than parcel post and my mother loved a bargain.
Afternoons after school I walked
to the tin-roofed post office, its sky-blue walls dulled
with red dust from gravel roads, and in the lazy sunshine
‘Me Vero passed my mail to me. Recognising
my mother’s hand on a newspaper, I’d be full
of excitement for what I’d find between the pages:
a white cotton shirt, mauve and pink sweet peas
from her garden, pressed between photos
of a supper social and the Ballylanders notes,
and once, a matching set of soft, silk underwear.
She told me afterwards she got the nice lady in Todds
to help her choose, but insisted on no underwire.
She didn’t want to give away our little secret.
Leaving for Lesotho
My father gave his nod to the morning: he’d shaved,
wore the trousers of his second-best suit,
(was it already flapping a little loose?)
his braces over a portly shape,
a deep wine of summer shirt.
He wasn’t travelling to the airport, said he’d let
my mother go with me. Before we left I went
out to him. He was fixing netting over fruit bushes
to stop jackdaws from taking his harvest. It wasn’t
his way to say much but he offered me a fistful
of freshly picked juicy goose gobs. Our mouths
full of their redolent taste, we walked together
to the front steps to take photos. Later,
much later, I went over and over what
I could/should have said. Instead, I reached up
and flicked a piece of newspaper from his face,
must have nicked himself while shaving.
We posed on the top step, his hands
casually nesting my shoulders, there where
we recorded all our comings and goings.
He came as far as the gate, said he knew
I was well able to look after myself but still . . .
I turned to wave from the car. That was the last time
I saw him, standing under the bough of roses
wiping his face with the back of his hand.
Since January stole my tongue and tied it
into knots, the house has become a blank verse.
My hands repeat a cleaning rhyme in every stanza,
I pack metaphors into drawers, layer them
on shelves in the hot press among folded towels.
Sparkling saucepans, spilling stolen poetry, hang
from the freshly-painted bracket over the sink.
The old carpet is hoovered pink in borrowed time
and on the windowsill, the amaryllis blooms
its second bloom, overwatered with words.
In the kitchen, I serve page after page of tasty bites,
baked potatoes filled with buttery half-baked similes.
A lattice of deftly crafted pastry lines criss-cross
an apple pie and even the dog hasn’t escaped. Long
walks have compressed her into a revised version of herself.
They all said he wouldn’t last a hurry
what with Iris gone
But he knocked their wind ’n all
Two days after funeral
He was down allotment by ten
Took thermos with him
That became his way, bought paper
Meals-on-wheels every other day
Picked up some eggs at corner shop
Pension day he chanced two bob each way
I went with Mum and timed those visits
in cups of Lipton’s, dunked ginger nuts
He said George popped in too
Not regular, mind you
He still went down pub
early evening ’fore crowd came in
Half a bitter, back home
Watched telly an hour or so
The only time I heard him smile
was the day he told Mum and me
about the colour of purple-blue
flowers that came up between the cabbages
from bulbs he’d dug in
two days after Iris passed.
Bringing Home the Cows
in the middle of the road
in the middle of the afternoon
His buttocks tight in blue denim
jiggle like g’s in the middle
of a giggle
He saunters his strut
all over the road
No one can pass
I shift from fifth to first
feast on his arrogant rear end
an occasional switch
off a cow’s backside
Their full udders oscillate
like giant pendulums
and lull me
In my car
in the middle of the afternoon
on my way to Active Ageing Yoga
I’m thrumming full
of humming birds
Impure Thoughts and Beethoven
with an examination of conscience:
telling lies, five times,
fighting with her sisters,
popping a clove rock under the tongue
when Moll Foley’s back was turned.
These were straightforward sins,
venial things that could be wiped clean
with a swipe of the clerical cloth.
It was the entertainment of impure thoughts
that swamped her. Her fingers played them
in the pocket of her winter coat,
as she dawdled to school
in November rain and January cold.
She tucked them up the puffed sleeves
of her summer dress,
and pushed them high on the swing
until they hovered in the air like dandelion wisps.
They entertained her.
But she must have entertained them too
because when she mastered Für Elise
on the piano they trembled to her tune.
Semi-quavers quivered her belly,
notes staccatoed down below,
and even more so when she glided forward
on the stool to reach the pedals.
Impure thoughts became interwoven
forever after with Beethoven.
I don’t have one kind thought in my head
This is not the poem I intended to write
The gnawing teeth of a bushman saw
are cutting into my frontal lobe
I swallow down screams
The steady drip of commentary
to her companion pockmark my eardrum
I want to remove my silk sock
and stuff it in her mouth
I believed in freedom of speech
I scan the bus for another seat
Calculate travel time to Dublin
Plug my ears with a scratchy serviette
The words of her mosquito buzz penetrate
I clutch the rolled-up Irish Times in my hand
Brief moments of reprieve
Sweetness like Greek honey
trickling onto a parched palette
Eyes at rest in a dark room
after the dazzle of fireworks
And then it starts again
I look up misophonia on my iPhone
Strong, negative feelings to trigger sounds
Not to be confused with Hyperacusis
An increased negativity to certain frequencies
For me she strikes the wrong note
again and again. Two hours into the journey
the motion of the bus lulls her to a sporadic silence
I am newly disappointed when she pauses
so thoroughly am I wallowing in her lack of modulation.
Bernie Crawford, originally from Ballylanders, County Limerick now lives in Galway and in 2019 was awarded a bursary by Galway County Council to work on her first collection. Her poetry has been published widely in journals including Poetry Ireland Review, the North magazine, and Mslexia. A selection of her poetry is featured in The Blue Nib Chapbook 3. She is on the editorial board of the poetry magazine Skylight 47.
This novella was published in 1974 and is set at the time of the First World War. It depicts the culture of the Big House before its collapse as a result of the war and the 1916 Rising. The occupants of the Big House are sheltered from the reality of the world outside. They continue to live an ordered and leisurely life, which is only occasionally interrupted by distasteful reports of war injuries. As more and more local men enlist in the forces and many are killed or maimed, the war slowly becomes a reality for the family. When Alec enlists, this brings the war right into their home, and they are forced to acknowledge its existence.
Before he joined the British forces, Jerry had been involved in Republican activities in the local area, and this was his main reason for joining. He planned to bring back knowledge of fighting methods to use to good effect in fighting for a free Ireland. The location of the novel changes. It is now set in France in the heat of battle. Even though the hail of gunfire and the agonised screams of the wounded are always present, the novel focuses primarily on human emotions and man’s capacity to endure war.
This is a novel about friendship based on a young man’s experience in the First World War. Alec Moore is an only child from an Anglo-Irish family in Wicklow. There is a tense atmosphere in the home because Alec’s parents are estranged from each other. The boy from the Big House befriends Jerry Crowe, a local boy from a working-class background, and a close friendship develops between them.
As they grow older and the war intensifies, both men enlist in the British Forces for very different reasons and are sent to fight in France. Their friendship continues under the disapproving eye of Major Glendinning who forbids his officers to associate with junior soldiers.
Jerry deserts the army temporarily to search for his father who had gone missing on the battlefield. On his return, he is sentenced to death as an example to other soldiers who may be considering desertion. Alec, as an officer, is ordered to instruct the firing squad or face the same fate himself for refusing to obey orders.
The men exchange farewells and to avoid prolonging the agony, Alec kills Jerry in his room. He is sentenced to death for defying authority and the novel ends with Alec writing while calmly awaiting death.
THEMES AND ISSUES
1. Love versus Hatred
2. Friendship (Relationships)
Love versus Hatred In the novel How Many Miles to Babylon? Jennifer Johnston explores the theme of love versus hatred in an interesting way. Alec Moore must experience a horrific test of love in the course of the novel. He narrates his tragic tale of a loveless childhood, which left him emotionally scarred. His mother is cruel, manipulative and full of hatred for her husband whom she regards as weak.
From childhood, Alec was goaded by his beautiful mother, who is portrayed as being without nurturing or loving instincts. Mrs Moore’s physical beauty is contrasted with her vindictive personality. Her actions, which are swift and dismissive, suggest her passionless nature. Despite keeping a beautiful house hers is not a home where real love and affection are displayed: ‘The dining-room in the daytime was unwelcoming. It faced north and that cold light lay on the walls and furniture without kindness’.
Alec’s closest experience of love for his mother is related very early in the novel when he describes her daily ritual of strolling down the gravelled path towards the lake to feed the swans: ‘I heard her call once to them in a voice so unlike her own recognisable voice that for a moment I felt a glow of love for her’. This rather ironic revelation indicates her unloving attitude towards her son. It appears as though she loves the perfection of the swans, their separateness from her and their uncomplicated, instinctive existence.
For her, human relationships are meaningless unless she can gain some kind of power or victory from such intimacy. She uses her allure, the pretence of love, to secure what she desires while underneath she seethes with rage. He concludes that he ‘thinks’ his mother loved him but not in a way that he could understand.
Alicia Moore also disregards her husband’s feelings by constantly insulting him even in front of Alec; ‘I have no intention of remaining alone in this house with you. I have already said that. Made myself quite clear, I thought’. When she discovers the friendship between Alec and Jerry Crowe she moves swiftly to destroy it. Not only is she averse to the mixing of the classes but she is also suspicious and aggrieved at the bond which exists between the boys. Her refusal to allow Alec to go away to school is not the result of her grief at their separation but because she would be left alone with a husband she detests. She uses her son in a most despicable way, as a buffer between herself and her husband. She brings her son to Europe not for the love of learning but as a means of dealing with his unsuitable friendship with Jerry.
Friendship Alec feels real affection for his father. He realises that his mother abuses his father but he is helpless to prevent it. It has to be acknowledged that Alec’s father is partly responsible for the maltreatment he receives. He misjudges Alicia, only realising his mistake when it is too late to rectify it. It is interesting to note that Mr Moore deteriorates in the absence of his son. When Alec returns after four months in Europe, he notices a change in his father, ‘My father had failed a little during our absence … but he seemed a smaller man than I had remembered’. It is also interesting to note the way that Frederick’s defective eyesight is highlighted in the novel – we deduce from this that he lacks the insight necessary to recognise true love and he suffers grievously for this defect.
The friendship which develops between Alec and Jerry is the only real love and affection which Alec experiences. Jerry makes Alec’s dreary life more bearable with his sense of fun, adventure and good humour. He mimics and makes fun of Alec’s education and he ‘sends up’ the Anglo-Irish ‘set’. However, he shares the same sad home life as Alec. His father is distant and his mother is unloving and apparently greedy for money: ‘She wants me to join the army … follow me, dad. Then she’d have two envelopes arriving. On the pig’s bloody back.’.
The boys’ friendship is firmly fixed not only because of their sad home lives but also because of their passion for horses and nature. Both Alec and Jerry are capable horsemen. They plan to somehow overcome their class barriers to breed and train horses together.
War The images of hatred in the novel revolve around references to the First World War and the Irish Nationalist cause. From the earliest moments in the novel, the impending war in Europe forms the backdrop to the feuding husband and wife. It is possible to argue that the hatred between Alicia and Frederick Moore is used as a compressed image of the hatred between the allied and enemy forces in the war.
The inferences to madness in the novel serve the same moral function as the images of war. They make the reader understand that love is the essential element to the survival of the world because without it there is only chaos, cruelty and hatred. Alec’s decision to go to war is partly a consequence of his mother’s hateful behaviour, but the insanity of the war, the death and maiming, proves that it too is a destructive human force.
Alec’s relationship with his father is affected by the war. Alec’s decision to become a soldier leaves his father bereft of his only source of love. Their parting scene in the novel, though it seems superficial, is actually heart-rending. Given the period in which the novel is set and the class to which they belong, Alec and his father do not show the intensity of their feelings for each other but it is evident in Frederick’s actions and his son’s private reflections. Alec accepts the money which his father gives him, understanding it as a gesture of love: ‘Don’t let yourself go short. Anything you want’. Similarly, the gold watch which the father gives the son is used metaphorically, as though it represents his beating heart, that somehow if Alec kept his watch close to him it would protect him from danger, give him comfort by reminding him of his father: ‘It was warm in my hand with the warmth of his body. I put it into my pocket with the money’.
Alec’s mother sees his decision to become a soldier as a personal triumph. Having goaded him earlier about his cowardice, she can now ‘enjoy’ and ‘suffer’ the sympathy of her peers about giving a son to the war effort. Both Jerry and Alec ridicule their mothers for their hypocritical show of grief as they go to war. Jerry’s reference to ‘candles and novenas’ and ‘bending the ear of God with decades of the rosary’, illustrate his sense of alienation from his mother. Alec satirises Alicia for her insensitivity towards him: ‘Mine played Chopin triumphantly on the piano the moment I left the room’.
The description of the war in the novel evokes a sense of horror in the reader. The trenches which Alec describes are a physical representation for the reader of humankind without the redemptive power of love. It is like descending into the hell which he describes so well in the course of the novel.
We can plot the gradual degeneration of Alec’s physical condition over the course of the war. However, Alec’s love for his friend remains intact despite the class barriers between ranks in the army. Alec embraces the friendship of Jerry, caring for his welfare and trying to buffer some of the abuse hurled at him by the officers.
When Major Glendinning reprimands Alec for his friendship with Jerry, arguing that ‘strict impersonal discipline’ must be maintained between the men, he is actually arguing that there is no place for sentiment (or love) in the army. It seems that Alec and Jerry should become insensitive to feeling and the little kindnesses which make life bearable. Yet despite this ultimatum, Alec continues to befriend Jerry and their smallest gestures of help to each other indicate the pointlessness of the war which rages around them.
The murder of the ‘Gloucester’s regiment’ soldier by Glendinning is carried out with precision and dispassion. This murder illustrates the breakdown of the inherent moral code in humanity. After the murder, Glendinning never once shows remorse or disgust for his act. His dispassionate nature is illustrated again when Alec requests leave for Jerry to find his father, who was reported missing in action: ‘The answer is no. Crowe goes to the front again tomorrow with the rest of his squalid friends.’
Jerry also abides by his sense of filial duty and wants to find his father, ‘if he’s wounded maybe there’d be something I could do for him’. Jerry’s compassion for his father is contrasted with a very good description of the barbarity at the front.
Friendship The reunion between Jerry and Alec near the end of the novel is very moving. This poignancy is more effective because the reader of the novel suspects that the reunion will be short-lived:
He threw an arm across my shoulders and we lay in silence. My warmth was spreading through him, but the hand that clasped the back of my neck was still cold as a stone fresh from the sea.
When Jerry is found he is put into the detention camp where Alec visits him to carry out the greatest test to their friendship and love. They reminisce about their youthful dreams and ambitions. Jerry confesses for the last time that he loves his country above his king. It seems an odd thing to say before death but it is important to remember its symbolic significance. For Jerry, his country encompasses more than the nationalist cause, more than the land itself; it reflects his belief about the brutality of war, the uselessness of it. When Alec pulls the trigger he has committed no gross act of murder but has saved his friend from a shameful death by firing squad: ‘They will never understand. So I say nothing’.
Without Jerry, there is no love in Alec’s life and he becomes indifferent to everything and everyone and he effectively withdraws from life after Jerry’s death.
This novel fits into the category of social realism. It is a story which is extremely true to life. Johnston does not over-exaggerate her plot or stretch it beyond the bounds of credibility. It is a novel based firmly in an actual time and place in history. Her main characters belong to clearly defined social backgrounds, the Anglo Irish gentry and the Catholic underclass of Ireland in the early 1900s. Both men are accurately drawn as they each possess certain qualities of their respective backgrounds. The bigotries which attempt to divide them both at home and on the battlefield are all too real in the novel.
All of the events are quite plausible, such as when the men escape briefly on horseback to have a good time and avoid the reality of the trenches, or when the Major ends a man’s suffering because it may have a negative effect on his men. Also, Jerry’s escape to search for his father is believable and his death sentence fits in all too well with the personality of Major Glendinning. It is, therefore, a book rooted in reality.
THE STRUCTURE OF THE NOVEL
This novel is written in the form of a first-person narrative. At all times the reader shares Alec’s view on life and his interpretation of the things which occur to him or around him. In many respects, the novel takes on the form of an autobiography. It could also be said to be a confessional work. It begins with an officer alone in his room, about to face death by firing squad and he is writing his last thoughts. Therefore, the novel is told in flashback.
He begins by reflecting on his life, ‘As a child I was alone’, and the story develops as the officer goes back over his past as a child, his life as a man in the trenches and the events which led up to his imminent death. The novel is presented strictly in chronological order with only a few slight references to the past, as Jerry and Alec at times of depression or crisis look back longingly to the good times they spent together in the Irish countryside. It is divided into two distinct settings: Ireland and France. It ends with Alec in captivity beginning to write his last words, so that the novel has come full circle and ends as it began, ‘So I sit and wait and write’. It is a simply structured but completely effective novel with a plot that is uncomplicated and direct.
THE STYLE OF THE NOVEL
Jennifer Johnston’s use of language is striking. She does not waste words on rambling descriptions nor does she overuse images for exaggerated effect. This makes her images all the more memorable when she does use them. Clarity is her main strength. She describes her characters and the action in the plot in a concise condensed manner.
Many of her descriptions are based in nature:
‘Memories slide up to the surface of the mud, like weeds to the surface of the sea, once you begin to stir the depths where every word, every gesture, every sigh, lies hidden.’
‘Rain was in the air. The rushes bowed to her as a little rippling wind stirred through them. A thousand green pikemen bowing.’
‘The swans would allow themselves to drift on the wind like huge crumpled pieces of paper hurled up into the sky.’
She also conveys the desolation of the Irish landscape very well:
‘The lake was in one of its black moods. It heaved uncomfortably and its blackness was broken from time to time by tiny figures of white, mistakes.’
The loneliness of the characters who inhabited that desolate landscape and the emptiness of the family atmosphere is also beautifully expressed:
‘Their words rolled past me up and down the polished length of the table. Their conversations were always the same, like some terrible game, except that unlike normal games, the winner was always the same. They never raised their voices, the words dropped malevolent and cool from their well-bred mouths.’
The emptiness of the Irish landscape and the emptiness of the inhabitants of the Big House are matched by the desolation of the war fields. The desolate landscape of Flanders is reflected in the ‘leaden rain which fell continuously’ or ‘The wind was blowing straight in our faces and the drops were like a million needles puncturing our skin.’
Johnston introduces a vivid comparison when she introduces war for the first time. As the men trained on the shores of Belfast Lough, ‘It was like some mad children’s game, except that the rules had to be taken seriously.’ The mental torture which the men were subjected to was brought out in the description of the man screaming:
‘Out beyond the wire, a man was screaming. Not a prolonged scream, it rose and fell, faded, deteriorated into a babbling from time to time and then occasionally there was silence. During the silence you could never forget the scream, only wait for it to start again. The men hated the sound as much as I. You could see the hate on their faces.’
Johnston also uses symbols to good effect in the novel. At intervals in the book, the swan is used as a symbol of loyalty and eternal friendship. Alec and Jerry share a common love and respect for swans as they begin to know each other. Swans reappear in Flanders, both literally and metaphorically. At times of crisis as the men struggle to endure the hardship of the war, they remember the swans in the few rare glimpses the reader gets of the past. At the end of the novel, as Alec leads his men to a new location, two swans fly overhead and a man kills one for fun, to Alec’s horror. This symbolises the imminent death of Jerry as the bond of friendship between him and Alec is about to be severed.
Another literary device favoured by Johnston is the use of rhyme and poetry at crucial moments. The title of the novel is taken from a well-known children’s rhyme:
How many miles to Babylon?
Four score and ten, sir
Will I get there by candlelight?
Yes and back again sir.
This was a rhyme that Alec learned innocently as a child and it comes back to haunt him as an adult. It is referred to three times in the early part of the book and again just as Alec leaves for the war: ‘Will I get there by candlelight?’ This reflects Alec’s uncertainty as he heads off into the unknown, to some ‘Babylonic’ place, unsure if he will ever return again.
Lines of poetry are sprinkled through the novel when Alec is at his most philosophical: ‘I was being troubled by the poetry of Mr Yeats’. As children, Alec introduces Jerry to Yeats on the shore of the lake:
Rose of all roses, Rose of all the world
And heard ring
The bell that calls us on; the sweet far thing.
In contrast to this, Yeats reappears in a very different situation. A line of Yeats’ slips out involuntarily as Alec sees a man writhing in agony on the battlefield:
Far off and secret and inviolate Rose
Here he is experiencing his strongest emotional test and it is significant that he turns to Yeats for help. There are echoes of Yeats’ work in many places in the novel, for example, Alec’s statement at the very beginning of the novel: ‘I am committed to no cause. I love no living person.’ This reminiscent of Yeats’ poem ‘An Irish Airman Foresees his Death’. Jerry also compares Alec’s mother to Helen of Troy, a striking beauty often admired and featured by Yeats in his work.
While Alec quotes the poetry of Yeats, Jerry uses a different kind of rhyme to show his dedication to the Republican cause:
Now father bless me and let me go
To die if God has ordered so.
This emphasises some of the differences between the two men.
Humour is sparse in the novel and when used it is often grim. It is evident on the morning when Alec leaves for the war and it is used by the soldiers at moments of stress to lighten their moods.
Dialogue is used sparingly and it is often loaded with inferences particularly in the relationship between Alec and his parents. The absence of words only illustrates the lack of communication within the family. Dialogue is not favoured by Major Glendinning who uses short, sharp sentences. These have the primary function of giving orders and he forbids discussion as much as possible.
Johnston’s style of writing is compact yet lucid. It is extremely effective as it invites the reader to fill in the gaps and particularly to infer meaning from the electric silences which permeate the story.
While Alec and Jerry have lived in close proximity to each other in Ireland there is a strong contrast between their backgrounds. Alec is the only child of an aristocratic couple whose values and beliefs differ significantly from those of the Catholic people of the time. The socials division between both groups was strong yet Alec and Jerry chose to ignore it. Alec’s mother forbade him to see Jerry and his father, for once, agreed with her that it was an unsatisfactory relationship:
‘It is a sad fact, boy, that one has to accept young. Yes, young. The responsibilities and limitations of the class into which you are born. They have to be accepted. But then look at all the advantages. Once you accept the advantages, then the rest follows. Chaos can set in so easily.’
Both boys were also educated differently. Alec had the doubtful pleasure of his own tutor, Mr Bingham, and a piano teacher. This meant that Alec never mixed with other boys of his own age as a child and therefore his friendship with Jerry was particularly important for him. Jerry, on the other hand, went to an ordinary school but had to leave early to find work. Alec naively suggested that Jerry could work in his father’s stables, but Jerry knew that this would end their friendship. Their respective cultural backgrounds would raise innumerable barriers between them: ‘Why is neither here not there. Your lot would care. My lot too if it came to it. One’s as bad as the other.’ Alec realises the truth of Jerry’s statement:
Yes, I knew they would care. He was right. My mother would purse up with disapproval, her voice rise alarmingly as it sometimes did when she spoke to my father.
Both men enlisted in the army for different reasons. Alec did so to escape from a disintegrating family structure, driven by the knowledge that he was not his father’s son. This was a damaging experience for him and now that the blood ties had been broken and he was dispossessed both emotionally and financially, he saw little hope for a positive future. He felt a strong desire to get away from his parents and war offered him an opportunity. Alec cut himself off and drifted into war in the hope of blocking out thoughts of reality.
Jerry had been involved in Republican activities and this was his main reason for joining. He planned to use his knowledge of fighting to fight for a free Ireland on his return. He tells Alec on the night before they leave that he also needs the money: ‘Or maybe the thought of all those shiny buttons appeals to me’. Whatever his reasons, Jerry cares little for the cause he will be fighting for, as his own personal needs are a priority.
On the battlefield itself, the cultural background of the soldiers is unimportant when men are facing a life and death crisis, yet ironically the distinction between gentry and peasantry is maintained by the emphasis on army rank. It is a strange paradox: background is irrelevant yet is of ultimate importance. Men cling to the importance of rank as it gives them a feeling of stability when everything else is crumbling around them. Alec and Jerry disregard this as the war intensifies.
Culturally, while there are many differences between them, Alec and Jerry are alike in that neither of them is attempting to be a hero who will come back decked with glory, as Alec’s mother would certainly like him to be. Neither of them is driven by a strong desire to win the war for the people. Both of them are using the war as an opportunity to resolve or escape painful issues in their own lives.
Another cultural contrast made by Johnston is to highlight the differences between the Irish and English soldiers. There was a certain amount of lighthearted banter between Alec, Jerry and Bennet when they were out on horses:
‘Don’t be such a damned English snob’ or ‘Irish sentiment creeping in. Perspective is needed. You damned Celts have none. It’s no wonder we don’t think you’re fit to rule yourselves.’
Major Glendinning also had difficulty with the fact that he had Irish soldiers to deal with and in a moment of anger declared to Alec: ‘I never asked for a bunch of damn bog Irish’.
How Many Miles to Babylon? is not a novel solely about war. Although World War I is in the background, Johnston also touches upon Irish history, in particular the tensions between the Irish and the British. Through Jerry’s revolutionary leanings and the harsh comments about the Irish made by Major Glendinning, Johnston hints at the coming battle for Irish independence.
Alec, the narrator, is a very passive character for most of the book. Just like his father, he submits to his mother’s every demand. When she told him that he has to go to war, he protests that he has no desire to fight or be killed, but he ends up doing what she expects of him anyway. In many ways the novel is a tragedy of obedience: Alec, the isolated only-child in an Anglo-Irish big house, is a pawn in his parent’s pathological relationship. “Oh, you’ll go, my boy,” his fatalist father tells him. “You’re a coward, so you’ll go.” In contrast, Jerry is more of a free spirit, making his own decision to go to war and speaking out when he should keep his mouth shut. With Alec as narrator, the book moves a bit slowly, possibly because I didn’t have any strong feelings for him until the very end. Still, there’s a beauty to Johnston’s prose that kept me glued to the page.
How Many Miles to Babylon? is one of those novels that hit you hard at the end. The ending says so much about the characters, and it was both a satisfying end to the journey and one that left me wanting to know what happened next. Johnston surprised me and I’ll certainly be thinking about this book for a while. Amazingly, there are only two deaths described in the novella, yet, for me, it remains a stark depiction of devastation.
One of the major themes raised by George Eliot in Silas Marner is the English class system. However, it has to be noted that she doesn’t deal with anything like the whole range of English class distinctions that were in existence in the early years of the nineteenth century. For example, she omits the aristocracy in all its graduations, and, since her chief location is a quintessential English village, she cannot include the great industrial factory owners who were beginning to emerge as a potent force. And although the community at Lantern Yard is an urban one, we are given only the briefest sketch of the lives of the people who live there.
Those caveats aside, in Silas Marner, the highest social class is represented by the Cass family. In English social history, the local squire represented the class of medium landowners, who were less important than the landed aristocrats with their great estates. The squire was really a landowning gentleman; the village squire, such as Squire Cass, would be the chief landowner in the neighbourhood or ‘manor’. His house was often called the ‘manor house’, and many of the people of the surrounding area would have been tenants on his land. Squire Cass of Raveloe cannot be called a major representative of his class. He is, with pleasant irony, called ‘the greatest man in Raveloe’, but really only in the sense that in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king! He is not a great landowner, although he does occupy the most impressive house in Raveloe. Indeed, he has, it transpires, only ‘a tenant or two’, who complain to him about the activities of poachers ‘as if he had been a lord’, which he is indeed far from being.
He and his family have, however, a considerable estimation of their own importance. Those next in rank to them, the Osgoods, who merely own the farm they occupy and have no tenants, and the Lammeters, must be content with a somewhat inferior place in Raveloe society. The social superiority of the Squire is nicely emphasised in the remark about asking Nancy’s father to agree to her marriage with Godfrey:
‘Well, then, let me make the offer for you, that’s all if you haven’t the pluck to do it yourself. Lammeter isn’t likely to be loath for his daughter to marry into my family, I should think’.
Decidedly below the landowning class, represented by the Squire, the Osgoods and the Lammeters are a variety of occupations and include some of the most interesting figures in the novel. We have the Squire’s brother-in-law, Kimble, who is an apothecary (our modern-day pharmacist); Mr Crackenthorpe, Rector of Raveloe; Mr Macey, tailor and parish clerk; Mr Tookey, deputy parish clerk, Ben Winthrop, the wheelwright, husband of Dolly; Mr Snell, the landlord of the Rainbow Inn; Solomon Macey, the fiddler; Jem Rodney, the mole catcher; and last but not least Silas Marner, the weaver. These humble characters are the life and soul of the novel; their social superiors are a great deal less vital, less human, less sympathetic.
In Silas Marner, George Eliot casts a cold eye on the English social system, particularly on its more privileged sectors. Her comment on the class to which the Cass family belongs is less than flattering:
‘It was still that glorious war-time which was felt to be a peculiar favour of providence towards the landed interest, and the fall of prices had not yet come to carry the race of small squires and yeomen down that road to ruin for which extravagant habits and bad husbandry were plentifully anointing their wheels’.
Details of the extravagant habits and carefree attitudes towards social and personal responsibility soon follow. The Squire keeps all his sons at home in idleness. Dunstan, in particular, is a noted rake, spiteful, jeering, drunken, a gambler and a waster; his brother Godfrey seems to be following the same path. George Eliot, significantly, gives Godfrey a miserable fate; he ends up humiliated and unhappy. Meanwhile, the chief representative of the lower orders, on the other hand, has luck on his side: despite his early reverses, Silas survives to enjoy a relatively happy old age. The moral of this contrast in fortunes is clear: Godfrey’s fate is bound up with the habits and attitudes of his class; he is conditioned by these to be the man he is.
Silas Marner deals with rich and poor people, a common enough theme of novelists of all ages. What is interesting here, however, is not so much the theme, but the way in which it is treated. Traditionally, romances involving rich and poor characters, if they were to end in marriage between persons of different classes, would employ a stock device: the poor character would not really belong to the lower class at all but would turn out to have noble or wealthy ancestors or rich parents who had died. George Eliot is having none of this! Instead, she turns the conventional social approach on its head by implying that the life of the poor is superior to that of the rich and expects our approval when she has Eppie reject the comfort and status of the Red House for a marriage to a working-man. Furthermore, she suggests to her readers that Silas is a better man than Godfrey, in that, while both men have to cope with the events surrounding Eppie, Godfrey proves himself inadequate, and Silas does all the right things. She lets us see that Godfrey is a prisoner of his class. While his ‘inferiors’ give their thoughts to helping others, Godfrey is concerned with the effects on himself of ‘the increasing poor-rate and the ruinous times’. At no level, except on the purely economic one, do the privileged people in Silas Marner enjoy any superiority. Nancy Lammeter is a self-regarding woman whose ‘principles’ will not permit her to adopt a child; while, on the other hand, Dolly Winthrop enjoys helping Silas to care for Eppie, and has a deeper understanding of the mysteries at the heart of things than her socially and better educated ‘superior’ has.
There is a nice irony here. The events of the novel show up the moral inferiority of the ‘better’ class. Despite this, their chief representative, Godfrey Cass, is convinced of his own superiority and of that of his way of life. His tone with Silas during their vital interview about Eppie’s destiny is very much that of a superior talking down to a man of lower degree: unfeeling, patronising, narrow-minded, insulting. It is his unwitting admission of his contempt for the working-class that deprives him of any chance he might otherwise have had of winning the confidence of Silas and Eppie:
‘I should have thought, Marner, he said severely – ‘I should have thought your affection for Eppie would have made you rejoice in what was for your good, even if it did call upon you to give up something. You ought to remember your own life’s uncertain, and she’s at an age now when her lot may soon be fixed in a way very different from what it would be in her father’s home: she may marry some low working-man, and then, whatever I might do for her, I couldn’t make her well off’.
I suppose there are some who would argue that George Eliot is not being overly radical here in her depiction of the class distinctions that prevailed in the early 1800s in England. Some would argue that she is simply following the status quo and that she takes for granted the fact that class divisions are part of the natural order of things. In her defence, we must acknowledge, however, that this novel would have been read by the Nancy Lammeters of the time rather than the Dolly Winthrops: surely it took great courage and conviction to write a novel which could potentially alienate most of your readers? When we read closely, there are numerous examples given of stark divisions of class and it is obvious that George Eliot is disapproving rather than approving of these episodes. For example, she describes the scene following Sunday morning service in Raveloe church:
‘It was the rural fashion of that time for the more important members of the congregation to depart first, while their humbler neighbours waited and looked on, stroking their bent heads or dropping their curtsies to any large ratepayer who turned to notice them.’
Eliot presents this to us in such a way that it is difficult not to feel distaste at the social system that encourages this kind of debasement of human beings in the presence of others. Again what is one to make of the Squire’s wish to prolong the war with France solely because to do so would serve the interests of his own class?:
‘And that fool Kimble says that the newspaper’s talking about peace. Why, the country wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. Prices ‘ud run down like a jack, and I should never get my arrears, not if I sold all the fellows up’.
Here, ‘the country’ means the Cass family and the landed interest generally. Of course, nowhere in the novel does George Eliot advocate the destruction of the class system, but her presentation is such that no sensitive reader can fail to question the validity of an order of things that causes Silas Marner, Dolly Winthrop and Mr Macey to think of members of the Cass family as their betters. The Squire imposes his social authority mainly by being loud of voice and by speaking to people ‘in a ponderous and coughing fashion’. The tone and manner of their presentation here, and in many similar instances, tend to undermine whatever respect the reader might feel for the Squire and his family. This is the same Squire who favours prolonged war as a means of enriching himself and who is seen to give his deerhounds ‘enough bits of beef to make a poor man’s holiday dinner’. Therefore, I think you’ll agree there are enough such disturbing scenes and incidents to make Silas Marner a radically disturbing social document.
The main fairy-tale element in Silas Marner is found in the story of Silas and Eppie. Remember the paragraph which launches the main plot:
‘In the early years of this century, such a linen weaver, named Silas Marner, worked at his vocation in a stone cottage that stood among the nutty hedgerows near the village of Raveloe, and not far from the edge of a deserted stone-pit’.
This opening has some of the essential features we expect in a fairy-tale: its compactness, its air of authority, its establishment of essential detail. The location of Marner’s cottage and the suggestion of timelessness are other appropriate details. The ending, too, is a typical fairy-tale one, reminiscent of hundreds of endings in children’s stories, where the good characters live happily ever after:
‘O father’, said Eppie, ‘what a pretty home ours is! I think nobody could be happier than we are’.
The details, the style and the tone of these passages convey the impression that we are in the world of fairy story where the good characters, having been tested, emerge to live happily ever after. Between the beginning and end of the novel, numerous passages take us far away from anything we might expect to find in a realistic novel, and into the magical world of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson:
‘Turning towards the hearth, where the two logs had fallen apart and sent forth only a red uncertain glimmer, he seated himself on his fireside chair and was stooping to push his logs together when, to his blurred vision, it seemed as if there were gold on the floor in front of the hearth. Gold! – his own gold – brought back to him as mysteriously as it had been taken away!’
Fairy-tale elements are scattered freely throughout the novel and gold is a dominant influence on the action, as it is in so many fairy-tales: other features worth mentioning are the themes of loss and discovery, of death and rebirth, restoration, regeneration and transformation. The mystery of Eppie’s identity is also relevant here, as are the many secrets long hidden but at last revealed. The extremes of good and evil represented by some of the characters should also be noted, as should the motif of stolen, buried and recovered treasure. Finally, it is significant that Eppie appears on New Year’s Eve. This accords with the ancient superstition that luck commonly turned with the New Year. For Silas, Eppie’s arrival fulfils the old prediction of ‘third time lucky’. Two previous entrants to his home brought ill-luck with them; now Eppie is to transform his life for the better.
However, we have to agree that if Silas Marner were simply a fairy-tale, it would scarcely have achieved its classic status. It is, of course, much more than that. While the fairy-tale elements are numerous, it is the solid grounding of the story in the actual and familiar sights, sounds and events of everyday life that makes the story so credible. Raveloe and its immediate environs are compellingly presented in realistic detail:
‘…… orchards looking lazy with neglected plenty; the large church in the wide churchyard; which men gazed at lovingly at their own doors in service time; the purple-faced farmers jogging along the lanes or turning in at the Rainbow; homesteads, where men supped heavily and slept in the light of the evening hearth and where women seemed to be laying up a stock of linen for the life to come’.
The atmosphere of Raveloe is presented to us in concrete detail. Its inhabitants impress themselves unforgettably on our consciousness with their diverse personalities and rich, distinctive speech. The most striking instances of this are found in the Rainbow Inn scenes (Chapter 6). Here the leading personalities of the district drink, argue and gossip:
‘The pipes began to be pulled in a silence which had an air of severity; the more important customers, who drank spirits and sat nearest the fire, staring at each other as if a bet were depending on the first man who winked; while the beer drinkers, chiefly men in fustian jackets and smock-frocks, kept their eyelids down and rubbed their hands across their mouths as if their draughts of beer were a funereal duty attended with embarrassing sadness’.
Realistic scenes like this one are common throughout the novel where very real characters speak very realistically against a realistic background. George Eliot pays great attention to the thought processes of her characters and constantly renders these with great fidelity. One very good example of this is the way in which she traces the pattern of reflection forming in Dunstan’s mind as he enters Marner’s cottage and finds nobody there:
‘If the weaver was dead, who had a right to his money? Who would know where the money was hidden? Who would know that anyone had come to take it away?’
Her realistic treatment of the way in which people’s thoughts can be influenced is also very well illustrated in the affair of the pedlar’s earrings:
‘On the spread of enquiry among the villagers, it was stated with gathering emphasis that the parson had wanted to know whether the pedlar wore earrings in his ears, and an impression was created that a great deal depended on the eliciting of this fact. Of course, everyone who heard the question, not having any distinct image of the pedlar as without earrings, immediately had an image of him as with earrings, larger or smaller, as the case might be, and the image was presently taken for a vivid recollection, so that the glazier’s wife, a well-intentioned woman, not given to lying, and whose home was the cleanest in the village, was ready to declare, as sure as she ever meant to take the sacrament, that she had seen big earrings, in the shape of the young moon, in the pedlar’s two ears’.
George Eliot once argued that ‘a man or woman who publishes writings, inevitably assumes the office of teacher or influencer of the public mind’. In Silas Marner she has a stark lesson for her audience: there is a strong implication in the novel that the lives of the poor have a lot more to recommend them than those of the rich and also that the attitude of the poor towards the important issues of living are often more valid than those of their social superiors. There are also many contrasts made in the novel between the ‘high’ and ‘low’ characters. Silas and Godfrey Cass are both deeply involved in Eppie’s fate, but, while Silas makes all the right decisions, Godfrey, who should know better, makes all the wrong ones.
Finally, in dealing with Eppie’s choice of a humble marriage rather than the life of a lady in the Cass household, George Eliot combines realism with one other classic fairy-tale motif. This time, however, the usual fairy-tale ending does not quite materialise. If Eppie is Cinderella, she does not achieve the same result as her fairy-tale counterpart, and the reason for this lies in her own conscious choice. Her rejection of ease and privilege in favour of life with Silas and her working-class husband makes explicit her refusal to play the role of Cinderella:
‘I shouldn’t know what to think on or to wish for with fine things about me, as I haven’t been used to. And it ‘ud be poor work for me to put on things, and ride in a gig, and sit in a place at church, as ‘ud make them as I’m fond of think me unfitting company for ‘em. What could I care for then? …. I like to working folk and their victuals and their ways’.
The ideal fairy-tale ending generally implies that happiness and material wealth are synonymous. However, here we have a young heroine, Eppie, who can declare with great feeling:
‘I’m promised to marry a working-man, as’ll live with father, and help me to take care of him’.
Her arrival in the story may have carried strong associations from the world of fairy-tales, but the life she has eventually chosen for herself is clearly to be based in the real, everyday world.