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

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Patrick Kavanagh by Paul McCloskey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Patrick Kavanagh is a very Religious Poet” – Discuss

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Patrick Kavanagh by Barnie Maguire on ArtClick.ie

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

Kavanagh manifests simplicity in his poetry in three ways:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patrick Kavanagh

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

‘Death of an Irishwoman’ by Michael Hartnett

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Bridget Halpin’s cottage in Camas as it is today. Photograph is by Dermot Lynch.

Death of an Irishwoman

By Michael Hartnett

Ignorant, in the sense
she ate monotonous food
and thought the world was flat,
and pagan, in the sense
she knew the things that moved
at night were neither dogs nor cats
but púcas and darkfaced men,
she nevertheless had fierce pride.
But sentenced in the end
to eat thin diminishing porridge
in a stone-cold kitchen
she clenched her brittle hands
around a world
she could not understand.
I loved her from the day she died.
She was a summer dance at the crossroads.
She was a card game where a nose was broken.
She was a song that nobody sings.
She was a house ransacked by soldiers.
She was a language seldom spoken.
She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.

© 1975, The Estate of Michael Hartnett
From: Collected Poems.Publisher: The Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 2001.

Author’s Notes:  Púcas: This was the Irish (Gaelic) term for pookas, hobgoblins, fairies.  In the Irish language a man of African descent is described as a fear ghoirm, a “blue man”.  In Irish, “an fear dubh” (“the black man”) exclusively denotes the devil, therefore, the reference to “darkfaced men” in this poem does not have any racial connotations.  

A wake was a social gathering associated with death, usually held before a funeral.   Traditionally, a wake took place in the house of the deceased with the body present.

In 1965 Michael Hartnett was in Morocco when his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, died at the age of 80.  Hartnett had spent his formative years in Halpin’s simple, meagre cottage in Camas soaking up the stories and folklore of the area as she entertained her cronies in the mid to late 1940’s. She had a great array of Irish words in her vocabulary, many related to the animals of the countryside and life on the farm, although she and the family didn’t use Irish in everyday conversation. Nevertheless, her knowledge of Irish had an immense influence on the young Hartnett, who would go on to became as fluent in Irish as he was in English.

Camas is a hugely important place for Hartnett. It was there that his poetic gift was first recognised and cultivated, particularly by his grandmother.  His first ever published poem was called ‘Camas Road’ and was published in The Limerick Weekly Echo on 18th June 1955.  Hartnett was thirteen.  This present poem, ‘Death of an Irishwoman’, is his effort at an apology for not being there at her funeral – ‘I loved her from the day she died’.

Hartnett returned to his West Limerick roots in the mid-1970’s having made his famous declaration from the stage of the Peacock Theatre at an event organised by Goldsmith Press on June 4th, 1974. At that event, Hartnett informed the audience of his resolution to cease writing in English, stating that his “road towards Gaelic” had “been long and haphazard” and until then “a road travelled without purpose”. He reassured his audience that he had realised and come to terms with his identity while acknowledging that his “going into Gaelic simplified things” for him and provided answers which some considered to be naive but at least gave him “somewhere to stand”. Rediscovering and reinventing himself and the long forgotten echoes of his Gaelic past was a central project for Hartnett during those years in the 1970’s.  Bridget Halpin played a significant role in this process.

Bridget Halpin is a symbol for all that was lost in the traumatic early years of the Twentieth Century in Ireland.  In Hartnett’s view one of the many precious things which was lost, ignored, and abandoned was the Irish language itself and so the poem can be read as a post-colonial lament.  According to Census returns for Camas in 1911, Bridget Halpin was 26, living with her husband Michael, ten years her elder.  This would mean she was born in 1885, a time of cultural revival, coinciding with the founding of the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association.  Hartnett always considered her to be a woman ‘out of her time’.  She never came to terms with the New Ireland of the 1920’s, 1930’s, and though her life spanned two centuries she was, in his eyes, still living in the past, ‘Television, radio, electricity were beyond her ken entirely’ (Walsh 13).  To her, ‘the world was flat / and pagan’, and in the end,

she clenched her brittle hands
around a world
she could not understand.

There is a strong sense of regret for a lost generation in this poem and this is particularly in evidence in the poignancy of the line:

I loved her from the day she died.

 What follows is a masterclass of poetic skill, the poet cherishes the memory of his lost muse with an epitaph made up exclusively of metaphors:

She was a summer dance at the crossroads.
She was a card game where a nose was broken.
She was a song that nobody sings.
She was a house ransacked by soldiers.
She was a language seldom spoken.
She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.

These metaphors conjure up an almost forgotten rural idyll: dances at the crossroads on summer evenings, the hustle and bustle of the rambling house with its card games and music sessions, slow airs and sean nós singing, sets and half-sets.  Hartnett also veers into the political sphere with reference to The Black and Tans and the fraught Irish language question, which he sees as having been abandoned and neglected by successive governments since the foundation of the State, ‘Our government’s attitude is hostile and apathetic by turns’ (Walsh 126).  His final metaphor:

She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.

captures the futility and frustration felt both by his grandmother and the poet himself at the relentless pace of change.  Safia Moore, in her excellent blog, Top of the Tent, says of this metaphor that it encapsulates the notion of his grandmother as ‘being out of step with the utilitarian, modern world’.

In effect, Hartnett is not only writing the epitaph for his grandmother but for a unique and precious culture which he sees drifting towards oblivion through neglect.  During these years in Newcastle West and in his cottage in nearby Glendarragh, Templeglantine, Hartnett wrote many such epitaphs for local people and their dying country crafts.  This is a facet of Hartnett’s work which began with his grandmother, Mrs Halpin. (See Epitaph for John Kelly, Blacksmith as one example of this).  Therefore, in a way, not only is Hartnett lamenting the death of Mrs Halpin here but also, like Heaney in many of his poems, he is lamenting the loss of ancient crafts and customs which, with the progress of time, have become redundant.  He has returned home to find things falling apart and that Time has thinned the ranks of the stalwarts of the town.  His local poetry, in particular, takes on a nostalgic retrospection and features poems about those who have died, such as ‘Maiden Street Wake’, where he describes one such wake:

We shuffled round and waited.
Our respects were paid.
And then we ate soft biscuits
and drank lemonade.

This period in his life is, therefore, best depicted as a period of intense creativity and a series of well-documented farewells, best characterised by this poignant line from the ‘Maiden Street Ballad’ where he ruefully declares:

old Maiden Street went to the graveyard.

Author’s Note:  Students of Hartnett and aspiring academics will readily verify that Harnett, whether deliberately or mischievously, was a master of misinformation.  The Youtube clip above is a perfect example of this.  As he begins to introduce the poem, ‘Death of an Irishwoman’ he states that his grandmother, Bridget Halpin was born in 1870 when,  in fact, we know through Census returns for 1911 that she was born in 1885.  He also says that she was 93 when she died when, in fact, if the Census returns are to believed, she was a mere 80!

Bibliography

‘A  Necklace of Wrens’ (Film). Harvest Films. 1999

Walsh, Pat. A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett’s Farewell to English, Cork: Mercier Press, 2012

Imagery in ‘Silas Marner’

 

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The function of imagery in everyday speech or writing is, primarily, to explain some point, or to make more vivid an idea or sentiment.  Imagery helps to heighten the atmosphere and to develop a theme.  Many of these images may symbolise for the author some significant occasion or thought that is not so easy to grasp by the reader.  The following ideas may help in developing a deeper understanding of the events and characters which make up this novel.

NATURE IMAGERY

In ‘Silas Marner’ nature imagery is used extensively.  Eliot compares the Lantern Yard sect and its interminable discussions on salvation to ‘young, winged things fluttering forsaken in the twilight’.  It is a vivid image of the misguided young people who seek without success a way to God.

Silas’s life in Raveloe is compared to a spider weaving ‘from pure impulse, without reflection’.  This conjures up a vision of a creature in mental semi-darkness working to a fixed pattern without joy or without understanding of what he is doing.  Later, his life is described as an ‘insect-like existence’: he sits weaving ‘towards the end of his web’.  The spider image suggests an unlived-in, musty, dusty, soul-less house.  In the Rainbow Inn the farrier tells him that his eyes are like an insect’s so that he can’t see much at a time.

Godfrey, should the Squire disinherit him, would be ‘as helpless as an uprooted tree’.  We are given the idea of dead wood, useless for anything but burning, unable to grow or develop.

In Chapter II Eliot contrasts the rich world of Raveloe with the frugality of Lantern Yard: ‘orchards looking lazy with neglected plenty’, ‘careless abundance’.

Silas’s love of his earthenware pot shows that ‘the sap of affection is not all gone’.  He gives life to the pot; it has been ‘his companion’, ‘always lending its handle to him’, wearing an expression of ‘willing helpfulness’.  This personification sadly emphasises how starved of human affection Silas is.

The presence of a wife and mother in the home is described as ‘the fountain of wholesome love and fear in parlour and kitchen’.   This suggests the continuous outpouring of love and fear of God given as a kind of nourishing food.

Nancy Lammeter is equated with the sun – the Lammeter household is ‘sunned’ by her smile.  She would have drawn Godfrey safe to the green banks where it was easy to step firmly, but he allows himself to be dragged back ‘into the mud and slime’ by his association with Molly.  The contrast is vivid.

The loss of Silas’s gold left his soul ‘like a forlorn traveller on an unknown desert’.  The desert may be associated by contrast with the plant images – growth and fruitfulness – that occur regularly in the story.

In relation to Silas’s first visit to the Rainbow Inn and his involvement with the villagers, Eliot says, ‘Our consciousness rarely registers the beginning of a growth within us any more than without us; there have been many circulations of the sap before we detect the smallest sign of the bud.’

In connection with Godfrey’s reliance on Chance, Eliot says of Chance that ‘the evil principle deprecated in that religion (i.e. Chance) is the orderly sequence by which the seed brings forth a crop after its kind’.  This is an image of the Biblical notion that bad seed brings forth bad fruit.

Eliot introduces the notion of Eppie’s mind growing into knowledge and Silas’s mind growing into memory.  This is a striking image of the future and the past growing towards one another; she clings to him, he to her.

The Squire’s anger is compared to ‘fiery volcanic matters that cool and harden into rock’.  It is an excellent image of a man who decides explosively in anger  and will not change his decisions even though reason tells him he is wrong.

In spite of Dolly’s efforts to befriend him, Silas is still the ‘shrunken rivulet’ with only this difference, ‘that its little groove of sand was blocked up, and it wandered confusedly against dark obstruction’.  This is an excellent image as it helps us to see him in terms of the rise and fall of a river.  It also points to the flood that will be released with Eppie’s coming.

The story of Eppie’s arrival and Silas’s new relations with the villagers is shown by Dolly in the imagery of Nature: ‘…..It’s like the night and the morning, the sleeping and the waking, and the rain and the harvest – one goes and the other comes, and we know nothing how or where.’

In Chapter XVII when Nancy’s attention has been drawn to the people heading towards the Stone-pit, she looks out on the churchyard.  Her uneasiness is compared to the raven ‘flapping its slow wing across the sunny air’.  It is a realistic image; the raven is a symbol of death and disaster.

There are some remarkably descriptive nature images in the novel, e.g. in Chapter II there is the picture of the Raveloe world.  In Chapter X there is a striking picture of Christmas Day.

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IMAGERY OF GOLD

The image of gold is important.  As money it represents the downfall of Silas; in the form of Eppie’s golden hair it brings about his salvation.  The story commences with the theft of the money from Lantern Yard and Silas’s loss of faith in God and his fellow-men.  In Raveloe his future is all dark: ‘the little light he possessed spread its beam so narrowly, that frustrated belief was a curtain broad enough to create for him the blackness of night’.  Later we read that his future was all dark, for ‘there was no unseen love that cared for him’.  This darkness will be replaced by the shining life of his new God – gold!   ‘How the guineas shone!’  When he loses his new god  he will be dark again until the real gold – Eppie – will save him.  He loves his gold for itself, not for what he can buy.  When it is stolen he has nothing left.  It had given him a purpose; it had been a ‘clinging life’.

There is an image of a locked casket with its treasure inside to describe Silas before the theft.  Now the casket is empty and the lock broken.  A casket keeps things in and his heart is imprisoned with his gold.  The empty casket shows that his love has fled, but it also leaves a way open for his love for Eppie.

His first sight of Eppie is startling.  Before his fit he has been thinking of his gold; the first thing he sees when he recovers is gold.  ‘Gold! – his own gold brought back to him as mysteriously as it had been taken away!’  A contrast is made between the soft warm curls of the child and the hard coins.  He believes that the child has come instead of the gold – that the gold has turned into the child.

Later, Eliot contrasts the dead world of Silas with his gold and Eppie’s living gold which forces his thoughts onwards.  The gold demanded that he should stay increasingly longer at his monotonous weaving; Eppie calls him from it.  Money is no longer important since Eppie has replaced it.

The finding of the gold in the quarry infects Godfrey and Nancy with such a feeling of shame that Dunstan has been a thief.  It has already caused Dunstan’s death.

Silas admits to Eppie that, at times, he had missed the gold, but that now it means nothing, so when Godfrey tries to use it as a lever to persuade Silas to surrender Eppie, he is doomed to failure on this point.

It is only at the end Godfrey realises that he himself had rejected the most precious gold of all.

 

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IMAGERY OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS

Light and darkness have a symbolic meaning in the novel.  The symbolism is uncomplicated.  It first appears in Eliot’s description of the young men in Lantern Yard as young birds ‘fluttering forsaken in the twilight’ – people who have lost their way in the semi-darkness.  In Lantern Yard the blackness of the night may symbolises Silas’s ‘frustrated belief’ – suggesting a kind of hell on earth.  Even the future is all dark because, paradoxically, there is no Unseen Love that cares for him.

The description of Squire Cass’s parlour with the fading grey light falling dimly on the walls may symbolise the decadence of the Cass family and the absence of the guiding hand of a mother and wife.

Eliot prepares us for the theft of Silas’s gold by her description of the mist turning to rain.  Dunstan’s dark deed is in contrast to the bright fire in Silas’s cottage.  The darkness will hide him, but it will also make his way so hazardous that he will slip.  The light from the cottage may symbolise the gold that has tempted him.  Light will later save Silas from his greed.

When the child, Eppie, crawls towards the light in Silas’s cottage she is leaving the blackness of Molly’s life as well as the darkness outside.  She may symbolise the light she will bring to Silas so that he, too, can leave his darkness.  The end of the snowfall and the parting of the clouds may symbolise the beginning of the break in the clouds that have overhung his life.

Dolly says of Eppie’s coming – ‘it’s like the night and the morning’ – the one goes, the other comes and ‘we know nothing how or where’.  Eliot contrasts the dead world of Silas and his gold with Eppie’s m world of life – the former has been hidden in the darkness and the latter loves sunshine.  There is also a contrast between the brightness in Silas’s eye and the light of the candle that falls on the gold (after the gold has been found).  The light in his eye is an inner light; the candle-light is dim by comparison.

On the visit to Lantern Yard, Eppie is uneasy at the darkness of the place.  This may also symbolise the lack of spiritual light there.  When they return to Raveloe, Silas says that he has had ‘light enough to trusten by’.  Light has overcome darkness.

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SYMBOLISM

Some of the characters and many of the things in the story may have a symbolic function, e.g. the broken piece of pottery that Silas puts together may symbolise the spark of affection that still exists within him.  We have already dealt with light and darkness as symbols.

Among the characters, Eppie may symbolise salvation.  Dunstan – evil; Squire Cass – the decadence of the landed gentry; Dolly Winthrop – faith.  The villagers in the Rainbow Inn may symbolise certain types in our own world.

Lantern Yard may represent the gloom in the lives of the members of the sect.  The proximity of their place of worship to the jail may also stand for the restrictions and lack of freedom there.

When the child, Eppie, is carried to the Red House by Silas there is a symbolic and prophetic rejection of Godfrey by the child and an acceptance of Silas when she looks away from Godfrey and slowly turns to Silas.

The furze-bush where her mother had been found is a symbol to Eppie of her own past and also perhaps of her mother.  The furze is thorny, as Molly’s life had been.

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Themes in ‘Silas Marner’

 

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  1. Theme of Redemption

This theme may be divided into two parts, (a) the salvation of Silas Marner from the mental and spiritual disintegration which is taking place within him because of his disillusionment with and rejection of God, and because of his miserliness and withdrawal from society, and (b) the salvation of Godfrey Cass from spiritual destruction because of his secret marriage to Molly Farren and, later, his decision to disown his own child.

There is the notion of the purging of a tragic hero through suffering in the case of both of these characters, but one of them – Godfrey – is, in the end, denied what he demands most.  Yet both of them come to acquire self-knowledge.  Silas says, ‘I’ve had light enough to trusten by; and now she says she’ll never leave me, I think I shall trusten till I die.’  Godfrey, too, has consolation, ‘And I got you Nancy, in spite of all, and yet I’ve been grumbling and uneasy because I hadn’t something else – as if I deserved it.’

Eliot may be trying to point out that, without contact with other human beings, the heart dries up.  Silas rejects the notion of a loving God and of belief in his fellow-man as a result of his experiences in Lantern Yard.  God turned from him in the drawing of the lots; William Dane and Sarah betrayed him at the human level.

In Raveloe ‘there was nothing that called out his love and fellowship toward the strangers he had come amongst, and the future was all dark, for there was no Unseen Love that cared for him.’  Even his simple impulse to help Sally Oates rebounds on him, and he becomes more isolated.  Money now becomes his new God.  What affection he has left is bestowed on inanimate things – a small brown pot and his gold.  He becomes a miser.

The theft of his gold is the beginning of his salvation.  It brings the sympathy of the villagers – especially Dolly Winthrop.  He feels conscious of ‘dependence on their goodwill.’  The coming of Eppie (perhaps an Act of God) brings him consolation for his suffering.  He begins again to trust a human.  He accepts Dolly’s advice that Eppie should be christened, although he does not know what this means.  With Eppie he lives again.  When he brings her to the village he is met with ‘smiling faces and cheerful questioning.’  She has replaced his gold.  He has been out of touch with Nature as he was in Lantern Yard.  It is Eppie who brings him back to it.  There is no more betrayal.  When Godfrey asks Eppie to come with him, she stands with Silas.

Godfrey’s faults are the result of his weakness of character.  He has a ‘natural irresolution’, ‘moral cowardice’, and is ‘indecisive’.  His marriage to Molly is a result of weakness but also of pity for her.  His motives for concealing the marriage are selfish – fear of discovery, his father’s anger, the loss of his inheritance and of Nancy.

His silent reaction to the news that Molly is dead is a sinful fear that she may not be dead.  His rejection of Eppie is a spoken one.  He disowns his moral and paternal obligations and lacks the moral courage to give up Nancy.  He is now living a lie and tries to justify it by assuring himself that he is thinking only of Nancy’s happiness.  He is punished by a childless marriage.  He has, however, a conscience about Eppie and almost accepts his childlessness as a punishment.  Further punishment and suffering come with the shame of Dunstan’s theft, but he accepts God’s will for the first time and admits his secret to Nancy.  He bitterly realises that Nancy would have gladly accepted Eppie had she known the situation.  He is further punished by Eppie’s rejection of him. His redemption comes in his realisation of the truth that ‘there’s debt we can’t pay like money debts.’  He has suffered, but recognises the injustice of it.  He, too, has some consolation in Nancy.

  1. Theme of Isolation and Communication

The degrees of isolation and communication through which the central character – Silas – passes are extreme.  One might divide his life into four distinct parts – distinct because he is subject to a change of disposition each time.

  1. There is his period in Lantern Yard.
  2. Then his first fifteen years in Raveloe during which he becomes dedicated to his gold and so more isolated.
  3. Next comes the short period after the theft of his gold when he is deprived of any comfort and has only limited communication with the people of Raveloe.
  4. Finally, Eppie arrives and Silas is no longer isolated.

In Lantern Yard he is immersed in the life of the sect.  He shares the rigid, Calvinistic society of his fellow-believers, the companionship of William Dane and the company of Sarah.  His self-doubting is offset by William’s certainty – although in the end of this period God seems to desert him.  William falsely accuses him of theft and Sarah deserts him, he has been relatively contented.

When he arrives in Raveloe he is a stranger and, so an object of suspicion.  He hates ‘the thought of the past’; there is ‘nothing that calls out his love and fellowship towards the strangers in the village.’  He contributes to his own isolation in his failure to invite anyone to visit him and his failure to mix with others except on business.  The riches of Nature are in contrast with the narrow, frugal life (physical and spiritual) of Lantern Yard.  There is no ‘Unseen Love’ that cares for him.  The children fear him and the villagers wonder at his solitary isolation.  The results of his impulsive desire to help Sally Oates are disastrous. He refuses to exploit the villagers and they drive him back to isolation.  His attempt to establish a relationship has, through no fault of his own, driven a wedge between the villagers and him.  Money now becomes his god.  He still retains a spark of affection but it is for inanimate things like his broken pot.  When his gold is stolen, the disaster seems worse than that of Lantern Yard.  His soul is ‘like a forlorn traveller on an unknown desert.’  Yet his impulse is to go for help.  He goes to the Rainbow Inn.  It is here that he communicates with others.

Afterwards the neighbours try to ‘get through’ to him.  He is not yet one of them, but is affected by their anxiety to help.  He feels that people might help him.  Their kindness may spring from their recognition of suffering – ‘pain and mishap present a far wider range of possibilities than gladness and enjoyment.’  Although he still feels desolate he is now aware that he depends on others.  Yet he is not cheered by Dolly as ‘human love and divine faith have not yet been released in him.’

The coming of Eppie changes everything.  It makes the villagers more actively sympathetic.  She unlocks the door to his happiness within the community when he determines to meet the neighbours for her sake.  He acquires knowledge of life from his new acquaintances.  As he grows older, his eyes ‘seem to have gathered a longer vision as is the way with eyes that have been short-sighted in life.’  This may be symbolic of his spiritual outlook.  Eliot says that a sense of presiding goodness and human trust come with all pure peace and joy.  The human trust is important; he had lost it after Lantern Yard.

He has a bad moment when Eppie speaks of marriage.  Is his gold again being stolen?  But she reassures him.  His final trial comes when Godfrey arrives to ask for Eppie.  Silas’s decision not to stand in her way is heroic, but he has no need to fear; he will never again be isolated.

Godfrey Cass may be included as one whose failure to communicate contributes to his unhappiness.  The Red House atmosphere is not conducive to communication, as love does not exist within it.  His lack of true communication with Nancy prevents him getting to know her until it is almost too late.  He is afraid to tell Squire Cass of his marriage to Molly, a social inferior, because he fears the Squire’s reaction and because he feels that he will lose Nancy.  He again fails to communicate when he denies knowledge of Molly and then rejects his child.  When he finally tells Nancy of the marriage, she tells him that she would have accepted Eppie.  He now realises that his reticence has been for nothing.

Again, when he calls Silas to surrender Eppie, he shows his inability to understand Silas by speaking in terms of bodily warts and money and by painting Eppie’s future as a lady and contrasting it with the rough life before her if she remains with Silas.  It is only when he faces the truth and accepts the justice of his punishment that he is saved.  He now knows himself and is rewarded when Nancy’s eyes and his ‘meet in trust’.

  1. Theme of Chance

In Chapter XI Eliot personally intervenes to comment on Chance – ‘In this point of trusting to some throw of fortune’s dice, Godfrey can hardly be called old-fashioned.  Favourable Chance is the god of all men who follow their own devices instead of obeying a law they believe in.’  she personifies Chance as a deity, ‘the mighty creator of success and its worship is a religion of these people.’

Godfrey is always hopeful that something will turn up to save a dangerous situation.  As a result he finds it hard to make a decision about anything.  So he falls back on ‘casualties’ (accidental happenings).  He fails to admit his marriage to Molly Farren because he feels that, the longer the interval before revelation, the more chances there are of deliverance from some of the unpleasant consequences to which he may have subjected himself.  When Dunstan fails to return from the sale of Wildfire, Godfrey asks himself why he should cut off his hopes by his own admission of his misdeeds.  If Dunstan fails to return soon everything may blow over.  When the Squire tells him to propose to Nancy with the half-threat that the Squire may himself speak to Nancy’s father he flies to ‘his usual refuge, that of hoping for some unforeseen turn of fortune, some favourable chance which would save him from unpleasant consequences – perhaps even justify his insincerity by manifesting its prudence’.  Not until Eppie rejects him does he face the truth and accept the consequences.

 Silas Marner, too, at one stage leans on Chance.  He, like the Lantern Yard brethren, believes that Chance in the form of ‘trial by lot’, reflects God’s judgement.  When his innocence is not borne out, he rejects God.  Later, after Eppie’s coming, he agrees with Dolly that there is good in the world.  He feels that the ‘lots’ were compensated for by Eppie.  ‘There’s dealings with us – there’s dealings.’  Eppie, too, has arrived by Chance.

  1. Theme of Love

Love runs through the novel as a recurring motif.  It is associated with other themes.  Its absence may be noted in Lantern Yard where the devotees have been taught that they are miserable sinners, so that they are prepared to believe in the sinfulness of their brethren and to punish it without an impulse of charity or human pity.  Each thinks only of his own salvation.  Lantern Yard also suppresses Silas’s love of Nature.

Yet, in Raveloe, Silas feels ‘a rush of pity’ for Sally Oates.  He also shows grief for his broken pot, but his affection is for inanimate things.  At first the villagers in Raveloe, because of their superstition, contribute to Silas’s loveless life by withholding whatever neighbourliness they might normally bestow on a fellow-human.  His miserliness saps his love for other human beings; gold is his true love.

His love is rekindled, albeit slowly when his gold is stolen.  He feels pity for Jem Rodney whom he accuses of the theft, realising the injustice of the accusation. (This is an echo of what befell himself in Lantern Yard).  His apology is, in effect, a gesture of love.  The kindness of the villagers to someone in trouble is an indication that love is there if he can meet it half-way.  Dolly Winthrop is in the vanguard of human compassion; she is ‘mild and patient’ and helps those who need help.  This is true love.

The coming of Eppie brings true love into Silas’s life; not alone the love she gives to him and the love which he bestows on her, but also the friendship and sympathy of the villagers.  Her pranks and naughtiness make him realise that love makes claims on him, yet he cannot really find it within himself to punish her.  After sixteen years with her he has acquired the ‘mild, passive happiness of love-crowned age in his face.’  Eliot says that, because of his love and the seclusion of his cottage, she has been preserved from the coarseness of village talk and habits, so that she has a touch of refinement.  In the end his love for her is repaid by her declaration of love for him and her rejection of Godfrey.  He now asserts his trust in God.

Godfrey and Dunstan have been deprived of love since their mother’s death.  Their father is weak in character and self-indulgent.  He rules his household by fear.  He lacks courtesy and makes no attempt to understand his sons.  Dunstan has no saving graces; he is entirely lacking in love.  Godfrey shows his weakness in marrying Molly Farren, but he is conscious of the harm he has done to her.  He loves Nancy Lammeter and sees her as his loving wife, but even in his love he has no real knowledge of her and so postpones admitting to her his unfortunate marriage.

Eliot says ‘…..the yoke a man creates for himself by wrong-doing will breed hate in the kindliest nature’, and that the affectionate-hearted Godfrey is becoming bitter and subject to cruel wishes (presumably for the early death of Molly).  When he hears that she is dead, his fear is that she may not really be dead.  He then rejects his own child – Eppie.  This is the antithesis of love.  There is happiness and love in his marriage to Nancy, although it may be asked if Nancy falls short of love in her refusal to adopt the child.  When Godfrey finally admits to his marriage to Molly, their eyes meet ‘ with awe in them, as at a crisis which suspended affection.’  Is there a temporary cessation of love here on Nancy’s part?  She speaks of a chance lost of having a child to love her.  After their abortive attempt to persuade Eppie to live with them, they again look into one another’s eyes.  It is now that, although Eppie has rejected him, he knows that Nancy truly loves him, ‘And I got you, Nancy, in spite of all.’

 5. Theme of Nature

Eliot believed that Nature is an influence in developing the human person.  Silas rejects Nature in Lantern Yard, briefly returns to it to aid Sally Oates and then, under the influence of Eppie, finally returns.  Eppie’s wish is for a garden.  This may indicate her simplicity and that Nature is sufficient for her.  It is also possible to discuss human nature under this theme.  (See further notes on Nature Imagery here.)

 

  1. The Theme of Knowledge

The theme of Knowledge has some importance in the novel.  There is a suggestion that knowledge of oneself and others, or the lack of it, plays an important part in both characterisation and plot.  Eliot, speaking of the Lantern Yard sect with its constant discussions on the possibility of salvation, says it resembles ‘young winged things fluttering forsaken in the twilight.’  This suggests a misdirected search for knowledge that is in contrast with Dolly Winthrop’s certain trust in ‘Them above’.

The superstition of the villagers in Raveloe that helps keep Silas in isolation is a result of their fear that Silas possesses knowledge that they do not have, and their belief that knowledge and skill come from the devil.  When his gold is stolen, the villagers see him as without knowledge and so, godly.

With the coming of Eppie, Silas acquires knowledge from his now sympathetic neighbours. His discussions with Dolly also help him towards religious contentment.  He also gains self-knowledge when Godfrey cannot begin to understand why Silas might not wish to part with Eppie.  Yet Eliot says that it is only the want of sufficient knowledge that allows him to be deliberately unkind.

Godfrey also undergoes a journey towards self-knowledge.  You might try to map this journey yourself using the incidents in the novel.

 

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“Roosters” by Elizabeth Bishop – A poem whose time has come again?

 

 

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Taking recent political events in America into account,  this poem seems to me to be one whose time has finally come round again!  In 1938, as another war threatens to engulf the world, Elizabeth Bishop stops off in Key West for almost a decade on her slow, leisurely migration South.  In 1941, shortly after the tragic events of Pearl Harbour, she produced this classic poem, a poem which many claim depicts American chauvinism at its worst and a poem that was read with interest by millions of returning soldiers and marines as they undertook the challenging reintegration back into civilian life after its publication in 1946 as part of her collection North and South – a collection of quintessential Bishop poems about waking up and the sea.

It is one of her ‘long narrow poems’ (44 stanzas) and yet Colm Tóibín in his analysis of the poem states rather controversially that, ‘it is important to insist that the poem “Roosters” is about roosters’.  He goes further and insists that ‘more exactly, it is about roosters in Key West’.  This may be so but even a cursory reading, in these revisionist times, will no doubt point up the presence of many other important sub-themes which are scrutinised and analysed here by the poet, such as militarism, male/female roles, war-mongering, forgiveness, and waking up to reality.  However, her treatment of the roosters is generally subtle, though not always so, and I have to agree with Tóibín’s final assessment that, ‘she managed to write one of the great poems about power and cruelty by not doing so.’

The poem was written at a time when the navy was gearing up for a war in Europe and other far-flung theatres of war.  Key West had been chosen as a new navy base and she was at one stage, much to her annoyance, forced to rent her beloved property to navy personnel.  In other areas of Key West, property was being purchased compulsorily and some houses were being demolished.  Therefore, it is no wonder that the poem has been read as an anti-war poem and a poem condemning arbitrary authority, ‘what right have you to give / commands and tell us how to live.’

The poem opens in Key West with the town waking to a morning light which she characterises as militarised, the morning is ‘gun-metal blue dark’.  The poet and her lover, the ‘we’ of the opening stanza, are rudely awakened from their slumbers by a martial rooster. This initial call is soon echoed by others and within a short time, there is a cacophony of strident roosters calling the sleepy Key West community to face a new day.  In a letter to Marianne Moore, Bishop wrote that she wanted the opening to represent the baseness of military warfare, and had in mind, too, Picasso’s Guernica.  From the weaponized colour of dawn to the macho “first crow of the first cock,” Bishop lures us into the poem as if from sleep, from non-consciousness, and forces us to face our own new (political) reality post November 8th!!

The macho roosters, symbolic of American chauvinism, ready themselves for another day of domination, of seeing off rivals, and indulging in some megaphone diplomacy.  They are depicted as ‘stupid’, using their ‘traditional cries’ and she personifies their behaviour, ‘their protruding chests’, ‘their green-gold medals dressed’; she ridicules their efforts ‘to command and terrorise the rest’.  One of the many things that makes Bishop’s anti-war argument in “Roosters” so interesting is her rare lack of reticence to disclose the struggles of women to survive against the rhythms of male competition, rivalry, discord, the taking up of arms, and combat.   She is anything but subtle here and, in my opinion, it is one of the times when her customary reticence and use of understatement goes out the window.  This is very evident in her unflattering depiction of the roosters’ wives:

The many wives

Who lead hens’ lives

Of being courted and despised;

She uses the traditional image of the ‘tin rooster’ as weather vane on ‘our little wooden northern houses’ to introduce the concept of militarism again.  She uses military imagery to depict their battles and skirmishes.  The roosters make ‘sallies’, setting out their territory, ‘marking out maps’, and the image of a great operations centre with maps ‘like Rand McNally’s’ with ‘glass-headed pins’ and military uniforms is created with imagery like ‘oil-golds and copper greens’.  The roosters are compared to the ‘scarlet majors’ in Sassoon’s anti-war poem, ‘Base Details’, who send their “glum heroes up the line to death”.   Again they are personified, they are ‘screaming’ at the inhabitants of Key West to ‘Get up! Stop dreaming!’.  The poet refers to the idea that the Greeks used these ‘very combative’ birds for their cock fighting spectacles.

There follows more imagery of roosters fighting, flying, dying – the blood has gone to their heads, which are ‘charged with all your fighting blood’.  She disapproves of their ‘virile presence’ and their paradoxical ‘vulgar beauty’.  Bishop is playing with us here: is she not saying, ‘Whatever else we say about these roosters, they’re not chicken’!

All my adult life I have been aware of America as having a predisposition to enter conflicts all over the world.  My memories of the 60’s and 70’s are of harrowing television clips from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos.  In recent years, especially since 2003, America has been mired in military intervention, military deployments  and full blown wars which seem to be unwinnable despite the seeming one-sided nature of the contests. Nothing, Bishop’s poem reminds us, is ever won from war.  This poem is a perfect example of her honesty and here she shows her nerve to review human nature honestly and she also  portrays a steely resistance to duplicity and coercion.

Bishop, up to this point, has looked at roosters from many different angles but now she focuses on an association between the rooster and St. Peter in the Gospel account of the denial of Jesus before his Crucifixion:

And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly.

In the Latin version of the Bible “gallus canit” means “the cock crowed,” and “flet Petrus” means “Peter wept.”  So this is one of the reasons why roosters are so often used ‘on basilica and barn’ to depict, not so much Peter’s denial and humanities overall frailty, but the unconditional forgiveness offered by Christ.  The climax of the poem is beautifully rendered as we witness the literally “cocky” roosters subside in the last part of the poem to become an image of peace, ‘The cocks are now almost inaudible’.   Morning has returned, with immense hope, to the world.  By poem’s end, the rooster crows and Peter weeps as the poem shifts from remorse to salvation to inescapable hope—like a re-enactment of civilisation’s transformation from militancy to humility—so that the rooster’s call is a symbol of forgiveness.

The final five stanzas take us back to the beginning – morning has broken and the master craftswoman uses beautiful slender ‘l’ sounds to depict a new dawn, a new beginning:

In the morning

A low light is floating

In the backyard and gilding

Colm Tóibín so rightly asserts that ‘In ‘Roosters’, she … managed to produce one of the great poems about the morning’.  ‘The sun climbs in’ and transforms ‘the broccoli leaf by leaf’ and ‘the tiny floating swallow’s belly’.  She uses the beautiful simile ‘like wandering lines in marble’ to depict the creeping rays of sunshine.  The only discordant note to this otherwise idyllic, hopeful ending is the ambiguous role played by the sun – it can be seen as either an ‘enemy’ or a ‘friend’.

This literary tour de force broke new ground in its attitude to, and treatment of, war and pacifism on the one hand and the sometimes fraught relations between men and women in a post-war world on the other.  If there is hope, and the poem ends with a new dawn, then Bishop is bold enough to suggest that it lies with women.  She sees a future America where hope lies in the power of women to seize a greater share in mapping out the future destiny of the nation and wrestle it away from stubborn, war-mongering men.  I said at the beginning of this piece of commentary that I thought this was a poem whose time had come again – I hope America have not lost their chance to carry out Bishop’s manifesto with the recent defeat of  a strong female candidate in the Presidential Election.  Time will tell but it adds to the cachet of this poem that it has had the power to continue to shape America from its first publication in 1941 until the present day.

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Works Cited:

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

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

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

Reviews Rants and Rambles: https://vinhanley.com/2016/11/29/commentary-on-sandpiper-by-elizabeth-bishop/

Commentary on ‘Sandpiper’ by Elizabeth Bishop

Sandpiper

By Elizabeth Bishop

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

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

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

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

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

His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

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

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

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

Bishop (7)

Works Cited:

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

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

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

The Terrible Sonnets – not so terrible after all!

 

bighopkins

In his Terrible Sonnets, Hopkins’s shows off his wide-ranging use of imagery. We know that he wrestled with doubt, particularly during his final years which he spent teaching in University College Dublin.  In his attempts to express clearly his meaning it can be said he transformed almost every known literary device used by poets: dramatic opening lines, imagery, irony, ambiguity, puns.  He also invented a few of his own: sprung rhythm, compound adjectives, and his use of foreign, colloquial and archaic words.  The best we can say about his sonnets is that they demonstrate his almost complete disregard for sonnet conventions!

All of his poems, and especially the Terrible Sonnets, were directly inspired by his experiences as a Jesuit priest, and his sonnets are attempts to elaborate his central themes: the value of sacrifice, the transience of mortal beauty, the permanence of evil in an unchristian world and the deep spiritual anguish and desolation which characterises two sonnets in particular: ‘No Worst, there is None’ and ‘I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark’.  Critics would have us believe that these ‘terrible sonnets’ plumb the depths of despair but yet I believe that despite his battles with desolation and near despair, his sonnets always contain signs of hope, no matter how slender.  After all, despair, in his Catholic catechism was one of the Seven Deadly Sins and I believe that these often harrowing sonnets are dramatisations of the darkness and spiritual anguish which comes with ‘the dark night of the soul’ often mentioned in Ignatian and John of the Cross spirituality.

Therefore, it is my view that while the Terrible Sonnets sometimes plumb the depths of despair they never actually reach rock bottom and each sonnet ends on the slightest sliver of hope.  We must remember again that Fr. Hopkins is a priest, not only that but he is a Jesuit priest, one of Christ’s Storm Troopers, crack SAS commandoes, and so despair is not an option!

In his sonnet ‘No Worst, there is None’, Hopkins outlines the intensity of his pain in the opening quatrain and then proceeds to seek significant comfort, but in vain.  This sonnet is particularly interesting in that many of its images echo through earlier poems where the mood was less despondent.  The poet’s sense of despair is emphasised in quatrain two in an unusual but particularly poignant image of his cries heaving ‘herds-long’, gathering at the gate of heaven perhaps but not being admitted or even acknowledged.  Where is the comfort that Hopkins himself had administered to Felix Randal?  The poet then refers to an ‘age-old anvil’, a sounding board which winces and rings out his pain. This very original image of the anvil reminds us again of Felix and his work in the forge, except on this occasion the poet is the raw material that Christ is beating into shape.  In the sestet, the poet refers to a natural landscape, the mountains.  In earlier poems, ‘wilderness’ filled him with joy.  Here, however, the steep cliffs, a nightmarish metaphor, represent the spiritual torment and physical suffering that the poet has had to endure, day in, day out.  The only comfort is the relief of sleep.  However, as the poem comes to an end, there is slender hope because while the lost souls are as he is, they are worse off because they are dead and at least he is still alive and has time before he dies to repent and live a better life.  This in turn makes him realise that he is not so badly off after all.  The title also, believe it or not, contains a tiny nugget of reassurance: here, he is not saying that this is the worst, but that there IS no worst – as we all know from sometimes bitter experience,  things can always get worse!

In ‘I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark’ the poet awakens to the oppressive darkness of night and yearns for the respite of daylight.  The dark night is itself symbolic of dark periods in the poet’s life when hope of spiritual ecstasy may have seemed very distant.  So where then is our sliver of hope here in this sonnet?  Well, there are a number of sightings!  For example, when he says, ‘Comforter, where, where is your comforting?’, this is merely echoing Christ’s words on the cross. ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ and while it may appear at times in his imagery that Hopkins is literally hanging by his fingernails over the pit and the abyss, yet he does not despair.

In The Terrible Sonnets, he constantly uses numerous tricks to gain our attention and his opening lines are often very dramatic and effective:

            ‘No worst, there is none.  Pitched past pitch of grief’

            ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.’

The Terrible Sonnets, in particular, specialise in short, hurried, phrases and in the repetition of certain thematic words: ‘Pitched past pitch of grief’; ‘More pangs will, schooled at forepangs’; ‘Let me be fell’; ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark’; ‘O the mind, mind has mountains’; ‘What hours, O what black hours’; ‘Fall, gall themselves, and gash’; ‘I am gall’.

His schooling and studies in theology have convinced him that God exists, he is always certain of that, so why then has He forsaken him and why does he appear to be so far away, apparently unresponsive and uncaring to a man whose letters are ‘dead’?  Hopkins’s increasingly sinister images explore the bounds of human suffering and despair.  In the sonnet ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark’, for example, the conspicuous absence of daylight reminds us how far the poet has come from the glorious sunshine and colour in ‘Spring’, ‘God’s Grandeur’ or ‘The Windhover’.  There is little evidence of ‘couple-colour’ in ‘the black hours’ Hopkins has spent with his torment, suffering ‘yet longer light’s delay’.  The delay of light represents, of course, the delay of hope – all is now ‘gall’ and ‘heartburn’.  Quite remarkably, taste is evoked as a description of the poet’s state.  He becomes bitterness itself, borne out of his despair.  Yet, perhaps this is God’s will that he suffer the ‘curse’ with which his ‘bones’ and ‘flesh’ must contend.  But the poet’s tormented spirit is souring dough, which needs to be infused with spiritual ecstasy.

To conclude, in Hopkins’s poetry, therefore, the range of imagery is certainly quite extensive, his originality unquestioned.  Imagery ignites the poet’s celebration and it ignites his desolation.  In the darkness, there is no flash of colour, of light, no ’dapple-dawn-drawn’ inspiration to lift his thoughts, no sparks, no flashes, no gold.  In 1889, only weeks before his death, Hopkins wrote another sonnet, often linked with the Terrible Sonnets, ‘Thou art indeed just, Lord’.  This sonnet is a hurt protest by the good and devout priest that God allows the wicked to prosper while Hopkins, who has devoted his whole life to the service of God in the slums of cities such as Liverpool and Glasgow and Dublin, suffers the tortures of the damned.  In the poem images of fertility in nature abound: building, breeding, waking, growing.  The poet, however, is depicted in the sterile image of a ‘eunuch’.  Nonetheless, the concluding appeal expressed again through a vivid and most appropriate image, is that as Spring renews nature, so God may send his spiritual ‘roots rain’: surely if he can still pray he is not in despair.   Where there is prayer, there is hope!

 DONNE- a Hymn to God the Father