Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

“Mahabharata”: a modern retelling by Carole Satyamurti

Well – I’ve knocked the bugger off, as they say!

Some 900 odd pages of blank verse. Some two and a half times the length of Paradise Lost. (Or so I’m told: I didn’t count the words.) And it was still an abridgement.

The poet A. K. Ramanujan once remarked that no-one reads the Mahabharata for the first time. He was referring to Indian readers, of course. The stories are so widespread, that everyone knows them, or, at least, some of them. Even I, who have lived in the West from the age of five, have been acquainted with the stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata from comic strip children’s versions, which, as I understand, are ubiquitous in India. Indeed, when Indian television, Doordarshan, dramatised the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in the 80s and 90s, it was effectively these comic strip versions they adapted, thus meeting expectations of its target audience, but producing (as far as I could discern, at any rate) merely a festival of kitsch.

Of course, as I grew older, I wanted to look beyond these comic strips. I read the Ramayana in Ashia Sattar’s excellent (though abridged) translation (I do get the impression that the full, unabridged version is for the specialist rather than for a lay reader such as myself), but the situation is considerably more complex when it comes to the Mahabharata.

There are two complete translations currently under way, one published by University of Chicago Press (nearly complete), and another in the Clay Sanskrit Library (published by NY University Press). Penguin Classics publish a complete translation in ten volumes by Bibek Debroy, but that’s not very easy to get hold of outside India: at least, I have never seen it in even the bigger British bookshops, though it can, no doubt, be ordered. More easily available in Penguin Classics is a translation by John Smith, but Smith only translates selected passages, with the bits in-between narrated in parentheses. I found that a bit fragmented, to be honest, and kept losing the thread. There’s an older complete translation from the late 19th century by K. M. Ganguly, but, having looked into it, I found it written in a very correct and somewhat pedantic English, and I didn’t think I’d be able to manage it all.

There are also, of course, several complete translations of the Bhagavad Gita (which is a part of the Mahabharata); and mention should also be made of W. J. Johnson’s thrilling translation, available in Oxford World Classics, of the Sauptikaparvan, the terrifying 10th book of the Mahabharata: it stands up as a great poem in its own right.

I was considering placing an order on the Debroy translation, or maybe starting on the other complete translations currently in progress, but, to be frank, I wasn’t sure I wanted to devote a year or so of my life to reading the whole thing. Did I really want to plough through the various genealogies?  The details of Vedic sacrificial rites? I am, after all, but a lay reader, and the Mahabharata seems too vast an ocean simply to dive into.

And in any case, what do we mean by “completeness”? Both internal and external evidence suggest that it was written across a few centuries – from, perhaps, 400BC to about 400 AD – and, very obviously, by different authors. However, from what I gather, there is, despite the vast diversity, also a unity, which suggests that at some time, a poet, or, perhaps, a committee of poets, collated them all together, and maybe adapted their material to impose some sort of unity. But a text such as this never stays still. As Wendy Doniger says in her introduction to the Satyamurti book, there are literally hundreds of Mahabharatas – translations, recensions, and retellings into different Indian languages – each one a new creation, and each a valid creation, in its own right. Indeed, many of these versions are themselves great literary creations. The very idea of putting together a “standard text” seems an absurdity. But nonetheless, given the importance of the Mahabharata (both in literary and in other terms), some sort of standard text seemed desirable, and, to this end, the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Poona (now Pune) collated and calibrated all existing manuscripts from different parts of the subcontinent, and published a critical edition in 21 volumes between 1919 and 1969, and that edition is, I believe, generally regarded by scholars about as close to a standard text as is possible. I am, of course, in no position to judge: I am, as I say, but a layman.

Carole Satyamurti’s version is not a translation: she describes it as a “retelling”. It is, and should, I think, be taken as, a modern English poem (it was published in 2015). Satyamurti casts her retelling in blank verse based on iambic pentameters, as this is the form that approximates most closely to the natural patterns of English speech. She stays very close to the content and to the structure of what we may (despite quibbles) refer to for convenience as the “original text”. There are abridgements, of course, but despite this, she still produces a poem that is about two and a half times the length of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Not knowing Sanskrit, she has worked from literal translations, especially the version by K. M. Ganguly. And of course, inevitably, she has refracted the entire material through her own poetic sensibilities. I see no problem with any of this: to insist of textual purity in the case of something such as this is an absurdity; and in any case, given the hundreds of Mahabharatas Wendy Doniger talks about, Satyamurti’s “retelling” seems very much a part of what is a time-honoured tradition.

I compared some of her text to parts of the John Smith translation; to the various translations I have of the Bhagavad Gita (which is, of course, a part of the Mahabharata); and to W. J. Johnson’s translation of the Sauptikparvan. While Satyamurti’s wording and versification are, of course, her own, she certainly has a respect for the original text (however we choose to define it), and remains close to it in terms of content. For those not wishing to wade through one of the complete translations, and even for those who do, this version seems admirable – a most welcome addition to the tradition of new evolving Mahabharatas.

The content itself, as one would expect given the history of the book, is almost unbelievably diverse. Heroic legends, mythology, folklore, animal fables; historical chronicle, courtly romance, fantasy and magic, high tragic drama; religious instruction, philosophical disquisitions, homely wisdom, cosmic visions … it’s all there, and placed in a narrative structure of startling sophistication (Vinay Dharwadkar discusses the narrative structure in some detail in a fascinating afterword to Satyamurti’s book). And she doesn’t just focus on the narrative: much of her volume is devoted to the various other aspects too, thus giving a sense of the range and plenitude of the work, rather than merely reducing it to what may be found (at least in outline) in the comic strip retellings. After all, the major event of the poem, the great apocalyptic battle of Kurukshetra, is over after Book 10: there are still eight more books to go, and many of these are taken with Bhisma’s long disquisition to Yudhisthira – firstly on how best to rule a kingdom, then on the nature of dharma (of righteousness),  on how society is to be structured, on what happens to the soul after death, on the will of the gods and the action of men, and so on. One may understand why the comic strip adaptations may skimp a bit here, but Satyamurti gives these passages their full weight. The whole isn’t reduced merely to a sequence of events.

The narrative itself is splendid. And, underlying all the dazzling diversity, there runs insistently the question: “What is the right thing to do?” The concept dharma is often translated as “religion”, but in its Sanskritic context, it means considerably more than that: it refers to righteousness, to the moral code that one lives by. That dharma exists is never questioned: indeed, there exists a god Dharma, who exemplifies the very concept. Dharma is often presented as something humans must follow in order to keep the cosmic forces in balance, in order for existence itself to be possible. What is at issue is what dharma entails, and many characters, throughout this vast epic, are puzzled by this. Even when they are given answers to their dilemma, sometimes by divine authorities, they remain puzzled.

The most famous of these answers comes in the extended passage known as the Bhagavad Gita, still revered by many Hindus as their principal scripture. Here, the hero Arjuna, before the great battle of Kurukshestra, tells his charioteer Krishna (an incarnation of the god Vishnu), of his horror of what he knows will come: in this battle, countless thousands will die; he will have to inflict injury and death upon his own kinsmen, his revered teachers – upon men whom he loves and respects; such a thing can only be a great evil, and he would rather renounce his claim to the kingdom than take part in such an atrocity. Krishna’s answer forms the substance of the Bhagavad Gita, and, while it is resplendent and magnificent – expanding as it does to depict a vision of divinity, and of the cosmos itself – I must confess that I have never personally found it morally or aesthetically satisfying.  And even in the context of the epic, Krishna’s answer does not silence the questioning: the same question recurs, in different forms, and proposed answers never quite satisfy.

Krishna’s answer is effectively this: Arjuna must act according his dharma, which is his duty, and, as a kshatriya, that is, as a member of the warrior caste, his duty is to fight. He must carry out his duty for its own sake, without expectation of earthly reward, without attachment to anything of this earth. He will not be morally responsible for anyone’s death, as the soul itself cannot be killed: it is immortal, has always existed and will always continue to exist. One’s individual soul is not entire in itself, but is part of the Brahman, the Godhead, the universal soul that has always been and always will be, that is in all things, in all beings, past, present, and future, created and uncreated. Arjuna, as an individual human, is contained in all parts of the cosmos, as all the cosmos, including all other humans, is contained in him.

This cosmic vision is indeed magnificent, but what it enjoins us to do, I must admit, I find less than satisfying. For what sort of dharma is it that results in such immense suffering, such mass carnage? Of course, we all hold to some of this: no-one attaches blame to the soldier who, following his duty, kills on the field of battle – much though we may deplore the battle itself. But the idea of a duty that is allotted to us by birth, predestined, that we must carry out, struck me as unsatisfactory when I first read the Bhagavad Gita as a young lad, and strikes me as unsatisfactory still. And, despite the Mahabharata’s significance as a book of religious instruction, this answer doesn’t seem entirely to satisfy the writers of the epic either. That collective authorship is continually questioning, never wholly satisfied by the answers put forward, even from divine mouths. Arjuna, many years later, says, astonishingly, that he has forgotten what Krishna had told him. Yudhisthira, the most righteous of men, poses similar questions to the great seer Bhisma, and receives similar answers, but he, too, is failed to be convinced by them. This is not to say that these religious teachings are debunked: rather, that there can be no one satisfactory answers to such questioning. Various contradictory things appear simultaneously to be true. And these contradictions are acknowledged. The dharma that tells us to do our duty, even if that means killing, is not compatible with the dharma that tells us to have compassion fir all, and to harm no living thing. Far from papering over such contradictions, they are pointed out.

And dharma itself proves to be a slippery concept. Bhisma actually explains to Yudhisthira (in a disquisition on the nature of power that isn’t too far removed from the writings of Machiavelli) that there can be different types of dharma, not merely for different people on account of caste, but also in different situations, and eventually, the wise man must decide for himself what the true dharma is at any given point. Nothing, in short, is fixed, or can be fixed, in this endlessly complex and ever-changing world. But even that isn’t the final answer: there is no final answer – merely a multiplicity of questions that we cannot stop asking ourselves. Arjuna’s voice of distress at the start of the Bhagavad Gita remains potent, and cannot be silenced.

The principal story tells of a dynastic struggle between the sons of two brothers – Dhritarastra, who was born blind, and Pandu. Dhritarastra has one hundred sons by his wife Gandhari (and here, we have to go into the realms of folklore and of magic to explain this miraculous occurrence), and Pandu has five, by his two wives, Kunti and Madri. (Although, to be accurate, Pandu is not the biological father: the poor man is under a curse that decrees that his point of orgasm will also be his point of death. His “sons” are fathered by various gods.) The Kauravas (the sons of Dhitarastra) and the Pandavas (sons of Pandu) become embroiled in a dynastic conflict. From the beginning, the two sets of cousins have not got on well together. The kingdom is split between the two sets, but then, Yudhisthira, the eldest and most virtuous of the Pandavas, is invited by the Kauravas to a game of dice, and here he loses everything to his cousins – his kingdom, and even his brothers, his wife Draupadi (who is the wife of all five Pandava brothers); even his own self. Draupadi, now no more than a slave, is called for, and is humiliated, while her five heroic husbands sit by, unable to protect her.

The penalty for losing the game of dice is reduced to years of exile in the forest, but afterwards, a dynastic struggle emerges between the Pandavas and the Kauravas – a struggle that climaxes in the catastrophic battle of Kurukshestra: the Pandavas emerge victors, but it is a pyrrhic victory, as the slaughter on both sides is overwhelming. Yudhisthira, the eldest of the Pandavas, and the most righteous, is horrified, and is determined to renounce all he has won. His brothers remonstrate with him, but neither they, nor all the wisdom imparted to him by the great seer Bhisma, can convince him otherwise: it is only a horse sacrifice to the gods that somehow reconciles him to his fate, which, we are told, was preordained by the gods anyway.

At the end, the Pandavas, now old and feeble – even the heroic Arjuna can no longer wield his arms – journey into the Himalayas to reach heaven, and all but the righteous Yudhisthira die on the journey: only Yudhisthira may enter heaven in his bodily form, but even there, he refuses to do so unless the dog that has accompanied him is allowed entry also. His compassion for, and attachment to, the dog is seen as virtuous, even though we have repeatedly been enjoined to leave behind all earthly attachment. For here, everything is true – even contradictory things.

This, in essence, is the main story of the Mahabharata, though there are also innumerable sub-stories, interpolated stories (including the entire story of Rama that had been the focus of the earlier epic, the Ramayana), parallel stories, that, taken together, form a vast and magnificent collage of the entire range of Indian folklore and mythology. These stories have taken on their own life, in all sorts of ways. Right at the start, for instance, we are given the story of Sakuntala, whose son Bharata, begins the dynasty that is later to tear itself apart in the Battle of Kurukshestra: the poet Kalidasa later expanded the story of Sakuntala to create the most famous play of Sanskrit literature.

And there are stories told almost in passing, such as the story of Ekalavya, a tribal youth, who asks the great Drona to teach him the arts of warfare. Drona, given Ekalavya’s low birth, refuses. So Ekalavya builds a statue of Drona, and practices in sight of the image. Later, when Drona is out hunting with his royal students, they come across a feat of archery that surpasses anything even the great Arjuna could do. Arjuna is aggrieved, as Drona had promised him that he would be the finest. Drona asks Ekalavya who is teacher had been, and Ekalavya answers it was he, Drona, in the shadow of whose image he had studied and had practised his art. So Drona, as teacher, asks for a fee: he asks of Ekalavya the thumb of his right hand, without which all his skills would become useless. Ekalavya, without hesitation, slices off his thumb. This story is told only in passing, but such is its resonance that the figure of Ekalavya has been adopted as a symbol for the struggle for Dalit rights.

And there is the story of Karna, one of the great tragic figures of all literature. He is a half-brother of the Pandavas – though neither he nor the Pandavas know it: he was born to Kunti, an illegitimate son, before her marriage, and his father was Surya, the sun god (as in Greek mythology, Hindu gods often impregnate mortal women). And as a baby, to hide the mother’s shame, he had been, like the infant Moses, placed in a cradle, and allowed to drift down the river. He had been found and brought up by Adhiratha, and had grown up not knowing his origin. And as he grows up, he develops skills in warfare every bit as great as Arjuna’s, but his assumed low birth is held against him. In the tournament to decide a suitable husband for Draupadi, he is the only one who could match the extraordinary feats of Arjuna, but even before he can begin, Draupadi herself calls out that she will not marry anyone of such low birth, and he has to withdraw, humiliated. (Draupadi, lucky lady, ends up marrying all five Pandava brothers.) But Karna is offered friendship by Duryadhana, the eldest of the Kauravas, and Karna becomes his loyal friend.

Later, as battle looms, Krishna, in an attempt to persuade Karna not to fight, tells him his true parentage: if he fights for Duryadhana, he would be fighting against his own brothers. Even Kunti, his mother, comes to him, makes herself known, and tries to persuade him not to fight. (This meeting is the theme of a very famous poem by Rabindranath Tagore.)  At last, Karna knows what he had desired to know all his life: he now knows who he is. But as soon as he knows it, he knows he must reject it. Duryadhana had offered him friendship, and nothing, not even the fact of his own origin, could weigh against that.

Throughout, the question is asked – sometimes explicitly, but always implicitly – how much of what happens is of these characters’ agency, and how much is pre-ordained by the gods. Krishna tells us it is all pre-ordained, and, being himself an incarnation of the god Vishnu, I suppose he should know: Bhisma says the same thing. But then we run upon the usual objections: if all is pre-ordained, humans can have no agency – so why the insistence upon dharma?  Of course, it is an old dilemma, and after millennia of musing upon it, no culture, eastern or western, has come across a solution to it: it is one of those questions we must learn to live with unanswered, as reasonable answers appear to contradict each other, but the Mahabharata does not shy away from this contradiction either. The actions of the individual characters do certainly shape the events, but at times, the characters themselves seem to be in the grip of something larger than themselves, something over which they have no control. This is particularly apparent in the fateful dice game, where Yudhisthira, playing against the expert gambler Shakuni, keeps on staking more and more, even though he knows he will lose. This is, of course, on one level, a psychologically accurate depiction of addiction, but in the context of the wider narrative, we must question whether his will had become subordinate to something greater – to what the gods have willed for him. And later, before the war begins, Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kauravas, repeatedly rejects all overtures of peace, insisting that he can win, despite being told at each turn by his advisers that he cannot, and that, furthermore, he is in the wrong. Furthermore, all the omens are portents are against him. But he is adamant: he will fight, no matter what. Once again, we cannot help but feel that he is not in command of himself here, that he is being ruled by something greater than himself – perhaps, once again, the will of the gods. At the end, we see him, arguably the villain of the whole piece, in heaven: for, after all, he has carried out his dharma – he has done what his dharma had demanded of him. As with so much else in this epic, this raises far more questions than it answers.

As we approach the battle, there is a growing sense of terror, and of the inevitable: this is an approaching horror that cannot be stopped. The great Battle of Kurukshestra itself takes up some five or so of the Mahabharata’s eighteen books. The whole is narrated in three voices – not three distinct voices, as they merge into each other, but three very recognisably different voices. The first of these belongs to the realms of heroic narration; it tells of great heroes and of their superhuman feats of courage and skill, providing so exciting a spectacle that even gods gasp in wonder and in astonishment; the second speaks of the sorrow of it all, of the horror, as men in their countless thousands are horribly slain, mangled, and mutilated; and the third voice speaks of the apocalypse: what we are witnessing, this unspeakable carnage, is the promised end, or an image of that horror.

As the battle progresses, all rules of warfare, all considerations of chivalry, fall by the wayside, and it soon becomes unmitigated butchery on all sides. Karna is killed by his nemesis Arjuna, but Arjuna breaks all rules of warfare in doing so: he attacks Karna when Karna’s chariot is stuck in the mud, and beheads him:

                    It fell to earth

as the red disc of the sun

drops at sunset. It was afternoon. 

                  When Karna fell

the rivers ceased to flow, the sun turned pale,

the planet Mercury seemed to change its course

Karna is not, of course, the only victim, although he is perhaps, with Arjuna, the most heroic. Gandhari, the wife of Dhritarashtra, had voluntarily put on a blindfold when she had married, swearing never to take it off, so she would never see more than her blind husband; but in the aftermath of the carnage, she is granted a special vision to see the devastated battlefield for herself, where all her hundred sons have perished. It’s not just the heroes who have died: there are men, just ordinary men, for whom, we are explicitly told, no poems will ever be written, but who have died horribly. We are given the image of a woman who has found her husband’s headless trunk, and is now searching for the head she had once loved – that she still loves. A mother sees her daughter-in-law weeping over her husband’s severed arm:

His wife is bathing it with her hot tears,

mourning the hand that lately would have loosened

her clothing, stroked her breasts, caressed her face.

Even the queen who had donned a blindfold, and had sworn never to see again, cannot turn away from visions such as this. There is no victory here, for anyone. And afterwards, Kunti tells her Pandava sons to say special prayers for their great enemy Karna, for he had been their brother.

Much later in the poem, Dhritarashtra and Gandhari, and Kunti, mother of the tragic Pandavas, are granted a mystic vision, where, for one night, all the dead arise from the waters, and are reconciled with each other, and with the living too – a radiant vision in which all losses are restored, and sorrows end. It is up to the reader whether to take this as but a vision of something wished-for but impossible, a fulfilment of a much-desired fantasy; or whether it is some sort of foreshadowing of what will, some day, happen. But even if it does happen in some realm beyond human imagining, all we are left with in our mortal lives is loss, and devastation. An epic of the range of the Mahabharata has a bewildering variety of tones and registers, but, on the basis of this version at least, it is hard to see the overriding tone as anything other than tragic. Even by the end, where Yudhisthira and the dog enter the Kingdom of Heaven, it is the tragic mode that predominates.

All these various registers are accommodated with seeming effortlessness in Satyamurti’s blank verse. The underlying metre is the iambic pentameter, but Satyamurti is by no means rigid in this: most lines have nine, ten, or eleven syllables, and five stresses, but Satyamurti allows such things to vary as and when she needs to. She achieves narrative drive when required, but also repose, contemplation. The verse is supple enough to depict magic and wonder, sorrow and tragic intensity; and it can accommodate as well the various philosophical and moral disquisitions. It is, indeed, a quite extraordinary achievement. Even if we think of it purely as a modern English poem, it is a remarkable work in its own right. Satyamurti passed away in 2019, a few years after the publication of this poem in 2015, and it is a worthy, and quite majestic, memorial.

By the end, one is left with a sense of the sheer wonder of it all. Yes, there are many aspects of the poem that will be alien to many readers, especially of the West: caste, for instance, which plays a major part; or the concept of reincarnation, and of karma. But then, there are aspects of The Iliad, or of The Aeneid, or even of Christian poems like the Commedia, that are similarly alien to our modern Western sensibilities, but which can nonetheless touch us to the very heart.

I am now wondering whether I should attempt one of the complete translations. I think I should. But whether I do or not, I am so glad I tackled this. For those wondering what the best way is into the vast and seemingly intractable literary masterpiece that is the Mahabharata, Satyuamurti’s extraordinary blank verse English poem can be recommended without reservation. It is masterly, and it does, indeed, touch the very heart.

Some reflections on “Rebecca”, “Jane Eyre”, and Meatloaf

I’ll do anything for love – but I won’t do that.
– Meatloaf

I tend to find “spoiler warnings” a bit silly. If I am going to talk about a work of fiction, then of course I’ll be mentioning certain elements of the plot! But still, given the complaints I get when I don’t issue such a warning, I prefer to err on the side of safety in these matters. Even when I am writing about Ibsen plays. Who, for heaven’s sake, would watch (or read) an Ibsen play for the sake of the “plot”? As if it mattered! But clearly, some do. And there are certain works where the plot really does matter, and for these, it is as well to issue a Spoiler Warning – as I do here. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is one such work. And Jane Eyre too, I think. So if you haven’t read Jane Eyre or Rebecca, or not seen any of the various adaptations, it would probably be best to give this post a miss. There! Now the obligatory throat-clearing is done, we can get started on the post proper.

Rebecca, like Jane Eyre, to which it is consciously a homage, is a sort of mash-up of two well-known fairy tales, “Cinderella” and “Bluebeard’s Castle”, and each poses the rather uncomfortable question “What if Prince Charming turned out to be Bluebeard?” Addressing this question requires a rather delicate balance between Prince Charming and Bluebeard. In Jane Eyre, Mr Rochester, when Jane first meets him, has many characteristics that would be perfectly consistent with a Bluebeard: he is rough in his manners, and is blustering; his past, by his own account, has been far from blameless; and he speaks of the women in his life with a sort of disdain, as if they were no more than objects. He has, indeed, the various unpleasant characteristics that come so easily to a young man with sufficient wealth and leisure to have all worldly vices within easy reach.

Despite all this, Jane falls in love with him, thus incurring the wrath of many modern readers who like their heroines to be kickass, and to sock one to the patriarchy. However, love is blind, as we all know, and Jane falls for this big, blustering bag of patriarchal tropes. Even after they are engaged, Mr Rochester seems to treat Jane as if she were a doll for him to dress up. And then, of course, on the very day of the wedding, he really is revealed to be a Bluebeard – of sorts, at least: his secret chamber houses his former wife, still living, but insane. He pleads with Jane to remain as his unmarried mistress, and it costs Jane a tremendous effort to resist this temptation: she would do anything for love – but she won’t do that. She sacrifices her desires to placate her moral sense.

Later in the novel, Jane is presented with another temptation, very different and very subtle, when St John Rivers asks her to marry him, and accompany him to India, where he is to bring Christianity to the benighted heathens. Here, the temptation is that of sainthood – of denying her desires to serve what, in those days, would certainly have been considered morality. But Jane resists this also, and returns to Mr Rochester. Now, he is blind and helpless: he is, indeed, Samson from Milton’s poem Samson Agonistes, a man in despair, in a darkness that is more than just literal, and, furthermore, aware that it is his own sinfulness that has led him to this pass. The lines given him seem quite reminiscent of Milton:

But I always woke and found it an empty mockery; and I was desolate and abandoned—my life dark, lonely, hopeless—my soul athirst and forbidden to drink—my heart famished and never to be fed.  

And here are the closing lines of Milton’s sonnet “Methought I saw my late espoused saint”:

But O as to embrace me she enclin’d
I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night.

Now that the more unpleasant elements of his character have vanished, there remains a Prince Charming – albeit a very broken and very vulnerable Prince Charming – whom Jane can now accept without angering even the most censorious of ideologues: the patriarchy has been kicked well and truly into touch.

Of course, there had been indications throughout of an essentially decent man underneath it all: we are told, for instance, that Mr Rochester’s domestic staff are well paid and well treated, and that local people wanted to work at Thornfield Hall; despite Rochester’s bluster, no-one seems intimidated by him, and the housekeeper Mrs Fairfax thinks the world of hm; and, though Jane herself is in every way in a subservient position, Rochester, far from treating her like a menial, engages with her in conversation with a disarming openness. Even the revelation of the mad wife in the attic is not entirely to Rochester’s disadvantage: he could easily have deposited her into one of those unimaginable hell-holes where people considered to be out of their minds were left to rot, but, instead of doing that, he had lodged her under his own roof, and had her looked after as best he could. There is quite clearly a decent man at the core of this seemingly unattractive personality, but this decent man has to come out into the open, and the Bluebeard elements relinquished, before he could be worthy of Jane.

In Rebecca, it’s all a bit different. The first act of the novel, set in Monte Carlo, is unambiguously Cinderella, complete with a wicked stepmother. A young girl, downtrodden, presented as very ordinary in every way, attracts against the odds the attentions of a dashing and eligible aristocrat, and is swept off her feet to become the lady of a great stately home. It seems almost the epitome of every romantic story ever written: Cinderella gets her Prince Charming. But this is only the first act of a five-act drama, and once the second act starts, shades of Bluebeard start closing in upon Prince Charming. And here, the Bluebeard comparison isn’t merely figurative: he really had killed his former wife. (In Hitchcock’s film adaptation, this rather important detail had to be changed, but it is quite unambiguous in the novel: Maxim de Winter had murdered Rebecca.) And the unnamed narrator, without the slightest hesitation, without the slightest compunction, quite happily becomes an accessory after the fact. Till Maxim confesses to her his guilt, she had imagined her husband still to be in love with the dead Rebecca, the beautiful, charismatic woman with whom she cannot hope to compete; but the revelation that he had hated her, and that it is she, not Rebecca, whom he loves, lifts a great weight off her mind; and she seals this declaration of love (for that is what the confession, in effect, is) the only way she can: she shares his guilt, even guilt for a crime so terrible as this. She will do anything for love. Even that.

For the guilt is indeed terrible. Maxim had cold-bloodedly shot an unarmed woman who was not even attempting to defend herself; and he had killed also (as far as he is aware at the time) her unborn child. There wass no remorse, either immediately afterwards, nor later: he had, very deliberately and methodically, cleaned up the mess, and got rid of the body. Daphne du Maurier uses all her considerable skills as a narrator to weigh the scales in favour of Maxim and of his second wife, the unnamed narrator: Rebecca certainly had been a really nasty piece of work, and those characters ranged now against the de Winters – the sinister housekeeper Mrs Danvers, and Rebecca’s cousin and lover, the coarse and bumptious Jack Favell – are presented are horrendous, despicable people. But the fact remains: Maxim de Winter is a cold-blooded killer, and his second wife, knowing full the facts, is an accessory.

And yet, Rebecca is still widely regarded as, essentially, a romantic story – perhaps, even, as an archetypal romantic story, as the downtrodden, mousy woman (with whom we are all encouraged to empathise) gets her Prince Charming, against all odds. And in a sense, it is an archetypal romantic story. But it is the tale of Bluebeard’s Castle lurking beneath the tale of Cinderella that gives it such a powerful frisson. The novel ends with the destruction of Manderley, but also with the assurance that Cinderella and Prince Charming are very much in love with each other, and are likely to live happily ever after – the perfect end, one might have thought, to a perfect romantic story. But if we cast our minds back to the second chapter of the novel, we remember a somewhat different picture. There, we had seen the second Mrs de Winter and Maxim living out dull, dreary lives in small hotels in France, trying desperately to avoid anything that may bring back their past, and avoiding especially large hotels so as not to meet with people who may recognise them. If we bring our memories of this early chapter to the final chapters of the novel, the pieces fit in a most disconcerting manner: Maxim, at the end of the novel, is, it is true, legally cleared of any wrongdoing; but he is told by the local magistrate Colonel Julyan – who himself has possibly pieced out the truth – that he will do what he can to prevent gossip. It is certainly clear to Colonel Julyan that a legal verdict can have but limited effect, at best, on what people may think, or even, in private, may say. It is no wonder that, afterwards, Maxim and his wife live almost like fugitives, trying their best to avoid anyone who might recognise them.

None of this indicates a happy and romantic ending. Maxim and the second Mrs de Winter are indeed close to each other, but the ties between them are not merely the ties of love: they are the ties also of a terrible shared guilt.

It is to Jane Eyre we must go to for a truly romantic ending. Jane too would do anything for love – but she stops short of sharing Mr Rochester’s guilt: she wouldn’t do that. Rebecca, though written in a prose style that, in comparison with Charlotte Brontë’s, can often appear merely functional, and sometimes even bland, seems to me a more disquieting work. It is certainly not the Cinderella story that, on the surface at least, it claims to be.

“When We Dead Awaken” by Henrik Ibsen

*** SPOILER WARNING: The following post inevitably reveals some of the plot details of this play, and so, if such things are important to you (they needn’t be), it is possibly best not to read this post till you’ve read or seen the play for yourself.  

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Barbara Haveland and Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife, published by Penguin Classics

IRENE: When we dead awaken.
RUBEK [ shakes his head sadly] Yes, and what do we see then?
IRENE: We see that we have never lived.

Ibsen subtitled his play “A Dramatic Epilogue”, but what it is an epilogue to he left unclear. As, indeed, he did so much of the play. It could be an epilogue of the series of plays he wrote after finally returning to Norway in 1891, that is, from The Master Builder onwards. It could be an epilogue to the series of twelve prose plays from The Pillars of Society onwards – the twelve plays that he had himself referred to as a cycle. Or maybe we can cast the net even further back, and include the verse plays Brand and Peer Gynt that he had written in the 1860s.

Neither is it particularly clear what precisely Ibsen had meant by “epilogue”. Did he mean a conclusion to the series? Or did he mean an addition once the series had already been completed – a sort of afterthought?

From The Pillars of Society onwards, Ibsen had published a new play every two years, regular as clockwork (the only exception being An Enemy of the People, which he had written in one year): this last play had taken him three years, and, shortly after completion, he had suffered a severe and debilitating stroke. The internal evidence of the text suggests that what we have is an unfinished play: the last of the three acts is surprisingly short, and while it wraps up the two strands of the plot, this third act, very uncharacteristically for Ibsen, takes us thematically no further than where we had been at the end of the second.  It isn’t hard to infer that Ibsen could sense his health failing, and finished it as best he could.

To my mind, this final play, unfinished as it probably is, is an epilogue in the sense that it is the conclusion of a long series, and, indeed, of a long journey.  If we think of this journey as starting with The Pillars of Society, we may see it as a passage from the hurly-burly of day-to-day life to the mysterious and elusive regions of death. But if we cast our nets back further, and see Brand and Peer Gynt as the starting point of that journey, we may see this epilogue as returning to where he had started: for much of the time here, we are not in the real, material world, but, as in his verse plays, in a world of poetry and of symbols. (Michael Meyer said that, as a translator, he would have preferred this play to have been written in verse, as so much of its content seemed to him to lend itself to poetic metre). And as in Brand, this play too ends with a seemingly divine voice of forgiveness as the protagonist is overwhelmed by an avalanche high in the mountains: it is hard to believe that this striking similarity is merely accidental.

But no matter how we may choose to view this play, it has never found much acclaim. It is rarely revived, and, as late as 1980, Michael Meyer was complaining (in the preface to his translation) that “it has never been adequately staged in London”. It wasn’t much admired at the time either: after publication in 1899, Ibsen’s English translator, William Archer, wrote in a private letter that “it is scabrous to a degree – if it weren’t like deserting the Old Man, ’pon my soul, I’d let someone else translate it”. He also said, again privately, that it seemed like evidence of senility on Ibsen’s part.

The play was, admittedly, admired at the time by Bernard Shaw, who found in it “no decay of Ibsen’s highest qualities” (although it is interesting that he felt compelled specifically to reject that criticism); and also by a young James Joyce, who thought it among Ibsen’s greatest works, “if not, indeed, the greatest”. But generally, it is a play that tends only dutifully to be admitted to the canon, a somewhat disappointing finale to whatever it is that it’s an epilogue to. It is granted almost a grudging acknowledgement as the last work of a great writer, but it seems not to have stirred the imagination as the earlier plays have done. While there is a stream of actors and actresses queuing to play Stockmann and Solness and Borkman, Nora and Rebecca and Hedda, Rubek and Irene remain, in contrast, barely known.

Perhaps it is not too hard to discern why this play is so unloved. There is, about this play, a curious lack of solidity. Even other difficult plays, such as, say, The Master Builder, for all their poetic imagery and the symbolism, are very recognisably set in a real world, and the characters are beset by real worldly concerns. But here, for much of the time, especially in the dialogues between Rubek and Irene, the dialogue is barely intelligible at all in terms of reality. Throughout the series from The Pillars of Society onwards, Ibsen had been moving steadily from a real world to one that was more poetic, more mythic, but reality had never completely disappeared: but here, that is just what it seems to do. In writing about the previous play, John Gabriel Borkman, I had suggested that in the final act, the three protagonists are already dead, and what we see played out on stage is a sort of dream of spirits set in some vague hinterland beyond life. However, it is still possible to see it as real action in a real world. But in this play, even that possibility seems to disappear – and it is perhaps not surprising that the most disappointed reactions to this play tend to come from those who try to see it primarily in realistic terms. We are in a shadowland here: Irene specifically describes herself as dead, and it is not clear that she means it merely as a metaphor; Rubek, too, is most likely dead; indeed, the very title of the play tells us they are dead. There is about the play an ethereal, rarefied, fleshless quality that seems to hold both the audience and the reader at a distance. No wonder Ibsen referred to this play as an “epilogue”: where, after all, was it possible to go beyond this?

The scene locations are always important in Ibsen’s plays. In Hedda Gabler, for instance, it is important that all four of its claustrophobic acts are set in Hedda’s drawing room. But generally, in the later plays of the series, we tend to break out of the bourgeois drawing room. In the three plays previous to this one – The Master Builder, Little Eyolf, John Gabriel Borkman – the action had moved, significantly, from the confines of the drawing room to the open, unconfined spaces outside. In Little Eyolf, there had also been a vertical movement – first, from the drawing room down to the shore of the fjord, and then, for the final act, up high above the fjord, and above the house. This descent, and then the ascent, had reflected the mental states prevalent in each of the three acts. In When We Dead Awaken, all three acts are set outside, and, once again, we have a vertical movement, but this time, we are constantly ascending. In the first act, we are, as the stage directions tell us, “outside a spa hotel”. In the second, we are “at a sanatorium high up in the mountain”. In the third and final act, spa hotel and sanatorium both disappear:

Wild, high mountain ravine with sheer precipices in the background. Snow-capped peaks rise to the right and are lost in the floating mist high above.

We are very far here from the stuffy drawing room bourgeois drama that Ibsen is still associated with. The physical movement of the drama, as implied by the stage directions, takes us away from everyday life into something far more elemental. And one wonders to what extent these stage directions describe not so much what we may see on stage, but, rather, landscapes of the mind. For, as Peter Watts points out in the introduction to his translation (in the older Penguin Classics edition), Ibsen, as a practical man of the theatre, must surely have known it would be impossible to depict on stage a stream upon which characters float leaves or flowers, or children playing in the distance. Neither could he have expected he stage directions at the end of the play to be realised in performance:

The clouds of mist sink more densely over the landscape. Rubek, holding Irene’s hand, climbs up over the snowfield to the right and soon disappears among the lower clouds. Biting stormblasts thrust and howl to the air … Suddenly, a thunderous roar is heard up in the snowfield, which slides and hurtles down at furious speed. Rubek and Irene are indistinctly glimpsed as they are hurled along in the mass of snow, and are buried by it.

Perhaps modern stagecraft can handle all this, but certainly in Ibsen’s own time, it was a tall order. Which seems rather to suggest that Ibsen was not writing with the theatre in mind, but, as with Brand and Peer Gynt, he was intent more upon creating a theatre of the mind – something to be imagined rather than realised in actuality. It’s not that he necessarily intended this to be closet drama: rather, he wanted us to imagine, to play over in our minds, that which could not be realised in reality. And it is much the same with the drama itself: it demands that we imaginatively enter Ibsen’s poetic world. If we insist on tying it down to reality, we are bound to be disappointed.

And yet, the opening scene would not be out of place in any of the earlier realistic plays. The whole thing starts off with a scene that promises a drama rather different from what subsequently unfolds. In the grounds of the spa hotel, sits Rubek, an elderly and distinguished sculptor, and his much younger wife Maja. And, in the course of what is really quite a short and naturalistic dialogue between them, the entire story of the marriage is laid out. One can understand why Shaw, no stranger himself to the art of drama, declared that this play “shews no decay” in Ibsen’s artistry: had Ibsen wanted to write a strictly realistic drama, he was still more than capable of doing so.

And yet, we don’t need to look too far into this apparently realistic dialogue to catch intimations of deeper matters. Almost he first words spoken by Maja are: “Just listen to how silent it is here!” She finds the silence “overwhelming”. Soon, their relationship is laid bare. They have been married for “four or five years” now. He is a distinguished man, honoured and feted – a sculptor, internationally renowned. She, much younger, is, in effect, almost a sort of “trophy wife”. Although there is no acrimony between the two, there is not much evidence of warmth either. They have a villa somewhere in the foothills of the Alps – which Maja insists on referring to as a “house” rather than as a “home”; and whatever it is they had been looking for in the marriage, neither has found it. The history of their marriage is laid out in symbolic terms as they speak in realistic terms of their train journey into Norway, back “home”:

RUBEK: I noticed how silent it became when we stopped at all the little stations – . I heard the silence – just like you, Maja –
MAJA: Hm – yes, just like me.
RUBEK: – and then I realized we’d crossed the border. That we really were home. Because the train would stop and wait at all the little stations, even though there were no passengers.
MAJA: Why did it wait for so long? When there was nothing there?
RUBEK: Don’t know. No passengers left the train, no-one boarded.

Four or five years of marriage, of uneventful monotony, no-one coming or going, and hearing only the overwhelming silence.

Maja is bored. She had not wanted to come “traipsing” up here, she says, and has to be reminded that it was she who had wanted to make this trip. And she has noticed that Rubek is restless, and can no longer settle his mind on his work.

As a sculptor, he had made his name with a piece he called Resurrection Day. On that, he had worked day and night. And it is a masterpiece, he insists, with a vehemence that doesn’t quite suggest confidence:

… because Resurrection Day is a masterpiece! Or was, at first. No, it still is. And it shall, shall, shall be a masterpiece!

It is acclaimed by the whole world, but the “whole world”, Rubek insists, “knows nothing! Understands nothing!” They are but the mob and the masses. Since that work, Rubek has settled for sculpting portrait busts for wealthy clients. But what they do not know is that, despite the strictly realist exteriors, Rubek had, for his own satisfaction, worked in, “under the skin”, features of animals.

The picture that emerges of Rubek is not a very attractive one. He is a man utterly immersed in his own ego, contemptuous of humanity around him, seeing others as mere beasts. And, despite the fame and fortune he has won, he is uncertain of his own worth: both his fame and fortune, after all, derives from the “mob” that he despises – that knows and understands nothing – mere beasts.

When he had married Maja, he had, she reminds him, promised to take her to the top of a mountain, and show her “the glory of the world”. He is now surprised he had said that to her, and confesses, quite unashamedly, that it was merely an old catchphrase of his, one that he had said that before to others: whatever glory of the world he had believed in, it means nothing to him now. Perhaps he had never quite believed it himself.

All this Maja hears, and, so the stage directions tell us, she looks at him bitterly. But she is far from distraught. Rubek’s honesty in admitting all this is brutal; that he can admit this so openly to Maja suggests that, in his all-consuming egotism, he doesn’t really care what she may feel. And she, having lived with him for four or five years, isn’t really surprised. When he asks her teasingly if she is offended, she (“coldly, not looking up”) answers “No, not in the least”. Why should she be?

It is at this point that the drama, somewhat abruptly, moves to a different plane. A new element is introduced almost as if it were a ghost story – and, as we soon find out, it is, in a sense, a ghost story. The previous night, Rubek had seen, or thought he had seen, at a distance, passing through the grounds of the hotel, a pale lady dressed in white, and a small dark figure behind her. The manager of the spa solves this apparition easily: it is one of the guests, accompanied by a “Diakonisse” (which as is explained in the notes of the latest Penguin edition, is “a woman in charge of the social work of a Lutheran parish”). Michael Meyer and Peter Watts refer to her as a “nun” in theor traslations, but this suggests the Catholic rather than a Lutheran church; Barbara Haveland and Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife, translators of the new Penguin edition, refer to her, no doubt more accurately though perhaps a bit more awkwardly, as a Sister of Mercy. As soon as the manager has explained the apparitions, we see them ourselves, walking across the back of the stage, crossing across the park towards the pavilion. Almost immediately, another figure enters, a figure as earthy and as physical as the pale lady had been ghostly – Ulfheim, a somewhat brash and bumptious squire, who is out bear-hunting. His presence injects into the play a rough vitality that had, till now, been missing, and Maja, fascinated by his bear-hunting stories, is instantly attracted. Soon, Rubek is left alone on stage (Maja having most happily left with the bear-hunter Ulfheim), and he is joined by the pale lady in white. The two had recognised each other.

The introduction of Ulfheim so soon after the appearance of the ghostly pale lady brings to the proceedings a somewhat schematic symmetry that warns us not to take what we see too literally: this is not a naturalistic drama. And soon, once Rubek is left on his own, the mysterious lady joins him. They had known each other before. And whatever indication of realism we had been given till now vanishes in the scene that now unfolds.

This scene, which takes up most of the latter part of the first act, is impossible to summarise: in dramatic terms, it couldn’t be more different from the realistic scene we had had seen earlier between Rubek and Maja. This lady’s name is Irene: it was she who had modelled for Rubek’s Resurrection Day, the masterpiece that had made his name, and which, he vehemently insists, is, and must be, a masterpiece. But she states quite explicitly, right at the start of the scene, that she is dead, and I am not sure we shouldn’t take her literally: she may indeed be a ghost. Since she had known Rubek, she says, she had married twice: she had driven her first husband mad, and had murdered the second (“with a fine, sharp dagger I always take to bed with me”). She had had many children, she tells us, but she had murdered them too. She had stood naked on a revolving stage in variety shows, in tableaux vivants; she had been committed to a lunatic asylum, bound in a strait-jacket. And now, she insists, she is dead.

How much of this are we to take literally? Ibsen doesn’t help us. But at this point of the play, after the naturalistic opening scene, we feel the ground very noticeably shifting beneath us, and we aren’t sure quite where we stand. Or, indeed, if we stand at all.

And, as Hilde had done to Solness, and Ella Rentheim to Borkman, Irene accuses Rubek. The love she had offered him then, when she had posed for him and let him gaze upon her naked form, he had never returned. He had never so much as acknowledged that love. He used here merely for what he needed.

RUBEK [defensively]: I never committed any sin against you! Never, Irene!
IRENE: Yes, you did! You sinned against my innermost being!

We may be remined here of Ella Rentheim’s accusing Borkman of the sin for which there is no forgiveness.

In a realistic drama, we would have expected Rubek simply to have dismissed Irene as some sort of madwoman: after all, he was an artist and she a model, and that’s all there is to it. But, for reasons we may only guess at, Rubek doesn’t dismiss her. He, like Solness, is stricken with guilt. We have seen Rubek consumed by his own ego, and locked in a loveless marriage; the humanity around him he holds in contempt – depicting others merely as beasts; in his calling, he had not so much brought stones to life, but had turned the warmth of humanity itself into stone – into something less than human. The charge he now faces, of having rejected a love hat had been offered him, of – as Ella Rentheim had put it in the previous play – killing the love in another being, he cannot now dismiss. None of this may make much sense on a strictly realistic level, but we are in a dream play now.

As the curtain goes down on Act One, we may feel somewhat disoriented: what kind of play is this, really? It seems a play divided: the realism with which it opens doesn’t so much modulate into a dream: rather, the realistic element and the dreamlike element are almost brutally juxtaposed right next to each other.

And the second act doesn’t really clarify matter either. The stage directions tell us that there are children playing in the distance, and throughout this act, we can hear their happy laughter. It seems almost like a vision of a prelapsarian paradise, or maybe the Elysian fields we may go to once we too, like Irene, are dead. We are, admittedly, a bit higher up the mountain, but are we still in the real world? The opening scene of this second act may suggest that we are (as before, the first part of this act is dominated by a realistic scene between Rubek and Maja); but the second part consists of a scene between Rubek and Irene, and here, all semblance to reality seems to vanish. We have to take this as a sort of dream play: it makes little sense to consider it otherwise.

The scene between Rubek and Maja is, however, in a realist mode, and it serves but to confirm the impression we had received of Rubek as a narcissist. He had, as we know, told Maja that he would take her to the top of a mountain and show her “the glory of the world”, but, as he had admitted, without any embarrassment at all, that was just a pat formula he had been in the habit of using: he had not meant it seriously. He had married her, effectively, to be served by her. But Maja is no mere cipher in the play: she refuses the task allotted her:

RUBEK [somewhat uncertain]: What I now feel so vividly – and so painfully – that I need, is to have someone around me who is genuinely close to me –
MAJA [interrupts him tensely]: Aren’t I, Rubek?
RUBEK [dismissively]: Not in that sense. I need to live with another human being who can complement me – complete me – be one with me in everything I do.
MAJA [slowly]: Yes, I wouldn’t be much help to you in those difficult things.
RUBEK: No, you’d make sure you weren’t, Maja.
MAJA [in an outburst]: God knows, I wouldn’t really want to be!

Rubek, self-absorbed, can see Maja only insofar as she serves him, or is capable of serving him, but Maja is having none of that. She can sense that Rubek has more of a relationship with the mysterious pale lady than he does with her, and she doesn’t in the least resent it, any more than Rubek resents Maja being attracted to Ulfheim, the bear-hunter. They are both honest about where they are: it is too late in the day for jealousy.

Rubek is aware of some deficiency in his own self, of some vast, empty chasm. His Resurrection Day sculpture had bought him fame and wealth and public acclaim, but by then, he no longer loved his own work. “Those public homages and those bouquets left me,” he says, “left me nauseated and desperate, and nearly drove me deep into the darkest forests.” But Maja has had some four or five years of hearing Rubek talk about himself: she doesn’t even pretend to be interested.

And then, as in the first act, the very realistic scene between Rubek and Maja is followed b a scene between Rubek and the ghost-like Irene, and, once again, we are in a different world, where the rules of everyday life seem no longer to apply. They speak again, as they must, of the time when Irene had posed for him, and had been his inspiration. That sculpture, Resurrection Day, Irene refers to as their “child”, just as, in Hedda Gabler, Thea had referred to Loevborg’s writing as their “child”. But this child did not turn out as Irene had thought. What she had posed for was a figure of a girl, bright and young and fresh, awakening to a new day, with a “transfiguring joy of light” upon her face: this was the Resurrection Day that she had thought of as her child: it was a sculpture of hope, of idealism. But then, afterwards, Rubek had coldly thanked her, and referred to their entire relationship as an “episode”. Which, in a realistic world, it is, but we aren’t in a realistic world any more, and we are asked to accept that in this dream world, Rubek’s cold indifference to her had sucked out her very soul, and left her spiritually dead.

We cannot be sure what exactly had occurred between the two in the real world. Ibsen is concerned here with poetic imagery, not with the mere mechanics of the plot. But whatever had happened, Irene had offered him love, and life, and he had turned them down. And after she had left, Rubek had turned against the idealism that he had initially depicted: he had enlarged the plinth, and had moved to the background the figure of the young girl  awakening to a new day with the transfigured light of joy on her face; and around this figure, he had placed others – other people, with “animal faces  concealed beneath the skin”. And in the front of what is now a group, he had placed himself, “a guilt-marked man who cannot quite free himself from the earth’s crust”.

It is at this point that Irene draws a knife, and is about to strike – to kill him as she had, so she says, killed her second husband, and all her children. And if that was metaphorical, then, perhaps, this is too: there seems no ground rules whereby we may interpret the dramatic action. But she puts her knife away. Back then, she remembers, Rubek had promised her too that he would take her to the top of a mountain, and show her the glory of the world. Perhaps, back then, before it had become but an empty catchphrase, he really had believed that. But now, Irene reminds him of that old promise, and they decide to do just that. When we dead awaken, Irene says, we shall find we have never lived.

One wonders how Ibsen had intended to write to third act. What we have now is but a few almost perfunctory pages that complete the plot, such as it is.  The second act had ended with Maja, now determined to leave Rubek for Ulfheim, singing like some Ariel of her new-found freedom. But Rubek and Irene, who are now both dead (maybe Irene did kill him after all!), head for the mountain-top, perhaps to Resurrection Day, and perhaps to see the glory of all the world.

Most of the third act, as it currently is, concerns Maja and her new partner Ulfheim. Maja has at last found the freedom she wants, and, in the brief scene between them, she shows herself more than capable of holding her own with her new chosen partner. One suspects that Ibsen had planned after this a long scene between Rubek and Irene, before they head willingly to their deaths – or, perhaps, to their resurrection, since they are already dead. But this scene is now cut to only a few lines. Although they know there is a storm coming, they head upwards, to the mountain top. And as they are inevitably overcome by the avalanche, the Sister of Mercy who had accompanied Irene speaks over their deaths a Latin benediction – “Pax vobiscum” (“peace be upon you”); and meanwhile, in the background, we hear Maja sing her song of freedom.


It is not hard to see why this very strange play has not won the acclaim of Ibsen’s earlier plays. This strange mix of the realism and the dream play, with the abrupt swings between the two modes, gives it, as it were, two dramatic centres of gravity, and the two remain in contention with each other to the very end, as the pax vobiscum blends with Maja’s singing from below. At one level, we are, with Maja and Ulfheim, very much in the land of the living; at the other, we are, even more certainly than in the final act of John Gabriel Borkman, in the company of those who are already dead. And yet, this contention between these two worlds is surely what Ibsen had intended.

More puzzling still is the content. Put simply and crudely, it concerns a man who is, in the eyes of the world, a great success, but who feels an emptiness inside, because, despite having been offered both life and love, he had rejected them; and who is finally persuaded by her whom he had rejected that he is as dead as she is, and that he may only redeem himself by looking towards a resurrection. All this is fine and dandy till we ask ourselves what all this actually means. What would have happened had Rubek not rejected Irene? A life of happy domesticity? Once we dead awaken, we find out that we have never lived; but what does it mean to truly live? For Maja and for Ulfheim, the answer is simple enough: but could such an answer have sufficed for Rubek or for Irene? In The Ambassadors, another late masterpiece by another Henry, and published only some four years after When We Dead Awaken, the middle-aged Strether, approaching old age, tells the young people around him simply “to live”, but he never quite articulates what he means by that – most certainly because he does not know himself. All he knows, and all we can know as we get older, is that there is inside us an emptiness, and a vague sense that there is something we have missed, something we have left undone, and which we cannot rectify even if we had the chance to go back and live our lives all over again, because we wouldn’t even know how to rectify it.

And what is it that Irene and Rubek so joyfully go to at the end? They speak of Resurrection. The entire play speaks of Resurrection, and is awash with religious imagery. And yet, there is no mention of God: the play had begun with an overwhelming silence, and, once the roar of the avalanche has passed, we are left again with that vast silence. Is it really redemption these two head towards? – a redemption that may finally fill that emptiness that we have carried within us? Or is it merely annihilation? The Sister of Mercy pronounces pax on them, but it is unclear whether this is the pax that follows redemption, or merely the pax of nothingness.

Perhaps even more than Rosmersholm or The Master Builder, When We Dead Awaken remains Ibsen’s most difficult and most elusive play. Despite the pax vobiscum of the Sister of Mercy, his “dramatic epilogue” does not end in peace or in harmony: it ends instead with more questions than we could possibly answer – more, perhaps, than we could even articulate.

Inching forward with “Finnegans Wake”

Ah – the plans one makes for retirement! So many things I had wanted to do, but had told myself I would do once I was retired, when I no longer had the pressure of work to contend with, that day-to-day grind. What one doesn’t take into account when making such plans are the increasing physical tiredness that accompanies age (although, having only just turned sixty, I flatter myself I’m merely on the lower slopes of old age), and, more importantly, sheer damn laziness. Nonetheless, two ambitions have survived: the first is to learn French properly, so I could, some day, read Molière’s Le Misanthrope rather than Molière’s The Misanthrope (that project has begun, and is progressing, albeit slowly); and the other is to read Finnegans Wake. These last few months, I have been inching my way through it, and only last week, I finished the first of its four parts – which is roughly one third of he length of the book. And currently, I am taking a wee break from it, while basking in a sense of smugness and self-satisfaction.

But mention of Finnegans Wake raises eyebrows. Even when speaking to someone online, I can sense that eyebrow raised. Even more so than Ulysses, it has a reputation of being a book utterly unreadable, indeed, utterly nonsensical – a mad, meaningless joke that is not to be taken seriously, and, perhaps, best left alone. Why on earth would I want to read something like that? Something that makes no sense, and is, most likely, no more than a grotesque practical joke?

I think my answer is that I do not believe that the writer gifted enough to create Ulysses would spend seventeen years of his life just to create a meaningless practical joke. After all, had I given up in the face of difficulty, and not at least have tried to penetrate what had initially appeared impenetrable, I would never have got to know Ulysses.

Of course, I know there are some who say Ulysses isn’t difficult at all, and that they took to it right away. They may even say the same for Finnegans Wake. Well, if so, then all I can say is that their minds are very different from mine. Mine is quite slow, and I find I have to work at everything. But I like to think that what my mind lacks in agility, it compensates with a certain doggedness – in this case, a bloody-minded determination at least to understand what that mad eejit Joyce was up to. Now that I have read the first part of this volume, I ask myself if it makes sense, and the answer, I think, is “No, not really”. But, once upon a time, I did graduate in physics, and though I have forgotten much, I do remember from the lectures in quantum mechanics that certain things do not need to make sense to be nonetheless true.

So why Finnegans Wake? I blame Anthony Burgess, to be frank. In my teens and my early twenties, Mr Burgess was, in effect, my literary mentor. Not that I knew him personally, of course (although he did sign a copy of A Clockwork Orange for me after I had attended one of his lectures): but not only did I enjoy his fiction, I enjoyed also his literary non-fiction – his various books and articles and essays. I used to look forward eagerly to his articles as they appeared every Sunday in The Observer (in those days, its literary editor was Terence Kilmartin). As a science student in a university oriented towards sciences and engineering (Strathclyde), I did not personally know anyone who was interested in literature, and with whom I could share my own literary interests: Anthony Burgess, in a sense, filled that gap. It was something of a one-way conversation, of course, but it would have remained one-way even if I had known him personally: I was (and remain still, I think) more interested and enthusiastic than I was knowledgeable.

And so I followed the leads he provided. His three main literary heroes were Shakespeare, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and James Joyce. Shakespeare I was already absorbing, but the other two I knew only by reputation. And, as I read Mr Burgess’ sparkling prose about their works, I was determined to get to know them also. Of course it was difficult. One doesn’t come to “The Wreck of the Deutschland” or to Ulysses expecting plain sailing, and, lacking nimbleness of mind even then, it was a slog. But once these works did penetrate through my thick skull, they stayed there. Part of the prism through which, for better or for worse, I see the world, is constructed from these works.

And so on to Finnegans Wake. Once I had got to a stage where I could truthfully say that I have read Ulysses, and, what’s more, understood it (at least up to a point where I could love it), I obviously wanted to get on to the next one. After the magnificent Symphony of Daytime with its resplendent major key coda, what could that “next one” be but that mysterious and elusive Song of the Night, in which our unthinking and yet unsettled minds elide together all the solidities of the world, and in which all forms and shapes, and all people and all times, collide, merge, and melt into each other in a state of infinite plasticity?

I tried, I did try, but my young mind, already stretched to its limits by Ulysses (not to mention the lectures on quantum mechanics), couldn’t take it in. Not even armed with Joseph Campbell’s A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake and with Roland McHugh’s Annotations, and, of course, with Burgess’ own writings. Eventually, despite my doggedness, I admitted defeat. But only temporarily. I would come back to this once I had retired, I told myself, retirement being in those days so distant a prospect that it was not a state I could even visualise. But now that I am retired, it’s time to keep that youthful promise to myself, no matter how many eyebrows are raised in the process.

Finnegans Wake famously starts and ends mid-sentence, and the unfinished half-sentence at the end may be completed by the unstarted half-sentence at the beginning. So the structure is that of a cycle, and one can, in theory at least, read it for ever, turning back to the beginning once one has reached the end, and travelling repeatedly around the cycle. This structure is taken from Giovanni Batista Vico, who saw time itself as cyclical – first a theocratic age, then an aristocratic age, followed by democratic age, and then a ricorso, a return back to the theocratic age. Whether Joyce subscribed to all this, I do not know, but it did provide him with a structure for his myth-making: the four books of Finnegans Wake reflect the four stages described by Vico: first, corresponding to the theocratic age, there’s the Book of the Parents (consisting of eight chapters, four for the Father and four for the Mother); the next book, corresponding to the aristocratic age, is the Book of the Children, who supplant their parents; then follows, for the democratic age, the Book of the People; and finally, there is a shorter book, the Ricorso, leading back again to the opening. The parents, the creating God and the nurturing Goddess, are overthrown by a newer generation, who become the aristocracy, until they too, in turn, are replaced, this time by the people in an age of democracy; and, finally, when the democracy collapses under the strain of its plurality, the theocratic age establishes itself again. Whatever reservation we may have about such a schematic view of human history, it is holds together the massive mythopoeic contents of the book into a coherent structure.

The father is Finnegan himself, whose wake, after all, we are at. And, in a fashion that we are accustomed to from Ulysses, Joyce blends together the mythic with the everyday, thus deflating the mythic in a sense, but also, in another more important sense, elevating the everyday. For Joyce is dealing with big themes here – the nature of time, the rise and falls of generations, the history of mankind itself; but his materials remain low, and ordinary. The very title of this book, after all, is taken from a popular comic song “Finnegan’s Wake”, describing a builder, Tim Finnegan, who falls from his ladder, is thought dead, but who, at his own wake, comes back again to life when some whiskey is accidentally spilt upon him. But in the title of the book, the apostrophe is omitted: if history is indeed cyclical, there are many Finnegans, and the wake refers to their resurrections as well as to their deaths. The lowbrow comic song sets the pattern for endless human cycles of falling and rising, of deaths and resurrections.

But who is this Finnegan? He is Tim Finnegan, the builder in the song, who falls off his ladder. He is the mythical giant Finn McCool. He is the primal being, the modern man, Ibsen’s Master Builder Solness (Bygmester Solness, who fears being supplanted by a younger generation, and who falls off a ladder at the end). Finnegan can be anyone you like, really. Personal identity never stays stable here. All identities, all personages, collide and merge into each other. This book itself Joyce describes at one point as a “collideorscape”.

If all this doesn’t sound mad enough, there is the language. The language we use in our waking hours is not adequate to describe the unrestrained drifting of the sleeping mind. It’s not the syntax that is difficult: that stays quite straight-forward throughout. It’s the vocabulary. Most of the words aren’t really proper English words at all, but are composites, a colliding (or scaping) of many different words, sometimes from many different languages. So a single word here can have multiple meanings, or multiple associations, multiple references. These references can be to history, to mythology, to folklore, to popular music-hall songs, to anything and everything – there are no boundaries in a dream. Some of the words are simply nonsense words, existing for the sound alone.

At this stage, encountering a book with no fixed time or space, with no character who can keep their identity for long without being transformed into someone (or something) else, it is tempting simply to throw up one’s arms and declare the whole thing to be impossible – mere gibberish. But sometimes, one has simply to trust the author, and given my past experience with Joyce’s works, I trust Joyce. So I armed myself with Roland McHugh’s Annotations to Finnegans Wake, which, page by page, disentangles every single of these compound words, pointing out its different levels of meaning, its different references. But that didn’t really work. It slowed down my reading to an impossible pace, and whatever music, whatever momentum, whatever sense of continuity the writing had, I wasn’t getting any of it. It was merely checking each nut and each bolt, but not really understanding what the nuts and bolts are there for.

The chapters on Finnegans Wake in Anthony Burgess’ Here Comes Everybody helped in this respect, but only up to a point: if McHugh’s Annotations were at too low a level, Burgess’ writing, splendid though it is, was at too high a level. Help came eventually in the form of A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake by Joseph Campbell and by Henry Morton Robinson, and soon, I settled into a mode of reading that, at least, worked for me (I’m not suggesting this will work for everyone). I would read a passage, getting as much as I can out of it (and it is quite incredible how much can be communicated simply by the sounds and the rhythms of the prose); I’d then turn to the Skeleton Key to get a better understanding of the import of the passage; and, then, once I have a good idea of its outline, I’d return to the passage again, this time with McHugh’s Annotations, to examine at least some of the nuts and bolts. Of course, progress is excruciatingly slow, and, even with all this help, I don’t understand it all: most of it, indeed, remains mysterious and probably always will, even when I have lived with this book for a while and become more familiar with the text than I am now. But I was expecting progress to be slow; and as for understanding – how much of a dream can one reasonably expect to understand anyway?

But is it worth it? Many readers, I know, will find the very idea silly that a book can only be read with the aid of other books. Perhaps. I won’t argue with that. Each reader will have to decide this point for his or her self. Speaking for myself, I am enjoying the struggle. Once I had accustomed myself to this kind of reading, I found I could sense, sometimes even without the aid of the Skeleton Key or the Annotations, a veiled magnificence, a shadowy majesty. I could sense the presence of something behind layers of veils, something elusive that I couldn’t quite capture (dreams cannot, after all, ever be captured), but something that is, all the same, resplendent, and sublime.

Out of all this, characters, of a sort, do emerge. After the fall of Finn McCool (or Finnegan, or Bygmester Solness, or whoever), he is replaced by a foreigner, who had originally come from somewhere in Scandinavia. (There are passages referring to the influx into ancient and medieval Ireland of people from abroad.) This foreigner is, it seems, the keeper of apub in Chapelizod, and his name, it seems, is Humphrey Chimpden Earwhicker. No, don’t believe that either. But these initials, HCE, are embedded throughout the book, and refer always to various incarnations of this character. And it is he, Humphrey Chimpden Earwhicker (and I still don’t believe it) who appears throughout this book in various guises. He has his fall too: in Phoenix Park, Dublin, he had “behaved with ongentilmensky immodus opposite a pair of dainty maidservants”. We are never sure what this “ongentilmensky immodus” is, but when, later, he is asked the time by a passerby, he becomes very defensive about it all, stutters guiltily, and protests his innocence at quite considerable length. Soon, rumours start spreading, and collectively, the stories circulating about the Fall of a Man in a Park take on epic proportions. He is tried, sentenced, and is buried deep under Lough Neagh, or under “lough and neagh”. But, like the Tim Finnegan of the song, or the Finn McCool of the myth, whom he had replaced (and who, confusingly enough, is also a form of himself, HCE), he rises. You can’t keep a good Finnegan down.

His wife, known as Anna Livia Plurabelle (the initials ALP represents throughout the feminine principle as insistently as HCE represents the masculine), writes a letter in her husband’s defence, but the letter is lost, and later, it turns up in a rubbish pile, unearthed by a hen. There is much pseudo-scholarly examination of this letter, which turns out to be not unlike the Book of Kells. Anna Livia Plurabelle is also a river – the River Liffey that flows through Dublin; and, indeed, she is all the rivers of all the world, watering the land with her nurturing grace.

And there are twin sons, who, it will later turn out, are, or may be, named Kevin and Jerry, but who are, to begin with, named as Shaun and Shem – Shaun the postman and Shem the penman; or as Burrus and Caseous (Brutus and Cassius, butter and cheese); or stone and stem (the unchanging, and the developing); or space and time; or the old Irish church and the Catholic church that supplants it; or any other pair of opposites one may think of. For among the themes that emerge from the mist is that of opposites meeting, or colliding, and becoming one. This theme Joyce traces to Giordano Bruno – or Bruno the Nolan (as Bruno originated from Nola). Which is rather convenient, as there was at the time a Dublin publisher called Browne and Nolan. And these two names appear in all sorts of guises throughout the text, always signifying opposites that are essentially a single unity, and which will, eventually, merge, and be seen as such.

And there is a daughter, Izzy. Or Issy. Or maybe Isabel. Or something. One can never be too sure. Maybe she is the Iseult to whom the chapel (Chapelizod) is dedicated. Or the Isolde from Wagner’s opera (she appears at one stage as a certain Mildew Lisa – a reference to the opening line of the Liebestod in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, “mild und leise”).

There are a few minor characters as well – the elderly cleaning lady as HCE’s pub, who is, really, another version of Anna Livia herself. There’s old Joe, who also works at the pub. And there are the twelve mourners at Finnegan’s wake, who are also customers in the pub. Or maybe, they are all manifestations of HCE and ALP and their children – who knows? It’s hard to be specific about anything here.

The question remains: is it worth all this effort for this madness? For madness it is. It was madness sitting down to write it; it was madness spending seventeen years of one’s life working over it; and perhaps the greatest madness of all was expecting people to read it. I don’t know if I am yet in a position to answer this question. I do admit that there are times I have doubts – grave doubts. But the doubts are, more often than not, dispelled by the wit; by the audacity; by that glint in the eye that is, admittedly, sometimes the glint of megalomania, but is, more often, the glint of good humour; and, perhaps most importantly, by the music of the prose. In the famous recording made by Joyce himself of the concluding passage of the first book, the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” chapter, it is the musical sounds and rhythms that make their impact, even before we start looking for the meanings of the words. And this, I think, is how we should approach the book: the sound comes before the sense. Indeed, it is the sound that conveys the sense. The rest are but the nuts and bolts.

And the vague, shadowy vision that becomes apparent underneath all these layers of veils is magnificent indeed. It is nothing less than a mythologised history of the whole of mankind. And yet, as in Ulysses, the magnificence of this vision is built from often everyday materials.

In that last chapter of the first book, we have two washerwomen, standing on either side of the Liffey, washing clothes, and gossiping about Anna. As the chapter progresses, we come further downstream, and the river widens, till the two washerwomen cannot hear each other from the opposite banks. And, Ovid-like, one turns into a rock, and the other into a tree, a stem and a stone – one growing in time, the other still.

As Anthony Burgess writes in Here Comes Everybody:

The language is cosmic, yet it is the homely speech of ordinary people. We seem to see a woman who is also a river and a man who is also a city. Time dissolves; we have a glimpse of eternity. And the eternal vision is made out of muddy water, old saws, half-remembered music-hall songs, gossip, and the stain on a pair of underpants. The heart bows down.  

I shall be starting on the next part soon, but since it is thanks to the urgings of Mr Burgess that I am reading this book in the first place, I may as well let him have the last word for now. I hope to be returning here to write more of my impressions once I have read the later books.

“John Gabriel Borkman” by Henrik Ibsen

*** SPOILER WARNING: The following post inevitably reveals some of the plot details of this play, and so, if such things are important to you (they needn’t be), it is possibly best not to read this post till you’ve read or seen the play for yourself.  

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Barbara Haveland and Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife, published by Penguin Classics

I am talking about the crime for which there is no forgiveness.

The set-up is fairly straight-forward. John Gabriel Borkman had once been an important man – a banker. But he had been caught embezzling, and, after three years in custody awaiting trial, had been found guilty, and had served another five years in prison. The action of the play takes place eight years after his release, and those eight years Borkman has spent again imprisoned, this time voluntarily: he has shut himself up in his room upstairs, endlessly pacing up and down, “like a sick wolf” as his wife puts it, never daring even to leave the house, but obsessing over how he will yet achieve the greatness he thinks he had been close to achieving those sixteen years ago.

Under the same roof, though never seeing him, lives his wife, Gunhild. Unlike Borkman, who is a miner’s son, she is from a privileged, land-owning family; and she too, like her husband, is obsessed: she is obsessed with clearing the family name, and restoring the family honour; and she is determined that it is their son, Erhart, now a young man in his early twenties, who will achieve this. It is he who will eventually redeem them by paying back all the creditors, and thus laying the matter to rest for ever. Not that she cares for the creditors: as with her husband, but for different reasons, those who have lost their livelihoods all those years ago barely enter her mind at all: what matters to her is her family name, and, more importantly (though she doesn’t openly acknowledge this), the hurt she has received from her husband.

The hurt is not merely to her family pride: it is to her personal pride also. She had loved her husband, but that love had not been returned: John Gabriel Borkman’s mind had been elsewhere. It had been obsessed, then, as now, with power – the power that, in the secular world in which they live, can come only with industry and with commerce. It is for the sake of this power that Borkman had renounced love: he had, as a young man, loved Ella, Gunhild’s twin sister, but had married Gunhild instead, for no other reason than better to pursue his dream of power. Yet, some compunction had prevented his using Ella’s money in his fraudulent schemes: she had survived the financial turmoil that Borkman’s embezzlement had occasioned, and it is her house, unaffected by the financial collapse of Borkman’s bank, in which the Borkmans now live – under the same roof, but never setting eyes on each other, year after year.

And it was Ella who, when the scandal had broken, had looked after her nephew Erhart. And now, she knows she is dying, and she wants her nephew, whom she regards as her own son, to carry on her name. But his biological mother, endlessly brooding on her hurts, and fixated on the idea of the next generation making restitution for the sins of the past, cannot allow this. So now, the twin sisters fight each other over the son, just as they had once fought over the father.

All this brings in various familiar themes – corruption in public life and betrayal in the private, the relationships between the generations, the imposition of duty upon the spontaneous joy of life, the dreams and illusions that sustain us, the renunciation of love for power, and so on. And all this promises a realistic, drawing room bourgeois drama – admittedly a turbulent one, but, nonetheless, of the kind that Ibsen is still, rather unfairly, associated with.

But this is not the play Ibsen gives us. Not by a long shot.

But what he gives us isn’t easy to describe, as not only is it unlike any other play I know of, it is also, despite certain recurrent themes, unlike any of Ibsen’s other plays either. Over these twelve plays beginning with The Pillars of Community, Ibsen had been moving way from what may be termed “realism” – that is, depictions of characters of the kind we may expect to encounter in real life, thinking and behaving in a manner that does not stretch credulity in everyday settings. In this play, he seems to take such a drastic step further away from realism, that one wonders whether, despite the realistic trappings, we should be considering it in such terms at all. The three principal characters – Gunhild, Ella, and John Gabriel – seem poised in some mysterious region between life and death: Ella knows she is dying, and, at the end, John Gabriel actually does die, but, whether they know it or not, there is no future for any of them, and the hopes they harbour about the future are, of necessity, delusional.

And these characters are much simpler, too – just as the characters in the late Shakespeare plays are simpler than their predecessors: Leontes is not as complex a character as Othello, nor Iachimo as complex as Iago, nor Miranda as complex as Ophelia; similarly, John Gabriel is not as complex as Master Builder Solness, nor Gunhild as complex as Hedda Gabler. What you see on the surface is more or less what there is: this is not a play that looks into the depths of the characters, primarily because those depths don’t really exist.

Also noticeably absent is imagery. No place here for anything like the phantom white horses of Rosmersholm, the towers of The Master Builder, or those water lilies in Little Eyolf that germinate in the depths, and then shoot suddenly to the surface. The room in which the play opens is hot and stuffy, and there is a blizzard blowing outside, and these, I suppose, could be seen as symbols, but they are quite straight-forward, and lack the resonance to be the stuff of dramatic poetry. The hot room and the snowstorm outside are introduced not to communicate those obscure matters that cannot be communicated by other means, but merely as representations of two different states of mind. Here, the characters speak directly: what they say is precisely what they mean, and we do not need to look for symbols in their words.

The handling of time is also different. Typically, an Ibsen play gives us selected scenes, as it were, with a gap of time between successive scenes (the number of these scenes determined by the number of acts in the play). Here, although there are four acts, there is no temporal gap between them – so that Act Two begins at the very point where Act One ended, Act Three at the precise point where Act Two ended, and so on. The action of the play takes up exactly the same two hours or so it takes us to watch it. This pushes the very idea of time itself into the foreground, and injects into the play a tremendous urgency: time is running out fast for all three of these characters, and, at  the edge of the grave, perhaps already in some mysterious region between life and death, there is no scope, no time, for indirectness: these characters say what they feel, what they think, without any periphrasis, any subterfuge, and with a directness that is almost brutal.

Passions are high, right from the start. The stage directions accompanying the various speeches, especially those of Gunhild, leave us in no doubt: “animated”, “tense”, “with mounting excitement”, “flares up”, and so on. Of course, acting styles have changed since then, and modern audiences probably prefer understatement, but however the actors convey this, there is clearly much passion here, and it’s not hidden.

These three characters meet for the first time after sixteen years. Gunhild and John Gabriel live in the same house, but she sits downstairs, brooding, while he paces up and down upstairs, similarly brooding (though on different matters), and never daring to leave the house. Gunhild says that sometimes she hears him come down to the hall, put on his hat and coat, but take them off and go back upstairs again. They have never spoken to each other for sixteen years – not since his embezzlement had been discovered and he was taken into custody.

Into this environment comes Gunhild’s twin sister, Ella Rentheim. Although she owns the house in which Gunhild and John Gabriel live, she herself does not live there. We discover over the course of the play why she has decided after all this time to meet her sister again: she knows she is dying, and, terrified of leaving nothing behind her, wishes her nephew to take her name. The other two, however, don’t know they’re dying: they are too wrapped in their own obsessions, and both are obsessively planning for a future that doesn’t exist.

But Ella Rentheim is right to be terrified. The death these characters face is cold and blank: there is nothing beyond it. Despite the various religious references throughout the play – not least the middle name of the titular character, that seems to speak of a power and a glory that isn’t really visible – there is no mention, nor even a hint, of a divinity. These characters may all long for something that is greater than themselves – Gunhild for her lost reputation and her pride in her self, Ella for something of her own that she may leave behind, John Gabriel for a power and a glory that was nearly his – but in each case, what they long for is of this world,  a worldfrom which they are already in the process of departing. Any hope for a future is illusory: all they have to fall back on is the past.

And they all speak of that past openly, frankly, almost as if past caring what hurt they cause in speaking of it. Neither Gunhild nor John Gabriel care about those who have lost their livelihoods. In the first act, when we hear (but don’t see) John Gabriel pacing up and down his room upstairs, “like a sick wolf”, Gunhild and Ella don’t spare each other in their recollections of the past. And in the second act, when Ella goes up to see John Gabriel, he too speaks coldly about the past, in particular about why he had sacrificed Ella whom he, as a young man, had once loved: he had his own dreams, dreams of earthly power and earthly glory, and, to achieve this, he had needed the goodwill of the lawyer Hinkel, who had also loved Ella. And so, he sacrificed his own love: he had married Ella’s sister, and had left Ella for Hinkel. And he can say all this coldly to Ella now, without the slightest pang of remorse:

ELLA RENTHEIM: But you did have what was most precious on board. Your future life –

BORKMAN: Life isn’t always what is most precious.

Borkman had been aspiring to something that was, for him, more precious even than life itself. Traditionally, that takes us into the realms of religion, but the world presented here is godless. But how can one find something even more precious than life itself in a godless world? And what does one sacrifice to achieve this? John Gabriel Borkman had sacrificed Ella, without a thought, and now, years later, He can tell her this without any remorse. Ella’s response is deeply religious:

ELLA RENTHEIM:  … at the time, I didn’t know about your great, horrific crime.

BORKMAN: What crime? What are you talking about?

ELLA RENTHEIM: I’m talking about the crime for which there is no forgiveness.

Ella goes on to explain what she means by this:

You have killed the vital capacity for love in me.

 The word used in the original, the notes of my Penguin edition tell me, is “kærlighedslivet”, a compound word joining together the words meaning “love” and “life”. Michael Meyer (Methuen) translates that line simply as “You have killed love in me”. I’d guess the Penguin translation by Haveland and Stanton-Ife possibly gets closer to what Ibsen had intended, but it is at the expense of succinctness. The meaning, I think, is fairly clear: there is no symbol or poetic imagery here to decipher. John Gabriel Borkman has destroyed in Ella the ability to love; he has compelled her to live a loveless life; and for that crime, there is no forgiveness.

The reference here is to a somewhat enigmatic verse in the Bible:

Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men; but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men.

– Gospel According to Matthew 12:31

Even a charge such as this, made so directly, appears to make no impact at all upon John Gabriel. He is in grip of something that is, to him, even more powerful.

When we first see him, at the start of Act Two, a young local girl, Frida, is playing the piano to him – the Danse Macabre by Saint-Saëns. The exchange that follows – more monologue than exchange, really, since Frida does not really understand what he says, and nor does it matter to him whether she does or not – is, to put it mildly, strange:

BORKMAN: Can you guess where I hear notes like this, Miss Foldal?

FRIDA [ looks up at him]: No, Mr Borkman?

BORKMAN: It was down in the mines.

FRIDA [ does not understand]: Really? In the mines?

BORKMAN: I’m a miner’s son, as you probably know. Or perhaps you didn’t?

FRIDA: No, Mr Borkman.

BORKMAN: A miner’s son. And my father sometimes took me down the mines with him – . Down where the metal ore sings.

FRIDA: Oh, does it – sing?

BORKMAN [nods]: As it’s being loosened. The hammer strokes that loosen it are the chimes of midnight; they strike, and set it free. That’s why the ore sings – it sings with joy – in its own way.

FRIDA: why does it do that, Mr Borkman?

BORKMAN: It wants to come up to the light of day, and serve people.

Borkman’s vision of the ores under the ground longing to come up to “serve people” seems almost religious in its fervour, and, in the absence of a God, somewhat demented. But, given that absence, what can that religious fervour be directed towards? Borkman speaks of “serving the people”, and yet he never once shows any feeling or understanding of people, of their needs or their desires. The people he himself has ruined with his embezzlement he is happy to dismiss as insignificant. There is a fervour there all right, but directed towards what? The play doesn’t answer this, but it’s hard to resist the obvious answer that it is power. This is the dream that animates Borkman – the power and the glory, associated with Gabriel, but of distinctly an earthly, workmanlike variety. This is what he had sacrificed Ella to, and what he later cold-bloodedly tells Ella is more precious than life itself.

This renunciation of love for power, and this desire to master the elements of the earth with the aim of obtaining this power, bring to mind what many may regard as the single most powerful work of art of the 19th century – Wagner’s mighty Ring Cycle.  Ibsen was in nearby Munich when these operas were first performed in Bayreuth, but, despite being urged by his compatriot Edvard Grieg, he did not go to see them: he was not particularly musical, and the thought of sitting so many hours through these works put him off. No doubt he would have heard about the Ring, but it seems to me unlikely that this would have had any significant influence on him: we shouldn’t, after all, be surprised when major artists living in the same era hit upon similar themes. It is more fruitful, I think, to look for connections in Ibsen’s own earlier work.

As a young man of twenty-three, Ibsen had written a poem on precisely this theme:

Deep in the mountain’s desolate night
The rich treasure beckons me.
Diamonds and precious stones
Among the red branches of gold.

And in the darkness there is peace.
Peace and rest for eternity.
Heavy hammer, break me the way
To the heart-chamber of what lies hidden there…

[From the translation by Michael Meyer]

In The Pillars of Society, written some twenty years earlier, and the first in the series of twelve plays of what may be termed a cycle, Bernick too had dreamed of mastering the elements of the earth:

Imagine what a powerful lever [the railway will] represent for our entire community. Think of the enormous tracts of forest that’ll be made accessible; think of rich seams of ore that can be worked; think of the river with one waterfall after the other. Just imagine all the industry that can be established there.

[Translated by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik]

And Bernick too had considered himself above the law to achieve his ends. But he lacked the quasi-mystical fervour of Borkman.

More recently, there was Master Builder Solness, who had also come from humble origins and had worked his way up, and who had also ruthlessly used those around him to gain his worldly success. He is in many ways a close match to Borkman. He too speaks of serving people (or, at least, of building houses “for people to live in”) but shows little concern for people in any other aspect of his life. Both Solness and Borkman have a self-regard that is at times blasphemous: both say of themselves, as the voice of God had said to Moses out of the burning bush, “I am what I am”.

But of course, this man who “is what he is” is also a man afraid to leave his own house. The dreams and visions that sustain him are merely rather pathetic comfort blankets. He is flattered in this by Frida’s father, a rather pathetic little man, Villem Foldal. Foldal too has his life-sustaining illusion: he is, both at home and outside, a downtrodden little man, but he had written once a tragic drama, and he is convinced that, one day, the greatness of this drama will be recognised. He had been one of those insignificant little men who had been ruined by Borkman’s fraud, but he comes to Borkman regularly, both to assure and to be assured: he assures Borkman that his dream of once again attaining power isn’t really dead; and Borkman, in turn, keeps alive Foldal’s own dream of some day being recognised as a poet. A comic pair, perhaps more suited for a play by Molière than one of Ibsen’s darkest tragedies. But their mutually supporting relationship cannot last: Foldal is injudicious enough to bring up the rather unpleasant truth that Borkman cannot have access to the financial world again given his conviction, and Borkman, stung by the ray of reality breaking in upon him, bluntly tells Foldal that he is no poet. After all, how can someone who does not recognise the poetic beauty of Borkman’s dreams be a poet? And this Molièresque scene of comedy ends, as Molière’ own scenes often do, on a surprisingly poignant note. But despite the break, both Foldal and Borkman cling on to their respective illusions.

There is one further element to the play: youth – those characters who, unlike the principal characters of this drama, do have a future. There Frida, the 15 year-old who comes over to play the piano for John Gabriel; there’s Fanny Wilton, a beautiful young lady (in her early 30s, we are told) who presents herself as widowed, but who is most likely divorced (divorce carried a huge social stigma in those days); and, of course, there’s Erhart himself, from whom so much is expected. Once again, compared to characters in Ibsen’s earlier works, these are simple characters: there is not much more to them than what one sees on the surface. What unites them – at least, the two older ones – is simply a desire, as Erhart puts it, to “live, live, live”. And there are no metaphysical complexities involved in what they mean by this: they mean the pleasure of the moment.

Fanny Wilton is an outgoing and assertive personality: it was her former husband, and not herself, who had been unfaithful, and in those days, it must have required a quite uncommonly self-assertive character in a woman to seek divorce and to accept the social stigma that went with it. It is she who decides to travel south, towards the sun (and there is an obvious symbolism here in the comparison between the sun she goes to, and the snowstorm she leaves behind). She takes with her the others of this league of youth – Erhart and Frida, in the sleigh-carriage with its tinkling bells.

The image of Youth simply walking away from the failures and unhealthy obsessions of their elders is an attractive one, but it’s not quite so straight-forward as it may seem. Fanny Wilton’s unashamed explanation for taking the 15-year-old Frida with them can, even now, or, perhaps, especially now, seem rather shocking:

Men are so fickle, Mrs Borkman. Women too. When Erhart has finished with me – and I with him – it would be good for both of us if, poor thing, he has someone to fall back on.

There is nothing moral about the rebellion of Youth. The duties and the responsibilities the older generation expect from Erhart are almost casually discarded, and the rebellion is not intellectual or philosophical in any sense. Erhart and Fanny Wilton are not even going off together because they love each other: they are going away with each other for no other reason than that they want sex – sex in the southern sun. It really is that simple.

But the departure of Youth for the southern sun is not where the play ends. We have one further act, in which are left behind not merely the dying, but, one suspects, those who are already dead. And the blizzard that has been raging outside till now comes now to the forefront: we now leave that over-heated house, and find ourselves right in the cold blankness of the snow. If we had suspected that the previous three acts weren’t quite taking place in the real world, we can have no doubts about it now. We are now in an imaginary world, a visionary world, not perhaps quite in the realms of death, but not quite in the land of the living either.

And the three protagonists in this drama go into death without any new understanding of themselves, without any conciliation with the past. Borkman finally leaves his house, and he and Ella, though as yet unreconciled, and the crime for which there is no forgiveness still unforgiven, tramp off together into the snow. But first, we are reminded of another corpse left behind: Villem Foldal, the downtrodden man who thinks himself a poet.

And in a sense, though not in the sense he had thought, he is a poet. He has been knocked down by a sleigh, has lost his spectacles, and has hurt his foot: he is more absurd and insignificant and downtrodden than ever. But when he hears that this carriage that has knocked him down had in it his own daughter, who is heading for the sun, far from being anguished, he is overjoyed. One cannot help feeling that this strange joy is the only pure ray of sunlight in the entire play: he is happy – happy that his daughter may find something of a joy that it has never been his privilege to have had. And this holy simpleton leaves the stage in a state of happiness that we fear none of the other characters in the play have ever known, or ever will know.

Certainly not the three remaining corpses. The one hope that Gunhild had nursed for some sixteen years now is shattered: her son Erhart was never the person to carry on his shoulders that great burden she had wanted to place on them, and she is in despair. Ella too now realises that, with Erhart’s departure, there will be nothing left of her; and she accepts this final defeat with grace. But as for Borkman, defeat is something he cannot even contemplate: this time, he finally plucks up the courage to come outside his house, though as deeply immersed as ever in his illusions.

Borkman and Ella together walk up through the snow, to a bench over a view of the world below: this was a place they used to come to in their younger days, but where we might expect this circumstance to awaken in Borkman’s mind the more tender feelings he once had for Ella, we see him enmired still in his dream of power. Dead men cannot develop, after all, and Borkman is already dead. And he intones what is in effect a hymn to the power and the glory he had dreamed of:

BORKMAN: Ella, can you see the mountain ranges there – far away? One behind the other. They rise. They tower up! There lies my vast, infinite, inexhaustible kingdom!

ELLA: Oh, but there’s an icy blast coming from that kingdom, John!

BORKMAN: That blast is like the breath of life to me. That blast comes over me like a greeting from my spirit subjects. I sense them, the trapped millions; I feel the veins of metal ore stretching out their arms to me, branching, beckoning, coaxing. That night when I stood in the bank vault holding the lantern in my hand, I saw them before me like shadows come to life. You all wanted to be liberated then. And I tried to do it. But I lacked the power. The treasure sank back into the depths. [with outstretched hands] But I will whisper to this in the still of the night: I love you, as you lie there in the deep of the darkness with the look of death! I love you, life-craving riches – I love you, and all your blazing retinue of power and glory! I love, love, love you!

It is in this state of religious ecstasy that Borkman dies. He gives his life to that which, to him, is more precious than life itself. At the very end, he feels a cold hand grasp his heart. Not a hand of ice, but a hand of iron. He sacrifices himself to the gods whom he had loved. And at the end, the two women, the twin sisters, themselves dead, hold hands over the dead man.


The late plays of Ibsen are notoriously obscure, and it is hard to know just how to interpret this. Given Borkman’s transcendent longing for power, he has been linked, naturally enough, to Nietzsche, and this play has been seen both as a Nietzschean play, and also as a play critical of Nietzschean ideas. I don’t know that either will do: these plays weren’t written, after all, to demonstrate any specific or even any general point. Rather, I see it as a bleak and ferocious and unforgiving winter landscape, a depiction – as Ibsen himself put it – of “the coldness of the heart”. It is a world balanced between life and death: often, especially in the final act, we feel as if we are already in the icy realms of Death, an icy and unforgiving region into which we carry, unrepentant, all the coldness and delusions that have lived with, all our crimes unatoned. And, especially, that crime for which there is no forgiveness, which, as Ibsen interprets it, is the murder of love within our beings.

Perhaps only a Holy Fool like Villem Foldal may escape.

The literary ferocity of Henry James

In response to an aspiring writer who, perhaps somewhat foolishly, had asked him for feedback, Henry James, after some preliminary gentleness, was rather brutally direct: “I’m not so sure that [your work] strikes me as quite so ferociously literary as my ideal.”

Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of discouraging a young writer; and leaving aside also the justice of James’ criticism, or the unexpected use of the adverb “ferociously”; James’ response is striking: the problem, for him, is not that the work he had been asked to judge was bad, as such: it was just not as ferociously literary as he might have liked. For the enemy of the good is not really the bad: it is the mediocre, which can often be mistaken for something better.

Nowadays, “mediocre” is often used as a synonym for “bad”. It isn’t, of course: far from it. Mediocrity is, indeed, something I often strive for myself in these blog posts, and feel happy if I ever I think I have attained it. And though I have long given up the idea of writing a novel myself, should I ever resurrect that ambition, I would be more than delighted to achieve something that may be deemed “mediocre”. But it is that tantalising gap between the mediocre on the one hand, and James’ literary ferocity on the other, that gives me pause.

For, sadly, I have read too many novels that are often praised by reviewers in fulsome terms, sometimes even with comparisons with Austen and Tolstoy and Flaubert and the like, where, mediocre though the novel is (and, once again, I do not use the term in a derogatory sense), it falls well short of James’ literary ferocity. There’s nothing wrong with that: I do not mean to sneer. Mediocrity, properly understood, is by no means a pejorative, since it is, virtually by definition, the norm in any field of human activity: it can even, sometimes, cover some works that are very good indeed. But those many reviewers who make so freely such comparisons seem to me to lack awareness of the gap between the book they are reviewing, and the books they are comparing it to. For the standards of the latter are exceptionally high, and only very rarely achieved.

The problem I so often have with so many of these highly praised novels is that, all too often, I really don’t care. Just as when, in a pub, some boozing crony tells me of some friend of his, whom I do not know; and he tells me of a marriage I do not know slowly drifting apart; of difficult parents whom I do not know; of rebellious offspring too, whom I also do not know; and the like; and I sit there, nodding away as sympathetically as I can, wondering all the time why I should be expected to take an interest in the lives of those strangers whom, as I say, I do not know. Not that these things are not important: it’s just that there is no reason why a stranger like myself should find these matters relating to people I do not know particularly interesting.

I feel similarly with many novels I read. For I begin any novel a mere stranger, and the characters contained therein are also strangers to me. The success or otherwise of fiction depends to a great extent on how well the author can make me feel that these characters in the fiction are more than mere strangers, and that what happens to them, what they think, how they act, how they interact with others, are all worth taking an interest in. How authors who achieve this do so isn’t easy to explain: since different authors achieve this in different ways, the means of their achievement cannot all be corralled together into any definite set of criteria; and even considering single works, determining just what the author does to render these characters as something more than mere strangers generally proves a fruitless task: in any major work of art there lies a mystery the heart of which not even the finest analysis can quite pluck out. But it’s when the author doesn’t achieve this that the failure, for me at any rate, becomes all too apparent. Or – who knows? – it may be that I just get too easily bored in my advancing years.

I spent much of last year reading James’ The Wings of the Dove. I was about to write “re-reading”, but given how little I had taken in at my first reading, such boasting didn’t seem appropriate. It took me a great many months to read. This is, firstly, because I am a slow reader at best of times; secondly, because the notoriously opaque prose style characteristic of the later works of James is not conducive to anything resembling a “quick read”; and, thirdly, since my illness a few years ago, I find it frankly difficult to maintain my concentration on anything for long, uninterrupted stretches of time. But despite all this, I got through it. Progress was painfully slow – sometimes a mere two to three page a day – but I got there, eventually. No, it wasn’t an easy read, and neither was it un-put-down-able: on the contrary, I had to put it down frequently, to think about what I’d just read. Or what I’d just re-read, since many of the sentences needed more than one reading. I realise that none of these encomia is likely to make it to the cover of the book to encourage readers to take it up, but, despite eventually finishing around October or so last year, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. Here was literary ferocity.

As with much of James – especially in his late works – nothing is ever spelt out: James seems endlessly to be circling about his points, hinting, suggesting, indicating, but never doing anything so vulgar as to spit it out. The plot proceeds subterraneously, as it were, rendering any attempt at summary crude; but should such a summary be attempted, what would emerge would most probably be melodramatic, and, by the end, not a little sentimental (although both melodrama and sentimentality are terms that should be used carefully in criticism). What emerges, when read carefully (which is, after all, the only way possible to read a book such as this), is the most penetrating insight into the vagaries of human perceptions and of human motives, the most delicate account of the developing sensibilities, and the most harrowing account of guilt and of forgiveness – or, rather, of the inability to accept forgiveness.

I will, despite what I have said, give some indication of the plot. It centres around a dying heiress, and of the vultures who gather around her – an impoverished aristocrat, and, more significantly, a young couple who don’t quite plot as such (that would be too crude in James’ fictional world), but who reach an unspoken understanding with each other that should he convince the dying heiress of his love for her, he might then inherit her wealth, and then marry the woman whom he really loves. It all seems terribly sordid, and it is. But once the dove folds its wings (the Biblical echoes of the title can hardly be mistaken), what she leaves behind is a sorrow that is more than that due to her passing: it is her forgiveness that leaves a chasm in the souls of those she leaves behind; it is her forgiveness that cannot be accepted.

It left me in tears. Such was its literary ferocity, for a long time I found myself unable to think about anything else: any other fiction I attempted thereafter seemed to me insipid. I had initially thought to write a blog post on it, but soon realised I couldn’t. That isn’t because the work is complex: foolhardy as I am, I am not averse to writing at excessive length on works of great complexity. It is, rather, that I didn’t understand how James achieved it. Yes, I could analyse the structure to the best of my ability, I could focus in on individual details and expatiate on their significance, and all the rest of it. But nothing would take me close to the effect it had on me.

I am not really, I confess, at home with James. I do not feel I have an instinctive grasp of his aesthetics, as I do with, say, the works of Dickens. Reading something like The Wings of the Dove, I seem to find myself in an unfamiliar land, and struck to the point of being overwhelmed by unfamiliar landmarks, and yet unable to articulate why they affect me so. Analysing the art with which he achieves all this, working out how he invests his characters, their relationships with each other, and, more perhaps to the point, their relationships with their own selves, with more than merely the passing interest of a stranger, would really be well beyond me. But I wanted to register, at any rate, how this novel made me feel; and also express my growing impatience that superlatives that should only be reserved for the finest should so liberally be applied to, frankly, the less deserving. For while the distinction between the good and the bad is still apparent – no-one would think of ranking any of the shades of grey, say, alongside the achievements of an Austen or a Tolstoy – the distinction is becoming increasingly blurred between the mediocre (once again, no pejorative intended) and the finest.

Or, as James might have put it with so uncharacteristic a bluntness, between the mediocre, and that which has about it a literary ferocity.

“Against Nature” by Joris-Karl Huysmans

I doubt I’m the first to find it difficult to articulate my responses to Huysmans’ À Rebours. I found it engrossing, but I had first to overcome two major problems I have concerning fin-de-siècle decadence: aesthetically, I do not see its appeal; and morally, it has long struck me as an affectation that can only be indulged in by the sufficiently wealthy. Unless I was prepared to put away these prejudices, or, at least, suspend them while reading the book, I’d end up merely judging its protagonist des Esseintes unfavourably, and seeing in the book little more than a criticism of his character and of his thoughts. And mere unfavourable judgement cannot, I think, sustain a reader through an entire novel. But once I’d cleared my mind of my prejudices as best I could, I think I started to make more sense of it.

It’s hard to believe that this very strange novel was the product of a literary culture that, at the time (it was published in 1884), was dominated by Zola. The French title is untranslatable, and is usually rendered as Against Nature; however, this does not strike me as particularly felicitous, as it has about it a Shakespearean echo that’s a bit out of place here (“’Gainst nature still!” from Macbeth); and further, it isn’t just nature that des Esseintes is against: he is against modernity, society, everything – even humanity itself and human relationships. He is not just the leading character of the novel: he is the only character. A few others appear on the sidelines from time to time – servants, the doctor, and the like – but des Esseintes’ relationship with them is not touched upon. This refusal to engage with relationship between humans eliminates what is central to most novels, both in the nineteenth century, and also now: it eliminates the possibility also of conflict, and, hence, of drama.

But despite its strangeness, this novel has certain forebears. The classic novel of the solitary man creating his own world is, of course, Robinson Crusoe. Des Esseintes is, we are told, the last enervated remnant of a decayed aristocratic family, and we have met this character before in Poe’s Roderick Usher, and also in Stevenson’s marvellous Gothic tale “Olalla”. Des Esseintes’ disdain for bourgeois values and for popular taste (a disdain clearly shared by the author) is present in Flaubert; and we find in Flaubert also that studied ironic detachment of Huysmans’ narrative style – although, in Flaubert’s case, I can’t help but sense that this ironic detachment was a front for deeper feelings, whereas with Huysmans, I do not get that sense at all.

The immense erudition apparent in all the various learned references and allusions that the novel is packed with is also Flaubertian (it is very apparent in Bouvard et Pécuchet), and the idea of a man who detaches himself from a society he despises may even remind us of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man (although, admittedly, Dostoyevsky’s fictional world is a very far cry from that of Huysmans).

The structure of Huysmans’ novel is not so much symphonic, but more, as it were, a sort of “theme and variations”: the theme is stated first, and each chapter that follows is a variation on it. This structure, too, derives from Flaubert – again from Bouchard et Pécuchet.

But despite all of this, this novel is entirely original and unique, and its ability to engage the reader (for it certainly engaged me) is something I can’t quite account for.

While des Esseintes is not Huysmans (neither at the start nor at the end is he capable of writing the book we are reading), there is, I think, a considerable degree of overlap between author and protagonist: the desire to escape from this world and create one’s own is one Huysmans seems to sympathise with. He must: he would hardly have written an entire book on this theme were it otherwise. But it would be wrong, I think, to see this book merely as a vindication, or even as a commendation, of its protagonist: we should, I think, be prepared to regard des Esseintes in a critical manner. Unlike Robinson Crusoe, he cannot make his own clothes, or grow his own food. Nor, for that matter, can he decorate his dwelling to his tastes (a detailed description of des Esseintes’ interior decoration takes up an entire chapter of the novel). And he has personal servants as well. So, really, his detachment from life, from society, really is an affectation: given his inability actually to do anything, he is entirely dependent upon that same society that he so despises.

While this is not, I think, a negligible point, to see the entire novel from this perspective is to miss its richness. For des Esseintes is no mere hypocrite, and no mere poseur: his desire to detach himself from a world that is hateful to him is real. And the alienation that urges him to do this is also real. It is precisely in order to appreciate this element of the novel that I had to suspend my usual distaste for decadent aestheticism.

And it is not merely from the world of his fellow humans that he is alienated: he is alienated from nature itself. Not for him to turn to Nature to replenish the soul, in Wordsworthian fashion. He turns instead to artifice: the further from nature, the better, for the entirety of Nature is hateful to him. This is about as violent a reaction from nature-worshipping Romanticism as I think I have encountered.

But while des Esseintes assiduously cultivates the artificial, it isn’t clear – not to me, at least – what exactly he gets out of it. Possibly he doesn’t know himself. If all this is a different means of replenishing his soul, there seems no indication of that in the narrative: indeed, the very idea of a human soul that needs to be replenished seems very far from the spirit of this novel. Are his aesthetics, perhaps, no more than a gesture to demonstrate his hatred of the world outside? Or does his particular brand of aestheticism really does have some sort of positive effect on him? Or, perhaps, does it not matter either way? I couldn’t really get to the bottom of this: des Esseintes’ mindset is so very different from my own, I’m not sure I always understand it – fascinating though it was to enter it.

But his aestheticism, whatever he gets out of it, is utterly divorced from moral considerations: indeed, it seems at times to be in opposition to moral concerns. Des Esseintes is, ethically, completely disengaged. In one chapter, he pays for a young urchin to visit brothels, and, once the lad develops a taste for this sort of thing, abruptly withdraws the funding, just as an experiment to see what happens, and hoping that it all ends in criminality, and even murder. One must be extremely disengaged from all ethical concerns even to consider such an experiment with a living human, purely, as far as I could work out, to satisfy one’s aesthetic sense. But where, in any other novel, something so striking would have been developed, here, the strand just vanishes: des Esseintes loses touch with the boy, and neither he nor we know (nor care) what happens next. This wouldn’t have been possible in a symphonically constructed novel, but in a Theme and Variations format, each variation is allowed to stand independently of the others.

There is a hilarious passage where he thinks of going to England, but, after an evening in an English-style bar in Paris, decides not to go after all, as he has in that bar experienced England far better than he possibly could in England itself. This reminded me of the film critic Leslie Halliwell’s observation that the MGM backlots of Paris were far more romantic than the real Paris could ever be. What, after all, is so great about reality?

I’m still not sure why I found this strange novel so engrossing. I’m still far from being in sympathy with the aesthetics of decadence; and since this novel does not deal with human relationships, the conflict that is necessary for drama is missing. But a conflict of sorts does perhaps emerge – between, on the one hand, a desire to detach oneself from the world, and, on the other, the impossibility of doing so. And this impossibility neither negates nor makes ridiculous the desire. But in the end, the desire is defeated: reality, loathsome as it may be, has to be accepted. The theme has been stated; the variations played out; and then, it’s an inevitable return to the life that had been rejected.

These are my somewhat confused impressions of a very strange novel. I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it all. Maybe I need to give it more time to sink in.

What Shakespeare may (perhaps) have thought about

“Never trust the teller, trust the tale,” D. H. Lawrence famously said, adding, rather interestingly, that it was the critic’s job “to rescue the tale from the teller”. Given how far just about every major writer falls short of their creation – some, admittedly, more than others – I have always found this a useful thing to bear in mind: it’s the work we have to deal with, not the author, and if what we know of the author’s personal defects and shortcomings gets in the way of our appreciation of the work, it is indeed the critic’s job to focus the reader’s attention on what really matters.

But it is no more than natural curiosity to want to know something, at least, of the person who could create those works that we admire so much, and, when it comes to Shakespeare, we are for ever at a dead end. We have a few scraps of facts about his life, but nothing, really, that tells us what kind of person he was. And while part of me thinks that just as well, there’s another part that can’t help questioning what exactly was going on in that strange mind of his. And all we are reduced to on this point is, I think, conjecture.

Not that this has stopped people from making claims on this matter. I don’t think there’s a single religious or political or social orthodoxy, or, for that matter, heresy, that has not claimed Shakespeare as a fellow-traveller. Even leaving aside partisan accounts of Shakespeare’s ideologies (assuming he had any), there seems no shortage either of commentators who seem also to know for sure what Shakespeare had intended for his plays, as far as performance is concerned. He had, apparently, intended his plays to be seen and not read: that mantra is repeated with such tiresome frequency that I have now given up arguing against it: it is, in practice, simply an excuse not to read the plays. He had also, apparently, intended his texts to be no more than blueprints for performance, and had fully intended them to be adapted with more or less complete freedom. And if this means the kind of adaptation we seem to be witnessing all too frequently these days, with those long boring speeches cut out and long boring scenes cut and spliced together so as to accommodate audiences who find that sort of thing tedious, then, yes, Shakespeare had intended that also. The question “How do we know?” never seems to arise. We may, I suppose, point to historical evidence that suggests that adaptations, sometimes even radical adaptations, were common practice in the Elizabethan and Jacobean playhouses, but I doubt even that takes us too far: for how can we tell whether Shakespeare had approved of such practice? If, as is generally agreed, Shakespeare had an extraordinary mind, is it not one of the attributes of extraordinary minds that they could look beyond the mores of their own time?

That is not to say that we slavishly follow the texts: we couldn’t even if we wanted to, as the existing texts, where they exist in more than one version, often vary quite considerably, and are, further, bedevilled with printing errors: all of this has kept armies of scholars busy for a few centuries now. Of course the texts are to be adapted for performance; but if certain kinds of adaptation turn what is a miracle of the human imagination into something that, frankly, isn’t, then the question “why bother?” most certainly comes to mind. Shakespeare may indeed, for all I know, have approved of such adaptations; but, then again, he may not. As ever, we can never know what was going on in his mind. We have to examine the texts ourselves, and use our own judgement. And, comparing the texts I read to some of the adaptations I have seen, I can’t help wondering what judgement would step from this to this.

But none of this answers the question that continues to press upon us: what did Shakespeare actually think about? While awareness of the cultural and political background of Shakespeare’s times certainly helps, we must, I think, rely primarily on the internal evidence of the plays themselves. In short, those dreaded texts. But here too we have problems: rather inconveniently, he was a dramatist, and spoke through different people, and we have no idea whether he used any of his characters as mouthpieces for his own views. There are the sonnets, of course, with which, Wordsworth claimed, Shakespeare unlocked his heart. Perhaps. But, given the endless interpretations and speculations regarding these sonnets, they seem to complicate rather than clarify matters. I personally tend to see most of the sonnets as, as it were, dramatic monologues, spoken by specific characters who may or may not be the poet himself, and the whole sequence, rather than a set of personal confessions, as more an extended and varied meditation on love, sex, and death. Such a way of looking at these sonnets may or may not have been what Shakespeare had intended, but, as ever, we can never know. The texts are there, and we interpret them as best we can; as to what they tell us about Shakespeare as a person – well, who knows?

There are, however, some points where Shakespeare clearly speaks as a poet. We know, for instance, that Shakespeare may well have felt constrained by censorship (“And art made tongue-tied by authority”, from Sonnet 66). And also that Shakespeare knew well just how good he was. For instance:

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme…

(Opening lines of Sonnet 55)

That Shakespeare knew well the value of his writing does, incidentally, make it all the more unlikely that, as is sometimes contended, he wouldn’t have cared too much about how his works were adapted. But leaving that aside, these little glimpses tell us little of what kind of person he was, of what he actually thought. And this, I don’t think we can ever know. However, in observing the themes and motifs that recur in his work, we can, I think, reasonably infer at least some of the matters that preoccupied his mind.

He seemed, for some reason, to be taken with the idea of a guiltless woman falsely accused of infidelity. This occurs most spectacularly in Othello, of course, but it had also occurred earlier in Much Ado About Nothing, where it had drawn what had appeared till then to be a sunlit and happy play into a more tragic direction. It had appeared again in two of his very late plays, Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale. And it had appeared in a comic key in The Merry Wives of Windsor. That Shakespeare kept coming back to this does indicate that it was a matter of some importance to him, but when we wonder why, we, as ever, draw a blank.

Another of his favourite themes was that of brotherly hate – of brother overthrowing brother to take, or usurp, his place. We see this in Richard III, As You Like It, Hamlet, King Lear. But once again, when we ask ourselves why Shakespeare kept returning this matter, we run up into that brick wall: we simply don’t know, and there’s little point trying to conjecture.

There is a third recurring theme that I can spot, and here, enquiry is, perhaps, a bit more fruitful, and that is the theme of reconciliation, both in terms of people thought lost now restored, and, also, in terms of the healing of past breaches. One of his earliest plays, The Comedy of Errors, ends with people reconciled who had long been thought dead. Of course, reconciliation is the traditional end for a comedy, but Shakespeare, it seems to me, went much further than merely the demands of the comic form; in particular, even while depicting reconciliation, he depicted also its impossibility. What sort of reconciliation can there be when there are those who will not, cannot, be reconciled? Or when the breaches of the past are so vast that they cannot be healed? Shakespeare seemed to consider this matter so seriously that he would unbalance the harmony of comedy rather than be untruthful: the fall of Shylock in the fourth act of The Merchant of Venice is so seismic, that all else seems, to me at least, to become unsettled. For Shylock cannot be reconciled: the breaches made are too wide to be smoothed over, now or ever.

In his next comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare kept his villain, Don John, a relatively minor figure, and had him conveniently removed from the dramatic action before the end, so that his downfall is, in dramatic terms at least, off-stage, and not something that interferes greatly with the general reconciliation at the end. But this reconciliation remains problematic for different reasons. Can reconciliation really be complete given what has happened? Given how Claudio has behaved, even while under a misapprehension? Shakespeare parked this particular question for the while, but was to return to it again in The Winter’s Tale. In As You Like It, Jaques, the man who cannot be reconciled, withdraws voluntarily from the reconciliatory celebrations, thus avoiding the question; but there’s no evading the issue in Twelfth Night: Malvolio is urged to forget all that has happened, and when he refuses, Olivia sends after him to ask him to return; but the very fact that the characters on stage can’t see why a man who has been sexually humiliated in public cannot return tells us all we need to know about why the reconciliation is impossible. These characters on stage may be able to forget about Malvolio in time, but we, the audience, cannot.

This discrepancy between, on the one hand, our profound desire for reconciliation, and, on the other, the impossibility of achieving it, seems to be present just about everywhere one looks in Shakespeare. Prince Hal is reconciled with his father, but that reconciliation necessitates a breach with Hal’s other father, Falstaff: the drama ends not with reconciliation, but with the cruellest of rejections. Prince Hal’s more neurotic Danish cousin, Hamlet, is not reconciled to his father, much though he longs to be: his father had died while he had been at university in Wittenberg, and when he meets his father’s ghost, there seems to be no expression of love or of tenderness on either side. Hamlet is tormented with questioning that the meeting with his father’s spirit does nothing to allay, but he must learn to live with those questions unanswered. Even at the end, there is no answer to these questions, no resolution: once life has ebbed away, the rest is mere silence.

Othello does not even look for reconciliation by the end. Though Desdemona has miraculously forgiven him, seemingly even from beyond death, Othello cannot believe there can be any reconciliation given what he has done. His despair is not merely for this world:

… when we shall meet at compt,
This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven,
And fiends will snatch at it.

And even the reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia, ineffably moving though it is, is not beyond questioning. Lear imagines spending the rest of his life happily in prison with Cordelia: this may be fine for him, but hardly the life that Cordelia, for all her forgiving nature, may want for himself. And as Lear ecstatically describes the joy of spending the rest of their lives together in prison, Cordelia remains tantalisingly silent. But even Lear’s vision of happiness in a prison does not come to fruition. Lear dies knowing that Cordelia is gone, and will never come again – “never, never, never, never, never”: no reconciliation then, either in this world, or in the next.

This theme of reconciliation unmistakably comes up to the surface in the three plays often regarded (quite reasonably, I think) as Shakespeare’s last dramatic testament – Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest. Cymbeline is essentially a fairy-tale, and the ending, appropriately, is a fairy-tale like ending, with the good people united and happy, and the malefactors punished (and since these malefactors are mere fairy tale villains, their punishments don’t really cast any significant shadow over the happiness of others, as the fate of Shylock had done in the earlier play). But matters are considerably more complicated in the next two plays.

In the final scene of The WInter’s Tale, miraculous in all respects, we are given what is, essentially, a vision of the Resurrection itself. As with the reconciliation scene between brother and sister towards the end of Twelfth Night, time itself seem to stand still as those who had been thought dead are restored once again to life. I find it hard, even when reading it at home, not to feel here a sense of solemn awe. And yes, there is, indeed, forgiveness, as the play that had contained so much turbulence comes to a glowing and serene end. But what sort of reconciliation is this? It is very subdued. This is not the occasion for torchlit processions of triumph through the streets. Mamilius remains dead; the years of separation and of grieving cannot be called back; all losses aren’t restored, and neither do sorrows end. But this is the best we may hope for, even with the promised Resurrection: the breaches in nature we have made in the course of our lives cannot entirely be healed.

And in The Tempest, there is no reconciliation. Prospero “forgives” only in the sense that he decides not to punish: he has clearly not, nor cannot, forgive the man “whom to call brother would even infect my mouth”. And neither is there contrition on the other side: the evil has not been defeated, and nor can it be – it continues to exist, maybe to erupt again some later day. If this is the resolution of the tempest that had raged in Prospero’s mind, then the resolution is bleak. And if this is indeed, as is often claimed, Shakespeare’s final message for posterity, I can see nothing in that message in which we can take any kind of comfort.

So what kind of man was he? What did he think about? I’m not sure any of us is sufficiently qualified to answer such questions, not even the greatest of Shakespearean scholars. Even when we think we are familiar with his work, we find ourselves, on re-reading, taken quite unexpectedly into quite unfamiliar areas. At least, I do: I freely confess that I can’t keep pace with the workings of this man’s mind. But I do think that he pondered long and hard on the question of reconciliation, on whether the brokenness of life can ever be put right, either in this world or in the next. And, if his last plays are anything to go by, I don’t think he was too optimistic on that score. There is no assurance.

Or maybe there is, and we remain most ignorant of what we’re most assured. But if there is, such assurance is beyond even Shakespeare’s vision.

“Among School Children” by W. B. Yeats: a possible interpretation

In Mann’s The Magic Mountain, the character Settembrini at one point describes music as “politically suspect”. This is, I think, intended to be comic: Settembrini is, after all, a comic character. But he is not, by any means, purely a comic character, and neither is his opinion on music merely an absurdity. What I think he means by this is that music has the capacity to touch directly our feelings, our emotions, our passions, and, in the process, to bypass our intellect. And, in a political context, bypassing our rational faculties to touch our passions is clearly dangerous, or, at the very least, suspect.

This same argument could be applied to other arts as well, as they all have the capacity to stir our passions while bypassing our intellects. That is not to say that works of art cannot or should not be subjected to intellectual rigour, but I find it difficult to believe that any of us has ever carried out an analysis of a work before deciding whether it affects us. And when it comes to artforms less abstract than music – literature, say – then Settembrini’s stricture is perhaps not as absurdly comic as it may at first sight seem.

I couldn’t help thinking of Settembrini when reading this in a recent essay by Yeats scholar Cedric Watts:

So often, the splendour of the great poem is so dazzling that we slither over the problematic passage, perhaps offering a gloss that simplifies or makes congenial what is actually uncongenial and rebarbative.

This hit home rather uncomfortably for me, as I myself have been charged by a friend, perhaps not unjustly, of similarly congenialising (here in this post) Yeats’ poem “Lapis Lazuli”. It is a charge that I cannot dismiss, as, intoxicated as I am by Yeats’ vivid imagery, his striking turns of phrase, his irresistible verbal music, it becomes all too easy – certainly for me – to allow these wondrous works to bypass my critical faculties. The truth is, I think, that I find these poems so aesthetically satisfying, that I don’t want them to be uncongenial and rebarbative. Having bypassed my intellect, these poems have already stirred my passions; and so, when I try to bring my intellect into play, it is already biased, concerned as it is not to dampen the passions already stirred.

Professor Watts, in his essay, focuses on one of Yeats’ finest (and knottiest) poems, “Among School Children”. This poem, Watts says, is “is splendid and memorable, with cunning and subtle linkages between its parts, and a mastery of euphony in its use of alliteration, rhyme and assonance”. But there follows a significant “but”:

But … I remain convinced that the penultimate stanza, stanza VII, is simply wrong, and there’s no way round it. Commentators have done their best to rescue it, but I submit that their glosses are attempts to hide what is at fault here. Furthermore, I believe that other major poems of Yeats are similarly flawed.

There follows a summary of the poem (insofar, that is, as a summary of so complex a poem is possible), and then a rather damning critique of Stanza VII. I will not attempt to summarise here Prof Watts’ argument (especially since I have provided a link to it), and I certainly won’t attempt any kind of refutation: quite apart from the impropriety of a mere enthusiastic layman such as myself to take issue with an expert, a poem as difficult as this does not and cannot have one single correct interpretation. Of course, Professor Watts is himself at odds with other Yeatsian scholars in this matter, but it is prudent, I think, to consider carefully the arguments on all sides rather than bumptiously putting forward my own.

But … yes, I can do a few buts as well … but, having said all that, I would like, if I may, to present what has been, till now at least, my own view of the poem, and allow the reader to judge whether I have, in my enthusiasm for this work, glossed over matters that are uncongenial or rebarbative. But first, the poem itself:


I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and history,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way — the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.


I dream of a Ledaean body, bent
Above a sinking fire, a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy —
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato’s parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell.


And thinking of that fit of grief or rage
I look upon one child or t’other there
And wonder if she stood so at that age —
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something of every paddler’s heritage —
And had that colour upon cheek or hair,
And thereupon my heart is driven wild:
She stands before me as a living child.


Her present image floats into the mind —
Did Quattrocento finger fashion it
Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat?
And I though never of Ledaean kind
Had pretty plumage once—enough of that,
Better to smile on all that smile, and show
There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.


What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?


Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;
Solider Aristotle played the taws
Upon the bottom of a king of kings;
World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras
Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings
What a star sang and careless Muses heard:
Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.


Both nuns and mothers worship images,
But those the candles light are not as those
That animate a mother’s reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
And yet they too break hearts — O Presences
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolise —
O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise;


Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

He first verse, after that striking opening line, is fairly straight-forward. As in “Sailing to Byzantium”, or in the opening lines of “The Tower” (both in the collection in which this poem appears), Yeats is painfully aware of his advancing years, of his ageing mortal frame; but, instead of the passionate anguish of those poems, we have here a somewhat self-mocking tone. He presents himself as a comic figure – “a sixty-year-old smiling public man”. The children stare at him in wonder, but only momentarily: he is not so interesting to warrant a longer stare. And Yeats walks through them “questioning” – asking them questions, as a sixty-year-old public man being shown around a school is expected to do, but also posing questions to himself, and, indeed, questioning himself. The rest of this poem – which actually ends with a set of questions – focuses on Yeats’ internal questionings.

The next verse seems to start on an entirely different track: “I dream of a Ledean body…” Leda, in mythology, was seduced (“raped” might be a more appropriate word to use here) by the god Zeus. From this act of sexual violence had come twin brothers, Castor and Pollux, and twin sisters, Helen and Clytemnestra. Clytemnestra will later murder her husband Agamemnon (thus playing her part in a wider cycle of violence); and the abduction of Helen, to which, depending on the telling, she may or may not have been a willing participant, will precipitate the catastrophic Trojan War. In essence, the story of Leda is the story of a violation of a young girl, the long term consequence of which is tragedy on a cataclysmic scale. The dream of a Ledean body is a dream of the darkest forebodings.

(Annotations tell me that Yeats was referring here to Maud Gonne, whom he had loved, but who had repeatedly rejected him. That may be so, but since this biographical aspect cannot be discerned from the text unless one has prior knowledge of the poet’s life, this seems to me extrinsic to the poem itself, and there’s no need, I think, to consider this in interpretation.)

Yeats’ moving from the children in the first stanza to Leda at the start of the second is abrupt, and invites us to find a connection between the two. In the legend itself, Leda’s age is unspecified: we may decide for ourselves whether she was a young woman or merely a child when she was violated by the god Zeus. But the Leda that appears in Yeats’ dreams, as lines 3-4 of this stanza tell us, is certainly a child. And here, the connections between the different threads of this poem become particularly knotty. Line 4 ends powerfully on the word “tragedy” – a word not unexpected when referring to the tale of Leda, or when referring to the wider consequences of her violation. But these lines themselves tell not of a violation or of a rape, but of a “harsh reproof, or trivial incident” – of something that is trivial to an adult, but takes on the proportions of tragedy to a child. Line 4 – “That changed some childish day to tragedy” seems to me particularly strong. So how are we to take this? Is this some gross violation that leads to cataclysm? Or is it but a trivial event that seems tragic only to a child? I personally opt for the former: the power of Line 4, ending so strikingly on the word “tragedy”, seems to me too great to refer merely to a “trivial event”. It is not, I think, that the child is imagining something trivial to be tragic, but, quite the contrary – it is something that really is tragic, but which the adult mind, possibly inured by repeated experience to human suffering, reduces to a “trivial event”.

And is that adult mind that reduces Leda’s trauma and violation to a trivial event Yeats’ own mind? I don’t see that it is. For, in the latter half of the stanza, Yeats states directly that his sympathy is entirely, and without qualification, with the child. I had to look up the reference to Plato’s parable (it refers, apparently, to a speech given to Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium), but Yeats describes the nature of the child and his own adult nature, different though they are, occupying the same sphere, like the white and the yolk of an egg.

(Even given my interpretation, we are left wondering why Yeats introduces Plato at this point: but let us keep this question for later.)

The third stanza complicates matters even further. He thinks of “that fit of grief or rage” – presumably Leda’s grief and rage – and now looks at the schoolchildren, and wonders if Leda, when she had been that age before her innocence had been violated, had been like the children he sees now. Two pictures are juxtaposed and contrasted: Leda after the god-inflicted atrocity, grief-stricken and enraged; and the children, as yet innocent of all that. But then, we get a sudden twist: considering the girls at the school, Yeats starts to think not of Leda, but of Leda’s daughters (“daughters of the swan”) – Helen and Clytemnestra, harbingers of doom. Yeats refers to them not as Leda’s daughters, but as the daughters of Zeus, “daughters of the swan”, and asserts that these two daughters, who were to bring doom upon the world, had inherited something of their father – “something of the paddler’s heritage” – though what that “something” is is as yet unclear. However, with that thought, Yeats’ “heart is driven wild”. Leda, who, violated, brings forth into the world these instruments of destruction, Yeats now imagines as she had once been: “She stands before me as a living child.”

It is impossible not to associate this poem with one that appears slightly earlier in the same collection – “Leda and the Swan”. In that sonnet, Yeats describes the union between Leda and the swan, strongly hinting (though not directly stating) that this was indeed a rape, a violation. And Yeats anticipates the destruction that will come in its wake:

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower,
And Agamemnon dead.

That is, the fall of Troy as a consequence of Helen, and the killing of Agamemnon by Clytemnestra.

And, this poem also ends with a questioning: the swan, Zeus himself is “indifferent”, but did Leda “put on his knowledge with his power”? What this means isn’t entirely clear, but I take it to mean: “Did Leda absorb something of both the knowledge and the power of her violator?” And, by implication (I think), did she use that knowledge and the power to wreak destruction?

While I do not think it is reasonable to interpret a poem in the light of the author’s biography, I do think it is reasonable to find cross-references between poems in a single collection. In “Among School Children”, childhood, once violated, even or especially by a god, becomes grief-stricken, enraged, and with the power possibly absorbed from the god (as “Leda and the Swan” suggests), wreaks its revenge on the world.

Let us take stock for a moment before we lose ourselves in further complexities. Yeats, now becoming old and aware of how absurd a figure he cuts, looks upon young schoolchildren, innocent still of the ways of the world; he then thinks then of the mythical Leda, who, violated by a god, had brought forth daughters who dealt destruction to the world; and he is perturbed by the thought that Leda, before the violation, had been just like the children he sees now: so perturbed, indeed, that he finds his “heart … driven wild”. Two pictures are presented and contrasted – innocence before the violation, and the destruction that ensues afterwards, as a consequence of that violation.

In the next stanza, we once again get the comparison between these two pictures, between childhood, so full of innocence and promise, and adulthood, when both have been betrayed. Having imagined Leda as a “living child”, the poet now pictures to himself “her present image”. Once again, we know from Yeats’ biography that it was Maud Gonne he had thought of as Leda – her involvement with what Yeats considered undesirable nationalistic politics being a symbol of, or even perhaps the cause of, her particular betrayal. But I try to resist interpretations of work that are related to the artist’s biography, unless, of course, that relationship is explicitly insisted upon in the text. Here, it isn’t. We do not, I think, need specifically to identify Leda as Maud Gonne to make sense of this poem: if anything, such identification encourages us to see as specific what should, I think, be seen as general. Yeats now imagines Leda, whoever she is, as a grown woman,

Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat

The promise of childhood is betrayed. And Yeats begins to picture himself as a young man: he, too, had “pretty plumage once”. But he stops himself before he gets too far in that direction: “Enough of that …” And we have a brief reminiscence of the opening stanza:

Better to smile on all that smile, and show
There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.

And once again, he presents himself in a self-mocking tone. The scarecrow image we have seen before: in “Sailing to Byzantium”, the opening poem of the collection in which this poem appears, we had this:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick…

But the tone there had been sad and reflective: here, the tone is comic, but the comic self-deflation does not hide the sadness.

The next stanza, the fifth, is among the saddest I have encountered, I think, in any poem. The whole stanza is one long sentence, and ends with a question mark: it is one of the many questionings in this poem. Having considered the comical figure he now cuts, aged sixty, Yeats asks himself what mother, with a newborn baby in her lap, would think her pains and her troubles would be repaid if she could but see that same child aged sixty?

Plato now reappears in the sixth stanza, alongside Aristotle and Pythagoras. Has there, I wonder, been a more eloquent and beautiful summary of Plato’s Theory of Forms than these lines?

Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;

If Plato is the philosopher of ideals, Aristotle is the philosopher of the real, of the here-and-now and the down-to-earth: Yeats presents him here as chastising his pupil, later to become the world-conquering Alexander, by leathering his arse (and I suppose you can’t get more down-to-earth than that). And there’s Pythagoras as well, studying the aesthetics of music in mathematical terms. Back in the second stanza, Yeats, even when describing his deeply felt sympathy for a violated girl, had called upon an image from Plato to help express himself. That is because this is the world he inhabits: this is what comes naturally to him. But this world of classical learning no longer satisfies: Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras – these, too, are scarecrows like himself, “old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird”.

In “the Tower”, the title poem of the collection in which “Among School Children” appears, Yeats, after lamenting the “decrepit age that has been tied to me as to a dog’s tail”, tells himself sadly that , perhaps, he has no option but “to choose Plato and Plotinus for a friend”. Plato and Plotinus then, Plato, Artistotle and Pythagoras now: good friends, perhaps, but, scarecrows all, they do not answer his questionings.

It is now that we come to the seventh stanza, the one that Professor Watts takes issue with. Let me try, without, for the moment, reference to Professor Watts’ critique, to explain how I personally see this stanza.

Yeats continues with the image of mother and child, and compares it to a new image that of the nun worshipping an image. But he immediately concedes there are differences: the images worshipped by the nun “keep a marble or bronze repose”, that is, they are still and changeless: the child that the mother worships is a living thing, and, hence, subject to change, and, inevitably, ageing and decay. But the matter is more complex. “Both nuns and mothers worship images,” the stanza begin. Nuns, it is true, worship before sculptures or icons, which are images of eternal divinity; but what is it that nuns are actually worshipping? The images themselves, or the divinity that the images represent? And, moving to the other motif of this stanza, what precisely is the image the mother is worshipping? The child on her lap? If so, what is this child an image of?

These are difficult questions, but we mustn’t shirk the questioning. I think that, in trying to answer them, we must go back to thought that “nature [is] but a spume that plays upon a ghostly paradigm of things”. The solid reality of the child on the mother’s lap, the solid reality of the icons before which the nun’s worship, are “spumes”, behind which are the ideal forms, the “ghostly paradigm of things”. But there are differences: one of these two images is of flesh and blood, and is, hence, changeable; the other isn’t. This stark dichotomy seems to lead back again to the first poem in this collection, “Sailing to Byzantium”:

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is

Once he has left his fleshly form, the poet had continued, he would not wish to return to flesh, which, by its nature, decays: rather, he would take a form “such as Grecian goldsmiths make of hammered gold and gold enamelling” – an artifice that lasts, rather than natural flesh that doesn’t. But of course, we do not get such a choice: here, in life, Yeats has no choice but to a scarecrow, an absurd smiling sixty-year-old man who is a betrayal of the ideal his mother had once seen in him. And it is this ideal that the mother worships, an ideal which is “but a spume that plays upon a ghostly paradigm”, an ideal of which the physical child on the mother’s lap is but an image.

But this spume cannot live up to the ideal it represents. The child becomes, eventually, a scarecrow; and the icons and holy sculptures, whatever their beauty, whatever their claim to permanence, all fall short of the divinity they represent. In both cases, they break hearts. In the case of human life, god Zeus himself violates humanity, and thus prevents it living up to the ideal it had seemed to promise: the adult is a betrayal of what the child once had been. Look on this picture, and on this: in comparing the two pictures, all one can see is betrayal, disappointment, the breaking of hearts. As Yeats put it in a later poem, “Why Should not Old Men be Mad?”, should anyone look into the varied stories of life,

No single story would they find
Of an unbroken happy mind,
A finish worthy of the start.

These images – the child, the icon – or Presences, as Yeats calls them (with a capitalised P), may symbolise all heavenly glory, but they are “self-born mockers of man’s enterprise”. I am not entirely sure how to interpret “self-born” here: I take it to mean that these are something that do not exist as absolutes in the external world, but, rather, have their source in the human mind itself – that is, their origin is our selves (hence, “self-born”). It is we who see them as images of something greater, and it is we whose hearts are, as a consequence, broken. But I may be wrong.

Now we come to the final stanza, where, even at this late stage, even in the midst of despair, Yeats suggests a possible victory that may be salvaged from this defeat. Is that labour inevitably lost that we expend upon our hopes, upon nurturing our ideals?

The final stanza opens with a set of assertions. That labour, far from being lost, Yeats asserts, is “blossoming or dancing” where “the body is not bruised to pleasure soul”; where “beauty is [not] born out of its own despair”; and where “blear-eyes wisdom [is not born] out of midnight oil”. When these conditions hold, it is no longer a case of labour won or labour lost: it is a case of labour “blossoming or dancing”, that is, of labour being a process that cannot be reduced to single states. And this blossoming, this dance, happens when the we do not neglect our physical life to enhance our spiritual; when we refuse to find aesthetic qualities in our defeat and despair; and when we similarly refuse to look for wisdom in the musty volumes of Plato, of Aristotle, or of Pythagoras. (Those attached to classical learning may wish to add the adverb “merely” to that final condition, but that is not what Yeats says.) We may look on this picture and on this, and declare our lives a failure, a defeat; but to compare still pictures one with the other, and even perhaps to find some sort of beauty in that tragedy of failure, is not where life is: it is, rather, in the process, in the arc, or, as Yeats puts it, in the “blossoming or dancing”.

In the last four lines of the poem, Yeats is again questioning, but these are no longer agonised questions: these questionings point towards a joyous reconciliation with what we are – neither the innocent child nor the absurd smiling sixty-year-old, but something far more intangible. The two questions with which the poem ends develop the two images just introduced – the blossoming, and the dancing. Is the chestnut tree, “great-rooted blossomer”, the leaf, the blossom, or the bole? Can the tree be defined, or characterised, by any single aspect of it? And finally, the dancing.

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Can the dancer be defined in any way other than by the dance? And can the dance be seen independently of the dancer? It is this unity, this unity of states, this unity of the image and that which it is the image of – the icon and the divinity, the child and the “ghostly paradigm” the child represents – that we may, if we look hard enough without giving in to despair, discover what and who we are.


Looking back over what I have written, I cannot help but feel that were I Professor Watts’ student, he would have given me poor marks for this long, rambling, and unfocussed essay. I can only plead that I am but a retired statistician, and, not having been taught English literature formally in class since I was sixteen, I do not know how to write about these things. But I have tried, as best I can, to explain what this poem means to me. Have I, in my enthusiasm, glossed over elements that are uncongenial, or even rebarbative? Perhaps. My view on this poem is hardly the final word, after all, even to myself.

Professor Watts’ view of the poem, a result of far more extensive study and expenditure of thought than I think I could manage, I will not attempt to summarise: that would be pointless given that his essay is freely available to read in its original form. I will need to read it a few times myself to see if I could modify my own interpretation so as to incorporate his; or whether, indeed, aspects of, or the entirety of, my interpretation needs now to be jettisoned. For, after all, understanding a poem, like living life itself, is not a matter of comparing one state with another: it is, rather, a process, a blossoming, a dance.

“Human Chain” by Seamus Heaney

Had I not been awake I would have missed it

Among the papers left behind by Seamus Heaney after his death was a translation, to which, seemingly, he had been putting the finishing touches right up to the end, of Book VI of The Aeneid. This book, in which Aeneas goes into the Underworld and meets with the dead – in particular, his dead – had been, as Heaney himself had put it, “a constant presence” in his life. And it is a constant presence also in his last collection of poems, Human Chain. Specifically, there is one poem in that collection, “Route 110”, itself made up of twelve shorter poems, that explicitly parallels the journey of bus number 110 – “Cookstown via Toome and Magherafelt” – to the journey of Aeneas into the underworld. But the presence of Virgil is apparent not just in this poem: throughout this collection, we see Heaney, like Aeneas, meeting with the dead, with his dead.

However, unlike Aeneas, we do not live in an age of mythology: we cannot, as Aeneas had done, converse with the dead. On our part, we have only memories of the deceased, but what the dead may have to say is not for our ears. In one poem, for instance, Heaney remembers his father in a cattle market, “not much higher than the cattle”. The cattle market, and the presence there of his father, are imprinted in the poet’s mind, and he animates the scene with attention to the solidity of the scene: there is nothing ethereal about the ashplant in his father’s hand, which he waves and with which he points, nor with the “lowing and roaring, lorries revving”. But his father “is calling something I cannot hear”: we, on our part, have memory, that wonderful thing that can bring back to our minds the past in all its solidity; but what the dead may have to say to us we can but conjecture, for we cannot hear. The poem ends with a sad march of monosyllables:

… So that his eyes leave mine and I know
The pain of loss before I know the term.

Does our faculty of memory redeem the loss, allowing us to re-live what is gone? Or does it make the pain of loss even keener? Heaney is too tactful to commit himself on that point.

The poem about his father is the second part of a two-part poem: the first part had been about his mother. Heaney remembers her emptying the ash from the fireplace, “bearing in front of her a slender pan”. She too is described with a strict attention to the reality of the scene: this, too, is no ethereal vision, but is as solid as any reality of the here-and-now. Heaney focuses on “the whitish dust and flakes still sparkling hot”, “the wind … blowing into her apron bib”, “hands in tight, sore grip”. We may, should we choose, look for symbolic meanings in these physical details, but that seems to me to be missing the point: these details are important simply for what they are; and that they are nothing more draws our attention to the fact that they are nothing less either. The poet’s mother, like the poet’s father, is no airy vision, but is real and solid. However, she “proceeds until we have lost sight of her…” Into death, yes, but, more prosaically, “where the worn path turns behind the henhouse”.

The two poems, the first about his mother, the second about his father, are together called “Uncoupled”. This could refer to the separate presentations of this couple, but there is, of course, another uncoupling: that which the memory can still see as real and solid is nonetheless uncoupled from the present, and from the son who remembers.

And yet there is a chain running through, a human chain. Heaney feels his own mortality. In one poem, “Chanson d’Aventure”, Heaney describes his being taken to hospital in an ambulance after suffering a stroke, accompanied by his wife. I must admit, my own recent experience in these matters lent a particular immediacy to this poem.

Our postures all the journey still the same,

Everything and nothing spoken,
Our eyebeams threaded laser-fast…

Yet, even in this state, memory is still at work. A stray memory, seemingly random, floats through the poet’s head, of when he had been a college bellman in Derry. And there are memories of poets too, as is to be expected from someone whose life had been immersed in poetry: Donne is explicitly mentioned, and Keats indirectly referenced twice:

Apart: the very word is like a bell
Which the sexton Malachy Boyle controlled…

And, a few lines later:

… my once capable

Warm hand …

But this once capable warm hand is now the “hand that I could not feel you lift”.

Immediately preceding this poem is “The Butts”, which had started with the poet looking at the wardrobe of his dead father, and describing his suits (as ever, Heaney insists on the physical details as significant in themselves), and ends with his remembering when “the last days came”:

And we must learn to reach well in beneath
Each meagre armpit
To lift and sponge him…

Memories of his dying father, the past reality, now merge into the present reality of his dying self, and he too will become decoupled from those he leaves behind. As he says in an earlier poem in this collection:

Too late, perhaps, for an apt quotation
About a love that’s proved by steady gazing
Not at each other but in the same direction.

But this collection is as much about the living as it is about the dead: it is about the human chains that bind them.

It is easy to see the parallels with the sixth book of The Aeneid, where Aeneas too visits, and speaks to, the dead. Virgil’s model, as is well known, is Book XI of Homer’s The Odyssey, but Homer, unlike Virgil, does not seem particularly interested in the geography of the Underworld. Certainly, there is no description of it. The spirit of Achilles famously tells Odysseus that although, in life, he had consciously chosen glory over longevity, now, being dead, he would rather be a slave to the most lowly of men on earth rather than be lord in the Kingdom of the Dead; but why he says this, why the Underworld is perceived as so terrible a place, he does not say. And we do not know either. Indeed, from the various translations I have looked at, it is not even clear to me that Odysseus actually does go into the Underworld to meet the dead: rather, the spirits of the dead are described as coming to him.

In The Aeneid, on the other hand, Aeneas, like Dante after him, actually journeys into the Underworld, and we are given very vivid descriptions – vivid even in translation – of the River Styx that the spirits must cross, the Elysian fields, and the shore where dead souls, now purified, await reincarnation and return to earth. In Virgil’s vision, the fates of souls after death reflect the lives they had led on earth. There are those who had died in infancy:

          At that moment, cries –
they could hear them now, a crescendo of wailing,
ghosts of infants weeping, robbed off their share
of this sweet life, at its very threshold too:
all, snatched from the breast of that dark day
that swept them off and drowned them in bitter death.

(translated by Robert Fagles)


At once a sound of crying fills the air, the high wails
And weeping of infant souls, little ones denied
Their share of sweet life, torn from the breast
On life’s very doorstep. A dark day bore them off
And sank them in untimely death.

(translated by Seamus Heaney)

Nearby are the Fields of Mourning, where dwell the souls of all who had suffered for love. And they suffer still.

Not even in death do their torments leave them, ever.

(translated by Robert Fagles)


                               Their griefs
Do not relent, not even in death.

(translated by Seamus Heaney)

Here, Aeneas encounters Dido, who he had not realised had died, and he speaks to her passionately: but she, in one of the most poignant moments in all literature, turns away from him without a word, as if she had not heard. (In Antony and Cleopatra, Antony imagines Dido and Aeneas sporting together in the Elysian Fields, but in this, as in most other things, Antony was wrong.)

Virgil’s representation of the underworld is, quite clearly, the inspiration for Dante, although Dante, while far from rejecting the classical world, was writing an essentially Christian epic, so elements such as reincarnation had to go.

And this representation of the land of the Kingdom of the Dead is also, quite explicitly, a constant presence in Human Chain, where, in the course of the journey of Bus 110, Heaney too confronts his dead:

It was the age of ghost. Of hand-held flashlamps.
Lights moving at a distance scried for who
And why: whose wake, say, in which house of the road …

He remembers the wakes he had attended, and people from his past, friends, now lost. But the encounters here are one-sided: on one side, there is only memory: wondrous though that memory may be in itself, it cannot bring the dead back to solid life; and on the other side, there is only silence.

But the scene Virgil had painted of the soul awaiting rebirth, the passage that had no place in Dante’s Christian poem, is not lost on Heaney:

As if we had commingled

Among shades and shadows stirring on the brink
And stood there waiting, watching,
Needy and ever needier for translation.

This leads us into the final section:

And now the age of births.

The poem ends with the birth of the poet’s grandchild. Heaney is not, of course, making the case for reincarnation; neither is he claiming the new life compensates for what has been lost. He is too tactful a poet to make any such brash statement. He is merely observing, with both sorrow and with wonder, the chains that bind the generations together.

The first poem in this collection had started with the line “Had I not been awake I would have missed it”. Here, he describes what he would have missed had he still been sleeping:

A wind that rose and whirled until the roof
Pattered with quick leaves off the sycamore

And got me up, the whole of me a-patter,
Alive and ticking like an electric fence

And then the opening line is repeated: “Had I not been awake I would have missed it.”

However, this sudden burst of animation that leaves him “alive and ticking like a electric fence”, proved transient: it had soon died down, “lapsed ordinary”. And the poem ends with a sense of loss, of emptiness:

But not ever
After. And not now.

But for all the sense of emptiness, he would not have wanted to have missed this, as he would have done had he not been awake. For all the sense of mourning and of loss in these poems, for all the dread about his own mortality, these are poems both of sorrow and of wonder, and are very much on the side of life.