Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

Goethe’s Faust, Part 2, with lemurs

A few weeks ago, Tom (from the Wuthering Expectations blog) and I decided to read Part 2 of Goethe’s Faust at the same time, hoping that our joint efforts could throw more light on a difficult work. Tom’s posts on this poem may be found here, and here.

The extracts from Goethe’s “Faust”, Parts 1 and 2, in this post are taken from the translation by David Luke, published by Oxford University Press.

It’s the lemurs that got me. In Act 5 of the Second Part of Faust, Mephistopheles enters with, we are told, “lemurs”. Translator David Luke explains in an endnote:

Lemurs (Lat. lemures): restless souls of the dead. Goethe had seen an ancient tomb near Naples on which they were portrayed as skeletons wit still enough muscles and sinews to enable them to move.

Pretty sinister and gruesome, in other words. However, I found it difficult to remove from my mind an image of Mephistopheles accompanied by ring-tailed lemurs – not quite what Goethe perhaps had intended. But then again, what had he intended? Is the grotesquely comic image lodged in my mind really so out of place when this entire epic second part is infused with the grotesquely comic? The image I have of Goethe is that of a lofty and Olympian seriousness, and while I don’t doubt that Goethe’s artistic intentions are very serious indeed, the general tenor of this second part of Faust is that of the bizarre, the outlandish, the preposterous. This second part, written mainly in the last few years of his long life (and some twenty years and more after the publication of the first), Goethe gave free rein to a very strange and uninhibited poetic imagination, and produced a work that is as puzzling and as enigmatic as it was, no doubt, meant to be.

Faust had occupied Goethe for, on and off, some 60 years of his life. It was some time in the early- to mid-1770s that he first conceived of it, and the First Part was published in 1808. He had always planned a continuation, and had worked at one – again, on and off – over many years. In 1827 he published a dramatic poem Helena, which was later to form the bulk of the third act of this Second Part. But it was only in the last six years of his life that he focused hard on this, and, in July 1831, he declared it finished, and put his seal on the work. It was, at his own request, published only after his death in 1832. In short, Faust is, quite self-consciously, the major life’s work of a poet who is generally reckoned to be one of the towering figures of the western literary tradition: the two parts, taken together, form one of the greatest and most monumental peaks of western literary culture. Which makes things somewhat difficult for the humble blogger – especially one who, despite a couple of earlier readings of the work, finds himself very much in unfamiliar territory.

True, I have written posts before on such great literary monuments: there are many posts in this blog on the plays of Shakespeare, or on Don Quixote.  But these are works I have lived with: although I do not pretend to be a scholar, these works are now part of my mental furniture, as it were, in a way that Goethe’s Faust isn’t. There is also a mountain of critical writings on Goethe that I haven’t even set foot upon. But, proceeding on the reasonable assumption that no poet wrote to be read only by experts, perhaps it isn’t entirely a waste of time to record what this lay reader made of it all.

In brief, I was dazzled. This second part is very different from the first in a number of ways. The first is a play, and, with a few cuts (it seems too long to be accommodated in a single evening’s performance), can easily hold its own on the stage. The second part, despite being set out like a play in five acts, isn’t dramatic at all: at no point is there any dramatic tension or dramatic momentum; the dramatic continuity between the five acts seems questionable; and, most importantly, it lacks human interest. Never does the reader (or the audience, should it be staged) wonder what is going to happen next. Every scene, every character, seems allegorical: each element of the work seems like a symbol of something else, though what those something elses may be isn’t at all clear. Often, I got the feeling that Goethe, in his old age, wasn’t really writing for any readership, as such: he was writing for himself. We know from his conversations, for instance, that the character of Euphorion in the third act represents Byron, but I could find nothing in the text to indicate this: this was simply Goethe’s private association that, in the text at least, he preferred to keep private. I imagine there are many more such private associations scattered throughout the work, but since Goethe chose not to reveal them to us, I don’t know that it serves much purpose to look outside the text to discover what they might have been.

(This second part too has been staged, I gather, but reading it in my study, I could not imagine it in the theatre. In any case, there must have been quite extensive cuts to get it to fit in a single evening’s performance.)

But it’s dazzling. I do not know whether Goethe’s imagination has always been this weird, but it seems quite demented here, in this product of his old age. But a question arises: if a work of art is to have both a diversity and a unity, is there really a unity here? Is there some unifying factor binding together all the wild exuberance? One answer could be that it is held together by the story of Faust itself: the scholar, dissatisfied with his life, makes a pact with the Devil, gets what he wants for a limited time, but then, at the end of the allotted time, forfeits his soul. However, between the making of the pact at the start of the First Part, and its resolution in the last act of the Second, there seems little (if any) reference to it. The famous pact-making scene in Part One is worth recalling:

FAUST:

If ever to the moment I shall say:

Beautiful moment: do not pass away!

Then you may forge your chains to bind me,

Then I will put my life behind me,

Then let them hear my death-knell toll,

Then from your labours you’ll be free,

The clock may stop, the clock hands fall,

And time come to an end for me!

MEPHISTOPHELES:

We shall remember this; think well what you are doing.

But do we remember this? This pact is not referred to, directly or indirectly, till the very last act of the second part. All through the famous tragic tale of Gretchen that occupies the rest of Part One, through the phantasmagoric episodes that make up most of Part Two, this entire episode seems, as it were, set to one side. But it does lay out what may be the central theme of the work. Faust is only damned if he is ever satisfied with the way things are at any given moment; and its corollary is that he is saved if he strives, and continues to strive, in search of that satisfaction that his earthly moments cannot give. And it is this eternal striving that is could be, perhaps, the work’s central theme. But striving for what, exactly? There can be no direct answer to this: it is perhaps inevitable that Goethe is drawn into a world of symbols and abstractions.

Part Two opens with a scene of the utmost lyricism: even in translation, it is exquisitely beautiful (and of course, translator David Luke has to take the credit for that). Faust is asleep, and spirits around him sing of a new beginning. Part One had told us the traumatic tale of Gretchen, and if Faust were simply to forget about her, he would appear merely heartless, which he is not; and if he were to carry with him the emotional scars of that tragedy, that would get in the way of Goethe’s artistic purpose. The only way out is to have the whole thing erased from Faust’s mind, so he could start anew. When Faust awakes, he speaks, surprisingly, in terza rima. This Dantean reference cannot be accidental: here too, as in the Commedia, we are concerned about the progress of the soul. Except, as David Luke tells us in his introduction, Goethe did not like the use of the word “soul”, (possibly, I’d guess, because of its religious associations): he preferred a term derived from Aristotle’s metaphysics – “entelechy”, which Luke describes as “the unit or monad of discarnate force which survives the death of the body and precedes physical existence”.

This opening scene of Part Two is a sort of prologue leading into the main action of Act One: we are now at the court of an emperor, whose financial means are straitened. Faust and Mephistopheles solve the problem with the introduction of paper money (and hence, inflation), but there are two things along the way that don’t seem to be part of what is, in essence, a comic story. Firstly, there is a long scene featuring a carnival masque, in which all sorts of figures appear – figures who may just be carnival revellers in costume, but, then again, who may really be as they seem. This scene is remarkable in that it is long but doesn’t lead anywhere: it throws no further light on the dramatic situation, or on the characters; it dissipates rather than enhances what dramatic tension may have existed. It is there purely for its own sake, and the effect it creates – that of a mad jumble, a wild exuberance and a colourful zest – serves no purpose in the wider scheme of things. What matters here is the texture of the scene itself. The other feature in this act that seems extraneous to the essentially comic tale presented is Faust’s descent into the underworld to visit some mysterious, primeval beings called the “mothers” (and much scholarly ink has been spilt on what exactly they are, and what they signify), and his subsequent glimpse of the pure ideal of beauty – Helen.

His longing for Helen, for pure beauty, is met in the third act: here, Goethe takes us into what is ostensibly classical Greece, but is, rather, a fantasy world suspended seemingly both geographically and in time. Here, he marries Helen, and fathers a child with her – Euphorion. This Euphorion (a representation of Byron, as we gather from Goethe’s conversation) is a spirit of Romanticism, and falls and dies by trying to reach too high; and Helen, more mirage than person, does not so much die as will her passage into the afterlife. It is a very strange act – a sort of play within a play – that, in presenting a marriage between Faust and Helen, presets also on a symbolic level a marriage between the medieval Gothic and the classical, the Christian and the pagan. Euripides (whom Goethe had described as the most tragic of the Athenian tragedians) is very much to the fore here: Goethe makes use of the legend Euripides himself had used in his play Helen, in which the true Helen is spirited away, and only her double is abducted by Paris. In metrical terms, too, Euripides is evoked. All very fascinating, but nonetheless deeply enigmatic. There is no point asking what this is all leading to: as with so much else in this work, it appears to serve no end but its own. But what is its own end? I don’t know that I could even try to answer that without delving deep into Goethe scholarship.

Similarly enigmatic, though for different reasons, is the Second Act that had preceded it. Here, we have another mad Walpurgis Nacht, as we had in Part One of Faust, but this time, the figures that appear are all from the classical world. (And even those reasonably versed in classical mythology would be well advised to read an edition with copious notes.) And this time, the Walpurgis Nacht scenes are bigger, longer, and even madder than they had been in Part One. We find ourselves in a very surreal world, where anything can happen. Figures seem to appear and disappear at will. Inanimate objects speak. Philosophers Thales and Anaxagoras argue over what is the most potent force in shaping the world – water or fire. A seismic eruption causes a mountain suddenly to appear, and new life forms inhabit it. And, perhaps strangest of all, there is the Homunculus. The name, I take it, is derived from the early chapters of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, where it refers to the spermatozoa – life awaiting creation; but while Sterne’s comedy is bawdy, Goethe’s seems to me merely grotesque. His Homunculus is also life awaiting creation: it is a creation of an alchemist – a life still in a glass retort, waiting to be embodied into earthly life. This glass retort containing life not-yet-born also travels through the Aegean during this classical Walpurgis Nacht, also speaking lines of poetry.

What are we to make of this mad disorder – this maximum entropy, as it were? It has certainly been very influential: one can see its influence quite clearly in, say, Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (although Ibsen’s dramatic focus, unlike Goethe’s, was always on the human), or in the “Circe” chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses. It seems to stand outside time, and, despite the stage directions speaking of the Peneus or the rocky inlets of the Aegean, it seems to stand outside space too. Is it simply a wild burst of exuberance, and nothing more? It’s certainly a lot of fun, but once again, I suspect I’d have to delve deep into Goethe scholarship to understand something of Goethe’s symbols, and what exactly this allegory is allegorising. But even without any of that, it is easy to enjoy the fantastic, uninhibited nature of Goethe’s imagination.

We are with the Emperor again in the fourth act, this time in a military campaign; and in the final act, there is the reckoning. The pact made early in Part One, and which had seemingly been forgotten since, now reappears. In Faust’s last speech, he refers back explicitly to the terms of the pact:

Only that man earns freedom, merits life,

Who must reconquer both in constant daily strife,

In such a place, by danger still surrounded,

Youth, manhood, age, their brave new world has founded.

I long to see such multitude, and stand

With a free people on free land!

Then to the moment, I might say:

Beautiful moment, do not pass away!

Faust might say that, but he doesn’t; and he hasn’t. He has kept his side of the bargain. He says he will wish the moment to stay when all mankind has earned its freedom, but not till then. Instead of ever being satisfied with the moment, he has always striven, and so, his soul – his “entelechy”, the essence of what he is – is saved. But striven for what? In this last act, we see him an old man, but an active an, involved in all sort of improving projects, such as reclaiming land from the sea. But in his way stands the cottage of an elderly couple – Philemon and Baucis, the gentle, hospitable couple from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. And, in the process of carrying out Faust’s orders, their cottage is burned, and they are killed. He had not meant them to die, any more than he had wished Gretchen’s tragedy in Part One, but their deaths, nonetheless, are a direct consequence of his striving: “Well, do it – clear them from my path!” When Faust hears of their deaths, he proclaims that this was not what he had wanted, which certainly is true; but is this the striving to be rewarded with salvation? Nothing seems straight-forward.

In Goethe’s version, Faust is saved – either because he has kept his side of the bargain (he has never asked for any moment to stay); or, perhaps, he is saved through the grace of God. The former seems to me more likely, as God has been curiously absent from this story of salvation and damnation (except in the Prologue in Heaven before Part One). Christ has been strangely absent too: no blood of Christ streaming through the firmament here, as in Marlowe’s play. But for all that, the final scene, titled “Mountain Gorges”, is surprisingly religious in feeling. “Surprising” because I could find no evidence elsewhere in the text of a Christian underpinning, or any adherence to Christian doctrine.

However, the imagery Goethe uses in this final scene is very Christian (though, once again, Christ is curiously absent). Though neither God nor Christ appears, the Virgin Mary does – perhaps rather surprisingly so given Goethe’s Protestant background. But it isn’t clear to me whether this final scene is explicitly Christian, or whether Goethe is, rather, using imagery from the Christian religion as symbols for his own different ends – just as he had used classical imagery as symbols towards his own ends earlier in the work.

Disembodied voices declaim ecstatically as Faust’s soul is saved: even Gretchen, whom Faust had wronged (albeit unwittingly), joins in what is essentially a vast song of praise:

Virgin and mother, thou

Lady beyond compare, oh thou

Who art full of glory, bow

Thy face in mercy to my great joy now!

This explicitly echoes Gretchen’s prayer from the first part:

O Virgin Mother, thou

Who are full of sorrows, bow

Thy face in mercy to my anguish now!

There, she had been pleading for mercy for her own sake; now, she is rejoicing in the mercy shown to another, even to another who, in earthly life, had wronged her. In her earthly life, she had sinned, but now, as a penitent in the afterlife, she too has been saved. But saved in what sense? Given this work has not been a Christian work, can these tropes of salvation and damnation be seen in Christian terms? Or are these, once again, symbols for something else? And here again, we are left trying to interpret – trying, perhaps, to put into words that which can not be put into words – not even by Goethe.

The knots in this complex work are too intricate for me to untie. This seems one of those works that need to be lived with, so that, over the years, it seeps into the brain, and becomes part of one’s consciousness. Me – I have only dipped my toes in. But even doing that has proved a most enjoyable experience, mainly because of the wild exuberance of Goethe’s poetic imagination. After all, though much has eluded me, I’ll always treasure the image of Mephistopheles with the lemurs.

“Eugene Onegin” by Alexander Pushkin

The extracts from Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” given in this post are taken from the translation by Tom Beck, published by Dedalus.

In Chapter 6 of Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin, the young poet Lenski is killed in a duel (and no, I am not prefacing this post with one of those tedious “spoiler warnings”: the effect made by this poem does not depend on discovering “what happens next”). It is, possibly, the most famous duel in all literature. Lenski goes into the duel with presentiments of his own death, and, the night before, writes a poem lamenting his lost youth and his possibly shortened life, and imagining that Olga, to whom he is betrothed, will mourn for him afterwards, and remember him. It is, inevitably under the circumstances, a deeply felt poem. But immediately after giving us this poem, the narrator mocks it:

That’s how he wrote, “obscurely”, “limply”,

(“Romanticism”, I believe,

though what’s romantic here I simply

am quite unable to perceive!

but then, who cares?) As dawn approaches …

This seems cruel and insensitive. Lenski may not have been a great poet, as Pushkin undoubtedly was. He possibly wasn’t even a very good poet. But given the situation, this is hardly, one might feel, the right time for literary criticism, and Pushkin’s scathing lines do seem harsh and insensitive. But here’s the point: a poet as harsh and as insensitive as these lines suggest would not have been capable of writing a poem so delicate and so sensitive as Eugene Onegin. We must, I think, in this of all books with its various different levels of irony, learn to distinguish between Alexander Pushkin the narrator, and Alexander Pushkin the author: the author Pushkin has created the narrator Pushkin as a sort of alter ego of himself – not entirely separate from himself, but not entirely the same either.

Of course, Cervantes had played with this sort of thing quite spectacularly in Don Quixote (especially in that dazzling second part), and Nabokov, a fervent admirer of Eugene Onegin, also made use of this technique: in Pnin, for instance, there is a remarkable passage where the eponymous Pnin breaks down in despair, and the narrator, who presents himself as a Russian émigré named Vladimir Nabokov, pokes fun at him mercilessly. But we must, at points such as this, learn to see beyond what this narrator is telling us. The real author Nabokov (as distinct from the Nabokov who is the narrator) is no more mocking Pnin than the real author Pushkin is belittling Lenski’s deeply felt emotions: the narrator’s mockery enlists our sympathy for the subject of the mockery.

But it remains a fact nonetheless that Lenski’s poetry is pretty poor stuff, and, however much sympathy we may feel for him, neither the author Pushkin nor the narrator Pushkin is going to pretend otherwise.

Those of a more romantic disposition have begged to differ. In Tchaikovsky’s operatic version of Eugene Onegin, Lenski’s poem forms the basis of an exquisitely beautiful and passionate tenor aria: the Lensky in the opera really is a poet, and, indeed, a great poet, for only a great poet could sing an aria so heart-stoppingly lovely. And the tragedy in the opera is that so great a poet should be cut down in his prime. But the tragedy in Pushkin’s poem is subtly different: here, for all Lenski’s depth of feeling, he never would really have amounted to much as a poet even had he lived. And he doesn’t even leave behind much of a memory: after his death, even his beloved Olga quickly forgets about him and marries someone else. The tragedy here is that Lensky’s death is as inconsequential as his life had been, and, most likely, would continue to have been had he lived. The tragedy here is that his fate isn’t even perceived as tragic.

When Pushkin comes to describe he duel itself, he adopts for a while a quite objective stance, almost as if he was writing a technical handbook on how to load a pistol:

The pistols gleam, the priming hammer

resounds against the ramrod head;

the bullets drop, pushed by the rammer,

The lever clicks, the powder’s fed

in little greyish streams to trickle

into the pan; the rough and brittle,

securely fastened flint is raised

again …

The duel takes place, and the expected happens: Lenski is killed. And then, Pushkin gives us an unforgettable poetic image that is way beyond anything that Lenski himself might have come up with – an empty house, bereft of people:

… but here, as in a house, unlightened

And bare, where all is empty, chill,

The heart forever remains still,

The shutters closed, the windows whitened …

This, one suspects, is Pushkin the author of the poem rather than Pushkin the narrator. But it isn’t always easy to distinguish.

The plot, such as it is, is built around what are, in effect, two non-events. The young, naïve Tatyana falls in love with Eugene, and writes him a love letter: nothing comes of it. And towards the end, it’s the other way round: Eugene this time falls in love with Tatyana, and writes her a love letter, but nothing comes of that either. In between, Tatyana has a very weird and surreal nightmare that seems to take us into the world of folklore and of mythical monsters; a duel is fought and the poet Lenski is killed by his erstwhile friend Onegin; and then, Tatyana visits a real empty house – that of Onegin’s, who, full of remorse and self-disgust after killing Lensky, has left the place.

This empty house is clearly a metaphor for Onegin himself, the man she still loves despite his having rejected her. But what the metaphor reveals about him is not entirely clear. Tatyana goes into his library, and finds an image of the almost stereotypical Romantic. There is a portrait of Byron, and a bust of Napoleon. The books are of Romantic literature. Tatyana herself has been moulded by literature of a pre-Romantic era (“… she read and then stayed staunchly loyal / to Richardson and to Rousseau …”), and by the traditional folklore she had taken in from her peasant nanny, and which had informed her strange dream. We are all moulded by our experiences, after all, and what we read is part of our experience: the relationship between fiction and reality, of how the former affects the latter, and, in particular, our perception of the latter, is, as in Don Quixote, one of the major themes of this work. Tatyana is still very much a simple and rather naïve village girl, and Onegin, as Tatyana discovers here, is a Petersburg sophisticate, a dashing dandy, almost a stereotypical restless Romantic. But also, perhaps, like the now empty house, Onegin is a frame without a soul. Perhaps. It is dangerous to impose so apparent and so fixed an interpretation on this most subtle and elusive of works, a work that so consistently pulls the rug from under our feet.

It is the titular character Onegin whom we meet first in this poem. He lives a dissipated life amidst the sparkling ballrooms and salons and theatres of Petersburg, and he is bored. He has a friend who is the poet Alexander Pushkin, the narrator of what we are reading. Onegin has to go out into the sticks to look after his ailing uncle, and that makes him even more bored. But it is worth it: the uncle dies, and Eugene becomes a man of property as well as the man of idle leisure he has always been. But the country life doesn’t suit our man about town. He is terminally bored. His friend in the country is the local landowner Lenski, and this Lenski introduces him to the Larins – the mother, a somewhat foolish widow, and her two daughters, Olga and Tatyana. Olga is betrothed to Lenski, and Tatyana, to whom we are now introduced, is a naïve and sensitive girl, and she soon has her head turned by the dashing Onegin. But the love letter she rashly writes him earns her only a stern and cold lecture from its recipient: she is well put in her place. Later, Tatyana has a strange dream in which she is at first lost in a fearful tumultuous winter night, but then a bear who at first frightens her leads her into a cottage, which is inhabited by all sorts of weird and wonderful monsters; and among these strange monsters is Onegin himself. One could have lots of fun trying to analyse the dream: Pushkin himself refuses to do so.

It is then that the duel takes place. Motivations are not clear: Pushkin refuses to spell anything out. Onegin is unhappy to be there among these uncouth country people who are so clearly far beneath him; and he is annoyed with Lenski for having brought him here. But why he should start flirting with Olga deliberately to make his friend Lenski jealous remains obscure. But there appears to be a sort of inevitability about it all – about little things leading to bigger things, until the sequence of events acquires such momentum that it becomes impossible to stop. Here, what starts off as no more than little annoyances lead to tragedy.

The last of the eight chapters forms a sort of epilogue. Once again, the central event of this chapter is in essence a non-event: a love letter is written, but nothing comes of it. But it rounds off with an almost formal symmetry the events that had occurred earlier. This time, it is Onegin who finds himself attracted to Tatyana. He has returned from his wanderings, and finds Tatyana no longer the naïve village girl, but a married woman, and a society hostess. And this time, it’s her turn to reject him. Her rejection isn’t cold and unfeeling, however, as Onegin’s had been: she freely admits she still loves him; she insists that she has not changed, and that the sophisticated front she now puts on is but a front. But nonetheless, she will not stoop to becoming Onegin’s mistress.

As ever, Pushkin does not delve into the psychology of these characters: he lets us do that. Why exactly does Tatyana reject Onegin? We have to piece that together. Why exactly does Onegin now fall in love with the country girl he had once rejected? Has he now changed, and become capable of loving that country girl that Tatyana insists she still is? Or does he now love the sophisticated society hostess he now sees, and which Tatyana says is but a front? Can we actually believe Tatyana when she says she hasn’t really changed? Would the Tatyana we had first seen have been capable of carrying out such a role? These are all questions we, the reader, can puzzle over, just as we puzzle over the imponderable questions of life itself.

Pushkin ends the poem leaving Onegin thus stranded, but not before he has given us an understated climax which, on repeated reading, strikes me as among the most moving things I’ve encountered in literature. As he is reading in his room, “between the lines there kept appearing / quite different lines …”

And then a kind of slow stagnation

Comes over him and dulls his thoughts,

And to his mind Imagination

Deals out a hand of cards … of sorts:

He either sees, as if reposing

Upon a melting snow and dozing

A youth, and then he hears with dread

A voice remark, “Well, well, he’s dead.”

Or else he finds long-gone detractors,

Base cowards and old enemies,

Young ladies famed for treacheries,

Departed, charming malefactors,

Or he espies a country place

And at a window sees … her face.

I remember well that sense of exaltation I felt when I had first read that scene in War and Peace in which the wounded Andrei is in the surgical tent at Borodino, and, in his delirium, seems to relive all sorts of feelings and sensations from his past; and finally, just before he passes out, he sees in his mind’s eye Natasha’s face. It remains one of the most wondrous chapters in fiction, but I hadn’t realised at the time just how much Tolstoy had taken from Pushkin. Having now read Pushkin’s novel in verse, I find echoes of it resounding through the entire range of Russian literature. Take, for instance, that scene in the final act of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, where Tusenbach, before going to the duel where he knows he will be killed, meets with Irina, but, not receiving any encouragement from her, fails to say anything of what he wants to say, and, after a few inconsequential words, leaves: this is Lensky meeting with Olga the night before his duel. This is not to say that either Tolstoy or Chekhov (or any other Russian writer) stole from Pushkin: it means that Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin was a permanent presence in their minds, a presence from which none of them could escape

For the poem itself is a marvel. It seems at times a series of contradictions: the narrative tone often appears casual, but the whole thing is very carefully structured; and it is written as a sequence of sonnets (only the two love letters escape the strict sonnet form). Each sonnet follows the same formal pattern, consisting of three quatrains followed by a concluding couplet. The rhyming scheme is abab ccdd effe gg. Each line is an iambic tetrameter, although the lines denoted above as a, c, and e have an extra unstressed syllable at the end. This form is applied strictly, and, for all the apparent looseness of the narrative, is never varied.

It is a product of Romanticism, but not really in itself Romantic: Pushkin was satisfied seeing the world for what it is, and wasn’t interested in the Romantic sense of striving for the transcendent, for something beyond. He plays all sorts of games with the narrative, and includes long rambling digressions – all in the manner of Byron’s Don Juan, or (an even greater influence, I think) Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. But Eugene Onegin is very different from either Don Juan or Tristram Shandy: alongside all the playfulness, and all the verve and gaiety and even the seeming mockery, there lies a sadness – a sadness all the more effective for not being stressed or pointed out. And it’s not a case of there being passages of gaiety and passages of melancholy: they all seem, somehow, to co-exist. The touch is of the lightest, but its impact, especially on repeated reading (this is one of those works that need to be lived with rather than read just once) is immense. The three principal characters, – Onegin, Tatyana, Lensky – haunt the reader’s imagination just as, clearly, they have haunted the imaginations of all Russian writers since. Indeed, Pushkin himself, in the course of the poem, often refers to these characters as “my Onegin”, “my Tatyana”, “my Lensky” – and one may suspect this is Pushkin the Author just as much as it is Pushkin the Narrator. It is a taffeta-like work, changing tints every time one looks at it, thus making it impossible to pin it down. In the end, as with all great art, one can but stare and wonder.

“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 practises 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. Also, 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.

“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

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.

II

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.

III

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.

IV

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.

V

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?

VI

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.

VII

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;

VIII

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.

Puzzling over “The Four Quartets”

I have spent the first few days of this new year puzzling over T. S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets.

But when have I not puzzled over these endlessly mysterious and elusive works? And will there ever be a time when I won’t be puzzling over them? As Eliot put it himself, we shall not cease from exploration. He continued:

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Looked at logically, this does not make sense. Having declared categorically that our explorations will not end, Eliot immediately goes on to speak of the condition that will characterise the end that he has already declared will never happen.

The four poems, the “quartets”, as Eliot calls them, are full of such contradictions:

                      Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it a fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline.

And a couple of lines later:

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance

Or:

Our only health is our disease

Or:

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

Similes and metaphors don’t help, as they seem as obscure and as self-contradictory as that which they are ostensibly there to explicate:

                   … as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.

Towards the end of The Dry Salvages, the third of the four quartets, we get another passage of self-contradictions, insisting that that which is impossible is also actual:

Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here, the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled …

All those impossibilities stated elsewhere in the poem as paradoxes, as sequences of self-contradictions, nonetheless, Eliot insists, may become actual. Indeed, will become actual, here – wherever “here” is.

When I first encountered this poem, as a mere teenager, I remember thinking that whatever merits these poems had, my pitiful Euclidean mind (I was a science student) was incapable of apprehending them. The Waste Land had also struck me in the same way at first acquaintance, but that poem, while still eluding my conscious Euclidean understanding, has, over the years, become part of my mental furniture, as it were: I may not understand it, as such – not completely, at any rate – but I think I can feel it, and passages from it often come readily to mind. The Four Quartets, on the other hand, has proved a somewhat harder nut to crack. My understanding is as small as ever, but, over the last decade or so, I am beginning – only beginning, I think – to feel it.

Firstly, the title. Or titles, since it remains uncertain whether this is a single poem, or a collection of four poems. Each of these poems is titled after a place – Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages, Little Gidding – and it isn’t too difficult to google these names, and find out where and what they are. But what significance these places have to the poetry to which they are titles is a matter open, I think, to interpretation.

These four poems were initially published separately, but Eliot was content to gather them together under one title, implying that they formed a unity of sorts. But that one title insists that they are really four. And that each one is a quartet. What did Eliot mean by this? One analysis I have read tells me that, as in a string quartet, the themes of these poems intermingle and develop with each other; but that is true of symphonies and sonatas also, and Eliot specifically says these are quartets. I’d guess that the solution to this mystery is that in each of these poems, there are four separate voices combining with each other. Different voices combine in The Waste Land also: reading that poem can seem like turning the tuning dial of a radio, and allowing the different disembodied voices from different radio stations drift in and out of hearing. But that juxtaposition of jumbled voices in The Waste Land has about it a certain vigour, almost, at times, a kind of brashness, that imparts to the poem a tremendously powerful sense of vividness and drama. The Four Quartets, in contrast, seems much more subdued in tone, much more contemplative. And what it contemplates is couched in images of seemingly impenetrable obscurity (“Garlic and sapphires in the mud / Clog the bedded axle-tree”), or in paradoxes and self-contradictions, impossibilities that Eliot nonetheless insists may become actual.

But if these poems are indeed quartets, it follows that there are four voices. I have tried to identify these four voices, but have failed: I can tell, I think, when one voice is supplanted by, or modulates into, another, but I couldn’t identify and label four voices with any certainty: the number of different voices seemed to me much greater than four. Eventually, I think I managed to convince myself that it didn’t really matter. If the title The Four Quartets remains enigmatic, it is far from the only enigma in the work.

There doesn’t really seem much in all this for the Euclidean mind to latch on to, and yet I found, to my surprise, that, after many revisits over many years, certain passages did become lodged in my consciousness; and I found myself struck by wonder and by awe, as I marvelled at the beauty and the expressive power of Eliot’s verbal music – a beauty and an expressive power that had, I think, largely eluded me on earlier readings.

But what does all this amount to? What does it all mean? It’s not really a question to be asked: the poetry of T. S. Eliot, maybe even poetry in general, would largely be a closed book to the Euclidean mind that asks such a question, as the very essence of poetry seems to me to lie in the manipulation of language in order to communicate things that, were it not for the manipulation, language is not capable of communicating. This, of course, renders exegesis virtually impossible, for how can one explain something when the poet himself, who presumably has a greater command of language than the interpreter (well, this interpreter, certainly) has already communicated that which cannot be communicated any other way?

The difficulty in making words express what one means seems itself to become one of Eliot’s themes. On a number of occasions, he comments upon this difficulty in the poem itself. In one particular prosy and conversational section (as in The Waste Land, Eliot intersperses such prosy passages among passages of high poetic expressivity), Eliot comments, with delicious self-deprecation, on this disparity between what words say, and what they strive to say:

That was one way of putting it – not very satisfactory;
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with that intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings.

Towards the end of Burnt Norton, we have this:

                               Words strain,
Crack, and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

This “intolerable wrestle with words and meanings” – with these things which crack and sometimes break, which will not stay still – is in itself one of Eliot’s themes. And yet, words are all we have. They are all that Eliot, as a poet, has. And, it seems to me, what he gives us in not so much an expression of something, but an attempt to explain, a pointing towards that which would be expressed, if only it could. It cannot be expressed as it is beyond human experience: the human mind cannot envisage the still point where the dance is, where there is neither movement from nor toward, neither ascent nor decline. Such things, such impossibilities that Eliot insists may nonetheless become actuality, can, at best, be but vaguely glimpsed, and the best that the poet can do is to point towards it, to stimulate our minds using all the linguistic resources at his command, so we may turn in that direction where we may glimpse it, and where we may hear that profound silence that can only be signified by breaking that silence.

If all this sounds very religious, mystical even, then yes, that is precisely what it is: we must leave our Euclidean minds behind us here if we want to feel this poem. Eliot was, of course, a convert to Anglicanism, but the religious vision he points towards here seems to have a variety of sources, which I am not really qualified to identify or to catalogue. For instance, the Hindu concept of detachment from earthly ties is certainly present (Krishna’s address to Arjuna, which forms the text of The Bhagavad Gita, is mentioned explicitly in The Dry Salvages). Detachment from earthly ties may seem turning one’s back on the human, but, Eliot insists, the liberation that comes from such detachment does not mean less of love:

              – not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire

Not less, but expanding, transcending. For how can love without desire be possible? Is love possible at all without an object of love? And if there is an object of one’s love, how can one not desire? Even if our love is to be general and altruistic – if, say, we love all humanity – would we not desire the best for humanity? But Eliot is not speaking here of ceasing to desire, but of expanding our love beyond it, transcending it. And what this expanded, transcended love may be, we do not know, and neither can we express. Eliot himself can only point towards it, again with the use of paradox and self-contradiction:

We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation

The ending of Little Gidding, the last of the quartets, strikes a note of quiet and unassertive optimism, with the lines “And all shall be well / All manner of thing shall be well” (which, I’m told, are taken from the writings of medieval mystic Julian of Norwich) ringing gently through the verse:

And all shall be well
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

When asked my religion in official forms, I state (accurately, I think) “none”. But I cannot explain why I find these obviously religious lines so profoundly moving. I do not know what it is this poem, or these four poems, are pointing towards, and I cannot account for the effect they have on me.

I have, as I said, spent the last few days puzzling over these poems. Indeed, looking back, I think I have spent the greater part of my life puzzling over these poems. And I think I shall continue do so. We shall not cease from exploration. We can not!

#Beethoven250 #Wordsworth250

There’s a lovely Peanuts cartoon strip by Charles M Schulz that I won’t reproduce here for fear of breaching copyright laws. I think I can describe it, though, without incurring the wrath of the courts. Schroeder is playing away at his little piano, his head bent towards the keyboard, lost to everything but the music he is making. And Lucy, who has a crush on Schroeder, sits by the piano, and tries to make conversation. She is looking, she says, for the answer to life. What is the answer, Schroeder?

Suddenly, without warning, Schroeder stops playing, and erupts. “Beethoven!” he bellows at her. “Beethoven is it, clear and simple!! Do you understand?” Such is his ferocity, that Lucy literally flips back into the air. When she lands again on the ground, Schroeder is back playing his music again, head down towards the keyboard, oblivious once more to all save the music.

I suppose this can be read as a joke at Schroeder’s expense – of a man who, immersed in his private passion, has no time for, or interest in, the human relationships he might be cultivating. But actually, I am on Schroeder’s side in this. For what is the answer to life if not Beethoven?

I suppose those on Lucy’s side (“Good grief!” she ends up saying to herself) will insist that cultivating human relationships, and thereby acknowledging our commonality and our shared humanity, overrides all else, and renders private obsessions at best trivial. But I can’t say I am entirely happy to go along with that. I don’t think it is to devalue the importance of these aspects of life to assert, or to re-assert, that aesthetics are also vitally important. Nietzsche famously asserted that life could only be justified as an aesthetic phenomenon, and, while I don’t know that I’d entirely go along with this either, I don’t think I have the temerity to disagree with old Freddie on this matter: for, really, if the answer to life isn’t Beethoven, then what is?

Or Shakespeare. Or Michelangelo. Of course, when we list the names of artists, we are referring to their works; and those works that strike us with awe and with wonder, that give us glimpses into the fullness of life, and impart a sense of something far more deeply interfused, are more, much more, I’d submit, than of merely peripheral importance, something merely to be indulged in when one has nothing better to do.

Next year is the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. Now, some may argue that it’s pointless to celebrate the birthday of someone who is no longer around to accept birthday felicitations, but, since the only really objective test we know of for artistic greatness is the Test of Time, passing this almighty test does seems to me well worth celebrating. I knew nothing of Beethoven till my late teens: he had been, to me, just a name. When, aged seventeen or so, I started to take an interest in this classical music lark – purely out of curiosity – I went first of all to those composers I knew to be the “heavyweights” – Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Bach took a bit of time, I must admit, and even now I’m not sure I have come close to absorbing his music adequately; but the other two won me over right away. I have particularly fond memories of the summer of 1978. I was 18 years old, and, earlier that year, with the cheque my parents had sent me for my 18th birthday, I had bought a box of long-playing records of the nine symphonies of Beethoven. (For those interested in these matters, the performances were by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Karl Böhm.) What an era of discovery that was! I remember listening to those works, and pacing up and down the room in excited agitation, my fists clenched, my head whirling, unable quite to believe that mere music could affect me so powerfully.

Years have passed since then. Indeed, decades have passed since then. And that sense of discovery is, inevitably, no more, since one cannot discover afresh what one has already discovered. So, although I no longer pace up and down the room like some inebriated arse, these symphonies have now, as it were, entered my system, in much the same way that the plays of Shakespeare have: they are permanent fixtures inside my mind,  things that I am aware of even when I am not consciously thinking about them.

Soon, other works by Beethoven followed – concertos, string quartets, piano sonatas, the titanic Missa Solemnis, that flawed-but-who-cares opera Fidelio … all works that have taken possession of my mind, that are now part of me. And if this isn’t worth celebrating, then what is? If this cannot give life some semblance of that meaning that Lucy was asking about, then what can?

There is another important 250th anniversary next year of another great artist: William Wordsworth. Wordsworth didn’t enter my mind so dramatically as Beethoven had done. Perhaps appropriately, given his quieter voice, he entered my mind more insidiously. Indeed – and it pains me greatly to think what I prat I must have been in my younger days – for many years, I thought his reputation overblown; I thought of him as somewhat effete, blabbering on childishly about how lovely the daffs were beside the lake and beneath the trees. It took several years, and what I like to think of as a greater maturity, to realise that this very well-known poem wasn’t talking about how lovely the daffs were this year: he was describing how our minds may find significance – meaning, if you will – in earthly things, in seemingly minor things, and how it is possible for memory to re-create this significance in our minds. And that he can talk about matters so profound in a language that even a child could understand is a testament not to childishness, but, quite the contrary, to an extremely high degree of sophistication. Over the years, I can think of no poet whose work has come to mean more than me. So much so, indeed, that, as perspicacious readers of this post will no doubt have noticed, I find it hard to express my thoughts without borrowing a line or two from him.

Different though these two figures were in temperament, there are points where their minds do seem to touch. Both were initially enthused by what was happening in France, only to recoil afterwards. And both found in Nature a sense of divinity – not a Divinity that, as Creator, stands outside and above Nature, but one whose presence is immanent within it.  The “still, sad music of humanity” that Wordsworth heard in Nature is also the music Beethoven often composed. And in the final movement of Beethoven’s 6th symphony, the “Pastoral” – still possibly my favourite of the nine – Beethoven inspires a sense of reverence and of awe – not in contemplation of some other world beyond this one, but in this world, right here, in the here-and-now.

If all this sounds very facile, I can only plead that it is pointless my trying to express in my own inadequate words what Wordsworth expressed in his. This is why I find it so damn difficult to write about poetry. To express adequately what Wordsworth’s poetry makes me feel, I really need to have Wordsworth’s own genius with language. And of music, I am even less qualified to write. But such considerations haven’t, frankly, inhibited me yet. And since I am, after all, a blogger who blogs specifically to talk about all the things I love; and since it is only right that Wordsworth and Beethoven should both be celebrated next year; I suppose I should risk the reader’s ridicule and at least have a go.

Watch this space, as they say.

“For love of unforgotten times”: “A Child’s Garden of Verses” by Robert Louis Stevenson

I think I must have been seven or eight, no more – a child who had been acquainted with the English language for not more than three years – when I first encountered Stevenson’s  A Child’s Garden of Verses. Our teacher at our primary school in Kirkcaldy used each week to write a poem in chalk on the blackboard, and we used to copy them into our jotters; and our homework would be to memorise that poem. And if modern sensibilities think of that as quaintly old-fashioned, or even as an imposition, then so much the worse for modern sensibilities. Memories are vague, of course, but from what I remember, I did enjoy those poems, and I cannot remember any complaints from any of the other children. And those poems have stuck in my mind ever since, for the general betterment, I think, of that mind. I look through the poems in this collection now, and there are so many I remember memorising at home and reciting in class … That one about the speeding train, for instance:

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches…

And I remember our teacher telling us how, when you read it out loud, it sounds like a train rattling along. I think that was possibly the first indication I had of poetry communicating through sound as much as through anything else. I remember my imagination being stirred on windy nights by the idea of a horseman galloping by:

Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.
Late in the night when the fires are out,
Why does he gallop and gallop about?

I was only going to give the first verse here, but now that I have done that, I can’t help giving the other verse too:

Whenever the trees are crying aloud,
And ships are tossed at sea,
By, on the highway, low and loud,
By at the gallop goes he.
By at the gallop he goes, and then,
By he comes back at the gallop again.

Yes, reading these poems at my age is tremendously nostalgic, but it seems to me that there was as at least as much nostalgia in Stevenson’s writing of these poems as there is in my reading. For, although I enjoyed these poems as a child, I am not sure that they strike me, reading them now, as poems written specifically for children. Rather, they are very much, and, I think, very consciously, poems about an adult looking back: nostalgia is not merely what these poems evoke – it is the central theme of this collection; and, inevitably, since nostalgia literally means “the ache for home”, there is, under the charm and the whimsicality, an ache, a sorrow.

The sorrow is partly for the lonely, sickly child Stevenson remembered himself to have been. There is the famous poem in which he, lying sick in bed, imagines in the patches of his bedquilt a new land on which his toy soldiers may manoeuvre; or the one where he remembers his imaginary friend; or the one where he remembers sitting on his own at the window every evening, waiting for Leerie the lamplighter stopping to light the streetlamp in front of his house; and how he wished to become a lamplighter himself once he grows up, and do the rounds each night with Leerie. Occasionally, Stevenson mentions playing with other children, but only occasionally: in most of the poems, he is on his own, imagining friends, imagining new, exotic worlds.

But these poems are not self-pitying: Stevenson grew up in a comfortable family, and he knew his background was privileged. The greater part of the sadness in these poems comes from that sense of loss we all feel when we look back on our childhoods, even though that sense of loss is for something that, for the most part, exists only in our imaginations. For our imaginations harden too, along with our arteries, and the new lands we used to conjure out of the patches in our counterpane are, in our adult years, well beyond our reach.

In the last poem in the collection, Stevenson drops the pretence that he is writing for children. This last poem is called “To Any Reader”, but actually, it is addressed to the adult reader. Here, he bids his adult reader picture “another child, far, far away”, playing in “another garden”.

But do not think you can at all,
By knocking on the window, call
That child to hear you…

And Stevenson knows the loss is not his alone. In one poignant verse, addressed to his mother, he writes:

You too, my mother, read my rhymes
For love of unforgotten times,
And you may chance to hear once more
The little feet along the floor.

This is a loss, and a sorrow, the expression of which we rarely encounter – the sorrow of losing a child not through anything so dramatic as death, but simply by the fact that the child grows up. I imagine we rarely hear of it because such a grief seems self-centred: if the parent and the grown-up child are on good terms, it seems like an unjust rebuke to the grown up child; and if not, it is, inevitably, more than tinged with bitterness. But it remains a potent grief nonetheless: the child that had delighted us so by the very fact of being a child may well have become the most splendid of adults, but some sadness inevitably remains that that delight is no more.

Another writer who captured this particular sense of loss is Bibhutibhushan Banerji, in the novel Aparajito (a follow-up to the better known Pather Panchali, and equally wondrous and moving). In this novel, Apu’s mother, Sarbojaya, dies on her own in her remote village, while the last remaining member of her family, Apu, now an adolescent, and unaware of the state of his mother’s health, is in far distant Kolkata. In Satyajit Ray’s famous film, Sarbojaya, as she approaches her end, imagines she hears her son’s voice, and she hobbles to the door and opens it; and outside, there is only emptiness: all she can see are fireflies glowing in the dark. As with so many images in this trilogy of films, that image of the glowing fireflies affects the viewer – well, this viewer at least – with an intensity that no amount of analysis can quite account for. But, marvellous though this sequence is, Bibhutibhushan, in his novel treats the scene differently. Here, Sarbojaya, at the point of death, hallucinates her son Apu has come to see her; but it is not Apu the young man as he is now: it is Apu as he had been as a ten year-old.

I remember when I first read that, I was so moved, I had to put the book down for a while to collect myself. For this is the Apu his mother had lost. Her daughter she had lost to the brute fact that all that lives must die; but her son she had lost to the equally brute fact that all that lives must change. Worldly wisdom tells us not to look back, and to keep up with the changes; but our worldly minds often cannot. And the grown-up Stevenson understands the sorrow felt by all those who share that “love of unforgotten times”.

There is nothing in these poems quite as heart-tugging as that scene in Aparajito, but neither did Stevenson intend there to be. Instead, there is charm, there is delight; and there is, it seems to me, a lingering sadness underpinning it all, a sadness that seems to me more than the consequence of my own nostalgia for those far-off days at North Primary School, Kirkcaldy.

I have never sat at my window to see Leerie the lamplighter pass by. Indeed, I have never even seen a lamplighter. But reading Stevenson’s evocation, it seems as if I have. Leerie the lamplighter has become part of my own nostalgia as well.

Some utter nonsense

The first book I remember reading was a book of Bengali nonsense rhymes, Abol Tabol (which means “gibberish”) by Sukumar Ray (Satyajit’s dad). When I was 5, I knew many of those poems by heart. Recently, in an idle hour, I wondered if I could translate one of them. This is the result. I am not very pleased with the ending (which seems to me rather anticlimactic in English) – but what the hell! – I’m not a professional translator, and this is the best I could do. Since I’ve now done it, and don’t know what to do with it, I thought I might as well stick it up here.

Our office head, a lovely chap,
Forever calm and gentle,
Who’d have thought he’d be the sort
To go completely mental?

There he dozed upon his chair
Contented as a child,
But then his nap broke with a snap –
He was raving! He was wild!

He gave a shout and rolled about,
His arms and legs went flying,
“Help, help!” he cried, “Come to my side,
“Come hold me up! I’m dying!”

“Doctor! Nurse!” some people called,
“Police! There’ll be a fight!”
Others there were more circumspect,
“Careful now! He’ll bite!”

Here and there and everywhere
Was bedlam, bash and crash,
As tumult spread, the office head
Cried: “Someone’s nicked me tache!”

Moustache stolen? What a thought!
Well, that’s not very clever!
They stood and stared: his facial hair
Seemed sprouting strong as ever.

They gathered round, and said to him,
“Look in the mirror, sir!
“Your tache has not been nicked or pinched –
“Such things do not occur.”

He raged like fire, like chips in frier,
“How dare you have the gall!
“How dare you lie! How dare deny!
“You’re traitors, villains all!

“This filthy rag upon my lip,
“This fetid, threadbare broom,
“You think I’d place this on my face?
“You think I’d give this room?

“I’ll soon teach you a thing or two –
“Come here and take a gander!
“If you opine this eyesore’s mine
“I’ll sue you all for slander!”

He moped and muttered, spat and spluttered,
And in his diary wrote:
“Never cut anyone any slack –
“They’ll all be at your throat!

“Those dunces, neds, those dung-filled heads,
“They can’t see! No-one knows!
“My tache is swiped in broad daylight
“From under my very nose!

“If I’d my way I’d dance all day
“While pulling at their taches,
“And scrape their heads with massive spades –
“Those birdbrained loons! Those asses!

“Moustaches can’t be bought or sold –
“Who mocks my tache maligns me!
“I am my tache! The rest is trash!
“What’s on my lip defines me!”

 

 

Ghettoisation is liberation

War is peace

Freedom is slavery

Ignorance is strength

To which we should now add a fourth slogan:

Ghettoisation is liberation

Yes, I know I must appear to be no more than an ageing has-been, or, more accurately, an ageing never-has-been, raging furiously at the way the world is going. But I hope that’s not quite the whole story. I grew up in Britain in the 60s and 70s, and, despite everything that is still far from perfect, I do know, for instance, that there is far, far greater racial tolerance now (at least in Britain) than there had been some forty or fifty years ago. I also know that modern advances in medicine and medical technology have saved my life: the chances of surviving a triple heart bypass operation are now far greater than they were back in my day. So I would have to be wilfully blind, and unthinkingly ungrateful, to rage against the modern world merely for being modern.

However, certain aspects of the modern world are nonetheless worth raging against. Certain cultural aspects, which, after all, are the major focus of this blog. And amongst the most insidious of these is the increasingly widespread credo that one’s ethnicity, or one’s gender, or one’s sexuality, defines one’s cultural and moral values – defines, indeed, the very person one is.

Certain things enter one’s mind at so formative a stage in that mind’s development, and stay embedded within it so firmly, that it becomes very difficult attempting to look beyond them, or even trying to understand that there may be valid arguments against them. I appreciate that. And one of those things that had entered my mind at a very early stage was the conviction that one’s cultural values, or one’s ethical values, are not determined by race. Indeed, I have long thought deeply objectionable, and, yes, as racist, the idea that one’s race determines the kind of person one is. One’s person is not defined by one’s race: such a credo, determining human value in terms of race, has always seemed to me the very epitome of racism.

So, naturally, I find myself rather bemused, to say the least, when the very people who claim to be anti-racist nowadays proclaim this same racist credo. Suddenly, it seems, everything I have understood about racism seems to be turned on its head. The very definition of “racism” seems to be changed before my very eyes.

Other definitions seem also to be changing before my eyes. Of poetry, for instance. Obviously, defining poetry has never been an easy task: and, after having given the matter much consideration – or, at least, as much consideration as I am capable of – the best definition I could come up with is that if a piece of writing ain’t prose, then it’s poetry, and vice versa. And prose is written in units of sentences, and poetry in units of lines, which may cut across sentences. Or, to put it more crudely, prose goes all the way up to the right hand side of the page, and poetry doesn’t. But that’s pretty uninteresting, and unenlightening: the question is whether something is good poetry, and that, of course, is another matter. And here, we cannot go by definitions, as there are so many different ways that a poem can be good. But, without going into any detailed analysis, it can be maintained, I think, that just as painting involves the manipulation of colours, and music the manipulation of sound, so poetry involves the manipulation of language – of making words communicate more than merely their dictionary definitions. What “more” it can communicate depends upon the intentions and the skills of the poet: it may communicate multiple layers of meaning, or plumb depths of emotion, or evoke distant associations, or elusive states of mind, or capture the most intangible of human feeling and thought; but whatever the poem achieves, its basic tool is language. To analyse how a poem works – should one wish to do that – it is the language we must focus upon.

But this too seems to be changing. Consider this poem, which, I am reliably informed, is a set text for English literature GCSE this year. As far as I can see, with my old-fashioned and no doubt outdated ideas on poetry, this is poetry only because it ain’t prose: the  lines don’t go all the way across the page. It uses a Caribbean dialect, which is fine, but the dialect is used not to any particular expressive end, but merely to assert the poet’s racial identity. And I cannot help wondering what there can be here that merits teaching. The poem conveys nothing more than what may be communicated by a bald summary of its content: “They do not teach us anything that makes me feel comfortable about my racial identity.”

Of course, how history should be taught is a complex issue, and fully deserving of debate and discussion, but to object to the way it is currently taught merely because it does not make one feel comfortable about one’s racial identity does not seem to me a very enlightening contribution to the debate. And such a simplistic statement seems to me a poor theme for a poem. A good poem lays bare the complexity and the intricacy of our human state: a simplistic statement may make a good rallying cry, but its worth as poetry worthy of study remains to my mind dubious.

Well, let’s not labour the point: let’s just say that this is not my idea of what poetry should be – or, at least, what good poetry, poetry worth teaching, should be. But then again, I am shown rap lyrics which I am told is poetry of our times, and I can see no poetic merit there either, so I suppose all this is no more than an indication of how utterly outdated and obsolete my perspective is on such matters.

And my perspective on what constitutes racism is similarly obsolete, I guess. I have changed my mind on a great many things over the years but one point I have been constant on, ever since I have been old enough to think about such matters, is that I was not going to define myself in terms of my ethnicity, as my ethnicity says no more about what kind of person I am than does my shoe-size. Of course, some others may well see me in terms of my ethnicity, but they’d be wrong, and I am not going to confirm them in their wrongness by agreeing with them. And, since I didn’t see myself in terms of my ethnicity, I thought it only good manners not to see others in such terms either. So it’s quite a shock, as I find myself approaching my sixties, to realise that what I had thought was a liberal position to hold in such matters is now actually considered racist – that people are actually clamouring for their ethnicity to be recognised, and to recognise it in others; and that it is racist not to see people thus.

For nowadays, it is quite commonplace to see individual people in terms of their race. No-one bats an eyelid. Of course, I’d expect racists to place a great emphasis on race: that’s because, obviously, they’re racists. But this is now a mark of the anti-racist as well, and, dinosaur that I am, I really cannot reconcile myself to it. In The Guardian, an avowedly liberal paper, there recently appeared an article written by someone who would no doubt claim to be feminist and anti-racist, headlined “How White Women Use Strategic Tears to Silence Women of Colour”. I appreciate that the author was not responsible for the headline, but on this occasion, it’s a fair summary of what the article says. Back in my own benighted times, an article so racist and so misogynistic as this would not have seen light of day.

For yes, it is racist – at least, given my no doubt obsolete understanding of the term. For how else can one describe making generalisations about an entire race? (And it is misogynist as well, for similar reasons.) I raised this point on Twitter, but I was confidently told that one cannot be racist to white people. I did not quite understand the reasons for this quite extraordinary statement , but it’s widely held, and is something, I gather, to do with the “power structures” of society. (It is astonishing how readily the general public laps up the various bits and pieces of bollocksology that emanate from the groves of academia.) And I was recommended to read a book called Why I Am No Longer Talking About Race to White People. I replied, as politely as I could, that I have too much to read as it is, and that I find the title, unless it is intended ironically, offensive. And then I retired from the fray. What else could I do? (The author of this book, incidentally, is so marginalised by the power structures of society that she recently gave a talk at the prestigious Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, and it was sold out.)

Lionel Shriver, who had, not too long ago, earned the disapprobation of right-thinking liberals for her onslaught on the concept of “cultural appropriation” (an idea so utterly daft that one shouldn’t, one would have thought, even need to argue against it), recently penned an article in The Spectator drawing attention to the statement  made by the UK branch of Penguin Random House to the effect that they are aiming for both their staff and their writers to reflect, by 2025, the distribution of ethnicities, genders, disabilities, and sexualities in wider society. To be fair, Penguin Random House do not mention quotas, but it is hard to see how else this seemingly laudable aim can be achieved without them. And if the questionnaire they sent out to their writers is as described by Lionel Shriver (and I have seen no-one disputing this), then it seems fairly likely that this is indeed the path Penguin Random House is going down. Now, the quota system is controversial, to say the least, and Lionel Shriver is entirely justified in penning a polemic against it – although her means of attack is, admittedly, somewhat ham-fisted, introducing as it does that rather tired and tiresome figure of “a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter”. But her point remains valid. If Criterion X is to be replaced by Criterion Y, then, given that X and Y are not correlated one way or the other, there are bound to be at least some that pass Criterion Y who would not have passed Criterion X. At the very least, there is room for debate. But debate didn’t prove possible: all hell broke loose, with Lionel Shriver accused of racism (when really all she was guilty of was ham-fisted satire); and of saying that “people of colour” (as I guess I have to describe myself these days) cannot write, even though, quite clearly, she says no such thing. She later penned a response, but no-one was really listening by then.

But her point remains, I think, a pertinent one. Looking back, I sat my Scottish O-Grade in English (the equivalent of GCSE) back in 1975, and I distinctly remember studying in class poems by Shelley, by Wilfred Owen, by Dylan Thomas. Even if one thinks more highly of “Checking Out Me History” than I do, it cannot be denied that what is now being taught in English classes nowadays as poetry is not of a standard comparable to what had been around some 40 or so years ago. What can be the reason for this?

The only possible answer I can think of is diversity. (That is, to be clear, diversity as a criterion replacing quality, rather than as an addition to it.) And, also, strangely enough, uniformity. For while we may insist on diversity of ethnicity (and all those other things), we must still insist upon uniformity of outlook. After all, there is no shortage of genuinely fine poets who are black, or South Asian, or East Asian, or whatever, writing poems that display richness of language, and depth of thought. But it’s far easier, and far more convenient, to teach a simple message such as “What is taught does not validate my racial identity, and it’s not fair!” All you do is repeat this simple message, ignore the irony that a poem communicating this very message is now a set text in schools, and, lo and behold, you don’t really need to teach about poetry at all! All that difficult stuff about the use of language, the subtleties of the rhythms, the sonorities, the imagery – the sort of stuff that I was introduced to in the works of Shelley, of Wilfred Owen, of Dylan Thomas, when I was fifteen – can now be safely ignored. And it’s all right, because we have diversity, and that, apparently, is an end in itself.

And meanwhile, it continues. Examples pile upon each other, and it becomes exhausting merely trying to keep up. We keep quoting to ourselves the inspirational line of the late Jo Cox, who was so tragically murdered last year by a far-right racist: “We have more in common than that which divides us.” But even as we repeat this to ourselves, in practice, it is all that divides us that we most insist upon. Human beings are barely regarded as individuals any more: they are white, or black, or brown, or whatever. At the drop of a hat, it’s the ethnicity or gender or sexuality that comes inevitably to the fore, before all else. A published poet feels affronted by an Uber driver saying that he would like to be published, and instantly, she publicly announces that “old white men are exhausting”. Instantly, this taxi driver, who was doing no more than making polite conversation, is not an individual, but someone to be characterised by race and gender (and age), and put down on that score. The tweet has since been removed after heavy criticism, but there has been no apology or retraction.

(I will not link to her poetry by the way, but some are available in Instagram, should anyone wish to see them. I have. As I say, I simply do not understand the criteria of poetic merit any more, so there’s little point my commenting.)

So here I am, wondering why I even bother writing this when there’s so much I clearly don’t understand. Nor, frankly, wish to understand. Foolishly, I really had believed, and believe still, that we have more in common than that which divides us, and still feel very strongly that we have a very long way to go towards racial equality, and, further, that such an end is worth fighting for. But I had imagined that the struggle against racism was to break through the differences, and find that common ground. But that’s all old hat now. The message from all sides seems to me clear: see everyone, including one’s own self, in terms of ethnicity; respect all that divides us; stay in your lane.

Well, I want out. Obsolete  I may be, but I want no part in any of this. Let others fart around trying to find validation in poetry for their racial identity, and judge literary works on such terms: I’ll sit in my ivory tower for as long as I can, and glory in the richness of language and the subtlety of imagery and the profundity of feeling that I found in the English class in the comprehensive school I attended. Especially when the October wind punishes my hair…

Yes, our English teacher taught us this poem by Dylan Thomas for our O-Grade examination. This, of course, was back when people actually believed that poetry, far from being something to validate one’s group identity, existed to enrich our lives.

Especially when the October wind
With frosty fingers punishes my hair,
Caught by the crabbing sun I walk on fire
And cast a shadow crab upon the land,
By the sea’s side, hearing the noise of birds,
Hearing the raven cough in winter sticks,
My busy heart who shudders as she talks
Sheds the syllabic blood and drains her words.

Shut, too, in a tower of words, I mark
On the horizon walking like the trees
The wordy shapes of women, and the rows
Of the star-gestured children in the park.
Some let me make you of the vowelled beeches,
Some of the oaken voices, from the roots
Of many a thorny shire tell you notes,
Some let me make you of the water’s speeches.

Behind a pot of ferns the wagging clock
Tells me the hour’s word, the neural meaning
Flies on the shafted disk, declaims the morning
And tells the windy weather in the cock.
Some let me make you of the meadow’s signs;
The signal grass that tells me all I know
Breaks with the wormy winter through the eye.
Some let me tell you of the raven’s sins.

Especially when the October wind
(Some let me make you of autumnal spells,
The spider-tongued, and the loud hill of Wales)
With fists of turnips punishes the land,
Some let me make you of the heartless words.
The heart is drained that, spelling in the scurry
Of chemic blood, warned of the coming fury.
By the sea’s side hear the dark-vowelled birds

Isn’t that just gorgeous?