Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

With apologies to Cole Porter

This is what happens when you have hours of insomnia to while away:

You’re the top,
You’re a Bach partita,
You’re the top,
You’re Cinecitta,
You’re the pleasing quails in the ghostly tales of James,
You’re Messi’s verve, you’re Federer’s serve, you’re Hunger Games!

You’re the Wiz,
You’re the vaccine Pfizer,
You’re the fizz
Of a can of Tizer,
You’re the zest and zing when Beatles sing “Get Back”,
You’re Billy Bones, you’re Indy Jones, you’re Armagnac!

You’re the best,
You’re the flower bed border,
You’re the rest
That the doctors order,
I’m out of rhymes, and so, betimes, must stop,
But if baby, I’m the bottom, you’re the top!

Flaubert on Balzac

“What a man Balzac would have been, had he known how to write!” wrote Flaubert to Louise Colet (in a letter dated December 16th 1852). And then he added, rather intriguingly, “but that was the only thing he lacked”.

This may seem rather strange coming from Flaubert, for whom, if the popular image is to be believed, good writing was the only thing worth striving for. If the ability to write was the only thing Balzac lacked, it surely follows that he had other qualities which too were worthwhile. And since Flaubert only knew Balzac through his books, those other qualities must have been apparent in his books,despite (as Flaubert saw it) his inability to write. And this leads us to a somewhat un-Flaubertian conclusion: there exist qualities in literature distinct from the ability to write well.

Flaubert does not clarify what precisely he means here. He certainly wouldn’t have allowed such imprecision in his novels, but this was, after all, only a private letter. And we may, I think, take a guess that his implied distinction was between, on the one hand, writing prose well, and, on the other, those various other qualities that may conduce to the quality of a novel, even if the prose itself is unremarkable.

But what qualities are these? If we define “good writing” to cover everything it takes to produce a good book, then, by definition, there cannot be anything else. But if we restrict the definition, and consider “good writing” to refer specifically to the ability to construct sentences elegantly; to select those words and images that express with absolute precision what the author wants to communicate, and no more and no less; to arrange those words to produce euphony of rhythm and of sonority, or to produce a dissonance if that is the intended effect; and so on and so forth; then, in a novel, it isn’t difficult to identify various other qualities that may also enhance its literary merits. The construction, say – the pacing over long stretches, and the ability to tighten and to loosen tension appropriately, in order to create a coherent shape across the span of the work; the ability to communicate a sense of place, and of atmosphere; the ability to invent plot, and to ensure that the reader remains interested in the affairs of entirely fictional characters; the ability to create characters – and make them appear to think and to feel and to behave in a manner that is credible given their innate natures, and given the circumstances in which they find themselves; the ability to depict these characters developing through experience; and so on. And, on top of all that, I’d argue – at least, in those novels we think of as being novels of quality – a certain vision of life. By which I mean a certain way of looking at life, individual to the author, which appears to the reader as being in some way striking, and memorable. And if the ability to write was, for Flaubert, the only thing Balzac lacked, then, presumably, these other qualities he must have possessed.

And here I must make a confession: Balzac’s reputation puzzles me. Flaubert obviously thought highly of him, despite his alleged inability to write (a flaw which, one might have thought, would have damned him irretrievably given Flaubert’s aesthetics); Henry James, who seems in many ways the antithesis of Balzac, admired him immensely; and Somerset Maugham – a novelist whose star has now fallen but who was often astute in his criticism – once said that Balzac was the only novelist whom he would unhesitatingly describe as a “genius”.  Now, I really don’t want to say too much here about my own reactions to Balzac: I have read only four of his novels (though they are among his most highly rated), and a few short stories; and three of those four I read over 40 years ago. The last Balzac novel I read was Illusions Perdues, and even that was nearly 30 years ago. So my memory of those works, frankly, isn’t particularly strong. Also, these novels made so little impression on me that, despite my mania for re-reading, I have never felt the urge to return to them. And, since one tends not to be too perceptive about books one does not like, my own opinions on Balzac really do not seem worth communicating. There must have been something about Balzac to have impressed such fastidious tastes as Flaubert and James: the loss, I’m sure, is entirely mine.

But the impressions I retain of Balzac, such as they are, are those of a novelist who took a keen interest in the structure of society, of how society worked, and who understood money: I got the impression that he knew exactly how much each of his characters earned, and how; how much they spent, how much they invested, how much disposable income they had. These things fascinated him, and, it may be argued, given the importance of these matters in our lives, other novelists, especially those claiming to be “realist”, should take a little more interest in them. But, at the same time, his characters seem to me to have little or no inner lives; their aspirations rarely, if ever, rise above accumulating wealth, acquiring social position, and having sex. I frankly thought Balzac vulgar, and his fictional world limited merely to what is coarse. D. H. Lawrence once described Balzac as a “gigantic dwarf”: I’m not at all sure what he meant by that, but whatever he may have meant, I’m with him.

I am not, of course, insisting on any of this: if Flaubert and James admired Balzac (despite his inability to write, that is), then who am I to stand against them? But I frankly do not feel the urge to return to Balzac, as I often have done with many other writers I didn’t “get” the first time round. If I don’t “get” Balzac, I’m content to remain in that state.

But what about Flaubert’s own writings? Can it not be argued that his characters, too, inhabit a world that is irredeemably coarse and vulgar? That they are bereft of anything we may describe as a “spirituality”? That they too have nothing worthwhile to aspire towards? Flaubert’s prose was, of course, exquisite – no-one could accuse him of not writing well – but does that fact alone raise his work above the vulgarity of what he depicts? – the vulgarity that is, in effect, the central theme of his novels?

For many readers, I know, the answer is “yes, it does”. Flaubert saw life as entirely pointless and futile, and the only thing that mattered was his act of recording that pointlessness and futility. It is, in short, the quality of his writing, that purely aesthetic quality of his prose, that raises it above all the vulgarity he depicts. Now, I have never been entirely satisfied with this view. I think this comes down to a difference in how we, as individual readers, read things, but, if this is how we are to read Flaubert, his works would be, it seems to me, lacking in one of those qualities I had mentioned earlier that great novels ideally should have – a certain vision of life, “a certain way of looking at life, individual to the author, which appears to the reader as being in some way striking, and memorable”. For an empty eggshell cracked open merely to reveal its emptiness does not seem to me the stuff of great art, no matter how exquisite the act of cracking.

I think Flaubert offered more, but what more I think he offered isn’t, however, easy to explain. But perhaps we may get some idea of it if we consider the ending of Madame Bovary. (And here, I suppose I should issue one of those tiresome “spoiler alerts” for those who haven’t read it.)

At the end of the novel, after Emma’s death, her deceived husband, Charles Bovary, dies of grief. In a sense, this is another cynical touch: Emma had despised Charles, and had been unfaithful to him. Nonetheless, he was clearly devoted to her, to such an extent that he could not go on living without her. No matter how one views this, it is difficult to be cynical about what is clearly a great depth of feeling. Somerset Maugham, whose astuteness in these matters I was praising earlier in this post, felt that Flaubert could have conveyed the futility more powerfully if Charles’ mother had arranged another marriage for him, but Flaubert, I think, knew what he was doing: if he depicts Charles’ depth of feeling here, it is because he wanted to; that depth of feeling is the very point. Of course it is absurd that such a nincompoop as Charles should be able to feel so deeply, but the messy and uncomfortable fact is that he does. And yes, that depth of feeling is futile, but it is also, for me at any rate, unbearably sad – all the sadder precisely because it is so futile, so utterly pointless.

And this is what I get in so much of Flaubert: indeed, this is what seems to me at the very core of Flaubert – a sense of futility and absurdity, true, but also a profound awareness of the immense sadness that things should be so.

Earlier in the novel, in one of its most celebrated passages, he had written:

 … la parole humaine est comme un chaudron fêlé où nous battons des mélodies à faire danser les ours, quand on voudrait attendrir les étoiles.

This has proved difficult to translate into English, as there is no direct equivalent of the word “attendrir”, which means, as I understand it, to soften – to soften emotionally rather than physically, that is – to make one more amenable to gentler emotions. Lydia Davis translates this as follows:

… human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to move the stars to pity.

Other translations I have consulted (including the old Penguin translation by Alan Russell – the first translation of this novel I read, and one I am still much attached to) also go for “move the stars with pity”, and I can’t frankly see how it can be translated otherwise. But however one translates it, “attendrir” indicates a softening of our emotions, and acquiring of certain feelings that are, at least, not too distant from “pity”. And pity is what I feel at the end of Madame Bovary. And I feel this pity in other works by Flaubert too – L’Education Sentimentale, Un Coeur Simple, Bouvard et Pécuchet: no matter how cynical the guffaw, no matter how implacable Flaubert’s insistence on the pointlessness of it all, our human inadequacy in the face of what life throws at us is, at heart, pitiful. How else can I explain the fact – for fact it is – that Frédéric Moreau’s last meeting with Madame Arnoux, towards the end of L’Education Sentimentale, has me in tears, even on repeated readings?

But once again, I do not insist on any of this, any more than I insist on my reading of Balzac. I know there are readers whose discernment I respect who feel otherwise. But I can only record my own reaction here.

But obviously, this Flaubert whom I love so dearly himself loved dearly Balzac, a writer whose works mean so little to me. When Balzac died, Flaubert wrote in a letter (to Louis Bouilhet, dated November 14th 1850):

Why has Balzac’s death “affected me strongly”? One is always saddened by the death of a man one admires. I had hoped to know him later, hoped he would have liked me.

No doubt I am just a sentimental old fool, but I find this rather touching too. I do get the feeling that Flaubert regarded himself as following in Balzac’s footsteps, and would have liked Balzac to have approved of him, and to have approved of his work. That he had a great regard for Balzac is clearly beyond doubt. But if only he had known how to write!

[The excerpts quoted here from Flaubert’s letters are taken from The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, selected, edited and translated by Francis Steegmuller.]

Season’s greetings 2020

Around this time of the year, along with some maudlin observations of the passage of time, I usually announce that the blog will be shutting down over the Christmas season, but perhaps such an announcement would be superfluous this year: my output has slowed down to such an extent that a few weeks without a post would hardly be worthy of comment. I am not sure why my output has slowed: perhaps after all these years I have finally realised that I never really wanted to write about books anyway, but had used that as an excuse to write what are in effect childhood memoirs. Now I am aware of that, I can, I feel, be more unapologetically autobiographical.

But may I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year – well, as merry and as happy as our strange times will allow – and leave you with this rather lovely triptych by Hans Memling of the Adoration of the Magi that I saw in the Prado last year.

See you all next year!

Triptych of The Adoration of the Magi by Hans Memling, courtesy Prado Gallery, Madrid

“The Common Breath” literary questionnaire

Glasgow-based publishing imprint The Common Breath invite the great and the good to answer a literary questionnaire every week. This week, they made an exception and invited me as well. Do please take a look.

From Monsoon to April Showers: poems from Bengali to English

It may not have escaped readers of this blog that there is a handful of writers about whom I tend to bang on interminably, and that one of these writers is Rabindranath Tagore. That is not too surprising. The propensity to bang on interminably about Rabindranath Tagore is, along with loving fish curry, a defining characteristic of a Bengali. But I have gone a step further than just bang on about Tagore: in my spare time, I have also been translating a number of his poems, mainly, I think, because working with those poems, often, indeed, wrestling with them and trying to tease out their various nuances and complexities, helped bring me closer to these glorious works. And, after a while, standing back from them as best as I could, it struck me that these translations held up rather well in their own right as poems in English.

Now, it may be, these poems will be shared with a wider audience. Nothing is certain yet: indeed, nothing can be certain in these uncertain times. Nothing has been agreed formally. But I have been speaking with Holland House Books, and – fingers crossed – a slim volume, as they say, may well be published shortly. What is currently being planned is an illustrated volume, with the illustrations tending towards abstraction, and reflecting the mood and the tone of the poems.

I am, as I need hardly emphasise, an amateur, both in the sense that translation has not been my day job, and also, more importantly I think, in the sense that the very word “amateur” is derived from the Latin word amare: I worked on these poems purely for the love of them.

Looking back – something I tend often to do, as, once again, readers of this blog will no doubt have noticed – I have actually been a translator for many years now without quite knowing it. Going to school or the first time in Britain, aged five, and not knowing a word of English, I could not at first give voice to my Bengali thoughts; but after a while, once I had picked up enough of this strange new language, all my communication outside home consisted of my Bengali thoughts translated into English. I still have a vivid memory from those days of, one day, seeing a lady walking in front of me in the street dropping a letter, and walking on without having realised; and my picking up that letter and running after her, thinking all the while how to explain in English, once I had caught up with her, that she had dropped it. Even then, I think, I was translating.

Translation became, for many years, second nature to me in that respect, until, inevitably, my second language became, effectively, my first, and, without realising it, I started even to think in English. But old habits die hard: every time I read Bengali, I couldn’t help thinking to myself how it could best be rendered into English. Not just the literal meaning, but all those other meanings that lie hidden under the literal. Perhaps my taking on the poems of Tagore was simply a natural extension of an old unforgotten habit: I was too used to translating to just stop.

But whatever the causes, we are where we are. These translations, hidden for so long on my laptop, may at long last see light of day, and readers may even, I hope, be as appreciative as that lady had been when I had handed her the letter.

There’s a long way still to go, but should this develop as we hope, there may be cause for cracking open the champagne yet some time not too distant. I’ll keep you posted.

“Against Nature” by Joris-Karl Huysmans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Shakespeare may (perhaps) have thought about

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Opening lines of Sonnet 55)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More utter nonsense

Some time back, I put up on this blog a translation I made from Bengali of a nonsense poem by Sukumar Ray, from his collection Abol Tabol. I am, as I explained, very attached to these poems, partly for reasons of nostalgia, and also because I think they’re rather good. So I decided to have a go at another one. And here it is.
(The illustration below is by Sukumar Ray also.)

Do not fear, oh do not fear,
There’s no cause for alarm,
Even if I tried, I swear,
I couldn’t do you harm.
Eat you up? Of course I won’t!
I’m gentle, soft, and kind –
Why, bless my soul! Nothing could be
Further from my mind.
Maybe it’s my gleaming horns
That fill you so with dread,
But I’m so mild, I’d never gore
Anybody dead!
Come with me, come to our den,
And we will see you right,
We’ll pamper you, look after you,
We’ll spoil you day and night!
This cudgel here that’s in my hand,
Is this what scares you so?
Please don’t be scared! This cudgel is
Very light, you know!
You’re not list’ning. Something wrong?
You’ve nought to fear, I said!
You’ll come to your senses once
I sit upon your head!
There’s me, my wife, nine kids in tow,
You don’t stand a chance!
We’ll all bite, if you insist
On such a song and dance!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Human Chain” by Seamus Heaney

Had I not been awake I would have missed it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our postures all the journey still the same,

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

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

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

And, a few lines later:

… my once capable

Warm hand …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(translated by Robert Fagles)


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

(translated by Seamus Heaney)

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

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

(translated by Robert Fagles)


                               Their griefs
Do not relent, not even in death.

(translated by Seamus Heaney)

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

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

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

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

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

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

As if we had commingled

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

This leads us into the final section:

And now the age of births.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not ever
After. And not now.

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