Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Culture and Consciousness in Joyce's "Ulysses"

In Episode 9 of James Joyce’s Ulysses, ‘Scylla and Charybdis’, a brief discussion takes place about Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. The work is introduced by the librarian, who describes the novel’s protagonist as ‘A hesitating soul taking arms against a sea of troubles, torn by conflicting doubts, as one sees in real life… The beautiful ineffectual dreamer who comes to grief against hard facts.’ As Cheryl Herr points out, the librarian’s comments are full of allusion, blending phrases from Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, and Matthew Arnold’s Essays in Criticism. This rich allusiveness, argues Herr, demonstrates Joyce’s suggestion that ‘texts make our reality’ and that literature and culture comprise a significant part of our consciousness. Through his constant references to the great works of the past and the famous thinkers of antiquity, Joyce not only pays homage to (and on occasion mocks) the figures of literary tradition, he also includes in his novel ‘all of the life that the tradition of Western fiction has created.’ What Herr is suggesting here is that many of the characters in Ulysses are influenced or perhaps even determined by their surroundings and by what they have read. The novel, then, is in dialogue with Francis Galton’s discussion of nature versus nurture, and Joyce seems to be suggesting that ‘thinking, the streaming of consciousness, the content of interior monologue, the very shape of the self are woven from the materials of one’s culture.’

A good starting point for this theory is Episode 13 of the novel, ‘Nausicaa’. The episode depicts Cissy Caffrey, Edy Boardman, and Gerty MacDowell on Sandymount Strand and is narrated first from Gerty’s perspective and later from Bloom’s. Through free indirect discourse, Joyce illustrates how Gerty’s thoughts are driven by her reading of kitsch sentimental fiction and by the stereotypical conventions of romantic love. As Hugh Kenner points out, the episode is dominated by the style of ‘that book The Lamplighter by Miss Cummins’ and other similar works. Hence, Gerty is said to feel an ‘aching void in her heart’ because her ‘daydream of a marriage’ has been unfulfilled. With the description of Bloom, the use of romantic clichés becomes proliferous. When Tommy kicks the ball too close to the water, it is Bloom who runs ‘gallantly’ to save it – this, Gerty thinks, is ‘that of which she had so often dreamed’, her ‘manly man… tall with broad shoulders’. She even thinks that Bloom might be her ‘dreamhusband’, and here the romantic illusion becomes most obvious. The reader cannot help thinking that Gerty is simply deceiving herself into believing that this cuckolded man, who she has never met before, would be her ideal partner. The novelistic influence is clear, not least in the fact that all indelicacies are removed from the narrative – there are no explicit references to either Bloom’s masturbation or Gerty’s lame foot. Gerty even wonders whether Bloom lives with a madwoman or in ‘some tragedy like the nobleman with the foreign name from the land of song…’ It is true that he is a foreign man, and it is likewise true that he is aggrieved, not only because of Paddy Dignam’s death but also because of Molly’s adultery. But Gerty is forcing these romantic tropes onto her ignorance of Bloom: she knows nothing about him, and yet imagines that he might be the hero of her own romantic tale. Kenner is right when he says that Gerty’s literature-influenced consciousness ‘creates a new Bloom’, if only for a brief moment.

Gerty, then, is a clear and direct example of how culture influences our thinking and our perspective on the world. A more complex and nuanced example is that of Stephen Dedalus, whose thoughts are certainly influenced by his reading, though these influences flux and change as he matures. When Stephen leaves Dublin at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man he is determined to escape the fetters and restrictions of life in Dublin, dominated as it was by family difficulties, religion and politics. But though Stephen leaves Ireland for Paris, he never really escapes the cultural influences of his upbringing. He is right when he tells Davin that ‘This race and this country and this life produced me’. This idea of nurture is clearly something that Joyce believes strongly: in his essay on Oscar Wilde, he argued that the playwright was not a ‘monster of perversion’ but a product of the cultural institutions surrounding him. And this is clear in Stephen too. In his essay “Stephen Hero and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: transforming the nightmare of history”, John Paul Riquelme argues that Stephen’s prose style in A Portrait draws strongly on the contemplative aestheticism of Walter Pater. He points to the scene in Chapter IV of the novel when Stephen sits with the dean as he tries to light a fire, a process he compares to art, the creation of beauty. This recalls the ‘Conclusion’ of Pater’s The Renaissance, when Pater discusses art’s capacity to create impression with an intensity like fire: ‘To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.’ Riquelme argues that Stephen’s rhetoric of beauty and his description of the dean (‘a levite of the Lord… tending the fire upon the altar… bearing tidings secretly… waiting upon worldlings… striking swiftly when bidden…’) evoke Pater’s meditative rhythms and stylistic use of frequent present participles. As Riquelme says, ‘The Irish student has internalized the techniques of an English writer.’

So when Stephen talks in Chapter IV about ‘a lucid supple periodic prose’ and a diction of ‘ecstasy’ and ‘trembling’, he is surely recalling the elegance of Pater’s work which dominated prose style in the late nineteenth century. But it’s not just Pater that influences him. He is also perpetually alluding to the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas, most obvious when he describes his aesthetic theory to Lynch, during which he quotes Aristotle, Aquinas, Shelley, and others. But this is arguably inevitable in an intellectual student of literature: of course he should refer to the great thinkers of the past in the development of his own theories. It is in the third episode of Ulysses, though, that this issue of independent thought comes to a head. Almost every one of his thoughts contains some sort of allusion or reference to other thinkers, demonstrating that it is not just speech that is influenced by culture, but the very intricacies of the mind, the conscious self. This makes his suggestion to the dean that there is ‘no such thing as free thinking’ all the more poignant. In this proto stream of consciousness, Joyce weaves into Stephen’s thoughts various quotations from other texts. For example, Stephen would like to read the ‘signatures of all things’, a phrase that recalls Dun Scotus’ theory of ‘haeccitas’, the idea that every entity has a ‘thisness’ to it. The phrase also recalls Plato’s theory of forms, particularly since Stephen later refers to his soul as the ‘form of forms’ that walks alongside him. Even Stephen’s evocation of the sea’s sounds recalls the philosophy of the ancients – as Kenner argues, Stephen’s onomatopoeia ‘carries to the limit the ancient fantasy of the direct impress of the real on the psyche’. By mimicking the sounds of the waves, Kenner argues, Stephen is attempting to express the Platonic ‘principle of vitality that must infuse itself into the mere materiality of the sense impression…’ Again, we can see how his thought has been influenced by great thinkers of the past.

Aristotle’s sway on Stephen’s consciousness is likewise clear. In both ‘Nestor’ and ‘Proteus’, Stephen is concerned with the idea that he could have been ‘impossibilised’, echoing Aristotle’s doctrine of possibility. In ‘Nestor’, he questions whether unactualized possibilities were ever really possible, ‘seeing that they never were’, or whether that was ‘only possible which came to pass’. Luckily for him, he concludes, his mother ‘saved him from being trampled underfoot’ by giving birth to him – the possibility of Stephen was actualized in his birth. But this fact does not reduce his anxiety that he might never have been born, and this anxiety manifests itself in the opening of ‘Proteus’. He questions whether he is what Aristotle called a contingent being or a necessary being – closing his eyes in an attempt to eradicate himself from the earth, he realises that the world around him is ‘There all the time without you: and ever shall be…’ This realisation of his own contingency coincides with his sighting of a midwife in whose bag he concludes there must be a ‘misbirth’. This demonstrates not only Stephen’s anxiety at the apparent insignificance of his own life, but also shows how the contemplations of Aristotle have infiltrated his own thoughts – whether Stephen is aware of this we shall never know. Likewise, Bishop Berkeley’s philosophical idealism is clear in Stephen’s suggestion that the darkness of his words may be in truth a darkness in the souls of his readers, a central tenet of Berkeley’s theories, which locates the sense-qualities of things in the human mind. References to Shakespeare (‘Full fathom five thy father lies’), Yeats (‘And no more turn aside and brood’), and Milton (‘Sunk though he be beneath the watery floor’) are also rife. This shows how Stephen’s stream of consciousness is, to some extent, a conglomeration of all he has read and come across in his cultural and literary education. And this influence really is ‘ineluctable’, hence the quatrain he writes on the back of Deasy’s letter explicitly reproduces lines from Douglas Hyde’s Love Songs in Connacht with a few words changed. As Hugh Kenner points out, ‘Whatever he can say seems derived from what someone has said before’, one reason why the first word of the episode is ‘ineluctable’.

So it’s clear that, to some extent, Joyce’s Ulysses validates Marx’s claim that ‘The tradition of all great generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.’ Joyce himself plainly feels what Eliot calls the presence of the past so that ‘Oxen of the Sun’ is almost like an encyclopaedic timeline of literary styles. And though there are characters who are more affected than others by this cultural and environmental influence on consciousness, all are implicated to some extent. Even Molly Bloom, whose thought processes are often seen as the most natural, personal and authentic, seems to have been influenced to some extent by her surroundings. Elaine Unkeless in her essay ‘The Conventional Molly Bloom’ argues that Joyce’s portrait mostly restricts Molly to ‘preconceived ideas of the way a woman thinks and behaves’ and thus Herr proposes that ‘Molly’s interior monologue is not unshaped thought but idea and self-image structured by society.’ She is, perhaps, the product of Bloom’s misogynistic stereotyping of all women as sluttish and wanting to steal ‘a man from another woman’. The thought processes of Molly’s monologue, particularly the raunchier parts, might also have been influenced by what she reads: The Sweets of Sin plot directly reflects Molly’s cuckolding of her husband. We might then ask what exactly Joyce was attempting to suggest. Was he implying that there is no real ‘self’, that we are simply the product of our environments, a hodgepodge accumulation of the words of others? To some extent, yes, but not entirely. Though consciousness is influenced by culture in the novel, that does not rule out completely the idea of selfhood. Indeed, there are moments of individuality in the thoughts of every character, particularly in those moments of intense emotional and sexual feeling. So, although our minds are influenced by our surroundings and by ‘nurture’, the novel still hints at what Herr calls the ‘culturally unconscious’, those lucid moments of individualism throughout Ulysses. This is a sort of ‘soft determinism’ of thought, reconciling cultural influence with the idea of individual personality and quasi-independent consciousness. Though texts of the past may make up some of our conscious reality, they are not the be all and end all of our so-called ‘selves’.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Light and Fire in Eliot's "Four Quartets"

T.S. Eliot’s early poetry is full of natural symbolism. There is the fog in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, the wind in “Gerontion”, and of course the water, fire, and thunder in The Waste Land. The same is true of the Four Quartets, with rivers, oceans, roses, and yew-trees all playing significant roles in the development of the poems. The most important symbols, though, are those of light and fire. In the Quartets, sunlight is used to show the danger of worldly illusion, whilst also leading us on the path to God. Fire is used similarly: whilst it can be a source of distraction or even of destruction, it also stands for the idea of purgatorial or cleansing fire, a fire that is teleologically good. It is through these symbols of light and fire that Eliot guides us on our poetical journey from the Dantesque ‘place of disaffection’ of “Burnt Norton” to the ‘condition of complete simplicity’ reached in the poem’s finale, the fifth movement of “Little Gidding”.

The image of sunlight is first used in Eliot’s description of the dream-like ‘rose-garden’, which we come upon by walking through ‘the door we never opened.’ We are immediately in the world of the unreal, the realm of ‘What might have been’, creating an instant sense of unease reinforced by Eliot’s question: ‘shall we follow / The deception of the thrush?’ As we enter this ‘first world’ (words which suggest ignorance and naivety, whilst also indicating an Eden-like idyll) we are on guard, aware of an immanent sense of uncertainty – who are ‘they’, and what is the ‘unheard music’ hidden from our ears? The uneasiness of this description is increased when Eliot refers to the roses which have ‘the look of flowers that are looked at,’ implying a sort of superficial masked performance or false pretence. Then we stumble upon the dry pool which is suddenly ‘filled with water out of sunlight’ so that ‘The surface glittered’. Out of this water grows a ‘lotos’, recalling the drug-induced escapism of Odysseus’s men in Homer’s epic, implying that this rose-garden reverie could hinder us on our journey to God. We then learn that this water is no more than an illusory trick of vision, a desert mirage deceiving the mind. So here, the sunlight misleads the mind into imagining that the pool is full of water. Just as the symbol of water is a symbol of hope and growth in The Waste Land, so too is it in “Burnt Norton”, the lack of water suggestive of a bleak reality. Perhaps this is why Denis Donoghue describes the rose-garden as ‘man’s fantasy-refuge’. And yet, the bird (perhaps, as Morris Weitz argues, not the deceptive bird of before but a bird of truth) then says ‘human kind / Cannot bear very much reality’ which may suggest that what we have just witnessed, the ray of sunlight creating an illusion of water, was a glimpse of actuality which we can only experience for a brief moment. And so, whilst the sunlight creates an apparent illusion, that illusion may be a glimpse of the reality that we, as temporal beings, struggle to reach. Perhaps the light in the rose-garden shows, in the words of F.R. Leavis, ‘a reality that, though apprehended in time, is not of it.’

In movement three of “Burnt Norton” sunlight plays a similar role. The ‘place of disaffection’ is dominated by a ‘dim light’ rather than the ‘daylight’ we saw before, daylight which turns ‘shadow into transient beauty / With slow rotation suggesting permanence’. Again there is a sense of uncertainty here created by the oxymoronic words ‘transient’ and ‘permanence’, possibly implying the duality of the light’s effect. Whilst the symbol of light shows a ‘transient beauty’, it also ‘hints’ or ‘guesses’ at some other reality, some extemporal ‘permanence’. In order to get beyond these ‘hints and guesses’ (which, we learn, hint at ‘Incarnation’) we must either live by ‘prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action,’ or we must ‘Descend lower’ into the ‘Internal darkness, deprivation / And destitution of all property…’ In order to reach what the light is only glimpsing at, perhaps we must completely escape the light, engulfing ourselves in a dark and destitute world of ‘Desiccation’, ‘Evacuation’ and ‘Inoperancy’, the death of one aspect of the self. As Constance De Masirevich argues, ‘The key to the thought of T.S. Eliot is the idea of sacrifice as a means of becoming, of birth through death’ – hence, ‘In my end is my beginning’ and the fusion of birth and death in “Journey of the Magi”. Only through suffering a rigorous ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ will we ever experience the reality beyond this tired existence, the reality loosely revealed by the light. So, the path we walk down has ‘no secure foothold’ and is menaced by both ‘monsters’ and ‘fancy lights’ which risk enchanting us. The symbol of light, then, can both deceive us and guide us. It can create illusions, but if we escape certain aspects of selfhood and the various hindrances of temporal reality, it can also act as the ‘grace of sense, a white light still and moving’ – another oxymoron to show the inexpressibility of this timelessness.

The symbol of fire plays a similar role in the Four Quartets. Just as the sunlight in the rose-garden seems to create an illusion, so too can fire play an entrancing and almost deceptive role in the poems. In “East Coker”, we are captivated by the description of the ghostly dancing ‘Round and round the fire’ and we vividly imagine figures ‘Leaping through the flames’. The reference to ‘rustic laughter’ also recalls the image of the children in the rose-garden, suggesting again those ‘hints and guesses’ of the sunlight. And yet, the language of this description seems almost mocking – it is, apparently, ‘A dignified and commodious sacrament’ which ‘betokeneth concorde’. This, as Masirevich argues, is ‘human-kind held in the circle of time, striving to bring dignity to its animal joys and ecstasies.’ Just as the ‘hollow men’ dance ‘round the prickly pear’, so in “East Coker” these figures are ‘joined in circles’ and dance ‘round and round’ in endless futility. They are ‘Keeping time’, trapped in the temporal bounds of the average human existence. Their dance around the fire descends into no more than ‘Dung and death’. And so, here there are no hints and guesses, there is no permanence or timeless reality – there is only a dark dance of animalistic urges, temptingly mirthful and yet inevitably transient. Even the language is deceptive, drawing us back into the past of Eliot’s ancestors and imitating Thomas Elyot’s work The Boke named The Governour.

As well as being a symbol of enticement, fire also acts as a force of destruction. At the start of “East Coker” the speaker describes the role of fire in the destruction and regeneration of life in the human world. Eliot writes: “Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires, / Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth…’ Just as in The Waste Land, fire is a symbol of the human world’s dangerous depravities, so in the Quartets it is a source of apocalypse, a ‘destructive fire’ which shall burn the world. However, fire is also a positive motif. In the fourth movement of “East Coker”, Eliot describes how ‘The whole earth is our hospital’, possibly a reference to the hospitals and infirmaries of WWII, waged whilst Eliot was writing this poem. But the hospital of “East Coker” is also religiously symbolic, with Christ as our ‘wounded surgeon’, wounded by the stigmata of the cross. It is only through Christ and through the ‘dying nurse’ (which Curtis Bradford says represents the Church) that we can escape this hospital. Eliot explains that ‘to be restored, our sickness must grow worse’, which suggests that pain and destruction can indeed have a positive aspect to them – the hospital is the ‘vale of soul-making’ (Keats) described in Irenaean theodicies. The destructive fires of the first movement, then, become ‘frigid purgatorial fires / Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.’ The rose has now become a symbol of God’s love, manifested in Christ’s death on the cross and the Eucharistic ceremony – ‘The dripping blood our only drink, / The bloody flesh our only food…’ This idea of a painful purging is recalled later on in the description of ‘The dove descending breaks the air / With flame of incandescent terror’ (arguably a reference to the Blitz) which can discharge us from ‘sin and error’ through fire. The torment and terror of the ‘intolerable shirt of flame’ which we must wear has been devised by ‘Love’, Eliot explains – we must either be consumed by the fire of the human world, or cleansed by God’s loving flames, again showing the duality of this symbol.

Fire, then, has become a positive image, one of cleansing and hope. This is clear in the description of ‘midwinter spring’ at the opening of “Little Gidding”, which combines the symbols of both light and fire. The difference between this description and the rose-garden description, though, is that, as David Perkins suggests, whilst in the rose-garden description we were only looking at the ‘heart of light’, in the latter description we are in the centre of it – the fire, the sunlight, the glow and the glare are all around us. We are confronted by a ‘glow more intense than blaze’ which ‘Stirs the dumb spirit,’ recalling those pious lines from Hopkins’s “The Windhover” – ‘My heart in hiding stirred for a bird.’ This is not just a ‘transient beauty’, it is ‘pentecostal fire’ which flames out both within time (‘the dark time of the year’) and without time (‘not in time’s covenant’). And so, this is clearly a more powerful image than that of the rose-garden, and yet it is arguably still only a ‘glimpse’ of the true reality – the hedgerow only has a ‘transitory blossom’ and the bloom is ‘sudden’. Though it is a development from the rose-garden mirage created by sunlight, it is still not ‘the unimaginable / Zero summer…’

It is often said that each one of the Four Quartets is associated with one of the elements, and there is surely no doubt that the final quartet, “Little Gidding”, is associated with the fire of God. It is in Little Gidding, the small Cambridgeshire town which represents ‘the world’s end’, that Eliot has found ‘the intersection of the timeless moment’ both in and out of time – ‘Never and always.’ The eternal and the temporal have finally met. Perhaps Eliot’s hope is that we can escape the view of time as a linear construct and instead live in the ‘Now’ so that we can see history not as ‘time past’ but as ‘a pattern / Of timeless moments’. Only then can we reach the ‘condition of complete simplicity’ which costs ‘not less than everything’ (in that we have given up our selves). Thus, it is in Little Gidding that ‘All manner of thing shall be well.’ In Little Gidding, where Nicholas Ferrar established his religious community, ‘the tongues of flames are in-folded / Into the crowned knot of fire / And the fire and the rose are one.’ Though it might only be possible in Heaven, this is what Eliot has been searching for. After overcoming the ‘Tumid apathy with no concentration’, after accepting the death of the old self in the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ and after suffering the pains of purgatorial fires, the symbols of God’s authority (fire) and God’s love (rose) have finally been combined. 

Saturday, 31 December 2016

The Poetic Style of Edward Thomas

Ted Hughes once described the poet Edward Thomas as ‘the father of us all’. Due to the overwhelming emphasis placed on the role of ‘modernism’ in twentieth century poetry, this claim may seem surprising. When we think of the most influential ‘modern’ texts we are perhaps more likely to think of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Ezra Pound’s Cantos than of Thomas’s pastoral English lyrics. And yet, there really are few poets who have influenced contemporary poetry more than Thomas has – Auden, Larkin, Hughes and many others have admitted to his influence. In fact, he is so influential that various collections of poetry have been put together by poets wishing to celebrate Thomas’s impact on their verse. The aspect of Thomas’s poetry that these writers refer to most frequently is his conversational style and loose rhythm, both of which were relatively innovative in the early twentieth century but are commonplace now. The meditative colloquialism of Thomas’s verse lends itself to the exploration of uncertainties and ambiguities, a recurring theme in his poems and indeed in modern literature in general. But this colloquial style does not hamper the musical cadences of Thomas’s verse, often overlooked by critics stressing his speech-like intonations. It is perhaps in this sense that Thomas is most influential: in combining a conversational and meditative style with a richly rhythmical musicality.

Edward Thomas and Robert Frost spent about a year together over 1913-14. During that time, Frost encouraged Thomas to start writing his own verse and arguably influenced Thomas’s views on poetic style. Frost’s mantra that ‘a poet needs to capture the spoken word’ is clear not just in Thomas’s verse but also in his prose: he once said he wanted to ‘wring all the necks of my rhetoric’ and purge his prose writing of all mannerisms. In his famous poem ‘Adlestrop’, this colloquialism and ambition towards the ‘spoken word’ is clear. The poem opens with the words ‘Yes. I remember Adlestrop –’ as if Thomas is in the middle of a conversation or answering a question. In the poem, there are very few ‘poetic’ terms (apart from the word ‘whit’) and obscurities, reflecting Thomas’s Wordsworthian commitment to poetry for the common man. Similarly, the poem ‘But these things also’, opening as it does with a conjunction, suggests it is some sort of response to an unidentified interlocutor, again adding to the sense of a relaxed, conversational style which draws us into the poem. This poetic intimacy felt by the reader is enhanced by Thomas’s use of relatively loose metres – ‘Adlestop’ is written in iambic tetrameter, but the first line begins with a trochaic foot (‘Yes. I…’) and the third line has nine syllables. These are just two example of the numerous metrical variations in Thomas’s verse. His rhymes vary, too – in ‘Gone, Gone Again’ his rhyme scheme flits from ABCB to AABC to ABCA. Moreover, his rhymes are often, in the words of Walter De La Mare, the ‘faintest of echoes’ – in the aforementioned poem, he rhymes ‘dead’ with ‘interested’ and ‘sun’ with ‘one’. This loose formality not only shows how innovative Thomas was in his time, but it also augments the colloquial style of his verse, drawing the reader in with its speech-like appearance. As Edgell Rickword wrote in the Daily Herald, ‘To read him is like listening to a friend in the completest intimacy…’

Directly connected to this aspect of Thomas’s style is the reflective nature of his verse. ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ is a good example of this. Through the repeated use of enjambment (‘we two walked / Slowly’, ‘started / Again’, and ‘parted / Each night’), we get the sense of a fluidity of thought. It is as if Thomas is letting his thoughts run over the lines in speech-like cadences as he walks with his companion, his words reflecting what Newlyn calls ‘the momentary lulls that are part of companionable walking and talking.’ This may also be clear in Thomas’s use of repetition. In ‘Old Man’, for example, certain words are repeated, perhaps to suggest an intensifying rumination. Thomas writes:

the names
Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is:
At least, what that is clings not to the names
In spite of time. And yet I like the names.

The repetition of the word ‘names’ seems unnecessary here, possibly suggesting that Thomas is coming to terms with his own mind and organizing his thoughts. Perhaps, too, as J.P. Ward argues, these repeats imply the limitations of thought and of the human mind. Thomas also asks various questions in his verse, demonstrating the uncertainty of his contemplations. For example, in ‘The Unknown Bird’ Thomas asks ‘Was it but four years / Ago? or five?’ He goes on to say: ‘But I cannot tell / If truly never anything but fair / The days were when he sang, as now they seem.’ This questioning and sense of ambiguity clearly influenced Philip Larkin who, in his poem ‘Dockery and Son’, asks questions like ‘… did he get his son / At nineteen, twenty?’ In Larkin’s ‘Mr Bleaney’ a similar uncertainty manifests itself in the poem’s final words ‘I don’t know.’ Wells is right, then, when he suggests that Thomas has a ‘scrupulous inability… to conceal uncertainty.’ (65) It runs throughout his poetry, demonstrating how his verse stems from contemplation rather than from sheer energy of insight.’ (De La Mare) So what effect does this colloquial and contemplative style have on our reading of Thomas’s verse? Well, to some extent it brings the poet down to our level – he is not preaching to us in aloof terms or handing us fully-formed theories on life or the mind. He draws us in with his lack of posturing. As Motion argues, through his ‘sympathetic quiet-speaking’ and his emphasis on uncertainty, he creates ‘poems which appear to think aloud rather than be a means of delivering finished thoughts’. We feel directly the personality of the poet – his questionings, his anxieties, the very movement of his thoughts.

But this relaxed and ‘quiet-speaking’ style does not necessarily mean that Thomas’s verse is somehow ‘unpoetic’. True, his poetry is very different from that of Tennyson, for example, but it is still beautifully lyrical and musical. As Newlyn argues, ‘Thomas had a natural, un-taught musicality, which came from his love of ballads, folk songs, and English poetry.’ In fact, he was so infatuated by folk tradition and ballads that, in 1907, he compiled The Pocket Book of Poems and Songs for the Open Air, a collection of ballads, folk-songs, and contemporary poetry. This infatuation clearly fed into his verse: ‘Will You Come?’, for example, is ballad-like in its repetitions and quick rhythms, and his poems are full of harmonious lines, like the ending of ‘November’ (‘Renounce all brightness to the skies’) with its perfect metre and echoing assonance and sibilance. Given the influence of song on Thomas’s poetry, it’s no wonder that 19 of his poems were set to music by Gloucestershire composer Ivor Gurney (his rendition of ‘Snow’ is particularly poignant). A quick look at Thomas’s prose supports this view of his melodic writing style. In The Woodland Life (1897), Thomas describes how the ‘robins rustle gently and fly a yard or two, or a blackbird blusters out’. The alliteration, along with the trochaic rhythm of ‘robins rustle gently’, is prophetic of Thomas’s conversion into a poet.

The ending of ‘Adlestrop’ is similarly rhythmic. As John Bayley explains, the third and fourth stanzas abandon ‘the short choppy sentence structure of the first two’ developing into more flowing, effortless lines of iambic tetrameter. This fluidity is most obvious in the line ‘No whit less still and lonely fair’, which with its repeated ‘l’ and ‘o’ sounds seems to roll off the tongue with ease. In the final stanza, Thomas describes how ‘for that minute a blackbird sang / Close by,’ and then the poem cinematically zooms out to take in ‘all the birds / Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.’ This echoing final line, referring to specific places Thomas knew well, carries with it a subtle sense of nostalgia. The whole stanza does, in fact, particularly with the phrase ‘for that minute’, immediately suggesting the transiency of human experience. Perhaps, too, the words ‘mistier’ and ‘farther’ suggest not only a physical distance but also a temporal distance. This uneventful train journey took place about a month before the First World War began, but Thomas only started writing poetry about five months later, once the war had begun, so possibly this sense of nostalgia is one of anxiety that ‘This England’ may be destroyed by the war. After all, when he was asked why he had become a soldier, he is said to have picked up a handful of English soil and said ‘Literally, for this’. Just as Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ expresses a fear that there may not be ‘Beauty yet to find’ and there may not be ‘honey still for tea’ in the village of his childhood, so ‘Adlestrop’ captures a single moment of quietness and of calm before the ‘Guns of August’ wrought havoc across Europe. Like Larkin, Thomas worried that there would be ‘Never such innocence again’. As Andrew Motion argues, ‘Behind every line [of Thomas’s poetry], whether mentioned or not, lies imminent danger and disruption.’

Though Thomas did employ the occasional Georgian inversion in his poetry (‘Women he liked, did shovel-bearded Bob…’ or ‘Fast beat / My heart’), it would be hard to argue that he was not innovative for his time. As David Gervais put it, he should be read as a modern poet rather than as a revisionist Georgian. His style is perhaps the most distinctly modern aspect of his work – his reconciling of the speaking voice with traditional forms, whilst also allowing for bursts of lyrical vitality. But it’s also important to note his modern sensibility – throughout his poetry, Thomas emphasizes his sense of solitude and loneliness, so much so that J.P. Ward has referred to him as an early existentialist. In fact, various comparisons could be drawn between Thomas the poet and J. Alfred Prufrock, the bundle of inhibitions in Eliot’s eponymous poem. Likewise, the words ‘I should be glad of another death’ (Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’) could really have come from either poet’s pen, which goes to show how modern Thomas really was, in content as well as style. But it’s not as if Thomas was trying to break down barriers, to ‘Make it new’. His close friend and fellow poet Walter De La Mare summarized Thomas’s poetry best when he said: ‘His chief desire was to express himself and his own truth – and therefore life and humanity…’ Thomas, with his thorough knowledge of contemporary poetry and poetic criticism, with his history of depression and anxieties about his turbulent marriage, and most importantly, with his love of nature and his fear of its war-time destruction, was bound to write great poetry. Perhaps if he had not died in Arras, and if he had kept writing years after, we would now see Thomas as the greatest of all the twentieth century poets.

Friday, 30 December 2016

The Portrayal of Marriage in George Eliot’s 'Middlemarch'

Throughout history, marriage has been central to the lives of both men and women – from the Wife of Bath’s Prologue in Chaucer’s Tales to Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, the question of matrimony has always been a pervasive theme in the trajectory of literature. It is no surprise, then, that marriage is the most ubiquitous subject of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, with five marriages taking place during the novel and other relationships being analysed. But whilst many female novelists at the time would use marriage to bring their novels to joyful conclusions – Austen’s Emma and Bronte’s Jane Eyre are clear examples – Eliot was more interested in exploring the realities of matrimonial life. In so doing, Eliot distanced herself from the tropes of conventional romance derided in her essay, Silly Novels by Lady Novelists. Eliot opposed the falsely-romantic and idealized view of life and of love, and so her novels adopt a realist approach to nuptial union. Her protagonists do not always end their trials and tribulations ‘with a complexion more blooming and locks more redundant than ever’. This essay shall discuss the marriages of Rosamond and Dorothea to show how Eliot not only rejects idealistic views of marriage and of femininity, but also how she criticises marital conventions in a patriarchal and class-obsessed society.

The marriage between Rosamond and Lydgate exemplifies the problems caused by ideals of romance and femininity. Lydgate wants a wife with ‘that feminine radiance, that distinctive womanhood which must be classed with flowers and music.’ This description embodies the conventional model of womanly beauty, and so we see how Lydgate has been manipulated by ideals, leading him to choose a wife for the wrong reasons. It is no wonder, though, that having adopted this interpretation of femininity, Lydgate falls for Rosamond. Owing to her education at Mrs Lemon’s school, Rosamond represents the supposedly perfect lady: she has ‘excellent taste in costume’ and a ‘nymph-like figure’ accompanied by ‘pure blondness’. Lydgate has been deceived into believing that Rosamond would be the best wife for him, simply because she fulfils a societal stereotype, rather than because her personality suits his. But Rosamond is also deceived by ideals and conventions – she is obsessed with appearances, and she arguably chooses her husband because of his aristocratic connections. In fact, she is so concerned with impressing Lydgate’s upper-class relatives that she wants him to get a ‘first-rate position elsewhere than in Middlemarch’ so that they are not shocked by her family. Again, this idea of marrying into the aristocracy is typical of ‘silly novels’, which have clearly influenced Rosamond. Hence, she estimates her interaction with Lydgate as ‘the opening incidents of a preconceived romance’.

Despite the fact that, according to the narrator, ‘Each lived in a world of which the other knew nothing,’ and even though she has only known him ‘through the brief entrances and exits of a few imaginative weeks called courtship’, Rosamond convinces herself that meeting Lydgate is ‘the great epoch of her life’. Because of the brevity of their acquaintance, and because they are misled by ideals of femininity and of love, their marriage fails. They do not actually know each other (Rosamond is ‘by nature an actress of parts’), so Lydgate is forced to admit that ‘the tender devotedness and docile adoration of the ideal wife must be renounced, and life must be taken up on a lower stage of expectation.’ Society, along with the ‘Many-volumed romances of chivalry’, has created false ideals, and both Rosamond and Lydgate suffer for it. Their marriage is rife with conflict, with neither husband nor wife accepting the judgements of the other, leading to a stale-mate. Rosamond is not the ‘docile’ or ‘devoted’ wife that Lydgate desired, and she even begins to think that ‘if she had known how Lydgate would behave, she would never have married him.’ It’s clear, then, that Lydgate and Rosamond, conditioned as they have been by society, married for the wrong reasons, and so they writhe under the failure of ideals and conventions.

Dorothea’s marriage to Casaubon is similarly driven by dishonest ideals and flawed conventions. Of course, neither Dorothea nor Casaubon resemble the heroine or hero of a Victorian romance novel. And yet, both still cling to certain ideals of femininity, concerned not so much with beauty or taste, but with the patriarchal stereotype of submissive women (which Lydgate also seems to uphold). Casaubon thinks that Dorothea ‘might really be such a helpmate to him as would enable him to dispense with a hired secretary’, showing the lack of equality in his marital expectations. Dorothea, though ambitious in what Rosemary Ashton calls her ‘idealistic attempt to find a role’, feels similarly. She finds her role in the vocation of wife and, in the words of Cara Weber, ‘internalises the ideal of wifely duty’. Hence, she often compares her ideal relationship to that between a father and daughter. She wishes for the ‘freedom of voluntary submission to a guide who would take her along the grandest path.’ This ideal of wifely duty, combined with her Theresa-like ‘passionate, ideal nature’ which ‘demanded an epic life’, leads her to marrying Casaubon, with whom she is utterly incompatible. We only have to compare the speech of the two to see how very different they are. Derek Oldfield argues that, whilst Casaubon’s speech is characterised by intricate constructions and subordinate clauses (as in his proposal letter), Dorothea’s speech is constituted of simple sentences and childish exclamations (“Oh, how happy!” she says to her uncle).

Perhaps Dorothea thinks that, in helping Casaubon with his ‘Key to all Mythologies’, she will achieve the ‘epic life’ she so desires, cultivating her intelligence towards some higher end. But there is a tension here: Dorothea’s energetic personality is surely incompatible with her religious commitment to subservience, arguably influenced by the inequality of Victorian society. She has attempted to conform to a stereotypical role she simply cannot play. This is why ‘the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband’s mind’ become ‘anterooms and winding passages’ leading ‘nowhither.’ The metaphorical ‘anterooms and winding passages’ seem an apt description of her married life, trapped as she is in Casaubon’s ‘small windowed and melancholy-looking’ abode. In this sense, her confession to Celia that she is “rather short-sighted” is symbolic of her illusions about the virtues of marrying a secluded old man. It is when she is in Rome, confronted by the ‘ruins and basilicas’ that she realises her mistake. Rather than being charmed by the city’s antique beauty, she is shocked by a ‘vast wreck of ambitious ideals’ and ‘a glut of confused ideas’. Here she comprehends the foolishness of her marriage with Casaubon and her desire to be a submissive wife – her marriage is a ‘wreck of ambitious ideals’. Things worsen when she returns to Middlemarch from her lonely honeymoon only to be even more separated from her husband: they inhabit different spheres within the house, Casaubon’s domain being his library, Dorothea’s being her blue-green boudoir. This separation arguably reflects the 19th Century distinction between masculine and feminine spheres, which Dorothea fights against in other ways (planning housing and trying to set up the hospital).

The other problem in the Dorothea-Casaubon marriage is that, as with Lydgate and Rosamond, their courtship is extremely short. Dorothea meets Casaubon in chapter two, and after ‘three more conversations with him,’ she is ‘convinced that her first impressions had been just.’ Dorothea receives Casaubon’s engagement letter in chapter five, and they are married five chapters later. As Bernard Paris argues, ‘Dorothea is a victim of the conditions of civilised courtship, which do not allow the parties to gain much knowledge of each other.’ And so we see again how dangerous these conventions can be. It is because they hardly know each other that they fail to trust one another properly – hence Casaubon’s ‘disgust and suspicion’ about Ladislaw. Moreover, their lack of closeness as a couple is evident throughout (‘She was as blind to his inward troubles as he to hers’), especially when compared to the Garth relationship, who are touchingly communicative – Caleb’s habit is to ‘take no important step without consulting Susan’. And so, Eliot is not just pointing out the failings of ideals and feminine stereotypes – she also condemns the brevity of modern courtship, since it deceives expectations. After embarking on the voyage of marriage, we discover ‘that the sea is not within sight – that, in fact, you are exploring an enclosed basin.’ This is why the marriage between Mary and Fred is a ‘solid, mutual happiness’ – they have known each other from childhood, and as Fred says, “I have never been without loving Mary.”

So what, in Eliot’s view, constitutes a successful marriage? Romantic idealism and societal conventions certainly do not – we see from the Cadwalladers that marriages across social classes can still succeed, even if they are unorthodox. It’s clear from the above examples that the happiest marriages follow on from lengthy courtships and also some sort of mutuality. Mary and Fred become published authors later in life, both giving credit to the other for their help – this alone demonstrates the value of mutuality. The Garth’s are also mutually happy, both working to provide for the family (Susan is a teacher). Susan Garth feels she married the cleverest man she has ever known whilst Caleb thinks he has a woman he is not worthy of. This illustrates the importance of mutual admiration and love in a marriage, something that can only be certain after a long courtship. This love is clear in Dorothea’s marriage to Will – as she tells her sister, “you would have to feel with me, else you would never know,” showing how ineffably strong her love is. The problem with her first marriage was its lack of love, and as we discover later, ‘No life would have been possible to Dorothea which was not filled with emotion’. Moreover, she has something worthwhile to do in her second marriage: she lives ‘a life filled… with beneficent activity’ helping Will in his political work. This explains the historical placing of the novel, since we might argue that the passing of the Great Reform Bill was directly influenced by Will Ladislaw and Dorothea’s help.

And yet, as aforementioned, Eliot’s novels do not end in idealistic perfection. There is still much unhappiness and ambiguity in the Finale. Harriet Bulstrode is martyred in her extreme loyalty to her husband, and we see her at the end of the novel with greying hair and black clothing. Rosamond and Lydgate’s marriage continues turbulently until Lydgate dies at 50, having achieved none of his great ambitions. Even the happiness of Dorothea and Will seems uncertain. The narrator makes a particularly sarcastic comment about Dorothea’s loss of agency in life: ‘she had now a life filled… with a beneficent activity which she had not the doubtful pains of discovering and making out for herself.’ She may be doing great things, but she is only doing them in terms of ‘wifely help’ rather than making independent changes, as the novelist herself has done. She has sadly been ‘absorbed into the life of another’ and is ‘only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother’. But perhaps this is unfair: after all, Dorothea’s influence is clear in that, in the Finale, her epithet is used to describe Will as an ‘ardent public man’. Moreover, as Kathleen Blake argues, ‘the novel’s focus on the disabilities of a woman’s lot’, and thus Eliot is showing that, despite all of her ambitions, the best Dorothea could hope for was a productive and happy marriage to the man she loved. To suggest her marriage is a submission to patriarchy is to miss the point – she has done the best she could within societal restraints, refusing to consider Will’s ‘low-birth’ and instead marrying for love.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Wealth and Corruption in Charles Dickens’s 'Our Mutual Friend'

Our Mutual Friend is one of Dickens’ most complicated novels, made up of a complex of interrelated plots and sub-plots. This multi-layered storyline enables Dickens to give a comprehensive vision of the breadth of London life, from the aristocrats and nouveaux riches to the teachers and paupers. In Our Mutual Friend, Dickensian London becomes most whole, bringing alive what Deborah Wynne described as ‘a disturbing vision of Victorian society’ fissured by ‘class divisions’ and ‘greed’. Because every echelon of society has its representatives in the novel, wealth and class are central to the narrative. As the plot develops, Dickens demonstrates the corrupting power of money and wealth in the context of an ‘unjust, commercialized, and de-naturing society’ (Barbara Hardy). And yet, the novel is far too complex to be branded as a straightforward didactic tale about how ‘money corrupts’. Our Mutual Friend seems to be more of a study of values and principles and how they work in Victorian society, rather than a complete satire on the upper classes. What Dickens seems to be suggesting is that, whilst modern society is both corrupt and corrupting, depravity and corruption can be navigated in certain ways, namely the avoidance of greed and the pursuit of love.

Still, it is important to consider Dickens’s presentation of the rich before we move onto his exploration of counteracting values. The Veneerings are the novel’s most obvious example of the shallow rich, suggested by their name alone. They are first introduced in Chapter 2, which slips into the present tense and mimics the clipped and lazy speech of the privileged: ‘Reflects Veneering; forty, wavy-haired, dark, tending to corpulence, sly, mysterious, filmy…’ It is interesting that the Veneerings are described through their presentation in a mirror, again implying that they are incomplete and without depth – they are characterised by superficiality and surface appearances. Hence, they only exist in relation to their ‘bran-new’ home full of ‘bran-new’ objects. Even their ‘friends’ (who are not really friends at all) become objects, with Twemlow becoming ‘an innocent piece of dinner furniture’. And so, our first view of the rich (in this case, the nouveau riche) is one of shallow façades, reminiscent of Gilbert Osmond in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, for whom life is only ‘a thing of forms, a conscious, calculated attitude.’ The Podsnaps are similarly satirised, with Mr Podsnap’s arrogance being emphasised throughout: he is ‘happily acquainted with his own merit and importance’ and stands ‘very high in Mr Podsnap’s opinion’. This sardonic humour was possibly influenced by the biting satire of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, a novel which likewise mocks the superficiality and arrogance of the rich. We might also recall Browning’s mockery of the bishop in “The Bishop Orders His Tomb”, a poem that shows a Veneering-like obsession with appearances. To some extent then, Dickens depicts an unattractive group of wealthy individuals, perhaps suggesting that money is apt to corrupt, leading to egotism or ostentation. This is also implied in his novel Great Expectations, which tracks Pip’s descent into snobbishness and ungratefulness due to his ‘great expectations’. 

And yet, in Our Mutual Friend, money does not always have this same corrupting effect. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the Boffins, who acquire the wealth of the old, misanthropic John Harmon, but avoid corruption and stick to their values. They are described as ‘unpolished people’, immediately contrasting them with the highly-polished Veneerings. Their surface might not be ‘bran-new’ but they are motivated by kindness and good will, as is seen in their adoption of Bella. Mrs Boffin explains: “Next I think… of the disappointed girl; her that was so cruelly disappointed, you know, both of her husband and his riches. Don’t you think we might do something for her?” Mr Boffin even offers to help Silas Wegg to set up a new stall, despite all the Machiavellian scheming Wegg has done to blackmail him – Boffin would not like to see Wegg “worse off in life” than when they first met. This shows a genuine generosity so clearly lacking in the Podsnaps and Veneerings of Dickens’s world. But it’s not just the newly-wealthy Boffins that avoid the corrupting effect of wealth. Although Mr Twemlow comes across as relatively spineless throughout most of the novel, he can be read as another example of a comparatively rich man who has not been corrupted by money. At the end of the novel, it is Twemlow who resists the ‘Voice of Society’ and the cruelty of Lady Tippins, who mocks Lizzie Hexam and is outraged by Eugene Wrayburn’s decision to marry her – she describes them as “savages” and questions whether Lizzie was dressed “In rowing costume” at her wedding. But Lightwood and Twemlow both defend them, with Lightwood describing Lizzie as “a brave woman” and Twemlow arguing that wealth and class do not matter in the case of marriage. Wrayburn married her out of “feelings of gratitude, of respect, of admiration, and affection” – the feelings of a gentleman, a rank which “may be attained by any man”. And so, Twemlow and Lightwood show that it is not necessarily money that has led to the corruption of society – wealth does not necessitate Podsnappery, Dickens seems to suggest here – but a lack of ‘gentlemanly values’ and an over-obsession with both wealth and class. Their handshake at the end of the novel can be seen as a silent act of resistance against the more prevalent tones of societal injustice.

It is clear, then, that money in and of itself is not the corrupting force of the novel, though Dickens has shown that it is dangerous. Arnold Kettle is to some extent right when he argues that “The corrupting force in Our Mutual Friend is not money but bourgeois attitudes to it.” And yet, though bourgeois attitudes do play a role in the corruption of society (Lady Tippins and the Podsnaps are examples), the primary force of corruption seems to be greed – the desire for wealth, leading to jealousy and cruelty. Kenneth Muir argues that, in Our Mutual Friend, ‘Radix malorum est cupiditas’. For example, the Lammles marry for money only to discover that they had both been deceiving each other. Coming to terms with their relative poverty, they instigate insidious schemes to boost their wealth, such as their attempts to marry Georgiana Podsnap with Fascination Fledgeby. As Mrs Lammle later admits to Twemlow, Georgiana was to “be sacrificed” in “a partnership affair, a money speculation”. The greed of the Lammles is again reminiscent of James’s Portrait of a Lady, with Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle planning marriages (Isabel to Osmond, and Pansy to Warburton) simply for monetary gain. This leaves us with what Marx called a ‘cash nexus’ – the reduction of all relationships to financial exchange, also realised in Dickens’s Dombey and Son. The other villains of the novel, Roger Riderhood and Silas Wegg in particular, are similarly driven by greed. Riderhood unjustly blames Hexam for the murder of John Harmon in the hope of a reward, and Silas Wegg tries to blackmail Boffin with a second will, despite all the good that Boffin has already done for him. Dickens’s comment on Wegg’s actions is cogent: ‘Such was the greed of the fellow, that his mind had shot beyond halves, two-thirds, three-fourths, and gone straight to spoliation of the whole.’ Evidently, it is greed that drives these characters to their cruel and criminal acts.

Another study of yearning for wealth is that of Bella Wilfer, who begins the novel (in her own words) “the most mercenary little wretch that ever lived in the world.” It is her desire for money that leads to her cruel and haughty refusal of Rokesmith/Harmon, whom she rejects only on monetary and class terms. She tells him: “It is not generous in you, it is not honourable in you, to conduct yourself towards me as you do,” and asks him “not to pursue me”. Her obsession with money makes her a relatively unattractive character, though we cannot help being drawn in by her coquettish charm. It is only when Mr Boffin adopts the pose of unpleasant miser that she realises the dangers of her mercenary viewpoint. As she tells her father, “Mr Boffin is being spoilt by prosperity, and is changing every day.” When Boffin accuses Rokesmith of “impudent addresses” and states that Bella is motivated only by money, she has her heroic moment in the novel, telling Boffin, “you don’t right me… You wrong me, wrong me!” She calls him a “hard-hearted Miser” and, having seen how an obsession with money can corrupt, abandons her monetary ambitions, choosing Rokesmith’s love over the pursuit of wealth. This is, perhaps, the crux of the novel, since it shows the values that Dickens truly champions: love over pecuniary gain.

All of this demonstrates that Dickens’s novel is not simply an attack on the rich. Dickens shows that money does not always corrupt, though it often can. The novel is, in fact, an attack on a society which is governed largely by an obsession with money and class. Such a society has no time for real human values and promotes the Machiavellian scheming we see from Riderhood and Wegg, amongst others. So the divide in Dickens’s view is not so much based on class or wealth, but rather on principles: there are members of the upper classes whom Dickens’s satirises ruthlessly, whilst there are members of the lower classes to whom the reader is immediately averse, and vice versa. The novel does not present us with a black-and-white view of the problems in Victorian society. Rather, it stresses the importance of certain values and the possibility that there can indeed be hope: money and class will not always get the upper-hand. Hence, Eugene rejects societal conventions and marries Lizzie, and Bella and the Boffins reject monetary gain for kindness and love. As Kettle argues, Dickens has “an almost childlike faith in Low Church goodness” valuing “kindness, patience, the innocence and elation of youth, the power of love…”. This is clear throughout the novel, and the final handshake arguably demonstrates Dickens’s hope that class distinctions will diminish over time and that, one day, people will be judged on their actions and principles rather than on their wealth or status.