Saturday, 26 April 2014

Is Larkin's Poetry Really That Bleak?

One is unlikely to deny that Philip Larkin’s poetry is bleak. He is renowned for his cynical outlook on life, death and love, and indeed he is almost incapable of expressing, or indeed hinting at, the possibility of joy and happiness. However, this is not to say that his poetry is unremittingly bleak, and nor is it completely bereft of positivity. Larkin’s poems are perhaps lacking in humour, warmth and hope, but they are certainly not bereft of them. Despite his constant fear of impending death, he had a few true passions including poetry, books, porn, whisky, and jazz. In fact, Larkin’s poetry occasionally leaves traces of a certain optimism that seems to be almost suppressed by his cynical nature.

The Daily Telegraph referred to Philip Larkin as “the magnificent Eeyore of British verse”, and indeed this quotation seems to summarise the vast majority of his poems. Throughout his life Larkin was haunted by the inevitability and eternal nature of death; even his earliest poems, written when he was a young man, seem to recognise death as a rational fear. Larkin’s loathing of mortality could be an effect of his father’s painful death from cancer in 1948, or his mother’s slow deterioration in old age. In “The Old Fools” Larkin is incredibly scathing about the incompetence of old people; he questions whether they think “it’s more grown up when your mouth hangs open and drools, / And you keep on pissing yourself…” His use of harsh and crude language (he describes an old person as having “toad hands” and a “prune face”) displays not only his fear of his own old age, but also his anger. Larkin said that his poem was enthused by.
“Anger at the humiliation of age… and anger at the old for reminding us of death… selfish anger, but typical of the first generation to refuse to look after its aged.”
His poem stresses the transience of humanity and the constant, although in old age unperceivable approach of “Extinction’s alp”, and it ends with the deathly but nonetheless aphoristic monosyllabic words: “We shall find out.” It is worth noting that Larkin would often visit Hull’s cemeteries to reflect and meditate whilst writing his poetry; no doubt this had a profound effect on his overall perspective. Larkin’s poetry is also filled with the motif of hopelessness and lack of fulfilment, and his poem “Love Songs In Age” is a perfect example of this. The poem depicts a woman (probably Larkin’s mother) listening to old records in the hope of reliving her past and remembering the love she once felt. However, the music’s “promising to solve, and satisfy” is a false promise, and the poem finishes: “without lamely admitting how / It had not done so then, and could not now.” This idea of unfulfilled promises and hopes is typical of Larkin, and is a clear representation of his utter cynicism.
However, Larkin’s poetry also contains aspects of comedy and humour, and indeed Martin Amis said that Larkin was one of the few poets with the ability to make us “laugh out loud”. Many of Larkin’s slightly darker messages work in juxtaposition with his comic self-mockery. For instance, in “Mr Bleaney” Larkin compares himself to the seemingly unaccomplished man who lived in his apartment before himself. Despite its bleak message, Larkin’s poem is engaging and humorous, and ironically ends with the words, “I don’t know.” It is as if Larkin is realising his own life’s depressing state, but the fact that this comes so bluntly is funny, and Larkin knows it. He is, in effect, mocking not only his own miserable life, but also his assumption that he is better than Mr Bleaney. Larkin’s poems are also often rather crude, and this crudity amuses the reader. The obvious example for this is his poem “High Windows”, which opens:
“When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm…”
Larkin’s use of the word “fucking” is extremely avant-garde. In fact, it was intended to shock the reader, and this in itself is funny. The apparently nonchalant approach to a rather serious issue is typical of Larkin, and is proof that his poems are not bereft of humour. Larkin is also known for the realism of his poetry. The candour of phrases like “And ate an awful pie” (“Dockery and Son”) or “mothers loud and fat;” (“The Whitsun Weddings”) is very funny indeed, and this is yet another example of Larkin’s humorous touch. This frankness is also seen in many of his letters to Kingsley Amis, which we know were intended to amuse. For instance he once wrote to Kingsley:
“Miss Isobel has come for a bit. I don’t care much about that, as it means I have to PAY for TWO women at the PUB and the FLICKS instead of ONE and I DON’T get my COCK into EITHER of them, EVER.”
We can therefore infer that his blunt and crude style of writing was intended to be amusing, and so it would be false to say that his poetry is wholly lacking in humour. Larkin’s extreme cynicism can also be seen as funny, and it is possible that he understood and took advantage of this. When we read such miserable and dismal lines (“And dulls to distance all we are”, “all time has disproved”, “For the rooms grow farther, leaving / Incompetent cold.”) the reader finds it hard not to be amused by his utterly extreme cynicism. Just as we laugh at Eeyore’s constantly pessimistic outlook, we are amused by what Andrew Motion calls Larkin’s very English, glum attitudes. One could even suggest that Larkin was playing up to the pose of the curmudgeon, being deliberately bleak as a way of amusing people.
Despite his cynical nature, Larkin also seems to instil a sense of hope in a number of his poems. “The Whitsun Weddings” concludes on a somewhat positive note, suggesting that change can bring hope and positivity:
                         “…and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give.”
He finishes the poem with the symbol of an arrow-shower (possibly representing the power and hope of a newly married couple) “somewhere becoming rain.” Although this reference to rain could be seen as typical Larkin cynicism, it is actually referring to the life-giving nature of rain providing fertility to the “squares of wheat” mentioned earlier in the poem. It is worth noting that “The Whitsun Weddings” is the eponymous poem of the collection, and so Larkin clearly valued hopefulness just as much as he valued hopelessness. Larkin’s poem “The Trees” also features a sense of optimism and hope. The poem depicts the trees “coming into leaf” and emphasises their permanence, referring to them as “the unresting castles”. Despite the undeniable note of jealousy in the poem, it ends with the simple onomatopoeic image of the trees transmitting life: “Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.” Like in “An Arundel Tomb”, Larkin’s positivity is masked by the phrase “they seem to say” – he seems incapable of believing in true hope and happiness. However, the poem undeniably has an optimistic tone, and therefore his poetry is not unremittingly bleak.
In a number of Larkin’s poems there are shafts of warmth and contentment, often demonstrated by his use of metaphor and lyricism. On the rare occasions when Larkin examines nature, it always represents a positive force that defeats our ephemeral lives and suggests a reason for happiness. For example “the eggs unbroken” depicted at the end of his poem “The Explosion” symbolise rebirth and the life yet to come. This is certainly a source of comfort and warmth for the wives of the miners who have died. Moreover his poem “Solar”, a paean to the sun, is a wholly positive poem that depicts the selflessness and permanence of nature. It ends with the optimistic words “You give for ever” which prove that Larkin’s poetry is not bereft of hope and warmth. Larkin also seems to be comforted by nature in his poem “High Windows”, and in the final stanza he depicts “the deep blue air” that represents true liberty and freedom. Finally, Larkin’s mention of religion often seems to accompany a sense of positivity and warmth; for instance the “high windows” could be referring to the windows of a Church, and “our needs” that “climb and return like angels” (in “Solar”) are fulfilled by the generosity of the sun. Although Larkin is ambivalent about religion, he was by no means an atheist. In fact, “The Explosion” features a prayer and the line “Are sitting in God’s house in comfort”. It is worth noting that at this point of the poem the metre moves from a trochaic tetrameter to a more comforting, less juddering iambic metre. Again, this demonstrates that Larkin’s poetry is not wholly bereft of warmth and comfort.
Larkin’s poetry, although very sinister and bleak at points, is not wholly melancholic. There are occasional yet undeniable shafts of humour, warmth and hope, and these are often represented by common features (lyricism, nature, religion, metaphor). Larkin also finds pleasure in the natural world and England’s bucolic and pastoral landscape (particularly in “The Whitsun Weddings”). In “MCMXIV” Larkin meditates upon the loss of the ‘old England’ and there is a certain warmth and comfort in his nostalgia. The majority of Larkin’s more positive poems (“MCMXIV”, “The Explosion”, “High Windows”, “Solar”, “An Arundel Tomb”) are not motivated so much by personal experiences, but rather by things that he has seen (photographs, tombs, documentaries) or more abstract ideas (particularly “Solar”). Perhaps Larkin was only unremittingly bleak when discussing his own life; it is possible that he saw the reason for other people’s joy, but found himself unable to completely immerse himself in it. His poem “An Arundel Tomb” is a perfect example of his incapability of wholly accepting happiness. The poem ends with the aphoristic line “What will survive of us Is love” which in itself is wholly positive. However, when put into its context (it follows “almost-instinct almost true”) the line seems somewhat dampened by Larkin’s unwillingness to accept it. Larkin wanted to believe in the ideal of love, but found a reason for cynicism in the genesis of the tomb. This ambiguity does nonetheless prove that Larkin’s poetry is not unremittingly bleak – despite his best wishes, Larkin was unable to remain the Eeyore figure he so aspired to be, and shafts of positivity are often evident.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Is "Macbeth" a Misogynistic Play?

Macbeth was written by William Shakespeare between 1603 and 1607, and it was performed at the Globe Theatre in 1611. It is considered to be one of Shakespeare’s most poignant and powerful tragedies, telling the story of Macbeth’s murder of the King of Scotland, Duncan, and his own subsequent downfall. Many critics have claimed that, because women seem to be the driving force of all the play’s tragic events, it is Shakespeare’s most misogynistic play. However, for a number of reasons (including Lady Macbeth’s remorse and Shakespeare’s attacks of the patriarchal society) this is highly debatable.

Lady Macbeth is certainly one of Shakespeare’s most infamous female characters, exerting a great deal of influence over her husband. She encourages her husband’s murder of Duncan, and many critics have suggested that she is the one who is to blame for Macbeth’s tragic downfall. Her husband begins the play as an admirable, faithful man. However, as events unfold, and as his wife exerts her authority over him, he becomes a power-thirsty murderer. She says to him:

            “We fail?
            But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
            And we’ll not fail…”

Macbeth is unwilling and anxious, but his wife is nonetheless able to cajole and persuade him into doing it. In this way, Lady Macbeth is a sort of Eve figure; in Book 9 of Milton’s Paradise Lost Adam is depicted with “horror chill” in his veins when he hears of Eve’s sins, but she is soon able to persuade him to eat the fruit as well. Is this Shakespeare’s way of painting a picture of women as untrustworthy and manipulative, just as Eve is considered in the Bible?

Lady Macbeth’s most effective method of influencing her husband is by questioning his manhood. She says to him:

                                                     “What beast was’t then,
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be much more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man.”

In Macbeth the ideas of violent courage and aggression seem to be related to masculinity. Macbeth too uses this technique. He is able to persuade the murderers (“murtherers”) to kill his friend Banquo by questioning their manhood. When the murderers claim that they are men, he says to them, in the same vein as Lady Macbeth:

“Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men; 
 
As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs, 
 
Shoughs, water-rugs and demi-wolves, are clept 

All by the name of dogs: the valued file 
 
Distinguishes the swift, the slow, the subtle, 
 
The housekeeper, the hunter, every one 
 
According to the gift which bounteous nature 
 
Hath in him closed; whereby he does receive 
 
Particular addition, from the bill 

That writes them all alike: and so of men. 

Now, if you have a station in the file, 

Not i' the worst rank of manhood, say 't;”

He is suggesting that, although the murderers may be male, they are not true men, and in this way he manipulates them into murdering Banquo. In fact, whenever Lady Macbeth or Macbeth discuss manhood, violence soon follows as a result, and this inevitably leads to the play’s descent into chaos. Shakespeare could indeed be attacking the macho attitude of the 17th Century, and indeed of any patriarchal society. This leads to this essay’s next point.

Lady Macbeth is considered by many to be a woman trapped by the restrictions of a male-dominated culture. She was born to lead, but she cannot do so in a patriarchal society. She plans to kill Duncan, but is unable to without her husband’s help – thus she is forced to manipulate him. Moreover, she is so restricted that she even wishes to be “unsexed”, and indeed she condemns her own breasts, wishing her “milk” to be taken for “gall”. She wishes that she could leave her femininity behind so as to become more manly and dominating. The fact that she is willing to kill the King to get her way only goes to show how extensive her feelings of entrapment are. Lady Macbeth could therefore be seen as misogynistic. The three Witches, too, are only listened to because of their androgynous appearance. Banquo says to them:

            “You should be women,
            And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
            That you are so.” (1.3.)

Would the Witches have been listened to if they displayed more female characteristics?

Macbeth cannot be heralded as a misogynistic play until all of its female characters have been considered. The Witches also contribute to Macbeth’s inevitable downfall by prophesising his fate to Banquo and him. If he had not been told their prophesy, he would never have been persuaded by his wife to kill Duncan, and he would never have become the tragic hero that he is. Another female character, Hecate, the goddess of Witchcraft, controls the Witches, and so she could also be blamed for Macbeth’s downfall. Hecate and the Witches encourage Macbeth’s violent behaviour, and so one could claim that Macbeth traces the root of chaos and evil to women. However, this is not the whole story; the witches did not create Macbeth’s ambitions, and nor did Lady Macbeth, they simply encourage it and enflame it. It is true that the women of the play have a causative role, but they are not entirely to blame; Macbeth is responsible too. After all, there are few tragic heroes who are entirely faultless.

The only other female character is Lady Macduff, husband of the murdered nobleman. Her role in the play is very insignificant except for perhaps being an accolade of female virtue. She is the play’s one female who does very little wrong, and indeed she is one of the play’s innocent victims. She is shown as the traditional mother and kind wife, caring for her children while her husband is away fighting. It seems that her only true roles in the play are to make Macbeth seem even more of a monster (for having her killed), and indeed to suggest that not all women are bad. In this way, Shakespeare is very equal-handed, and does not stereotype all women as wicked or all men as violent. Lady Macduff’s adhering to masculine stereotypes of how women ought to act could suggest that Shakespeare is again attacking his patriarchal society.

Despite Lady Macbeth’s manipulative character and thirst for power, she is not wholly evil. In fact, by the end of the play the audience sympathises with her. After Duncan’s death, she no longer plays a role in Macbeth’s killing spree, which implies that she cannot be held totally accountable for his questionable actions. Moreover, in Act 5 she becomes extremely remorseful when she discovers that Macbeth has murdered Lady Macduff. She complains about the “spot” on her hands, and cries:

            “Out, damned spot! out, I say! – One; two:
            why, then, ‘tis time to do’t. – Hell is murky. – Fie,
            my Lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? – What need
            we fear who knows it, when none can call our power
            to accompt? – Yet who would have thought the old
            man to have had so much blood in him?”

 And she continues: “The Thane of Fife had a wife: where is she / now? – What, will these hands ne’er be clean?” It is easy to discern her panic from her broken up sentences and frequent exclamations. Because she regrets her responsibility for Macbeth’s actions, she is not seen as a wholly cold-hearted, wicked character; rather, she is presented as remorseful and sympathetic, despite her flaws; this becomes particularly apparent at her tragic death, reported by a messenger.

Therefore, Macbeth cannot be labelled an absolutely misogynistic play. It may have some sexist concepts, but it seems to be more aimed at attacking patriarchal societies and indicating their problems. Shakespeare also seems to be ridiculing masculine stereotypes of violence and bloodthirsty courage. Although Lady Macbeth hates being a female, and although it is she that leads Macbeth to his tragic end, her remorsefulness suggests that Shakespeare was not trying to depict women as fundamentally wicked or weaker than men; she simply plays a role in another one of his tragic masterpieces.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Was Wordsworth Successful?

The preface to Coleridge and Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads has become one of the most renowned ever written. The collection, first published in 1798, was an attempt by the two poets to write poems in “the real language of men” so as to make poetry more accessible to the common reader. They disliked the fact that some poets had become “advocates for that admiration which subsists upon ignorance” and indeed Wordsworth complains about overuse of poetic diction, the “personification of abstract ideas” and “falsehood of description”, all of which he describes as “gross and violent stimulants”. He therefore proposes a new kind of poetry that relates “incidents and situations from common life” while giving them “a certain colouring of imagination” and a purpose through the medium of common language and unelaborated expressions. At the end of his preface, Wordsworth poses two queries: how far his goal has been achieved, and whether it was worth achieving. Both of these questions are certainly debatable.

Wordsworth’s poems, with long-winded and very specific names like “Lines Written at a Small Distance from My House, and Sent by My Little Boy to the Person to Whom They Are Addressed” certainly appeal to the common man. Considering the fact that most poems written in the late 18th Century would be entitled with single abstract words, the title of his poems were, in themselves, unusual. Although they may present themselves as more accessible to the average man or woman of the time, these titles also detract from the authority and emotion of the poems, presenting them as somewhat dull affairs with little meaning. In fact, some of Wordsworth’s titles (particularly the above) seem rather silly. Wordsworth described poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”; the above title certainly does not sound particularly passionate or sensitive. This oversimplification occurs in a number of his poems, and on a number of occasions it worsens his poetry. For instance, in “The Thorn” Wordsworth writes:

            You see a little muddy pond

Of water, never dry, 

I've measured it from side to side:
           'Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.”

Can this really be called poetry? Apart from the rhyme and metre, there is nothing in these lines that differentiate them from the notes in a gardener’s diary! Although one may argue that Wordsworth is writing for the common man, it is hard to claim that the above is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. Rather, it seems he is simply trying to fill up space with useless and unimaginative description. In his preface, Wordsworth criticizes this sort of meaningless poetry, citing Dr Johnson:

            “I put my hat upon my head
            And walked into the Strand,
            And there I met another man
            Whose hat was in his hand.”

Wordsworth labels Johnson’s stanza as “superlatively contemptible” and he claims that it is not poetry, since it cannot “lead to anything interesting” and “wants sense”. Surely he is being hypocritical? What about his poem makes it more of a poem than Dr Johnson’s? In fact, Wordsworth’s lines seem much more superfluous than Johnson’s.

Although Wordsworth’s poetry is very often presented in straightforward and simple language, this is not always the case. On a number of occasions, both Wordsworth and Coleridge are forced to write in unusual syntax in order for their words to fit the metre. For instance, Wordsworth writes: “And he on her would vengeance take” whereas the common man would say: “And he would take vengeance on her.” Has Wordsworth therefore failed in achieving his objective, or can this strange syntax be allowed for the sake of the metre. Moreover, Wordsworth on occasion uses somewhat peculiar language and archaic diction. Both Coleridge and Wordsworth employ the word “hath”, and in “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” Wordsworth uses the words “sylvan”, “oft” and “thou”. These words were not a part of “the real language of men”, and so surely Wordsworth is failing in his objective?

Another poem in Lyrical Ballads, entitled “Goody Blake, and Harry Gill, a True Story” was described by Wordsworth as the “rudest” poem of the collection. The poem describes a very old and poor woman who steals wood from Harry Gill’s bush. Harry Gill catches her and punishes her, and is therefore cursed with chattering teeth (is this the subject of poetry?). The majority of the poem is spent describing the two characters, and it is not until the very end that any sense of emotion is evident. However, the poem, since it requires no prior knowledge and is written in very straightforward language, does achieve his goal. Nonetheless, it does pose the question: is this really poetry? The poem could have been told just as well in prosaic form, losing very little of its worth. Wordsworth argues that metre greatly contributes “to impart passion to the words, and to effect the complex end which the poet which the Poet proposes to himself”; however, he does not explain how this is done, and the power of metre is certainly questionable.

It is undeniable that Wordsworth’s goal was admirable. Poetry should not be a wholly esoteric word form that requires an archaic dictionary and a reference page to read (like T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” or Plath’s “Ariel”), and nor should it be too complicated for the common man to enjoy. It ought to be accessible and enjoyable for all, rather than only the highly educated. Moreover, poets should not “trick out” or “elevate nature” by using the “inane phraseology of many modern writers”. Therefore, Wordsworth’s aim of making poetry more accessible was certainly worth attempting. However, when the value of poetry is detracted from by the use of simple and dull language and silly description, Wordsworth lets himself down. On occasion, Wordsworth’s poetry becomes less like poetry and more like mundane diary entries, completely lacking “powerful feelings”, and so it is questionable as to whether he has truly achieved his goal. A balance has to be made between the importance of poetic diction and simplicity, and Wordsworth seems to have overstepped this balance.