Where does poetry come from?

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I come from haunts of coot and hern, 

I make a sudden sally, 

And sparkle out among the fern, 

To bicker down a valley. 

Even before Freud, people would have observed that dreams are the result of our unfulfilled desires. This is plain common sense. Freud made this idea systematic without bothering to make it scientific. He resorted to speculations. 

Art and literature, especially poetry, seem to have the same origin as dreams when we considers the similarities in their form and content. We all have our instincts, mostly biological in nature. But our sense of self, the ego and our sensitivity to the world, the super ego, suppresses our instincts.

Finding no way to materialize, our instincts go for the second options, they ideate as dreams in our sleep when our guard is down,  and when we are watchful as daydreams  or art or poetry, good poetry that is. In dreams art and poetry our instincts go for two kind of disguises, condensation in which several instincts are all fused into one and displacement in which instead of hitting the bull’s eye we hit something else. 

Translated into poetry these disguises become metaphor and metonymy, two basic ways of symbolism. Metaphor which we also seen in homonyms and other figures of speech and metonymy as we see in sublimation. These are only convenient examples.  

Freud calls this wish fulfillment which is not the same as materializing our real instinctual desire. Needless to say it is not as good as the real, second best. So, when it comes to poetry, like a child who over decorates a toy house, we embellish the second best to more satisfactory for us and more enjoyable for others.  

For example, one may wish to have children but has only Dorothy as a companion. No chance there. The sexual instinct is here suppressed by the ego and super ego, and rightly so. This leads to an ideation of the instinct into an incestuous dream about the sister (more direct) day dream about a solitary reaper (less direct) or a poem on daffodils (symbol of fertility, disguised or indirect) 

We don’t have access to Wordsworth’s dream but his two poems are there for us. In Solitary Reaper we see several of the instincts fused into the form of a reaping girl, enjoyment, fertility, (“Reaping and singing by herself”) Thus the girl becomes a metaphor or the poet’s (and everyone else’s) biological instincts. 

In Daffodils, it is not only that the flowers being symbol of fertility is again a metaphor, it is also a sight the poet has often enjoyed watching with his sister as they went for long walks in Lake District. Perhaps, more than the symbolism, it is their association with his sister which prompted the poet.  The lines,
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

say a lot.

The Stoat by John MacGahern

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Autobiographical to a large extent, The Stoat by John MacGahern, an Irish writer, is also a study of impulses and instincts. The story is bracketed off literarally by a display of animal insticts and aggression. This story was rewritten several times and revised more than once.

The story pivots on different themes. Apart from human relationships and the animal insticts in all living beings, the story is also about values, persoal refinement and opportunism. The first paragraph and the last paragraph are mostly about how, a rabbit is killed but not eaten by a stoat. The reference to a stoat appears three more times in the story. Thus inhuman aggression can be considered the main theme of the story.

All night the rabbit must have raced from warren to warren, he thought, the stoat on his trail. Plumper rabbits had crossed the stoat’s path but it would not be deflected ; it had marked down this one rabbit to kill”

This sentence in the second paragraph of the story repeated at the end of the story raises the story from the level of mundane allegory to that of subtle parallelism. However, there is no sin of generalisation here as there are different kinds of characters in the story. Contraty to this parallelism, it is a dying lady who stalks a robust widower.

Miss Mcabe was the real name of a lady with whom the authors father was in love. So, the author himself can be considered as the narrator of the story. The story which has been a puzzle for several critics, is different from its true life version only in its details. It being not so different from real life is one reason why the author gave up working on it any further and avoided it from his major collections.

The story has a very simple plot. A father rents a cottage where he spends a month every August. He, a widower, plans to remarry and puts up an advertisement. After testing and trying about a fifty responses, he settles for Miss McCabe, a school teacher. One day, the son brings home a rabbit which a stoat attacked and left half dead. The son had ended its life. The son cooks it and enjoys it with his father and Miss McCabe who was staying at a hotel near the beach close to them. That night, back in the hotel, the lady shows signs of heart failure. On hearing this the father decides to leave her. In the end, the boy feels more than a little irritated about the father’s ways. In between we hear also about the boy’s uncle with whom the boy is in very good terms.

The key point appears right in the middle of the storry. The uncle and the boy are in a bar where he tells the boy that he likes his company and hopes to see more of him if his father remarries.

He’d like that too. With his uncle everything seemed open: ‘Life seems to have no purpose other than to reproduce itself. Life comes of matter and goes back into matter. We inherit it and pass it on. We might as well take as decent a care of it as we can. You can’t go against love and not be in error.’ Nothing was closed. This freedom was gaiety, even though it seemed that it caused him to seem most lonely.

Eventually, we see how much the son is influenced by his uncle and how much he resents his father’s behaviour and how he chooses to stand alone and be strong. For his uncle, nothing was closed. For the father, nothing was open and he could not even reveal to his girlfriend how his son came by a rabbit he cooked for her.

The interactions between the boy and the uncle on one end, between the rabbit and the stoat on the other end and between the father and his girls somewhere in the middle, this story gives a spectrum of relationships, from co-existence to parasitism to agression and dominance.

When the boy brings the dead rabbit, the father teases the boy’s and his uncle’s humane side,

“No doubt, it can be another specimen for youself and your uncle to mull over”
To this the boy has a proper reply hinting at the father’s narrowminded politics,

“Well, it is as good as what you find in The Independent

This defines the difference between the uncle and the father since the political magazines generally care only about the lives of humans and this is only a natural outcome of the misled quest for survival. The uncle and the son have soared over what is natural and refined themselves to have better values and principles in life. When he comes to know the father’s joke about getting grant to improve the look of women who responded to the ad, the uncle coments that,

“…the man must finally have gone off his rocker.”

and says to the son that,

“At least, if he does get married, it’ll get him off your back.”

Finally it is the son who tries to make the father see that he is being too selfish. But the father fails to see the point. The insight and objectivity help the son see deep into situations and people. He sees ‘with terrifying clarity that it was the stoat the father had glimpsed in Miss. McCabe’s hotel toom’ where she was recuperating after a heart attack.

Even though the story is ridden with details, everything is carefully chosen to make meaning. Miss McCabe and the father revels in the dinner and looks forward to more while the son feels bad about having been part of what he sees as buffoonery. The uncle later contrasts a driving licence with a marriage licence. Another example is the opportunism shown by the people at he post office when they see so many responses to the marriage ad. All this obviously support the theme.

Coming by Philip Larkin

How successful is Philip Larkin in depicting the transition between winter and summer?

Change of seasons, an uncommon theme in modern poetry, is explored beautifully in ComingPhilip Larkin, a poem by Philip Larkin. In its totality, it provides us with a real life experience of transition between two seasons.

The title itself refers to transition and in a subtle way points to the popular phrase ‘this too shall pass’. Moreover, time is a common topic of interest in modern poetry and season is all about time. Towards the end of the poem, the poet says,

And can understand nothing

But the unusual laughter

which is to suggest that the whole poem is more of an experience rather than an exercise in language.

Change of season is a metaphor of life itself. To endorse this idea, the poet brings up an image of a couple reconciling ,

Feel like a child

Who comes on a scene

Of adult reconciling

Such an incident will surely make people happy. It is also noticeable that he says ‘adult’ and not ‘adults’ thereby making it an adjective of reconciliation. Moreover, the warmth of the sun which has stayed away returns to the earth to make it fully blossom.

Bathes the serene

Foreheads of houses

The comparison is all the more significant since winter connotes not only hatred and being cold-shouldered but also frigidity as well, while spring entails warmth and warm-heartedness as well as fertility and potency by extension.

Imagery is what makes the poem very effective. By choosing a set of harmonious images which refer to the happiness and sunny days, the poet is able to convey the heart-warming effect of spring.

On longer evenings,

Light, chill and yellow

Bathes the serene

Foreheads of houses

Since the poem abounds in a wide variety of images, it can be classified as an imagist poem. TO depict the various appearance of both the seasons, the poet strings together some fresh visual images.

Images of melodious sounds are also heard in such phrases like ‘thrush sings’ ‘fresh-peeled voice’ and ‘unusual laughter’. Of these ‘fresh-peeled voice’ is double effective since the first word gives a visual image of a freshly peeled fruit and then the same image enhances the beauty of the bird’s song. Furthermore, this voice is contrasted with the stolid, solid ‘brickwork’ in the background.

After a time of inactive winter, it is time for some dynamic movements in summer. All will be up and about. The kinesthetic images (those of movement) make the poem more dynamically energetic. ‘Coming’ and ‘reconciling’ are dynamic verbs while ‘spring’ echoes of movement.

In the second half, the repetition of the first line,

It will be spring soon—

It will be spring soon

suggests the skipping spirit of a young child and soon the poem moves from ‘forgotten boredom’ to ‘unusual laughter’.

The poet also uses his keen sense of sound all through the poem. The first stanza begins with a lot of soft consonants and ends with hard and hard sounds

Thus from

Light, chill and yellow

we move over to

Laurel- surrounded

deep bare garden

Thus the poem in its deceptive simplicity, manages to highlight in very subtle ways, the transition between winter and spring. Philip Larkin has successfully employed his skill at creating a very precise effect of his choice.

Sorry, Shakespeare!

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There was an odd issue which had been troubling me for days. I brought it up during my causal discussion with people who were aware of Shakespearean literature, though not in depth.
Today, strangely, Debora, a Grade IX student brought it up. I instantly gave her my best compliments. What she asked me was why Shakespeare is considered such a great writer through his stories are all very silly.
It still takes a child to comment on the nudity of kings.
First I told her that he should not be blamed for his stories since almost all his stories came from other people. He is not called the thief of thieves for nothing. A plagiarist, a born kleptomaniac on whose nature nurture will not stick!
But why? The answer lies in his last play The Tempest.  His own story in more than one way. But, what story are we talking about here! There isn’t any.
So, creating a plot was not one of his talents.
But, a man who began his career as a hostler outside theatres could have trained himself to create any number of winding plots instead of borrowing silly plots from anyone, like a desperate Bassanio repeatedly borrowing money from Antonio. And the plots he borrowed were so popular that it was hard to say who told the story first.
But then, we say that he was a hostler near the theatres for some time. But no one is sure. No one is sure where he was for long years. So much is simply missing from his life like a maths table we learned too early in life. We can make up for what we have lost.
OK, his tales were not his. But his wisdom is wonderful. We can quote endless examples from him.
You mean from him or his books.
From his books, but is there a difference?
Yes, it is not like quoting from Dickens or Shelley. When we quote Shakespeare, we are only quoting what he made his characters say. And none of his characters are angels. So, be warned. Quotations from Shakespeare are not like maxims you can live by. See what those characters did in life or what others did to them. So, there goes the Shakespeare who lives in quotations like Dr. Jonson predicted.
So, was he just a popular money-spinning playwright, pleading guilty about beautifying himself from feathers from the other playwrights?
No, far from that.
The fact is if we call Shakespeare a writer, we should find another term for those who just write and if we don’t want to change that, then we should find another name for Shakespeare’s profession. Such is his greatness.
He is the most misunderstood of all the writers in the world. Not because his language is archaic but we are all pretentious. We don’t take literature as seriously as it has to be taken. Our tastes are so low that we would sit and watch any opera had we not been watched by others. This is where Shakespearean tales are a  boon. We can enjoy all those silly stories and not feel guilty.
We enjoy those stories and we take them to class and the children too are enchanted by the melodrama. Since neither they nor we read enough, it never occurs to us that most writers come up with better plots and Shakespeare could not have hoped to win even the school drama writing competition with that kind of stories. A man signs his own death warrant when he borrows money. His friend wins a rich lady by lottery for which she offers him illegal help and with the same inclination to do illegal acts she later saves her husband’s friend misrepresenting her gender and presenting herself as a lawyer though she would have thought a ‘plaintiff is a common quarrel’ (plain.. tiff)  ( from The Twisted Tales of Shakespeare by Richard Armour). The argument she comes up with is not even worth mentioning here. How can this be a classic story? It is not.
To cut it short, Shakespeare had higher aims than making an extra ducat by being a playwright. Each of his plays is meant to teach us something. Like his art which conceals his artfulness, he hid his tracks completely. In The Merchant of Venice, he wanted to tell us that appearance is deceptive or that one should not judge a book by its cover. On the cover, it says The Merchant of Venice, but it is hardly about the merchant. Portia is the protagonist and Bassanio is no merchant. Antonio does not lead the story; he only signs his death warrant and waits to be ripe to fall off. Taming of the Shrew, considered to be a true anti-feminist play has spiritual aspirations if we are shrewd enough to see it all. He has brought us the medicine because he knew we are all sick. He was only 31 when he wrote Romeo and Juliet, the story of which he got from a three thousand line long poem. What he says about Juliet’s parents is something none of the other writers would dare to say even today. Jacques, in As You Like It, looks at a fool with wonder and whispers to himself: Motley is the only wear. In this brief blurting out, Shakespeare has revealed his view of life. He has given those words to a philosopher, no wonder. The hero’s mouth is not worth it. Life is so meaningless that the only way to live it meaningfully is to live like a fool. Charles Chaplin’s Tramp and Samuel Beckett’s Gogo are celebrations of this idea. And they are not the only ones who took this seriously.
We should take a good look at someone like T S Elliot or James Joyce and then see how great critics find even him not as good as Shakespeare. It is then that we realize the level of loving wrong we do to Shakespeare. It is then that we find we are not equipped to gauge the greatness of this writer. We are small-time astronomers who look up and wonder at the stars on the firmament while rocket scientists are arranging guided tours to Mars.  While we are waiting to wise up to appreciate the real excellence of Shakespeare, let us not belittle him by measuring him with such small yardsticks.

The Tintern Abbey

In  The Tintern Abbey by William Wordsworth we see a romantic poet at his best. The poet goes beyond the common romantic themes of ‘far away and long ago’ and looks deeper into himself by reflecting on his own relationship with nature and that of his sister’s. He argues that the pleasure derived from being in the presence of nature is more sublime than other everyday pleasures and that such a pleasure goes beyond sensual pleasures. For Wordsworth, poetry was the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected in tranquility. Most of his poems on nature are recordings of his reflections on visits to landscapes he had done much after the actual visit.
Tintern Abbey even more so, since it was written after his second visit to the beautiful landscapes around the river Wye beside which there is an old place of worship called the Tintern Abbey. The abbey is now deserted and it suggests how religion has failed to console the poet during his most disturbed days and how nature took its place and successfully kept him happy and contended.
The poem begins with a graphically rich description of nature. Using beautiful images and melodious expressions the poet conjures up a beautiful image about the river.
These waters rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur

He looks higher up and sees the mountains that set forth the springs.
Once again
I behold these steep and lofty hills
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of a more deep seclusion;
The lines that follow appeal to our senses so much that they could be easily mistaken for those written by John Keats. The poet speaks of orchard-tufts which, with their unripe fruits, are clad in one great hue and lose themselves among other trees. He continues in the same mellifluous tone
These hedge rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild:
and then about movements and silence,
wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees
Having displayed his skills to describe nature, he starts to explore his own being and share his thoughts with us. He had seen that same landscape five years ago and it has changed very little. During all those years, it lingered in his memory and continued to please him.
I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensation sweet
and gave him ‘tranquil restoration’. It also gave him a serene and blessed mood in which his existence and ‘even the motion of his human blood’ were ‘almost suspended’ and he became nothing more than a pure ‘living soul’. His thoughts were settled and by the power of harmony he was able to see into the life of things. He often recalled the memory of this landscape when he was troubled by the fretful stir and the unprofitable fever of the world.
How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee
O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro’ the woods,
How often has my spirit tuned to thee!
The poet recalls and compares how he behaved and felt during his first visit when he was much younger and less insightful and rather inexperienced. Then ‘like a roe’ he ‘bounded over the mountains by the side /Of the deep rivers’ and ‘wherever nature led’ him. Those were the ‘boyish days’ and he derived ‘coarser pleasures’ from his immediate experiences. The physical sensation and pleasure he enjoyed in the lap of nature from the ‘colours and forms’ did not make him think about or look for anything beyond the ‘here and now’.
But ‘that time is past’. During his second visit after five long years he feels ‘a pleasure that disturbs’ him,
with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused
with his being. He is still,
A lover of the meadows and the woods
And the mountains; and of all we behold
But now, nature has risen from that which speaks ‘the language of the senses’ in order to please the human mind to the level of,
a nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being
Paganism or acknowledging and worshipping God in everything around us is not a philosophy favoured in the west. The monotheistic concept of the western religions does not allow the worship of any other God. So, nature poems in English, unlike those in the eastern languages, remained for long as description of nature’s beauty. Wordsworth, along with S. T. Coleridge, risked being called ‘a pagan’ and dared to call himself
A worshipper of nature …
Unwearied in that service…
making a personification of nature leading to its deification by using the word worship along with it.
The poet says that in the recent years when his life has been one of ‘sad perplexity’ and disillusionment he has learned to look on nature,
Not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity
Nor harsh or grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.
He has seen how nature can stay in one’s mind and continue to guide, help and raise one above the common din of life. Here the poet is referring to his disillusionment in his private life as well has the hope and despair that the French revolution gave him.
Now that he is aware of the immediate and long term benefits of being in the presence of nature, the poet wants to initiate into such a life his sister Dorothy who is accompanying him on this second visit. He sees in her, an image of what he used to be long ago. He assures her that no evil shall prevail on them, no rash thoughts shall come to them, no sneer of selfish men shall ever touch them and no unkind men can hurt them if they have faith in the powers of nature. It is her privilege to help men like that.
Knowing that nature never did betray
The heart that loved her
He hopes that his sister will take heed to remember this lesson that he is teaching him now.
If solitude , or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
She asks her whether she will ever forget
That on the banks of this delightful stream
We stood together; ………….
With warmer love – oh! With far deeper zeal
Of holier love.
He tells his sister that this second visit is dearer to him, both because of the beauty of nature and also because of his sister’s companionship. Thus we see how Wordsworth creates an atmosphere of affection, beauty, nostalgia, scenic beauty, and divinity to convey to us the embalming power of nature that raised man to sublime levels.

Frost at Midnight by S T Coleridge

It is a calm and quiet night and the poet is in his cottage.  His infant son is sleeping silently in his cradle. It is winter and the frost seems to be performing a secret duty without the help of the wind. The only sound is an owl hooting repeatedly. The inmates of the cottage have all retired to rest, leaving the poet to his solitude so that he could ponder over his incomprehensible thoughts. The only person near him is his infant son who is so silent in his cradle. The calmness is such that its extreme silence disturbs the poet in his meditation. The sea, the hill, the woods which are all abuzz with activities during the day time are all quiet now. They are as inaudible as someone else’s dreams.

The poet spies a thin blue flame on the grate in the fireplace. It flutters all over the dying embers. It is so thin it doesn’t quiver like normal flames. The poet sees in the thin unquiet flame a clear reflection of his inner self. It is a companionable form to the poet’s soul. His quiet soul is able to interpret the weak and mild movements of the thin blue flame in the grate. He finds parallels between himself and the flame. The poet has the habit of thinking deeply about the things around him and seeing himself in them. This helps him have a better look into his own soul. The poet says that this is exactly what the flame also does. It reflects on the various things around it so as to see itself.
The poet suddenly goes back to his childhood memories and says how often he has seen the same flame do the same thing in fireplaces in his school. While in school he used to see day dreams about his birthplace and the old church tower there. He remembers the church bell which was the only music the poor men in his village heard. On hot Fair days it would sing from morning to evening. It was so sweet that it always gave him a wild pleasure. It told him of the things that were to come in his life. He would stare at the thin blue flame in the school fireplace till the soothing things he dreamt would put him to sleep. In his sleep the day-dream would continue as a real dream. He would further think about it the following morning in his class while at school. This would infuriate his stern teacher. But the poet would still pretend to be studying his books while in fact the book too floats around in his dream. Whenever the door opened he hoped to find a stranger’s face or a man from his own town or an aunt or his favourite sister or a play mate wearing the same dress as he did.
The poet now addresses his baby. The gentle breathing of his baby is heard in that deep calmness. It fills the vacant moments in between his thoughts. He finds his baby beautiful and it makes him very happy. When he looks at his infant son he thinks that he may grow up different. He may grow up listening to stories which are different from the ones he had heard. He may spend his childhood in places which are different from the ones his father, the poet, grew up in. The poet grew up in cloistered surroundings and saw not much of the beautiful nature. He saw nothing lovely except the stars and the sky. But he hopes his son may wander like a breeze by lakes, on sandy shores, in the valleys of ancient mountains and under clouds that look like lakes, shores and mountain crags. He will see the lovely shapes and hear the lovely sounds intelligible only to those who speak the eternal and divine language that God utters. Through everything around us God teaches us about Himself and about all things in Him. The Almighty will mould his son’s spirit and, by satisfying his curiosity, make him ask for more knowledge.
All seasons would be sweet to his son. He will be happy when the summer clothes the earth with greenness or the winter makes the redbreast sing lovely songs sitting between tufts of snow on the branches of mossy apple trees while the roof seems to emit vapour when the sun falls on its wet thatches. He will enjoy the soft sounds of water drops as they fall off eaves, though this sound can be heard only when the general din of the day subsides to quietness. It will please his eyes to see how the secret ministry of the frost makes the water drops stay up as icicles and they keep shining to the quiet moon.
S. T. Coleridge’s poems are famous for the dream-like atmosphere they create. From the very first line where the poet talks about ‘the secret ministry of the frost’ to where he talks about the icicles hanging from the eves shining at the moon, the poem treats memories, landscapes, dreams, fears and hopes as if they are not different. The poet reveals a mind which is sensitive to his inner life and the external reality.

The Rattrap

The Rattrap by Selma Lagerlof, the Swedish Nobel laureate, reads like a folk tale but holds a very meaningful message for us. In the context of a man’s experience around Christmas time, the story explores the edge experience has over intelligence, knowledge and wisdom. It also highlights the importance compassion has in transforming a person.

The story features a vagabond who earned his living selling rattraps. He made rattraps using the scrap metal he found. When he couldn’t find the raw material, he begged or stole them. He always looked hungry and led a life of monotony and boredom.
Then, one day, a thought struck him. He found that the world was very much like a rattrap. The world offers wealth and other pleasures just the way a rattrap offers cheese and meat. Once we go in for them, we are imprisoned in it forever and it entails nothing but eternal misery. He went around telling this idea to everyone he met.
Though he tried to spread this great philosophy of life, a truth which is expounded by all religions, it only remained in his brain as a piece of information. He was intelligent enough to figure it out and talk about it. He was wise enough to understand its significance. But when it came to practising it, he failed miserably. He realized this only when it was spelled out to him by an incident.
One dark evening he was walking along the road and knocked at the door of a poor old man’s cottage. The old man let him in, served him food and gave him shelter for the night. They played cards and the old man told him his story. He used to work in Ramsjo Ironworks but now he was a small time crofter who had just one cow. He said that was good enough for him since it had even given him thirty kroners in a month. Like the Bishop did to Jean Val Jean, he even showed the vagabond the money kept in a cloth bag hung on the wall.
The next day both men left the hut at the same time but the peddler came back and stole the thirty kronor from the old man. Like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment he got hunted by his own conscience and he thought he was being followed. He left the highways and entered a forest, but as much as he walked, he was not able to come out of it. He realized that his own medicine had not worked for him and that he had been trapped by money and that the forest was his prison.
At some point later in the same night he heard sounds from the Ramsjo Ironworks and moved in that direction. He reached the factory and went in. Nobody asked any questions since it was normal for vagabonds like him to walk in and enjoy the warmth of the furnace in a chilly night like this.
Just then the owner of the mill walked in. He addressed the peddler as Captain Nils Olof mistaking him for an old friend. The peddler didn’t contradict him. The miller invited him home and this the peddler refused since he feared getting himself exposed in better lighting. Later the owner’s daughter Elda came to get him and forced him to go with her. She had even brought a wrap for him since it was too chilly outside. The peddler went with her. That night both the father and the daughter were so nice to him and made him wear good clothes. But seeing him in those clothes they found they had made a mistake and he too confessed that he was only a peddler. The father thought of calling the sheriff to arrest him. The vagabond told him that he was innocent and if he was dragged into trouble that would entail another cycle of misery through which the miller would also get caught in the trap. His words made the owner change his mind but he asked the peddler to leave. Now the daughter intervened saying that they couldn’t ask him to leave since they had invited him. Moreover, it is Christmas Eve and the man deserved a peaceful life at least once in a year. She served him a good supper. The next morning he slept on and was woken up only for lunch and dinner. He was even invited for the next Christmas.
That night at church, Elda heard that one of the old crofters of the ironworks had been robbed by a man who went around selling rattraps. The iron master now feared that the man might have stolen all their silver spoons. When they returned home the peddler had already left. He had left a tiny rattrap for Elda. There was a note attached to it. It was his confession. There were thirty kronor in the rattrap and he asked Elda to have the privilege of returning it to the old man. He thanked her and her father for the being compassionate to him and thereby transforming him. His intelligence, knowledge and wisdom only took him close to hell (symbolized by the hot burning furnace and the thirty kronor hinting at Judas’s reward for betraying Christ). His transformation came from his real life experience when he was shown compassion by two strangers even when they found him a sinner.

An Inspector Calls

An Inspector Calls

 

 

An Inspector Calls by J B Priestly is an interesting play which thrills the reader in several different ways. Written in 1912, this play is a mixture of social criticism, religious idealism and family drama.
The play opens in Mr. Birling’s dining room where the family is hosting a dinner. Present in the room are Mr. Birling, Mrs. Sybil Birling, Miss. Sheila Birling (their daughter), Mr. Eric Birling (their son) and Mr. Gerald Kroft, who might marry Sheila. Mr. Kroft is to inherit his father’s industry which has been offering tough competition to Mr. Birling’s.
As soon as Gerald gives a ring to Sheila as a sign of engagement, an inspector called Mr. Goole calls and the plot begins to thicken.
Eva Smith, a young working class lady, has committed suicide. Mr. Birling admits that he had to dismiss the lady, even though she was a good worker, when she asked for a pay rise. He dismisses her from a photograph shown by images (3)Mr. Goole. He confesses that it was an unfair thing but he believes that he was left with no option.
Sheila who walks in also gets to see the photo and recognizes her as the girl she forced a ready-made shop to fire from service. This was the girl’s second job. When she brought a dress to Sheila she first held it close to her body and it looked great on her. When Sheila tried it, it looked ridiculous on her. She An Inspector Callsnoticed the girl smiling at another sales girl. Infuriated with jealousy, Sheila forced the shop to dismiss her, using her father’s position as a major industrialist and a politician.
Now Gerald is also shown the photograph and he confessed that he also met her at a bar and gave her some money and a place to stay in. In other words, he kept her as his mistress. She had changed her name. During that time, he did not come to meet Sheila and his excuse was that he was too busy with his work. Sheila immediately returns his ring though she acknowledges his honesty.
imagesNow it is Mrs. Sybil Briling’s turn. As the head of the charity committee she also wounded Eva when she approached her as Mrs. Briling. She was put off by the fact that the fake name Eva used was her own. She asked the committee not to help her though the girl was pregnant. She also refused to believe the girl’s story that the man who impregnated her had offered her some compensation but since it was stolen cash, she did not take it so as not to make the man a thief. Mrs. Briling asks whether a girl of her standing could afford to be so conscientious. Sheila tells her not to play into the inspector’s hand by being so innocent as he might tear her to pieces. However, against Sheila’s protest, Mrs. Briling says that the young man should be properly punished.
The last one to fall in is Mr. Eric Briling. He admits that he was the one who impregnated the girl and stole the money from his father’s office to pay the girl. In a way the girl didn’t lie about her name this time. She considered herself as the wife of Mr. Eric Briling. So she introduced herself as Mrs. Briling.
images (2)Eric and Sheila confess their guilt but their parents and Gerald sticks to the idea that it was the girl who should be blamed. The inspector walks out telling them that such uncivil practices will be met with fire, blood and anguish.
After the inspector leaves, Gerald manages to find out that there is no inspector by that name in the entire police force. They also find that no girl had committed suicide that night. This makes the inspector and impostor and all except Sheila and Eric consider themselves exonerated. They vehemently argue their way out of it, though they admit that he was of a strange nature and behaviour. He knew everything even before they opened their mouths.
The play ends when they get a phone call informing them that a girl has committed suicide and that a police inspector is on his way to meet all of them.
The real identity of the inspector is left to the reader’s speculation. So is the question whether he was showing them the photographs of different girls. We also hear the parents and Mr. Gerald passing a poor opinion about some of the great writers of the time.
If we take the play as a symbolic representation, it can be observed that Eva represents the woman folk from the working classes about whom the rich people has no regard. They exploit them in different ways. They are either workers, or sleeping partners for them.
The inspector’s words ‘fire, blood and anguish’ refers to suffering in hell or at the hands of the revolutionaries or a stern legal system in future. We see that Sheila and Eric are willing to learn a lesson but the others refuse to do so. Everyone’s real nature is brought out by the inspector.images (1)

Whether they all wronged the same girl or different one is not an important question. It is only as insignificant as the parents’ and Gerald’s question whether the inspector was real or fake. See holistically, this is what working class women suffer at the hands of the rich everywhere in the world, then and now. This is how the rich see their own mistakes, then and now. This is the lesson that many refuse to learn, then and now. In other words, this is a theme that goes beyond time and place. The writer is able to present it in such a way that it has several layers of meaning and all of them are more blatant and not subtler than the other.

The Destructors

The Destructors by Graham Greene is an interesting short story which has allegorical touches. The story tells us how some unruly boys, vying with one another for leadership in their gang, go beyond all levels of evil and redefine it as a motiveless act.
There are three levels of characters in the story: Old Misery who owns the house, the gang of unruly boys and a truck driver. People at the church are also mentioned. The story happens near a car park overlooked by buildings which have been partly destroyed by ‘the last bomb of the first blitz’. The house owner Mr. Thomas whose nick name is Old Misery is actually nice to the children. But that doesn’t prevent Trevor, one of the boys,  from proposing to the gang that they should destroy Old Misery’s house completely when he is away. This proposal impresses the others and Trevor is voted up as the next leader and the old leader Blackie has to step down. None could come up with a worse mischief they could enjoy during the week. The story reminds us of Lord of the Flies by William Golding.
Houses have always been symbols of security and refuge. Hence they also stand for human institutions. Even the parliament is referred to as a house. House as a symbol appears in several parables in the Bible. Old Misery’s house stands for the established religions which were attacked more than a little by the two World Wars. People who had always been living in misery (old misery from the first sin?) had sought refuge in religions. But the religions lost their strength when the atrocities of war eroded many people’s trust in humanity and human kindness. This made e.e.cummings, a famous poet,  coin the phrase ‘human unkind’ in place of human kind.  The unruly gang is worse in its evil than those who steal or murder. They have no motive. It is motiveless malignity. They think there is no point in being vengefully evil.  Insisting that nothing should be stolen from the house they are destroying, the hero of the story Trevor says about the house owner, “There’d be no fun if I hated him.”
The truck driver who sees Old Misery’s house being pulled down bay unseen hands laughs at it, not realizing that they might destroy his house the next day. At another level, those who passively watch the age-long institutions like religion and family disintegrate or made to disintegrate do not realize that the society and its institutions came into being to protect people and if they vanish we are again defenseless against evil.
More than the descriptions, it is in the dialogues that we find suggestions about the hidden meanings of the story.
“Wren built that house, father says.”
“Who’s Wren?”
“The man who built St. Paul’s”
“Who cares?” Blackie said. “It’s only Old Misery’s.”
In these lines we hear the echo of Satan addressing the other fallen angels in the pandemonium. Through the name of Wren, the man who built St.Paul’s Church, we are reminded of the people who organized the religions. However, now the religions belong to the miserable masses.
Again,
“What do you mean a beautiful house?” asked Blackie. They all hate beauty and culture.  They are things that flow along with the flow of life down the ages. It is interesting to see that they also consider the flow of things as a power against them. The pipes through which water flows are broken, the wires through which current flows are clipped and currency (that which moves around) is burned.
In very few words we are shown what we stand to lose when social institutions symbolized by Old Misery’s house are taken away from us. Old Misery’s helplessness is revealed when he wails over his disappeared house:
“He gave a sobbing cry. “My house,” he said, “Where is my house?”  The truck driver is passive but still makes fun of him. “Search me,” the driver said.
Thus, it is easy to see that The Destructors has more to it than meets the eye. As we read the story, we also want to see the children being successful. If the destruction was checked at some point, most of the readers would be disappointed. Thus it makes the additional point that we are not free of aggression and destruction. The popular movies and novels are all about destruction though they uphold constructive values at some point towards the end. There is a basic instinct in man to revel in his own aggression and it is through culture, art, religion and other similar activities that we overcome such tendencies.

At Hiruharama (analysis)

At Hiruharama

by Penelope Fitzgerald

At Hiruharama is a well crafted story which sustains the reader’s attention through its sympathetic treatment of life. Though there is no winding plot, the story catches our attention and maintains tension and suspense because of the realistic portrayal of adorable characters.

The story is about Mr. Tanner and his wife Kitty who end up in New Zealand and make the best out of the worst. Through farming, they manage to live in an almost barren land with not many neighbours. They live away from the city and so when Kitty gets pregnant, her husband is very worried about the medical help that she may need. He visits a doctor in the city and buys two pigeons which he hopes to use to communicate with the doctor through the man who sells them. He sees to it that nothing is overlooked. But he makes the worst foolishness when he mistakes one of the babies for the afterbirth and dumps it in the dustbin. It is this girl who becomes a lawyer and raises the family’s hopes for a better living.

The story seems to be part of a longer novel because of its abrupt opening. This is very effective since it sounds like the writer is taking the reader into his confidence with such ease and frankness.  The writer amazes us with his story telling techniques and informal style.

The land Mr. Tanner and Kitty selected to settle down in had only one good thing about it. There was a standpipe and constant clear water from an underground well. This source of water later turns out to be the symbol of the limitless love and affection Mr. Tanner possesses. Human relationships and the need to love and be loved loom large in the story.

Though the story is written like a chronicle, the writer is able to provide it with interesting moods and subtle tones. Along with the barrenness of the land we are also told about an insensitive neighbor who comes to dine with the couple twice a year. His name is Brinkman. He doesn’t have much to do with the plot of the story but he serves an important purpose. We find that there is a kind of softness deep in him too. He has no family since he couldn’t persuade a woman to live with him in that godforsaken land.

He arrives for his half-yearly dinner when Kitty is about to have labour pains. This disappoints him and he talks endlessly about his last dinner with them. He is not bothered about the trouble the family is going through. Still, it touches us deeply when he says why he comes to visit the Tanners. He insists he doesn’t come for dinner or to enjoy the scenic beauty. He says,

“No, I’ve come today, as I came formerly, for the sake of hearing a woman’s voice.”

This touch is important for the story since the story is feminist in its content and treatment. It is a celebration of femininity. This is brought forth through the character of Kitty and how the other treat Kitty. It is Kitty who inspires Mr. Tanner to learn to read and write and he manages to accomplish it before he marries her. Her mildest suggestion to him that he should write to his sister “how it is between us” inspires him to live up to her expectations. Since she asks him to ‘write’ to his sister, Tanner knew she expected him to be literate.

Unlike Mr. Tanner, Kitty was educated even before she came to New Zealand. She came as a governess                                                                                                                                  and ended up as a servant. It is with her help that Mr. Tanner is able to run a farm.

Tanner might be finding Kitty so committed since she has chosen to live with him and share his hardships. He tells the doctor the reason why his neighbor is not married.

“You couldn’t ask a woman to live out there.”

To this the doctor says,

“You can ask a woman to live anywhere.”

Against the doctor’s and Brinkman’s apparent insensitivity, Mr. Tanner comes out as man with such a good heart.

When Mr. Tanner visits the doctor, we see him very anxious about his wife’s condition. He wants to know how many women die in childbirth. He has no questions about the baby, even though the doctor  makes a prophetic statement,

“Well don’t ask me if it’s going to be twins. Nature didn’t intend us to know that.”

Mr. Tanner is very resourceful and is very proactive. He tells the doctor, “I can do anything about the house.” We find this to be true.

‘He told the doctor he’d managed to deliver the child, a girl, in fact he’s wrapped it up in a towel and tucked it up in the washbasket.’

Even on the day of his wife’s delivery, in the midst of all the problems and in spite of his anxiety and desperation,  Tanner is a good host to Brinkman, his neighbor whom he hasn’t seen for the last six months. His good nature goes unnoticed by his neighbour, but that doesn’t deter him from serving his guest. He wins the love of all the people he meets including the doctor and the Maori boy who sells pigeons.  When the doctor says the Brinkman is a crank, Tanner objects and says that he should be called a dreamer at the worst.

Tanner is not only endowed with a good heart, he also has a smart brain. He is resourceful and plans things in advance.

“Tanner turned over in his mind what he’s say to his wife when she told him she was going to have a child.” But when he finally tells him, he doesn’t say anything but straightaway goes to the town to consult a doctor.

The language of the story is informal to a great extent though there are two instances of the writer’s skill to write in different styles. When Tanner writes to his sister his style resembles the Bible since it is probably the only book he is able to read after he became literate. Another change in style in when Brinkman talks. His English is fairly elegant. All the other characters speak in dialects.

The story ends with Brinkman’s  thoughts. His words tell us how simple are the characters that we come across in this story. In fact, these words throw much light on the theme of the story. In spite of deserts and barren lands, the earth is still beautiful. Likewise, in spite of hardships and accidents, life is still beautiful in its own terms.

“All the time Brinkman continued to sit there by the table and smoke his pipe. Two more women born into the world! It must have seemed to him that if this sort of thing went on, there should be a good chance, in the end, for him to acquire one for himself. Meanwhile, they would have to serve dinner sometime.”