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.

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 Fall of the House of Usher

marriott-goa-resort
A good work of art will go on intriguing us and will grow as we grow. In fact, a final decyphering of a work of art is impossible both individually and generally. If a work of art is understood forever, then it does not exist as a work of art any more for a particular person or for the world. Even the artist abandons his work unfinished, says De Vinci.
It is in this spirit that we have to approach the novelette The Fall of the House of Usher. The Fall of the House of Usher possesses the quintessential -features of the Gothic tale: a haunted house, dreary landscape, mysterious sickness, and doubled personality. For all its easily identifiable Gothic elements, however, part of the terror of this story is its vagueness. The title itself is intrigung with its double meaning of the word “House” since it can mean a building or a family. Since both the family and the house falls into ruins at the end of the story, both meaning are appropriate.
The possibility of varied reading of the story facilitates the presence of a variety of themes. From a doppleganger effect to incest to twin souls, the story pivots on several themes. The story is about a dilapidated house with fissures and houses usually symbolize the human mind. Madeline and Roderick will die only together in the story suggesting that they have a single soul between them. The building too seems to be a living entity as it too dies with them. The effect of the environment on human mind can also be a theme of the story. The myriads ways in which minds can be twisted is another interesting theme that the story explores.
Very little dialogue is heard in this story and what is heard is more an expression of thoughts that a commentary on actions. To compensate for this absence of voice, a fairly long poem is included and a story is told. The narrator shares all his thoughts with the reader. One of the main characters Madeline does not utter anything at all.
Characterisation is a remarkable aspect of the story. The story is told from the third person point of view and the speaker or the narrator has no access to the thoughts of the two other characters at all and this is highly logical. He can only report what he sees and what he hears. This limited vision of the story proper intensifies the tension and suspense in the story since the reader too is left in the dark as the narrator. The language used by the narrator says a lot about him, his anxieties, fears, apprehensions and nervousness. Everything he witnesses is also looked deep into and analyzed which shows the level of fear he has. His fearful mind reflects on the house and its premises. We have only his word about the state of affairs there. Roderick is depicted as a mental wreck. The narrator suspects substance abuse and sexual abuse when he sees the behaviour of his friend. If Roderick’s relation with his sister has to be put under the scanner, we have more than ample reason to suspect the relationship he has with the narrator. Roderick could be sick, highly tense about the impeding death of his sister, influenced by the gloomy nature of the house he lives in or may be taking some drug which was not uncommon those days. Madeline is more dead than alive all through the story though she is dynamic nonetheless. She passes by the narrator as if he does not exist and then lends herself to be buried alive. She comes back to life after a week to scare the living daylights out of her brother. Around her too there are a lot of clues that pulls the reader to understand her in a good number of ways. She is the perfect symbol of the story itself just as Roderick represents the house and the narrator represents the writer. Roderick and Madeline Usher are the last of their distinguished line. They are, therefore, the “House of Usher,” as is the strange, dark mansion in which they live. The narrator of Poe’s tale is a childhood friend of Roderick’s, summoned to the decaying country pile by a letter pleading for his help. He arrives to find his friend gravely altered, and through his eyes, we see strange and terrible events unfold. The reader is placed in the position of the narrator, and as such we identify strongly throughout with the “madman” watching incredulous as around him reality and fantasy merge to become indistinguishable. The unity of tone and the effortlessly engaging prose are mesmerizing, enveloping both subject matter and reader.
The setting is the most important aspect of the story as it takes the maximum text-space of the story. Instead of standard narrative markers of place and time, Poe uses traditional Gothic elements such as inclement weather and a barren landscape. We are alone with the narrator in this haunted space, and neither we nor the -narrator know why. Although he is Roderick’s most intimate boyhood friend, the narrator apparently does not know much about him—like the basic fact that Roderick has a twin sister. Poe asks us to question the reasons both for Roderick’s decision to contact the narrator in this time of need and the bizarre tenacity of narrator’s response. While Poe provides the recognizable building blocks of the Gothic tale, he contrasts this standard form with a plot that is inexplicable, sudden, and full of unexpected disruptions. The story begins without complete explanation of the narrator’s motives for arriving at the house of Usher, and this ambiguity sets the tone for a plot that continually blurs the real and the fantastic.
Poe creates a sensation of claustrophobia in this story. The narrator is mysteriously trapped by the lure of Roderick’s attraction, and he cannot escape until the house of Usher collapses completely. Characters cannot move and act freely in the house because of its structure, so it assumes a monstrous character of its own—the Gothic mastermind that controls the fate of its inhabitants. From beginning to end we hear a lot about its nooks and corners. It is described more vividly than any of the characters and thus can even be called the protagonist of the story if we consider its immense influence on the characters and their actions. The unnatural interactions between the brother and the sister, the different sickness each of them have and the possibility of something supernatural can be considered as the problem or conflict in the story. In that case, it is the house that eggs them on and finall collapses on them to effect the climax, though a tragic one.
In short, the story is a mirror that reflects the inner life of the reader and gives him exotic experiences which he will never have otherwise. It is a futile task to work towards a conclusive meaning of the story. It is a story to be read repeatedly and slowly, like an imagist poem. This is all the more evident when we compare the language Poe uses here and elsewhere. The sentences are long and goes around in circles giving us more and more abstract as well as concrete images. The narrator gives a running commentary of the action, thereby making us see what we would have missed had we been right there in the scene of action.

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The Plot
An unnamed narrator arrives at the House of Usher, a very creepy mansion owned by his boyhood friend Roderick Usher. Roderick has been sick lately, afflicted by a disease of the mind, and wrote to his friend, our narrator, asking for help. The narrator spends some time admiring the awesomely spooky Usher edifice. While doing so, he explains that Roderick and his sister are the last of the Usher bloodline, and that the family is famous for its dedication to the arts (music, painting, literature, etc.). Eventually, the narrator heads inside to see his friend.

Roderick indeed appears to be a sick man. He suffers from an “acuteness of the senses,” or hyper-sensitivity to light, sound, taste, and tactile sensations; he feels that he will die of the fear he feels. He attributes part of his illness to the fact that his sister, Madeline, suffers from catalepsy (a sickness involving seizures) and will soon die, and part of it to the belief that his creepy house is sentient (able to perceive things) and has a great power over him. He hasn’t left the mansion in years. The narrator tries to help him get his mind off all this death and gloom by using the literature, music, and art that Roderick so loves. It doesn’t seem to help.

As Roderick predicted, Madeline soon dies. At least we think so. All we know is that Roderick tells the narrator she’s dead, and that she appears to be dead when he looks at her. Of course, because of her catalepsy, she might just look like she’s dead, post-seizure. At Roderick’s request, the narrator helps him to entomb her body in one of the vaults underneath the mansion. While they do so, the narrator discovers that the two of them were twins and that they shared some sort of supernatural, probably extrasensory, bond.

About a week later, on a dark and stormy night, the narrator and Usher find themselves unable to sleep. They decide to pass away the scary night by reading a book. As the narrator reads the text aloud, all the sounds from the fictional story can be heard resounding from below the mansion. It doesn’t take long for Usher to freak out; he jumps up and declares that they buried Madeline alive and that now she is coming back. Sure enough, the doors blow open and there stands a trembling, Madeline. She throws herself at Usher, who falls to the floor and, after “violent” agony, dies along with his sister. The narrator flees; outside he watches the House of Usher crack in two and sink into the dark, dank pool that lies before it.

To Build a Fire (1908 version) by Jack London

Written at a time when modernism was in its cradle, To Build a Fire by Jack London was a forerunner of modern fiction. Modern Literature does not treat a work as a finished product. It is only a conduit through which the reader and the writer interact to create art as a befitting product of the imagination of both of them. In other words, modern literature is written in such a way that each writer will be able to read it in his own way. Multiple layers of meaning will be packed into the work so that multiple reading is facilitated.

Title and Theme

Fire is a symbol of several sundry things, on of them being life. The question ‘why was the lamp lit if it had to be put out like this and so soon?’ looms large in the story, since the man dies and untimely death. The man’s struggle to build a fire and his inability to do so entails the tragedy. In both ways, the title is highly appropriate. One of the ways in which this story can be read is as an allegory. An allegory means, the work has almost one to one correspondence with another aspect which is not literally stated in the work. Geroge Orwell’s Animal Farm is a perfect example. Unfortunately, allegory is considered one of the lowest kind of writing because of its usual simplicity, even though it is possible to write a very complex allegory and win accolades. Here the path the man takes symbolizes life and he could be any human being pursuing it with high hopes. Thus life and its uncertainties can be considered as the theme of this story.

Style

Loneliness comes in two types, the depressed aloofness, and the joyful solitude. The man in the story experiences both. A writer usually takes some characters and puts them in a smaller world and talks about them to make people understand more about life. Tempest is an obvious example. Jack London makes it more intense by putting a single character in a totally deserted locale. The style chosen makes no bones about the story being an allegory. Here is an analysis:

Day had broken cold and grey, exceedingly cold and grey, when the man turned aside from the

main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little-travelled trail led

eastward through the fat spruce timberland. It was a steep bank, and he paused for breath at the

top, excusing the act to himself by looking at his watch. It was nine o’clock. There was no sun

nor hint of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day, and yet there seemed

an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was

due to the absence of sun. This fact did not worry the man. He was used to the lack of sun. It

had been days since he had seen the sun, and he knew that a few more days must pass before that cheerful orb, due south, would just peep above the sky-line and dip immediately from view.

That man is lonely and unsupported by anything divine is a basic tenet of existentialism which is the main feature of twentieth-century literature. This is stated in the very first phrase, the day the man choose to travel was not just cold and grey like it could cold and grey in real life, but EXCEEDINGLY cold and grey. This word ‘exceedingly’ warns the reader that it is not about an ordinary circumstance. The ‘dim and little-travelled trail’ makes the journey even more exceedingly extra-ordinary. The phrase ‘excusing the act to himself’ heightens his loneliness even further as though he feels his loneliness, still manages to give company to himself. The sky is bright though the sun is absent (hopelessness) and the absence of a guiding light, a guarding star makes the day look gloomy to the author though not to the character. “He was used to the lack of sun’ shows us that he has come to terms with the idea that there are neither answers nor any hope to be found in this world. Like a typical character in existential literature, he waits, he waits like Godot.

Setting

Thus is the stage set for the tale to unfold. The second paragraph of the story gives us more details of the setting. It is deliberately written without using objective descriptions of colour, length, distance, and shape. This objective way of description looks unimaginative and it engenders in the reader the same boredom felt by the traveller down his uninteresting trail. All the four basic elements, earth, water (ice), fire and wind, plot against this unfortunate traveller. While thick frozen ice is one kind of danger, the thinly frozen ice on pools of water is another kind. With the challenges it offers, the dangers it hides, the destinations it promises, the uncertainty it holds, the regrets its hoards, the selfishness it enforces, the apathy it preserves, the trail is a perfect allegorical symbol of life. In each and every sentence describing the trail, as listed above, we see one or another aspect of life itself.

The man keeps thinking about the different parts of his body. As they too have started rebelling against him, he feels alienated from them and considers them as what ‘he’ possesses. For him, his hand and the mitten that it covers are of the same category. He sees a closer friend in his mitten which dries when he puts them near a fire than his own hand which fails him at a crucial point of time. In existentialism, a person’s inner life is called his essence, almost the same way in religions it is called his soul or atma. The essence is acquired after a man is born or has an existence. Thus in existentialism, existence comes first, not the essence. The soul (the essence) as talked about in religions, comes in to being first and then acquires its existence or body later. Here, the man, by alienating himself from his body, thinks more of his essence. For him, his life is his essence. His body is only a belonging.

It struck him as curious that one should have to use his eyes in order to find out where his hands were.

This is not in the spirit of existentialism. This is furthered when he decides to face ‘his death with dignity’. Thus he identifies with something beyond his body. This too is not in the same spirit as existentialism which says that life is much more important than anything else. This is seen more in the animal which minds its own life and stays with the traveller only till that time when he can support its life. When he fails to support himself, it runs away looking for its next supporter. For its, life, more than dignity, is everything. However, the man’s body too incidentally colludes with the environment.

Characters

The story is the slow death of a man who has dreams, plans and schemes, and the survival of an animal who has none of these.

Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man’s judgment.’

The dog knows from his experience what to do and does not trust even its own master let alone a God it never saw. The man, even when he is told by a wiser person not to venture out at that time of the year, ignores all warning and hitches his life to hope and finds that life is all too uncertain for any hope to have an iota of substance. Unlike the dog, the man has memories, regrets, guilt, tomorrows and schemes. He saves the best for another occasion since he is sure there is another occasion. He could have eaten the food. He could have waited for another day. But he makes the wrong choice in each case. He does not wait for another day to travel as has been advised and saves the food for another time and dies without tasting it. He is willing to kill his companion for his own safety. In everything he does, he is the opposite of the dog. The dog, with all its animal instincts, does not, like its brother wolf, kills the man for food. It does not pursue the smell of food inside the dead man’s clothes. Every moment the man does something or the other which corresponds to what a man does anywhere at any point of time in his life, whether he is deserted or accompanied. The man’s name not given also makes the reader read this story as an allegory.

Point of View, Tone and Mood

The story is told from the omniscient point of view (God’s Point of View). This gives the reader good access to the thoughts, words and deeds of both the man and the dog. The story is written dispassionately and disinterestedly with not much sympathy shown to the characters from the part of the author. This calls for more sympathy from the reader as he thinks the writer is being unjustifiably insensitive. However, this only enhances character identification and it makes the reader feel the pain of the character more. The general mood fo the story too from the very first is that of a very depressing one and purposely the story takes a very slow pace, just like life.

Afternoon with Irish Cows

2015 PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature: On Africa © Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center

 

Scientists mostly ask questions about the world outside themselves. It is very rare that they question themselves or try to learn about themselves. There is no subjectivity here.

But artists, on the other hand, keep questioning themselves and ask questions to themselves. They are introspective and want to know more about themselves. Poetry, for example, is mostly one way of doing this. Thus, a poem becomes an attempt to answer the question: Who am I?

The poem “Afternoon with Irish Cows” by Billy Collins is a typical example for such introspections. The poet does look out and sees cows and observes their behaviour which is in contrast with his.

This contrast can be seen all over the poem. In a beautiful country, the poet prefers to be indoors while the cows prefer to be outdoors,

Stepping all day from tuft to tuft

their big heads down in the soft grass,.

The distinction starts there and continues in different ways. The cows live from moment to moment, in the real world of the meadows which provides them with food while the poet lives in a world of imagination too. He describes himself realistically

I would sometimes pass a window
and look out to see the field suddenly empty

But then reveals his world of imagination with he says,

as if they had taken wing, flown off to another country.

But imagination cannot provide a realistic answer and the poet continues to observe them with a view to understand them which by contrast may help him understand himself. So, he does not believe that they have flown away but opens the front door to look for them and there they are going ahead with their routine mundane things like eating, chewing the cud and lying down on their sides, completely relaxed.

Then later, I would open the blue front door,
and again the field would be full of their munching
or they would be lying down
on the black-and-white maps of their sides,

The black and while patterns that the poet refers to as a map is of importance here. These patterns which only roughly resemble maps still remind the poet of maps because of his interest in the world and its affairs. But for the cow it is just a pattern on their body and they don’t mind getting them dirty by lying on their sides. It is nothing to be proud of or flaunt.

We pride ourselves as social animals, but we commit uncivil and unsocial acts. The newspaper, the stone wall and the knife are symbols from such a world. But the cows, which do not seem to communicate like we do, are also social animals and when they rest lies down in different direction to guard one another.

facing in all directions, waiting for rain.

After such an observation the poet’s interest in the cow comes out in the open when he says,

How mysterious, how patient and dumbfounded
they appear in the long quiet of the afternoon.

They only “appear” dumbfounded, mysterious and patient. They are not to take things lying down, for,

… every once in a while, one of them
would let out a sound so phenomenal

 

Given the kind of world he lives in, this noise brings only memories of torture and pain to the poet’s mind.

… which one of them was being torched
or pierced through the side with a long spear.

But looking at the cow, the poet finds that the cow was only being self-assertive.

… it sounded like pain until I could see
the noisy one

Through mooing, the cow was only asserting its nature, voice and behaviour and it is not ashamed of its ‘unadulterated cowness’ but rather proud of its self.                       

The cow’s self expression does not come from its soul or mind as some poet deem their poems to do. It is a product of its body.

… she gave voice
to the rising, full-bodied cry
that began in the darkness of her belly
and echoed up through her bowed ribs into her gaping mouth.

The cows have been here long before us and they have been trampling the hills, munching away the grass, polluting bays and cursing the rain. But unlike humans they were always apologetic about their atrocities and the poet believes that every mooing of a cow is only its apology for what its race did. The poet’s face coming up behind the wall is a later incident in history and shocks the cow with a premonition about the worse things the new race can do to the world.

Now the afternoon is no afternoon but the second half of the earth’s own life as it is unapologetically hurriedly pushed into its grave by the human race. And Ireland, though a land of great writers, is also famed to be a land of faction and civil wars where people pride in killing their own siblings in the name of God and faith.

But the cows are the same anywhere, anytime. They don’t kill one another or damage the environment in any serious way. Yet they are apologetic.

At the same time, through a series of concrete images, mostly visual and kinaesthetic but auditory and tactile too, the poet has managed to give us an almost direct experience of his surroundings. The visual imagery, like

the field would be full of their munching
or they would be lying down
on the black-and-white maps of their sides,
facing in all directions

recreates the scene in our mind while the kinaesthetic images, like

her bellowing head
laboring upward as she gave voice

make us feel how dynamic the scene is.

Thus in highly subtle ways the poet is able to suggests what he learns from watching some Irish cows one afternoon, without being preachy or overtly didactic. Even we set aside the philosophic content of the poem, there is still enough in the poem to enrich us in a pleasing way because of the skill employed by the poet.

The Lady of Shalott

The Lady Of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson is a beautiful poem in which the poet catches the true spirit of Romanticism. The poem has plenty of exquisite images and presents different tones and moods.

The poem begins with a beautiful description of the island of Shalott . Water lilies grow around the island and on either side of the river there are fields of barley and rye. Along the river there is a road that runs ‘to the many-towered Camelot’. Here we get a picture that matches the descriptions in King Arthur’s legends. However, the images of flowers and grains as well as the movements around serve as a contrasting back drop for the barren life of a lady who lives on the island.  She is generally known as Lady of Shalott. Nobody knows whether she has any other name. She lives a cloistered life in a castle with ‘four grey walls and four grey towers’.

But who has seen her wave her hand?

Or at the casement seen her stand?

Only the reapers reaping early in the morning or late at night hear her singing a song. Then they whisper to each other that it is the Lady of Shalott. She stays in her bower by day and night and weaves  a magic web in bright colours.

She has heard a whisper say,

A curse is on her if she stay

To look down to Camelot.

However, she has no idea what the curse is. So weaves on, without thinking of anything else. She sees the world only as the reflection on a mirror hanging in front of her. For years, she has not looked directly down the road to Camelot. Here the poet not only depicts what happened long ago and far away but also sustains the mystery by leaving a few things unsaid. Sadly, all the images that get reflected on her mirror are happy ones unlike her own life. She sees market girls in their bright dress, group of girls who are all happy, abbots passing by, shepherds tending their sheep, and boys on errands. She also sees the reflection of knights but she has no favourites among them.

She, however, weaves onto her web things that she sees. She weaves the images of a funeral and two loves in the moonlight and laments, ‘I am sick of shadows.’

One day, a handsome and bold knight comes riding down the road to Camelot. His attire and appearance are remarkable. The bridle with gems glitters like a string of stars; the bridle bells make sweet music, and on his bright dress hangs a silver bugle. The jewel on his saddle shines brightly and the helmet and the plume are as bright as a flame. His whole appearance is like that of a meteor burning bright. His curly hair is coal-black in colour and,

His broad clear brow in sunlight glow’d;

On burnished hooves his war-horse trod;

He sings a merry tune as he rides and the mirror in front of Lady of Shalott reflects him for her. This sight is too much for her to resist. She leaves her web and the loom. She walks up and down in her room three times. She dares to look out at the water lilies and she sees the knight’s helmet and plume. She looks down to Camelot. In that instant her web flies away and her mirror cracks from side to side. She now realizes that ‘the curse is come upon’ her.

Nature changes immediately to foreshadow her tragedy. Everything merry becomes sad, a storm brews and it starts raining heavily. Lady of Shalott comes down from her tower and finds a boat beneath a willow tree. She writes her name on the prow of the boat. She looks towards Camelot, with no expression on her face, like a seer who looks at his own grim future. At the end of the day she loosens the chain that stays the boat and lie in it. The broad river takes her away down to Camelot. She is wearing a snowy white dress, giving her the appearance of a bride. Leaves fall on her like the nature’s tears.

As she drifts towards Camelot, they hear her sing her last song. She sings a carol in a low voice till her blood is completely frozen. She dies even before she reaches the first house in Camelot. Her dark eyes are still turned towards Camelot. She floats like a gleaming shape by the garden and galleries of houses in Camelot.

People come to the wharf to see her dead body. There were knights, burghers, lords and dames among them. They all read her name on the prow of the boat. They were all sad and silent and wondered who it was. Nobody spoke a word but crossed themselves out of fear. But Lancelot looked at her dead body and thought for a while. Then he said,

She has a lovely face;

God in his mercy lend her grace

The Lady of Shalott

The poem ends there but it leaves a long lasting impression on the reader. We still don’t know who she is but we empathize with her in her tragedy. The images the poet painted are so clear and awe-inspiring that they haunt every reader. They rhyme scheme and the refrains add to the beauty of the poem. The rhythm makes the poem read like a folk song. This is indeed one of the greatest poems of all time.

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.