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Rabindranath Tagore and His “Gitanjali XXXV” (“Where the Mind Is Without Fear”)–A Prayer for Our Modern Country

Though I have often heard the name, Rabindranath Tagore (born Rabindranath Thakur), I have only read a smattering of his works, barely one or two. But this one I wanted to write upon today (and quote in full, as it is short and in the public domain), because it is a universal prayer for any country at any time, and especially for our country, the U.S., right now.

First, a brief biographical note, for anyone who may not be acquainted with this figure of world literature. Tagore was born in Calcutta, India, in 1861, and died in 1941. He was born into a wealthy Bengali family of scholars, religious reformers, writers, and musicians. Though he never took a full university degree, he started an experimental school in 1901 called Shantiniketan (“the abode of peace”) which was based on the ancient schools of India, conducted in the open air, because he did not find the British system of education sufficiently acceptable for his countrymen and countrywomen. It became later Visva-Bharati, an international concern stressing world peace and societal reform. He published his first poem in 1875, when he was 14, and wrote in many different genres, not only the creative (though all genres of writing are in some manner so), and provided by focusing on traditional philosophical thought a bridge between the past and the present.

For his book Gitanjali, which he wrote in Bengali but translated into English himself, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. Though the British knighted him in 1915, in 1919 he renounced the title due to the British massacre of many hundreds of people in Amritsar. He is the person who gave the title “Mahatma” (“great soul”) to Mohandas Gandhi. In 1940, he wrote Crisis in Civilization, which had an international humanitarian focus, and centered on racial equality. Both India and Bangladesh have since adopted poems of his as their national anthems. It is customary and frequent to find him quoted in world literatures, where all of his humanistic qualities are thus in the foreground of other countries.

Now, here is the poem, Song XXXV from Gitanjali:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
     Where knowledge is free;
     Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
     Where words come out from the depth of truth;
     Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
     Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand
           of dead habit;
     Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action--
     Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

While I do think that this poem is universal in its applications, for every country in every time, I cannot help but think that Americans in this time in especial, with all of our particular distresses and tensions and quarrels and discord in general, may find it uplifting and inspiring.

(My biographical data is drawn from a large compendium text of world literature which I have had occasion to mention before on this site: Modern Literatures of the Non-Western World: Where the Waters Are Born, edited and compiled by Jayana Clerk and Ruth Siegel, with study questions and suggestions for further research. It was published by HarperCollins College Publishers in 1995, and is still valuable today.)

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Filed under Articles/reviews, lifestyle portraits, Poetry and its forms and meanings

Case study, tribute, answer, or meditation?–Julian Barnes’s “The Sense of an Ending”

A month or so ago, I wrote a post on William Trevor’s book of short stories “After Rain,” and referenced in relation to it the fine scholar Frank Kermode’s critical work first published in 1967, The Sense of an Ending.  You may imagine my perplexity when I discovered on my library website a fairly new book, published in 2011, by Julian Barnes, a novel of sorts also called The Sense of an Ending.  My perplexity was mainly because at no point in the opening pages of the book and nowhere within is Frank Kermode given a nod for his work, except in the overall sense that it becomes overwhelmingly obvious by the end of the book that it is a sort of case study of, answer to, tribute to, or meditation upon Kermode’s work.  Perhaps it is all of these.  At any event, Julian Barnes won the 2011 Man Booker prize and was nominated for other awards for this work, so Wikipedia’s confidence that the book is at least a “meditation” upon Kermode’s thesis seems well-founded, because the publicity attendant upon such fame would make it unlikely that the book could be seen otherwise.

To reiterate Frank Kermode’s notion, that humans, being uncomfortable with their short life span, have to imagine themselves as part of a historical curve of a sort of golden age in the past, to which their own lives are the present leading to an important future, is to deal with many imponderables, and yet it certainly makes sense in the way Barnes envisions it.  Barnes is in fact doing in a work which isn’t entirely novel-like what Kermode says critics must do:  whereas poets help to make sense of the way we see our lives, critics must help make sense of the ways in which we try to make sense of our lives.

The main character, the narrator, Tony Webster, tells a story in two parts in which he is engaged in the first part in telling about his younger years with his friends Alex, Colin, and Adrian, and his failed romance with Veronica (Mary), whose mother also comes into the story.  Later, Adrian writes to tell Tony that he and Veronica are now together, and Tony responds.  Then, Adrian commits suicide not long after another apparently less vital and virile classmate has done the same thing.  The remaining three friends engage in the same sort of philosophical speculation about why Adrian did it that they had shared as intellectually gifted students.  In the second part, we see Tony much later, as a retired man who has since been married to someone else, produced offspring, and been cordially divorced.  He is now reevaluating the earlier years because Veronica’s mother dies and leaves him a diary of Adrian’s; Veronica, however, is in between Tony and the bequest, and prevents him from a complete reading of the diary.  It is in dealing with her as someone who still parallels him in age that he questions himself and thinks about his past in a radically different way than he traditionally has.

“You get towards the end of life–no, not life itself, but of something else; the end of any likelihood of change in that life.  You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question:  what else have I done wrong?”  This is the almost casually stated thesis of Barnes’s work, not casual in the sense of its eventual importance, but in the way he slips it into the woof and weave of many other questions and ponderings about history and in particular personal histories.  For example, from his boyhood days, come memories of hilarity in the classroom at a dullard who, when asked what happened in a historical period of complexity, answers:  “There was unrest,” and when prodded to comment further, goes on to say, “There was great unrest, sir.”  Yet, this comment comes back with some significance to haunt Tony as an older man.  In the last paragraph of the book, he states, “There is accumulation.  There is responsibility.  And beyond these, there is unrest.  There is great unrest.”

That Barnes has pointed out time as one of his avowed subjects is clear from the first, when he says, “We live in time–It holds us and moulds us–but I’ve never felt I understood it very well.”  He elaborates, “ordinary everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly:  tick-tock, click-clock.  Is there anything more plausible than a second hand?  And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability.”  What is as malleable as time, apparently, or as a result of time, is memory, which lives in and changes with time, for Tony is suddenly shocked by a picture of his younger self in a letter which Veronica does return to him with a few of the diary pages before burning the rest.

And yet there is further shock to come–I will not ruin the surprise near the end of the book, for though this is a serious literary endeavor and not a suspense novel, there is a twist near the end which underlines many of the points that Tony gradually becomes aware of as he re-thinks his earlier history.  Suffice it to say that the novel is a very good book in this reader’s opinion, and one well worth the Man Booker Prize.  And I like to think that Frank Kermode might find it a fitting tribute (case study? answer? meditation?) as well.


Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments, What is literature for?

Intemperance, Cruelty, Perversity–How Negative Traits Combine to Produce a Haunting Halloween Tale: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat”

I was six years old.  I was spending a weekend with one of my role models, a twelve-year-old girl, a former neighbor who had moved to another town.  She was reading me a spooky story before light’s out one night.  The story was Edgar Allan Poe’s very chilling tale “The Black Cat.”  I don’t think I slept a wink that night, not only because the story itself was so haunting, but because she herself possessed a large cat, an affectionate creature to her, a distant and shy creature with me, though at this reach of time I can no longer remember if it was black or not.  Suffice it to say, every time I drowsed off and the cat settled in the huge king-size bed between the two of us, I felt I had to reach out and touch it, try to reassure it that I wasn’t going to hurt it, while also ascertaining that it didn’t mean to hurt me.  I have always loved cats, but that weekend was a severe test of my affection for the species.  How could it be otherwise, when a master wordsmith like Edgar Allan Poe had been working on my psyche?

Though in some ways Poe seems to be ascribing supernatural effects to people or animals, quite often eerie results are the products of overtaxed and strained imaginations, results brought on by the combination of character flaws and chance circumstances.  Yet the deeper his characters sink into the “bog” of their own making, the more they struggle with inadequate aids to help them, the wrong tools, in fact; the more they struggle, the faster they sink into the morass, as one might expect.

In the case of “The Black Cat,” the narrator starts out as an excessively affectionate man to animals and a good companion to his wife, but as he records from the jail cell where he is being kept awaiting execution, it was “through the instrumentality of the Fiend Intemperance” that he began to be cruel where before he had been kind, both to his many animal pets and to his wife.  A modern psychologist might look for a deeper cause, such as some basic personality flaw that produced a tendency to rely on such crutches as alcohol, but to the people of Poe’s time, alcohol was a chancy friend, and a labile personality with a tendency toward addiction was not the chosen explanation:  instead, there was something devilish and mysterious about the way alcohol could simultaneously aid or hinder.

The link between his “Intemperance” and a secondary quality is cruelty, and what his drunkenness is linked to is another quality which he calls “Perverseness,” or perversity.  He says of this quality:  “Of this spirit philosophy takes no account.  Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primary impulses of the human heart–one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which gives direction to the character of Man.  Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or stupid action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not?”  In the grips of this sentiment, the speaker has already committed one act against the cat, and proceeds to commit a second, more final one.  But this brings him no relief.  Instead, he becomes even more hateful to his wife, and more obsessed with the second cat he encounters, which is very like the first, except for a white blaze upon its chest, which he later realizes with premonitory horror resembles the gallows.

Though this is a very well-known tale, I’m not going to spoil it for you by revealing the outcome, except to say that while there is a horrible ending, the actual supernatural effects are all in the speaker’s mind, as he feels that he has been haunted and driven and diabolized into what he has done.  In actual fact, the horror derives from the way in which he is slowly but relentlessly pulled down by a combination of chance events (ones he regards as uncanny) and his own personality traits under the influence of alcohol, which have the force of Fate.  It is in fact a sort of fated ghastly fear of death which impels him to betray himself to others who are trying to find out what he has done, a kind of self-fulfilling prophetic knowledge of what is going to happen to him that draws him forward into ruin and punishes him for what he has done.

What exactly has he done?  Ah, if you have never read the story, then you’ll have to read it to find out–and if you have, Halloween night after the Damnéd Dinner* is the perfect opportunity to chill the blood of your favorite group of guests as you read them the story aloud.  I predict that everyone will be both “grossed out” and appropriately horrified.

*The Damnéd Dinner is a Halloween festivity in which each participant prepares one food which feels to the touch like something repellent or vile.  The other diners are asked to close their eyes, on their honor not to peek, and then they are served and asked to put their hands in their individual served dishes of the food as the server tells them a dreadful (made-up) story about what they are to eat.  They have to eat some of it with their hands or simple implements, and of course after all have eaten it and gotten a relieved chuckle (one hopes) about what it actually is, they are allowed to open their eyes and verify their impressions.  Individual after individual takes a turn as server, until everyone has told a Halloween story and (again, one hopes) everyone has had a full repast.  Some popular items are peeled grapes or mozzarella balls (which feel like eyeballs if you’re told that’s what they are), strings of long pasta in sauce (brains, of course), or chopped-up jello, which has passed as more than one item in my experience.


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The Romance of Reality, the Reality of Romance–Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Master of Ballantrae”

Yes, there are pirates and sea adventures.  Yes, there are crossed love affairs and duels.  And yes, there are shivery moments of speculation upon death and the devil, abundantly so.  Well, what else would you expect from a book by Robert Louis Stevenson?  Nevertheless, in this book, The Master of Ballantrae, what is in the forefront of the book for more of its length than anything else is a psychological case study of a family, its woes, its inner politics, its relationship to the outer world, and what brings it to grief.  Again, this highly reputed examination of the family of the Duries in Scotland during the time of the Scottish-English wars and the years thereafter not only takes place in a reality that was romantic for many by its very nature, but also makes real what would seem an otherwise romantic situation, rendering it thus susceptible to the dictates of reason.

Briefly, the situation is this:  Lord Durrisdeer has two sons between whom has grown up a fierce rivalry:  his elder son, James the Master of Ballantrae, and his younger son, Henry.  From the very first, there is a bitter feud going between them, though initially not in a sustained way.  But it is the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the opposing English King George, and the family is split down the middle.  This is not only due to where their allegiances and basic personality tendencies lie, but is also due to Lord Durrisdeer’s odd wisdom, of sending one son to fight for Bonnie Prince Charlie while the other son, Henry, the second in line to the tltle, stays at home and helps represent the family as loyal to King George.  Funnily enough, though this arrangement may seem like a highly fictionalized one, it is in fact an old tried and true method in the real world as we know it, even to the present day, for families in territories at war.  It enables at least half of the family fortunes to be saved, along with (possibly) one future heir.

One of the less political things at issue between the two brothers is their mutual love and rivalry over Miss Alison Graeme, a cousin, whom it is more or less assumed will marry Jamie (James), not only because she loves him and is ready and willing, but also because her fortune could help restore the family’s finances, which are in a sad state.  James puts on that he loves her, but he loves himself more, gads about among the women of the district, and even has a bastard child with one woman.  When he goes to battle with the Prince, Alison sews the revolutionary cockade upon his cap; she continues to bear allegiance to him even when he’s away.  Henry loves her too, but hopelessly and at a distance.  Not only does James have all the romance to which a young woman might be susceptible behind his role, but Henry is a practical young man not given to moonshine and daydreams, too pragmatic a figure to cut a dash in the world.

The rivalry and finally actual hatred between the two brothers creeps in further when, due to the apparent death of James, Alison agrees to marry Henry to improve the family’s monetary situation.  She continues to grieve and moan over Jamie’s loss, as does his father, Lord Durrisdeer, for whom he was the favorite son, and even after she has a child by Henry, and the title passes to him, they seem to shut Henry out from their fond recollections and reminiscences.  But the real problem arises when James returns “from the dead,” and continues to taunt and bait Henry in secret and make nice to him in front of the others, all the while courting Alison, his wife, in spite of the fact that he has no real intention to win her away from Henry, but only acts in order to make trouble for Henry.

There is, to be sure, more than one perspective to this book, even though James seems like the very devil himself and acts fiendishly throughout.  That he has abundant charm, a fine intellect, and a strong personality is shown as well.  As Mackellar, the land steward who is Henry’s friend and confidant even more than he is his employee, says to James, it’s not so much that he is evil, but that he has the capacity to be so very right-mannered and good a person that is discouraging to his approval of him.  Like Satan in Paradise Lost, however, James would “rather reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”  Mackellar’s perspective on the two brothers is the main narration device for most of the novel, though (as in other books using varying points of view) there are other narrators whose memoirs or editorial comments add sidelights to the narrative, which of course allows us to see that Henry too is flawed in his own particular way.  After a certain point in the story, even Mackellar, loyal as he is to the family and Henry in particular, must realize that in Henry as well there are negative traits which bite deeply.  Take the novel as a whole, the adventures and roamings, the war and sea tales and travels to India and the state of New York and the Adirondacks–the latter where Stevenson wrote some of the novel–are perhaps romantic, but at the same time, they provide the background and opportunity for the exhibition of the psychology of the two brothers’ interactions and mutual attempts to overreach each other.

Thus, a conflict which starts out in youth as a minor thing is gradually aggravated by opportunity for mischief on James’s part and stern and unforgiving resilience on Henry’s, and because of circumstances and chances, swells to fill the whole canvas of the changing locales in the novel.  Though I’ve enjoyed Treasure IslandKidnapped, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I don’t think I’ve been as spellbound from start to finish with such a fine psychological study as I found in this book.  I hope you will read its short number of pages and find it gripping likewise.


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The Portrait of a Discontented British Artist in Canada–Damian Tarnopolsky’s “Goya’s Dog”

A gifted novel about a Wyndham Lewis-like painter visiting Canada from his native Britain during WW II, Damian Tarnopolsky’s Goya’s Dog was a nominee for the 2009 Amazon.ca First Novel Award, formerly Books in Canada First Novel Award.  The book transitions from an initial state of what my mother used to call “cross questions and silly answers,” a state in which people are talking at usually unintentionally comic cross-purposes, through a series of vignettes in which the main character, the artist Edward Dacres, gradually realizes that he is a guest artist because he has been mistaken for someone else, to a finally quasi-tragic, quasi-uplifting ending.

From the first moment when I encountered the angry, frustrated, almost savage eye turned on Canadians and Canadian society by the main character Edward Dacres, as he repeatedly tries to make the best of his situation through amusing himself at their expense if nothing else, I was struck with his resemblance to another comic character of the early part of the twentieth century.  Though I cannot claim that Tarnopolsky in fact had P.G. Wodehouse in mind when he wrote Dacres, Dacres reads very like an avatar, sadder, more cynical, more anarchic and down-at-heels, of the Bertie Wooster “man-about-town” comic creation.  I say this with the proviso that I am not considering Edward Dacres’s indifference to the WW II effort as similar by design to P. G. Wodehouse’s own suspected collaboration with the Germans while in a European internment camp (a charge which was later fully investigated by MI5 in 1999 or 2000 and found to be baseless except for Wodehouse’s basic naïveté).  Tarnopolsky’s farcical characters (farcical as seen by the main character, that is) jump into and out of relation with each other with nearly the same alacrity as Wodehouse’s, but with a deeper seriousness lurking beneath their interactions:  for, Bertie Wooster’s pockets are well-lined; Edward Dacres’s are moth-eaten.  It is only their desperation, their comic clutching at weak straws, which for a time makes them alike.  We cannot imagine Tarnopolsky repeating his comic creation from book to book in different characters (as Wodehouse did, like a vaudeville performer with a “sure thing” of an act), or being called “a performing flea” as Wodehouse once was, though certainly unfairly.  This is to say that while the satirical lyricism flows with the same easy pace as did the elder author’s, with his background in the libretti of musicals, the stakes and consequences are those tied to far more serious issues, such as the real issues of cowardice (Bertie Wooster only “funks it” in a humorous way), misanthropy, and the role of art in wartime.  If forced to account for my sense of the elder comic genius lurking, I would have to say that the early sections dealing with women in general or one in particular (the main current romantic interest of the book, Darly Burner) have “comic turns” particularly situated around these relationships which are reminiscent of the earlier writer’s work.  Dacres finds a woman attractive, with the woman playing the role (as in Wodehouse) of “straight man” who also finds him desirable, while Edward Dacres is the desperate eiron who is deceiving her or himself about something to do with his state, his prospects, his intentions, etc.  The difference is that Dacres has a genuine tragedy in his background, the death of his own young wife of their happy mésalliance years before, in a car crash which he caused.  This is the “problem” which I would liken to some neurosis that might emerge in psychoanalysis, like a squid from its sea of ink, only slowly.  Though I have spent a lot of time on this authorial comparison, I don’t mean to overemphasize it, for this masterly and serious novel does not move as quickly as Wodehouse’s do almost from punchline to punchline.  But the manner in which Tarnopolsky deals with the women’s other claimants, such as fathers, suitors, relatives, and social acquaintances, smacks of the older author quite strenuously.

I’ve said this is a serious novel, and part of the source of the sombreness and the sense of tragedy which looms over Goya’s Dog, instituting from the frenetic pace rather a tense agony mimetically on the reader’s part, is the forced wait to find out if the artist will ever be able to make himself paint again.  There is the fact, for Dacres, that he simply cannot repeat the past, recreating one muse with another, and so the bittersweet ending is as much a victory and vindication as it might initially seem a defeat.  There is the sense, at the end, that he will be able to return to work, though when and how exactly is left undecided.  It does seem, however, that he is finally on his own tick, and will not be playing any more fool’s games with fate.

The sources of this novel are in fact far more complicated than I have given my reader to believe, up to this point, but I have emphasized the particular comic influence (which may or may not have been intentional) because it is what I am myself most familiar with.  To quote from Tarnopolsky’s own words in his “Acknowledgments” (the whole of which I call to the reader’s attention), “The painter and writer Wyndham Lewis spent an unhappy wartime exile in Toronto, and his novel Self-Condemned, along with his letters and the comments of his biographers, suggested much of what happens to Dacres in the first half of Goya’s Dog–together with the Polish writer Winold Gombrowicz’s simultaneous, similar experiences in Buenos Aires, recorded in his amazing Diary.  Dacres shares some attitudes with these men and uses some of their expressions, but he is not a portrait of either of them.  I should note that the “suicide” scene comes from Chamfort, and I think it was Fr. Rolfe who was ferried out of his hotel room in bed; Ovid grumbled definitively about the natives in his letters from Pontus.  And so on–“.  Thus, I have named only one possible influence, which moreover is not one named by Tarnopolsky, for the quite excellent and humorous portions of his important novel, and have had to quote from his own words to explain that and the other parts, which makes me perhaps a less adept reviewer, but certainly makes him no less a creative genius on this, his first novel.  There is in fact a great deal more to say, but I leave it to you, his other potential readers, to help bring about the conversation:  this is such a fine novel that to call it a “fine first novel” is already to be reductive of its worth and importance in the related worlds of fiction and painting.  Do give it a read soon:  you will be amused by a character’s dilemmas, confronted by his demons, and finally, in reluctant agreement with what he does to save his own soul.


Filed under Articles/reviews, Full of literary ambitions!

The Perennial Appeal and Vision of Tennyson’s “Tears, Idle Tears”

Though I was planning to post in a few days on another work entirely, today I happened to read Caroline’s post at BeautyIsASleepingCat , and was struck with an exchange she and I had about the material of a book she was reviewing, and which she is currently receiving comments on (for those who have read it or are interested in reading it, as am I).  Her review topic was J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, and I’ll just repeat the part of our discussion that is pertinent to my own topic today:  in effect, we talked about the way that sometimes, happy memories from the past can make us unhappy in the present because they are no longer a part of our current experience.  This is part of the character’s experience in the book she is discussing, and for some reason–and it turns out to be a fairly good one–I was unable to dismiss my own faint memory of some other work, at some other time, which had been on the same general subject.

As it so happens, it was one of my favorite of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poems, short and to the point though it is, in contrast with his several lengthier poems which have won worldwide acclaim.  The poem is “Tears, Idle Tears,” and I am able to give it here in complete form, because it is available elsewhere on the Internet as well:

“Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,/Tears from the depth of some divine despair/Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,/In looking on the happy autumn-fields,/And thinking of the days that are no more./”  “Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,/That brings our friends up from the underworld,/Sad as the last which reddens over one/That sinks with all we love below the verge;/So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more./”  “Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns/The earliest pipe of half-awakened birds/To dying ears, when unto dying eyes/The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;/So sad, so strange, the days that are no more./”  “Dear as remembered kisses after death,/And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feigned/On lips that are for others; deep as love,/Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;/O Death in Life, the days that are no more!/”

I’ve always said that no one can milk an emotion like Tennyson!  But how does the poem actually work?  It seems to work by an intricate set of connecting words and phrases which rely on experiences everyone has either had or has imagined having, so that its universal appeal can easily be understood.  In the first stanza, Tennyson begins with the rhetorical trope of paralipsis, or denying something that he is in fact going to affirm, when he first says, “I know not what they mean,” and then goes on to tell us exactly what they mean.  The tears are “idle” only in the same sense that they are “vain,” not as in “vain’ equalling “empty” or “egotistical,” but “vain” as in “useless,” “hopeless,” “having no worthwhile issue.”  The present “autumn-fields” are “happy,” but the speaker is sunk in recollection by what they call up to memory.  There have been other autumn days and fields which were happier still.

In the second stanza, it’s not just the memories that are said to be past, but also what would be a rather eerie visitation by friends “up from the underworld,” were it not a welcome visitation.  The beam of sunlight which the speaker can imagine “glittering” on the underworld sail as it rises is challenged in its “fresh” quality by the nearly concurrent “sad” quality (a word reiterated throughout the poem) which “sinks with all we love below the verge,” so that “the days that are no more,” the phrase repeated in the end of each stanza, has a focus on the distant horizon, whether in the rise of memories or their return to the underworld which apparently stores them, the horizon often being a symbol of life’s bourne, limits, and of death.

The subject of death having been well-introduced by now, the speaker makes a tie between an experience everyone has perhaps had, that of “dark summer dawns” and hearing “the earliest pipe of half-awakened birds,” and links it with an experience that awaits everyone but which only those who are already gone could actually have, “the dying ears” hearing the sounds, and the “dying eyes” which see the casement “slowly grow[] a glimmering square.”  This stanza uses the word “sad” as well to describe this imagined experience, but whereas in the second stanza it was  living persons watching those from the underworld approach and leave, at least in imagination, so here it is the imagined dying people who have the “strange” experience of watching the dawn of a day which they possibly will not live to see the end of.  In this respect, the poem reminds me a little of Emily Dickinson’s poem “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died,” which also discusses a moment when “I could not see to see,” and purports to be talking from a time after that moment, to judge by its past tense.

Lost causes seem to be the subject of the fourth stanza, whether that of kisses that are no longer accessible, or fantasies about love and lovers that did not bear fruit, and the word “hopeless” emphasizes the whole tenor of the poem, which acknowledges happiness only to grieve its short tenure.  The days that are no more are “deep as love,/Deep as first love,” which is another repetition emphasizing what is missing from the present that was available in the past, love itself, since the speaker seems not to anticipate any further happiness from the current moment or day.  And then, of course, “wild with all regret,” whether of things not done at all or things that can be no longer done, we get the strongest statement yet of the speaker’s dilemma, “O Death in Life, the days that are no more!”  Here, the grieving requires emphatic punctuation at the end of the line, and Tennyson caps off his line with an exclamation point, to emphasize that death is a main concern to the speaker, whether actual deaths that he is mourning or the loss of happier times which he cannot conceive will come again or be followed by more happy times.

Now, having written about this poem and having lived with it again for a short space, I can say that there is a sort of catharsis one experiences when reading a poem such as this one, so that as well as turning out an inspired bit of work, Tennyson has provided a vision with a workaday or utilitarian use.  My older teachers in grade school and even in high school were excessively fond of poems with this quality, which in Samuel Johnson’s words could “point a moral” and “adorn a tale.”  Their own confreres amongst the more exalted academic circles at the time of their own youth must have surely pooh-poohed this approach to literature, and it has its limits.  But I do have to say that having re-read the poem after a long time of not seeing it in front of me, I do feel not only admiration and reverence for its aesthetic qualities, but appreciation as well for the cathartic release it engenders.  I think it likely that the book Caroline is reviewing, A Month in the Country, may well have similar cathartic capabilities.  Why not visit her site and see?


Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

The generic governess tale, or “Agnes Grey” and its limits and gifts

Never having read anything by Anne Brontë before, I decided to hold off on the excitingly named The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and go for the more quietly named Agnes Grey.  My decision was affected partially by the thought that “wildfell” sounded like more “wuthering,” or “heights,” and misery, and romantic passion, and though I’ve since been informed that the tale of the tenant is not what I’m expecting (about that more another time), I stuck with my decision and started reading.

To say that I was pleasantly surprised is saying too much, but at the same time I wasn’t appalled; I was instead nonplussed.  I found Agnes Grey slight, short, and simple.  There were no overwhelming highs and lows of emotional resonance as in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights or in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.  It was actually a competent and unsurprising tale of a vicar’s-daughter-turned-governess-eventually-makes-good (by the oldest–or second oldest–“trick” in the book, the first supposedly being prostitution, which of course can’t be mentioned in the same breath with churchy mid-19th century marriage).

And yet, the book has appeal, in spite of the fact that there is little or no let-up from the trials of teaching bad-mannered and spoiled upper-class children, no break to the virtuous sermonizings on Fate (herein known as “God’s will”) in which the heroine indulges at the least opportunity.  She is too good, like many a religiously inclined governess in similar novels, but for some reason, though a little missish from time to time, she is not boring.  Maybe it’s the repetitive instances of words in narrative and especially in dialogue which are either capitalized or italicized to indicate emphasis:  when they are those of others, they are those most often of outrageous remarks made to or near the heroine; even more, when they are hers, we sense a sort of youthful eye-rolling.  “Can you believe this?” she seems to be saying.  A technique like this, which we would censure as puerile in a contemporary author, thus becomes a bit appealing in this otherwise sometimes prosy young writer.

And this is the thing to remember about her:  though we learn by reading that she was exceedingly precocious, she had a youthful high spirit, and was not inexperienced in terms of what she was writing about.  She was a governess for six years herself, and her character of Agnes Grey thus owes something to her own experience.  It’s not too far to assume that there are aspects of wish fulfillment in Agnes’s eventual destiny and the book’s happy ending.  Yet this book should not lead anyone to underestimate the youngest Brontë, who was a poet and a novelist (under the pen name of “Acton Bell”) though she was dead at the age of twenty-nine of what Wikipedia calls pulmonary tuberculosis.  Her fame today, though it is derived from her entire body of work, is largely endebted to the book which shocked her contemporaries, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (and once again, more about that another time).  Still, the gentle, sweet tenor of Agnes Grey, wherein doing one’s duty and maintaining a hopeful demeanor in the face of all adversity brings eventual reward is a reward in itself as a reading experience–and the adversity is not of that ilk which tortures the reader’s sensibilities in the apparent belief that a catharsis can be forced.  As a steady diet, Agneses might be a bit tame, but then, there’s no danger of that:  there’s only one Agnes Grey.


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Fay Weldon’s “Watching Me, Watching You” and the Gnostic “Gospel of Thomas”

Has anyone ever said to you “Everything happens for a reason”?  Or, perhaps, like Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow, “There is no such thing as coincidence”?  We smile and nod, and pass by the cues to a better understanding of such notions of Jung’s synchronicity.  But today, while reading from two supposedly widely different texts on two different library websites, I ran “smack-dab”–as people from my part of the world say–into a lovely coincidence about meanings and situations which I’d like to share with you.  On one website, I was starting to read from the Nag Hammadi scriptures, the Gnostic scriptures which were suppressed from the canon of allowed Christian texts by clerics who called them “heretical.”  They have now surfaced again, and have been translated from the Greek and the Coptic into English, and have stirred my curiosity.  On the other website, I was finishing up a reading of Fay Weldon’s book of short stories called Watching Me, Watching You, which was named after one of the stories.  And then, it hit me:  the whole of Weldon’s book bore an intimate relation in its themes and structures to something quoted from one of the Gnostic texts, the Gospel of Thomas.  And here’s what it was:

“Know what is in front of your face, and what is hidden from you will be disclosed to you.  For there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed.”  Ever hear someone say to someone else “It’s as plain as the nose on your face”?  But then, in order to get a proper view of one’s own nose, one needs a reflective surface in front of one, and Fay Weldon’s short stories, with their scalpel-sharp ironies and desperate comic turns, are that reflective surface of what often goes on in front of us, but which we chose to ignore, or cannot master the trick of deciphering, simple as it might seem to others watching.  The book is dated in some respects, having been a collection of stories from the 7o’s and published as a whole in 1981, and yet the situations that make up the action in them still occur today, in actuality or in shadows of actions.  I would like here to give a brief summary or synopsis (not so brief, in the first instance) of each story, just to whet the readers’ appetites, and then without spoiling the adventure, go on to final comment.

1.  “Christmas Tree”–A writer gradually becoming successful for his counterculture writings allows his personal life to affect his career.  An old story, but told with refreshing clarity here.  As Weldon writes about her character, “Writers tend to undervalue those who praise them, or complain that praise is patronising; whilst at the same time feel aggrieved if they are not praised.  They never win the battle with themselves, which is why, perhaps, they go on writing.”  With this writer, his first wife left him taking with her their small daughter, when he cheated on her, starting him on a lifetime of going from woman to woman.  In this case, however, the womanizer finally becomes the victim of his habit, and is deceived and taken advantage of by a much younger woman who gets him to marry her because he believes she is “pure” and virginal.  As he says of her before he marries her:  “I’m glad she’s a waitress….I’m finally back where I belong.  Amongst real people, who do real things, and live simple, honest hard-working lives.”  When he finds himself amongst her whole family of small-time grifters, he is instead of being realistically downcast about it (as his art would suggest) ironically overjoyed.  “He had bound himself by accident to a monstrous family in a monstrous place and had discovered by accident what he felt to be the truth, long evident, long evaded.  It was that human nature was irredeemable….All aspirations and ambition had been burned away:  all wounds cauterised with so sudden and horrific a knife as to leave him properly cleansed and purified.”  This is a funny way to describe total failure and withdrawal from one’s own creative sphere, but thus it is, and we see it as he does not, for he is like the Christmas tree that his own family used to replant year after year, only now his “roots” have been “cauterized” as his new family does when they steal trees to sell off someone else’s land:  his roots have been boiled, and he seems not to mind his fate at all.

Breakages–In this very innovative story, a clerical wife is “haunted” by a ghost who gets even with her husband for his unfair treatment of her by breaking his things.  This only happens when he is in church preaching or is elsewhere occupied and she is alone, at least in the beginning of the story.  The bitter issue between them of whose fault it is that they have no children comes to a head, however, and then the husband too is confronted by the “ghost,” though he funnily enough persists in blaming the wife for the noises and moving furniture up in the attic, even while she is in the same room downstairs with him.  Against all the reader’s expectations as they are established by the story thus far, when the two characters finally get around to speaking to each other about their “guest,” even though they are still deluding themselves about some things, they are visited by a happy ending, which yet is not free of whimsical irony.  This is thus another story in which something is obvious, yet needs to be confronted before the apotheosis can take place.

Alopecia–The topic is “sisterhood” or the lack thereof, amongst a group of women, and the lovely reversal at the end that takes place when the least sisterly of the women is suddenly put in the same position as a woman known to them all whom she has maliciously gossiped about for years.  Once again, the quote from the Gnostic gospels rings true, because she has willfully ignored for years what has been right in front of her, which has been going on between the woman and her husband, blaming the wife for everything and seeming deliberately to cause hatred and suspicion to surround her.  The term “alopecia,” which is a kind of diseased hair loss, stands in as a subject-replacement for the actual “bald” cruelty of the other woman’s husband, who among other brutalities has made a habit of pulling her hair out by handfuls.  When the situation is reversed between the two women, the woman in the previously superior place derives the full benefit of a hateful kind of achieved wisdom, too late.

Man With No Eyes–This is another “ghost story,” featuring “the man with no eyes,” a sort of bugaboo from an Eastern culture, who seems to visit a family purporting to be a happy one in which the husband, however, is always demanding much, giving little, and constantly and apparently deliberately misjudging his wife.  He is another one not seeing what is before his eyes.  It seems likely that at this point the general drift of the stories of Weldon’s labelled (and sometimes marketed) as “ghost stories” must be obvious to my readers:  a number of her stories, though they all contain ironic reversals or heapings-on of fated happenings, are clearly not the cheap and simple ghost story per se (fun as that can be).  Several of them, however, were in the 70’s and 80’s published in magazines and volumes which purported to be ghost story-oriented.

Threnody–This is the most mysterious, in its way, of all the stories.  A female character who is seeing a therapist, another woman whose words we know only through those that the first character repeats aloud, changes her story repeatedly, ready to take anyone’s view of her as the true one.  She seems to have no sense of self, but one after the other, follows other people’s views of what she is “like.”  We as readers are frustrated in some ways in trying to get to know this character, because we cannot really be sure of what the truth is about what these other characters say and do to and with her.  Thus, this story is in a sense a sort of defeat of the Gospel of Thomas notion that it is possible to know what is in front of your face, because as another more famous Biblical quote says, we are seeing her “through a glass, darkly.”

Angel, All Innocence–Yet another young woman, an expectant mother this time, who becomes aware of “ghosts” in the attic, hears a tale of former tenants from the kindly village doctor who treats her and senses her husband’s casual emotional cruelty and indifference.  She makes a decision which is not logical at all in ordinary human terms, but which the ghost from the attic (whom she thinks she sees one day upon the stair) would understand completely.  She is the character par excellence among these in the book who, though “all innocence,” yet is worldly enough in spiritual terms of a good sort to know what to do to save herself and her child.

Spirit of the House–The predominance of the characters in this story do not see what is in front of them, an abusive nanny.  One character does, and must strive for justice.

Watching Me, Watching You–Cyclic wives and lovers, and a ghost who sleepily observes them all, as they take perspectives on each other, and history repeats itself.  One could even argue that it’s the accumulation of repetitions through history that has made the ghost so “knowing,” that this is in fact the spirit of all the tales in the book.

Geoffrey and the Eskimo Child–This is the bittersweet story of a man who for years is a sort of feminist’s ideal man, at least on the surface, a feminist himself, and a good socialist and humanist at the same time, who yet presents his wife with a final shocking conundrum and doesn’t help her to solve it.  The question is, why is the view occluded for her, his closest, and why is it likewise obscure to others on the outside?  One might almost suspect Weldon of attempting to suggest that such model behavior is too hard for any man (as opposed to the women whom she celebrates in her stories), did he not have a certain charm and resilience as a character, even though he may have just a bit of feet of clay.

Weekend–This is a final picture in the book of a condensation of a family’s whole way of life into how their lives are arranged for a single weekend (one of many, a pattern) in their country home.  No words are wasted; every single thing that happens means something, amounts to something, counts for something, to the characters living through it nearly as much as for the reader.  Though the two creative works are so very different, and the character of the mother in this work is gentle and constantly striving to please, very different from Elizabeth Taylor’s character in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, yet the economy of the wording and the ferocious amount of energy that is released from it reminds me of that in the famous play by Edward Albee.

Fay Weldon, whom I have never read before but whose works I now intend to become more familiar with, was awarded the CBE in Britain, and is the author of the pilot for the famous PBS series Upstairs, Downstairs.  She has written many novels and scripts and plays and books of short stories, and given my acquaintance with her merely through this one work I’ve written on today, I think she would well repay serious attention.  It’s quite clear that though in this book the plight of women is one of her chief concerns, or at least was in 1981 when she published this work (and I can’t imagine such a devoted advocate changing her mind), she is well able to see more than just the contemporary injustice and look behind it for the historical one.  As well, her male characters are not straw men, easy to knock down, but believable even when culpable or villainous.  I hope to run across something else by her again soon, perhaps something a little more recent and topical.  For the meantime, I hope you haven’t been totally exhausted by this long post, and welcome any comments you may have to make.



Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments, What is literature for?

Agony and a Painter’s Eye: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “The Woodspurge”

Today’s post is about one of the most frequently taught poems of the early Victorian era, one which has perplexed many an undergraduate (including me, at the time) and even more seasoned readers, I think primarily because they are waiting for it to tell a story, or give an explanation, of however attenuated a kind.  And it does both of these things in its own way, except that its own way is not that of the usual lyric poem; rather, it is an encapsulation of a lyric moment caught by the “eye” of a painter who was also a poet.  This multi-talented individual was Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists and writers.

The poem is “The Woodspurge,” a modest title in line with the mostly restrained and simple words used.  The overall effect, however, is anything but simple.  Here is the poem in its entirety, all four four-line stanzas, which have been quoted elsewhere on the Internet previously as well:

“The wind flapped loose, the wind was still,/Shaken out dead from tree and hill;/I had walked on at the wind’s will–/I sat now, for the wind was still./Between my knees my forehead was–/My lips, drawn in, said not Alas!/My hair was over in the grass,/My naked ears heard the day pass./My eyes, wide open, had the run/Of some ten weeds to fix upon;/Among those few, out of the sun,/The woodspurge flowered, three cups in one./From perfect grief there need not be/Wisdom or even memory;/One thing then learned remains to me–/The woodspurge has a cup of three.”

Now to embark upon an interpretation, which is of course only one among many possible, but which I believe has some points to recommend it, such as its close reliance upon the items found in the poem, without adding possibly spurious additional material.

The first stanza begins by stressing that even when the speaker is in motion, as when walking, he is passively affected in the main:  when the wind pushes him along, he walks; when the wind ceases, he sits.  The wind is said to be “shaken out dead,” and indeed he is deathlike and still, or at least motionless, when the wind dies down.

Though many people think that the arcania of rhetorical figuration is mainly limited to such figures as similes, metaphors, apostrophes, and other such figures more common to poetry, it is a fact that in this poem Rossetti uses both paralipsis and litotes (in the second and third stanzas respectively), which perhaps occur less often in poetic circumstances.  Here in the second stanza, the speaker “paints a picture” of himself with head hanging low, and says that his lips did not say “alas.”  Well, why should they?  We don’t know, but by saying that he did not say something he is in fact saying, the poet is using the figure of paralipsis, which is denying that one is making a statement while in fact making it.  He speaks of his naked ears, and here the word “naked” is like the word “dead” in the first stanza, in that it is a powerful and evocative word that stands out as unusual; there is a sense that he is unprotected; there is a sense of vulnerability.

In the third stanza, this same sense of vulnerability occurs when we are told that his eyes are “wide open,” and therefore exposed.  At first we think that they are not exposed to much, it is true, as his head is hanging between his knees, but this seems to be a case of much from little.  Using the figure of litotes, or understatement, he says that he can see “ten weeds,” which is surely not all he can see even given his restricted field of vision.  Weeds and grass grow thickly, after all.  This figure of understatement produces a sense of lowness (as does his crouch), and depression.  Among these weeds, he focuses on the woodspurge because is it different and isolated, as he the speaker too is isolated, even among natural things and nature, though in poetry these are very often seen as potentially sympathetic, even sometimes to the extreme of using the “pathetic fallacy,” in which a speaker’s or character’s emotions are said to be experienced by a natural force or being.  The woodspurge is “out of the sun” literally because it is overshadowed by the speaker’s limbs and head hanging; the speaker himself is “out” of a sort of shining grace, of happiness.

In the fourth stanza, the speaker brings up “perfect grief,” and suggests that there is no wisdom which comes from it or memory which can resolve it.  Though the reader may experience a sense of shock at this sudden introduction of intense emotion as a subject, yet there is something about it which shows fittingness as well.  Even though it “ups the ante” in a sudden way, it’s appropriate because we know that all this so far has been adding up to something, some climax.  The last two lines contain a living crystallization of a moment of pain and suffering, the sense of “perfect grief” as embodied in the totally a-historical symbol of the woodspurge.  That is, before Rossetti wrote his poem, there was no necessary connection between the tiny weed/flower and sorrow; since his poem, I doubt that anyone aware of the poem, either seeing the poem and/or seeing the woodspurge knowingly, could help but think of the emotional connection.

This poem “The Woodspurge” is an excellent introduction to the Pre-Raphaelite notion that a poem (or a painting) can be about a moment of intense emotion without a history in words of the cause (though of course many of the paintings were of characters from literature or myth).  As well, to anyone themselves subject to the feelings recorded in the poem, “The Woodspurge” itself is a woodspurge-in-words which can capture their own emotions, again without an actual historical rehearsing of the cause of the emotions.  Thus the vagueness of the “backstory,” as it’s called now, makes the poem itself more universal and accessible to more people.  The statement that “One thing then learned remains to me–/The woodspurge has a cup of three” betrays the lastingness of the grief and the simultaneous poverty and wealth of sorrow:  sorrow is full and overflowing, so full that the speaker cannot say more than he does, yet it leaves him empty of all but the final awareness of the association between his emotion and what he sees at the extreme moment of its intensity.

At the risk myself of having made much of a little thing, I have written this analysis of one of Rossetti’s most famous poems, maybe the most well-known, because it is so perfect of its kind.  I hope that you too will find it answers to your notion of a fine work of art, and will remember its beauty at any time when you feel that the world’s beauty has deserted you:  the woodspurge may be a simple flower, but it is a deceptively simple poem, and one which has much to offer to those who would notice.


Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

A (very) early post for Halloween–Does Edgar Allan Poe’s long poem “The Raven” have an adequate “objective correlative”?

Well, everybody in the continental U.S. seems to feel that fall weather is here early this year, that instead of having a blissfully warm autumn in September, we are already into October weather, and in some parts of the western mountain chains, it’s already snowed.  So now I’m going to celebrate Halloween a little bit earlier than I usually do, and do a sort of partial Halloween post, for fun and edification, mine as well as yours.  And since it’s officially a Halloween post, I’m going to make some of your worst dreams come true and involve T. S. Eliot’s theory of the “objective correlative,” a concept which has made the rounds more often and sometimes more drunkenly than Mrs. Murphy’s sousing poodle (a dog of fame in some quarters, mainly amongst fellow spirits at the bars).

Before beginning the fun of Poe, therefore, let’s suffer through a little literary theory.  The concept of the “objective correlative,” according to Wikipedia, comes originally from Washington Allston and his 1840 Lectures on Art.  You can find his explanation on Wikipedia in brief.  The modernist poet T. S. Eliot popularized the concept, however, in an essay called “Hamlet and His Problems,” and so it’s more important for the nonce (and for us too) to look at his essay.  Here are some quotes, also gleaned secondhand from Wikipedia:  “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”  Eliot felt that Hamlet was an artistic flop because Hamlet’s “strong emotions ‘exceeded the facts’ of the play, which is to say they were not supported by an ‘objective correlative.’  He acknowledged that such a circumstance is ‘something every person of sensibility has known’; but felt that in trying to represent it dramatically, ‘Shakespeare tackled a problem which proved too much for him.'”

Now let’s turn to Poe’s poetical excursion into his usual macabre fare, “The Raven.”  I’m sure most of you are familiar with at least some of the poem’s setting and probably have been jounced and bounced around by the alliteration and rhyme scheme a couple of times at least in reading.  The poem has a lot of alliteration and rhyme, including internal line rhymes, and a repetitive structure and refrain, which depends upon variations of the “Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore'” variety.  Just to refresh our memories, let’s look at how the poem starts out:

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,/Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,/While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,/As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door./'”‘Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door–/Only this, and nothing more.”‘/Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,/And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor./Eagerly I wished the morrow;–vainly I had tried to borrow/From my books surcease of sorrow–sorrow for the lost Lenore–/For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore–/Nameless here for evermore.”

This fearing and questioning and apprehensive meditation goes on for four more sing-song stanzas, and then the speaker decides that it’s actually something at the window, and so goes to open it.  Here’s what happens when he does:

“Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,/In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore;/Not the least obeisance made he; not an instant stopped or stayed he;/But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door–/Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door–/Perched, and sat, and nothing more.”

Next, for seven or eight more stanzas, the human speaker persists in speculating about “the lost Lenore,” and whether he will see her again, and while his own soul answers “Nevermore,” he also persists in directing his loaded questions to the bird, who eerily answers, “Nevermore.”  Though the speaker is intelligent enough, and the circumstances possible enough, at least earlier in the poem, to consider that perhaps this is the only word the bird knows (“‘Doubtless,’ said I, ‘what it utters is its only stock and store….'”), he shows himself to be in tune with the bird’s apparent “predictions” to the extent that his questions are all shaped to fit this early form of “magic eight ball”:  for example, why doesn’t the speaker say something more cogent, like “Will I be alone for the rest of my life?” and thus “spike” the question to go his way?  Or, he could say, “Will I continue to be unhappy?”  Since the bird always replies “Nevermore,” the speaker could thus get a better prediction if he tried, but instead of this, he asks sad and negative questions which portray a depressive obsessive frame of mind.

Finally, the speaker becomes irate enough to tell the bird to leave, and of course the bird replies, “Nevermore.”  So far, the mysterious death of Lenore isn’t made enough of to function as an objective correlative, and just having a (possible pet, trained by somebody) raven peck at the window and fly in isn’t enough to act as an objective correlative either, by T. S. Eliot’s explanation of that phenomenon.  It’s not actually until the very last stanza (of the 1845 edition of the poem) that anything sufficiently supernatural or odd happens, which doesn’t rely on the human speaker’s rigging of the game by asking the “right” questions.  Here is that stanza:

“And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting/On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;/And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming,/And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;/And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor/Shall be lifted–nevermore!”

This stanza is truly weird:  the bird, without the mention of its being fed, or given water, or stirring from its place, is still there, apparently not having died or decayed.  The same seems to be proposed or at least implied of the man, who can’t really be imagined to have broken his concentration by getting up to get a sandwich or a Scotch and soda, and then come back.  Yes, in the last stanza I think we find a wee bit of an objective correlative in Eliot’s terms in the set of circumstances being what they are, the man’s enslavement to the bird’s malevolent spell, the neverendingness of his torment.

Now see, we had fun, didn’t we?  At least I did, and I hope you did too.  If not, comfort yourself with the reflection that your “torment” of reading this post has not been “neverending” (and I hope you’re not sitting in a dark room staring meaningly at your pet mynah bird, as I can’t answer for the consequences)!


Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments