Archive for the 'literary criticism' Category

Philip Pullman: Daemon Voices

April 8, 2018

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A writer writes about his craft, his inspirations, and how he works: fascinating, in the same way that Ursula Le Guin doing just that was fascinating. He doesn’t disappoint in the way he writes, either – there’s more of the fluent clear language and sentence-crafting that one experiences in his novels. Pullman is a very readable writer, accessible, communicating effectively. You may think, well, yes, he would, but that’s not always the case…

He’s very strong and forthright on a writer’s responsibilities, fascinating on how stories work, and challenges literary theorists. He writes about his experiences as a teacher and rages against the insanities and inanities of our ‘National Curriculum’. He’s forcefully and coherently atheist, anti-God; this I found quite challenging myself, and though I appreciated his stance, decided to continue to differ with him there…

Out of his atheism there arises a sense of wonder: for Pullman, the more we discover, the more wondrous the universe seems to be, an approach which chimes in with my own ever since my childhood excitement at looking at the skies and learning about other worlds.

Clearly I was looking for further understanding of the genesis of, and intentions behind, the Dark Materials trilogy, and I was not disappointed. There was a detailed personal response to Milton‘s Paradise Lost, and how the Fall story and his anti-religious stance worked together to create a story in which the Fall was a good thing: the loss of innocence and a knowledge of good and evil is what makes us human; that knowledge of evil does not imply that all humans therefore embrace it. There is a myth of the Fall in the world of the mulefa in The Amber Spyglass; it both resembles the one in our world and is very different from it, and Pullman’s clarification was very interesting.

Pullman is interesting on the craft of the writer, too, and open about his need and desire to make a decent living out of it. He’s scathing about Tolkien‘s trilogy, which he compares with Middlemarch (!) from the perspective of characterisation, and finds seriously wanting, and he has no time for C S LewisNarnia books either, because of their reactionary, anti-human, anti-life and pleasure content. I didn’t disagree with him there, either. Perhaps the most eye-opening section for me was a chapter on the nature of the narrator, where he raises a whole raft of issues with which I was familiar as a life-long student of literature, but to contemplate them from the perspective of a practising writer was really illuminating. He also takes issue with the current trend for people to write stories in the present tense and demonstrates clearly how limiting a choice this is.

Pullman shares a good deal of himself with his readers here. Most of the pieces in the collection were originally lectures or talks; a few are introductions he has written to various books. The whole is a book full of surprises; I found him reflecting on a wide range of books I had also known and loved in the past, and also came across a few recommendations for my to-read list. As an insight into the mind and art of one of our best living writers, it’s really good: challenging and thought-provoking.

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G H Lewes: The Novels of Jane Austen

April 2, 2018

An essay rather than a full-length book from Librivox this time, but an interesting historical curiosity which I enjoyed. Lewes wrote in 1859, out of a feeling that although many people of his acquaintance had encountered some of her novels, very few of them had heard of ‘Miss Austen’ herself. Partly this seems to have been because very little biographical information about Jane Austen was available, but also because a certain ‘Miss Austin’ was better known at that time, for her translations from the German – of what, we are not told.

This becomes more interesting when we recall that Lewes had a very unconventional – for the time – relationship with Mary Anne Evans, whose nom-de-plume was George Eliot. She also made some translations of German works, and her early novel Scenes From Clerical Life (by Mr George Eliot!) is referred to at one point…

Lewes writes at a time when Jane Austen’s reputation was not established, and he sets out to do this.

Although he deems her a great English writer, she can never be one of the very greatest because of the narrowness of her subject-matter: she produces brilliant ‘miniatures’ but they are not ‘frescoes’… unlike the works of Sir Walter Scott, Austen’s contemporary, with whom she was constantly being unfavourably compared. Who reads Scott nowadays? Lewes also found ‘Miss Bronte’ tedious – he seems to mean Charlotte, since he later imagines that no-one will read Jane Eyre in the future.

He focuses on many aspects of Austen’s writing and craft which delight us nowadays, and which are judged as her particular strengths, and contributions to the genre: her style and use of language, her shifting narrative viewpoint, her comic characters (which he illustrates through detailed references to Mr Collins and Mrs Elton in particular), her close attention to detail and her humour generally. On the other hand, he praises Northanger Abbey highly and marks Persuasion down, which I don’t think chimes with current judgements.

Having noticed that overlap between a judgement from a century and a half ago and our times, I also remarked that completely absent from Lewes’ essay was any reflection on the social criticism implicit in Austen’s writing: critics today are highly aware of what she has to say about the precarious position of single women, women who failed to find a marriage partner, and their limited and diminishing prospects as they aged: what would have become of the Bennett sisters or the Dashwoods if suitable men hadn’t appeared on the scene? What a grim existence faces poor Jane Fairfax…until Frank Churchill does the decent thing. Austen is also aware of the profound social changes taking place in the England in which she lived, the effects of the Napoleonic Wars and the importance of the Royal Navy; some even read significance into her allusions to slavery in Mansfield Park. Clearly, social context – or any kind of context – was not a part of the study of literature in Victorian times.

So, interesting questions are raised about an issue I’ve often reflected upon: reputations, and what works will survive to be read and appreciated by future generations, and we can see that Lewes’ judgement is flawed on several counts, perhaps because he is still too close to those authors and texts about which he writes. It clearly took a good deal of time for Jane Austen to attain her current place in the pantheon of English writers…

Ursula Le Guin : The Wave in the Mind

February 25, 2018

51xBAmhj48L._AC_US218_It was refreshing to read some of Le Guin‘s more recent essays, after the rather dated The Language of the Night. I did not know she could be funny, but she had me laughing out loud several times during her first piece. This collection offers fascinating glimpses into the real Ursula Le Guin, her life and her past, and what has influenced and impressed her. It’s an obvious truism to say she writes well; it’s her humane and respectful but wise tone and manner that I appreciated. But I could not share her enthusiasm for J R R Tolkien or Cordwainer Smith

There is an excellent and quite technical chapter on stress and rhythm in poetry and prose which is exemplary in its clarity of explanation and illustration; I wished I’d had access to it when I was teaching practical criticism. She also makes a strong case for the importance and value of reading aloud as opposed to mere reading, when thinking about how writers use language, as well as being thought-provoking in opposing read stories to viewed ones, and the different effects they have on the consumers of those stories.

She explores the blurring and blurred boundaries between fiction and non-fiction writing, which I had never really thought about in depth until I came across the writings of Svetlana Alexievich, which some have criticised for doing precisely this. And I am wondering how serious an issue it is when what is presented as fact or reality is permeated by artistic licence. As I recall, Alexievich hints that this is what she occasionally does, but even so… should fiction and non-fiction be kept strictly apart? or is this only an issue for us now, in the times of fake news?

Le Guin is a committed and feminist writer who writes from her long life and experience, which has given her much wisdom; she writes thoughtfully about body image and how we think about ourselves, and although I have read a fair amount on this topic, I’ve not encountered anything so measured, reflective and meaningful as her contribution. Similarly, she reflects on and analyses the nature of communication between humans; she offers no answers, but asks the right questions, enabling an intelligent reader to move forward.

There is also a good deal of reflection on her life as a writer, and advice and suggestions to would-be writers. I did find myself musing several times on whether, after a life of only writing non-fiction, I might try and do some creative writing. I won’t say the collection is an easy read, but it was a very satisfying one, particularly because at the end of it, I felt that I knew one of my favourite writers in a different way.

Ursula Le Guin: The Language of the Night

February 8, 2018

517awu8bS6L._AC_US218_I’ve had this collection of essays for over thirty years, and finally dug them out to read after the death of the author, realising I’d never read anything other than her fiction. It’s an annoying book in many ways. Firstly, it’s a very bitty collection, of essays, speeches and early introductions to some of her novels; secondly, it’s broken up by numerous ‘introductions’ from the editor which do nothing other than add a little context, but fragment the whole, and lastly, the pieces are all from forty to fifty years old; some have dated badly.

Quite a lot of it is quite preachy, as in those long-gone days, the case still needed to be made for science fiction as a real branch of literature. Le Guin also makes a very strong case for fantasy, which is where she began, and I got rather fed up of her constant championing of Tolkien. I have problems with the entire genre, and whilst The Lord of the Rings was a cracking good read once (forty years ago, in two days, during a nasty dose of flu) I have never felt moved to return to it… She is good and interesting in analysing the language and style of fantasy.

Things improved as I progressed through the essays; she’s interesting on the genesis of Islandia, one of my all-time favourites, and a strong advocate for Zamyatin‘s We, which I must return to sometime soon. She also champions another of my all-time favourites, Philip K Dick, long before many thought him worthy of real acclaim. As a practitioner of the genre, Le Guin has a lot to say that is worth reading on the nature of the SF genre and its limitations, and becomes more personal and more revealing when she comes to reflect on her own creative processes and writing methods, which not many writers do.

Similarly, as a woman who wrote both before and after the advent of the new feminist consciousness of the 1960s/70s, she reflects thoughtfully on her own shortcomings as perceived by some feminists of the time, who took her to task for basically writing about men, even in androgynous societies she created, such as in The Left Hand of Darkness. The essay ‘Is Gender Necessary?‘ is a landmark. Such honesty and openness is rare in a writer, and for me is a mark of her greatness.

However, in the end I must say that a good deal of this collection is necessarily very dated, and if you are interested in any of her thoughts on either the genre or her own writing, skim-reading is recommended.

Astonished to notice this edition sells for £98 (used) on a certain website… make me a sensible offer!

On being lost for words…

August 15, 2017

I’m not often left speechless, but I was yesterday evening, as I did my final catch-up on the day’s news online, before bed. I came across a story reporting that a professor of English Literature at the University of London had decided to remove John Cleland‘s novel Fanny Hill from a course on seventeenth and eighteenth century libertine literature which she had taught for years, on the ground that it might upset students…

I really don’t know where to start. If it’s a course on libertine literature, what sort of texts do you expect to meet? And surely it can’t be a compulsory course, so why have you chosen to do it? If you are at university to study literature, what were you expecting to be reading – Winnie the Pooh or Thomas the Tank Engine? Are you not up to being challenged, to being expected to read books you may not like, even books that you may actually dislike? A university course is usually put together carefully, with a specific aim in mind and a corresponding reading-list to suit the purpose.

I never met this issue at school myself, either as a student or as a teacher. I read disturbing and challenging books whilst in the sixth form: my English teacher handed us Hubert Selby‘s Last Exit to Brooklyn, among other things. I’m not sure I got it completely at the tender age of seventeen, but I read it, marvelled that people actually wrote like that and about those sorts of things, and came back to it when I was a bit older and a little more worldly-wise. And it was round about then that I read Cleland’s novel, too. I enjoyed it, as many teenage males would at that age; it made me think that a man should write such a book, purporting to be by a woman, and it certainly reinforced the notion that women had a right to sexual pleasure. I know that I wasn’t aware of a whole range of subtexts and broader issues that the book raised, but it was a start.

When teaching, I worked on all sorts of potentially upsetting texts with students: all that literature about the First World War, for starters. And what about all the horrible stuff that goes on in Shakespeare’s plays (back to the article that has triggered this rant – apparently a student had been ‘upset’ by King Lear, the death of Cordelia and the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes…)? I always felt that one had a ‘duty of care’ in my situation, i.e. to warn students that something a bit strong or violent was coming up, but these were school students, often not even at a stage where they could be choosing what they studied…

I’ve tried, and failed, at least three times, to get to the end of Nabokov‘s Lolita. Various people have recommended it to me, including students of mine, and I’ve give it my best efforts, but I have found it so toe-curling that I have been unable to get beyond the first third or so. If I’d been asked to read it as part of a university course, I’d have made myself do it, and delivered my opinions in the seminar. But when it’s optional, as it has been, I don’t have to read it.

I’ve said many times before in these pages that good literature is meant to challenge, to make us think. The world is a nasty place in many ways, full of violence, certainly, but also increasingly sexualised (and I make no judgement on whether that is a good or bad thing here) and young people of university age have long had access via the internet to all sorts of horrendous violence and pornography if they chose to view it. Literature reflects our world, showing us the goodness and the evil in ourselves and those around us. It’s perfectly possible to avoid literature and what it presents, and the issues it rubs our faces in, if one is afraid of being upset. In which case, don’t go off to university to study it…

Siegfried Sassoon: A Working Party

August 13, 2017

Three hours ago he blundered up the trench,
Sliding and poising, groping with his boots;
Sometimes he tripped and lurched against the walls
With hands that pawed the sodden bags of chalk.
He couldn’t see the man who walked in front;
Only he heard the drum and rattle of feet
Stepping along barred trench boards, often splashing
Wretchedly where the sludge was ankle-deep.

Voices would grunt `Keep to your right — make way!’
When squeezing past some men from the front-line:
White faces peered, puffing a point of red;
Candles and braziers glinted through the chinks
And curtain-flaps of dug-outs; then the gloom
Swallowed his sense of sight; he stooped and swore
Because a sagging wire had caught his neck.

A flare went up; the shining whiteness spread
And flickered upward, showing nimble rats
And mounds of glimmering sand-bags, bleached with rain;
Then the slow silver moment died in dark.
The wind came posting by with chilly gusts
And buffeting at the corners, piping thin.
And dreary through the crannies; rifle-shots
Would split and crack and sing along the night,
And shells came calmly through the drizzling air
To burst with hollow bang below the hill.

Three hours ago, he stumbled up the trench;
Now he will never walk that road again:
He must be carried back, a jolting lump
Beyond all needs of tenderness and care.

He was a young man with a meagre wife
And two small children in a Midland town,
He showed their photographs to all his mates,
And they considered him a decent chap
Who did his work and hadn’t much to say,
And always laughed at other people’s jokes
Because he hadn’t any of his own.

That night when he was busy at his job
Of piling bags along the parapet,
He thought how slow time went, stamping his feet
And blowing on his fingers, pinched with cold.
He thought of getting back by half-past twelve,
And tot of rum to send him warm to sleep
In draughty dug-out frowsty with the fumes
Of coke, and full of snoring weary men.


He pushed another bag along the top,
Craning his body outward; then a flare
Gave one white glimpse of No Man’s Land and wire;
And as he dropped his head the instant split
His startled life with lead, and all went out. 

Inevitably I pair Owen with Sassoon, in lots of different ways. Sassoon was Owen’s mentor at Craiglockhart, and in so many ways the pupil outshone the master. That’s not what I’m really interested in, though; what catches my eye and ear are the similarities and the differences, given the closeness of their experiences. And my writing about my chosen Owen poems over the last few days has called this particular one of Sassoon’s back to my memory, because it’s one of those where Sassoon seems to me to come closest to Owen’s way of writing.

It has the same feel in its structure as Disabled: a series of moments both connected and not, like slides, but there is a major difference, which for me adds to the poem’s power and effectiveness. Halfway through the poem we’re told of the man’s death, and then the poem shifts almost into slow motion, or action-replay mode as Sassoon shows us just how easily and swiftly a single life is ended on the western front. Notice the almost repetition of the opening line at the start of the fourth section. And there isn’t even any actual fighting going on…

The pace of the poem is slow, matching the painful trudging up to the front to repair the wire: lengthy lines and occasional incomplete rhymes develop the effect. Present participles ‘sliding… poising… groping‘ show us the difficulty of moving, as do long vowel sounds ‘lurched…pawed‘. He uses alliteration peered…puffing…point, swallowed…sense…sight…stooped…swore…sagging – why?

Two sections set the scene in considerable detail. I’m reminded of Owen’s The Sentry here, too. Then all is illuminated – look at the long ‘i’ sounds in ‘shining whiteness‘ – and then the flare dies out: ‘the slow silver moment died in dark‘. Onomatopoeia echoes the rifle-shots through short, sharp vowel-sounds: ‘split…crack…sing; how do shells come ‘calmly? and burst with ‘hollow bang? I’m really aware of Sassoon using the language to its fullest extent, in terms of poetic techniques, in the same way as Owen does, in this poem.

Somehow the man is killed: look at the stresses ‘now…never, and the now is at the start of the line and gets extra emphasis from its position. Depersonalised in death: a ‘jolting lump‘, and then humanised again briefly: ‘beyond all need of tenderness and care‘.

Then we are into the second half of the poem and Sassoon is magnificent here. Like Owen, the focus is on a single individual and that’s where the full power of the poem comes from, just as in The Sentry, Dulce et Decorum Est, or Disabled especially. It’s the ordinariness that Sassoon stresses in his detailed description in the fourth stanza – a ‘decent chap‘, looking forward to a drink and a sleep; again the alliteration makes this more appealing ‘draughty dug-out, frowsty…fumes.

The final stanza is slow-motion until the suddenness of the last two lines, with the effective combination of the rhyme ‘head/lead and the alliteration of ‘split… startled and ‘life..lead and the permanence of ‘all went out.

Although Sassoon does the bitter and sardonic very well in lots of different short poems where he rubs his readers’ faces in the horrors that they don’t know and can’t imagine, I find him much more moving and effective in longer poems where he takes the time to create a sense of time, place and atmosphere, and makes us care about the fate of an individual, just like his pupil Owen; in a war where casualties are counted in telephone numbers, we need this personal angle to draw us in and make us realise the full horror.

Wilfred Owen: The Send-off

August 12, 2017

The Send-off

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.

Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.

Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.

So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.

Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.

Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

A very low-key poem, this one, and another of my favourites, but for personal reasons. I’ve tracked Owen’s life and death over the years: he was born in Shrewsbury, which is where my other half comes from; in fact the Owen family home was not that far from hers. So I’ve visited the Abbey many times, in which is the original war memorial from straight after the Great War. The huge tablet on the wall lists the fallen of the Manchester Regiment among others, and Owen’s name figures there. And then in the Abbey grounds is a more recent, rather brutalist monument commemorating the attempt to cross the Sambre Canal, where Owen was killed.

I’ve visited the Maison Forestière near Le Cateau Cambrésis in northern France, which is the house in the cellar of which Owen spent his last few nights alongside his men and from where he wrote his last letter home; it’s been turned into a a very moving memorial installation. And then there is his grave, one among dozens of others all killed that same day, in the nearby village of Ors.

And for a good number of years I lived in Ripon, which during the Great War boasted a huge army camp, larger than the city itself, where Owen spent his last weeks in England, recuperating, training and polishing his poems, living in a small rented cottage near the river. From its ‘upland camp’ he headed back to France and eventually, some weeks later, to his death.

So I always referred to this one as the Ripon poem when we studied it; a small detail perhaps, but then it’s often the small details which get through to us…

Structurally it looks like a poem of four five-line stanzas and the rhyme-scheme supports this, but Owen has divided it differently. It’s only something one would notice looking at it on a printed page, unless a reader made it very obvious. But he must have had a reason: what was it? That was another thing we could do in practical criticism classes: speculate, imagine what went on in a writer’s head; no way of knowing with any certainty, of course, but we were opening ourselves up to that crucial idea, informed personal response…

The pace of the poem is noticeable: does it echo the tired march of the men on their way to war? Alliteration makes itself felt from the start. And think about the conciseness of the phrase ‘grimly gay’, how much more powerful it is than talking about putting a brave face on things… Positioning of words can be important: look at the way ‘dead‘ ends that first stanza, at the end of a half-line, so we are brought up short as we notice it, and it gains extra power from the rhyme with ‘shed‘ – maybe we’ve anticipated the word? no less powerful if we did.

Owen creates the banality of the situation. We need to recall the excitement and the cheering crowds of 1914 to get the force of the contrast: here it’s evening, the porters are ‘dull‘, the tramp ‘casual‘ and already missing the free cigarettes. The railway signals, personified in silent conspiracy against the men, are particularly chilling: ‘unmoved‘, ‘nodded‘, ‘winked‘: it’s all so casually done, because done hundreds of times before; we are in 1918 now, remember. The men are anonymous, ‘they were not ours’.

And the final stanza has an air of prophecy about it, the few that will return, the poet not among them. I’ve always found the story of Owen’s parents receiving the telegram announcing their son’s death on the day everyone else was celebrating the Armistice unbelievably sad. It matches that chilling sequence in the film O What A Lovely War which reminds us that someone had to be the very last soldier to be killed and takes us through that scene… Those who returned ‘creep back‘ – why? so marked and scarred by their experiences they wish to hide, remain unknown, undisturbed? Their lives will never be the same again. And I’m reminded by how skilfully Sebastian Faulks captured some of this mental and emotional trauma in Birdsong.

So, that was a few of my personal reflections on several of Owen’s poems that particularly speak to me.

Wilfred Owen: The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

August 11, 2017

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in the thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

This is, to my mind, one of Owen’s more obscure, or at least less accessible poems today, especially for students, because hardly anyone goes to Sunday School any more or is familiar with the Old Testament bible stories that are (or used to be) part of our cultural background, if not more – the story of God’s testing of Abraham, ordering him to sacrifice his own son Isaac as a test of loyalty. Let’s leave aside as irrelevant to our purposes the kind of God that would put anyone through this kind of charade, and focus on what Owen does with the story, which would, of course, have been instantly familiar to all his readers.

You need to read the story in the King James Bible; that’s the version Owen would have known and the language and syntax of today’s Tesco translations won’t make half the connections you need. So go to Genesis chapter 22 and read the story first.

Notice how Owen has chosen to use archaic words to mimic the feel of the KJV: ‘clave‘, ‘spake‘, ‘builded‘, (and I can’t help reflecting on whether this deliberately echoes the words of Blake‘s Jerusalemand was Jerusalem builded here?‘ too, or whether it’s my notion. Either way, it doesn’t matter), ‘lo!’ and so on…

Then see how Owen follows the bible story only so far before it begins to warp, to unravel, to develop a mind of its own. There is no ‘fire and iron‘ in Genesis, but there was on the Western Front. Abram bound his son ready for sacrifice, but not with the ‘belts and straps‘ of a soldier’s uniform and kit; he built an altar, but no parapets and trenches: these details of war creep in, in an almost hallucinatory distortion of the original story.

In Genesis, when Abram has passed the test, the angel of the Lord does appear and save the boy; there is the ram caught in the thicket for a substitute sacrifice, which the dutiful Abram offers to God… but not this Abram, who flies against God’s command, kills his son anyway, and half the seed of Europe.

Subtle in its development, if not in its message, Owen calls the war and its effect on future generations into question, and suggests to the reader that it is morally wrong, not what God would have wanted. And yet, this did not stop him from serving his country or doing what he perceived to be his duty to his men, right up to the very end. It’s a simple poem from the perspective of language: no fancy assonance or half-rhyme, just a bitter twist on a story his readers would have been familiar with, and perhaps all the more shocking because Owen chose to meddle with a story from the Bible.

Wilfred Owen: Disabled

August 10, 2017

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark, 
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey, 
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park 
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn, 
Voices of play and pleasure after day, 
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him. 

About this time Town used to swing so gay 
When glow-lamps budded in the light blue trees, 
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,- 
In the old times, before he threw away his knees. 
Now he will never feel again how slim 
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands. 
All of them touch him like some queer disease. 

There was an artist silly for his face, 
For it was younger than his youth, last year. 
Now, he is old; his back will never brace; 
He’s lost his colour very far from here, 
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry, 
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race 
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh. 

One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg, 
After the matches, carried shoulder-high. 
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg, 
He thought he’d better join. – He wonders why. 
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts, 
That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg, 
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts 
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg; 
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years. 
Germans he scarcely thought of; all their guilt, 
And Austria’s, did not move him. And no fears 
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts 
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes; 
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears; 
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits. 
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers. 

Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal. 
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits 
Thanked him; and then enquired about his soul. 

Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes, 
And do what things the rules consider wise, 
And take whatever pity they may dole. 
Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes 
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole. 
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come 
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?

Whenever I had to teach a unit of First World War literature, either at GCSE or in the sixth form, I used to begin with this poem; it took me a few years to make it a fixed plan, as it were, but eventually I came to see just how perfect an introduction to the subject it was for them. You see, the hero of the poem is nineteen (perhaps younger), so younger than them, and at nineteen, everyone thinks they are immortal… And, at a certain moment in time, there was briefly a hit song connected with being a soldier in the Vietnam War, called ‘Nineteen’, which reinforced my point even further.

It is a brilliant poem: let’s look at some of the reasons why…

I like the way it’s structured: several sections, which you’d be hard put to call verses. Each one stands separate from the others, a separate moment of the day, train of thought, almost like a cameo, or a brief film-clip. Further continuity isn’t necessary for the poem’s effectiveness. In Blunden’s edition of the collected poems, they are separated from each other by a row of asterisks, accentuating the separation.

When you read – and you have to read aloud to receive the full effect of Owen’s mastery of the language and poetic technique – the alliterations and the pauses are striking. Notice the words which receive stress. Why is it a ‘wheeled‘ chair, not just a wheelchair? What does the chilling succinctness of ‘legless, sewn short at elbow‘ actually tell us of the extent of the boy’s injuries?

Time shifts into the second section; we are in his past, his memories, the impressionistic lamps ‘budded‘ in the ‘light blue trees‘. He remembers girls, as a teenage boy would. Owen’s hints at the world of sex and intimacy are subtle ‘slim| girls’ waists‘, ‘how warm their subtle hands‘; none of this excitement or pleasure for him ever again… will the boy die wondering?

Next, we are back with a narrator, perhaps. Certainly we’ve shifted from the memories of before the war. We’re told he was handsome; age and youth now contrasted, he has lost his colour: we are back to the ‘ghastly‘ grey of the first section briefly. He was a sporty type, which made him more attractive to girls, and in the key fourth section we learn about the turning point: drunk one day, he joins up, maybe to please a girl, maybe imagining the ceremonial uniform. Owen’s quite clear, he wasn’t thinking what signing up really meant. Again we have the chilling brevity, ‘Smiling they wrote his lie’: listen to how the stresses fall in that half-line, and how much detail is contained in those few words. We’re invited to reflect on what ‘fears| of Fear‘ might actually mean: is this something we can possibly understand?

The three lines of the fifth section are for me the saddest, and the bitterest in Owen’s poem; so short you can be past them without thinking full about the implications.’Some‘ cheered him. Who is that solemn man? a clergyman, obviously, which makes us reflect on preparation for death, perhaps. He thanks the boy – for what? That shocks me deeply. How does the boy respond to being thanked? And the priest enquires about his soul, because there’s not much body worth enquiring about…

Then there is the closing loneliness of the final section: he cannot do anything for himself, he is totally dependent on – or at the mercy of (whichever you like) others – all he can do is look, and think. And he is back with his thoughts about girls, women, the life he has lost.

Owen was committed to telling the truth of what he saw and knew about war. He doesn’t rub his readers’ noses in things quite as deliberately as Sassoon does, but his selection of details and his careful use of the wealth of our language means that no careful reader can escape his unspoken question: was it really worth it. I’d argue strongly that this is one of his very best poems.

 

On practical criticism

August 10, 2017

Some recent posts about poetry by a fellow-blogger have reminded how much I miss teaching practical criticism. Back in the old days, before the exam boards started messing about with A level English Literature, at the end of the two-year course one of the papers students had to sit was an unseen paper in which they were faced by two texts, one poetry and the other either prose or drama; an analytical essay on each was required; usually there were some prompts in the questions and a few contextual details to get students started. And that was it… obviously too difficult by the time we reached the 1990s and so the tinkering began.

Preparing students for such a paper was quite a challenge, but an enjoyable one. There were, of course, books of carefully selected extracts (often dull as ditchwater) designed to support the teacher in imparting the necessary training, skills and practice. Or, you could devise your own course, as many teachers I knew did. This was the tricky bit but once you had amassed sufficient and varied selections of prose, poetry and drama, you were good to go.

Two years was a decent length of time; no messing about at the end of the lower sixth with revision, study leave and AS exams breaking up the flow and continuity. Over time, I gradually developed what I came to call the ‘staircase‘ approach: bottom step: what is the writer saying? next step: how is s/he saying it? third step: how effective is s/he in saying it? Progressive in level of difficulty therefore, but ensuring that my students considered techniques, and were led to some kind of personal response.

Prose was relatively straightforward, I thought: a selection from novels beginning with Defoe – for me the first novelist – and gradually working towards the twentieth century, taking in both English and American authors. Using these it was possible to show students how the novel had developed, both in terms of subject-matter and style; they could see how the language, sentence length, syntax as well as use and presentation of dialogue had changed over time, and as the course worked towards its end, were usually able to identify roughly when a text had been written, after several careful reads. They became adept at reading between the lines, too: speculating thoughtfully, and making judgements which they could justify and evidence, even though their surmises might not have always been spot-on. Confidence built over time, and it was possible to lead them to express and clarify their opinions and reactions too.

Work on extracts from plays could follow a similar pattern: one could compare the use of verse and prose, and how dramatists sought increasing control over interpretation of their work through ever more complex stage directions.

Poetry was a lot more demanding and also a lot more fun, with so many different forms and styles, never mind subjects, and that was before you got on to the huge range of poetic techniques. Because – I oversimplify, obviously – poems tended to be shorter and self-contained, you were analysing an entire work. There was the (often) added difficulty of working out what on earth a poet was actually going on about. Over two years, it was possible to get students to slow down, and read multiple times and carefully before beginning to commit their thoughts to paper. And again, there was time and space for them to develop and articulate a thoughtful personal response. They could learn how to react logically and sensibly to the feeling of being completely flummoxed. Although there was the famous year when the examiners chose a poem about a ringed plover, and if students hadn’t managed to divine that it was actually a bird, then they got themselves into some pretty awful scrapes…

There’s a lot of really exciting and good poetry and prose to play with, obviously, in four centuries of literature; there’s also stuff that is deadly dull, and you had to introduce students to that, too, and to coping with it; increasingly examiners tended to play safe and avoid anything too difficult or out of the way, as well as anything too political or religious; I can see why, in the end, they decided to ditch the openness of the paper and go for something more circumscribed, which they thought would be more manageable for students and teachers… and took a lot of the pleasure away.

I really loved teaching this course. There were golden moments: a self-written course is quite personal in a way, and to find students occasionally enthusing about a text that I really liked was very heartening and satisfying. One year, one of the texts was not unseen to quite a few of my students, as the examiners chose a short story which I had studied with them previously at GCSE. And I eventually came round to using William McGonagall’s The Tay Bridge Disaster as the final poem in the course. Watching the students’ faces as they tried – often disbelievingly – to parse it as a work of poetry and literature, was wonderful, and my joy was complete when one year, after letting them wrestle in silence with it for ten minutes or more, a student put up his hand and said, rather tentatively, ‘Sir, this is crap, isn’t it?’ Then, of course, the ice well-broken, we began to examine exactly why it was crap…

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