Archive for the 'poetry' Category

Siegfried Sassoon: Reconciliation

August 2, 2022

When you are standing at your hero’s grave,
Or near some homeless village where he died,
Remember, through your heart’s rekindling pride,
The German soldiers who were loyal and brave.

Men fought like brutes; and hideous things were done;
And you have nourished hatred, harsh and blind.
But in that Golgotha perhaps you’ll find
The mothers of the men who killed your son.

I only came across this poem recently: what a powerful one it is, in the light of some of his others, and its theme. After the war, there is peace, and a coming to terms with what happened before, however difficult that may be.

Sassoon creates a situation that would have been familiar to his readers; British relatives would have to travel to France or Belgium to visit either the grave of a loved one, if a grave existed, or to see the dead soldier commemorated somewhere like the Menin Gate in Ypres, or the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme. People are still making such visits today, seeking the last resting-place of an ancestor.

Is your hero in that first line innocent, or ironic, or both? (link to poem) What, exactly, is a homeless village? Do we imagine ruins, one of the lost villages of the Somme which were wiped from the face of the earth and never rebuilt? Sassoon allows the visitor, and the reader, a sense of pride in the sacrifice of a life, though he never alludes to the purpose of that sacrifice, or the meaning of that death.

The challenge is in the fourth line: think of the other side, the former enemy, too. And this is hard. I recall that in my innocent childhood days, our local parish priest had fought in the Great War and lost a leg; it was replaced by a tin prosthesis, and occasionally, if someone looked sceptical – though he walked with a limp – they would be invited to tap the leg, which sounded hollow and metallic. But what impressed me most profoundly about him was that on Remembrance Sunday he always solemnly reminded the congregation to pray for the dead Germans too. Those men also did their duty, were brave or cowardly, and died for their country as well.

The fifth line sums up the savagery of that war in a single line: humans behaving inhumanly, doing things that they no longer wish to remember. Listen to the leaden-sounding monosyllables of that line, interrupted only by the emphasis in the three-syllable hideous.

And then the judgement in the next line, directly addressed again – you – the juxtaposition of nourished and hatred, the alliteration of hatred/harsh, the lapidary blind at the end of the line: no escaping here. Yet the judgement is only implied; there is a hint that the poet understands such feelings. But we have also to remember: he was there, he saw.

The final two lines must be wrestled with. The Golgotha reference – ‘place of the skull’ in Hebrew, I think, from the gospel account of the crucifixion of Christ. Perhaps you’ll find – and perhaps only now do we reflect on the gender of the visitor Sassoon is addressing: is she female? A mother, a sister, a wife, a lover? What are those (German) mothers doing? (see Sassoon’s poem Glory of Women) Are they on the same errand? And if all are in the same situation, then the overarching humanity is surely emphasised, and we are brought back to the title of the poem.

Sassoon’s experiences in the trenches, his anger at what he saw, and the apparent indifference or lack of understanding on the part of those back home, gave him the right to challenge, to question, to confront. But what words would you use to describe the tone of this poem? For it surely is not an angry poem. Solemn? Reflective?

Think about the metre and the rhythm of the verse. Iambic pentameters, solemn; rhyming ABBA ABBA which slows down the pace of the poem as you must wait longer for the final rhyme. Only two stanzas; nothing too complex is being presented or explored here: it’s a very simple poem in a lot of ways, but the feelings and the emotions are rather harder to deal with. For me, it’s another example of Sassoon at his best.

Fifty years on…

July 3, 2022

The older you get, the more anniversaries there are; it recently occurred to me that it’s now 50 years since I sat my A Levels… good grief! And what a simple business it all was way back then. All exams, for a start: no continuous assessment, no coursework or anything like that. Just sit in silence and write and write and write.

English literature (well, obviously); I think we’d studied eight set books and only had to write about six, so there was a choice. Othello and King Lear, Doctor Faustus, Paradise Lost 9 & 10, Chaucer’s Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Shadow of a Gunman, Andrew Marvell’s poetry… is that all of them? Don’t recall which I avoided…

French: dictation, I remember, unseen and prose translation, essay, and literature. Le Mariage de Figaro, Le Roi Se Meurt, Servitude et Grandeur Militaires, Confession de Minuit. The killer was, that French Lit and one of the English lit papers were timetabled on the same day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon; eight essays altogether and I remember I filled thirty-six sides of foolscap (predecessor to A4 if you need to know) that day and had a seriously sore hand.

Latin of Classical Civilisation (yes, weird title) with unseen, prose translation, a Roman history paper and set books, though I can no longer remember what they all were, apart from tiresome Livy Book 30.

I’d already passed two A levels in previous years so I knew what to expect, roughly, and I had my revision plan and just powered on through it; I certainly have no recollections of pressure from other or myself, and no stress about any of it, either. Innocent days, perhaps; the end of school, certainly. I recall getting pissed in the village pub, raiding the kitchens where we took and ate all the strawberries, a naked dip in the freezing pool and ceremonial urination on the cricket pitch. Then it was all over.

I had offers from three of the five universities I’d applied to and had fallen in love with Liverpool, so that was my first choice. With two A levels already, and since I’d originally applied to read Latin and French, my offer was one D grade, in French. Results day meant an envelope in the post and a scrawled note from my tutor saying, ‘That should be good enough for Liverpool’ (about my 2 As and a C). Done. Except my A in English Literature was making me review my options, and I knew I’d really rather read English than Latin. So I wrote and asked – I’d already made the rather unusual for those days request for deferred entry – could I change my course based on my results. That would be fine, they said.

Do I make it all sound far too easy? Maybe. I did take naturally to study, because I enjoyed the subjects and they fascinated me; I was also quite an organised student, and I had really good teachers. I put in the time and did the work; at a Catholic boarding school there were few other distractions, which meant I was rather a slow learner in other areas of life.

What I took away from the whole experience is rather more important: a deep love of literature and languages instilled by teachers with a genuine passion for their subjects, and I suspect already at that time the prospect of becoming a teacher and passing on some of that enjoyment to future students was beginning to form itself somewhere deep in my unconscious.

What I realise now is the simplicity of those days, without pressure or expectation, which students of today cannot know or enjoy; no real thoughts about what would come after university; the comfort of knowing that with my place would come a grant to cover my living expenses, and the course costs I didn’t even have to think about, because there were no tuition fees. I have often wished that such freedom was on offer nowadays, because I have always been a great believer in learning for learning’s sake, and studying what you enjoy, rather than because it will bring you a high salary. I’m aware that university students were an elite then, a very small percentage of the population rather than today’s 50%. The greater democratisation and accessibility of higher education is surely a good thing, but I’m also aware that it’s primarily a great money-making opportunity for so many different people, with the needs and rights of the actual students quite a way down the list of priorities.

I’ll finish with a line from Virgil. Forsan et olim haec meminisse juvabit…

Siegfried Sassoon: Does It Matter?

June 24, 2022

Does it matter? – losing your legs?
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.


Does it matter? – losing your sight?
There’s such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.


Do they matter-those dreams in the pit?
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won’t say that you’re mad;
For they know that you’ve fought for your country,
And no one will worry a bit.

Another poem from Sassoon designed to shock readers back home, more than anything else, I feel. Let’s start with the jaunty rhythm, the metre forcing you to sound jolly and cheerful as you read the poem aloud, even as the words themselves hint at real horror: such a mis-match between metre and subect-matter is both deliberate and very effective.

Three stanzas, and a repeated first line (more or less): repetition used to dramatic effect. Sassoon moves from the physical disability of being confined to a wheelchair to the arguably, for most of us, worse condition of blindness, onto the unseen mental horrors of shell-shock, nowadays hidden by the initials PTSD, which nobody thinks to unpick as they hear the letters.

The poem is about survivors – in a similar way to Owen’s Disabled, though the subject is treated in a totally different way. And the response of those around them is outlined in the shocking couplet that is the second and third lines of each stanza, the repetition in the second and third stanzas of the vague phrase people will always be kind. You need to stop and think: who are these people, and what does being kind mean, for a young person faced with the rest of their life in such a condition? The survivor’s life is then contrasted with the so very different lives of those back home, unaffected, in the final two lines of each stanza. Look particularly at the sadness implied in the last line of the second stanza, or the horrible effect of rhyming glad and mad in the final stanza.

Sassoon attacks the notion of patriotism in the final two lines, implying that the words fought for your country mean everything, while then implying that people soon forget.

It’s another very simple poem, in terms of language used: none of the complex and sometimes deliberately archaic language that Owen often uses, none of Owen’s very effective poetic devices either. It’s all done through suggestion and shock: the treatment of such a serious subject in such a casual and offhand manner stops the reader short; we are forced to reflect more deeply on the implications of what the poet is saying, of what lies behind the words. We are in the later years of the war here, and the early illusions everyone had at the outset have gone, only to be replaced by others,,,

Siegfried Sassoon: The General

June 23, 2022

Good-morning; good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
……
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

 

If Wilfred Owen is ‘in your face’ through his use of graphic detail in many of his war poems, Siegfried Sassoon is often brutally out to shock by saying a different kind of unspeakable thing. We see it here in a very short but vicious poem which goes straight to the heart of an issue that historians still argue about today: the competence or incompetence of the high command, those who ran the war and took the decisions that led to the deaths of millions of ordinary men on all sides.

There’s no specific form to identify, and the rhyme scheme is very simple; the hiatus between lines 6 and 7 is deliberate, and the final point is amplified by the third occurrence of the ‘-ack’ rhyme.

The metre is inescapably jaunty, jolly even, nursery rhyme-like, as becomes evident when you read the poem aloud, and the jolliness is designed to clash with the power and seriousness of the underlying message. It helps to visualise the scene: the general walking through a long line of soldiers at attention, with a repeated lively ‘Good-morning!’ every few yards. Sincerity? No.

The language is informal, casual, the language of squaddies among themselves, with slang thrown in. The third line is delivered in an almost throwaway manner, and the fourth line continues this feeling; the scene is personalised in the fifth and sixth lines when it’s narrowed down to two soldiers, being talked about by the anonymous speaker of the poem; their names are commonplace, Harry and Jack. They grunt to each other, they slog up the line with their kit.

And then the shock of their deaths – they were cheerful and alive last week, remember – is delivered in the same offhand way: he did for them both. The incompetence referred to in the fourth line has its results in a plan of attack. Interesting to notice that incompetent is the only complex word in the entire poem.

Effect? Well, I find it shocking in the manner in which Sassoon delivers such a simple tale, and one which must have been repeated countless times. And I also try and imagine the effect of such verse at the time of the Great War, when many people would have found the idea of speaking about death so casually extremely shocking, and the idea that the generals and other senior officers didn’t really have much of a clue what they were doing was also very shocking. We all have a tendency (perhaps not so much nowadays) to trust that those in power and control, above us, know what they’re doing…

Wilfred Owen: Anthem For Doomed Youth

June 21, 2022

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Form, first of all: this one is obviously a sonnet. Sonnets were traditionally love poems above all else, so what is Owen doing here? Is he sending up the idea of love poetry, using the sonnet in an opposite way (war=hate)? Or is he expressing a sense of love for those who are lost, killed in war? Or both, perhaps? Why not? It’s a Petrarchan, rather than a Shakespearean sonnet. Notice the rhyme scheme, and the shift in mood after the eighth line.

What is it about? Funerals. Except that Owen is drawing out a distinction, all the way through the poem, between the traditional religious funeral rituals of peacetime, and the total absence of anything like that when someone is killed at the front line. And it’s also interesting to think about the fact that Owen originally called his poem Anthem for Dead Youth, rather than Anthem for Doomed Youth. Is that significant, and is his final choice of title more effective? There’s a finality about dead, whereas doomed sounds more ominous, because the person is alive but not for much longer… And if you are interested in how Owen changed and revised his poems, then you can find drafts and revisions to look at online.

You need to pay full attention to how Owen uses language, and all the poetic devices that he crams into his poems; this one is no exception. Although I shall mention many of them, you may well find more.

The passing bells are those that would toll slowly at the church where a funeral was about to take place. They sounded very solemn and everyone would know what they signified. On the battlefield, the only sound is that of gunfire: look at how Owen presents this. The men die as cattle; contrast the lengthy vowel sounds early in the line with the short a of cattle, which brings us up short, as does the image of cattle, which conjures up the image of a slaughterhouse. The heavy two syllables of monstrous echo artillery fire, whilst the onomatopoeia of the stuttering rifles, and the alliteration (rifles, rapid, rattle) echoes machine-gun fire. This continues with the half rhyme in the next line (rattle, patter).

Orison is an archaic word for a prayer, a crucial part of any church funeral service. On the battlefield these are hasty – as if there would be any time at all for praying over someone killed there. Patter is remarkable in a number of ways. Firstly there is the echo of rattle I just noted above. Then there is the meaning of the word, in the sense of words used quickly without any real focus on their meaning, like the patter of a salesperson. Finally there would be, for readers in Owen’s time, the reminder of the Lord’s Prayer (which begins Pater Noster in Latin).

Into the second quatrain: such ritual would be a mockery on the battlefield. No prayers or bells then; no choirs such as would sing hymns and anthems (back to the poem’s title) at a funeral in church. Instead, the poet likens the sound of approaching shells before they explode; the word demented emphasises the utter craziness of it all. The bugles recall the training camps before the men were sent to the front (look at Owen’s poem The Send-Off) and the alliteration of sad shires reminds us of all the different local regiments which the men volunteered for, or were conscripted into. These ‘pals battalions’ often meant that entire communities of men were wiped out together in a single day’s fighting; there are monuments all along the Western Front to such battalions.

The noise and anger of the octave gives way to a calmer, more peaceful, sad and mournful mood in the sestet. Candles are an obvious part of a church service; in days gone by, special candles made from unbleached wax were often used to add solemnity (and gloom) to a funeral service. No alter servers or choirboys will be carrying these to funerals at the front. We need to remember that often there would be no physical remains after a death on the battlefield, as well as the government decision that all the war dead would be buried where they fell rather than brought back home. So the grief is internalised. The rhyming of eyes and goodbyes is very effective, very moving, as is the idea of holy glimmers.

A pall is the heavy embroidered cloth which was used to cover the coffin while it rested in church during a funeral; none of these at the front, obviously; and yet the idea of the pall is prefigured in the pallor of girls’ brows. Who are the girls? Girlfriends? Daughters? No flowers at the front either, although we may be reminded of the poppies of Flanders’ fields. And look at how the pace of the poem gradually slows down as the sestet develops, through longer vowel sounds until we reach the poignant alliteration of the final line: dusk/drawing/down/blinds. This is a reference to how blinds or curtains would be shut in a house from which a funeral set off.

It’s a powerful poem, which pays reading aloud, with attention to how the poet uses sounds and repetitions to create a solemn mood, a sad mood. We are reminded how serious a business a funeral was a century and more ago. If you need to compare this poem with another, you can do worse than pair it with another sonnet, Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier. Contrast the tone and mood of the two poems, and remember that one was written in the early days of the war, and the other when the war was part of everyone’s lives, and its awful reality had sunk in on the people of England.

These I have loved

February 6, 2022

Brooke’s poem

 

I’ve long loved this simple poem, detailing pleasurable sensations experienced by the poet; he surveys all five senses, and brings each pleasure vividly to life in few words, but in a way the reader can almost instantly appreciate and usually empathise with. It was a very ‘useful’ poem to me as a teacher, when I wanted to lead students to the possibility of trying to write their own poetry – which is not an easy task, either to set or to assess. We could discuss which of our five senses we valued the most, which one we would reluctantly agree to do without if we had to… And they could list a few sensations and experiences that brought them small moments of enjoyment, and then try and find the language which might convey more precisely to someone else just exactly what it was they had experienced… they usually enjoyed the attempt, and were often successful.

When I’m out along walking in forests, I love the sounds, particularly the birdsong, which can often be deafening in the springtime; these’s also tuning into smaller, quieter, less identifiable sounds, which sometimes lead to my seeing creatures. I can stand or sit on the seashore for ages, especially in the evening, listening to the sea, the endless crashing of the waves. And music! Bach can take me onto completely different planes of consciousness, the nearest I’ve ever got to experiencing the divine. At the same time, I’m aware I have hearing problems, and so surely miss out on many sounds: I first realised this years ago when on holiday in France. In the evening, everyone else could hear the not so gentle noise of thousands of crickets chirping away; I couldn’t…

Because I enjoy reading so much, I think I’ve always put the premium on sight. On a cold, crisp winter’s night, I love staring at the sky. Some of the constellations I can recognise; I can seek out planets if I know where they are. But it’s the sense of my infinitesimal smallness against this backdrop that moves me most.

I love to look at a well-made book: nice paper, well-bound (I love the feel and weight of it in my hands, too), and all maps I find incredibly beautiful. Turner’s Modern Rome I can stare at and never tire of, and I am so glad that I got to see it in real life once. The small and permanent sameness of some of my collection of cacti I also find very attractive. And forests… it must be genetic, but I feel at home and I can find endless, different beauties in trees, mosses, flora, fungi, the light and shade playing on the landscape.

Touch doesn’t feature that much in my pleasures. I share Brooke’s enjoyment of the sensation of climbing into a freshly made, slightly cold bed with its crisp sheets. I’ve always loved the sensation of the hot sun on my skin, and the soft feel of wool I enjoy very much.

I focus a good deal on taste and smell, for those who know me know I find much enjoyment in food and drink, not to excess, but just the act of consuming nice things. Belgian chocolate, Trappist beer, a really good malt whisky, and cheese… Camembert or Pont L’Eveque just au point is something almost to die for, in my books. And taste and smell often – but not always – combine to multiply the pleasure. I’ve baked my own bread for over forty years now, and there’s still nothing to beat the crust off a fresh-out-of-the-oven loaf, as Brooke also acknowledged.

You don’t need to be an astute reader to see I’ve made no attempt to versify my pleasures. I can’t. There are things we can’t do ourselves, but we can recognise them when others do them well. What Brooke also does, for me, is to underline that so many of the things that bring us great joy, or maybe just contentment, are actually quite simple, daily, run-of-the-mill things, and it’s good to be reminded of that.

Write your own list, now.

Five senses in fiction

First World War poetry: more for students

December 14, 2021

 

If you’re going to write intelligently about poetry and the First World War, you need to know and understand something about that war, to be able to judge how it affected the many writers who fought and were killed during those four and a half appalling years. You don’t need to read a history book, but you do need an outline that you understand of what led up to the war, the major battles, the aftermath, and the effects on those who survived. This link takes you to a short-ish account I wrote as an outline for my students. I’m not a historian; it doesn’t set out to be impartial, but to make you think, and if you are seriously interested, then you can search for more to read. I’ve also prepared a list of all sorts of reference material and other texts you might at least like to consider looking up.

Maybe you, or someone in your family, has visited some of the sites of battles in Flanders or France, perhaps in search of a relative who was killed. Ask them about their impressions of those places.

If you like listening to stuff, then this website – librivox – has a number of different accounts by people who took part in the war in many different ways, read by volunteers as audiobooks into the public domain (ie they’re free). Do a search.

Do some thinking about form. Why were there so many poets, or so much poetry written during that war? Far more, and it seems, far better than came out of the Second World War. Easier to scribble a few lines in a dugout or a trench, into a notebook? You can hardly write a novel or a play in an underground bunker. What can you do with in a poem, that you cannot do so easily in a novel or in a play? Equally, consider what you can do well in a play, or in a novel? If you’re sitting down to write something longer, having survived where your mates haven’t, then you have the time to look back, to think about and reflect on what you went through… What are the advantages of each of these literary forms? If you’re thinking at this level, and able to explain some of your ideas, then you are heading into the highest grade territory, not that that’s the only reason for doing it…

Take your thoughts to another level, and realise that there were many countries involved in what was a world war, and not only the British wrote about it: find out something about what the French, or the Germans wrote from their perspective. Think about the fact that although hundreds of thousands of British soldiers were killed, Britain wasn’t overrun and occupied by the Germans, whereas all of Belgium and large parts of France were. What difference might that have made?

Finally for this piece, do not be afraid of your own opinions and reactions: be ready to express them, as clearly as you can. As long as you can support your comments with evidence from the text you’re writing about, what you have to say is valid and worthy of credit. You can like something, or not like it, it’s doesn’t matter as long as you can explain and show why you feel like that.

On fellow-bloggers…

December 14, 2021

I found myself thinking about fellow-bloggers. Lots of you out there, some of whom I follow. And apart from one friend who occasionally posts usually on workers co-operatives and related matters, those I follow are because I like what you write about; I don’t know you personally, though images of you emerge from the ways you write and the things you write about, and over the decade or so I’ve been blogging I’ve come to feel part of a community of kindred spirits, as it were.

So, there’s a blogger in Italy who teaches English and writes about her classroom experiences, taking me back to my past as an English teacher and bringing back memories of the joys (and frustrations) of those days. It’s not only in England that education policy seems bonkers. And there’s a classics teacher and avid reader in the US whom I like to read because she takes me back to my schooldays and my love of Latin literature, reminding me that I can actually, 50+ years later, still understand a lot of it. Not many know that I almost ended up studying Classics instead of English at university: where would I, and my life, have ended up if I’d followed that road in the wood, instead of the one I actually chose? And she does some lovely translations of Latin verse.

One who has disappeared from the web lived only a dozen or so miles away, it eventually transpired, and we shared an interest in Wilfred Owen’s life story and love of his poetry. And then there’s someone who I think lives in Australia, who’s a wood-turner and who writes occasional, reflective pieces on spiritual matters which often coincide with what I’ve been thinking about and where I’m currently at in my own journey.

I follow a number of others who write about literature and science fiction; our tastes overlap at times, I sometimes like and sometimes comment. Many of them are much more structured and assiduous in their approach than I am…

And these strangers enrich my life and my thinking, and make me realise that despite all the dreadful things we regularly hear about the internet and social media, it is also a wonderful thing in the way it creates connections. I always enjoy it when people interact with what I’ve written.

It’s also become clear over the last couple of years that I’ve become something of a go-to site for students who are reading First World War literature and especially poetry; they make up a large proportion of my total visits, but sadly never comment on (or like!) what I’ve written. One day I’ll get around to adding my commentaries on a few more poems.

I write because I enjoy it, and because I have the freedom to say what I like; I write about everything I read, and so far I’ve never had to delete a comment or response. I hope to have many more years doing this. One day, I’ll perhaps even choose a slightly more interesting and attractive theme for these posts…

Sonnets, sonnets, sonnets

September 12, 2021

     I’ve come across a couple of good ideas – which of course I borrowed – during the various states of lockdown over the past year and a half. Someone wrote about listening to all the Bach cantatas, one a day, an excellent idea even if, as in my case, some days it was none and other days playing catch-up… And then someone was reading through Shakespeare’s sonnets one a day. I’d never read them all, just the usual dozen or so well-known anthologised ones that were important in teaching literature and criticism.

My reading of the sonnets was never one a day, either, just like the Bach cantatas weren’t. But it was an interesting exercise, now that I’ve reached the end. I’m glad I’ve done it, and I intend, if and when I can find the time, to spend more time studying them carefully. It’s hard to frame an overall response, really. There are a lot – 154 – too many? The sameness is rather daunting, the same structure and rhyme-scheme, apart from the single curious twelve-line one, and I’ve often used that as a way to be somewhat dismissive, especially when I’ve set Shakespeare alongside his contemporary John Donne, whose poetry I’ve always preferred for its variety of form and astonishing boldness and inventiveness.

But this reading has had me reflecting. Shakespeare’s sonnets are a tour-de-force because there are 154 of them, and even within the restrictions of that form he is both incredibly inventive, and also far wittier than I’d ever expected… again, this had been one of the areas where I’d compared him unfavourably with Donne, whose wit I still find matchless. There’s variety in Donne, but there’s an amazing number of variations on a theme in Shakespeare, which becomes captivating after a while. And then there is the inventive interplay between and among the sonnets themselves…

The other thing about the writer who set me off on this, was that they read the sonnets out loud. I loved this idea (in the privacy of my study), and parsing them as I read so that they scanned correctly and made sense was a serious challenge, which this retired English teacher rose to and enjoyed.

On being inarticulate

April 13, 2021

 

If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, you may feel that I can write reasonably clearly and in detail about literature and explain what it is I like or dislike when I’ve read a book. I’ve found myself provoked to think about why this is so much harder when it comes to art and music. On and off over a couple of days recently I slowly leafed through a hefty tome about Monet, which was copiously illustrated with reproductions of his paintings. I loved it. But why?

The simple answer to my question about art and music compared with literature is that I suppose I have some kind of expertise in the field of literature, as studying and teaching it has been pretty much my life’s work. So I can explain in detail what it is in a novel or poem, whether plot, character, themes and ideas, language or whatever, that I like or dislike; I understand and can explain how words and writers work Getting beyond the gut response ‘I like it!’ is much harder for me in other fields.

I really enjoy visiting art exhibitions, and some paintings I will happily sit and stare at for hours. I recall a Turner exhibition in Edinburgh about ten years ago; I fell in love with Modern Rome so much that I now have a copy of it on the wall at home. And an exhibition in Berlin a few years ago which juxtaposed impressionist and expressionist paintings took my breath away.

Thinking about Monet and Turner in particular, I realise that a great part of what attracts or fascinates me about many of their paintings is the attention they pay to light. Monet painted certain scenes – most famously, perhaps, the front of Rouen Cathedral – many times, at different times of day and at different seasons, presumably because he was so fascinated by the changes of lighting. Another thing that I find myself reflecting on is the difference between art and photography; to me it seems to have been liberating for artists not to feel obliged to focus on achieving some ‘realistic’ or recognisably ‘accurate’ reproduction of their subject. So the idea of impressionism speaks to me as an evocation of certain places or objects, with associated ideas and feelings, which are sketched out (wrong word, I know) for the viewer to fill out the gaps for her/himself as they choose; there’s an openness to interpretation I like about such art.

Music is even harder. J S Bach I can listen to for hours; I am in heaven. But how? Why? What does he do to me? I get headaches trying to understand anything about musical theory, and one of the regrets I do have is never learning an instrument. But without music, I don’t know where I’d be.

That’s as far as I get, and it doesn’t feel very far, compared with what I can say about literature. Is it because art (and music, for that matter) is rather more open, and rather more likely to affect one emotionally, whereas literature, though it can and does affect our emotions, is rather more analytical, rather more susceptible to analysis and deconstruction?

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