Archive for the 'poetry' Category

On death in literature (cont’d)

September 4, 2017

By way of contrast, I shall look at more recent encounters with death that have struck me in my reading, which I know is quite particular and in some ways obscure.

Two novellas focus on death itself, Victor Hugo‘s Last Day of a Condemned Man, and Leo Tolstoy‘s Death of Ivan Illich. This latter I found interesting both because of the hero’s perplexity as a seemingly trivial affliction turns out to be fatal, and also the strange withdrawal of his family and friends as they realised that he was terminally ill. I can understand both of these reactions, and yet it was quite unnerving actually to see them unfold as the story progressed. The idea that we do not know what do do about death or how to react it, is clear.

A play I studied at school for A Level, Eugene Ionesco‘s Le Roi Se Meurt, has never left me. The king learns that he must die – as must all mortals – but will not accept this; he is the king, after all. It’s an absurdist drama which nevertheless brings home real truths to all of us. He has two queens, one of whom insists he prepare himself for the inevitable, and the other who assists his refusal to accept it. Meanwhile, the kingdom physically disintegrates around him, ready for his disappearance. And he eventually realises that nobody can help him, because ‘tout le monde est le premier à mourir‘.

In Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, I have always found the suicide of the Jewish toyseller Sigismund Markus, because of the growing power of the Nazis and their anti-semitism, profoundly moving, precisely because it is presented through the eyes of the hero who is and who is not, a three year-old child. He describes calmly, almost lyrically, the dead body of the toy seller who has taken poison, and then proceeds to steal another of his beloved tin drums…

Umberto Eco leads us almost to love his young narrator Adso of Melk, the novice who accompanies William of Baskerville during his adventures in The Name of The Rose, who comes to know sexual love once, briefly, before a lifetime of chastity, and who says farewell to us in his dying days, having chronicled those events of his youth. He doesn’t die but we are saddened knowing the end is almost upon him.

Harper Lee teaches the children an important lesson about courage in To Kill A Mockingbird through the slow death of Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose, who determinedly breaks her morphine addiction with their help before she dies. And Philip Pullman, in His Dark Materials, makes his readers think very deeply about life, death and the soul through his use of daemons in Lyra’s world, and the visit that Will and Lyra make to the world of the dead. To be sure, that isn’t our world, but there is much to lead us to reflect on the significance of our own eventual passing.

Readers will be aware of my interest in the Great War. The telephone numbers of casualties can only chill us so much; it takes the death of individuals to really move us, as great poets like Owen and Sassoon surely realised, in such poems as A Working Party and Dulce et Decorum Est. And the first time I read it I was shocked: in the finally volume of her Regeneration trilogy, Pat Barker imagines Owen’s death. It comes along quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, and is over in a couple of paragraphs before we realise what is really happening – just like so many pointless deaths in war. A masterstroke of writing, though.

Literature allows us to experience things we would otherwise perhaps never experience, to think about things we might not otherwise consider. Some writers help us to confront the great unknown.

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On death in literature (1)

September 4, 2017

I hope readers will bear with me, and not find the following posts too gloomy, but occasionally in a novel I come across a death which strikes me deeply. Characters die in novels all the time, in all manner of ways, and most of the time, because we are plot-driven, we register the death and then continue with the remaining characters and the rest of the story.

We are the only species that know about death, in that we must one day die; at that time, everything ends for us (pace those believers in an afterlife) and yet everything also goes on for everyone else, as if we had never been. What, if anything, comes next, we know not, as Hamlet once told us about ‘that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’; everyone is the first person to die. It has long struck me that we devised religion as a way of coping with these awful certainties, and until relatively recently religion has done a fair, if obscurantist job; however, as the twentieth century progressed, and with it the gradual disappearance of religion from the lives of many, especially in the West, we have been inevitable brought to face our end unsupported, and our main response seems to have been to try and ensure we live as long as possible…

We are (mostly) creatures endowed with reason, and memory; we can think and reflect, and we develop attachments to people, places and things which can go beyond the merely instinctive, beyond the emotional, to another level, and here is our problem. Often we avoid, and novelists are not exempt from this ostrich-posture.

Jonathan Swift, in his Gulliver’s Travels, satirised the idea of living for ever, or even living as long as possible, far better than anyone has done since. The Struldbruggs are immortal; some of the ones met in the third part of Gulliver’s voyage are over six hundred years old, and they are the unhappiest creatures alive. Because, of course, for everyone life goes on: children want inheritances, younger folk want and need jobs; language changes over time and after six hundred years who will understand us and the way we speak? The immortals are an encumbrance. Does this remind you of anything today?

At the other end of the spectrum of taste and decorum, let’s put Jane Austen for a few moments. There are deaths in her novels, but only passim, at the very edges of the story, of minor characters, in order to facilitate an inheritance or shift the plot in a different direction, usually financial or marital: nowhere is such an unsuitable subject allowed to impinge with any depth. Eventually, at some vague point long after the end of the novel, the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse will ‘pass away’ and Emma and Mr Knightley will finally move to Donwell Abbey…

Religion long determined artistic responses to death. In Marlowe‘s Doctor Faustus, the eponymous hero’s death must accompany Lucifer’s taking of his soul at the end of the contracted twenty-four years, but what horrifies Faustus and creates the terror at the end of the play is not so much the devils tearing Faustus limb from limb as his realisation of what eternity in Hell means; he thinks he could put up with damnation if there were an end in sight, but of course this is just what there is not. Similarly the young Stephen Dedalus, in Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is driven to distraction by the famous hell-fire sermon delivered during a school retreat: the walls of Hell are four thousand miles thick, and eternity is more years than all the grains of sand on all the seashores of the world… and it’s his destination for his sexual sins.

To be fair, religion recognised how difficult it was for the individual mortal to contemplate and prepare for death and did its best to help; in mediaeval times there was the Ars Moriendi, a treatise on how to die well, and, recognising that such help is still needed in our secular age, the Catholic church in England and Wales has just launched a new website The Art of Dying Well, which offers much careful and thoughtful advice, obviously from its particular perspective. But for religion, of course, death is a beginning – mors ianua vitae – which many cannot now credit.

Adam and Eve, in Milton‘s Paradise Lost, are the only humans who don’t know what Death is. In the Garden of Eden, there is no death, all are immortal, but Death is a latent threat which will be actualised by their disobedience of God’s command not to eat of the forbidden fruit. And the fallen pair are aware that they will die, that Death is part of their punishment, but still don’t know what it actually is. Will it come immediately and strike them into oblivion, or is it to be feared and awaited at some distant moment? Genesis has Adam live for several hundred years… But the point is, Milton recognises, understands and explores this psychological fear, this existential angst, which struck those first two mythical humans, our ancestors.

to be continued

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…

On a sadly neglected epic

March 27, 2017

I was reminded by a magazine article I read a couple of days ago that next month marks the 350th anniversary of the publication of John Milton‘s epic, Paradise Lost. It deserves a post here, as it’s one of my favourite works of literature, and, as most critics seem to agree, sadly neglected nowadays.

Why sadly neglected? Firstly, it’s poetry, which doesn’t get much of a look-in nowadays, especially after some of the death-by-poetry onslaughts to which many school students are subjected by exam boards at the moment. And it’s epic poetry, which means it’s very long – twelve books, each of some thousand lines or so – remember, we are in pre-novel days here. Though prose narratives of a kind had been written by 1667, a subject like Milton’s deserved verse, and got it. That’s how stories were told.

Once we are past poetry and length, then there’s the subject-matter: religion. Specifically, to ‘justify the ways of God to Man’, as the poet himself put it. And religion does not figure large in many people’s lives nowadays. In Milton’s theology, everything, but everything centres around the felix culpa, that ‘happy fault’, the Fall, which allowed God to manifest his love and mercy to humans and the Son of God to offer himself as a sacrifice to atone for that original sin. The whole of human and cosmic history revolves around the events of Book IX. And of course, for Milton, it was all Eve’s fault, a silly woman deceived by a talking snake, who then tricks her gullible partner into repeating her sin… truly in this twenty-first century Paradise Lost doesn’t seem to have a great deal going for it.

Why do I like it? For me, the Adam and Eve story is at the level of a legend, but it’s part of our cultural past in the West, whether one is Christian or not. And it’s a good story. I don’t buy the Son of God sacrifice and redemption story either, but again, the Bible stories, whatever your take on them, are all part of our past, out history and cultural heritage, whether or not one accepts them as true. And to lose our past is just that, a loss.

But it goes deeper than that. Whether intended or not, Milton explores and shows us just what makes us human: our free will, our choices, our wish not to be limited or confined by others’ rules. The Adam and Eve after the Fall, after their comfort sex, are people like us, with our flaws and faults; before the fall they were not human as we know it. And in the cosmic story which surrounds the little, human story of Adam and Eve, the same issues are fought over: good and evil, and the origins of evil in the world; freedom and servitude; the very purpose of existence. It’s no surprise to me that as brilliant a writer as Philip Pullman has offered a contemporary take on this story and its implications for human beings nowadays, in his Northern Lights trilogy, and in the up-coming Book of Dust. Pullman celebrates the liberation offered by what Milton the Christian must condemn…

And, for me, these philosophical arguments are reinforced, if not surpassed, by the poetry. It is stunning, and a work of true genius: Milton’s style matches the subject-matter. There is the grandeur of God in his Heaven, the magnificent defiance of Satan and his cohorts, and the human intimacy of out human forebears. There is magnificent description on a cosmic scale, warfare in the heavens, the beauty of Paradise: the rhythm of Milton’s verse captures it all, as he extends the scope and scale of the English language with far more newly-coined words than Shakespeare (though more of Shakespeare’s have survived into contemporary usage). I will admit that it’s a challenge, nowadays, to read on the page, though well worth it; this is the reason why I usually recommend the outstanding, unabridged audio recording by Anton Lesser on Naxos Audiobooks as the way to enjoy the poem. It deserves to be enjoyed by more people…

My ABC of Reading: U is for Unseen

December 19, 2016

One of the things I remember from my days of studying at school and university is the unseen, a word capable of striking terror into one’s brain: to be faced with a passage of text – prose, poetry or drama, that one had never previously met, and being expected to analyse it and write intelligently about it, against the clock. And, of course, the unseen was in Latin or French, if that was the subject of the examination.

When examiners are pushed into all sorts of tricky corners by clueless government ministers who think that teachers are cheating again, surely what they need is recourse to the good, old-fashioned unseen paper. Only once in my long teaching career was an unseen not an unseen, when I opened the A level paper my students were taking and saw a short story I’d studied with some of them in the fifth form, and thought – I wonder how many of you will remember this? And that previous encounter would have been of no advantage to them anyway, for the unseen paper tests your skills and understanding, and your ability to apply these, as well as your ability to write intelligently; no cheating possible here. If you’ve been a committed and reasonably assiduous student over two years, you can cope with anything you’ll meet.

Yet you could practise for this paper, and we did. A weekly class where I would put an unseen text in front of the class to see what they would make of it; all you could do by way of training really was to feed them prompts, encouragement and feedback, and supply them with a useful list of terminology and definitions. Apart from that, if you covered a wide enough spectrum of literature over time, from sixteenth to twentieth century, intelligent students would build up the beginnings of a jigsaw of literature and its history, with enough knowledge to enable them to conjecture intelligently and explore an unfamiliar text with a sensible approach.

And, of course, I got to choose the unseen texts, and could feed them all kinds of extracts from my favourite novels, or my favourite poems; an advantage of this was that I would end up eventually explaining and clarifying what it was that I specifically liked about these texts, whether language or metaphor or rhyme or build-up of tension or whatever, and the class learned something of how to explore and explain their reactions to texts, as well.

Over time, I came to save one particular poem for the last class I took with a group. It was William McGonagall’s The Tay Bridge Disaster. As usual, we’d read the text aloud – very important for hearing all sorts of things that one should pay attention to – and then they were invited to begin their analysis. Often, they would wrench themselves into trying to make all kinds of appreciative comments, while I bit my lower lip. I loved the student, whose name I sadly cannot remember, who, one year, put up their hand and said, tentatively, “Sir, this is crap, isn’t it?” And that was an object lesson for everyone.

My A-Z of Reading: T is for Time

December 18, 2016

Time is one of those subjects writers have plenty to say about, even if it’s only the now tired old ‘carpe diem’ trope of Marvell’s To His Coy Mistris. I suspect humans are the only species for whom time is actually a thing, given that we can notice and measure its passage, and feel imprisoned by it because of our own mortality; if we weren’t, would we want to become Swift’s Struldbrugs? I think not…

I’m not sure when writers first woke up to the idea of time travel, though HG Wells may actually have been the first, sending his traveller first of all some 800,000 years into the future to see humanity separated into two distinct species – I’m starting to think that may happen rather sooner – and then untold millions of years to look upon the death of the planet in that haunting scene on the seashore. Wells’ idea was a good one and has been reworked marvellously by Christopher Priest in The Space Machine, and by Ronald Wright in A Scientific Romance, both of which I recommend highly.

Other writers have sought to imagine eternity for us, insofar as that is possible for us humans. James Joyce has Stephen Dedalus reduced to a quivering wreck confronted by the prospect of eternal damnation for his sins after a hellfire sermon in A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man. There is the picture of the walls of hell four thousand miles thick, and the grains of sand on the seashore, each as a year counted off, and making not a pinprick on the aeons of torment: scary stuff. Arthur C Clarke (The City and the Stars) creates a future world where we are a thousand million years in the future, and everyone is randomly regenerated from time to time by the computer that runs the world. And then there is Olaf Stapledon’s masterpiece from the 1930s – Last and First Men – which gradually takes the human race further and further into the future, through various races of man and moves to other planets, before the end must come when the sun dies: our own petty concerns and memories are cruelly shrunk to nought by the stupendous weight of the years counted off.

And then there are the writers who somehow manage to make us see just how we are imprisoned by time and our own humanity. After their epic adventures in his Northern Lights trilogy, which take them through many worlds, Will and Lyra, still just teenagers, find love (and for me, Philip Pullman does this convincingly) before they must be separated for ever in their own different though parallel universes, doomed to remember each other annually on their bench in the Oxford Botanical Garden. It’s only fiction, but for me a truly painful or tragic ending…

Hermann Hesse shows us, in the masterly Narziss and Goldmund, the two characters, friends, reflections of each other, complementary parts of the same person in so many ways, separated from each other by their very different paths and choices in their lives and equally drawn back to each other numerous times, until one must see the other die…

And once again, I’m brought back to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose: the young Adso and the older, wiser William and their adventure together, in that mediaeval world where you can be separated from someone and never hear about them or from them again, which is what happens, of course. And the bond between them remains for Adso right to the very end of his long life, when he tells his story and looks back on the woman he slept with once, magically, all those years ago and still wonders about…

Writers can make us feel, remind us of the pain of being human, in the days, the memories and the people we can know and must leave behind one day (or who must leave us behind). They can do this with invented characters and with words, which for me has always been one of the real wonders of literature, right from when, as a child, I reached the end of The Wind in the Willows, and with a great pang, wondered to myself, ‘and what did they all do then?’

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