Tag Archives: POETRY

MEN OF ENGLAND…

14 Jul

imagesBASTILLE DAY: July 14th 2015.

“THE PROFUNDITY OF IDEOLOGY IS IMMORTAL”

“If you find yourself in the majority , you should reconsider your position.”

Mark Twain

Men of England, wherefore plough

For the lords who lay ye low?

Wherefore weave with toil and care

The rich robes your tyrants wear?

Wherefore feed and clothe and save

From the cradle to the grave

Those ungrateful drones who would

Drain your sweat—nay, drink your blood?

Wherefore, Bees of England, forge

Many a weapon, chain, and scourge,

That these stingless drones may spoil

The forced produce of your toil?

Have ye leisure, comfort, calm,

Shelter, food, love’s gentle balm?

Or what is it ye buy so dear

With your pain and with your fear?

The seed ye sow, another reaps;

The wealth ye find, another keeps;

The robes ye weave, another wears;

The arms ye forge, another bears.

Sow seed—but let no tyrant reap:

Find wealth—let no imposter heap:

Weave robes—let not the idle wear:

Forge arms—in your defence to bear.

Shrink to your cellars, holes, and cells—

In hall ye deck another dwells.

Why shake the chains ye wrought? Ye see

The steel ye tempered glance on ye.

With plough and spade and hoe and loom

Trace your grave and build your tomb

And weave your winding-sheet—till fair

England be your Sepulchre.

P.B.S

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YEATS – THE TOWER

4 Aug

 

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Unterecker, John. “The Tower” A Reader’s Guide to William Butler Yeats. Irish Literature Series. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1996

Summary

               Published in 1928 “The Tower” contains some of the most powerful work produced during Yeats’ life time. The conspicuous title of the book – taken from “Thoor Ballylee Castle” the sometimes home of Yeats and his family – is representative of the blasted, impotent, isolationism incorporated throughout the work. Encompassing much of his poetry from the early 1920’s there are prevailing allusions to the Irish struggle, the repudiation of civil conflict and the First World War. Artistic maturity and the influence of Ezra Pound’s modernist approach detract from his earlier romantic influences and represent a new invigorated style. Given that Ireland was in turmoil and his own theosophical crisis, it’s understandable that outside forces helped to shape this later work. Although extremely bitter in context, it represents a poetical deviation in both pace and style, exhibiting as it does a defined shift in subjectivity. Rather than continuing in the vein of Irish cultural nationalism, Yeats instead concentrates on the existentialist nature of growing old and everything that represents. Aware of his own mortality, Yeats confronts the paradox of creative abundance and physical decrepitude in the poems “Sailing to Byzantium” and “A man Young and Old.” Like much of the poetry contained within the volume, they provide a framework that allowed Yeats to express a new personal vision in “an architectonic response to human life.” Unterecker cites the “Winding Stair” – Yeats next collection of poems – as a natural balance to “The Tower”: a body of work espousing an opposing view. In referring to the “Winding Stair,” Yeats informs his readership that he will, “ put off the bitterness of Irish quarrels and write my most amiable verse,” which intuitively presents the reader of this chapter with the defined imagery of a scaffold on which the crumbling tower was built and its obvious allusions to sterility and decay. Although not the easiest of chapters to comprehend, given Unterecker’s pathological desire to dissect each mote of minutia, “The Tower” is an important mile stone in Yeats poetical development. No longer symbolic of a nation wrapped in the mists of mythology and draped in Celtic connotation but instead of a fledgling Ireland immerging from the brick dust of communal struggle, clothed in the garb of the poet’s own mortality.

Strengths

The associations to the “The Winding Stair” are useful as they at least demonstrate the duality of Yeats in this later period of his life.

Weaknesses

Unterecker is verbose to the point of incoherence, presenting the new reader with a litany of formulaic hieroglyphics. If the reader is unfamiliar with Yeats then delving into the subjectivity of the poet neither enhances of imbues the work to the would-be scholar. Rather than reflect on the minutia of Yeats, the author should perhaps broaden his scope in order to widen audience appreciation, instead of offering claustrophobic prose that do little to endear the reader to the poet. 

Interesting quotes

1. “I was astonished at its bitterness, and long to live out Ireland that I may find some new vintage.” (p.170)

2. “Perhaps if I was in better health I could be content to be bitter” (P.170)

3. [My poems] “are not philosophical but simple and passionate, a lamentation over lost peace and lost hope.” (p.177)

YEATS – THE MYTH OF THE MASK

2 Aug

 

 

WILD SWANS AT COOLE

 

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In earlier poetry Yeats used the concept of the mask to both identify with and promote an essence of something beyond the scope of political wrangling. His vision of a tangible Ireland circumvented land boundaries and harkened back to an age, that with a little poetical persuasion, “could be realized in the hearts of an awakening people” (Unterecker p.17). The knowledge of a much older Ireland contained within the stories of the uneducated classes was something he’d recognized and utilized to create a patriotic foundation, by asserting a national provenance based on myth. Every nation could trace it roots back to a period of time more shrouded in superstition than reality and Yeats utilized this pretext on which to found an Irish identity. The mask was simply a framework on which to drape the fabric of nationhood. In later life, Yeats used his own experience and maturity to color his writing, lending it a discernable tincture than can be found in “Unterecker’s” allusions to poetical division in the subgenres of “survivor,” “defeated lover” and “scholar.” Rather than a mask or a pretense of origin, Yeats incorporated life experience to frame his later poetry.

               In 1919 when “The Wild Swans at Coole” was published, much had changed, not only in Yeats’ life, but with the world in general. The First World War had been fought and won by the allied powers, the Easter Rising, although crushed, had reawakened Irish nationalism and his long standing romantic entanglement had been resolved (although not necessarily for the better.) Yeats was now a married man in middle age with an invigorated interest in the occult. The automatic-writings of his wife had led to new inspiration and an insider view of what it was to be alive in a world that most people couldn’t begin to perceive. Armed with what he believed to be the truth, he set about applying fresh visages to old subjects. Imbued with the sentiment of loss – hardly surprising given the perception of life in the early years of the 20th Century after the debacle of the trenches – his work was more retrospective than contemporary.

               Although an older man, Yeats was now a poet with perspective, one who’d experienced life and who’d used his own maturity to embellish his work. The objectivity of hindsight created an awareness of mortality: a consciousness of diminishing time, rather than the optimism of burgeoning youth, that allowed the poet pause for reflection. Rather than masks – as “Unterecker” suggests – Yeats applies perceptible veneers to his writing. There’s no longer any reason to mask his work as being in the most stable position – financially and socially – of his life, he’s able to view the world around him in with an objectivity never before expressed. “The Wild Swans at Coole” was a milestone in Yeats’ career. He no longer had to be illusive, but could wholeheartedly express the hopes and fears of a mortal man aware of the juxtaposition of both regret and fulfillment.

               There’s undoubtedly a sense of survival in his work. Ensconced within the philanthropy of Lady Gregory’s estate, Yeats reflects on both the death of her son and the realization of the temporality of life. On the one hand, a young man has been destroyed by political forces beyond his understanding and on the other Mother Nature, who’s simply exacting that which is hers. Confronted with death, Yeats recognizes the inevitability of his own. In the poem “Wild Swans” Yeats expresses these viewpoints succinctly. Caught up in the carnage of romantic rejection, advancing age, mortality and the ever present Irish Question, Yeats outdoes himself in what is probably one of his greater poetical endeavors.

               Yeats counts the swans upon the water, “Upon the brimming water among the stones, are nine-and-fifty swans,” an experience he’s enjoyed during each of the nineteen summers he’s spent on the estate. Nothing is more constant than the birds that swim – an allusion to the monogamous love in swans but not in people – “lover by lover,” than the swans that greet his annual arrival. Except this time, there’s something unusual. There’s a deliberate recognition of their number. Rather than a round, poetical sixty, they total only fifty nine. The swans are missing one of their numbers, a creature of the air, just like themselves, who’s failed to return to the Arcadia of Coole. Lady Gregory’s son was that “swan.” A pilot lost to the Great War: an inevitable absenteeism of which Yeats is profoundly aware. The concept of the swans as a constant summer feature strikes a note with Yeats, as although they’re seemingly immune to change, he and the world about him are not. They swim, whilst he treads with a heavier footstep: an allusion to the progress of old age and the burden of experience. What Yeats really questions, is what will happen when he’s no longer there and the swans are still swimming? Although a survivor himself, it’s the swans, or at least their progeny, that will outlive him as they “Delight men’s eyes when I awake someday, to find they have flown away?” The swans are forever, rather like – although unbeknownst to him at the time – his verse which continues to fly from ear to ear despite the demise of its creator. The estate at Coole is both a memory and an Elysium, the association of all its facets forever captured in rhyme. Yeats survives, despite his mortality, just as the swans continue to reappear.

               Choosing “neither King nor Keiser” Yeats did not fight or support the factions of the war. Instead he chose the dubious neutrality of Ireland which aligned itself philosophically against the morality of a rogue nation invading a lesser nation and yet endured the political contradiction that understood the jackboot of colonialism. “Unterecker” refers to the mask of the scholar but perhaps it’s more a taint of political savvy that pervades Yeats poetry instead of the brilliance of the man himself. Yeats was asked during the progress of the First World War to add his voice in poetical support of the war which he cannily didn’t do. Despite the fact that thousands of Irishmen fought for Britain, Yeats refused to involve himself. Instead of adding to the diatribe on the political misadventure of trench warfare, something that was all too common in the broadsheets, he instead penned a remittance which now can be seen as self-serving. The poem’s original title, “To a friend who has asked me to sign his manifesto to the neutral nations,” suggests a “toysome evasiveness regarding the politics surrounding the war.”(Haughey p.162) Unlike any other period in his life Yeats, as a poet, chose to be silent. This was entirely new, something he’d never done before, guilty as he was of having penned pedantic poetry to disparage an organization that wouldn’t hang the paintings of a friend. Yeats had always been political and yet in this one instance chose to remain silent. “On being asked for a War Poem” is a jibe at the political class suggesting that poets have, “no gift to set a statesman right.” This tongue-in-cheek statement is quickly followed with the mocking, “Who can please a young girl in the indolence of her youth,” which expresses in its comparison, Yeats’ true position. In later years Yeats refused to include the poetry of “Wilfred Owen” in a compilation of British poetry, something which rather than political can only be seen, at the extent of charity, as “simply wrong-headed and churlish in his evaluation.”(qtd. web #2) Yeats was a political animal and yet with the scent of rebellion and Irish independence in the air, was coy enough to keep his own counsel.

               “Unterecker’s” third suggested mask is that of the defeated lover. Yeats rejected in love by Maud Gonne and disturbingly by her daughter as well, settles to an unfaithful marriage. Rather than a man looking for the peace of matrimonial partnership, he can never relinquish the emotions of a love lost. “Broken Dreams” is such a poem of unrequited longing and the encroaching, inevitability of death. Not dissimilar to “When you are old,” Yeats nods by a fire and peruses the book of memory, in which he finds his old love Maud Gone. Described as an old lady “for whom young men no longer suddenly catch their breath when [she is] passing.” He can’t help but reflect on the woman she once was, and of her, “beauty deep.” A quintessential emotion of human regret, that Yeats profoundly captures. Although slightly disparaging, it freezes – “When age might well have chilled his blood” – a moment in time. When the poet is asked by the young man to, “Tell [him] of that lady, the poet stubborn with his passion sang us,” Yeats surprisingly reflects on eternity and a supernatural reconciliation. Given that Yeats was a fervent occultist, this may reflect more on inspiration gained from his mystical-meddling than mature religious reaffirmation. In either context it does reveal that despite her loss and the years in between, nothing really changed in the way he felt about her.

               “Unterecker” although alluding to differences in the poetry styles contained within the book is incorrect in his immediate associations with masks. Yeats’ poems are clearly themed: a lucid presentation of maturity and a profound recollection, that help to frame his work. Not choosing to dissemble with romantic association, Irish nationalism, or Celtic mysticism, Yeats instead is forthright in his representations, exhibiting both an honest and a recognizable sensibility. Rather than a mask or a pretense of origin, Yeats incorporates his own life experience to frame his poetry.

Works Cited

  1. Haughey, Jim. The First World War in Irish Poetry Bucknell University Press (2002) p.162. Print
  2. http://www.english.emory.edu/LostPoets/Yeats.html. Web
  3. A Reader’s Guide to William Butler Yeats, Unterecker, John; Syracuse University press; New York, 1959. Print

ART FOR IRELAND’S SAKE

21 Jul

Yeats and the Creation of the Irish Myth

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               William Butler Yeats was born into the remnants of what’d been the protestant ascendancy, the privileged, British backed community that was supposed to transform the Irish into English, but which instead did exactly the opposite. Yet another failed political move on the part of the British to crush the inhabitants of the rain swept nation by means of political, social and economic pressure that would supposedly bring them under the yoke of empire. After five hundred years of conflict, Ireland was proving a hard nut to crack. As the preferred class of Ireland, the Protestants held all major posts within the puppet government controlled from London at the expense of the Catholic majority. Naturally this created friction between the two distinct denominations and could only result in unrest and conflict, as history has shown. Ireland was awakening and struggling for an Identity. It was the pursuit of identity that would eventually knit the island nation together and forge that which is quintessentially Irish. Rather than a collection of communities, Ireland had to coalesce into a single country which meant that there had to be a definition of what it was to be Irish and the creation of a national dissonance. Not unlike other nations who’ve cobbled together that which expresses their supposed national traits, Ireland needed a cultural bond that would meld the nation into the imagination of itself. Ireland needed a poet and found him embodied in William Butler Yeats.            Through his poetry and political associations, Yeats helped to cement that which today, is considered Ireland. His verse and retrospective romanticism allowing for a communal vision that would eventually lead to an Ireland that, although not united, is today recognizable as a defined cultural entity.

               For fifteen years of his early life, Yeats was raised in England, spending summers with his Irish mother in Sligo. The experience of each county divided Yeats loyalties, endowing him with an affinity for both, but a home in neither. He was exposed to the political prejudice of Britain towards the Irish as well as the juxtaposition of his mother’s idyllic and so must have experienced provenancial disparity. Therefore, as an Anglo-Irish man with conflicted origins, he was drawn towards Irish nationalism and the tantalizing concept of home rule and a free Ireland.

               Yeats finally found his true poetical footing after joining the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1885. Although wearing many different hats throughout his writing career, including the autobiographical, historical and occultist it is the political that simultaneously raised awareness of his own early work and that of the Finnian cause. (p.4) His later meeting with the firebrand and political activist Maud Gonne in 1889, set his him on a path that would shape his poetry and forever influence the selective memory of a birthing nation. Infatuated by both her beauty and personality Yeats claimed, “She [would] make many converts to her political beliefs.” (p.12) Gonne was so influential in his political leanings, that if she had told Yeat’s the world was flat, “he would gladly have joined her party.”(p.12) Consequently, rather than a political activist himself, he was seduced into a cause that would forever be reflected in the poetry he wrote and which later, would come to be considered as the very essence of Ireland. Under the influence of Gonne his poetry was elevated to the level of political consciousness, becoming as it did a very necessary tool in the arsenal of the Free Staters and separatists. In order to persuade Gonne that he was sufficiently nationalist and, “in order to satisfy her revolutionary thirst, he began to focus his poetry on Irish themes.” (p.13) Gonne provided Yeats with the focus and necessary objectivity that would later enable him to describe a, “life lived.” (p.11) Fearing that the, “personal utterance[s] of his earlier youth,” (p.16) would lend itself to sentimentality, Yeats concentrated on objectifying a subjective truth: in his own words, “A modern country…. resemble[s] that which is most unlike a modern Ireland.” (p.17) With this in mind Yeats collected Irish myths and country tales, assembling and cataloging the ancient oral tradition and showcasing them in his own work. Through his so called Irish poetry he began to create in the minds of men, “the myth founded mask of Ireland (p.17)

               Gonne and the Brotherhood were clearly influential in the early bundle “Crossways” – released in 1889 – and lend a political identity to his future work. It’s within “Crossways” that Yeats begins to recognize his own relationship with Ireland and alludes to the adoption of a mask that would eventually become that of the Irish. His political themes are represented throughout the book, but in particular in “Salley Gardens.”

               Although a short, sweet almost lyrical couplet, rather than a poem, “Down by Salley Gardens” represents an unambiguous if less obvious, political position. “She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree; But I, being young and foolish, with her would not agree.”A clandestine meeting perhaps of lovers perched on the moment of consummation. A female, despite her romantic inclination, warns her lover to slow down, enjoy the moment and not be so hasty. All will apparently come to pass if only patience is applied. Not willing to listen to her words the youth is intent on his goal and in his hasty pursuit of love falls fowl of his own impatience and ultimately loses everything. What at first appears to be a lover’s lamentation of loving in haste, is very clearly a line in the sand; a political stance describing a moment of choice.

               Yeats uses the imagery of the woman in the poem to represent Ireland, just as he does in his later play “Cathleen ni Houlihan” in which Gonne played the part of the motherland. The Youth is representative of the followers of “Parnell”, and instead of an account of the urgency of sexual gratification, is the fight for Irish recognition and the battle for home rule. In their haste to change the status-quo between Britain and Ireland, the Fennian movement is impetuous and in being so, not only sullies its own reputation, but almost puts political objective beyond their reach in the same lamentable vein as the lover in the poem “But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.” Viewed by the British Government as revolutionary, their fight is quickly demonized and their cause ridiculed. Yeats is not proposing temperance but patience. The Ireland they all desire will come, but as with most things not as quickly as the movement would like. In the slow steady plod of politics the birthing of a nation will have to jump through the necessary hurdles in order to achieve its eventual goal of a free Ireland. The “young Ireland” requires patience of her patriots, insisting that their moment will succeed, if only they will commit. Republicanism is in the first throes of love and before consummation can occur, must tread the weary path of the would-be lover represented in the poem. Yeats captures brilliantly, through the sexual tension of the lovers, the relationship between the Republicans and political ambition.

             Often in his poetry, Yeats draws on the mythological and Celtic to parallel political ambition. Through the cementation of the perceived character of Ireland an idyllic is created that’s worth fighting for. In order to create a common Irish consciousness Yeats implants the idea of nationhood, that although supposedly having always existed, requires protection in order for it to flourish. Much as England usurped the Lebanese Saint George as their adopted patron saint and their alleged Trojan birthright in the persona of Felix Brutus, Yeats creates the mystique of provenance. Drawn from the depths of Irish folklore and collected from the mouths of Irish peasantry Yeats paints a picture clothed in the mists of imagination. Rather than offering a history and chronology of Ireland he presents a moment that is almost tangible in his poem “The Stolen Child.” The child is tempted by the faeries to leave the cruel world and return to the Arcadia just beyond site: there where the true spirit of Ireland lays. “Come away o’ human child, to the waters and the wild.” The poem is a reminder of the way things were and offers a gentle nudge of contemplation to the condition of the nation and where it’s going. Should the children of Ireland be raised in a land unsuitable to even their faery folk, or should an Ireland be created that encompasses the future of their youth and the sanctity of all they hold to be true? Yeats suggests, “With a faery, hand in hand, for the worlds more full of weeping than you can understand.” The poem although beautiful, could almost be seen as a call to arms, not dissimilar to the kind of propaganda Britain held up to its men at the start of the First World War. With unashamed sentimentality, soldiers were lured to the trenches in the same manner the Irish are lured to the woods. Yeats created a land for the youth of Ireland, blanketed in tradition, just as Britain offered the fighting men, a home for heroes upon their return.

               Yeats continues this idea in his later bundle “The Wind Among the Reeds” published in 1899. In his poem “The Fiddler of Dooney,” Yeats offers an intrinsically Irish attitude. With the religious divisions that had so troubled the Irish – from the Protestantism of their rulers and the innate Catholicism that had allegedly been introduced by Saint Patrick – he recognizes that the divisiveness of religion is just as harmful to a united people as foreign rule. The Irish are not only divided as a nation, but also by their faith. Without resolution, no matter how hard the fight the British, they can never win the battle amongst themselves. For, “they read in the books of prayer,” and the fiddler (Yeats), “read in my book of songs, bought at Sligo fair.” The Fiddler is first and foremost Irish, neither following the church nor believing their rhetoric. He depicts an Ireland in the sunshine where, without the chastisement of priests, the people can create their own unity. The only thing separating the fiddler’s dalliance and the problems of religion are the tangible smiles on the faces and the happiness in their hearts, “For the good are always merry, save by an evil chance, and the merry love the fiddle and the merry love to dance.” Ireland is clearly a nation of people, not of religious faction, as Yeats appeals in his alternative view. The Arcadian concept of Ireland also creates a notion of homeland and of belonging, recognition of self and what it means to be Irish. As jaded as that concept may sometimes appear, it is the simple conditioning of attitude that creates nations and Yeats, along with his Republican brothers, is keenly aware of that. Decrying sentimentality in verse as he does, one has to look for the “mask” and try to understand that which isn’t obvious. Yeats isn’t describing an Ireland for posterity, but instead is asking the Irish to recognize themselves. This is who we are, this is what we do; this is the Ireland we all desire. With the implementation of the Irish myth, Yeats takes his readers by the hearts in order that their minds will follow. One could even go as far as to say that he propagandizes the notion of Ireland and the Irish.

               The myth of the Irish, espoused through Yeats’ poetry, undoubtedly promotes present day attitudes that are representative of the idea of Ireland. Through his poetry and associations, Yeats helped to cement that which is contemporarily considered Irish: his verse and retrospective romanticism allowing for the creation of a cultural identity. Without his political association and the political struggles of 19th Century Ireland, Yeats may very well, not have been the major poet contemporary society considers him to be. His poetry, despite his ability, was both of and for the moment. A formative moment in time, both for Yeats and the country he represents today.

 

Works Cited

Unterecker, John. A Reader’s Guide to William Butler Yeats: New York. Syracuse University Press. 1996. Print

PERFECT SKY

10 May

PERFECT SKY

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Blue blown and sky chased, the puff gusted halcyon of summer longs.
With soft, splashed shape, nimbus hangs freshed breathed and heaven braced.
Buoyant – steepled, storeyed, stacked with soft crush.
The easy ooze of liquid light, the gentle creep of summer hush.
Scattered like cushions the blinding sapphire of glassed forever
Submits to dapple daubed shadow. The brushed caress of Westings past. 
 

VICTORIAN POETRY – VOICES IN THE WILDERNESS

3 May

             

Proto-feminism viewed through the poetry of  Bronte and Rossetti

 

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  The social and political upheavals of the nineteenth-century reverberated through all strata of Victorian society. Science and reason were replacing inherent irrationality and religious doctrine. Contemporary revelations in theory and invention drove a forced adaptation to modernity, the tempo and like of which had never before been experienced. A “Brave New Britain” was being forced upon the public whether they desired it or not. What had once been considered self-evident was systematically eroded by the forward march of what some described as progress. London itself was metamorphosing from a medieval city into a modern megalopolis, a Victorian Babylon with the demolition of the old allowing for the creation of the new. The development of the railroads, the introduction of coal-gas, and modern sewers were some of the improvements to which the Victorians had to quickly adapt. Cultural concepts were changing, the old theologies replaced by the new sciences. Ideas that before had been heretically unutterable were now under careful consideration, the old gods replaced by scientific revelation.

               This change was not without comment, and the backlash and resistance to it can be found in the poetry of the day. The polemic was undergoing an identity crisis and for the first time the complainant wasn’t singularly male. The rise of the female voice, a new point of view previously dismissed by the patriarchal society, was an unfamiliar concept. Although much of the female poetry of the era is questionable in its complexity and sophistication, the first of these voices were none the less beginning to emerge.

               Due to disparity in gender equivalency, women were expected to fulfill designated roles and had limited or no access to formal education. Their poetry, although constrained and subject to societal conditioning, was a medium of female expression, and a window on the Victorian era and their role within it. Whether by restraint, geographical location, or social obligation the female voice, although barely audible, was pitched differently than that of their male contemporaries. In particular the poetry of Anne Bronte describes physical and societal isolation, and is more personal in its lament, revealing as it does her desperate position rather than a unified voice for female liberation. Gabriella Rossetti on the other hand, although subjected to patriarchal constraints, provided illumination into female thinking, and offered the spark of optimism that women would eventually be on a par with their male counterparts. Rossetti’s poetry is a chink of light in the oppressive darkness, suggesting a different point of view and an alternative way forward, whereas Bronte’s is a subliminal lament from the shadows.

               By comparing and contrasting the poetry of Anne Bronte and Christina Rossetti it’s possible to analyze the position and perspective of Victorian women towards themselves and their own situations. The poetry of Bronte records the isolated, desperation of women; Rossetti exhibits tentative steps towards equality and the prospect of female assimilation. Although both poets were yoked by societal convention, their dissimilar voices attest to the universality of the female plight and the necessity for change.

               Anne Bronte hailed from Haworth on the Yorkshire Dales, a God-forsaken, windswept, rain- lashed wilderness where the enlightenment of the Victorian age struggled to make its mark. Housed in a vicarage overlooking the church where her didactic father was the pastor, Anne’s daily view was of a grave yard replete with a labyrinth of tomb stones. Confined by weather, parental attitude, and religious duties the metaphor of the grave yard was an all-encompassing idea that featured regularly in her verse. Considering the bleakness of her situation it’s little wonder that she sought solace on the local moors, which by contrast to her living arrangements, and as evidenced in her inspired poetry, was a liberating experience. Her awareness of intrinsic beauty is reminiscent of the earlier Romantics; her attitude towards the sublimity of raw nature juxtaposing the harsh realities of everyday life.

               Anne Bronte describes both the geographical loneliness of her upbringing as well as the societal isolation brought about by inherent attitudes towards Victorian women. Her poetry screams “escapism” her only recourse was to take flight on her poetical imaginings. In “My Soul is Awakened, My Spirit is Souring,” her verse offers what at first appears to be a pastoral Arcadian reflection, but which is actually a lament. The poem is a metaphor for female subjugation, the barren isolated moor of which she writes representative of the female outlook and their muted, universal desire for more. Her imagery is strong, but her message stronger.

               Although the heathland around her appears to be dead there’s an understanding of innate beauty, “The long withered grass in the sunshine is glancing/…The bare trees[…] tossing their branches on high.” Her personal realization of unfulfilled ambition and her plaintive regret “I wish I could see how the ocean is lashing, /..The foam of it billows to whirlwinds of spray.” Bronte illustrates unbounded, savage nature, a composition of excitement and tumult that’s obviously not representative of her own experience. There’s an isolated, imaginary omniscience, both with regard to her life experience and her limited world view. Her inspiration is drawn from a finite aspect, and yet she maintains a forlorn desire to be as free as the wind that buffets the granite escarpments of her native Yorkshire, “My soul is awakened, my spirit is soaring, and carried aloft on the wings of a breeze.” The recognition that Britain is changing, that the Victorian age is ushering in new ideas and opportunities encapsulated within, “Far above and around me the wild wind is roaring / Arousing to rapture the earth and the seas.” Standing alone on a fell-side, and yet aware of world changing events and societal repression, a young woman frustratingly dreams of more. Earth bound and shackled by society, she’s forced to endure the mundane. Even Anne’s imagination is limited in its scope. Simplistically she dreams of anywhere but the heath, or perhaps yearns simply for a fulfilling life. Anne’s plaintive cry is that of sequestered womankind, desperate to be rescued from unrelenting subjugation. A poetical improbability as her poem concludes.

               Christina Rossetti offers a different view of Victorian womanhood, her perspective much broader than that of Anne. An immigrant to Britain she was raised in the hubbub of London and educated by her scholarly father, their home the haunt of exiled intellectuals and artists. Growing up in the city with the luxuries of the capital was a far cry from the bleak and austere moors that were the haunts of Anne, and therefore engendered a completely different view of life. Rossetti witnessed Victorianism in all its affected glory, both the good and the bad, and rather than being subjected to the rural quotidian was the product of an enlightened, urban family. Still, as a woman in Victorian Britain this was not enough to liberate her, and just as in Bronte’s poetry there are similar allusions to oppression and repressed desire. Hers is a voice that although recognizing the limitations of nineteenth century females, projects a desire to change their intolerable position and lack of opportunity.

              “Goblin Market” is probably Rossetti’s most famous poem, an amalgamation of social commentary, repressed passion, and a polemic on the patriarchal system. Dependent upon the reading, one is able to recognize her dissimilar poetical allusions; underlying eroticism gives voice to female desire, the goblin market men to endemic patriarchy, and the richness of literary visualization to a Utopia beyond the reach of her sex.

               The poem begins with a blazon of delicacies, a cornucopia of fruits that are offered by the goblins to the unwary sisters; rich, vibrant alliteration that suggests mouthwatering abundance. Rossetti seems to be showcasing the unattainable, a smorgasbord of earthly delights, “Rare pears and greengages, damsons and bilberries, taste them and try.” In reality the choices offered to women were limited, with the affluent constrained to hopeful fulfilment through marriage, and the lowly to menial labor on the factory floor or the ignominy of prostitution and the status of fallen women. “Goblin Market” provides a dreamscape of opportunity, the experience of the sisters striking the bell necessary to awaken womanhood.

               This allusion offers the briefest glimpse of an alternative social order that was beyond the grasp of ordinary women unless they were prepared to compromise themselves and their bodies. “We must not look on Goblin men, we must not buy their fruits, who knows upon what soil they fed their hungry thirsty roots,” advises the older sister to the younger. Having no money, Laura offers the Goblins exactly that, her most precious asset, the very essence of herself, “She clipp’d a precious golden lock, she dropp’d a tear more rare than pearl, then sucked their fruit globes fair or red.” Acquiescing to the demands of the Goblin men Laura epitomizes stereotypical Victorian women, having no choice but to accept the high price she must pay for a taste of freedom. Rossetti’s imagery of fruit is reminiscent of original sin and an inability to save oneself from temptation or male dominance.

               The sister succumbs to the will of the Goblins and under the influence of their produce falls sick. With only her sister to save her from ignominy and the certain death, an allusion to fallen women and prostitution, a bond of true unity is created. This implication to sisterhood and proto-feminism is buried in what could easily be misconstrued as fairytale-esque. Famous as Rossetti was for her child’s verse “Goblin Market” contains a much stronger message than simply good versus evil; it offers an optimistic rendering of a possible future. The women aren’t just liberated from both the Goblins and death, they’re recognized within the verse as strong independent women – true sisters. Predictably Rossetti ends her poem with a cliché marriage, but then again what else could she do being but Victorian chattel herself?

               Female dependence upon male philanthropy and benefaction is an obvious subject in “Maiden Though Wert Thoughtless Once.” Marriage for many Victorian women was the only possibility for financial and domestic stability hence the emphasis on the Victorian values, chastity and maidenhood. A fallen woman or one who’d strayed in sexual experimentation outside of wedlock was considered, if discovered, a social pariah and therefore doomed. There were few chances or even occupations for women during the period, and given that they weren’t for the most part formerly educated stood little chance of professional success and were therefore constrained to motherhood and matrimony. Bronte put this paradox to verse, describing a salon in which several women are gathered, where the subject of the poem is obviously dressed to impress whilst engaged in a piano recital. Clearly the lady without being too obvious is trying to make an impression, much to the amazement of her associates. “Maiden though were thoughtless once, of beauty and of Grace simple…homely…careless of form and face.” A woman doing her best to attract the attention of a man by wearing and looking her finest, whilst appearing to adhere to that most Victorian of ideals, industriousness. The voice is diminutive but her attitude serious, “They could not read my secret thoughts nor see my throbbing heart.” Intones a living, breathing, sexual human being, a woman with hopes and desires and yet obviously hopeful of the attentions of the man alluded to in the poem. A man approaches known to the subject, “We heard without, approaching steps of one well known to me.” And although she lives in optimism and hopes of male attention shows no outward sign of desperation. Bronte engenders the plight of Victorian women walking a tightrope of wanton chastity in an attempt to be a man’s heart’s desire; quiet desperation and the pretense of aloofness at the realization that her moment has past. Anne’s is a voice, understanding of the game and the societal requirements demanded of her sex. Although not a complaint the poetry imbues hopelessness and despair. The footsteps pass by; her love unrequited. “The anguish of my drooping heart the bitter aching woe.” Anne demonstrates a strategy of “by any means necessary,” including giving her heart to a man who clearly has no designs upon her, who ignores and leaves her to her Northern fate. Bronte declares a feminine position rather than a personal one, and although not offering a solution does highlight the predicament of women. What could women become, she asks, if not solely dependent upon men? Bronte’s voice although subdued is one of audacious awakening, a voice that demonstrates plight rather than optimism in dealing with an impossible situation. Her message depicts a contemporary nineteenth century enigma, one which would’ve been eye opening and quite controversial should the average Victorian have considered the lack of options described within the framework of her poetry.

               “No, Thank You, John” juxtaposes Bronte’s “Maiden.” Rather than the accustomed passive we are offered instead an aggressive stance by a woman who seemingly knows her own mind. Not for Rossetti the demure supplicant, rather the forthright, modern women declaring her position and refusing the charity of marriage. “You know I never loved you John, no fault of mine made me your toast.” Given Victorian female dependence upon male benevolence the poem is understandably ground- breaking. The idea that a woman had more common sense than her male suitor must have been both amusing and eye opening. “But then you’re mad to take offence../ ..use your own common sense.” The poem is a polemic on marriage or rather of marriage upon demand, a visceral attack on the dependence of women upon men. “I’d rather say no to fifty Johns than answer “Yes” to you.” Rossetti lampoons the idea that any woman should sit quietly in the hope of a marriage proposal. She herself had several suitors and although pursued did not marry two of the men to whom she was engaged. Although this seems to indicate a woman with particular requirements, her broken engagements were due to social and religious affinity rather than strength of character. Strong will did not define Rossetti’s romances but her voice in “John” is that of a woman who’s come to understand the value of choice and independence. The imagery is of a persistent, foolish man who doesn’t seem to understand that his attentions are neither solicited nor desired. A high-minded voice is used to admonish the suitor for his stubbornness believing that his inquiries may be welcomed elsewhere. “I dare say Meg or Moll would take pity on you if you asked.” A strange position taken by Rossetti hinting that she alone is an independent spirit, and an admonishment perhaps to fellow females not prepared to resist male hegemony, “Here’s friendship if you like; but love – No, thank you John.” Rossetti makes it very clear who’s in charge and in the traditions of “fin-amors” requites romance and perceived stability.

               Although both poetical voices are different in context they highlight the plight of Victorian women and therefore are invaluable in understanding the complexities of patriarchal dominance. Although one is from the wilderness of Yorkshire and the other from the artistic, societal ranks of the city, it’s the plaintive isolation of an oppressed female voice in both instances which is so important in illuminating the inequity of Victorian gender politics. Without their collected works it would be impossible to survey the extent of female subjugation and missed opportunity. Anne Bronte was an everywoman whereas Christina Rossetti had the good fortune to write from a more privileged position. Despite that, their observances embellished what must have been a ubiquitous feeling of hopelessness, their poetry helping to promote and recognize the universality of the female plight and the necessity for change. Two separate yet distinct voices drawing attention to the injustice of Victorian gender roles.

 

 

PUNK POETRY

28 Jan

 

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TO BE READ ALOUD WITH MALICE AND VICIOUS INTENT…

In the manner of Mr. Cooper-Clarke

 

It’s hard to forget, it burns like bleach in your mind. The solitary love experienced with your dad’s spank-mags, which you just can’t seem to find. No matter how hard you look or how hard you try, it’s the memory of those dirty, nasty, filthy, delicious, books that puts lead in your pencil and a gleam in your eye.

It was a Friday night disco where he spied her first; six lager-shandies and still dying of thirst, in the village hall, with fresh, shaved legs and shower-washed scent, a catalogue princess, on that strobed-striped-sticky dance floor, a smoke-shadowed-seductress with lascivious intent.

Thirteen weeks of one-pound ten before she’d get her mum’s permission to order from Gratan’s again. But worth the wait to look that good – spaghetti straps, stripper heels, knickerless – the belle of the ball, the light of her daddy’s eye, the bauble of the neighborhood.

The focus of every wet dreamer, a wankers delight, one more from the bar and he just might, ask her for her phone number, where did she live? Hoping she wanted it as much as he fucking did. A cock-tease apprentice and consummate liar, the object of morning glory and spotted puss-filled teenage desire. With a look you only see in fingered, dog-eared Spanish-holiday brochures, watching her dance around handbags, with her pathetic always-there mates, while you imagined her yours.

An exchange of numbers and a promise of more; fond, clinging, groping, farewells as you’re pushed out the door. Bodily fluids, sweating palms and the pain of crushed cherry flavoured lips. Sticky fingers and a private to be revisited at some moment in the future as-yet-to-be-ascertained memory digested with the acid taste of village-bought fish and chips.

“Five pound fifty pence, with V.A.T. at twenty percent, mushy peas and scraps. Thank you very much!”

Fortune was smiling and the living was easy, the soppiness of first love, valentines and heart-shaped crap-chocolate making him queasy. Promises of forever easily spoke with silver-lined, down-filled, pillow-top intimacies ultimately broke. The matching tattoos that were supposed to indelibly tether, and all that which was sworn over pints and shared smoky-bacon crisps couldn’t keep them together.

 

Living it large and smelling of roses, thanks to liberal doses, of the flatulence of change and the antiperspirant of fate.

She’s all you’ve ever wanted but she’s fucking your mate.

She’s breaking your heart ‘cos she’s fucking your mate.

You’ll break her bleeding neck ‘cos she’s fucking your mate.

 

BASTARD….