Tag Archives: True born Englishmen


10 Dec

Mother Courage and the Theatre of the Absurd


            In America in 1947 at the end of the Second World War, a committee was formed for the investigation into un-American activities. It was claimed that America and in particular the Hollywood movie industry, had been infiltrated by Communist sympathizers and with the fear of the spread of the Soviet idealism many celebrities where put on trial for their professional lives. One such figure who was interviewed by the committee was Bertolt Brecht. Brecht was a Bavarian and an immigrant playwright who’d fled the Nazis at the beginning of the war. Ironically he’d been persecuted in Europe for anti-fascist incitement which had led to his exile in Denmark, only later to be pursued in America for alleged Soviet affiliations.

             Neither a Communist nor a Fascist, Brecht was an absurdist; a playwright who’d invented a new genre of theater that did not follow the Aristotelean model as proscribed in the Poetics. (White. 6)  Subjected to the illogical scrutiny of ideological purity he eventually left America and settled in Berlin in the former D.D.R. where he continued to pursue his craft. Although subscribing to Marxist ideology he never joined the Communist party however, did declare his support for the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. (7) Brecht in his politics as in his writing was himself absurd to the point of contradiction; a man who curiously welcomed the Socialist Ideal and the cache of the Workers’ Paradise whilst being personally sustained by the West thanks to the remunerations of his many plays. A man who claimed not to be a Communist and yet who willingly lived behind the Iron Curtain.

             The Theatre of the Absurd which is widely attributed to the modernist period was the progeny of Brecht and was much emulated during and after his lifetime.  Bertolt Brecht’s, “play style followed plots that were cyclical or absurdly expansive… [and consequently]either a parody or dismissive of realism… [as well as] the concept of the well-made play.” (White. 16)

            Mother Courage probably the most famous of Brecht’s plays is a depiction of a family struggling to survive the Thirty Years War (a conflict which initially pitted Catholics against Protestants during the seventeenth century; 1618-1648) Although historically relevant it is easy to understand how contemporary theatre has portrayed his work as analogous to the influx of Communism in Eastern Europe and the conflict of political conscience. Originally written to warn of the rise of fascism in Germany during the thirties, it has seen myriad performances globally to great acclaim. The play is said by some to be the greatest play of the twentieth century and also the greatest antiwar play of all time. Labeled as epic-theatre it includes all the absurdist’s devices that Brecht has become synonymous with. The play includes bright, garish white lighting rather than the subdued lighting contemporary audiences have become accustomed to, minimalist stage props to indicate location, live stage direction during the performance and hand held placards to insure that the audience is aware of the falling action. Mother Courage is an austere, scaffold of a play that operates in full view of the audience and juxtaposes the traditionally polished performances modern audiences have come to expect. Nothing is hidden from the audience and even the costume changes are performed on stage. Brecht was intent upon total immersion theatre where the audience was conscious the whole time that the play wasn’t just a work of entertainment or an exposition of art but a necessary, visceral interaction between the performers and the audience in order to evoke a reaction. By adding a nontraditional dimensionality to the performance Brecht expected that the audience would identify with the actors and not just their characters. Brecht wanted his audience to experience his plays rather than just observe them. By witnessing the construction of the play as well as the performance each participant i.e. member of the audience, would take away an individual experience of that which they’d seen. By purposeful construction Brecht created a very private performance in a very public space, where no two plays were exactly the same and where each performance allowed the audience to experience something fresh. This is not dissimilar to the sixteenth century street theatre of the Commedia dell’arte where, although the audience was familiar with the stock characters and their representative personality traits, each was a separate and distinct performance. This ensured that the characters and the production had longevity and the story remained vital and financially viable. Brecht borrowed heavily from a genre famous for sketch and improvisation; something he achieved with great success in the subsequent themes of his own productions.

            Mother Courage and her three children are tinkers who harness themselves to their own wagon and who drag it from battlefield to battlefield. Their poverty is abject and their only source of income is the chandlery they sell to the Protestant soldiers of the Thirty Years War. Conflict rages on all fronts and the corpses of the dead, whose only value in death is the clothing and equipment they still wear, are innumerable. Courage and her family strip the dead in order to resell it so that they, by means of war profiteering at its most meagre, may survive: albeit from hand to mouth.

            During a lull in the fighting Courage happens upon two recruiters who, looking for fresh cannon fodder to replace those already killed distract her with an offer of money in order to trick her youngest son Eilif – an anagram for life – into joining the Protestant Army. Unable to prevent what will almost certainly be the death of her son she prophetically lists the fates of all her three children. Eilif will die for his courage, her second son Swiss Cheese for his honesty and her daughter Kattrin for her kindness. The progress of the play, despite the obvious qualities that her children possess, will prove the validity of her predictions.

             The play advances by several years, as it does in each subsequent act, to another battlefield where in the pursuit of her livelihood she comes across her brave soldier son Eilif who is now a decorated hero. Reunited with her son Courage ponders the soldierly virtue of bravery and realizes that if commanders need brave men then trouble is surely on the wind. A minor character chatters about the righteousness of the campaign and how if their leaders hadn’t been ordained by a Protestant God to destroy the Catholics they would surely be accused of war profiteering. This is ironic in that everybody in the microcosm of the world of the camp followers is doing exactly that. Eilif is eventually caught by the Catholics doing that for which he has been decorated by his own side and is executed for his “courageous” deeds. Seen as an enemy by the Catholics and not as a hero, Brecht presents the paradox of one man’s freedom fighter being another man’s terrorist. Eilif is hanged in chains for his part in the war. Likewise his brother Swiss Cheese, also a member of the Protestant Army, is caught and executed whilst trying to protect the regiment’s payroll. In an act of honesty, as predicted by his mother, he too is hanged.

            Berieved of both her boys, Mother Courage finds herself alone with just her daughter in a burned out village where the wounded from the latest battle lay dying on the ground. In need of rags to stem their bleeding a commander begs Courage for some of her shirts to rip into rags to turn into bandages. Courage refuses saying that she will not part with her officers’ shirts, her most valuable merchandise, unless it is for money. Courage understands the suffering of the wounded and despite having lost her own children persists in the absurdity of survival that the shirts represent to her. Without the sale of the shirts she herself will die of starvation; an obvious paradox of who deserves to live and who deserves to die.

             In the midst of the carnage of war Courage finds love however, in order to be with a man who will save her from herself and the war, she must abandon her daughter Kattrin her only surviving child. Once again Courage is faced with the agony of decision and ultimately chooses to relinquish her love and remain with her daughter: an act of self-sacrifice in a world where nobody notices and nobody cares.

             The play ends several years after it has begun. Overrun by the Catholics whilst Courage goes to town for supplies, her daughter is witness to the advancing enemy. Climbing onto the tinker’s wagon, Kattrin sounds out a drum to warn the locals of imminent danger and for her kindness and bravery is shot and killed. Mother Courage returns to the wagon and the corpse of her dead daughter. Instead of burying the girl herself, she uses that which is most important to her and pays the local villages to do the job instead. With nobody left in the world, her children dead and her love lost, the only thing that survives is her diabolical occupation. Strapping herself into the harness of the wagon as though she were a horse, she moves forward to join up with the advancing Protestant Army. Her final words which strike deep into any audience with revulsion for war and an awareness of social subjugation are, “I must return to business.”  This is particularly pertinent and representative of indifferently turning the other cheek whilst living under intolerable, irrevocable strain. Brecht may have lived in East Germany but his message is very astute to anybody paying the least attention.

                        According to Blau, “Brecht is a polemicist… and his dialectic approach is rhetoric.”(4) This is conceivable when one considers that Brecht was the founder of the theatrical epic (Mother Courage is a performance that endures for a full three hours) and the avant-garde of modernist twentieth century political theatre. His play Mother Courage relates the story of those who participate in war, not for patriotic or selfless reasons, but for financial gain; those who paradoxically make their living from the carnage of which they themselves are victims. The symbolism is that of an ordinary woman trying to survive in an impossible situation. In order to preserve the lives of her children she must ultimately sacrifice them all to feed the war machine that sustains her own life. Rather than the epitome of conflict and courage she represents human absurdity. Brecht’s play is therefore, a polemic on war and an exposition of the tragedy of the human condition.

            Mother Courage has unusual facility in that it can be recast to suit any number of political topics. In the past the play has been used to highlight climate change, racial segregation, geo-politics and in particular anti-Soviet rhetoric. The story is a survival story that portrays the protagonist as a besieged, embattled figure. This of course can be representative of almost any conflict and accounts for both the longevity and brilliance of Brecht’s play writing. It is the method by which he portrays his subject that is the most enduring; a theatrical framework that espouses no particular ideology but which unapologetically renounces the subjugation of human freedoms.

             Mother Courage although first appearing in the first half of the twentieth Century is as relevant today as it was in 1939. Given Brecht’s own persecution at the hands of the Un-American committee in 1947, the play has come to be seen as a prophetic piece of writing similar to the dystopian novel 1984, that was published just a couple of years later in 1949 by George Orwell. Just like Orwell, Brecht realized the necessity of highlighting the dangers of totalitarianism and the ineffectuality of the individual when faced by the crushing power of overt political will. Whether an envisaged dystopia, or protracted warfare created by unseen forces in order to realize political goals beneficial to the few at the expense of the many, Brecht created an “every woman” in Mother just as Orwell created an “everyman” in Winston Smith. In Brecht’s own words, “The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participates in the political events. He doesn’t know the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine, all depends on political decisions. The political illiterate is so stupid that he is proud and swells his chest saying that he hates politics. The imbecile doesn’t know that, from his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupted and flunky of the national and multinational companies.” (White. 17) This reflects Orwell’s own treatise of, “War is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is truth.”(Rodden. 5)

             Brecht despite his socialist leanings realized that no matter the quotidian politic, whether it was Capitalist or Communist, the dangers to civil liberties where very real and that everything should be done to preserve those hard won freedoms and the sanctity of human life. It is this kind of theatrical discourse that makes Brecht such a political chameleon and could possibly explain his ability to live in affability whether in the West or behind the Iron Curtain. Although espousing socialist tendency it was the rights of man which were truly at the heart of his political genius rather than ideological dogma.

Works Cited.

Blau, Herbert. Mother Courage: The Rite of War and the Rhythm of Epic. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Mar., 1957), pp. 1-10. Print.

Brecht, Bertolt. Mother Courage and her Children. Arcade Publishing. New York. 1994. Print

Rodden, John. George Orwell: the politics of literary reputation. New Brunswick,N.J. Transactions Publishers. 2002. Print.


White, John J. Bertolt Brecht’s dramatic theory. Camden House. Rochester, N.Y. 2004. Print.




9 Dec

Medieval Morality Inversion


             Nothing is more mercurial than a liberal society and the attitudes and morals of those citizens who live within it. What’s acceptable today is unacceptable tomorrow, the waxing and waning of human values seemingly as ephemeral as the moon. That being said, the sins as described by Evagrius, have not always been regarded, even during the medieval period, with the same, strict uniformity or enjoyed the same level of adherence. In fact, contemporary society would no doubt disagree with his compilation upon principal and unashamedly cite political correctness as its raison d’etre. Consequently the measure with which we weigh the sins can be reduced to their quotidian import with regard to what is expedient, how they affect society and will their abuses be tolerated? One only has to observe the imperialistic ambitions of American geo-political maneuverings in the Middle East, in what are clearly self-aggrandizing nation building endeavors, to understand this.

            The taxonomy of the sins as originally proposed by Evagrius and proliferated by Cassian were in essence, not just a tool to bring the supplicant closer to God, but to engender a lifestyle that would be convivial to all. A fail safe control mechanism that would draw the boundaries of societal acceptance, coerce appropriate behavior and allow trespassers of etiquette to be duly punished. The idea was simple enough, but actually adhering to them as the centuries have revealed, has been fraught with difficulties and excess. This is not a modern issue by any notion and one can trace the paradox of doing wrong in order to do right throughout the annals of history. This becomes clear when one probes the original meaning of some of the sins and explores how they mutated through time. The changing attitudes towards sin, especially Avarice and Wrath, are particularly conspicuous during the Peasants Revolt of 1381 and the Black Death which swept through Europe during the fourteenth century. By examining these deadly sins and their subsequent metamorphosis from their original intent it is possible to analyze the degree to which their meanings have changed, even to the point where instead of being considered sinful some of the tenets are now considered virtues. 

            The Seven Deadly Sins were instrumental in the medieval period to illustrate the dangers of human frailty. Not only where they a guide to life but also a means of control by which the Roman Church could exercise its power and ensure the subservience of its congregations. The priests, through the ever present threat of sinning, could literally damn a man into hell or praise him into heaven. The Church-centric world of the medieval period was the norm and church going an expectation and therefore, there would have been a familiarity by both the clergy and the lay population with the taxonomy. Imagery of the Seven Deadly Sins would have been emblazoned in the painted murals of the religious buildings they attended or they would have been a gentle reminder on the cleric’s lips as to their relevance to daily life. The sins were taught in a simplified, easy to understand format (given the dearth of literacy during the period) to the people either visually or preached from the pulpit. Despite their lack of formal education the message was abundantly clear and congregations were put in mortal fear of their souls. The Seven Deadly Sins were beyond reproach and an empirical devise with which a man could recognize his own failings and in doing so attempt to correct his human weaknesses by treading the path of the righteous. Although this was true of the period, it would appear that there was also ample wriggle-room.

            Life in medieval times was seen as an interim to heavenly reward, the afterlife being far more important than the temporal sufferings of the great unwashed. Therefore, in order to ensure one’s place on the path of righteousness, one had to abide by clerical law and pray fervently in the hope of divine intervention or suffer eternal damnation. Needless to say the system was based upon human frailty and inevitably therefore, doomed to failure. In a society that was established on the estates of being and where feudalism was the accepted hierarchy, the differences between those who had and those who had not must have been abyssal. Little wonder then that the boundaries of sin where blurred to account for these differences and manipulated according to the crisis of the moment. The fourteenth century witnessed everything from abundance to plague and starvation to war as well as religious and political upheaval. Not so different from the great state of being that shapes our own modern twenty-first century lives.

            Ownership of property and land was based ultimately on position and therefore on God’s grace. If God had deigned that one was to fulfill one’s mortal role in a particular category of the estates then one should of course accept one’s lot in life and make of it what one could. This gift from God it would appear was not enough and often those with temporal position felt that despite being divinely rewarded it was their duty in life to acquire as much as they possibly could during their lifetime. The sin of Greed being a venial sin could easily be dismissed, as power and position trumped any notion that the holding and acquisition of wealth was bad. So long as one was contrite in prayer and contributed to the Church and gave alms for the poor then the pursuit of earthly delight was reasonable if not forgivable. According to Goddard, “Research on late medieval and rural economic social history reveals that the privilege of land and money was without doubt controlled by the manorial Lords” (89) Huge tracts of land in England known as the wastes, which then constituted much of the barren moorland to be found throughout the British Isles, were jealously possessed by its then owners. Rather than wasteland, manorial lords saw the means for profit in a land which until the Norman Conquest had been in the hands of the commoners. The waste lands were part of the common heritage and were used to graze animals and to supply sundry basics such as wood. That was of course until greed reared its ugly head and the inevitable realization by the already wealthy of the immense profits to be made from them. There are countless accounts of commoners being prosecuted for using the lands without permission or utilizing the raw materials found upon it. The quarrying of material to manufacture mills stones, despite the economic boon they would provide to the local community and the tithes paid by the miller to the incumbent Lord, was punishable by death in the county of Devon. “All the furzes, heath moors, marshes, commons, ways and waste grounds,” (33) land which had been communal, now constituted pure profit to those granted tenancy by the crown. This acrimonious business was not confined between the lords and the peasants but also between the king and his barons: the question of greed eventually coming to a head at Runnymede in 1215. King John, writes McKechnie, God’s representative on earth and answerable to none other than the almighty, was malicious in both reign and taxation. (12) “ Renowned for his jealousies, wrath and avarice, he was eventually forced by those able to wield a sword against his dictatorship to sign the Magna Carta diminishing some of the powers of the crown and forever setting in motion the rights of free men.” (3) Greed and acquisition of wealth by any means was, in the opinion of the crown, a God given right despite the tenets of the Seven Deadly Sins. The king’s attitude towards them was not dissimilar to the manorial lords who regarded their gargantuan estates as theirs alone. Clearly the idea of sinning was arbitrary when it came to collecting what was “rightfully” one’s due, no matter the consequence to those affected. The acquisition of land by the crown by usurpation wasn’t halted, writes Goddard, until 1359 under the council of the Black Prince who “ensured that land given could not be retaken through right of writ.”(33) No matter the pedantic nature of the King the tenant Lords could be sure that unless forfeited by an act of treason, the land would be theirs in perpetuity. Not so the experience of the serf who had no rights under English law and therefore remained subject to the whims of the manorial lords. Clearly the distinction between sin and sinning was based on ones proximity to those “of the manor born,” and therefore the ability to eke out a life at the expense of the lord’s profits was clearly not recommended if one wanted to enjoy a full and rewarding life. Despite the veniality of the lordship’s sin and the opportunity for the serf to enjoy the eventual treasures of heaven, this would have been poor reward after suffering prosecution and even death at the hands of a land grabbing tyrant. Clearly God was on the side of the rich and the sin of greed merely a question of semantics providing that manorial justice and not heavenly truth was being applied.

            Just as with any paradoxical situation the observance of the Seven Deadly Sins lends itself to interpretation and therefore their relevance is a product of contemporary attitudes. The accidental execution of venial sins and the misappropriation of vice instead of virtue is fundamentally a narrow path to walk and one which even we, living in a supposed modern progressive society, have difficulty in avoiding. Although in retrospect we clearly see the misappropriations of the common land as theft and the punishment of the serfs as unjust, this would have been viewed quite differently by those guilty of the exploitation.  Although one could suggest, in mitigating the gross injustices visited upon the poor, that they were simply the victims of moral hypocrisy. That is to suggest that despite the manorial lords best intent to preserve what was rightly theirs, or the King his, there would still exist a conscious awareness that one was doing wrong even when acting within the law or through the supposed grace of God. This hypocrisy is apparent in the actions of the barons towards their King who held him accountable for what they themselves were committing on their own lands and to their own people. Clearly sin, at least in this instance, was in the eyes of the beholder – the peasants – rather than the perpetrators. Many of the virtues themselves could be perceived as sins and therefore digression from the higher and narrow path to Truth is understandable thanks to their ambiguity and therefore perhaps excusable under the auspices of medieval canonical law. In Prudentius’ Psychomachia he describes a battle between the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Virtues. All individual combat is easily won by the Virtues except in the instance of one. Avarice initially takes the upper hand when his character is mistaken for Frugality rather than Avarice. It is only when the vice is discovered to be appropriating the virtue that Avarice can be defeated.

            The idea that man is beyond helping himself despite the taxonomy of the Sins is never clearer than in Langland’s parable told by the Friars when confronted by the dreamer in Piers Ploughman. When seeking the home of Do-Well the dreamer questions the notion of virtue when, “…even as the Bible says, even the just man falls into sin seven times a day.”(82) The Friars concede that mankind is afloat on an ocean that tosses and turns and though the dreamer may fall and flounder, as long as he stays within the boat, he will be saved.(83) The boat of course is an allusion to the Church and the sea, the troubles and vices of the world. Consequently admit the Friars, even the most conscientious person succumbs to sin. Newhauser writes that it only through the painstaking analysis of sin that there can be any possible recognition of guilt.(5) “Theologians were aware of the ambiguity,”(5) and despite their attempts to resolve it, moral hypocrisy remained, as Langland observes, a very real medieval concept.

            The relevance of ambiguity with regards to sinning is founded during the medieval period in political and social upheaval and the necessitating of centralized policy. Emphasis and even mutability can be found in the medieval texts and one perceives that although retribution is set in stone, the hell fire to be endured wasn’t always as hot as the priests declared. This isn’t untrue of religion itself which, insidious in nature, tends to adopt that with which a society is familiar with and usurps it for its own ends. Evidence can be found of local saints being beatified into the Catholic pantheon and even traditions and customs being adopted on a regional basis in order to make the “new” religion more appealing. Just as local customs became Christian doctrine so too the Deadly Sins were applied with an uneven hand. The perception that sin is mutable is not a recent one and is an idea that is recurrent throughout history. One often hears of Victorian values and yet we know that they were not the same as either those of the Georgians or the Edwardians. Sin is culturally relevant and therefore, is based on the period in which it is experienced or dependent upon a quotidian political climate. Often in contemporary culture, in order to accomplish certain goals, pride and greed are interchangeable as well as absolutely necessary.  Norman Cantor writes, “Through economic necessity or, as in the context of extraordinary situations such as the plagues of the fourteenth century, people are often empowered to take advantage of that which ordinarily would be beyond their scope. (12) In his book, In the Wake of the Plague, he explores the devastating effect the epidemic had on Europe and what affect the near extinction of the entire population had on the socio-political and religious way of life, as well as the prevailing attitudes towards the Seven Deadly Sins. The upheaval of contemporary living and the ensuing social chaos it created meant that nothing, as he describes, would ever be the same again; including the values of those who survived. Suddenly the boot was on the other foot and those who previously had little or no power found themselves in positions of influence. Labor was suddenly valued, food was at an optimum and the fact that the plague could kill a king as easily as it could kill a peasant leant itself to a new psychological paradigm. The serf suddenly had an opportunity to exact some kind of retribution and enact those lessons which they’d been taught so painfully well.

            The great plagues that wiped out more than a third of the population after sweeping through Europe helped to assimilate the dilemma of sin. When work was plentiful peasants were more than happy to accept a reduced wage; however, due to the untimely death of the working population the power of the medieval proletariat, as opposed to the power of the medieval bourgeoisie, became the standard.(28) Workers fomenting their new found status and their own inherent appreciation of avarice could now withhold their labor and demand higher wages, much to the chagrin of the lords who’d regularly, thanks to their own tenuous relationship with avarice, abused and underpaid them. The lack of available labor was so prolific thanks to the horrific death toll extorted by the plagues that records reveal children, women and prisoners were set to work alongside the men in order to curtail the shortage of willing hands. The rise of avarice and even the recognition by women of their previously unattributed value, thanks to the economic prosperity generated by global catastrophe, changed by definition the sex of the working class and consequently a woman’s economic value. (29) This was something that had been unthinkable, writes Goddard,  prior to the pestilence, as evidenced by the diverse labor force used to complete “Royal Works” of the post-plague period (233) The plague didn’t only bring death and disease but also moral enlightenment. Thanks to the economic pressures and demographic inequality the accepted attitudes toward sin were suddenly liable to revision. A man who had been happy with his lot was now capable of doubling his earnings and even of owning land. The pressure of labor was such that some peasants ultimately became wealthy land owners themselves (yeomen) and challenged the natural order of things. (65) Just as wealthy industrialists in the nineteenth century had challenged the birth right of the gentry, money was the new key to influence. It was money rather than blood that was asserting political and social change on what had, up until the period, been accepted as self-evident and God ordained. Men weren’t just greedy for wealth, but for position and power as well.

            Avarice and pride weren’t the only acceptable faces of revisionary sin and in a post plague period gluttony also had its part to play. Diet was a matter of class and meat was primarily, especially the likes of game, consumed by the gentry. The serfs existed on a diet of cereal and occasional dairy but were forced to farm live stock for those who ate it. The problem with livestock farming was that it was inefficient, as the animals had to graze on land which could otherwise be used for cereal. Further, the animals had to be fed from the harvest that was supposed to feed the serfs. Despite the inconstancy of harvests due to the unusually wet summers of the period the meat dishes were still required by the gentry. Rather than acquiescing to Mother Nature and accepting to share the burden of meager harvests, the gentry insisted that the forfeiture of food and consequently the malnutrition and death that followed was borne by the serfs. Once again sin was obfuscated by rank, the restrictions of piety not pertaining to all estates. Newhauser relates the story of Augustine and the “rich and aristocratic Proba” who finding herself living in grandiose circumstances and unbelievable opulence garnered by what is related as “great cruelties” questioned whether she was succumbing to the sin of Avarice. Augustine responded that “so long as she lived in abundance but distanced herself from the “riches of the heart she did not have to reject the superfluously of her surroundings.”(6) Newhauser describes how the clergy of the day had difficulty in defining sufficiency and that the Church, given the acquisition of fantastic riches over the ensuing centuries, not unlike Proba, must have been asking themselves the same question? Similarly the survivors of the plague found themselves enjoying a disproportionate advantage as well as abundance and so it is hard to moralize on their greed and avarice considering the conspicuous wealth of the estates to whom they were subject. Therefore to strip off the mask of Avarice as in Prudentius Psychomachia would be to expose the post-plague acceptability of new found affluence as a possible sin. Fortunately for the sinners they didn’t have to wait for God’s wrath but instead could look forward to extra taxation and judicial decree by a King who needed their wealth more than they did. King Richard, writes Dean, installed legislation that limited the wages of the workers as well as imposing recurring poll taxes that would force the peasants to exchange their sin of avarice to that of wrath. (119)  

            Warfare, a constant drain on financial resources, was rife during the period. If it wasn’t the French, then it was the Scottish or the Irish: bloody murder decreed by imperial expansion and the divinely ordained birthright of being English. Although God was apparently on England’s side at Crecy and Poitiers under the generalship of Edward III, the warlike activities of the Peasants Revolt in 1381 was not seen in the same religious light. Their willingness to burn, murder and pillage cast the peasants as outlaws, despite the fact that once again it was the circumvention of the sins that had caused their grievances. Avarice, however, came at a price and those who survived the Black Death didn’t have it all their own way for long. The ensuing power struggle between the factions of the “estates” as they tried to hold onto what they’d gained thanks to the ravages of the plague, with those who’d previously been manorial lords. Sinning or rather hypocrisy had once again become necessary and this time by the hand of King Richard. If he was to fill his coffers, wage war and enrich both himself and his followers then the money had to come from somewhere. Naturally the burden fell to the poor who, with little or no means, were required to staunch a crumbling monarchy. Notwithstanding his years the King took it upon himself to ignore any religious instruction he’d ever received and instead, do what he felt was “best” for the country. The negation of the sins, for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many, hopefully struck him as ironic when surrounded by the angry mob at Smithfield.

            John Ball one of the leaders of the rebellion understood that in times of struggle it was men who would stand and fight who were required, not those who would quibble and quake. In order to supplant the idea of rebellion in the minds of God fearing citizens it was necessary for him to equivocate with the sins and, rather than perpetrate them, he bent them to his will and in so doing turned vice to virtue. Ball would have been aware of the ambiguity of sin just as, according to Newhauser,(5) Pope Gregory had been. Gregory noted that prodigality, avarice and inconstancy could all be juxtaposed with mercy, parsimony and flexibility (10) and likewise, Ball understood that the vice of wrath was the antithetical virtue of valor and justice. He proposed in a letter, writes Dean, that it was necessary “to stand manly together to help truth, in order that truth will help them.”(136) In short they were tired of paying taxes for foreign wars, of bearing witness to the nobles enriching themselves in spite of the peasantry and seeing their only asset, their labor, financially restricted. John Ball and his followers wished to instill the revolutionary idea that a man should be paid an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s labor; a principle that socialists throughout the twentieth century have fought and died to uphold. Thinking only to lose his chains and not his head by uniting the workers of medieval England he lists the Seven Deadly Sins in his letter and appropriates each to the royal aberration of power. In his list of seven he actually only names six. The seventh, wrath, he saved as the virtue he hoped to inspire in his followers in order to carry the day. Unluckily for John Ball the rebellion failed and the wrath he hoped to serve on the king was revisited disproportionately upon him with capital justice and royal revenge.

            Having analyzed The Seven Deadly Sins and Evagrius’ original intent to create a platform from which one could lead a principled and God-fearing life, it is possible to perceive the morality shift that has been their constant companion. The hypocrisy of which Gregory the Great wrote in defining the virtues that closely resembled the Sins was not only a medieval conundrum but also a contemporary paradox with quotidian relevance. Many of the tenets of medieval vice, just as they were then, are now seen as modern virtues.  Despite the dichotomy of immoral war we honor our warriors, applaud our self-aggrandizing governments and continue to vote for those charlatans we think will do us the most good in order to selfishly improve our own social and financial standing. Capitalism by default demands this and so we endeavor to better our international neighbors whilst scaling the dizzying heights of corporate ladders.  Brimming with self-righteousness and driven by self-obsession, we ignorantly shun those with diverse beliefs, avoid those with alien ethnicity and minimal wealth and enact just laws to ensure that the tired, poor and impoverished masses don’t sully our neighborhoods and impact our property values whilst infringing upon housing association regulations. In short, as with all compartmentalized human society, there is more than a tang of hypocrisy wrapped in faux piety and the outward sheen of virtuosity camouflages those characteristics we would rather not display. The perversion of the original taxonomy of the Sins is clearly not a modern dilemma by any notion and one can trace the ambiguity of committing sin in order to appear virtuous throughout the annals of history.




Cantor. Norman F. University Press. In the Wake of the Plague.  NY. 2001. Print.

Dean, James M. Medieval English Political Writings. Medieval Institute. Michigan. 1996. Print.

Goddard. Langdon.Muller .Survival and Discord in Medieval Society. Brepols Publishers N.v.

Turnhout, Belgium.2010. Print.

Langland, William. Piers Plowman. Trans. A. V. C. Schmidt. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992.

McKechnie, William Sharp. Magna Carta: a commentary on the great carter of King John. Glasgow. J.Maclehose and Sons, 1905. Print.

Newhauser, Richard. “On Ambiguity in Moral Theology: When the Vices Masquerade as Virtues.” Trans. Andrea Nemeth-Newhauser. In R. Newhauser. Sin: Essays on the Moral Tradition in the Western Middle Ages. Variorum Collected Studies Series, CS869. Aldershot, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007. Essay I.Print.

Prudentius. Psychomachia. Trans. H. J. Thomson. In Prudentius, vol. 1. Loeb Classical Library, 387. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1949, reprint 1969


27 Nov




“Saying “wow” doesn’t do this piece justice. Very well written, but more to the point, it moved me greatly. Not easily forgotten — I’ve been carrying it around in my mind for several days now. Thanks.” Gale Leach. Phoenix, Arizona.



Damned and Blasted – Wyndham Lewis and the Modernists

26 Oct





    Described by Hemmingway as the man with “the eyes of an unsuccessful rapist” and by his contemporary T.S. Eliot as “the most fascinating man of our time,” Wyndham Lewis, although not entirely resigned to the dusty book shelf of “Modernist” history, is a giant among the dead and nearly forgotten. A novelist, poet, artist, entrepreneur and soldier, among many other titles, he’s personifies the concept of the “Mask” to which Yeats often referred. Hidden behind the many visors of literary and artistic endeavor he was undoubtedly one of the driving forces behind the British “Modernist” art movement and the architect of his own brain child “Vorticism.” Wyndham’s pioneering work can perhaps be described through the analogy of the development of early aircraft which at the beginning of the century consisted of nothing more than rude mechanisms of wire and cloth and which, by the end of World War 1, had metamorphosed into engineering fetes of aerodynamics worthy of “those magnificent men.” One tends to forget the pioneers and remembers the entrepreneurs: those who take concept to the next level. In this sense Wyndham’s magazine “Blast” was just such a foundation stone, a necessary pioneering prototype in what would later lead to post-modernist magazines and the kinds of literature available to contemporary readers.

            “Blast” although leaning heavily on the work of Marinetti and “The Futurists” does have a style of its own and rather than concentrating on the phenomenon of speed and mechanical innovation recognizes instead the inevitability of modernity. Rather than simply embracing the idea of change, “Blast” documents word and image and in doing so exhibits a “new vision.” Just as the label “Vorticism” invokes that all change comes from the fringe, never from the center, the idea of a spinning vortex illustrates how radical “Modernist” thinking, emerging from the outer reaches of the artistic fraternity, would eventually move towards the main stream: not dissimilar to the imagery of a whirlpool or that of water disappearing down a sink. Influenced by the maelstrom of avant-garde interpretations “Blast” added its own literary and artistic ethos to the “Modernist” ideal and so was an addition to the movement rather than an innovator of it.

            “Blast” is both an “anti-magazine” and a polemic. In what appears ostensibly as a collection of random brush strokes, graphic art and impenetrable prose, it is synchronically unreadable in parts and fascinating in others. “Blast” although originally designed as a quarterly magazine only ever appeared in two issues. It had a limited readership and was poorly circulated by an artistic movement that created one gallery event that virtually nobody patronized. “Blast” and “Vorticism” was more an indication of mood rather than a literary movement. Stamped indelibly with British humor and tongue in cheek cynicism one has to wonder just how serious Lewis and his partner Ezra Pound were with their project? Not unlike the “Da Da” movement and their contemporary Tristan Tzara, the “Vorticists”, in the great tradition of breaking down institutional walls, clearly had their place.

            The fact that “Blast” is a polemic is self-evident by its manifesto. Contained within the first issue it appears to be more of a jibe at Britain, its place in the world and that of its neighbors, than a public declaration of “Vorticist” policies and aims. The use of text emboldened by disproportionate type-set attempts to emphasize reason and yet verges on the edge of gibberish. Once can almost visualize what it was that Wyndham was trying to convey but ultimately, thanks to the disparity of ideas that bear neither resemblance nor affinity to one another, the thread of thought and comprehension is dashed upon the rocks of juxtaposition. The descriptions are lurid even vague, the diatribe cutting and yet, one is left questioning the intent of Wyndham and his fellow artists. The writing in the manifesto portion is glib and asinine and so the reader is left with feelings of curiosity and bewilderment. The reader is purposely hindered in the pursuit of the idea that somewhere amongst the bombast of words hides a deeper meaning. Not unlike Biblical allusion where one is instructed in connotation, “Blast” holds a deeper secret that can only be revealed by its authors: a rash of words and prose that don’t stand upon a structured scaffold but rather like pebbles on a beach, even when collected together, offer no clue to their truth.

            Anti-disestablishment and none conformist the Vorticists “Discharg[ed] themselves from both sides” as they “bless and blast” those they list in no particular order in what appear to be random selections of what England is and what it will be. Although paying homage to the sanctity of the hairdresser and his professional equivocation with nature one has to wonder why? Is it supposed to shock, to make one sit up and take notice? Not dissimilar to the Sarah Kane play entitled “Blasted” (1995) that is both provocative and shocking, “Blast” is meant to elicit reaction. One doesn’t expect to be informed or enlightened by the contents of “Blast” but rather awakened. “Blast” is an assault on the senses; the thought process it creates delivering an incomprehensible literary slap in the face. Rather than adhering to literary tradition the magazine is an in-road to “Modernist” discourse. Following neither convention nor tradition, not dissimilar to “Bloomsbury dogma”, it blazes its own path through conventional expectation. It’s easy to dismiss the style as beyond logical, unreadable and unnecessary and yet ploughed between its furrows is the germ of something intangible. It’s the undefinable that the Manifesto attempts to list, criticize and praise; an esthetic and yet very real; the notion of something, rather than a clear image. One can almost grasp the intent but at the last second the prose are elusive and intangible. “Blast” is a magazine that’s provocative and witty but at the same time indecipherable.

            The magazine contains no commercial advertising and is not linked to any third party organization and so to suppose financial enterprise would be wrong. “Blast” simply exists in and of its own right, showcasing likeminded poets, authors and artists and appears to be a self-contained work of art distributed in order to influence. The magazine failed to garner recognition because of its intentional overt “Modernist” principles and was therefore an attempt – more than likely – at co-opting the notoriety of the “Futurists” in order to embellish the cache of its contributors. “Blast” even goes as far as to incorporate pseudo commercialism to entice its “readers.” Thumbing its nose at convention and the mediocrity of capitalism it advertises the advent of a nonexistent circus to the reader. The announcement heralds the impending arrival of an unlikely cast of circus performers and their animals upon an indefinite date “Some bleak circus, uncovered, carefully chosen vivid night that is packed with posterity!” The circus of course is pure fiction and will only perform in the theatre of the reader’s mind and is merely an allusion to the idea that “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.” The humor is obvious when one realizes the entropy of performance art when paralleled with a society that serves exactly the same purpose.

            In what can only be attributed to proto “da-daism” there is an empty playbill with no text, no dramatis personae or story line that is randomly placed in the magazine. The blank playbill mutely questions the utility of acting and the necessity for traditional artistic endeavor when, as “Blast” continues to allude, life is nothing more than a play. The use of Shakespearian idioms unintentionally negates the “Modernist” crusade for an alternative voice. There is, as they prove by their own implication, no such thing as essence as everything is derived from something else: as expressed by “determination theory”. Society is created by contradictions and that is exactly what “Blast” offers: things only exist in relationship to one another and so everything is cause and effect. Consequently, “Nothing is bad, but thinking makes it so.” “Blast” demands this of the reader and although seeming to offer very little in the way of literary prowess, is a part of an optimistic experiment in mutual effectivity: the magazine on its readers and the readers on society. This cerebral provocation by “Blast” induces personal revelations which, once established, can never be forgotten. “Blast” rather than just a magazine is an important instrument in the universal dialectic.

            Not only does “Blast” contain a philosophical treatise but it also acts as a showcase for “Vorticist” poets and authors containing as it does, a selection of their poetry and short stories. As can be expected the selection isn’t the usual metered verse nor the delicate prose one reads to entertain oneself. The poetry of Ezra Pound is jarring, difficult and uncomfortable and listed under the self-effacing epitaph of “Poems.” This is almost a reminder, rather than a chapter header to the reader, to treat them as such, even if they liken more to “stream of consciousness” than poetry. Pound’s verse is deliberately obtuse and is an obvious attempt to separate the traditional from the modern. The sentiment of the Romantics and the Victorians is anathema to Pound and his fellow poets, who do all they can to distance themselves from conventionality.

            The short stories “Blast” contains run in the same vein. Difficult to read, they offer narrative commentary, dislocated text and open ended conclusions. There is little finality and the reader is left wondering at the experience. The stories pour cold water over reader sensibilities and leave one unfulfilled. Tradition and societal expectations are attacked and in particular, the institution of marriage in the story “Indissoluble Matrimony” by Rebecca West. Rather than the romantic notion of marriage one would expect to find in a comedy of manners or a “Bronte” novel, marriage is viewed as claustrophobic and inescapable: a predicament to be shunned rather than aspired to. “Blast” turns the “civilized” world on its head by declaring that which is supposedly beneficial to social felicity, as retrograde to human desire.

            “Blast” and “Vorticism” along with other “Modernist” concepts were knee jerk reactions to the past; metaphorical lines drawn in the sand that clearly stated that the era of “Romanticism” was gone forever. The First World War didn’t just destroy life and property but also obliterated the engrained attitudes and traditions of the proceeding century. Although similar to “Futurism” and Marinetti’s own manifesto, “Blast” was English centric. This probably accounts for its revival if not its longevity. The fact that the various pages are labelled as “Damned and Blasted” seems to be Anglo idiomatic and consequently pleasantly humorous. Although conservative in writing style, it was bold in design and content and if nothing else, controversial. A clear example of “Modernist” estheticism, “Blast” is a bare bones structure that emulates a period of perceptional and societal change. One does have the feeling that there is irony in the text and the question remains as to whether “Blast” is a work of art or a literary magazine. If a work of art then clearly Wyndham has the last laugh, as it was probably never meant to be read in the first place. The fact that “Blast” enjoys contemporary popularity proves that the passage of time and the inevitability of main-stream acceptance is the ironic evolution of every “Modernist” movement.

William Blake – Hell’s Printing Press

17 Jun


William Blake

    There is a dichotomy associated with the “Printing Press of Hell” that suggests both cause and effect with regards to the acceptance of proscribed religious belief. In the first reading we’re offered an image of the minds of men being formed and filed into libraries; iterations of humanity molded by generations past, who’ve simple accepted that which they’ve been told with unquestioning obeisance. This concept of universal subservience and the image of “mind forged manacles” is extremely potent, and Blake appears to deride the insidious nature of accepted doctrine. Therefore one could understand the Press as a generic branding of the human species in order to insure conformity, the suppression of personal energy, and the prevention of discovery of the true self.

           It is this idea upon which he expounds in a “Marriage between Heaven and Hell”: the restrained desires of the supplicant, as oppose to the boundless energy of the free self. The Church of Blake’s day required passive subservience and so, by submitting to the will of God there was a repression of the internal self. Blake’s caverns are reminiscent of Plato’s analogy, that those shackled within the cave were only aware of shadows, and did not understand the true nature of the world outside of their limited experience. One can recognize this in Blake’s description of hierarchical, diabolical creation, an allusion perhaps to another Eden? To understand his simile one has to look no further than the reintroduction of the Catholic Church by Napoleon after the French revolution, to perceive the controlling nature of public worship – “the opiate of the masses” – and the benefits of organized faith in maintaining the status quo.

               The printing press may also be a personal reference to himself and to those like him. He parodies himself as a devil sweating over a flat rock, an allusion to him, sweating over his copper etchings. Blake is the Satan, the adversary or obstructer of the message. His writings conflict with those of the Church. He understands that as enlightened beings, we fail to recognize our true gifts due to the coercive nature of endemic religion. Blake was a committed opponent to the Church’s dogmatic approach to religion – “the enslavement of the vulgar” – and wrote in order that we might free ourselves, by thinking for ourselves. His writings are clearly radical in their anti-disestablishment prose style and – no doubt – had he truly been recognized in his own lifetime, would have ruffled more feathers than he did. It is only in retrospect that we come to understand Blake’s enlightened view, which may be seen as synonymous with many of the ancient Eastern religions, and even in the pantheistic poetry of the Romantics who followed him.

               Consequently “The Printing Press of Hell” can be regarded from two different aspects. The first, as an allegory for ignorance and an example of unenlightened acceptance, the second, as a forge of dynamic reason and human energy, where one is able free the spirit and escape dogmatic oppression. Although Blake sees himself as a Satan, his books aren’t to be found in Hell, but rather stacked on the shelves on the other side of the “doors of perception.”








28 May



Just as Crusoe wanders his island in order to reveal its various assets and to explore the nature of his new world, so he revisits time and again old arguments that allow him to discover, discard and then reanimate pre-possessed beliefs. The Crusoe story is a circuitous argument posing difficult questions that are accepted, reevaluated and then forgotten, only to be resurrected later in the novel.

               In particular Crusoe has to endure the loneliness of the island, where he yearns to be in contact with his fellow man, yet must suffer isolation to the point of domesticating house pets and teaching “Poll” to talk. By bending nature to his own will – God Like – he is able to tolerate what otherwise would be an untenable existence. “Providence which had thus spread my table…I’d learned to look upon the bright side of my condition.”(p.103) His wanderlust takes him to all parts of the island and even back into the ocean revealing just how desperate he is to reconnect with humanity; a Biblical analogy perhaps, to the loneliness of Adam in Genesis.

               The discovery of the footprint throws his ordered universe into disorder where once again Defoe demonstrates to his audience that they should be careful for what they wish. Crusoe’s life is suddenly turned upside down, and instead of the carefree Eden-like existence he has come to enjoy, suddenly becomes a recluse and prisoner of his own mind. “O, what ridiculous resolution men take, when possess’d with fear.”(p.126) The realization that his island is being visited by “savages” renders him from the paragon of brotherly love, “…that I might have that have one companion, one fellow creature…”(p.148), to that of a murder-revenge figure. His reaction given that he’s found human remains is understandable, the instinct for self-preservation being the strongest. Then, just when we’re prepared to accept that Crusoe must defend his own life we are sermonized on the prospect of the cannibals being no worse than ordinary men except – not having enjoyed the benefits of religious instruction – are simply outside of God’s lore. To kill them would be unjust and unchristian, and so Crusoe waxes lyrical on the value of human life and “allows” them to live. “…these people were not murtherers in the sense that I had before condemned them.”(p.134)

               This argument is unusual as instead of offering God as the great savior Crusoe himself has become God. “I was absolute lord and law-giver.”(p.190) It is he who decides who lives and dies, who is subject to the master-slave relationship and what is permitted to happen on the island and what isn’t. Perhaps the circuitous argument is meant to demonstrate that without an omnipotent eighteenth century God man’s fallibility is only to be expected. Although, forgotten on a deserted island, Crusoe – despite God’s reluctance to enlighten non-westerners – will ultimately reveal his own true path.

               Defoe, in what appears to be an appeasement to his audience, is apt to pose contrary positions only to later discard them in favor of quotidian doctrine and religious dogma. From the abhorrence of Crusoe as a white slave, to him setting sail from Brazil to capture slaves, and then ultimately dreaming of a savage to do his bidding, it’s clear that Defoe is playing to both sides of the house. Defoe demonstrates the fickleness of humanity by offering illogical solutions to impossible situations. As in Swift’s “Modest Proposal” Defoe creates a serious of elephant-traps that cause his audience to rethink that which they took for granted by putting themselves in the position of his castaway. Clearly it is the readership that is adrift and Defoe that is the island.


21 Mar


(The Satire of DEFOE and ROCHESTER)


            Shakespeare suggests in his play Twelfth Night that it’s “Better [to be] a witty fool than a foolish wit.”  That being said, what would the wit without the fool? The lampooning of society and the natural order is nothing new and the art of satire still remains one of the most popular forms of contemporary social commentary. The craft of satirizing was a literary style, extremely popular during the period of The Restoration and The Glorious Revolution of the 17th century; two proponents of this technique where Rochester and Defoe whose work epitomized both the genre and wit of the age. It’s the intention embedded within their writing which makes them pertinent, and to a modern eye evergreen. Beneath what appears prima facie to be innocuous poetry lurks an undercurrent of bighting criticism whose complaints, in many cases, would not be out of place if directed towards current political cronyism and public mal practice. Both writers skillfully tackle the subjects of identity and national hubris however, from different viewpoints. By comparing and contrasting the employment of dissimilar critical allusions to satirize the issues of the period, a consideration of their effectiveness in achieving a common goal can be made.

            The English flux of the late 17th century was caused by successive regime changes of both monarchy and government. With the forced abdication and ultimate execution of  King Charles I,  after a bloody revolutionary war with the parliamentarian forces under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, England went from being a monarchy to a republic; the first since Rome. There no longer existed a divinity of kingship but instead, an imposed regime led by a self-styled dictatorship or Lord Protectorate. The new republic, despite initial optimism, brought with it not only constitutional change but religious and civil upheaval as well. The societal pendulum had swung from the debauched and the crass to a totalitarian centralization of power. The Stalinist grip held over the people of England can only be compared to the Cromwellian grip that Stalin later held over the Russians. The death of Cromwell precipitated a return to a self-serving monarchy unwilling to work with a parliament of the people and who in all things was autonomous and aloof. Not only was there a restoration in governance but a reformation in religious discord as the incumbent monarch – although subtle – was once again a proclaimer of the Catholic faith. Upon his death the problem was exacerbated by his son James II – an extrovert Catholic – determined to turn the clock back to 1641. An intervention was necessary and King William III of the Netherlands was duly installed in what became known as the Glorious Revolution of 1688. To suggest that England was perplexed would be an understatement, as the state of supposed normalcy seemed to change every few years with almost clock-work regularity. It’s little wonder then, that satirists of the day were apt to lampoon both the parliament and the monarchy by waving its dirty laundry in the face of public opinion, through the medium of satirical poetry, for closer scrutiny.

            Satirical topics of the period included everything from the general state of the nation and the ruling classes to the more introspective topics of identity and national hubris. Two such satirists were John Wilmot, the second earl of Rochester, a man reputedly, “with the most wit and the least honor in England” and Daniel Defoe, a man better known for his novels, but more notoriously for being in debt to the tune of ₤17000; an extraordinary sum, which today would amount to millions. Through the writings of these two ex-cons – Defoe having been pilloried on numerous occasions, and Rochester who’d been thrown into the Tower of London – we’re illuminated, through their satire, as to the historical state of the English commonwheel.

            Rochester “a man of strange vivacity and vigor of expression,” expresses his disdain for humanity as a whole by utilizing the petri-dish of England for his most caustic revelations. Employing a philosophy of “writing what one knows,” he parodies the state of humanity in his satirical poem “A satire against reason and mankind.” Within the stanzas of his verse he acutely demonstrates the incalculable idiocy of man to both gratify and enlarge himself. His writings eloquently demonstrate man’s hopeless attempts to extricate themselves from the mire and make something of what will assuredly be, he insists, a hopeless life and a wasted opportunity. It’s the richness of his parody that makes one ponder the veracity of his insights.

             Rochester chooses to polarize his reader with the weakness of man and expose him as less than wild beasts in virtue and social interaction; a satirical tool that wasn’t original, but one which he used to great effect.  The poetry begins with his general announcement that if he himself had the choice, which he doesn’t, he’d choose to be anything but a human, “Where I a spirit free to choose…/ What case of flesh and blood I pleased to wear,” The allegorical comparison of bestial connection in Rochester’s work is simplistic but effective. By asking rhetorical questions we see a list of comparisons that one could easily believe to be true if taken at face value. “Be judge yourself, I’ll bring it to the test / Which is the basest creature man or beast?” It’s man who kills for profit, greed and appointment. It’s man that cheats his fellow man, lies, dissembles and with, “voluntary pains works his distress / Not though necessity but wantonness” One can almost imagine the readership nodding their heads in agreement with his statements as the facts, as they stand alone, are perfectly reasonable. By employing satire the author gives the audience no recourse to argue the point, as his is the only voice and therefore rebuttal is impossible. A basis of truth infused with insinuation and ridiculous reasoning and yet very efficient.

            Daniel Defoe was able to adapt to the mutability of the period; whether through writing, affiliation, or business, and was successful where others failed. Despite some very close calls with imprisonment, bankruptcy and misfortune it would appear that it was ultimately his wits that preserved him. Defoe through his own satirical poetry chooses a dissimilar route to Rochester, although he incorporates many of the same ideas. Instead of railing on the ineffectuality of the human he picks as his target the Englishman. Rather than anthropomorphic symbolism he chooses national hubris with which to expose and denigrate his chosen target. The poem entitled “A true born Englishman,” lampoons what it is to be English, or rather what is imagined as the English ideal and the genus of Englishness itself.

            National identity is the amalgam that binds all nations together and it’s this trait that Defoe satirizes. He suggests, and rightly so, that to identify with a pure bred, divinely empowered race is ridiculous. Preservation of nationality was a particularly tenuous topic given the social pressures the English had endured during a period of major upheaval. The push and pull of religious faction was still fresh in the minds of the public and a legacy that’d been retained well within living memory. Papism was regarded as something alien and had for the longest time been associated with foreign cultures. One only had to go back to the reign of the Tudors to revisit the horrors of regnal imposition. Due to the religious evolutions through which England had passed from Popes to Protectors of the Faith, Anglicanism was a stamp of Englishness. The republic of the civil war had certainly been non-conformist and the ideas that it has ushered in did not wither and die under the restoration, just as Catholicism never really left the islands either. With Scottish kings on English thrones and Dutch usurpers replacing them, it was self-evident that the blood that ran through the veins of the English was of no discernable pedigree, despite widespread cognitive dissonance. A “mongrel half bred race” is how Defoe describes the indigenous population who stem from the loins of foreign invaders, roving bands and invading armies. That which was nationally purported to be true is destroyed in his observation, “That het’rogenous thing an Englishman:/  In eager rapes and lust begot/  Betwixt a painted Britain and a Scot.” Rather than compare, Defoe contrasts the improbability of racial purity “A true born Englishman is a contradiction/ In speech an irony, in fact a fiction.”  His bitter use of irony throughout drives his point home, just as Rochester utilizes every comparison available to denigrate and debase. In order to broach the subject of a xenophobic nation towards a Dutch King, Defoe incorporates satire to formulate his argument. William was invited to England to rid that which was considered most English; a generational monarchy. The fact that the new king was a Dutchman, he suggests, can be forgiven, as in his attitudes and lineage he is not dissimilar to the indigenous peoples of the land. In point of fact he is, according to Defoe, in all probability as English as any of those who decried his electability.

            Rochester continues to needle his audience by offering mitigating circumstances to explain the irrational behaviors of men that are more hindrance than help. By rationalizing he hopes to compound his argument and force an affirmative reaction, “Men must be knaves it’s their only defence /…Who dares be a villain less than the rest?” Although dripping with irony the narrator strives to find an affinity and pretend and understanding. This is the beauty of the satirical method as the true message is repressed below the author’s imagery; a subliminal chastisement, if only one would take the time to read and understand.

            At the beginning of Defoe’s poem he goes on a cultural diatribe describing the ills and vices of other nations. The Germans drinks, the French are lascivious and so on; national traits and cultural stereotypes that are very easily to identify and recognize. His methodology is to trick his audience, just as Rochester does, into accepting the dichotomy that stereotypes may be as poignant to the Europeans as they are to the English. This then poses the question, how are the English perceived by others? By holding up a mirror of foreign traits he offers absolution through self-reflection. Consequently it’s ironic that an Englishman would willingly accept the differences in others but not in himself.

            As with modern satire the writings of Defoe and Rochester were a reflection of the age. In the satirical writings of the 17th Century, it appears to the contemporary reader, that there’s a blatant overstatement of point even to the point of obviousness. The use of satire during this period, although not new, was increasingly on the rise and becoming more common place. Improvements in printing and social integration in the coffee shops and chocolate houses coupled with increased enrolment at universities meant that books and pamphlets were beginning to be regarded as a staple. The flow of information and quotidian topic was only available through the medium of print and therefore whoever had access to the press could coin both opinion and politic.

            Although they employ different satirical methods both authors are able to ably make their point, through the comparison of instinctive animal behavior, which one can recognize easily in Rochester’s treatise, or in the absurdity of national identity and superiority of race in Defoe’s. Through the use of allegory and irony they create a uniform persona that can be held up to scrutiny; a polarized figure that’s easily identifiable and which can be manipulated to transfer the author’s message. Rochester shows us a “beast” that isn’t as competent or as clever as it may consider itself to be and suggests that there’s room for improvement in everything it is, and does. This reflects on society, manner, governance and everything that conceivably involves human interaction. Likewise Defoe is sending a message which suggests that as different or as English as we are, there’s no reason for disharmony and social disparity. Both messages are equally pertinent and yet both are argued from different points of view. In order to focus public attention and achieve a common aim, it’s the methodology of satire, rather than the vehicle, that solidifies the message.