Tag Archives: Yorkshire

WUTHERING HEIGHTS – “ELEMENTARY GOTHIC MY DEAR WATSON”

6 Jun

GOTHGGG

“When the sublime is impossible Watson, then only the Gothic is possible”

      Bronte’s novel is everything one would expect from a Victorian Gothic; a third party fireside tail related by a servant who can only reveal that which she believes to be true. This lends the story a mythical quality as the falling action is merely perceived truth, as we never truly see into the minds of the protagonists. Set in a bleak Yorkshire landscape an ancient house, that dates back centuries, is battered by the elements on a wind riven, snow gusted promontory, arousing both the sinister and melancholy. Small enclosed windows allude to ominous shadowed interiors shielded by a stalwart stone construction that has allowed the house to endure the passing of countless seasons. Wuthering Heights is no castle but with a maze of wooden stair cases, dark hallways and locked rooms it is a foreboding location. The atmospherics are enhanced by a room, in which nobody is allowed to sleep, that conceals long forgotten books containing clues to the families strange and dramatic past. To compound the horror and suspense there is the foreshadowing of names penciled into a window frame. From the outset the reader is acquainted with a supernatural dread and an expectation that worse is to follow. This suspicion is confirmed by the appearance of the ghost at the window and perhaps more disturbing, the figure of Heathcliff barging through the door “with candle wax dripping off his fingers” who then pulls open the casement windows to scream insanely at the tempest raging outside. One might be forgiven, that rather than a sedentary Northern English farm house, that one had entered a lunatic asylum. From the uncanny and mysterious, to the downright diabolical, the novel contains it all; including obligatory, incomprehensible yokels. Bronte brilliantly achieves an element of the unheimlich; the ghost at the crossroads, the hanging dog, the sounds of horse’s hooves and unseen riders escaping into the night all margin the immediate and thrill the reader. Could anything be more Gothic? 

         We join Lockwood in what should be a familiar domestic setting but instead find ourselves in an alien and uncanny environment; the novel immediately sets the reader ill at ease. The assumptions made by Lockwood regarding the interfamily relationships presented to him are all incorrect and so, like him, we stare around a room at a group of characters of whom we know absolutely nothing. The rapid confusion of shared and similar names adds to the initial disorientation of both the reader and unwanted guest. Who is who, and why on earth would Lockwood decide that he needed to revisit a house that was initially so inhospitable to strangers? Bronte places her reader at a deliberate disadvantage so that from the outset they are back-footed, causing them to suspect the worst of what is obviously a dysfunctional situation and search for the natural yet nonexistent clues in an attempt to comprehend what is clearly incomprehensible. This oppressive if dynamic suspense is neither welcoming nor does it encourage one to read further and yet, the introductory intrigue is so dense that one is forced to plough through the chapters at a blistering rate in an effort to garner clarity. “Wuthering Heights” is a novel which at every twist and turn reveals or rather conceals yet another hidden truth. Just as Lockwood is eager to hear the fire-side gossip of Nelly Dean, the reader too is on tenterhooks to discover whatever truth she may reveal.

        Thrushcross Park and marriage to its owner gives Cathy the ability to save the man she herself cannot save; a manifestation of true love where one lover cares more for their partner than they do for themselves. Cathy surrenders her own feelings for the benefit of Heathcliff – by marrying Linton a man she doesn’t really care for and who is the antithesis of the childhood friend – who’s been brutally crushed by Earnshaw to the point where only the memory of her erstwhile companion is left. Despite the financial benefits of her union with Edgar she’s optimistic that her elevated position will rescue Heathcliff from his untenable existence. Recognizing that they’re kindred spirits, she realizes that they can never be together as due to the lack of care and education at Wuthering Heights – enjoyed whilst favored by Earnshaw senior – Heathcliff is doomed to a life ignominy and misfortune. It’s only upon his escape and return to the moors that she begins to question her own position.

       Selfish regret and egotistical revenge exhibited by both protagonists late in the novel lend clarity to the true natures of Cathy and Heathcliff. Cathy clearly on a path to self-enrichment has finally bitten off more than she can chew and despite her avarice discovers that her fatal flaw is her love for the Byronic hero Heathcliff. Unfulfilled by material acquisition the objects of her desire – be they physical or emotional – always seems to inflict distress on those supposedly closest to her. After barely a thought to Heathcliff – except the terse explanation that he is now beneath her thanks to his neglected education – her few weeks at Thrushcross awaken her inner narcissist and after sampling the good life abandons everything she allegedly holds dear in order to maintain it. No longer the wild, care-free, moor-roaming child she’s quixotically content to enjoy the confines and luxuries of the grange. Rather than a portrayal of a capricious child we are offered the mind of a devious anti-heroine who doesn’t give a damn about anybody else except herself. Her explication on the notion that marrying Heathcliff would degrade her speaks volumes and yet she is frivolous with her Husband’s affections in her continued correspondence with him. Cathy cares about one thing and that’s Cathy. If anything she mirrors Heathcliff more in later life than she did in her youth as she contends her “lovers” one against the other. Cathy has nothing to lose and everything to gain from their rivalry. Should Heathcliff have killed Linton then Thrushcross would have been hers. Her husband prevailing on the other hand changed nothing. It was only the unforeseen effects of weak constitution coupled with pregnancy and exacerbated by her hysteria that eventually killed her. This mirroring is seen in the Heathcliff’s marriage to Isabella whose only design is to put him one step closer to owning Thrushcross and destroying those – as he’d already done at Wuthering Heights – he considered to have done him ill. One could almost believe that the love they purportedly share for one another is secondary to their ulterior desires. Theirs is a dysfunctional attraction which ultimately destroys the lives of those around them as well as their own.

      The sentiment of nature versus nurture was a key question in Frankenstein: whether or not the creature was truly terrible or made so by circumstance. This applies equally to the Heathcliff character who for all intents was an innocent – foundling child – who receiving the love of old Earnshaw thrived and when abused by Hindley became the black-hearted villain and seminal destructive force in Wuthering Heights. The notion of “other” is ubiquitous as reactions to him despite his physical differences were dependent upon those who both loved and hated him. Instead of analyzing the notion of “other” in Heathcliff, perhaps we should consider the discrepancies in his nurturing. Was it “other” that made him different or the perception of him – as either a blessing or a threat – by those with whom he interacted? Heathcliff is a product of the limited society he enjoyed and therefore judging him a villain by his degree of “otherness” would be mendacious.

      Alternatively one could debate the notion of free will and that by choosing to follow the path he did, is responsible for his own actions. In the vein of Eastern spiritualism one has to experience the darkness in order to appreciate the light. The idea that the consciousness grows form each experience clearly does not appear to apply to Heathcliff and therefore one has to conclude that his lack of humanity is innate. Attempting to perceive Heathcliff as a victim and therefore forgive his indiscretions is disingenuous of the consummate villain that he is.

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Damned and Blasted – Wyndham Lewis and the Modernists

26 Oct

        BLAST MAGAZINE AND THE ADVENT OF THE VORTICISTS

 

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    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.

THE POTION PEDDLER

4 Jun

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O’er hill and dale, past moss covered dry stone walls and creeper-caught bridges. Following the ancient roads hacked by Caesar’s legions through soft English chalk and the coastal trails blazed by retreating Saxons. Twixt green bowers of gnarled spreading forests and across the wastes of stark deserted moorland – the grind of iron shod wheels squawked on greased axle trees.

Undeterred by wind and weather, the same ancient routes crossed and re-crossed in order to reach the forgotten familiarity of distant villages and time-worn market towns. The clip-clop of plodding diligence to fresh faces and familiar vistas.

A whale-oil lamp swung above his hooded head, tapping its wooden tattoo on the side of the hooped caravan. The familiar clink of glass with every hoof fall; the slosh of liquids medicinal and the clatter of necessary instruments. Smell of horse was strong in his nostrils, the tang of pestled powder bitter on his tongue, the stain of dark paste upon his fingers.

He always broke camp at night, stealing away from candle-lit curiosity and the press of eager crowds. There was no point prolonging contact, garnering associations or establishing friendships. The exchange of hard won silver for bottled miracles and manufactured tablets was oft regretted the morning of the night before. Dubious cures for infestations and arthritis; promised miracles to ease the burden of daily life only a palm-pressed sixpence away.

His time-keeping was meticulous. Never out stay a welcome and never frequent a settlement more than once every few years. Acquaintances were soon kindled and soon burnt; it was best to stay one step ahead. Familiarity bred contempt as did the fact that his potions were worthless. Snake oil and powdered Egyptian mummy, dried toad and unicorn horn infused the heady concoctions and broken promises that persuaded village folk to dig eagerly into leather purses.

Of an evening when the crowds were gone and the camp fire blazed he would sit quietly, his hand coursing over velum – ink splashing in the fire light . The only sounds were of curb chained horses cropping grass – the gleam of flame lit brass. Recording the events of the day; penning for posterity the stories learned and experiences shared. New tales to relate to future customers – to expound upon, to embellish.

The art of potions wasn’t the mixture nor was it the voluminous recipes laid down by generations past. Secrets divulged by father to son, mother to daughter. Forgotten knowledge retained by travelling folk and distributed frugally among those outside the inner circle. Although an initiate of the ancient rite of healers, he knew that it took more than colored glass and powdered opiate to heal the body and excite the imagination.

His audience sought beyond the physical plane, thronging to his caravan in eager anticipation for both cure and enlightenment.

Stories of adventure – tales of distant lands, dragon slaying knights, daring deeds done by daring men. Engaged in enigmatic conversation it wasn’t long before his product was crossing the counter to be scooped up by needy souls, weak in body and bereft of worldly contact.

Although tutored in the ways of healing, it was a story-teller’s heart that he possessed.

 

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Why I don’t have a “Smart-Phone” or a Facebook account

6 May

ENGAGE….

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

CHAUCER – POLITICS AND THE POET

1 May

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     TROILUS AND CRESSIDA AND THE POLITICAL UPHEAVAL OF 14TH CENTURY ENGLAND.

or in other words…  “WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT?”

 

 

  Ostensibly a love poem that depicts love both found and lost, Chaucer’s “Troilus and Cressida” contains a deeper undercurrent of complexity than is at first obvious. The encirclement of the Trojans by the Greeks and the shifting politics within the besieged city itself were reminiscent of the political maneuverings which at the time of writing were redolent of England. Political upheaval, regime change, power struggle, and both internal and foreign conflict would have been as apparent to Chaucer’s readers as they were to the poem’s characters themselves. Chaucer captures the political mood of the 14th century in his poetry and manages to incorporate the essence of those struggling for and those trying to maintain power. Included in his narrative are the machinations of the crown and government as well as the religious, social, and gender politics of the period. This contemporary narrative set in a prehistoric pagan period emulates in many aspects the medieval climate of the 1380’s.

               “Troilus and Cressida” is a macrocosm of British upheaval and unrest, the political climate of the day undoubtedly very much in the mind of the author whilst penning his poetry. An astute political awareness would have been vital in order to assuage criticism and at the same time promote his writing and entertain his readership. During his life time Chaucer was the subject of three different monarchs, a protagonist in war, an envoy, a civil servant and both a relation and benefactor of the monarchy. It was within his own interest to ensure that any political commentary in his writing favored those who favored him. Although the medieval spotlight is often focused on the alternative view, his characters tend to err on the side of righteousness or suffer the consequences. Chaucer was well-aware, that not only was he a writer, but also a courtier soliciting the favor of his King. To the readers of the period Chaucer’s inclusions would no doubt have been recognizable, the quotidian drama of political intrigue and social controls adding an element of familiarity.

               Chaucer astutely introduced the politics of the late 14th century into “Troilus and Cressida” in order to flesh his characters and color his writings, giving it an appeal that would foment both recognition and notoriety. The poem includes allusions to social, religious, and gender politics. By incorporating the events of the period and utilizing those ideals recognized as the social standard, he embellishes his characters with both vice and virtue whilst carefully crafting a 14th century story in a pagan setting. By analyzing the events of the period and comparing these to the narrative of the poem it’s possible to review the politics of a Chaucerian England.

               Troy is an embattled city, a nation state besieged by the Greeks. Whilst the Trojans languish behind high walls the enemy is encamped in the surrounding countryside. Conflict is a daily occurrence and the balance of power hangs precariously. One wrong move and the city will be besieged – its inhabitants murdered, its wealth plundered and its buildings destroyed. Although a story of antiquity, the plight of the Trojans is not dissimilar to medieval England. “The besieged monarchy of Richard II staggering under debt of war created from successive unsuccessful forays with France, forced the country into austerity and the English to relinquish their conquests on the continent.” (Dobson 124.) In order to recoup the losses created by perpetual war the young King – under the guidance of his uncle John of Gaunt – is craftily advised to illicit a pole tax from the people; a tax that demanded that every person in England pay an equal portion whether rich or poor. This meant that both the wealthy and the impoverished had to pay a fee to the crown. A system detested by the poor but lauded by the landed, as with tax evasion and the misappropriation of funds the wealthy paid nothing and consequently profited off the backs of the serfs who had little choice but to pay. Given that it was the poor who were doing the fighting and dying, the titled and positioned saw no reason why they shouldn’t also pay for the experience. For the first time in English History (1381) the people revolted, organized themselves into peasant armies and marched on London. A beggar’s army led by such inspirational figures as Watt Tyler and John Ball, ordinary men who dared to confront and bear arms against the representative of God on earth. In their attempts to pacify the so-called rebels the King met with them in the city, and after calculated deception and the murder of their leaders a militia loyal to the crown dispersed the rebels and the rebellion was quashed. Despite the outcome, the poll tax was abolished and the wars of expansion on the continent curtailed. One of the demands made by the mob, the practice and policy of serfdom, declined, and workers wages, also unfairly restricted by the crown, began once again to rise. At the same time the power of Parliament was in the ascension and political debate began to challenge the divine right of monarchy.

               Chaucer uses the idea of political rebellion to great effect within his poetry in several different instances. When we first encounter Cressida she’s the abandoned daughter of the considered traitor Calkas. Her father has foreseen the downfall of Troy and after weighing his options defects to the Greeks. This treachery is common knowledge among the Trojans who seek revenge upon his daughter Cressida, the sins of the father to be visited upon the daughter in appropriation for his treason and deceit. It’s whispered among the common people of Troy that upon sight Cressida will be burnt alive and killed as recompense for the danger in which her father has placed them.

“That Calkas fled was an allied./…And seyden al his kin at-ones ben worthi for to Brennen, fel and bones.” (1-87-91)

               Here we see a mirroring of the English peasants standing up against the King all be it reverse imagery. This may be precautionary on the part of Chaucer, who rather than displaying those who line their pockets as miscreants and thieves, instead are represented as charitable and benevolent. The revengeful Trojan public eager for the blood of Cressida is representative of the Peasants Revolt of 1381. It’s the ordinary citizens who would kill and depose the affluent, an allusion perhaps to King Richard and his meeting with Watt Tyler at Mile-End in London? There the King under the protection of the militia tricked Tyler, had him murdered, dispersed the mob, and enacted a state of exception, or rather they instituted martial law. The state of exception installed in England after the rebellion is representative of the besieged city of Troy, Cressida taking the place of the embattled King Richard. This shows Richard and Cressida in a favorable light as they are both portrayed as just, honest, and without sin, therefore worthy of saving.

               Royal politics are also portrayed in the poem. King Richard II was a very young King, not having achieved his majority at his coronation and therefore, as was the custom, appointed a Regent in the form of his uncle John of Gaunt. Cressida is saved by the grace of Prince Hector the son of King Priam, not by the King himself.

“On knees she fil biforn Ector adown…/ His mercy bad, hirselven excusyinge.” (1-110-112)

“Now was this Ector pitous of nature…/ And seyde”Lat youre fadres treson gon forth with meschaunce, and ye yourself in joie.” (1-112-116)

 

               An allusion to the power-struggle in England at that time, where John of Gaunt, a patron and a relation to Chaucer, was responsible for the political decisions of State and the Privy Purse. Priam, the King of Troy is replaced by his son Hector the great Trojan hero. Chaucer craftily embodies the King and his Gaunt in the characters of Priam and Hector ensuring that both are adequately accounted for and that both receive equal dedication.

               Shortly after the rebellion Parliament addressed the issues that had given rise to public instability and dealt with them accordingly. Known as the “Wonderful Parliament” they achieved greater power if not a parity with monarchy by pressing for royal reform. They asserted their position by prosecuting those who’d willfully stolen from the state and accused several of the King’s closest confidants of treason, removing them from the King’s inner circle, and in some instances executing them. “John of Gaunt was initially charged but later reprieved thanks to the influence of Richard himself.”(Collins 67) “The Wonderful Parliament” features in Chaucer’s writing and can be discerned in the figure of Pandarus, the advisor to Troilus, and also in the contrite Trojan council who later decrees that Cressida be given up to the Greeks as ransom for Antenor.

“Priam, the kyng, ful soone in general let her upon his palement to holde.”

The embassadours ben answere for final th’ exchaaunge of prisoners…/and forth in they procede( 4-144-47) 

               Pandarus, the uncle of Cressida, sees an opportunity to manipulate a love affair between Troilus and his niece. Promising the love-sick Prince that he can obtain his love for him, Pandarus demands that his actions aren’t forgotten and that ultimately he’ll be rewarded for his arbitration.

“And whan that Pandare herde hire name nevene…/Lord he was glad”(1-876-78)

               It’s possible here to see allusions to the poor advice of “…King Richard’s inner circle of advisors, the advice of John of Gaunt, and also to the power of the “Wonderful Parliament” itself.”(Goodman p.56) A royal figure is being controlled and manipulated in each instance. It only remains for the reader to decide, which is which? Chaucer is very ambiguous in his casting and tends to use the ideas of the day rather than point fingers at definite personalities. The notion that the machinations of ancient Troy are on a par with those of modern England are extremely tantalizing.

               The “Wonderful Parliament” features for a second time in the poem when Troilus begs the Trojan council for the release of Cressida. Having lost prestige in battle, similar to the taint of scandal on King Richard, the council refuses his request and Cressida is handed over. Despite the fact that she initially had the patronage of Hector – John of Gaunt – she’s now nothing more than chattel and no longer worthy of consideration. The strength of Parliament at that particular period was clearly greater than that of the throne and although Chaucer may be playing both ends against the middle he’s careful not to point the finger adroitly, once again employing the politics of the day to enliven his story.

               Religious politics play a significant role in 14th century England and Chaucer is wise to ensure that his characters that resemble medieval Christians do in fact engender the psyche and religious morals of pagan Troy. As always Chaucer offers his epithet that his knowledge is based on the books of his predecessors and therefore cannot be faulted for any mistakes or misunderstandings invoking the one to true God to bless his enterprise. Although a tale of polytheism and righteous pagan attitudes there is an obvious sense of modernity within his verse.

“But ye lovers that bathen in gladnesse if any drope of pyte in yow be remember yow on passed hevynesse” (1-22-23) 

               Allusions to Boccaccio and his “Filostrato”, the original manuscript from which Chaucer drew some of his ideas, are not surprisingly amalgamated into the poetry given that Chaucer was translating the work at the time of writing. The principal point of the “Filostrato” is that earthly delights are nothing when compared with heavenly, and therefore one can better work towards the afterlife than pursue vanity and earthly desires in order to be assured of God’s grace. Troilus is therefore viewed in medieval terms but excused for his prehistoric manners. In the sense of universal power and the politics of a divine maneuvering supreme being, just as the King of England is all powerful, God observes everything and everyone. The idea of omnipotence poses the paradox of divine intervention and free will. If Boccaccio is to be understood then free will takes second place, and therefore those pursuing terrestrial pleasures are doomed to failure, hence Chaucer’s characters are doomed from the very outset. Much as the wheel-of-fortune turns, so does the unfolding of the divine plan therefore, as the characters climb we know that they will eventually be crushed under the same wheel that bought them to the pinnacle of happiness. Thus Hector will fail in his promise to keep Cressida safe. Boccaccio’s ideas of simple and conditional necessity ensure that no matter the decisions taken the outcome is already known, and free will, although allowing for perceived choice, is in fact already ordained. If God doesn’t create all, but knows all, then the outcome of any action is predetermined. One can only hope for the intervention of God and therefore prayer is never a wasted exercise, as Chaucer well-knows when dedicating his poems and hoping for heavenly intervention. Divine political hierarchy is therefore sacrosanct and the machinations of men are nothing but mere vanity.

               At the end of the poem the power of the medieval church is once again intoned in the fate of Troilus after his death. Unlike Cressida, Troilus has proven loyal and chaste and so Chaucer uses consideration in his placement in the afterlife. Rather than receiving entrance to a Christian heaven with God in his Imperium he is instead sent to the “eighth sphere” where with the stars he is fixed in the firmament for eternity.

“His lighte goost ful blissfully is went up to the holughnesse of the eighthe spere in convers leyting everich element.” (5-1808-10) 

               By reminding his readership that only Christians may enter the Kingdom of Heaven Chaucer fulfills his politically correct duty. Once again acquiescing to political pressure he ends his book with a prayer to the true God, despite having earlier prayed to pagan gods and invoked both furies and muses to help him with his text to admonish his characters. Bowing to tradition he asks for the protection of the Trinity to ensure not only the success of his “little book,” but to appease the religious authorities, and finally prays to be worthy of Christ’s mercy.

“Thow oon and two and thre, eterne on lyve that regnet ay in threand two and oon…/defende, and to thy mercy everichon.” (5-1864-1867) 

               Fourteenth-century gender politics are not least among Chaucer’s allusions and he uses these constantly to demonstrate the hierarchy that exists between the would-be lovers, those who put them together, and those who hope to profit by their union. The troubadour tradition of courtly love, or fin-amors, reverses the power positions within the relationship of Troilus and Cressida. Troilus is a son of Priam, the King of Troy, and therefore high on the social ladder. Cressida is the daughter of a traitor and a woman to boot, and so lower than he. The desire which he feels for her and the “hereos” he suffers because of his lust reverse their positions. The medieval document “Roman de la Rose,” of which Chaucer would’ve been aware, lays out the chivalric code for lovers, where the Knight must pay homage to his love, perform the actions of a Knight in both word and deed and endure any “love-service” his lady demands. In order to attract Cressida Troilus discards his petulant ways and undertakes to be the best man he can possibly be in the hopes that his chivalric deeds will be noticed. Despite their class differences, it’s the son of a King who is supplicant to the daughter of a perceived criminal. Bounded by chivalric politics Troilus unwittingly straps himself onto the wheel-of-fortune and prepares for a rough ride.

“For he bicome the frendlieste wight, the gentilest, and ek the mooste fre, the thriftiest and oon the beste knyght.” (1-179-181) 

               By incorporating the quotidian climate of 14th century England into his poetry Chaucer created verse that was current, topical, and amusing. The poem is embellished by its duality, the double lives of Troilus and Cressida as both ancient pagans and alternatively pseudo medieval-Christians making his characters more accessible to his contemporary audience. Constrained by royal patronage and dependent on their benefaction, Chaucer walked a fine line when attempting to equate his modernity with the ancient world. An adherence to medieval politics was necessary and so the allusions to social, religious, and gender issues had to be tempered with accepted doctrine and political savvy. Despite the difference of centuries it is possible to view medieval Britain through the eyes of Chaucer, and equate his thinking to the events that shaped his world. By analyzing and comparing the events of the period to the narrative in the poem it’s feasible to review the politics of a Chaucerian England.

 

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT- A SATIRE?

25 Apr

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   Martial conflict is an anachronism, or rather it should be, and yet proof of humanitie’s inability to coexist is evident in the untold wars currently being fought around the globe. If ever there was an example of man’s abject failure to communicate or to engage in diplomatic discourse then it’s his chronic penchant for war. Eric Maria Remarque was a German soldier during the First World War of ‘14-‘18 and the acclaimed author of the universally- acknowledged, greatest war novel of all time. Having seen brief service but enough horror to last him a lifetime Remarque penned his novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” in 1928.

               How does one describe death and destruction to those who’ve never experienced it, and more importantly how does one market a war novel that fails to glorify war? By stark contrast the Tennyson poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” describes a mad dash by British soldiers in 1854 against unbelievable Russian odds and is filled with patriotic fervor and that most quintessential aspect of flag-waving British imperialism, military ineptitude. Not so Remarque’s story. There are no allusions to vain glory but instead a cold, clinical look at a group of ordinary men who in order to survive the horrors of the trenches, are turned into killing machines. His is a satirical, historical perspective that enforces a savage anti-war message. In a book filled with cutting commentary, he subtly and effectively ridicules the nature of warfare offering a convincing treatise on the foolishness of war. Using irony, hubris, stock figures and stereotypical nationalism Remarque created a satire of epic proportion.

               The genus of Remarque’s satire can be found in the work of more arcane authors proving that the genre is a contemporary medium and that only the targets of satire change. By comparing the works of various seventeenth century satirists to Remarque, it’s possible to identify the method and compare and contrast satirical literary devices and prove their effectiveness, both historically and in their more recent application.

               The stock figure is an omniscient traditional satirical creation, an entity who personifies that which is right or wrong with a situation or system, be it social or political, who invariably acts as a stereotypical identifier to the reader. The characters, whose names are often symbolic of vice or weakness, are invariably the antithesis of the writer’s considered position and thus eligible for ridicule and mockery. In William Congreve’s play “The Way of the World”(1700) stock figures proliferate the dramatis personae and either mimic their master’s traits or prove that they’re of no better character than those over whom they claim to be superior. Congreve describes a Jacobean world of intrigue and personal gain with fops, dandys, fallen women, and the politically astute who through their connivance, personal associations and collective acumen articulately express that which is wrong with contemporary society. Lady Wishforth for instance, is a rich dowager with an appetite for younger men, whereas Sir Witwould is as sharp as his name implies. Remarque employs similar satirical representations. In a strict Prussian Germany where rank is determined by the position one holds in society, virtue of character is supposedly justified by profession.

               The “Herr Professor” Kantoreck, the German school master who encourages his “Iron Youth” to enlist, is the model of imperious perversity. Although recognized as a man of unquestionable intellect and of great standing within the small community, he misguidedly incites the class through the glorification of war, the necessity of sacrifice, and the honor of fighting and falling for the Fatherland. As impressionable young men Paul Baumer and his classmates throw down their books and run to the recruiting station, placing their trust and ultimately their lives in the hands of their infallible sage. Remarque paints an indelible image of the war fever to which many nations succumbed prior to the start of hostilities. Young men with no knowledge of why, what, or for whom they were fighting, rushed to offer themselves as though it were a game or holiday jaunt. By utilizing the grotesque of a believable, upstanding, professional Remarque throws into doubt the veracity and integrity of those who wield power and questions public faith in assumed authority figures. Baumer goes to war at the behest of his master not because of patriotic fervor or the hatred of an enemy, but because of misguided ineptitude.

               The stock figure can also be used to show the elevation of a character to a position of power. By utilizing a lowly figure both the virtues and vices of the inherited position can be analyzed and the perception of high born integrity challenged. Himmelstoss, a former postman and renowned buffoon whom the school boys have teased in the past is elevated beyond his capability. Now Corporal Himmelstoss , the boys’ nemesis and their boot camp instructor, he literally holds their lives in the palm of his hand. A sadist and a man drunk on power, he makes their lives hell. The satirical allusion here is to “lions led by lambs,” where soldiers of all nations where led by men with just enough plum in their voices to put pips on their shoulders. A university or grammar school education was sufficient to garner a commission in the British and German Armies of the early twentieth century; connection and family name all that were required to send men to their deaths. We see this in Samuel Butler’s “Hudibras” (1662) where “Hudibras” enjoys “Colonelling.” Hudibras is a man who’s achieved rank by affiliation rather than merit and who loves to ride out among the community flaunting his position and exercising his authority for personal gain. An abject coward who’d rather that others pay for his mediocrity, he fulfills the same satirical caricature as the Corporal. Himmelstoss, safe in the knowledge that he’ll never be sent to the front, and reassured in the unlikelihood of ever meeting his recruits again, enjoys the power of his position to the full. Elevated beyond ability and education he humiliates and crushes the will of his recruits, and even manages to kill some of them in the process. Remarque demonstrates his disdain for officialdom and highlights the useless, wastage of life by embodying presumed authority in the unlikely personage of an ex-postman.

               Irony is one of the significant hallmarks of satire and can be found throughout the genre. By inverting accepted norms and contrasting the juxtapositions of the sublime with the ridiculous an argument can be made that strengthens an author’s viewpoint. Authors, by suggesting that which is patently wrong as being obviously correct, can argue their thesis more effectively by offering an alternative position. By confronting a reader with a well-defined argument, and then offering solid reasons for holding that particular view, it’s possible to strongly influence a reader’s impression. This is why satire is such a strong literary tool, and why one could easily confuse the methodology with its more recent applications in propaganda, advertising and even political discourse.

               Swift uses the methodology to great success in “A Modest Proposal” (1729) when he argues for the cannibalization of Irish children in order to help relieve the social problems of the age. His arguments are well thought out, his conclusions logical, and yet his thesis untenable. According to Swift, in order to help the poor and impoverished, it’s necessary to fatten their children and sell them to the rich for food. With one stroke of his pen he relieves the poor of their poverty, establishes a sustainable income, creates a renewable food source and rids the Irish of hunger forever. So long as the Irish continue to bare children then they’ll never starve. The issue of morality has also been addressed as now a child born out of wed-lock is no longer a cause of shame but rather a shrewd investment. What could make more sense than assuaging the poor of their unwanted children, diminishing the burgeoning population, putting an end to hunger and relieving poverty? All fabulous and welcome ideas that would ease the burdens of the poor, except the solution to the problem, the consumption of human children, is morally reprehensible and therefore untenable. Swift is of course being obtuse. By utilizing rhetoric he argues convincingly his hopeless case by dismissing the sensible solutions already ignored by the establishment of the day, and then arguing convincingly for his proposal. If the product of their relief was anything but human flesh his suggestions would’ve been welcomed.

               Such is Irony and Remarque uses this to equal success within his own novel. His twist is to offer the manifestation of total war as normality. A dystopian world in which common men who’ve never met outside of the theatre of war murder one another for reasons they don’t understand, having been ordered to do so by men they’ve never met. An absurd war created in the minds of a handful of individuals for which millions must pay for with their lives under the guise of nationalism and patriotism.

               Paul Baumer caught between the lines after becoming separated from his comrades on a night patrol is unable to find his way back to his own trench and so must stay put. At the moment he decides to try to find his way back, an attack is initiated by the French who, after a short bombardment, race across no-man’s land and across the shell hole in which he cowers. Burying himself face deep in the mud he pretends to be dead in the hope that once the attack is over he can return to his comrades. Suddenly, a French soldier drops into the crater, and seeing only a uniform and an enemy Paul falls upon him with a knife and stabs him repeatedly in the chest. Dismissing the dying, choking man Paul once again tries to escape his predicament but due to prolific machine gun fire is unable and so must stay where he is, a frightened German soldier forced to remain in close proximity to an expiring Frenchman.

               Remarque fills the crater with irony. The Frenchman is no longer the enemy but a man by the name of Claude Duval, a printer with a wife and a child. For the first time Baumer realizes that rather than having killed a monster he’s killed a fellow man who, for the same reasons as himself, was conscripted to fight, having probably never met a foreigner in his life and until the arrival of call-up papers content to continue his own way of life. Remarque insists that had the two men met in peacetime they would’ve bought each other drinks. The war despite the shells flying overhead no longer exists inside of the shell hole, instead there are just two ordinary men who’ve been brought together by circumstances beyond their control. Baumer argues both sides of the war, justifies his actions in killing the Frenchman and yet repudiates what he’s done to Duval. In a pathetic attempt of guilt and self-realization he tries to save the man he tried to kill. Duval ultimately dies and Paul is able to escape back to his trench. The discussion of the rights and wrongs of conflict are left in the crater as Paul finally makes it back to his own lines. Remarque’s portrayal of both murderer and savior embodied by the same soldier are deeply disturbing. How can a man who knew nothing but his studies prior to the war suddenly become capable of such an act? Both dressed in the uniforms of their country they were identifiable as enemies. Once the badges and colors had been stripped away the reality was of two men confronting one another, not two nations. The ridiculousness of strangers hating and killing is as preposterous as Swift’s solution to hunger. Remarque identifies the reasons for the action and then demonstrates the madness of the outcome. The irony is as thick on the page as the mud was deep, in the crater in which the soldiers fought.

               The irony continues to flow when the soldiers are removed to safe quarters behind the lines where they are deloused, fed and given clean uniforms in expectation of a visit from the Kaiser. The men are drilled and paraded in order to receive the supreme being with the pomp and ceremony his rank demands. When the great man finally arrives they are less than impressed. The Emperor is short in statue and unsurprisingly a man just like themselves. Remarque compounds his ante-war rhetoric in the persona of the Kaiser and ends the chapter with the soldier’s realization. Nothing more is said. Nothing else is necessary.

               National hubris as described by Daniel Defoe in “True Born Englishman” (1701) demolishes the idea of racial purity by comparing and contrasting stereotypes and then applying them to the English. A catalogue of disparaging qualities are used to describe foreign nationals and then argued in order to cement the idea of their inferiority to the pure bred English. As with all satire the reverse proves to be true and Defoe then proceeds to apply the same methodology to the English with acerbic clarity. Through his argument one is initially led into a false sense of superiority only to be dragged back into reality when the irrefutable evidence of the counter argument is presented. With mixed blood, diluted race, assimilated language, and of suspect origin, the English are as foreign and quirky as their European neighbors. Defoe demolishes racial purity, not for the sake of disparagement, but to alleviate xenophobic tendency in an attempt to alter a cultural misconception. In this particular case it was the nationality of the new king, William of Orange, who perceived as a Dutch foreigner, was was opposed by some in his claim to the English throne.

               According to “Kantoreck” the school master his “Iron Youth” were exactly what Germany required in its hour of need. The master builds his class of school boys into invincible Wagnerian supermen. Faced only by the “filthy, lazy French” and the “cowardly British Tommies” victory would be swift and the war over by Christmas. The boys believing their master hasten into the ranks, only to discover that the opposite is true. The men in the opposing trenches are in fact themselves, men who’re fighting for survival rather than principal, and who hail from homes and families not dissimilar to their own. The war of course isn’t over by Christmas and the recruits who joined together as a class of thirty students are slowly whittled down to one. Baumer, is the last man standing. With the armistice bells about to ring Baumer foolishly peers above the trench at the site of a butterfly flitting between the rusted wire barricades. Blinded by the beauty of the insect he momentarily forgets the survival instincts honed from years of trench fighting and is shot dead by a French sniper. As Baumer slides dead into the bottom of the trench the bells ring out and the war is over.

               Remarque proves that satire is evergreen and can be used in any age and applied to most subjects. By offering a story of conflict he colors his characters and their experiences with the satirical method, demonstrating that satire is not an outdated concept. Irony, stock characters, national hubris and stereo typical nationalism are as useful to Remarque as they were to the likes of Swift, Wilmot and Congreve. Although the subjects may change, satire is as applicable to a twentieth century war as they are to a sixteenth century Dutch king mounting an English throne, or a Whig official “Colonelling” on his estates. Although Remarque’s raw satire is based on his own experiences of the trenches and the indescribable horror he saw, rather than linger on the brutality of warfare he chooses to highlight the humanity of the protagonists and the obscenity of a generation of young men wasted. What greater satire could there be than men fighting and dying in an ocean of mud when if left to their own devices they would have chosen to live?

               During the Christmas armistice of 1914 soldiers of all nations climbed out of their trenches, exchanged gifts and played a game of football in no-man’s land. They were told by their officers that should they repeat what they termed fraternization they’d be shot. Remarque didn’t experience the common soldier’s desire for yuletide peace though undoubtedly the irony of the occasion would not have been wasted upon him.