Subido por Elena Perez

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UNIT 1. The Postmodern Turn. Introduction and Brief Account of the Postulates of
Postmodernism is a widely used term that has come to stand for a cultural condition.
Whether we like it or not, we live in a postmodern culture, the term postmodern alluding to the
fact that this cultural condition is rooted in modernity while going well beyond it. Actually, our
present so-called cultural stage is often referred to as “late modernity”. The American marxist
critic Fredric Jameson, in an essay later expanded into a book entitled “Post Modernism, Or the
Cultural logic of Late Capitalism” (1984), sees postmodernism as a “cultural dominant”
“characterized by the results of late capitalist dissolution of bourgeois hegemony and the
development of mass culture” (Hutcheon 1988: 6). Significantly, the French philosopher François
Lyotard alludes to this concept of cultural condition in the title of his immensely influential The
Postmodern Condition, published in 1979. For Lyotard “incredulity toward metanarratives” is the
defining feature of postmodernism (1985: xxiv). By this he means that the various stories about
human emancipation and progress, such as the Enlightment or Marxism, that once served to
ground knowledge and legitimate certain politics, are no longer credible. The term
“metanarratives” or “grand narratives” denotes those doctrines or systems that need not
legitimation because they are themselves self- legitimating. This means that they not only explain
a certain domain of knowledge, but they legitimate the power and social relations deriving from it.
In this sense, as Linda Hutcheon puts it, they “unify and order any contradictions in order to make
them fit” (Hutcheon 1985: x). For Lyotard, these large narratives are being substituted by multiple
smaller narratives with no ambition of universalizing legitimation.
One of the aims of postmodernism is to deconstruct these large narratives in order to
expose their contradictions. Master narratives are universal in scope, they aspire to objectivity
and scientific knowledge. Their discourses claim, to borrow Michel Foucault’s coinage, “the will to
truth”, that is, the possibility of accessing an objective reality out there and, subsequently, of
representing it thatched. Against these certainties grounded on an
empirical bent of mind and a belief on referentiality, postmodernism has emphasised the
constructed nature of reality, since both its access and subsequently its representation are
mediated by language and ideology. As Hutcheon argues, “language is as social contract:
everything that is presented and thus received through language is already loaded with meaning
inherent in the conceptual patterns of the speaker’s culture” (1988: 25). On the other hand, “all
cultural practices have an ideological subtext which determines the conditions of the very
possibility of their production of meaning” (1988: xii). The crisis of both knowledge and
representation are therefore key issues at the heart of postmodernism. Yet the concepts of
knowledge and representation are in no way dismissed. Hutcheon very precisely describes the
postmodern as the “contradictory phenomenon that uses and abuses, installs and then subverts,
the very concepts it challenges – be it in literature, painting, sculpture, film, video, dance,
television, music, philosophy, aesthetic theory, psychoanalysis, linguistics or historiography”
(1988: 3). Postmodern techniques and conventions therefore seek to subvert the assumptions
that realism and its related ideology, humanism, be it liberal or materialist, have encouraged us to
think of as “natural”, “normal” and “neutral”. Realism has been accused of ideological control
precisely on account of its claims to determine what is “natural”, “normal” and “neutral”. Alison
Lee in her book Realism and Power. Postmodern British Fiction (1990: x) explains that “common
sense and the transparency of language, as well as subjectivity, truth, meaning and value, are
terms and concepts which postmodern novels try to question and draw attention to as
conventions”. In order to illustrate this issue she discusses Magritte’s painting The Human
Condition I (1934). “Within the painting is a painting on an easel which overlaps a landscape
seen through a window. The painting within the painting,” —she says— “is an exact continuation
of the view and so it appears that there are two levels: the real view and the painted copy” (Lee
1990: 5). Of course, as soon as we notice that the landscape which is assumed to be the real
view is framed within a painting, we realise that it is an imaginative construct and that the painter
wants us to realise precisely that fact: the artificiality of the artistic artefact or, in other words, that
art, far from mirroring reality, recreates it imaginatively. In sum, it constructs a reality of its own.
We should take into account that the notions of subjectivity, truth, meaning and value are
“terms and concepts which postmodern novels try to question and draw attention to as
conventions”. This does not mean that they do not exist but that, in the light of the incredulity
toward metanarratives that characterises the postmodern cultural condition, their scope is local
and historical, that is, contingent and provisional, and consequently they partake of the same
constructed nature as “the real”. Meaning is thus ambiguous and plural, as it is the reader as a
member of a given cultural community who will finally determine it.
Deconstruction is a useful concept to handle at this point as it aims to show that every text
will ultimately subvert its rhetorical strategies. “To deconstruct a text or discourse is to show how
it undermines the philosophy it asserts or the hierarchical oppositions on which it relies, by
identifying in the text the rhetorical operations that produce the supposed grounds of argument,
the key concept or premise.” (Culler 1982, quoted in Lee, 27). In a number of the literary works
we are going to analyse we shall see how the author undertakes the task of deconstructing the
traditional discourses of realist representation.
As Magritte cleverly problematised the assumptions of transparency and referentiality by
incorporating them into his painting as subject matter, we will find that postmodern fiction
addresses precisely this question of the problematic relation of “story” and “history” writing to
reality and truth by means of a series of narrative strategies or even by openly commenting on
their difficulties. Novels that involve a significant degree of self- consciousness about their
fictional nature are called metafictional in the sense that they are fictions about fiction itself.
Literature does not exist in a vacuum. In fact, the beliefs, concerns and anxieties of the
time and world where it is produced make up its very substance. It is no wonder then that
contemporary literature in general and fiction in particular should reflect this radical
epistemological shift. Many postmodern features, on the other hand, were already there in
modernism. You may remember in this regard Virginia Woolf’s famous statement that “in or about
December 1910 human character changed”, in order to explain the necessary changes she felt
that the novel had to undertake if it wanted to portray reality in a convincing way. Woolf showed
that the old conventions of realism were no longer tenable and, along with other modernist
writers, she undertook the task of breaking away with the traditional role that plot, character and
linear time had played in the depiction of reality. Indeed postmodernism, while partaking of many
of the most characteristic features of modernism, shows striking differences with it. Among the
former, we find a strong
emphasis on fragmentarity and discontinuity as sign of the loss of faith in the
humanist assumption of a unified autonomous self and the natural relation of
language to its referents. We also find a challenge to traditional notions of
perspective through the refusal to the presence and powerful omniscience of the
third person. But postmodernism will provide us with more radically shifting
perspectives by means of narrative voices alternatively split between the first and
the third person, and/or with limited and provisional viewpoints to be suddenly
contradicted. Narrators may become either disconcertingly multiple offering
different perspectives of the same event or difficult to locate. Certainties are also
positional and there are no natural hierarchies. Marginal or ex-centric characters
are given centrality in order to show that there are no fixed or natural categories or
values. Cultures hitherto marginal contest and challenge the values of the
traditionally hegemonic Western culture exposing its self-serving interests under
the cover of its civilising enterprises. Unity and centre no longer hold, and plurality
and differences of every kind — gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexual preference—
are emphasized instead.
The transition from modernism to postmodernism has not been easy in
England, on account of the ideological and moral chaos brought about by the
Second World War. During the third decade of the twentieth century, literature in
general focused on political commitment and, as a consequence, realist
representation was the medium thought to better reflect the concerns about the
growing danger of totalitarian ideologies and their impingement on social
relationships. It was impossible for writers to ignore the threatening nature of public
affairs such as the collapse of markets and subsequent economic depression and
the growing menace of fascism. It is small wonder therefore that literature turned
from aesthetics and formalism to a concerned reflection on public issues. In her
essay “The Leaning Tower”, published in 1940, Virginia Woolf identified some of
the factors that accounted for the literary change:
In 1930 it was impossible —if you were young, sensitive,
imaginative— not to be interested in politics; not to find public causes of
much more pressing interest than philosophy. In 1930 young men … were
forced to be aware of what was happening in Russia; in Germany; in Italy; in
Spain. They could not go on discussing aesthetic emotions and personal
relations … they had to read the politicians. They read Marx. They became
communists; they became anti-fascists. (In Randall Stevenson 1976: 30)
If the literature of the thirties was on the whole politically committed, the
forties was thought of as a frustrated decade: Cyril Connolly referred to it as “five
years of total war and five more of recrimination and exhaustion during which the
Modern Movement unobtrusively expired” (Stevenson 1976: 68). In the forties and
fifties depression and gloom featured largely in the prevailing social and literary
mood; and nostalgia for a better past was also paramount. Social realism and
liberal humanism were the upheld values in the face of the past horrors and the
fast growing consumerism and mass culture. Within this panorama, the critic F. R.
Leavis exerted a strong influence on the academia from the forties to the sixties,
upholding literature as a means of moral and humane education and calling for a
return to the best writers of an English tradition he set himself to create. By great
writers he meant those who had expressed with the utmost intensity in their literary
works the values of a somehow ineffable essence he termed “Englishness”. As
ingredients of this essence Leavis advocated values modernism had strongly
contested, and if he admired and included within his canon of greatness modernist
writers such as D. H. Lawrence it was for reasons quite foreign to the aesthetics
and ideological foundations modernism postulated.
By the end of the fifties the world was felt to be fast changing yet again. “We
are all of us, directly or indirectly, caught up in a great whirlwind of change”, wrote
Doris Lessing in 1957. Despite the key role Britain had played in the war, it was no
longer an empire, and its political status in the world had changed accordingly. It
would take quite long to come to terms with the fact of its international decline. In
fact, the swift process of decolonization, accelerating in the fifties and sixties, drove
Britain by 1960 into a deepening confusion about its imperial identity and role as a
world power. Meanwhile, the Welfare State and the growth in number of British
universities throughout the country were opening up the range of educational and
job opportunities for young people from small towns and particularly for women.
Yet, despite increasing consumer affluence, the early sixties were pervaded by a
pessimistic mood of decline. There was a general sense of national enervation and
bewilderment at the fast-rising crime rate, football hooliganism, severe industrial
unrest, continuous crises in the pound, race riots and political scandals (Waugh
1995: 59). The counter-cultural movement of the sixties which reached its climax
with the student’s protests in the late sixties marked the end of a commitment to a
universal culture characterised by “a consensually validated High Art”. As Patricia
Waugh puts it in her book Harvest of the Sixties (1995), “the sixties provided less
the opportunity to cement social unity through participation in a national culture
than the chance to pursue individual or subcultural paths to liberation from it:
consumer liberation from post-war austerity; cultural liberation from leisure-class
values; sexual liberation from Victorian mores; and a celebration and making of the
new, of youth, technology, design and fashion” (HS, 10). Absurdism, Gothic, the
grotesque, extremism, the theatre of cruelty, the poetry of diminished expectation,
apocalyptic fantasy and self-reflexivity are some of the literary modes developed
(HS, 10). The breakdown of cultural consensus is a process welcomed as
liberationist by some and condemned by others as the symptom of cultural
relativism, while a sense of inescapable complicity of art in a debased consumer
culture began to develop.
We should reflect on the way in which “the question of value in literature or
indeed the very constitution of English literature [has become] problematic” (HS,
150). For Patricia Waugh, “simply in geographical terms, ‘English literature’ is
difficult to identify. Not only is it now to be distinguished from ‘literatures in English’,
but the United Kingdom itself is a complex historical composite of different nations
and peoples” (150). In a way, 1948 has come to signal the symbolic beginning of
Black British history. In that year the Nationality Act was passed, encouraging
immigration from British colonies and former colonies, and on June 22, 1948 the
SS Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury. Four hundred and ninety-two West Indian
immigrants disembarked. Although the category “black” initially demarcated a
unified front against what would become an increasingly explicit racialised white
national community, it has metamorphosed and “since the mid-1980s there has
been a growing attention to its potential as both a political and aesthetic signifier,
characterised by difference and alterity” (James Procter 2000: 5). Black does no
longer, or at least does not always, refer to a biologically innate essential quality,
but constitutes a culturally constructed that that emerges at a particular historical
juncture and covers a wide range of literatures and writers of different geographical
and ethnic origins (West Indian, Indian, African). Being a political signifier, the
borders of the field are rather fluid, and it is often the case that writers sharing the
same country of origin and the same race are grouped under the category “black”,
or they go unmarked. Members of ethnic and other social and cultural minorities —
women, gays and lesbians— have made creative use of the fantastic and
postmodern modes of writing in order to express alterity and otherness; also as
means of exposing and disrupting repressive notions of nationalism and identity
and of defamiliarising normative assumptions about the constitution of the real. The
study of Postmodern British fiction is interesting because its deconstructing
strategies are not as overt as those flaunted by American fiction. Many of the texts
we are going to discuss are postmodern in the sense Hutcheon described them as
firmly installing realism only to subvert it later. The presence of the past is therefore
important but, opposite to modernism, always as “a critical reworking, never a
nostalgic ‘return’”.
Critical Discourse: Problematizing History
LINDA HUTCHEON University of Toronto
Every culture cannot sustain and absorb the shock of modern civilization.
There is the paradox: how to become a modern man and to return to sources.
(Paul Ricoeur)
One of the few common denominators among the detractors of
postmodernism (e.g., Jameson, "Postmodernism”; Newman; Eagleton), however
that term be defined, is the surprising, but general, agreement that the postmodern
is ahistorical. It is a familiar line of attack, launched by Marxists and traditionalists
alike, against not just contemporary art, but also today's theory from semiotics to
deconstruction. Recently, Dominick LaCapra (104-05) came to the defence of Paul
de Man against Frank Lentricchia, claiming that de M an, in fact, had had a very
keen sense of the need for inquiry into the conditions of possibility of history and
how these are enacted in actual historical processes. What interests me here,
however, is not the detail of the debate, but the very fact that history is now, once
again, a cultural issue - and a problematic one, this time. It seems to be inevitably
tied up with an entire set of challenged cultural and social assumptions that also
condition our notions of both theory and art today: our beliefs in origins and ends,
unity and totalizations, logic and reason, consciousness and human nature,
progress and fate, representation and truth, not to mention the notions of causality
and temporal homogeneity, linearity, and continuity (see Miller 460-61).
December 1988
In some ways, these problematizing challenges are not new ones: their
intellectual roots have been firm for centuries, though it is their actual concentration
in a great many discourses today that has forced us to take notice anew. It was
only in 1970 that a noted historian could write: "Novelists and playwrights, natural
scientists and social scientists, pacts, prophets, pundits, and philosophers of many
persuasions have manifested an intense hostility to historical thought. Many of our
contemporaries are extraordinarily reluctant to acknowledge the reality of past time
and prior events, and stubbornly resistant to all arguments for the possibility or
utility of historical knowledge" (Fischer 307). A few years later, Hayden White
proclaimed that "one of the distinctive characteristics of contemporary literature is
its underlying conviction that the historical consciousness must be obliterated if the
writer is to examine with proper seriousness those strata of human experience
which it is modern art's peculiar purpose to disclose" (Tropics 31). But his
examples are telling: Joyce, Pound, Eliot, Mann ~- the great modernists, not
postmodernists, Today, we would certainly have to modify radically this kind of
claim in the wake of the postmodern architecture of Michael Graves and Paolo
Portoghesi, or films like The Return of Martin Guerre and Colonel Redl, or what we
might call "historiographic metafiction" like G., Shame, or A Maggot. There seems
to be a new desire to think historically, but to think historically these days is to think
critically and contextually. Part of this problematizing return to history is no doubt a
response to the hermetic a historic formalism and aestheticism that characterized
much of the art and theory of the so-called modernist period. If the past were
invoked, it was to deploy its "presentness" or to enable its transcendence in the
search for a more secure and universal value system (be it myth, religion, or
psychology) (Spanos 158). In the perspective of cultural history, of course, it is now
easy to see this as a reaction against the burden of tradition (in the visual arts and
music, especially [see Rochberg 3/27]) , often taking the form of an ironic enlisting
of the aesthetic past in the overhauling of Western civilization (Joyce, Eliot).
Modernism's "nightmare of history" is precisely what postmodernism has chosen to
address. Artist, audience, critic ~- none is allowed to stand outside history, or even
to wish to do so (Robinson and Vogel 198). The reader of Fowles's The French
Lieutenant's Woman is never allowed to ignore the lessons of the past about the
past or the implications of those lessons for the historical present. But surely, one
could object, Brecht and Dos Passos were modernists who taught us the same
things. And was not history problematized in what Barbara Foley (195) has called
the "metahistorical novel" - Absalom, Absalom! Orlando, and so on? Well, yes and
no: paradoxical postmodernism is both oedipally oppositional and filially faithful to
modernism. The provisional, indeterminate nature of historical knowledge is
certainly not a discovery of postmodernism. Nor is the questioning of the
ontological and
epistemological status of historical "fact" or the distrust of seeming neutrality and
objectivity of recounting. But the concentration of these problematizations in
postmodern art is not something we can afford to ignore. To speak of provisionality
and indeterminacy is not to deny historical knowledge, however. This is the
misunderstanding suggested by Gerald Graff when he writ es: "For if history is
seen as an unintelligible flux of phenomena, lacking in inherent significance and
structure, then no exertions of the shaping, ordering imagination can be anything
but a dishonest refuge from truth" (403). What the postmodern writing of both
history and literature has taught us is that both history an d fiction are discourses,
that both constitute systems of signification by which we make sense of the past
("exertions of the shaping, ordering imagination" ). In other words, the meaning and
shape are not in the events, but in the systems which make those events into
historical facts. This is not a "dishonest refuge from truth," but an
acknowledgement of the meaning-making function of human constructs. The
postmodern, then, effects two simultaneous moves. I t reinstalls historical context
as significant and even determining, but in so doing, it problematizes the entire
notion of historical knowledge. This is another of the paradoxes that characterize
all postmodern discourses today. And the implication is that there can be no single,
essentialized, transcendent concept of "genuine historicity" (in Fredric Jameson's
terms), no matter what the nostalgia (Marxist or traditionalist) for such an entity.
Postmodern historicism is wilfully unencumbered by nostalgia in its critical,
dialogical reviewing of the forms, contexts, and values of the past. An example
might make this point clearer. Jameson has asserted that Doctorow's Ragtime is
"the most peculiar and stunning monument to the aesthetic situation engendered
by the disappearance of the historical referent" (" Postmodernism" 70). But it is just
as easy to argue that the historical referent is very present - in spades. Not only is
the re in Ragtime an accurate evocation of a particular period of early twentieth
century American capitalism, with due representation from all classes involved, but
historical personages also appear within the fiction. Of course, it is this mixing and
this tampering with the "facts” of received history that Jameson objects to. But
there is no conflict between this historical reconstruction/construction and the
politics of the novel (cf. Green 842). If Doctorow does use nostalgia, it is always
ironically turned against itself - and us. The opening of the novel sets the pattern.
Describing the year 1902, the narrating voice introduces a potential nostalgia, but
surely it is one already tinted with irony: "Everyone wore white in summer. Tennis
racquets were hefty and the racquet faces elliptical. There was a lot of sexual
fainting. There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants" (4). Only a page later,
we learn that Emma Goldman teaches a quite different view of America:
"Apparently there were negroes. There were immigrants" (5) - and, of course,
much of the novel is about precisely those ex-centric and excluded parts of society
Jameson is right, I think, to see this novel as inscribing a crisis in historicity but it is
his negative judgement that is surprising. The irony that allows critical distancing is
what here refuses nostalgia: Ragtime's volunteer firemen are anything but
sentimental figures and, many American social "ideals" such as justice - are called
into question by their inapplicability to (black) Ameri- cans like Coalhouse Walker.
There is no generalizing and sentimentalizing away of racism, ethno-centric bias,
or class hatred in this novel. Postmodern works like this one contest art's right to
claim to inscribe timeless universal values, and they do so by thematizing and even
formally enacting the context-dependent nature of all values. They also challenge
narrative singularity and unity in the name of multiplicity and disparity. Through
narrative, they offer fictive corporality instead of abstractions, but at the same time,
they tend to fragment, to render unstable, the traditional unified identity or
subjectivity of character. It is not by accident that I have been using here the
language of Michel Foucault ("Nietzsche"), for his description of the challenges
offered by a Nietzschean "genealogy" to standard notions of history corresponds to
what postmodern fiction also suggests in its contesting of the conventions of both
historiography and the novel form. The postmodern enterprise is one that traverses
the boundaries of theory and practice, often implicating one in and by the other,
and history is often the site of this problematization. Of course, this has also been
true of other periods, for the novel and history have frequently revealed their
natural affinities through their narrative common denominators: teleology, causality,
continuity. Leo Braudy has shown how the problematizing of that continuity and
coherence in eighteenth century history writing found its parallel in the fiction of
those years. Today, though, it is less the problem of how to narrate time than the
issue of the nature and status of our information about the past that makes
postmodern history, theory, and art share certain concerns. In the work of Hayden
White, Michel de Certeau, Paul Veyne, Louis O. Mink, Lionel Gossman, and
others, we see today a kind of radical suspicion of the act of historiography. What
we do not see, however, pace the opponents of postmodernism, is a lack of
concern for history or a radical relativism or subjectivism (cf. Lentricchia). What
we do see, instead, is a view of the past, is a view of the past, both recent and
remote, that takes the present powers and limitations of the writing of that past into
account and the result is often avowed provisionality and irony. In Umberto Eco's
terms: "The postmodern reply to the modern consists of recognizing that the past,
since it cannot really be destroyed, because its deconstruction leads to silence [the
discovery of modernism], must be revisited: but with irony, not innocently" (67). The
semiotic awareness that all signs change meaning with time is what prevents
nostalgia and antiquarianism. The loss of innocence is less to be lamented than
rejoiced in. This is what permits Frank Kermode to call "a serious historiographical
exercise" the description in Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 of a
paradoxically unrecorded but historical (which translates directly into: fictive)
confrontation of American and Russian warships off the coast of California in 1864.
Kermode's reasons for this claim, which he means seriously, are postmodern: the
description "illustrates the point that we are capable of a skepticism very remote . .
. from the sober historicism of only yesterday. We can, indeed, no longer assume
that we have the capacity to make value-free statements about history or suppose
that there is some special dispensation whereby the signs that constitute an
historical text have reference to events in the world" (108). This is the skepticism
that has brought us, not just changes in the discipline of history, but the "New
Historicism," as it is now labelled, in literary studies.
The new history we are beginning to see these days has little in common with the
old and for an interesting historical rea son: its practitioners were nurtured in the
theoretical climate of the 1970s, a time during which the individual literary work
came to lose its organic unity ; when literature as an organized body of knowledge
abandoned the boundaries that had hitherto enclosed it, to an extent even
abandoned its claims to knowledge; and when history began to seem
discontinuous, sometimes in fact no more than just another fiction. It is no wonder
that the scholarship we now pursue cannot take the form or speak the language of
the older literary history. (Herbert Lindenberger )
This new literary history is no longer an attempt to preserve and transmit a
canon or a tradition of thought; it bears a problematic and questioning relation to
both history and literary criticism. A recent advertisement for the University of
California Press series on "The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics" talks
of a critical "return to the historical embeddedness of literary production" that is
coeval with "innovative explorations of the symbolic explorations of the symbolic
construction of reality" in the study of history. Thanks to the pioneering work of
Marxists, feminists, black and ethnic theorists, among others, there is a new
awareness in both fields that history cannot be written without ideological and
institutional analysis. including analysis of the act of writing itself. It is no longer
enough to be suspicious and playful as a writer about literature (or history, though
there it never really was); the theorist and the critic are inevitably implicated in both
ideologies and institutions. Historians such as Le Roy Ladurie have shocked their
"establishment" colleagues by refusing to hide their interpretive and narrating acts
behind the third-person voice of objectivity that is so common to both historical and
literary critical writing. In Carnival in Romans, Ladurie presents himself, not as
metaphorical witness or participant of the events of 1580, but as a scholar,
reporting outside the story he tells, but from an explicitly and intensely partisan
perspective that lays out its value system for the readers to judge for themselves
(see Carrard ) . This flaunting of the transgression of the conventions of
historiography is a very postmodern confiating of two enunciative systems, those
defined by Emile Benveniste (206-08) as historical and discursive. Historical
statements, be they in historiography or realist fiction, suppress grammatical
reference to the discursive situation of the utterance (producer, receiver, context,
intent) in their attempt to narrate past events in such a way that the events seem to
narrate themselves. In the postmodern writing of history - and fiction (Midnight's
Children, The White Hotel, Slaughterhouse-Five) - there is a deliberate
contamination of the historical with didactic and situational discursive elements,
thereby challenging the implied assumptions of historical statements: objectivity,
neutrality, impersonality, and transparency of representation. What fades away with
this kind of contesting is any sure ground upon which to base representation and
narration, in either historiography or fiction. In most postmodern work, however,
that ground is both inscribed and subverted: Le Roy Ladurie's work has its impact
because of an implied intertextual dialogue with traditional third-person narrative
history; Ragtime derives its power as much from how it recalls as from how it
inverts Dos Passos's work. As David Carroll has noted, the new and critical "return
to history" is one which confronts "the conflictual interpenetration of various series,
contexts, and grounds constituting any ground or process of grounding" ("The
Alterity" 66), but I would add that, in the postmodernist writing of history and
literature, it does so by first installing and then critically confronting both that
grounding process and those grounds themselves. This is the paradox of the
postmodern. It is a paradox which underlines the separation between "history" as
what Murray Krieger once called "the unimpeded sequence of raw empirical
realities" (339) and "history" as either method or writing: "The process of critically
examining and analyzing the records and survivals of the past is ... historical
method . The imaginative reconstruction of ... the past from the data derived by ...
that process is called historiography" (Gottschalk 48). "Imaginative reconstruction"
or intellectual systematizing - whichever mode l suits you best - is the focus of the
postmodern rethinking of the problems of how we can and do come to have
knowledge of the past. It is the writing of history that, as Paul Ricoeur has shown
us, is actually "constitutive of the historical mode of understanding" (162). I t is
historiography's explanatory and narrative emplotments of past events that
construct what we consider historical facts. This is the context in which the
postmodern historical sense situates itself: outside associations of Enlightenment
progress or development, idealist/Hegelian world-historical process, or Marxist
notions of history. Postmodernism returns to confront the problematic nature of the
past as an object of knowledge for us in the present. There is no abyssal infinite
regress to absence or utter groundlessness in the fiction of Salm an Rushdie or Ian
Watsonor in the films of Peter Greenaway. The past really did exist. The question
is: how can we know that today - and what can we know of it? The overt
metafictionality of novels like Shame, Waterland, or Flaubert's Parrot
acknowledges its own constructing, ordering and selecting processes - but always
as historically determined acts. It puts into question, at the same time as it exploits,
the grounding of historical knowledge in the past real. This is why I have called this
kind of postmodern fiction "historiographic metafiction." It can often enact the
problematic nature of the relation of writing history to narrativization and, thus, to
fictionalization, thereby raising the same questions about the cognitive status of
historical knowledge with which current philosophers of history are also grappling.
What is the ontological nature of historical documents? Are they the stand-in for the
past? the trace? What is meant in ideological terms - by our "natural"
understanding of historical explanation? Historiographic metafiction refutes the
common-sense methods of distinguishing between historical fact and fiction. It
refuses the view that only history has a truth-claim, both by questioning the ground
of that claim in historiography and by asserting that both are discourses (human
constructs or signifying systems) and both derive their "truth" from that identity.
This kind of postmodern fiction also refuses the relegation of the extra-textual past
to the realm of history in the name of the autonomy of art. Novels like The Public
Burning and Legs assert that the past did indeed exist prior to its "entextuaIization"
into either fiction or history. They also show that both genres unavoidably construct
as they textualize that past. The "real" referent of their languages once existed, but
it is only accessible to us today in textualized form: documents, eye-witness
accounts, archives. The past is "archeologized" (Lemaire xiv), but its reservoir of
available materials is acknowledged as textualized. This postmodern "return to
history," then, is not recuperation or nostalgia or revivalism (see Kramer 352). From
a non-Marxist perspective, at least Ihab Hassan is right to castigate Jameson for
missing the point about history and postmodernism in the light of architecture like
that of Paolo Portoghesi (507; 517-18n). And, I would add, in the light of music like
that of Stockhausen, Berio, and Rochberg, or novels like those of Fowles, Fuentes,
Grass, and Banville. Cultural commentators like to say that Americans turned to
history in the 1970s because of their bicentennial. But what would explain the
contemporaneous historical investigations in Canada, Latin America, Britain, and
the continent? Ironically, it is Jameson who, I think, has put his finger on one of the
most important explanations: those of the sixties' generation (who have, indeed
been the creators of postmodernism) might, for obvious historical reasons, tend to
"think more historically than their predecessors" ("Periodizing" 178). The sixties
saw a move "out of the frame" (Sukenick 43) into the world of contemporary history
(from peace marches to the New Journalism) and materiality (in art, we had
George Segal's plaster casts of "reality”). Our recent and even remote past is
something we share, and the abundance of historical fiction and non-fiction being
written and read today is perhaps a sign of a desire for what Doctorow once called
reading as "an act of community” (in Trenner 59). To say, as one critic of the
postmodern does, that "history, whether as public collective awareness of the past,
or as private revisions of public experience , or even as the elevation of private
experience to public consciousness, forms the epicentel' of the eruptions of
contemporary fictional activity" (Martin 24) is not, however , to say that postmodern
fiction "decreates" history. It may problematize -that is, use and abuse- the
Conventions of teleological closure, for instance, but that is not to "banish" them
from the scene. Indeed, it logically could not, for it depends upon them. To elevate
"private experience to public consciousness" in postmodern historiographic
metafiction is not to expand the subjective; it is to render inextricable the public and
historical and the private and biographical. What are we to understand when
Saleem Sinai, in Midnight's Children, tells us that he personally caused things like
the death of Nehru or the language riots in India, or when little Oskar tells us that,
on his tin drum, he "beat out the rapid, erratic rhythm which commanded
everybody's movements for quite some time after August, 1914"? Is th ere a lesson
to be learned from the postmodern paradox here: from both the ironically undercut
megalomania and the refusal to abnegate personal responsibility for public history?
Works like these speculate openly about historical displacement and its ideological
consequences, about the way one writes about the past "real," about what
constitute "the known facts" of any given event. These are among the
problematizations of history by postmodern art today. Of course, theoretical
discourse has not been reticent in addressing these issues either.
With an ever-increasing urgency we hear the cry today from various quarters
that we must get back to history, and indeed we must. The problem is of course
how to get back and what form of history one is proposing to get back to. Too often
the cry is made simply out of frustration and in reaction to the various types of
formalism that still seem to dominate the intellectual marketplace, to the fact that
formal ism j ust won't go away no matter how often and how forcefully history is
evoked to chase it away or at least to put it in its place (in the place history assigns
to it ). (David Carroll )
Historiographic metafiction explicitly contests the power of history to abolish
formalism. Its metafictional impulse prevents any occluding of its formal and fictive
identity. But it also reinstates the historical, in direct opposition to most (late
modernist) argument, for the autonomy of art: for instance, in Ronald Sukenick's
memorable terms, "unless a line is drawn [between art and 'real life'], the horde of
Factists blunder in waving their banner on which it is written: 'It really happened'"
(44) . But it is not as if "it really happened" is an unproblematic statement in itself.
Just as definitions of what constitutes literature have changed over the years, so
definitions of what makes history-writing historical have changed from Livy to
Ranke to Hayden White (see Fitzsimmons et al.). There are continuing debates
over the definition of the historical field and about the strategies deployed to collect,
record, and narrate evidence. As many have noted, these debates generally
assume that history can be accurately captured; it is just a question of how best to
do so. As the record of empirical reality, history, according to this view, is usually
seen as radically alien from literature, whose way to "truth" (be that seen as
provisional and limited or as privileged and superior) is based on its autonomous
status. This is the view that has institutionalized the separation of history and
literature in the academy. The twentieth-century discipline of history has
traditionally been structured by positivist and empiricist assumptions that have
worked to separate it from anything that smacks of the "merely literary." In its usual
setting up of the "real" as unproblematic presence to be reproduced or
reconstructed, history is begging for deconstruction to question the function of the
writing of history itself (see Parker 58) . In Hayden White's deliberately provocative
[historians] must be prepared to entertain the notion that history, as currently
conceived, is a kind of historical accident, a product of a specific historical
situation, and that, with the passing of the misunderstandings that produced that
situation, history itself may lose its status as an autonomous and selfauthenticating
mode of thought. It may well be that the most difficult task which the current
generation of historians will be called upon to perform is to expose the historically
conditioned character of the historical discipline, to preside over the dissolution of
history's claim to autonomy among the disciplines. (Tropics 29) At a less global
level, the way in which history is written has, of course, come under considerable
scrunity in recent years. History as the politics of the past (the stories of kings,
wars, and ministerial intrigues) has been challenged by the French Annales
School's rethinking of the frames of reference and methodological tools of the
discipline (see Le Goff and Nora). The resulting refocusing of historiography on
previously neglected objects of study - social, cultural, economic - in the work of
Jacques Le Goff, Marcel Detienne, Jean Paul Aron, and others has coincided with
feminism's reorientation of historical method to highlight the past of the formerly
excluded excentric (women c., but also gays, the working class, ethnic and racial
minorities, etc.). Of course, the same impulse can be seen in historiographic
metafiction. Christa Wolf's Cassandra retells Homer's historical epic of men and
their politics and wars in terms of the untold story of women and everyday life. In
historiography, Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worm uses a narrative and
anecdotal style to invoke, rather than analyse, the popular cultural world view of a
sixteenth. century peasant as representative of a basic culture of the period (so
basic it is usually ignored by historians [see LaCapra 45-69]). The very concept of
time in historiography has bee n made problematic. The work of Fernand Braudel
has called into question the "history of events," the short time span of traditional
narrative historiography of individuals and isolated events in the name of a history
of "longue duree" and the "mentalite collective." And the three volumes of Paul
Ricoeur's Temps et recit study in painstaking detail the configurations and
refigurations of time by narrative, both historical and fictive. The analytic philosophy
of history as practised by Arthur Danto and Morton White has raised different,
mostly epistemological, questions for modem historiography. But most historians of
history feel that the discipline is still largely empirical and practical (Adler 243) , with
a radical distrust of the abstract and the theoretical. However, like the
poststructuralist and feminist challenges to the similar assumptions still
underpinning much literary study today, the provocations of theorists of history are
starting to work to counteract the marginalization of history caused by some
historians' unwillingness to justify their methods even to themselves. There have
been three major foci of recent theorizations of historiography: narrative, rhetoric,
and argument (Struever 261-64), and of the se, it is narrative that most clearly
overlaps with the concerns of postmodern fiction and theory.
The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it. (Oscar Wilde) Hayden White
feels that the dominant view of historians today has gradually come to be that the
writing of history in the form of narrative representations of the past is a highly
conventional and indeed literary endeavour — which is not to say that they believe
that events never occurred in the past: "a specifically historical inquiry is born less
of the necessity to establish that certain events occurred than of the desire to
determine what certain events might mean for a given group, society, or culture's
conception of its present tasks and future prospects" (" Historical Pluralism" 487).
The shift to signification, to the way systems of discourse make sense of the past,
is one that implies a pluralist - and perhaps troubling - view of historiography as
consisting of different but equally meaningful constructions of past reality, or rather,
of the textualized remains (documents, archival evidence, witnesses' testimony) of
that past. Often this shift is voiced in terms that recall the language of literary
poststructuralism: "How did [a given historical] phenomenon enter the system
entitled history and how has the system of historical writing acquired effective
discursive power?" (Cohen 206) . The linking of power and knowledge here
suggests the importance of the impact of the work of Michel Foucault and, to some
extent, of that of Jacques Derrida in our postmodern rethinking of the relation
between the past and our writing of it, be it in fiction or historiography. In both,
there are overt attempts to point to the past as already "semioticized" or encoded,
that is, already inscribed in discourse and therefore "always already" interpreted (if
only by the selection of what was recorded and its insertion into a narrative).
Historiographic metafiction self-consciously reminds us that, while events did occur
in the real empirical past, we name and constitute those events as historical facts
by selection and narrative positioning. And, even more basically, we only know of
those events through their discursive inscription, through their traces. Merely to
invoke the word "trace" is to recall the Derridian contesting of what he calls the
metaphysical foundations of historiography. Derrida's challenge to the notion of
linear historical temporality is perhaps more radical than the Foucaldian model of
discontinuity: he offers a complex notion of repetition and change, iteration and
alteration, operating together (LaCapra 105). This is a conceptual "chain" of
history: "a 'monumental, stratified, contradictory' history; a history that also implies
a new logic of repetition and the trace, for it it difficult to see how there could be
history without it" (Derrida, Positions 57) . This is set in opposition to any attempt to
reflect or reconstruct or re-present the "present-in-the-past" (Carroll, "History" 446)
as unproblematic presence. Historiography, according to Derrida, is always
teleological: it imposes a meaning on the past and does so by postulating an end
(and / or origin). So too does most fiction, including postmodern fiction. The
difference is in the challenging self-consciousness of that imposition that renders it
provisional. As Michel de Certeau has argued, history writing is a displacing
operation upon the real past, a limited and limiting attempt to understand the
relations between a place, a discipline, and the construction of a text(55, 64). Like
Derrida, Michel Foucault has forced us to look at things differently, to shift the level
of our analysis out of our traditional disciplinary modes and into that of discourse.
We no longer deal, therefore: with either "tradition" or "the individual talent," as
Eliot would have us do. The study of anonymous forces of dissipation replaces that
of individual "signed" events and accomplishments made coherent by retrospective
narrative; contradictions displace totalities; discontinuities, gaps , and ruptures are
valorized in opposition to continuity, development, evolution ; the particular and the
different take on the value once held by the universal and the transcendent. For
Foucault it is irregularities that define discourse and its many possible
interdiscursive networks in culture. For postmodern history, theory, and art, this has
meant a new consideration of context, of textuality, of the power of totalization and
models of continuous history. Foucault's work has joined that of Marxists and
feminists in insisting on the pressure of historical contexts that have usually been
ignored in formalistic literary studies, as they have in historical interpretation as
well. Historians are now being urged to take the contexts of their inevitably
interpretive acts into account: the writing, reception, and "critical reading" of the
narratives of the past are not unrelated to issues of power, both intellectual and
institutional (LaCapra 127). Foucault has argued that "the social" is a field of
forces, of practices - discourses and their anchoring institutions - in which we adopt
various (constantly shifting) positions of power and resistance. The social is
inscribed within the signifying practices of a culture. In Teresa de Lauretis's terms:
"social formations and representations appeal to and position the individual as
subject in the process to which we give the name of ideology". The focus on
discourse in Foucault's work was enabled by more than just the textualized
Derridian mode of thought (cf. Lentricchia 191) ; there are Nietzsche and Marx
before Derrida. Foucault is not a simplistic "pan-textualist" (White, "Historical" 485)
who sees the real as only the textual. In his own words, discourse is "not an ideal,
timeless form that also possesses a history" but is " from beginning to end,
historical - a fragment of history, a unity and discontinuity in history itself, po sing
the problem of its own limits, its divisions, its transformations, the specific modes of
its temporality rather than its sudden irruption in the midst of the complicities of
time" (Archaeology 117). To speak of discursive practices is not to reduce all to a
global textuality, but to reassert the specific and the plural, the particular and the
dispersed. Foulcault's assault on all the centralizing forces of unity and continuity in
theory and practice (influence, tradition, evolution, development, spirit, oeuvre.
book, voice, origin, langue, disciplines [Archaeology 21-30]) challenges all forms of
totalizing thought that do not acknowledge their role in the very constitution of their
objects of study and in the reduction of the heterogeneous an d problematic to the
homogeneous and transcendental. Critics have not been slow to note in Flaubert's
Bouvard and Pecuchet the parodic forerunners of attempts to totalize the particular
and the dispersed an d to give meaning by the act of centring and universalizing
(see Gaillard ). And Salman Rushdie's narrators are their postmodern heirs. In the
fourth area of challenge - that is, to notions of continuity and tradition - theory and
practice again intersect. Historiographic metafiction shares the Foucaldian
unmasking of the continuities that are taken for granted in the Western narrative
tradition, and it does so by first using and then abusing those very continuities.
Edward Said has argued that underlying Foucault's notion of the discontinuous is a
"supposition that rational knowledge is possible, regardless of how very complex and even unattractive - the conditions of its production and acquisition" (283). The
result is a very postmodern paradox, for, in Foucault's theory of discontinuous
systematization, "the discourse of modern knowledge always hungers for what is
cannot fully grasp or totally represent" (285)' Be it historical, theoretical, or literary,
discourse is discontinuous, yet bound together by rules, albeit not transcendent
rules (Archaeology 229). All continuity is recognized as "pretended." The particular,
the local, and the specific replace the general, the universal, and the eternal. As
Hayden White has remarked:
Such a conception of historiography has profound implications for the
assessment of the humanistic belief in a 'human nature' that is everywhere and
always the same, how ever different its manifestations at different times and
places. It brings under question the very notion of a universal humanitas on which
the historian's wager on his ability ultimately to 'understand' anything human is
based. (Tropics 257)
Foucault was by no means the first to make us aware of any of this. He
himself has always pointed to Nietzsche as his predecessor. Rejecting both
antiquarian nostalgia and monumentalizing universalization that denies the
individuality and particularity of the past, in The Use and Abuse of History,
Nietzsche argued for a critical history, one that would "bring the past to the bar of
judgment, interrogate it remorselessly" (20-21). He also made clear where he felt
the only available standards of judgement were to come from: "You can explain the
past only by what is most powerful in the present" (40). It is this kind of belief that
Foucault brings to what he calls the New History (Archaeology 10-11). And his own
version of this history is never a history of things, but of discourse, of the "terms,
categories, and techniques through which certain things become at certain times
the focus of a whole configuration of discussion and procedure" (Rajchman 51).
Clearly, then, there have been major attacks on historians' customary fetishizing of
facts and hostility to theory. Hayden White has been the other major voice in lifting
the repression of the "conceptual apparatus" which is the ordering and sensegiving principle of historiography ("The Fictions" 30). He has joined
poststructuralists like Catherine Belsey (2-4) n arguing that there is no practice
without theory, however much that theory be unformulated or seen as "natural" or
even denied. For White the question facing historians today is not "What are the
facts?" but "How are the facts to be described in order to sanction one mode of
explaining them rather than another?" ("The Fictions" 44). This is not unlike the
questions that literary critics face in the new theoretically self-conscious climate of
the eighties. In both disciplines it is getting increasingly difficult to separate history
or criticism "proper" from philosophy of history or literary theory. Historical accounts
and literary interpretations are equally determined by underlying theoretical
assumptions. And in postmodern fiction too, diachrony is reinserted into synchrony,
but not in any simplistic way: the problematic concept of historical knowledge and
the semiotic notion of language as a social contract are reinscribed in the
metafictionally self-conscious and self-regulating signifying system of literature.
This is the paradox of postmodernism, be it in theory, history, or artistic practice.
Asked what changes in Twentieth Century struck her as being most
remarkable Margaret Mead mentioned TV (possibility of seeing what's happening
before historians touch it up). (John Cage's Diary) In the three areas of history, art,
and theory, there have been direct crossfertilizations as well as these parallel or
overlapping concerns. Like Hayden White before him, Dominick LaCapra has been
arguing for the commonality of interest in historiography and critical theory, and his
intended aim is a "cognitively responsible historiography." This would involve a
problematized rethinking of the nature of, for instance, historical documents. From
this perspective, they would become " texts that supplement or rework 'reality' and
not mere sources that divulge facts about 'reality'" (11). His account of the situation
of cri sis in contemporary historical studies will sound familiar to literary sorts: the
challenge to dominant humanist assumptions ("the postulates of unity, continuity,
and mastery of a documentary repertoire" [32]),
the contesting of the past as a transcendental signified,
paradoxically considered objectively accessible to the historian (137), and the
reconceptualization of historical processes to include the relations between texts
and the contexts of reading and writing (106) . Historiography has had its impact on
literary studies too, not just in the New Historicism, but even in fields - such as
semiotics - where history had been formally banished. Just as history, to a
semiotician, is not a phenomenal event, but "an entity producing meaning" (Haidu
188), so the semiotic production and reception of meaning have now been seen as
only possible in a historical context. And historiographic metafiction like Eco's The
Name of the Rose did as much to teach us this as any theoretical argument though this is not to deny the impact of the work of people like Frank Lentricchia,
Fredric Jameson, Eagleton, Hans Robert Jauss, Teresa de Lauretis, Catherine
Belsey, and many other feminist critics. Both theory and artistic practice work to
situate their own discourses economically, socially, culturally, politically, and
historically. The general desire to get beneath or behind the "natural," the "given,"
the assumptions which sustain historiography, theory, and art today is shared by
Barthesian de-mythologizing, Marxist and feminist contextualizing, and even,
despite appearances at times, Derridian deconstructing. Derrida defined
deconstruction early on as a "question of . . . being alert to the implications, to the
historical sedimentation of the language which we use" ("Structure" 271). Even
Paul Ricoeur's argument, in the three volumes of Temps et recit, that time
becomes human time by being narrated turns out to belong to this general
postmodern process of cross-fertilizing that leads to problematizing. Historiography
and fiction are seen as sharing the same act of refiguration, of reshaping our
experience of time through plot configurations; they are complementary activities.
But nowhere is it clearer than in historiographic metafiction that there is a
contradiction at the heart of postmodernism: the formalist and the historical live
side by side, but there is no dialectic. Just as we find those now familiar critical
paradoxes - the masterful denials of mastery of a Derrida or the totalizing
negations of totalization of a Foucault - so we find that the unresolved tensions of
postmodern aesthetic practice remain paradoxes or contradictions. Barthes'
utopian dream of a theory of the text that would be both formalist and historical (45)
is possible, but only if we accept problematic an d doubled texts.
Bakhtirr/Medvedev argued that form and history were interconnected and mutually
determining, but in postmodernism this is only true if no attempt is made to unify or
conflate the two. The Bakhtinian model of the dialogic is useful to keep in mind.
The monologic discourses of power and authority are not the only responses
possible to what has been called our age of recognition of the loss of certainties as
the state of the human condition (Reiss 194). To install and then subvert may be
less satisfying than resolved dialectic, but it may be the only non-totalizing
response possible. Architectural theorist Manfredo Tafuri has argued that it is
important today to engage in a "historical assessment of the present
contradictions" (2) — not necessarily a resolution of them. Postmodern architecture
and visual arts, like literature, must contend with modernism's attempts to be
outside history - through pure form, abstractionism, or myth - or to control it,
through theoretical models of closure. It is only recently that art history, for
instance, has been able to see itself as "a utopia as compellingly well-ordered and
internally self-consistent as it is fictional" (Preziosi 22). In literature, it is the intense
self-consciousness of historiographic metafiction that has had both theoretical and
practical implications for the writing and theorizing of history. Art and historiography
are always being brought together in postmodern fiction - and usually with
destabilizing, not to say unnerving, results. A final example: the hero of Angela
Carter's The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman finds himself puzzled by
a series of paintings in the doctor's home:
These pictures were heavily varnished oils executed in the size and style of
the nineteenth-century academician and they all depicted faces and scenes I
recognized from old photographs and from the sepia and olive reproductions of
forgotten masterpieces in the old-fashioned books the nuns gave us to look at
when I was a child, in the evenings after supper, when we had been good. When I
read the titles engraved on metal plaques at the bottom of each frame, I saw they
depicted such scenes as 'Leon Trotsky Composing the Eroica Symphony' ; the
wire-rimmed spectacles, the Hebraic bush of hair, the burning eyes were all
familiar. The light of inspiration was in his eyes and the crotchets and quavers
rippled from his nib on to the sheets of manuscript paper which flew about the red
plush cover of the mahogany table on which he worked if blown by the fine frenzy
of genius. Van Gogh was shown writing 'Wuthering Heights' in the parlour of
Haworth Parsonage, with bandaged car, all complete. I was especially struck by a
gigantic canvas of Milton blindly executing divine frescoes up on the walls of the
Sistine Chapel. (197-98) Seeing his bewilderment, the doctor's daughter explains:
"When my father rewrites the history books, these are some of the things that
everyone will suddenly perceive to have always been true."
I W HAT WAS POSTMODERNISM? What was postmodernism, and what is
it still? I believe it is a revenant, the return of the irrepressible; every time we are rid
of it, its ghost rises back. Like a ghost, it eludes definition. Certainly, I know less
about postmodernism today than I did thirty years ago, when I began to write about
it. This may be because postmodernism has changed, I have changed, the world
has changed. But this is only to confirm Nietzsche’s insight, that if an idea has a
history, it is already an interpretation, subject to future revision. What escapes
interpretation and reinterpretation is a Platonic Idea or an abstract analytical
concept, like a circle or a triangle. Romanticism, modernism, postmodernism,
however, like humanism or realism, will shift and slide continually with time,
particularly in an age of ideological conflict and media hype. All this has not
prevented postmodernism from haunting the discourse of architecture, the arts, the
humanities, the social and sometimes even the physical sciences; haunting not
only academic but also public speech in business, politics, the media, and
entertainment industries; haunting the language of private life styles like
postmodern cuisine—just add a dash of raspberry vinegar. Yet no consensus
obtains on what postmodernism really means. The term, let alone the concept, may
thus belong to what philosophers call an essentially contested category. That is, in
plainer language, if you put in a room the main discussants of the concept—say
Leslie Fiedler, Charles Jencks, Jean-François Lyotard, Bernard Smith, Rosalind
Krauss, Fredric Jameson, Marjorie Perloff, Linda Hutcheon and, just to add to the
confusion, myself—locked the room and threw away the key, no consensus would
emerge between the discussants after a week. But a thin trickle of blood might
appear beneath the sill. Let us not despair though we may be unable to define or
exorcise the ghost of postmodernism, we can approach it, surprising it from various
angles, perhaps teasing it into a partial light. In the process, we may discover a
family of words congenial to postmodernism. Here are some current uses of the
term: 1. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (Spain), Ashton Raggatt
McDougall’s Storey Hall in Melbourne (Australia), and Arata Isozaki’s Tsukuba
Center (Japan) are considered examples of postmodern architecture. They depart
from the pure angular geometries of the Bauhaus, the minimal steel and glass
boxes of Mies van der Rohe, mixing aesthetic and historical elements, flirting with
fragments, fantasy, and even kitsch. 2. In a recent encyclical, titled “Fides et Ratio,”
Pope John Paul II actually used the word postmodernism to condemn extreme
relativism in values and beliefs, acute irony and skepticism toward reason, and the
denial of any possibility of truth, human or divine. 3. In cultural studies, a highly
politicized field, the term postmodernism is often used in opposition to
postcolonialism, the former deemed historically feckless, being unpolitical or,
worse, not politically correct. 4. In Pop culture, postmodernism—or PoMo as
Yuppies call it insouciantly—refers to a wide range of phenomena, from Andy
Warhol to Madonna, from the colossal plaster Mona Lisa I saw advertising a
pachinko parlor in Tokyo to the giant, cardboard figure of Michelangelo’s David—
pink dayglo glasses, canary shorts, a camera slung across bare, brawny
shoulders—advertising KonTiki Travel in New Zealand. What do all these have in
common? Well, fragments, hybridity, relativism, play, parody, pastiche, an ironic,
anti-ideological stance, an ethos bordering on kitsch and camp. So, we have begun
to build a family of words applying to postmodernism; we have begun to create a
context, if not a definition, for it. More impatient or ambitious readers can consult
Hans Bertens’ The Idea of the Postmodern, the best and fairest introduction I know
to the topic. But now I must make my second move or feint to approach
postmodernism from a different perspective.
II Postmodernism/Posmodernity. I make this move by distinguishing, as I did
not sufficiently do in my earlier work, between postmodernism and postmodernity.
This is the distinction that constitutes the main thrust of my argument, and to which
I will later return. For the moment, let me simply say that I mean postmodernism to
refer to the cultural sphere, especially literature, philosophy, and the various arts,
including architecture, while postmodernity refers to the geopolitical scheme, less
order than disorder, which has emerged in the last decades. The latter, sometimes
called postcolonialism, features globalization and localization, conjoined in erratic,
often lethal, ways. This distinction is not the defunct Marxist difference between
superstructure and base, since the new economic, political, religious, and
technological forces of the world hardly conform to Marxist “laws.” Nor does
postmodernity equal postcolonialism, though the latter, with its concern for colonial
legacies, may be part of the former. Think of postmodernity as a world process, by
no means identical everywhere yet global nonetheless. Or think of it as a vast
umbrella under which stand various phenomena: postmodernism in the arts,
poststructuralism in philosophy, feminism in social discourse, postcolonial and
cultural studies in academe, but also multinational capitalism, cybertechnologies,
international terrorism, assorted separatist, ethnic, nationalist, and religious
movements—all standing under, but not causally subsumed by, postmodernity.
From what I have said, we can infer two points: first, that postmodernism (the
cultural phenomenon) applies to affluent, high-tech, consumer, media-driven
societies; and second, that postmodernity (the inclusive geopolitical process) refers
to an interactive, planetary phenomenon wherein tribalism and imperialism, myth
and technology, margins and centers—these terms are not parallel—play out their
conflictual energies. I have said that I did not stress enough the distinction between
postmodernism and postmodernity in my earlier work. But in fairness to the
subject—and perhaps to myself—I should note that an internal distinction I made
within postmodernism itself points to a crucial characteristic of postmodernity in its
planetary context. In an essay titled “Culture, Indeterminacy, and Immanence:
Margins of the (Postmodern) Age,” I coined the term “indetermanence”—that is,
indeterminacy combined with immanence—to describe two disparate tendencies
within postmodernism: that of cultural indeterminacy, on the one hand, and that of
technological immanence, on the other.1 These tendencies are contrastive rather
than dialectical: they ensue in no Hegelian or Marxist synthesis. (I can think of no
one less postmodern than either.) By indeterminacy, or better still, indeterminacies,
I mean a combination of trends that include openness, fragmentation, ambiguity,
discontinuity, decenterment, heterodoxy, pluralism, deformation, all conducive to
indeterminacy or under-determination. The latter concept alone, deformation,
subsumes a dozen current terms like deconstruction, decreation, disintegration,
displacement, difference, discontinuity, disjunction, disappearance, de-definition,
demystification, detotalization, delegitimation, decolonization. Through all these
concepts moves a vast will to undoing, affecting the body politic, the body
cognitive, the erotic body, the individual psyche, the entire realm of discourse in the
West. In literature alone, our ideas of author, audience, reading, writing, book,
genre, critical theory, and of literature itself, have all suddenly become
questionable—questionable but far from invalid, reconstituting themselves in
various ways. These uncertainties or indeterminacies, however, are also dispersed
or disseminated by the fluent imperium of technology. Thus I call the second major
tendency of postmodernism immanences, a term that I employ without religious
echo to designate the capacity of mind to generalize itself in symbols, intervene
more and more into nature, act through its own abstractions, and project human
consciousness to the edges of the cosmos. This mental tendency may be further
described by words like diffusion, dissemination, projection, interplay,
communication, which all derive from the emergence of human beings as language
animals, homo pictor or homo significans, creatures constituting themselves, and
also their universe, by symbols of their own making. Call it gnostic textualism, if you
must. Meanwhile, the public world dissolves as fact and fiction blend, history
becomes a media happening, science takes its own models as the only accessible
reality, cybernetics confronts us with the enigma of artificial intelligence (Deep Blue
contra Kasparov), and technologies project our perceptions to the edge of matter,
within the atom or at the rim of the expanding universe. No doubt, these
tendencies, I repeat, may seem less prevalent in some countries than others like
America or Australia, Germany or Japan, where the term postmodernism has
become familiar both in and outside the university. But the fact in most developed
societies remains: as a cultural phenomenon, postmodernism evinces the double
tendency I have dubbed “indetermanence.” The earth, however, is larger and more
significant than Planet Hollywood, Deutsche Bank, or Mitsubishi. Hence the
relevance of Postmodernity. For the indetermanences of cultural postmodernism
seem to have mutated into the local-global conflicts of postmodernity, including the
genocides of Bosnia, Kosovo, Ulster, Rwanda, Chechnya, Kurdistan, Sudan, Sri
Lanka, Tibet. . . . At the same time, cultural postmodernism itself has metastasized
into sterile, campy, kitschy, jokey, dead-end games or sheer media stunts. Here,
then, are some new terms to add to our family of words about postmodernism:
indeterminacy, immanence, textualism, high-tech, consumer, media-driven
societies, and all the sub-vocabularies they imply. Have we nudged the ghost of
postmodernism toward the light? Perhaps we need to nudge it further by raising a
different question: isn’t the statement of this essay, so far, a mark of historical
introspection? Doesn’t it suggest that the postmodern mind inclines to selfapprehension, self-reflection, as if intent on writing the equivocal autobiography of
an age?
III The Equivocal Autobiography of an Age. In 1784, Immanuel Kant
published an essay called “Was Ist Aufklärung?” (“What is Enlightenment?”). Some
thinkers, especially Michel Foucault, have taken this essay to be the first time a
philosopher asks self-reflexively: who are we, historically speaking, and what is the
meaning of our contemporaneity? Certainly, many of us wonder nowadays: Was ist
Postmodernismus? But as Foucault fails to note—he fails in other respects too—
we ask the question without Kant’s confidence in the possibilities of knowledge, his
historical self-assurance. Children of an equivocal Chronos, versed in aporia,
suspicion, incredulity, votaries of decenterment and apostles of multiplicity,
pluralist, parodic, pragmatic, and polychronic, we could hardly privilege
postmodernism as Kant privileged the Enlightenment. Instead, we betray an
abandon of belatedness, a seemingly limitless anxiety of selfnomination. Hence the
weird terms and nomenclatures surrounding postmodernism, terms like classical
postmodernism, high, pop, pomo, revisionary, deconstructive, reconstructive,
insurrectional, pre- and post-postmodernism—neologisms suggesting an explosion
in a word factory. In any case, we can hardly imagine any other epoch agonizing so
much about itself, only to devise so clunky a moniker, so awkward a name as
postmodernism. (In this, I share the blame.) Perhaps, after all, postmodernism can
be “defined” as a continuous inquiry into selfdefinition. This impulse is by no means
restricted to the so-called West. The more interactive the globe, the more
populations move, jostle, and grapple—this is the age of diasporas—the more
questions of cultural, religious, and personal identity become acute—and
sometimes specious. In still another transposition of postmodernism into
postmodernity, you can hear the cry around the world: “Who are we? Who am I?”
So, once again, here are some more words accruing to our family of words about
postmodernism: historical and epistemic self-reflexivity, anxiety of self-nomination,
a polychronic sense of time (linear, cyclical, sidereal, cybernetic, nostalgic,
eschatological, visionary times are all in there), massive migrations, forced or free,
a crisis of cultural and personal identities.
IV Brief History of the Term. This attempt at self-apprehension—what I
called the equivocal autobiography of an age—appears reflected in the erratic
history of the word postmodernism itself, a history, nonetheless, that helps to clarify
the concept currently in use. I must be ruthlessly selective here, particularly since
Charles Jencks and Margaret Rose have given detailed accounts of that history
elsewhere. It seems that an English salon painter, John Watkins Chapman, used
the term, back in the 1870’s, in the sense that we now speak of
PostImpressionism. Jump to 1934, when Federico de Onís uses the word
postmodernismo to suggest a reaction against the difficulty and experimentalism of
modernist poetry. In 1939, Arnold Toynbee takes up the term in a very different
sense, proclaiming the end of the “modern,” Western bourgeois order dating back
to the seventeenth century. Then, in 1945, Bernard Smith employs the word to
suggest a movement in painting, beyond abstraction, which we call Socialist
Realism. In the fifties in America, Charles Olson, in conjunction with poets and
artists at Black Mountain College, speaks of a postmodernism that reverts more to
Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams than to formalist poets like T. S. Eliot. By
the end of that decade, in 1959 and 1960, Irving Howe and Harry Levin,
respectively, argue that postmodernism intimates a decline in high modernist
culture. Only in the late sixties and early seventies, in various essays by Leslie
Fiedler and myself, among others, does postmodernism begin to signify a distinct,
sometimes positive, development in American culture, a critical modification, if not
actual end, of modernism. It is in this latter sense, I believe, changing masks and
changing faces, that postmodern theory persists today. Why do I make such a
seemingly self-serving claim? Consider the sixties for a moment, all the openings
and breaks that occurred in developed, consumer societies (we are speaking of
postmodernism). Andreas Huyssen called that decade, straddling the sixties and
seventies really, the “great divide.” Within ten or fifteen years, the United States
experienced an astonishing succession of liberation and countercultural
movements: the Berkeley Free Speech, Vietnam Anti-War, Black Power, Chicano
Power, Women’s Lib, Gay Pride, Gray Panther, Psychedelic, and Ecological
Movements, to mention but a few. Street theatre, happenings, rock music, aleatory
composition, concrete poetry, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E group, pop art, and multimedia events spread, blurring the borders of high and popular culture, art and
theory, text and metatext and paratext (my Paracriticism, for instance). Hippies and
Yippies, Flower Children and Minute Men, Encounter Groups and Zen Monks
crowded the landscape. Elitism and hierarchy were out, participation and anarchy,
or at least pseudo-anarchy, were in. The forms of thought and art shifted from
static to performative, from the hypotactical to paratactical—or so it seemed. Not
Heidegger but Derrida; not Matisse but Duchamp; not Schönberg but Cage; not
Hemingway but Barthelme—and again, most visibly, not Gropius, Mies, or Le
Corbusier, but Gehry, Renzo Piano, and Isozaki in architecture, among countless
others. (Note, however, that postmodernism in the various arts is not necessarily
homologous, as I will later discuss.) In this climate of cultural “indetermanence” and
social “delegitimation” (this latter, Lyotard’s term), postmodernism grew, assuming
its latest guise. Grew and I think died, though its specter still haunts Europe,
America, Australia, Japan . . . you name it.
8 Philosophy and Literature V Conceptual Difficulties. The specter can
haunt, but it does so ineffectually; for it is conceptually flawed, and time’s wingless
chariot awaits no one. Since the theoretical difficulties of postmodernism are
themselves revealing, I will mention four of them: 1. The term postmodernism is not
only awkward; it is also Oedipal, and like a rebellious but impotent adolescent, it
cannot separate itself completely from its parent. It cannot invent for itself a new
name like Baroque, Rococo, Romantic, Symbolist, Futurist, Cubist, Dadaist,
Surrealist, Constructivist, Vorticist, and so on. In short, the relation of
postmodernism to modernism remains ambiguous, Oedipal or parasitical if you
wish; or as Bernard Smith remarks in Modernism’s History, it remains a conflictual
“dialogue” with the older movement. 2. The term postmodernism seems very unpostmodern because postmodern, specifically poststructuralist, thought rejects
linear time, from past to present to future as the prefixes pre- and postimply.
Postmodern time, I have said, is polychronic. As such, it avoids categorical and
linear periodization: for instance, in English literary history, that useful and familiar
sequence of Elizabethan, Jacobean, Neoclassical, Romantic, Victorian, Edwardian,
Modern, Postmodern. 3. More importantly, postmodernism cannot serve simply as
a period, as a temporal, chronological, or diachronic construct; it must also function
as a theoretical, phenomenological, or synchronic category. Older or dead writers,
like Samuel Beckett or Jorge Luis Borges or Raymond Roussel or Vladimir
Nabokov, can be postmodern, while younger ones, still alive like John Updike or
Toni Morrison or V. S. Naipaul, may not be postmodern (the distinction carries no
literary value judgments). Thus, we cannot claim that everything before 1960 is
modern, everything after, postmodern. Beckett’s Murphy appeared in 1938, Joyce’s
Finnegans Wake in 1939, both, in my view, preeminently postmodern. Nor can we
simply say that Joyce is modern or postmodern. Which Joyce? That of Dubliners
(premodern), Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (modern), Ulysses (modern
shading into postmodern), Finnegans Wake (postmodern)? All this is to say that a
persuasive model of postmodernism requires a constellation of particular styles,
features, attitudes, placed in a particular historical context. Any one of these
features alone—say parody, self-reflection, or black humor—may find antecedents
a hundred or a thousand years ago, in Euripides or Sterne. But together, in their
present historical context, these features may cohere into a working model of the
phenomenon called postmodernism. 4. Having constructed such a model, does
postmodernism develop along the same lines in every artistic or cultural field?
Does it manifest itself identically in architecture, painting, music, dance, literature—
and in the latter alone, in poetry, fiction, drama, the essay? What are the
correspondences and symmetries, but also disjunctions and asymmetries, in
various artistic genres, indeed in distinct fields like science, philosophy, politics,
popular entertainment? Obviously, the challenges to a comprehensive model of
postmodernism are daunting. Do we need such a model? Do we still need the
VI Postmodernism as Interpretive Category. At this point, we might as well
ask—whether in Cairo, Sydney, Milwaukee, or Kuala Lumpur—why bother with
postmodernism at all? One answer, I have suggested, is that postmodernism
mutates into postmodernity, which is our global/local condition. I will shortly return,
and indeed conclude, with this theme. But there is another, more immediate
answer: postmodernism has become, consciously or unconsciously, for better or
for worse, an interpretive category, a hermeneutic tool. As such, it impinges on our
business as students of culture, literature, and the arts. Why is that? More than a
period, more even than a constellation of artistic trends and styles, postmodernism
has become, even after its partial demise, a way we view the world. Bernard Smith
may be right in saying that postmodernism amounts to little more than a struggle
with the modernist “Formalesque.” But this dialogue or struggle also becomes a
filter through which we view history, interpret reality, see ourselves; postmodernism
is now our shadow. Every generation, of course, reinvents its ancestors—this, too,
is hermeneutics. So we look back on Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759–
1767) and say, here is an instance, or an antecedent, of postmodernism. We can
say the same of Franz Kafka’s The Castle (1926) or Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea
(1938) or James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939). But all this simply means that
we have internalized some of the assumptions and values of postmodernism and
that we now reread the past—indeed, re-appropriate it—in their terms. This
tendency, inevitable perhaps and sometimes enabling, can become offensive when
postmodern ideologies cannibalize the past, incorporating it wholly into their flesh.
Put more equably, we need to respect the otherness of the past, though we may be
condemned to revise it even as we repeat it. In this, as in literary studies generally,
postmodern theory, at its best, can prove beneficial: it can become a heightened
mode of self-awareness, self-critical of its own assumptions, its own bleached
myths and invisible theologies, and tolerant of what is not itself. But this calls for
pragmatism, to avoid the extremes of dogma and skepticism. For the latter, as T.
S. Eliot said in his Notes Toward a Definition of Culture, can be a highly civilized
trait, though when it declines into pyrrhonism, it becomes a trait from which
civilizations can die.
VII Postmodernism and Pragmatism. Here I must make an excursus on
philosophical pragmatism, one more crucial word to add to our growing verbal
family. By 1987, when I published The Postmodern Turn, I had begun to wonder,
like others, how to recover the creative impulse of postmodernism without atavism
or reversion, without relapse into enervated forms or truculent dogmas, without
cynicism or fanaticism. Facile skepticism lacked conviction; ideological politics was
full of passionate mendacity. I turned then to the philosophical pragmatism of
William James and returned to the artistic pragmatism of John Cage. Both allowed
a place for belief, indeed for unabashed spirituality, in works like The Will to Believe
and A Year from Monday. Philosophical pragmatism, of course, offers no panacea.
But its intellectual generosity; its epistemic or noetic pluralism; its avoidance of
stale debates (about mind and matter, for instance, freedom and necessity, nurture
and nature); and its affinities with open, liberal, multicultural societies, where issues
must be resolved by mediation and compromise rather than dictatorial power or
divine decree—all these make it congenial to postmodernism without acceding to
the latter’s potential for nihilism, its spirit of feckless and joyless “play.”
But the virtues of Emersonian and Jamesian—far more than Rortian—
pragmatism affect literary studies generally, not only postmodern theory. (The topic
warrants a monograph in itself.) Perhaps, in anticipation of my conclusion, I can
say simply this: such virtues are inward with reality. They resist the hubris of
theory, the impatience of ideology, the rage of our desires and needs—in short,
they nurture that “negative capability” Keats considered essential to great literature.
As for Cage, that genius of postmodern avant-gardes in music, dance, the visual
arts, and literature, he carried negative capability to the thresholds of nondiscrimination. A pragmatist, a descendant of American Transcendentalism withal,
a disciple of Zen, Cage’s sacramental vision of dispossession, of egolessness,
perfuses his work from first to last. Who has not heard rise from his aleatory
pages—often composed by chance operations applied to the I Ching—Cage’s
happy, openmouthed laugh, echoing the practical hilarity of holy fools in times past
as well as the robust, expansive amiability of William James? That is the sound of
pragmatism, I submit, whose cadences may calm and inspire us all, especially in
cultural and postcolonial studies.
VIII Beyond Postmodernism: An Inconclusion. Throughout this paper, the
latent question has been: what lies beyond postmodernism? Of course, no one
really knows. But my tacit answer has been: postmodernity. This is no cause to
cheer. Realism teaches us that historical crises do not always come to happy
resolution; we need to learn what history can and cannot teach. Still, though
inequities and iniquities of existence may be indurate, they are not all irremediable
in the particular forms they take. Two factors aggravate the ordeals of
postmodernity in our time: the glaring disparities of wealth among and within
nations, and the furies of nationalism, collective identity, mass feelings. About the
first subject, crucial as it may be, I will say little: it engages the dismal sciences of
economics and geopolitics, beyond my reach. About the second, I will hazard a few
remarks. Much is said about difference, about otherness, and much of that is in the
hortatory mode. But those who demand respect for their kind do not always accord
it to other kinds. The fact is that the human brain exploded mysteriously into
evolution a million or so years ago, devising hasty strategies for survival, which
include the distinction between Self and Other, We and Them.
The division is manifest in the biological world, not only interspecies
(between different species), but also intraspecies (between individuals of the same
species). That is the miracle of our immune systems which distinguish immediately,
electro-chemically, between home bodies and “invaders.” Such systems, though,
can be fooled sometimes into attacking friends and ignoring foes—but that is
another story. The division between Self and Other is also manifest in nearly all our
languages, in the deep structures of grammar and in the vocabularies of the
different pronouns. Hence the distinctions we make between I and You, Us and
Them, We and They, and so forth. Furthermore, the division is active in the layers
of the psyche, as Freudians and Lacanians know, in the distinction between Ego
Instincts (self-centered) and Object or Erotic Instincts (centered on others), as well
as in Lacan’s Mirror Stage and Symbolic Order. Most pertinent to our topic,
however, the division is clear in the evolutionary and historical development of the
family, the group, the tribe. Human beings would have perished long ago in the
struggle for evolution—to faster, stronger, fiercer animals like the sabertoothed
tiger—were it not for the human brain, human languages, and human social
organizations. Hence the profound instinct of tribalism, which develops into
nationalisms of different kinds, including ethnic, religious, cultural, and political
nationalism. This instinct is primal—but also primitive. The Bulgarian Nobelist Elias
Canetti wrote, in Auto-da-Fé, about the “mass-soul in ourselves,” which foams like
a huge, wild, full-blooded animal. More soberly, the great biologist, E. O. Wilson,
describes, in Consilience, the “epigenetic rules” governing the practices of kinship,
cooperation, and reciprocal altruism in human societies. Now, the mass-soul, the
herd or tribal instinct, may be primal. But so is imagination; so is love; so is the
power of sympathy—in short, the power to vault over distinctions and identify with
others. Moreover, though the division between Self and Other may have been once
essential to survival, it may be less so now , may need to assume different shapes,
in our interactive, interdependent, cybernetic, and “glocal” age—this hideous
neologism can be used only once—the age of postmodernity. Still, I do not think
that divisions between Self and Other, Us and Them, will soon vanish, especially if
the discrepancies of wealth and power persist in their flagrant forms. But I do think
that, instead of wishing or talking the distinction away, we can make it more
conscious of itself in our lives. This requires absolute candor, the courage to speak
the truth to ourselves and not only to others. Beyond that, we need to cultivate a
keener, livelier, more dialogical sense of ourselves in relation to diverse cultures,
diverse natures, the whole universe itself. We need to discover modes of selftranscendence, especially for the “wretched of the earth,” that avoid blind
identification with collectives premised on exclusion of other groups. This, I realize,
is far easier said than done, especially for the mass-minded in every clime. Still, I
would maintain, that is the spiritual project of postmodernity, a project to which
literature and all the arts remain vital. Of course, we can define the project of
postmodernity simply in political terms as an open dialogue between local and
global, margin and center, minority and majority, concrete and universal—and not
only between those but also between local and local, margin and margin, minority
and minority, and further still, between universals of different kinds. But there is
never surety that a political dialogue, even the most open, will not erupt into
violence. To this ancient stain of human violence, I have no remedy. But I wonder:
can postmodern pragmatism serve us in a small way? Can the imagination serve
us in larger ways? Will spirit become the ground from which new ecological and
planetary values spring? This I know: without spirit, the sense of cosmic wonder, of
being and mortality at the widest edge, which we all share, existence quickly
reduces to mere survival. Something we need to release us from the prison-house
of national identity, and from the terrible grip of self-concern. That is spirit. In this
universe, not all the music is of our own making.
Fredric Jameson (1991)
or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
The last few years have been marked by an inverted millenarianism in which
premonitions of the future, catastrophic or redemptive, have been replaced by
senses of the end of this or that (the end of ideology, art, or social class; the “crisis”
of Leninism, social democracy, or the welfare state, etc., etc.); taken together, all of
these perhaps constitute what is increasingly called postmodernism. The case for
its existence depends on the hypothesis of some radical break or coupure,
generally traced back to the end of the 1950s or the early 1960s.
As the word itself suggests, this break is most often related to notions of the
waning or extinction of the hundred-year-old modern movement (or to its
ideological or aesthetic repudiation). Thus abstract expressionism in painting,
existentialism in philosophy, the final forms of representation in the novel, the films
of the great auteurs, or the modernist school of poetry (as institutionalised and
canonised in the works of Wallace Stevens) all are now seen as the final,
extraordinary flowering of a high-modernist impulse which is spent and exhausted
with them. The enumeration of what follows, then, at once becomes empirical,
chaotic, and heterogeneous: Andy Warhol and pop art, but also photorealism, and
beyond it, the “new expressionism”; the moment, in music, of John Cage, but also
the synthesis of classical and “popular” styles found in composers like Phil Glass
and Terry Riley, and also punk and new wave rock (the Beatles and the Stones
now standing as the high-modernist moment of that more recent and rapidly
evolving tradition); in film, Godard, post-Godard, and experimental cinema and
video, but also a whole new type of commercial film (about which more below);
Burroughs, Pynchon, or Ishmael Reed, on the one hand, and the French nouveau
roman and its succession, on the other, along with alarming new kinds of literary
criticism based on some new aesthetic of textuality or écriture ... The list might be
extended indefinitely; but does it imply any more fundamental change or break than
the periodic style and fashion changes determined by an older high-modernist
imperative of stylistic innovation?
It is in the realm of architecture, however, that modifications in aesthetic
production are most dramatically visible, and that their theoretical problems have
been most centrally raised and articulated; it was indeed from architectural debates
that my own conception of postmodernism – as it will be outlined in the following
pages – initially began to emerge. More decisively than in the other arts or media,
postmodernist positions in architecture have been inseparable from an implacable
critique of architectural high modernism and of Frank Lloyd Wright or the so-called
international style (Le Corbusier, Mies, etc), where formal criticism and analysis (of
the high-modernist transformation of the building into a virtual sculpture, or
monumental “duck,” as Robert Venturi puts it), are at one with reconsiderations on
the level of urbanism and of the aesthetic institution. High modernism is thus
credited with the destruction of the fabric of the traditional city and its older
neighbourhood culture (by way of the radical disjunction of the new Utopian highmodernist building from its surrounding context), while the prophetic elitism and
authoritarianism of the modern movement are remorselessly identified in the
imperious gesture of the charismatic Master.
Postmodernism in architecture will then logically enough stage itself as a
kind of aesthetic populism, as the very title of Venturi’s influential manifesto,
Learning from Las Vegas, suggests. However we may ultimately wish to evaluate
this populist rhetoric, it has at least the merit of drawing our attention to one
fundamental feature of all the postmodernisms enumerated above: namely, the
effacement in them of the older (essentially high-modernist) frontier between high
culture and so-called mass or commercial culture, and the emergence of new kinds
of texts infused with the forms, categories, and contents of that very culture
industry so passionately denounced by all the ideologues of the modern, from
Leavis and the American New Criticism all the way to Adorno and the Frankfurt
School. The postmodernisms have, in fact, been fascinated precisely by this whole
“degraded” landscape of schlock and kitsch, of TV series and Reader’s Digest
culture, of advertising and motels, of the late show and the grade-B Hollywood film,
of so-called paraliterature, with its airport paperback categories of the gothic and
the romance, the popular biography, the murder mystery, and the science fiction or
fantasy novel: materials they no longer simply “quote” as a Joyce or a Mahler might
have done, but incorporate into their very substance.
Nor should the break in question be thought of as a purely cultural affair:
indeed, theories of the postmodern – whether celebratory or couched in the
language of moral revulsion and denunciation – bear a strong family resemblance
to all those more ambitious sociological generalisations which, at much the same
time bring us the news of the arrival and inauguration of a whole new type of
society, most famously baptised “Postindustrial society” (Daniel Bell) but often also
designated consumer society, media society, information society, electronic society
or high tech, and the like. Such theories have the obvious ideological mission of
demonstrating, to their own relief, that the new social formation in question no
longer obeys the laws of classical capitalism, namely, the primacy of industrial
production and the omnipresence of class struggle. The Marxist tradition has
therefore resisted them with vehemence, with the signal except on of the
economist Ernest Mandel, whose book Late Capitalism sets out not merely to
anatomise the historic originality of this new society (which he sees as a third stage
or moment in the evolution of capital) but also to demonstrate that it is, if an thing, a
purer stage of capitalism than any of the moments that preceded it. I will return to t
is argument later; suffice it for the moment to anticipate a point that will be argued
in Chapter 2, namely, that every position on postmodernism in culture – whether
apologia or stigmatisation – is also at one and the same time, and necessarily, an
implicitly or explicitly political stance on the nature of multinational capitalism today.
A last preliminary word on method: what follows is not to be read as stylistic
description, as the account of one cultural style or movement among others. I have
rather meant to offer a periodising hypothesis, and that at a moment in which the
very conception of historical periodisation has come to seem most problematical
indeed. I have argued elsewhere that all isolated or discrete cultural analysis
always involves a buried or repressed theory of historical periodisation; in any
case, the conception of the “genealogy” largely lays to rest traditional theoretical
worries about so-called linear history, theories of “stages,” and teleological
historiography. In the present context, however, lengthier theoretical discussion of
such (very real) issues can perhaps be replaced by a few substantive remarks.
One of the concerns frequently aroused by periodising hypotheses is that
these tend to obliterate difference and to project an idea of the historical period as
massive homogeneity (bounded on either side by inexplicable chronological
metamorphoses and punctuation marks). This is, however, precisely why it seems
to me essential to grasp postmodernism not as a style but rather as a cultural
dominant: a conception which allows for the presence and coexistence of a range
of very different, yet subordinate, features.
Consider, for example, the powerful alternative position that postmodernism
is itself little more than one more stage of modernism proper (if not, indeed, of the
even older romanticism); it may indeed be conceded that all the features of
postmodernism I am about to enumerate can be detected, full-blown, in this or that
preceding modernism (including such astonishing genealogical precursors as
Gertrude Stein, Raymond Roussel, or Marcel Duchamp, who may be considered
outright postmodernists, avant la lettre). What has not been taken into account by
this view, however, is the social position of the older modernism, or better still, its
passionate repudiation by an older Victorian and post-Victorian bourgeoisie for
whom its forms and ethos are received as being variously ugly, dissonant, obscure,
scandalous, immoral, subversive, and generally “antisocial.” It will be argued here,
however, that a mutation in the sphere of culture has rendered such attitudes
archaic. Not only are Picasso and Joyce no longer ugly, they now strike us, on the
whole, as rather “realistic,” and this is the result of a canonisation and academic
institutionalisation of the modern movement generally that can be to the late 1950s.
This is surety one of the most plausible explanations for the emergence of
postmodernism itself, since the younger generation of the 1960s will now confront
the formerly oppositional modern movement as a set of dead classics, which
“weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” as Marx once said in a different
As for the postmodern revolt against all that, however, it must equally be
stressed that its own offensive features – from obscurity and sexually explicit
material to psychological squalor and overt expressions of social and political
defiance, which transcend anything that might have been imagined at the most
extreme moments of high modernism – no longer scandalise anyone and are not
only received with the greatest complacency but have themselves become
institutionalised and are at one with the official or public culture of Western society.
What has happened is that aesthetic production today has become
integrated into commodity production generally: the frantic economic urgency of
producing fresh waves of ever more novel-seeming goods (from clothing to
aeroplanes), at ever greater rates of turnover, now assigns an increasingly
essential structural function and position to aesthetic innovation and
experimentation. Such economic necessities then find recognition in the varied
kinds of institutional support available for the newer art, from foundations and
grants to museums and other forms of patronage. Of all the arts, architecture is the
closest constitutively to the economic, with which, in the form of commissions and
land values, it has a virtually unmediated relationship. It will therefore not be
surprising to find the extraordinary flowering of the new postmodern architecture
grounded in the patronage of multinational business, whose expansion and
development is strictly contemporaneous with it. Later I will suggest that these two
new phenomena have an even deeper dialectical interrelationship than the simple
one-to-one financing of this or that individual project. Yet this is the point at which I
must remind the reader of the obvious; namely, that this whole global, yet
American, postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural expression of a
whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the
world: in this sense, as throughout class history, the underside of culture is blood,
torture, death, and terror.
The first point to be made about the conception of periodisation in
dominance, therefore, is that even if all the constitutive features of postmodernism
were identical with and coterminous to those of an older modernism – a position I
feel to be demonstrably erroneous but which only an even lengthier analysis of
modernism proper could dispel the two phenomena would still remain utterly
distinct in their meaning antisocial function, owing to the very different positioning
of postmodernism in the economic system of late capital and, beyond that, to the
transformation of the very sphere of culture in contemporary society.
This point will be further discussed at the conclusion of this book. I must now
briefly address a different kind of objection to periodisation, a concern about its
possible obliteration of heterogeneity, one most often expressed by the Left. And it
is certain that there is a strange quasi-Sartrean irony – a “winner loses” logic which
tends to surround any effort to describe a “system,” a totalising dynamic, as these
are detected in the movement of contemporary society. What happens is that the
more powerful the vision of some increasingly total system or logic – the Foucault
of the prisons book is the obvious example – the more powerless the reader comes
to feel. Insofar as the theorist wins, therefore, by constructing an increasingly
closed and terrifying machine, to that very degree he loses, since the critical
capacity of his work is thereby paralysed, and the impulses of negation and revolt,
not to speak of those of social transformation, are increasingly perceived as vain
and trivial in the face of the model itself.
I have felt, however, that it was only in the light of some conception of a
dominant cultural logic or hegemonic norm that genuine difference could be
measured and assessed. I am very far from feeling that all cultural production
today is postmodern in the broad sense I will be conferring on this term. The
postmodern is, however, the force field in which very different kinds of cultural
impulses – what Raymond Williams has usefully termed “residual” and “emergent”
forms of cultural production – must make their way. If we do not achieve some
general sense of a cultural dominant, then we fall back into a view of present
history as sheer heterogeneity, random difference, a coexistence of a host of
distinct forces whose effectivity is undecidable. At any rate, this has been the
political spirit in which the following analysis was devised: to project some
conception of a new systematic cultural norm and its reproduction in order to reflect
more adequately on the most effective forms of any radical cultural politics today.
The exposition will take up in turn the following constitutive features of the
postmodern: a new depthlessness, which finds its prolongation both in
contemporary “theory” and in a whole new culture of the image or the simulacrum;
a consequent weakening of historicity, both in our relationship to public History and
in the new forms of our private temporality, whose “schizophrenic” structure
(following Lacan) will determine new types of syntax or syntagmatic relationships in
the more temporal arts; a whole new type of emotional ground tone – what I will
call “intensities” – which can best be grasped by a return to older theories of the
sublime; the deep constitutive relationships of all this to a whole new technology,
which is itself a figure for a whole new economic world system; and, after a brief
account of postmodernist mutations in the lived experience of built space itself,
some reflections on the mission of political art in the bewildering new world space
of late or multinational capital.
The conception of postmodernism outlined here is a historical rather than a
merely stylistic one. I cannot stress too greatly the radical distinction between a
view for which the postmodern is one (optional) style among many others available
and one which seeks to grasp it as the cultural dominant of the logic of late
capitalism: the two approaches in fact generate two very different ways of
conceptualising the phenomenon as a whole: on the one hand, moral judgments
(about which it is indifferent whether they are positive or negative), and, on the
other, a genuinely dialectical attempt to think our present of time in History.
Of some positive moral evaluation of postmodernism little needs to be said:
the complacent (yet delirious) camp-following celebration of this aesthetic new
world (including its social and economic dimension, greeted with equal enthusiasm
under the slogan of “postindustrial society”) is surely unacceptable, although it may
be somewhat less obvious that current fantasies about the salvational nature of
high technology, from chips to robots – fantasies entertained not only by both left
and right governments in distress but also by many intellectuals – are also
essentially of a piece with more vulgar apologies for postmodernism.
But in that case it is only consequent to reject moralising condemnations of
the postmodern and of its essential triviality when juxtaposed against the Utopian
“high seriousness” of the great modernisms: judgments one finds both on the Left
and on the radical Right. And no doubt the logic of the simulacrum, with its
transformation of older realities into television images, does more than merely
replicate the logic of late capitalism; it reinforces and intensifies it. Meanwhile, for
political groups which seek actively to intervene in history and to modify its
otherwise passive momentum (whether with a view toward channelling it into a
socialist transformation of society or diverting it into the regressive re-establishment
of some simpler fantasy past), there cannot but be much that is deplorable and
reprehensible in a cultural form of image addiction which, by transforming the past
into visual mirages, stereotypes, or texts, effectively abolishes any practical sense
of the future and of the collective project, thereby abandoning the thinking of future
change to fantasies of sheer catastrophe and inexplicable cataclysm, from visions
of “terrorism” on the social level to those of cancer on the personal. Yet if
postmodernism is a historical phenomenon, then the attempt to conceptualise it in
terms of moral or moralising judgments must finally be identified as a category
mistake. All of which becomes more obvious when we interrogate the position of
the cultural critic and moralist; the latter, along with all the rest of us, is now so
deeply immersed in postmodernist space, so deeply suffused and infected by its
new cultural categories, that the luxury of the old-fashioned ideological critique, the
indignant moral denunciation of the other, becomes unavailable.
The distinction I am proposing here knows one canonical form in Hegel’s
differentiation of the thinking of individual morality or moralising from that whole
very different realm of collective social values and practices. But it finds its
definitive form in Marx’s demonstration of the materialist dialectic, most notably in
those classic pages of the Manifesto which teach the hard lesson of some more
genuinely dialectical way to think historical development and change. The topic of
the lesson is, of course, the historical development of capitalism itself and the
deployment of a specific bourgeois culture. In a well-known passage Marx
powerfully urges us to do the impossible, namely, to think this development
positively and negatively all at once; to achieve, in other words, a type of thinking
that would be capable of grasping the demonstrably baleful features of capitalism
along with its extraordinary and liberating dynamism simultaneously within a single
thought, and without attenuating any of the force of either judgment. We are
somehow to lift our minds to a point at which it is possible to understand that
capitalism is at one and the same time the best thing that has ever happened to the
human race, and the worst.
The lapse from this austere dialectical imperative into the more comfortable
stance of the taking of moral positions is inveterate and all too human: still, the
urgency of the subject demands that we make at least some effort to think the
cultural evolution of late capitalism dialectically, as catastrophe and progress all
Such an effort suggests two immediate questions, with which we will
conclude these reflections. Can we in fact identify some “moment of truth” within
the more evident “moments of falsehood” of postmodern culture? And, even if we
can do so, is there not something ultimately paralysing in the dialectical view of
historical development proposed above; does it not tend to demobilise us and to
surrender us to passivity and helplessness by systematically obliterating
possibilities of action under the impenetrable fog of historical inevitability? It is
appropriate to discuss these two (related) issues in terms of current possibilities for
some effective contemporary cultural politics and for the construction of a genuine
political culture.
To focus the problem in this way is, of course, immediately to raise the more
genuine issue of the fate of culture generally, and of the function of culture
specifically, as one social level or instance, in the postmodern era. Everything in
the previous discussion suggests that what we have been calling postmodernism is
inseparable from, and unthinkable without the hypothesis of, some fundamental
mutation of the sphere of culture in the world of late capitalism which includes a
momentous modification of its social function. Older discussions of the space,
function, or sphere of culture (mostly notably Herbert Marcuse’s classic essay The
Affirmative Character of Culture) have insisted on what a different language would
call the “semi-autonomy” of the cultural realm: its ghostly, yet Utopian, existence,
for good or ill, above the practical world of the existent, whose mirror image it
throws back in forms which vary from the legitimations of flattering resemblance to
the contestatory indictments of critical satire or Utopian pain.
What we must now ask ourselves is whether it is not precisely this semiautonomy of the cultural sphere which has been destroyed by the logic of late
capitalism. Yet to argue that culture is today no longer endowed with the relative
autonomy it once enjoyed as one level among others in earlier moments of
capitalism (let alone in pre-capitalist societies) is not necessarily to imply its
disappearance or extinction. Quite the contrary; we must go on to affirm that the
dissolution of an autonomous sphere of culture is rather to be imagined in terms of
an explosion: a prodigious expansion of culture throughout the social realm, to the
point at which everything in our social life – from economic value and state power
to practices and to the very structure of the psyche itself – can be said to have
become “cultural” in some original and yet untheorised sense. This proposition is,
however, substantively quite consistent with the previous diagnosis of a society of
the image or the simulacrum and a transformation of the “real” into so many
It also suggests that some of our most cherished and time-honoured radical
conceptions about the nature of cultural politics may thereby find themselves
outmoded. However distinct those conceptions – which range from slogans of
negativity, opposition, and subversion to critique and reflexivity – may have been,
they all shared a single, fundamentally spatial, presupposition, which may be
resumed in the equally time-honoured formula of “critical distance.” No theory of
cultural politics current on the Left today has been able to do without one notion or
another of a certain minimal aesthetic distance, of the possibility of the positioning
of the cultural act outside the massive Being of capital, from which to assault this
last. What the burden of our preceding demonstration suggests, however, is that
distance in general (including “critical distance” in particular) has very precisely
been abolished in the new space of postmodernism. We are submerged in its
henceforth filled and suffused volumes to the point where our now postmodern
bodies are bereft of spatial coordinates and practically (let alone theoretically)
incapable of distantiation; meanwhile, it has already been observed how the
prodigious new expansion of multinational capital ends up penetrating and
colonising those very pre-capitalist enclaves (Nature and the Unconscious) which
offered extraterritorial and Archimedean footholds for critical effectivity. The
shorthand language of co-optation is for this reason omnipresent on the left, but
would now seem to offer a most inadequate theoretical basis for understanding a
situation in which we all, in one way or another, dimly feel that not only punctual
and local counter-culture forms of cultural resistance and guerrilla warfare but also
even overtly political interventions like those of The Clash are all somehow secretly
disarmed and reabsorbed by a system of which they themselves might well be
considered a part, since they can achieve no distance from it.
What we must now affirm is that it is precisely this whole extraordinarily
demoralising and depressing original new global space which is the “moment of
truth” of postmodernism. What has been called the postmodernist “sublime” is only
the moment in which this content has become most explicit, has moved the closest
to the surface of consciousness as a coherent new type of space in its own right –
even though a certain figural concealment or disguise is still at work here, most
notably in the high-tech thematics in which the new spatial content is still
dramatised and articulated. Yet the earlier features of the postmodern which were
enumerated above can all now be seen as themselves partial (yet constitutive)
aspects of the same general spatial object.
The argument for a certain authenticity in these otherwise patently
ideological productions depends on the prior proposition that what we have been
calling postmodern (or multinational) space is not merely a cultural ideology or
fantasy but has genuine historical (and socioeconomic) reality as a third great
original expansion of capitalism around the globe (after the earlier expansions of
the national market and the older imperialist system, which each had their own
cultural specificity and generated new types of space appropriate to their
dynamics). The distorted and unreflexive attempts of newer cultural production to
explore and to express this new space must then also, in their own fashion, be
considered as so many approaches to the representation of (a new) reality (to use
a more antiquated language). As paradoxical as the terms may seem, they may
thus, following a classic interpretive option, be read as peculiar new forms of
realism (or at least of the mimesis of reality), while at the same time they can
equally well be analysed as so many attempts to distract and divert us from that
reality or to disguise its contradictions and resolve them in the guise of various
formal mystifications.
As for that reality itself, however – the as yet untheorised original space of
some new “world system” of multinational or late capitalism, a space whose
negative or baleful aspects are only too obvious – the dialectic requires us to hold
equally to a positive or “progressive” evaluation of its emergence, as Marx did for
the world market as the horizon of national economies, or as Lenin did for the older
imperialist global network. For neither Marx nor Lenin was socialism a matter of
returning to smaller (and thereby less repressive and comprehensive) systems of
social organisation; rather, the dimensions attained by capital in their own times
were grasped as the promise, the framework, and the precondition for the
achievement of some new and more comprehensive socialism. Is this not the case
with the yet more global and totalising space of the new world system, which
demands the intervention and elaboration of an internationalism of a radically new
type? The disastrous realignment of socialist revolution with the older nationalisms
(not only in Southeast Asia), whose results have necessarily aroused much serious
recent left reflection, can be adduced in support of this position.
But if all this is so, then at least one possible form of a new radical cultural
politics becomes evident, with a final aesthetic proviso that must quickly be noted.
Left cultural producers and theorists – particularly those formed by bourgeois
cultural traditions issuing from romanticism and valorising spontaneous, instinctive,
or unconscious forms of “genius,” but also for very obvious historical reasons such
as Zhdanovism and the sorry consequences of political and party interventions in
the arts have often by reaction allowed themselves to be unduly intimidated by the
repudiation, in bourgeois aesthetics and most notably in high modernism, of one of
the age-old functions of art – the pedagogical and the didactic. The teaching
function of art was, however, always stressed in classical times (even though it
there mainly took the form of moral lessons), while the prodigious and still
imperfectly understood work of Brecht reaffirms, in a new and formally innovative
and original way, for the moment of modernism proper, a complex new conception
of the relationship between culture and pedagogy.
The cultural model I will propose similarly foregrounds the cognitive and
pedagogical dimensions of political art and culture, dimensions stressed in very
different ways by both Lukacs and Brecht (for the distinct moments of realism and
modernism, respectively).
We cannot, however, return to aesthetic practices elaborated on the basis of
historical situations and dilemmas which are no longer ours. Meanwhile, the
conception of space that has been developed here suggests that a model of
political culture appropriate to our own situation will necessarily have to raise
spatial issues as its fundamental organising concern. I will therefore provisionally
define the aesthetic of this new (and hypothetical) cultural form as an aesthetic of
cognitive mapping.
In a classic work, The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch taught us that the
alienated city is above all a space in which people are unable to map (in their
minds) either their own positions or the urban totality in which they find themselves:
grids such as those of Jersey City, in which none of the traditional markers
(monuments, nodes, natural boundaries, built perspectives) obtain, are the most
obvious examples. Disalienation in the traditional city, then, involves the practical
reconquest of a sense of place and the construction or reconstruction of an
articulated ensemble which can be retained in memory and which the individual
subject can map and remap along the moments of mobile, alternative trajectories.
Lynch’s own work is limited by the deliberate restriction of his topic to the problems
of city form as such; yet it becomes extraordinarily suggestive when projected
outward onto some of the larger national and global spaces we have touched on
here. Nor should it be too hastily assumed that his model – while it clearly raises
very central issues of representation as such – is in any way easily vitiated by the
conventional poststructural critiques of the “ideology of representation” or mimesis.
The cognitive map is not exactly mimetic in that older sense; indeed, the theoretical
issues it poses allow us to renew the analysis of representation on a higher and
much more complex level.
There is, for one thing, a most interesting convergence between the
empirical problems studied by Lynch in terms of city space and the great
Althusserian (and Lacanian) redefinition of ideology as “the representation of the
subject’s Imaginary relationship to his or her Real conditions of existence.” Surely
this is exactly what the cognitive map is called upon to do in the narrower
framework of daily life in the physical city: to enable a situational representation on
the part of the individual subject to that vaster and properly unrepresentable totality
which is the ensemble of society’s structures as a whole.
Yet Lynch’s work also suggests a further line of development insofar as
cartography itself constitutes its key mediatory instance. A return to the history of
this science (which is also an art) shows us that Lynch’s model does not yet, in
fact, really correspond to what will become map-making. Lynch’s subjects are
rather clearly involved in pre-cartographic operations whose results traditionally are
described as itineraries rather than as maps: diagrams organised around the still
subject-centred or existential journey of the traveller, along which various
significant key features are marked oases, mountain ranges, rivers, monuments,
and the like. The most highly developed form of such diagrams is the nautical
itinerary, the sea chart, or portulans, where coastal features are noted for the use
of Mediterranean navigators who rarely venture out into the open sea.
Yet the compass at once introduces a new dimension into sea charts, a
dimension that will utterly transform the problematic of the itinerary and allow us to
pose the problem of a genuine cognitive mapping in a far more complex way. For
the new instruments - compass, sextant, and theodolite – correspond not merely to
new geographic and navigational problems (the difficult matter of determining
longitude, particularly on the curving surface of the planet, as opposed to the
simpler matter of latitude, which European navigators can still empirically
determine by ocular inspection of the African coast); they also introduce a whole
new coordinate: the relationship to the totality, particularly as it is mediated by the
stars and by new operations like that of triangulation. At this point, cognitive
mapping in the broader sense comes to require the coordination of existential data
(the empirical position of the subject) with unlived, abstract conceptions of the
geographic totality.
Finally, with the first globe (1490) and the invention of the Mercator
projection at about the same time, yet a third dimension of cartography emerges,
which at once involves what we would today call the nature of representational
codes, the intrinsic structures of the various media, the intervention, into more
naive mimetic conceptions of mapping, of the whole new fundamental question of
the languages of representation itself, in particular the unresolvable (well-nigh
Heisenbergian) dilemma of the transfer of curved space to flat charts. At this point
it becomes clear that there can be no true maps (at the same time it also becomes
clear that there can be scientific progress, or better still, a dialectical advance, in
the various historical moments of map-making).
Transcoding all this now into the very different problematic of the
Althusserian definition of ideology, one would want to make two points. The first is
that the Althusserian concept now allows us to rethink these specialised
geographical and cartographic issues in terms of social space – in terms, for
example, of social class and national or international context, in terms of the ways
in which we all necessarily also cognitively map our individual social relationship to
local, national, and international class realities. Yet to reformulate the problem in
this way is also to come starkly up against those very difficulties in mapping which
are posed in heightened and original ways by that very global space of the
postmodernist or multinational moment which has been under discussion here.
These are not merely theoretical issues; they have urgent practical political
consequences, as is evident from the conventional feelings of First World subjects
that existentially (or “empirically”) they really do inhabit a “postindustrial society”
from which traditional production has disappeared and in which social classes of
the classical type no longer exist – a conviction which has immediate effects on
political praxis.
The second point is that a return to the Lacanian underpinnings of
Althusser’s theory can afford some useful and suggestive methodological
enrichments. Althusser’s formulation remobilises an older and henceforth classical
Marxian distinction between science and ideology that is not without value for us
even today. The existential – the positioning of the individual subject, the
experience of daily life, the monadic “point of view” on the world to which we are
necessarily, as biological subjects, restricted – is in Althusser’s formula implicitly
opposed to the realm of abstract knowledge, a realm which, as Lacan reminds us,
is never positioned in or actualised by any concrete subject but rather by that
structural void called le sujet supposé savoir (the subject supposed to know), a
subject-place of knowledge. What is affirmed is not that we cannot know the world
and its totality in some abstract or “scientific” way. Marxian “science” provides just
such a way of knowing and conceptualising the world abstractly, in the sense in
which, for example, Mandel’s great book offers a rich and elaborated knowledge of
that global world system, of which it has never been said here that it was
unknowable but merely that it was unrepresentable, which is a very different
matter. The Althusserian formula, in other words, designates a gap, a rift, between
existential experience and scientific knowledge. Ideology has then the function of
somehow inventing a way of articulating those two distinct dimensions with each
other. What a historicist view of this definition would want to add is that such
coordination, the production of functioning and living ideologies, is distinct in
different historical situations, and, above all, that there may be historical situations
in which it is not possible at all – and this would seem to be our situation in the
current crisis.
But the Lacanian system is threefold, and not dualistic. To the MarxianAlthusserian opposition of ideology and science correspond only two of Lacan’s
tripartite functions: the Imaginary and the Real, respectively.
Our digression on cartography, however, with its final revelation of a
properly representational dialectic of the codes and capacities of individual
languages or media, reminds us that what has until now been omitted was the
dimension of the Lacanian Symbolic itself.
An aesthetic of cognitive mapping – a pedagogical political culture which
seeks to endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place
in the global system – will necessarily have to respect this now enormously
complex representational dialectic and invent radically new forms in order to do it
justice. This is not then, clearly, a call for a return to some older kind of machinery,
some older and more transparent national space, or some more traditional and
reassuring perspectival or mimetic enclave: the new political art (if it is possible at
all) will have to hold to the truth of postmodernism, that is to say, to its fundamental
object – the world space of multinational capital – at the same time at which it
achieves a breakthrough to some as yet unimaginable new mode of representing
this last, in which we may again begin to grasp our positioning as individual and
collective subjects and regain a capacity to act and struggle which is at present
neutralised by our spatial as well as our social confusion. The political form of
postmodernism, if there ever is any, will have as its vocation the invention and
projection of a global cognitive mapping, on a social as well as a spatial scale.
From Jean-François Lyotard. “Answering the Question: What Is Posmodernism?” In
Postmodernism. A Reader. Ed. Thomas Docherty. Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire:
Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993, 38-46 [originally published in I. Hassan and S. Hassan,
eds. Innovation/ Renovation. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press,
1983, pp. 71-82]:
What, then, is the postmodern? What place does it or does it not occupy in the
vertiginous work of the questions hurled at the rules of image and narration? It is
undoubtedly a part of the modern. All that has been received, if only yesterday (modo,
modo, Petronius used to say), must be suspected. What space does Cézanne
challenge? The Impressionists’. What object do Picasso and Braque attack?
Cézanne’s. What presupposition does Duchamp break with in 1912? That which says
one must make a painting, be a cubist [...]. In an amazing acceleration, the
generations precipitate themselves. A work can become modern only if it is first
postmodern. Postmodernism thus understood is not modernism at its end but in the
nascent state, and this state is constant. Yet I would like not to remain with this
slightly mechanistic meaning of the word. If it is true that modernity takes place in the
withdrawal of the real and according to the sublime relation between the presentable
and the conceivable, it is possible, within this relation, to distinguish two modes (to
use the musician’s language). The emphasis can be placed on the powerlessness of
the faculty of presentation, on the nostalgia for presence felt by the human subject, on
the obscure and futile will which inhabits him in spite of everything. The emphasis can
be placed, rather, on the power of the faculty to conceive, on its ‘inhumanity’, so to
speak (it was the quality Apollinaire demanded on modern artists), since it is not the
business of our understanding whether or not human sensibility or imagination can
match what it conceives. The emphasis can also be placed on the increase of being
and the jubilation which result from the invention of new rules of the game, be it
pictorial, artistic, or any other. [...] The postmodern would be that which, in the
modern, puts forward the unrepresentable in presentation itself; that which denies
itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible
to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new
representations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of
the unpresentable. A postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the
text he writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by preestablished
rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining judgment, by applying
familiar categories to the text or to the work. Those rules and categories are what the
work of art itself is looking for. The artist and the writer, then, are working without
rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done. Hence the fact that
work and text have the characters of an event; hence also, they always come too late
for realization [mise en oeuvre], always begin too soon. Post modern would have to
be understood according to the paradox of the future [post] anterior [modo] (pp. 4446).
2) From Fredric Jameson. “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”.
In Postmodernism. A Reader. Ed. Thomas Docherty. Hemel Hempstead,
Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993, 62-92. [The original eponymous book by
Jameson was published in London: Verso, and Durham, North Carolina: Duke
University Press, 1991].
The conception of postmodernism outlined here is a historical rather than a merely
stylistic one. I cannot stress too greatly the radical distinction between a view for
which the postmodern is one (optional) style among many others available, and one
which seeks to grasp it as the cultural dominant of the logic of late capitalism: the two
approaches in fact generate two very different ways of conceptualizing the
phenomenon as a whole, on the one hand moral judgments (about which it is
indifferent whether they are positive or negative), and on the other a genuinely
dialectical attempt to think our present of time in History. Of some positive moral
evaluation of postmodernism little needs to be said: the complacent (yet delirious)
camp-following celebration of this aesthetic new world (including its social and
economic dimension, greeted with equal enthusiasm under the slogan of ‘postindustrial society’) is surely unacceptable — although it may be somewhat less
obvious the degree to which current fantasies about the salvational nature of high
technology, from chips to robots —fantasies entertained not only by Left as well as
Right movements in distress, but also by many intellectuals— are essentially of a
piece with more vulgar apologies for postmodernism. But in that case it is also logical
to reject moralizing condemnations of the postmodern and of its essential triviality,
when juxtaposed against the Utopian ‘high seriousness’ of the great modernisms:
these are also judgements one finds both on the Left and on the radical Right (pp. 8485)
Antonia S. Byatt. Ventriloquizing the Victorian Past from the
Perspective of the Postmodern Present: Possession (1989).
Antonia S. Byatt is a prolific writer who was born on 24 August 1936 in Sheffield to
John Drabble and Kathleen Bloor. Her parents (Cambridge graduates) set an
example for her as intellectually ambitious people who had to work hard in order to
acquire a sound education. However, the family circle suffered later the
consequences of the mother’s decision to abandon her professional aspirations when
marriage and children brought her promising career to an end. This was one of the
main motives for Byatt’s early family life not being happy, a fate that she shared with
her sister, the also well-known fiction writer Margaret Drabble. Most of Byatt’s
narratives (the same as Drabble’s, although both of them are altogether different kind
of writers) tackle the female conflict between creativity and domesticity. From an early
age, Byatt took refuge in literary and fantasy worlds, mainly belonging to the realm of
fairy tales and myths, a long-life passion that is reflected in many of her writings,
Possession being a suitable paradigm in this respect.
Predisposed and urged at the same time by her embittered mother —who wanted her
progeny to fulfil the high expectations that she did not reach, and who, from early on,
insisted that they would go to Cambridge University—, Antonia S. Byatt received her
vast learning at different institutions, most of them eminent and prestigious: a Quaker
school in York; Newham College, Cambridge; Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania; and
Somerville College, Oxford, where she took postgraduate studies. Her immense
curiosity about life is revealed in her books. As Catherine Burgass has stated, Byatt
“rejects the academic tendency to reduce literary works to a convenient label” (2002:
7). [Think about whether or not this can be applied to Possession]. Concerned about
the negative influence of marriage on the intellectual aims of women, Byatt portrayed
in her literary works (semi autobiographical to a certain extent) the problematic and
radical female choice between family life and the life of the mind. The problems of
female vision, art, thought and independence become one of her most recurrent
themes throughout her fruitful career, accompanied by the image of the frozen and
stony woman so reiterated in folk tales. [Are these features to be found in
Nevertheless, young Byatt did not have any intention of rejecting the possibility of a
happy marriage and domestic life. As she wrote in the preface to The Shadow of the
Sun, her generation of women, “wanted marriage, and children […], wanted weddings
and romantic love and sex, and to be normal” (quoted in Burgass 2002: 10). But she
became aware of the difficulties of reconciling family and intellectual life when she
abandoned her doctoral research after she married her first husband, Ian Byatt, in
1959 (the University did not habitually give grants to married women). She begot two
children in two years, but, unlike her mother, she decided to overcome all the
difficulties threatening her intellectual development and went on writing. As a result, in
1964 she published The Shadow of the Sun, the story of Anna, a young woman who
has to find her own artistic development in the shadow of her brilliant father, novelist
Henry Severell. After several family conflicts, Anna enters Cambridge University with
the help of literary critic Oliver Canning, becomes pregnant by him (a fact that causes
the end of his marriage). Anna will ultimately and reluctantly accept her unpromising
The Game (1967) —a title alluding to one of the protagonists’ favourite childhood
pastime— follows a similar thematic pattern, now emphasizing the rivalry between
two sisters: Julia (a happily married novelist) and Cassandra (an introverted scholar at
Oxford who lives in a state of sexual renunciation). The conclusion of this sibling
enmity for the love of a man culminates in tragedy for them both, with the collapse of
Julia’s marriage and Cassandra’s suicide, events that emphasize the social barriers
that prevent intellectual women from reaching their goals. Byatt herself suffered from
analogous situations: her professional success as a teacher and a literary critic (she
published a book on Iris Murdoch —a writer who was highly influential in her own
works— in 1965) was counterpointed by her divorce in 1969. Seemingly unwavering,
in that same year she married her second husband, Peter Duffy, and had two more
children. She published a valuable critical work in 1970: Wordsworth and Coleridge in
Their Time, but in 1972 she experienced the tragedy of losing a son (killed by a drunk
driver). That same year she became a full-time lecturer at University College, London,
a position she kept until 1983, when she decided to give up teaching and devote her
efforts exclusively to writing.
In the seventies, Byatt began to write a quartet of novels (the so-called “Powerhouse
Quartet”), beginning with The Virgin in the Garden (1978), set in 1953 —the
coronation year of Elizabeth II— and concerning again two sisters, Frederica and
Stephanie, the latter representing female despair when she falls in love with Daniel
Orton, a curate, and the regrets to have become sentimentally involved with him.
Byatt’s ventriloquist capacity is exemplified by the insertion in the narrative of the
invented allegorical verse-drama of a certain Alexander Wedderburn, based on the
life of Elizabeth I. In Still Life (1985), the second novel of the sequence, both
Stephanie and Frederica, now reaching maturity, intensify their struggle against the
unfair social system, the former being literally a victim of domestic constraints (she is
electrocuted with a fridge) and the latter being able to finally overcome the dangers of
sexual passion. Byatt published the third novel of the quartet, Babel Tower, in 1996,
where Frederica is absurdly married and has a son. She tries to represent her
different experiences in several “laminations”, a kind of narrative collage (Burgass
2002: 13), and reaches a certain degree of sexual liberation, although her emotional
life remains somehow barren. Babel Tower constitutes a brilliant portrait of the sixties
in England, with most of the icons of that decade being shown and taken advantage
of from a literary point of view through the use of pastiche. The novel contains a
metafictional novel-within-a-novel —Babbletower—, a book written by Jude Mason
and considered obscene. This invented text provides another opportunity for Byatt to
excel at her ventriloquist powers. The fourth and final novel of the series is A
Whistling Woman (2002), another instance of Byatt’s projection of her usual
obsessions with fictional forms and contents.
Angels and Insects: Two Novellas (Morpho Eugenia and The Conjugial Angel, 1992)
are written in a similar vein to that of Possession, for they are also set in the Victorian
period, inserting love stories within the scientific and spiritualist background of these
fascinating times. The second novella contains references (and even a cameo
appearance) to the famous Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The Biographer’s
Tale (2000), another example of Byatt’s fictional progression and a reflection on the
limits of biography, presents a Chinese box structure. The narration deals with the
impossible construction from the part of a scholar (Phineas G. Nason) of the
biography of a fictional biographer (Scholes Destry-Scholes) that wrote the lives of the
biologist Carl Linnaeus, the eugenieist Francis Galton and the playwright Henrik
Ibsen. As in Possession, literary theory becomes a serious obstacle for the scholar
and realism is counterpointed by myth and fantasy in a superb exercise at
postmodern metafiction. On the whole, these are features incorporated by Antonia S.
Byatt in the rest of her production, composed by short stories, poems, scholarly
studies, edited works, essays, reviews, and other miscellaneous writings. Her works
are presided by coherence and by a Horatian desire to please (delectare): “Art does
not exist for politics, or for instruction —it exists primarily for pleasure, or it is nothing”.
Possession comes to prove this intention.
In both her personal and professional life, A. S. Byatt has attempted to amalgamate
what, at first sight, appear to be contraries: a successful career and domestic life;
criticism and fiction writing; narratives both meditative and passionate, realist and
romantic. The best example of this is provided by Possession (1990), that rara avis
of a book that becomes an enormous success both for the reading public and the
critics alike, arousing their common interest. It was awarded the Booker Prize in the
year of its publication and rapidly turned into a bestseller. According to Kathleen
Coyne Kelly,
Part academic potboiler, part suspense story, part romance, [Possession] is a
virtuoso postmodernist exercise that weaves together many strands: a contemporary
story of academic conflicts, rivalries and discoveries; a 19th-century chronicle of illfated love; and a meditation on the imagination and creativity. Possession is, Byatt
says, “like the books people used to enjoy reading when they enjoyed reading” (1996:
78).In sum, Byatt defends in her works the superiority of fiction over criticism,
biography or history. Biographers (like the avid Mortimer Cropper and Leonora Stern)
are especially censured for their desire to “possess” and know everything about their
subjects, mostly emphasizing psychoanalytical and sexual events of their lives that
they can never prove in full. In fact, they live the lives of other people. Maud and
Roland also assume this role of biographers, but they are excused because their
eagerness to know is brought about by narrative curiosity, by a passionate desire to
go on reading. They are “possessed” by the Ash-LaMotte story in a positive,
adventurous way. Ironically, Byatt destroys any attempt from the part of any of the
academics at constructing the entire Ash and LaMotte story. Continuous revelations
and discoveries show that the knowledge and bold interpretations of scholars are very
restricted and superficial. Life and literature are far greater than academic biography,
literary theory, and even history, which is another slippery and risky field of
knowledge. Like Lyotard, Byatt does not believe in grand narratives either, and mocks
those critical works that contain more footnotes than unobtrusive interpretive text as
such, as is the case of the barren products of Blackadder’s “Ash Factory”. She also
attacks the edition of Ellen Ash’s journals by the disillusioned Beatrice Nest or
parodies Leonora Stern’s essays, representative of feminist/lesbian criticism at worst.
Byatt’s contrast between biography and fiction cannot be more radical:
I see biography as rather the opposite of writing a novel. You might think that you
know a lot more about somebody in a biography than you will ever know about
somebody in fiction. But, of course, the opposite is true. And I think that what
fascinates me about biography is the way human beings always escape their
biographers (quoted in Burgass 2002: 46).
Rejecting a linear temporal pattern, and assuming instead a cyclical and parallel plot,
Possession takes the reader back and forth from the present-time narrative to the
middle of the nineteenth century through a collection of miscellaneous texts, a
structure that Wilkie Collins used in The Woman in White (the first novel of detection
proper in the English language, published in 1860) and that Bram Stoker adopted in
Dracula (1897). They are texts-within-the-text, creating a metafictional crucible, a
ventriloquist climax, showing the desire of transcending the barriers of the traditional
fictional work in similar ways as, for instance, Umberto Eco took on in The Name of
the Rose. At the same time, the novel establishes the (humble) limits of the task of
the literary critic and biographer: as the “Postscript 1968” at the end of the novel
seems to underline, it is impossible for the critic to know all the truth about literary
authors, for there are always important details from the lives of human beings that
cannot be apprehended. Ironically enough, Byatt aims at demonstrating in this
postscript narrated by an omniscient voice that the reader remains to be the principal
protagonist of the literary process.
Being a perceptive literary critic, a biographer, and a theoretician herself, Antonia S.
Byatt is fully aware of the limits of these tasks, subordinated to the greater importance
of literary creativity. Hence the ironically cruel parody of the academic world in
Possession (which can be read in this sense as a campus novel), in which (and this
can obviously be a prejudiced attitude from the part of Byatt) American scholars like
Mortimer Cropper and Leonora Stern are depicted as more academically predatory
and superficial than their British counterparts. Byatt is interested in the process of
telling and the joy that the reader can take from text. She has consequently affirmed
that “I don’t like novels that preach or proselytise… The novel is an agnostic form —it
explores and describes; the novelist and the reader learn more about the world along
the length of the book”. Paradoxically, many critical perspectives are portrayed in
Possession: historical, textual, psychoanalytical, New Critical, structuralist,
deconstructive, new historicist, cultural materialist, postcolonial… But they are
deployed in a parodic way, in spite of their integral relevance for providing
explanations and illuminating the interpretation of literary texts, for, in the end, the
whole “truth” about them is a chimera.
Possession is a masterful rewriting —a pastiche— of Victorian literature, told from a
postmodern perspective [It would be a fruitful task for you to compare and contrast
this book with other novels presenting the same obsession with the Victorian past,
ultimately figuring out why this fascination is recurrent in British contemporary fiction
and, accordingly, in present-day Britain]. Agreeing no doubt with French thinker
Michel Foucault in his Histoire de la sexualité that, in some ways, “We, the other
Victorians” (as Foucault puts it), are more sexually frustrated than the Victorians
themselves, Byatt brilliantly agglutinates several apparently heterogeneous texts and
genres that end up by composing an articulate unity. The novelist vindicates the depth
and complexity of Victorian attitudes and thought, deploring the present-day vision of
that fascinating period of English history. Byatt defended Victorian thinkers (for whom
art and science were reciprocally inspiring rather than reciprocally restricted) against
contemporary literary theorists in the following terms:
For the Victorians, everything was part of one thing: science, religion, philosophy,
economics, politics, women, fiction, poetry. They didn’t compartmentalize —they
thought BIG. Ruskin went out and learned geology and archaeology, then the history
of painting, then mythology, and then he thought out, and he thought out. Now, if you
get a literary theorist, they only talk to other literary theorists about literary theory.
Nothing causes them to look out! (quoted in Burgass 2002: 43).
As Byatt has also said,
Possession plays serious games with the variety of possible forms of narrating the
past —the detective story, the biography, the mediaeval verse Romance, the modern
romantic novel, and Hawthorne’s fantastic historical Romance in between, the
campus novel, the Victorian third person narration, the epistolary novel, the forged
manuscript novel, and the primitive fairy tale… (quoted in Burgass 2002: 27).
Possession is also a romance in the popular sense of a love story, or, to be more
specific, the development of two parallel love stories: that of the Victorian literary
writers Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte on the one hand, and that of the
academics Roland Michell and Maud Bailey. The cyclical nature of the plot
contributes to the reader’s constant immersion in the two fictional worlds, which
become embedded into each other, the past illuminating the present. As Catherine
Burgass has detected, “the point where the plot lines converge and the lives of the
protagonists mimic each other most closely is in the middle of the novel (Chapters 13,
14, and 15), where the past abuts and intrudes upon the present” (2002: 48). Another
major structuring device of Byatt’s novel, as Kathleen Coyne Kelly has suggested, is
“the repetition of scene, action, phrase, object, color, and even personae” (1996: 89).
On the other hand, sex is an essential issue in Possession. With some distinctive
nuances, fear of sex or physical intimacy is shared by most female characters in
Possession, including Ellen Ash and Christabel LaMotte. Maud Bailey is a clear
epitome of the anachronistic vision from our contemporary viewpoint of Victorian
sexuality. She is described as “frosty” (like the heroines of many fairy tales), “icily
regular, splendidly null” and, consequently, sexually repressed. Like Roland, afraid of
romantic entanglement, she craves for solitude and “a white bed” (an emblem of
celibacy)1. Other symbols of Maud’s self-restraint are the orderliness of her flat and
the confinement of her hair in her conspicuous turban. The couple represents the
reserved nature and the reluctance to engage in a sentimental affair on the part of
academic professionals who are suspicious of emotional attachment. In fact, Maud
constitutes another archetypal heroine of Byatt’s novels, divided between her
sentimental drives and her professional aspirations, and looking for autonomy and
freedom. Significantly, Roland will eventually reach the end of his quest by becoming
a poet, like Ash himself: the passionate and clandestine Victorian love affair teaches
both characters that love is worth living, even though they may be suffering.
As a matter of fact, through the process of “possession” that they experiment, Roland
and Maud live vicariously the vicissitudes of Ash’s and LaMotte’s affair. By the end of
the novel, they will have also admitted their all-consuming love: “All the things we —
we grew up not believing in. Total obsession, night and day” (p. 506). Total
possession, we might add. But the couple’s feelings transcend the avid and voracious
connotations of the word. As Kathleen Coyne Kelly has emphasized,
There is a clear continuum of feeling, from sexual and physical possession to
academic absorption, throughout the novel. Excessive possession leads to the
objectifying of the other, whether the other is a human being or a text. Can we ever
really “possess” another, or another’s feelings? Can we really “possess” a poem, in
the sense that we can capture some fixed meaning for all time? These are some of
the questions Byatt raises in her title and in her novel (1996: 93). [They are questions
that you should think about].
1 Christabel LaMotte symptomatically affirms that she exists inside a white egg
(151-2), another example of the symbolic power and polysemy of whiteness in
the novel. Reading Maud’s “frostiness” and other related ideas in Possession,
Patrick H. Wynne has wittily perceived the semantic relevance of bathrooms in
Possession. See
Literary allusions are legion in this novel, which makes the readers aware of the
fictional essence of literature while, at the same time, they suspend their disbelief and
enter the magical worlds of the novel enjoying the plot it tells, marking the frontier
between reality and fiction. There are many instances of ventriloquism in the book, a
multiplicity of voices and texts. These writings (poems misinterpreted by the critics)
serve as clues for Roland and Maud to pursue their quest, in the manner of literary
detectives, at the same time that they reinforce the attraction between each other and
their connection with the Victorian lovers (Burgass 2002: 54). The allegorical folk and
fairy tales inserted in the narrative produce a similar effect, providing links with the
main plots and exploiting analogies between the characters through the use of
imagery and metaphor. As Burgass has suggested, an example of this would be the
green, white and gold imagery associated with Christabel, the Princess in the glass
coffin, Melusine, and Maud (2002: 57).
In general terms, it can be stated that Ash is modelled most closely on Robert
Browning and Tennyson, also with some features of Wordsworth, Arnold, Morris,
Ruskin and Carlyle, whilst Christabel is a composite of Emily Dickinson, Christina
Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, with some minor characteristics of George
Eliot and the Brontës. On her part, Ellen Ash finds her parallel in Jane Carlyle, whose
marriage to Thomas Carlyle was never consummated. Here follow some of the most
significant nineteenth-century works which Antonia S. Byatt has used as intertextual
influences in Possession. You probably know some of them and it would be good
practice for you to try and identify the features that Byatt parodies or ventriloquizes
throughout her narrative:
-Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “Christabel”.
-John Keats: “La Belle Dame sans Merçi”.
-Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Aurora Leigh.
-Robert Browning: “Child Roland to the Dark Tower Came”, Caliban upon Setebos,
Mr Sludge, the “Medium”, Fra Lippo Lippi.
-Alfred, Lord Tennyson: Maud: A Monodrama, In Memoriam, The Lady of Shalott.
-Emily Dickinson: Poems.
-Christina Rossetti: Introspective, In the Round Tower at Jhansi, Winter: My Secret,
“The Heart Knoweth Its Own Bitterness”, Goblin Market.
-Another Victorian intertextual influence that can be traced in Possession is Charlotte
Brontë’s Jane Eyre2, and there are also some elements related to her sister Emily’s
Wuthering Heights.
However, Possession is much more than a metaliterary exercise: it provides an
existential and epistemological reflection on the restrictions of human (and therefore
academic) knowledge, the (im)possibility of reaching the abyssal depth of other
people and the influence that the past has on the present (and, maybe, vice versa).
The postscript of the novel exposes the impossibility of acquiring a complete
understanding of, or return to, the past, no matter how symbolically alive this past
may be, demonstrating to the contemporary characters the power of love and the
meaning that it gives to life. The sexual consummation of Roland’s and Maud’s
relationship in the white bed represents the chance of integrating both the sentimental
and the professional aspects of life, no matter how open and ambiguous their
“postmodern” bond remains at the end of the novel, when Roland finds his poetic
voice and Maud preserves her professional and sentimental autonomy, reaching the
symbolic climatic union that Ash and Christabel so much longed for. Total solitude
and isolation are rejected as healthy options for the human quest: no man/woman is
an island. The final lesson —validated by the Postscript— is that the life of human
beings (and of literary characters too, for they are representatives of mankind), with
their joys and sufferings, their greatnesses and miseries, is too complex to be
reduced to a simplistic amalgam of conventions and archetypes.
2 As an example of a comparison between both literary works, read Felicity
Rose’s “Angel and Demon: Female Selfhood and the Male Gaze in Byatt and
Brontë”, an electronic article in The Victorian Web:
Possession-s analysis:
Overall Impression: This is a complex multifaceted novel, with entertaining and often
very funny or touching characterizations. The depiction of the links between life
experiences and the writing of poetry is well done. But it is often very wordy and
excessively obscure--particularly in its attempts to recreate the "ponderous
obfuscation" of the 19th Century poetry of the protagonists. It could be improved with
some good editing, but then again I am the type of American who could not be
expected to fully understand this type of thing.
In her own introduction, A. S. Byatt (Antonia Susan Byatt née Drabble) discusses how
she wanted to write about Possession, the "relations between living and dead minds"
(i.e., does the literary scholar possess the author who is the object of her research or
vice versa), and "a parody of every possible form, popular and 'high culture' ". The
following summary makes no attempt to incorporate every literary reference,
interconnection, and plot element.
Chapter 1
September 1986: Roland Michell (Roland) is a 29 y/o literary researcher, a Ph.D. in
literature from Prince Albert College in 1978. He is researching Randolph Henry Ash
(RHA), a noteworthy though fictitious Victorian poet, at the London Library. Ash was
the subject of his dissertation. He works part-time for the noted Ash scholar James
Blackadder (JB) in JB's "Ash Factory" at the British Museum. JB, who is a Scot, has
been editing the poet's Complete Works since 1951. Roland is looking for sources to
Ash's poem Garden of Prosperpina [Persephone].
Reading RHA's copy of Giambattista Vico's Principj di Scienza Nuova ["New
Science", author lived 1668-1744], he comes across drafts of two previously unknown
letters in RHA's handwriting addressed to an unnamed woman. RHA refers to how
she impressed him at the breakfast held at Crabb Robinson's [1777
-1867], and how they seemed to understand each other and various current literary
topics such as Hugo's play Iñez de Castro and the essayist Richard Steele's tale of
the Robinson Crusoe-like figure, Alexander Selkirk. Roland infers the letters date
after 1856, when RHA published Gods, Men and Heroes. He decides to steal the
letters and not mention them to JB for the time being.
Chapter 2
Opens with a quotation from RHA's 1840 Icelandic-Nordic epic poem, Ragnarök.
Mortimer P. Cropper (MPC) is Trustee of the Stant Collection at Robert Dale Owen
University in Harmony City, New Mexico, the curator of a large collection of RHA
correspondence and memorabilia. He is trying to possess all of RHA that he can.
Roland ponders the disappointments he has met in life, his meager existence and
sense of failure. He lives with Val, who calls him Mole. They live frugally in a dumpy
basement room, decorated with photos of paintings of RHA and reeking of cat urine
from the landlady Mrs. Irving's flat above. Val once wrote an essay on RHA, which
led to an unjust charge that Roland had helped her. Val earns most of the income
and Roland is essentially living off her. Val and Roland have a rather unhappy
relationship--she is bitter about the menial work she performs. He thinks of his more
successful departmental rival, Fergus Wolff, and wonders who RHA was writing to.
Chapter 3
Roland goes to Bloomsbury, photocopies the letters. He consults Crabb Robinson's
diary--Crabb was a man who had known all the major literary figures of the day--at Dr.
William's library. He learns that in June 1858, RHA had met "Miss LaMotte" and
"Miss Glover" for the first time at his breakfast party. Miss LaMotte is the daughter of
the writer of Mythologies, Isidore LaMotte.
Back at the British Museum, JB, 54 y/o, works with his assistant Paola. JB was asked
to edit the Complete Poems and Plays of RHA in c. 1959, with support from Lord Ash,
RHA's heir. Roland tells him about the Vico, though not specifically about the letters
he has stolen. JB tells him about Isidore LaMotte, the author of Mythologies, an 1832
book about the legends of Bretagne (French, in English=Brittainy). Miss LaMotte was
the author of Last Things, various children's stories, and Tales Told in November. He
mentions Ellen Best Ash (EBA or Ellen), RHA's wife, who wrote a personal journal,
and a single book called Helpmeets (about wives of great men such as Tennyson).
He encounters Fergus, who when asked tells him Isidore's daughter was named
Christabel [Madeleine] LaMotte (CLM). She also wrote the strange epic poem The
Fairy Melusina in the 1860's, published it in the 1870's. He describes its plot (p. 40),
an old and oft-told tale about a woman who is half-human and half-snake. Melusina
married Raimondin, bears his children, but despite her warning he spies on her one
day in her bath and discovers that she has the form of a serpent below the
waist.. Fergus mentions that Dr. Maud Bailey, with whom he has had an affair, is an
expert on CLM. She runs a Women's Resource Centre in Lincoln [Lincolnshire is on
the west coast, north of London]. The other expert is Prof. Leonora Stern from
Chapter 4
Opens with a quote from The Fairy Melusina.
Roland has already read some books about CLM. CLM's grandparents Jean-Baptiste
and Emilie LaMotte had fled the Terror of 1793 in France and escaped to England.
Emilie's brother Raoul de Kercoz stayed behind to maintain the family manor
Kernemet, in Brittainy, France. Isidore was born in 1801, married Arabel Gumpert
1823. Their daughters were Sophie (born 1830, married Sir George Bailey of Seal
Close in Lincolnshire) and Christabel (CLM, born 1825). CLM had a small inheritance
and lived with Blanche Glover (BG), who was also artistically inclined and who
committed suicide by drowning in 1861. After BG died, CLM went to live with her
sister Sophie and wrote no more poetry, dying in 1890 at the age of 65.
[There is much discussion throughout the novel exploring attitudes of feminists to the
various women depicted including CLM and Ellen. Blanche and CLM were assumed
to be lesbians.]
Roland goes to visit Maud Bailey in Lincoln, at Lincoln University. She is tall, cold, at
times seeming hostile. CLM had bequeathed her papers to her niece May Bailey
(Maia Thomasine Bailey). May married her first cousin and was Maud's GG GM, thus
Maud is CLM's GGG niece (but see Chap 28). She knows of no journal of CLM and
of only a few letters, kept by Sir George Bailey at Seal Court, but he is hostile to
literary research.
Roland mentions the letters he has stolen to Maud. She has found only one reference
to RHA in CLM's letters, an 1869 note to William Rossetti referring somewhat hostilely
to RHA's poem The Incarcerated Sorceress [is she CLM?]. They visit the Resource
Roland reads from BG's journal about her homelife with CLM ("The Princess") starting
in 1858, the breakfast at Crabb Robinson's with RHA, etc. BG painted "Christabel
before Sir Leoline", a title referring to the Samuel Taylor Coleridge
poem Christabel, after which CLM is presumably named. CLM had become
exercised over a letter she received from RHA (one of those for which Roland has the
draft). CLM is finishing the poem The Glass Coffin (a fairy tale also told by the Grimm
brothers). BG describes a prowler (RHA?), and later CLM seems to be hiding
something from her.
Roland shows Maud the 2 stolen letters, and she is intrigued to learn the possible
connection with RHA--it would change Ash scholarship. She puts up Roland for the
night, gives him Tales for Innocents to read. He reads tales about a Queen, and a
shoemaker, and notes illustrations by BG. The tales are derived from the Grimm
brothers and from Ludwig Tieck. A woman gives birth to a boy who is halfhedgehog. Maud feels CLM dislikes children.
Maud is a Norfolk Bailey, whereas Sophie LaMotte had married a Lincolnshire Bailey,
two family groups which do not get along. Maud recalls a poem she knew by CLM
about the Cumaean Sibyl. Maud had written a paper on "Marginal Beings and Liminal
Poetry" [Liminal means at the limits of perception], and Roland notes a connection
between RHA's incarcerated sorceress and CLM's In-Pace. They discuss how they
came to their current literary interests, their educations. Maud offers to take him to
the environs of Seal Court, where CLM lived out her last years.
Maud muses about her affair with Fergus. Only in the privacy of the bathroom does
she unwrap and let fall her lovely yellow hair--Fergus had challenged her to let it be
seen uncovered.
Roland reads The Glass Coffin from Tales for Innocents. A tailor rescues a girl with
long golden hair, trapped in a glass coffin...
Chapter 5
Maud and Roland visit the wolds (upland open country) of Lincolnshire. They see
Seal Court in the distance, the village Croysant le Wold, and the St . Etheldreda's
church in whose yard CLM is buried. He reads the tombstone for CLM, born 1825,
died 1890. The neglected gravesite was tended by Leonora the previous summer.
Walking up the hill, Roland rescues an elderly lady, Joan Bailey, whose wheelchair
has become stuck in the mud. She is wife of Sir George Bailey, who arrives soon
after. He is gruff and inhospitable, but Joan invites Maud and Roland into Seal Court
and George acquiesces. It is a decaying manor house, much of which is closed off,
poorly heated and in poor repair, no longer provided with servants to help the elderly
couple. He is interested in horses and mentions Tommy Bailey, Maud's great-uncle,
who rode the horse Copenhagen. George's GG GF (also Sir George) planted the
woodlands. They try to make conversation, and Maud and Roland mention their
interest in CLM. Sir George disparages her and praises RHA. Maud mentions CLM's
description of the Seal Court winter garden. George also disparages Leonora, who
he ran off at gunpoint. Joan offers to show the two CLM's former room.
In CLM's room, Maud notices the dolls and recalls a CLM poem about "Dolly keeps a
secret". She deduces this may have been a clue and finds in dolly's cot packets of
letters from RHA and CLM. George takes the letters, and they return
downstairs. The foursome debates what to do next. George wants to let dead bones
lie still. Joan reads the first letter, the final version of RHA's 1858 first introductory
letter to CLM. In addition to his letter to her, there is a packet of her responses to his
letters. CLM is not inclined to receive his visit... They read the final letters. CLM
asks for her letters back, which RHA agrees to, though asking her not to destroy
them. George fears a scandal. Maud and Roland work to convince George to let the
letters be studied, but he is reluctant and wants advice.
Later, Maud and Roland worry that MPC will try to acquire these letters. They agree
to keep their existence secret for now.
Chapter 6
Humorous description of MPC's visit to an elderly lady, Mrs. Daisy Wapshott, who has
a letter. It is from RHA to Daisy's husband Rodney's mother Sophia, a "godchild" to
RHA [apparently not CLM's sister], and it mentions ducks and drakes. MPC
surreptitiously photographs it. This is one of the few instances when RHA displayed
any patience toward a child. MPC offers to buy the letter for a handsome price. He is
flamboyant and drives a large black Mercedes.
MPC contemplates the autobiography he may write. His G GM Priscilla Penn
Cropper received a rebuffing letter from RHA regarding her interest in the occult and
spirit communications, etc. He muses on the writings of RHA,
including Ragnarök and the love poem sequence Ask to Embla. MPC has written The
Great Ventriloquist, RHA's biography. He recalls RHA's visit to France with his new
bride Ellen in 1848, to the Fontaine de Vaucluse and the source of the Sorgue (a site
Petrarch is said to have lived at after the death of Laura [de Sade, in 1348], the lovely
married woman with golden hair described in his sonnets).
Like Petrarch's Laura and Dante's Beatrice, MPC believes Embla represents a real
woman in RHA's life. He ponders Ellen's reluctance to marry RHA and her father's
doubts about him--she was 36 when she married him. He recalls how Victorian men
turned to the underworld of prostitutes to satisfy their urges--did the prim Ellen satisfy
the sensual RHA reflected in this poem, or did she hide a more passionate nature, or
did RHA simply sublimate his desires?
MPC calls to set up a meeting with Miss Beatrice Nest Ph.D.
Chapter 7
Miss Beatrice Nest is like a large-breasted Fafnir, guarding her hoard of Ellen Best
Ash's papers, which she has been charged with editing on the advice of her mentor,
Professor Bengtsson. Ellen wrote a journal, and Roland arrives ahead of MPC to
view it. Beatrice reluctantly allows him to. Ellen had read The Fairy Melusina in 1872
and made an entry to this effect. Beatrice mentions to MPC what Roland is
researching, and MPC recalls a pale photo of CLM in the Stant collection.
Roland reads on, finds Ellen admiringly describing The Fairy Melusina as truly
original, etc., an unexpected attitude regarding a woman who may have been RHA's
mistress. Ellen believes she has at least not prevented her husband's genius, even if
she has not facilitated it.
Back home, Roland finds a letter from Joan Bailey permitting Maud and him to review
the letters they hold. Val arrives in a Porsche driven by Euan MacIntyre, a solicitor
who has provided her work and is taking a fancy to her.
Chapter 8
Roland and Maud go over the letters in Sir George Bailey's cold library. He is
annoyed at Maud's terms--she will read CLM's letters and he will read RHA's. RHA
seems to have read Christabel's insect poems. He seems to have been under
The individual letters are quoted. CLM is concerned about their letters being seen by
others. RHA speaks of her intelligence, the nature of poetry versus novels, her
work The Drowned City (on the drowned City of Is/Ys, which Queen Dahud, the
sorceress, ruled). Maud explains this was a Breton legend like The Standing
Back at her flat, Maud learns by letter that Leonora Stern is coming. CLM's riddle
about an Egg and her need for solitude is quoted. Fergus has also written Maud,
saying Roland is not in her class, wants to consult her archives about a "siege-paper"
he wishes to write, asks if she has read Lacan [Jacques Lacan, a French Freudian
psychoanalyst 1901-1981]. Leonora's letter refers to her interest in female imagery
and CLM's lesbian sexuality in Melusina and Drowned City, of water, milk and
amniotic fluid, etc. She wants Maud to present a paper to the Sapphic society.
Next day at Seal Court, she visits the winter garden which CLM had loved, sees no
fish in the pond described by CLM. It is snowing. Maud and Roland are unable to
return to town, and are invited to stay the night. Joan speaks of Maud's beauty, but
Roland mentions Val as his girlfriend. They go upstairs, Maud is wary of Roland,
undresses in the bathroom, he tries to look through the keyhole to see if it is
occupied, she is startled by him--she has let down her hair (thus now undisguised, as
in Melusina).
Chapter 9
CLM's story The Threshold is quoted. The Childe [youth of gentle birth] encounters
three bonecracking whiteladies. He chooses the 3rd, who has only a lead casket, and
he will go with her. The standing stones in the moor lead to a descending track...
Chapter 10
More of the letters between RHA and CLM are read by Roland and Maud.
RHA sends her a poem. Comments about her metaphor of entrapment. He wants to
write a poem on insect life and the life of Jan Swammerdam [1637-1680, Dutch
naturalist and microscopist, author of Historia Generalis Insectorum on the natural
history and metamorphosis of insects, said in this novel to be the inventor of the
microscope]. He speaks of her Fairy project.
CLM demurs, says she lives quietly, neither calls nor receives calls, has read all his
poems. His poem Ragnarök was the cause of a crisis in her simple religious faith, in
making Holy Scripture like any other Wonder Tale. She wants to write an epic
poem. She encloses 2 poems, "Metamorphosis" (about a butterfly) and "Psyche"
RHA speaks of his religious views as reflected in Ragnarök, of Odin as the Wanderer,
etc. He is not an atheist. He encourages her to write her epic.
CLM is full of doubt, again asks him about Christianity, cites his Lazarus poem Déjàvu or the Second Sight, speaks of séances at Mrs. Lees, ...
RHA is only sure of the life of the Imagination (like Keats).
CLM speaks again of Jesus, the poetry of the King James Bible, a lecture she
attended on Spiritual Manifestations... She wants him to leave her alone with her
simple faith, or she will be a Lost Soul, her autonomy is threatened. She ponders
whether to ask him not to write again.
RHA is relieved she has not actually asked him not to write. He asks about her
Melusine epic.
CLM says she has been sick, as has Blanche, mentions her Dog Tray... She tells
how the Melusina project began, how her father told her the tale of Mélusine. He had
hoped to be a French Grimm. The Druids, Menhirs, Dolmens, Dames Blanches
(whiteladies). Sophie had no interest in these things. CLM had learned French,
Latin, Greek, Breton, and German. The nature of the fairy Melusine, her progeny...
RHA has nearly finished Swammerdam. He wants to know why her father named her
Christabel, was it after Coleridge's unfinished poem Christabel? He wanted to hear
from Coleridge how it ended (though he is now dead). He praises her Melusina
CLM met Coleridge only as an infant. Coleridge had said her name was beautiful,
rested his hand on her golden curls, hoped her name would not be an ill omen,
implying the heroine was destined for tribulation. More about Melusina and Tales
Told in November...
RHA has been to Richmond Park and imagines CLM's home and hopes to see it...
CLM is worried about what the world and his wife will say and wants to end their
RHA argues they can correspond as poets rather than as man and woman.
CLM wants her freedom even from him. Bethany is her cottage. She and her
companion BG have a pact to live the life of the Mind, renounce the outside
world. He is a threat to her quiet world.
RHA is distressed that he has not heard from her, though he sent Swammerdam to
CLM says his letter and poem did not reach her, it was taken by Blanche. She wants
to walk with him in Richmond Park to make it up to him.
RHA recalls meeting her in the park. They are now corresponding via an alternate
address, a type of subterfuge.
CLM again speaks about Mrs. Lees' séances.
RHA describes to her how magnets are naturally attracted. He professes his love for
CLM cannot let him burn her up. She wants her solitude, not a limited combustion
with him.
RHA follows up on the metaphor of combustion.
CLM has met with him again, will meet with him, is in love.
RHA has been to her house, loves his wife and also her, recognizes he is betraying
his wife.
... [More professions of love by both.]
RHA speaks of a journey originally planned with his naturalist friend Francis Tugwell,
but Tugwell has backed out and now RHA invites her to come.
CLM has decided to join him.
Chapter 11
RHA's poem Swammerdam is quoted.
Chapter 12
Begins with a furtive poem by CLM.
Maud and Roland have come to Bethany in Richmond, CLM's former house, now
restored. Maud suspects CLM accompanied RHA to North Yorkshire in June 1859 on
his natural history expedition. RHA was gone for a month, ostensibly traveling alone,
after Tugwell backed out. RHA's writing then was influenced by Darwin's The Origin
of Species, published 1859.
Letters from RHA to Ellen during his trip are quoted. He tells her of his steady
love. He speaks of the Development Theory (of Darwin), and Lyell's Principles of
Geology. His letter mentions "This genial Hob cures the whooping cough". Roland
notes MPC has traced this trip in detail, but was unaware he had a companion.
Blanche died in June 1860, drowning herself. She left a note saying she could not
pay her debts and was now superfluous. Roland and Maud do not know what
happened to CLM during the year leading up to Blanche's death, but one of her notes
mentions a Hob who cures whooping cough. They decide to review Ellen's journal to
see if they can find an indication of CLM's presence with RHA on his trip.
Maud tries to contact Roland, gets Val. Val resents this, thinks she Val is
Roland and Maud meet with Beatrice to review Ellen's journal for June 1859: Ellen
senses something seems amiss with her servant Bertha. Patience, her sister, arrives
with her children. Bertha is increasingly sullen...something ails her. She has sinned,
is pregnant, and must be let go. She will not name the father [we never learn who the
father is]. Ellen ponders with ironic reflection the freedom in chess of the Queen
compared to the King. She receives a jet brooch and a poem from RHA. She
receives a letter from a stranger woman [BG] asking for an interview, then
another. Finally Ellen and BG meet, Ellen writes "that matter is now I hope quite at an
end and wholly cleared up." RHA is not a divine being. Bertha slips out in the night,
who has she gone to? Laying in bed all day, Ellen resolves to be quick and lively
when RHA returns.
They find a letter to Ellen from Blanche Glover, the woman who insisted on meeting
with her regarding "a matter of life and death". In another letter, Ellen has kept BG's
"Evidence". Was this Swammerdam?
Fergus comes upon Maud at Blackadder's, pries into what she has been up to, warns
her that he will find out on his own.
Roland and Maud meet, discuss the coincidences in the Yorkshire setting and what
RHA and CLM have written during June 1859 regarding City of Is, the Hob, water and
stones, waterfalls, fountains, etc. They note an identical line in Melusina and Ask to
Embla. The search for proof that the lovers were in Yorkshire is starting to possess
Chapter 13
Begins with excerpt from Ragnarök.
Maud and Roland have come to the Yorkshire seaside. Roland reads Leonora's
description of CLM's landscape, watery beings, Dahud and the Fairy Melusina, sexual
imagery, etc., while Maud reads Cropper's account of RHA's Yorkshire trip. Cropper
suggests that RHA was having a mid-life crisis, seeing decay and decline, etc. Maud
ponders the moon...
They note passages about gloves in RHA and CLM...
A letter from RHA on Whitby, his visit to stores selling carved jet (lignite). He has sent
her a piece of jet jewelry and a poem. Bracelets with hair... The shopkeeper notes
Maud's jet hair brooch, says it is by a noted artist Isaac Greenberg, predates
1861. Maud lets her bundled golden hair fall when she hands over the brooch She
has apparently inherited this brooch from CLM.
Chapter 14
Another letter from RHA to Ellen. Roland and Maud explore the creeks and pools of
the area. They go to Boggle Hole. Roland and Maud discuss returning, his failed
relationship with Val. Roland suggests she let her hair out from its constant covering,
and she complies.
Chapter 15
Description of the railway trip of RHA and CLM to Yorkshire. They are traveling
together, she agrees she should behave as if his wife. He gives her a ring. They
check into lodgings. They walk by the sea, and she asks if they have seals and
selkies there. At the lodge, she is calm. They go upstairs, and he takes her in his
arms in bed, she opens herself to him. Her passion and adeptness in love making
surprises him--and he wonders at her past experiences. But there are elltale signs
she was a virgin. She knows she is not safe being there with him. They go to Boggle
Hole, view the ammonites.
Chapter 16
Quotes the Proem to The Fairy Melusine [spelling of this name is inconsistent].
Chapter 17
JB works on RHA's Mummy Possest, of 1863, about séances. Fergus is looking for
Maud and Roland, mentions to JB Roland's new discovery having to do with
CLM. He next visits Val looking for Roland.
MPC is with Hildebrand Ash, son of Baron Ash. Fergus meets MPC--Fergus wants to
know what Roland has discovered and tweaks MPC's curiosity.
Chapter 18
Poem about gloves by CLM.
Maud reads Blanche's suicide note: Blanche gives away her jet Friendship brooch
from CLM. She has little good to say about CLM.
Roland and Maud wonder what happened between June 1859 and summer 1860,
about which there are few clues.
Leonora Stern arrives to stay and sweeps up Maud in her arms... She has received a
letter from a young French scholar, Dr. Ariane Le Minier, about CLM. It describes a
letter from Sabine de Kercoz in the 1860's to a cousin about her relation, CLM.
Sabine's letter tells of the arrival of CLM on a stormy night.
Maud phones Roland.
MPC nearly runs down Maud and Leonora in the street. He goes to Seal Court,
persuades Sir George to put down his gun, entices him with the prospects of big
money for his letters.
George accosts Maud, accuses her of not mentioning the potential value of the
letters. Leonora is tactless with him.
Solicitor Toby Byng call JB, wants to know the value of certain letters.
Paola calls for Roland to warn him that JB is searching for him about the letters...
Maud and Roland decide to flee to Brittainy.
Chapter 19
Opens with a quote from City of Is.
Maud and Roland are aboard a ship to France. They muse on the sea
phosphorescent with herring semen, which Michelet has likened to a sea of milk.
Ashore, they meet with Dr. Ariane Le Minier in order to view Sabine de Kercoz's
papers. They discuss Finistère (the western end of Brittainy/Bretagne), the Bay of the
Dead (under which Is is said to lie), etc.
They read Sabine's journal: It begins in October 1859. CLM is taken in by Sabine's
father Raoul, Baron de Kercoz. Their manor is named Kernemet. Sabine's mother is
dead. She is 20 y/o. CLM arrived in a storm with dog Tray (named from King Lear),
half-fainting, asking for Sanctuary. Her hair is silvery-fair in color, her face white. The
house servant/nurse Gode predicts she will get stronger. Sabine has written down
the story of Is or Ys, asks CLM to read it...They discuss poetic things... CLM writes no
letters, hears from no one. On Nov. 1 (Toussaint), Sabine's father tells the story of
Merlin and Vivien... The next night, Gode tells a ghostly tale of the Baie des
Trépassés, of the love between a sailor and the miller's daughter, how he marries the
smith's daughter instead, how a tiny naked child dancing leads the miller's daughter
over a cliff, etc. CLM turns pale from this story. Sabine begins to dislike her. By
Christmas, it is becoming apparent CLM is pregnant. CLM never mentions it though,
seems a little mad. Even Sabine's father cannot get CLM to speak of it. On April 30,
CLM goes missing for 2 days. Sabine and her father inquire at the Convent of St.
Anne, but she is not there according to the Mother Superior. On May 8, CLM returns,
no longer pregnant. She will not speak of the child, and Raoul and Sabine wonder
intensely about this. Has she killed it? A note arrives from Michelet (a friend of RHA)
to CLM--RHA is looking for her--but she does not read his letter. The journal
ends. Ariane's note to Leonora tells of how Sabine died.
Poems left behind by CLM at Kernemet tell of a Lady bearing Pain, seems to imply
the death of a child, spilt milk.
Chapter 20
A poem from CLM seems to speak of death.
MPC is trying to persuade George Bailey to give him the letters, giving a lecture. The
letter from CLM to Mrs. Priscilla Penn Cropper regarding séances, etc., appears to
show a derangement. MPC recalls how RHA had a "Gaza exploit" at a séance at
Mrs. Lees. MPC wonders if CLM was also present at that séance. JB reads Mrs.
Lees' book on séances, The Shadowy Portal. Mrs. Lees' and Miss Judge's
description of RHA's "Gaza Exploit". Miss LaMotte was present at this séance, and
during it we hear voices say "There is no child", "Remember the stones". RHA cries
out "You shall not escape me", rushes to CLM, seizes her and demands "Where is
the child Tell me what they have done with the child?" CLM faints and is
unconscious for 2 days.
JB is trying to insure that the Ash-LaMotte papers will be kept in England, contrary to
Market Forces. He appears on a television interview to make this appeal, along with
Leonora Stern. Leonora tells him she believes she knows where Maud and Roland
have gone, and they go to have a drink to talk this over.
Chapter 21
A quotation from RHA's Mummy Possest, containing references to a drowned world,
Actinia (a genus of sea anemone), "I held your fainting form against my breast", the
Countess of Claregrove who has lost her child...
Chapter 22
Val is at the horse races in Newmarket with her new boyfriend Euan
MacIntyre. Euan has a syndicate connection with the winning horse
Reverberator. Toby Byng joins them, and mentions his legal involvement in the
wrangling over the Ash-LaMotte correspondence. They discuss legal copyright and
ownership issues.
Chapter 23
Roland and Maud are in the 3rd week of the Brittainy trip, at the Baie des Tréspassés,
holding hands, viewing the Ile de Sein, discussing its meanings, pondering CLM's
Queen of the Drowned City, Dahud. They spot Leonora and JB and flee, aware that
they must have talked to Ariane. They are confused about their apparently growing
love relationship, and cannot verbalize it--their actions are driven in part by the fate of
the dead poets, on whom they are focusing their discussion. They discuss the
images of spilt milk and apparently dead child (p. 454), wonder if CLM killed her
child. CLM had stayed with friends in London in the early 1860's. Maud and Roland
distrust romantic love, sleep side by side, but avoid sexual contact or any direct
discussion about where this might be going.
JB and Leonora arrive at their hotel, she aggressively runs into MPC's Mercedes,
damaging its bumper. MPC tells them that Maud and Roland have checked
out. MPC dines with JB and Leonora--he says he intends to learn what happened to
the child, while JB wishes RHA and CLM to rest in peace. Leonora invites JB up to
her room, but he declines. The next day, they compare MPC to the Ankou [in
Brittainy legend, the personification of death who comes to collect the souls of
passed-over humans].
Chapter 24
October. Maud is back in Lincoln, and Roland is nearby. He has not returned to JB,
feels awkward about his presence with her. Euan MacIntyre calls him up, and the
three meet with Val and Toby Byng. Val plans to marry Euan and appears very
happy. They discuss copyright and ownership issues. They recall that after CLM
died, Sophie sent a packet of CLM's papers and poems to Sophie's daughter May.
May married her first cousin in 1878, a marriage disapproved of by Sir George
Bailey. Euan shows them a letter from CLM to Sophia Bailey, May 1890. In it CLM
says all her books and copyrights are to go to Maia Thomasine Bailey--CLM hopes
that May will someday take an interest in these things. The letters in dispute
therefore belong to Maud. They want Toby to surreptitiously assist in dealing with
George Bailey, who is his client.
Roland feels marginal to Maud's success and family. Beatrice Nest calls Maud--she
is worried about MPC, that he has been reading about the funeral of RHA, and is
conspiring with Hildebrand Ash to dig up a box buried with RHA in his grave at
Hodershall. In the past Lord Ash has blocked this, and such an action would require
a Faculty member from the Bishop and approval of the vicar, Mr. Drax, etc. Maud
plans to meet with Euan to plan a course of action to catch MPC in the act. Roland
declines to stay with her for the time being.
Chapter 25
Excerpt from Ellen's journal, Nov. 25, 1889 is quoted. RHA is dying, asks her to burn
what the public should not see of his letters, does not wish to have his things picked
over by vultures. She recalls their "foolish years of separation." [was this after the
Excerpt from MPC's book: Mentions that the burial site of RHA contains a box laid in
by Ellen of "our letters and mementoes", "too dear to burn, too precious ever to
expose to the public view". She was buried in the same site 4 years later. MPC
mentions Rosetti's decision to disinter poems he had written to his wife and buried
with her.
A flashback to Ellen as RHA lies dead in their house. She says of her marriage it was
"forty-one years with no anger", but also "It was all a question of silence." She views
his watch, his books and collections, an airtight specimen box. She gathers up a
bracelet of hair she had worked out of his and her hair, his watch, an unfinished letter
from him [to CLM], a letter to Ellen from CLM, and letter in a sealed envelope to RHA
from CLM. She reads the letter to her from CLM. CLM knows RHA is gravely ill,
writes to ask her for absolution and forgiveness, says she meant no harm, hopes
Ellen will give the sealed letter to RHA.
She considers writing back to CLM, muses that she has always known about the
affair, but she cannot bring herself to give RHA the letter from CLM, and she ends up
not replying to CLM. In a moment of wandering thought, RHA says "Summer fields...I
saw her [this seems like CLM, but proves to be May]. I should have--looked after
her. How could I?". He tells Ellen he has placed "her [May's] hair" in his watch. Ellen
has the very pale gold hair before her from the watch.
Ellen recalls that in autumn 1859, RHA had confessed to her that he had been in love
with another woman at Yorkshire that summer, that he was with her there. Ellen told
him she already knew from Blanche's visit--Blanche had brought the first copy
of Swammerdam as evidence. A flashback to when Blanche visited Ellen, told of her
former happiness with CLM. RHA says to Ellen that he expects he will not be seeing
CLM again, and that anyway she has vanished. Ellen does not wish to hear more, "it
is not between us."
During the last month of RHA's life, Ellen had found the unfinished letter from RHA to
CLM. Dated c. Nov. 1 but unstated year. In it, he asks forgiveness for his going to
Kernemet (the manor in Brittainy, where he met with Sabine) and for surprising her at
the séance. She has been punishing him, and he feels cruelly treated, protests that
he acted out of love, wishes she had not closed herself off to him. He wants to know
what became of the child. He recalls that at the séance someone said "You have
made a murderess of me" and believes CLM directed this to him about the child.
Ellen decides to burn this letter, ponders that her life is built round a lie, that Randolph
had been complicit in the charade, etc. She recalls her own honeymoon, the painful
failed attempts at sex, his abstinence with her, her becoming a slave to him as a
result of her inability to have sex. She has lied to her own sisters about her reasons
for not having children. At least CLM had been like a wife to RHA, and was mother of
his child.
She places in the box the unopened letter from CLM, the hair bracelet along with the
blonde plait of hair from his watch (it is placed inside the bracelet, and no envelope is
mentioned), and the bundle of RHA-EBA love letters. She should not have had to
wait to marry until she was 36 y/o. In one of the letters, RHA develops the metaphor
of anticipating that the white roses she has given him have a promise of richness and
will eventually open--they cannot be pried open before they are ready. Ellen muses
that perhaps someday justice will be done to CLM as a result of the letters being
Chapter 26
Excerpt from RHA Garden of Proserpina.
Roland is back at his room. His landlady has been taken away ill with a stroke. He
learns that he has received job offers from Hong Kong, Amsterdam, and
Barcelona. A generous letter of concern has arrived from JB. He muses... The 15
cats are hungry. He visits the garden, previously forbidden to him. Life is suddenly
looking up for him.
Chapter 27
Excerpt from an RHA poem.
Beatrice has called a conference regarding the threat from MPC, with Roland, Maud,
Euan, Val, JB, & Leonora attending. More discussion of ownership and copyrights of
letters. Roland confesses how he came upon the original 2 letters, describes the
quest, receives the admiration and praise of JB. They wish to intercept the planned
grave robbery by MPC. Roland apologizes to JB, says he felt possessed by the
quest. JB offers him a full-time research fellowship.
Chapter 28
A remarkable chapter about the grave robbery conducted by MPC and Hildebrand
Ash. They go at 1 AM during an ever-increasing storm and open the grave. His
Mercedes is crushed by a falling tree, and he is caught in the act by Roland, Maud,
Leonora, JB, and Beatrice Nest. Back at the inn, they discuss ownership issues,
etc. Maud wants to learn the end of the story, wants the box opened. Inside are
found the hair bracelet, a blue envelope containing the plaited pale hair [of May], a
package of letters, and the sealed letter.
In this never before seen letter from CLM to RHA, they find a photograph of a woman
in bridal dress (Maia/May, whom Maud recognizes as her GG GM). CLM writes RHA
to say they have a daughter, born in the Brittainy convent, cared for by Sophie as if
her own daughter, married to a Squire, now a mother of a beautiful boy Walter. RHA
had injured CLM at the séance. It was Blanche to whom she referred as herself
having murdered--but she was willing to let RHA misinterpret that she meant the
child. She asks his forgiveness and blessing. She had hidden the child from him, so
he would not be able to take her away from her. She has lived like Melusina at her
sister's home (at Seal Court). The child May did not love CLM or appreciate her
poetry, and Sophie had required that May never learn who her true mother was. CLM
has been punished for keeping the child from RHA. Maia laughed and played like
Coleridge's limber elf, singing and dancing to itself (at the end of Christabel), did not
like her name and preferred May. Quoting Milton's Samson Agonistes, CLM
compares RHA to a dragon, a flaming presence which caused her to catch fire, and
wonders if they will rise again like Milton's Phoenix--she is glad he was her
dragon. Walter, RHA's grandson, has a poetic nature.
They discuss the implications of the letter, wonder why Ellen placed it in the box, or
why she placed Christabel's blonde hair there? The woman in the photo resembles
Christabel, and RHA. Beatrice is sad to think that RHA never knew of this letter.
Roland wonders with Maud what will happen to their relationship. He has good job
offers now, and his male pride. They each profess their love. He knows they can
think of a way to make it work, and they consummate their relationship at last.
Postscript 1868
Recalls a meeting of the elderly RHA, seemingly by accident but actually by his
design, with the child May on a hot May day in a meadow. He recalls that Maia was
the mother of Hermes, and that he knew of a waterfall called Thomasine. He says
she looks like her mother [i.e., CLM], but May says no one else feels that way [i.e.,
that she looks like Sophie]. She is very happy. He holds her around the waist. He
makes her a crown of twigs, crowning her like Proserpine, in exchange for a lock of
her hair ("buttercup-gold floss") which he snips off. He tells her he is a poet. She
plaits the hair, and he places the plait in his watch. He asks her to tell her aunt (CLM)
that she has met a poet who was looking for the Belle Dame Sans Merci, but that he
will not disturb her. He kisses May and departs. She goes off to play and forgets to
tell CLM of the meeting or the message
Martin Amis. Tapping the Contemporary, Grappling with History: Time’s
Arrow (1991).
Postmodernism as a literary motive was invented to deal with the Holocaust. The
prewar split between form and content was incapable of dealing with the moral crisis
provoked by the Holocaust, and therefore writers like Beckett, Walter Abish, Ronald
Sukenik, Primo Levi, Raymond Federman, Jerzy Kosinsky and many others invented
Postmodernism to search among the dead, to dig into the communal grave, in order
to reanimate wasted blood and wasted tears … or simply in order to create something
more interesting than death (Raymond Federman 1993: 122).
This statement by the American novelist and critic Raymond Federman perfectly
accommodates Martin Amis’ Times Arrow, published in 1991, a novel whose narrative
strategy reanimates the wasted blood and tears in such a way that it forces us to look
at the Holocaust in the face but in a radically new way. You may remember in this
regard François Lyotard’s claim that “incredulity toward metanarratives” was the
defining feature of Postmodernism. And indeed Auschwitz would signify the collapse
of the faith in human reason and in the illimitable historical progress which the
Enlightenment had staunchly stood for.
Martin Amis’ fiction fully conforms to the postmodern condition in yet another sense:
that of portraying to perfection the “cultural dominant” inherent to the mass culture. As
mentioned in the Introduction to this Unit, The American Marxist critic Fredric
Jameson judges postmodernism to be the natural result of the late stage of capitalism
as analysed in his book Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.
Indeed, Amis’ novels effectively and brilliantly convey the nihilism, the urban squalor,
the violence and brutality, the menace of global destruction and the imminent collapse
of modern civilization that permeate contemporary life, all rendered in a language
bursting with ferocious verbal energy. Always provocative in themes and style, his
fiction appropriately responds to the cultural, social and political turmoil of the time
while reflecting -often by introducing a writer as a character- on the act of writing in
the contemporary world.
Born in Oxford in 1949, the son of novelist and poet Kingsley Amis, the author of
Lucky Jim, the celebrated campus novel published in 1954, Martin Amis spent his
childhood in Wales and, for some time, in Spain,3 after his parents divorced, where he
lived in Majorca with his mother and siblings. He studied at Exeter College, Oxford
University, where he graduated in English Studies. In 1971, he began to work as a
book reviewer for the Observer,
where he has been a special writer since 1980, and subsequently held editorial posts
at the Times Literary Supplement and the New Statesman. He has contributed
regularly to prestigious journals and literary supplements such as the Sunday
Telegraph, the Independent, the London Review of Books, the New York Times Book
Review, the Atlantic, Esquire, and the New Yorker. He has published a substantial
number of novels: The Rachel Papers (1973), Dead Babies (1975), Money: A Suicide
Note (1984), London Fields (1989),
Time's Arrow (1991), The Information (1995), Night Train (1997), Yellow Dog (2003),
The Pregnant Widow (2006), Lionel Asbo: State of England (2012); short stories:
Einstein's Monsters (1987), Heavy Water and Other Stories (1998); essays on
literature: Visiting Mrs Nabokov and Other Excursions (1993), The War Against Cliché
(2001); an autobiography: Experience (2000); and other non-fiction volumes on
cultural history: The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America (1986) and on Stalin:
Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (2002).
Being the son of a writer as well-known and popular as Kingsley Amis, he has often
been asked about the influence his father had on his own writing. Certainly Martin
Amis himself has explored it in depth in his autobiography Experience. A Memoir,
published in 2001, an excellent book to read, on the other hand, in order to fully
understand his fiction. In this regard, talking about his father’s anxieties and literary
ambition, he quotes from the Preface of his Kingsley Amis’ Memoirs: “‘I have already
written an account of myself in twenty or more volumes, most of them called novels.
These novels are firmly unautobiographical, but at the same time every word of them
inevitably says something about the kind of person I am. ‘In vino veritas - I don’t
know, Anthony Powell once said to me, but in scribendo veritas - a certainty’. And
that’s another connection. In vino and in scribendo alike, the conscious mind steps
back and the unconscious mind steps forward.”
(337) Experience makes useful reading in the sense that it openly reveals the
concerns and obsessions that permeate Amis’ fiction. Nuclear weapons, the fear of a
world-wide conflagration, suicide, social and sexual violence, crime, all of them
recurrent motives in his fiction, can be related to childhood fears and to close
personal experiences. In his memoir he recalls the effect on him, when only a child, of
the Cuban crisis: “[W]hen the TV showed the kill targets, the concentric circles, the
fallout forecasts, I bolted from the room. At school we had our nuclear drills, where we
were invited to believe that our desk- lids would save us from the end of the world.
What were we supposed to do with such a notion? And what did it do to us? The
children of the nuclear age, I think, were weakened in their capacity to love. Hard to
love, when you’re bracing yourself for impact. Hard to love, when the loved one and
the lover, might at any instant become blood and flames along with everybody else”
(137-38). He also recalls the brutal abuse inflicted by older boys on the street and at
school, surely as a consequence of what that global violence “does to the spirit”:
“Frightened by their hysteria, their self-goading mob energy, all splutter and grinning
spittle. Was there nihilism in it? Who cared? We were all dead anyway” (138).
Unpleasant experiences of sexual abuse are there too: “These are insults. These are
thefts. They take something from you that you never quite get back” (140). His
unhappiness at his parents’ divorce is another recurring theme, which haunts him
when he himself divorced his first wife and had to face the prospect of their two sons
going through the same painful experience. Yet the strongest and most permanent
shock was the discovery of the abduction of his young cousin Lucy Partington in 1973
and her torture and death at the hands of a notorious serial killer. Twenty years
passed before her corpse appeared with evident traces of the ordeal when she was
only twenty-one. Suicide is another recurring obsession, following the self-inflicted
death of people close to his heart: “I find I have written a great deal about and around
suicide. Suicide, the most sombre of all subjects – the saddest story. It awakens terror
and pity in me, yet it compels me, it compels my writing hand” (280).
Despite all, like his father, Kingsley Amis, he is first and foremost a comic writer. He
himself acknowledges this while establishing the wide difference between them. His
humour is blacker and more savage, his style more experimental, his themes more
audacious, his mood apocalyptic, his language incandescent, his rhythm
overpowering. His father openly criticised the “terrible compulsive vividness in his
style” (Diedrick 2003: 243) and claimed that “he couldn’t get on” with his son’s novels
(Experience, 24). Amis philosophically admitted that his father would send them
“windmilling through the air after twenty or thirty pages,” adding that not even his wife
could read them. In reality, father and son stand at the opposite ends of the
continuum on which realism and experimentalism lie in post-war fiction. Whereas the
latter saw innovation as indispensable to the survival of the novel, the realists
considered it to be the cause of its malaise. The sensibility of the writers loosely
grouped under “The Movement” was rooted in the qualities of rationalism, realism and
empiricism. They impatiently opposed complexity, symbolism and opacity. Effective
writing should be direct and transparent, it should blend form and content in such a
way that the intelligent reader should not require the professional critic to explain their
interdependence. Kingsley Amis would declare that “the idea about experiment being
the life blood of the English novel is one that dies hard” and he set out to counteract
this notion. He described his novels as “believable stories about understandable
characters in a reasonable straightforward style: no tricks, no experimental foolery”
(Gasiorek: 3). Amis openly admitted that neither his father nor his father’s close friend
Philip Larkin, perhaps the foremost representative of The Movement, liked what they
called his “postmodernist tricks.” For his part, in a lecture he gave on Saul Bellow, the
American writer whose influence on his work together with Nabokov’s he openly
acknowledges, he said of Larkin that he didn’t talk about post-historical man. He
talked about the psychodrama of early baldness, going on to quote Bellow himself
quoting Larking as follows: “In everyone there sleeps a sense of life according to love.
Larking also says that people dream “of all they might have done had they been
loved. Nothing cures that” (Experience, 201). In his novels, Amis deals not with what
people might have done had they been loved but with the crimes they commit
precisely because they have never been loved.
At the other end of the spectrum, experimentalists flaunted their will to break up
conventional narrative and make it new by drawing attention to the “fictionality of
fiction”, as a parable of the way our vision of the world is mediated by multiple layers
of constructed realities. For Martin Amis, for example, “Modern life … is so mediated
that authentic experience is much harder to find. Authentic everything is much harder
to find … We’ve all got this idea of what [life] should be like-from movies, from
pornography” (Diedrick 2004: 19). Amis, as he himself said in an interview, is not
interested in the “neat, well-made book… Anyone can do it … What makes you an
individual writer is something else, a kind of flow which is to do with the voice …
There are always going to be plenty of people who can write those formal books with
nice décor and everything. Anyone who has done it knows it’s not the most difficult
thing. The most difficult thing is that kind of flow.”
Certainly what Amis calls “flow” is perhaps the most outstanding feature of his writing.
The way he interweaves reflection and commentary on disparate subjects with
inimitable energy and ease makes his prose distinctly idiosyncratic. Phrases pile up
following the rhythms of thought, recapturing with particular brilliance an astonishing
range of registers, playing with sound, forging striking metaphors and startling
images. The narrative voice plays an essential role. One of his more characteristic
narrative devices is the use of a first person narrator, often a writer -occasionally
himself as literary persona-, as in Money, where one of the characters bears his
name. This allows him to intersperse the narrative with metafictional comments that
question the status of fiction “in times of mass disorientation and anxiety,” as in
London Fields (25). In this novel, which deals with the decline of England as
metaphor of a world threatened by nuclear weapons, Amis uses an intradiegetic
narrator, a novelist suffering from a twenty-year writer’s block whose father had been
worked for HER (High Explosives Research) and plutonium metallurgy, himself dying
of radiogenic, a wasting disease. Literature is, accordingly, suffering from exhaustion.
Incapable of creating anymore, the narrator recurs to one of his characters who will
dictate the story to him. In a hyperbolic mood the novel gathers together all the
concerns Amis expressed in his autobiography, occasionally worded in exactly the
same terms. “Hard to love when we are bracing yourself for impact” says, for
example, the narrator on describing the female protagonist Nicola Six (197), whose
only assurance left is “that no one would ever love her enough and those that did
were not worth being loved enough by” (17). Having reached that stage, the end of
love and the end of desire, she plans an elaborate suicide in grand style
commensurate with the millennial malaise. We should remember at this point that the
novel was published in 1989, though futuristically set ten years later. Like the
protagonist of Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat, Nicola is determined to search for her
murderer and has to decide to choose between two candidates: Keith Talent, the
absolute cheat, and Guy Clinch, the good, nice guy. As in Spark’s novel, this is a
thriller in which what matters is not “whodunit” but “whydoit” (LF, 3). All four
characters, Nicola, “the murderee,” and her two prospective murderers, plus the
writer, pressed to tell the story before he dies himself, are hyperbolic caricatures of
the inhabitants of a culture in the last stage of a ravaging capitalism whose greed and
lack of values are heading the planet to imminent destruction on a scatological scale:
No news but plenty of rumour. Where do they come from, all the rumours? A kind of
inverse scepticism takes over when there’s no news.
An Apollo object, ripped loose from the asteroid belt is heading towards us at ten
miles per second. It’s so big that when its leading edge hits, if it hits, its trailing edge
will be up there where the aeroplanes fly.
A unique configuration of earth, moon and sun will cause hemispherical flooding.
There will be sunquakes, and superbolt lightning.
A nearby supernova will presently drench the planet in cosmic rays, causing another
Great Extinction.
Oh, and nuclear weapons: those dinosaurs.
And let’s not forget the Second Coming, also awaited, in quiet confidence. Or not so
quiet. On the street the poor rock and sway, like burying parties. All their eyes are ice.
(LF, 117-18)
London Fields is an interesting novel to read because it is fully representative of Amis’
fiction. The themes he tackles are familiar and in different ways had appeared in his
previous novels. Read the following excerpt and note the sense of impending ending
awaiting the characters, narcissistically distracted, unaware of the ills affecting the
world, mingled with the intradiegetic narrator’s metafictional comments on the
dissolution of the character of the realist novel. In an interview with the novelist Will
Self, Martin Amis declared his lack of belief in psychological realism, arguing that it
had died with the nineteenth-century novel. To him, the notion of character and
motivation is a nostalgic creation, if indeed it ever was. “It’s much more jumbled and
incoherent now,” he says, and this is what he sets out to represent. Of course, in a
sense, it is what D.H. Lawrence proposed to do when he claimed it was the carbon
and not the diamond that he was looking for in his characters. Perhaps the problem is
that Amis’ characters go far beyond what we are ready to admit, preferring rather to
close our eyes to reality.
Note also the allusion to “Entropy, time’s arrow – ravenous disorder”. When he was
writing the novel, Amis was already toying with the idea of writing a novel in reverse
time. Also, “time’s arrow” was one of the titles he was considering for London Fields.
As we shall see, Time’s Arrow, published only two years later, goes yet a step further
in order to deal in subverted science fiction style not with a hypothetical end of the
world but with a real historical end of the world as we know it, or rather as we
fantasised it existed in a sort of prelapsarian innocence.
This is Samson, the American novelist, musing about the novel he is trying to write:
Apart from the fact that on account of the political situation they and their loved ones
might all disappear at any moment (this sentence needs recasting but it’s too late
now), my protagonists are in good shape and reasonable spirits…
… Perhaps because of their addiction to form, writers always lag behind the
contemporary. They write about an old reality, in a language that is even older. It’s not
the words: it’s the rhythms of thought. In this sense all novels are historical novels.
Not really a writer, maybe I see it clearer. But I do it too. An example: I still go on as if
people felt well…
… We’re all in it together now. As is the case with the world situation, something will
have to give, and give soon. It will get a lot woollier, messier. Everything is winding
down, me, this, mother earth. More: the universe, though apparently roomy enough, is
heading for heat death. I hope there are parallel universes. I hope alternatives exist.
Who stitched us up with all these design flaws? Entropy, time’s arrow – ravenous
disorder. The designer universe: but it was meant to give out all along, like something
you pick up at GoodFicks. So maybe the universe is a dog, a pup, a dud, slipped our
way by the Cheat…
… I’m not getting something and what I’m not getting has to do with the truth and it so
happens that I’m well placed to take a crack at it – the truth, I mean – because this
story is true.
The form itself is my enemy. All this damned romance. In fiction (rightly so called),
people become coherent and intelligible – and they aren’t like that. We all know they
aren’t. We all know it from personal experience. We’ve been there.
People? People are chaotic quiddities living in one cave each. They pass the hours in
amorous grudge and playback and thought-experiment. At the camp fire they put the
usual fraction on exhibit and listen to their own silent gibber about how they’re feeling
and how they’re going down. We’ve been there.
Death helps. Death gives us something to do. Because it’s a full time job looking the
other way. (239-40)
Amis deals with the extreme in extreme ways. His language equals in excess the
excesses the characters indulge in in a time of cultural decline. As Brian Finney writes
in a web article (, “His matter is readymade - the sordid, ugly, threatening phenomenon of late capitalist Western
civilization, a dying world in which love is also in its death-throws. This view radically
affects every aspect of his writing - not just its grotesque content, but his attitude to
fiction, his rejection of realism, especially psychological realism, his exuberant use of
figurative language, his punning allusiveness, and his belief in the moral power of
language used creatively.” Of course the issue of morals has been an object of
debate, having been accused, as Ian McEwan has, of often appearing to be carried
over by his characters’ life energy and colluding in their zest for self-seeking pleasure.
In this regard, Nicola’s characterisation and ways have been criticised on the grounds
that they indulge in pornography. Amis, for his part, has defended himself indirectly in
the novel arguing that indeed she embodies male sexual fantasies:
‘Nicola, I’ worried about you, as usual. And in a peculiar way, as usual. I’m worried
they’re going to say you’re a male fantasy figure.’
‘I am a male fantasy figure. I’ve been one for fifteen years. It really takes it out of a
girl.’ ‘But they don’t know that.’
‘I’m sorry. I just am. You should see me in bed. I do all the gimmicks men read up on
in the magazines and the hot books.’ (260)
It is these fantasies he is exposing as well as the way they are catered to by the
media, particularly the porn industry: “His libido would be all tabloid and factoid” —the
narrator comments describing her preparations to meet Keith. “Such a contemporary
condition was pretty well recognized, if imperfectly understood. It had to be said that
Nicola liked the idea of trying to get to the bottom of it. Synthetic modernity (manmade).” (202) For Dominic Head (2002: 258), “the sense of complicity with the corrupt
late twentieth century is part of the writing strategy in the work of these writers, since
both seek to convey the seductive appeal of contemporary addictions and appetites,
in order to make them fully understood.”
London Fields is about the imminent collapse of modern civilization, even of the
planet itself. The Crisis hovering all along to which the novel speeds is very clearly
rooted to the death of love. “Perhaps love was dying, was already dead. One more
catastrophe. The death of God was possibly survivable in the end. But if love was
going the same way, if love was going out with God … Cross that firebreak, and then
cross that one. Go too far in all directions. Extremity upon extremity, and then more
extremity, and then more” (LF132).
Time’s Arrow goes backwards in time to that point of awful conjunction in history of
the deaths of God and love. Man would replace God, divinity no longer useful, with
reason as his instrument of creation through death. Self-fashioned as god-like creator,
he sets out to exterminate a whole race in order to give birth to a new one,
uncontaminated, unblemished, untouched by original sin. And indeed, one of the
ironies of the novel is precisely that, perceived backwards, his role there was not one
of nihilistic destruction but of creation: “Our preternatural purpose? To dream a race.
To make a people from the weather. From thunder and from lightning. With gas, with
electricity, with shit, with fire” (TA 128).
The novel subverts two literary genres: the science fiction and the Bildungsroman
novel. By the fact of being written backwards in time, in a backwards physical
universe, the point of the arrow flies back to an apocalypse set in the past, retracing in
its way the extremity upon extremity heaped up to their point of origin. And yet, of
course, we experience the imminence of impending catastrophe just as if we were
heading to an imminent future. We travel back in space to an alien world we gradually
rediscover following the narrator, a ghostly doppelganger, a soul killed by his owner, a
Nazi doctor who had assisted the infamous Dr Mengele in his sinister medical
practices. When the doctor dies, the soul is set free and in that instant of
clairvoyance, the soul takes us back all the way to his birth. Thus, instead of watching
the development of the hero from childhood or adolescence into adulthood through
his quest for identity, as explored by the Bildungsroman, we watch him through a
deconstruction of time in which both History and his story are undone. In so doing we
learn not of his growth into maturity but of “the nature of the offence”- a well-known
phrase of Primo Levi’s which Amis had considered as a title for the novel- under his
terrors and nightmares: “He is travelling towards his secret. Parasite or passenger, I
am travelling there with him. It will be bad. It will be bad, and not intelligible. But I will
know one thing about it (and at least the certainty brings comfort): I will know how bad
the secret is. I will know the nature of the offence. Already I know this. I know that it is
to do with trash and shit, and it is wrong in time.” (TA, 73). In this regard, Time’s
Arrow is also a thriller in reverse in the sense that, well into the novel, we realize that
we are looking for something to happen, yet it has already happened, and is
nevertheless waiting for us to unfold it into being again. Surprise, by yoking words and
concepts in ways that create fresh metaphors with the force to open the reader to new
meanings, is at the basis of what the Russian Formalist critic Victor Shklovsky called
ostranenie: that is, the art of making the familiar strange. In his 1917 essay, "Art as
Technique", he wrote “The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they
are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects
‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception
because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be
Certainly Time’s Arrow makes difficult reading and it takes a certain amount of time to
realize what is going on. Amis’ technique is superb in the sense that it defamiliarizes
the subject matter of the Holocaust. Through numberless reportages and films we
have become familiar with certain topoi: the cattle wagons of the sinister trains to the
camps, the separation of families in arrival to the harmless looking fake stations, the
ovens, the suffering, the emaciated skeletal survivors and the heaps of corpses.
Somehow this familiarity numbs our feelings since we already “know” what we are
going to face. The narrative strategy Amis devises, with a narrator situated from the
standpoint not of the victims but of one of the perpetrators, and with the narrative
moving in the opposite direction of the events, forces us to look at the Holocaust
anew. The startling metaphors of reanimation, reconstruction and rebirth carry an
overtone which only gradually reveals their import.
As readers, we are steadily initiated into a different kind of reading which forces us to
read slowly, sometimes indeed to reread, partly in order to better understand, and the
narrator certainly encourages us with his own concern to know: “What’s really going
on in there? And Show me the real you” (TA, 62), partly fascinated by the technique.
Here are some examples:
I’m there – I’m there at the produce store, at the post office, with my ‘Hi’ and my ‘Bye
now’ and my ‘Good. Good’. But it doesn’t quite go like that. It goes like this:
‘Dug. Dug,’ says the lady in the pharmacy. ‘Dug,’ I join in. ‘Oo y’rrah?’
‘Aid ut oo y’rrah’?
‘Mh-mm,’ she’ll say, as she unwraps my hair lotion. I walk away, backwards, with a
touch of the hat.’ (TA, 14)
If you look closely at the dialogue, and write the words backwards, as he walks, we
get, phonetically:
‘Good. Good,’ says the lady in the pharmacy. ‘Good,’ I join in. How’re you?
‘Are you all right?’
Once we have got the clue, the strategy moves on. As time moves backward, the
characters grow younger: “Watch. We’re getting younger. We are. We’re getting
stronger. We’re even getting taller” (15). The date on the newspaper is a further hint
at what is happening:
Each day, when Tod and I are done with the Gazette, I take it back to the store. I
have a good look at the dateline. And it goes like this. After October 2, toy get
October 1. After October 1, you get September 30. How do you figure that?... The
mad are said to keep a film or stage set in their heads, which they order and artdecorate and move through. But Tod is sane, apparently, and his world is shared. It
just seems to me that the film is running backwards (16).
Daily routines are emphasized to increase our awareness of time moving in the
opposite direction. The first chapter focuses on health discomfort, bowel movements,
and household routines such as the eating process. Gradually the mood is more
optimistic. Illness and old age recede: “My ankles and knees and spine and neck no
longer hurt all the time – or not all at once, anyway. I get to places much quicker than
I used to: places like the far end of the room. I’m there before you know it. My bearing
is almost princely. I sold that stick of mine long ago.” (20) Trivial matters that take us
into more daunting recesses:
I can’t tell – and I need to know – whether Tod is kind. Or how unkind. He takes toys
from children, on the street. He does. The kid will be standing there, with flustered
mother, with big dad. Tod’ll come on up. The toy, the squeaky duck or whatever, will
be offered to him by the smiling child. Tod takes it. And backs away, with what I
believe is called a shiteating grin. The child’s face turns blank, or closes. Both toy and
smile are gone: he takes both toy and smile. Then he heads for the store, to cash it
in. For what? A couple of bucks. Can you believe this guy? He’ll take candy from a
baby, if there’s fifty cents in it for him” (22-23).
Alerted by the increasing irony of the voice’s flow, underlined by the unreliable
intradiegetic narrator whose innocence and ignorance often make him widely
misinterpret what he sees, we steadily begin to perceive the more sinister signs. Tod
Friendly. The protagonist’s name. Tod means “death” in German. Friendly stands for
America, open, friendly, forgetful. The dialogues start acquiring darker overtones as
they read in both directions top to bottom or bottom to top (28-29), the latter usually
adding more shadowy information. Small details scattered throughout the narrative
stand out to fall in place in retrospect: the first images of doctors as life’s gatekeepers,
the bloodstained rubber bib, hanging on its hook (11, 72), the white coat and the black
boots (62, 72). The love affairs, the sexual impotence, the recurring nightmares and
the glimpses of medical practices, particularly those related to babies - “bomb
babies”- (40-41, 101, 135, 148, 149-50, 153) and women, start to fit into a sinister
pattern enhanced if possible by the black farcical nature of the backwards narrative
The women at the crisis centres and the refugees are all hiding from their redeemers.
The crisis centre is not called a crisis centre for nothing. If you want a crisis, just
check in. The welts, the abrasions and the black eyes get starker, more livid, until it is
time for the women to return in an ecstasy of distress, to the men who will suddenly
heal them. Some require more specialized treatment. They stagger off and go and lie
in a park or basement or wherever, until men come along and rape them, and then
they are okay, again. (39)
We follow the protagonist through his various identities on his way back from America
to his country of origin. John Young in New York, Hamilton de Souza in Portugal,
Odilo Unverdorben in Germany, Unverdorben meaning “pure, upright,” are symbolic
stages of this Bildungsroman in reverse, each accounting for a different personality in
accordance with the environment. Unverdorben is metaphorical both of the Nazi
aspiration to create a “pure” human race, and, ironically, of the doctor’s inhumanity.
By folding back the fabric of life and time, the text reverses the notions of cause and
effect in order to make us aware of the sheer madness of the enterprise, the crazy
dream of a people in a frenzy of action, of refusing to know: ‘You don’t want to know,’
Tod whispers. She doesn’t want to know. I don’t want to know. No one wants to
know.” (66) And yet, paradoxically, this reversal eventually leads to the ultimate
cause, which as in London Fields is the death of love -parental, sexual love. Following
Odilo Unverdorben past the death camps, past the Schloss Hartheim where he and
his soul split apart for ever, we are introduced into the intimacy of home and heart.
There the by now familiar narrative strategy takes us through the different stages of
his courtship, from sexual sadism and the routine violence of wife battering to the
tenderness of the early days of romance: “It’s very sweet. Now that the wedding
nears, Odilo is altogether gentler. He has stopped having tantrums. No longer is his
chimpanzee required to do the house naked, and on all fours. Herta responds with
gratitude, and with an apparently unbound tenderness, never seen before … When
she weeps and sulks he dries her tears with kisses, and not with a punch in the
breasts. And nowadays she hardly cries at all: the wedding day is only weeks away”
(159). Odilo Unverdorben’s violence is ultimately rooted in the texture of the
patriarchal family:
Father is a sallow-fleshed skeleton with half a right foot… We still need to cry
sometimes until Father takes the pain away with a rhythmical upward sweep of his
rattling hand. Then we are happy again (and up to no good). Mother’s faith is
intercessionary, but he has the power… His furious, unforgiving, defeated look: his
eyes are grimed with it; his face is nutcracked with defeat and with unhealed wounds.
He will probably improve, after the War. His ruined foot will improve. Naturally I
cannot forgive my father for what he will have to do to me. He will come in and kill me
with his body. Odilo knows this and feels this too (172).
The ending is thus the culmination of the inverted Bildungsroman as the narrator
proceeds to the dissolution, rather than the assertion, of the self. In Amis’
characteristically oxymoronic style, creation implies death. If, in the case of the Jews,
death meant metaphorical rebirth, a reanimation of wasted blood and wasted tears …
or simply creating something more interesting than death, as Raymond Federman
puts it, in the case of the Nazis the creation of a race and a nation meant, of course,
annihilation on a large scale.
The figure of the narrator plays an important if problematic role in Amis’ fiction. As we
have seen in the case of the two novels examined, both narrators are intradiegetic,
that is, they are characters involved in the action. And both are unreliable narrators. In
London Fields, Samson, the dying American novelist, openly admits to a lack of
imagination which ironically makes him a more reliable narrator. As he himself says, “I
can’t make anything up. It just isn’t it in me. Man, am I a reliable narrator.” (78) Yet in
the end he cheats everyone, particularly the reader, since though he entrusts Nicola
to dictate the story to him which she concocts, the orchestration of her death, he
capriciously thwarts her plan dispossessing her of the control of the tale. In so doing,
the reader is also fooled in his expectations as to which one of the two male
protagonists, the all-too-bad or the all-too- good, will kill her. In Time’s Arrow, the
narrator, who is the protagonist’s soul, admits to lacking access to his thoughts. His
interpretations are usually wrong and, being an innocent naïve observer, the narrative
flow allows us, readers, to see beyond what the narrator sees so that we may figure
what is really happening. The fact that both narrators are killed off in the end is
important from an ideological stance since closure is the point in narrative where the
various discursive threads interweave and the argument is clinched. Indeed, as
mentioned above, Amis has been seriously criticized on moral grounds, accused of
complicity with his characters. On top of this, in the case of Time’s Arrow he has been
charged with using the Holocaust for his benefit for the purpose of experimenting with
a startling narrative technique. Raymond Federman’s words at the opening of this
chapter rebut firmly enough this charge. As to the argument that narrating the
Holocaust from the perpetrator’s side may lead one to think that the author somehow
understands his motives and therefore exculpates him, it can only be argued that,
without indeed exonerating him, Amis does want to inquire into the causes of a
collective madness beyond proportion. Yet, his conclusion that “Odilo Unverdorben,
as a moral being, is absolutely unexceptional, liable to do what everybody else does,
good or bad with no limit, once under the cover of numbers,” and that “he could never
be an exception” but “he is dependent on the health of society” (164-65), is far more
haunting than any other that safely ascribes the guilt to the innate evil or the madness
of a few, as it challenges the reader’s possible self-righteousness and moral
In a further turn of the screw, in 2002 Amis published Koba the Dread: Laughter and
the Twenty Million, a historical biography of Stalin. His purpose was twofold. On the
one hand, he wished to redress what he felt as a huge imbalance in the
consciousness of the West which he described as a massive phenomenon for which
he found no rational reason. Not just intellectuals, and not just Jean-Paul Sartre, but
businessmen, scientists, academics, and every kind of artist would ardently condemn
Nazism while silencing Stalinism. On the other hand, as he told Emma Brockes in an
interview for the Guardian, he wanted “to ask important questions of the British Left,”
his father included, “and indeed of career leftists everywhere, such as why were you
so silent for so long about the worst excesses of the Soviet experiment? Why were
you so reluctant to equate communism with fascism?”
Amis addresses critically the two most powerful emancipatory metanarratives of the
West, the belief in reason, in the rational, autonomous, coherent self, and in a
historical progressive development in its liberal and proletarian versions -the collapse
of both signalled by respectively the Holocaust and Stalinism. His powerful critique of
the decline of the West, as a consequence of what Friedric Jameson defined as the
logic of late capitalism, enfolded in audacious metafictional and linguistic games,
makes of him one of the best representative writers of postmodernist fiction.
Time’s Arrow: or The Nature of the Offence is a 1991 novel by the British writer Martin
Amis. It recounts the life of a Nazi doctor, Odilo Unverdorben, in reverse, from the
moment of his death to the moment of his birth. Time’s Arrow was nominated for the
1991 Booker Prize.
The novel begins on the operating table, somewhere in the United States, where
Odilo dies. The narrator of the story is an entity that inhabits Odilo’s body, and
witnesses everything that happens to Odilo, but cannot act in any way. Although the
narrator is articulate and knowledgeable and has strong opinions about what he sees,
he does not recognize that he is witnessing Odilo’s life in reverse. As a result, most of
what he sees is baffling to him. For instance, when paramedics arrive at the scene of
Odilo’s fatal car crash, the first thing they do is administer CPR. However, the narrator
experiences this as the last thing the paramedics do, and he interprets the CPR as a
farewell kiss.
The narrator gradually pieces together the circumstances of his life. He is a retired
German-American doctor living in upstate New York. His name is Tod T. Friendly (we
will learn shortly that this is a pseudonym). He lives a quiet, lonely life. When he starts
a conversation at the grocery store, the dialogue takes place in reverse. “How are you
today” becomes “aid u too y’rrah?”
Tod’s personal life is troubled. He has a drinking problem. He has terrifying dreams
about babies and doctors. He has a series of sexual relationships, but he struggles to
make an emotional connection. There is something in his past about which he is
refusing to think.
Tod gets stronger and younger and moves to New York, where he calls himself John
Young. Another German-American, Nicholas Kreditor, causes the name-change by
telling John that the authorities are onto him.
John works in a hospital. To the narrator, his job seems to be hurting people. A
patient arrives bandaged: John takes a nail from the trash, pushes it into the patient’s
forehead and sends him away screaming. Outside work, he is a womanizer,
compulsively pursuing sexual relationships in which he can wield—and abuse—
emotional power over his partners.
John leaves for Europe—or rather, this is how the narrator interprets John’s reversed
journey from Europe. The ship travels into its own wake, “as if we are successfully
covering our tracks.” Arriving in Portugal, he changes his name to Hamilton de Souza.
Then he travels secretively through Europe to Germany, where his name becomes
Odilo Unverdorben.
Odilo works at Auschwitz, where finally his job makes sense to the narrator, because
he seems to be creating people in the thousands. “Our preternatural purpose? To
dream a race.” Odilo is an assistant to Uncle Pepi, who is in charge of this magical
project (Amis enables the reader to identify “Uncle Pepi” as Josef Mengele, the doctor
who conducted experiments on inmates at Auschwitz). The Jews created at
Auschwitz are united into happy families and placed into prosperous lives. The
narrator does not understand why Odilo’s wife, Herta, disapproves of this work. Odilo
has a child, Eva, who dies soon after she is born.
The narrator is disappointed when Odilo is transferred to a facility which “creates”
blind and disabled people instead of Jews. He misses the “great work” being achieved
at Auschwitz.
Odilo becomes an officer in the Waffen SS. Under his direction, Jews are “released”
from ghettos and placed in homes. At this stage of his life, Odilo is sexually impotent.
The narrator suggests that there is a link between Odilo’s “omnipotence” over the
Jews and his “impotence” with Herta. Earlier in their relationship, Odilo requires Herta
to “do the housework naked, on all fours.”
Now Odilo attends medical school, where he meets Herta and is part of the Reserve
Medical Corps. He moves in with his family and starts to shrink, becoming a child. For
the first time in the narrative, Odilo is untroubled by guilt: he is “innocent, emotional,
popular, and stupid.” Finally, he enters his mother’s body and waits for the moment
when his father’s sperm will withdraw, which the narrator recognizes will be his end.
In his final moments, the narrator has a vision of an arrow flying “the wrong way,” that
is, feathers first.
Time’s Arrow explores the themes of reason and science, morality and guilt, and
power both political and personal. Although the novel’s reception was largely positive,
many critics were uneasy about Amis’s use of a striking stylistic trick to tell a story of
such moral and historical gravity: “Amis’s cleverness has a glare-y insistence to it…
The Holocaust couldn’t care less about his ingenuity” (Kirkus Reviews).
However, Time’s Arrow is regarded as one of Amis’s major achievements and a
significant contribution to postmodern British fiction.
From Canonical
Multicultural British:
Reworking the Canon
3.1. Introduction to Postcolonial Writing.
In this unit we shall be dealing with the profound social and cultural changes brought
about in the United Kingdom by the steady immigrant movements from former British
colonies since the late forties. 1948 has become a significant year in this regard, as
on June 22 the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury, Essex, bringing 492 Jamaicans
into the U.K. The country was at that time engaged in the reconstruction of its industry
and basic services, severely affected by the war. There was a labour shortage and,
as a result, an advert was posted in a Jamaican newspaper offering cheap transport
for anyone willing to go and work in Britain. Most of those who decided to migrate in
search of new opportunities, attracted by the job offers, had fought on the British side
during the war. Others were educated Jamaicans who, brought up in the cult of the
“mother country,” were looking for better economic opportunities at the heart of the
metropolis. Soon enough they would meet disappointment as they started to realize
that the positions offered were the lowest-paid in the labour market. Deeply engrained
racism was, furthermore, another shock they had not bargained for. The large
increase in immigration, due either to the attraction of the prospect of economic
opportunities or to the political unrest brought about by nationalism and independence
struggles in British colonies and or ex-colonies, did not help much in assuaging
racism. In 1978 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in her speech on World in Action,
said that British people rightly feared that the country would be “swamped by people
of another culture”. And as late as in 1991, she publicly asked the British “to be proud
that they had conquered and civilized the rest of the world” (Alibhai-Brown 2001: xiv).
Indeed, as we have seen throughout the course Units, literature is a privileged arena
where conflicting discourses and ethos intersect. In the case of multicultural and
postcolonial literature, the conflict is perhaps thornier, due, to begin with, to the
indeterminacy of the nature of the writers’ nationality. Indeed many natives of
countries such as South Africa, India, or Pakistan, do not identify with the
representations offered by the literary works of writers who, though technically sharing
their nationality, are white. For all the sympathy the latter may show to the native
ordeal and to their struggle for independence, these writers are considered —in a
derogatory sense— as “liberals” at best. Their representations are scrupulously
examined and usually found faulty. At the opposite side of the spectrum, black writers
born in Britain repeatedly complain about their ever being regarded as foreign, and
they insistently claim for recognition on equal terms as those of their white
Due to the vast field of multicultural and postcolonial literature, in this chapter we shall
focus on the literary production of British writers who, though coming from former
British colonies, share —and claim— the British nationality, and usually live and
publish in Britain. As this Unit deals only with fiction, we shall limit the commentary to
One of the first issues writers from colonial backgrounds have had to address is that
of representation, or its absence, for that matter. As Elleke Boehmer rightly asserts in
her book Colonial and Postcolonial Literature, the superiority of the West has
eloquently expressed itself in the silencing of the colonial “other.” It is noticeable, in
this regard, that few if any native characters appear in novels by well-known writers at
the peak of the British Empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The
colonies exist in a remote place and remain firmly in the background. In Jane
Austen’s Mansfield Park, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and Dickens’ Great
Expectations, for example, the colonies appear respectively as the source of income
in the case of Sir Thomas Bertram, who owns sugar plantations in Antigua; as a deus
ex-machina inheritance that makes Jane rich and equals her in status to Rochester;
and as the opportunity for education from an unknown benefactor in the case of Pip.
The apparent indifference towards the Empire in these works indicates not so much
lack of interest in the imperial enterprise as the assumption of an innate superiority. In
Britain, and in British literature at large, the rest of the world was ignored because it
was assumed to be secondary or marginal to the metropolis, apart from economic
considerations. Conversely, when there are characters from the colonies, they are
represented as monstrous or wild, such as Bertha Mason, the Creole from Martinique
in Jane Eyre, or the convict Magwitch transported to Australia in Great Expectations.
If these are the representations we find of colonial characters of British origin, there
should be no wonder as to the representations we are offered of the natives. Imperial
projects required effective mechanisms of self-legitimation. The naming of other
peoples as irrational, barbarian, animal-like or cannibals, was one of the strategies
which had the effect of downgrading natives, making them unfit for self-government
and thus legitimating land seizure. As Boehmer says, drawing from the postcolonial
critic Gayatri Spivak, “such characterization provided the epistemic or ideological
violence which aided and abetted the more overt brutalities of occupation.” As such,
“the characterization of colonized people as secondary, abject, weak, feminine, and
other to Europe, and in particular to England, was standard in British colonialist
writing” (Boehmer: 80). These images, Boehmer goes on to argue, “reflected by
contrast Western conceptions of self-hood —of mastery and control, of rationality and
cultural superiority, of energy, thrift, technological skilfulness. Europe ceaselessly
reconfirmed its own identity and individuality by finding for itself around the globe
subterranean or reverse selves, dark mirror-images: the Oriental, the Thug, the
African, the New World Indian, the Quashee, Caliban, Friday, Jewel” (81). In this
regard, the teaching of English language and literature also played a key role in
naturalizing British values. It is no wonder then that immigrants had to fight for an
identity through a dual process. First, they had to deconstruct a set of deeply
engraved social and literary stereotypes in order to unsettle a world picture in which
the colonized had always occupied a marginal or subaltern position. Only then could
they start to become subjects of their own history and engage in narratives in which
they no longer had to be victims.
3.2. Significant Writers and Themes.
The novel mirrors this process. The first generation of immigrant writers records the
migrant experience in the nineteen fifties. The Bildungsroman, a kind of novel that
follows the development of the hero or heroine through a troubled quest for identity,
is a privileged genre used to explore the protagonists’ hazardous adjustment to an
idealized mother country that existed only in their dreams. Immigrants from different
continents and from the most diverse backgrounds have written of their arrival in
Britain, their romantic expectations, the first shock when meeting the unbelievably
dreary reality that awaited them under the lure of better opportunities, their increasing
disillusionment, and the gruelling quest for housing, work and social acceptance.
Anger, bitterness, scorn, pathos, humour, determination, hope, exhilaration at
obstacles surmounted, laughter at what are regarded as the oddities and pettiness of
the heretofore idealized inhabitants of the metropolis permeate narratives brimming
with energy. The new perspectives from which the country and the culture are
examined provide different angles which offer us a wide range of new characters and
settings, the outcome of an increasingly hybrid society. The critical eye, once the
paralysis resulting from the initial shock has been overcome, delights in the
picaresque, the surreal, the rich colour and flavour that slowly and indeed painfully,
but inevitably, would change the quality of British life.
This is particularly so in the big cities. London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds, and
cities from the industrial North with better job prospects, are the ones that have
received the largest amount of immigrants. And literature has indeed recorded this
fact. Immigrant literature is quintessentially urban in quality. Brick Lane (2003), for
instance, is the title of a successful by bypassed Monica Ali (1967-) and the name of
a street in by inhabited mostly by immigrants from Pakistan. Ali, who was born in
Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1967, and grew up in England reading politics and economics
at Oxford, deals with the daily existence of a year-old woman,
Nazeen, who arrives in England from Bangladesh through an arranged marriage to
a 40
year-old pompous and ineffectual man. Nazeen has to cope both with the tensions of
a personal unfulfilled life in a loveless marriage, her family responsibilities, economic
difficulties, the life in the community amidst the tension of gangs of bullying
unemployed youngsters. She finds support in a network of female friends who sustain
her and bring her to a sense of true independence. Yet, the relationships with women
are not always easy as in the tightly-knit immigrant community there is a close
surveillance and there are always those who, colluding with the suffocating patriarchal
old-world culture, are prone to gossip, forever prying into others’ privacy and making
their life hell by directly exploiting the weakest for their own benefit.
In a parallel plot, we are given the unbearable poignant story of the protagonist’s
sister back in Bangladesh. Through the two female protagonists we can visualise the
heavy burden assigned to women in the country of origin as well as in Britain. Beyond
the portrait of the domestic world, Ali deals with contemporary politics, such as the
reaction to September 11 or the Oldham riots, sensitively capturing the pressures of
local Muslims, the Bengal Tigers, where girls in headscarves and boys in Nike fleeces
argue about whether they should engage with global jihad or local injustices. As
Nazeem sits in those meetings, at first burning with admiration for her lover, Karim,
and his impressive certainty about his place in life, she gradually comes to realize that
his dreams of Islamic renaissance may turn out to be as flimsy as her husband’s
dreams of integration.
Brick Lane is a realistic account of immigrant life in the London of the seventies.
Nazeen is one of the new faces that people many British cities, and her life is that of
the immigrant garment worker stitching zippers and buttons in her public housing flat.
Yet, resiliency, refusal to despair, strength, courage, humour and ability to cope allow
her in the end to open up a space for change and for individual self-realization.
Indeed there is a marked difference between the narratives of the first generation of
immigrant writers and those of the second. As regards to the former, the difficulties
met were often extremely difficult to surmount. The country of origin was still close
both in mind and in the heart and the characters kept hoping to return after having
succeeded in getting a better education and economic opportunities that might enable
them to improve
the quality of their life on their homecoming. Nigerian writer Buchi Emecheta’s
(1944-) first novels make use of her own experience as a young immigrant trying to
make her way in London by juggling her work, her evening classes and the care of
her five small children after separating from her husband, who has returned to
In In the Ditch (1972) and Second Class Citizen (1972), she gives us an interesting
and poignantly vivid portrait of life in colonial Nigeria, where she grew up and
managed to get an education after her father’s death —an astonishing feat for an
orphan girl virtually reduced to slavery as a servant in the hands of uncaring
relatives— and of life in Britain in “the ditch” of social marginalization. The conflict of
cultures lies at the heart of her work both in colonial and postcolonial Nigeria, whose
culture she dissects critically in novels such as The Joys of Motherhood, Double
Yoke, The Bride Price, The Slave Girl, etc., and in Britain, where she tellingly explores
the issues of poverty and racism and their impact on families until they eventually
disintegrate, and on individual lives. Here you have an example of this type of
narrative along the lines of social realism:
7 The Ghetto
There was another group of Nigerians who had come to England. This group of men
came in the late forties, when Nigeria was still a colony. Even under colonisation,
they were men in the middle-class strata of Nigerian society. They were well
educated, with good secondary schooling or its equivalent, qualified enough to hold
down clerical jobs in the Civil Service. These were men who were conversant with the
goings-on in world politics, who knew that colonialism, like the slave trade, would
soon become too expensive for the colonial masters; that the outcome would be
independence — in the same way the slaves were freed, when it became too
expensive to keep them. The final nail in the coffin was the independence of India. It
would soon be their turn. Nigeria would soon become independent.
These groups of men calculated that with independence would come prosperity, the
opportunity for self-rule, poshy vacant jobs, and more money, plenty of it. One had to
be eligible for these jobs, though, thought these men. The only place to secure this
eligibility, this passport to prosperity, was England. They must come to England, get a
quick degree in Law and go back to rule their country. What could be more suitable?
The reaction that followed this sudden realisation spread like wildfire. Responsible
men, in high Civil Service posts, threw up their jobs, asked for their gratuities,
demanded their pensions, abandoned their children, gave twenty pounds or so to
their illiterate wives, and packed their bags for the trip to the United Kingdom in
search of education, in search of eligibility. The eligibility that would make them free,
free to rule their country, free to go into poshy jobs with long shiny American cars with
back wings. The eligibility that would sanction their declaring their old illiterate wives
redundant and would not frown on their taking one of the newly emerging graduate
females in Nigeria as a wife. Oh, yes, there was a great deal the United Kingdom was
going to do for these men.
In search of this dream or reality, or whatever you decide to call it, they sold all,
abandoned all they had held dear. They were like those men in the Bible whom Jesus
had told to sell all they had and follow him. Those men in the Bible had little to lose.
Only their nets. But these Nigerians had plenty — wives, status, jobs and many, many
children. The mothers of these children, though dubious about the whole plan, though
they might have wondered what was to become of them and their offspring, dared not
say any thing, otherwise they would have been branded as wicked women who stood
in the way of their ambitious husbands. Of course, the husbands promised to be
better husbands to their wives, good and rich fathers to their children, men of whom
they would all be proud when and if they came back from England. The children, poor
things, were usually overjoyed at having a father in the United Kingdom. But whether
they saw their fathers again, or whether he was a better father for his going to
England, no one knew.
As is well known in such cases, many people were usually called, but few chosen.
Most of the first generation of Nigerian politicians, who sprung up from everywhere
after the independence, just like mushrooms, were from among these men. Some of
them actually made it; they came back to Nigeria, equipped with law degrees, and a
great talent for oratorical glibness. They had mastered enough political terms to turn
the basic proposition of having enough food for everybody into beautiful jargon, which
left their listeners lost in the muddle of long, jaw-breaking words. Some of these
listeners sometimes wondered whether they were not better off with the white master,
who would at least take the trouble to learn the pidgin English which they could
understand. Not to worry, though; being independent and learning to be a world
statesman demanded certain things. One must be well-versed in rhetoric, whether it
made sense or not!
However, most of those men who sought the kingdom of the eligibles did not make it.
Like the seeds of that sower in the Bible, they fell on the wayside to be trodden upon
by passersby. They came, failed to make a foothold in England, sought consolation in
the pubs, got themselves involved with the type of women who frequented the pubs
— because it was just after the war, when many such unattached women were
around, and that, of course, meant goodbye to their Law studies and a happy
welcome to a house full of half-caste children! Nearly all the failures married white
women. Maybe it was the only way of boosting their egos, or was it a way of getting
even with their colonial masters? Any woman would do, as long as she was white.
The set of African males who started to discriminate between the educated and the
uneducated white women came later. But for those men who did not make it,
educated or not educated, it did not matter; Irish or English or Greek, it did not matter.
She was white. If they remembered or had pangs of guilt about their families at home,
they stifled them with the consolation that, after all, they were married to white
women. That, at least, would not have been possible at home. If they remembered
their original dream, the dream of reading Law and becoming an élite in their newly
independent country, they buried it deep in their bitter hearts. It was such a
disappointment, too bitter to put it to words. When these men fell so disastrously, their
dreams were crushed within them. The dream of becoming an aristocracy became a
reality of being a black, a nobody, a second-c1ass citizen.
Adahs’s Story. Second-Class Citizen, 68-69.
Andrea Levy (1956-) is the child of one of the immigrants who sailed from Jamaica to
England on board the Windrush. In her novel Small Island (2004), which was awarded
the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Whitbread Novel Award and the Commonwealth
Writer’s Prize, she deals with the experience of the men of her father’s generation
who, having joined the RAF during the Second World War, had gone to England
thinking that the English would feel some gratitude for the help they had generously
provided in their time of trouble. Perhaps what is most interesting in the novel is the
way Levy focuses, from multiples perspectives, on the difficulties stemming from the
profound change Britain was undergoing. From being a rather self-enclosed
idiosyncratic culture, despite the vast empire built, always able to preserve an
essential sense of Englishness, it was becoming a multicultural society. In the face of
the hostility met upon arriving in the heart of the Empire they had learned to revere,
newcomers would soon start a process of revision of the colonial discourse, strongly
reacting against the cultural hierarchies they had so naively internalised. In this vein,
they held their ground stubbornly, claiming their right to belong. “We are here
because you were there” would be the slogan in the long battle for equality
immigrants have had to wage over the years and which has resulted in a significant
change in the representation of contemporary British culture, as well as in the revision
of the past. Small Island is an ambitious novel, strikingly original, since for the first
time we have an account of the significant moment when the children of the Empire
went to what they had been led to believe was their home; their mother country. Told
both from a white and black perspective, it reconstructs in careful detail the
atmosphere of the 1940s, drawing a vivid picture of the war and postwar British social
fabric with its conflicts, racist attitudes, mutual lack of understanding, and also
poignant instances of kindness and small personal achievements. The novel is
historical in that it deals with significant world events and their social impact, seen
through the prism of individual lives. It considers an unexplored field, the Second
World War as it was lived in London, and gives voice to the heretofore ignored
Jamaican men who served in the wartime RAF first, and later came back in the first
wave of Jamaican immigration. The structure of the novel is polyphonic.
The two protagonist couples tell one chapter each. All four voices, female and male,
black and white, are fully representative of the cross-continental movements and the
havoc the World War brought about. British Bernard, formerly a civil servant, served
in the Far East. Queenie, his wife, daughter to a butcher, is an uneducated workingclass girl with aspirations that are never fulfilled. She is portrayed as a sympathetic,
well- meaning young woman who has to confront, first of all, her British compatriots.
Of the Jamaican couple, Hortense is an
educated girl brought up to fully admire all that is from England, who has absorbed an
idealized unquestioned notion of British values. She soon learns, though, that her
cherished education certificate is worthless in Britain and that her educated English is
meaningless in the working-class London she inhabits, if not a source of ridicule. All
four characters convey a distinctive register and mood. They show the individual
prejudices and misunderstandings rooted in racial issues, aggravated by the fears
and fierce resistance to change on the part of a low English middle or working class
severely affected by the war and subsequent economic depression. Levy shows a
deep understanding of both the blacks and the white society in which they do not fit,
and deftly explores the adjustments all sides had to face.
Levi’s novels usually belong to the genre of the Bilgdungsroman, enriched with the
immigrant experience. This has endowed it with a particular complexity as it explores
the predicament of a generation born and brought up in Britain under the illusion of
being British citizens to the point of forgetting their ancestors and their country and
culture of origin. The novels deal with the difficult construction of the identity of
second generation Jamaicans who have been educated as British only to be
constantly reminded that they are not so. The process is shown to be fraught with the
difficulties raised from the relationship between country and family origins, British
education, personal experience and racial exclusion. Colour is shown to be the
greatest issue, not just in the relationship between British and immigrants, but within
colonial and postcolonial communities themselves. The value assigned to whiteness
has been absorbed with colonisation and both individually and socially internalised to
the point of being decisive not only in the range of opportunities opened but in the
self-esteem and reliance needed to take advantage of them. “Passing”, that is, the
possibility of being thought of as “white” instead of “black” due to skin colour and
physical appearance, is one of the issues examined in these novels. The predicament
is frequently fuelled by the parents’ determination to live their foreignness “quietly”,
trying to protect their children, who often grow up knowing very little of their country of
origin and their past.
Fruit of the Lemon (1999) tackles a related if slightly different issue since Faith, the
protagonist, is a black, self-confident girl, comfortably adjusted, living independently
from her family in an apartment shared with a group of white friends. Only when she
enters the job market and starts meeting her friends’ relatives, that is, when she
comes of age and becomes a member of the adult world, does she experience first
hand the harsh reality of difference and exclusion on racist grounds. After a
xenophobic attack suffered by a black shop assistant in a neighbourhood bookstore,
Faith falls into a depression, quits her underpaid job and decides to go to Jamaica in
order to meet her family there. The travel is essentially a spiritual journey in search of
her roots. Only after she has met her relatives and heard their stories and those of
their ancestors as well as their children’s, now scattered all over the world, is she able
to mature and to return to London and tell her own story, which is now intricately
woven with that of her family and with the colonial history of her country. Faith’s tale is
thus a patchwork of stories, each one of them drawing full meaning from the rest. In
the end she can wistfully smile at her parents’ naivety when, as a newly-wed couple,
they left their beautiful island full of expectations at the call of the mother land. The
novel becomes circular in structure when, on her return to England, Faith ironically
relives her parents’ hopeful arrival in England on Guy Fawkes’ night. (If you want to
know about Guy Fawkes, see
Here you have the beginning and the ending of the novel:
‘Your mum and dad came on a banana boat,’ that was what the bully boys at my
primary school used to say. The boys with unruly hair, short trousers and dimpled
knees that went bright red in the cold. ‘Faith is a darkie and her mum and dad came
on a banana boat’. They’d walk round behind me in the playground, pushing and
pulling at each other’s home- made knitted grey with-a-green-stripe V-neck jumpers,
until I began to cry or my friends told them, ‘Oh no they never. Leave her alone - just
shut your gobs or we’ll tell Miss.
So it was a bit of a shock when Mum told me, ‘We came on a banana boat to
England, your dad and me. The Jamaica Producers’ banana boat: The little white
boys were right. I thought of the song we sang in music and movement. ‘Hey mister
tallyman, tally me banana: The song that made the boys nudge each other, point at
me and giggle behind their hands when the teacher wasn’t looking.
‘Where did you sit on this boat?’ I asked my mum.
And she laughed. ‘It was a proper boat with cabins and everything. Even had a dance
every evening and we took it in turns to sit at the captain’s table. What, you think we
sit among the bananas?’
I didn’t tell her then but, yes, that was exactly what I thought. My mum and dad curled
up on the floor of a ship, wrapped in a blanket perhaps, trying to find a comfortable
spot amongst the spiky prongs of unripe bananas.
I remembered the illustrations of slave ships from my history lessons. There was the
shape of a boat with the black pattern of tiny people laid in rows as convenient and
space saving as possible. It looked like an innocuous pattern. A print that could be
repeated and transferred to cloth to make a flowing skirt. Slaves in a slave ship. We
had to write essays telling the facts — how the slaves were captured then
transported from Africa to the New World. We drew diagrams of how the triangular
trade in slaves worked, like we drew diagrams of sheep farming in Australia. I hated
those lessons. Although there were no small boys laughing and pointing, I felt them.
‘Your mum and dad came on a slave ship: they would say. ‘They are slaves.
My mum and dad never talked about their lives before my brother Carl and I were
born. They didn’t sit us in front of the fire and tell long tales of life in Jamaica — of the
palm trees and yams and playing by the rivers. There was no ‘oral tradition’ in our
family. Most of my childhood questions to them were answered with, ‘That was a long
time ago,’ or ‘What you want to know about that for?’ And if Mum ever let something
slip — ‘You know your dad lived in a big house,’ — then I was told with a wagging
finger not to go blabbing it about to my friends, not to repeat it to anyone.
Fruit of the Lemon, 3-4.
The ship finally docked at West India Dock on Guy Fawkes’ night. As the ship pulled
into its birth, Mildred and Wade heard your dad thought it might have been a welcome
for us, having come so far and England needing us. But I didn’t think he could be
right. And he wasn’t’ (8).
I noticed them after the plane had landed in England. Bright sparks of colour in the
distance. Breaking up the black of the night sky. Green, yellow, red, gold, silver, blue bursting pocks of colour from this side, from that side, from all around. Fireworks.
Fireworks in the night sky over England.
At first I thought it may be a welcome home for me. The distant horizon briefly lit gold
by a shower of sparks like an electric dandelion. I thought it may be a welcome for
me having travelled so far and England needing me. A fluorescent green spiral that
whizzed upwards and was gone. But I knew I couldn’t be right. A crack and three red
sparks floated slowly down and out. I knew I couldn’t be right and I wasn’t. A brief
fizzing green are that turned gradually to silver-blue. No. I knew this was England,
November the fifth. There are always fireworks on November the fifth. It was Guy
Fawkes’ night and I was coming home. I was coming home to tell everyone… My
mum and dad came to England on a banana boat (339).
With the second generation immigrants gradually settling and adjusting to British life,
economic conditions have indeed improved and many have risen in the social ladder.
A new self confidence is perceived in novel writers who, without sidestepping the
racial question, openly take to task the British and their institutions, which are often
unfavourably compared with their own. Thus, Meera Syal’s semi-autobiographical
novel Anita and Me (1996) tells the story of Meena Kumar, a twelve-year-old Asian
girl, divided between the loyalty to her parents and their culture, whose representation
is systematically undervalued in history classes, and the admiration for her white
school chum, beautiful blond fourteen- year-old Anita, and the freedom she
represents. Though Meena is dying to be accepted by Anita and her circle of friends,
through her young eyes we are given a picture of the dysfunctions of the Western
family and the dreary living conditions of working or lower middle class uneducated
British, who nevertheless look down upon or are hostile to immigrants who are slightly
better off and indeed often better educated. Likewise, she pokes fun at the
conservative and pretentious aspirations of her own extended family nostalgically
caught up in their old cultural mores.
Meera Syal was born in 1963 in a mining village near Wolverhampton in the West
Midlands and read English and Drama at Manchester University. She was co-author
of and acted in the extremely popular BBC Television comedy series “Goodness
Gracious Me” (1998-99), which laughed openly and irreverently at the
misunderstandings and shortcomings of both the Indian and Pakistani communities
and their English counterparts in London and Birmingham. The TV show was a huge
success, and the novel was made into a film in 2002, with Meera Syal
playing the part of Meena’s pretentious Auntie Shaila.
These writers, in general, choose realist conventions because of a deep faith in the
power of representation and in the power of literature to make an impact on the
reader and thus bring about change. They all want to record a personal and a
collective experience. They want to provide a different version of history by recovering
the stories of those who have been consistently silenced and excluded from
mainstream narratives. “I write because I would like to change the world. I wasn’t a
great reader until I discovered storytelling. For me it is about wanting change. I don’t
say all writers have to do that —that all writing should do that. Certainly the literature I
like to read, by the end I like to understand something better. It’s a noble ambition,”
Monica Ali acknowledges in an interview (In Maria Helena Lima 2005, 80).
Perhaps the summit of growing confidence and comic satire, which shows the
increasingly multicultural nature of British society, can be found in Zadie Smith’s
hugely successful first novel White Teeth, published in 2000, when the author was
only 24. Zadie Smith was born in North London in 1975 to an English father and a
Jamaican mother. She read English at Cambridge, graduating in 1997. White Teeth
has been translated into over twenty languages. It was adapted for Channel 4 and
broadcasted in 2002, and has been awarded a large number of prizes: The Guardian
First Book Award, the Whitbread First Novel Award, and the Commonwealth Writers
Prize among others.
The novel revolves around what it means to be “English”. In order to answer this
question, Zadie Smith takes up the lives of three immigrant families, that of Archie
Jones, a working-class Englishman married to a black immigrant from Jamaica; that
of his lifelong friend Samad Iqbal, a Moslem from Bangladesh with whom he had
served during the War in Romania; and the Chalfen family, third generation
immigrants of German and Polish origin, liberal, well-off, fully assimilated, and as
typically English as could be. The most characteristic features of the novel, which set
it above her contemporaries, is the vitality, the energy, the exuberant comic spirit, the
ear for the peculiar idiolect, and an unrivalled gift for observation that display the
oddities, the twists and quirks of fate and history that have resulted in a new concept
of Englishness that directly mocks the seriously moral and self aggrandizing
representations conveyed by the canon.
Here you have an example of the mood that pervades the novel:
This has been the century of strangers, brown, yellow and white. This has been the
century of the great immigrant experiment. It is only this late in the day that you can
walk into a playground and find Isaac Leung by the fish pond, Danny Rahman in the
football cage, Quang O'Rourke bouncing a basketball, and Irie Jones humming a
tune. Children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that
secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical
checks. It is only this late in the day, and possibly only in Willesden, that you can find
best friends Sita and Sharon, constantly mistaken for each other because Sita is
white (her mother liked the name) and Sharon is Pakistani (her mother thought it best
- less trouble). Yet, despite all the mixing up, despite the fact that we have finally
slipped into each other' s lives with reasonable comfort (like a man returning to his
lover's bed after a midnight walk), despite all this, it is still hard to admit that there is
no one more English than the Indian, no one more Indian than the English. There are
still young white men who are angry about that; who will roll out at closing time into
the poorly lit streets with a kitchen knife wrapped in a tight fist.
But it makes an immigrant laugh to hear the fears of the nationalist, scared of
infection, penetration, miscegenation, when this is small fry, peanuts, compared to
what the immigrant fears - dissolution, disappearance. Even the unflappable Alsana
Iqbal would regularly wake up in a puddle of her own sweat after a night visited by
visions of Millat (genetically B B ; where B stands for Bengali-ness) marrying
someone called Sarah (aa where ‘a’ stands for Aryan), resulting in a child called
Michael (Ba), who in turn marries somebody called Lucy (aa), leaving Alsana with a
legacy of unrecognizable great- grandchildren (Aaaaaaa!), their Bengali-ness
thoroughly diluted, genotype hidden by phenotype. It is both the most irrational and
natural feeling in the world. In Jamaica it is even in the grammar: there is no choice of
personal pronoun, no splits between me or you or they, there is only the pure,
homogenous I. When Hortense Bowden, half white herself, got to hearing about
Clara’s marriage, she came round to the house, stood on the doorstep, said,
‘Understand: I and I don’t speak from this moment forth,’ turned on her heel and was
true to her word. Hortense hadn’t put all that effort into marrying black, into dragging
her genes back from the brink, just so her daughter could bring yet more highcoloured children into the world.
Likewise, in the Iqbal house the lines of battle were clearly drawn. When Millat
brought an Emily or a Lucy back home, Alsana quietly wept in the kitchen, Samad
went into the garden to attack the coriander. The next morning was a waiting game, a
furious biting of tongues until the Emily or Lucy left the house and the war of words
could begin. But with Irie and Clara the issue was mostly unspoken, for Clara knew
she was not in a position to preach. Still, she made no attempt to disguise her
disappointment or the aching sadness. From Irie’s bedroom shrine of green-eyed
Hollywood idols to the gaggle of white friends who regularly trooped in and out of her
bedroom, Clara saw an ocean of pink skins surrounding her daughter and she feared
the tide that would take her away.
It was partly for this reason that lrie didn’t mention the Chalfens to her parents. It
wasn’t that she intended to mate with the Chalfens . . . but the instinct was the same.
She had a nebulous fifteen-year-old’s passion for them, overwhelming, yet with no
real direction or object. She just wanted to, well, kind of, merge with them. She
wanted their Englishness. Their Chalfishness. The purity of it. It didn't occur to her
that the Chalfens were, after a fashion, immigrants too (third generation, by way of
Germany and Poland, née Chalfenovsky), or that they might be as needy of her as
she was of them. To lrie, the Chalfens were more English than the English. When lrie
stepped over the threshold of the Chalfen house, she felt an illicit thrill, like a Jew
munching a sausage or a Hindu grabbing a Big Mac. She was crossing borders,
sneaking into England; it felt like some terribly mutinous act, wearing somebody else’s
uniform or somebody else’s skin.
White Teeth, 281-283
The novel has been accused of giving, at times, an idealized version of present day
multiracial London (see,,780246,00.html). Yet perhaps
this vision of a population of “drifters, dreamers, losers and fanatics” often on the
verge of disaster but managing in the end to eschew it, is perhaps part of its appeal
as it allows the reader to believe that coexistence, though fragile and messy, is
eventually possible.
3.3. Rewriting the Canon
As was mentioned above, immigrant or postcolonial writers had to deconstruct first a
set of deeply engraved social and literary stereotypes in order to unsettle a world
picture in which the colonised had always occupied a marginal or subaltern position.
In this vein there has been a very productive line of fiction that has sought to contest
and recreate the canon from the perspective of those in the margins, or whose
representations have led to stereotypical portraits of the colonised native as
subhuman as a means to legitimise Western superiority.
Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, has been one such canonical text. In the
wake of the revisionist thrust carried out by postcolonial writers, it has undergone
quite a lot of rewritings from different perspectives, mostly feminist and postcolonial,
since both women and natives have shared a history of subjection, albeit different in
nature. In Indigo (1992),
Marina Warner (1946-), born to an Italian mother and of mixed Caribbean
ascendancy on her father’s side, rewrites the three native characters in The Tempest:
Ariel, Caliban and the witch Sycorax, Caliban’s monstrous mother, whose story
the most abusive language
we get only through Prospero. As opposed to the scant
attention ever paid to Sycorax other than to justify her progeny’s subhuman nature,
Marina Warner takes a radically
different stance and gives her a full life of her own, completely independent of her
maternal status, hence deflecting her ancillary position. In Indigo, though she is a
sorcerer too, her practices are related to the knowledge of plants and her powers are
benignant and healing. In this way we are unobtrusively made aware of the large
body of prejudice that has traditionally been part of the historical portrait of the witch
in Western culture. Yet, her portrait is not romanticised in an easy reversion of
stereotypes. By means of a brilliant twisting of Ariel’s characterisation as feminine —
following the spirit’s disguise as a nymph and a harpy in The Tempest— and by
making her adopted by Sycorax, Warner gives us a glimpse of the tribe conflict and
fighting, as well as of the fates of many women in precolonial social groups. Ariel is
featured as a member of the peaceful farming tribe of the Arawaks whose lands,
according to Columbus’s Diary, were often raided by the more warring nomad Caribs,
who also stole their women. Left behind as a small child during one of these raids,
Ariel is adopted by Sycorax. In her recasting of Sycorax and her mothering of a
strange foreign child, the first African to arrive in the islands in the womb of a drowned
woman thrown overboard from a slave ship, Warner brings together the critical
revisions both of female witches and of the most infamous practices of the slave trade
across the Atlantic. In this way, she teases out the discourse surrounding the two
monstrous figures in The Tempest, exposing, in contrast, the savage practices carried
out by their civilised betters. Sycorax adopts the child and calls him Dule, which
means “from the confines of the world”. Later on, after having being imprisoned by the
English colonizers, his name would be changed to Caliban —an anagram of
Canibal—, suggesting the savage nature of the Caribs, of whom Columbus wrote in
his Diary that they were reputed for eating human flesh.
In the episode of the child’s birth on the beach miraculously pulled out of her dead
mother’s womb by Sycorax, Warner hints at the practice of throwing sick or dying
slaves overboard from the trading ships since the insurance companies covered
accidental deaths but not natural ones. In her book Managing Monsters. Six Myths of
Our Time, written two years after Indigo, Warner deals more extensively with this
practice discussing a painting by J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) known as “The Slave
Ship”, the full title being “Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying – Typhoon
coming on” (1840). Turner painted it shortly after slavery had been abolished, on
learning that the captain of a slave trade ship had been sued by an Insurance firm upon
the discovery that a number of sick men had been thrown overboard in order to cash in
the policies. Even though the firm won the case, there was no evidence of the captain
having been prosecuted. Indeed the timing of both sets of events is at a far remove.
But, no doubt, the representation of the slave as a monster, a subhuman creature more
alike to fish, a wonder to make money on exhibited in fairs as a freak, just as native
Indians were
as Trinculo speculates in The Tempest
reinforced a deprivation of humanity that conveniently justified the dealings with
slaves as commodities.
Warner goes on to hint that Prospero’s story of Sycorax might be as untrustworthy as
the thousand evidences of fantastic feats, cannibalism, sexual intercourse with the
devil, and the like, heaped upon these creatures by the historians of the times.
Tellingly, these narratives always relied on secondary evidence and the figures were
located on the edges, at the margins, frequently in a subliminal zone. After all, the
only references we have of Sycorax in the play are those made in Ariel and
Prospero’s story. And none of them are too reliable for that matter, both being experts
in impersonation, in conjuring the appearance of supernatural beings, in fabricating
evidence and using spells in order to make others bend to their will.
As for Caliban, he is refracted into many characters in contemporary London. He is a
black guard in an underground station, who arrived in England in the Windrush. He is
a loud black panther. He is the black man behind the actor who played the part of
Shakespeare’s Caliban in a contemporary fringe production. However, by simply
refiguring Miranda’s body language, all “smiles” and “seductive looks”, which “then
turned to scorn”, the production yields a radically different meaning. It exposes in
dramatic terms the white sexual fantasy of the black rapist, hence undoing the alibi
provided by Prospero to justify the enslavement of the native. But doubtless, the
novel’s most daring reversion of the play is the coupling of Miranda with Caliban, a
happy ending in accordance with the genre of Shakespeare’s play, a romance, which
takes place amidst a more playful score of ironic connections and subversions that
nonetheless provocatively disrupt the original text.
If Indigo breaks loose from documentary or factual fiction in favour of postmodernist
experiment by openly questioning canonical discourse and by using a repertory of
metafictional devices such as discursive exposure, polyphony and rupture of the
linear time sequence, Caryl Phillips embarks in a yet more daring kind of narrative
experimentation in a similar line of literary and historical revision and reversions.
Caryl Phillips was born in St Kitts, Eastern Caribbean, in 1958. He arrived in
England with his parents when he was only twelve weeks old. His family settled in
Leeds in a white, working-class area, and later moved to Birmingham. Phillips read
English at Oxford and started his literary career writing plays and scripts. His first
novels dealt with Jamaican issues:
the stagnant life and enclosed horizons of a small colony, the hazy dreams of its
inhabitants, the lure of the metropolis and the inability of returned immigrants to adjust
in either place.
In Cambridge (1991) he went on to explore the conflicts of the daughter of an English
plantation owner who goes over to the West Indies on an inspection tour of the
neglected family property. In this novel he writes the untold tale of the largely
suppressed plantation conflicts, silently looming in the background of canonical
eighteenth and nineteenth-century British literature. One has only to remember
Mansfield Park, for example, where the Bertrams’ wealth and position are provided by
their plantation in the West Indies, or Jane Eyre, whose protagonist of the same name
inherits a small fortune at the near end of the novel from an uncle also in the West
Crossing the River (1993) is a turning point in his fiction. The novel signals Caryl
Phillips’ first experiments with fictionalising the breakdown of traditional historical
narrative. He does so by defying its most salient feature, linearity, in its widest
possible spectrum of plot, social background and time. Instead of a lineal plot, we
have a juxtaposition of fragments of the stories of a black slave’s children, located in
distant spaces and times. The novel covers the family destinies of a former black
slave bound for Liberia, the land chosen for black slaves in America to go to when
they were freed after the American Civil War. Starting in Liberia, the narrative moves
to Denver, Colorado, in the early 19th century, and from there on to a small provincial
town in England during the Second World War. The breaches in chronology, space
and social environment do away with explicit causality. Instead, they give back the
effect of a broken mirror, its fragments sadly reflecting the African diaspora and
ensuing destruction of memory, land and kin ties. They are tales of oblivion, death
and dispersal, connected only by a tenuous family link that provides the palimpsest
against which the novel acquires its haunting extra-temporal quality. The palimpsest,
in turn, articulates the overall meaning of the narrative, by highlighting behind the
temporal and spatial dissemination of the stories a pattern of recurrent exclusion and
The Nature of Blood, published in 1997, is an ambitious historical novel. The
juxtaposition of aspects of the past and the present is even more daring, as the
narrative interweaves very different sources: historical, literary and fictional, with
disparate places and times. The plot intertwines various threads from distant historical
times, social backgrounds and countries. The novel opens in a camp in Cyprus under
British rule, where thousands of Jewish refugees are waiting after the war to be
allowed entry into Palestine. It moves on to an extermination camp in Germany upon
the entry of the British troops and their provision of humanitarian relief to survivors.
We are then taken back in time to the 15th century, to Portobuffole, a small city near
Venice in the Easter of 1480, when Jews and Christians are celebrating their
respective historical religious commemorations. From there the narrative takes us to
16th century Venice, when the Republic is on the verge of war with the Turks over
Cyprus. Then to the present again and back in an incessant shuttle, in which all the
threads gradually interweave in a pattern which we will not be able to discern until the
ending. Even at this point it is intimated that the narrative could be indefinitely
stretched to accommodate a new range of stories strung together by a haunting
circularity, thus signalling to an ever-recurring story of human oppression. As the
novel is not sequential, there is no need for chapters. Events are arranged in no fixed
clear-cut structure, but rather in a loose flow of episodes and voices criss-crossing
along centuries, with only a few blank spaces indicating the shifts in time and place —
Cyprus, Germany, Italy, England and Israel— in no apparent particular order. The
novel is elliptical in structure, as it spirals forward to the present, while incessantly
gyrating towards and around events in the past as it tours through distant countries
and cultures. There are Christians, there are Jews and there are blacks. Blacks that
are either Christian as Othello, or Jewish as Malka, the Falasha girl flown into Israel
from a village in Ethiopia that briefly appears in the last episode. One of the threads
that makes up the novel’s complex interwoven narrative is that of an African, the
appointed General of the Venetian naval army, soon to defend the island of Cyprus
from the Turks. It is once again a first person narrative and also a leap back into the
past, to Venice in the 16th century, and again one more tale of exclusion on ethnic
Narrators shift in this kaleidoscopic novel. There are first, second and third narrative
voices. Intradiegetic and heterodiegetic narrators. Direct report and also free indirect
style. Wanderings of memory, flux of consciousness, the split voice of a fractured self.
Instead of the neutral or absent, in any case monological voice of the historical
narrative, we get a polyphony where each voice is posited in relation to every other
while remaining perfectly distinct. A plurality of centres of consciousness, irreducible
to a common denominator or a unifying view.
An important feature of the postmodern historical novel is the rewriting of events from
the point of view of those generally ignored by traditional history —women, for
instance, who have been and still are conspicuously absent from historical records.
By choosing a feminine voice and the ordinary experience of an ordinary girl for the
account of an event central to the novel, and as historically significant as the
Holocaust, Phillips foregrounds the largely disregarded history of women. The Nature
of Blood exposes their exclusion from the centres of decision and power that
articulate social pressures into practices, whilst showing them to be the first victims of
the ensuing social organisation. Desdemona is one such victim. Othello’s anxiety in
Shakespeare’s play, underlined in Phillips’ novel, is grounded in men’s internalisation
of woman’s ambivalent identity, hovering between virgin and whore, an ambivalence
which makes the ties between men and women precarious, whilst leaving men the
prerogative to unbind them. Desdemona’s father does so when discovering that she
has eloped with the Moor. He thereupon disowns her and warns Othello that having
deceived her father, he may well be the next one to be deceived. It is indeed the
shared male assumptions on the nature of women that make Othello believe Iago
sooner than Desdemona. Phillips interestingly couples Othello’s fate with that of
Desdemona and on similar grounds. If Desdemona is a victim of gender prejudices,
Othello is a victim too, prejudices being related in his case to ethnicity and race.
Othello wants integration at all costs. His image of himself is constructed by looking at
himself through the eyes of others. Profoundly self-conscious, for all his pride and
boasting of personal worth, he is only too eager to trust, to please and adjust. Phillips
emphasizes his self absorption, his keen observation of others in order to learn from
them and grow in their esteem. He highlights too how he uses Desdemona as a
source of valuable self-interested information, taking the occasion of their meetings
“to learn from her about Venetian society” (134). Phillips makes clear the fate awaiting
those who, not belonging to the dominant culture, move, both geographically and
socially, from the margins into the centre. In the narrative of the Holocaust, Eva’s
Jewish father moves up the ladder socially and professionally. Yet, success coincides
with defeat, and in his fall he will bring down his German wife and their two daughters
as well. Geographically, he moves from the shabby outskirts of the city into a fourstoried house in the professional quarter that stands at its centre as a symbol of his
acquired status, only to end up, along with his family, in small hidden rooms of back
streets, and later on, in the deadly confinement of the extermination camps. Othello’s
fate follows the same path. “I had moved from the edge of the world into the centre.
From the dark margins to a place where even the weakest rays of the evening sun
were caught and thrown back in a blaze of glory. I, a man born of royal blood, a
mighty warrior, yet a man who, at one time, could view himself only as a poor slave,
had been summoned to serve this state; to lead the Venetian army; to stand at the
very centre of the empire” (107). This is Othello musing over his good fortune while
contemplating his newly wed wife, peacefully asleep. Yet the outcome of this story is
well known enough. Caryl Phillips situates the end of Othello’s narrative almost at the
point where Shakespeare began his, with an urging premonitory advice to whom is
seen as an African renegade: “Black Uncle Tom... fighting the white man’s war for
him”... (181) “while you still have time, jump from her bed and fly away home... no
good can come from your foreign adventure” (183). In The Nature of Blood, Othello’s
story is a tale of foreboding. A story of strenuous self-advancement and of adjustment
to others, for which he will pay a high price.
Within the study of contemporary fiction, Caryl Phillips is interesting, indeed first of all
because of the literary value of his work, but also because of the innovations he has
contributed to postcolonial writing. Having started in the realist mode, he soon
departed from straightforward mimetic representation to embark upon more ambitious
experimental narratives that better encompass the tragic history of his race. He has
done so by means of indirectly equating the infamous history of slavery, virtually
silenced for centuries, with the genocide of the Jews. Individually, he has repeatedly
equated the predicaments of women and blacks. In A Distant Shore, for example, set
in contemporary Britain, the two protagonists are Dorothy, a lonely retired white
teacher and Solomon, an African refugee whose lives intersect in a small English
village. Despite the many differences that separate them, both suffer parallel
experiences of exclusion and abuse. Dorothy seems an outsider in her own land, the
result of a lifetime of loss and betrayal; Solomon is truly an outsider, trying to
assimilate in a country that seems lost itself. Solomon’s death, murdered by a gang of
racist youths, and Dorothy’s virtual death in life, gone mad after a sad empty
existence, reflect the predicament of the marginal and powerless of whom women
and blacks have been the epitome.
The Nature of Blood is perhaps Phillips’ most ambitious novel, both in scope and in
technique, such being the reason why it has been chosen as representative of his
To sum up, this chapter has approached the rich contribution of some significant
postcolonial immigrant writers to English fiction. The approach is perforce limited due
to the number of already well-known novelists who can be said to have established a
canon of their own. My attempt here has been limited to offer an overview of the
development of a new literary trend in British literature which has contributed to
encourage a fruitful reflection and a debate about what it means to be English today.
SALMAN RUSHDIE’s “The Prophet’s Hair”
Rushdie's first novel, Grimus (1975), a part-science fiction tale, was generally ignored
by the public and literary critics. His next novel, Midnight's Children (1981), catapulted
him to literary notability. This work won the 1981 Booker Prize and, in 1993 and 2008,
was awarded the Best of the Bookers as the best novel to have received the prize
during its first 25 and 40 years.[19] Midnight's Children follows the life of a child, born at
the stroke of midnight as India gained its independence, who is endowed with special
powers and a connection to other children born at the dawn of a new and tumultuous
age in the history of the Indian sub-continent and the birth of the modern nation of
India. The character of Saleem Sinai has been compared to Rushdie.[20] However, the
author has refuted the idea of having written any of his characters as
autobiographical, stating, "People assume that because certain things in the character
are drawn from your own experience, it just becomes you. In that sense, I’ve never
felt that I’ve written an autobiographical character."[21]
After Midnight's Children, Rushdie wrote Shame (1983), in which he depicts the
political turmoil in Pakistan, basing his characters on Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and
General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. Shame won France's Prix du Meilleur Livre
Étranger (Best Foreign Book) and was a close runner-up for the Booker Prize. Both
these works of postcolonial literature are characterised by a style of magic
realism and the immigrant outlook that Rushdie is very conscious of as a member of
the Kashmiri diaspora.
Rushdie wrote a non-fiction book about Nicaragua in 1987 called The Jaguar Smile.
This book has a political focus and is based on his first-hand experiences and
research at the scene of Sandinista political experiments.
His most controversial work, The Satanic Verses, was published in 1988 (see section
below). It was followed by Haroun and the Sea of Stories in 1990. Written in the
shadow of the fatwa, it is about the dangers of story-telling and an allegorical defence
of the power of stories over silence.[9]
In addition to books, Rushdie has published many short stories, including those
collected in East, West (1994). The Moor's Last Sigh, a family epic ranging over some
100 years of India's history was published in 1995. The Ground Beneath Her
Feet (1999) is a remaking of the myth of Orpheus that presents an alternative
history of modern rock music.[22] The song of the same name by U2 is one of many
song lyrics included in the book; hence Rushdie is credited as the lyricist.
Salman Rushdie presenting his book Shalimar the Clown
Following the novel Fury, set mainly in New York and avoiding the previous sprawling
narrative style that spans generations, periods and places, Rushdie's 2005
novel Shalimar the Clown, a story about love and betrayal set in Kashmir and Los
Angeles, was hailed as a return to form by a number of critics.[9]
In his 2002 non-fiction collection Step Across This Line, he professes his admiration
for the Italian writer Italo Calvino and the American writer Thomas Pynchon, among
others. His early influences included Jorge Luis Borges, Mikhail Bulgakov, Lewis
Carroll, Günter Grass, and James Joyce. Rushdie was a personal friend of Angela
Carter's and praised her highly in the foreword of her collection Burning your Boats.
2008 saw the publication of The Enchantress of Florence, one of Rushdie's most
challenging works that focuses on the past. It tells the story of a European’s visit
to Akbar’s court, and his revelation that he is a lost relative of the Mughal emperor.
The novel was praised in a review in The Guardian as a ″sumptuous mixture of
history with fable″.[9]
His novel Luka and the Fire of Life, a sequel to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, was
published in November 2010 to critical acclaim.[9] Earlier that year, he announced that
he was writing his memoirs,[23] entitled Joseph Anton: A Memoir, which was published
in September 2012.
In 2012, Salman Rushdie became one of the first major authors to
embrace Booktrack (a company that synchronises ebooks with customised
soundtracks), when he published his short story "In the South" on the platform.[24]
2015 saw the publication of Rushdie's novel Two Years Eight Months and TwentyEight Nights, a shift back to his old beloved technique of magic realism. This novel is
designed in the structure of a Chinese mystery box with different layers. Based on the
central conflict of scholar Ibn Rushd, (from whom Rushdie's family name derives),
Rushdie goes on to explore several themes
of transnationalism and cosmopolitanism by depicting a war of the universe which a
supernatural world of jinns also accompanies.
In 2017 The Golden House, a satirical novel set in contemporary America, was
2019 saw the publication of Rushdie's fourteenth novel Quichotte, inspired by Miguel
de Cervantes classic novel Don Quijote.
Critical reception[edit]
Rushdie has had a string of commercially successful and critically acclaimed novels.
His works have been short listed for the Booker Prize five times, in 1981 for Midnight's
Children, 1983 for Shame, 1988 for The Satanic Verses, 1995 for The Moor's Last
Sigh, 2019 for Quichotte.[25] In 1981 he was awarded the prize.[26] His 2005
novel Shalimar the Clown received, in India, the prestigious Hutch Crossword Book
Award, and was, in the UK, a finalist for the Whitbread Book Awards. It was
shortlisted for the 2007 International Dublin Literary Award.[27] Rushdie's works have
spawned 30 book-length studies and over 700 articles on his writing.
“The Prophet’s Hair”
Early in 19—, when Srinagar was under the spell of a winter so fierce it could crack
men’s bones as if they were glass, a young man upon whose cold-pinked skin there
lay, like a frost, the unmistakable sheen of wealth was to be seen entering the most
wretched and disreputable part of the city, where the houses of wood and corrugated
iron seemed perpetually on the verge of losing their balance, and asking in low, grave
tones where he might go to engage the services of a dependably professional thief.
The young man’s name was Atta, and the rogues in that part of town directed him
gleefully into ever-darker and less public alleys, until in a yard wet with the blood of a
slaughtered chicken he was set upon by two men whose faces he never saw, robbed
of the substantial bank-roll which he had insanely brought on his solitary excursion,
and beaten within an inch of his life.
Night fell. His body was carried by anonymous hands to the edge of the lake, whence
it was transported by shikara across the water and deposited, torn and bleeding, on
the deserted embankment of the canal which led to the gardens of Shalimar. At dawn
the next morning a flower-vendor was rowing his boat through water to which the cold
of the night had given the cloudy consistency of wild honey when he saw the prone
form of young Atta, who was just beginning to stir and moan, and on whose now
deathly pale skin the sheen of wealth could still be made out dimly beneath an actual
layer of frost. The flower vendor moored his craft and by stooping over the mouth of
the injured man was able to learn the poor fellow’s address, which was mumbled
through lips which could scarcely move; whereupon, hoping for a large tip, the hawker
rowed Atta home to a large house on the shores of the lake, where a painfully
beautiful girl and her equally handsome mother, neither of whom, it was clear from
their eyes, had slept a wink from worrying, screamed at the sight of their Atta – who
was the elder brother of the beautiful girl – lying motionless amid the funereally
stunted winter blooms of the hopeful florist. The flower-vendor was indeed paid off
handsomely, not least to ensure his silence, and plays no further part in our story.
Atta himself, suffering terribly from exposure as well as a broken skull, entered a
coma which caused the city’s finest doctors to shrug helplessly. It was therefore all
the more remarkable that on the very same evening the most wretched and
disreputable part of the city received a second unexpected visitor. This was Huma,
the sister of the unfortunate young man, and her question was the same as her
brother’s, and asked in the same low, grave tones: ‘Where may I hire a thief?’
The story of the rich idiot who had come looking for a burglar was already common
knowledge in those insalubrious gullies, but this time the girl added: ‘I should say that
I am carrying no money, nor am I wearing any jewels; my father has disowned me
and will pay no ransom if I am kidnapped; and a letter has been lodged with the
Commissioner of Police, my uncle, to be opened in the event of my not being safe at
home by morning. In that letter he will find full details of my journey here, and he will
move Heaven and Earth to punish my assailants.’ Her extraordinary beauty, which
was visible even through the enormous welts and bruises disfiguring her arms and
forehead, coupled with the oddity of her inquiries, had attracted a sizable group of
curious onlookers, and because her little speech seemed to them to cover just about
everything, no one attempted to injure her in any way, although there were some
raucous comments to the effect that it was pretty peculiar for someone who was trying
to hire a crook to invoke the protection of a high-up policeman uncle. She was
directed into ever-darker and less public alleys until finally in a gully as dark as ink an
old woman with eyes which stared so piercingly that Huma instantly understood she
was blind motioned her through a doorway from which darkness seemed to be
pouring like smoke. Clenching her fists, angrily ordering her heart to behave normally,
the girl followed the old woman into the gloom-wrapped house.
The faintest conceivable rivulet of candle-light trickled through the darkness; following
this unreliable yellow thread (because she could no longer see the old lady), Huma
received a sudden sharp blow to the shins and cried out involuntarily, after which she
instantly bit her lip, angry at having revealed her mounting terror to whatever waited
there shrouded in black. She had, in fact, collided with a low table on which a single
candle burned and beyond which a mountainous figure could be made out, sitting
crosslegged on the floor. ‘Sit, sit,’ said a man’s calm, deep voice, and her legs,
needing no more flowery invitation, buckled beneath her at the terse command.
Clutching her left hand in her right, she forced her voice to respond evenly: ‘And you,
sir, will be the thief I have been requesting?’
Shifting its weight very slightly, the shadow-mountain informed her that all criminal
activity originating in this zone was well organised and also centrally controlled, so
that all requests for what might be termed freelance work had to be channelled
through this room. He demanded comprehensive details of the crime to be committed,
including a precise inventory of items to be acquired, also a clear statement of all
financial inducements being offered with no gratuities excluded, plus, for filing
purposes only, a summary of the motives for the application. At this, Huma, as though
remembering something, stiffened both in body and resolve and replied loudly that
her motives were entirely a matter for herself; that she would discuss details with no
one but the thief himself; but that the rewards she proposed could only be described
as ‘lavish’. ‘All I am willing to say to you, sir, since this appears to be some sort of
employment agency, is that in return for such lavish rewards I must have the most
desperate criminal at your disposal, a man for whom life holds no terrors, not even the
fear of God. The worst of fellows, I tell you – nothing less will do!’
Now a paraffin storm-lantern was lighted, and Huma saw facing her a grey-haired
giant down whose left cheek ran the most sinister of scars, a cicatrice in the shape of
the Arabic letter ‘S’. She had the insupportably nostalgic notion that the bogymen of
her childhood nursery had risen up to confront her, because her ayah had always
forestalled any incipient acts of disobedience by threatening Huma and Atta: ‘You
don’t watch out and I’ll send that one to steal you away – that Sheikh Sin, the Thief of
Thieves!’ Here, grey-haired but unquestionably scarred, was the notorious criminal
himself – and was she crazy, were her ears playing tricks, or had he truly just
announced that, given the circumstances, he himself was the only man for the job?
Struggling wildly against the newborn goblins of nostalgia, Huma warned the
fearsome volunteer that only a matter of extreme urgency and peril would have
brought her unescorted into these ferocious streets. ‘Because we can afford no lastminute backings-out,’ she continued, ‘I am determined to tell you everything, keeping
back no secrets whatsoever. If, after hearing me out, you are still prepared to
proceed, then we shall do everything in our power both to assist you and to make you
rich.’ The old thief shrugged, nodded, spat. Huma began her story.
Six days ago, everything in the household of her father, the wealthy moneylender
Hashim, had been as it always was. At breakfast her mother had spooned khichri
lovingly onto the moneylender’s plate; the conversation had been filled with those
expressions of courtesy and solicitude on which the family prided itself. Hashim was
fond of pointing out that while he was not a godly man he set great store by ‘living
honourably in the world’. In that spacious lakeside residence, all outsiders were
greeted with the same formality and respect, even those unfortunates who came to
negotiate for small fragments of Hashim’s great fortune, and of whom he naturally
asked an interest rate of 71 per cent, partly, as he told his khichri-spooning wife, ‘to
teach these people the value of money: let them only learn that, and they will be
cured of this fever of borrowing, borrowing all the time – so you see that if my plans
succeed, I shall put myself out of business!’ In their children, Atta and Huma, the
moneylender and his wife had sought, successfully, to inculcate the virtues of thrift,
plain dealing, perfect manners and a healthy independence of spirit.
Breakfast ended; the family wished each other a fulfilling day. Within a few hours,
however, the glassy contentment of that household, of that life of porcelain delicacy
and alabaster sensibilities, was to be shattered beyond all hope of repair.
The moneylender summoned his personal shikara and was on the verge of stepping
into it when, attracted by a glint of silver, he noticed a small phial floating between the
boat and his private quay. On an impulse, he scooped it out of the glutinous water: it
was a cylinder of tinted glass cased in exquisitely-wrought silver, and Hashim saw
within its walls a silver pendant bearing a single strand of human hair. Closing his fist
around this unique discovery, he muttered to the boatman that he’d changed his
plans, and hurried to his sanctum where, behind closed doors, he feasted his eyes on
his find. There can be no doubt that Hashim the moneylender knew from the first that
he was in possession of the famous holy hair of the Prophet Muhammad, whose theft
from the shrine at Hazratbal the previous morning had created an unprecedented hue
and cry in the valley. The thieves – no doubt alarmed by the pandemonium, by the
procession through the streets of the endless ululating crocodiles of lamentation, by
the riots, the political ramifications and by the massive police search which was
commanded and carried out by men whose entire careers now hung upon this single
lost hair – had evidently panicked and hurled the phial into the gelatine bosom of the
lake. Having found it by a stroke of good fortune, Hashim’s duty as a citizen was
clear: the hair must be restored to its shrine, and the state to equanimity and peace.
But the moneylender had formed a different notion. All about him in his study was the
evidence of colletor’s mania: great cases full of impaled butterflies from Gulmarg,
three dozen miniature cannons cast from the melted-down metal of the great gun
Zamzama, innumerable swords, a Naga spear, ninety-four terracotta camels of the
sort sold on railway-station platforms and an infinitude of tiny sandalwood dolls, which
had originally been carved to serve as children’s bathtime toys. ‘And after all,’ Hashim
told himself, ‘the Prophet would have disapproved mightily of this relic-worship: he
abhorred the idea of being deified, so by keeping this rotting hair from its mindless
devotees, I perform – do I not? – a finer service than I would by returning it! Naturally,
I don’t want it for its religious value: I’m a man of the world, of this world; I see it
purely as a secular object of great rarity and blinding beauty – in short, it’s the phial I
desire, not the hair. There are American millionaires who buy stolen paintings and
hide them away – they would know how I feel. I must, must have it!’
Every collector must share his treasures with one other human being, and Hashim
summoned – and told – his only son Atta, who was deeply perturbed but, having been
sworn to secrecy, only spilt the beans when the troubles became too terrible to bear.
The youth left his father alone in the crowded solitude of his collections. Hashim was
sitting erect in a hard chair, gazing intently at the beautiful phial.
It was well-known that the moneylender never ate lunch, so it was not until evening
that a servant entered the sanctum to summon his master to the dining-table. He
found Hashim as Atta had left him. The same, but not the same: because now the
moneylender looked swollen, distended, his eyes bulged even more than they always
had, they were red-rimmed and his knuckles were white. It was as though he was on
the point of bursting, as though, under the influence of the misappropriated relic, he
had filled up with some spectral fluid which might at any moment ooze uncontrollably
from his every bodily opening. He had to be helped to the table, and then the
explosion did indeed take place. Seemingly careless of the effect of his words on the
carefully-constructed and fragile constitution of the family’s life, Hashim began to
gush, to spume streams of terrible truths. In horrified silence, his children heard their
father turn upon his wife, and reveal to her that for many years their marriage had
been the worst of his afflictions. ‘An end to politeness!’ he thundered. ‘An end to
hypocrisy!’ He revealed to his family the existence of a mistress; he informed them of
his regular visits to paid women. He told his wife that, far from being the principal
beneficiary of his will, she would receive no more than the seventh portion which was
her due under Islamic law. Then he turned upon his children, screaming at Atta for his
lack of academic ability – ‘A dope! I have been cursed with a dope!’ – and accusing
his daughter of lasciviousness, because she went around the city barefaced, which
was unseemly for any good Muslim girl to do: she should, he commanded, enter
purdah forthwith. He left the table without having eaten and fell into the deep sleep of
a man who has got many things off his chest, leaving his children stunned, his wife in
tears, and the dinner going cold on the sideboard under the gaze of an
anticipatory bearer.
At five o’clock the next morning the moneylender forced his family to rise, wash and
say their prayers; from that time on, he began to pray five times daily for the first time
in his life, and his wife and children were obliged to do likewise. Before breakfast,
Huma saw the servants, under her father’s direction, constructing a great heap of
books in the garden and setting fire to it. The only volume left untouched was the
Quran, which Hashim wrapped in a silken cloth and placed on a table in the hall. He
ordered each member of his family to read passages from this book for at least two
hours per day. Visits to the cinema were also forbidden. And if Atta invited male
friends to the house, Huma was to retire to her room.
By now, the family had entered a state of wild-eyed horror; but there was worse to
come. That afternoon, a trembling debtor arrived at the house to confess his inability
to pay the latest instalment of interest owed, and made the mistake of reminding
Hashim, in somewhat blustering fashion, of the Quran’s strictures against usury. The
moneylender, flying into a rage, attacked the fellow with one of his large collection of
bull-whips. By mischance, later the same day a second defaulter came to plead for
time, and was seen fleeing Hashim’s study with a great gash on his arm, because
Huma’s father had called him a thief of other men’s money and had tried to cut off the
fellow’s right hand with one of the thirty-eight kukri knives hanging on the study walls.
These breaches of the family’s laws of decorum alarmed Atta and Huma, and when,
that evening, their mother attempted to calm Hashim down, he struck her on the face
with an open hand. Atta leapt to his mother’s defence and he, too, was sent flying.
‘From now on,’ Hashim bellowed, ‘there’s going to be some discipline around here!’
The moneylender’s wife began a fit of hysteria which continued throughout the night
and the following day, and which so provoked her husband that he threatened her
with divorce, at which she fled to her room, locked the door and subsided into a raga
of sniffling. Huma now lost her composure, challenged her father openly, announced
(with that same independence of spirit which he had encouraged in her) that she
would wear no cloth over her face: apart from anything else, it was bad for the eyes.
On hearing this, her father disowned her at once and gave her one week in which to
pack her bags.
By the fourth day, the fear in the air of the house had become so thick that it was
difficult to walk around. Atta told his shock-numbed sister: ‘We are descending to
gutter-level – but I know what must be done.’
That afternoon, Hashim left home accompanied by two hired thugs to extract the
unpaid dues from his two insolvent clients. Atta went immediately to his father’s study.
Being the son and heir, he possessed his own key to the moneylender’s safe, which
he now used, and removing the little phial from its hiding-place, he slipped it into his
trouser pocket and re-locked the safe door.
Now he told Huma the secret of what his father had found in Lake Dal, and cried:
‘Maybe I’m crazy – maybe the awful things that are happening have made me
cracked – but I am convinced there will be no peace in our house until this hair is out
of it.’ His sister instantly agreed that the hair must be returned and Atta set off in a
hired shikara to Hazratbal mosque. Only when the boat had delivered him into the
throng of the distraught faithful which was swirling around the desecrated shrine did
Atta discover that the relic was no longer in his pocket. There was only a hole, which
his mother, usually so attentive to household matters, must have overlooked under
the stress of recent events ... Atta’s initial surge of chagrin was quickly replaced by a
feeling of profound relief. ‘Suppose,’ he imagined, ‘I had already announced to the
mullahs that the hair was on my person! They would never have believed me now –
and this mob would have lynched me! At any rate, it’s gone, and that’s a load off my
mind.’ Feeling more contented than he had for days, the young man returned home.
Here he found his sister bruised and weeping in the hall; upstairs, in her bedroom, his
mother wailed like a brand-new widow. He begged Huma to tell him what had
happened, and when she replied that their father, returning from his brutal business
trip, had once again noticed a glint of silver between boat and quay, had once again
scooped up the errant relic, and was consequently in a rage to end all rages, having
beaten the truth out of her – then Atta buried his face in his hands and sobbed that, in
his opinion, that hair was persecuting them, that it had come back to finish the job.
Now it was Huma’s turn to think of a way out of their troubles. While her arms turned
black and blue and great stains spread across her forehead, she hugged her brother
and whispered to him her determination to get rid of the hair at all costs: she repeated
this last phrase several times. ‘The hair,’ she then declared, ‘must be stolen. It was
stolen from the mosque; it can be stolen from this house. But it must be a genuine
robbery, carried out by a real thief, not by one of us who are the hair’s victims – by a
thief so desperate that he fears neither capture nor curses.’ Of course, she added, the
theft would be ten times harder to pull off now that their father, knowing that there had
already been one attempt on the relic, was certainly on his guard.
‘Can you do it?’ Huma, in a room lit by candle and storm-lantern, ended her account
with this question: ‘What assurances can you give that the job holds no terrors for you
still?’ The criminal, spitting, stated that he was not in the habit of providing references,
as a cook might, or a gardener, but he was not alarmed so easily, not by any
children’s djinn of a curse. The girl had to be content with this boast, and proceeded
to describe the details of the proposed burglary. ‘Since my brother’s failure to restore
the hair to the mosque, my father has taken to sleeping with his precious treasure
under his pillow. However, he sleeps alone and very energetically: only enter his room
without waking him, and he will certainly have tossed and turned quite enough to
make the theft a simple matter. When you have the phial, come to my room,’ and here
she handed Sheikh Sin a plan of her home, ‘and I will hand over all the jewellery
owned by my mother and by myself. You will find ... It is worth ... You will be able to
get a fortune for it ...’ It was clear that her self-control was weakening and that she
was on the point of physical collapse. ‘Tonight,’ she burst out finally, ‘you must
come tonight!’
No sooner had she left the room than the old criminal’s body was convulsed by a fit of
coughing: he spat blood into an old tin can. The great Sheikh, the ‘Thief of Thieves’,
was also an old and sick man, and every day the time drew nearer when some young
pretender to his power would stick a dagger in his stomach. A lifelong addiction to
gambling had left him as poor as he had been when, decades ago, he had started out
in this line of work as a mere pickpocket’s apprentice: in the extraordinary commission
he had accepted from the moneylender’s daughter he saw his opportunity of
amassing enough wealth, at a stroke, to leave the valley and acquire the luxury of a
respectable death which would leave his stomach intact.
As for the Prophet’s hair, well, neither he nor his blind wife had ever had much to say
for prophets – that was one thing they had in common with the moneylender’s clan. It
would not do, however, to reveal the nature of this, his last crime, to his four sons: to
his consternation, they had all grown up into hopelessly devout fellows, who even
spoke absurdly of making the pilgrimage to Mecca some day. ‘But how will you go?’
their father would laugh at them, because, with the absolutist love of a parent, he had
made sure they were all provided with a lifelong source of high income by crippling
them at birth, so that, as they dragged themselves around the city, they earned
excellent money in the begging business. The children, then, could look after
themselves; he and his wife would be off with the jewel-boxes of the moneylender’s
women. It was a timely chance indeed that had brought the beautiful bruised girl into
his corner of the town.
That night, the large house on the shore of the lake lay blindly waiting, with silence
lapping at its walls. A burglar’s night: clouds in the sky and mists on the winter water.
Hashim the moneylender was asleep, the only member of his family to whom sleep
had come that night. In another room, his son Atta lay deep in the coils of his coma
with a blood-clot forming on his brain, watched over by a mother who had let down
her long greying hair to show her grief, a mother who placed warm compresses on his
head with gestures redolent of impotence. In yet a third bedroom Huma waited, fully
dressed, amidst the jewel-heavy caskets of her desperation. At last a bulbul sang
softly from the garden below her window and, creeping downstairs, she opened a
door to the bird, on whose face there was a scar in the shape of the Arabic letter ‘S’.
Noiseless now, the bird flew up the stairs behind her. At the head of the staircase they
parted, moving in opposite directions along the corridor of their conspiracy without a
glance at one another.
Entering the moneylender’s room with professional ease, the burglar, Sin, discovered
that Huma’s predictions had been wholly accurate. Hashim lay sprawled diagonally
across his bed, the pillow untenanted by his head, the prize easily accessible. Step by
padded step, Sin moved towards the goal. It was at this point that young Atta, without
any warning, his vocal cords prompted by God knows what pressure of the clot upon
his brain, sat bolt upright in his bed, giving his mother the fright of her life, and
screamed at the top of his voice: ‘Thief! Thief! Thief!’
It seems probable that his poor mind had been dwelling, in these last moments, upon
his own father, but it is impossible to be certain, because having uttered these three
emphatic words the young man fell back on his pillow and died. At once his mother
set up a screeching and a wailing and a keening and a howling so ear-splittingly
intense as to complete the work which Atta’s cry had begun – that is, her laments
penetrated the walls of her husband’s bedroom and brought Hashim wide awake.
Sheikh Sin was just deciding whether to dive beneath the bed or brain the
moneylender good and proper when Hashim grabbed the tiger-striped swordstick
which always stood propped up in a corner beside his bed, and rushed from the room
without so much as noticing the burglar who stood on the opposite side of the bed in
the darkness. Sin stooped quickly and removed the phial containing the Prophet’s hair
from its hiding-place.
Meanwhile Hashim had erupted into the corridor, having unsheathed the sword inside
his stick; he was waving the blade about dementedly with his right hand and shaking
the stick with his left. Now a shadow came rushing towards him through the midnight
darkness of the passageway and, in his somnolent anger, the moneylender thrust his
sword fatally through its heart. Turning up the light, he found that he had murdered his
daughter, and under the dire influence of this accident he found himself so persecuted
by remorse that he turned the sword upon himself, fell upon it and so extinguished his
life. His wife, the sole surviving member of the family, was driven mad by the general
carnage and had to be committed to an asylum for the insane by her brother, the
city’s Commissioner of Police.
Sheikh Sin had quickly understood that the plan had gone awry: abandoning the
dream of the jewel-boxes when he was but a few yards from its fulfilment, he climbed
out of Hashim’s window and made his escape during the awful events described
above. Reaching home before dawn, he woke his wife and confessed his failure: it
would be necessary, he said, for him to vanish for a while. Her blind eyes never
opened until he had gone.
The noise in the Hashim household had roused their servants and even awakened
the night-watchman, who had been fast asleep as usual on his charpoy by the gate;
the police were alerted and the Commissioner himself informed. When he heard of
Huma’s death, the mournful officer opened and read the sealed letter which his niece
had given him, and instantly led a large detachment of armed men into the lightrepellent gullies of the most wretched and disreputable part of the city. The tongue of
a malicious cat-burglar named Huma’s fellow conspirator; the finger of an ambitious
bank-robber pointed at the house in which he lay concealed; and although Sin
managed to crawl through a hatch in the attic and attempt a roof-top escape, a bullet
from the Commissioner’s own rifle penetrated his stomach and brought him crashing
messily to the ground at the feet of the enraged uncle. From the dead man’s ragged
pockets rolled a phial of tinted glass, cased in filigree silver.
The recovery of the Prophet’s hair was announced at once on All-India Radio. One
month later, the valley’s holiest men assembled at the Hazratbal mosque and formally
authenticated the relic. It sits to this day in a closely-guarded vault by the shores of
the loveliest of lakes in the heart of the valley which is closer than any other place on
earth to Paradise.
But before its story can properly be concluded, it is necessary to record that when the
four sons of the dead Sheikh awoke on that morning of his death, having unwittingly
spent a few minutes under the same roof as the holy hair, they found that a miracle
had occurred, that they were all sound of limb and strong of wind, as whole as they
might have been if their father had not thought to smash their legs in the first hours of
their lives. They were, all four of them, very properly furious, because this miracle had
reduced their earning powers by 75 per cent, at the most conservative estimate: so
they were ruined men.
Only the Sheikh’s widow had some reason for feeling grateful, because although her
husband was dead she had regained her sight, so that it was possible for her to
spend her last days gazing once more upon the beauties of the valley of Kashmir.
The Prophet’s hair is a Magical Realistic short story by the famed writer Salman
Salman Rushdie is an Author. Novelist. Essayist and sometimes a critic. lic is famous
for his
supreme narrative style where he blends myth and fanwtasy in a world of reality. This
is described
as “Magical Realism”. It is a literary genre in which the magical elements are injected
in an
otherwise realistic setting without breaking the narrative flow. (Pavlovski. 2012)
The short story “The Prophet’s hair” is also one such story permeated with metaphors
on both
small and large scale. This report aims in analyzing. and criticizing this story by
studying the
seven literary elements. Also this story will be perceived in a post-colonial concept.
• Hashirn: The protagonist. He is the father of Atta and Huma.
• Alta: He is the son of Hashim.
• Huma: She is the daughter of Hashim.
. Sheik Sin: He is the thief whom Huma hires.
The prophet’s hair is based on a story of the theft of the Prophet Muhammad’s hair.
Whoever come into contact with this relic face miraculous or disastrous events.
Hashim. the protagonist of this short story come upon this stolen hair accidentally. As
greed consumes Hashim does not return the relic. Ile justifies his act as a community
service basing it on the Islamic views of deity. Thus Hashim turns into a religious
hypocrite from a secular person. Suddenly Hashim turns into a controlling and
arrogant rich man from a wonderful and kind person. Hashim’s son Ana knowing the
truth about the hair steals k from his father and tries to return it to the mosque but
fails. Atta’s sister seeing that her dad keeps the hair with him all the time decides the
sacred relic has to be stolen. She hires a thief to do this job hoping that they will be
relieved from the curse once the hair is removed and returned. The thief steals the
hair but things escalate drastically and Hasim kills his own daughter accidentally and
the thief runs away with the hair.The thief is hunted down and shot by the police and
the hair is safely returned. But, the thiefs four crippled sons and his blind wife have
been miraculously cured due to their short contact with the relic.
Plot is ‘a plan or scheme to accomplish a purpose. In literature, this is the
arrangement of events to achieve an intended effect consisting of a series of carefully
devised and interrelated actions that progress through a struggle of opposing forces,
called conflict, to a climax and a denouement. This is different from story or story line
which is the order of events as they occur. The plot strategy employed in this story is
somewhat similar to that of William Faulkner’s, A rose for Emily.” Yet the events do
not keep moving back and forth like it happens in “A rose for Emily”. The story begins
with the conflict as the plot is arranged in media res. The conflict is presented so well
with descriptions plotting the minute of details so that the scene becomes live with
magnified effects. Rushdie portrays a conflict (mm the first to the sixth paragraph;
the conflict being that both sister and brother wanted to hire a professional thief. The
intensity of the conflict is reinforced when huma returns to the same place to hire a
thief even after her brother is mobbed and almost beaten to death. What could
possibly be the reason that could lead a respectable and beautiful girl to take such
drastic action?
With all these questions in the head the reader is taken into a journey where those
questions will be answered. The seventh paragraph employs the technique of
flashback revealing incidents that lead Huma and Atta to this stage. Flashbacks are
stories within a story and they tell about acharacters memory of something that
happened in the past Thus within the flashback the exposition is put to play
propitiously. The exposition is the part of a story that introduces the theme, setting,
characters, and circumstances of the story. The flashback here acts as the exposition.
The exposition creates a solid and reality like situation as the characters and
settings have been exploited effectively.
Within the exposition the details of the conflict is revealed and clearly explained. The
protagonist Hashim faces an internal man versus himself conflict. He is faced with an
internal dilemma and he makes his choices and justifies it himself. For instance the
following verse is clearly is an example of it. . . the Prophet would have disapproved
mightily of this relic-worship. ... I see it purely as a secular object of great rarity and
blinding beauty.” here we understand the reasons behind the actions of Atta and
Within the flashback the rising action also begins as the exposition ceases. The rising
action is usually the events between the exposition and climax. The rising action
begins when Hashims character dynamically changes. which acts as the catalyst that
drives all other events. Along with beginning of the rising action the story gradually
takes a transition from the past to present and the actions takes the reader into an
even more suspense and thrilling journey. Huma hires the thief and also Atta is in a
very critical situation fighting for his dear life. Hashim sleeps alone and the theft is
cleanly planned and this setting arises as much question as possible and flings
the reader suddenly into the climax of the story.
The climax is the highest point of interest and the turning point of the story. The
reader is made to yearn to know what is going to happen next. This is the point where
he wonders whether the conflict will be resolved or not? The intensity of the thrill and
the suspense takes a peak when the thief takes the vial containing the hair and Atta
lets out his last breath. Things take a sudden divert in the course of action and
Hashim unknowingly kills his daughter and extinguishes his own life persecuted by
remorse. This is the climax of the story.
The falling action is the unfolding of events in a story’s plot and the release of tension
leading toward the resolution and denouncement/resolution is the end of the story.
The events and complications begin to resolve and the reader knows what has
happened next and how the conflict is solved. Then as the falling action ceases it
transitions into denouement: this is where the final outcome of the events or the
untangling of the event takes place and the story. The story here comes to a tragic
end with the demise of the Hashim’s family, his wife driven to insanity and the thief
killed and title prophet’s hair returned to its rightful place.
The process in which the writer makes the characters in the story seems real to the
The main in the characters in this are Hashim, Atta, Huma and the thief. Most
characters in this story are flat. since the story take a drive with a tempo towards the
plotline and the climax.
Below is a deep analysis of each character in the story.
He is a flat dynamic character that experiences conflicting feelings concerning religion
and greed. He is the protagonist of the story. Hashim is portrayed as a self-satisfied
hypocrite not
only ¡n concerning the religious side of his character but also of his business, He
justifies his
cruel acts saying that this is a lesson that he teaches the less fortunate people, ‘lo
teach these people the value of money; let them only learn that, and they will be
cured of this fever of borrowing all the time ... We are also made aware about
Hashim’s pride in inculcating his proud and hypocrite ways to his children “the virtues
of thrift, plain dealing and a healthy independence of spirit.” As the morning breakfast
ends and Hashim attempts to leave his house he finds the holy hair of the prophet
Muhammad. There is also a bit of foreshadowing here as Rushdie explains how
Hashim sees the hair ‘.. .he feasted his eyes on his find$(Rushdie. 1981) We
understand that Hashim is highly interested in the relic although he thinks of returning
The whole story takes a turn as this transition Hashim into a different character. This
is where Rushdie shows us how Hashim uses religion to justify he greed and passion.
He says “..Prophet would have disapproved mightily of this relic- worship. ... He see it
purely as a secular object of great rarity and blinding beauty.” (Rushdie. 1981) This
verse here portrays Hashims hypocrisy towards his religion. Hashim’s character
totally changes from- “ honourably in the world.” To a totally disastrous man.
He becomes ironic to his old character
and his vision. He resorts to crude ways to bring his family under control and tries
hard to
follow Islamic ways. He faces a huge conflict which he finds hard to resolve.
Moreover Hashim understands that usury is had in Islam and when a debtor comes in
asking for more time he “...attacked the fellow with one of his large collection of hullwhips.’ This action as we know was against his morals in the initial stage. We see
devolving or evolving into a totally different and unpleasant character. Later in the
story Hashim he becomes paranoid and keeps the relic with him all the time. Further
he discloses disastrous intonation about him having a mistress. I Hashim is the only
dynamic character in the story and his change has been portrayed well and
interestingly as it is entangled with the plot line.
Atta is a flat and static character. 11e is the son of Hashim. Also he is one of the
antagonists of the story. There is not much description about Atta. But as the story
proceeds and Ana tries to return the artefact we understand more about him through
showing. Although Atta has his best interests in returning the artefact it does not have
anything to do with religion hut selfishness. We understand this by what Aatta feels as
he finds out that he lost one of the most important relics of all time, “...Ana’s initial
surge of chagrin was quickly replaced by a feeling of profound feeling of relief.” He is
contended that his family will he returned hack to normal. We at one point at the
beginning also perceive Atta as a brave young man with a desperate need.
character does not change in the whole story because he maintains his loyalty
towards his family at all times.
Huma is a round and static character. She is the daughter of Hashim and one of the
antagonists of the story. Her character is blended with innocence, bravery. and smart
as well as desperate. We are able to understand that she is brave and desperate
because she came hack to the same place where her brother was beaten and
robbed. She is also portrayed as a smart person when she comes in search of a thief
as she tells everyone in the vicinity I should say that L am carrying no money. nor am
I wearing any jewels: My father has disowned me and will pay no ransom if I
am kidnapped: and a letter Has been lodged with the commissioner of police, my
uncle to he open in the event of my not being safe at home by morning. ‘Unlike her
brother she was
smart enough to keep the thieves at bay and get job done. She is a confident and a
very beautiful young woman. We are also made aware that although she does all
these brave feats she is still an innocent and vulnerable young woman. She Finches
at the mere sound and pats she receive when she is about to meet the thief. She is
also loyal to her family and her brother and wants her family
Sheik Sin:
Sheik Sin is a flat and Static character. He character depicts evil. cruelty, and
Sheik sin as a character that cannot go worse than this. He is known as the “The
thief of
thieves” Sheik sin is old, yet he still hopes to have a luxury life. He does not
care how he acquires the money to reach his goal hut he badly wants it, “ in the
extraordinary amassing enough wealth at a stroke to leave the valley forever” His
skills and his ignorance are portrayed through verbal irony as Rushdie tells us what
he did to his sons out of love and care, ‘...he [Sin] had made sure they were all
provided with a lifelong
source of high income by crippling them at birth, so that, as they dragged themselves
around the city. they earned excellent money in the begging business” Sheik Sin is
religious nor honourable, all his cravings are for money and luxury, As for the
prophet’s hair,
well, neither he nor his blind wife had ever had much to say to the prophets.. .“
Sheik sin is sick and old and his cravings for money are so deep rooted that he is
enough to do this theft once and for all even though he knows the effects of stealing
such an
object. He is also a selfish and vile character who would not hesitate even to murder. .
. .was just deciding whether to dive beneath the bed or brain the moneylender good
and proper. . .“He is also an antagonist of the story.
Symbols -- The Prophet Hair
Through the journey of different places that the relic of the Prophet Muhammad has
been relocated (from the shrine, the outside world, Hashim¡¦s sanctum, and then back
to the shrine again), the meaning of the hair is being changed as well.
Hair as a religious relic
The hair is a famous relic which is regarded as a symbol of the sacred image of the
Prophet Muhammad. It was restored in its shrine at Hazratbal mosque. However, the
loss of the relic has caused the riots, the political ramifications and the changes in the
two families. (2846 par 5~6)
Hair as a secular object
The relocation of the relic changed the hair's meaning. However, it's not the object
itself which changes the meaning, but human beings. Hashim, the moneylender,
changes the relic from the religious value to a secular object (2846 last par). Even
though the hair's meaning has been changed, its mysterious magic still exists.
Influenced by the misappropriated relic, Hashim leads the family into carnage
Hair as a human heart
The hair reveals the desire of human being by possessing the great rarity of beauty. It
may also reveal the truth inside human beings. While having dinner with his family,
Hashim gushed the awful truth in his mind¡Xhow he thought about his marriage, his
children, and revealed the existence of a mistress. He, finally, ¡§got many things off
his chest.¡¨ (2847 par 5~end)
Prophet's Hair and Its Reverence
The hair displays on a certain day once a year. People touch or kiss the box and rub
hands on their faces in order to get blessing.
The hair has been formally authenticated; however, is it the right way to show love of
the prophet? People do not need a part of his body to show their love, do they? The
proper way is to follow his guidance and implement his Sunnah. Like Hashim, who
possesses the hair, instead of bringing luck, he leads the family to a disaster.
Irony1 What Hashim says and what he does is opposite. He likes to say that he
sets great store by living honorably in the world.
Hashim pointed out that while he was not a godly man he set great store by ¡¥living
honourably in the world¡¦. (2845, par 2 from the bottom)
But actually Hashim isn¡¦t worthy of honor because he treats cruelly those debtors
who are unable to pay the latest installment of interest.
That afternoon, a trembling debtor arrived at the house to confess his inability to
pay the latest installment of interested owned, and made the mistake of reminding
Hashim, in somewhat blustering fashion, of the Qur¡¦an¡¦s strictures against usury.
The moneylender flew into a rage and attacked the fellow with one of his large
collection of bulliwhip¡K..
(2848 par 3- 4, 2849)
From the two paragraphs, we can see how Hashim treats his debtors. When one
debtor reminds him that usury is against the Qur¡¦an¡¦s stricture, Hashim flies into a
rage and attacks the fellow. By the fourth afternoon, he hires two thugs to extract
the unpaid money from two of his broken clients.
He can do anything unscrupulously to get the money or achieve his goal. (2848,
last par)
It's clear that the moneylender's business is violent and threatening. He is faithful to
Islam externally, but he still runs usury business which is strictly forbidden by
Qur¡¦an. When he gets the hair, instead of returning it, he keeps it to his desk. He
persuades himself the Prophet would not have approved of this relic-worship
because the Prophet abhors the idea of being deified. That¡¦s his way to make his
statement consistent.
He can do anything unscrupulously to get the money or achieve his goal. (2848,
last par)
It's clear that the moneylender's business is violent and threatening. He is faithful to
Islam externally, but he still runs usury business which is strictly forbidden by
Qur¡¦an. When he gets the hair, instead of returning it, he keeps it to his desk. He
persuades himself the Prophet would
not have approved of this relic-worship because the Prophet abhors the idea of
being deified. That¡¦s his way to make his statement consistent.
'And after all,¡¦ Hashim told himself, the Prophet would have disapproved mightily
of this relic-worship. He abhorred the idea of being deified! So, by keeping this hair
from its distracted devotes, I perform¡Xdo I not?¡Xa finer service than I would by
returning it! Naturally, I don¡¦t want it for its religious value¡KI¡¦m a man of the
world. I see it purely as a secular object of great rarity and blinding beauty. In short,
it¡¦s the silver vial I desire more than the hair. (2846-47)
The truth is he desires the silver vial more than the hair. The prophet¡¦s hair is a
secular object rarity and blinding beauty which belongs to one of his collector¡¦s
His keeping the hair violates Muslim law, and profanes the religious value. Under
the hair¡¦s great influence, Hashim changes his life style and becomes weird. When
the inversion comes, he begins to pray ¡§for the first time of his life¡¨ and forces his
family members to do as the same.
At five o¡¦clock the next morning the moneylender forced his family to rise, wash
and say their prayers. From then on, he began to pray five times daily for the first
time in his life, and his wife and children were obliged to do likewise. (2847-48)
Also, he orders his family and servants to read Qur¡¦an, which is ¡§the only volume
left untouched before¡¨ in their house.
He ordered each member of his family to read passages from this book for at least
two hours per day. (2848 par 1, L5~6)
It seems that Hashim becomes a religious man because of reading Qur¡¦an, but
it¡¦s not true. He is pious on his behavior not from the bottom of his heart. He starts
to behave abnormally when he gets the hair. Besides threatening his debtors, he
yells at his family and abuses them. (2849 par 5)
Anyhow, the moneylender¡¦s occupation is not compatible with the society of
Muslim. In a word, Hashim's reverence for religious worship is represented as
Huma tries to save her family, but the plan failed out of Atta¡¦s voice. As the thief
comes to Hashim¡¦s house, Atta cries out ¡§Thief! Thief! Thief!¡¨ oddly for three
(2851 par 3, L5)
Is it coincidence or the power of the magic hair? It just happens and Huma can¡¦t
stop the disaster.
The prophet¡¦s hair has the numinous and supernatural power which handles the
fate of Hashim¡¦s family and Shiekh¡¦s in the story. Or we can say their destiny is
influenced by the hair and the natural cause.
Is the hair so powerful?
People would usually overextend and reinforce its mysterious strength, even if it¡¦s
only a trivial thing. Here, Rushdie uses the juxtaposition of the rich Hashim¡¦s
house and the poor Sheikh¡¦s to set a contrast. The glassy contentment of the
household is to be shattered which is a foreshadowing of the coming of their
tragedy. Compared with Hashim¡¦s luxurious house, Sheilkh¡¦s family live in all
darkness (blackness).
All around him in his study was the evidence of his collector¡¦s mania¡K (2846 par 2
from the bottom)
(2844 par 4, L 6 ¡§Shiekh¡¦s needy world¡K¡¨ )
¡Kinto the light-repellent gullies of the most wretched and disreputable part of the
(2852 par 2, L6~7)
Atta and Huma have a wealthy life; ironically, Shiekh¡¦s four sons are crippled by
their father to make their living.
For, with a parent¡¦s absolutist love, he had made sure they were all provided with
a lifelong source of high income by crippling them at birth, so that, as they dragged
themselves around the city, they earned excellent money in the begging business.
(2850 par 3 from the bottom, L5~8 )
¡Kthat they were all sound of limb and strong of wind, as whole as they might have
been if their father had not thought to smash their legs in the first hours of their
(2852 par 2 from the bottom, L4~6 )
Is the miracle fortunate to them?
Probably it is, but not all the persons involved think so. When the miracle happens
to Sin¡¦s four sons, they are furious because they lose their power to earn their
living after having the sound bodies.
They were, all four of them, very properly furious, because the miracle had reduced
their earning powers by 75 per cent, at the most conservative estimate; so they
were ruined men. (2852 par 2 from the bottom, L6~9)
Is the hair fortunate or unfortunate?
The hair symbolizes the sacred image of the Prophet of Mohammed, and it¡¦s an
ironic object in this story. Its relocation is from the shrine (a holy place), to the
outside world (the profane place), and to the moneylender¡¦s locked study (the
profane place), back to the shrine (a holy place) again. The relic should be put into
the shrine, it is profaned and violates its holy nature when it is stolen. Hashim¡¦s
family¡¦s reverence for icon is hypocritical, and they are subjected to the general
carnage. The force of the hair seems to have been replaced its meaning through its
Many people suppose that they would be blessed if they hold the icon, but it¡¦s not
right. No matter the hair has the might or not, it deeply influences human being¡¦s
heart and behavior.
Beyond human desire, people would like to hold the icon and hope they could have
good luck. Hence they would forget the genuine importance easily and to be lost in
their desire. This is a parable which teaches us to break with iconoclasm and
All in all, the goal of religion is to help people lead a better life not to believe it
HANIF KUREISHI’S “My Son the Fanatic”
My Son the Fanatic
Surreptitiously, the father began going into his son's bedroom. He would sit there for
hours, rousing himself only to seek clues. What bewildered him was that Ali was
getting tidier. Instead of the usual tangle of clothes, books, cricket bats, video games,
the room was becoming neat and ordered; spaces began appearing where before
there had been only mess.
Initially Parvez had been pleased: his son was outgrowing his teenage attitudes. But
one day, beside the dustbin, Parvez found a torn bag which contained not only old
toys, but computer disks, video tapes, new books and fashionable clothes the boy
had bought just a few months before. Also without explanation, Ali had parted from
the English girlfriend who used to come often to the house.
His old friends had stopped ringing.
For reasons he didn't himself understand, Parvez wasn't able to bring up the subject
of Ali's unusual behaviour. He was aware that he had become slightly afraid of his
son, who, between his silences, was developing a sharp tongue. One remark Parvez
did make, 'You don't play your guitar any more,' elicited the mysterious but conclusive
reply, 'There are more important things to be done.'
Yet Parvez felt his son's eccentricity an injustice. He had always been aware of the
pitfalls that other men's sons had fallen into in England. And so, for Ali, he had worked
long hours and spent a lot of money paying for his education as an accountant. He
had bought him good suits, all the books he required and a computer.
And now the boy was throwing his possessions out! - - The TV, video and sound
system followed the guitar. Soon the room was practically bare. Even the unhappy
walls bore marks where Ali's pictures had been removed.
Parvez couldn't sleep; he went more to the whisky bottle, even when he was at work.
He realised it was imperative to discuss the matter with someone sympathetic.
Parvez had been a taxi driver for twenty years. Half that time he'd worked for the
same firm. Like him. most of the other drivers were Punjabis. They preferred to work
at night, the roads were clearer and the money better. They slept during the day,
avoiding their wives. Together they led almost a boy's life in the cabbies' office,
playing cards and practical jokes, exchanging lewd stories, eating together and
discussing politics and their problems.
But Parvez had been unable to bring this subject up with his friends. He was too
ashamed. And he was afraid, too, that they would blame him for the wrong turning his
boy had taken, just as he had blamed other fathers whose sons had taken to running
around with bad girls, truanting from school and joining gangs.
For years Parvez had boasted to the other men about how Ali excelled at cricket,
swimming and football, and how attentive a scholar he was, getting A's in most
subjects. Was it asking too much for Ali to get a good job, now, many the right girl and
start a family? Once this happened, Parvez would be happy. His dreams of doing well
in England would have come true. Where had he gone wrong?
But one night, sitting in the taxi office on busted chairs with his two closest friends
watching a Sylvester Stallone film. he broke his silence.
'I can't understand it!' he burst out. 'Everything is going from his room. And I can't talk
to him any more. We were not father and son - we were brothers! Where has he
gone? Why is he torturing me?'
And Parvez put his head in his hands. Even as he poured out his account the men
shook their heads and gave one another knowing glances. From their grave looks
Parvez realised they understood the situation.
'Tell me what is happening!' he demanded.
The reply was almost triumphant. They had guessed something was going wrong.
Now it was clear: All was taking drugs and selling his possessions to pay for them.
That was why his bedroom was emptying.
'What must I do then?'
Parvez's friends instructed him to watch Ali scrupulously and then be severe with him,
before the boy went mad. overdosed or murdered someone.
Parvez staggered out into the early morning air, terrified they were right. His boy - the
drug addict killer! To his relief, he found Bettina sitting in his car. Usually the last
customers of the night were local 'brasses' or prostitutes. The taxi drivers knew them
well, often driving them to liaisons. At the end of the girls' shifts, the men would ferry
them home, though sometimes the women would join them for a drinking session in
the office. Occasionally the drivers would go with the girls. 'A ride in exchange for a
ride,' it was called.
Bettina had known Parvez for three years. She lived outside the town and on the long
drive home, where she sat not in the passenger seat but beside him, Parvez had
talked to her about his life and hopes, just as she talked about hers. They saw each
other most nights.
He could talk to her about things he'd never be able to discuss with his own wife.
Bettina, in turn, always reported on her night's activities. He liked to know where she
was and with whom. Once he had rescued her from a violent client, and since then
they had come to care for one another.
Though Bettina had never met the boy, she heard about Ali continually. That late
night. when he told Bettina that he suspected Ali was on drugs, she judged neither the
boy nor the father, but became businesslike and told him what to watch for.
'It's all in the eyes,' she said. They might be bloodshot; the pupils might be dilated; he
might look tired. He could be liable to sweats, or sudden mood changes. 'Okay?'
Parvez began his vigil gratefully. Now he knew what the problem might be, he felt
better. And surely, he figured, things couldn't have gone too far? With Bettina's help
he would soon sort it out.
He watched each mouthful the boy took. He sat beside him at every opportunity and
looked into his eyes. When he could he took the boy's hand, checking his
temperature. If the boy wasn't at home Parvez was active, looking under the carpet, in
his drawers, behind the empty wardrobe, sniffing, inspecting, probing. He knew what
to look for: Bettina had drawn pictures of capsules, syringes, pills, powders, rocks.
Every night she waited to hear news of what he'd witnessed. After a few days of
constant observation, Parvez was able to report that although the boy had given up
sports, he seemed healthy with clear eyes. He didn't, as his father expected, flinch
guiltily from his gaze. In fact the boy's mood was alert and steady in this sense: as
well as being sullen, he was very watchful. He returned his father's long looks with
more than a hint of criticism, of reproach even; so much so that Parvez began to feel
that it was he who was in the wrong, and not the boy!
'And there's nothing else physically different?' Bettina asked.
'No!' Parvez thought for a moment. 'But he is growing a beard.'
One night, after sitting with Bettina in an all-night coffee shop, Parvez came home
particularly late. Reluctantly he and Bettina had abandoned their only explanation, the
drug theory, for Parvez had found nothing resembling any drug in Ali's room. Besides,
Ali wasn't selling his belongings. He threw them out, gave them away or donated
them to charity shops.
Standing in the hall, Parvez heard his boy's alarm clock go off. Parvez hurried into his
bedroom where his wife was still awake, sewing in bed. He ordered her to sit down
and keep quiet, though she had neither stood up nor said a word. From this post, and
with her watching him curiously, he observed his son through the crack in the door.
The boy went into the bathroom to wash. When he returned to his room Parvez
sprang across the hall and set his ear at Ali's door. A muttering sound came from
within. Parvez was puzzled but relieved.
Once this clue had been established, Parvez watched him at other times. The boy
was praying. Without fail, when he was at home, he prayed five times a day.
Parvez had grown up in Lahore where all the boys had been taught the Koran. To
stop him falling asleep when he studied, the Maulvi had attached a piece of string to
the ceiling and tied it to Parvez's hair, so that if his head fell forward, he would
instantly awake. After this indignity Parvez had avoided all religions. Not that the other
taxi drivers had more respect. In fact they made jokes about the local mullahs walking
around with their caps and beards, thinking they could tell people how to live, while
their eyes roved over the boys and girls in their care.
Parvez described to Bettina what he had discovered. He informed the men in the taxi
office. His friends, who had been so curious before, now became oddly silent. They
could hardly condemn the boy for his devotions.
Parvez decided to take a night off and go out with the boy. They could talk things
over. He wanted to hear how things were going at college; he wanted to tell him
stories about their family in Pakistan.
More than anything he yearned to understand how Ali had discovered the 'spiritual
dimension', as Bettina described it.
To Parvez's surprise, the boy refused to accompany him. He claimed he had an
appointment. Parvez had to insist that no appointment could be more important than
that of a son with his father.
The next day, Parvez went immediately to the street where Bettina stood in the rain
wearing high heels, a short skirt and a long mac on top, which she would open
hopefully at passing cars.
'Get in, get in!' he said.
They drove out across the moors and parked at the spot where on better days, with a
view unimpeded for many by nothing but wild deer and horses, they'd lie back, with
their eyes half closed, saying 'This is the life.' This time Parvez was trembling. Bettina
put her arms around him.
'What's happened'?'
'I've just had the worst experience of my life.'
As Bettina rubbed his head Parvez told her that the previous evening he and Ali had
gone to a restaurant. As they studied the menu, the waiter, whom Parvez knew,
brought him his usual whisky and water. Parvez had been so nervous he had even
prepared a question. He was going to ask Ali if he was worried about his imminent
exams. But first, wanting to relax, he loosened his tie, crunched a poppadom, and
took a long drink.
Before Parvez could speak, Ali made a face. 'Don't you know it's wrong to drink
alcohol?' he said.
'He spoke to me very harshly,' Parvez said to Bettina. 'I was about to castigate the
boy for being insolent, but I managed to control myself.'
He had explained patiently to Ali that for years he had worked more than ten hours a
day, that he had few enjoyments or hobbies and never went on holiday. Surely it
wasn't a crime to have a drink when he wanted one?
'But it is forbidden,' the boy said.
Parvez shrugged, 'I know.'
And so is gambling, isn't it?'
'Yes. But surely we are only human?'
Each time Parvez took a drink, the boy winced, or made a fastidious face as an
accompaniment. This made Parvez drink more quickly. The waiter, wanting to please
his friend, brought another glass of whisky. Parvez knew he was getting drunk, but he
couldn't stop himself. Ali had a horrible look on his face, full of disgust and censure. It
was as if he hated his father.
Halfway through the meal Parvez suddenly lost his temper and threw a plate on the
floor. He had felt like ripping the cloth from the table, but the waiters and other
customers were staring at him. Yet he wouldn't stand for his own son telling him the
difference between right and wrong. He knew he wasn't a bad man. He had a
conscience. There were a few things of which he was ashamed, but on the whole he
had lived a decent life.
'When have 1 had time to be wicked?' he asked Ali.
In a low monotonous voice the boy explained that Parvez had not, in fact, lived a
good life. He had broken countless rules of the Koran.
'For instance?' Parvez demanded.
Ali hadn't needed time to think. As if he had been waiting for this moment, he asked
his father if he didn't relish pork pies?
'Well ...'
Parvez couldn't deny that he loved crispy bacon smothered with mushrooms and
mustard and sandwiched between slices of fried bread. In fact he ate this for
breakfast every morning.
Ali then reminded Parvez that he had ordered his own wife to cook pork sausages,
saying to her, 'You're not in the village now, this is England. We have to fit in.'
Parvez was so annoyed and perplexed by this attack that he called for more drink.
'The problem is this,' the boy said. He leaned across the table.
For the first time that night his eyes were alive. 'You are too implicated in Western
Parvez burped; he thought he was going to choke. 'Implicated!' he said. 'But we live
'The Western materialists hate us,' Ali said. 'Papa, how can you love something which
hates you?'
'What is the answer, then,' Parvez said miserably. 'According to you.'
Ali addressed his father fluently, as if Parvez were a rowdy crowd that had to be
quelled or convinced. The Law of Islam would rule the world; the skin of the infidel
would bum off again and again; the Jews and Christers would be routed. The West
was a sink of hypocrites, adulterers, homosexuals, drug takers and prostitutes.
As Ali talked. Parvez looked out the window as if to check that this were still in
'My people have taken enough. If the persecution doesn't stop there will be jihad. I,
and millions of others, will gladly give our lives for the cause.'
'But why, why?' Parvez said.
'For us the reward will be in Paradise.'
'Paradise! '
Finally, as Parvez's eyes filled with tears, the boy urged him to mend his ways.
'But is that possible?' Parvez asked.
'Pray,' All said. 'Pray beside me.'
Parvez called for the bill and ushered his boy out of the restaurant as soon as he was
able. He couldn't take any more. Ali sounded as if he'd swallowed someone else's
On the way home the boy sat in the back of the taxi, as if he were a customer.
'What has made you like this?' Parvez asked him. afraid that somehow he was to
blame for all this. 'Is there a particular event which has influenced you?'
'Living in this country.'
'But I love England,' Parvez said, watching his boy in the mirror.
'They let you do almost anything here.'
'That is the problem,' he replied.
For the first time in years Parvez couldn't see straight. He knocked the side of the car
against a lorry, ripping off the wing mirror. They were lucky not to have been stopped
by the police:
Parvez would have lost his licence and therefore his job.
Getting out of the car back at the house, as he got out of the car, Parvez stumbled
and fell in the road, scraping his hands and ripping his trousers. He managed to haul
himself up. The boy didn't even offer him his hand.
Parvez told Bettina he was now willing to pray, if that was what the boy wanted, if that
would dislodge the pitiless look from his eyes.
'But what I object to,' he said, 'is being told by my own son that I am going to hell! '
What had finished Parvez off was that the boy had said he was giving up his
accountancy. When Parvez had asked why, Ali had said sarcastically that it was
'Western education cultivates an anti-religious attitude.'
And, according to Ali, in the world of accountants it was usual to meet women, drink
alcohol and practise usury.
'But it's well-paid work,' Parvez argued. 'For years you've been preparing! '
Ali said he was going to begin to work in prisons, with poor Muslims who were
struggling to maintain their -- - purity in the face of corruption. Finally, at the end of the
evening, as Ali was going to bed, he had asked his father why he didn't have a beard,
or at least a moustache.
'I feel as if I've lost my son,' Parvez told Bettina. 'I can't bear to be looked at as if I'm a
criminal. I've decided what to do.'
What is it?'
'I'm going to tell him to pick up his prayer mat and get out of my house. It will be the
hardest thing I've ever done, but tonight I'm going to do it.'
'But you mustn't give up on him,' said Bettina. 'Many young people fall into cults and
superstitious groups. It doesn't mean they'll always feel the same way.' She said
Parvez had to stick by his boy, giving him support, until he came through.
Parvez was persuaded that she was right, even though he didn't feel like giving his
son more love when he had hardly been thanked for all he had already given.
Nevertheless, Parvez tried to endure his son's looks and reproaches. He attempted to
make conversation about his beliefs. But if Parvez ventured any criticism, Ali always
had a brusque reply. On one occasion Ali accused Parvez of 'grovelling' to the whites;
in contrast, he explained, he was not 'inferior'; there was more to the world than the
West, though the West always thought it was best.
'How is it you know that?' Parvez said, 'seeing as you've never left England?'
Ali replied with a look of contempt.
One night, having ensured there was no alcohol on his breath, Parvez sat down at the
kitchen table with Ali. He hoped Ali would compliment him on the beard he was
growing but Ali didn't appear to notice.
The previous day Parvez had been telling Bettina that he thought people in the West
sometimes felt inwardly empty and that people should a philosophy to live by.
'Yes,' said Bettina. 'That's the answer. You must tell him what your philosophy of life
is. Then he will understand that there are other beliefs.'
After some fatiguing consideration, Parvez was ready to begin.
The boy watched him as if he expected nothing. Haltingly Parvez said that people had
to treat one another with respect, particularly children their parents. This did seem, for
a moment, to affect the boy. Heartened, Parvez continued. In his view this life was all
there was and when you died you rotted in the earth. 'Grass and flowers will grow out
of me, but something of me will live on -'
'In other people. I will continue - in you.' At this the boy appeared a little distressed.
'And your grandchildren,' Parvez added for good measure. 'But while I am here on
earth I want to make the best of it. And I want you to, as well!'
'What d'you mean by "make the best of it"'?' asked the boy.
'Well,' said Parvez. 'For a start . . . you should enjoy yourself.
Yes. Enjoy yourself without hurting others.'
Ali said that enjoyment was a 'bottomless pit'.
'But 1 don't mean enjoyment like that!' said Parvez. 'I mean the beauty of living!'
'All over the world our people are oppressed,' was the boy's reply.
'I know,' Parvez replied, not entirely sure who 'our people' were, but still - life is for
Ali said, 'Real morality has existed for hundreds of years. Around the world millions
and millions of people share my beliefs. Are you saying you are right and they are all
wrong?' Ali looked at his father with such aggressive confidence that Parvez would
say no more.
One evening, Bettina was sitting in Parvez's car after visiting a client when they
passed a boy on the street.
'That's my son,' Pawez said suddenly. They were on the other side of town, in a poor
district, where there were two mosques.
Parvez set his face hard.
Bettina watched him. 'Slow down then, slow down!' She said, ' 'He's good-looking.
Reminds me of you. But with a more determined face. Please, can't we stop?'
'What for?'
'I'd like to talk to him.'
Parvez turned the cab round and stopped beside the boy.
'Coming home?' Parvez asked. 'It's quite a way.'
The sullen boy shrugged and got into the back seat. Bettina sat in the front. Parvez
became aware of Bettina's short skin, gaudy rings and ice-blue eyeshadow. He
became conscious that the smell S of her perfume, which he loved, filled the cab. He
opened the window.
While Parvez drove as fast as he could, Bettina said gently to Ali, 'Where have you
'The mosque,' he said.
'And how are you getting on at college? Are you working hard?'
'Who are you to ask me these questions?' he said, looking out of the window. Then
they hit bad traffic and the car came to a standstill.
By now Bettina had inadvertently laid her hand on Parvez's shoulder. She said, 'Your
father, who is a good man, is very worried about you. You know he loves you more
than his own life.'
'You say he loves me,' the boy said.
'Yes! ' said Bettina.
'Then why is he letting a woman like you touch him like that?'
If Bettina looked at the boy in anger, he looked back at her with twice as much cold
She said, 'What kind of woman am I that I deserve to be spoken to like that'?'
'You know,' he said. 'Now let me out.'
'Never,' Parvez replied.
'Don't worry. I'm getting out,' Bettina said.
'No, don't!' said Parvez. But even as the car moved she opened: the door and threw
herself out and ran away across the road. Parvez shouted after her several times, but
she had gone.
Parvez took Ali back to the house, saying nothing more to him. Ali went straight to his
room. Parvez was unable to read the paper, watch television or even sit down. He
kept pouring himself drinks.
At last he went upstairs and paced up and down outside Ali's 185 room. When, finally,
he opened the door, Ali was praying. The boy didn't even glance his way.
Parvez kicked him over. Then he dragged the boy up by his shirt and hit him. The boy
fell back. Parvez hit him again. The boy's face was bloody. Parvez was panting. He
knew that the boy was un390 reachable, but he struck him nonetheless. The boy
neither covered himself nor retaliated; there was no fear in his eyes. He only said,
through his split lip: 'So who's the fanatic now?'
title: fanatic (n.): someone who has extreme political or religious ideas
and is often dangerous - 1 surreptitiously (adv.): done secretly or quickly
because you do not want other people to notice - 2 rouse (v.): to make
someone start doing something, especially when they have been too tired
or unwilling to do it - 2 clue (n.): information that helps you understand
the reasons why something happens - 3 bewilder (v.): to confuse someone - 7
outgrow (v.): to no longer do or enjoy something that you used to
do, because you have grown older and changed - 8 attitude (n.): the way
that you behave towards someone or in a particular situation, especially
when this shows how you feel - 18 elicit (v.): to succeed in getting information or a
reaction from someone, especially when this is difficult - 18
conclusive (adj.): showing that something is definitely true - 20 eccentricity (n.):
strange or unusual behaviour - 21 pitfall (n.): a problem or
difficulty that is likely to happen in a particular job, course of action, or
activity - 23 accountant (n.): someone whose job is to keep and check
financial accounts, calculate taxes, etc. - 30 imperative (adj.): extremely
important and needing to be done or dealt with immediately - 31 sympathetic (adj.):
caring and feeling sorry about someone's problems - 34
Punjabi (n.): someone from the Punjab, a large area in eastern Pakistan
and northwestern India. The Punjab was a single province in the period of
British rule. but it is now two states: one in Pakistan, which contains the
city of Lahore. and one in India, which contains the city of Amritsar, a
holy place for followers of the Sikh religion. Many of the people who live
in the Indian Punjab are Sikhs, and some of them would like to become
independent from India - 36 cabby (n.): (infml.) a taxi driver - 37 practical joke: a trick
that is intended to give someone a surprise or shock, or
to make them look stupid - 37 lewd (adj.): using rude words or movements that make
you think of sex - 43 truant (v.): (usually: play truant)
(infml.) stay away from school - 45 attentive (adj.): listening to or watching someone
carefully because you are interested - 46 A's: best marks 46 scholar (n.): an intelligent and well-educated person - 51 busted
(adj.): broken - 59 glance (n.): a quick look - 59 grave (adj.): serious 67 scrupulously (adv.): doing something very carefully so that nothing is
left out - 68 severe (adj.): someone who is severe behaves in a way that
does not seem friendly or sympathetic, and is very strict or disapproving 70 stagger (v.) to walk or move unsteadily - 72 relief (n.): when something reduces
someone's pain or unhappy feelings - 73 brass (n.): (d.)
prostitute - 75 liaison (n.): a secret sexual relationship between a man and
a woman, especially a man and a woman who are married but not to each
other - 75 ferry (v.): to carry people or things a short distance from one
place to another in a boat or other vehicle - 91 judge (v.): to form an
opinion about someone, especially in an unfair or criticizing way 93 bloodshot (adj.): if your eyes are bloodshot, the parts that are normally
white are red or pink - 94 dilated (adj.): if something dilates, it becomes
wider - 94 liable (adj.): likely to do or say something or to behave in a
particular way, especially because of a fault or natural tendency 94 sweat (n.): a state of nervousness or fear, in which you start to sweat,
even though you are not hot - 96 vigil (n.): a period of time, especially
during the night, when you stay awake in order to pray, remain with
someone who is ill. or watch for danger - 99 mouthful (n.): an amount of
food or drink that you put into your mouth at one time - 103 sniff (v.): to
try to find out or discover something - 103 probe (v.): to look for something or examine
something. using a long thin object - 104 capsule (n.): a
plastic container shaped like a very small tube with medicine or other
substances inside that you swallow whole - 104 syringe (n.): an instrument for taking
blood from someone's body or putting liquid, drugs, etc.
into it, consisting of a hollow plastic tube and a needle - 105 rock (n.): a
small amount of a very pure form of the illegal drug cocaine that some
people use for pleasure - 109 flinch (v.): to move your face or body away
from someone or something because you are in pain, frightened, or upset
- 110 alert (adj.): giving all your attention to what is happening, being
said, etc. - 11 1 sullen (adj.): angry and silent, especially because you feel
life has been unfair to you - 112 hint (n.): a very small amount or sign of
something - 112 reproach (n.): criticism, blame, or disapproval - 118
reluctantly (adv.): slowly and unwillingly - 120 resemble (v.): to look
like or be similar to someone or something - 122 donate (v.): to give
something, especially money, to a person or an organization in order to
help them - 131 mutter (v.): to speak in a low voice, especially because
you are annoyed about something, or you do not want people to hear you
- 131 relieved (adj.): feeling happy because you are no longer worried
about something - 133 establish (v.): to find out facts that will prove that
something is true - 136 LAHORE: a major city of Pakistan and the capital of the
province of Punjab. It is estimated to have approximately 6.5
million inhabitants. This makes it the second largest city in Pakistan, after
Karachi - 137 KORAN: the Qur'an, the holy book of the Muslims - 138
MAULVI: an honorific Islamic religious title often, but not exclusively,
given to Muslim religious scholars - 138 ceiling (n.): the inner surface of
the top part of a room - 140 indignity (n.): a situation that makes you feel
very ashamed and not respected - 142 mullah (n.): a Muslim teacher of
law and religion - 143 rove (v.): if someone's eyes rove, they look continuously from
one part of something to another - 147 oddly (adv.): in a
strange or unusual way - 147 condemn (v.): to say very strongly that you
do not approve of something or someone, especially because you think it
is morally wrong - 148 devotions (n.): prayers and other religious acts 160 mac (n.): (infml.) mackintosh, a coat made to keep out the rain - 162
moor (n.): a wild open area of high land, covered with rough grass or low
bushes and heather, that is not farmed because the soil is not good enough
- 163 unimpeded (adj.): happening or moving without being stopped or
having difficulty - 165 tremble (v.): to shake slightly in a way that you
cannot control, especially because you are upset or frightened - 173 imminent (adj.):
an event that is imminent, especially an unpleasant one,
will happen very soon - 175 poppadum (n.): a large circular piece of
very thin flat Indian bread cooked in oil - 179 castigate (v.): to criticize
or punish someone severely - 179 insolent (adj.): rude and not showing
any respect - 187 gambling (n.): when people risk money or possessions
on the result of something which is not certain, such as a card game or a
horse race - 189 wince (v.): to suddenly change the expression on your
face as a reaction to something painful or upsetting - 189 fastidious
(adj.): very careful about small details in your appearance, work, etc. 193 disgust (n.): a strong feeling of dislike, annoyance, or disapproval 194 censure (n.): the act of expressing strong disapproval and criticism 195 lose one's temper: to suddenly become very angry so that you cannot
control yourself - 200 conscience (n.): the part of your mind that tells you
whether what you are doing is morally right or wrong - 202 wicked
(adj.): behaving in a way that is morally wrong - 207 relish (v.): to enjoy
- 209 smother (v.): to completely cover the whole surface of something
with something else, often in a way that seems unnecessary or unpleasant
- 215 annoyed (adj.): slightly angry - 215 perplexed (adj.): confused and
worried by something that you do not understand - 21 8 implicated (adj.):
involved in something bad or harmful - 220 burp (v.): to pass gas loudly
from your stomach out through your mouth - 220 choke (v.): to be unable
to breathe properly because something is in your throat or there is not
enough air - 224 miserably (adv.): in an extremely unhappy way, for
example because you feel lonely, cold, or badly treated - 227 quell (v.): to
end a situation in which people are behaving violently or protesting, especially by
using force - 228 infidel (n.): an offensive word for someone
who has a different religion from you - 229 Christers (n.): (sl.) Christians - 229 route
(v.): to defeat completely - 230 sink (n.): a large open
container that you fill with water and use for washing yourself, washing
dishes, etc. - 230 hypocrite (n.): someone who pretends to have certain
beliefs or opinions that they do not really have - 230 adulterer (n.):
someone who is married and has sex with someone who is not their wife
or husband - 236 cause (n.): an organization, belief, or aim that a group
of people support or fight for - 241 mend your ways: to improve the way
you behave after behaving badly for a long time - 244 usher (v.): to help
someone to get from one place to another, especially by showing them the
way - 246 swallow (v.): to move (food or drink) down the throat - 257
rip off (v.): to remove something quickly and violently - 26 1 scrape (v.):
to rub against a rough surface in a way that causes slight damage or injury
- 262 haul (v.): to move somewhere with a lot of effort, especially because you are
injured or tired - 265 dislodge (v.): to force or knock something out of its position - 265
pitiless (adj.): showing no pity and not
caring if people suffer - 269 accounting/accountancy (n.): the profession
or work of keeping or checking financial accounts, calculating taxes, etc.
- 273 usury (n.): the practice of lending money to people and making
them pay - 277 purity (n.): the quality or state of being pure - 284
prayer mat (n.): a small cloth on which Muslims kneel when praying 288 cult (n.): an extreme religious group that is not part of an established
religion - 288 superstitious (adj.): influenced by superstition (= the belief
that some objects or actions are lucky or unlucky, or that they cause
events to happen, based on old ideas of magic) - 289 stick by (phrasal v.):
to remain loyal to a friend when they have done something wrong or have
problems - 294 endure (v.): to be in a difficult or painful situation for a
long time without complaining - 294 reproach (n.): criticism, blame, or
disapproval - 296 venture (v.): to do or try something that involves risks
- 296 brusque (adj.): using very few words in a way that seems rude 297 grovel (v.): to praise someone a lot or behave with a lot of respect
towards them because you think that they are important and will be able
to help you in some way - 298 inferior (adj.): lower in rank, not good, or
not as good as someone or something else - 303 contempt (n.): a feeling
that someone or something is not important and deserves no respect - 3 14
fatiguing (adj.): extremely tiring - 315 haltingly (adv.): if you speak or
move haltingly, you stop for a moment between words or movements,
especially because you are not confident - 3 18 heartened (adj.): if you
are heartened, someone or something makes you feel happier and more
hopeful - 323 distressed (adj.): very upset - 329 pit (n.): a hole in the
ground, especially one made by digging - 332 oppress (v.): to treat a
group of people unfairly or cruelly, and prevent them from having the
same rights that other people in society have - 339 confidence (n.): the
belief that you have the ability to do things well or deal with situations
successfully - 343 mosque (n.): a building in which Muslims worship 346 determined (adj.): showing determination (= the quality of trying to
do something even when it is difficult) - 353 gaudy (adj.): clothes, colours, etc. that
are gaudy are too bright and look cheap - 354 conscious (adj.): noticing or realizing
something - 364 inadvertently (adv.): without
realizing what you are doing - 371 fury (n.): extreme, often uncontrolled
anger - 389 pant (v.): to breathe quickly with short noisy breaths, for
example because you have been running or because it is very hot - 391
retaliate (v.): to do something bad to someone because they have done
something bad to you.
The story “My Son the Fanatic”, written in 1994, is about the complicated relationship
between a father and his son and how the difference of opinions of these two
characters brings to surface number of issues which are mainly experienced by the
people of the “Third World”, living in the West. Pavrez is a Pakistani immigrant, living
in England for at least twenty years. He works long hours as a taxi driver to afford a
better life and the best education for his son. He sees his son as the fulfilment of his
‘British dream’, excelling at cricket, swimming and football, achieving straight As in
school, studying accounting at college and on track to “get a good job…marry the
right girl and start a family”(Kureishi, 1997, p. 100). Both, Pavrez and his son, seem to
have different and incompatible notions of Britain and ‘Britishness’: for Parvez, Britain
is both the dream of the perfect life and the constant need to satisfy that dream. He
believes it his job to blend in and not stand out. He embraces all that England has to
offer, shedding his own culture and spiritual background. His enjoyment of drinking
whiskey, eating pork pies and gambling is reflective of his beliefs. To the extent, he
orders his wife to cook bacon and pork sausages, which is forbidden by Islam, saying
“this is England. We have to fit in!” (ibid, p. 104) For Ali, Britain is a “bottomless pit” of
corruption and sin, guilty of oppressing Muslims around the world. He sees it as
immoral, oppressive, corrupt and “a sink of hypocrites, adulterers, homosexuals, drug
takers and prostitutes” (ibid). He does not really see himself as his father’s son.
Instead, Ali seems to define himself in opposing to his father’s ideals. He is against
drinking, gambling and socializing with stranger women. Basically, Ali is against all
what the Western civilization represents, in which his father is “too implicated”. The
conflict arises when Ali begins to turn away from his father’s dream, breaking up with
his “English girlfriend” and throwing away his possessions, stating that “there are
more important things to be done” (ibid, p. 99). However, it is not just Parvez’s ‘British
dream’ that creates conflict, but also his conception of what ‘Britishness’ is. Ali seems
to hate his father attitudes, behaviours and participation in a culture he believes is
decadent. Pavrez appears to be displaying behaviours typically reflective of cultural
liberal perspective. His stance on religion is slightly negative as he had dishonourable
and humiliating experiences with the Maulvi back home when he was a child learning
the Koran “ [they walk] around with their caps and beards, thinking they could tell
people how to live, while their eyes roved over the boys and girls in their care” (ibid, p.
102). Bettina is an English prostitute whom Pavrez befriended for three years. She is
a good friend and a good listener. She represent one set of values for Pavrez and an
entirely different set for Ali. For Pavrez, she represents a confirmation of what makes
sense and what is right. She also represents the liberal tolerance of England that he
embraces. It is evident when he tells her that he is going to evict Ali from his house,
but Bettina replies with words of liberal thinking: “but you must not give up on him,
many young people fall into cults and superstitious groups. It doesn't mean they will
always feel the same way”. Her tolerant outlook is also evident when she insists on
talking to his son in the cab. In contrast to his father, Ali believes that Bettina is an
outsider. Her presence is a challenge to his cultural and social values advocated by
his religion. “A woman like you to touch him like that” “who are you to ask all these
questions?” (ibid, p. 107) these quotes reflects his attitudes towards her. Ali’s
otherness and his father’s heritage can be seen as the main reason underlying his
radical change. The fact that Ali holds a different name, belongs to a different and
distinguishable race and has (probably) a different accent is what makes the process
of assimilating into the community quite brutal. In addition, probably, the native-born
British and their attitudes towards immigrants is what made this process even
impossible. Therefore, it can be concluded that Ali does not feel he is British. He has
neither a British name, nor a white skin. He does not possess the qualities of
Britishness. This is why he has turned to his roots looking for a true identity. Given
this, one would assume that, for Ali, it was only Islam that could forge a brand new
identity and provide him an escape route from the western ideologies. His identity, in
other words, has become religion based. Hunter (1988) writes that, Hutington
believed that Islam and Confucianism had absolute different foundations from that of
the Western civilisation and its “democratic,secular, and liberal social and political
ethos.” The liberal ideas of the West do not find echoes in the conservative religions
like Islam. Therefore, the conflict between the two in unavoidable (Hunter 6). Jawad
(2014) writes that Islam is not only considered as a way of worshipping God but it
serves as an umbrella term of how to lead one’s life. However, the strict routine of life
that Islam demands and its insistence on eschewing the materialism of the earthly life
stands in sharp contrast of the ideologies of the West. This can explain why Ali is
willing to sacrifice his life for his religion and people. This willingness reflects what
Renan means by a nation saying “A nation is therefore a large-scale solidarity,
constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those
that one is prepared to make in the future” (Bhabha, 1999, p. 19). In trying to prevent
his son from being fanatic, Pavrez becomes fanatic himself. Ali means that his father
is fanatically devoted to his life of materialism, putting his faith in sensual pleasures,
to the point of being attached to a prostitute rather that his wife. Pavrez’s fanaticism
can be seen also in his traditional parenting style and his treatment of his wife.
My Son the Fanatic – Characterization of „Parvez“
In the short story “My Son the Fanatic“, written by Hanif Kureishi in 1994, Parvez is
one of the two main characters. The centre is a conflict between Parvez and his son
Ali caused by changes in Ali's behaviour. This characterization will focus on Parvez.
Parvez is a Punjab immigrant (l. 34) and life’s with his son (Ali) and his wife in London
(England). He grew up in Lahore (l. 136), avoided religion and is now a taxi driver for
twenty years, ten years he worked for the same firm. The other taxi drivers are
Punjabis too and “preferred to work at night” when the roads are clearer and the
money better (ll. 31-35). He work’s more than ten hours per day and never went on
holiday (ll. 181-182) to spent “a lot of money (…) for his (Ali’s) education and
accountant” (l. 23).
Parvez is confused and concerned about Ali, because of his changes. He does not
sleep well and dinks more whisky than usual (l. 29-31). Ali give up old things and
changed his way of life drastic. Therefore, Parvez begins to observe Ali and his
environment (l. 1-6, 9). He fears hostility of the other taxi drivers when they know
about his problem with Ali because boast with the success of his son (ll. 40-50). One
night he ceases this silence. “I cannot understand it! He burst out.” (l.54) and “I can’t
talk to him anymore. We were not father and son – we were brothers” (l.55-56) shows
the problematic situation in this relationship. Parvez seems so be very tired about this.
He doesn’t speak to his son but to the other drivers. At the end, he thinks that Ali is
buying drugs and sells his stuff to pay for them (l. 63-69). That shows how much he
doesn’t know about his son, because he is drinking so much and sleeps during the
day. He talks with everybody about this problem, but not with his son himself, after he
observed him for days (l. 82) especially with the prostitute Bettina who he knows for
three years (l. 79). Parvez finds out that Ali is praying and relies to the Koran. He
does not drink alcohol and does not eat pork. This is expressed in a conversation in
the restaurant. Parvez is getting drunk and have a conflict with Ali.
My Son the Fanatic – Relationship between Parvez and Ali
In the short story “My Son the Fanatic“, written by Hanif Kureishi in 1994, Parvez and
Ali are the two main characters. The centre is a conflict between them, caused by
changes in Ali's behaviour. This text will focus on their relationship.
Parvez observed his son for many days (l. 82), because his son changed his
behaviour very fast and drastic. He throws old toys, computer disks, video tapes and
books away and parted from his English girlfriend (l. 8-13). He is also getting tidier (l.
3). Parvez is very desperate and starts drinking more whisky (l. 28-30). That shows
how much Parvez loves his sun but equally that he has no courage or don’t know how
to speak to Ali. This is the beginning of a big break between Ali’s and Parvez’
relationship. He doesn’t speak to his son but to the other drivers and Bettina, the
prostitute (l. 63-69). This underlines the “break”. “I can’t talk to him anymore. We were
not father and son – we were brothers” (l.55-56), Parvez compares the relationship
with brother’s relationship. Brother’s argue more often and talk unshakably. Besides,
many cannot suffer and avoid one another.
He thinks that Ali is buying drugs and sells his stuff to pay for them (l. 63-69). The
relationship is thereby further shaken. We only learn something about Ali's
relationship in the conversations with his father which will be performed later. We
learn there that Ali turned to religion and the Koran. He thinks that “the Western
materialists hate [them]” (l. 222) and Ali cannot understand why his dad loves London
and the Western civilization (l. 223). Ali would give his life for the jihad and he thinks
that we “will be [rewarded] in Paradise” (l. 234-240). Parvez tries to win his son back
by stop drinking alcohol and growing a beard. But Ali didn’t notice that (l. 304-307).
The conflict escalates through an argument between Ali and Bettina (l. 350-378). At
the end of the story, Parvez is drunk (l. 382) (caused by a conflict between Bettina
and Ali (l. 350-378)) and beat Ali until his face is bloody (ll. 388-390). The story finally
ends with the words:
“So who’s the fanatic now?” (l. 392) from Ali.
The relationship is here finally broken. Parvez beat his son and doesn’t win anything.
He lost his son and destroyed the family with this.
My Son the Fanatic – Religion
In the short story “My Son the Fanatic“, written by Hanif Kureishi in 1994, Parvez and
Ali are the two main characters. The centre is a conflict between them, caused by
changes in Ali's behaviour. Ali turned to religion and the Koran. This text will focus on
which role religion plays for Parvez and Ali.
Parvez grew “up in Lahore where all the boys had been taught the Koran (l. 136). He
is now a taxi driver for twenty years, ten years he worked for the same firm (ll. 31-35).
He is integrated and loves his new home, London (l. 253). He drinks alcohol and eats
pork (l. 212, 29). This fact shows that religion doesn’t plays a big role in Parvez life.
He avoids religion because a Maulvi humiliated him when he studied the Koran. The
Maulvi “had attached a piece of string to the ceiling and tied it to Pervez’s hair, so that
if his head fell forward, he would instantly awake” (l.138-140). He has not only averted
himself from religion, he also made fun of it (ll. 141). His son is quite different.
Ali turned to religion and the Koran, don’t drink alcohol or eat pork and parted from his
English girlfriend. The prays five times a day and study the Koran. He thinks that his
father will go to hell with his lifestyle (l. 266). Ali cannot understand why his dad loves
London and the Western civilization, he thinks that they hate him and his father (l.
He would give his life for the jihad and thinks that he would be rewarded in Paradise.
It is clear that Parvez and Ali have different a point of view. But religion is quite
important for the whole story. That topic a current one and many families.
My Son the Fanatic – Last sentence
In the short story “My Son the Fanatic“, written by Hanif Kureishi in 1994, Parvez and
Ali are the two main characters. The centre is a conflict between them, caused by
changes in Ali's behaviour. Ali turned to religion and the Koran. This text will focus on
the last sentence: “So who is the fanatic now?” (l. 392).
Parvez thinks that his son Ali is fanatic because he would give his life for the jihad and
he thinks that the jihad will reward him in Paradise (ll. 234). He turned to religion and
the Koran, don’t drink alcohol or eat pork and parted from his English girlfriend.
This fanatical thinking can also be found in our modern times; example: “ISIS”.
But Ali means something else. His father did not speak directly to him and he has
increased himself in conjectures. This led to extreme mistrust and dispute between
Parvez and Ali.
Harold Pinter. Power Plays and the “Comedy of Menace”: The Dumb Waiter.
“One way of looking at speech is to say it is a constant stratagem of nakedness.”
Until his death in 2008, Harold Pinter (born in 1930) was considered by many critics to
be the “greatest playwright” in Great Britain, a claim that has at times been fiercely
refuted. While critical consensus seems unlikely, in spite of his being awarded the
Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, most of his readers and audiences agree that he
was by far the most original and challenging of the dramatists who emerged towards
the end of the 1950s. The Birthday Party (1958), The Caretaker (1960) and The
Homecoming (1965) were, and continue to be, his most popular plays, the last of
which confirmed his supremacy amongst his generation of dramatists. The
diversification of his work and his prolific artistic output single him out as one of the
most notable literary figures of the second part of the twentieth century and the
beginnings of the twenty first. He was the author of more than thirty plays, twenty-one
screen plays, and director of twenty- seven theatre productions. In his later artistic
and vital period, Pinter became a political activist, campaigning against the War in
Iraq and taking almost every opportunity to make pronouncements on current affairs,
especially denouncing U.S. politics. In fact, over the last twenty years of his life, his
plays were few and far between, and those that he wrote were consistently politicallyinspired.
Pinter grew up in a solid working-class environment, the only child of a Jewish tailor.
His extended families played an important role in his upbringing. Some of the
members of his mother’s family engaged in borderline criminal activities and one of
his uncles was a bare-knuckle boxer, while his father’s relatives were interested in
music, art and literature. These opposing points of view would be an essential feature
of his plays, especially in his later works. The effects of Pinter’s evacuation as a child
during the Second World War were also to be of considerable relevance to his artistic
development. As an adult, he revisited the castle in Cornwall that he and a group of
children were sent to. The recurrent feelings of entrapment and claustrophobia which
are displayed by the protagonists of many of his plays – they generally take place in a
single, prison-like room – are likely to stem from this traumatic separation from his
parents. The bombing of his neighbourhood, the East End of London, also made a
huge impact on Pinter, no doubt fostering the idea that surfaces in his texts that
violence is not only inevitable, but always a threat.
When the war was over, Pinter enrolled in grammar school and lived a relatively carefree period in the wake of his experience as an evacuee. Many of the friends he
made, some of whom were Jewish like himself, would last well into his adult life. It is
not clear to what extent the Holocaust and its aftermath affected the playwright nor
how important his Jewishness was to his work. Pinter referred to this period in his life
during a 1967 interview: “Everyone encounters violence in some way or other. I did
encounter it in quite an extreme form after the war, in the East End, when the Fascists
were coming back to life in England.” Many of his plays are about motiveless
persecution which is no doubt a reaction to this experience as a youth, however
Pinter tends to play down the repercussion of his ethnicity, favouring a more universal
interpretation of his work.
After a year at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he chose to drop out of school
and dedicate his time to reading, writing and acting. When he was drafted, he
registered as a conscientious objector and was imprisoned for a short period of time.
Once he had paid his fines and served his sentence he went back to acting. At age
twenty-six he met the young
actress Vivien Merchant and they were married. At the same time, he worked on two
semi- autobiographic novels: The Queen of All the Fairies and The Dwarfs.
Pinter’s writing career essentially began with the performance of The Room in 1957.
This same year, The Dumb Waiter and The Birthday Party were written. All three of
these plays reveal the immense impact that Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot
(1952) had on the young playwright, which is especially poignant in his representation
of the relationship between Gus and Ben in The Dumb Waiter. He firmly believed that
language was a stratagem to cover vulnerability. Pinter’s dialogue – or lack of it –
echoes Beckett’s strategic use of repetition and pauses. And in the works of both of
these playwrights, the true nature of their characters emerges just as much from what
they do not say as from what they do. However, while Beckett’s silences suggest the
alienation of his characters, who are victims of the tedium and meaninglessness of
modern life, Pinter’s are ominous and threatening, and often foreshadow a violent
denouement. His utilisation of language is in fact so unique that the word
“Pinteresque” (or “Pinterese”) has been coined to refer to the dialogues which
camouflage a menacing situation, a world he creates full of silence and repressed
violence. For this reason, his plays have often been called “Comedies of Menace”: in
the words of Martin Esslin, “plays which can be very funny up to the point when the
absurdity of the characters’ predicament becomes frightening, horrifying, pathetic,
tragic.” Furthermore, the frequent use of pauses within his dialogues has come to be
considered such an outstanding characteristic of his work that at times it has been the
subject of parody and mockery.
John Russell Brown notes that another characteristic that is essential to Pinter’s
dialogue is his exploitation of difference in the awareness of characters upon the
stage. In his article “Dialogue in Pinter and in Others” he highlights Pinter’s ability to
not only write dialogue that presents both conscious and unconscious thoughts, but
his mastery at keeping several flows of consciousness alive in a single conversation
The Birthday Party was received unfavourably and closed in a week. The Caretaker,
however, was extremely successful and has come to be known as one of his most
representative comedies of menace. With this play, Pinter made his breakthrough in
British theatre, marking the abandonment of the blatant symbolism and supernatural
devices used in earlier plays. Written in 1960, it deals with the relationship of three
men who share a single room some place in London. This play, too, echoes Waiting
for Godot, in its themes of communication and the inadequacy of language, yet its
dialogue is more naturalistic, and highlights, once again, the tension and potential
violence that emanate from the roles of domination and submission which define the
characters and are manifested by the way they communicate with one another. The
Caretaker and The Homecoming, first performed in 1965, are probably Pinter’s most
admired and influential plays. The latter was voted the best play on Broadway by the
New York Drama Critics’ Circle in 1967, confirming his supremacy among his fellow
dramatists. It parodies the working-class success story while satirising working-class
males who hide their fear and submissiveness behind sexual aggressiveness and
In Old Time, Pinter’s next success, the playwright returns to one of his earlier themes:
that of an intruder who disturbs the peace of a home and a seemingly stable
marriage. The play’s denouement offers three levels of possible interpretation,
highlighting an ambiguity of events and an indeterminacy of characters, techniques
often used by Pinter to increase dramatic tension while elevating the discomfort level
of his readers. In this sense, an affinity between his ideology and that of the school of
nouveau roman writers in France can be observed: Pinter refuses to pretend to know
how his characters feel and what makes them behave as they do. In his plays, he
aims to present his readers with an account – as close to reality as possible – of what
happens to his characters and what changes take place from the beginning to the
end. They are full of questions that cannot be answered, and we, as readers, are left
to the difficult task of resolving or interpreting. Indeed, this refusal to moralise and his
apparent absence of a moral framework are the features that distinguish him from
other dramatists. As Martin Esslin so appropriately writes, the questions “are raised
as metaphors of the fact that life itself consists of a succession of such questions
which cannot, or will not be capable of an answer.”
Given the prolific nature of this playwright, it would be an ambitious task to discuss all
of his plays, not to mention his screenplays (among them, The French Lieutenant’s
Woman (1990) and The Handmaid’s Tale (1981) by John Fowles and Margaret
Atwood, respectively). The Dumb Waiter was no doubt chosen for the Norton
Anthology because of its status as a typically “Pinteresque” play and it will no doubt
give readers the opportunity to become familiar with the identifying features of his
work. Ben and Gus are hired killers, waiting for Wilson – a theatrical corollary of
Godot – to give them instructions regarding their next “job.” The element of
uncertainty is introduced from the very beginning of the story. We ask ourselves who
they are, where they are and what they are doing there. The two protagonists, Ben
and Gus, engage in a conversation which is defined through a series of pauses and
repetitions that are in turn aided by seemingly harmless and insignificant props. It
becomes immediately evident that of the two men Gus is the most submissive and
insecure. Ben, on the other hand, emits an aura of intimidation and violence, using
silence as a means of domination. Notice, for example, how the men try to control
each other with words and how their short utterances and repetitions seem hostile
and intimidating:
BEN: Go and light it.
GUS: Light what?
BEN: The kettle.
GUS: You mean the gas.
BEN: Who does?
GUS: You do.
BEN: (his eyes narrowing). What do you mean, I mean the gas?
In other parts of the play, to Gus’s worried questioning, Ben responds either by
referring to sordid news items or with repressed anger and emotional vacuity. When
the dumb waiter is introduced, the dialogue shifts away from the two men who are
now confronted with and have to communicate with the unknown person at the end of
the shaft.
Pinter’s plays have been categorised by some critics as “Theatre of noncommunication.” As you read The Dumb Waiter (pages 2594-2616 of The Norton
Anthology), pay careful attention to the way in which the characters are constructed
through language and the absence of it, and the possible sub-texts that can be
extracted. In Pinter’s work, the unspoken, in which the real concerns of the
protagonists are found, can be identified through his explosive silences and nuances
of vocabulary, perhaps even more so through their actions. Consider, as well, the way
in which the writer creates ambiguity in order to force his readers to ultimately reach
their own conclusions.
Two hit-men, Ben and Gus, are waiting in a basement room for their assignment. As
the play begins, Ben, the senior member of the team, is reading a newspaper, and
Gus, the junior member, is tying his shoes. Gus asks Ben many questions as he gets
ready for their job and tries to make tea. They argue over the semantics of "light the
kettle" and "put on the kettle". Ben continues reading his paper for most of the time,
occasionally reading excerpts of it to Gus. Ben gets increasingly animated, and Gus's
questions become more pointed, at times nearly nonsensical.
In the back of the room is a dumbwaiter, which delivers occasional food orders. This
is mysterious and both characters seem to be puzzled why these orders keep coming;
the basement is clearly not outfitted as a restaurant kitchen. At one point they send up
some snack food that Gus had brought along. Ben has to explain to the people above
via the dumbwaiter's "speaking tube" that there is no food.
Gus leaves the room to get a drink of water in the bathroom, and the dumbwaiter's
speaking tube whistles (a sign that there is a person on the other end who wishes to
communicate). Ben listens carefully—we gather from his replies that their victim has
arrived and is on his way to the room. Ben shouts for Gus, who is still out of the room.
The door that the target is supposed to enter from flies open, Ben rounds on it with his
gun, and Gus enters, stripped of his jacket, waistcoat, tie and gun. There is a long
silence as the two stare at each other before the curtain comes down.
The dumb waiter of the title refers to the serving hatch and food lift that delivers
orders to the gunmen. It could also refer to Gus, who fails to realise that he is waiting
to be the victim, or even to Ben, whose obedience to a higher authority eventually
forces him to eliminate his partner.
The windowless basement is characteristic of Pinter's sets. "Pinter's rooms are stuffy,
non-specific cubes, whose atmosphere grows steadily more stale and more tense. At
the opening curtain these rooms look naturalistic, meaning no more than the eye can
contain. But, by the end of each play, they become sealed containers, virtual coffins."
Pinter's writing in The Dumb Waiter combines "the staccato rhythms of music-hall
cross-talk and the urban thriller".The dialogue between Ben and Gus, while seemingly
concerned only with trivial newspaper stories, football matches and cups of tea,
reveals their characters. In Pinter's early plays, "it is language that betrays the villains
– more pat, more cliché-ridden, with more brute power than that of their victims".
In the theatre, the emotional power of the play is more readily felt than understood.
Pinter "created his own theatrical grammar – he didn't merely write characters that
had an emotional response to something... But instead, through his characters'
interactions and phrasings, Pinter seemed to conjure the very visceral emotion itself".
Although the play is realistic in many ways, particularly the dialogue between Ben and
Gus, there are also elements that are unexplained and seemingly absurd, particularly
the messages delivered by the dumb waiter itself, and the delivery of an envelope
containing twelve matchsticks. Pinter is notable for leaving the plays open to
interpretation, "wanting his audience to complete his plays, to resolve in their own
ways these irresolvable matters".Pinter stated that "between my lack of biographical
data about [the characters] and the ambiguity of what they say lies a territory which is
not only worthy of exploration but which it is compulsory to explore".
One interpretation is that the play is an absurdist comedy about two men waiting in a
universe without meaning or purpose, like Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. "The
Dumb Waiter.... achieves, through its unique blend of absurdity, farce, and surface
realism, a profoundly moving statement about the modern human condition".
Another interpretation is that the play is a political drama showing how the individual
is destroyed by a higher power. "Each of Harold Pinter's [first] four plays ends in the
virtual annihilation of an individual.... It is by his bitter dramas of dehumanisation that
he implies "the importance of humanity". The religion and society, which have
traditionally structured human morality, are, in Pinter's plays, the immoral agents that
destroy the individual." Pinter supported the interpretation of The Birthday
Party and The Dumb Waiter as "political plays about power and victimisation".
Overall, "it makes much more sense if seen as a play about the dynamics of power
and the nature of partnership. Ben and Gus are both victims of some unseen authority
and a surrogate married couple quarrelling, testing, talking past each other and raking
over old times". It is "a strongly political play about the way a hierarchical society, in
pitting the rebel against the conformist, places both at its mercy", but at the same time
"a deeply personal play about the destructiveness of betrayal".
"For an audience to gaze into Ben and Gus' closed basement room and overhear
their everyday prattle is to gain insight into ... the terrifying vision of the dominantsubservient battle for power, a battle in which societies and individuals engage as a
part of daily existence".
Although the play uses "the semantic nit-picking that is a standard part of music hall
comedy" and is generally considered funny, this is not comedy for its own sake, but "a
crucial part of the power-structure".
"The comedy routines in the early plays are maps to the themes and meaning of the
plays as a whole.... Our failure to laugh may be an indication that we, the audience,
have come to side (or have been taught to side) with the victim rather than the
The stories Ben picks out from his newspaper have a similar purpose. He describes
an old man, wanting to cross the street, who crawls under a lorry and is run over by it
(but it is not clear if the man is killed or not). Ben seems to expect the response,
"What an idiot!" but Gus replies "Who advised him to do a thing like that?" which shifts
responsibility and suggests the old man was a victim to be pitied. "The eventual split
between Ben and Gus is foreshadowed in the very first joke.... By the end of the play,
Pinter has trained us to see that the content of the joke-exchange is meaningless:
what is important is the structure, and the alliances and antagonisms it reveals.
The Anthology The New Poetry (1962), ed. A. Alvarez. Influence of
the American Confessional Poets.
In 1962, the English writer and literary critic A. Alvarez, published The New Poetry
– a poetic anthology in which he joined the work of what he considered to be the most
significant figures of the post-war scene in Great Britain. It was hailed as a fresh
perspective on literature, and the impact of this selection of poetry has been greatly
responsible for introducing readers to many of the leading poets of the second half of
the twentieth century.
In his controversial introduction entitled “The New Poetry or Beyond the Gentility
Principle,” he contrasts British and North American poets, championing the American
style as opposed to the excessive “gentility” of British poetry. Alvarez praises poets
like Robert Lowell and Ted Hughes for taking risks, dealing openly with their own
experiences and transforming poetry into a therapeutic interaction between poet and
reader. And despite Alvarez’s “Prefatory Note”: “This is not, in short, an anthology for
the reader who wants a complete guide to the contemporary poetic scene … I am,
instead, simply attempting to give my idea of what, that really matters, has happened
to poetry in England during the last decade,” his choice of poets was greatly disputed.
Nevertheless, The New Poetry was widely read and became extremely influential,
and it was not until twenty years later that another serious anthology of British poetry
was published (The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, edited by Blake
Morrison and Andrew Motion).
Alvarez divided his Anthology into two sections: “The Americans” and “The British.”
John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton were the American
poets chosen as those worthy of attention, for they were “able to write poetry of
immense skill and intelligence which coped openly with the quick of their experience,
sometimes on the edge of disintegration and breakdown.” English poets, on the
contrary, were still intent on maintaining the stance of what he referred of as
“gentility”: the belief that “life is always more or less orderly, people always more or
less polite, their emotions and habits more or less decent and more or less
controllable; that God, in short, is more or less good.” He added that the main reason
England had managed to perpetuate this attitude was because of the fact that
England, as an island, was isolated from the rest of the world.
According to Alvarez, after World War II this insulation began to break down, and the
“forces of disintegration” began to destroy the old standards of civilisation. This new
climate began to gradually produce a modern English poetry characterised by “a new
seriousness” and “the poet’s ability and willingness to face the full range of his
experience with his full intelligence; not to take the easy exits of either the
conventional response or the choking incoherence.” Some of the British poets whom
he considered worthy of this new category and whose poetry was included in this
Anthology were Donald Davie, Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, John Wain, Thom Gunn,
Geoffrey Hill and Ted Hughes. Altogether, he selected poems by twenty-eight poets.
Because of their rendering of personal experiences and their disregard for social
convention, the American poets that Alvarez advocated were to later be referred to as
“Confessional Poets.” In 1980, critic M. L. Rosenthal used the term “confession” when
speaking of Robert Lowell’s work. Irving Howe was also partly responsible for coining
the poetry of Lowell, and later that of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and W. D. Snodgrass
as “confessional.” This critic argued that “a confessional poem would seem to be one
in which the writer speaks to the reader, telling him, without the mediating presence of
imagined event or persona, something about his life.” Themes that had previously and
decorously been hidden from society were confronted by these poets: insanity,
suicide, sex, repressed feelings, were dealt with explicitly. However, what made a
poem confessional was not only its subject matter or the emphasis on oneself, but
also the directness with which the themes were addressed. These poets made an
artifice of sincerity and authenticity by discussing “real” situations and relationships.
The two poets discussed in this section were both included in A. Alvarez’s The New
Poetry as representatives of what this critic considered to be a new tendency in
poetry. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were married to each other, and their lives were
plagued by both tragedy and controversy which culminated in Plath’s suicide in 1963
at age thirty. Thus, each poet’s work – Hughes, considered one of the most significant
British poets of the twentieth century, and Plath, a complex and ambivalent
Confessional poet whose work has progressively gained its deserved recognition over
the years – is very different, yet hinges inevitably on that of the other.
Ted Hughes. The World of Primitivism, Folk-tales and Myth. Fantasies of
Animal Violence: Crow (1970), Wolf Watching (1989).
“It is occasionally possible, just for brief moments, to find the words that will unlock the doors of
all those many mansions in the head and express something …” (Poetry in the Making).
Edward James Hughes was born in West Yorkshire in 1930, the third child of William and Edith
Hughes. His older brother, Gerald, was to be the most important figure of his early childhood.
When Hughes was still quite young, they would go hunting and camping together, and the hours
he spent on the barren Yorkshire moors were to leave a strong and lasting impression on him,
surely account for the poet’s early passion for animals, his sharp eye for the natural world and
his love of the countryside.
When he was eight, Hughes moved with his family to Mexborough, a mining town in South
Yorkshire where his parents opened a newsagent’s shop. Uprooted, the Hughes children disliked
their new town, and particularly Ted must have missed the countryside and his frequent
adventure expeditions with his brother. However, soon after, at Grammar school, he made
friends with a boy whose family lived on a nearby estate where he could stay for weekends,
hunting and fishing as he had done with Gerald, who was no longer living at home. Nature,
therefore, was to be a constant variable during Hughes’ childhood – in his eloquent
autobiographical essay, “The Rock,” he claims that his childhood experience on the Yorkshire
moorland became the vital connecting element of much of his later poetry. His poems are also
influenced by the local dialect that he spoke as a child, which was lost as he grew older but can
be seen in his earlier work.
Hughes’ English teachers at Mexborough Grammar School encouraged him to write, and at age
eleven he was already showing an interest in writing comic verse. Then, in 1946 he won an
Open Exhibition in English to Pembroke College, Cambridge, but decided to do his National
Service before attending. During this period, he spent his spare time “reading and re-reading”
Shakespeare. When he enrolled at Cambridge as an English major in 1951, he found that his
creativity was stifled by his studies, and changed to Archaeology and Anthropology in his third
year. His readings in mythology, folklore, primitivism and his study of Robert Graves’ The White
Goddess were to exert a strong influence on his poetry, especially on that of his Crow, Gaudete
and Cave Birds collections. D. H. Lawrence was also to have a profound impact on his work –
his switch to Anthropology at Cambridge was prompted by a dream which he later describes in
“The Thought-Fox,” which was in turn inspired by Lawrence’s story “The Fox.”
After graduating in 1954, Hughes took part-time jobs and wrote pieces for small magazines. In
1956, he and a group of friends decided to publish their own poetry magazine, the St. Botolph’s
Review. At the inauguration party, he met Sylvia Plath, who was studying at Cambridge on a
Fulbright grant, and they married four months later. While Plath completed her studies, Hughes
taught at a high school, and both occupied most of their free time writing poetry. Plath also took
on the task of typing up her husband’s best poems and submitted them to a competition for
unpublished poets sponsored by the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association.
The judges chose Hughes’ The Hawk in the Rain from 287 submissions and the prize was
published by Harper in both the United States and England. This first volume contained some of
his most forceful work, with powerful, representative poems like “The Thought-Fox,” “The Hawk
in the Rain” and “The Jaguar”, in which his freshness and directness of diction and entirely
unsentimental approach towards nature and animals impressed critics, and he was hailed as a
significant new voice in English poetry. Themes that were to be recurrent in his poetry were to
make their first appearance in these poems: violence, animals, war, the self with respect to
nature, and personal relationships.
Plath and Hughes lived in the United States for several years, first in Massachusetts, where the
former decided to give up her studies to become a full-time writer, and then at the artists’ colony
Yaddo in up-state New York, where both of them composed a collection of poems: Plath wrote
Colossus, and Hughes completed Lupercal (named after the place where Romulus and Remus
were said to have been found by the lactating wolf who nursed them). In his second volume of
poetry, he depicts the brutality of the natural world possessed by beasts and animalistic men,
and while he varies little in subject matter from The Hawk in the Rain, he shows a greater
economy of style. Of Lupercal, A. Alvarez wrote that it was the “first true sign of thaw in the
dreary freeze-up of contemporary verse.” The most anthologised of all of his poems, “Hawk
Roosting,” is found in this collection:
I sit in the top of the wood, my eyes closed. Inaction, no falsifying dream
Between my hooked head and hooked feet: Or in sleep rehearse perfect kills and eat.
The convenience of the high trees! The air’s buoyancy and the sun’s ray Are of advantage to me;
And the earth’s face upward for my inspection.
My feet are locked upon the rough bark. It took the whole of Creation
To produce my foot, my each feather: Now I hold Creation in my foot
Or fly up, and revolve it all slowly –
I kill where I please because it is all mine. There is no sophistry in my body:
My manners are tearing off heads –
The allotment of death.
For the one path of my flight is direct Through the bones of the living.
No arguments assert my right:
The sun is behind me.
Nothing has changed since I began. My eye has permitted no change.
I am going to keep things like this.
This is one of a number of Hughes’ animal poems, which are almost always harsh, painting a
violent and grim picture of Nature, which is relentless and defies all prospects of change and
progression. The reader is presented with the reflections of a hawk that is surveying the world as
it rests on a tree-top. By using the thought processes of a hawk as his central metaphor for the
arrogance and egotism of man, he points to the implications of this attitude: the hawk kills those
who challenge his authority, and the result is that nothing can or will ever change.
In December of 1959 the couple returned to England and bought a home in Devon. Frieda, their
first child, was born in 1960, followed two years later by Nicholas. During this period, Hughes
wrote radio plays, gave talks and interviews, wrote reviews and read his own poetry, while
nursing Plath through bouts of depression. These years were to be marked by her tragic death in
1963. In 1962, and after discovering that her husband was having an affair, the couple
separated, and she moved back to London, where she wrote many of the poems later published
posthumously in the acclaimed volume Ariel. After her death, Hughes stopped writing poetry for
three years and dedicated much of his time to editing and publishing his wife’s poems. According
to Elaine Feinstein, author of a recent biography on the poet, Hughes never recovered from
Plath’s death.
When he began writing again, Hughes concentrated primarily on literature for children. After
publishing The Earth-Owl and Other Moon-People, a remarkable collection of poems, and taking
part in numerous projects, he began to focus on poetry addressed to adult readers once again.
Most of the poems in Wodwo (1967) had been written before 1963. The volume also included
five short stories and a surrealistic radio play reminiscent of Robert Graves’ The White Goddess.
The “wodwo” of Hughes’ poetry is described in Gawain and the Green Knight as a wild troll of the
forest – Ted Hughes defines it as “some sort of a goblin creature.” The poem starts with the troll
asking, “What am I?” and continues as an enigmatic soliloquy in which the creature tries to
discover what it is as it wanders through the forest. This collection marked a turning point in
Hughes’ poetry as he becomes more interested in mythology and less formal in structure.
His friendship with the American artist Leonard Baskin gradually led to the frequent collaboration
between the two, and they began to produce books of poems and paintings. It was in fact
Baskin’s request for poems to accompany his drawings of crows that motivated Hughes to start
writing his Crow sequence in 1966 and publish it in 1970. Of the poems in Crow: From the Life
and Songs of the Crow, Hughes said, “The idea was originally just to write … the songs that a
crow would sing. In other words, songs with no music whatsoever, in a super-simple and a
super-ugly language which would in a way shed everything except just what he wanted to say
without any other consideration.” Although they do not always adhere to these tenets, the poems
are generally narrated with direct, declarative sentences, and are, more often than not, cruel and
grotesque in content.
Hughes’ Crow is inspired by the Native-American mythical figure of the Trickster – a mischievous
and disruptive character, often a raven, that frustrates God’s plans by bringing about chaos and
destruction, although the Trickster figure has appeared in many guises and in stories from many
countries. Paul Radin, an authority on the Trickster Cycles of the Native Americans, describes
him as being “at one and the same time creator and destroyer, giver and negator, he who dupes
others and is always duped himself … He knows neither good nor evil, yet is responsible for
both. He possesses no values, moral or social … Laughter, humour and irony permeate
everything he does ….” As a symbol, Crow is inconsistent, and interpreting his role in the work
as a whole is difficult. Hughes claimed in an interview that all of the poems together represent
the story of Crow as he is trying to become a man. However, in a later interview, Hughes said
that “The story is not really relevant to the poems as they stand.” What is clear is that they
address religious questions and that the God depicted in Crow is well-meaning, but not very
Crow’s interference in God’s work begins with “A Childish Prank.” God has created Adam and
Eve, but has trouble getting their souls into their bodies. Crow intervenes by inventing sex:
Man awoke being dragged across the grass.
Woman awoke to see him coming. Neither knew what had happened.
God went on sleeping. Crow went on laughing.
God is at first indulgent, and tries to teach Crow human skills and emotions and change his
selfish nature. But he fails in his efforts, and the Trickster haughtily invents his own Theology,
“Crow’s Theology,” whose God is:
…much bigger than the other Loving his enemies
And having all the weapons.
By creating the quasi-human figure of Crow, Hughes explores the human psyche, and often
adopts the Crow “mask” to take on the role of Trickster himself. Inspired by shamanism, myths
and spiritual teaching, he reworks the legends of the Creation and the Apocalypse from a
nihilistic point of view. Some critics saw the overall bleakness of these poems as a response to
Sylvia Plath’s death, while others criticized him for his misanthropic fixation with violence. In
“Hawk Roosting,” the hawk has been interpreted by some as a “fascist” symbol of a “horrible
totalitarian genocidal dictator,” although Hughes claims that “in this hawk Nature is thinking.
Simply thinking.” These poems offer a vision of the physical and the metaphysical, the surface of
the world and that which lies beneath. Through them, Hughes transmits his conviction that man
has failed to connect with the natural world, and that his well-being will only come when
communion between the two is reached. The notion that man will be forever incapable of making
any sense of his existence unless Nature is reencountered lingers in all of his poetry, especially
in his animal poems.
This shamanic quest for what it means to be human and the theme of coming to terms with the
relationship of the self with the physical universe are further explored in Gaudete (1977) and
Remains of Elmet (1979), in which mythology, folklore and Eastern philosophies prevail. The first
was originally conceived as a film, and is a story told in a sequence of poems, whose
protagonist, Reverend Lumb, is abducted by the spirits of the underworld. The latter was written
in collaboration with the photographer Fay Godwin, and is a celebration of the countryside of his
childhood, before moving with his family to Mexborough. The poems trace the landscape and the
environment of West Yorkshire from early Palaeolithic times to present decline and decadence.
Ted Hughes succeeded John Betjeman as Poet Laureate in 1984. One of his most outstanding
works published during the eighties is his fourteenth collection of poems, Wolfwatching (1989),
where the poet combines references to Native American ritual practices and modern British life,
exploring themes that he had discussed in Remains of Elmet (an area of East Yorkshire), and
incorporating intimate poems about family members during his youth in Yorkshire, in the years
following World War I. Hughes depicts himself as an old wolf that looks back at those who have
been important to him. By using the image of the wolf, he highlights its predatory energy, which
the poet believes is part of our nature, and is necessary. When suppressed, as it is by society, it
becomes dangerous and threatening.
Shortly before his death in 1998, Hughes published a collection of 88 poems which cover his life
with and without Sylvia Plath and that immediately became a best-seller. In the decades
following his wife’s suicide, he had been attacked by many critics for abandoning Plath, and was
seen by some as her betrayer, greatly responsible for her death. This accusation continues to be
the source of speculation today. The fact that he reordered her Ariel poems and lost or destroyed
significant pieces further deteriorated his public image. He was publicly silent on the subject for
over thirty years; however, as he grew older, much of his artistic energy was spent on defending
himself. Birthday Letters is his response to Plath and to the controversy she left behind. In these
poems, which range from narrative verse to highly compact prose, the natural world is, once
again, a key recurring motif, as Hughes comes to terms with their relationship, and explicitly
documents it in a sequence of lyrics cast as a conversation with his wife. The moods shift from
tenderness to grief as he portrays a loving but complex marriage that ultimately failed. The
hopeful, early days of their life together are depicted in “Daffodil,” while her absence can be felt
in “The Hands” and “The Prism.”
Upon his death, Ted Hughes’ reputation was mixed. His animal poems, his anthology of
children’s writings and his appointment as Poet Laureate had gained him the admiration of the
British public. However, the questionable editing practices carried out by Hughes and his sister
Olwyn on Plath’s work – changing the order of her poems, censoring her published Journals, and
destroying her most important diaries – have cast a shadow over his own literary production, and
it has not been until recent years that critics are beginning to give a more balanced account of
the nature of the Hughes/Plath relationship and the decisions he made up until 1991, after when
he ceased to be literary agent of her estate.
Ted Hughes And A Summary of Hawk Roosting
Hawk Roosting is a poem that puts the reader into the imagined mind of a hawk about to rest up
for the day. It's a monologue of a raptor given the powers of human thinking, thus personified.
It is a typical Ted Hughes animal poem, being unsentimental and unromantic. The poet
concentrates on the dominance of the hawk as it sits in the wood reflecting on its raison d'etre,
what it is and what it does.
Being at the top of the food chain this bird's instinct is to hunt down quarry; it lives by the deaths
of other creatures; it kills in order to survive. It has no enemies except perhaps for humans so it
does not fear life as other creatures further down the chain fear it.
Inspired by the rawness of the natural world, the speaker does not shy from explicit description.
Some lines in the poem cause controversy because of their direct depiction of the hawk's
instinctive behaviour.
Some commentators have remarked on the violence within. Ted Hughes had this to say:
'The poem of mine usually cited for violence is Hawk Roosting, this drowsy hawk sitting in a
wood and talking to itself. That bird is accused of being a fascist, the symbol of some horrible
genocidal dictator. Actually what I had in mind was that in this hawk Nature was thinking. Simply
So there is this tension set up in the poem between what is instinctive, what can be
observed in the natural world by anyone, and the mindset of the hawk itself, given human
characteristics. Objective versus subjective. Biological versus political.
Ted Hughes first published Hawk Roosting in 1960 in the book Lupercal and it has been a
popular poem since that time, appearing in many anthologies and on many school and college
Hawk Roosting
I sit in the top of the wood, my eyes closed.
Inaction, no falsifying dream
Between my hooked head and hooked feet:
Or in sleep rehearse perfect kills and eat.
The convenience of the high trees!
The air's buoyancy and the sun's ray
Are of advantage to me;
And the earth's face upward for my inspection.
My feet are locked upon the rough bark.
It took the whole of Creation
To produce my foot, my each feather:
Now I hold Creation in my foot
Or fly up, and revolve it all slowly I kill where I please because it is all mine.
There is no sophistry in my body:
My manners are tearing off heads -
The allotment of death.
For the one path of my flight is direct
Through the bones of the living.
No arguments assert my right:
The sun is behind me.
Nothing has changed since I began.
My eye has permitted no change.
I am going to keep things like this.
Analysis of Hawk Roosting - Stanza by Stanza
Hawk Roosting is a poem that creates a special tension between the natural world and the
human world, one that Ted Hughes explored a great deal in his animal poems.
This particular work relies on personification - the bird is speaking to itself, like a human describing violent scenes, claiming domination, which means that the reader has to
wrestle with ideas that go beyond the animal kingdom and into the realm of the human
and associated psychological and political issues.
Some critics see in the ruthless behaviour of the hawk for instance, a despot or dictator, a figure
that cares only about power, a symbol of the fascist. Ted Hughes never intended this to be the
case but the way the poem is worded, detailing explicit violence and arrogant god-like thoughts,
the reader can't help but entertain the idea.
The hawk, roosting in the top of a tree in a wood, is given a voice that is human and the ensuing
monologue is an attempt to get right into the soul of the raptor and understand just what hawk
essence is.
Using single sentences, lots of end stops (full stops), some enjambment and repetition, the
stanzas are tightly controlled but given a sense of freedom by lack of rhyme and plodding beats.
Stanza 1
The first line is pure innocence. Here is the hawk settling down for a night's sleep at roosting
time. The position he holds is secure - at the top of the wood, overseeing all. One thing for
certain, this hawk has a mind of its own. It can think, like a human.
The second line gets the reader thinking too. That long four syllable word falsifying has
repercussions. At this early stage there is no context for this word, which means to mislead, but it
points toward comparison with humans, who are prone to misleading one another. This bird is
pure raptor, can't be anything else.
Enjambment leads to line three and the repeated hooked just to emphasise that this hawk is
physically impressive and sharp. And those hooked features might be called into action if the
hawk falls asleep. Subconscious perfection of future hunts and kills.
Stanza 2
This hawk has it all worked out, from tree to earth, his physicality suits. Being high up means that
there is an overview, a natural domination. The air's buoyancy (upward force) and warmth are
there to be taken advantage of. Even the earth is facing the right way so close inspection comes
as a given.
Stanza 3
Focus on the feet again as they close tight around the bark on the tree. Note the first lines of five
of the stanzas are complete within themselves. End stopped. This means certainty and gives
immediate control.
The theme of mastery continues, this time introducing the idea of the whole of Creation being
within the grasp of this extremely dominant figure.
Lines 10 - 12 are a focal point in the poem for they suggest that Creation itself was
involved in the making of this hawk and that now, the roles are reversed so to speak. It's
the hawk that is holding Creation, becoming the master of all.
The question has to be asked: Is this the Creation of a Creator or the Creation of
Evolution, where the fittest only survive?
Analysis of Hawk Roosting - Stanza by Stanza
Stanza 4
The perspective changes as the hawk continues its monologue, which is not a dream as we
know it, but a live commentary.
Now the hawk is flying, watching the earth revolve as it makes its way up and up in readiness for
a kill. That all important four letter word that first popped up in the opening stanza is here again
- kill - I kill - that act which is so common and normal in the predator's world yet is so shocking
and hard to handle in the human world.
This is killing with impunity. The hawk has to hunt, it knows no other way and in the poem this
fact is expressed with a certain coldness. The language is spare yet full of arrogance and
fierceness. Everything belongs to the hawk when it is up in the air and ready to kill; there is no
deception, no going back. Heads are torn off. Simple.
Stanza 5
The hawk deals out appropriate deaths, that is the purpose of the unwavering path when it is
about to strike 'through the bones', a rather terrifying yet effective phrase.
There are no doubts or questions or debate or opinion one way or the other. Fact is fact; it's the
whole thing. Nothing can get in the way of the hawk's instinctive actions. It kills without malice;
the bird world's permissions are non-existent; environmental guidelines do not apply.
Stanza 6
All a hawk needs is the sun. Right now the sun is setting. In the mind of the hawk nothing has
changed, nothing ever will change. As long as the hawk has an eye, the all-seeing eye, its will to
remain the same shall persist.
This last stanza sums up the hawk's attitude to life and death. In one sense it is a pure ego that
is speaking - undiluted, pure, true to itself.
Having given the hawk a human voice Ted Hughes brings the raptor into the world of homo
sapiens, that most developed of animals, the most sophisticated, able to consciously decide
between the moral and the immoral.
In some ways the hawk becomes a mirror - reading this poem does make the reader think about
life and death, power, morals, the relationship humans should have or want with, the natural
What force compels the hawk? Evolution? A Creator? How does the personification change the
way we think about this raptor, master of its own world, top predator?
Hawk Roosting - Syntax And Language
Hawk Roosting is a free verse poem of 6 stanzas, all quatrains. There is no set rhyme scheme
and the metre (meter in American English) varies from line to line. On the page it appears formal,
tight, restrained - perhaps reflecting the balanced control of the hawk.
Syntax is the way clauses, punctuation, grammar and sentences are put together and in this
poem it is quite orthodox. There are no strange eccentricities, no odd line breaks or grammatical
It gets the business of building a poem done, just as the hawk gets the business of living done through ruthless control and efficiency.
Note the way many lines are end stopped, again reinforcing the idea of strictness and
straightforward action.
Repetition and particular use of vocabulary help underline this poem's powerful message. For
example, in the first stanza the word hooked appears twice, so giving the feel of practicality and
savage function. Raptors have incredibly sharp beaks (bills) and claws (talons) that absolutely
get the job done.
And also in the fourth line the phrase perfect kills and eat give the reader further food for thought
with regards to what this bird is all about. The verb to kill occurs again in stanza four.
The idea that the hawk is invincible and made for one purpose gradually strengthens. Here is a
bird in complete control, holding even Creation in its foot, pleasing itself as to whether to kill or
Note the build up of related words: hooked/locked/rough/kill/tearing off/death/bones which
suggest physicality, and the contrasting abstract phrases: no falsifying dream/in sleep
rehearse/no sophistry/through the bones/No arguments assert.
This creates another set of tensions based upon the duality of the physical world the hawk
inhabits and the mental construct imagined by the poet.
The use of words such as falsifying and sophistry (deception) help sharpen the distinction
between the purely animal and the human.
Ted Hughes and Wind
Wind is a poem full of imagery, forceful language and movement. It is a typical Ted Hughes
poem in that it explores the idea of struggle with and within nature, the first person speaker
directly connecting the reader with the monstrous power of the wind.
This poem evokes a sense of terror and danger, the wind being experienced as a threat as it hits
the house and surrounding countryside, causing havoc like some primitive invader.
Throughout the six stanzas there is a tone of impending doom as the onslaught continues
through the night and into the day. The relentless wind instils tension, not only in the fabric
of the land but in the minds of the two people in the house.
It's a poem that creates tense drama within a timeline of night, dawn, noon and afternoon; and
with metaphor, simile and other poetic devices immerses the reader in a kind of life or death
situation, as is so often the case in poetry by Ted Hughes.
First published in 1957 in his first book The Hawk In The Rain, Wind continues to impress
readers with its physical language and vivid imagery. There is also an immediacy about it that
grabs the attention.
This is not a comfortable poem to dwell in but a thought-provoking blast that urges and prompts what is it like to experience elemental power and what might the effect be on the vulnerable or
helpless human, with little or no control?
Or is this a wind of change for the couple who cannot quite get their act together, because of the
imposing wind, or despite the fierce gales?
This house has been far out at sea all night,
The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills,
Winds stampeding the fields under the window
Floundering black astride and blinding wet
Till day rose; then under an orange sky
The hills had new places, and wind wielded
Blade-light, luminous black and emerald,
Flexing like the lens of a mad eye.
At noon I scaled along the house-side as far as
The coal-house door. Once I looked up –
Through the brunt wind that dented the balls of my eyes
The tent of the hills drummed and strained its guyrope,
The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace,
At any second to bang and vanish with a flap:
The wind flung a magpie away and a blackBack gull bent like an iron bar slowly. The house
Rang like some fine green goblet in the note
That any second would shatter it. Now deep
In chairs, in front of the great fire, we grip
Our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought,
Or each other. We watch the fire blazing,
And feel the roots of the house move, but sit on,
Seeing the window tremble to come in,
Hearing the stones cry out under the horizons.
Analysis of Wind
Wind is an evocative mix of powerful language and stunning imagery. It could be construed as a
simple human versus nature poem but there is a slight twist near the end which throws this basic
theme up into the air.
From the first line the reader is taken into the dramatic world of the first person speaker, the
initial image being that of a vessel far out at sea, isolated by the all encompassing violence of the
strong wind.
With onomatopoeia and other poetic devices, the poem progresses through a timeline totally
controlled by nature - the wind just doesn't let go, it forces itself into the life of this individual and
his partner/friend/relative.
Not only humans are affected. Even the birds are subject to this elemental battering, a magpie
being flung, whilst a gull is bent like an iron bar, an incredible image, a forceful simile.
The internal rhymes and echoes reinforce the idea of a connected world, despite the destructive
nature of the gale....
It's this gutteral diction, together with harsh accent and snappy vowels that build an atmosphere
of tension and danger.
The syntax is made for headlong rush and temporary reprieve, the punctuation allowing for
pause whilst the enjambment encourages flow and increased energy.
The question is: how to cope in such a wind, how to come to terms with such power, enough to
completely wipe out the scene, according to the speaker, who is caught up in the wind's dreadful
So there is an existential aspect to this poem, which manifests near the end when the
speaker comes inside, sits by the fire and presumably tries to communicate with whoever
is next to him, in a separate chair.
Is this a friend, a lover, a relative? The reader is left in the dark. There's no telling if they'll
As the wind powers on, the two sense that a great disturbance is about to take place....their
domestic life is to be shaken to the core?
The final stanza is like something pout of a gothic horror movie. There they are sitting by the
roaring fire, unable to talk, incapable; and the urgent wind continues to sweep and batter the
landscape. Upheaval is imminent.
Further Analysis of Wind
Wind is a formal looking six stanza poem, each stanza a quatrain so making 24 lines in total. It
is, loosely, a free verse poem because it doesn't have a strict rhyme scheme or a set, consistent
metre (meter in American English). On the page it looks formal.
Whilst there is no rhyme scheme as such, some of the end lines in each quatrain do fully rhyme,
or are imperfect rhymes. Full rhymes tend to bring harmony and complete meaning, imperfect
bring some dissonance and confusion:
Stanza 1 has: night/wet (pararhyme)
Stanza 2 has: sky/eye...wielded/emerald (full + pararhyme)
Stanza 3 has: as/eyes...up/guyrope (2 pararhymes)
Stanza 4 has: grimace/house...flap/black (pararhyme + slant rhyme)
Stanza 5 has: note/thought...deep/grip (2 pararhymes)
Stanza 6 has: blazing/horizons...on/in (near rhyme + pararhyme)
Metre (meter in USA)
This is certainly no steady, plodding iambic poem because the metric rhythms vary such a great
deal, reflecting the erratic, unpredictable wind. But there are pentameters with iambic feet every
so often which sort of goes against the grain of this very physical battered poetic landscape.
So mostly pentameters with the occasional hexameter, and extra beats here and there to vary
the mix.
Let's have a look at the first stanza from a metric point of view:
This house / has been / far out / at sea / all night,
The woods / crashing / through dark / ness, the / booming / hills,
Winds stam / peding / the fields / under / the win / dow
Flounder / ing black / astride / and blind / ing wet
The first line is iambic pentameter, five regular feet, but the rest of the stanza is a mix of trochee
and iamb, bringing sudden stress, as in lines three and four.
Each stanza from then on has its quota of iambic feet mixed with trochee and spondee and
pyrrhic, as in stanza 2, line 7:
Blade-light, / lumin / ous black / and em / erald,
This contrast of spondee (double stress) and pyrrhic (double non stress) again suggests power
and helplessness, as described in the poem.
More Analysis - Poetic Devices
There are several examples of alliteration:
Stanza 1: house astride and blinding.
Stanza 2: hills had....wind wielded...Blade-light,luminous the lens.
Stanza 4: Back gull bent like an iron bar.
Stanza 5: green goblet....front of the great fire.
Stanza 6: We watch.
Assonance is to vowel what alliteration is to consonant:
Stanza 3: as far as.
Stanza 4: a magpie away and a.
When a line or stanza carries on to the next without punctuation, ensuring a flow and
continuation of meaning. The poet uses this device a lot - in all stanzas but the last.
Language (Diction)
This poem has such strong language, reflecting the wind's strength and the speaker's awe in the
face of such elemental energy.
Note the use of several present participle, active verbs that enliven the whole poem and give
variation on a theme of dramatic intensity:
woods crashing...booming hills...Winds stampeding...Floundering black...The fields blazing
Other verbs reinforce the tone of the poem:
wind wielded...dented the balls...drummed and strained...bang and
vanish...flung...bent...Rang...shatter....grip....feel.....tremble...cry out.
The first line introduces the metaphorical idea that the house is or has been a ship (or boat or
vessel), out at sea.
The second stanza has Blade-light, that is, the light is a cutting instrument.
And the third stanza has the tent of the hills, suggesting temporariness and tension as the wind
blasts the hill.
Where objects and things take on human characteristics:
wind wielded....The fields quivering....skyline a grimace...window tremble....stones cry out.
Flexing like the lens of a mad eye.
...a black/Back gull bent like an iron bar slowly.
The house/Rang like some fine green goblet
I found this jawbone at the sea's edge:
There, crabs, dogfish, broken by the breakers or tossed
To flap for half an hour and turn to crust
Continue the beginning. The deeps are cold:
In that darkness camaraderie does not hold.
Nothing touches but, clutching, devours. And the jaws,
Before they are satisfied or their stretched purpose
Slacken, go down jaws; go gnawn bare. Jaws
Eat and are finished and the jawbone comes to the beach:
This is the sea's achievement; with shells,
Verterbrae, claws, carapaces, skulls.
Time in the sea eats its tail, thrives, casts these
Indigestibles, the spars of purposes
That failed far from the surface. None grow rich
In the sea. This curved jawbone did not laugh
But gripped, gripped and is now a cenotaph
Analysis of "Relic"
In this first stanza, the speaker comes across a jawbone that has washed upon the shore. The
shore is littered with bones, shells, and other fragments of creatures that used to be alive. Notice
throughout the rest of the poem, the way in which he connects the fate of the animals to the fate
of mankind: "Hughes simply wishes to imply, that we, too are only animals in the universe, and
live and die as helplessly and as unavoidably as any other animal form" (Vendler). Pay special
attention to the phrase "continue the beginning". I found this phrase to a theme of not only the
poem, but of most of Hughes' work. Also take notice of the way in which Hughes describees the
sea: "deep", "cold", "dark"... Not exactly a place that's rolling out the welcome wagon.
The second stanza presents an excellent example of Hughes' style: "Hughes likes violent
phrases, thick sounds, and explosive verbs" (Vendler). In the first line the speaker states
"nothing touches but, clutching, devours". The words themselves eminate violence and Hughes
often uses his words as a method to create movement. See if you can find other examples of his
unique language.
The third stanza personifies the sea as a predator that preys on those that live within it: "This
curved jawbone did not laugh/ But gripped, gripped and is now a cenotaph". Was the jawbone
clinging to it's prey, or trying to cling to life? The sea is personified as a predator and the remains
the speaker finds upon the shore are trophies of its conquered prey.
"Relic" by Ted Hughes is a descriptive poem. It lays its setting to the sea with irregular end
rhyme pattern and two stanzas of unequal number of lines. Based on observation
of, Hughes made use of imaginative description; he told an undefined entity
how the jawbone got to the sea as if he witnessed it "broken by the breakers or tossed/ To flap
for half an hour and turn to a crust" but the use of "or" between "breakers or tossed" showed that
his description was imaginative.
The poem is about a jawbone found deep down the sea. If one claims that Ted Hughes had love
for water, sailing and the things relating to the sea; it will not be disputed. He told of how he
found the jawbone, how it was thrust, living in the sea among other things like claws, skulls,
crabs, dogfish, etc. He told of how the jawbone lived gnawing and stretching to feed but later
ended at the beach. The poet described the deep sea as a battleground where friendship does
not exist "In that darkness camaraderie does not hold" (line 5) then at the end line of the poem
tagged the jawbone "a cenotaph". From lines 14-16, he claimed that nothing gets better in the
sea and thereby described the sea's digestion of things into its seabed as its biggest
The tittle of the poem generalized the interest of the poet. The first stanza of the poem is 11 lines
while the second stanza is 5 lines; which looked like the summary of the first stanza.
Grammatically, the clause "I found this jawbone" made it look spoken than written, as if someone
was standing in front of the poet and could as well see the jawbone himself/herself. "Continue
the beginning" sounds poetic genius, which means "lets go back to the description of the sea".
Besides the large use of imagery, personification existed in great amount from line 6-9 "And the
jaws, Before they are satisfied or their stretched purpose/ Slacken, go down jaws; go gnawn
bare. Jaws/ Eat and are finished and the jawbone comes to the beach". Line 12 "Time in the sea
eats its tail," happens to be personification as well. "This curved jawbone did not laugh" is also a
The jawbone was described in many forms, he symbolised it in different ways by calling it
"Indigestibles" in line 13. It was metaphorically called a cenotaph: "A cenotaph is a monument
erected to honour the dead whose bodies lie elsewhere; especially members of the armed forces
who died in battle".
"In that darkness" symbolized the sea, "The deep" also symbolized the sea. Other poetic devices
in the poem are enjambments, alliterations, etc.
Few among the many themes to deduce from this poem is the longevity in things than beings,
the unwholesome experience deep down the sea, and the havoc of duration. In accordance with
the description of the poet, the jawbone had lasted very farther than the animal that owned it.
Ted Hughes And A Summary of Pike
Pike is one Ted Hughes's best loved animal poems. It is a tribute to a freshwater fish he
respected and feared, one which he knew of as a child and carried with him in his dreams.
The poem is a sequence of ten stanzas which take the reader from a descriptive present to a
boyhood past which rather magically becomes present again as the speaker turns full circle with
the always watching pike.
The reader has to be aware of the unusual syntax - the way clauses and grammar work
together - and the varied often interrupted rhythm within certain lines, reflective of the
actions of the fish and the angler.
And there is Hughes's special animal language to contend with, quite characteristic. Look out for
words such as: killers, malevolent, stunned, gloom, clamp and fangs....all part of the poet's idea
of what some of the inhabitants of the natural world are about. Hughes was no romantic when it
came to expressing his thoughts about wildlife.
But for Hughes, fishing was extra special:
Fishing provides that connection with the whole living world. It gives you the opportunity of being
totally immersed, turning back into yourself in a good way. A form of meditation, some form of
communion with levels of yourself that are deeper than the ordinary self.
So for the poet, the pike represented something quite profound, a creature capable of reaching
down into his deepest feeling, taking him back to his human essence. Hence the admiration and
the fear, balanced precariously in the poem.
The pike (Esox lucius) is a carnivore and can grow to large lengths in deeper waters. They are
known for their ambush style of hunting, lying in wait for smaller fish behind reeds and plant-life
before striking.
Armed with sharp teeth and lightning speed they're at the top of the food chain. Having said that,
there are recorded incidents of larger pike attempting to devour smaller pike but not quite
succeeding. They've been found locked together, the larger failing to swallow the smaller, and
both dying as a result of this cannibalism gone wrong.
The poem mentions this phenomenon. Hughes witnessed it as a boy and it stuck with him into
adulthood. As a poet the feelings came out in ordered words. To understand a little of where a
poem like Pike comes from - the passionate human response to the natural world - we should
listen to Hughes again:
These are the remains of what the world was once like all over. They carry us back to the
surroundings our ancestors lived in for 150 million years ― which is long enough to grow to feel
quite at home even in a place as wild as the uncivilized earth. Civilization is comparatively new, it
is still a bit of a strain on our nerves ― it is not quite a home to mankind yet, we still need
occasional holidays back in the old surroundings. It is only there that the ancient instincts and
feelings in which most of our body lives can feel at home and on their own ground. … Those
prehistoric feelings, satisfactions we are hardly aware of except as a sensation of pleasure ―
these are like a blood transfusion to us, and in wild surroundings they rise to the surface and
refresh us, renew us.
Poetry in the Making. TH
It's as if the poem (and others Hughes wrote) is a necessary part of a more natural life lived out
by the poet. Hughes again:
If I were deprived of that kind of live, intimate, interactive existence ― allowing myself to be
possessed by and possessing this sort of world through fishing, through that whole corridor back
into the world that made us as we are ― it would be as though I had some great, vital part of me
This is why the poem Pike is of such significance to followers of Ted Hughes. It perfectly
encapsulates his poetic approach to wild animals, taking the reader from boyhood fishing in
Laughton Pond (South Yorkshire in the UK, where Hughes grew up) into this primal, raw and
beautifully predatory world.
When I was feeling good I'd have dreams of giant pike that were perhaps also leopards....They'd
become symbols of really deep, vital life. My obsession with pike maybe was my obsession with
those energies.
In the end what the poem suggests is that, even though the human feels a need to fish, to hunt
and catch such a fish as a pike, it is the pike's aura and essence that will in the end prevail. It's
the pike still and watching, taking form as it moves slowly up out of the dark.
Pike was first published in 1960 in the book Lupercal.
Pike, three inches long, perfect
Pike in all parts, green tigering the gold.
Killers from the egg: the malevolent aged grin.
They dance on the surface among the flies.
Or move, stunned by their own grandeur,
Over a bed of emerald, silhouette
Of submarine delicacy and horror.
A hundred feet long in their world.
In ponds, under the heat-struck lily padsGloom of their stillness:
Logged on last year’s black leaves, watching upwards.
Or hung in an amber cavern of weeds
The jaws’ hooked clamp and fangs
Not to be changed at this date:
A life subdued to its instrument;
The gills kneading quietly, and the pectorals.
Three we kept behind glass,
Jungled in weed: three inches, four,
And four and a half: fed fry to themSuddenly there were two. Finally one
With a sag belly and the grin it was born with.
And indeed they spare nobody.
Two, six pounds each, over two feet long
High and dry and dead in the willow-herbOne jammed past it gills down on the other’s gullet:
The outside eye stared: as a vice locksThe same iron in this eye
Though its film shrank in death.
A pond I fished, fifty yards across,
Whose lilies and muscular tench
Had outlasted every visible stone
Of the monastery that planted themStilled legendary depth;
It was as deep as England. It held
Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old
That past nightfall I dared not cast.
But silently cast and fished
With the hair frozen on my head
For what might move, for what eye might move.
The still splashes on the dark pond,
Owls hushing the floating woods
Frail on my ear against the dream
Darkness beneath night’s darkness had freed,
That rose slowly towards me, watching.
Analysis of Pike Stanza By Stanza
Pike is a free verse poem of eleven stanzas, all quatrains, 44 lines in total. On the page it looks
rather neat and formal, as if the poet is looking for order and efficiency. Closer observation
brings a varied line length within each stanza, and no rhyme.
Stanza 1
It's a truly direct opening, a repetition of the title, Pike, as if the fish was there at the surface of
the poet's mind, and he has to start describing it immediately. Here is the perfect little pike, only
three inches long - that's around 7.5 centimetres.
So this image is of a young pike and it is wholly a pike even at this tender age, with green
tigering the gold an evocative phrase typical of Hughes, fusing colour and raw animal power.
To introduce predatory language, albeit somewhat camouflaged, so early on in the poem is
significant. This is the poet making a statement of intent. Here is no ordinary marking on a fish;
here is active, even aggressive colouring.
In the third line this idea of the pike being an extraordinary aggressor, is reinforced. Just look at
the language...killers....malevolent and with a knowing grin as they dance on the surface with
flies, as if innocent.
Note the curious stop-start rhythms in the first stanza, with caesurae (pauses in the line caused
by punctuation) and enjambment (when a line runs on into the next without punctuation) together
with end-stops (full stops).
Stanza 2
Hyperbole mixes with metaphor - the pike becomes a submarine, delicacy juxtaposed with horror
as the silhouette glides past, a hundred feet long. This poetic exaggeration harks back to the
speaker, Hughes, being a child, when size and stature impress and cause over-reaction.
Again the imagery is vivid, and the notion of pike not being in control of their own powerful
movements, turns astute observation into a fine art.
Stanza 3
The reader is taken to a specific environment - ponds - to be with pike as they sit like exotic
gothic lords logged on black leaves, waiting presumably for prey to pass. This is what they do,
wait and wait and then strike.
The next scenario is an amber cavern of weeds a wonderful image which adds to the already
busy palette of, gold, emerald, black...amber. The intentions of the pike are
straightforward, it lives to eat other fish, but what a gallery to perform in.
Stanza 4
Enjambment takes the reader straight on into the fourth stanza - and note the sharpness of those
vowels in amber/cavern/clamp and fangs...the pike's jaws however a poignant focal point,
because they are shut fast, part of a vital streamlining so peculiar to Esox lucius.
It is this instrument (the jaw) that rules over this particular predator. Yet the patient pike waits,
the gills (necessary for extracting oxygen from the water) and pectorals (fins either side of the
pike just behind the gills used for balancing) kneading - a very descriptive verb of a specific
Detailed observation again, the quiet stillness of the waiting pike contrasting with the predatory
attributes. The anatomy lesson builds and builds.
Stanza 5
So the reader has been given a tour of the pike and its environs, the language reflecting the raw
power, beauty and still quality of this fish.
A change occurs now. The speaker takes a step back out of the present and into a past, a time
when he kept pike in an aquarium or at least behind glass, with weed. These were small pike,
young, of various sizes. They were fed fry (small fish) but in no time one pike was eaten, then
The reader is given a series of mini-snapshots, the syntax altering to reflect the oddity of the time
warp as the pike began to disappear.
Pike - Analysis Stanza BY Stanza
Stanza 6
Again enjambment means the sense continues into the first line, the largest pike ending up with
the two others swallowed and that big grin.
Perhaps the strangest line in the whole poem.... And indeed they spare nobody....suggests the
pike's absolute need to finish everything off, cannibalism or no.
Then the speaker goes on to document another case of cannibalism, this time involving two
bigger pike.
Stanza 7
This whole stanza tells the story of the two gripped pike, one attempting to swallow the other,
both ending up dead ironically in the desperate struggle for survival.
Again the language is strong and purposeful...jammed, vice locks...iron...shrank... the reader can
really get their teeth into these words as the incredible story unfolds.
Stanza 8
We're going back again in time to a pond the speaker (Hughes) fished as a boy. Note the flow of
the lines as enjambment rules. It is 50 yards - 45 metres - across and is deep, so deep.
There are tench, a fish that is compact and strong, a bottom feeder, which stays well away from
the surface as it lives below usually. Here we have an ancient pond once attached to a
Stanza 9
In the mind of the boy the pond's depth is fathomless; it's as deep as the country he lives in,
England, with all its rich history. And, as every angler knows, the biggest most fearsome pike are
always lurking in these kinds of ponds. These are the legendary monster fish.
Could it be that here the pond is a symbol of the speaker's deep and dark emotional base, the
unconscious? Hughes was clear - fishing to him was a re-connection to the primal past, to those
energies we as humans still need to tap into every so often, to feel free and wild.
So powerful are these energies the speaker dare not cast - to use the rod and line as the
conductor, the bait as the lure that finally secures connection to the fabulously frightful pike.
Stanza 10
In the end the cast is made, out into the dark, deep water. Once this action takes place there's
no turning back. The lure hits the water, the unconscious stirs, the eyes of the pike are watching,
the wild energy returning.
Stanza 11
The finale so to speak is an anticipation - there is the speaker waiting as reality changes and
something unknown is freed, a dream, in the guise of a pike.
Examination at the Womb-Door
Who owns those scrawny little feet? Death
Who owns this bristly scorched-looking face? Death
Who owns these still-working lungs? Death
Who owns this utility coat of muscles? Death
Who owns these unspeakable guts? Death
Who owns these questionable brains? Death
All this messy blood? Death
These minimum-efficiency eyes? Death
This wicked little tongue? Death
This occasional wakefulness? Death
Given, stolen, or held pending trial?
Who owns the whole rainy, stony earth? Death
Who owns all of space? Death
Who is stronger than hope? Death
Who is stronger than the will? Death
Stronger than love? Death
Stronger than life? Death
But who is stronger than Death?
Me, evidently
Pass, Crow
The symbolism in this poem is astonishing. It associates every part of the living human body and
gives it ownership to not the bearer of these parts but of Death. It is often realized that the only
way to reach solace is true death because after all death is the most certain thing we have right
after being born. The author is describing every part of his body as a sort of messy, scrawny,
scorched and meaningful existence can only find true comfort by reaching it’s true master, and
that is Death itself. Yet at the end of the poem we see the last line stating that he is stronger than
Death when nothing else is. It can be implied that the author was speaking to Death itself as he
last mentions “Pass, Crow” and crow is a well known symbol of death throughout literature, but
not only that but of how calm he speaks. As if he knows that his time will come but it will not be
today. J.K. Rowling wrote on one of the Harry Potters book “It’s the unknown we fear when we
look upon death and darkness, nothing more.” And I couldn’t agree more, but because Death
itself does not incite fear upon us, it is the uncertainty of it, the whole mystery behind it, and we
as rational beings cannot phantom to go somewhere we do not understand.
Remember how we picked the daffodils?
Anything. Mainly we were hungry
Nobody else remembers, but I remember.
To convert everything to profit.
Your daughter came with her armfuls, eager
Still nomads-still strangers
and happy,
To our whole possession. The daffodils
Helping the harvest. She has forgotten.
Were incidental gilding of the deeds,
She cannot even remember you. And we
Treasure trove. They simply came,
sold them.
And they kept on coming.
It sounds like sacrilege, but we sold them.
As if not from the sod but falling from
Were we so poor? Old Stoneman, the
Our lives were still a raid on our own good
Boss-eyed, his blood-pressure purpling to
We knew we’d live forever. We had not
(It was his last chance,
He would die in the same great freeze as
What a fleeting glance of the everlasting
you) ,
Daffodils are. Never identified
He persuaded us. Every Spring
The nuptial flight of the rarest epherma-
He always bought them, sevenpence a
Our own days!
We thought they were a windfall.
‘A custom of the house’.
Never guessed they were a last blessing.
Besides, we still weren’t sure we wanted to
So we sold them. We worked at selling
As if employed on somebody else’s
Snipping their stems.
Flower-farm. You bent at it
But somewhere your scissors remember.
In the rain of that April-your last April.
Wherever they are.
We bent there together, among the soft
Here somewhere, blades wide open,
April by April
Of their jostled stems, the wet shocks
Sinking deeper
Through the sod-an anchor, a cross of rust.
Of their girlish dance-frocksFresh-opened dragonflies, wet and flimsy,
Opened too early.
We piled their frailty lights on a carpenter’s
Distributed leaves among the dozensBuckling blade-leaves, limber, groping for
air, zinc-silveredPropped their raw butts in bucket water,
Their oval, meaty butts,
And sold them, sevenpence a bunchWind-wounds, spasms from the dark earth,
With their odourless metals,
A flamy purification of the deep grave’s
stony cold
As if ice had a breathWe sold them, to wither.
The crop thickened faster than we could thin
Finally, we were overwhelmed
And we lost our wedding-present scissors.
Every March since they have lifted again
Out of the same bulbs, the same
Baby-cries from the thaw,
Ballerinas too early for music, shiverers
In the draughty wings of the year.
On that same groundswell of memory,
They return to forget you stooping there
Behind the rainy curtains of a dark April,
The poem is to Sylvia, about cutting and selling flowers in spring with their daughter,
who no longer remembers her mother. The collection broke a 35 year silence on
Hughes’ part. It is a response to Wordsworth’s daffodils as well – the kinds of
memories the flowers conjure here are less those of solace than treasured, fragile
moments. The scissors form a beautiful image of violence and vulnerability.
Ted Hughes, a poet who has encountered death over and over, he
wrote Daffodils for his deceased wife. This poem talks strictly about daffodil flowers
and the remembrance of his wife Sylvia Plath. The poem is centralized around how
every year Hughes and his children would sell the flowers to make a living and never
treasured them. He knew the importance of the daffodils because he mentions how
he and Sylvia would pick the flowers and cut the stems when she was still alive.
Metonymy is used in this poem, the daffodils are a symbol of Hughes's dead wife. A
pair of scissors were given to the couple as a wedding gift and Sylvia used them
every year to cut the stems. Once again metonymy is used in this poem, the scissors
are a representation of Hughes's wife and the time they spent together.
Sylvia Plath who was cared for deeply, changed the life of Ted Hughes when she
committed suicide. Plath's death was significantly harder on Hughes because he was
accused of being a factor in her death. He was in a relationship with Assia Wevill
while he was married, and she also committed suicide. The coincidence of both of
their deaths, drew a bad image for Ted Hughes (Gifford, 17). When his
poem Daffodils was published, a bit of the gossip dispersed. With that bit of history, it
is easy to conclude that at the time Hughes must have been in turmoil. In the poem
he wrote for her, the lines, "Remember how we picked daffodils? Nobody else
remembers, but I remember" ( lines 1-2) shows the difficulty in losing Sylvia. When a
loved one passes away and there are family members to remember the deceased
with, it makes the transition easier. If a loved one dies and there is no one to share
memories with, it causes suffering and loneliness. For Hughes, there was no one to
remember his wife with and this took a toll on him. The only items he had as a
reminder of her were the daffodils and scissors. After her death, he began to publish
some of Plath's work and this helped him cope (Gifford, 19).
A sonnet is traditionally a single stanza poem consisting of 14 lines with rhymes
arranged in definite schemes. It was Sir After many years of silence, this poem is one
of those poems awaited by many who hoped to hear the side of a poet after going
through a loss, the death of his wife. His wifes death attracted controversies because
of the allegation that the poet had pushed his wife to suicide.
The silence was broken when he finally allowed us to travel with him to the
past the life that he and his wife shared before her death. As we go on reading the
poem, it is as if we are listening to him as he flipped through the pages of their life
together as a couple.
This poem is Daffodils.
To be able to understand the message of this poem, I believe that it is important to
look at the person behind the poem his background and his personal life - because
this is a kind of poem that speaks of the life of the writer. This is a poem that allows a
reader to look into ones private life. This poem, I believe, explains the relationship he
once had with his wife and gives light to the issue surrounding her suicide.
The author before Daffodils
The author, Ted Hughes, was introduced in an article entitled Flowered Memories
An Analysis of Ted Hughes Daffodil. It says, Edward James Hughes was English Poet
Laureate from 1984 to his death in 1998. Famous for his violent poems about the
innocent savagery of animals, Ted Hughes was born on Mytholmroyd, in the West
Riding district of Yorkshire, which became the psychological terrain of his later poetry
(The Literary Encyclopedia).
Hughes married the American Poet, Sylvia Plath. In 1963, Plath died and was said
to have committed suicide. The couple was blessed with two children who were still at
a young age when Plath died.
The author and Daffodils
February 1998 marked the end of Hughes silence when Birthday Letters, a
collection of 88 poems written over 25 years, was published. Among these 88 poems
is Daffodils.
Daffodils is composed of 66 lines. The poem is written conversationally in a simple
manner. It is described as a free verse just like the other poems in the Birthday
Letters. In this poem, the author uses the first person point of view and uses the word
you to directly address his deceased wife, Sylvia Plath.
Remember how we picked the daffodils
Nobody else remembers, but I remember.
In these first two lines of the poem, Hughes was reminiscing the days that he had
with his wife. Even with these first two lines, it is evident that the author recollects with
a note of sadness and longing for the gone days. He moved on with a happy picture
of his family, with their daughter, as they were harvesting daffodils. But the crisp line
She has forgotten ended the brief happy tone of his nostalgia.
The reminiscence of the author went on when he recollected that they sold the
flowers for sevenpence a dozen. He then paused and blurted out his feelings that
what they have done was like a sacrilege. This realization by the author can be
explained by his background as a hunter. In an article entitled The Biography of Ted
Hughes, he was presented as a country man and a hunter. Furthermore, he was
considered as a nature poet and his writing is considered a continuation of his earlier
passion which is hunting.
Despite the recognition that the selling of the flowers was a form of irreverence to
nature, Hughes continued to give us a picture of their life before and their financial
condition that somewhat justified their act. He asked himself, Were we so poor This
line is not more of a question but an introduction to the instances that he enumerated
to substantiate his claim that they were poor. He remembered that they were hungry
then to the point that they were pushed to convert everything to profit. Poverty and
empty stomach were the first reason he gave that led them to sell the daffodils.
They simply came,
And they keep on coming.
These lines gave way to the second reason why they decided to sell the daffodils. He
was looking at the time when they both believed that the daffodils will never go away.
They see the daffodils as a windfall.
But the second stanza did not just end with this belief. It was made clear in the
same stanza that there was a realization of their innocence. The persona realized that
the daffodils were a fleeting glance of the everlasting. It is at this point in the poem
that there was recognition, I believe, of the Creator that controls the life both of the
daffodils and other creations. Never thought they were a last blessing, I believe,
speaks of the end of the relationship shared by the persona and the person he was
talking to as well as their activity of selling the flowers they harvested as a family.
In the same stanza, the persona also showed how they viewed their union as
husband and wife. We knew wed live forever, they believed. However, in the same
manner that he acknowledged their mistaken view of the lifespan of daffodils, the
persona admitted that like the daffodils their marriage and even their individual lives
will come to an end.
After the persona honestly laid down their misconceptions as a couple, he then
looked back to the time when they had to go through the tedious communal act of
harvesting the daffodils and of selling them for sevenpence a bunch.
His reminiscence of the time when they harvested the flowers brought a bittersweet
memory that the can move a reader to tears. The memory of working together in
harvesting the flowers reminded him of their communal activities. He vividly described
how the persona and his wife bent together to gather the daffodils. He went on giving
us a picture of the daffodils that they gathered. These were sweet memories of a
couple a husband and a wife who had the chance of doing a task together, of helping
each other. However, a bitter memory is sandwiched by the happy thoughts. In
between the recollection of the harvest days, he remembered that in the rain of April,
it was her last April. It was the end of the days when they could work together as a
couple. It was also the end of their business of selling the daffodils.
Despite that painful recollection, the persona continued with his reminiscence of the
days when they worked together as a couple to prepare the flowers for market. He
remembered the details of this activity clearly from the piling, grouping then finally
selling the flowers.
From the innocent and happy reminiscence of their early days as a couple, the
author moved on with a description of an upcoming gloomy day that led to the end of
their task as husband and wife. This end was brought about by the fast growth and
thickening of the flowers, faster than they could harvest them. This signifies the
overwhelming tasks that burdened the couple and may have turned an innocent
survival activity into a complex venture. The activity which can be considered as a
bonding time of the family had become a heavy task that led to their alienation. When
he finally said that they lost their wedding present, the scissors, it marked the end of a
simple, poor yet happy life as a couple and as a family.
We sold them, to wither
The crop thickened faster than we could thin it.
Finally we were overwhelmed
And we lost our wedding present scissors.
These four lines are worth noting because, I believe, they served as a turning point in
the lives of the persona, his wife and their family of Hughes, Plath and their children.
This spoke of a sad picture of a disintegrating family. The essential ties that bound
them- the activity of harvesting and selling daffodils together and the role of the
scissors were, at this point in time, lost. These may have represented the crises that
the couple faced that led to their separation.
Before the poem ended, a deep longing is apparent in Hughes. He lets us into his
mind which still thinks of his wife as he sees the flowers everyday. In this second to
the last stanza, he was talking to Plath in a way that a very lonely person who was left
behind by a departed loved one relates. He talks as if he believes that Plath was
looking and listening to him at that very moment even with the full knowledge that she
is somewhere else, a place beyond his reach. He talks of the same bulbs, the same
flowers that blossomed every March. This picture of continues growth and cycle of the
daffodils, from the time the flowers blossomed until the time they are harvested, tell us
of his continues survival despite the death of Plath. The last stanza ended with a
picture of a buried scissors which signifies the death of Plath and the end of their
relationship. But even when the flowers harvested by her every April forgot about her,
the second to the last stanza continues to tell us of Hughes memories with Plath and
their life together that will never fade.
Lessons and views from Daffodils
This poem has a way of letting us into the lives of the couple and allowing us to
look at them during their happy days and even during the time when circumstances
and problems in life caused their family to disintegrate. It is a romantic piece of art in a
way that a husband, piece by piece, brings together the private memories of their
union, from the mundane tasks to the enormous burdens and responsibilities.
Just like many of the families in our society today, the relationship of Plath and
Hughes was broken when the bond that brings couples together is severed by
overwhelming responsibilities and the increasing complexities of modern life. Usually
the bonds that bring families together are the simple task that bring them joy and
fulfillment and not necessarily the lucrative ventures.
The use of everyday activities and familiar sceneries in our immediate surroundings
has a powerful way of conveying emotions in a romantic way. The daffodils that
regenerates every time, loudly speaks of a mans continues thoughts of his wife and
how he misses the life that they shared together.
The Daffodils speak of a man who desired no harm to happen to his wife, a man
who, together with his wife, suffered from a broken relationship as a result of
overwhelming problems and responsibilities, and a lonely man who sorely misses the
wife that he cared about.
An Interview with Ted Hughes
[In an interview with Egbert Faas in London Magazine, n.s. Vol. 10, No. 10, January,
1971, pp. 5-20, Hughes responds to critics who have censured the violence in his
poems and discusses which poets have had the greatest influence on his work.]
[Faas]: Critics have often described your poetry as the `poetry of violence'. Obviously
such a label overlooks the wide philosophical issues even of your earliest work, which
according to your own words is inspired by the 'war-between vitality and death ... and
celebrates the exploits of the warriors on either side'. But how does such poetry relate
to our customary system of social and humanitarian values and to what degree can it
be considered as a criticism of these values? ... Probably this is two questions in one.
[Hughes]: The role of this word 'violence' in modern criticism is very tricky and not
always easy to follow. I wonder if it's used in other countries. Do American critics use
it? It's hard to imagine how the distinction can be made, outside recent English poetry.
One common use of it I fancy occurs where the reviewer type of critic is thinking of his
audience ... his English audience. When my Aunt calls my verse 'horrible and violent' I
know what she means. Because I know what style of life and outlook she is
defending. And I know she is representative of huge numbers of people in England.
What she has is an idea of what poetry ought to be ... a very vague idea, since it's
based on an almost total ignorance of what poetry has been written. She has an
instinct for a kind of poetry that will confirm the values of her way of life. She finds it in
the milder parts of Wordsworth if she needs supporting evidence. In a sense, critics
who find my poetry violent are in her world, and they are safeguarding her way of life.
So to define their use of the word violence any further, you have to work out just why
her way of life should find the behaviour of a hawk 'horrible' or any reference to violent
death 'disgusting', just as she finds any reference to extreme vehemence of life
'frightening somehow'. It's a futile quarrel really. It's the same one that Shakespeare
found the fable for in his Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare spent his life trying to prove
that Adonis was right, the rational sceptic, the man of puritan good order. It put him
through the tragedies before he decided that the quarrel could not be kept up
honestly. Since then the difficult task of any poet in English has been to locate the
force which Shakespeare called Venus in his first poems and Sycorax in his last.
Poetry only records these movements in the general life ... it doesn't instigate them.
The presence of the great goddess of the primaeval world, which Catholic countries
have managed to retain in the figure of Mary, is precisely what England seems to
have lacked, since the Civil War ... where negotiations were finally broken off. Is Mary
violent? Yet Venus in Shakespeare's poem if one reads between the lines eventually
murdered Adonis ... she murdered him because he rejected her. He was so
desensitized, stupefied and brutalized by his rational scepticism, he didn't know what
to make of her. He thought she was an ethical peril. He was a sort of modern critic in
the larval phase ... a modern English critic. A typical modern Englishman. What he
calls violence is a very particular thing. In ordinary criticism it seems to be confused a
lot with another type of violence which is the ordinary violence of our psychotic
democracy ... our materialist, nonorganic democracy which is trying to stand up with a
bookish theory instead of a skeleton. Every society has its dream that has to be
dreamed, and if we go by what appears on TV the perpetual torture and executions
there, and the spectacle of the whole population, not just a few neurotic intellectuals
but the whole mass of the people, slumped every night in front of their sets ... in
attitudes of total disengagement, a sort of anaesthetized unconcern ... watching their
dream reeled off in front of them, if that's the dream of our society, then we haven't
created a society but a hell. The stuff of pulp fiction supports the idea. We are
dreaming a perpetual massacre. And when that leaks up with its characteristic whiff of
emptiness and meaninglessness, that smell of psychosis which is very easy to detect,
when it leaks up into
what ought to be morally responsible art ... then the critics pounce, and convert it to
evidence in a sociological study. And of course it does belong to a sociological study.
On the other hand it's very hard to see where that type of violence becomes
something else ... a greater kind of violence, the violence of the great works. If one
were to answer that exam question: Who are the poets of violence? you wouldn't get
far if you began with Thom Gunn ... and not merely because his subject is far more
surely gentleness. No, you'd have to begin with Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles,
Euripides, etc., author of Job, the various epics, the Tains, the Beowulfs, Dante,
Shakespeare, Blake. When is violence 'violence' and when is it great poetry? Can the
critic distinguish? I would say that most critics cannot distinguish. The critic whose
outlook is based on a rational scepticism is simply incapable of seeing Venus from
any point of view but that of Adonis. He cannot distinguish between fears for his own
mental security and the actions of the Universe redressing a disturbed balance. Or
trying to. In other words, he is incapable of judging poetry ... because poetry is
nothing if not that, the record of just how the forces of the Universe try to redress
some balance disturbed by human error. What he can do is judge works and deeds of
rational scepticism within a closed society that agrees on the terms used. He can tell
you why a poem is bad as a work of rational scepticism, but he cannot tell why it is
good as a poem. A poem might be good as both, but it need not be. Violence that
begins in an unhappy home can go one way to produce a meaningless little
nightmare of murder etc. for T.V. or it can go the other way and produce those
moments in Beethoven.
You probably know that there has been a whole controversy between Rawson and
Hainworth as to whether or not you celebrate violence for its own sake ...
I think I've probably already answered that. The poem of mine usually cited for
violence is the one about the Hawk Roosting, this drowsy hawk sitting in a wood and
talking to itself. That bird is accused of being a fascist ... the symbol of some horrible
totalitarian genocidal dictator. Actually what I had in mind was that in this hawk Nature
is thinking. Simply Nature. It's not so simple maybe because Nature is no longer so
simple. I intended some Creator like the Jehovah in Job but more feminine. When
Christianity kicked the devil out of Job what they actually kicked out was Nature ...
and Nature became the devil. He doesn't sound like Isis, mother of the gods, which he
is. He sounds like Hitler's familiar spirit. There is a line in the poem almost verbatim
from Job.
As in the case of "Hawk Roosting" your two poems about Jaguars are often
interpreted as celebrations of violence.
I prefer to think of them as first, descriptions of a jaguar, second ... invocations of the
Goddess, third ... invocations of a jaguar-like body of elemental force, demonic force.
It is my belief that symbols of this sort work. And the more concrete and electrically
charged and fully operational the symbol, the more powerfully it works on any mind
that meets it. The way it works depends on that mind ... on the nature of that mind. I'm
not at all sure how much direction, how much of a desirable aim and moral trajectory
you can fix onto a symbol by associated paraphernalia. A jaguar after all can be
received in several different aspects ... he is a beautiful, powerful nature spirit, he is a
homicidal maniac, he is a supercharged piece of cosmic machinery, he is a symbol of
man's baser nature shoved down into the id and growing cannibal murderous with
deprivation, he is an ancient symbol of Dionysus since he is a leopard raised to the
ninth power, he is a precise historical symbol to the bloody- minded Aztecs and so on.
Or he is simply a demon ... a lump of ectoplasm. A lump of astral energy.
The symbol opens all these things ... it is the reader's own nature that selects. The
tradition is, that energy of this sort once invoked will destroy an impure nature and
serve a pure one. In a perfectly cultured society one imagines that jaguar-like
elementals would be invoked only by
self-disciplinarians of a very advanced grade. I am not one and I'm sure few readers
are, so maybe in our corrupt condition we have to regard poems about jaguars as
ethically dangerous. Poems about jaguars, that is, which do have real summoning
force. Lots of people might consider I'm overrating the powers of those two poems,
but I'm speaking from my own evidence. I wrote another jaguarish poem called "Gog".
That actually started as a description of the German assault through the Ardennes
and it turned into the dragon in Revelations. It alarmed me so much I wrote a poem
about the Red Cross Knight just to set against it with the idea of keeping it under
control ... keeping its effects under control.
What you say about "Gog" and "The Knight" reminds me of a similar problem Blake
may have had to go through with "Tiger, tiger burning bright".
Blake's great poem "Tiger, tiger" is an example, I think, of a symbol of this potentially
dangerous type which arrives with its own control--it is yoked with the Lamb, and both
draw the Creator. Yeats' poem about the Second Coming is very close--and the
control there is in the direction given to the symbol in the last line--'towards
Bethlehem'. Not so much a control as a warning, an ironic pointer--but fixing the
symbol in context.
Behind Blake's poem is the upsurge that produced the French Revolution, the
explosion against the oppressive crust of the monarchies. Behind Yeats' poem is the
upsurge that is still producing our modern chaos--the explosion against civilization
itself, the oppressive deadness of civilization, the spiritless materialism of it, the
stupidity of it. Both poets reach the same way for control--but the symbol itself is
unqualified, it is an irruption, from the deeper resources, of enraged energy--energy
that for some reason or other has become enraged.
From what I gather, the solution to this whole problem of violence, as you see it,
seems to lie in some form of new mythology.
Any form of violence--any form of vehement activity--invokes the bigger energy, the
elemental power circuit of the Universe. Once the contact has been made--it becomes
difficult to control. Something from beyond ordinary human activity enters. When the
wise men know how to create rituals and dogma, the energy can be contained. When
the old rituals and dogma have lost credit and disintegrated, and no new ones have
been formed, the energy cannot be contained, and so its effect is destructive--and
that is the position with us. And that is why force of any kind frightens our rationalist,
humanist style of outlook. In the old world God and divine power were invoked at any
cost--life seemed worthless without them. In the present world we dare not invoke
them--we wouldn't know how to use them or stop them destroying us. We have
settled for the minimum practical energy and illumination--anything bigger introduces
problems, the demons get hold of it. That is the psychological stupidity, the ineptitude,
of the rigidly rationalist outlook--it's a form of hubris, and we're paying the traditional
price. If you refuse the energy, you are living a kind of death. If you accept the energy,
it destroys you. What is the alternative? To accept the energy, and find methods of
turning it to good, of keeping it under control--rituals, the machinery of religion. The
old method is the only one.
You not only find yourself in opposition to some of your critics but also to most of the
New Lines poets who write very much from the same point of view, dealing almost
exclusively with life in our civilization. And although Robert Conquest included four of
your poems in New Lines II he did so only after having rejected the poetry of violence
in the Introduction.
I haven't read that introduction so I'm not sure what he'd mean by the poetry of
violence. One of the things those poets had in common I think was the post-war mood
of having had enough ... enough rhetoric, enough over- weening push of any kind,
enough of the dark gods, enough of the id, enough of the Angelic powers and the
heroic efforts to make new worlds. They'd seen it all turn into death camps and atomic
bombs. All they wanted was to get back into civvies and
get home to the wife and kids and for the rest of their lives not a thing was going to
interfere with a nice cigarette and a nice view of the park. The second war after all
was a colossal negative revelation. In a sense it meant they recoiled to some
essential English strengths. But it set them dead against negotiation with anything
outside the cosiest arrangement of society. They wanted it cosy. It was an heroic
position. They were like eskimos in their igloo, with a difference. They'd had enough
sleeping out. Now I came a bit later. I hadn't had enough. I was all for opening
negotiations with whatever happened to be out there. It's just as with the hawk. Where
I conjured up a jaguar, they smelt a stormtrooper. Where I saw elementals and forces
of Nature they saw motorcyclists with machine guns on the handlebars. At least that
was a tendency.
From the very beginning of your poetic career you have been considered an outsider.
And although this has changed in recent years mainly through your already farranging influence on other poets you still don't fall into what Robert Conquest would
consider the mainstream of the English poetic tradition. Now what is your attitude
towards this tradition which you once referred to as "the terrible, suffocating, maternal
octopus of ancient English poetic tradition"?
I imagine I wouldn't have said that if I hadn't burdened myself with a good deal of it. I
should think my idea of the mainstream is pretty close to Robert Conquest's. What I
meant by the octopus was the terrific magnetic power of the tradition to grip poets and
hold them. Helped by our infatuation with our English past in general. The archetypes
are always there waiting ... swashbuckling Elizabethan, earthy bawdy Merrie
Englander, devastatingly witty Restoration blade and so on. And some of the great
poets are such powerful magnetic fields they remake us in their own image before
we're aware. Shakespeare in particular of course.
As you suggested in our previous interview you try to escape this influence by
drawing on your own native dialect and its mediaeval literature. From Sir Gawain and
the Green Knight, for example, you derived the title and motto of Wodwo.
I grew up in West Yorkshire. They have a very distinctive dialect there. Whatever
other speech you grow into, presumably your dialect stays alive in a sort of inner
freedom, a separate little self. It makes some things more difficult ... since it's your
childhood self there inside the dialect and that is possibly your real self or the core of
it. Some things it makes easier. Without it, I doubt if I would ever have written verse.
And in the case of the West Yorkshire dialect, of course, it connects you directly and
in your most intimate self to middle English poetry.
The main poets who are mentioned in the criticism of your poetry are Hopkins,
Donne, Dylan Thomas and D. H. Lawrence. Would you agree that these poets
exerted the greatest influence on your work? Also what is your relation to Yeats and
Blake whose work and development seems to show an increasing resemblance to
your own poetry and especially to your development from a poet of nature to a
"sophisticated philosopher" and a "primitive, gnomic spellmaker"?
Well, in the way of influences I imagine everything goes into the stew. But to be
specific about those names. Donne ... I once learned as many of his poems as I could
and I greatly admired his satires and epistles. More than his lyrics even. As for
Thomas, Deaths and Entrances was a holy book with me for quite a time when it first
came out. Lawrence I read entire in my teens ... except for all but a few of the poems.
His writings coloured a whole period of my life. Blake I connect inwardly to
Beethoven, and if I could dig to the bottom of my strata maybe their names and works
would be the deepest traces. Yeats spellbound me for about six years. I got to him not
so much through his verse as through his other interests, folklore, and magic in
particular. Then that strange atmosphere laid hold of me. I fancy if there is a jury of
critics sitting over what I write, and I imagine every writer has something of the sort,
then Yeats is the judge. There are all sorts of things I could well do but because of
him and principles I absorbed from
him I cannot. They are principles that I've found confirmed in other sources ... but he
stamped them into me. But these are just the names you mentioned. There are
others. One poet I have read more than any of these is Chaucer. And the poet I read
more than all other literature put together is Shakespeare. More than all other fiction
or drama or poetry that is.
In one of your essays you speak of Shakespeare's utility general- purpose style. I
think it is in one of your essays on Keith Douglas.
Maybe that's an ideal notion, and yet maybe not. It's connected to the dream of an
ideal vernacular. I suppose Shakespeare does have it. I remember the point in Lear
where I suddenly recognized this. It was very early in my reading, we were going
through Lear in School and Lear as you know is the most extraordinary jumble of
styles. I can't remember what I thought of Shakespeare before that but at one
particular mutilated and mistaken looking phrase I suddenly recognized what
Shakespearean language was ... it was not super-difficult language at all ... it was
super-easy. It wasn't a super-processed super-removed super-arcane language like
Milton ... it was super-crude. It was backyard improvisation. It was dialect taken to the
limit. That was it ... it was inspired dialect. The whole crush and cramming throwaway
expressiveness of it was right at the heart of it dialect. So immediately I felt he was
much closer to me than to all those scholars and commentators at the bottom of the
page who I assumed hadn't grown up in some dialect. It enabled me to see all sorts of
virtues in him. I saw all his knotted up complexities and piled up obscurities suddenly
as nothing of the sort ... they were just the result of his taking short cuts through walls
and ceilings and floors. He goes direct from centre to centre but you never see him on
the stairs or the corridors. It's a sort of inspired idleness. Wherever he turns his
attention, his whole body rematerializes at that point. It's as if he were too idle to be
anything but utterly direct, and utterly simple. And too idle to stop everything
happening at the speed of light. So those knots of complexity are traffic jams of what
are really utterly simple confrontations. His poetic virtue is hitting the nail on the head
and he eventually became so expert that by hitting one nail he made fifty others jump
in of their own accord. Wherever a nail exists he can hit it on the head.
When did you first get interested in poetry?
When I was about fifteen. My first subjects were Zulus and the Wild West. I had sagas
of involved warfare among African tribes, for some reason. All in imitation of Kipling.
From what you're saying, I gather that the influence of Hopkins, Thomas and
Lawrence is not really as great as often claimed.
I read Lawrence and Thomas at an impressionable age. I also read Hopkins very
closely. But there are superficial influences that show and deep influences that maybe
are not so visible. It's a mystery how a writer's imagination is influenced and altered.
Up to the age of twenty-five I read no contemporary poetry whatsoever except Eliot,
Thomas and some Auden. Then I read a Penguin of American poets that came out in
about 1955 and that started me writing. After writing nothing for about six years. The
poems that set me off were odd pieces by Shapiro, Lowell, Merwin, Wilbur and Crowe
Ransom. Crowe Ransom was the one who gave me a model I felt I could use. He
helped me get my words into focus. That put me into production. But this whole
business of influences is mysterious. Sometimes it's just a few words that open up a
whole prospect. They may occur anywhere. Then again the influences that really
count are most likely not literary at all. Maybe it would be best of all to have no
influences. Impossible of course. But what good are they as a rule? You spend a
lifetime learning how to write verse when it's been clear from your earliest days that
the greatest poetry in English is in the prose of the bible. And after all the campaigns
to make it new you're stuck with the fact that some of the Scots ballads still cut a
deeper groove than anything written in the last forty years. Influences just seem to
make it more and more unlikely that a poet will write what he alone could write.
In fact there is an increasing use of mythological and biblical material in your poetry,
in particular since Wodwo. T. S. Eliot once described the use of myth in James
Joyce's Ulysses (and indirectly in his own Waste Land )as a means of 'manipulating a
continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity ... [and as] a way of
controlling, or ordering, or giving a shape and a significance to the immense
panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history'. How does your own
use of mythological and biblical material differ from this?
He speaks specifically of contemporary history which was his own red herring I
imagine. Somewhere else he speaks of the Waste Land as the chart of his own
condition, and of history, if at all, just by extension and parallel.
But you speak about the disintegration of Western civilization as well. Might not T. S.
Eliot have attempted something similar?
I can't believe that he took the disintegration of Western civilization as a theme which
he then found imagery and a general plan for. His sickness told him the cause. Surely
that was it. He cleaned his wounds and found all the shrapnel. Every writer if he
develops at all develops either outwards into society and history, using wider and
more material of that sort, or he develops inwards into imagination and beyond that
into spirit, using perhaps no more external material than before and maybe even less
but deepening it and making it operate in the many different inner dimensions until it
opens up perhaps the religious or holy basis of the whole thing. Or he can develop
both ways simultaneously. Developing inwardly, of course, means organizing the
inner world or at least searching out the patterns there and that is a mythology. It may
be an original mythology. Or you may uncover the Cross--as Eliot did. The ideal
aspect of Yeats' development is that he managed to develop his poetry both
outwardly into history and the common imagery of everyday life at the same time as
he developed it inwardly in a sort of close parallel ... so that he could speak of both
simultaneously. His mythology is history, pretty well, and his history is as he said 'the
story of a soul'.
So, when you use biblical and mythological material, these really represent, as it
were, the aim in themselves, and are not merely a kind of device as in Eliot to give
order, as he says, to something else.
You choose a subject because it serves, because you need it. We go on writing
poems because one poem never gets the whole account right. There is always
something missed. At the end of the ritual up comes a goblin. Anyway within a week
the whole thing has changed, one needs a fresh bulletin. And works go dead, fishing
has to be abandoned, the shoal has moved on. While we struggle with a fragmentary
Orestes some complete Bacchae moves past too deep down to hear. We get news of
it later ... too late. In the end, one's poems are ragged dirty undated letters from
remote battles and weddings and one thing and another.
May we for a moment come back to The Waste Land and its difference from Wodwo
the main theme of which you described to me as a "descent into destruction of some
sort". Even in Wodwo, anticipating Crow, you seem to go beyond portraying the
disintegration of our Western civilization.
What Eliot and Joyce and I suppose Beckett are portraying is the state of belonging
spiritually to the last phase of Christian civilization, they suffer its disintegration. But
there are now quite a few writers about who do not seem to belong spiritually to the
Christian civilization at all. In their world Christianity is just another provisional myth of
man's relationship with the creator and the world of spirit. Their world is a continuation
or a re-emergence of the pre-Christian world ... it is the world of the little pagan
religions and cults, the primitive religions from which of course Christianity itself grew.
Which writers are you referring to? Are you thinking of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche
whose thought seems to show a striking resemblance to yours?
The only philosophy I have ever really read was Schopenhauer. He impressed me all
right. You see very well where Nietsche got his Dionysus. It was a genuine vision of
something on its way back to the surface. The rough beast in Yeats' poems. Each
nation sees it through different spectacles.
Like Schopenhauer you had to look towards the east in quest of a new philosophy.
When did you first read the Tibetan Book of the Dead?
I can't say I ever quested deliberately for a philosophy. Whatever scrappy knowledge
of Indian and Chinese philosophy and religious writings I have I picked up on the way
... tied up with the mythology and the folklore which was what I was mainly interested
in. And it's the sort of thing you absorb out of pure curiosity. The Bardo Thodol, that's
the Tibetan Book of the Dead, was a special case. In 1960 I had met the Chinese
composer Chou Wenchung in the States, and he invited me to do a libretto of this
thing. He had the most wonderful plans for the musical results. Gigantic orchestra,
massed choirs, projected illuminated mandalas, soul-dancers and the rest.
Did you ever write this libretto?
Yes, I rewrote it a good deal. I don't think I ever came near what was needed. I got to
know the Bardo Thodol pretty well. Unfortunately the hoped-for cash evaporated, we
lost contact for about nine years, and now of course we've lost the whole idea to the
psychedelics. We had no idea we were riding the zeitgeist so closely. We had one or
two other schemes ... and maybe we'll do them some day.
The Bardo Thodol must have brought you a confirmation of many ideas which are
already latent in your earliest work, even in The Hawk in the Rain. How far and in
which way can one speak of its influence on Crow? An expression like "womb door"
seems to be lifted straight out of the Tibetan Book of the Dead and besides such
obvious direct parallels one could easily point to several more general metaphorical,
thematic, and philosophical resemblances.
From one point of view, the Bardo Thodol is basically a shamanistic flight and return.
Tibetan Buddhism was enormously influenced by Tibetan primitive shamanism. And
in fact the special weirdness and power of all things Tibetan in occult and magical
circles springs direct from the shamanism, not the Buddhism.
What exactly is Shamanism?
Basically, it's the whole procedure and practice of becoming and performing as a
witch-doctor, a medicine man, among primitive peoples. The individual is summoned
by certain dreams. The same dreams all over the world. A spirit summons him ...
usually an animal or a woman. If he refuses, he dies ... or somebody near him dies. If
he accepts, he then prepares himself for the job ... it may take years. Usually he
apprentices himself to some other Shaman, but the spirit may well teach him direct.
Once fully-fledged he can enter trance at will and go to the spirit world ... he goes to
get something badly needed, a cure, an answer, some sort of divine intervention in
the community's affairs. Now this flight to the spirit world he experiences as a dream
... and that dream is the basis of the hero story. It is the same basic outline pretty well
all over the world, same events, same figures, same situations. It is the skeleton of
thousands of folktales and myths. And of many narrative poems. The Odyssey, the
Divine Comedy, Faust etc. Most narrative poems recount only those other dreams . . .
the dream of the call. Poets usually refuse the call. How are they to accept it? How
can a poet become a medicine man and fly to the source and come back and heal or
pronounce oracles? Everything among us is against it. The
American healer and prophet Edgar Cayce is an example of one man who dreamed
the dreams and accepted the task, who was not a poet. He described the dreams and
the flight. And of course he returned with the goods.
In comparison with Wodwo which, appropriate to its theme, has a kind of open form,
your new volume has a much denser and more coherent structure. First of all, the
poems seem to interconnect on the basis of fairly coherent "apocryphal" narrative, as
you have called it, in which you turn the biblical account of the creation, of the fall of
man and the crucifixion, etc. upside down. This narrative is quite easy to reconstruct
from the poems themselves. But last time you told me a long story mainly concerning
Crow himself which is only partly reflected in the sequence.
The story is not really relevant to the poems as they stand. Maybe I'll finish the story
some day and publish it separately. I think the poems have a life a little aside from it.
The story brought me to the poems, and it was of course the story of Crow, created
by God's nightmare's attempt to improve on man.
Parts of this story already appear in Logos. You told me in our last conversation that
the imagery in Crow forced itself upon you and that writing the poems had been like
putting yourself through a process. Do you feel that this process has come to a kind of
completion or do you think that you will enlarge further upon your new mythological
In a way I think I projected too far into the future. I'd like to get the rest of it. But
maybe it will all take a different form.
One of the unifying devices in Crow, it seems to me, is the recurrence of particular
themes. Especially complex is your symbolic use of the notions of Laughter, Smiling
and Grinning. To each of these notions you also devoted one entire poem, in which
Laughter, Smile and Grin appear as vividly realized personifications or allegories.
Now would you agree that these three notions stand for an acceptance of suffering
and evil and that they also express your attitude towards the absurd, which, however,
is radically different from Beckett's?
I'm not quite sure what they signify.
Another recurrent motif is Crow eating in the face of adversity, in the face of suffering,
violence, etc., or I remember Crow sitting under the leaves "weeping till he began to
laugh", weeping being another recurrent motif which here fuses with the notion of
Most of them appeared as I wrote them. They were usually something of a shock to
write. Mostly they wrote themselves quite rapidly, the story was a sort of machine that
assembled them, and several of them that seem ordinary enough now arrived with a
sense of having done something ... tabu. It's easy enough to give interpretations I
think and draw possibilities out of them but whether they'd be the real explanations I
don't know.
So in your poem about Laughter you don't seem to have had Samuel Beckett and his
notion of the absurd in mind?
You have referred to Beckett's notion of the absurd in your article on Vasko Popa,
where you describe Vasko Popa's world as absurd but different from Beckett's
because Vasko Popa, as you say, has the "simple animal courage of accepting the
Popa, and several other writers one can think of, have in a way cut their losses and
cut the whole hopelessness of that civilization off, have somehow managed to invest
their hopes in something deeper than what you lose if civilization disappears
completely and in a way it's obviously a pervasive and deep feeling that civilization
has now disappeared completely. If it's still here it's still here by grace of pure inertia
and chance and if the whole thing has essentially vanished one had better have one's
spirit invested in something that will not vanish. And this is a shifting of your
foundation to completely new Holy Ground, a new divinity, one that won't be under the
rubble when the churches collapse.
I just remember that in Crow the first and second creation seem to be separated by a
nuclear blast which you describe or hint at for example in "Crow Alights", the following
poem and "Notes for a Little Play". Perhaps this is pinning it down too much
chronologically. But there seems to be this notion of a nuclear blast separating the
two worlds.
Yes, a complete abolition of everything that's been up to this point and Crow is what
manages to drag himself out of it in fairly good morale.
Do you think that what you said about Vasco Popa applies to Francis Bacon?
Yes, and I like Francis Bacon very much. He's very much in both worlds. A
complicated case. Because in a way like Eliot and Beckett he's suffering the
disintegration, isn't he? Yet one doesn't at all have a feeling of desolation, emptiness,
or hopelessness.
You seem to use less and less formal devices such as rhyme, metre and stanza
which to some extent occur in your earlier poetry. Do you feel that these devices are
generally inadequate in modern poetry or that they just don't suit what you personally
want to say?
I use them here and there. I think it's true that formal patterning of the actual
movement of verse somehow includes a mathematical and a musically deeper world
than free verse can easily hope to enter. It's a mystery why it should do so. But it only
works of course if the language is totally alive and pure and if the writer has a
perfectly pure grasp of his real feeling . . . and the very sound of metre calls up the
ghosts of the past and it is difficult to sing one's own tune against that choir. It is
easier to speak a language that raises no ghosts.
Which poems in Crow do you like best?
The first idea of Crow was really an idea of a style. In folktales the prince going on the
adventure comes to the stable full of beautiful horses and he needs a horse for the
next stage and the king's daughter advises him to take none of the beautiful horses
that he'll be offered but to choose the dirty, scabby little foal. You see, I throw out the
eagles and choose the Crow. The idea was originally just to write his songs, the
songs that a Crow would sing. In other words, songs with no music whatsoever, in a
super-simple and a super-ugly language which would in a way shed everything
except just what he wanted to say without any other consideration and that's the basis
of the style of the whole thing. I get near it in a few poems. there I really begin to get
what I was after.
Sylvia Plath. Decentred and Fragmented Selfhood: The Colossus
(1960), Ariel (1965).
“There was an essay by Alvarez, the British critic: his
arguments about the dangers of gentility in England are
very pertinent, very true. I must say that I am not very
genteel and I feel that gentility has a stranglehold: the
neatness, the wonderful tidiness, which is
so evident everywhere in England, is perhaps more
dangerous than it would appear on the surface” (BBC
interview, 30 October 1962).
When Sylvia Plath died in 1963, she had
published only two books, despite having published
her first poem at the age of eight. Born in Boston,
Massachusetts, in 1932, to middle-class parents – her
father was a professor of Biology at Boston University,
and a specialist in entomology (insects), and her
mother an unemployed schoolteacher. Soon after her
birth, Emil Otto Plath published a treatise on
Bumblebees and Their Ways, and critics have
frequently noted the recurring bee imagery in Sylvia
Plath’s poetry,
which they interpret as a clear link with her father. When he died of diabetes in
1940, Sylvia’s mother moved with her children to Wellesley, Massachusetts, and
took a job as a teacher, a profession which her husband had made her give up
when they got married to “become a full-time homemaker.” Plath’s journals reveal a
strong animosity towards her mother and great feelings of loss and unhappiness
stemming from her father’s death. The poet told a college roommate that he was
“an autocrat … I adored and despised him, and I probably wished many times that
he were dead. When he obliged me and died, I imagined that I had killed him.” She
later claimed that she was never again to be happy and forever resented her
mother’s reaction to her father’s death – Mrs. Plath refused to manifest her anger
and grief, apparently with the purpose of instilling values of strength and courage in
her children. However Sylvia claimed that she and her brother learned suppression
and denial by being deprived of this period of grievance. In “The Disquieting
Muses” she wrote:
Mother you sent me to ballet
lessons And praised my
arabesques and trills Although
each teacher found my touch
Oddly wooden in spite of scales
And the hours of practicing,
my ear Tone-deaf and, yes,
I learned, I learned, I learned
elsewhere, From muses unhired by
you, dear mother, …
At school, Plath was a model student – she was popular amongst her
classmates, received good marks, and won numerous prizes and awards. In her
senior year of High School, she won a scholarship to Smith College, where she not
only excelled, but also managed to write over four hundred poems. In 1952 her
short story “Sunday at the Mintons” won a fiction contest held by Mademoiselle
magazine, where she began working part time. Yet, despite her success, during
the summer of 1953 she suffered a mental breakdown which led to a suicide
attempt. The account of the events that took place that August is the basis of her
later novel, The Bell Jar (1963). When she recovered, she returned to college and
graduated from Smith summa cum laude in 1955.
A Fulbright scholarship took her to Cambridge in that same year, where she
met poet and soon-to-be husband, Ted Hughes. In a letter to her mother she wrote
that he was “the only man I’ve met yet here who’d be strong enough to be equal
with.” Four months later they were married. Then, with the main purpose of
acquiring American readership for Hughes, the couple decided to move to the
United States, where they stayed for two years. Indeed, his reputation as a poet
grew – greatly due to Plath’s hard work as his unofficial agent. She typed his
poems and sent them to be read by important editors. Meanwhile, she was
experiencing overwhelming feelings of self-doubt, and the lack of time to write
caused her anxiety and brought on depression. When Plath became pregnant,
Hughes wanted the baby to be born in England, so they returned to London.
Shortly after they settled in, she signed a contract for the publication of Colossus,
her first collection of poems.
She began working on her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar in 1960 when
she miscarried a few months later. The days she spent in the hospital must have
brought back old memories, for images of whiteness, of shipwreck and of herself
wrapped in bandages are present in many of the poems written during this period.
Clearly, the recurring motif of the image of dead babies that can be seen
throughout The Bell Jar mirror the child that she lost. In 1962 her son was born and
the family decided to move to the countryside. The letters to her mother reveal the
poet’s enthusiasm for the country life and the satisfaction she got from
motherhood, but when her mother visited her the following summer, she found that
the Hughes’s were not getting along. When Plath filed for separation from Hughes,
she moved with her children to London, into a small flat with no central heating.
That winter was to be one of the coldest for more than a century, and yet despite
these adverse conditions, she wrote almost compulsively, getting up early in the
morning hours before her children woke up to work on her poetry. On February 4th
she wrote to her mother: “The children need me most right now, so I shall try to go
on for the next few years writing mornings, being with them afternoons and seeing
friends or studying and reading evenings.” A week later she committed suicide. Her
last poem, written on February 5th, begins with what are now famous lines: “The
woman is perfected. / Her dead / Body wears the smile of accomplishment”
(“Edge”). And yet the very same day she wrote the beautiful poem “Balloons,”
which celebrates the mobility of life, and the balloons’ ability to be themselves,
while living with the mother and her children and keeping them company –
although the final image is indeed one of absence:
Since Christmas they have lived
with us, Guileless and clear,
Oval soul-animals,
Taking up half the
Moving and rubbing on the silk
Invisible air drifts,
Giving a shriek and
When attacked, then scooting to rest, barely
trembling. Yellow cathead, blue fish ------Such queer moons we live with
Instead of dead
furniture! Straw
mats, white walls
And these travelling
Globes of thin air, red,
green, Delighting
The heart like wishes
or free Peacocks
Old ground with a
feather Beaten in
starry metals. Your
Brother is making
His balloon squeak like
a cat. Seeming to see
A funny pink world he might eat on the other
side of it, He bites,
Then sits
Back, fat
Contemplating a world clear as
water. A red
Shred in his little fist.
Diane Middlebrook, one of Plath’s most recent biographers, briefly
concludes that “Depression killed Sylvia Plath.” However, the poet’s mental state
was far more complex and should not be so lightly interpreted. Signs of
disappointment and exhaustion can be observed in many of her last poems.
Heredity, body chemistry, improper medication, an extraordinarily harsh winter, the
strain of caring for two small children, and undoubtedly Hughes’ betrayal all
contributed to her final relinquishment. The fact that Hughes’ second wife
committed suicide may be coincidental, but can hardly be overlooked.
Sylvia Plath has been celebrated, since her death, for giving voice to
women’s anger. She had the courage to express her rage and hatred in her
poems, and her victimisation, as well. Nevertheless, it should not be assumed that
all of the poems written before her suicide lead up to her death, and readers should
be careful about restricting their readings of her poems to a search for
prefigurations of her suicide. Critics now read her work as a more universal
expression of women’s emotions in a society which discourages and frustrates
their self-fulfilment. Her references to death are not limited to nor focus on her own
death, but point to extermination in the concentration camps and the nuclear
holocaust of Hiroshima. Furthermore, her poetry does not always revolve around
death. She explores the family, generally in terms of anger and resentment, and
writes beautiful poems to her children which reflect a passionate maternal love,
which contrast sharply with the complex ambiguity of the poems about
relationships with her parents and men.
Of her major works, Plath was witness to the publications of The Bell Jar
and The Colossus. The rest of her poetry was published posthumously in
numerous volumes; Ariel (1965), Crossing the Water (1971), Collected Poems
(1981) – which won the Pulitzer Prize
– and Selected Poems (1985) are the most relevant. Her journals appeared in
1982, heavily edited by Ted Hughes, who explained that he wanted to protect his
family from distress. The unabridged journals were published in 2000.
When The Colossus came out in 1960, it went largely unnoticed. The work
fused the poet’s pain and women’s issues in revealing poems that would contribute
to the popularisation of “confessional” poetry. The most significant poems in this
collection are the title poem and “The Beekeeper’s Daughter,” an intense piece
which foreshadows the greatness of her later poetry. The bee is implicitly linked to
her father, and the image of the hibernating bee and the powerful figure of the
queen bee are motifs which will recur throughout her later verse:
A garden of mouthings. Purple, scarletspeckled, black The great corollas dilate,
peeling back their silks.
Their musk encroaches, circle after circle,
A well of scents almost too dense to
breathe in. Hieratical in your frock coat,
maestro of the bees, You move among
the many-breasted hives,
My heart under your foot, sister of a stone.
This last image, according to Eileen Aird, represents the stripping away of
all pretence along with the accepted subjection to her father’s authority. The
opposition between the images of the stone and the queen bee was used
frequently by the poet in the poems that she wrote about her father, and can be
seen in a sequence of “bee poems” written in 1962. The title piece, “The
Colossus,” transmits the grandeur of Nature, which both oppresses and awes
Plath, and is a poem, like many of her earlier poems, of exploration, in which she
experiments with form, testing their potential for flexibility, and working within the
accepted canons of poetry.
The next two years are viewed as transitional, and the poems written during
this period suggest violence and suffering, but are still generally low and obvious.
However, in the last nine months of her life, Plath sped up the pace of her verse by
shortening her lines and increasing her use of ellipsis and enjambment. Violent
emotion was depicted through images of sickness and torture in direct statements,
where repetition is frequent. Ariel and Crossing the Water are full of technically
brilliant macabre and hallucinatory poems. “Daddy,” written in 1962 when Ted
Hughes moved out, is a strong, bitter poem, written with a nursery rhyme rhythm, a
characteristic not uncommon in her later poems. Her father is depicted as a Nazi, a
vampire and a devil and then husband and father become one, as she marries the
image of her father, who in turn has drunk her blood for seven years. In a reading
of “Daddy” for BBC radio, Plath explains: “Here is a poem spoken by a girl with an
Electra complex. Her father died when she thought he was God. Her case is
complicated by that fact that her father was also a Nazi and her mother very
possibly part Jewish. In the daughter the two strains marry and paralyse each other
– she has to act out the awful little allegory once over before she is free of it.”
I was ten when they
buried you. At twenty I
tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.
But they pulled me out of the
sack, And they stuck me
together with glue. And then I
knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look
And a love of the rack and the
screw. And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I’m finally through.
The black telephone’s off at the
root, The voices just can’t worm
If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two – The
vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year, Seven
years, if you want to know. Daddy, you
can lie back now.
There’s a stake in your fat black heart And
the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.
The poem ends in a triumphant tone, where the speaker purges herself of years of pain by
driving a stake through the male figure.
The image of a sinister male figure can also be seen in “Lady Lazarus,” one of her
most famous poems. Lady Lazarus is a survivor who not only has the ability to be reborn, but
who understands her enemy and returns to fight back. In the first lines, the speaker brags
about this ability, addressing the hidden theme of suicide: “I’ve done it again./ One year in
every ten / I manage it – ” but she soon returns to Nazi imagery and male cruelty: “So, so,
Herr Doktor. / So, Herr Enemy. / I am your opus, / I am your valuable.” However, despite this
image of her own helplessness, she is sure of her ability to return, and at the end of the poem
lashes out at men, their system of male values, and their male god:
Is an art, like everything else. I do it
exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell. I do it
so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.
--Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
Once again, the poet’s own words help to understand the meaning of this poem: “The speaker
is a woman who has the great and terrible gift of being reborn. The only trouble is, she has to
die first. She is the Phoenix, the libertarian spirit, what you will. She is also just a good, plain
resourceful woman.”
Sylvia Plath wrote of pain and anguish, and it would be an understatement to say that
her poems are not uplifting. Her literary reputation rests on her carefully crafted poetry,
particularly on the poems that she wrote during the months leading up to her death.
Furthermore, her honest and direct self-scrutiny has given a unique perspective to mental
disorder and to the theme of women’s victimisation in a patriarchal society.
To end this section on a slightly lighter note, and as proof of the poet’s range of
themes, the poem “Child” is transcribed below. Some of Plath’s most beautiful love poems are
those to and about her children, perhaps because it was a love free from jealousy and
bitterness. This one focuses on the hope for a new beginning that a child inspires, within the
foreboding tone of the speaker as she is unable to release her adult world:
Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing. I
want to fill it with colors and ducks,
The zoo of the new
Whose names you meditate – April
snowdrop, Indian pipe, Little
Stalk without wrinkle, Pool in
which images
Should be grand and classical
Not this troublous
Wringing of hands, this dark
Ceiling without a star.
The Disquieting Muses
by Sylvia Plath
Mother, mother, what illbred aunt
Mother, who made to order stories
Or what disfigured and unsightly
Of Mixie Blackshort the heroic bear,
Cousin did you so unwisely keep
Mother, whose witches always, always,
Unasked to my christening, that she
Got baked into gingerbread, I wonder
Sent these ladies in her stead
Whether you saw them, whether you said
With heads like darning-eggs to nod
And nod and nod at foot and head
And at the left side of my crib?
Words to rid me of those three ladies
Nodding by night around my bed,
Mouthless, eyeless, with stitched bald
Oddly wooden in spite of scales
And the hours of practicing, my ear
In the hurricane, when father's twelve
Tone-deaf and yes, unteachable.
Study windows bellied in
I learned, I learned, I learned elsewhere,
Like bubbles about to break, you fed
From muses unhired by you, dear mother,
My brother and me cookies and Ovaltine
And helped the two of us to choir:
I woke one day to see you, mother,
"Thor is angry: boom boom boom!
Floating above me in bluest air
Thor is angry: we don't care!"
On a green balloon bright with a million
But those ladies broke the panes.
Flowers and bluebirds that never were
Never, never, found anywhere.
When on tiptoe the schoolgirls danced,
But the little planet bobbed away
Blinking flashlights like fireflies
Like a soap-bubble as you called: Come
And singing the glowworm song, I could
Not lift a foot in the twinkle-dress
And I faced my traveling companions.
But, heavy-footed, stood aside
In the shadow cast by my dismal-headed
Day now, night now, at head, side, feet,
Godmothers, and you cried and cried:
They stand their vigil in gowns of stone,
And the shadow stretched, the lights went
Faces blank as the day I was born,
Their shadows long in the setting sun
That never brightens or goes down.
Mother, you sent me to piano lessons
And this is the kingdom you bore me to,
And praised my arabesques and trills
Mother, mother. But no frown of mine
Although each teacher found my touch
Will betray the company I keep.
Written in 1957, when most of Plath’s work was still in formal verse, “The Disquieting Muses” is
an unnerving explanation of alienation and otherness. The title, as Plath explained, refers to a
painting by the artist Georgio de Chirico—a painting of three faceless dressmaker’s dummies
with elongated heads who cast eerie shadows in a strange half-light. “The dummies suggest a
twentieth century version of other sinister trios of women—the Three Fates, the witches
in Macbeth, [Thomas] De Quincey’s sisters of madness,” she commented. The equation
suggests that the poet associates women, distortions, inspiration, magic, and poetry.
The poem is written in eight-line stanzas containing roughly four stresses per line and some
rhyme, notably rhyme of the fifth and seventh line 233
in each stanza. The poem is addressed to
“Mother,” who tried to teach her daughter a limited and accepted art, telling her stories of witches
who “always/ Got baked into gingerbread” and praising her piano and ballet exercises. The
mother, too, tried to teach her children how to keep irrational forces at bay, chanting at the
hurricane winds that threatened to blow in the windows. The power of unreason is too strong,
however; the art it engenders too compelling.
Like Plath’s other parent poems, this one blames the parent, at least in part, for the situation of
the poet. Mother failed to invite some “illbred aunt” or “unsightly cousin” to her christening, thus
provoking the anger of the uninvited. The daughter is thus set apart, unable to continue the
mother-daughter tradition of benign, trivial art. She could not dance with the other schoolgirls in
the “twinkle-dress” but “heavy-footed, stood aside/ In the shadow cast by my dismal-headed/
Godmothers, and you cried and cried.”
The conclusion of the poem indicates that the girl is still surrounded by her otherworldly
company, the distorted muses, who are witches, fates, visitors from the world of madness. She
indicates that she has learned not to betray her difference:
“No frown of mine/ Will betray the company I keep.” The surrealist painting is reminiscent of
Salvador Dali’s deathscapes, although not so explicit as they in its message. The poem suggests
that to be an artist is to look at eternities and infinities, and that this gift—in the speaker’s case,
caused in part by her mother’s oversight—is a curse rather than a blessing.
In the opening stanza, the speaker blames her mother for letting the sinister elements enter into
her life from infancy. While the five negative prefixes ("illbred," "disfigured," "unsightly,"
"unwisely" and "Unasked") demonstrate negative elements, the repetition of "Mother, mother"
indicates the speaker's anger and accusations against her mother. Instead of the presence of a
loving mother, the haunting godmothers present themselves "With heads like darning-eggs to
nod / And nod and nod at foot and head," like singing a distasteful lullaby to the baby. And they
demonstrate a control over the infant by surrounding the cradle.
The speaker then portrays in the second stanza the idealistic childlike world that the mother
wants to establish for the children. The mother provides the children with a world where there
are only imaginative heroes and where evil does not exist or is easily dismissed. But the
mother's heroic stories do not expel the evil muses; on the contrary, she is unable to perceive
their presence and powerless to drive them away.
The third stanza illustrates a hurricane episode. The mother idealistically instructs the children
that thunder is only a mythological god who is harmless, yet the wicked muses rupture the
father's study windows as easily as breaking bubbles.
234 Their destructive power is more vicious
than the hurricane. By destroying the father's bubble-like windows—a symbol of the paternal
intelligence and the fragility of the mother's protection—the speaker affirms the persistence of
negative elements in her life.
In the fourth and fifth stanza, the failure in dancing and piano lessons indicates the speaker's
rejection of the mother's conventional culture. The muses not only accompany the speaker since
her infancy, they also eventually make her one of them. While the speaker depicts her inability
to inherit the mother's values, she describes herself with a likeness of the muses: "heavy-footed,
stood aside / In the shadow," "my touch / Oddly wooden," and "my ear / Tone-deaf."
The last two stanzas visualize the contrast of the fragile, beautiful, idealized world that the
mother lives in and the cold, hard, shadowy world where the speaker remains. The mother’s
bubble world is so unreal that it disappears whenever the speaker tries to get in. The repetition
of "never" reinforces that the existence of such a world is impossible. The speaker has to face
the indifferent blank-face muses and their twilight kingdom. The never setting sun suggests a
timeless space, where life stops and nothing grows. However, the speaker determines that she
will confront the ominous world when she tells her mother that "no frown of mine / Will betray the
company I keep." The cold, flat tone of the last line, ironically, demonstrates a helpless cry.
Pictorial Background:
Sylvia Plath’s poem is inspired by Giorgio de Chirico's 1917 painting with the same
title. Although the background is located in an Italian city, Ferrara, de Chirico, actually, creates a
hallucinatory, and even ominous, timeless space. The three muses are all featureless, bald, cold
and sterile mannequins. The bright colors do not provide them with liveliness; on the contrary,
the colors make the muses much more unhuman-like. While the faraway castle, the pale
mannequins and the geometric objects construct a dreamlike vision, the turquoise sky, the red
castle, the red chimneys, the orange ground, the unseen setting sun, and the long dark shadows
provoke a kind of tense, disturbing, and even sinister atmosphere. The setting with mannequins
in a metaphysical landscape creates an effect of placing motionless protagonists on a haunting
stage. Everything is still. There is no action and no definite consequence foreshadowed.
Biographical Background:
The bedtime stories in stanza two are centered on Warren's (Plath's younger brother) favorite
teddy bear, "The Adventures of Mixie Blackshort," which Mrs. Plath invented, and which ran into
nightly installments for several years.
The hurricane episode in the third stanza is also a private event from Plath's childhood. In a
BBC essay on the memory of sea, Plath recounts a hurricane in 1939: "The rain set in, one huge
Noah douche. Then the wind. The world had become a drum. Beaten, it shrieked and
shook. Pale and elated in our beds, my brother and I sipped our nightly hot drink. We could, of
course, not sleep" (Sylvia Plath, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams).
The Thor song is a song that relates to Plath’s father. In a short story about her father, "Among
the Bumblebees," Plath describes how the protagonist's father teaches her to sing the Thor
song: "Alice learned to sing the thunder song with her father: 'Thor is angry. Thor is
angry. Boom, boom, boom! Boom, boom, boom! We don't care. We don't care. Boom, boom,
boom!' And above the resonant resounding baritone of her father's voice, the thunder rumbled
harmless as a tame lion" (Sylvia Plath, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams).
Mythological Source:
Muses: In Greek mythology, they are nine by number. The muses are the daughters of the Titan
Mnemosyne and Zeus. They are the goddesses of all arts and sciences, and give the artists and
scientists their inspiration.
Calliope - epic poetry
Euterpe - lyric poetry and song accompanied by flute
Erato - love poetry
Polyhymnia - sacred poetry and dance
Melpomene - tragedy
Thalia - comedy
Clio - history
Terpsichore - dance and choral songs
Urania – astronomy
Form and Diction:
The nursery rhyme is juxtaposed with the flat conversational tone. Repetitions like "to nod / And
nod and nod," "whose witches always, always / Got baked into gingerbread," "Thor is angry:
boom boom boom! Thor is angry: we don't care!" "you cried and cried," "I learned, I learned, I
learned," "flowers and bluebirds that never were / Never, never, found anywhere," are in contrast
with the dialogized lines.
Vocabularies are divided into two groups. One group describes the idealistic world—Mixie
Blackshort the heroic bear, gingerbread, bubbles, cookies and Ovaltine, fireflies, glowworm,
twinkle-dress, balloon, flowers and bluebirds, soap-bubble. The other group intimates de
Chirico's muses and their sinister world—darning-eggs, mouthless, eyeless, stitched bald head,
shadow, heavy-footed, dismal-headed, tone-deaf, gowns of stone, blank faces, and the setting
The word "mother" repeats in the poem nine times. The repetitions of "Mother, mother" that
appear in the first and last stanzas explain an eagerness to arouse the mother's
attention. However, the word "mother" also carries a sarcastic intensity, especially the "dear
Sylvia Plath’s ekphrastic poem illustrates a non-communicative mother-daughter
relationship. While de Chirico's painting strips the objects of meaning and portrays an enigmatic
vision between surreal subconscious and inaccessible memories, Plath's poem borrows the
haunting figures in the picture as a representation of the dark force of life. These bare,
indifferent mannequins become not only delegates of ominous women, but also representatives
of the bad fairies and the evil mothers, who are the opposites of the well-meaning natural
mother. The poem therefore suggests a contrast between light and dark, ideal and familiar. The
three muses are surrogates of a cold, indifferent, painful, realistic world. These evil mothers
overshadow the natural mother, who lives in a fairylike, cartoon world and is not aware of the
presence of them. Like the good fairies in "Sleeping Beauty” and the muses of Greek mythology,
the muses in the poem are the speaker's patrons; but unlike the good fairies, the three muses do
not give her good gifts. Plath herself commented the three dummies represent a twentiethcentury version of other sinister trios of women: the Three Fates, the witches in Macbeth, and de
Quincey's sisters of madness. With many details from her childhood, the first-person speaker
describes her growing awareness of the conflict between two worlds, and later realizes that she
belongs to the dark, ominous one. And by accepting the existence of the dark side in her life, the
speaker thus symbolically destroys the natural mother's idealistic world and creates her own
world, with the three muses as her company.
Since Christmas they have lived with us,
Guileless and clear,
Oval soul-animals,
Invisible air drifts,
237 Giving
a shriek and pop
Taking up half the space,
When attacked, then scooting to rest, barely
Moving and rubbing on the silk
Yellow cathead, blue fish————
Such queer moons we live with
Brother is making
His balloon squeak like a cat.
Instead of dead furniture!
Seeming to see
Straw mats, white walls
A funny pink world he might eat on the other
And these traveling
side of it,
Globes of thin air, red, green,
He bites,
Then sits
The heart like wishes or free
Back, fat jug
Peacocks blessing
Contemplating a world clear as water.
Old ground with a feather
A red
Beaten in starry metals.
Shred in his little fist.
Your small
5 February 1963
The poem “Balloons” is written by a poet called Sylvia Plath. In a rare, simple and predominantly
positive poem, Plath offers a tribute to her two children. Through the imagery of balloons, the
poem captures the innocent curiosity of children. However, this poem can also have a more
disquieting interpretation referring to the vulnerability of her happiness (Genius). One central
opposition in the poem can be identified in the mood of the poem. Some phrases of the poem
imply a happy and bright mood, while other parts of the poem take a more dull and depressing
approach. The poem begins with a mix of both a depressing and a cheerful tone as Sylvia Plath
describes the balloons as living creatures. Plath describes the balloons as making things such as
“dead furniture” with “straw mats and white walls”, look better and brighter. Plath also describes
the balloons as making the atmosphere of the place brighter and happier by using the word
“delighting”. The use of colors in the poem, such as “yellow cathead” and “blue fish” also make
the atmosphere more genial and beaming. However, the mood in the poem can easily be
broken, similarly to how a balloon can easily be deflated. Plath suggests this by creating an
imagery of a boy biting a balloon which is easily shattered. When Plath says “contemplating a
world as clear as water”, she tries to emphasize the harshness of reality as she shows an
innocent soul thinking of the world as a very safe and selfless place when it actually is
materialistic and horrifying. In the end, Plath resolves the conflict between the two contrasting
moods by creating a general solemn mood to reflect the loss of childhood dreams, when they
discover the harshness and complexity of adult life.
“The Beekeeper’s Daughter”
Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Beekeeper’s Daughter” is saturated with images of, “sexual and
aesthetic fertility.” The poem is about bodies opening and accepting the process of fertilization.
The images that Plath uses to express the opening of nature i.e. flowers, birds, and bees, are
chalked through with entendres that hint at the sexual opening and play of human intercourse.
The entendres also hint at the poet being an open vessel for aesthetic fertility, for inspiration. It is
this theme, sexual and aesthetic opening, that this essay will look at.
The first verb in the poem, “mouthings,” is loaded with a number of meanings and implications,
just as the rest of the poem is loaded. The verb is used to explain the action of “a garden of
mouthings”, it is a powerful beginning, implying that the garden is mouthing, speaking, in the
sense that, as the American Heritage Dictionary has it, “a bombastic or empty phrase of speech.”
It is as if the chaos and motion of the birds and bees and the wild variegated colors of the garden
flowers in the bloom of spring are shouting out with “empty phrase(s)” their mad dashing for a
mate. But the word is also interesting because the mouth is the vehicle for language, and
language is the source of poetry.
A relationship between the fertile sexual energy of the garden and the idea of poetry being a part
of the mouth and the lungs is emphasized in the next several lines, “The great corollas dilate,
peeling back their silks./ Their musk encroaches, circle after circle,/ A well of scents almost to
dense to breathe in.” In these lines the petals of the black flowers are opening “peeling back
their silks” like the pealing back of silk undergarments, an entendre that hints at human sexual
preparation. And just as the “musk” of a human body rises after removing clothes, the flowers
release their scent into the garden as they peal back their petals. The scent in the garden then
enters the air and becomes so “dense” that it is almost difficult to breath. Here, with breath, Plath
references the apparatus of language, the lungs importance in forming words, and also alludes
to the breath of a poems line, and as the poem we are reading has it, the breath is so filled with
fecundity that it can barely endure the stimulation.
These first lines deal with a feminine form of sexuality, in the following lines Plath introduces a
masculine form of sexuality.
Hieratical in your frock coat, maestro of the bees,
You move among the many-breasted hives.
The male enters as a priest in “frock coat“; a go between for man and god. He is the beekeeper
that moves among the hives (whose sexual reference could only be lost on a few) and prepares
to release the bees into the garden; in a way to release the divine, the muse, into the garden. His
stones that he uses to hold the lids of the hives down are expressed by Plath as, “My heart
under your foot, sister of a stone,” saying, in effect, that the poets heart is held down by the
stones that hold back the bees from the garden.
In the next stanza there is, again, an allusion to the
239physical apparatus of speech, and for the
first time, there is a direct interaction between pollen and pollinator.
Trumpet-throats open to the beaks of birds.
The bird simultaneously removes pollen from the plant while mixing the pollen of other flowers
into the flowers head, mixing female and male pollen, and making the flower fertile. In a way this
is akin to the mixing of image, influence, and experience into the throat of the poet. As the stanza
continues this mixing of sexual fertility and artistic fertility is further played out.
In these little boudoirs streaked with orange and red
The anthers nod their heads, potent as kings
To father dynasties. The air is rich.
Again the air is described as being filled with scent, but this time as opposed to being
overwhelming, the air is “rich” with creative possibilities. And like the silk entendre in the first
stanza the heads of the flowers are referred to as “boudoirs”, as bedrooms, as the place of
human sexual interaction.
As the poem continues the narrator, in the first person, looks into the hives, and sees the person
responsible for the bees, for the release of fertility into the garden. For the narrator this person is
both a “father” and a “bridegroom”. He is both father and lover, both a figure that has already
propagated and a person who will propagate. The beekeeper though, because of the religious
reference in the first stanza, can also be seen as god the father, and the narrator as a nun, a
supplicant, who has become the bride of god. In a way it as if the poet has looked directly into
the machination of poetic inspiration, and has seen directly the face of the muse, of which the
poet, who in like manner to a nun that vows to be the bride of god alone, is a supplicant to this
muse. This ending signifies a divine commitment to poetry, and an acceptance of the method,
the process, that this commitment entails. It requires that the poet be open to the forces of
fertility and be willing to accept that there will be points at which this openness will be so full that
it be, “almost to dense to breathe” but there will also be times when the lungs are filled with “rich”
productive air.
Daddy by Sylvia Plath
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend
Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time——
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal
Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.
And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du.
It stuck in a barb wire snare.
ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene
240 Ich,
An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.
Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.
The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of
Are not very pure or true.
With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.
But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look
I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You——
Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.
You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who
And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I’m finally through.
The black telephone’s off at the root,
The voices just can’t worm through.
If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two——
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.
There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.
Analysis of "Daddy"
"Daddy" is an attempt to combine the personal with the mythical. It's unsettling, a weird nursery
rhyme of the divided self, a controlled blast aimed at a father and a husband (since the two
conflate in the 14th stanza).
The poem expresses Plath's terror and pain lyrically and hauntingly. It combines light echoes of a
Mother Goose nursery rhyme with much darker resonances of World War II.
The father is seen as a black shoe, a bag full of God, a cold marble statue, a Nazi, a swastika, a
fascist, a sadistic brute, and a vampire. The girl (narrator, speaker) is trapped in her idolization of
this man.
She is a victim trapped in that black tomblike shoe, in the sack that holds the father's bones, and—
in a sense—in the train as it chugs along to Auschwitz. "Daddy" is full of disturbing imagery, and
that's why some have called "Daddy" "the Guernica of modern poetry."
Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis of Plath's "Daddy"
Stanza 1: A first line repeated, a declaration of intent, the first sounds of oo—this is the train
setting off on its final death march. The black shoe is a metaphor for the father. Inside, trapped for
30 years, is the narrator, about to escape.
Stanza 2: But she can only free herself by killing her "daddy," who does resemble the poet's
actual father, Otto, who died when she was 8. His241
toe turned black from gangrene. He eventually
had to have his leg amputated due to complications of diabetes. When young Plath heard this
news, she said, "I'll never speak to God again." Here, the bizarre, surreal imagery builds up—his
toe is as big as a seal, the grotesque image of her father has fallen like a statue.
Stanza 3: The personal weaves in and out of the allegory. The statue's head is in the Atlantic, on
the coast at Nauset Beach, Cape Cod, where the Plath family used to holiday. The father icon
stretches all the way across the USA. The imagery is temporarily beautiful: bean green over
blue water. The speaker says she used to pray to get her father back, restored to health.
Stanza 4: We move on to Poland and the second world war. There's a mix of the factual and
fictional. Otto Plath was born in Grabow, Poland, a common name, but spoke German in a typical
autocratic fashion. This town has been razed in many wars adding strength to the idea that
Germany (the father) has demolished life.
Stanza 5: Again, the narrator addresses the father as you, a direct address which brings the
reader closer to the action. I never could talk to you seems to come right from the daughter's
heart. Plath is hinting at a lack of communication, of instability and paralysis. Note the use of the
line endings two, you, and you—the train building up momentum.
Stanza 6: The use of barb wire snare ratchets up the tension. The narrator is in pain for the first
time. The German ich (I) is repeated four times as if her sense of self-worth is in question (or is
she recalling the father shouting I,I,I,I?). And is she unable to speak because of the shock or just
difficulty with the language? The father is seen as an all-powerful icon; he even represents all
Stanza 7: As the steam engine chugs on, the narrator reveals that this is no ordinary train she is
on. It is a death train taking her off to a concentration camp, one of the Nazi death factories where
millions of Jews were cruelly gassed and cremated during World War II. The narrator now
identifies fully with the Jews.
Stanza 8: Moving on, into Austria, the country where Plath's mother was born, the narrator
reinforces her identity—she is a bit of a Jew because she carries a Taroc (Tarot) pack of cards
and has gypsy blood in her. Perhaps she is a fortune teller able to predict the fate of people? Plath
was keenly interested in the Tarot card symbols. Some believe that certain poems in her
book Ariel use similar occult symbology.
Stanza 9: Although Plath's father was never a Nazi in real life, her narrator again focuses on the
second world war and the image of the Nazi soldier. Part nonsense nursery rhyme, part dark
lyrical attack, the girl describes the ideal Aryan male. One of the aims of the Nazis was to breed
out unwanted genetic strains to produce the perfect German, an Aryan. This one happens to
speak gobbledygoo, a play on the word gobbledygook, meaning excessive use of technical terms.
The Luftwaffe is the German air force. Panzer is the name for the German tank corps.
Stanza 10: Yet another metaphor—father as swastika, the ancient Indian symbol used by the
Nazis. In this instance, the swastika is so big it blacks out the entire sky. This could be a reference
to the air raids over England during the war, when the Luftwaffe bombed many cities and turned
the sky black. Lines 48-50 are controversial but probably allude to the fact that powerful despotic
males, brutes in boots, often demand the attraction of female victims.
Stanza 11: Perhaps the most personal of stanzas. This image breaks through into the poem and
the reader is taken into a kind of classroom (her father Otto was a teacher) where daddy stands.
The devil is supposed to have a cleft foot but here, he has a cleft chin. The narrator isn't fooled.
Stanza 12: She knows that this is the man who tore her apart, reached inside, and left her split, a
divided self. Sylvia's father died when she was 8, filling her up with rage against God. And at 20,
Plath attempted suicide for the first time. Was she wanting to re-unite with her father?
Stanza 13: A crucial stanza, where the girl 'creates' male number two, based on the father. The
narrator is pulled out of the sack and 'they' stick her back together with glue. Bones out of a
sack—Sylvia Plath was 'glued' back together by doctors
after her failed suicide attempt but was
never the same again. In the poem, this suicide attempt is a catalyst for action. The girl creates a
model (a voodoo-like doll?), a version of her father. This replica strongly resembles Plath's
husband, Ted Hughes. He has a Meinkampf look (Mein Kampf is the title of Adolf Hitler's book,
which means my struggle) and is not averse to torture.
Stanza 14: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were married, hence the line with I do, I do. The speaker
addresses daddy again, for the last time. There'll be no more communication, no voices from the
past. Note the emphasis on "black" again. This telephone belongs to the father.
Stanza 15: The penultimate five lines. The speaker has achieved her double killing, both father
and husband have been dispatched. The latter is referred to as a vampire who has been drinking
her blood for seven years. It's as if the narrator is reassuring her father that all is well now. He
can lie back in readiness. For what?
Stanza 16: The father's fat black heart is pierced by a wooden stake, just like a vampire, and the
villagers are thoroughly happy about it. A bit of a bizarre image to end on. But, just who are the
villagers? Are they the inhabitants of a village in the allegory, or are they a collective of Sylvia
Plath's imagination? Either way, the father's demise has them dancing and stamping on him in an
almost jovial way. To put the lid on things, the girl declares daddy a bastard. The exorcism is over,
the conflict resolved.
Line-by-Line Analysis of Plath's "Daddy"
What It Means
The speaker says after 30 years,
she will no longer live trapped
inside the memory of her father.
Lines 1-5: You do not do, you do
Her comparison of him to a shoe
not do Any more, black shoe In
evokes the old nursery rhyme
which I have lived like a foot For
about an old woman who lives in a
thirty years, poor and white, Barely shoe, and the singsong repetition
daring to breathe or Achoo.
and the word "achoo" sounds
similarly childish. The "you" to
whom the poem is addressed is
the absent father.
Lines 6-10: Daddy, I have had to
kill you. You died before I had
time—— Marble-heavy, a bag full
of God, Ghastly statue with one
gray toe Big as a Frisco seal
In line 6, the speaker shocks us
with the assertion she has already
murdered her father—figuratively.
A "bag full of God" could mean
he's in a body bag or that his body
is just a bag. We get an image of
how big he is in her eyes via the
heavy, cold corpse so large that it
spans the US, his toes in the San
Francisco Bay...
Lines 11-15: And a head in the
freakish Atlantic Where it pours
bean green over blue In the
waters off beautiful Nauset. I used
to pray to recover you. Ach, du.
...and his head in the Atlantic. She
used to pray to "recover" him and
she could mean that she wished
she could have him back or heal
him. This German expression is a
sigh of (angry? impatient?)
familiarity: "Oh, you." Plath's father
was a German
243 immigrant.
Lines 16-20: In the German
tongue, in the Polish town
The repetition of "wars" gives us
the sense that there have been
What It Means
Scraped flat by the roller Of wars,
wars, wars. But the name of the
town is common. My Polack friend
many and of landscapes being
repetitively flattened by war.
Lines 21-25: Says there are a
dozen or two. So I never could tell
where you Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you. The
tongue stuck in my jaw.
This part could mean that the
speaker doesn't know precisely
where her father came from ("put
your foot, your root"), and that she
had no rapport with him.
Lines 26-30: It stuck in a barb wire
snare. Ich, ich, ich, ich, I could
hardly speak. I thought every
German was you. And the
language obscene
Trying to talk to her father was
dangerous and painful, like
sticking your tongue in a trap. "Ich"
is the German word for "I," and
here she is reduced to stammering
in fear and confusion. Is she
scared or nervous or...?
Trying to speak German makes
her feel like she's trapped on a
Lines 31-35: An engine, an engine train, headed towards a death
Chuffing me off like a Jew. A Jew camp: We see the speaker's
to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen. I
mental and emotional conversion
began to talk like a Jew. I think I
here and how she associates her
may well be a Jew.
fear and terror of her father with
the struggle of the Jewish people
against the Nazis.
Lines 36-40: The snows of the
Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna Are
not very pure or true. With my
gipsy ancestress and my weird
luck And my Taroc pack and my
Taroc pack I may be a bit of a
In these lines we join the speaker
on that train winding through
Europe. The white snow and the
clear beer contrast starkly to the
dark deeds being inflicted by
Nazis in the name of racial purity.
The speaker is consciously,
deliberately choosing sides.
Lines 41-45: I have always been
scared of you, With your Luftwaffe,
your gobbledygoo. And your neat
mustache And your Aryan eye,
bright blue. Panzer-man, panzerman, O You——
"Luftwaffe" is the German air
force; "gobbledygoo" is another
childlike word that conveys her
disdain for the German. She calls
herself a Jew and her father a
Nazi killer. A Panzer-man is one
who drives a tank.
Lines 46-50: Not God but a
swastika So black no sky could
squeak through. Every woman
adores a Fascist, The boot in the
face, the brute Brute heart of a
brute like you.
His Nazism blocks the sun, it's so
huge. Why do women love
Fascists? Is it bitter sarcasm or
truth? Perhaps she's saying that in
relationships, women are
dominated by men. In order to
244 must be
love a man you
Lines 51-55: You stand at the
Now, she's calling her father a
What It Means
blackboard, daddy, In the picture I
have of you, A cleft in your chin
instead of your foot But no less a
devil for that, no not Any less the
black man who
devil. The speaker describes a
photo of her father. BTW, Plath's
father was a biology professor
(see photo below).
Lines 56-60: Bit my pretty red
heart in two. I was ten when they
buried you. At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you. I
thought even the bones would do.
He broke her heart. He died when
she was 10 and she tried to
commit suicide at 20 to get "back,
back, back" (like earlier, when she
tried to "recover" him). The
repetition here emphasizes her
futile desperation.
Lines 61-65: But they pulled me
out of the sack, And they stuck me
together with glue. And then I
knew what to do. I made a model
of you, A man in black with a
Meinkampf look
She's so desperate to be with him
that even his bones will do. She
figuratively tries to join him in his
grave (by killing herself), but they
(doctors?) save her. So she
changes her tactic and makes an
effigy of him.
Lines 66-70: And a love of the
rack and the screw. And I said I
do, I do. So daddy, I’m finally
through. The black telephone’s off
at the root, The voices just can’t
worm through.
She makes a man in her father's
image, a sadist, and marries him
("I do, I do"). So now, she no
longer needs her father. She cuts
off communication with him, the
dead, here.
Lines 71-75: If I’ve killed one man,
I’ve killed two—— The vampire
who said he was you And drank
my blood for a year, Seven years,
if you want to know. Daddy, you
can lie back now.
Although she didn't literally kill
anyone, the speaker feels as
though she has killed both her
father and her husband (a parasite
who "drank my blood" for 7 years).
Perhaps she means simply that
they are dead to her now. BTW,
Plath was married to Ted Hughes
for about 7 years.
Lines 76-80: There’s a stake in
your fat black heart And the
villagers never liked you. They are
dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m
She tells her dead father to lie
back in his grave. She says she's
done with him forever. Maybe she
has exorcized or mentally killed
him properly this time.
Lady Lazarus
by Sylvia Plath
I have done it again.
Shoves in to see
One year in every ten
I manage it——
Them unwrap me hand and foot——
The big strip tease.
A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Gentlemen, ladies
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot
These are my hands
My knees.
A paperweight,
I may be skin and bone,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.
Nevertheless, I am the same, identical
Peel off the napkin
The first time it happened I was ten.
my enemy.
It was an accident.
Do I terrify?——
The second time I meant
The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
To last it out and not come back at all.
The sour breath
I rocked shut
Will vanish in a day.
As a seashell.
Soon, soon the flesh
They had to call and call
The grave cave ate will be
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.
At home on me
And I a smiling woman.
Is an art, like everything else.
I am only thirty.
I do it exceptionally well.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.
I do it so it feels like hell.
This is Number Three.
I do it so it feels real.
What a trash
I guess you could say I’ve a call.
To annihilate each decade.
246 It’s
easy enough to do it in a cell.
What a million filaments.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.
The peanut-crunching crowd
It’s the theatrical
A wedding ring,
Comeback in broad day
A gold filling.
To the same place, the same face, the
same brute
Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Amused shout:
‘A miracle!’
That knocks me out.
Out of the ash
There is a charge
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
For the eyeing of my scars, there is a
For the hearing of my heart——
It really goes.
And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood
Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.
I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby
That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great
Ash, ash—
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there——
A cake of soap,
Summary of Lady Lazarus
Popularity of “Lady Lazarus”: This poem was written by Sylvia Plath, a great American
poet and short story writer. ‘Lady Lazarus’ is a bitter dramatic monologue, famous for
the themes of death and oppression. It was published in 1965, two years after her
death by suicide. The poem gives hints to multiple suicide attempts of the tormented
speaker. It also highlights the role of power and oppression in one’s life. The poem
also expresses the ideas of not giving up and resurrection.
“Lady Lazarus” As a Representative of Death: The poem details the tragic life of a
lady and her several suicide attempts. She says that she has tried to kill herself many
times, but surprisingly survived every time. She asks those who saved her from
peeling off the napkin from her face and see her wounded soul. She compares her
suffering to Nazi prisoners to make the readers understand the reason for her
discontent. As the poem progresses, she provides graphic details of physical and the
mentality effects of suicide. She lashes out on her doctors and those who take her as
an object of entertainment. She concludes by calling herself a phoenix, rising from the
Major Themes in “Lady Lazarus”: Death, depression, pain, and power are the major
themes of this poem. The disheartened speaker talks about her failed suicide
attempts and give reasons for her resentment. She also expresses her anger for
those who saved her from dying. Despite every effort to die she still survived. She
continuously states the idea that she is being used as an object of entertainment. She
regrets that her actions are watched as an act of amusement, rather than empathy.
Moreover, the people, with their fake sympathies, are contributing more in her pain,
and they are not allowing her to be free.
Analysis of Literary Devices Used in “Lady Lazarus”
Literary devices are tools used by writers to express their emotions, ideas, and
themes and to make the text appealing to the readers. Sylvia Plath has also
employed some literary devices in this poem to narrate her failed suicide attempts.
The analysis of some of the literary devices used in this poem has been given below.
Simile: It is a device used to compare something with something else to make the
meanings clear to the readers. For example, “And like the cat I have nine times to
die”. Here the poet compares herself with a cat who can survive a tragic fall.
Anaphora: It refers to the repetition of a word or expression in the first part of some
verses. For example, ‘So’ is repeated in twenty second stanza of the poem to
emphasize the point.
“Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.”
Enjambment: It is defined as a thought or clause that does not come to an end at a
line break; instead, it moves over the next line. For example,
“The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.”
Hyperbole: Hyperbole is a device used to exaggerate any statement for the sake of
emphasis. For example, “To annihilate each decade” is hyperbole and no one can
destroy or erase time.
Metaphor: It is a figure of speech in which an implied comparison is made between
the objects that are different in nature. For example, “A sort of walking miracle, my
skin; Bright as a Nazi lampshade.” Here she compares her suffering to prisoners in
the Nazi concentration camps.
Assonance: Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in the same line such as the
sound of /a/ in “And there is a charge, a very large charge.”
Imagery: Imagery is used to make readers perceive things involving their five senses.
For example, “The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth”, “To the same place, the
same face, the same brute” and “Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.”
Analysis of Poetic Devices Used in “Lady Lazarus”
Poetic and literary devices are the same, but a few are used only in poetry. Here is
the analysis of some of the poetic devices used in this poem.
Stanza: A stanza is a poetic form of some verses and lines. There are twenty-eight
three-lined stanzas in this poem.
Tercet: A tercet is a three-lined stanza borrowed from Hebrew poetry. All the stanzas
in the poem is a tercet.
End Rhyme: End rhyme is used to make the stanza melodious. For example,
“hair/air”, “burn/concern” and “out/shout.”
“Child” by Sylvia Plath
Literary Analysis: The poem, “Child” by Sylvia Plath is about her son or daughter,
which is obvious because of the title. In it, she expresses her desire to have her child
continue to live a bright and happy life, unlike her own. In the first line of the poem she
says, “Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.” The phrase, “clear eye”
usually refers to having a mind that isn’t affected by fear or doubt, and within this line
she shows her admiration for their purity by calling this characteristic, “absolutely
beautiful”. Line 7 of the poem states, “Stalk without wrinkle”. She wants the child to,
“stalk” or proceed in life while keeping the innocence addressed in the beginning,
which is why she adds, “without wrinkle” to represent the process of aging and losing
that innocence. In lines 8-9 Plath says, “Pool in which images should be grand and
classical”. By this she means that she wants them to view the world and take part in
amazing opportunities. Words such as grand and classical refer to something being
outstanding and pleasant, which is what she wants their lives to be like. Towards the
end, she uses her own life as an example of what she doesn’t want for them. In last
stanza it says, “Not this troublous wringing of hands, this dark ceiling without a star.”
The word, “this” implies that she is talking about herself and her own, “troublous
wringing of hands”. Troublous means troubling or disturbing and wringing hands is
what people normally do when they’re anxious or paranoid about something, so it
seems as though she’s referring to her own troubling anxiety. The ceiling with no light
from the star shows a lack of brightness and initiates a depressed or dispirited mood.
The hands and the ceiling are symbols used to represent Plath’s struggles in her own
life. After listing her hopes and dreams for them, she ends the poem by focusing on
what she doesn’t want in her child’s future and how she wishes it ends up nothing like
A Portrait of Plath in Poetry for Its Own Sake
Critic: Michiko Kakutani Source: "A Portrait of Plath in Poetry for Its Own Sake," in
The New York Times Book Review, February 13, 1998. Criticism about: Ted Hughes’
Birthday Letters
No literary couple has been so mythologized as Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. In her own
fierce, slashing poems, Plath dramatized herself as a terror-stricken victim, a doomed Electra, a
''Lady Lazarus,'' eating ''men like air,'' and she depicted her husband alternately as her ''savior,''
as her ''muse and god-creator'' and as her ''jailer'' and betrayer. In the years since her death--in
1963, she stuck her head inside her kitchen oven and turned on the gas--feminist critics have
canonized Plath as a martyr while reviling Mr. Hughes as a villain: the callous husband, who left
her for another woman, the ogre who drove her to suicide and took over her literary estate in an
effort to shape her memory. Throughout all this, Mr. Hughes has remained silent, turning
aside inquiries from biographers and reporters while editing posthumous collections of Plath's
various writings. With Birthday Letters, his astonishing new volume of poems, he finally shatters
that silence, giving us an extraordinarily intimate portrait of their relationship, from their first
meeting in 1956 through their marriage and her suicide. Written over the last few decades, the
poems seem remarkably free of self-pity, score-settling and spin; rather, they draw a deeply
affecting portrait of the couple's marriage while attesting to Mr. Hughes's own impassioned love
for Plath. Poems, however, are not biography, and these should not be read simply for the light
they shed on the Hughes-Plath relationship. They should be read because they constitute the
strongest, most emotionally tactile work of Mr. Hughes's career. Urgent, tensile and harrowing,
these poems recapitulate all the major themes that have animated Mr. Hughes's earlier work-violence, death and survival, a Darwinian view of nature, a Hobbesian view of the world--while
revealing just how rooted this appetite, in Helen Vendler's words, "for naming and ornamenting
disaster'' was in his own experience of life. At the same time, the poems in Birthday Letters
evince a new directness and vulnerability. Burned free of the detachment, condescension and
contrivance that cramped much of his earlier work, they dazzle not only with verbal dexterity but
also with clear-hearted emotion. They are clearly the work of a poet writing out of the deepest
core of his being. Almost every poem in the volume is written as a letter addressed directly to
Plath, and many allude to Plath's own favorite images (the sun, the moon, the sea) and her
vocabulary as a poet. In fact, one of the things that is so fascinating about Birthday Letters is
how persuasively Mr. Hughes grapples with the memory of his former wife, both with his own
remembrances of their experiences together (their wedding, their honeymoon, a trip to the
United States, the birth of their two children) and with the mythologized versions of those
experiences as they have come down to us in Plath's own poems, journals and letters. Mr.
Hughes gives us his own version of the first kiss famously mythologized by Plath ("he kissed
me bang smash on the mouth . . . And when he kissed my neck I bit him long and hard on the
cheek''). He remembers her eyes, "a crush of diamonds, incredibly bright, bright as a crush of
tears,'' and her tooth marks that were "to brand my face for the next month./The me beneath it
for good.'' He conjures her up on their wedding day, ''so slender and new and naked,/A nodding
spray of wet lilac.'' And he describes her "exaggerated American/Grin for the cameras,
the judges, the strangers, the frighteners.'' As Plath's own writings attest, there were
at least two faces she showed to the world: the sunlit American girl, a straight-A
student, the picture of friskiness and vitality and ambition; and the shadow side, the
haunted woman, trapped in a bell jar, plagued by nighttime terrors and quickening
rages, and drawn ineluctably, like Persephone, toward an underworld of despair and
death. Mr. Hughes gives us both Plaths: the magical, kinetic girl he fell in love with and
the sad, frightened woman he felt he could no longer reach. Mr. Hughes, for his part,
plays Ferdinand to her Miranda, and later Leonard to her Virginia. He feels unworthy
marrying her, "the Swineherd/Stealing this daughter's pedigreed dreams/From under
her watchtowered searchlit future,'' but embraces their marriage as a fated match
dangling the promise of Edenic bliss. There are quick, bright snapshots of their very
ordinary happiness -- playing at being tourists in Paris, setting up house together,
picking daffodils in the garden--but there are hints, too, of strain and stress. The
pressure of living with another poet--all that observing and annotating, all that
extrapolating of the ordinary into metaphor--begins to take a toll. We see in these
poems, as we saw in Plath's most famous "Ariel'' poems, Plath's growing obsession
with her father, Otto, who died when she was 8, and we are also made to feel Mr.
Hughes's own growing sense of helplessness, his inability to save or soothe his wife. In
"The Table,'' he writes, "I wanted to make you a solid writingtable/That would last a
lifetime'' but found instead that he had "made and fitted a door/Opening downwards into
your Daddy's grave.'' In poem after poem, Otto is depicted as the Minotaur, a rough,
dark beast waiting to snatch Plath away from happiness and youth, while Plath, in turn,
is seen as a maiden, intent on entering his labyrinth and meeting her self-appointed
fate. There are verses in this volume where Mr. Hughes's penchant for parables and
animal metaphors can feel forced: especially strained is one poem that tries to find an
omen of the author's marriage in his encounter with a wounded bat. These, however,
are the exceptions. Most of the poems in Birthday Letters have a wonderful immediacy
and tenderness that's new to Mr. Hughes's writing, a tenderness that enables him to
communicate Plath's terrors as palpably as her own verse, and to convey his own
lasting sense of loss and grief. "But then I sat, stilled,'' he writes, ''Unable to fathom
what stilled you/ As I looked at you, as I am stilled/ Permanently now, permanently/
Bending so briefly at your open coffin.''
Tony Harrison. Blending of the Private and the Public, the Political and the Personal.
Myth and Actuality: Collected Poems (2007).
“Death gives us all our appetite. Eros and Thanatos. The idea of
death gives us our sexual impulse. It’s not a canceller of appetite, it’s
an enhancer. If you really are aware of it, then it gives you an
immense capacity for living in the here and now. Feeling your
sorrows to the full, as well as your joy. And most people have more
sorrows than joys.”
Tony Harrison has forged a highly successful career as a
poet, dramatist and film-maker, without ever straying from
verse. His talent as a translator is remarkable, and he has been
acclaimed for his treatment of Racine, Molière and Aeschylus,
always rendering their plays with a new and refreshing angle
while retaining the essential features of the original works.
He was born, like his contemporary Douglas Dunn, into
the non-literary world of the British working class of Leeds,
Yorkshire, the first child of Harry Harrison, a baker, and Florence Horner Harrison, in
1937. When he turned eleven, he was awarded a scholarship to attend the prestigious Leeds
Grammar School. Both of these biographical notes were to later be relevant themes in his
poetry: allusions to his father’s profession and imagery of bread and the process of making
it appear in several of his poems,9 as well as his experience as a scholarship boy, dislocated
from his background and family. In his poetry, the tension between his working-class
upbringing and his upper middle-class education is difficult to overlook. Furthermore, the
move to the grammar school not only resulted in physical displacement, but initiated the
process of the loss of his “mother tongue,” that of the Leeds working class. During his first
years as a poet, an attempt to replace that lost language can be observed. Likewise, one of
the primary concerns manifested in Harrison’s poetry is his alienation from his family,
The baker’s man that no-one will see rise
and England made to feel like some dull oaf
is smoke, enough to sting one person’s eyes
and ash (not unlike flour) for one small loaf.
community and social class, all of which could presumably be drawn from childhood
experiences. Of his life in Leeds he once claimed to an interviewer: “I had a very loving
upbringing; without a question, a very loving, rooted upbringing. Education and poetry
came in to disrupt that loving group, and I’ve been trying to create new wholes out of that
disruption ever since.”
After grammar school, Harrison went on to study at Leeds University, where he
earned an undergraduate degree in Classics and a postgraduate degree in Linguistics. In
1960 he married, soon after had two children, and then moved with his wife and children to
Nigeria, where he lectured for four years. This period in Africa was to become an essential
variable of his formative years as it brought into the foreground the contradictions between
working-class home and middle-class education that he had been striving to come to terms
with. In Africa, Harrison has said that he was forced to confront “the internal colonialism of
British education. I think that seeing it literally in black and white in Africa helped me to
understand it very clearly when I came back to England.” Critic Bruce Woodcock discusses
the poet’s sense of identity in relation to the marginalization of working-class experience by
dominant middle-class culture and the way it may account for the anger found in his poetry
(see “Classical Vandalism: Tony Harrison’s Invective”). During this period his first two
books were published: Earthworks (1964), a collection of poetry, and Aikin Mata (1965), an
adaptation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, written in collaboration with the Irish poet James
Simmons. The latter work clearly marks the beginning of Harrison’s career as a
translator/dramatist in verse. Even from this early stage, his talent in making his versions of
classical texts relevant to modern audiences was becoming evident.
Harrison left Africa in 1966 and accepted a teaching post in Prague, where he and
his family experienced living under an oppressive regime and where he discovered the
importance of “reading ancient texts as if they were new,” rendering his own particular
interpretations of these texts while creating a powerful tool for subverting. He returned to
England in 1967 and took up residence in Newcastle-upon-Tyne which was to become his
home base and his refuge from his temporary stays abroad. In recent years he has
progressively spent more time in the United States, living part of the year in New York
Two years after returning to England, Harrison published in pamphlet form
Newcastle is Peru (1969) which is a long, autobiographical poem written in octosyllabic
couplets that exotically celebrates Newcastle. At age thirty, he was already looking back on
his life with a mixture of desperation and yearning for his youth. The poem moves in
circular motions from one country to the next:
And now with the vistas like Earl Grey’s
I look out over life and praise
from my unsteady, sea-view plinth
each dark turn of the labyrinth,
that might like a river suddenly
wind its widening banks into the sea
and Newcastle is Newcastle is Newcastle is Peru!
Discovery! wart, mole, spot,
like outcrops on a snowfield, dot
these slopes of flesh my fingers ski
with circular dexterity.
This moment when my hand strays
your body like an endless maze,
returning and returning, you,
O you; you also are Peru.
(Selected Poems. London: Penguin, 1984. 65; 67).
According to Anthony Thwaite, the poem takes its title from the 17th-century poet, John
Cleveland.10 In twenty-one eight-line stanzas, the speaker seems to be enveloped in
overlapping circles, from Leeds, to Nigeria, to Prague and then to Newcastle. First glimpses
1613–58, English poet and political satirist. He served the royalist cause both as soldier and poet. His bestknown work was The Rebel Scot (1644). Though his contemporary fame was great, and his works originally
of Harrison’s erudition, which comes close to but escapes pedantry, can be observed in this
poem, which was included in Harrison’s first collection of poetry entitled The Loiners,11
published a year later.
The subject matter of the aforementioned volume ranges from Harrison’s adolescent
years in Leeds to the sexual preferences of a fifty-year-old professor and poet in Africa. The
collection was divided into five sections: section one deals with Loiners and his childhood
in Leeds, section two explores the experiences of expatriate Loiners in Africa, the third
Eastern Europe, and the fourth and fifth confront the poet’s return to England. It is,
therefore, an extended version of the material dealt with in Newcastle is Peru. In some of
his other poems, Harrison makes ample use of obscenity and sexual imagery.
“Allotments,” in which the poet reflects upon his youth, is an example of one of these
poems which prompted Harrison’s mother to declare: “You weren’t brought up to write
such mucky books!”:
[…] The graveyards of Leeds 2
Were hardly love-nests but they had to do –
Through clammy mackintosh and winter vest
And rumpled jumper for a touch of breast.
Stroked nylon crackled over groin and bum
Like granny’s wireless stuck on Hilversum.
And after love we’d find some epitaph
Embossed backwards on your arse and laugh.
(Selected Poems, 18).
The African sequence of The Loiners testifies to the poet’s mastery of the iambic
pentameter and was partly responsible for his being commissioned to write a version of
Molière’s Le Misanthrope to be staged at the National Theatre. It was to be the first of a
series of adaptations directed by John Dexter, and its enormous success enabled Harrison to
make a living as a translator of verse drama. During his creative process, he ran into
difficulties when, after having set the play in the 17th century, Dexter decided that the
went through 20 editions, he is known today chiefly for “Fuscara” and “Mark Antony.”
A term used to refer to people who live in Leeds. The sexual overtones of the word should not be
overlooked (According to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, “loin” is also the pubic region or the
generative organs.)
events, Harrison later commented, he used “a couplet similar to the one I used in The
Loiners, running the lines over, breaking up sentences, sometimes using the odd half-rhyme
to subdue the chime, playing off the general colloquial tone and syntax against the formal
structure.” Critic Alan Young (see “Weeds and Roses: The Poetry of Tony Harrison”)
wrote the following about this collection: “What was surprising about The Loiners was the
almost exclusive use of rhymed forms to convey experiences of raw and often appalling
character as well as raw and rollicking ones. It is as if these forms were used by Harrison as
non-literary (or even anti-literary) devices, enabling him to avoid ‘literature’ as he created
poems of jazz-like spontaneity.”
Although many of Harrison’s poems started appearing in magazines, it was not until
1978 that he published another volume of poetry entitled From ‘The School of Eloquence’
and Other Poems (most recent additions to the corpus were published in the Selected Poems
edition of 1987 and the Collected Poems of 2007.) Since the six poems chosen by the
editors of The Norton Anthology are all from this collection and are not mere excerpts, you
should give them special attention. Read in their entirety, the essence of his poetry will be
easier to grasp. However, bear in mind that his most anthologized poem, “Them and [uz]” –
in which the poet remembers how his grammar school teachers strongly encouraged him to
speak “proper” English – and what is considered by many as his most famous and greatest
poem, “v,”12 have not been included. Both can be found in his Selected Poems (1984), or at
the websites:
html and, respectively.
It may not have been included due to its length. “v” is an elegiac poem set in the Leeds cemetery where the
poet’s parents are buried, vandalized by skinheads and written during one of the miners’ strikes of 1984. Its
main themes deal with death and Margaret Thatcher’s England. Harrison draws from Thomas Gray’s mid-18th
century “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” At the end of the poem Harrison devises his own epitaph:
Beneath your feet’s a poet, then a pit. / Poetry supporter, if you’re here to find / how poems can grow from
(beat you to it!) SHIT / find the beef, the beer, the bread, then look behind (SP 249). A 1987 film version in
which the poet himself read the poem was followed by an enormous controversy based on what many referred
to as “the most sexually explicit language ever heard on public television.”
This collection of poetry was expanded several times, and is a more explicit
exploration of class issues than The Loiners had been. Originally, ten poems were privately
printed in 1970. The School of Eloquence followed with a larger selection, and in 1981
Continuous presented sixty-three sonnets, inspired in the 16-line sonnet form of poet
George Meredith,13 divided into three sections, and published in the same format in the
Selected Poems three years later. While borrowing the tools of classical poetry, Harrison
uses his own dialect, language, themes and characters. The first section deals with history,
language and culture, and the connection between language and power. The second
explores the poet’s relationship with his dead parents, and the third focuses on art and
death. The epitaph, “Heredity,” which opens the collection and is included in The Norton
Anthology, sets the general tone for the sonnets of The School of Eloquence by revealing
Harrison’s feelings about the lack of eloquence in his family and his background:
How you became a poet’s a mystery!
Wherever did you get your talent from?
I say: I had two uncles, Joe and Harry –
one was a stammerer, the other dumb.
Indeed, Harrison seems to obsessively return again and again to his grammar school
experience in this volume, an obsession which, in the words of critic Ken Warpole could be
interpreted as “one of the most effective pre-emptive attacks on the possibility of a popular
working-class socialist politics in this century,” noting that it was not uncommon for
teachers of the period to see grammar-school education as a way of “communicating
middle-class values to a ‘new’ population.”
19th-century poet and novelist (1828-1909). Harrison drew from his Modern Love (1862), a verse novella
made up of fifty 16-line sonnets.
The opening poem of The School of Eloquence, “On Not Being Milton,” is sardonic
and subversive. He identifies with an exploited class whose oppression hinges on its lack of
articulateness and has been rendered powerless by the English ruling class:
Three cheers for mute ingloriousness!
Articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting.
In the silence round all poetry we quote
Tidd the Cato Street conspirator who wrote:
Sir, I Ham a very Bad Hand at Righting!
(SP 112)
In this same first section of the collection, “Them and [uz]” deals with the way the
ruling class keeps the working class in line through culture, language and accent. The poet
borrowed the title from a section of The Uses of Literacy (Richard Hoggart) who establishes
that “[uz]” is the Yorkshire pronunciation of the pronoun “us”:
You can tell the Receivers14 where to go
(and not aspirate it) once you know
Wordsworth’s matter/water are full rhymes,
[uz] can be loving as well as funny.
“Book Ends” sets the tone of the middle section and describes an evening spent with
his father upon the death of his mother. Both men sit in silence, drinking Scotch, as the poet
perceives a pervading division between himself and his parents, a consequence of his upper
middle-class education: “what’s still between’s / not the thirty or so years, but books,
books, books” (see The Norton Anthology, p. 2765). However, it seems that it is not only
the books the speaker has read which have alienated him from his family, but also those he
has written himself. Harrison demonstrates in this poem and many others how language and
class can be found in both the private and personal realms.
Another poem in the volume, “Long Distance” (The Norton Anthology, p. 2766),
describes how Harrison’s father dealt with his loss, while being more universally about lack
of communication and physical and emotional alienation. In “Turns,” the self-accusatory
poet reflects upon his father’s death, a tone which presumably arises, once again, from the
ambiguity of Harrison’s stance. In yet another sonnet, “Timer,” he writes about his mother’s
cremation and how he goes to pick up her wedding band after the process is over:
It’s on my warm palm now, your burnished ring!
I feel your ashes, head, arms, breasts, womb, legs,
Sift through its circle slowly, like that thing
You used to let me watch to time the eggs.
(SP, 167)
His most moving poems are those which consider his most intimate experiences,
inevitably related to the lives and deaths of family members. Thus, it is not surprising that
many reviewers comment on his bleak vision of life, his anger and fixation with the darker
side of human nature. What does seem clear is that his poetry, whether it be due to content
or his prolific use of expletives, is often disturbing and causes discomfort in his readers.
Over the years his appearances on British television have become more and more frequent
and his interest in death more publicized. In 1988 he took part in a highly-praised series
called “In Loving Memory”, about the way burials are performed in different parts of the
Indeed, it seems that over the years he has refused to compromise and mellow with
age. In 1989, on BBC’s television programme, “Byline” he wrote and presented a defence
in verse of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. In the nineties, Harrison’s themes became
progressively more and more politically focused. The Gaze of the Gorgon (1992) included
poems about the Gulf War like “The Cold Coming,” commissioned by the newspaper The
Guardian in 1991 in which, once again, his controlled metre and rhyme contrast with his
use of colloquial language and obscenities
Now in his seventies, Harrison is considered to be a writer with integrity who speaks
openly on a wide range of subjects. Regarding his work, he has said: “I think the great thing
about the imagination as you get older is it gets freer – if you let it.” Upon the death of Ted
Hughes there was talk of announcing Harrison as the new Poet Laureate. Anxious to share
with the public his contempt for the position, he wrote “Laureate’s Block,” which was
faxed first to The Guardian and then published in Laureate’s Block and Other Occasional
Poems in 2000. The collection received lukewarm reviews and was not as successful among
his readers as his previous volumes had been. In the following excerpt he explicitly justifies
his stance:
I’d sooner be a free man with no butts,
free not to have to puff some prince’s wedding,
free to say up yours to Tony Blair,
to write an ode to Charles I’s beheading
and regret the restoration of his heir.
Tony Harrison’s version of Euripides’s Hecuba, starring Vanessa Redgrave, was
staged and presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2005. Under the Clock: New
Poems by Tony Harrison was published in that same year. As is usually the case in his
poetry, the best pieces of this collection merge the personal with the political. The title of
both the volume and the opening poem refer to the place Harrison’s parents used to meet
when they lived in Leeds and is a reflection on the passing of time and loss. However, the
poet also explores issues that range from the repercussions of the September 11th terrorist
attacks, to the War in Iraq and his own relationship with his son. This edition gives
evidence that his work, be it political drama, adaptations, translations, screen plays, sonnets
or elegies, continues to be provocative and entertaining, more than fifty years after his first
poems were published.
“Newcastle is Peru” tells the story of the poet’s return to England after living in Nigeria
and Prague, and as N.S. Thompson suggests his disorientation at the event
(Thompson 1997, 123). After drinking nine or ten pints of local Newcastle Brown Ale,
the poetic “I” takes the reader for a spinning ride through memorable episodes from
Harrison’s past, exotic and local spots and scattered images remote in time and
place. An attempt to light the fire with a Sunday newspaper “begins a process of
regrouping impetus, memory, persona... from out of delirium into deliberate
poetry”(Kelleher 1996,14). This is an attempt to shed some light on individual
experience and the social context Harrison encompasses in his poetry. As “the fire
sucks in the first cold air” (Harrison, N.1987:25), the reader manages to catch a
glimpse of war and death, when the burning newspaper shows “lobbed mortar
bombs” (Harrison, N. 1987: 23) smashing the houses of Ontisha. The social and
historical pervades the intimate experience of returning home, just like in the
“Allotments” where the image of Auschwitz cuts into the scene of secretive love
making, but the picture in the newspaper is consumed by the flame before any
comment can be made and replaced with other images which float and disappear, as
if life was moving in front of the poet’s eyes in quick motion: “I lay down dizzy, drunk,
alone,/life circling life like Eddystone/dark sea, but lighting nothing; sense/ nor centre,
nor circumference”(Harrison, N. 1987, 29-32 ) And suddenly “remote and the intimate
are brought together” (Spencer 1994: 35) with the image of Leeds that enters the
context of other places like Newcastle and Prague that appear in the poem
consecutively but create a strange effect of simultaneity: The Blackpool Pleasure
Beach Big Wheel. . . . Leeds purposeful in its affairs. Mercator; miles, school chapel
glass transparencies to blood and brass. . . . . That spiral stair Maribor International
Review 7 up St Vitus's Cathedral; there golden cockerel and great Prague before us
like a catalogue. (Harrison, N. 1987, 38-70) Leeds ceases to be a fixed mark in
Harrison’s experience and becomes a shifting point, with boundaries that cannot be
easily outlined as “all the known Leads landmarks blur/ to something dark and
circular” (Harrison, N. 1987, 47-8). In 1968, while introducing the poem, Harrison
explained that the circles in the poet’s mind seem to be concentric, a figure he relates
to the figure of confusion, the labyrinth (Harrison quoted in Thompson 1997, 124).
Images of concentric circles and spirals come back at different stages of the poem: in
the staircase in St. Vitus`s in Prague, whorls of a finger and its print, circular hand of a
lover moving over another’s body. It seems that that the movement of the poetic “I” is
not a simple narrative but it has a form of a spin, up and down a spiral. The poet
comes back again and again to the same point but at a different level of his journey.
“Newcastle is Peru”, like “V”, is a poem about a return to the place inhabited before,
but it is also a poem about the impossibility of the recognition of this place. Previously
familiar, “known” landmarks of Leeds blur to something dark and become misleading.
The perception of the poet, altered by nine or ten Newcastle Brown Ales,
defamiliarizes the scenery. The method echoes the concept of defamiliarization
developed by Victor Shklovski, who believed that “habituation can devour work,
clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war” (Habib 2008, 604) and claimed that
“the technique of art is to make objects unfamiliar and . . . to recover the sensation of
life” (Habib 2008, 604). The estrangement the poet experiences is not entirely
pessimistic since it offers a possibility of a new discovery. The poem alludes to the
conceit of John Cleveland: “Correct you maps: Newcastle is Peru” (Cleveland quoted
in Myers 2004)) and suggests that a familiar place can be rediscovered as foreign and
unknown (Barker 2001, 72). Harrison widens the field of exploration and brings
together Newcastle, Peru, Prague and Leeds. Anywhere becomes anywhere else and
one place bears the features of another. Perhaps the poet looks at Newcastle and
Leeds through the prism of his experience in Nigeria and Prague and does not
recognize the scenery he carried under his eyelids through the whole journey. The
imprint in the mind’s eye does not match the reality and has to alter when the poet
“reaches out to map” (Kelleher 1996, 15) the topography of the revisited landscape.
N.S. Thompson suggests that Harrison records his own move to Newcastle as
discovering a new world and setting a new empire. (Thompson 1997, 127). That idea
is reinforced by the breaking of the octosyllabic course in the word New/castle which
becomes a stronghold, a landmark on the poet’s route. “New castle” can be also read
as an allusion to “embattled fortress” - Harrison built his home as we learn, “against
the world’s bold cannonade/ of loveless warfare and cold trade” (Harrison, N. 1987,
125-6). Domestic images are followed by another depiction of an unknown landscape,
the landscape of a lover’s body that offers itself to discovery. The exploration brings
back the idea of circular motion. It is suggested by the movements of the lover’s
hands and the woman’s body compared to an endless maze that can be travelled
through again and again with undiminished fascination. Home in Newcastle, the
stronghold of love, is mirrored by another home, the partitioned flat in Leeds the poet
shared with his wife. The circular movement of hands is reflected in the spinning
movement of the Chair-o-plane that gave the poet “the illusion of free floating
liberation” (Spencer 1994, 35) in childhood. The Newcastle love scene seems to be
rooted in the context of Leeds, where the poet touched a woman’s body for the first
time during the annual Hunslet Feast, a local fair held on August Bank Holiday.
Maribor International Review 8 Leeds topography brings around the stories of first
explorations of the poet that later become a part of larger developed themes in his
poetry with Prague and Nigeria, sexual desire and a need for domestic security. It
seems that all the stories that happened in Leeds, imprinted or embossed in the
poet’s eye, undergo constant development, living and pulsating, inscribed into the
main stream of Harrison’s writing. Numerous imprints of topography on the bodies
and thoughts of Harrison’s poetic personas constitute the lexicon of the landscape
and the lexicon in Harrison’s writing. He himself admits that the imprints soak deep
into his identity like coal on his fingerprints which touches his soul with cold shudders.
I believe that coal, the geological element of the landscape and the symbol of political
conflicts, stands for Harrison’s historical and personal inheritance which marks his
existence. It stains the fingers and pervades the soul to assume the shape of the
poet’s fingerprints which he leaves on everything he touches. Whether Harrison wants
it or not, the landscape, with all the histories inscribed in it, filters through his
imagination and influences the poetry he creates: My fingerprints still lined with coal
send cold shudders through my soul. Each whorl, my love-, my long life-line, mine,
inalienably mine, lead off my body as they press onwards into nothingness. I see my
grimy fingers smudge everything they feel or touch. (Harrison, N. 1987, 153-160)
The ‘gabbling, foreign nut’ who stalls the boy’s sexual fumblings in ‘Allotments’ is a
catalyst for more than coitus interruptus: he is the voice of authentic experience who
embodies a reminder of the crematoria at Buchenwald through the local image of an
abattoir chimney. The Pole’s albeit unwelcome presence helps the boy to negotiate a
first tentative step towards the making of existential connections. The poem
‘Allotments’ which at a literal level describes a quiet location for lovemaking, also
allows the possibility of mental spaces ‘allotted’ or allocated for varieties of experience
and of perception. The protagonist’s instinctive efforts to direct his sperm into
reproductive channels seem doomed as much by his burgeoning world-awareness as
by the third-party intrusion which helps to facilitate it. For Joe Kelleher, the drive to life
is necessarily sublimated by the growing seriousness of experience, as though the
boy’s own perception was suddenly subsumed by a poetry of horror and negation:
[…] it is the procreative aspect of sex which seems most determinedly damned by
that dialect as the verse […] channels the youngster’s fantasies into terror. The wet
dream is frustrated, or at best imaginatively sublimated into a lament for others,
others long gone or yet to spring as damned as oneself from one’s own balls.
(Kelleher, 1996, p.4).
How you became a poet's a mystery!
Wherever did you get your talent from?
I say: I had two uncles, Joe and Harryone was a stammerer, the other dumb.
The poem “Heredity” is a brief 4-line poem about the speaker’s motivation to become
a poet.
The first stanza begins with the assertion, posed in the form of someone asking, that
the fact that the speaker became a poet is incredulous, followed by the question of
where the speaker got the aptitude for poetry from.
The second stanza consists of the speaker’s inscrutable answer in which he simply
refers to two uncles, one of whom was “a stammerer” (l. 4) therefore lacking the
physical abilities for language, and the other who was “dumb” (l.4), thus lacking the
mental capacities.
Harrison explores the memory of his difficult relationship was with his father because
of what he perceives to be his father’s limited education in Book Ends. Harrison’s
preoccupation with family relationships stems from his difficulty in coming from a
working class background and “his hunger for all modes of articulation”. This is shown
in Heredity the epigraph to the School of Eloquence when he describes his uncles
“one was a stammerer, the other dumb.” and claims that he doesn’t know where he
gets his “talent from”. When it comes to writing the epitaph for Harrison’s mother’s
stone this “talent” deserts him. The thoughts written in italics show frustration “you’re
supposed to be the bright boy at description/ and you can’t tell them what the fuck to
put”, Harrison uses an obscenity -“fuck” to emphasise his feeling of uselessness. He
cannot better his father’s efforts which he describes as, “miss-spelt, mawkish,
stylistically appalling” Harrison uses a tri-colon here to highlight how inarticulate his
father is. He’s critical of his father’s inarticulacies but realises that he couldn't have
done better, he couldn’t “squeeze more love into their stone” However, he is
excluding himself from his family calling it “their” stone as opposed to “our” stone.
National trust by Tony Harrison
Bottomless pits. There's on in Castleton,
and stout upholders of our law and order
one day thought its depth worth wagering on
and borrowed a convict hush-hush from his warder
and winched him down; and back, flayed, grey, mad, dumb.
Not even a good flogging made him holler!
O gentlemen, a better way to plumb
the depths of Britain's dangling a scholar,
say, here at the booming shaft at Towanroath,
now National Trust, a place where they got tin,
those gentlemen who silenced the men's oath
and killed the language that they swore it in.
The dumb go down in history and disappear
and not one gentleman's been brough to book:
Mes den hep tavas a-gollas y dyr
'the tongueless man gets his land took.'
The National Trust by Tony Harrison
In what ways does Tony Harrison show conflict between classes and the control of
the bourgeoisie?
Throughout this poem Harrison creates links back to his past and his roots. This is
obvious when he mentions ‘Castleton’. This links back with his northern roots in which
he grew up as a working class boy the 1930’s. this then creates a link about his
strong views of the conflict between the social classes because he was judged on his
working class background when he got into grammar school, leading him to
feel at a disadvantage.
After reading this poem by naming this poem national trust represents the control the
bourgeoisie have over the proletariat. This is because the national trust is something
that is supposed to belong to everyone, it is a national organisation. Although the
main purpose of this organisation is to maintain stately homes which are owned by
the bourgeoisie. This is then ironic because in all ways this only benefits the
bourgeoisie because it provides them with profit through the people that go to see it
which then is used to maintain the wealth and power of the bourgeoisie. The fact that
it is a ‘trust’ also shows that it is a charitable organisation. This is again ironic because
the bourgeoisie are the last people that need charitable help but they are the only
ones that benefit from it. A Marxist might also say that the whole idea of the national
trust totally ignores the proletariat of the time and is used to remember the people in
power which means they carry on to own the base and the superstructure and control
the work of the proletariat.
Larkin uses the words 'bottomless pits' to describe the holes where the men are
lowered to search for coal. By using this term it gives off the impression that they are
never ending and a place of no return. This could also be interpreted to represent the
lives in which the proletariat live. This is because they are trapped in a never ending
cycle of living in a capitalist society due to the power of the bourgeoisie. This can
represent conflict between the classes because it shows that they may try to rebel,
because the protagonist in the poem is a convict, but they will never change the
society due to the power the bourgeoisie have.
In this poem Larkin puts forward his sarcastic opinion on the working class. This is
shown when he says ‘our law and order’. This can be interpreted as a sarcastic view
because from looking at his background of disagreeing with the middle class it could
be showing that it’s not actually ‘our’ government, it is owned by the bourgeoisie they
just create an illusion that we have a fair society even though we don’t.
Conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat can also be shown in this poem
when they are described to have ‘borrowed a conflict’. This shows conflict because it
shows the corruption of power the bourgeoisie had during the time this poem is set as
they can just ‘borrow’ a person, a working class person, to do whatever they want to.
Harrison could be suggesting here that the working class weren’t actually treated as
people but just as things that they could do as they please with because of the
amount of power they had over them. This is then followed by ‘hush-hush’, which
suggests that no one questions this due to the power the bourgeoisie have. This can
also come across in a way that sounds very patronising to say to another adult, which
could then suggest that the bourgeoisie treat the proletariat like children because of
the power they have over them. A marxist might then link this to the fact that the
proletariat receive little education due to the control of the bourgeoisie over the whole
education system leading to a knock on effect.
Harrison again shows the control the bourgeoisie have over the proletariat when he
says 'gentlemen who silenced the men's oath'. By saying this Harrison Is referring to
the owners of the mines taking the voice away from their workers because they are
seen to be so insignificant . By saying 'oath' could suggest that they are taking away
the rights of the men because an oath is something you take to agree to something,
but in this case there is no agreement to what they are doing due to the lack of power
they have.
Harrison also shows the unimportance of the proletariat towards the end of the pole
when he says 'the dumb go down in history and disappear'. By saying 'dumb' Harrison
here suggests that he is referring to the proletariat because of the little education they
would have received. By saying that they 'go down in history', could also refer to the
fact that they are going down the holes that are thousands of years old and not
actually history because they are not the important ones compared to the bourgeoisie,
and they just 'disappear'
“Book Ends”
Baked the day she suddenly dropped dead
we chew it slowly that last apple pie.
Shocked into sleeplessness you're scared of bed.
We never could talk much, and now don't try.
You're like book ends, the pair of you, she'd say,
Hog that grate, say nothing, sit, sleep, stare...
The 'scholar' me, you, worn out on poor pay,
only our silence made us seem a pair.
Not as good for staring in, blue gas,
too regular each bud, each yellow spike.
A night you need my company to pass
and she not here to tell us we're alike!
Your life's all shattered into smithereens.
Back in our silences and sullen looks,
for all the Scotch we drink, what's still between 's
not the thirty or so years, but books, books, books.
The stone's too full. The wording must be terse.
There's scarcely room to carve the FLORENCE on it -Come on, it's not as if we're wanting verse.
It's not as if we're wanting a whole sonnet!
After tumblers of neat Johnny Walker
(I think that both of us we're on our third)
you said you'd always been a clumsy talker
and couldn't find another, shorter word
for 'beloved' or for 'wife' in the inscription,
but not too clumsy that you can't still cut:
You're supposed to be the bright boy at description
and you can't tell them what the fuck to put!
I've got to find the right words on my own.
I've got the envelope that he'd been scrawling,
mis-spelt, mawkish, stylistically appalling
but I can't squeeze more love into their stone.
Book Ends by Tony Harrison is a poem about the death of the writer’s mother, and
the effect this has on the complicated relationship between father and son, who are
unable to relate to each other or communicate emotionally. The tone of the poem is
melancholic, reflecting on the theme of death and the breakup of family, with a bitter
edge in the description of the unbridgeable rift between father and son which widens
following the mother’s death. The poem is separated into two parts, each with sixteen
lines, and is loosely based on an iambic pentameter metre. The rhyme scheme is
ABAB throughout the poem, with the noticeable exception of the last four lines of part
II, in which it changes to ABBA, reflecting a time shift in the poem’s narration. The first
ten lines are made up of couplets, but the general structure is flexible and there is no
strict format or line grouping to the poem – this is perhaps representative of the
emotions and disjointed thought processes felt by the writer following his mother’s
The two parts of the poem take place at different points in time. Narrated by the son
from a first person perspective, part I describes his and his father’s reactions
immediately after the death of the mother and introduces their problematic
relationship. The first line is a sudden and mildly unsettling beginning to the poem,
and juxtaposes the homely, familiar image of a homemade apple with the stark reality
of death in a reminder that devastation can strike at even the most ordinary of
moments. The father and son slowly chew over both the pie and the actuality of the
mother’s death as they begin to come to terms with their loss. The father, ‘shocked
into sleeplessness’, seems to feel the absence of his wife most profoundly, and his
son accuses him of being ‘scared of bed’ and unable to face his loneliness. He
reflects that the two of them have always had difficulty communicating, but now in the
time when they need each other’s support most they don’t even try and share their
grief. This is the first hint of the awkward relationship existing between the father and
son, which becomes a central theme later on in the poem.
The next two lines are spoken by the mother, who compares her husband and
son to book ends. This concept, which the reader first encounters in the title, is an
extended simile within the first part of the poem, and characterises the similarities and
differences between the father and son. Just like book ends, which look identical but
face opposite directions, they are much the same in terms of appearance and
habitudes, but as we find out in the next couplet these resemblances only go so far
and do not translate into a close relationship. Here we are told that while the father is
‘worn out on poor pay’ and comes from a working class background, the son is a
‘scholar’, who has had a university education.
The use of inverted commas here suggests the writer is being sarcastic and
somewhat tongue-in-cheek about his educational prowess, which adds a sense of
irony to their dissimilarity. This contrast of circumstances means that despite their
physical resemblances and close blood relations, they have very little in common –
indeed, as the writer says, they are linked solely by their uncommunicativeness: ‘only
our silence made us a pair’. In the next couplet, the writer tells us that blue gas fires
are ‘not as good for staring in’, perhaps in comparison to a wood fire in the grate the
mother described the father and son as hogging earlier on in the poem. This is
evidence that time has passed and things, including technology, have moved on from
the days which the mother is referring to. It is also a link to Tony Harrison’s poem
Long Distance II, in which he tells us that his father kept his mother’s slippers
warming by the gas even after her death, a habit so ingrained into his everyday life
that he can’t help himself from continuing it even when the wearer of the slippers is
long gone.
The writer makes a point of comparing the two types of flame: this could indicate that
he has a lot of time on his hands, and, without any idea of how to fill it, spends long
hours staring into the fire, perhaps in his father’s silent company. He describes the
blue gas flame as being ‘too regular each bud, each yellow spike’, and this criticism is
perhaps evidence of his inner turmoil and a need for a chaotic emotional outlet. The
next couple of lines portray the idea that it is only through the mother that the father
and son are united. In life, her presence and assurances that they are alike linked
them, and once she is gone, there is little to bring them together except their shared
grief, which as they are so emotionally divided they find impossible to communicate.
Up until this point, the narrator of the poem has clearly been the son, but it is unclear
who is speaking in the line ‘Your life’s all shattered to smithereens’, or indeed whose
life is being referred to in this highly effective image of broken glass, smashed into
tiny shards. It could be the son talking to the father or vice versa, or the mother talking
to either one of them, but equally the shattered life in question could be the mother’s,
in that her life, which once combined her husband, her son and herself in one family,
is now fragmented into separate pieces following her death as the father and son drift
apart. Earlier on in the poem we are told that the son and father come from very
different cultural backgrounds, but it is only in the last three lines of the part I that we
realise that the son’s education is not merely a dividing factor but a considerable bone
of contention between him and his father. In an attempt to bond with each other, they
turn to drink to forget their grief, but it is to no avail as they revert to their perpetual
silence and inability to relate to one another, communicating solely by ‘sullen looks’.
Separated by the son’s academia and learning, it is not age which poses the problem,
but a university degree and ‘books, books, books’.
This repetition is effective in emphasising the gap between them, and concludes the
extended metaphor of part I: the books, representing knowledge and education, do
not only alienate the father and son, but also separate the book ends to which the two
men are compared earlier in the poem, in a highly effective double metaphor. The
second part jumps forward in time, to a point a while after the mother’s death when
the father and son, divided in all other fields but united once more by the mother, are
deciding what to have cut on her gravestone. As they come from a modest financial
background, the stone is far from grand and there is little room for flowery words or
description, so the wording must be concise and to the point. In the next couplet, the
father expresses his anger and exasperation: he was certain that with his son’s
learning and knowledge of words he would effortlessly produce something touching
and eloquent for the headstone, but the son, devastated by his mother’s death, is
unable to find the words needed to commemorate her in his grief.
The father is incredulous, and tells him dismissively that ‘it’s not as if we’re wanting
verse’, implying that it must be easier to find the words to write on his one’s mother’s
gravestone than to write a poem. The next few lines of the poem are further evidence
of the father and son’s lack of common relations, as they are united once more by
alcohol in their attempt to deal with their suffering. Under the influence of whisky,
perhaps the only way he can express himself without inhibitions, the father says he
had always been ‘clumsy talker’, and admits that he can’t come up with anything
better for the headstone that ‘beloved wife’, which he seems to consider inelegant and
unworthy of the emotion he would express if he had the words to do so. There is a
certain bitterness in the writer’s tone when he reflects that while his father is open
about his own lack of eloquence, which itself reveals his working class origins, his
words are not so unpolished to be incapable of making a caustic remark.
The phrase ‘still can’t cut’ has a double meaning, as it refers to both this and the
action of cutting the words into the gravestone. The father’s anger is manifest at his
son’s inability to produce an inscription for the grave, and he tells his son that he is
‘supposed to be the bright boy at description’, in an obvious jibe about his university
education. The use of an exclamation mark and the word ‘fuck’ in his comment are
evidence of his considerable anger and frustration, and are also evidence of a
dysfunctional family situation. The line ‘I’ve got to find the right words on my own’ is
another ambiguous line, as it is not clear who is speaking. The reader gets the idea
that the father could be saying the words after he realises his son is incapable of
producing anything better, in a kind of exasperation. However the line could also be
spoken by the writer, either as a response to the father’s insistence that he come up
with something beautiful and touching for the inscription, or some time afterwards,
when his father has passed away and he is left truly alone to choose the words for
their shared headstone.
This double narrative emphasises the solitude of the two men in the face of death,
and their isolation from one another. In the last three lines, the writer tells us he has
found the envelope on which his father had been scribbling ideas for his wife’s
headstone. He describes the words as ‘mis-spelt, mawkish’ and ‘stylistically
appalling’, but admits that he cannot find a way to better express the loss he has
experienced, or in other words is unable to ‘squeeze more love into their stone’. The
use of the word ‘their’ in this metaphor subtly explains that the gravestone is shared,
and that the father has passed away and is now buried alongside the writer’s mother.
It is in this final concluding line that the writer freely admits that despite his education
and writing ability, he cannot seem to manage to write anything more honest or pure
than his father’s unsophisticated words.
The poem has a personal register, with intimate emotional description. The majority of
the lines use informal language and syntax, such as the father’s exclamation ‘Come
on, it’s not as if we’re wanting verse’, which is very much an expression of the
vernacular. By avoiding overly flamboyant phrases, the poem does not lose its
authenticity, and the raw emotion comes across effortlessly. Simple and unaffected,
the writer’s voice relates with painfully truthful accuracy the consequences the death
of a loved one can have on an already strained family situation. Tony Harrison is open
and honest, and his poem uses a remarkable lack of the melodramatic imagery and
ideas expressed in many poems which deal with death. In this way Book Ends shares
certain likenesses with his poem Long Distance II, which is similarly written in a
conversational tone and contains few grandiloquent metaphors. A major theme in
Book Ends is one of pairs.
Aside from the book ends of the title, the father and son are made to ‘seem a pair’ in
their habits and appearances, and it is this comparison which is at an uncomfortable
odds with the rest of the themes discussed, primarily the conflict between the two of
them. Furthermore, the poem is structured into two parts, again reflecting the idea of
pairs. The poem Book Ends is a reflection on the inadequacy of words, and that the
feeling behind them is often more important than the way the idea is expressed. Tony
Harrison considers what it is to be a poet, and what purpose it serves to be able to
manipulate words into shapes and images if, even as a learned man with a greater
degree of education than his working class father can ever hope to have, he is unable
to produce a fitting tribute to his departed parents.
“Long Distance” Tony Harrison
Though my mother was already two years dead
Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas,
put hot water bottles her side of the bed
and still went to renew her transport pass.
You couldn't just drop in. You had to phone.
He'd put you off an hour to give him time
to clear away her things and look alone
as though his still raw love were such a crime.
He couldn't risk my blight of disbelief
though sure that very soon he'd hear her key
scrape in the rusted lock and end his grief.
He knew she'd just popped out to get the tea.
I believe life ends with death, and that is all.
You haven't both gone shopping; just the same,
in my new black leather phone book there's your name
and the disconnected number I still call.
• The ‘Long Distance’ of the title suggests the poem’s theme; that of the sense of
separation the poet feels on the death of his parents and the way in which he copes
with their death. • The poem begins in a reminiscent tone portrayed by language such
as “Though my mother was already two years dead” • The second line continues this
mood and introduces the character of the poet’s Dad. • The remainder of the first
stanza provides several aspects of his father’s inability to take in his wife’s death – he
still warms her slippers by the fire, he puts hot water bottles in the bed for her, he
renews her transport pass. • In the second stanza Harrison personally addresses the
reader. The effect of the use of ‘You, I, he, she’ is to create an intensely personal tone
to the poem and emotionally connect the reader. • Harrison also does this to present
his own recollections of how his father would act out a charade- ‘He’d put you off an
hour to give him time to clear away her things and look alone’. Despite this seeming
absurd at one level, the poet has the greatest sympathy for his father’s suffering, ‘as
though his still raw love were such a crime’. • It is important that the father pretends to
his son that he has come to terms with his wife’s passing and reveals a great deal
about their relationship. Certainly there was a “long distance” between them
emotionally, in some respects, making personal grief something to hide away beneath
the surface( “He couldn’t risk my blight of disbelief”) • This also means that the
father’s charade was as much for himself as it was for Harrison. He couldn’t risk
letting Harrison comprehend just how much he was suffering as this would lead him to
having to face his feelings- something which he may not have had the courage to do •
The rest of the third stanza deals with Harrison’s commentary on his fathers
desperation and frustration (“though sure that very soon he’d hear her key scrape in
the rusted lock and end his grief”) The “knew” is in italics to emphasise this idea as it
slows down the reader and allows the eye to distinguish between that particular word
and the rest of the poem. • The last stanza, in which the poet describes his own
attempts at moving on has a disrupted rhyme scheme of ABBA. Incidentally, ABBA is
the Jewish word for father, showing that the fathers death has been preying on the
poet's mind, even though he claims to believe "that life ends with death, and that is
Elegy • The term "elegy" was originally used for a type of poetic metre (Elegiac
metre), but is also used for a poem of mourning, from the Greek elegos, a reflection
on the death of someone or on a sorrow generally - which is a form of lyric poetry. An
elegy can also reflect on something which seems strange or mysterious to the author.
• People often describe an elegy as a lengthened epitaph • The elements of a
traditional elegy mirror three stages of loss. First, there is a lament, where the
speaker expresses grief and sorrow, then praise and admiration of the idealized dead
and those grieving , and finally consolation and solace. These three stages can be
seen to some extent in “From Long Distance” Though my mother was already two
years dead Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas, put hot water bottles her side
of the bed and still went to renew her transport pass. You couldn't just drop in. You
had to phone. He'd put you off an hour to give him time to clear away her things and
look alone as though his still raw love were such a crime. He couldn't risk my blight of
disbelief though sure that very soon he'd hear her key scrape in the rusted lock and
end his grief. He knew she'd just popped out to get the tea. I believe life ends with
death, and that is all. You haven't both gone shopping; just the same, in my new black
leather phone book there's your name and the disconnected number I still call. First
Stage: Speaker expresses grief and sorrow Second Stage: Admiration of those who
are lost and those who remain to mourn Third Stage: Consolation and solace First
Stage • Harrison follows the general outline of an elegy in the first stanza as it
represents the first stage of loss. It portrays the fathers grief and sorrow by giving
examples of meaningless tasks he performs in order to keep her memory alive. By
doing this he creates a mask behind which he can hide so that he does not have to
face his true feelings. Second Stage • Harrison mirrors the second stage of loss (i.e.
praise and admiration) in the second and third stanzas. Harrison conveys his
admiration of the “raw love” which his parents shared and is almost ashamed at the
same time as his relationship with his father which was very “long distance”. Final
Stage • The third and final stage of loss which intern is the final stage of an elegy
should be consolation and solace, some sort of comfort for the reader. However
Harrison instead uses irony in the sense that he explains how he himself is unable to
comprehend his father’s death (and his mother’s) (e.g. “the disconnected number I
still call”) something which he criticised his father for earlier on in the poem. • He does
this to emphasise to the reader the consequences of the broken relationship with his
father, something which he cannot mend as his father has passed on, and instead he
is left with guilt. • Harrison in a sense wastes precious words describing his “new
black leather phone book” in the last stanza which in my opinion echoes the time he
wasted in his lifetime instead of developing his relationship with his father ,and is a
message for the reader to not do the same.
Turns by Tony Harrison
I thought it made me look more 'working class'
(as if a bit of chequered cloth could bridge that gap!)
I did a turn in it before the glass.
My mother said: It suits you, your dad's cap.
(She preferred me to wear suits and part my hair:
You're every bit as good as that lot are!)
All the pension queue came out to stare.
Dad was sprawled beside the postbox (still VR) ,
his cap turned inside up beside his head,
smudged H A H in purple Indian ink
and Brylcreem slicks displayed so folks migh think
he wanted charity for dropping dead.
He never begged. For nowt! Death's reticence
crowns his life, and me, I'm opening my trap
to busk the class that broke him for the pence
that splash like brackish tears into our cap.
In Harrison's poem "Turns", the cap is an important motive. It has a changing
meaning what will be explained in the following paragraph. The title is very
interpretable and will also be reviewed. ....
The cap could be a symbol for the speaker's admiration and proud for his dad and the
working class. This is perceptible in the first stanza, where the speaker wears the cap
with a sense of admiration. He wants to be like his father, to be working class. The
meaning changes when the poem changes; when the father dies. The cap lies
upside-down, what is a visual image of the change. It looks like he is a beggar, what
changes the speaker's attitude. He feels as if his father is humiliated by this fact and
by the staring crowd. His attitude towards the middle class gets even more negative in
the last stanza. The meaning of the cap seems ironic: the speaker collects money
with the cap from the crowd, as if his dead father is a street artist. The harsh words
like 'trap' and 'busk' show that he is angry because of his father's death. The cap
seems to show their growing connection the son feels, because of the father's death.
One meaning of the title could be related from the sentence: "(...) made me look more
"working class"(...) bridge that gap!)" This shows that his father is working class and
he is not. T Harrison used to be working class until he went to grammar school and
became middle class. When assuming that this is an autobiographical poem we could
assume that the speaker undergoes the same change and this could be the meaning
of the title.
When the father is found dead is the change in the poem. When that happens the
appearance of the father and the speaker himself change. The father seemed an
invulnerable and proud person to the speaker. "Death's reticence crowns his life's".
This could mean that he lived longer than it was common for working class. When he
dies he becomes a vulnerable and mortal person, and the speaker finds this out too.
Because of his father's death, the speaker becomes angry and averted to the middle
His father's cap is turned inside up because of his falling down, it looks as if he is
begging for money. This fact reveals this turn in the speaker's attitude towards the
middle class. He was in the first stanza already more appealed by the working class.
His father's death is probably caused by hard work for a middle class-boss. In the line
"I'm opening my trap to busk the class that broke him ( ...)" this anger is exposed.
The cap can have different meanings. It can stand for the admiration and proud the
speaker has for his father. The meaning changes into humiliation of the father,
through the upside-down cap. This image is used ironically by the speaker, he is
collecting money in the cap as if his father is an attraction. The title can also have
various explanations. It could mean the speaker's turning into middle class, if taking
the poem autobiographical. Another possibilities are the turn in the father's
appearance in the eyes of his son and the change in the speaker's attitude.
Tony Harrison - Marked with D.
When the chilled dough of his flesh went in an oven
not unlike those he fuelled all his life,
I thought of his cataracts ablaze with Heaven
and radiant with the sight of his dead wife,
light streaming from his mouth to shape her name,
'not Florence and not Flo but always Florrie.'
I thought how his cold tongue burst into flame
but only literally, which makes me sorry,
sorry for his sake there's no Heaven to reach.
I get it all from Earth my daily bread
but he hungered for release from mortal speech
that kept him down, the tongue that weighed like lead.
So many critics argue that “Marked with D.” is a protest against class system as
Blake Morrison points out that:
“In our own time, close to home, poets have raised their voices to protest against
injustice, or lowered them to tell terrible secrets. The personal and the political are not
in opposition. Tony Harrison’s ‘Marked with D’ is both a moving elegy for his father
and an angry denunciation of the class system that “kept him down”:
The baker’s man that no one will see rise
and England made to feel like some dull oaf
is smoke, enough to sting one person’s eyes
and ash (not unlike flour) for one small loaf.” (Blake Marrison)
Another one make analysis of poem from the Marxist point of view and says that “d”
has two meanings which are duty and death, and the poem is a critique of capitalist
What is the meaning of D – duty and death
“Marked with D” as a “symbolic act” –Critique of capitalist society
Three kinds of ideological control
Heaven as a reward after death; à religion serving capitalism.
mortal speech
England –the state which controls the worker.
A disguise of, but not “a release” from “mortal speech that kept him down, the
tongue that weighed like lead” à ideologies which control the workers and hide
materialist reality (mortal speech – mortality; tongue –eating for survival)
1. Capitalist implications of the nursery rime;
2. The baker’s life and desire.
The baker’s work as a parallel to his cremation;
The title and the metaphor of flesh as dough;
Fire à the baker’s desire for heaven;
Heaven as part of a capitalist ideology of productivity;
3. The speaker’s views of the ideological control.
He gets it all from “Earth”;
the worker’s hunger for “release from mortal speech”
à The worker will not rise
The author of this analysis also argues that “The poem as represent Harrison’s
troubled relations with his own working-class background.”
Tony Harrison.1 Indeed, Harrison is one of the representatives of public poets and “a
tough-minded class warrior”, 2 fighting against discourse hegemony and oppression
through his verbal weapons.
In his poems, he tries many a way to display the reticence of his parents and his
pains for that,
The above description is a bitter demonstration of his father’s reticent feeling: “his
sense of being worthless came from the fact that every time he opens his mouth he
was brought short and faced in a very raw way with a sense of inadequacy”.8 His
tongue is “cold” and “heavy as lead”, and he is eager to “release from his mortal
speech” because he feels inadequate in self-expression. He is kept down by his
reticence and moreover tramped down at the bottom of the society for in the line we
can see that “England made him feel like some dull oaf”, marginalized in the society,
humble as “ash” much enough only for “a small loaf “after death. This forcefully
indicates that the society should be responsible to his silence since he is not born but
made so.
"Working class" is a meaningful term to apply to some British poets since in the
United Kingdom class distinctions involving not only values but also language still
remain strongly defined. From a socio-logical standpoint many of the poets in the
Penguin anthology (and the Carcanet collection to be discussed later) are workingclass, but two of them-Tony Harrison and Douglas Dunn-are notable for the skilled
intensity with which they deal with the complex prob-lems of their own class origins
and identities. Harrison, whose work is completely unavailable in the U.S., will be a
new name to most Americans, but he is the real thing, a poet of wide range,
passionate interests, and verbal dexterity who can handle strict forms in an en-tirely
natural way. His virtues are so self-evident that one need only quote him. Here is
"Marked with D.," a characteristic short poem about the death of the neighborhood
As it is seen generally all of the critics consider the poem as working class issue. I
agree with the idea that this poem is an elegy and I consider it as a special kind of
sonnet which is a modernist variation with 16 lines; because it is a short elegy for the
father. He is crying for his father.
The poem is divided into three parts.
In the first part Harrison talks according to his father’s beliefs.
I thought of his cataracts ablaze with heaven
and radiant with the sight of his dead wife,
In this section he says that his father reached the Heaven and now his eyes are
healty to see.
In the second part it is seen that Harrison does not believe that there is a Heaven to
reach. He actually does not believe there is life after death. That’s why he fells sorry
for his father. He fells sorry because he has the idea of Heaven but there is no
The third part is the last one which is again with the ideas of his father.
For sure that the class issues seen in the poem. For instance: “kept him down”, “no
one will see the rise” which means that no one even noticed about his father, or “dull
off” symbolizes his class.
However, in addition to these in my opinion this poem is like a farewell to the father. It
can be said that Harrison likes his father and his father’s working class identity, and
he does not ashamed of this. He uses this identity in his poems, also in this poem too.
He makes connection between his father’s being cremation and being baker. It is
also seen that Harrison accepts the transcendence in terms of art but he does this in
a material way, which shows that he cares about his father and his ideas. I also
believe that he tries to bring his family together in this poem. As he says in the poem
“a daily bread” which symbol of gathering the family – he brings the family together.
At the last part of the poem he says: “enough to sting one person's eyes” which shos
that he is criying for his father.
He uses everything belongs to his family. His father’s job identity and beliefs and he
writes a poem to say goodbye.
Tony Harrison's poetry grows more extraordinary year by year. His output is
increasing dramatically, and he is getting angrier. For a practitioner of classically
formal restraint, Harrison is very ready to occupy outspoken extremes of expression
and opinion, as his recent productions testify. There was his long poem V. set during
the miner's strike in 1984 and utilising an uncompromising invective which led Mary
Whitehouse to call for it to be banned. There is his play for fifteen women about the
Greenham peace camp, Common Chorus, which allows Harrison to re-launch his
critique of men and masculinity which figured significantly in his 'The School of
Eloquence' sequence. But most notably there is the recently broadcast The
Blasphemer's Banquet, a courageous advocacy of Salman Rushdie, author of The
Satanic Verses and currently in hiding under threat of death. Whereas V. took its
model from Gray's 'Elegy', The Blasphemer's Banquet adopts the stanza form of
Fitzgerald's translation of Omar Khayyám's Rubáiyát, though it does so, as the poem
ruefully admits, only 'as best I can'.
That elegant form should not belie the angry energy of its invective: it presents a
scathing attack on all 'life-denying' fundamentalism, not just Muslim forms of bigotry,
and simultaneously celebrates 'this fleeting life' in the fleshly moment. The poem
addresses itself to Rushdie as an invitation to take dinner in the wryly chosen Omar
Khayyám restaurant in Bradford's Paradise Street with Harrison and four other
renegades against bigoted holiness--Molière, Voltaire, Byron and Omar Khayyám
himself. But Harrison's connection with all these personages is also that they were
writers on and from the margins: Rushdie, with his contradictory Indian-Muslim and
English public school background, all of which he has 'rejected' in a certain sense,
and with his current 'outlaw'; Byron, with his position as a marginalised aristocrat,
which allowed him to exploit the scandalous extremes of experience and opinion, and
epitomise the 'Satanic School' of his day; Molière, who was buried with no religious
rights for refusing to abjure the stage; Voltaire, persecuted for his enlightened godless
rationalism; Khayy m, 'the Voltaire of Persia' as Harrison calls him, who celebrated
'this fleeting life' in defiance of the demands of state religion; and Harrison himself
most interestingly as far as his own work goes, because of his relation to the English
class system. Rushdie's plight and the attack on his work allows Harrison a link with
the continuing issue in his own work of cultural suppression. It is really from his own
background, the background of the North of England and Harrison's sense of identity
in relation to the marginalisation of working-class experience by dominant middle246
class culture, that the anger and invective take their cue. As a preliminary to any
assessment of Harrison's recent work, it is worth reminding ourselves of that context.
The bare facts of Harrison's life are well known and significant. He was born in Leeds
in 1937, son of a local baker. His home in Tempest Road, Beeston, was in a
respectable working-class row of terraced houses, with cobbled street, small front
gardens and back yards. He went to Leeds Grammar School on a scholarship, one of
only six for the whole West Riding of
Yorkshire, and then to Leeds University to read Classics. These localised but
dramatic contradictions between working-class home and middle-class education
were further heightened by a four-year period teaching in Nigeria, and a year in
Prague. What his time in Africa taught him, he has said, was 'the internal colonialism
of British education. I think that seeing it literally in black and white in Africa helped
me to understand it very clearly when I came back to England.' It was this experience
which allowed Harrison to 'put in perspective my own education' and realise the
common link of cultural exclusion and suppression between these different contexts.
After some long conversations with members of Frelimo, the Mozambique Liberation
Army, on the relationship between poetry and politics, Harrison returned to England
determined to make a living out of writing verse.
Until more recently Harrison's output as a poet had been comparatively small and,
until Penguin published the Selected Poems in 1984, his work was notably difficult to
obtain despite being recognised by his peers and contemporaries as that of a
remarkable writer. As Ken Worpole has pointed out, his work 'found it incomparably
more difficult to gain access to the metropolitan literary and cultural journals including
the New Statesman and Tribune, than the work of such poets as Craig Raine,
Christopher Reid, Blake Morrison or Clive James'. While conspiracy theories of
cultural influence are not always helpful, it is significant that Harrison shares none of
the Oxbridge connections of the New Establishment poets of the 1970s and 1980s.
His present popularity is based more on his activities as a dramatist, the public
theatre-poet Harrison has admitted he always wanted to be. And at the centre of his
dramatic ventures, most famously in the dialect versions of the Mystery plays,
Harrison signals the intent of his work as dramatist and poet--to reoccupy the space
so long dominated by a Southern middle-class cultural hegemony, but to do so in both
his own and their terms. He declares this overtly and famously in one of his 'The
School of Eloquence' sonnets: addressing the upper- and middle-class cultural
hegemony, he declares
So right, yer buggers then! We'll occupy your lousy leasehold Poetry
This very project produces a tension in Harrison and his work which accounts both for
its remarkable energy and for its problematic qualities.
In this respect, Harrison and his work are products of their time and context--the postwar world of the Welfare State and the 1944 Education Act. It was through this
mechanism that Harrison won his scholarship to grammar school and underwent the
dislocating experience described shortly afterwards by Richard Hoggart in his classic,
The Uses of Literacy (1957). This is a book which Harrison admits 'helped me
understand myself'3 and to which he owes the title of one of his best-known poems,
'Them and [uz]'. Hoggart's book describes the cultural 'chafing' experienced by the
working-class boy undergoing a scholarship education, 'at the friction-point of two
cultures ... He both wants to go back and yet thinks he has gone beyond his class'.
Leeds Grammar School, founded in 1552, was a direct-grant school with fee-paying
status and aspired to upper-class ideals of the public schools with their belief in
preparing boys to lead the country through having the correct accent. Harrison has
acknowledged how the displacement of this experience fuelled his later work. He
explains his use of dialect in his translations, for example, partly as 'a long slowburning revenge on the teacher who taught me English when I was 13 because he
would never allow me to read poetry aloud.' Equally, the context during the 1960s and
early 1970s within which Harrison began writing verse about such experiences was
one in which questions of language and class became major political issues, as Ken
Worpole has pointed out, a battle over who defines 'correct' English which is still
being enacted.
Harrison's poems quite obviously deal with this issue of language and power. While
he is quite capable of a postmodernist self-awareness about this, he maintains a
seriousness of intent in
relation to it which separates him from the game-playing of early Craig Raine, for
example. Harrison indicated the centrality to his work of this confrontation with the
politics of language and cultural control by the choice of title for his first book, The
Loiners (1970). It comes from the local name for the inhabitants of Leeds and
indicates Harrison's desire to give voice to the marginalised experience of '[uz]'. For
Harrison, this is the 'pronoun of solidarity', of workingclass community, family and
culture, as opposed to the overweening and suppressive eloquence of 'them'--the
upper classes, professionals, public officials, bosses and bureaucrats. This advocacy
of suppressed working-class experience, genuine as it is, can verge on a nostalgic
idealisation of virtues in a lost past which is at best questionable and generates its
own contradictions in his work.
At the same time he has indicated his chosen tools for the job would be the classical
forms of middle-class British literary tradition, particularly rhyme and regular verse
forms. He sees this as 'an aggressive occupation--I was going to usurp classical
forms but fit them to what I wanted to say and the kind of language I wanted to use'.In
one poem he presents himself as a poetic Luddite using the sledgehammer ('Enoch')
of his voice to demolish establishment power over language:
Each swung cast-iron Enoch of Leeds stress clangs a forged music on the frames of
Art, the looms of owned language smashed apart!
Hence the title of the sequence 'The School of Eloquence', taken from a source
epigram from E. P. Thompson's classic of historical recovery, The Making of the
English Working Class. The name was a cover for the working-class organisation the
London Corresponding Society, suppressed in 1799 by an increasingly repressive
and paranoid ruling class. It is an aptly chosen emblem for a process still at work in
the twentieth century: dissent can be silenced through the control of language and
publication; but equally opportunities remain for counterattack by suppressed groups
through appropriating language. The experience of black slaves in the British
Caribbean points one example: their appropriation of English into forms of creole and
patois was, it has been argued, a deliberate strategy to forge a common language
which was unavailable to the white overseers on the plantation; and the historical
result has been the Caribbean 'nation language' celebrated and used by Caribbean
writers like Edward Kamau Brathwaite and Jean Binta Breeze. Harrison's aim is
similar but his approach is different. Rather than totally transform the tools given by
history in terms of language and forms, as some Caribbean 'dub' poets have done,
Harrison aims to appropriate and use them on their own terms as well as on his, to
break the silence imposed by ruling-class history on working-class experience:
Wherever hardship held its tongue the job 's breaking the silence of the worked-outgob.
'Gob' is a dialect word meaning 'mouth', of course, but also an old Northern coalmining word for the space left after the coal has been extracted. Historical reclamation
is part of Harrison's work, as is the job of warning the unwary:
The dumb go down in history and disappear and not one gentleman's been brought to
book: Mes den hep tavas a-gollas y dyr (Cornish)-- 'the tongueless man gets his land
Along with this commitment to intervene in history's suppressions, goes an ironic
awareness of the limits of the poet's role, summed up in the last verse of the poem
'On Not Being Milton', with its marvellous final pun on 'writing' and 'putting things
Articulation is the tongue-tied's fighting. In the silence round all poetry we quote Tidd
the Cato Street conspirator who wrote: Sir, I Ham a very Bad Hand at Righting.
Perhaps it is the contradictions involved between the act of writing and the desire to
put things right that have led to the tension we will see in Harrison's work between his
eloquence and his invective.
It was his desire to appropriate established culture for his people which led Harrison
to insist on giving God and Jesus Yorkshire accents in his versions of the Mystery
plays, remarking 'These are local northern classics that had been taken away from
northerners and betrayed, made genteel.' At the same time, Harrison sees his
commitment to traditional forms as offering more possibilities 'if you want to reach a
wider audience'. Thus, rhyming octosyllabic couplets, iambic pentameter quatrains or
octets dominate the long poems and the sequences of shorter poems. 'The School of
Eloquence' uses a 16-line sonnet form derived from George Meredith's sequence
Modern Love (1862), chosen for its capacity to offer stronger narrative possibilities,
but also because of the dialectic available between two octets.
Harrison clearly believes that regular verse allows for a more memorable and
involving reading experience, particularly perhaps for people for whom reading poetry
is an irregular activity, whereas for aficionados of poetry the experience will be
different. Harrison admits to using his versifying ability 'to gratify expectations of a
literary experience' but also seeks to 'remind the person reading the poem that they
are enjoying a privilege of literary experience denied to the majority of people'. At the
banquet of verse he offers, there are always 'the ghosts of the inarticulate', so that the
reader has to pay for their cultural gratification: 'that literary frisson-"hypocrite lecteur,
mon semblable, mon frère"--will cost you so much in social awareness, in the
consciousness of social gaps and divisions.' It is in this exploitation of the literary
experience as well as of conflicting language codes that Harrison sees the opportunity
to be 'political', though he recognises the contradictions involved: 'the moment I
become "poet" in that unpoliticised way I am in collusion with the reader, and part of
the struggle is not always to be in collusion ... but obviously by being a poet I've
moved into another class anyway.'
The problematic this establishes is double-edged: in part at least, Harrison's use of
regular verse forms undoubtedly accounts for the dynamic of his writing--it gives his
imagination an edge to work against that seems to drive it to articulate itself with often
stunning economy and precision. At the same time there is an inescapable question
as to whether Harrison's dynamic isn't also contained and defused by his choice of
regular verse forms and whether his appropriation of middle-class culture has not in
fact worked in reverse. It is an inescapable dialectic, since without the forms the
poetry as such would not exist. The problems arise when the pronounced facility with
which Harrison handles formal verse leads him into a prolixity near to doggerel, as in
his more recent television work The Blasphemer's Banquet, and when his selfawareness of linguistic registers leads him into an erudition which contradicts his
declared aim to 'colonise the high style' so as to 'present it back as a gift to those
people you were brought up with'.
One example might be the poem 'Them and [uz]', which graphically records the
incident with
the teacher who prevented him reciting verse at school. The very title, with its ironic
use of phonetic conventions, throws learning back at the powerful. The poem is codedicated to Richard Hoggart, academic professor, and to a dialect comedian called
'Professor' Leon Cortez, who Harrison remembers on the radio translating
Shakespeare into Cockney. They are dual emblems of Harrison's allegiances to
orthodox and unorthodox learning. Hence the bitingly playful opening:
αi αî, ay, ay! ... stutterer Demosthenes gob full of pebbles outshouting seas
The academically familiar choric cry from Greek tragedy, is juxtaposed with the standup comedian's popularly familiar 'ay, ay'. Fourth-century Athenian orator
Demosthenes is invoked since he was a stammerer who ironically enough became a
great public orator by filling his mouth with pebbles, rather as the upper classes are
said to speak with plums in their mouths. The problem here is with the erudition.
Harrison is debunking the hegemonic power which puts 'high culture' in the hands of
an elite, but arguably the bite of the poem can only be decoded by a reader with
access to that very culture. On the one hand, Harrison is asserting the democratic
availability of such culture; on the other, his poem is speaking from within it, and as
such unavailable to most people. As a well-read friend of mine put it, 'Harrison's got
too much Latin for me.'
In performance Harrison reads this poem with a fire all the more effective for being
contained. It acts as both indictment and incitement. It is a knowing last laugh by
someone who has proved his cultural credentials and is now at liberty to challenge
the hierarchy of control and social management which language enacts by making
'classic' poetry out of dialect registers and throwing it in the face of standard English
and its chinless-wonder advocates. It seems a peculiarly male response, somehow. In
the poem 'Me Tarzan' Harrison humorously plays off the macho male aspect of
working-class culture against the suggestion that literature is somehow effeminate:
while his mates are out 'laikin' and 'tartin', the young Harrison is captive to translating
Cicero, who he is uneasily aware is likely to be seen as 'Cissy-bleeding-ro'. In his
poetic invective, it's as if Harrison feels the need to give as good as he gets, to show
himself both a proven poet and still one of the lads. It is from this kind of tension that
the edge of his work often derives.
Not one to miss a trick, Harrison makes mileage out of these very contradictions.
There is a selfconscious element in 'The School of Eloquence', as for example when
he realises that, adept now at a variety of languages, he has lost
... the tongue that once I used to know but can't bone up on now, and that's mi mam's.
As so often, there's a biting edge here when we realise the overtones of 'bone up on'
in the context of the deaths of Harrison's parents which forms a major strand in the
sequence, and which parallels the other major strand, cultural displacement. Harrison
recognises how the experiences of the class he records sit uneasily in middle-class
forms, his father 'lost in this sonnet for the bourgeoisie 'More problematically, he
recognises how impossibly disparate are the audience he hopes for and the one he
gets, the result in part of the class nature of literature but also of Harrison's own
erudition: after one particularly rarified example, he apologises 'Sorry, dad, you won't
get that quatrain', yet goes on to say 'I'd like to be the poet my father reads!'
This problem of audience and accessibility is not confined to Harrison's father. It is a
contradiction at the heart of his stated desire to have a public role as a poet. We can
see it in the extreme ranges of his linguistic register. There is the plain, homely side,
the 'man speaking to men' with the down-to-earth blunt address of a 'loiner', most
explicit in the dialect with which he spices his poems. Jeffrey Wainwright has noticed
words like faff, big-wig, piddle, glugged, pop, bugger, tusky, gob, man; to which we
might add smithereens, gaffers, aggro, laikin', tartin', 'oil (for hole), gorra, among
many others. But that is just one side of the Harrison lexicon. Beside this, as
Wainwright points out, we need to put the strand which covers words such as
glossolalia, dulciloquy, rebarbative, damascener, oviparous; to which again we might
add inwit, sophomore, cynghannedd, and names as various as Caractacus, Roget,
Marx, Frelimo, Farouk, Demosthenes. In addition there is Harrison's frequent
recourse to foreign and 'dead' languages, whether Greek, Latin, Danish, French,
Czech, German, Russian, with one example at least of Cornish. And he often
indulges in frequently cryptic language play and puns. These can be of a literary
nature: the poem 'Study' ends with a line which glances at Yeats's 'Long-Legged Fly'
and Virgil in a manner which Edward Lucie-Smith recognises as deriving from Robert
Lowell. Less rarified but still oblique, 'The Pocket Wars of Peanuts Joe', a poem about
a celebrated Leeds masturbator, opens with the line 'The -nuts bit really -nis.'
Harrison expects his readership to work linguistically for their pleasure in a manner
which can be quite uncompromising. The very enjoyment of Harrison's verse derives
from his linguistic virtuosity coupled with the forceful economy of expression enforced
through the verse form. In a sense he suffers from the containment he himself
identifies in his classical school training, the imperative to translate potentially
explosive content into a nicely turned form:
And so the lad who gets the alphas works the hardest in his class at his translation
and finds good Ciceronian for Burke's: a dreadful schism in the British nation.
As so often, the reader has to work to mine the rebarbative implications behind these
wryly turned lines; and having mined them, we realise that Harrison has put his finger
on a linguistic gagging his poem itself enacts.
It would be misleading to suggest that all of 'The School of Eloquence' is equally
oblique. Much of the writing is very direct, even at times notebookish in a way similar
to Lowell's verse diary of that title. But there is a real tendency in Harrison's work from
the beginning towards utilising material which makes demands of knowledge on the
reader, knowledge which is not part of the general culture and which therefore
threatens to make his work unapproachable despite his declared desire for a popular
It is all the more intriguing, then, to find Harrison's slow-burning anger about class,
cultural suppression and displacement exploding into the startling and powerful long
poems V. and The Blasphemer's Banquet. Both productions declare themselves as
pieces written for public consumption, not least because both have been presented in
video format on national television. The videos have undoubtedly had a significant
role to play in making the two poems generally available in terms of tangible
consumption. There is the ready availability of the TV experience as opposed to the
work involved in the reading experience; and in terms of the illustrative commentary to
the writing, both videos are remarkably good pieces of television art, in which
Harrison's most evasive expressions receive instantaneous illumination through visual
equivalents. Both facts mean that these two long poems must have received more
instantaneous widespread public attention than most long poems in literary history. In
itself this is a fascinating illustration of Harrison's commitment, like dramatist Trevor
Griffiths's, to a popular audience.
This is also true of the forms of both poems. The quatrains of V. and The
Blasphemer's Banquet derive from sources which themselves are popular
antecedents, enacting Harrison's belief that through regular verse you can get to more
people. Like Shelley in his ballad-form political poem 'The Mask of Anarchy', Harrison
has chosen regularity as the vehicle for angry satire and blistering invective and both
poems struggle formally to contain this more direct strain. Faced with the subject
matter of both poems, it is as if Harrison's patience were exhausted and he had no
option but recourse to Juvenalian tactics. Since The Blasphemer's Banquet is not yet
available in printed form, it is more appropriate to consider V. textually in more detail
with a glance at the other piece for further illustrations of the contradictions raised in
Harrison's writing by this more overt strain in his work.
The first thing to say, though, is to state roundly the admirable risk-taking in Harrison's
recent productions. In a verse culture still inhibited by the legacies of the tight-arsed
well-made poem, it is all the more welcome to find a poet finding the scale of V. in
terms of length and compass. V.'s 112 verses of rhyming quatrains were obviously
intended as a 'state-of-the-nation' poem, as Ken Worpole has pointed out. The Leeds
graveyard graffitied with 'a repertoire of blunt fourletter curses' and collapsing into a
worked-out pit below is Harrison's emblem of contemporary Britain during the 1984
miner's strike, its culture rifted by divisions. Harrison's auto-critique of his vocation
and his sense of language as a battlefield for hegemony are given particular edge by
the setting of the graveyard, which allows him to point to the collapse of
communication in the mixed 'language of the graveyard' as one source for 'all the
versuses of life' and, with a typical pun, for his own verses. But simultaneously and
daringly as in The Blasphemer's Banquet, Harrison takes on the 'overwhelming
questions' too--death, time, the great contingent abstracts of human existence which
he makes personal, specific and bitingly, unnervingly immediate. Rather than see the
antecedents of this poem in a tradition of political satire epitomised by Shelley's 'The
Mask of Anarchy', we would do better to recognise how much closer in outlook and
tone V. is to its formal model, Gray's 'Elegy in a Country Churchyard'. Harrison takes
Gray's verse form, but he also takes Gray's elegiac stance as the tragic mask for his
anger. His tone is admittedly far more sardonic than Gray's, with a grim humour more
in common with Donne or Bishop King's 'Exequy'. The verse too is much more
vigorous. Gray's classically illustrative iambs have been invigorated with a strenuous
resistance to the iambic norms, the trochee and dactyl of the opening line setting the
stamp, along with Harrison's penchant for a verbal density akin to the best AngloSaxon alliterative verse. But the elegiac direction which opens the poem, however
ironised or undercut linguistically, shows a central element in V. At the heart of its
magnificent attempt to take on Thatcher's Britain is actually a very personal anger and
sense of tragedy, a feature common to Harrison's work with its continual awareness
of time and death. V. is as much a personal elegy for Harrison's father and mother as
it is for his society. It is the graffitied 'UNITED' on his parents' grave which triggers
Harrison's anger, and with it a Hamletlike guilt and sense of responsibility at having
abandoned his origins.
This self-indictment generates the main invective focus of the poem, an imaginary
dialogue between Harrison and the Leeds skinhead who graffitied that 'UNITED' on
the grave. This confrontation, like that between Marlow and Kurz in Heart of
Darkness, is between self and 'alter ego', as the poet names his skinhead, 'skald or
skin'. It is as well to remember during this discussion that, as with the rest of his work
if modern literary theory is to be accepted, the 'Harrison voice' in the poem is not its
author as such, merely one element in Harrison's imagination. When challenged to
sign his literary productions, the skin graffities his name and to Harrison's shock, 'it
was mine'. This leads Harrison to recall how he too was branded 'vandal' as a child
when, from sheer frustration, he sprayed a fire extinguisher at a political meeting
being addressed by Hugh Gaitskell. But his intent in seeing an analogy between
himself and the contemporary skin disaffected by Thatcher's society is not simply to
say 'This is what I might have been.' More subversively, it is to say 'This is what I am';
or, as the poet puts it to his alter ego, adapting Rimbaud, 'the autre that je est is
fucking you'. The poet is a sublimated vandal confronting 'them' with language, and by
implication, just as impotent as the angry bovver boys he berates. Part of Harrison's
intent is to ask who is responsible and to lay the blame for the alienations of
contemporary society at the right feet--'It isn't all his fault though, / Much is ours.'
Harrison's sense of social responsibility, like his guilt over his parents' ill-kept grave,
derives from his own feeling of what he and others like him have not done, how
compromised he is by his education and social position. As the skin puts it, 'Fuckers
like that get folk like me arrested.' The indictment is as much for Harrison's sense of
abdication from his own class as for his role as poet writing elitist verses. With a
precisely chosen self-irony, Harrison defends himself and his vocation to the skinhead
as being 'to give ungrateful cunts like you a hearing ... to give some higher meaning to
your scrawl', only to be answered by the skinhead voicing his own deepest fears:
'can't you speak / the language that yer mam spoke'; 'A book, yer stupid cunt, 's not
worth a fuck!' This puts the same question Harrison asks in his translations of the
fourth-century AD Alexandrian poet Palladas:
Where's the public good in what you write, raking it in from all that shameless shite,
hawking iambics like so much Betterbrite?
The structure of V. is a brilliant vehicle offering a sense of refracted possibilities-history, language, art, contemporary society, self-critique etc. And it is explicitly and
uncompromisingly contemporary articulating the frontline experiences of unemployed
youth, as when the skin rejects the notion of going to heaven and having, when asked
to give an account of himself, 'to pipe up to St fucking Peter / ah've been on t'dole all
mi life in fucking Leeds!' Surely then, in this poem, Harrison's classical restraint,
erudition and formal containment have been overtaken by the urgency of what he has
to say in a way which allows him to achieve the role of the public poet and be
accessible? In one sense the answer is undoubtedly 'Yes'. It is quite unique for a
contemporary poet to have his work translated almost instantaneously into video form
as has happened with Harrison's recent productions, and equally unique for them to
provoke the outraged response which both V. and The Blasphemer's Banquet elicited.
Both programmes were the subject of attempts to ban their broadcast, V. by Mary
Whitehouse because of its language and The Blasphemer's Banquet by the Lay
Adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury, ostensibly because it might be
counterproductive to British race relations, but one suspects actually because of its
outright and unashamedly atheistical attack on all religion.
But this public profile for Harrison's work does not necessarily answer the question we
have just posed. From my own experience I have had two contradictory responses
which give some indication of the responses to Harrison's work. In the town where I
work, Hull Truck's Youth Theatre presented an immensely successful dramatised
version of V. which ran to full houses and drew in a large number of young people.
Equally, a poetry workshop which I run at The Warren, Hull's nationally acclaimed
community resource centre for young unemployed people, were unanimous about the
power and general accessibility of the video version of V. At the same time, they
asked some probing questions about Harrison's presentation of the skinhead voice.
They saw this as patronising, and noticed that structurally the poem plays tricks on
the skinhead, as when it makes him mistake Harrison's Rimbaud quote as Greek and
say 'don't treat me like I'm dumb.' This poetry workshop included an ex-NF exskinhead who was now a volunteer art worker at the centre. He pointed out that
football-supporting skins as such no longer existed and hadn't existed in Leeds for
years, ever since the clampdown on football violence forced them to change their
image to become more acceptable and so get into Elland Road again and carry on
the aggro. Skins around nowadays were more likely to be into anarchy and punk than
aerosolling football team names. It seemed from the group discussion that Harrison
had taken the skin as a generically representative voice of disaffection but in a quite
distorting way. Not only that, but the attitudes of the poem, not just those of the
Harrison voice in the poem, seemed to the group to be exactly those of the middleclass 'wanker' the skin accuses Harrison of being--and this from a group whose own
exclusion from poetry as middleclass 'wank' has been transformed by their own
fervour at finding they can do it too, as their self-produced magazine Inner Lines
This instance brings up a central problem in V., and that is Harrison's attempt to
speak 'on behalf of' a group he no longer belongs to. This may be partly a result of the
problems of writing in an increasingly pluralistic culture. But the dialogue strategy of
the central part of the poem, the aggressive confrontation between two male voices,
polarises the poem in precisely the way it seeks to criticise. The maleness of the
voice leads to a further problem with the invective. The masculine ethos, far from
being challenged, is actively reinforced by the complicity of the two male voices
through language at the point when the Harrison voice calls the skin a 'cunt'. It would
be a questionable generalisation to identify the derogatory use of words describing
human sexuality as a male use of language, but there is a sense in which it belongs
to a very male-orientated cultural ethos. Obviously Harrison is in part exposing and
ironising this, but in another inescapable sense he is also complicit in it. His answer to
the skin's charges against his 'fucking poufy words' is to drop all pretence and show
that behind the cissy poet is still a 'real man' who can trade swear words with the best
of them.
The problem raised here is a wider one of the language and forms appropriate or
necessary for a contemporary political poetry. It is perhaps remarkable how little
overtly political poetry there has been since the advent of Thatcherism. Part of
Harrison's project as I take it has been to evolve ways of writing which are precisely
that, without compromising his sense of the demands of art. In 'taking the lid' off his
work in the way he seems to be doing in V. and The Blasphemer's Banquet he is both
liberating his work and endangering it through the exacerbation of the inner
contradictions which have driven it from the beginning. And despite the more open
invective, the problem of formal containment remains. In the last sections of V. with its
somewhat problematic chorus of 'home, to my woman', Harrison extends the range of
the poem's reflection on contemporary violence to include images of Ulster and the
Gulf, but with an almost gratuitous ease. It is as if the formal facility of his verse
writing invites him to package his meditations in too easy a form. And from verse 84,
through its introduction of Harrison's father, bewildered by the changes in his city and
the influx of 'coloured chaps', the poem comes close to an ambiguous nostalgia for
Leeds's working-class past versus its cosmopolitan present. Instead of being a badly
needed 'Mask of Anarchy' for the 1980s, V. finally has more in common with
Wordsworth's 'Immortality' ode, its rancour gagged by the elegiac strain and by a
tendency to grand gestures.
This problem of rhetorical facility is even more pertinent with regard to The
Blasphemer's Banquet. Clearly the form of this piece imposed certain limits. It is an
'occasional' poem in the true sense, a poem generated in response to an occasion or
public event. It is also a public address by Harrison to Rushdie in part as a gesture of
solidarity as Harrison makes plain towards the end when he raises his glass to
Rushdie's blasphemy in defiance of all the 'fascist fatwahs' of all religions. From this
point of view the piece undoubtedly has a heroic and courageous dimension to it. It is
also in a sense documentary verse allowing Harrison the role of social commentator
over the visual images of cultural displacement afforded by Bradford's contemporary
changes--churches turned into curry restaurants and so on. But what it also allows
Harrison to do is to indulge to the full his tendency for a wry and sometimes stagy or
even ponderous sense of 'The Tragic Realities of Life and Death'. It is a verse
meditation on the Vanity of Human Wishes in a peculiarly classical mould. This
generates some wonderfully audacious moments, as for example when Harrison is
seen in the auction room, also a converted church, where the auctioneer,
appropriately named Mr Bishop, is selling off a job lot of books, including the Selected
Poems of Tony Harrison. And when Harrison successfully bids
for a bust of Voltaire, the auctioneer marks it down to 'Mr Nicholson', before correcting
himself and remarking wryly 'Your fame's not travelled before you'. Or from the
linguistic point of view, there is the stanza describing the unavoidability of death which
rhymes with an audacity Byron would have relished:
That great big O of nothingness that swallers Poets and priests, queens and
Ayatollahs, Not only infidels but fundamentalists Whether in black turbans or dogcollars.
But Harrison retains his high seriousness, and lacks Byron's full sense of formal
anarchy. At the same time, the writing skirts close to doggerel. V. was attacked
similarly, but in the case of The Blasphemer's Banquet I am less ready to accept
Harrison's rejoinder to his critics that 'my ear is better than theirs'.
The Blasphemer's Banquet was a courageous and welcome instance of a
contemporary writer putting himself on the line in the most uncompromising way, and
for that it deserves our full admiration. But at the end of the piece I was left frustrated
by its patchy brilliance and by the sense that Harrison had allowed the ponderous
themes of Time and Death to upstage his political or even cultural anger at what has
happened to Rushdie. At the same time, this seems to have prevented him presenting
a more complex response to the problematic issues and personal realities stirred up
by the whole incident. The form invites him into an easy versemaking, but because of
the grand gestures invited by the tragic sense of the human condition, it could be
argued that Harrison loses the political and satirical bite Shelley sustains in his
broadside 'The Mask of Anarchy'. Obviously Harrison's piece was in a sense written
to order, under the pressure of the events it describes, like Shelley's, or like the
equally courageous response to the Rushdie affair, the play Iranian Nights by Tariq
Ali and Howard Brenton which played to packed houses at the Royal Court in April
1989 and was broadcast on Channel 4. Shelley found a way of translating
contemporary events through a fusion of medieval allegory and broadside ballad into
a vitriolic satire and a great political poem in a genuinely popular mode without losing
the edge of actuality. Ali and Brenton put their piece together in one week and
managed to give it a strongly political focus maintained through a critique of 'Fascism
in brown skins', and of Western imperialist hypocrisy. Harrison seems caught between
actuality on the one hand and timeless truths of existence on the other, journalist,
elegist and celebrant of 'this fleeting life', but losing the historical urgency which drove
him to write the poem.
One reason for this is the tendency towards pessimism in Harrison's work. The title
poem of his early pamphletNewcastle is Peru was a deliberate attempt to celebrate
the remarkableness of the North of England and 'to crush', as Harrison said,
'desperation towards a note of celebration in life which I find very difficult'. His
admiration for Greek drama arises in part from its capacity 'to look at its worst
imaginings, its deepest nightmares, and yet not leave you feeling that life is not worth
living'. His attachment to traditional verse forms is important here: he sees them as 'a
life support system' which enables 'the dark imagination, the pessimistic side of
myself, to go deeper into the darkness'. And Harrison finds the pessimism of the
Alexandrian poet Palladus 'invigorating', because 'there is no sense at all of
"gracious" surrender either to the inevitability of death or to historical change';
Palladus's verse is 'not the stylish after dinner despair of hightable, the sighing
gestures of surfeit, but the authentic snarl of a man trapped physically in poverty and
persecution, and metaphysically in a deep sense of the futile'. While we should
beware of reading Harrison's comments off against his own work, this strain of
thinking does help explain the genuine sense of the macabre in his work, a persistent
obsession with the physical fact of death which tends to override his sense of the
historical. And perhaps the only way to explain that is to return to Harrison's cultural
displacement from his working-class roots. The timeless verities of existence
elegantly elaborated in his beloved classics can override the
historical actualities of society in a writer who feels himself an individual who can't
belong, however deep his compassion and understanding. Harrison's snarling
invectives against death are genuine. His snarling invectives against an unjust and
unequal society have a more problematic status.
Having voiced these questions, it is still the case that Harrison is at least taking the
admirable risk of addressing as a poet crucial political and cultural issues of our day in
a form which challenges the continuing hegemony of the small poem and the
continuing hegemony of dominant culture. And he does so with unquestionable
integrity and considerable conviction. Whatever the problems, one can only be
thankful for the biting vigour of the verse of this working-class pirate bent on a bit of
cultural 'aggro'.
First a general comment to set the scene. The particular poem I want to analyse is
one of a pair among a number of poems in the volume 'The School of Eloquence' and
Other Poems (1978) which are about the relationship between the poet and his
parents. A recurring theme is one of disparity of values and guilt that his scholarship
has estranged him from them and their
working-class ways. Even his portrayal of them is betrayal of a kind, since it can only
be based on the dissociation of his experience and expressed in a poetic idiom they
cannot understand.1 He cannot talk about his parents in the way he talked to them.
What comes across in these poems is a sense of exile and uncertainty of self. They
are expressive of an ambivalence of position, a dilemma of identity: they are
intellectually detached with descriptions distanced in the third person, the poet apart
from what he describes, but at the same time he is emotionally involved in the first
person, a part of it all as well.
This, then, is the poem: one of several variations on a theme of estrangement; of loss
of contact, person to person.
Though my mother was already two years dead Dad kept her slippers warming by the
gas, put hot water bottles her side of the bed and still went to renew her transport
pass. You couldn't just drop in. You had to phone. He'd put you off an hour to give
him time to clear away her things and look alone as though his still raw love were
such a crime. He couldn't risk my blight of disbelief though sure that very soon He'd
hear her key scrape in the rusted lock and end his grief. He knew she'd just popped
out to get the tea. I believe life ends with death, and that is all. You haven't both gone
shopping; just the same, in my new black leather phone book there's your name and
the disconnected number I still call. "Long Distance II""Long Distance II"
At the most obvious referential level of paraphrase summary this poem is about family
relations and their severance by bereavement. It is about communication and its loss
in two senses, physical contact and emotional ties, telephone connections and human
relationships, the one expressed in terms of the other. It is about being cut off,
disconnected, distanced.
Linguistically, human relationships are mediated through the grammatical category of
person, and in particular the personal pronouns. To quote from the recent Collins
Cobuild English Grammar: 'You use personal pronouns to refer to yourself, the people
you are talking to, or the people or things you are talking about' (Sinclair 1990: 29). It
is through the categories of person (first, second, and third) that we make a
connection between self and others and establish positions of identity. We might
expect, therefore, that, given the obvious theme of the poem, the category of person
should repay closer study. This, then, can serve as the starting point for our analysis.
A word or two to begin with about pronouns and person in general. The first- and
secondperson pronouns ('I' and 'you') identify participants and provide the necessary
terminals so to speak, whereby people are connected in communicative interaction.
They coexist in the same plane of involvement. Thus they are, in principle,
interchangeable in the turn-taking of talk: the second person is a potential first person,
and each presupposes the existence of the other. The same human person shifts role
into the different grammatical persons of 'I' and 'you' , addresser and addressee. And
these pronouns are, of course, independent and self-contained. In spite of the term
we give them they are not pro-nouns. We can of course use them in association with
nouns, as when they are specifically identified ('I, Claudius'; 'Me Tarzan, you
Jane'), but they have no proxy function. They are terms of address, not terms of
The third-person pronouns, on the other hand, indicate a non-participant role; they are
terms of reference rather than of address. When people are referred to in third-person
terms they are distanced, put at a remove from involvement with first-person self, no
longer interactants. When you talk about people in the third person, rather than to
people in the second person, you in effect disconnect them from communication:
'Does he take sugar?'
So what, then, of the pronouns and persons in this poem? The first two lines establish
the relationships of child (let us assume son in this case) as first person with parents
as third persons: 'my mother', 'Dad': me, the poet, and them. There is a difference,
though, between these two expressions. The first of them is a straightforward term of
reference. The second 'Dad', however, can serve as a term of address also, a
vocative (for example, 'Sorry, Dad') so although it is used here in the third person, it
carries the implication of involvement, indeterminate, so to speak, between reference
and address. He is not just being talked about in detachment but is also marked as a
potential participant. 'Dad' seems appropriate as suggesting a continuing relationship:
he is still alive. 'My mother', already two years dead, is distanced as a third-person
entity by the use of the standard referential phrase. One might consider the difference
of effect if the lines had been otherwise:
Though mother was already two years dead, My father warmed her slippers by the
gas. ...
There is a further observation to be made about the distancing effect of these terms.
'Dad' is not only to be distinguished from 'my mother' because of its address potential,
it is also a less formal term and expresses closer familial ties, more personal
involvement. The version which is unmarked for such affect is 'Father', just as the
marked versions for the address term 'Mother' are 'Mummy' or 'Mum' or (in Harrison's
dialect) 'Mam'. And, of course, these affectively marked terms can also be used for
reference as well as address. Indeed, they are so used by Harrison himself in other
poems. For example:
I asked mi mam. She said she didn't know. Since mi mam's dropped dead mi dad's
took fright.
Here too, of course, the use of dialect forms is a further device for reducing distance,
expressing empathy, identifying the first person with third-person description.2
What we seem to have here, then, is a kind of fusion of participant address and nonparticipant reference perspectives. We might suggest that there is a set of three terms
of reference of increasing affective involvement in Harrison's poetry:
my mother my father mi mam mi dad mam dad3
If we use these possible alternatives in the first two lines of the poem we are
considering, with other modifications to retain the metrical pattern, we can propose a
number of variants:
Though mam was then already two years dead, Dad kept her slippers warming by the
gas. ... Mi mam was then already two years dead,
But dad still warmed her slippers by the gas. ... Though mi mam was already two
years dead, Mi dad still warmed her slippers by the gas. ...
And so on.
Each variant, I would argue, represents a different relationship with the parents. And
so it is with the original lines. The father, unlike the mother, is still, as it were,
affectively connected, the relationship is alive as a potential participation. And yet to
some degree distanced by thirdperson reference. The writer is connected in a way,
and yet, in another way, disconnected. The ambivalence I referred to earlier is already
present in the first two lines of the poem, represented, I would suggest, by the very
choice of referential expression. In this sense, the end of the poem is anticipated by
its beginning.
But what of the lines in between? They too, I suggest, are expressive of this
ambivalence. And again, it is the grammatical category of person that is crucial.
Consider the second-person pronoun in the first two lines of the second verse. It
occurs three times. But it does not have a participant sense. It is the informal
equivalent of the third-person impersonal pronoun 'one':
One couldn't just drop in, one had to phone. ...
And this is the non-participant equivalent of the first-person pronoun 'I':
I couldn't just drop in, I had to phone. ...
Again, there is distancing, but at the same time some retention of affective
involvement represented by the residual participant force of the second-person
pronoun 'you'.
Consider now how the third person is used to talk about the father in the poem. In the
first verse, there is an account of what he actually does, his physical actions,
expressed as a series of objective statements of observable fact. In the second verse,
there is an interpretation of his action. It is not a matter simply of what he does, but
why he does it. The first person intervenes to give reasons and adduce motives. He is
drawn into subjective involvement. And in the third verse he is drawn even further in.
Here it is not just a matter of interpreting action but attributing feelings and attitudes to
the third person which cannot possibly be accessible to observation, and which would
normally, therefore, be associated only with first-person expression:
I couldn't risk his blight of disbelief. ... I'm sure that very soon I'll hear her key. ... I
knew she'd just popped out to get the tea.
There is, then, in these three verses an increasing involvement, a gradual
identification of the first person with the third person until they at times in effect fuse
one into the other and the son articulates the feelings of the father in the father's idiom
('... just popped out to get the tea'). And yet he retains some detachment and
separate identity: expressions like 'my blight of disbelief' and 'end his grief' are of his
thoughts in his idiom carried over from the last line of the second verse: 'as though his
still raw love was such a crime'.5
These verses, then, represent an ambivalence of position of the first person: he is
both apart from and a part of what he describes, detached from the actions, and able
to comment on them, but drawn into empathy with the feelings. Then in the first line of
the last verse this ambivalence disappears with a definite assertion of separate and
independent identity with the
first occurrence (as the first word) of the first-person pronoun:
I believe life ends with death, and that is all.
This is clear and straightforward enough: a change of tone, a first-person assertion of
present reality in contrast to the paternal illusions of the past that he has been
recounting. And this shift is also marked, we might notice by a change in rhyme
scheme in this last verse: a different form for a different kind of statement. Life ends
with death: that is all, and that is that: no ambivalence or uncertainty here. But that is
not all. Consider the next line. Here the secondperson pronoun makes another
appearance. This time, however, it is used not as before (in verse 2) but in its full
participant sense: he is addressing his parents. They are both dead, and life ends in
death and that is all, and yet he is talking to them nevertheless, reviving the
relationship by this direct address. The line is disconnected, but he is making a call all
the same. The ambiguity of his relationship as represented in the earlier verses is
resolved into the definite distinction between first and second persons 'I' and 'you'. But
this only serves to create the poignant anomaly of addressing the dead, as if there
were a possibility of continuing relationship. The uncertainty persists, in spite of the
assertion of belief in the first line of this last verse.
And it persists, we should note, in spite of the assertion of actuality expressed in the
phrase 'my new black leather phone book'. This elaborate noun phrase (by far the
most elaborate in the poem, with all its adjectives) seems, we might suggest, to insist
on objective reality. Here is my phone book, new, black, made of leather, a real and
tangible object, here and now. And yet it is black, suggestive perhaps of mourning,
and though emphatically new and present, it contains the old and the past: your name
and number are in it, even though you are dead and disconnected. Notice that this
ambivalence is suggested even by the phrase 'there's your name' not 'here's your
name': distal, not proximal; there (and then) not here (and now). And notice too that
the number is 'there', as if it appeared on its own. There is no indication of human
agency. The line does not after all read:
In my new phone book I write down your name. ...
The line is disconnected, then, the parents dead. He still calls, just the same.
'Just the same': the concessive phrase that ends the poem itself relates to those that
precede ('though' makes an appearance in each verse). Although ... yet. Concession
runs throughout: the very first word of the poem sets the key ('Though my mother').
This much is certain, and yet. ... And the poem ends on the same note. Ultimately,
what the son believes is also undermined by concession. His certainty has no more
substance than his father's. In spite of his assertion, he behaves like his father, and
so is subject to the same disbelief in spite of what he claims to believe. There is even
a recurrence of lexical items to link them: 'still/(re) new' in the last line of the first
verse, 'new/still' in the last two lines of the poem: appropriately enough a kind of
mirror image. The father still got a new transport pass for his dead wife, the son still
puts a disconnected number of dead parents in his new phone book. So the father's
resistance to the reality of severed relationship is shared by the son, and this itself
represents a continuity of their relationship. Life in a way, then, does not end in death.
And yet ... the number is nevertheless disconnected.
The ambivalence remains unresolved, except in the resolution that its representation
provides in the very patterns of language of the poem. For although the poem is
referentially about disconnection, the patterns, the prosodic regularities, the links, and
correspondences, represent the opposite. The end of the poem paradoxically
connects up with the beginning, and
one might almost propose combining words from the first and last lines to provide a
Though dead and disconnected, I still call.
This patterning of language though, this casting into poetic form, is a mode of
communication which his parents would not have understood or recognized as
significant. As the ambivalence persists, so does the estrangement. The persons,
parents and son, first, second, and third, ultimately remain distinct.
And yet. ... Just the same. ...
Multicultural Poetry.
Zephaniah and
“Binta” Breeze. Popularising Poetry. The Return of Orality.
“I have been called a dub poet, an oral poet, a performance poet, a pop poet, a pub
poet, a rap poet, a Rasta poet, a reggae poet and even a black poet, the list goes on.
In all honesty, none of those titles offend me, I am probably all of these persons but if
I had to choose one I would start with oral poet. I say this because as I write my
poetry, I can hear the sound of it, sometimes I can be heard giving birth to my poems
by those close to me and sometimes those that are close to me get tired of hearing
me give birth too often.” Benjamin Zephaniah.
Benjamín Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah (1958-) is a British- born, second-generation
poet, playwright, and performer who is one of the most recognized popular poets of
the Isles. As he states above, his work has been placed in a number of categories,
however he is generally referred to as a “Dub Poet.” Despite/or due to his multicultural background and the fact that he spent his childhood years between Jamaica,
his parents’ country, and Great Britain, in the introduction to one of his most
successful collections of poems entitled, Too Black, Too
Strong (2001), he clearly states that he understands himself to be thoroughly British.
His poetry manifests his complete lack of anxiety about declaring his Britishness and
his enthusiasm to embrace that identity. Regarding his stance, he writes:
The title of British means many things to many people; some choose to remain
forever nostalgic for its ‘days of former greatness’ when Shakespeare was ‘Top
of the Pops’ and the sun never set on the empire, whilst for others it’s about the
melting pot, bursting with vitality and smiling multi-culturalism. The latter will tell
you that it is the great British Indian curry that binds us together; these people are out
to carve a new idea of Britishness and feel hindered by those whose only purpose is
to preserve the past. We are all imagining Britain, but that’s a luxury, what’s the
It is this reality that he sets out to explore through his poetry, and his contemporary,
controversial and accessible means of doing so that have made him so popular
amongst readers of all races and social classes. Benjamin Zephaniah frequently
collaborates with the British Council and other organizations and is the first to
acknowledge that, thanks to many institutions, he is able to speak his mind, “ranting,
praising, and criticising everything that makes me who I am, but that is what Britain
can do. It’s probably one of the only places that can take an angry, illiterate,
uneducated ex-hustler, rebellious Rastafarian and give him the opportunity to
represent the country.”
Dub poetry, just as Dub music, is based on orality. It emphasizes the spoken word
and is accompanied by reggae rhythm, and thus heavily inspired by the Jamaican
music of Bob Marley (1945-1981).15 Another extremely significant figure of what is
also coined “Performance Poetry” is Linton Kwesi Johnson (1952-, Jamaica),16
considered by many to be the world’s first reggae poet. He, like his contemporary,
Zephaniah, speaks of the oppression and struggle of Blacks living in the UK through
verse and within the framework of reggae rhythm and the Rastafarian culture, to
which he is perhaps more committed than his fellow Dub poet. Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze
(1952-, Jamaica) is the first woman to write and interpret Dub poetry with works like
Ryddim Ravings (1988) and her more recent The Arrival of Brighteye and Other
Poems (2000). Toronto, Canada has the second largest group of Dub poets, after
Jamaica and England. Lillian Allen, Afua Cooper and Ahdri Zhina are the most
outstanding figures of the genre in this country – all three are women.
In Dub poetry, the relationship of the poet with his/her audience is essential to the
results of the performance. In fact, it was not until City Psalms (1992) and Propa
Propaganda (1996) that Zephaniah established a reputation for himself on page
(although his first collection of poems, Pen Rhythm was published in 1980, followed
by numerous others). Once again, the words of the poet corroborate this idea and
help us to grasp the essence of this artistic manifestation:
What has always excited me is that there is no expert editor telling you what they
think will work, you know how it works immediately, the public tell you. The feedback
is automatic and it really is a great feeling to hear hundreds of people chant along
with your poem when that poem has never been written down.
Thus, to better understand the impact that the recital of one of these poems has on
listeners and the way words, sound, intonation and volume come together to create a
truly unique poetic form, students are strongly encouraged to listen to the poet as he
recites several of his poems, which you can listen to on the British Council Web site,
provided at the end of this Unit. There are also some relevant videos that you can
retrieve at YouTube.
Dub poetry varies depending on the degree of commitment with Jamaica and its
vernacular speech and how deeply-rooted the poet is to this country. Since
Zephaniah was a second-generation Jamaican, in many of his poems his choice of
language comes closer to that spoken in the United Kingdom than, for example, that
of Linton Kwesi Johnson, who leans heavily on Jamaican vernacular speech.
Compare the first two lines of “Inglan Is a Bitch” to Zephaniah’s diction in any of the
poems transcribed in this Unit: “w’en mi jus’ come to Landan toun/mi use to work pan
di andahgroun” = which could be roughly “translated” into “Proper” English as: “when I
first got to London I worked for the Underground.” Nonetheless, Zephaniah’s poems
are riddled with multi-cultural elements and the presence of his heritage. His lexical
choices and diction derive partly from the time spent in Jamaica as a youth and later
from recordings of oral poetry which he listened to as he got older. The fact that he
had to deal with dyslexia is an extremely relevant biographical piece of information,
since the poet claims that he found it often easier to write the words as they were
pronounced and not as they should be spelled.
Other differences amongst Dub poets can be detected in the use of humour, irony,
the degree of political compromise, and choice of themes which almost inevitably deal
with identity in multi-cultural, multi-lingual Great Britain, while in the case of women
Dub poets, sexism is a frequent theme as well. Within this framework, Zephaniah
addresses western oppression, white dominance, racism, police brutality, life in the
ghetto, the importance of education (he has published several volumes of poetry for
children and two novels for adolescents, always with a didactic and political intent),
and current social and political events.
Zephaniah, one of ten children, was born in Birmingham, England, in 1958 to Oswald
(a post-office manager) and Valerie (a nurse). He attended Ward End Hall
Comprehensive School and Broadway Comprehensive School from which he was
expelled for vandalism at age thirteen. In and out of trouble with the police, he was
sent a year later to a borstal.17 In his later teens, he began to establish his particular
characteristics as a performer. He had a good memory and enjoyed performing and
being in the limelight. Although he received no formal university education, he was
awarded honorary doctorates from the University of North London and the University
of West England in 1988 and 1999, respectively.
In the 1970s, Zephaniah became involved in performance poetry and in 1980 he
published his first collection of poems on paper, Pen Rhythm. From the very
beginning of his career, he defended the purpose of his work. His “mission,” he
claimed in a later interview, was “to popularize poetry – many working-class people in
Britain and worldwide believe that poetry is an art of the middle-class. To redress this,
I make a great effort to perform anywhere on the planet, always try to keep my
publications to a low purchase price and write around issues that concern workingclass people. Very concerned about the idea of a New World Order. Who ordered it?”
During the 1980s, there was a fusion of poetry and music which was to mark the
second wave of performance poetry in Britain, and Zephaniah’s performances began
to gain relevance on the cultural front. His album, Rasta, was to be expected then,
after an extensive series of performances in the United Kingdom and on the continent
in 1982. It was to be one of nearly a dozen albums; Us an Dem (1990) and Belly of de
Beast (1996) are probably the most relevant of them all.
17 A correctional institution for minors, more commonly referred to as a reform
City Limits, a London alternative magazine declared him “Poet of the Year” in both
1983 and 1985. The Dread Affair: Collected Poems (1985) contains a number of
pieces which attack the British legal system, a theme which he picked up on later
during his tenure as Poet in Residence at the Chambers of London with barrister
Michael Mansfield.18 In 1988 he was short-listed for the position of Oxford Professor
of Poetry, losing to the future Nobel Prize winner, Seamus Heaney. In 1990, the same
year he married a theatre administrator, he published the prose work entitled Rasta
Time in Palestine, inspired by a visit to the Palestinian occupied territories in which he
includes poetry and a type of travel log.
Zephaniah’s fourth book of poems, City Psalms, came out in 1992. “Dis Poetry,”
although lengthy, is one of his most celebrated and is both a declaration of intentions
and a vivid explanation of the essence of his work:
Dis Poetry
(from City Psalms)
Dis poetry is like a riddim dat drops
De tongue fires a riddim dat shoots like shots Dis poetry is designed fe rantin
Dance hall style, Big mouth chanting, Dis poetry nar put yu to sleep Preaching follow
Like yu is blind sheep,
Dis poetry is not Party Political
Not designed fe dose who are critical.
Dis poetry is wid me when I gu to me bed It gets into me Dreadlocks
It lingers around me head
Dis poetry goes wid me as I pedal me bike I’ve tried Shakespeare, Respect due dere
18 (1941-). This renowned barrister has represented defendants in some of the most
controversial legal cases in the history of the 20th century. Among his most publicized
clients are the miners who were accused of rioting during the famous 1984 miners’
strike and the Birmingham Six who were finally released in 1991.
But dis is de stuff I like.
Dis poetry is not afraid of going ina book
Still dis poetry need ears fe hear an eyes fe hav a look Dis poetry is Verbal Riddim,
no big words involved An if I hav a problem de riddim gets it solved,
I’ve tried to be more Romantic, it does nu good for me So I tek a Reggae Riddim an
build me poetry,
I could try be more personal But you’ve heard it all before,
Pages of written words not needed Brain has many words in store,
Yu could call dis poetry Dub Ranting De tongue plays a beat
De body starts skanking,
Dis poetry is quick an childish
Dis poetry is fe de wise an foolish, Anybody can do it fe free,
Dis poetry is fe yu an me, Don’t stretch yu imagination
Dis poetry is fe de good of de Nation, Chant,
In de morning I chant
In de night I chant
In de darkness
An under de spotlight, I pass thru University I pass thru Sociology
An den I got a Dread degree In Dreadfull Ghettology.
Dis poetry stays wid me when I run or walk
An when I am talking to meself in poetry I talk, Dis poetry is wid me,
Below me an above,
Dis poetry’s from inside me It goes to yu
Talking Turkeys, a volume of poetry addressed to children, was published two years
later. Compassion, humour and wit are present in all of these poems. Zephaniah, a
fervent vegetarian, encourages his young readers to:
Be nice to yu turkeys dis christmas
Cos turkeys jus wanna have fun Turkeys are cool, turkeys are wicked An every turkey
has a Mum.
Be nice to yu turkeys dis christmas, Don’t eat it, keep it alive,
It could be yu mate and not on yu plate Say, Yo! Turkey, I’m on your side.
This collection had to go into an emergency reprint just six weeks after it appeared in
the bookstores. It was on the best-seller’s list for children’s literature for months,
prompting him to write more poetry for children, despite his belief that there is no such
thing as children’s and adult’s poetry.
The following poems are from Propa Propaganda (1994) and deal with more “adult”
issues. In “White Comedy” Zephaniah cleverly inverts the words “white” and “black”
to call our attention to the derogatory use that we often confer to the latter. The poem
makes a cultural and political statement while doing so through humour:
I waz whitemailed By a white witch, Wid white magic An white lies,
Branded a white sheep I slaved as a whitesmith Near a white spot
Where I suffered whitewater fever. Whitelisted as a white leg
I waz in de white book
As a matter of de white art, It waz like white death.
People called me white jack Some hailed me as white wog, So I joined de white
watch Trained as a white guard Lived off de white economy.
Caught and beaten by de whiteshirts I was condemned to a white mass.
Don’t worry,
I shall be writing to de Black House.
Likewise, in “Terrible World” the poet resorts to humour by parodying Louis
Armstrong’s song “What a Wonderful World” while dealing with a number of very
serious themes like police brutality, gender violence and poverty:
I’ve seen streets of blood Redda dan red
There waz no luv Just bodies dead
And I think to myself What a terrible world.
I’ve seen pimps and priests Well interfused
Denying peace
To the kids they abuse And I think to myself What a terrible world.
The killer who’s the hero The rapist who’s indoors The trade in human cargo And
dead poets on tours I’ve seen friends put in jail For not being rich
And mass graves made From a football pitch.
I’ve seen babies scream Nobody cared
Civilians starve
Whilst troops are prepared And I think to myself What a terrible world
Yes I think to myself What a terrible world.
I do love Louis Armstrong’s work but I thought I should walk the same road and see
things from a different point of view.
Other poems in this collection grimly and openly confront social injustice as is the
case in “The Death of Joy Gardner,” which tells the story of the arrest of an illegal
immigrant who died in front of her son after having been a victim of police brutality
(stanza one of four):
They put a leather belt around her
13 feet of tape and bound her Handcuffs to secure her
And only God knows what else, She’s illegal, so deport her
She died,
Nobody killed her
And she never killed herself. It is our job to make her Return to Jamaica
Said the Alien Deporters Who deported her like me
It was said she had a warning That the officers were calling On that deadly July
morning As her young son watched TV.
Note how the event is told without the use of vernacular speech.
1996 saw the publication of Funky Chickens, a second volume of children’s poetry,
and School’s Out: Poems Not for School, which is directed to a more general
audience while focusing on the importance of education and the way in which
educational institutions can be oppressive and subordinating. The tone of many of
these poems can be deceiving as it is playful and witty, but throughout them
Zephaniah never ceases to challenge those who discriminate against and exploit the
powerless. The following is a segment of “Introductionary Chat”:
Many of the poems in this collection (I have been told)
Are not suitable for young people, Strange
Because young people keep asking me to read dem. I wonder,
Do young people ask me to read dem Because they don’t like dem?
Poems in ‘School’s Out’ should be read out,
Poems in ‘School’s Out’ don’t care what experts say, They have been tried and tested
in the playground, Poems in ‘School’s Out’ should be fun
Saying something, but fun,
There are too many brain boxes
Taking the fun out of poetry,
Too many do gooders telling you what’s good. By now you should overstand I,
Here are poems dat are bad for you, The rejects
My favourites.
Five years went by before Zephaniah was to put together another collection of poems.
Too Black, Too Strong, “addresses the struggles of black Britain more forcefully than
all his previous books,” according to the text on the back cover. The poet’s own
introduction entitled, “What Am I Going on About” is especially interesting, since he
discusses multi-cultural Great Britain, and shares his reflections on identity, and being
Black in this country:
I would never speak for the African-Caribbean community, I just happen to be one of
them, but I want full recognition of how slavery raped, murdered and
us, and I know a few others that do. Africans around the world are still suffering
from slavery today and, one day Britain will have to wake up and face the nightmare
it induced. We are not going away.
In Too Black, Too Strong, the poem that became most famous (or notorious) is
“Bought and Sold.” When it was included in this volume, it did not particularly stand
out in 2001. However, when in 2003 Zephaniah publicly refused to accept the position
of Officer of the Order of British Empire (OBE) award from Queen Elizabeth II, it
became suddenly very relevant. It seemed almost providential, as the main theme of
the poem deals with literary prizes and more specifically with the OBE (see Web site
below for The Guardian article):
Take your prize, now write more, Faster,
Fuck the truth
Now you’re an actor do not fault your benefactor, Write, publish and review,
You look like a dreadlocks Rasta, You look like a ghetto blaster, But you can’t diss
your paymaster And bite the hand that feeds you. […]
(The poem can be read in its entirety at
Zephaniah is such a prolific and versatile writer that the year 2001 witnessed the
appearance of a novel addressed to teenagers, the above-mentioned volume of
poetry, and We Are Britain, a collection of poems written for and about children, a
celebration of cultural diversity in Great Britain. Each of the twelve poems is about a
child living in the United Kingdom and his/her cultural environment. Zephaniah
challenges traditional perceptions of the way children live while pointing out that,
despite their differences, they basically share the same concerns and interests:
His parents feed him rice and peas And fancy looking greens
Sometimes they give him nuts and seeds And various string beans
They also give him channa dhal Tomato soup and pike
But Jaguar just says loud and clear “It’s pizza that I like.”
Bloomsbury recently published Gangsta Rap (2004), the third of his very successful
novels for young people (Face, 1999 and Refugee Boy, 2001), which was short-listed
for the Manchester Book Award. Apart from writing, he spends a large amount of his
time visiting schools, youth clubs and prisons, talking to adolescents who have been
classified like he himself was as a teenager: “uncontrollable, rebellious” and as one of
his teachers put it, “a born failure.”
The case of Jane “Binta” Breeze is perhaps even more poignant, and also
demonstrates the triumph of otherness and resistance in a hostile environment. Born
in 1956 in Hanover, rural Jamaica, she studied theatre at the Jamaican School of
Drama in Kingston. Linton Kwesi Johnson invited her to go to London, where she
became a teacher of Theatre Studies at Brixton College. She has written poetry,
drama, screenplays, and composed several albums of Dub music. Being a woman
and a schizophrenic makes her achievements in the literary and the musical fields
even more valuable. Some of her poems are precisely devoted to what she refers to
as “madness”, and she fights for the rights of people who suffer from mental illness.
o Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah (1958-) is a British-born, secondgeneration
poet, playwright, and performer. He is one of the most recognized popular poets of
the Isles. His work has been placed in a number of categories. However, he is
generally referred to as a “Dub Poet.” Despite/or due to his multi-cultural background
and the fact that he spent his childhood years between Jamaica, his parents’ country,
and Great Britain, in the introduction to one of his most successful collections of
poems entitled Too Black, Too Strong (2001) he clearly states that he understands
himself to be thoroughly British. His poetry manifests his complete lack of anxiety
about declaring his Britishness and his enthusiasm to embrace that identity. o It is this
reality that he sets out to explore through his poetry, and his contemporary,
controversial and accessible means of doing so, that have made him so popular
amongst readers of all races and social classes. Benjamin Zephaniah frequently
collaborates with the British Council and other organizations and is the first to
acknowledge that, thanks to many institutions, he is able to speak his mind, “ranting,
praising, and criticising everything that makes me who I am, but that is what Britain
can do. It’s probably one of the only places that can take an angry, illiterate,
uneducated ex-hustler, rebellious Rastafarian and give him the opportunity to
represent the country.” o Zephaniah, one of ten children, was born in Birmingham,
England, in 1958 to Oswald (a post-office manager) and Valerie (a nurse). He
attended Ward End Hall Comprehensive School and Broadway Comprehensive
School from which he was expelled for vandalism at age thirteen. In and out of trouble
with the police, he was sent a year later to a borstal.1 In his later teens, he began to
establish his particular characteristics as a performer. He had a good memory and
enjoyed performing and being in the limelight. Although he received no formal
university education, he was awarded honorary doctorates from the University of
North London and the University of West England in 1988 and 1999, respectively. o
In the 1970s, Zephaniah became involved in performance poetry, and in 1980 he
published his first collection of poems on paper, Pen Rhythm. From the very
beginning of his career, he defended the purpose of his work. His “mission,” he
claimed in a later interview, was “to popularize poetry – many working-class people in
Britain and worldwide believe that poetry is an art of the middle-class. To redress this,
I make a great effort to perform anywhere on the planet, always try to keep my
publications to a low purchase price and write around issues that concern workingclass people. Very concerned about the idea of a New World Order. Who ordered it?”
1 A correctional institution for minors, more commonly referred to as a ‘reform
o During the 1980s, there was a fusion of poetry and music which was to mark the
second wave of performance poetry in Britain, and Zephaniah’s performances began
to gain relevance on the cultural front. His album Rasta was to be expected then, after
an extensive series of performances in the United Kingdom and on the continent in
1982. It was to be one of nearly a dozen albums; Us an Dem (1990) and Belly of de
Beast (1996) are probably the most relevant of them all. o Dub poetry, just as Dub
music, is based on orality. It emphasizes the spoken word and is accompanied by
reggae rhythm, and thus heavily inspired by the Jamaican music of Bob Marley
(1945-1981).2 Another extremely significant figure of what is also coined
“Performance Poetry” is Linton Kwesi Johnson (1952-, Jamaica),3 considered by
many to be the world’s first reggae poet. He, like his contemporary, Zephaniah,
speaks of the oppression and struggle of Blacks living in the UK through verse and
within the framework of reggae rhythm and the Rastafarian culture, to which he is
perhaps more committed than his fellow Dub poet. Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze (1952-,
Jamaica) is the first woman to write and interpret Dub poetry with works like Ryddim
Ravings (1988) and her more recent The Arrival of Brighteye and Other Poems
(2000). Toronto, Canada has the second largest group of Dub poets, after Jamaica
and England. Lillian Allen, Afua Cooper and Ahdri Zhina are the most outstanding
figures of the genre in this country – all three are women. o In Dub poetry, the
relationship of the poet with his/her audience is essential to the results of the
performance. In fact, it was not until City Psalms (1992) and Propa Propaganda
(1994) that Zephaniah established a reputation for himself on page (although his first
collection of poems, Pen Rhythm was published in 1980, followed by numerous
others). Within this framework, Zephaniah addresses western oppression, white
dominance, racism, police brutality, life in the ghetto, the importance of education (he
has published several volumes of poetry for children and two novels for adolescents,
always with a didactic and political intent), and current social and political events. o
City Limits, a London alternative magazine, declared him “Poet of the Year” in both
1983 and 1985. The Dread Affair: Collected Poems (1985) contains a number of
pieces which attack the British legal system, a theme which he picked up on later
during his tenure as Poet in Residence at the Chambers of London with barrister
Michael Mansfield.4 In 1988 he was short-listed for the position of Oxford Professor of
Poetry, losing to the future Nobel Prize winner, Seamus Heaney. In 1990, the same
year he married a theatre
2 To learn more about this famous singer, go to:
3 He is the second living poet ever to appear in Penguin Books’ Modern Classics
section, while managing to remain just as uncompromising as he was in his first
works. Read more about Kwesi Johnson, who has in recent years given more priority
to the content of his poetry than to its “dub” elements at:
4 (1941-). This renowned barrister has represented defendants in some of the most
controversial legal cases in the history of the 20th century. Among his most publicized
clients are the miners who were accused of rioting during the famous 1984 miners’
strike and the Birmingham Six who were finally released in 1991.
administrator, he published the prose work entitled Rasta Time in Palestine, inspired
by a visit to the Palestinian occupied territories, in which he includes poetry and a
type of travel log. Zephaniah’s fourth book of poems, City Psalms, came out in 1992.
“Dis Poetry” is one of his most celebrated poems, and is both a declaration of
intentions and a vivid explanation of the essence of his work. Talking Turkeys, a
volume of poetry addressed to children, was published two years later. Compassion,
humour and wit are present in all of these poems. This collection had to go into an
emergency reprint just six weeks after it appeared in the bookstores. It was on the
best-seller’s list for children’s literature for months, prompting him to write more poetry
for children, despite his belief that there is no such thing as children’s and adult’s
poetry. Propa Propaganda (1994) deals with more “adult” issues, as is the case of
“The Death of Joy Gardner,” which tells the story of the arrest of an illegal immigrant
who died in front of her son after having been a victim of police brutality. o 1996 saw
the publication of Funky Chickens, a second volume of children’s poetry, and School’s
Out: Poems Not for School, which is directed to a more general audience while
focusing on the importance of education and the way in which educational institutions
can be oppressive and subordinating. The tone of many of these poems can be
deceiving as it is playful and witty, but throughout them Zephaniah never ceases to
challenge those who discriminate against and exploit the powerless. Five years went
by before Zephaniah was to put together another collection of poems. Too Black, Too
Strong “addresses the struggles of black Britain more forcefully than all his previous
books,” according to the text on the back cover. The poet’s own introduction entitled,
“What Am I Going on About” is especially interesting, since he discusses multi-cultural
Great Britain, and shares his reflections on identity, and being Black in this country. o
Zephaniah is such a prolific and versatile writer that the year 2001 witnessed the
appearance of a novel addressed to teenagers, the above-mentioned volume of
poetry, and We Are Britain, a collection of poems written for and about children, a
celebration of cultural diversity in Great Britain. Each of the twelve poems is about a
child living in the United Kingdom and his/her cultural environment. Zephaniah
challenges traditional perceptions of the way children live while pointing out that,
despite their differences, they basically share the same concerns and interests. o
Gangsta Rap (2004) was the third of his very successful novels for young people after
Face (1999) and Refugee Boy (2001). It was short-listed for the Manchester Book
Award. Apart from writing, he spends a large amount of his time visiting schools,
youth clubs and prisons, talking to adolescents who have been classified like he
himself was as a teenager: “uncontrollable, rebellious” and, as one of his teachers put
it, “a born failure.”
Jane “Binta” Breeze, a multi-faceted artist, is considered one of the most significant
poets and performers of contemporary multicultural Britain and, by and large, of the
whole world, for she has performed in most continents. Breeze has received some
important awards: she is an Honorary Creative Writing Fellow at the School of
English, University of Leicester (where she presently lives) and a Member of the
Order of the British Empire. Third World Girl: Selected Poems (2011) contains a
representative anthology of her poetry, which she began to publish in 1983 (with the
volume entitled Answers). Other relevant poetry books are On the Edge of an Island
(1997) and The Arrival of Brighteye and Other Poems (2000), a magnificent
collection. In them, as in the rest of her production, Jane “Binta” Breeze, among other
themes, deals with the problems of immigrants in Britain, gender and race trouble,
and the conflicts of schizophrenia and mental illness in general within a social sphere
which wants to maintain a fantasy of “sanity” and, consequently, rejects otherness.
Read and listen to the poems by the
author that
you will find at to catch a
glimpse of Jane “Binta” Breeze’s powerful lyrical vein.
Judging by their literary and musical output, it seems evident that Benjamin
Zephaniah and Jane “Binta” Breeze have enjoyed success and wide critical
acceptance as exponents of oral poetry. However, there is still a shortage of critical
work on these artists/performers/poets. For the time being, students interested in
researching their work will find resources on the Internet, some of which are listed
below, and can consult more general bibliography on post-colonial literature.
Dis Poetry by Benjamin Zephaniah
Dis Poetry by Benjamin Zephaniah is a two stanza poem with the subject being the
poem itself. It is an art piece describing the connection of this poem with the author.
This poem would probably be more effective if it was read aloud because then it
would be possible to truly experience the voice, rhythm, and accent that the author is
trying to get across to his audience through his unique style of writing. To allow the
reader to experience his message in a holistic manner Zephaniah has chosen to write
with his Jamaican accentuation being visually (and acoustically) in full focus
throughout the poem. The poem is about being able to create literary art without any
restrictions in order for it to be an authentic representation of the author. You can read
the full poem here.
Dis Poetry Analysis
First Stanza
The first stanza of this poem consists of fifteen lines that focus on defining what this
poem means to the author. The spelling used throughout the poem is intended to help
the reader connect to the Jamaican tone this poem is meant to be read with. Line one
introduces not only Zephaniah’s style of speaking but also his culture. Rhythm is
important in all oral presentations of poetry and especially in written poems as it
builds the character of the poem for the reader to experience. Line one mentions that
this poem is like a rhythm, this is significant as the reader is being told that there is
soul, passion, and movement in this poem and one should be ready to experience
it. The second line expresses the fierceness of the message as Zephaniah mentions
that the tongue “fires” a rhythm as is it were gunshots: loud, impactful and powerful.
He continues to explain in lines three and four that this specific poem was “designed”
for communicating the enraging frustrations that he possesses in almost a musical
approach with nothing holding him back. Line five is important because Zephaniah is
expressing that he does not write to mold the minds or opinions of his readers, he
does not intend for his spoken or written poetry to put people to “sleep”. Lines six and
seven further explain his claim by stating that he does not expect people to follow him
like “blind sheep” because his message is not about brainwashing, it is about
empowering a person to experience their life by being present, alert and mindful of
their words and actions. Lines eight and nine clarify that Zephaniah is not trying to
raise political questions or ask people to be critical about political or even personal
views; it is a poem about recognizing oneself and accepting oneself. Lines ten
through thirteen describe the poem being a part of the author and his identity this is
extremely relevant for the reason that Zephaniah is a poet so words, rhythms, and
verses are always on his mind. The lines also imply that this poem heavily portrays
his identity so it is always with him wherever he is. Line thirteen specifically illustrates
that no matter where he goes in life, as he moves forward it will always be a part of
him as it displays his sincere drive to encourage individuals including himself to
embrace their own personal rhythm. The last two lines of the stanza truly deliver
Zephaniah’s vision for this poem and its message. He mentions that he has “tried”
Shakespeare and he respects him for his work that has become an essential part of
education for language arts; however, he prefers his own writing as it has no
boundaries and allows him to be himself freely. These concluding lines depict
Zephaniah’s personality of appreciating well constructed and formally written out work
but still preferring a style of poetry that will allow him to embrace and represent who
he is as an individual with his own culture and identity in relation to that culture. He is
making clear that formal writing is an art form but not one that allows the writer the
independence to create a piece that is distinctively an authentic representation of the
author. Just as the identity of an individual is beyond restrictions their poetry should
be allowed the same requirements.
Second Stanza
The second stanza is made up of thirty-seven lines and is the final stanza of the
poem. Lines sixteen through nineteen express Zephaniah’s idea that poetry is beyond
an official art form with guidelines. He believes that whatever way the poem is written
it should not shy away from being printed especially if it is a written to be more
powerful as a spoken word. This poem is not conventional but that does not mean
that it is not powerful or without a strong message. Every author should have the
permission to express their visions in whatever way they seem fit; for Zephaniah, this
means that this poem should be accepted at face value as “verbal riddim”. Line
twenty goes on to explain why; it is because he feels that trying to be something he is
not as a poet (such as a romantic) would only ruin his work because it would not be
authentic, nor would it give him any form of freedom. Line twenty one continues to
communicate to the reader that Zephaniah took something that he felt he comfortably
identified with (Reggae Rhythm) and constructed a poem that would allow the reader
to experience a small piece of his existence as a poet and a person in general. Lines
twenty-two and twenty-three are clarifying to the reader why he chose to display this
specific part of his identity; it is because he felt that writing a more emotional piece
would not standout to his audience and he wanted to present something that would
be new for his intended audience. Lines twenty-four and twenty-five convey the
message that Zephaniah thought that the idea of creating very personal poem did not
appeal to him since he feels that it would just get lost in a sea of words and poems
that came before him. Line twenty-six relates his poem to Dub Ranting ( a kind of oral
presentation of poetic works) telling the reader that there is more to this poem than
the way it has been written, so much more could be experienced if it was also heard
the way Zephaniah had intended. Lines twenty-eight and twenty-nine communicate
that this poem is something that needs to be experienced by your entire body as you
get trapped in its rhythm. Zephaniah also mentions in the next five lines that you don’t
have to be wise or foolish old or young to enjoy this poem, in fact, this poem is for
anyone and everyone who enjoy being themselves. Lines thirty-three and thirty-four
warn the reader or listener not to read too much into the poem because he is simply
creating it for enjoyment and entertainment. Lines thirty-five through forty one convey
Zephaniah’s strong energy as he illustrates himself chanting day and night through
every circumstance that life throws his way because that is how he celebrates himself
and his identity. Lines forty-two through forty-five disclose that he has found himself
most educated about himself and that is what everyone really should know more than
anything else. Finally the last few lines of the poem conclude the poem on a note of
love as Zephaniah proclaims that this poem is such a big part of him and he is putting
it out in the world with nothing but “luv”.
1 A quick reading of the poem already shows that Zephaniah has cleverly changed
most of the words or phrases which should contain the word “black” into “white”.
Again, as in the previous poem, he’s resorted to defamiliarisation: we expect “black”
and get its opposite. Has he done so solely for the sake of humour?
2 Turn the poem into its “black” counterpart (except for “white lies”) and look up the
meaning of the words and phrases, paying special attention to the very negative
connotations of most of them. Instead, “white”, at least to those who have been
brought up within a European culture, connotes what’s morally or spiritually pure,
stainless, innocent, free from evil. Discuss the meaning and connotations of terms
and phrases such as a white flag, white lies, white magic, a white knight, the white
hope, Whitehall (to refer to the British government) and the White House in
Washington DC –here called the Black House, the poem’s last meaningful joke.
3 After discussing these aspects of English (and Spanish, for that matter), what do
you think the poem says about the connotations embedded in western languages and
cultures? Have you ever stopped to think about this issue? Are you acquainted with
the pressure exerted by American feminist organisations to change some words in the
language which they consider instances of discrimination, such as
mankind (humankind), spokesman (spokesperson), fireman (firefighter), policeman
(police officer)? An interesting site on sexist words in common use
is departments/history/nongenderlang.html.
4 In order to truly appreciate Zephaniah’s wonderful ear for the sounds of the
language, reread the poem aloud and concentrate on the devices he’s used to make
the poem so rhythmic: the repetition of vowel and consonantal sounds and the use of
short lines. You must have also noticed his use of waz, wid, an’ and de. What do you
ascribe it to?
The Death of Joy Gardner by Benjamin Zephaniah is a narrative poem about an
incident that took place in 1993. Joy Gardner was a mature student of Jamaican
descent living in London at the time and was not a legal resident (she was an
undocumented migrant). Her death was caused by police who raided her home under
the motive of detaining her for the purpose of deporting her from the country. Things
took a turn for the worst when the police became aggressive and ended up hurting
her enough to cause her head injuries which resulted in a cardiac arrest and lead to
her death a few days later in the hospital. The police officers involved did not suffer
dire consequences for their actions. Zephaniah uses this poem to express his hurt
and anger, to document how undocumented Joy Gardner was. You can read the full
poem here.
The Death of Joy Gardner Analysis
First Stanza
The first stanza of this poem starts to tell the story of Joy Gardner as she suffered an
assault from police officers in London. This stanza introduces the brutality of the
incident that flows into the other three stanzas. The reader is quickly able to pick up
the accusatory tone that the poem conveys. The first four lines of the poem illustrate
quite a graphic image of a person (the reader is aware of this person being Joy
Gardner due to the title of course) being abused. The imagery of a “leather belt”, “13
feet of tape”, and “handcuffs” paint a picture of imprisonment and confinement; and
the added comment of “And only God knows what else” in line four opens the door for
the reader to imagine much worse. It is obvious that Zephaniah is angry about the
incident and is using the poem as a tool to express his frustration at the lack of
humanity that was found in this case. Lines five and six expose that Zephaniah
blames the government for not being able to protect her for the reason that she did
not reach London illegally, she couldn’t get residency based on some changes to the
law that initially could have given her legal residency due to her mother’s citizenship.
Lines seven through nine satirically express that no one is accepting ownership of the
murder of Joy Gardner; Zephaniah is questioning who is supposed to step up and
take responsibility for the death of this woman. The next four lines display
estrangement and hostility towards the officers that came for Joy through the word
“alien” that is used to describe the “deporters”. Lines fourteen and fifteen turn to the
accusatory tone again as they state that they falsely publicized that she had a
warning and should have expected the sudden attack. The final two lines of the
stanza reveal a chilling point of the incident taking place while her child was present in
the residence. Zephaniah makes this clear to stress how brutal this tragedy was and
continues to be.
Second Stanza
The second stanza dives into the details of how horrific this confrontation truly was.
The first three lines of this stanza express the dominance of the officers over the
venerable figures of “mother and child”. By opening up the stanza with the action of
the officer unplugging the phone Zephaniah is underlining that they cut off Joy from
the rest of the world before they even killed her. Line twenty specifically reminds the
reader that they were not felons or hard criminals; they were mother and son wanting
a home. The next line really allows the reader to imagine how intense it is for a child
to be present at the site and watch his own mother struggle to stay alive and then to
pass out cold. How traumatizing to grow up knowing the officers one is supposed to
respect and turn to for help was the cause of the greatest pain that can be felt: the
loss of a mother. Lines twenty-two through twenty-five express the obvious idea that
this was not right under any condition, so what happened to basic human rights in this
case. Lines twenty-six to twenty-nine communicate Zephaniah’s declaration that she
was discriminated against, that he knows that no place is actually perfect and that Joy
Gardner’s case was not a simple case of a Jamaican who lived abroad either. These
lines convey that he is rationally assessing the information about Joy’s case and
understands that not everything is clear-cut right and wrong but he is still enraged
because basic humanity was missing. Lines thirty to thirty-three convey Zephaniah’s
message that the topic of race and belonging needs to be brought up openly in order
to help things “improve” in our world so that such brutal incidents can hopefully be
Third Stanza
Stanza three is more bold as it tries to awaken the reader’s mind and heart to not only
see but feel the trauma of Joy Gardner’s death. The first four lines of the stanza paint
such a horrific image of Joy “in 13 feet of tape” mockingly stating that she “died
democratically. Zephaniah is trying to allow readers to also see the injustice in her
case and feel the frustration that he feels. He also questions religion in the next few
lines asking what happened to Christianity and the good and the justice the Christians
believe and apply in their lives. He also stresses that Christianity was supposed to
make “Great Britain great”, so why was there an absence of morally and religiously
correct behaviour in the presence of this Jamaican migrant. Zephaniah also mocks
the people who silently let this happen by taunting them and saying that when it
comes to the deportation officers everyone should just pray to God that they don’t
make mistakes on the job because that would cost lives that no one is willing to
defend or stand up for. Lines forty-six to forty-nine convey Zephaniah’s point that
because no one is taking responsibility for what happened and no one received any
consequences, it can easily happen to anyone else, as a result, causing the innocent
public to live in fear of meeting the same fate.
Fourth Stanza
The final stanza of this poem discusses the aftermath of the occurrence of Joy
Gardener’s death. Zephaniah mentions that he sees the public react to the injustice
and people creating opinions of what is right and wrong causing divisions amongst
the people. Lines fifty to fifty-four express how involved the public became in this case
and how strongly they formed their opinions on the happenings of Joy’s death. By
starting the stanza off this way Zephaniah is allowing the reader to experience that
the public did not stay silent as the law did in this specific case of murder. The next
couple lines communicate that people just want justice from the people who are
responsible for instilling and ensuring the application of it in their everyday lives. He
also mentions in lines fifty-nine through sixty-two that so many “poets” have taken it
upon themselves to grieve and cry through their writing, this is important because it
tells the reader that the topic of Joy Gardener’s death was given due respect and
importance in the eyes of the public and writers specifically were choosing to reach
their readers and convey their grief like he himself is doing. Zephaniah concludes the
poem by expressing his amazement how the officers can continue to live life when
they were responsible for taking an innocent one, let alone feel “relief” at the close of
this case.
Postcolonial Issues.
5.6.1. Introduction
“What a devilment a Englan! Dem face war an brave de
But me wonderin how dem gwine stan
Colonizin in reverse” (“Colonization in Reverse” by Louise
Postcolonial literature is, in general terms, a label used to refer to the literature of
writers from cultures colonised by, but not restricted to, the British Empire. Writers like
Salman Rushdie, Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee are three of the most wellknown exponents of this literary tendency. However, there are many relevant and
contemporary poets, playwrights and novelists who could be classified as such.
Indeed, over the last few decades a growing interest in this literature and the
proliferation of writers who could be considered postcolonial has given prominence to
the field of Postcolonial Studies, which, as Deepika Bahri, from the University of
Emory, notes, was likely triggered by the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism
(1978) and later consolidated by Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin’s work entitled The
Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. Terms like
“Commonwealth” and “Third World” are no longer considered appropriate in referring
to literature of former colonies, and the question of what is postcolonial and what is
not is far from being resolved and is the subject of much scholarly debate.
A postcolonial culture is one which has been affected by the imperial process. Writers
who have produced works within this framework would therefore have either been
born, spent a significant number of years in, or have second generation ties with
African countries, Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, India, Malaysia, Malta, New
Zealand, Pakistan, Singapore, the South Pacific Island countries and Sri Lanka. The
Northern Irish and the literature of the United States should presumably also be
included, although in the latter country, its postcolonial nature has not fully been
recognised and is the subject of great contention due to its current position of power
and its neo-colonising role in world politics.
Thus, despite the political incorrectness of the term “Third World,” it seems that for
many scholars, being a developìng country is indeed a criterion, albeit implicit, used
to determine what can be considered “postcolonial.” Canada on the other hand is not
always included in this literary category because of the relatively short period of
struggle it endured before becoming independent.
The term “postcolonial” is clearly used loosely, as little consensus has been reached
regarding its definition. Thus, when studying texts it is essential to bear in mind how
very difficult it is to outline the necessary credentials to be classified as “postcolonial.”
Writers are forever falling from and being added to the list, often to the chagrin of the
writers themselves, and it is not unusual to see how some writers who have, for
example, been considered Canadian, are now referred to as postcolonial. Terry
DeHay points out that some writers classified as such are originally from the abovementioned countries yet have lived in Great Britain for many years, others live in the
colonised country but were born in Great Britain, and some, like Zadie Smith (whose
acclaimed first novel, White Teeth, is a wonderful portrayal of contemporary multicultural London), were neither born nor have lived in the colonised country, yet are
thought by many to write within a postcolonial framework due to the way they focus
on colonising and colonised cultures and how they interact.
Postcolonial scholars and critics often re-examine literature, focusing on the discourse
used by these writers to modify and subvert traditional discourse. One of the best
examples of how this is done can be seen in Coetzee’s Foe, a retelling of Robinson
Crusoe in which the protagonist is a woman castaway. The author confronts
traditional British “Master Literature,” while examining not only colonialism, but issues
of gender and race as well. He shares his fellow writers’ concern for, and focuses on
how the colonising culture distorts and portrays the colonised as inferior people, and
the way in which the discourse of the colonised shapes their identity and can
ultimately be a tool of empowerment.
DeHay points out that many features of postcolonialism overlap with the basic tenets
of postmodernism. According to this critic, they share the following elements:
1. A decentering and historicizing of the subject.
2. An employment of textual strategies in order to subvert the
dominant discourse (irony and parody are commonly used tools).
3. The presence of deconstructive strategies within the text.
4. A questioning of historical certainties while criticizing the notion of
5. A rejection of universals and essentialism.
(You can read the entire article at:
More specifically, Bahri outlines some of the major questions explored by postcolonial
writers: “How did the experience of colonization affect those who were colonized while
also influencing the colonizers? How were colonial powers able to gain control over
so large a portion of the non-Western world? … What were the forms of resistance
against colonial control? How did colonial education and language influence the
culture and identity of the colonized? … What are the emergent forms of postcolonial
identity after the departure of the colonizers? To what extent has decolonization (a
reconstruction free from colonial influence) been possible? … How do gender, race,
and class function in colonial and postcolonial discourse? Are new forms of
imperialism replacing colonization and how?
… Should the writer use a colonial language to reach a wider audience or return to a
native language more relevant to groups in the postcolony?” (Go to Emory
University’s home page for more information on Postcolonial Studies:
The continent that has experienced the largest amount of literary production is Africa,
where major figures such as J. M. Coetzee, Doris Lessing and Nadine Gordimer have
contributed to a universalisation of postcolonial themes through their novels. Similarly,
South Asia has yielded the works of writers such as Michael Ondaatje, Arundhati Roy
and Salman Rushie, which have been translated into many languages and received
worldwide acclaim. The Caribbean, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada,
Singapore and Malaysia can all boast significant contributions to the literary world as
well. All in all, and depending on who is doing the classifying, roughly 200 poets,
novelists, and playwrights can be considered contributors to the postcolonial cause.
It is precisely because of the number of variables involved that it becomes a
challenge to put together a comprehensive overview of postcolonial literature when
length and time limitations must be considered. Consequently, we have chosen to
examine, albeit superficially, the poetry of three of the most relevant figures from the
Caribbean: John Agard, Grace Nichols and Fred D’Aguiar, in the hopes that through
this brief introduction to postcolonialism we will whet your appetite to read further and
explore the abundant manifestations of the voices of those subjugated or subaltern in
colonial empires. Perhaps some of you have studied/are studying the optional
subjects of the fourth year of the “Grado de Estudios Ingleses” “Postcolonial
Literatures in English I” and “Postcolonial Literatures in English II”, in whose case you
may have acquired a sounder basis for the analysis of the phenomenon of
postcolonialism in the English-speaking world from a literary and ideological
5.6.2. Caribbean Verse: John Agard, Grace Nichols and Fred D’Aguiar.
As previously mentioned, postcolonial literature can be broadly classified by regions:
Africa, Australia, Canada, the Caribbean, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia,
South Asia, and the United Kingdom. Africa and the Caribbean are two of the most
prolific, and in recent years both territories have witnessed an extraordinary
development of writers and their works. There are many internationally acclaimed
established poets from the Caribbean region alone. Antigua, the Bahamas, Barbados,
Belize (former British Honduras) Dominica, Haiti, Jamaica, St. Lucia and Trinidad are
just a few of the birthplaces of writers such as Jamaica Kincaid, George Lamming,
Edward “Kamau” Brathwaite, Kwame Dawes, Caryl Phillips, V. S. Naipul, Jean “Binta”
Breeze and Jean Rhys.
Up to the early 19th century, the Guiana region was ruled by the Dutch, the English and the
French. However, the Congress of Vienna (1815) awarded strategically important settlements to
Great Britain which were thus united with other British colonies to form British Guiana in 1831.
Three years later, slavery was abolished. Over the years, significant progress towards selfgovernment was made, and in 1964 Forbes Burnham of the People’s National Congress became
the first prime minister of Guyana, which he declared a “co- operative republic.” During his
mandate, full independence was negotiated and strong ties were established with Cuba and the
Soviet Union.
Guyana became a republic in 1970, although the country’s boundaries with Venezuela were
forever a matter of dispute, since the latter claimed around 60% of Guyanese territory. A new
constitution was drawn up in 1980 under which Burnham became president until his death in
1985. Over the last twenty years, Guyana has gained international support and stability through
economic growth. Perhaps one of the darkest episodes of the country’s recent history took place
in 1978 when more than 900 hundred followers of a religious cult led by Jim Jones committed
suicide collectively in Jonestown. The victims were primarily from the United States, and
unfortunately, due to the massive media coverage that it received, this incident brought an
infamous international fame to the country.
Paula Burnett, in her introduction to The Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse in English, outlines
some of the most relevant characteristics of the literature from this region. She writes that, while
it is an expression of a particular people’s experience – a process of growth through a history of
exploitation and prejudice – it is also international, since the Caribbean experience is being
explored more and more in Europe and North America (and in the Caribbean itself) as an
important cultural manifestation. She notes how significant the geographical location of these
territories is:
The English-speaking Caribbean is uniquely placed, both geographically and historically, at the
meeting points between three continents – Europe, Africa and America – and between three
poetic traditions – the British, the West African and the North American.… The fragmentation of
the Caribbean’s people into island and scattered expatriate communities, while it broadens
perspectives, also makes effective communication essential, but it is not only their own people
that the poets of the Caribbean today are addressing. They are both philosophers of the modern
world, and ambassadors for the South in the North.
The nature of the language used to write this poetry is also a determining feature of its
uniqueness. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the oral tradition – which consisted
of the sung word long before it became spoken poetry – used the vernacular. Later, in the
twentieth century, poets began to explore ways to incorporate different dialects and vernacular
speeches into the English literary tradition. Thus, as Burnett notes in the following words, “The
creative juxtaposition of various tones of voice is a distinctively Caribbean literary device of great
range and subtlety.” Edward “Kamau” Brathwaite made an important point in his The History of
the Voice (1984) when he wrote that language and literary forms have to be shaped to
experience. After all, “the hurricane does not howl in pentameters” (“History, the Caribbean
Writer and X/Self,” 1990: 33). Brathwaite (Barbados, 1930), one of the most influential
playwrights, poets and critics from the Caribbean, is a major proponent of the use of what he
refers to as “nation language”; “the kind of English spoken by the people who were brought to
the Caribbean, not the official English now, but the language of slaves and labourers, the
servants who were brought in.”
It is not unusual for Caribbean poets to refer to their “Nation Language” (as opposed to “patois”,
“dialect” or “Creole”) as a means of examining their heritage and experience. Peter Childs points
out that nineteenth century politics advocated the use of Standard English, “against which other
forms were judged as not just deviant but uncouth, unintelligible and educationally subnormal.”
Such dictates therefore excluded people from “power and influence in terms of class, but also in
terms of ethnic differences of dialect, vocabulary and pronunciation.” For Caribbean writers, this
phenomenon has been especially significant and has made language the basis of cultural
resistance and assertion.
The poets that we are studying in this Unit use language, as many of their fellow writers do, as a
tool of empowerment and as a means of being subversive, while at the same time
deconstructing the English literary canon. The authors of The Empire Writes Back (1989) defend
a notion that is shared by the majority of Caribbean writers: “the crucial function of language as
power demands that post-colonial writing define itself by seizing the language of the centre and
replacing it in a discourse fully adapted to the colonized place.” Brathwaite, in turn, refers to a
“submerged/emerging” culture which draws from the oral tradition and different sound and
rhythm patterns like calypso and reggae, hybridizing it with traditional literature. Thus, as Fred
D’Aguiar observes, this new language stems from the merging of Standard English, regional
terms and accents, and Creole learned at school – a poetry better suited to the hurricane
weather of the Caribbean than that of foggy, drizzly Great Britain. “It may be in English,” says
Brathwaite, “but often it is an English which is like a howl, or a shout or a machine-gun or the
wind or a wave.”
Poet David Dabydeen (Guyana, 1955) defends the use of Creole by black British youths to
empower and redefine their identity, as it expresses the black experience in ways that he argues
Standard English cannot. In his “On not being Milton: nigger talk in England today,” he notes that
“Milton’s ornate highly-structured, Latinate expressions … are still the exemplars of English
civilisation against which the barbaric utterances of black people are judged.” Their speech is
characterised by the incorporation of words from the Caribbean islands, a disregard for past and
future tenses, and by spelling words as they are spoken. The resulting language is more
assertive and forceful. The following poem by John Agard is a perfect example of how this is
“Listen Mr Oxford Don”
Me not no Oxford don
me a simple immigrant
from Clapham Common
I didn’t graduate
I immigrate
But listen Mr Oxford don
I’m a man on de run
and a man on de run
is a dangerous one
I ent have no gun
I ent have no knife
but mugging de Queen’s English
is the story of my life
I dont need no axe
to split / up your syntax
I dont need no hammer
to mash up yu grammar
I warning you Mr Oxford don
I’m a wanted man
and a wanted man
is a dangerous one
Dem accuse me of assault
on de Oxford dictionary /
imagin a concise peaceful man like me /
dem want me serve time
for inciting rhyme to riot
but I tekking it quiet
down here in Clapham Common
I’m not a violent man Mr Oxford don
I only armed with mih human breath but human breath
is a dangerous weapon
So mek dem send one big word after me
I ent serving no jail sentence
I slashing suffix in self-defence
I bashing future wit present tense and if necessary
I making de Queen’s English accessory/to my offence
(from Mangoes and Bullets, 1985)
John Agard (Guyana, 1949) is a performer-poet who blends Calypso with unique sounding
spoken word. In 1977, he moved to England and settled there permanently with his partner,
Grace Nichols. In Mangoes and Bullets, he interviews himself: “What do you miss most about the
Caribbean?” Agard asks (himself). “I miss sweating” he answers.
Over the last thirty years, black British writers with a Caribbean heritage have created a new and
acknowledged voice in Great Britain, and the relation of poetry to the historical moment along
with the discourse which articulates new definitions of identity are studied enthusiastically by
scholars all over the world. Peter Childs highlights the most relevant issues in this dynamic and
relatively new field of studies: the definition of “poetry”; “the relation of oral to written literature;
the (non-)separability of politics and poetry; the ownership and identity of ‘British’ poetry; the
biases of anthologists and the publishing business; and the need to struggle over the ‘English’
language.” Texts, after all, are “weaved by and [weave] the historical discourses that surround
According to Paula Burnett, Guyana was the first Caribbean territory to develop a distinct
national literature. She claims that this is due to the fact that, as a continental country – as
opposed to an island – Guyana’s writers looked inland for inspiration, turning to the forests and
rivers, and the lives of the indigenous to fuel their 243
imagination. Grace Nichols and Fred D’Aguiar
(pronounced Dee-ag-ur) were both born in this country (formerly British Guiana), along with other
prominent fellow poets like John Agard, David Dabydeen and Wilson Harris. Nichols is the most
well-known woman from the Caribbean. Her poetry became popular with readers when her book
i is a long memoried woman was published in 1983. This series of poems drew its material from
Brathwaite’s The Arrivants, however the narrator’s story is told from the perspective of a female
slave. She evokes magic in many of her poems, some of which are highly comical and in, for
example, The Fat Black Woman’s Poems, are aimed at men who try desperately not to succumb
to the Fat Black Woman’s powers. D’Aguiar, on the other hand, is a member of a younger
generation of poets whose first work Mama Dot (1985), published at age twenty-five, drew
considerable critical acclaim and established him as an upcoming voice in literary circles.
Both D’Aguiar and Nichols draw on their early Guyanese childhood experiences and the loss of
innocence, exploring other recurrent themes in Caribbean literature such as the celebration of
survival, the inheritance of place, tongue and tradition, and the alienation from a metropolitan
society, while at the same time re-assessing and searching for new identities. However in the
poetry of these authors many differences can be found as well. Their ties to Guyana, their
gender, their age and the experience of living in the colonising country are just a few variables
that might help to explain how poets born in the same country can interpret their past and
present from what seem to be at times very different perspectives.
Listen Mr. Oxford Don by John Agard
John Agard’s Listen Mr. Oxford Don is a poem which looks at issues of language, ethnicity and
immigration in a subversive and comical style. The poem is composed of nine stanzas of
irregular length, rhyme and rhythm and the poet uses various poetic devices to subtly emphasise
his frustration with the superior attitude of the “Mr Oxford Don” with regards to immigrants like
himself. Since the representatives of the “Queen’s English” condemn foreigners such as himself
for their use of language, Agard’s rebellion will be a verbal one. The poem is written phonetically
to reflect a Caribbean accent, and is best appreciated when read aloud, which you can listen
to here and read here.
Analysis of Listen Mr. Oxford Don
In the first stanza, Agard distinguishes between the two contrasting figures in the poem to make
clear what he is rebelling against. The first is the eponymous Mr. Oxford Don, a fictional
character who serves to represent academia and the dictionary, and the second is the speaker,
who represents an uneducated immigrant. Crucially, the principal difference between the two is
their use of the English language, and this is the poem’s main theme.
I didn’t graduate / I immigrate.
In the above line, Agard uses a half-rhyme in the two
244 verbs to make a clear separation between
those who graduate and those who immigrate, as if implying that they are mutually exclusive.
Subversively, however, Agard himself undermines this by being both an immigrant from Guyana
and a highly-respected poet. Therefore, he undoes the notion that any deviation from the
“Queen’s English” is inferior, showing in fact that the latter is a necessary counterpoint to the
former as it represents an opposition to the voice of colonial oppression.
It is also important to notice the mention of Clapham Common in London, one of the most multicultural cities in the world. The poet thus provides an apt location in which the tension between
these two characters will be played out.
The second stanza begins to build some tension; its repetition creating a rhythm that seems to
mimic the footfalls of the “man on de run”. With this expression together with the word
“dangerous”, the poet is playing on the common notion that speakers of an “incorrect” English
are threatening criminals. However, the expression “on de run” refers more to a state of
instability and change. As an immigrant in the UK, the speaker belongs neither to his native
country nor to his new one, a problem aggravated by language. This evokes the contradictions of
colonialism, as Agard seems to be highlighting how the colonisers would arrive in a foreign
country with its own existing cultural identity, including a language, and attempt to impose a new
culture and language upon the people. The poet is showing how ridiculous it is to expect that
people who already have an identity will adopt a new one easily and without error. Agard
recognises this problem and the frustration it provokes on both sides. His solution is to establish
a new identity as an immigrant, an identity which comprises this mix of cultures and languages.
And since we express ourselves and define our reality through our words, he will establish this
new identity in a language which is English, but including the natural variations which come
about from its expression by a non-native speaker.
Agard will impose this new identity through the words of his poem. He uses violent imagery:
“gun”, “knife”, “axe”, “hammer” in order to violently and effectively establish it. Words are
converted into weapons to emphasise their power and to show that a verbal rebellion is much
more effective and long-lasting than a physical one. In this way, he looks at the ownership of
language, pointing out that it can be used in a number of different ways for a number of different
purposes depending on who is using it.
As well as demonstrating the power of words, Agard also explores their flexibility. The style of
English that the poem is written in, although replete with grammatical and orthographical errors,
is nonetheless understandable. The poet pushes the limits of understanding in order to underline
just how creative and manipulative we can be with words without detracting from their
The poem itself effectively subverts the very issue that it posits by displaying infinitely clever and
subtle manipulations of the language it appears on the surface to incorrectly express. In the
fourth stanza, Agard places physical tools next to 245
language tools: “I don’t need no hammer / to
mash up yu grammar”.
In the sixth stanza, the speaker references his literary rebellion, which is a marked contrast to a
physical one since it is carried out by “a concise peaceful man like me”. He is pointing out how
ridiculous it is to accuse him of “assault on de Oxford dictionary” (while cleverly making a spelling
error) by making comparisons with physical violence. His poetic crimes involve not using
standard English, irregular verse forms and erratic spelling and punctuation. However, Listen Mr.
Oxford Don deliberately breaks the rules in a protest against the use of language as a system to
oppress and control minorities. While the Oxford don would claim that correct use of the English
language is a signifier of education, Agard refutes this with his beautifully crafted poem, which
demonstrates a subversive manipulation and subtle mastery of the flexible and powerful tool of
words. Despite its lack of adherence to a traditional metric pattern, the poem has rhythm and it
implicitly both draws attention to and subverts the traditional stereotype of the immigrant as
uneducated and dangerous.
One of the poem’s most memorable expressions is his claim of inciting “rhyme to riot”, skilfully
undermining the eponymous Mr Oxford Don in a phrase which is both a play on words and a
reminder of the poet’s freedom to use words to protest, rebel and go against the status quo.
This, along with the wonderful “jail sentence” points once more to the dynamic nature of words.
Referring again to the issue of ownership of language, the speaker indicates that he is only
armed with “human breath”, a universal weapon possessed by all.
In this way, with Listen Mr. Oxford Don John Agard democratises language, seeming to say that
the “Queen’s English” is not the exclusive property of the Oxford Don and whatever the
“offence”, it can be an “accessory” for all, regardless of a person’s cultural heritage.
Grace Nichols
Grace Nichols was born in 1950 in Georgetown, Guyana, the fifth of seven children. Her father
was the headmaster of the school she attended and her mother a piano teacher. After
graduating from the University of Guyana with a degree in Communications, she worked as a
journalist and as a freelance writer. After her daughter was born, she moved with poet John
Agard to Sussex, England, where she began to give public readings and write children’s books
about life in Guyana. Her readings prompted the publication of a series of poems entitled i is a
long memoried woman, which chronicles the lives of black women who survived the passage
from Africa to the New World and the Caribbean. In her second poetry collection, The Fat Black
Woman’s Poems (1984), she confronts the western beauty canon, challenging racist and sexist
stereotypes by reminding us in poem after poem that to be beautiful, a woman does not
necessarily have to be thin and European. Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Woman and other poems
(1989) is a collection of thirty new poems, along with
246 others that previously had appeared in
anthologies, which address the immigrant experience. When this volume was published, Nichols
had lived in voluntary exile for twelve years. In a funny, playful tone, the author speaks of love,
sex, African women and contemporary diasporas. Her use of humour may make the poems
appear trivial at first; they are indeed entertaining and a pleasure to read. But an attentive reader
will immediately be able to read subversiveness between the lines.
Nichols has experimented with other literary genres as well. In 1986 she published Whole of a
Morning Sky, her first and so far only adult novel, in which she continues to explore the theme of
migration. The novel follows its female protagonists, Gem and Clara of the Walcott family,
through their migration from rural to urban Guyana. Bonding among Guyanese woman and the
existence of a support network among the female community is perhaps the theme that Nichols
develops most in this narrative. She has also written extensively for children, often editing
collections and publishing in collaboration with John Agard. Her research of Guyanese folktales
led her to self-publish Baby Fish and Other Stories from Village to Rainforest (1983). She
strongly believes that Caribbean children should have access to books about themselves and be
familiar with their heritage. In 2002 she and Agard edited Under the Moon and Under the Sea: A
Collection of Caribbean Poems in which they included some of their own work and other poems
from well-know poets like Benjamin Zephaniah, James Berry and Louise Bennett. The following
is one of Nichols’ children’s poems from this volume:
“My Gran Visits England”
My Gran was a Caribbean lady As Caribbean as could be
She came across to visit us In Shoreham by the sea.
She’d hardly put her suitcase down When she began a digging spree Out in the back garden
To see what she could see
And she found:
That the ground was as groundy That the frogs were as froggy
That the earthworms were as worthy
Then she stood by a rose As a slug passed by her toes And she called to my dad
As she struck pose after pose,
“Boy, come and take my photo – the place cold But
247wherever there’s God’s earth, I’m at home.”
There is an evident didactic purpose in all of Nichols’ children’s literature. Leslyn in London
(1984) deals with its protagonist’s difficult adaptation to life in London and aims at increasing
other children’s sensitivity and understanding towards foreign classmates. The Discovery was
written for primary school students in 1986 to familiarize them with Guyana while introducing
environmental themes.
The poems below have been selected from the three volumes of poetry addressed to adults: i is
a long memoried woman, The Fat Black Woman’s Poems, and Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Woman.
While you are reading them, pay close attention to how the author moves in and out of
vernacular/Creole speech and when. Then, read them once again, this time out loud. The first
poem is in Standard English. Consider why she might have chosen not to use “Nation
“Skin Teeth”
Not every skin-teeth is a smile “Massa”
if you see me smiling when you pass
if you see me bending when you ask
Know that I smile know that I bend only the better
to rise and strike again
(from i is a long memoried woman)
In this poem, the female speaker addresses the slave owner, who could indeed be any exploiter
of human beings. The tone is rebellious and her threat is open and direct. Throughout these
poems there is a building up of strength and resourcefulness. Anguish, despair and anger which
appear throughout the collection are overcome, culminating with the final “Epilogue”, which is a
celebration of language, heritage and identity:
I have crossed an ocean I have lost my tongue from the root of the old one
a new one has sprung
In Vicki Bertrams words, this poem “comprised [Nichols’] regarding the coloniser/colonised
debate,” as the poet has reached the conclusion that “a new language can spring from ‘the root
of the old one’.” It is optimistic; although she has lost her mother tongue, there is room for growth
and a redefining of oneself.
“Thoughts drifting through the fat black woman’s head while having a full bubble bath,”
from The Fat Black Woman, is one of Nichols’ best-known poems. Note how her fat black
woman longs to be able to physically confront her oppressors and the way that she uses her
body to do so:
Steatopygous19 sky
19 The Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition, defines “steatopygia” as “an
excessive development of fat on the buttocks that occurs esp. among women of the Hottentots
and some black peoples.”
The following excerpt from Bahri’s web page will help you to understand the poet’s choice of
vocabulary: “Saarjite Baartman, a young Khosian woman from Southern Africa whose body was
the main attraction at public spectacles in both England and France for over five years, is
perhaps the most infamous case of an African body on display. Baartman, who became known
as the Hottentot Venus, was brought to Europe from Cape Town in 1810 by an English ship's
surgeon who wished to publicly exhibit the woman's steatopygia, her enlarged buttocks. Her
physique … became the object of popular fascination when Baartman was exhibited naked in a
cage at Piccadilly, England. When abolitionists mobilized to put an end Baartman's public
display, she informed them that she participated in the spectacles of her own volition. She even
shared in profits with her exhibitor.
The spectacle of Baartman's body, however, continued even after her death at the age of twentysix. Pseudo-scientists interested in investigating ‘primitive sexuality’ dissected and cast her
genitals in wax. Baartman, as far as we know, was the first person of Khosian-descent to be
dismembered and displayed in this manner. … [Anatomists] concluded that Baartman's
oversized primitive genitalia was physical proof of the African women's ‘primitive sexual appetite.’
Baartman's genitalia continued to be exhibited at La Musée de l'Homme … long after her death.
Steatopygous sea
Steatopygous waves
Steatopygous me
O how I long to place my foot on the head of anthropology
to swig my breasts in the face of history
to scrub my back
with the dogma of theology
to put my soap
in the slimming industry’s profitsome spoke
Steatopygous sky
Steatopygous sea
Steatopygous waves
Steatopygous me
Nichols mocks the vocabulary of official discourse, that of scientists, anthropologists, historians
and theologians while using her body to repudiate them and to break through the barriers of the
western beauty canon. She is enjoying the luxury of a bubble bath – not a quick shower –
treating herself and her body to a leisurely moment of reflection. She envisions her largeness as
something beyond constraints, in communion with nature; the sky, the sea and the waves. The
poem is indeed celebratory, and the irony of her choice of adjectives to describe herself cannot
go unnoticed. The use of the word “steatopygous” is ingenious, as it achieves two things: it
increases the humorous tone of the poem, and is highly allusive, and therefore broadens its
interpretational potential. “Beauty,” the opening poem of this collection, embraces otherness in
the same way: “…Beauty / is a fat black woman / riding the waves / drifting in happy oblivion /
while the sea turns back / to hug her shape.”
This introduction to the history of human displays of people of color demonstrates that cultural
difference and ‘otherness’ were visually observed on the ‘native’ body, whether in live human
exhibitions or in dissected body parts on public display. Both forms of spectacle often served to
promote Western colonial domination by configuring non-white cultures as being in need of
discipline, civilization, and industry” (
“Wherever I Hang,” from Lazy Thoughts of A Lazy Woman, is reminiscent of “My Gran Visits
England,” in a more adult version, since, at the end of the poem, the speaker seems to have
become reconciled with England, although still has
apparently more reservations than “Gran.” It no
doubt expresses many of the feelings that the author has experienced over the years: a yearning
for the past, alienation from a foreign, urban community, and her sadness at leaving “calypso
ways” behind:
I leave me people, me land, me home For reasons, I not too sure
I forsake de sun
And de humming-bird splendour Had big rats in de floorboard
So I pick up me new-world-self
And come, to this place call England At first I feeling like I in dream –
De misty greyness
I touching de walls to see if they real They solid to de seam
And de people pouring from de underground system Like beans
And when I look up to de sky
I see Lord Nelson high – too high to lie
And is so I sending home photos of myself Among de pigeons and de snow
And is so I warding off de cold And is so, little by little
I begin to change my calypso ways Never visiting nobody
Before giving them clear warning And waiting me turn in queue Now, after all this time
I get accustom to de English life But I still miss back-home side To tell you de truth
I don’t know really where I belaang
Yes, divided to de ocean Divided to de bone
Wherever I hang my knickers – that’s my home.
Fred D’Aguiar also combines dialect and Standard English forms in his poetry, and he and
Nichols share many common themes. However, his work often moves beyond the exploration of
the notion of identity, which was one of the most important features of the earlier immigrant
writers. Apart from childhood experiences and his concern for colonial marginalization, history
plays an essential role in his work, and he focuses especially on the slave trade between Africa
and the Americas, economic and political difficulties in postcolonial Guyana and the post- World
War II influx of Caribbeans to Great Britain. He is considered to be a member of the second
generation of Caribbean immigrants, and as such, has incorporated innovative themes and
techniques into the verse of his forerunners.
Unlike Nichols, D’Aguiar was born in London, although at the age of two he moved to Guyana,
his parents’ homeland, to live with his paternal grandparents in Airy Hall, a small town not far
from Georgetown. D’Aguiar spent six years with “Mama Dot” and “Papa T” (nicknamed as such
because of his devotion to Alfred Tennyson), whose household he shared with other family
members from African, Asian and European background – a microcosm of Caribbean
ethnohistory. Then he moved to his maternal grandparents’ home in Georgetown where he lived
for four years. When he was twelve he returned to England to attend secondary school (He
writes: “Like most children of that period I was ‘posted home for a proper upbringing’”). Geoffrey
Hardy, a teacher and one of his earliest influences encouraged him to read and to explore his
own talent. After graduation, he trained as a psychiatric nurse, but his literary interests soon led
him to enrol at the University of Kent, where he got a degree in African and Caribbean studies.
Of his earlier poetry, D’Aguiar says it was “based on my experience. Poems about living in
Deptford, Lewisham and Greenwich in South London. Poems about my black male experience in
those places. Poems about the police. Poems about government policy. Poems about the death
of my grandmother. Poems about my memories of Guyana. The style was loosely stanzaic …
with an instinctive rather than technical knowledge for breaking lines and shaping the poem, or
else free verse in the sense of a body of text arranged to clarify a series of linked thoughts and
feelings” (to read the rest of the interview, go to:
Mama Dot, D’Aguiar’s first volume of poems, won a Poetry Society Recommendation in 1985,
and soon after was awarded the Malcolm X Prize for Poetry. His second volume, Airy Hall, won
the Guyanese national Poetry Award four years later. British Subjects (1993) and Bill of Rights
(1998) have received critical acclaim as well. Although he has also written fiction and drama, he
is primarily recognized as a poet. D’Aguiar has also written four novels: The Longest Memory
(1994) and Feeding the Ghosts (1999) focus on the legacy of slavery, while Dear Future (1996)
chronicles the life of a family that suffers under the reign of a corrupt government. Bethany
Bettany (2003), his most recent novel, is set in present-day Guyana and is about a child who is
abandoned and brutalized by her relatives. Bill of Rights and Bloodlines (2000) are verse novels
or narrative poems – the former recreates the 1979 Jonestown massacre and the latter tells the
epic story of a black slave and her white lover.
Mama Dot is a collection of poems commended for their humour and sense of irony, based on
the composite character of his two grandmothers at Airy Hall and Georgetown. The first part of
the volume consists entirely of Mama Dot poems and is dedicated to the metaphor of the multifaceted Mama Dot. The image of woman as mother and grandmother is central to these pieces,
where his grandmother is, both and at the same time, god-like and familiar, practical and
mythical, a part of his day-to-day existence and a 252
synthesis of his childhood. In “Letter from
Mama Dot,” she represents Guyana herself and her letter to England focuses on the present
economical and political state of the former colony with respect to its colonizers:
Your letters and parcels take longer
And longer to reach us. The authorities
Tamper with them (whoever reads this
And shouldn’t, I hope jumby spit
In dem eye). We are more and more
Like another South American dictatorship,
And less and less a part of the Caribbean.
Now that we import rice (rice that used
To grow wild!), we queue for most things:
Flour, milk, sugar, barley, and fruits
You can’t pick anymore. I join them
At 5 a.m. for 9 o’clock opening time,
People are stabbing one another for a place
And half the queue goes home empty-handed,
With money that means next to nothing.
Everybody fed up in truth; since independence
This country hasn’t stopped stepping back;
And if you leave you lose your birthright.
With all the talk of nationality we still hungry.
Neil has joined the forces against all advice.
He brings home sardines saved from his rations
For our Sunday meal; he wears the best boots
In town. The fair is full of prizes
We threw out in better days and everyone wins
Coconuts. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone,
But it’s worse somehow without you here.
Write! We feast on your letters.
You are a traveller to them.
A West Indian working in England;
A Friday, Tonto, or Punkawallah;
Sponging off the state. Our languages
Remain pidgin, like our dark, third,
Underdeveloped world. I mean, their need
To see our children cow-eyed, pot-bellied,
Grouped or alone in photos and naked,
The light darkened between their thighs.
And charity’s all they give: the cheque,
Once in a blue moon (when guilt’s
A private monsoon), posted to a remote
Part of the planet they can’t pronounce.
They’d like to keep us there.
So when they skin lips to bare teeth
At you, remember it could be a grimace
In another setting: the final sleep
More and more of us meet in our prime,
(Your New Cross fire comes to mind);
who dreams nowadays of peace.
You know England, born there, you live
To die there, roots put down once
And for all. Drop me a line soon,
You know me. Neva see come for see.
In most of the poems in Mama Dot the poet adheres to strictly patterned stanzas. Note how very
different the opening poem of the collection is from the above. D’Aguiar was inspired to write
“Mama Dot” after attending a black writers’ workshop called “The Black Ink.” This group sought
to incorporate African and Caribbean orality into a black British poetic voice, and one of the ways
they did this was through the use of percussion instruments. “Mama Dot” was intended to be
recited accompanied by drum beats:
“Mama Dot”
Born on a Sunday
in the kingdom of Ashante20
Sold on Monday into slavery
Ran away on Tuesday cause she born free
Lost a foot on Wednesday when they catch she
Worked all Thursday till her head grey
Dropped on Friday where they burned she
Freed on Saturday in a new century
Unlike D’Aguiar’s first two volumes of poetry, which were similar in structure and theme, moving
from the Guyanese past to the present immigrant dilemma, British Subjects is firmly rooted in the
Britain of second-generation Caribbean families. Divided into three sections, the introductory
poem of the first recalls Mama Dot without naming her, in “Granny on her Singer Sewing
Machine.” The poet is more flexible with form in British Subjects, allowing shape and content to
complement each other more freely, as can be seen in “The Ballad of the Throwaway
We are the throwaway people
The problem that won’t go away people
The blow you away with our stories people
The things have got to epidemic proportions people
The we have no use for you people
The blood we had to have was tainted people
The loving we did wasn’t safe people
The needles make our arms look like sieves people
The they look terrible at the end people
The tell them s/he died of cancer people
The priests are reluctant to bury people
The buried at the edge of cemeteries people
The keep your grief private people
The world has no love for us people
20 Now present-day Ghana. For nearly four centuries, the Ashanti Confederacy engaged in
slave trade, capturing people from surrounding regions and selling them to European traders.
The Confederacy abolished slavery in 1827.
As can be easily inferred, the poet is openly confrontational here. However, in the context of the
entire collection, the voice of protest is not the only one D’Aguiar wants to be heard, for England
is now his home, and at times the tone of this poetry is celebratory and sentimental. His nine
“Sonnets from Whitley Bay” are sad and sensual, and transmit a genuine feeling of belonging:
I hold up your 501s21 against my waist
To get the measure of you: come back, now, From that big, big city that pulled you away, To this
one main street, coastal town,
With five minute jams and one of most things. I knew between us, me and Whitley Bay,
We couldn’t make you stay. We tried everything:
Flora and fauna, the sea’s light displays. […]
D’Aguiar has lived in the United States since the mid 1990s. He is a teacher and critic as well as
a poet and novelist, and is presently working as a Professor of Creative Writing at the University
of Miami. His most recent collection of poetry is An English Sampler: New and Selected Poems
(2001), which includes poetry from his previous books, with the exception of Bloodlines, along
with a few new poems.
Letter from Mama Dot
The poet is very conscious while writing this poem. The speaker of the poem is obviously a
Caribbean mother who is writing to her son working abroad in England. Her son has gone
abroad due to the unemployment and property in the country.
There is dictatorship in her country even after independence. Due to American influence,
Caribbean identity has been lost gradually. She is worried about her son. She thinks that her
son’s identity might be in crisis. Therefore, she wishes her son to maintain his birthright and
come back home. She finally tells her son to reply the letter but there is no proper transpiration
and communication facility available. It takes a long time for his letter and parcels to reach to his
The Caribbean mother is living a life full of problems and the condition of home has become
worse in the absentia of her son. There is violence. Everywhere is food crisis so that she tells
him to send some foods. In this way, the productivity of the county is going down. There would
be good rice production in the past but now there is no rice. People have to stand in queue for
several hours to get food. They have to eat only salt-fish everyday.
The Caribbean mother writes to her son that their language is becoming pidgin and losing its
purity. Language is a marker of national identity but the identity is threatened through language.
The country is underdeveloped third world country. England is a prosperous country compared
to her native Caribbean country. As she indicates in the poem that her son was born in England,
he has the right to gain British citizenship. But she is worried that her son might lose that right.
She has the sense of loss and feels uncomfortable. If this is so, doesn’t she want him to put
down the roots in British? Of course, she is writing the same thing through her letter to her son.
Finally, she ends her letter expressing ‘Neva see come of see’ in local language that shows the
local identity.
“Mamma Dot”
Mama Dot revolves around a character based on the poet’s grandmother in Guyana, the
challenges of the Guyanese diaspora in the UK, and the Guyanese landscape as sensual
stimulus for artistic growth and expression. The image of Mama Dot is one of vitality and
strength, she is “somebody out here you can touch and verify with the senses…who you can
see, fear, smell and remember,” as D’Aguiar explains in an interview. (Leusmann 18). He gives
this grandmother figure mythic and primordial qualities. Through her, links to the African diaspora
in the Caribbean and Europe are forged. She becomes a goddess-like centre of creation story
and a representative of the African diaspora in the Americas who undertakes an Adamic task of
creating and naming a new society away from, but fused with the memory of, Africa. She
enables him “to write about my memories and imagine those experiences again,” but the further
he delves into this experience, the more that person Mama Dot vanishes: “…after a while I am
not simply dealing with her biography, but extending her into a symbol and metaphor”(Leusmann
In the person of Mama Dot, many experiences are synthesizes, and D’Aguiar employs her image
to move from past to present to future, a future that
257in many cases means migration away from
Guyana as a necessity for a family to survive. The diasporic condition is viewed by Mama Dot in
a pragmatic and affirmative view when she addresses the narrator: “You know England, born
there, you live / To die there, roots put down once / And for all” (D’Aguiar, Mama Dot 21). It has
the effect that the narrator recognizes his position as insider and outsider in the diaspora all at
once, being able to observe the centre not just from the fringes but from its very midst in London.