Use of Fragmentation in the modernist work of Forster, Eliot, and Woolf

montageIn large part, modernist writers responded to the social conditions of modernity which, for a variety of reasons, spelt a serious disconnect with the past; naturally the old has always given way to the new but such transition had never before been perceived as so obtrusive – so fragmented – as it was in the early 20th century.

Not only had scientific advances thrown prior conceptions of physical reality out of the window (for example, the installation of city street lamps had all but eliminated the distinction between night and day) but also philosophers like Nietzsche had undercut traditional notions of an ordered, meaningful metaphysical reality by, for example, eliminating God. If that were not bad enough, psychologists such as Freud and Jung undercut traditional notions of perceived reality with suggestions that it was not human rationality running the show (as had been believed for almost 400 years) but instead an uncontrollable unconscious manifesting either as unruly, repressed personal desires or collective archetypal patterns reflected in myth and dreams.

Hence for purposes of this essay, I define fragmentation as any technique used by modernist writers to address these many fragmented, often seemingly disconnected, strands underlying modern constructions of reality. I suggest that whether or not such techniques are useful depends on the purpose for which the writer chose to use them and whilst we can never know what that purpose was, it is virtually impossible to determine if they were useful except in the limited sense that we as readers get a sense of the turmoil that society must have in some degree felt during this period.

Some modernist writers like EM Forster sought to connect fragmented bits of reality. For example in Howards End, Forster juxtaposed physical manifestations of the old and new; the idyllic countryside (‘untroubled meadows’) is viewed by Mrs Munt from the train on her journey to Howard’s End. She sees it as ‘awakening after a nap of a hundred years’ to such ‘life’ as is conferred by the ‘stench of motor-cars’. But if Mrs Munt was ‘equally indifferent’ to ‘history’ – ‘tragedy’ – the ‘past’ and the ‘future’, Forster was not. He uses that stinky motor-car as a symbol for death and destruction – Charles (with his fit-for purpose ‘gloves and spectacles’) who virtually becomes his car (his father admonishes – your ‘one idea is to get into a motor’) kills Mr Bast, and the paddock is sacrificed for a garage to house the motor, and the motor-car ‘flattens’ a cat. But no matter how often characters urge each other to ‘bridge’ the gap (between what is never made precisely clear) for the most part they seem to fail except perhaps through the marriage of Margaret (old order) and Henry Wilcox (new order) – neither of whom (interestingly) drives a ‘motor’!

But whilst Forster seeks connections, TS Eliot seems to glorify in disconnectedness especially in regards to metaphysical reality; in his poem The Wasteland, there are numerous references to a troubled Christianity – for example in the section entitled A Game of Chess, a reference to the ‘sylvan scene’ (an allusion to the 4th book of Paradise Lost by John Milton where Satan came in the view of Eden) serves as an appropriate forecast for the immediately following allusion to Philomela who was violently raped by her sister’s husband, Tiresias (who may be equated with Satan). The message would appear to be that all hell is breaking loose in creation.

Most certainly as each different section of The Wasteland shifts to the next without transition (or sometimes without even obvious links), we get a sense of how frustrated and lost that society must have felt when all around them they got the same message. But unlike Howards End, The Wasteland seems to suggest connections cannot be made. In What the Thunder Said, we learn from the poem’s speaker that he will be unable to ‘set my lands in order” because ‘London bridge is falling down’ – and that the ‘fragments’ have been ‘shored against my ruins’.

Whilst both Forster and Eliot draw attention to the problems inherent in making connections a fragmented reality, Virginia Woolf seems to suggest everything will sort itself out in the natural course of time. For example, in her autobiographical writings, Moments of Being, she states that she personally takes ‘great delight’ in pulling together her own ‘severed parts’ by dredging through memories (perceptions of time) – much in the same way that many of her fictional characters appear to do.

For example, in Mrs Dalloway, the ebb and tide of Clarissa’s day are a jumble of events, places, and people bound together solely by (often disparate and fragmented) memories spanning more than thirty years. Quite how reflections on the ‘most exquisite moment of her whole life’ when she had been kissed by Sally Seton are connected with her own ‘faults, jealousies, vanities, and suspicions’ (conjured up by Lady Bruton having not asked her to lunch) is left to the reader’s (vivid) imagination. But the way they are presented as a given – we sense that Woolf was never in doubt that they were connected. In Orlando, the only continuity between the hero turned heroine after a four-hundred year romp through history is his/her memories and face. Indeed, memory or personal perceptions of reality, are again here the binding thread – ‘running her needle in and out – up and down – hither and thither’ in a way that clock ‘time’ (which makes ‘animals and vegetables bloom with amazing punctuality’) can never do.

In summary, if we evaluate the usefulness of techniques of fragmentation for modernist writers in terms of whether their readers get some sense of the frustration that 20th century western society must have felt in the wake of changes on so many levels of ‘reality’, I suggest that at least in regards to Forster, Eliot, and Woolf it has been useful albiet in different ways; Forster suggesting that connections can be made between the fragments and provides clues how this might be achieved. Eliot suggests that such connections are inconcievalbe and we had better just make do with what we have with the fragmented ‘ruins’. Finally Woolf suggests that connections are not only are possible (through our perceptions of reality) as we grow older (and presumably wiser) these connections will be naturally be made.

New Criticism – its usefulness & drawbacks


The New Critics established that ‘literature requires and deserves responsible reading and readable response’, but the New Criticism was eventually rejected as being ‘intellectually naïve and methodologically fruitless’ (John Willingham). So what the usefulness and drawbacks, if any, of New Criticism?

New Criticism emphasizes close reading of a text – treating it is a self-contained, self-referential aesthetic object – ‘art for ‘art’s sake’ – rather than a work fitting into some larger cultural or other context.

Such an approach is somewhat useful for at the end of the day all that we do have is the text and the larger context into which it may fit remains at best interpretation or conjecture. In this regard, New Criticism can never be ‘methodologically fruitless’; words do speak for themselves and if we are to understand what it being said it helps to focus on what is (as opposed to what is not) on the page.

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There is also significant room to argue as does Willingham, that New Criticism is intellectually naïve in the sense that for although we can never know for certain how the greater context in which it was written influences the text, we can be certain that it has indeed influenced it and if we ignore that influence then we have lost a great deal from our aesthetic experience.

For example in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, a close reading of the text in 2.5 where Ferdinand expounds ‘Rhubarb, O for rhubarb (t)o purge this choler’ may well leave us none the wiser. Certainly a 21st century reader realises that Ferdinand is angry (for ‘choler’ has retained that link) but the connection between ‘rhubarb’ (the New Critics were keen to focus on ambiguity and indeed tried to show the unity beneath the text’s apparent disunity) and ‘purging’ that ‘choler’ is lost. Without context, it is almost impossible to fit rhubarb together with anger (unless one suggests they are both related to the colour red). Indeed we may even be tempted to see this ambiguity or disunity as a flaw in the work; many 21st century readers tend to judge a work harshly when we are forced stop reading and think.

However if we know that in the early 17th century rhubarb was considered to medicinally ‘purge’ or cure ‘choler’, then a meaningful connection is made. But unless we understand that Ferdinand’s ‘choler’ is not a fleeting state of mind, but his temperament, we cannot realise the full import of this connection. We can rectify this however if, for example, we examine this text as might a proponent of New Historicism – in conjunction with a text contemporary of the period. For example in John Harrington’s 1607 Poems on Temperament, we discover that a choleric like Ferdinand is not only angry, but he is ‘oft malicious’ and ‘all violent and fierce’. Not only that but ‘on little cause to anger’ a choleric like Ferdinand is ‘great inclin’d’. This understanding of the nature of his temperament presents a different picture that if we were to believe him simply angry on a certain day.

Further, if we accept that a text is an ‘aesthetic object’ (however TS Eliot and others might have us define that) then if we are to take anything valuable away from our ‘aesthetic experience’, we need to focus on what it tells us about ourselves. For example, if we were to examine this text as might a proponent of feminist literary criticism, we might focus more on the suggestion that Ferdinand intends to ‘purge’ his temper on his sister (whom in a few lines earlier was pronounced ‘a notorious strumpet’) because she has married not to his liking even whilst he appears to have no problem that his brother, the Cardinal, keeps as his mistress, another man’s wife. Where is the equality in this asks the feminist? How can the Duchess express herself (as she clearly is attempting to do by marrying of her own choice) if politically she has not the power to do so? Now the focus is no longer just on a choleric brother having a 17th century rant but on the sexual politics of the period and how they might still inform our own sexual politics in the 21st century.

If we were to examine this text as might a proponent of psychological literary criticism then we would focus not on Ferdinand’s ‘choler’ and its manifestations but instead on its potential causes – perhaps the problem is sexual libido gone wrong – this is not an unreasonable suggestion what with all the knives and their phallic symbolism (in 3.2 Ferdinand sneaks into his sister’s boudoir and surprises her with a knife) and Ferdinand’s protestations in 4.1 about the effect on him of her body (‘Damn her, That body of hers’). Thus instead of Rhubarb to ‘purge’ Ferdinand’s ‘choler’, a 21st century psychotherapist might prescribe psychoanalysis or even a modern day substitute for ‘rhubarb’ like prosaic. What might this tell us about how much scientific advancements have changed 21st century society as opposed to that of 17th century?

In summary, if we wish to come to grips with a text then as suggested by the New Critics we should focus on the text. To do otherwise make it all to easy miss not only what has been written but also to add things that have not. In this sense the approach of the New Critics cannot be methodologically fruitless. It can however be intellectually naïve to believe that one can fully appreciate a text (or indeed any piece of art) if one does not understand it in the context in which it was created. It is likewise intellectually naïve not to attempt to draw conclusions about what that text or piece of art might tell us about ourselves – for example how society has or has not changed over time.

Representations of Gender in Modernist Literature – Virginia Woolf & TS Eliot

A Room of Ones OneModernism has been seen as a response to widespread concern that the traditional ways of representing the world distort actual experience. In The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism, Pericles Lewis suggests that modernist literature attempts to respond to this ‘crisis of representation’ by creating literature that is radically different. Attitudes toward gender relations were shifting during this period and thus I suggest that modernist writers like Virginia Woolf and TS Eliot seized upon using radically different representations of gender in order to explore their own take on the gender-related concerns of modernity.

Woolf wrote extensively regarding women’s access to a level playing field – be it in marriage or the learned professions. In her essay A Room of One’s Own, she muses suggestively on the fate of William Shakespeare’s imagined sister, Judith, who, although as talented as her brother met with a very different results purely because of her sex. After running away from home to pursue her writerly goals, poor Judith would have been denied the same opportunities to display her talents as her brother would have enjoyed – and hence finally broken by the societal ‘ideas and prejudices’ that blighted her life, after committing suicide and instead of being enshrined as would be her brother, lay buried at ‘some crossroads’ where the ‘omnibuses now stop outside Elephant and Castle’.

In her novel, To The Lighthouse, Woolf evoked images of her own parents to demonstrate the inequalities of the sexes in marriage. Whilst Mr Ramsey (so gruff that he excited in his children such ‘extremes of emotion’ that they fanaticised ‘gashing a hole in his breast’ with any handy sharp object) strutted about pondering great things such as the philosopher David Hume, ‘enormously fat’ and ‘stuck in a bog’, his long-suffering wife, Mrs Ramsey (adored by her numerous children), charitably knitted stockings for the Lighthouse keeper’s son (with a ‘tuberculosis hip’). But whilst Mr Ramsey lived a long, literary life littered with accolades, Mrs Ramsey died young having burned herself out in the service to others (Mr Ramsey was especially needy).

In another novel, Orlando, Woolf evoked representations of the androgynous Tiresias who as punishment for affronting the goddess Hera, was forced to experience life as both a man and a woman. Whilst as a man, the character Orlando lived and loved in unfettered freedom, eventually being appointed ambassador to Constantinople where between long, luxurious lunches, he was ‘kept busy’ with the ‘wax and seals’ and ‘various coloured ribbons’ of officialdom. However upon becoming a woman, Orlando was ‘forced to consider her position’ and with the ‘coil of skirts about her legs’ concluded her life now revolved solely around preservation of her chastity – that ‘jewel’ and ‘centre-piece’ – laying at the foundation of womanhood.

Tracy Hargreaves (Androgyny in Modern Literature) has suggested that for a broad range of writers, the androgyne has signalled both cultural regeneration and degeneration – a disruption in ‘normative’ gendered identities which can be seen as being ‘divine or reviled’. But whilst Woolf takes the position that such disruption would be divine, Eliot seems to suggest that as women become more like men, society suffers.

Certainly this is the picture he presents in his poem, The Waste Land when in the section entitled The Fire Sermon, the ‘bored and tired’ typist returns home from work ‘at teatime’ and ‘lays out food in tins’ before coupling indifferently with her equally uninspiring ‘small house agent’s clerk’. As is well known, androgynous beings cannot reproduce and impotency is an important theme of The Waste Land – much of its symbolism suggestive of the myth of the Fisher King whose damaged sexuality was the cause of his kingdom being infertile and drought-stricken (the poem invokes this from the beginning commenceing with ‘April is the cruellest month, breeding’).

In his notes accompanying The Fire Sermon, Eliot states that Tiresias was the most ‘important personage’ in the poem, ‘uniting all the rest’. After witnessing the grim love-making of the typist and clerk, the speaker (presumably still Tiresias), making an allusion to Oliver Goldsmith’s poem When Lovely Woman Stoops to Folly), looks wistfully back in time to the 16th century when a woman ‘knew’ her place as a woman (after illicit promiscuity, she could only hide her shame and die) rather than lackadaisically turning on her ‘gramophone’ as did the ‘bored and tired’ typist, saying ‘Well now that’s done’ and ‘I’m glad its over’ as perhaps might a man. Such reversals of gender can only spell trouble – for with the departure of normative gendered identities all hope of cultural regeneration is now lost (keeping in mind that Tiresias could prophesize the future) and our own civilisation is now destined to fall away as did Carthage – ‘burning burning burning burning’.

The changing fortunes of the ‘author’, ‘reader’, and ‘text’ in English literary criticism

barthes_graphThe interpretation of the relationship between conceptualizations of either author/reader vis a vis their engagement with a literary text and the relative significance of all three have grown increasingly complex and attenuated. It is my view that although such distinctions are of intellectual interest, their only practical benefit being to highlight new and novel parameters through which authors and readers may frame and express their engagement.

During the English reformation Sidney (Defence of Poesy) and Spenser (The Fairie Queen) announced that the purpose of poetry was both to ‘delight’ and ‘teach’. This was to be achieved through mimesis, the process of imitating (with a view to perfecting) nature. Arguably both the author and reader are equal partners in this process – the responsibility for delighting and teaching rests with the (real live) author and responsibility to being delighted and taught rests with a (real live) reader.

In the 18th century, when critics began scrutinising and commenting on various texts, the author arguably began to loose significance in favour of the reader/critic. By the end of the 19th century with poet-turned-critic Matthew Arnold, who espoused an objective criticism of poetry (proper subject matter = proper execution of authorial duties) the focus had shifted almost exclusively to the text leaving the significance of both author and reader in serious question. In the beginning of the 20th century, New Criticism (based on the ideas expressed by TS Eliot in his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent) picked up this theme of text as good or bad and declared that a text was a self-referential aesthetic object – with authorial intent irrelevant and the role of the reader reduced to determining how the text slotted in (or not) with a historical line of ‘great’ texts.

In the mid 20th century with the advent of the Structuralists, the focus was on identifying similarities and differences amongst texts with a view to finding patterns (theme, design, symbology) common to all texts; in this regard the text remained of primary importance with the author and reader carrying little or no significance.

When the Post- Structuralists pronounced that as Nietzsche has declared there were ‘no facts only interpretations’, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault announced the ‘death of the author’ along with the corresponding ‘birth of the reader’. With this neither ‘author’ nor the ‘reader’ are real, live persons as had previously been understood but a ‘function’ for wielding the (dangerous) political power inherent in words.

With all meaning resting firmly now in the hands of the ‘reader’, other critical theories come into their own – looking for ‘meaning’ outside the text in many different places – for example, in gender politics (feminist and/or gay-lesbian criticism), in culturally determined divisions of society such as class (Marxist criticsm), or in cultural norms, beliefs, and practices (Cultural Materialsm and New Historicism). But by the time the Postmodernists come on board at the end of the 20th century, meaning has become so relational and provisional that it – as well as the authors and readers who would try to pin it down – all but (happily) disappears.

In summary, whether any of these many distinctions from the time Spenser and Sidney to the Postmodernists change the way readers and authors actually engage with their texts is questionable and unless rigorous scientific study is undertaken (to my knowledge this has not been done by any of the critical theorists) we will never know for certain. Hence I suggest that in in the 21st century when an author sits down to write a text he is pretty much still focused on delighting and teaching (or at least delighting should he wish his text to be picked up by mainstream publishing) and when choosing texts to read, readers will quickly put down anything that fails to either delight and/or teach and hence the question of his/her role vis a vis the author and/or text quickly becomes irrelevant. However at least should a reader choose to engage with a text, these critical theories will provide him/her with new and novel ways to frame and express his engagement.

Freedom and Power in English Renaissance Revenge Tragedy

UnknownAccording to Patrick Cheney, ‘(r)enaissance tragedy tells how a freedom-seeking individual is oppressed, always to annihilation by authorities in power, whether represented by a corrupt government or by the angry gods – often by both’. I suggest that this is a dangerous over generalization at least in regards to revenge tragedies, which are a dominant theme in renaissance tragedy (Pollard, 58). Not only does it fail to recognise there is no single definition of tragedy for the whole of this tumultuous fifty-odd year period, but it also fails to recognise the various types of power mongers presented in the plays as well as the different types of freedom sought by the individuals oppressed by them.

For example, the ‘authorities in power’ (however defined) are most decidedly not always corrupt and at least with regards to the sub-genre of domestic revenge tragedy such as Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling, there are often no governments (corrupt or not) unless one accepts the view that a household is equivalent to a government in the sense of ‘everyman’s house is his castle’ and his ‘family’, a ‘private commonwealth’ (Richardson, 18-19).

In and of itself, this is not an unreasonable view. Hadfield (30) advises that in English tragedy, the fate of the ruling monarch has always been linked to the nation-state in the sense that when the monarch fails to act in the best interests of his subjects, everyone suffers and Richardson (20) argues that this applies likewise for the (male) head of a household and its residents; early modern communities the misbehaviour of a single member of a household tainted the reputation of the whole. This would certainly seem to be the case with The Changeling when after his daughter, Beatrice, has confessed her crimes and perished, Vermandero laments as how his family name and personal honour are comprised (‘Oh, my name is entered now in that (notorious) record,’ V,iii,180). Beatrice’s bereaved husband, Alsemero, however would seem to be less concerned with such damage because once ‘(t) guilty hit, that innocence is quit,’ (V iii 186). In The Duchess of Malfi, although the entire household suffers as the result of the ‘sins’ of the widowed Duchess at the end of the day all taint on the family name (quite possibly because by that time the ‘sin’s committed are no longer solely those of the Duchess) is purged leaving ‘no more fame’ than a ‘print in the snow’ when said snow ‘ever melts’ as ‘soon as the sun shines’ (V v 109 – 115).

But even if one accepts that the household is equivalent to the nation-state, at least in The Changeling it is difficult to conclude that, as head of household/government, Vermandero is ‘corrupt’ in the sense of being depraved or evil (OED II 4) or even perverted from uprightness and fidelity in the discharge of duty (OED II 5); he may be too forceful in his insistence that Beatrice marry as he pleases (‘I’ll want (my) will else’, I 1 12) for our modern tastes, but certainly this does not make him evil or failing in his duty as a early modern father. Likewise, although Alsemero might be faulted for falling in love with a betrothed woman (I i 1-12); but he makes little, if any, effort to win her and hence I cannot consider him to be depraved or evil or even to have failed uprightness or fidelity to discharge his duty; it is neither by his hand nor direction that his wife, Beatrice, dies. However in The Duchess of Malfi there is room to argue that Duke Ferdinand, as head of the household qua government is corrupt. Most certainly at times he borders on depravity and his elder brother, the Cardinal of Aragon, says as much: ‘(w)hy do you make yourself (s)o wild a tempest?’ (II v 17-18). Yet one corrupt head of household/government does not an overgeneralization like Mr Cheney’s support and besides, let us not forget that until the very end of Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, the King of Spain demonstrates his continuing loyalty to Hieronomo, the tragic protagonist, when for example, in Act 3, scene xii, he refuses to entertain the wily Lorenzo’s suggestion that Hieronimo is too ‘helplessly distract’ to properly do his job and should resign and also that in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, there is neither government nor household to be corrupt.

There is however a god. But despite Faustus’ protestations that He is ‘fierce’ (13, 108), this god is protrayed not so much angry but as business-like, concerned with enforcing the terms of a valid contract freely consented to by both parties. Indeed Cheney’s statement regarding ‘angry gods’ would seem better suited to the classical pagan pantheon depicted in The Spanish Tragedy (presented in the first act by the ghost of Don Andrea recounting his journey through the pagan underworld of the Greeks) than to the New Testament Christian God of Doctor Faustus, complete with hellish devils, heavenly angels, and frequent calls in the name of ‘Christ my Saviour’ for repentance (7, 78-80). Let us also remember that in both The Duchess of Malfi and The Changeling to the extent that any god is mentioned, Divinity plays a very insignificant role.

Perhaps the biggest fault with Mr Cheney’s sweeping assertion is that although it is qualified as pertaining only to ‘freedom-seeking’ individuals, Mr Cheney neglects to define ‘freedom’. This is problematic because over that fifty-odd year period of Renaissance Tragedy, these plays incorporate a mix and match of many different notions of freedom ranging from that of Roman Stoicism ( choice of personal response limited to conformance with cosmic laws ( ‘Logos’), (Macintyre, 101) to that of the grandeur of the renaissance pursuit of ‘self-chosen goals’. Not only that but with these various definitions of freedom come different consequences for the failure to judiciously utilise it; indeed I suggest that the notion of freedom has evolved to ‘self-chosen goals’, we have reached a complete end to ‘angry gods’. By the time of the English Renaissance, tragic protagonists like Shakespeare’s Hamlet (is it ‘nobler’ to ‘suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, than to ‘take arms’ against one’s ‘troubles’ and ‘oppose them’? (3.1, 57-61), no longer struggle against fate and/or supernatural powers (i.e. ‘angry gods’), but instead with the overwhelming responsibility of shaping their own destinies (Dupré, 125).

It is widely agreed that after Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy the form of tragedy favoured by English Renaissance playwrights was drawn heavily from the revenge plays of Seneca, Roman philosopher and playwright. Hence it is only reasonable that in English Renaissance tragedies, there would be some evidence of Seneca’s Stoicism, one of the basic tenets of which is that every man must act ‘true to himself’ to make his own life journey and although he may be aided by others, at the end of the day he must assume responsibility for himself and to the extent that requires going against the authorities in power then so be it. (Asmis, 224).

This certainly seems to be the case with Hieronomo. Witness his agonies (‘this way or that way?’, III, xii, 16) before finally deciding he has no alternative but to seek revenge for the death of his son, Horatio. Further, although Hieronomo’s choices appear narrowly constrained to his ‘duty’ within a defined cosmos (‘Logos’), where ‘neither gods nor men be just to me’ (III 5 10-13) in the true Roman Stoic sense, it is important to note that even in this we find a mix and match of philosophies regarding freedom; for despite Seneca’s own use of revenge in his tragedies (perhaps as a backlash against the limitations of Stoic impassivity), Roman stoicism would have counselled against revenge for if a man is unable to remain calm in the face of disaster, he cannot be trusted to properly navigate his life journey (MacIntyre, 102)

As compared to Hieronomo’s Stoicism, Doctor Faustus takes a wider, more modern view of freedom; his perceived range of choices are more in line with the grandeur of the renaissance pursuit of ‘self-chosen goals’ when he follows his wildest fancies, the ‘metaphysics of magicians’ and the ‘heavenly’ books of necromancy ( I 49-50). Also while the consequences of Heironomo’s decisions appear to lie firmly in the hands of those pagan gods (the ghost of Don Andrea chooses to ‘lead Hieronomo where Orpheus plays, adding (s)weet pleasure to eternal days’ (IV v 23-24), the responsibility for the consequences of Faustus’ decisions are considered by him to be shared by himself and the Devil (‘(n)o Faustus, curse thy self’ and not god, but the devil (‘curse, Lucifer’), (13, 102-103).

Like Faustus, the Duchess of Malfi pursues her ‘self-chosen’ goals as she ‘winked’ and ‘chose a husband’ of her own liking (I i 340) and although the consequences of her action is execution at the hands of her brother’s henchman, she does not appear to repent for having by her own choice shaped her destiny any more than did Faustus – ‘I am the Duchess of Malfi still’ (4.2 134) – and indeed she demonstrates more calm and bravery in the face of death )’(t)his cord should terrify you? Not a whit’ (4.2, 206 – 207) than Faustus who in his final moments momentarily thrashes about looking for someone else to blame (‘(c)ursed by the parents that engendered me’). Similarly the tragic protagonists of The Changeling, Beatrice and Deflores pursue their own goals – ‘I shall want (my will) if you do’(I i 213) and ‘I’ll have my will’ (I i 230) respectively. Although by the end of the play Beatrice exhibits token remorse for her behaviour (‘Forgive me, Alsemero, all forgive! ‘Tis time to die, when ‘tis a shame to live’, V iii 1178-179), Deflores exhibits none whatsoever when he wields his penknife.

If in his sweeping statement Mr Cheney has neglected to define ‘freedom’, he equally has neglected to define what he means by ‘tragedy.’ Although for Chaucer tragedy was a little ‘ditty’ about a time of prosperity ending in wretchedness, by early Elizabethan times, tragedy was commercially (if not idealistically) defined in line with Marlowe’s Tamburlaine and Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy – ‘tragical’ in the sense that it usually involved love and sexual desire gone wrong (Pincombe, 5-6, 11). Interestingly, according to Pincombe (12-13), many of these tragedies could equally be labelled as ‘heroic romance’ (romantic elements including a wandering hero, exploits of war and love, and the gratification of wish-fulfilling fantasy), leaving the defining terms of tragedy even more enigmatic. Love and sexual desire gone wrong most definitely underpins The Changeling; if Beatrice had not fancied Alsemero, there would have been no story. But love and sexual desire does not figure into Dr Faustus (his coupling with the incubus, Helen of Troy aside) and although lies behind the inciting incident – the death of Heironomo’s son, Horatio – it does not impact the way in which Heironomo takes his ‘tragic’ decision. Although the ‘sins’ of the Duchess of Malfi did revolved around love and sexual desire, I suggest that they cannot be said of have gone wrong except perhaps in the eyes of her designing brothers; indeed Chaucer’s definition of prosperity ending in wretchedness might equally apply, again underlining the difficulty of pinning down the defining terms of English Renaissance ‘tragedy’.

In summary, Mr Cheney’s statement regarding ‘(r)enaissance tragedy telling how a freedom-seeking individual is oppressed, always to annihilation by authorities in power, whether represented by a corrupt government or by the angry gods, is a sweeping over generalisation, dangerously failing to account for the variety of themes and plots combining under banner of ‘tragedy’ as well as different notions of ‘freedom’ represented. Often enough gods or governments are neither present nor materially significant to the plays’ denouement and indeed even when gods are represented they are not always ‘angry’ any more than the governments are always corrupt.

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Bibliography

Marlowe, Christopher. Doctor Faustus (based on the A-Text). London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2014.

Middleton, Thomas and William Rowley. The Changeling. London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2013.

Kyd, Thomas. The Spanish Tragedy. Manchester: Manchester Univeristy Press, 2002.

Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi and Other Plays. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2009.

Asmis, Elizabeth. ‘Seneca’s Originality’, (224-238). The Cambridge Companion to Seneca, ed. Shadi Bartsch and Alessandro Schiesaro. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015 (online).

Dupré, Louis. Passage to Modernity – As Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Hadfield, Andrew. ‘Tragedy and the nation state’, (30-43). The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy, ed. Emma Smith and Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. A Short History of Ehtics. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2002.

Pincombe, Mike. ‘English Renaissance tragedy: theories and antecedents’, (3-16). The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy, ed. Emma Smith and Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Pollard, Tanya. ‘Tragedy and revenge’, (58-72). The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy, ed. Emma Smith and Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Richardson, Catherine. ‘Tragedy, family and household’, (17-29). The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy, ed. Emma Smith and Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Moments of Being: the Importance of Time and Memory in the Writings of Virginia Woolf

Moments of BeingAccording to Joseph Frank, ‘(t)ime is no longer felt as an objective, causal progression with clearly marked out differences between periods: now it has become a continuum in which distinctions between past and present are wiped out.’ Most certainly that is more often than not the case in the writings of Virginia Woolf where I suggest that the more prosaic concepts of time and memory so lamented by Mr Frank have been manipulated in order to reflect Woolf’s own experience.

For Woolf, time was not always experienced as objective (in the OED (A 3 b) sense of ‘distinct from the subject or ‘independent of the mind’); she noted in her memoirs that it is only when one is thinking of the past, ‘seeing through the surface to the depths’, that one is ‘living most fully in the present’. For her this is because the ‘present when backed by the past is a thousand times deeper’(Moments, 108).

In one sense, by this Woolf seems to suggest that time functions only as the result of memory. In Orlando, it is only through memory (running ‘her needle in an out, up and down, hither and thither’, Orlando, 48) that the jumble of (1) years (the life of its hero/heroine spans multiple centuries) and (2) seasons (‘at one moment’ it is ‘a summer’s day’ and the next, ‘all was winter and blackness again’, Orlando, 35), are bound together. Likewise for Clarissa in Mrs Dalloway, the narrative’s jumble of events, people, and places are bound with the present through memories spanning more than thirty years. For Septimus however, memory is so strong as to blot out the present to such an extent that suicide becomes his only option (Dalloway, 127).

In another sense, Woolf seems to suggest that memory can be manipulated in order to alter one’s experience of time. For her, memory is a continuum into which she can ‘dip’ at will (Memories,99). In To the Lighthouse (133), Lily Briscoe ‘dipped’ into her memories to ‘re-fashion’ the image of her former acquaintance, Charles Tansley. She was so successful in her task that it ‘stayed in the mind almost like a work of art’. This dipping into memory also proves useful for purging bits of the past that impinge, unpleasantly, on the present; in her memoirs, Woolf comments that she wrote To the Lighthouse very quickly and ‘when it was written’, she ‘ceased to be obsessed by my mother’, no longer ‘hear(ing) her voice ‘or ‘see (ing) her’ (Memories, 93). In To the Lighthouse (72), gliding ‘like a ghost’ Mrs Ramsey likewise revisits her experience of a house in which she had ‘been so very, very cold twenty years ago’. As the result not only does that ‘particular day’ become ‘very still and beautiful’, but she also manages to disconnect from Carrie, the house’s owner (‘she did not know this Carrie’) who is currently building a new billiard room (much to Mrs Ramsey’s apparent dislike). Sometimes however ‘memory’ and ‘reality’ are not so easily severed as when Orlando, watching the samphire gatherers ‘hanging half-way down the cliff’, realises that ‘like some derisive ghost’ scampering within her, ‘Shasha the lost, Sasha the memory’ has shown herself to remain ‘surprisingly’ real (Orlando, 97).

For Woolf, time was not always experienced as a continuum (with distinctions between past and present wiped out). Indeed for her some remembered moments (‘in the nursery, the road to the beach’) could be ‘more real than the present’ (Moments, 80). As the narrator in Orlando (59) points out, although it is ‘Time’ that makes ‘animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality’, time has ‘no such simple effect upon the mind of man’.

Woolf suggests that as the result of this inconsistency, some moments of time will be remembered whilst others are forgotten. She gives an example; although she remembers yesterday’s walk through countryside with startling detail (‘the willows’ were ‘all plumy and soft green and purple against the blue’), she has ‘already forgotten what Leonard and I talked about at lunch, and at tea’ (Memories, 83).

She concludes that this is because of a distinction between that which she calls (1) ‘non-being’(moments during which we fail to live consciously) and (2)‘being’ (moments which make a ‘dint’ because of some powerful emotion attached to them, Memories, 83-84). Again from her own experience she provides an example: she was fighting with her brother, Thoby, on the lawn outside their summer home at St Ives when just as she raised her fist to hit him she felt ‘why hurt another person?’ This immediately gave her such a ‘feeling of hopeless sadness’ and ‘powerlessness’ that she ‘slunk off alone’, feeling ‘horribly depressed’.

While most of the examples of moments of ‘being’ from Woolf’s own experience are the result of negative emotions, this need not always be the case. Most certainly it was not for Clarissa in Mrs Dalloway (29-31. It is through the ‘echo of her old emotion’, that the moment of being kissed by Sally Seton(‘the most exquisite moment of her whole life’)will last a lifetime.

Woolf suggests that the difference between experiencing a moment of ‘being’ as either negative or positive is down to the one’s ability to find ‘reason’ in the experience (Memories, 85). She gives the example of looking at a flower bed and suddenly thinking that this ‘is the whole’ and that this would ‘likely be very useful to me later’. Such realisations support a theory of ‘self’, the making of personal identity, put forth by the philosopher David Hume (thoughts of whom of whom as ‘enormously fat’ and ‘stuck in a bog’, Mr Ramsey conjured up to entertain himself, Lighthouse, 54).

According to Hume, the only thing of which we can ever be certain is that we perceive an unbroken stream of subjective images and ideas and hence our notion of ‘self’ can be nothing more than a fiction; the mind’s way to join disparate events together as a continuum. As the result, the ‘self’ is always subject to change. In her memoirs, Woolf seems to suggest that she subscribes to Hume’s view noting that ‘it would be interesting’ to compare and contrast ‘the two people’ (‘I now’ and ‘I then’) in order to understand how much the past is ‘affected by the present moment’ (Memories, 87). As she grows older she finds she has ‘greater power through reason to provide an explanation’ for her moments of being, hence it is now a ‘great delight to put the severed parts together’ (Memories, 85). Most certainly Clarissa Dalloway accomplishes some ‘self-making’ in this way. As she sits at her dressing-table pursing her lips, she finds ‘her self’ when with ‘some effort, some call on her to be her self’, she ‘drew the parts together, the ‘different’, ‘incompatible’ parts – all the ‘faults, jealousies, vanities, suspicions (like Lady Bruton failing to ask her to lunch that day)into the ‘one woman’, that ‘meeting point’, which she knows herself to be (Dalloway, 31-32). Likewise we are told that although ‘he’ has become a ‘she’, Orlando has maintained her/his ‘identity’ not only because his/her face remained ‘practically the same’ but also, and perhaps more importantly, because her/his ‘memory’ – ‘all the events of her past life’ – remains the same. (Orlando, 83).

It would seem that it is not just one’s own experiences that create ‘self’ but also the impressions (real or imagined) of others. This is most certainly the case with Clarissa Dalloway who is prone to also define herself by what others think of her; ‘her servants like her’ and she ‘helped young people, who were grateful to her’ – but ‘what would he (her old lover, Peter Walsh) think’? (Dalloway, 31-32). It is also the case with Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse who, after collecting ‘her impressions of the Rayles’, concludes that instead of really ‘knowing’ them, she has only ‘made up’ a ‘series of scenes’ about them and worse, that ‘not a word of it was true’ (Lighthouse, 142).

Indeed, under Hume’s ‘radical scepticism’, we can not be certain there exists the thing which we call the mind (much less time) because these perceptions have no size or figure and hence cannot be located in space (McIntyre, 182-185). This certainly seems to be the case with Mrs Ramsey in To the Lighthouse for if she is not conscious of something, then it simply does not exist – it seems ‘extraordinary’ to think that someone had ‘been capable of going on living all these years’ when she ‘had not thought of them more than once all that time’,(Lighthouse, (72).

For Woolf, time may or may not always have been experienced as a causal progression (with clearly marked out differences between periods), but it was always thus portrayed in her writings in keeping with contemporary narrative theory. I suggest that in his sweeping statement, Mr Frank misses the important distinction between (1) ‘narrative’, or the representation of events, (2) ‘story’, which is an event or sequence of events, (i.e. the action), and (3) ‘narrative discourse’, the events as actually represented. Whilst ‘narrative discourse’ is free to go in any temporal direction, ‘narrative’ by definition ‘entails movement through time’ both externally (words on the page) or internally (duration of an event), in the sense of beginning, middle, and end. It is only (3) story (like action) that can progress(causally) forward in time (Abbott, 16-19).

Woolf clearly demonstrates her understanding of narrative theory when, for example, in the segment of To the Lighthouse entitled Time Passes, time tells its own story; except for that beam from the Lighthouse entering the rooms ‘for a moment’ (Lighthouse, 113), everything changes in causal, temporal sequence: not only does the house literally fall apart (‘swallows nested in the drawing-room’ and ‘the plaster fell in shovelfuls’) but Prue Ramsey marries and dies whilst Andrew Ramsey is killed in the war that begins and ends with this segment. In another example, Mrs Ramsey predicted at the beginning of To the Lighthouse that her son James would remember that day of thwarted, teased promises of a trip to the lighthouse. Eleven years later, when at the end of the novel the trip to the lighthouse with is finally made, not only has James’ memory caused him to not want to go but also to hate his father for forcing him (Lighthouse, 138).

In conclusion, although Joseph Frank mourns that time is no longer felt an objective, causal progression but instead as a continuum without distinction between past and present, I would suggest that at least regarding the writings of Virginia Woolf this is because Mr Frank’s concept of time is not in keeping with how it is actually experienced. As the narrator in Orlando points out, although nature proceeds with prosaic punctuality, the effect of time on our minds does not. Woolf suggests that this incongruity results in some moments being infused with emotional reponse and hence not only carefully scrutinized but also long-remembered whilst other moments are quickly disgarded and forgotten.

This certainly sums up my own personal experience of time and memory and as we can deduce from her memoirs, it would seem to sum up those of Virginia Woolf as well. Further, it is our careful scrutinization of these moments of ‘being’ that, at least according to philosopher David Hume, contributes to the formation of our all important sense of ‘self’.

That Woolf, an innovator desirous of ‘pinning down the fleeting and evanescent’ (Spalding, 7), would write in the same way as as she experiences the world, makes perfect sense. In regards to Mr Frank’s lamentations that time is no longer felt as a causal progression with clearly marked out differences between periods, I would direct him to a closer reading of contemporary narrative theory.

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Bibliography

Woolf, Virgina. Mrs Dalloway. Oxford: Oxford Univeristy Press, 2009.

Woolf, Virgina. Orlando.Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Abbot, H. Porter. The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

McIntyre, Jane L. ‘Hume and the Problem of Personal Identity, (177-208). The Cambridge Companion to Hume, ed. Dave Fate Norton and Jacqueline Taylor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009 (online).

Spalding, Frances (ed.). Virginia Woolf, Paper Darts. London: Collins & Brown, 1991.

Woolf, Virginia. Moments of Being, Autobiographical Writings. ed. Jeanne Schulkind, London: Pimlico, 2002.

Only Connect: The tension of passion and prose in the writing of EM Forster

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According to Colmer (92), the phrase ‘only connect’, the epigraph to Howards End, immediately establishes the master theme as one of achieving harmony. Indeed the importance of bridging tensions across racial, class, and geopolitical barriers is a recurring theme in Forster’s work.

However I suggest that Forster does not always succeed (or perhaps did not wish to succeed) in bridging these tensions. This essay investigates how and why this might be the case in regards to resolving the tension between ‘prose’ and ‘passion’ in five major characters from Howards End and A Room with A View (both novels themselves connected by reference to the English art critic and author, John Ruskin).

Our first encounter with ‘prose’ and ‘passion’ comes shortly after Margaret Schlegel, a liberal intellectual, receives her first kiss from her chalk and cheese fiancé, Henry Wilcox, a conservative businessman. When Margaret finds that ‘the incident displeased her’ because ‘no tenderness had ensued’, she resolves to help Henry bridge the desired gap (HE, 169).

Although the word ‘passion’ is used twenty-three times in Howards End, it is not defined. However given the lack of physical passion in Margaret’s relationship as well as her musings about ‘half-monks’ and ‘half-beasts’ (HE 169), Henry’s ‘soul’ and the ‘whole of her sermon’ (HE 170), I suggest that the passion in question is more spiritual than physical. Although the word ‘passion’ occurs sixteen times in A Room with A View, it is likewise not defined. But given that yet again, there is little physical passion displayed in Lucy’s relationships (her first kiss – RV, 101 – apparently being as much a failure as Margaret’s), I am presuming that for sake of comparison that the passion in A Room with A View is likewise more spiritual than physical although perhaps not quite in the same way or to the same degree as in Howards End. For purposes of this essay, spirituality is presumed to be un-associated with traditional religions, for as Colmer (91) explains, Forster celebrated in all his novels a ‘spiritual aristocracy’ of the ‘sensitive, the considerate and the plucky’, the members of which ‘are to be found in all nations and classes’ and who have a ‘secret understanding between them when they meet.’Unknown

Colmer (90) also notes that the first Mrs Henry Wilcox definitely qualifies as a member of this spiritual aristocracy. I suggest that Margaret might then also qualify given that she was the first Mrs Wilcox’s ‘spiritual heir’ (HE, 90) but that for Mr Henry Wilcox, the businessman who was not ‘spiritually’ as ‘honest’ as Margaret, there would seem little hope, at least not on his own.

I also suggest that although Leonard Bast in Howards End was ‘a born adventurer’(HE, 108) and hence plucky, there was likewise little hope for him because he was ‘poor’ (HE 41). Stone (36), makes clear that Forster was convinced that only the well-off can attend to spiritual concerns. Indeed the narrator of Howards End reiterates this: ‘this story’ deals only with ‘gentlefolk’ (or those obliged to pretend they are gentlefolk) because ‘the very poor’ are ‘unthinkable’ and can ‘only be approached by the statistician or the poet.’ (HE 41).

Although Lucy Honeychurch in A Room with View might initially have been ‘in a state of spiritual starvation’ (RV,5) the narrator assures us that because of her music the ‘passion was there’, even though it ‘could not be easily labelled’ (RV, 28). Lucy continues to struggle with articulating her passion until Mr Emerson, George’s father, reveals that ‘passion does not blind’ (RV 183). With this she finally gets in touch with her passion and by the end of the novel when she and her new husband, George, commence their life together, the narrator assures us that ‘passion’ was ‘requited’ and ‘love attained.’

This brings us to the second half of the ‘prose’ / ‘passion’ equation.

Although in Howards End the word ‘prose’ is used eight times, it is not defined. However given Margaret’s obvious interest in literature perhaps we may justifiably take ‘prose’ to mean at least in part, ‘a composition or passage in prose’ as opposed to poetry (OED A 2 b). In A Room with a View, the word ‘prose’ is used only once and that is in regards to Ruskin who is a common factor for both novels being invoked seven times in Howards End and four times in A Room with a View. Hence I suggest it is not unreasonable to associate ‘prose’ with that of Ruskin. According to Hoy (221), in both these novels Forster tried to do for modern England what Ruskin had tried to do for Victorian England – to redeem her from the repressive forces that threatened to destroy her spirituality through retreat into an idealised view of the classical world, which valued not only high art but also a quality of mind characterized by disinterested contemplation. In other words, truth rises above the rumble and grumble of the everyday material world and hence only detached intellectuals are able to find it.

Most certainly Leonard Bast believed this to be the case; he felt that ‘if he kept on with Ruskin’ not only was he ‘being done good to’, but that he ‘would one day push his head out of the grey waters and see the universe’ (HE, 45). But Bast fails in his quest, killed by a ‘shower’ of the very books he believed would redeem him (HE, 295). Perhaps this was because as Colmer (102) points out, Ruskin not only promoted intellectually fuelled classicism but also ‘preached the gospel of work to invest the new forces of industrialism with value’. Interestingly this would seem compatible with yet another definition of ‘prose’ – that which is ‘plain, simple, or matter-of-fact’ (OED A 1 b) for as I understand it, with Ruskin came serious questions whether definitions of ‘culture’ could include the plain, simple, matter-of-fact rumble and grumble of everyday life or whether it could now only exist above and beyond. Hence for purposes of this essay, I posit that the message of Ruskin’s prose in both Howards End and A Room with a View is that to be valuable, intellectualism must be put to good use through the gospel of work (the word ‘work’ being used an amazing eighty-five times in the former and one hundred eighteen times in the later).

Although it was ‘work (that) Bast wants’ (HE, 206), I suggest it might not have been the type of work that Ruskin had in mind. Colmer (102) suggests that unlike Ruskin who believed that work must not be reduced to mechanics but instead be intrinsically linked with the enjoyment of that which it produced, Forster could see ‘work’ only in terms of counting houses and because Bast was a clerk, as he himself acknowledged, ‘there’s nothing’ he is ‘good enough to do’ (HE, 206).

Although Henry Wilcox may not have strove to be an intellectual as did Bast, he virtually embodies the gospel of work – he and those like him are ‘(s)ane, sound Englishmen! Building up empires’ (HE, 215). As readers we are reminded no fewer than five times that Henry Wilcox is a man of business and by definition this means he is engaged in ‘serious employment’ (OED II 9 a). However if Ruskin requires the marriage of intellectualism and valuable work, this would seem not enough for Henry for he had neither ‘fine feelings’ or ‘deep insight’ (HE, 187); he was a very ‘practical fellow’ indeed and hence ‘more tolerant’ than ‘intellectuals’ (HE, 133).

Likewise it is not enough for Margaret. However much she may talk about work (for example lecturing her brother, Tibby, regarding work as the cure for his empty life (HE, 100)), Margaret remains a secure member of the leisured middle class. According to Colmer (102) this is one explanation why Margaret was attracted to Henry Wilcox; he ‘embodies the importance of work’ which Margaret appreciated but, despite her extension of the gospel of work to women (HE, 100), she failed to take it up personally.

Even if Margaret was not able to ‘connect’ on her own (i.e. by failing to take up ‘serious employment’ she had not personally embraced the entirety of Ruskin’s prose), I suggest that she ‘connected’ through marriage. I suggest that similarly it was through her marriage to Henry that the first Mrs Wilcox connected her ‘passion’ with the ‘prose’ for however spiritual she might have been, she possessed no prose of her own – she was neither an intellectual nor engaged in ‘serious employment’, her ‘idea of business’ being ‘why do people who have enough money try to get more money?” (HE, 82).

In regards to Henry, although Margaret concludes that ‘he had refused to connect’ (HE, 301), I would aruge that he has done. Although he had once refused to give Howards End (arguably itself symbolic of ‘passion’ with its mysterious ‘pigs’ teeth stuck in the trunk’ of the ‘finest wych-elm in Hertfordshire’ (HE, 65)) to Margaret as requested by the first Mrs Wilcox on her death bed, in the final paragraphs of the novel he gives Howards End to his new wife ‘absolutely’ (HE 310). Although he might not have accomplished the ‘connection’ on his own, he was able to do so through marriage.

Like Leonard Bast, Lucy Honeychurch in A Room with a View is addicted to her Ruskin. When she first arrives in Florence, she is reluctant to consider what might be beautiful without guidance from him (RV, 19). But as she got into her own stride at Santé Croce, she dropped her pretence to intellectualism and was soon advising Mr Emerson that his son, George, ‘wanted employment’ to get over what would appear to be his existential angst (RV, 26). Whether her rhetoric regarding employment matters, I remain uncertain for unlike in Howards End, the thrust of Lucy’s ‘prose’ was neither the (1) intellectualism inspired by Ruskin (although she did experience her inciting events in Italy) nor (2) the gospel of work. I suggest that Lucy was faced with the other definition of ‘prose’ – that which is ‘plain, simple, or matter-of-fact’ (OED A 1 b). Indeed Colmer (44) suggests that the conflict confronting Lucy was that between naturalness and conventionality and I suggest that in breaking off her engagement to Cecil Vyse and eloping with George, the man she loved, she bridged the tension between her ‘passion’ and ‘prose’, albiet perhaps a different ‘prose’ than that bridged by the characters of Howards End.

In summary, Forster does not always succeed (or perhaps did not wish to succeed) in bridging the tension between the (1) ‘passion’ or the spiritual side of man with the (2) ‘prose’ or more rational, material side. With Leonard Bast, I suggest that he not only failed but that he wished to fail in order to emphasize that blind intellectuallism will never win the day and besides, Bast was never to be admitted to the ranks of the spiritual aristocracy because he was poor. With both Margaret and Henry, the connection is made but not on an individual basis for each lacked an essential ingredient in the the ‘prose’ / ‘passion’ equation. Likewise although the first Mrs Wilcox possessed ‘passion’ (in the sense of belonging to the spiritual aristocracy), without her husband she failed to possess ‘prose’ and the connection could only again be made as the result of marriage. Similarly Lucy Honeychurch was neither an intellectual nor an adherent to the gospel of work however her remit was somewhat different; the prose she was meant to achieve was to put aside the pretence of convention in favour of a ‘plain, simple, and matter-of-fact’ approach to life that allowed her to follow the dictates of her own heart. Lucy demonstrated her success in bridging the ‘prose’ and the ‘passion’ when she refused to marry the man society had chosen for her in favour of the choice of her own.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Forster, EM. Howards End. New York: The Modern Library (1999): (HE).

Forster, EM. A Room with a View. New York: Penguin Books (2000): (RV).

Colmer, John. E.M. Forster, the personal voice. London: Routedge & Kegan Paul. (1975).

Eagles, Stuart. After Ruskin: The Social and Political Legacies of a Victorian Prophet, 1870-1920. Oxford Scholarship Online (2011).

Hoy, Pat. C. ‘The Narrow, Rich Staircase in Forster’s Howards End’, Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 32, no. 2/3 Summer-Autumn, (1985) pp. 221-235.

Stone, Wilfred. The Cave and the Mountain: A Study of E.M. Forster. Stanford: Stanford University Press (1966).

If a rose is a rose then why isn’t an Author an author?

imagesRose is a rose is a rose is a rose’.

This sentence was written by Gertrude Stein as part of her 1913 poem, Sacred Emily and, when queried as to what it meant, Stein replied that although once a poet could use the name of a thing and the thing really was there, now poets call on these same words only to find they are nothing but worn-out literary phrases. Stein was keen to point out that although she was quite aware that in daily life no one goes about saying ‘…is a…is a….is a’, nonetheless it was her opinion that with this sentence, the rose was red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.

What is an author?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary an author is both (1) a ‘writer of a book or other work’ (OED I 1 a) and (2) a ‘creator’ in the sense of giving rise to something (OED II 4 d). Neither definition suggests that an ‘author’ is one who gives meaning however much some might cherish that thought. Stein appears to be suggesting that the meaning of her most famous sentence speaks for itself – not because of anything that she as its author has done – but rather because at the end of the day, a rose really is a rose. As Jennifer Ashton (582) notes, for Stein poetry is ‘a vocabulary entirely based on the noun’; because it is the job of a noun to name something, it should not be a leap of faith to presume that when a noun is invoked it is intended to mean that for which it is its job to name.

Naturally it is not that simple and Stein went on to question the relationship between author, text, and meaning. At least two other thinkers, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, have also weighed in on the subject. Whilst many commentators focus on Barthes and Foucault, I suggest that it is Stein who offers the more comprehensive and enduring elucidation with her ideas concerning the operation of Zeitgeist (or a reasonable facsimile thereof). Not only that but, according to Curnett (4), the poetry and fiction written by Stein is perfect for examining issues of authorial intent because her work is so complex that it defies decoding in ordinary ways. By relinquishing any attempt to exercise ‘authority’ over her words, Stein did what no other author has had the courage to do (Curnutt, 5-6).

After TS Eliot dismissed ‘the importance of authorial intent’ in the 1950’s, the question of ‘what is an author’ has come under increasing scrutiny in the sense of ‘authorial intent’ as an interpretive heuristic (Curnett, 5). The question heats up when, with his 1967 essay, Death of the Author, Roland Barthes eliminates not only (1) ‘authorial intent’ but also (2) the ‘Author’.[1]

Barthes argued that inherent within any text is a multitude of ‘indiscernible’ voices and that the ‘Author’ is nothing more than a shaman or bard who, as in days of old, channels these voices whilst taking no authority or ownership over them. Hence Barthes suggested that rather than allowing authority and ownership to reside with the Author, we instead must transfer them to the reader. The apparent reason that someone must be assigned authority and ownership over words and their meaning is that in the capitalistic ideology underlying much of Western society, ownership equals power (Butler, 25-26).

This idea of words as power is taken up by Michel Foucault when he suggests that knowledge and power are joined by discourse – a set of interlocking and mutually supporting statements, ideas, and concepts (Butler, 45). According to Foucault, we are created through discourse, or the sum of the knowledge we accumulate. Worse, discourse is used to exclude and control – to obtain and retain power (Butler, 45). Society’s power holders – scientists, politicians, the media, and even our parents – decide what we’re told and thus ‘communicate’ us into being. Is it thus any wonder that in his 1969 essay, What is an Author?, Foucault’s opening parry is ‘what difference does it make who is speaking’? Likewise, is it any wonder that Foucault suggests that authors have no God-given message for which readers should be waiting and that it is imperative to realise that an ‘author’ is simply a function (albeit with a culturally accepted pedigree) by which someone – or something – wields enormous (and dangerous) political power?

According to Bennett & Royle (23), these essays by Barthes and Foucault must be considered in their cultural and historical context – as ‘providing a simplified but forceful articulation of a variety of intellectual positions that merged in the 1960’s, in France and elsewhere’. Is it any wonder that these two essays are held to have spelt the ‘death’ of the ‘author’ (with or without the corresponding ‘birth’ of the ‘reader’) given that the most pressing postmodern ethical argument concerns the relationship between discourse and power (Butler, 44)? If knowledge and power are, indeed, joined by discourse then in the spirit of the postmodern is it not better to locate that knowledge and power where it is most effectively controlled – i.e. in readers? Is it not better to take back our Cartesian ‘selves’ as the giver of ‘meaning’ – the pride of the Enlightenment – rather than allowing our ‘selves’ to be controlled by ‘meaning’ (Butler, 50)?

For Barthes and Foucault, texts constructed by a reader have the political advantage of doing away with a dangerous author viewed as, he or she necessarily must be, the bourgeois, capitalist, owner and marketer of his or her ‘meaning’ (Butler, 23). Indeed some have suggested that in keeping with the postmodern thought emerging at this time, the pursuit of textual uncertainties (including the work of Barthes and Foucault) was reactionary against a ‘manufactured consensus of the established political order’ (Butler, 24).

Whilst I am not suggesting that the work of Barthes and Foucault has not been valuable in expanding our understanding of the relationship between author, text, and meaning, I am suggesting that their work was at least as much politically motivated as it was academically motivated and should be viewed as such. Bennet and Royle (23) have suggested that Barthes’ essay was not as ‘systematic’ and ‘rigorous’ as it might have been and despite having admitted it would be unrealistic to assume that ‘the fictive would operate in an absolutely free state’, Foucault was unwilling to entertain parameters by which it might operate other than in regards to power relations (Walker, 552). I believe it telling that however much Barthes and Foucault railed about the connection between ownership and the ‘meaning’ of a given text, they were both unwilling to abandon the notion that – somehow – somewhere – meaning and ownership exists.

Like Foucault and Barthes, in her 1929 essay, Composition as Explanation, Gertrude Stein suggests it is wrong to focus on a finished work and extrapolate about its author (or vice versa). But unlike Foucault and Barthes, Stein does not feel the need to do away with the author (or convert him or her into a theoretical function). Instead she simply states that which I suggest is not only logical but fairly obvious – an author is not the same thing that he or she has ‘made’ (24). Stein goes further by positing that (1) nothing is ever really ‘made’ but instead only ‘seen and that (2) this ‘seeing’ (i.e. the making of meaning) is never accomplished by individuals but by successive generations based on ‘how everybody is doing everything’.

Bassoff (77) links Stein’s argument to the findings of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in that there does appear to exist a formal relationship between societal structures and their art and that such relationship lies at the base of their ‘social reality’. As Stein (24) notes in her essay, every period differs from any other period ‘not in the way life is but in the way life is conducted’ (emphasis added). Bassoff (77) suggests that by this, Stein means that each society will see various things (including texts) as a ‘rework’ of their own conditions. Bassoff (78) likens Stein’s argument to that made by Jacques Derrida suggesting that the meaning of a text is constantly being produced or developed in the sense that there is always ‘something to be added afterwards.”

Whether this ‘reworking’ constitutes ‘Zeitgeist’ – the ‘spirit or genius that marks the thought or feeling of a period or age’ (OED, n), I am in no position to suggest. What I will suggest, however, is in her essay, Stein posits that it is neither the ‘author’, in the OED sense as writer or creator, nor the reader (or any group of readers) that gives meaning to text. Instead, meaning is and will continue to be given by whatever it is that lies at the base of that generational ‘reworking’. I further suggest that this view is more (1) comprehensive (in the – OED adj, 1a – sense of larger in scope) and (2) enduring (in the OED adj – sense of lasting) than that of either Foucault or Barthes.

As Bennet and Royle (23) point out, rather than solving the problem of interpretative authority, Barthes has simply transferred it to the reader whilst for all intents and purposes, Foucault has transferred it to a theoretically constructed function (Walker, 551). Stein has done neither. Her argument allows for ‘real life’ readers and authors to continue as they always have been presumed to been operating in regards to text and meaning whilst also acknowledging that (1) such meaning is made and (2) will change over time. As Bennet and Royle (23) point out, the essays of Barthes and Foucault must be ‘seen’ in ‘cultural context’. By contrast, Stein’s essay ‘is’ cultural context. As Stein (27) herself writes, ‘As I have said in the beginning, there is the long history of how everyone ever acted or has felt and that nothing inside in them in them in all of them makes it connectedly different. By this I mean all this.’

‘Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose’.

In replying to the query of what this sentence meant, Stein referred to ‘all those songs that sopranos sing as encores’ about ‘I have a garden! Oh, what a garden!’ Although she did not put too much emphasis on that line, she did point out that ‘you all know it; you make fun of it, but you know it.’ Equally although successive generations of readers have been familiar with both Stein and her work, it is precisely because they have failed to understand it and thus laughed at it (and her), that she has been made famous (Curnutt, 4).

What is an author?

images-1In summary, although the ideas of Barthes and Foucault are useful in understanding the relationship between author, text, and meaning, Stein’s ideas about Zeitgeist as ultimate determinant of meaning are more (1) comprehensive in the sense that she was not compelled to spell the ‘death’ and/or ‘birth’ of anything or anybody but instead has looked beyond such theoretical particularities to realistic generalities and (2) enduring because unlike the work of Barthes and Foucault, Stein’s ideas are not wedded to the political ideology of any particular period but are consistent with the fundamental anthropological understanding about human society, amen. Finally, let us not also not forget that whilst Barthes and Foucault were both unwilling to abandon the notion that – somehow – somewhere – meaning and ownership exists, Stein practiced what she preached by relinquishing any attempt to exercise ‘authority’ over her words.

[1] Barthes’ use of a capital ‘A’ is often taken to mean that with his death sentence he was referring not to an individual author but to the concept of author and the functions associated with authorship.

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Bibliography

Barthes, Roland. The Death of the Author (pp. 142-148). Image-Music-Text. ed. and trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978.

Foucault, Michel. What is an Author? (pp. 205-222). Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology. ed. by James D Faubion, trans. Robert Hurley and Others. New York: The New Press, 1998.

Stein, Gertrude. Composition As Explanation (pp. 21-30). Gertrude Stein: Look at Me Now and Here I Am – Writings and Lectures 1909-45. ed. by Patricia Meyerowitz. Hammonsworth: Penquin Books, 1967.

Ashton, Jennifer. ‘Rose is a Rose’: Gertrude Stein and the Critique of Indeterminacy. Modernism/Modernity, Vol 9, No. 4, pp. 581-604.

Bassoff, Bruce. Gertrude Stein’s “Composition as Explanation”. Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 24, No. 1, Spring 1978, pp. 76-80.

Bennet, Andrew and Nicholas Royle. The Author (pp. 19-34). Literature. Criticism and Theory. Harlow: Pearson Longman, 4th Edition (2009).

Butler, Christopher. Postmodernism – A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Curnutt, Kirk. Parody and Pedagogy: Teaching Style, Voice, and Authorial Intent in the Works of Gertrude Stein. College Literature, Vol 23, No. 2, June 1996, pp. 1-24.

Walker, Cheryl. Feminist Literary Criticism and the Author. Critical Inquiry, Vol 16, No. 3, Spring 1990, pp. 551-571.

The Fatness of Falstaff & the politics of redemption

Word on the street is that Wonga, the controversial Internet payday lender, is preparing for an IPO (Initial Public Offering). This anticipated share flotation could yield its owners in excess of £100 million.

But first, after having been publically disgraced for charging interest rates in excess of 5,000% (APR) and using fake law firms to harass its hapless borrowers, Woimagesnga must redeem its ‘bad-boy’ public image.

In October 2013 Wonga reported £1.2 billion in lending (an increase of 68%) and pre-tax profits of £34.5 million (an increase of 35% on the previous year). In October 2014, following government intervention, Wonga is writing off £220 million in customer receivables and revising its lending practices. Some market-savvy commentators suggest such redemption is strategic for that anticipated IPO. I can only imagine how right they are in that.

In his first soliloquy of Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV (1.2. 185-204), Hal (the future Henry V) plots his own ‘redemption’. Like Wonga, he will shed his ‘bad-boy’ image being ‘like a bright metal on a sullen ground’ – a light that will ‘attract more eyes’ than if it had ‘no foil to set it off’. By referencing the ‘base contagious clouds’ and ‘foul and ugly mists’ the ‘vapours’ of which ‘did seem to strangle him’, Hal announces his foil to be none other than ‘fat-guts’ (2.2.29) Falstaff – and friends – that charismatic, largeUnknownr-than-life, ‘oily rascal’ –(2.4.507-508) with whom he has chosen to spend so much time.

There have been as many theories about why Falstaff is fat as there are those who have pondered the question; a parody of puritan ethics (Bulman, 160), signature of the opacity of character (Bulman 161), symbol of Vice as in Morality plays (Bulman, 162).

At first I had concluded that the question of Falstaff’s fatness need not be more complicated than as a proper foil for Hal – ‘a starveling,’ an ‘eel-skin’ a ‘bull’s pizzle’ and a ‘stockfish’ (2.4.237-238) – Falstaff had to be fat – really fat – larger than life, fat. Indeed he must be fat as life itself – ‘banish plump Jack, and banish all the world’ (2.4.461-462). The more obvious is the difference between Hal and Falstaff, the better. Contrast of colour or quality to set something off to advantage is what being a ‘foil’ is all about (OED n 6).

This is the easy option. This is the most obvious, most moral answer. This the solution to which, at least modern audiences, are most attuned. I mean with the words ‘I banish thee’ as ‘I have done the rest of my misleaders’ (2 Henry IV 5.5.62-64) who wouldn’t want to believe that Hal was nothing more than an ordinary adolescent under pressure to put his youthful rebellion and associated friends behind him?

Yet the more I considered the question, the more I became convinced there was more to it than that. After all if according to Desmond Barrit (143), who played the role of Falstaff in an RSC production, Falstaff was the most complex part he has ever played then as Falstaff’s counterpart, Hal must be equally as complex.

According to Adrian Lester (148) who played the role of Hal in an RSC production of Henry V, in that first soliloquy (1 Henry IV.1.2. 185-204) with its image of the clouds hiding the sun, Hal reveals the kind of ego necessary to fill the role of king to which he was born. Not only that, but Lester suggests that by introducing the notion that he should be ‘wondered at’ (1.2.199), Hal is signalling that we should never be too certain that we know or understand him.

So why had Hal ordered Peto to search Falstaff’s pockets while he was asleep (1 Henry IV .2.4. 510-530)? Why had Hal allowed Falstaff to falsely claim he had killed Percy – especially after having told his father that he would ‘redeem himself’ on Percy’s head’ (3.2.132)? If Hal is so quick to comply with Falstaff’s deception – ‘(I)f a lie may do thee grace/I’ll gild it with the happiest terms I have’ (5.5.152-153), then what other deceptions might he be willing to perpetrate?

In that first soliloquy, Hal reveals all – by paying ‘the debt I never promised’, he plans not only to ‘redeem time’ (redemption implies the ‘discharge or paying off a debt or obligation’, (OED, n 6b) but also to ‘falsify men’s hopes’.

It is possible that debt to which he is referring is the repayment of the money Falstaff plans to steal from the pilgrims at Gad’s Hill. Yet it is difficult to imagine that if, as he said himself – he was neither a thief (1.2.130) nor did he intend to involved in this caper (except to the degree he agreed with Poins to return the money to its rightful owners – 1.2.136) why Hal would believe this to be his debt to repay. It is even harder to imagine that by returning something to its rightful owners Hal would ‘falsify’ the ‘hopes’ of anyone.

Whose hopes, then, does Hal intend to ‘falsify’? The obvious answer is Falstaff’s. That those hopes might have been unrealistic from the start does not alter the fact that Hal has constantly sent Falstaff mixed messages in regards to how far he might push their relationship – one moment Hal playfully suggests he will renounce Falstaff (2.4.463) and the next he allows Falstaff the glory of having been responsible for Percy’s death (5.5.152-153).

To whose ‘debt’, then, is Hal referring? This answer is not so obvious although I suggest that it was that of his father, incurred in usurping the throne of Richard II. There is little doubt that some believed that Henry IV had incurred such an obligation – Hotspur says as much (1.3.185) when he urges his kinsmen to obtain ‘revenge’ from this ‘proud king’ to ‘answer all the debt he owes.”

Likewise there is little doubt that said debt weighed heavily on Hals’ father’s mind. Indeed Shakespeare chose to commence the play with Henry IV’s ruminations on the ‘bitterness’ of the ‘civil butchery’ that ensued from his actions (1.1.13). Bulman (158) suggests this was why Hal chose to idle away his time in a tavern rather than at his father’s court.

Let’s face it – Wonga is not writing off £220 million in customer receivables to be nice guys. By repaying a ‘debt’ that ‘he never promised’ to pay, Hal is not being a nice guy either. Bulman (158) reminds us that Elizabethan audiences were aware of the importance of public self-fashioning. Being publically seen to redeem oneself could not have been any less politically astute in Elizabethan times than it is today and if we know anything about Hal, it is that he is politically astute.

I suggest that if we believe that it was only with Percy’s head that Hal planned to redeem himself, we would be wrong. Elsewise he could never have so easily have given that distinction to Falstaff. In truth, Hal needs something much more than Percy’s head to ensure the success of his own IPO (Initial Public Offering) and that something is to secure a legitimate alternative to divine right to the throne via redemption of his father’s debt.

Bottom line then is that however much Hal might have genuinely cared for Falstaff, he had planned from the start to use him up like a Kleenex – because in order to complete his redemption, the prodigal son must consume the ‘fatted calf’.

By comparing himself to the well-appreciated sun coming out after being obscured by those ‘base contagious clouds’ (1.2.180-190), Hal clarifies his understanding that those who redeem themselves are more revered than those who remain steadfast. He also clarifies that he intends to use this to his advantage – ‘I’ll so offend to make offence a skill,’ (1.2.204). Finally (1.2.183) he clarifies that it was for such purposes that he never intended to remain long with Falstaff and friends – ‘I know you all, and will awhile uphold (emphasis added). He even hints that Falstaff will become the sacrificial ‘fatted calf’ – while play-acting with Falstaff, Hal refers to him as a ‘roast manningree ox with pudding in his belly’ (2.4.336) who ‘run and roared as ever I heard bull-calf’ (2.4.252).

That Falstaff is sacrificed every bit as is the ‘fatted calf’ is undeniable. In the final scene of 2 Henry IV (5.5.46-47) Hal tells Falstaff ‘I know thee not, old man’ and then leaves the Lord Chief Justice leave to toss Falstaff and friends in jail (5.5.88-89).

Bulman (173) suggests that if Falstaff had not been so presumptuous as to publically claim Hal as his own ‘sweet boy’ (5.5.39) in the midst of his coronation, Hal would not have so callously denounced Falstaff. That might or might not be true. But I suggest that if Hal knows anything about Falstaff, he knows that that Falstaff loves him like a father and that such treatment will be the death of his fat friend.

bad boysAt the end of the day it is not Wonga’s owners (nor their equity investors) who will pay for its redemption but those two million customers who have already paid interest rates in excess of 5,000% (APR). Likewise, at the end of the day it is not Hal (nor his family) who will pay for his redemption but Falstaff. Such is the politics of redemption – success requires sacrifice and this is best accomplished through the sacrifice of someone else.

In summary, (1) both Hal and Wonga need to redeem their ‘bad boy’ imagesimages-2 and t (2) such redemptions are best funded at the expense of someone else. It remains to be seen whether Wonga’s redemption pays off for its founders but we already know that Hal’s most certainly did. As the Bishop of Ely replies in in answer to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s marvelling over Hal’s ‘reformation’, ‘we are blessed in the change’ (Henry V. 1.1.76).

 

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Bibliography

Bevington, David, ed. Henry IV Part One. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Taylor, Gary, ed. Henry V. Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1982.

Weis, Rene, ed. Henry IV Part Two. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Barrit, Desmond. ‘Falstaff in Parts I and 2 of Henry IV’ (128-144). Players of Shakespeare 6. ed. Smallwood, Robert. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Bulman, James. C. ‘Henry IV, Parts I and 2’ (158- 176). The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s History Plays. ed. Michael Hattaway. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Dollimore, J. and Sinfield, A. eds. Political Shakespeare. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994.

Greenblatt, Stephen. ‘Invisible bullets: Renaissance authority and its subversion, Henry IV and Henry V’, (pp. 18-47), ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield. Political Shakespeare: Essays in cultural materialism, (Ithaca), Cornell University Press, 1994.

Harriss, GL ed., Henry V: The Practice of Kingship. Stroud: Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd., 1993.

Lester, Adrian. “King Henry V” (145-162). Players of Shakespeare 6. ed. Smallwood, Robert. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

 

 

 

Change as the Result of Time in the Secular Poetry of John Donne

love's alchemyOne of the perennial philosophies asserts that only in eternity (i.e. God, Plato’s forms, Aristotelian essences) can constancy be found. All else is subject to mutability, change as the result of time (Gale, 66). In Book Eleven of his Confessions, St Augustine questioned time in relation to God (the stable Truth) and His creation of the temporal world. He concluded that time – past, present and future – could be nothing more than a conscious act of human representation (Gale, 68). Whether or not this is true, I suggest that at least in his secular poetry, John Donne shows a particular interest in time and shrewdly manipulates his own representations of it in order to explore and express his ideas about constancy and mutability in a variety of thought-provoking ways.

In A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day, Donne uses time to help his speaker come to grips with a difficult situation. ‘Tis the year’s midnight’ – the winter solstice – when the ‘sun is spent’ and the world’s ‘whole sap is sunk’. Someone important to the speaker, likely a lover or former lover (suggested by the speaker’s address to ‘other lovers’), has died. It is indeed a dark time. Yet the cycle of death is now complete – ‘this time to the Goat is run’ – (i.e. at the winter solstice, the sun enters Capricorn, ‘The Goat’, in order to die and be reborn). Because ‘spring’ is connected through rhyme with ‘thing’ (‘I am every dead thing’), there is hope of regeneration not only for the sun but for the speaker as well. In turn, this will ‘fetch new lust’ (the goat being associated with the genitals and the union of male and female powers, Fontana, 91). The desolate speaker takes solace from the next (‘summer’) solstice – ‘let me prepare towards her’ (emphasis added) for after ‘midnight’ comes the new day. With this, Donne has effectively reset the clock and put the difficult situation into new perspective.

Texts unfold in time; by necessity they have a beginning, middle, and end and their temporality is heightened when are framed by time. The Sun Rising is framed by the time it takes for the sun to rise. The speaker, in bed with his lover (the speaker refers to the lover as ‘she’ and himself as a ‘prince’ so is quite likely to be male), mockingly questions whether it is also ‘to thy (sun’s) motions lovers’ seasons (must) run.’ He then suggests that if this is what the sun ‘shouldst think’, then the sun is wrong. If the speaker so desires, ‘I could eclipse and cloud’ ‘thy beams’ ‘with a wink’. But he does not so desire and in the final stanza abandons his derisory threats to welcome the sun because its job is ‘to warm the world’ and the world ‘All here in one bed lay’.

Why the change of heart? Perhaps it only the speaker’s attempt to come to grips with the reality that the sun will rise regardless of what he fantasizes. Or maybe the allusion to ‘alchemy’ takes us in an altogether different direction – pointing past the false gold of temporal ‘honours’ and ‘wealth’ to something much more valuable.

Frames draw attention to that which they are framing. Frames objectify the framed and define its relationship to its surroundings adding status and value (Jacobs, 18). How better to add status and value to a sexual relationship than through allusions (‘that’s done in warming us’) to the alchemical process of warming the alembic (two connected vessels, OED n 1) and all it might imply. According to Mark Booth (342), at its heart alchemy is a spiritual exercise intended to transform man’s selfish, sexual desires into living, spiritual desires which in turn allows the Phoenix, bird of resurrection and immortality, to rise.

In The Canonization, the speaker actually suggests that he and his lover might ‘die’ (through organism?) and ‘rise’ like the ‘phoenix’ from the ‘greatest ashes’ beyond the ‘half-acre tombs’ and be reborn (the ‘phoenix riddle’). According to Booth, (342), alchemists are fascinated with love because they know that the heart is an organ of perception. Adepts at alchemical transformation have made a conscious decision to see the world through the eyes of love which in turns leads to an immortality of sorts (Booth, 343).

The speaker in The Anniversary elaborates. Although everyone and everything (‘kings’, ‘honours’, beauties’) grows older with time (the passing of ‘the sun itself’), ‘our love’ ‘no tomorrow hath, nor yesterday.’ To this end, the speaker encourages us to ‘love nobly’ and by doing so ‘add again/Years and years and years’ to achieve the ‘second of our reign’. The message seems that with proper application, through ‘love’, we can propel ourselves past time to a place where as ‘souls’, ‘nothing (else) dwells but love’.

Might this really be achieved? Donne seems to suggest not. In Love’s Alchemy, the speaker makes clear that those who ‘have deeper digged love’s mine’ do hope to achieve the ‘hidden mystery’ – the ‘elixir’ – indefinitely prolonging their lives (OED n 2 a). Realistically they have little hope of accomplishing this. For although most ‘lovers dream a rich and long delight’, what they get is a ‘winter-seeming summer’s night’ (short and cold life).

In The Flea, Donne uses time to effect desired change. ‘(C)loistered’ in bed with his lover, the frustrated speaker does everything possible to convince her to lose her ‘maidenhead’. When a flea ‘sucks’ them both, he hatches a cunning plan. ‘Mark but this flea, and mark in this’, he commences. For ‘in this flea, our two bloods mingled be.’ Doubtless knowing his lover will kill the (now doomed) flea, the speaker ratchets up the pressure by asserting that ‘this flea is you and I’ and if you kill it, you will be ‘killing three’. When his lover inevitably kills the flea (her ‘purpled’ nail marks the moment), the speaker launches into the final phase of his argument: if she had not feared that killing the flea would be a ‘sacrilege’ as he had suggested, then might her loss of ‘honour’ (and maidenhead) be equally a ‘false fear’?

The lapse between the flea’s initial ‘suck(ing)’ and its demise cannot have been more than a couple of minutes; time is pushed fast-forward on a wave of alternating lines of iambic tetrameter/pentameter culminating in a couplet marking the end of each of three distinct phases of the poem that function like acts in a play. As readers, we cannot help sensing that in this dynamic, dramatic flow of time, the speaker has seized upon the perfect moment to force his lover’s hand.

Donne also uses time to express vexation. In Song the speaker urges an unidentified other to ‘Ride ten thousand days and nights’ until ‘age snow white hairs on thee’ and then report back whether there ‘lives’ (anywhere) ‘a woman true, and fair’. The sheer length of the time proposed (along with other impossible tasks like ‘catch a falling star’) suggests an exasperated speaker who believes what he asks (yet, still he asks) is an impossibility. Vexation is further suggested by the speaker’s request virtually springing from the stressed first syllable in each of three commanding/demanding lines; ‘Go’, ‘Tell’, Teach’; the four beat sing-song nature of these lines is mocking. Even if by some wild chance ‘such a pilgrimage’ were successful, there is still time for it all to go wrong: ‘Though she were true, when you met her’, she will have turned ‘false’ by the time the speaker meets her. The speaker foresees no remedy for -‘Yet she/Will be’ – with the two beat couplet pounding home the un-deniability of the assertion.

At first blush, this poem seems trite, flippant. Those sing-song lines and hyperbole do their job. Yet ‘Tell me, where all past years are,’ suggests the speaker is not simply vexed but deeply troubled especially in conjunction with asking how he is to ‘keep off envy’s stinging’? Ouch. If the speaker’s flippancy is meant to insulate him from re-experiencing past hurts, however, then in refusing to change his mind-set he is actually perpetuating them. Constancy is not always a good thing.

In Woman’s Constancy, Donne takes a fresh approach with a (rather insincere) seventeenth century rendition of the twentieth century hit song ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow (The Shirelles). Here Donne’s speaker develops his (the speaker is likely male complaining about ‘woman’s constancy) concerns that having ‘loved me one whole day’, his lover might forget all about him ‘tomorrow’. Even worse, she might choose to ‘antedate’ (assign an earlier date, OED v 2) some ‘new made vow’ in effect voiding her ‘lovers’ contract’. The reference to contract law (Donne was trained in law) is a neat twist because a contract requires reciprocity, a meeting of the minds. In suggesting that their ‘lovers’ contract’ may be invalid, the speaker legitimately gives room for his own inconstancy (‘for by tomorrow, I may think so too’). I suggest that it is just possible that he ‘abstained’ from forcing her to honour her ‘oath’ in a ‘dispute’ because he liked her ‘new vows’ as much if not better than she.

Finally, Donne highlights perhaps his most intriguing ideas about mutability and constancy in The Computation. That speaker counts up an amazingly long 2,400 years (100 for each hour) since an unidentified (and notably absent) listener has ‘gone away’. The speaker suggests that his is not a ‘long life’ however (even though it seems rather long plodding along in unrelenting iambic pentameter) but more of a metaphysical impasse: he thinks that in being ‘dead, he or she may now be immortal (presumably in the sense of not being subject to death, OED adj A a).  This apparent oxymoron invites the reader to dig deeper. What might it mean to be both ‘dead’ and ‘immortal’ at the same time? What might it mean to be a ‘ghost(s)’ that cannot die? Perhaps Donne is expressing the same sad sentiment as in Song where past pain persists (or seems to persist) into eternity making him forever feel like a ‘ghost – a mere shadow of his former self (OED n 10 a). Or Donne might have meant a ‘ghost’ with regard to the spirit (OED n 6) to which Donne might have assigned religious significance – perhaps even addressing his own schism with the Catholic Church. But regardless whether this poem is about a secular or religious relationship (or both), it bodes ill – for the speaker’s ‘Tears drowned one hundred’ of those amazingly long years and his or her ‘sighs blew out’ a good many more.

In summary, Donne uses various representations of time in his secular poetry to explore and express his ideas about constancy and mutability. While on the surface it may appear that he is a proponent of constancy, his speakers often lamenting how others are so inconstant and false, I would argue that on the whole Donne favours change. Without change, the speaker in A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day would be caught in a vicious cycle. Without change, the frustrated lover in The Flea would be caught in a sexual stalemate. In The Sun Rising his speaker seems to suggest that through alchemical change, immortality is a real possibly. Although this idea is glorified in The Canonization and The Anniversary, in Love’s Alchemy Donne suggests that realistically chances of success in this endeavour are for the most part grim. In Woman’s Constancy, Donne suggests that love is like a contract and that in trying to change the terms of said contract retroactively one may unwittingly provide the other party with a way out. Finally, in The Computation Donne explores what it may be like to be trapped in a situation feeling bereft as a ghost yet unable to die/escape the situation. Contrary to what many might believe, constancy (and/or eternity) as protrayed by Donne may not always be a good thing.

 

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Bibliography

 

Donne, John. The Major Works. ed. John Carey. Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2008.

 

Abbott, H. Porter. The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. 2008.

 

Booth, Mark. The Secret History of the World. New York: The Overlook Press (2008).

 

Fontana, David. The Secret Language of Symbols. London: Duncan Baird Publishers, 1997.

 

Gale, Richard M (ed), The Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics. Oxford; Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2002.

 

Haskin, Dayton. ‘Donne’s afterlife’ (233-2466). The Cambridge Companion to John Donne. ed. Achsah Guibbory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

 

Jacobs, Richard. A Beginner’s Guide to Critical Reading. London: Routledge, 2001.

 

Magnusson, Lynne. ‘Donne’s language: the conditions of communication’ (183-200). The Cambridge Companion to John Donne. Ed. Achsah Guibbory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

 

Scherer Herz, Judith. ‘Reading and rereading Donne’s poetry’ (101-116). The Cambridge Companion to John Donne. ed. Achsah Guibbory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

 

Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, ‘The Experience and Perception of Time’. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/time-experience/ 5 June 2014.