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Feb 29, 2012

Doris Lessing

Interview of Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing was interviewed at the home of Robert Gottlieb, in Manhattan’s east forties. Her editor for many years at Knopf, Mr. Gottlieb was then the editor of The New Yorker. Ms. Lessing was briefly in town to attend some casting sessions for the opera Philip Glass has based on her novel The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, for which she had written the libretto. Plans for the opera had been in more or less constant flux, and it was only after a minor flurry of postcards—Ms. Lessing communicates most information on postcards, usually ones from the British Museum—that the appointment was finally arranged.

While the tape recorder was being prepared, she said, “This is a noisy place here, when you think we’re in a garden behind a row of houses.” She points across the way at the townhouse where Katharine Hepburn lives; the talk is about cities for a while. She has lived in London for almost forty years, and still finds that “everything all the time in a city is extraordinary!” More speculatively, as she has remarked elsewhere, “I would not be at all surprised to find out . . . that the dimensions of buildings affect us in ways we don’t guess.” She spoke about spending six months in England before the age of five, saying, “I think kids ought to travel. I think it’s very good to carry kids around. It’s good for them. Of course it’s tough on the parents.”

The interview was conducted on the garden patio. Silvery-streaked dark hair parted in the middle and pulled back in a bun, a shortish skirt, stockings, blouse, and jacket, she looked much like her book-jacket photos. If she seemed tired, it was hardly surprising considering the extent of her recent travels. She has a strong, melodious voice, which can be both amused and acerbic, solicitous and sarcastic.

You were born in Persia, now Iran. How did your parents come to be there?
My father was in the First World War. He couldn’t stick England afterwards. He found it extremely narrow. The soldiers had these vast experiences in the trenches and found they couldn’t tolerate it at home. So he asked his bank to send him somewhere else. And they sent him to Persia, where we were given a very big house, large rooms and space, and horses to ride on. Very outdoors, very beautiful. I’ve just been told this town is now rubble. It’s a sign of the times, because it was a very ancient market town with beautiful buildings. No one’s noticed. So much is destroyed, we can’t be bothered. And then they sent him to Tehran, which is a very ugly city, where my mother was very happy, because she became a part of what was called the “legation set.” My mother adored every second of that. There were dinner parties every night. My father hated it. He was back again with convention. Then in 1924, we came back to England where something called the Empire Exhibition (which turns up from time to time in literature) was going on and which must have had an enormous influence. The southern Rhodesian stand had enormous maize-cobs, corncobs, slogans saying “Make your fortune in five years” and that sort of nonsense. So my father, typically for his romantic temperament, packed up everything. He had this pension because of his leg, his war wounds—minuscule, about five thousand pounds—and he set off into unknown country to be a farmer. His childhood had been spent near Colchester, which was then a rather small town, and he had actually lived the life of a farmer’s child and had a country childhood. And that’s how he found himself in the veld of Rhodesia. His story is not unusual for that time. It took me some time, but it struck me quite forcibly when I was writing Shikasta how many wounded ex-servicemen there were out there, both English and German. All of them had been wounded, all of them were extremely lucky not to be dead, as their mates were.
Perhaps a minor version of the same thing would be our Vietnam veterans coming back here and being unable to adjust, completely out of society.
I don’t see how people can go through that kind of experience and fit in at once. It’s asking too much.
You recently published a memoir in the magazine Granta which, according to its title, was about your mother. In some ways it really seemed to be more about your father.
Well, how can one write about them separately? Her life was, as they used to say, devoted to his life.
It’s astonishing to read about his gold-divining, his grand plans, his adventures . . .
Well, he was a remarkable bloke, my father. He was a totally impractical man. Partly because of the war, all that. He just drifted off, he couldn’t cope. My mother was the organizer, and kept everything together.
I get the feeling that he thought of this gold-divining in a very progressive and scientific way.
  His idea was—and there’s probably something true about it somewhere—that you could divine gold and other metal if you only knew how to do it. So he was always experimenting. I wrote about him actually, in a manner of speaking, in a story I called “Eldorado.” We were living in gold country. Gold mines, little ones, were all around.
So it wasn’t out of place.
No! Farmers would always keep a hammer or a pan in the car, just in case. They’d always be coming back with bits of gold-bearing rock.
Were you around a lot of storytelling as a child?
No . . . the Africans told stories, but we weren’t allowed to mix with them. It was the worst part about being there. I mean I could have had the most marvelously rich experiences as a child. But it would have been inconceivable for a white child. Now I belong to something called a “Storytellers’ College” in England. About three years ago a group of people tried to revive storytelling as an art. It’s doing rather well. The hurdles were—I’m just a patron, I’ve been to some meetings—first that people turn up thinking that storytelling is telling jokes. So they have to be discouraged! Then others think that storytelling is like an encounter group. There’s always somebody who wants to tell about their personal experience, you know. But enormous numbers of real storytellers have been attracted. Some from Africa—from all over the place—people who are still traditional hereditary storytellers or people who are trying to revive it. And so, it’s going on. It’s alive and well. When you have storytelling sessions in London or anywhere, you get a pretty good audience. Which is quite astonishing when you think of what they could be doing instead—watching Dallas or something.
What was it like coming back to England? I remember J. G. Ballard, coming there for the first time from Shanghai, felt very constrained; he felt that everything was very small and backward.
Oh yes! I felt terribly constricted, very pale and damp; everything was shut in, and too domestic. I still find it so. I find it very pretty, but too organized. I don’t imagine that there’s an inch of the English landscape that hasn’t been dealt with in some way or another. I don’t think there is any wild grass anywhere.
Do you have any deep urges or longings to go back to some kind of mythical African landscape?
Well, I wouldn’t be living in that landscape, would I? It wouldn’t be the past. When I went back to Zimbabwe three years ago, which was two years after independence, it was very clear that if I went I would be from the past. My only function in the present would be as a kind of token. Inevitably! Because I’m the “local girl made good.” Under the white regime I was very much a baddie. No one had a good word to say for me. You’ve got no idea how wicked I was supposed to be. But now I’m “okay.”
Were you bad because of your attitude to blacks?
I was against the white regime. There was a total color bar. This phrase has completely gone now: “color bar.” The only contact I had with blacks was what I had with servants. As for the political Africans it is very difficult. It’s very hard to have a reasonable relationship with black people who have to be in at nine o’clock because there’s a curfew, or who are living in total poverty and you are not.
In the Granta memoir there’s the image of you as a child, toting guns around, shooting game . . .
Well, there was a great deal of game around then. There’s very little these days, partly because the whites shot it out.
Did you have a desire to be a writer in those early days? You mention hiding your writings from your mother, who tried to make too much of them.
My mother was a woman who was very frustrated. She had a great deal of ability, and all this energy went into me and my brother. She was always wanting us to be something. For a long time she wanted me to be a musician, because she had been a rather good musician. I didn’t have much talent for it. But everybody had to have music lessons then. She was always pushing us. And, of course, in one way it was very good, because children need to be pushed. But she would then take possession of whatever it was. So you had to protect yourself. But I think probably every child has to find out the way to possess their own productions.
I just wondered if you thought of yourself as becoming a writer at an early age.
Among other things. I certainly could have been a doctor. I would have made a good farmer, and so on. I became a writer because of frustration, the way I think many writers do.
Because you’ve written novels in so many different modes, do people feel betrayed when you don’t stick in one camp or another? I was thinking of the science fiction fans, quite narrow-minded, who resent people who write “science fiction” who don’t stick within their little club.
Well, it is narrow-minded, of course it is. Actually, the people who regard themselves as representatives of that community seem now to want to make things less compartmentalized. I’ve been invited to be guest of honor at the World Science Fiction Convention, in Brighton. They’ve invited two Soviet science fiction writers too. In the past there’s always been trouble; now they’re hoping that glasnost might allow their writers to actually come. Actually, it never crossed my mind with these later books that I was writing science fiction or anything of the kind! It was only when I was criticized for writing science fiction that I realized I was treading on sacred ground. Of course, I don’t really write science fiction. I’ve just read a book by the Solaris bloke, Stanislav Lem. Now that’s real classic science fiction . . . full of scientific ideas. Half of it, of course, is wasted on me because I don’t understand it. But what I do understand is fascinating. I’ve met quite a lot of young people—some not so young either, if it comes to that—who say “I’m very sorry, but I’ve got no time for realism” and I say “My God! But look at what you’re missing! This is prejudice.” But they don’t want to know about it. And I’m always meeting usually middle-aged people who say, “I’m very sorry. I can’t read your non-realistic writing.” I think it’s a great pity. This is why I’m pleased about being guest of honor at this convention, because it does show a breaking down.
What I most enjoyed about Shikasta was that it took all the spiritual themes that are submerged or repressed or coded in science fiction, and brought them up into the foreground.
I didn’t think of that as science fiction at all when I was doing it, not really. It certainly wasn’t a book beginning, I don’t know, say, “At three o’clock on a certain afternoon in Tomsk, in 1883 . . .”—which is, as opposed to the cosmic view, probably my second most favorite kind of opening, this kind of beginning!
You’ve written introductions for many collections of Sufi stories and prose. How did your interest and involvement with Sufism come about?
Well, you know, I hate talking about this. Because really, what you say gets so clichéd, and it sounds gimmicky. All I really want to say is that I was looking for some discipline along those lines. Everyone agrees that you need a teacher. I was looking around for one, but I didn’t like any of them because they were all “gurus” of one kind or another. Then I heard about this man Shah, who is a Sufi, who really impressed me. So I’ve been involved since the early sixties. It’s pretty hard to summarize it all, because it’s all about what you experience. I want to make a point of that because a lot of people walk around saying “I am a Sufi,” probably because they’ve read a book and it sort of sounds attractive. Which is absolutely against anything that real Sufis would say or do. Some of the great Sufis have actually said, “I would never call myself a Sufi—it’s too large a name.” But I get letters from people, letters like this: Hi, Doris! I hear you’re a Sufi too! Well, I don’t know what to say, really. I tend to ignore them.
I imagine that people try to set you up as some sort of guru, whether political or metaphysical.
I think people are always looking for gurus. It’s the easiest thing in the world to become a guru. It’s quite terrifying. I once saw something fascinating here in New York. It must have been in the early seventies—guru time. A man used to go and sit in Central Park, wearing elaborate golden robes. He never once opened his mouth, he just sat. He’d appear at lunchtime. People appeared from everywhere, because he was obviously a holy man, and this went on for months. They just sat around him in reverent silence. Eventually he got fed up with it and left. Yes. It’s as easy as that.
Let me ask you one more question along these lines. Do you think that reincarnation is a plausible view?
Well, I think it’s an attractive idea. I don’t believe in it myself. I think it’s more likely that we “dip into” this realm on our way on a long journey.
That this planet is merely one single stop?
We’re not encouraged—I’m talking about people studying with Shah—to spend a great deal of time brooding about this, because the idea is that there are more pressing things to do. It’s attractive to brood about all this, of course, even to write books about it! But as far as I was concerned, in Shikasta the reincarnation stuff was an attractive metaphor, really, or a literary idea, though I understand that there are people who take Shikasta as some kind of a textbook.
Prophecy, perhaps?
It was a way of telling a story—incorporating ideas that are in our great religions. I said in the preface to Shikasta that if you read the Old Testament and the New Testament and the Apocrypha and the Koran you find a continuing story. These religions have certain ideas in common, and one idea is, of course, this final war or apocalypse, or whatever. So I was trying to develop this idea. I called it “space fiction” because there was nothing else to call it.
I have the feeling that you are an extremely intuitive kind of fiction writer, and that you probably don’t plan or plot out things extensively, but sort of discover them. Is that the case, or not?
Well, I have a general plan, yes, but it doesn’t mean to say that there’s not room for an odd character or two to emerge as I go along. I knew what I was going to do with The Good Terrorist. The bombing of Harrod’s department store was the start of it. I thought it would be interesting to write a story about a group who drifted into bombing, who were incompetent and amateur. I had the central character, because I know several people like Alice—this mixture of very maternal caring, worrying about whales and seals and the environment, but at the same time saying, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs,” and who can contemplate killing large numbers of people without a moment’s bother. The more I think about that, the more interesting it becomes. So I knew about her; I knew about the boyfriend, and I had a rough idea of the kinds of people I wanted. I wanted people of different kinds and types, so I created this lesbian couple. But then what interested me were the characters who emerged that I hadn’t planned for, like Faye. And then Faye turned into this destroyed person, which was surprising to me. The little bloke Phillip turned up like this: Right about then I was hearing about an extremely fragile young man, twenty-one or twenty-two, who was out of work, but was always being offered work by the authorities. I mean, loading very heavy rolls of paper onto lorries, in fact! You’d think they were lunatics! So he always got the sack at the end of about three days. I think it’s quite a funny book.
Well, it is comic, in a certain way. We always talk about things as if they are happening in the way they’re supposed to happen, and everything is very efficient. In actual fact, one’s experience about anything at all is that it’s a complete balls-up. I mean everything! So why should this be any different? I don’t believe in these extremely efficient terrorists, and all that.
Conspiracies, and so on?
There’s bound to be messes and muddles going on.
Do you work on more than one fictional thing at a time?
No, it’s fairly straight. I do sometimes tidy up a draft of a previous thing while I’m working on something else. But on the whole I like to do one thing after another.
I’d imagine then that you work from beginning to end, rather than mixing around . . .
Yes, I do. I’ve never done it any other way. If you write in bits, you lose some kind of very valuable continuity of form. It is an invisible inner continuity. Sometimes you only discover it is there if you are trying to reshape.
Do you have a feeling of yourself as having evolved within each genre that you employ? For instance, I thought the realistic perspective in The Good Terrorist, and even sometimes in the Jane Somers books, was more detached than in your earlier realism.
It was probably due to my advanced age. We do get detached. I see every book as a problem that you have to solve. That is what dictates the form you use. It’s not that you say, “I want to write a science fiction book.” You start from the other end, and what you have to say dictates the form of it.
Are you producing fairly continuously? Do you take a break between books?
Yes! I haven’t written in quite a while. Sometimes there are quite long gaps. There’s always something you have to do, an article you have to write, whether you want to or not. I’m writing short stories at the moment. It’s interesting, because they’re very short. My editor, Bob Gottlieb, said, quite by chance, that no one ever sends him very short stories, and he found this interesting. I thought, “My God, I haven’t written a very short story for years.” So I’m writing them around 1,500 words, and it’s good discipline. I’m enjoying that. I’ve done several, and I think I’m going to call them “London Sketches,” because they’re all about London.
So they’re not parables, or exotic in any way?
No, not at all. They’re absolutely realistic. I wander about London quite a lot. And any city, of course, is a theater, isn’t it?
Do you have regular working habits?
It doesn’t matter, because it’s just habits. When I was bringing up a child I taught myself to write in very short concentrated bursts. If I had a weekend, or a week, I’d do unbelievable amounts of work. Now those habits tend to be ingrained. In fact, I’d do much better if I could go more slowly. But it’s a habit. I’ve noticed that most women write like that, whereas Graham Greene, I understand, writes two hundred perfect words every day! So I’m told! Actually, I think I write much better if I’m flowing. You start something off, and at first it’s a bit jagged, awkward, but then there’s a point where there’s a click and you suddenly become quite fluent. That’s when I think I’m writing well. I don’t write well when I’m sitting there sweating about every single phrase.
What kind of a reader are you these days? Do you read contemporary fiction?
I read a great deal. I’m very fast, thank God, because I could never cope with it otherwise. Writers get sent enormous amounts of books from publishers. I get eight or nine or ten books a week which is a burden, because I’m always very conscientious. You do get a pretty good idea of what a book’s like in the first chapter or two. And if I like it at all, I’ll go on. That’s unfair, because you could be in a bad mood, or terribly absorbed in your own work. Then there are the writers I admire, and I’ll always read their latest books. And, of course, there’s a good deal of what people tell me I should read. So I’m always reading.
Could you tell us more about how you put the Jane Somers hoax over on the critical establishment? It strikes me as an incredibly generous thing to do, first of all, to put a pseudonym on two long novels to try to show the way young novelists are treated.
Well, it wasn’t going to be two to begin with! It was meant to be one. What happened was, I wrote the first book and I told the agent that I wanted to sell it as a first novel . . . written by a woman journalist in London. I wanted an identity that was parallel to mine, not too different. So my agent knew, and he sent it off. My two English publishers turned it down. I saw the readers’ reports, which were very patronizing. Really astonishingly patronizing! The third publisher, Michael Joseph (the publisher of my first book), was then run by a very clever woman called Phillipa Harrison, who said to my agent, “This reminds me of the early Doris Lessing.” We got into a panic because we didn’t want her going around saying that! So we took her to lunch and I said, “This is me, can you go along with it?” She was upset to begin with, but then she really enjoyed it all. Bob Gottlieb, who was then my editor at Knopf in the States, guessed, and so that was three people. Then the French publisher rang me up and said, “I’ve just bought a book by an English writer, but I wonder if you haven’t been helping her a bit!” So I told him. So in all, four or five people knew. We all expected that when the book came out, everyone would guess. Well, before publication it was sent to all the experts on my work, and none of them guessed. All writers feel terribly caged by these experts—writers become their property. So, it was bloody marvelous! It was the best thing that happened! Four publishers in Europe bought it not knowing it was me, and that was nice. Then the book came out, and I got the reviews a first novel gets, small reviews, mostly by women journalists, who thought that I was one of their number. Then “Jane Somers” got a lot of fan letters, mostly nonliterary, from people looking after old people and going crazy. And a lot of social workers, either disagreeing or agreeing, but all saying they were pleased I’d written it. So then I thought, “Okay, I shall write another one.” By then I was quite fascinated with Jane Somers. When you’re writing in the first person, you can’t stray too far out of what is appropriate for that person. Jane Somers is middle class, English, from a very limited background. There are very few things more narrow than the English middle class. She didn’t go to university. She started working very young, went straight to the office. Her life was in the office. She had a marriage that was no marriage. She didn’t have children. She didn’t really like going abroad. When she went abroad with her husband, or on trips for her firm and her office, she was pleased to get home. She was just about as narrow in her experience as you can get. So in the writing, I had to cut out all kinds of things that came to my pen, as it were. Out! Out! She’s a very ordinary woman. She’s very definite in her views about what is right and what is wrong.
What to wear . . .
Everything! I have a friend who is desperately concerned with her dress. The agonies she goes through to achieve this perfection I wouldn’t wish on anyone! Jane Somers was put together from various people. Another was my mother. I wondered what she would be like if she were young now, in London. A third one was a woman I knew who used to say, “I had a perfectly happy childhood. I adored my parents. I liked my brother. We had plenty of money. I loved going to school. I was married young, I adored my husband”—she goes on like this. But then, her husband dies suddenly. And from becoming a rather charming child-woman, she became a person. So I used all these things to make one person. It’s amazing what you find out about yourself when you write in the first person about someone very different from you.
Your original idea with the Jane Somers books was to probe the literary establishment?
Yes. I’ve been close to the literary machine now for a long time. I know what’s good about it and what’s bad about it. It’s not the publishers I’ve had it in for so much as the reviewers and the critics, whom I find extraordinarily predictable. I knew everything that was going to happen with that book! Just before I came clean I had an interview with Canadian television. They asked, “Well what do you think’s going to happen?” and I said, “The English critics are going to say that the book is no good.” Exactly! I had these sour nasty little reviews. In the meantime the book did very well in every other country.
In your preface to Shikasta you wrote that people really didn’t know how extraordinary a time this was in terms of the availability of all kinds of books. Do you feel that in fact we’re going to be leaving the culture of the book? How precarious a situation do you see it?
Well, don’t forget, I remember World War II when there were very few books, very little paper available. For me to walk into a shop or look at a list and see anything that I want, or almost anything, is like a kind of miracle. In hard times, who knows if we’re going to have that luxury or not?
Do you feel any sense of responsibility in presenting these prophesies aside from telling a good story?
I know people say things like, “I regard you as rather a prophet.” But there’s nothing I’ve said that hasn’t been, for example, in the New Scientist for the last twenty years. Nothing! So why am I called a prophet, and they are not?
You write better.
Well, I was going to say, I present it in a more interesting way. I do think that sometimes I hit a kind of wavelength—though I think a lot of writers do this—where I anticipate events. But I don’t think it’s very much, really. I think a writer’s job is to provoke questions. I like to think that if someone’s read a book of mine, they’ve had—I don’t know what—the literary equivalent of a shower. Something that would start them thinking in a slightly different way perhaps. That’s what I think writers are for. This is what our function is. We spend all our time thinking about how things work, why things happen, which means that we are more sensitive to what’s going on.
Did you ever do any of those sixties’ experiments with hallucinogens, that sort of thing?
I did take mescaline once. I’m glad I did, but I’ll never do it again. I did it under very bad auspices. The two people who got me the mescaline were much too responsible! They sat there the whole time, and that meant, for one thing, that I only discovered the “hostess” aspect of my personality, because what I was doing was presenting the damn experience to them the whole time! Partly in order to protect what I was really feeling. What should have happened was for them to let me alone. I suppose they were afraid I was going to jump out of a window. I am not the kind of person who would do such a thing! And then I wept most of the time. Which was of no importance, and they were terribly upset by this, which irritated me. So the whole thing could have been better. I wouldn’t do it again. Chiefly because I’ve known people who had such bad trips. I have a friend who took mescaline once. The whole experience was a nightmare that kept on being a nightmare—people’s heads came rolling off their shoulders for months. Awful! I don’t want that.
Do you travel a great deal?
Too much; I mean to stop.
Mostly for obligations?
Just business, promoting, you know. Writers are supposed to sell their books! Astonishing development! I’ll tell you where I’ve been this year, for my publishers: I was in Spain . . . Barcelona and Madrid, which is enjoyable, of course. Then I went to Brazil, where I discovered—I didn’t know this—that I sell rather well there. Particularly, of course, space fiction. They’re very much into all that. Then I went to San Francisco. They said, “While you’re here, you might as well . . .”—that phrase, “you might as well”—“pop up the coast to Portland.” You’ve been there?
No, never.
Now there is an experience! In San Francisco, they’re hedonistic, cynical, good-natured, amiable, easygoing, and well-dressed—in a casual way. Half an hour in the plane and you’re in a rather straight-laced formal city that doesn’t go in for casual behavior at all. It’s amazing, just up the coast there. This is what America’s like. Then I went to Finland for the second time. They’ve got some of the best bookstores in the world! Marvelous, wonderful! They say it’s because of those long, dark nights! Now I’m here. Next I’m going to be in Brighton, for the science fiction convention. Then I won a prize in Italy called the Mondello Prize, which they give in Sicily. I said, “Why Sicily?” and they said, deadpan, “Well, you see, Sicily’s got a bad image because of the Mafia . . .” So I’ll go to Sicily, and then I shall work for all the winter.
I hear you’ve been working on a “space opera” with Philip Glass.
What happens to books is so astonishing to me! Who would have thought The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 would turn into an opera? I mean it’s so surprising!
How did that come about?
Well, Philip Glass wrote to me, and said he’d like to make an opera, and we met.
Had you known much of his music before?
Well, no I hadn’t! He sent some of his music. It took quite a bit of time for my ears to come to terms with it. My ear was always expecting something else to happen. You know what I mean? Then we met and we talked about it, and it went very well, which is astonishing because we couldn’t be more different. We just get on. We’ve never had one sentence worth of difficulty over anything, ever. He said the book appealed to him, and I thought he was right, because it’s suitable for his music. We met, usually not for enormous sessions, a day here and a day there, and decided what we would do, or not do. I wrote the libretto.
Have you ever done anything like that before?
No, never with music.
Did you have music to work from?
No, we started with the libretto. We’ve done six versions of the story so far, because it is a story, unlike most of the things he does. As something was done, he would do the music, saying he’d like six more lines here or three out there. That was a great challenge.
Can you say anything about your next project?
Yes, my next book is a little book. It’s a short story that grew. The joke is that a short novel in England is very much liked. They’re not terribly popular here in the U.S. They like big books here. Getting your money’s worth. It’s about a very ordinary family that gives birth to a goblin. And this is realism. I got the idea from two sources. One was this fantastic writer called Loren Eiseley. He wrote a piece—I can’t remember what it was actually about—where he’s walking up the seashore in the dusk, and on a country road he sees a girl that he says is a Neanderthal girl: a country girl in a country district, nothing very much to be asked of her, hardly noticed except as a stumpy girl with a clumsy skull. It’s just the most immensely touching, sad piece. It stuck in my mind, and I said, “If Neanderthals, why not Cro-Magnons, why not dwarves, goblins, because all cultures talk about these creatures?” The other source was the saddest piece in a magazine, from a woman who wrote in and said, “I just want to write about this or I shall go crazy.” She’d had three children, I think. Her last child, who was now seven or eight, had been born, she said, a devil. She put it in those terms. She said that this child had never done anything but hate everyone around. She’s never done anything normal, like laugh or be happy. She destroyed the family, who couldn’t stand her. The mother said, “I go in at night and I look at this child asleep. I kiss her while she’s asleep because I don’t dare kiss her while she’s awake.” So, anyway, all this went into the story. The main point about this goblin is, he’s perfectly viable in himself. He’s a normal goblin. But we just cannot cope with him.
Is the space series going to continue?
Yes. I haven’t forgotten it. If you read the last one, The Sentimental Agents—which is really satire, not science fiction—you’ll see that I’ve ended it so that I’ve pointed it all to the next volume. [The book ends in the middle of a sentence.] In the next book, I send this extremely naive agent off to . . . What’s the name of my bad planet?
Yes, to Shammat, in order to reform everything. It’s going to be difficult to write about Shammat because I don’t want to make it much like Earth! That’s too easy! I have a plot, but it’s the tone I need. You know what I mean?
Do you do many public readings of your own work?
Not very many. I do when I’m asked. They didn’t ask me to in Finland. I don’t remember when was the last. Oh, Germany last year, my God! That was the most disastrous trip. It was some academic institution in Germany. I said to them, “Look, I want to do what I always do. I’ll read the story and then I’ll take questions.” They said, the way academics always do, “Oh you can’t expect our students to ask questions.” I said, “Look, just let me handle this, because I know how.” Anyway, what happened was typical in Germany: We met at four o’clock in order to discuss the meeting that was going to take place at eight. They cannot stand any ambiguity or disorder—no, no! Can’t bear it. I said, “Look, just leave it.” The auditorium was very large and I read a story in English and it went down very well, perfectly okay. I said, “I will now take questions.” Then this bank of four bloody professors started to answer questions from the audience and debate among themselves, these immensely long academic questions of such tedium that finally the audience started to get up and drift out. A young man, a student sprawled on the gangway—as a professor finished something immensely long—called out, “BLAH, BLAH, BLAH, BLAH, BLAH.” So with total lack of concern for the professors’ feelings I said, “Look, I will take questions in English from the audience.” So they all came back and sat down, and it went well . . . perfectly lively questions! The professors were absolutely furious. So that was Germany. German academics are the worst.
Recently, you’ve turned to writing nonfiction.
I’ve just written a book, a short book, about the situation in Afghanistan. I was there looking at the refugee camps, because what happens is that men usually go for the newspapers, and men can’t speak to the women because of the Islamic attitudes. So we concentrated on the women. The book’s called The Wind Blows Away Our Words, which is a quote from one of their fighters, who said, “We shout to you for help but the wind blows away our words.”
Did you ever worry about what sort of authority you could bring to such an enormous story, being an outsider visiting only for a short time?
Do journalists worry about the authority they bring, visiting countries for such a short time? As for me, rather more than most journalists, I was well briefed for the trip, having been studying this question for some years knowing Afghans and Pakistanis (as I made clear in the book) and being with people who knew Farsi—this last benefit not being shared by most journalists.
Your methods of reportage in that book have been the target of some criticism by American journalists, who charge that your trip to Afghanistan was sponsored by a particular pro-Afghan organization. How do you respond to that?
This is the stereotypical push-button criticism from the left, from people who I do not think can expect to be taken seriously, for I made it clear in the book that the trip was not organized by a political organization. I went for something called Afghan Relief, set up by some friends, among them myself, which has helped several people to visit Pakistan, but not with money. I paid my own expenses, as did the others I went with. The point about Afghan Relief is that it has close links with Afghans, both in exile and fighting inside Afghanistan, and includes Afghans living in London, as advisors. These Afghans are personal friends of mine, not “political.” Afghan Relief has so far not spent one penny on administration; all the fund-raising work, here and in Pakistan, is done voluntarily. To spell it out: no one has made anything out of Afghan Relief except the Afghans.
From the tag that you used for the Jane Somers book: “If the young knew / If the old could . . .” Do you have any things you would have done differently, or any advice to give?
Advice I don’t go in for. The thing is, you do not believe I know everything in this field is a cliché, everything’s already been said, but you just do not believe that you’re going to be old. People don’t realize how quickly they’re going to be old, either. Time goes very fast.

Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.

Feb 25, 2012

The Most Romantic Character in Literature

After a month long (and very scientific) poll on this blog, the most romantic character in literature is (drum roll please) JAMIE FRASER of the Outlander Series. This poll was conducted in response to Entertainment Weekly’s Shelf Life Blog on the topic of the results of a British poll in the Daily Telegraph. Confused? I did not believe in the results from the poll (as seen in this post) so I created my own poll and added Jamie Fraser, Edward Cullen, Captain Wentworth, and Colonel Brandon to the original 10 romantic characters. The top romantic heroes are as follows:

1. Jamie Fraser, Outlander (22%)
2. Edward Rochester, Jane Eyre (18%)
3. Fitzwilliam Darcy, Pride and Prejudice (13%)
4. Captain Wentworth, Persuasion (11%)
5. Rhett Butler, Gone With the Wind (10%)
6. Edward Cullen, Twilight (7%)
7. Mark Darcy, Bridget Jones Diary (5%)
8. Colonel Brandon, Sense & Sensibility (5%)
9. Henry DeTamble, The Time Traveler’s Wife (5%)
10. Heathcliff, Wuthering Heights (2%)
11. Richard Sharpe of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series (1%)
12. Gabriel Oak, Far From the Madding Crowd (1%)

Captain Corelli of Louis de Berniere’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Rupert Campbell Black of Jilly Cooper’s The Rutshire Chronicles received zero votes.

Jamie Fraser had a run for his money with Mr. Rochester, but won in the end. I thought it was very interesting that Captain Wentworth came in a close fourth to Mr. Darcy. It seems that readers of this blog esteem him as highly as I do. Persuasion ties with Pride and Prejudice as my favorite Austen novel. The letter that Captain Wentworth writes to Anne is one of the most romantic moments in literature. I was also glad to see Heathcliff so far down on the list, although I did agree with one comment that although he is not a likeable character, one must admit that he does pursue Cathy with his full passion. I still know nothing about Richard Sharpe, but I saw that he will be in a couple of episodes of Masterpiece Classic this spring so I will have a chance to learn more about him.

I agree with my readers that Jamie Fraser is the most romantic character in literature. He is a handsome Scot that runs around in a kilt in Outlander, but he is much more than that. He is a man with deep passions and loyalty that inspires love in not only his soul mate Claire, but in a wide variety of people. His love for Claire grows through the years through trials and tribulations and still remains passionate when they are in their 50’s.

I dream of a day when I will be able to see Jamie Fraser in a movie or even better, an HBO mini-series. The photos I have on here were gleaned from other blogs that suggest that Gabriel Aubry or Gerard Butler would make a good Jamie. I’m not convinced, but I don’t have any good suggestions besides picking an unknown actor. What are your thoughts on an actor to play Jamie?

Still not convinced that Jamie is the most romantic character in literature? Here is one of my favorite quotes from him to Claire (in Dragonfly in Amber). If this does not convince you, I don’t know what will!

I will find you,” he whispered in my ear, “I promise. If I must endure two hundred years of purgatory – two hundred years without you – then that is my punishment, which I have earned for my crimes. For I have lied, and killed, and stolen; betrayed and broken trust. But there is one thing that shall lie in the balance. When I stand before God, I shall have one thing to say, to weight against the rest. Lord, ye gave me a rare woman, and God! I loved her well.”

Feb 22, 2012

Langston Hughes Biography

First published in The Crisis in 1921, the verse that would become Hughes’s signature poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, appeared in his first book of poetry The Weary Blues in 1926

The Negro Speaks of Rivers
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Hughes’ life and work were enormously influential during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s alongside those of his contemporaries, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Richard Bruce Nugent, and Aaron Douglas, who, collectively, (with the exception of McKay), created the short-lived magazine Fire!!Devoted to Younger Negro Artists.

Hughes and his contemporaries were often in conflict with the goals and aspirations of the black middle class, and of those considered to be the midwives of the Harlem Renaissance, W. E. B. Du Bois, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Alain LeRoy Locke, whom they accused of being overly fulsome in accommodating and assimilating Eurocentric values and culture for social equality. A primary expression of this conflict was the former’s depiction of the “low-life”, that is, the real lives of blacks in the lower social-economic strata and the superficial divisions and prejudices based on skin color within the black community.Hughes wrote what would be considered the manifesto for him and his contemporaries published in The Nation in 1926,

The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain:
The younger Negro artists who create now intend to express
our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.
If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not,
it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too.
The tom-tom cries, and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people
are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure
doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow,
strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain
free within ourselves.

Hughes was unashamedly black at a time when blackness was démodé, and he didn’t go much beyond the themes of black is beautiful as he explored the black human condition in a variety of depths. His main concern was the uplift of his people who he judged himself the adequate appreciator of and whose strengths, resiliency, courage, and humor he wanted to record as part of the general American experience. Thus, his poetry and fiction centered generally on insightful views of the working class lives of blacks in America, lives he portrayed as full of struggle, joy, laughter, and music. Permeating his work is pride in the African American identity and its diverse culture. “My seeking has been to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America and obliquely that of all human kind,” Hughes is quoted as saying. Therefore, in his work he confronted racial stereotypes, protested social conditions, and expanded African America’s image of itself; a “people’s poet” who sought to reeducate both audience and artist by lifting the theory of the black aesthetic into reality. An expression of this is the poem My People

My People
The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people
Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

Moreover, Hughes stressed the importance of a racial consciousness and cultural nationalism absent of self-hate that united people of African descent and Africa across the globe and encouraged pride in their own diverse black folk culture and black aesthetic. Langston Hughes was one of the few black writers of any consequence to champion racial consciousness as a source of inspiration for black artists. His African-American race consciousness and cultural nationalism would influence many foreign black writers,

In 1930, his first novel, Not Without Laughter, won the Harmon Gold Medal for literature. The protagonist of the story is a boy named Sandy whose family must deal with a variety of struggles imposed upon them due to their race and class in society in addition to relating to one another. Hughes first collection of short stories came in 1934 with The Ways of White Folks. These stories provided a series of vignettes revealing the humorous and tragic interactions between whites and blacks. Overall, these stories are marked by a general pessimism about race relations, as well as a sardonic realism.

The same year Hughes established his theatre troupe in Los Angeles, his ambition to write for the movies materialized when he co-wrote the screenplay for Way Down South. Further hopes by Hughes to write for the lucrative movie trade were thwarted because of racial discrimination within the industry. Through the black publication Chicago Defender, Hughes in 1943 gave creative birth to Jesse B. Semple, often referred to and spelled Simple, the everyday black man in Harlem who offered musings on topical issues of the day. He was offered to teach at a number of colleges, but seldom did.

1950s and 1960s
Chinua Achebe was one of the many African American and African writers whom Hughes heavily influenced. Much of his writing was inspired by the rhythms and language of the black church, and, the blues and jazz of that era, the music he believed to be the true expression of the black spirit; an example is “Harlem” (sometimes called “Dream Deferred”) from Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951), from which a line was taken for the title of the play A Raisin in the Sun.

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

During the mid-1950s and -1960s, Hughes’ popularity among the younger generation of black writers varied as his reputation increased worldwide. With the gradual advancement toward racial integration, many black writers considered his writings of black pride and its corresponding subject matter out of date. They considered him a racial chauvinist. He in turn found a number of writers like James Baldwin lacking in this same pride, over intellectualizing in their work, and occasionally vulgar.

Hughes wanted young black writers to be objective about their race, but not scorn or to flee it. He understood the main points of the Black Power movement of the 1960s, but believed that some of the younger black writers who supported it were too angry in their work. Hughes’ posthumously published Panther and the Lash in 1967 was intended to show solidarity and understanding with these writers but with more skill and absent of the most virile anger and terse racial chauvinism some showed toward whites. Hughes still continued to have admirers among the larger younger generation of black writers who he often helped by offering advice to and introducing to other influential persons in the literature and publishing communities. This latter group, who happened to include Alice Walker who Hughes discovered, looked upon Hughes as a hero and an example to be emulated in degrees and tones within their own work.

One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet–not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.” And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America–this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mould of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.

The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain By Langston Hughes, The Nation, 23 June 1926 [In 1926, the Harlem Renaissance was in full flower; the poet Langston Hughes was one of its central figures. In this essay, Hughes urges black intellectuals and artists to break free of the artificial standards set for them by whites.]

‘The New Negro Movement’
“Harlem as a site of the black cultural sublime was invented by writers and artists determined to transform the stereotypical image of Negro Americans at the turn of the century away from their popular image as ex-slaves, as members of a race inherently inferior – biologically and environmentally unfitted for mechanized modernity and its cosmopolitan forms of fluid identity – into an image of a race of cultural bearers. To effect this transformation, a ‘New Negro’ was called for – quite urgently, many black intellectuals felt- and this New Negro would need a nation over which to preside. And that nation’s capital would be Harlem, that realm north of Central Park, centered between 130th Street and 145th.”

“In a 1925 essay entitled ‘The New Negro’, Howard University Professor of Philosophy Alain Locke described this transformation as not relying on older time-worn models but, rather, embracing a ‘new psychology’ and ‘new sprit’. Central to Locke’s prescription was the mandate that the ‘New Negro’ had to ‘smash’ all of the racial, social and psychological impediments that had long obstructed black achievement. Six years prior to Locke’s essay, the pioneering black film maker Oscar Micheaux called for similar changes. In his film Within our Gates, Micheaux represented a virtual cornucopia of ‘New Negro’ types: from the educated and entrepreneurial ‘race’ man and woman to the incorrigible Negro hustler, from the liberal white philanthropist to the hard core white racist. Micheaux created a complex, melodramatic narrative around these types in order to develop a morality tale of pride, prejudice, misanthropy and progressivism that would be revisited by Locke and others.”

“This New Negro movement, which took at least three forms before Alain Locke enshrined it in the Harlem Renaissance in 1925, took its artistic inspiration from citizens across the Atlantic in Europe. First, in the early 1890s, Dvorák declared the spirituals to be America’s first authentic contribution to world culture and urged classical composers to draw upon them to create sui generis symphonies. A decade later Pablo Picasso stumbled onto ‘dusky Manikins’ at an an ethnographic museum and forever transformed European art, as well as Europe’s official appreciation of the art from the African continent. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon – the signature painting in the creation of Cubism – stands as a testament to the shaping influence of African sculpture and to the central role that African art played in the creation of modernism. The Cubist mask of modernism covers a black Bantu face. African art -ugly,primitive, debased in 1900; sublime, complex, valorized by 1910 – was transformed so dramatically in the cultural imagination of the West, in such an astonishingly short period, that potential for the political use of black art and literature in America could not escape the notice of African American intellectuals, especially Du Bois, himself himself educated in Europe and cosmopolitan to the core, and Alain Locke, Harvard-trained, a Rhodes scholar at Oxford in 1906 and thereafter a student of aesthetics in Germany in the heady years of the modernist explosion. If European modernism was truly a mulatto, the argument went, then Africans Americans would save themselves politically through the creation of the arts. The Harlem Renaissance, in so many ways, owes its birth to Euro-African modernism in the visual arts. This Renaissance, the second in black history, would fully liberated the Negro – at least its advance guard.”

Metaphysical Poem

What is a Metaphysical Poem?

The term “metaphysical” when applied to poetry has a long and interesting history. You should know this, but the information in Helen Gardner’s Introduction to The Metaphysical Poets (Penguin)is more than adequate. Luckily, you have no time in an exam for a lengthy discussion. The examiner wants to see you discuss the text.

Metaphysical poetry is concerned with the whole experience of man, but the intelligence, learning and seriousness of the poets means that the poetry is about the profound areas of experience especially – about love, romantic and sensual; about man’s relationship with God – the eternal perspective, and, to a less extent, about pleasure, learning and art.

Key Examples:

John Donne, The Good-Morrow, The Sunne Rising, The Anniversarie, The Canonization, A Valediction Forbidding Mourning and A Nocturnall upon S. Lucies Day

George Herbert, Jordan (I), The Pearl, The Collar, Discipline and Love (III)

Andrew Marvell, The Coronet, Bermudas, To His Coy Mistress, The Definition of Love and The Garden

Henry Vaughan, The Retreate, The World, Man and “They Are All Gone into the World of Light”

Metaphysical poems are lyric poems. They are brief but intense meditations, characterized by striking use of wit, irony and wordplay. Beneath the formal structure (of rhyme, metre and stanza) is the underlying (and often hardly less formal) structure of the poem’s argument. Note that there may be two (or more) kinds of argument in a poem. In To His Coy Mistress the explicit argument (Marvell’s request that the coy lady yield to his passion) is a stalking horse for the more serious argument about the transitoriness of pleasure. The outward levity conceals (barely) a deep seriousness of intent. You would be able to show how this theme of carpe diem (“seize the day”) is made clear in the third section of the poem.

Reflections on love or God should not be too hard for you. Writing about a poet’s technique is more challenging but will please any examiner. Giving some time to each (where the task invites this), while ending on technique would be ideal.

Here are some suggestions as to how to look at the detail of individual poems under a very broad heading.

Love in the Poems
In Marvell we find the pretence of passion (in To His Coy Mistress) used as a peg on which to hang serious reflections on the brevity of happiness. The Definition of Love is an ironic game – more a love of definition let loose; the poem is cool, lucid and dispassionate, if gently self-mocking. So you can move on to Donne, in whom passionate sexual love is examined with vigour and intensity. There are far too many suitable poems to consider all in detail, but The Good-Morrow, The Sunne Rising and The Anniversarie belong together, while A Nocturnall, upon S. Lucie’s Day gives the other side of the coin. There is positive celebration of life in The Good Morrow and the others, while in the Nocturnall we have the examination of complex negativity.

In A Valediction, Forbidding Mourning the argument is not logically persuasive, but the cleverness and subtlety of Donne’s method are diverting – an intelligent woman might be comforted. She cannot change the fact of the lover’s going, but the poem is evidence of the integrity of the love he has professed hitherto.

Both Herbert and Vaughan address man’s love of God, while Herbert, and Marvell (Bermudas), consider God’s love of man. Herbert considers man’s duty to God in The Collar and The Pearl as does Marvell in The Coronet.

Eternity and man’s life in the context of this, is the explicit subject of all of Vaughan’s poems in the selection, but is considered by Herbert in The Flower and, in a wholly secular manner, by Marvell in To His Coy Mistress.

In terms of the whole poetry of these four, this small selection accurately reflects the arguably narrow preoccupation of Herbert and Vaughan with religious questions, and the great variety of Marvell.

The selection only of love poems is partly misleading in Donne’s case. He wrote a great deal of devotional verse, much of it very good, but his most striking achievements are in the Songs and Sonets. Herbert, of course, is not narrow – he is concerned with man’s whole life in relation to God. Vaughan is more problematic – his preoccupation with his own salvation and his conviction that most of mankind is damned are less attractive qualities. He is fanatical where Herbert is tolerant.

The poems’ Arguments
Looking at the poets’ technique should, perhaps, begin with a consideration of argument. In a way all of the poems have an argument, but it is interesting or striking in some more than others.

To His Coy Mistress – the light and the serious arguments in one; the structure “Had we …” “But …” “Now therefore …”;

A Valediction Forbidding Mourning – the structure “As … so” “But … But” “Therefore” “Such wilt thou be to me …” and the similarity to this of The Definition of Love (but there are big differences, too);

The World – various follies depicted, with the solution to the supposed puzzle in the final stanza;

Bermudas and The Collar – both use a dramatic form: the puritan sailors’ song or the outburst of the rebellious Christian;

The Flower is dramatic, too, but embodies a kind of parable: Herbert sustains both the metaphor and the idea of the speaker as the Christian “Everyman”, examining his relationship with God;

Discipline – the severity of God’s wrath is mirrored in the taut, cramped lines – compare this with the “disordered” lines of The Collar.

You can also consider the imagery used by the poets. Do NOT become bogged down in discussion of single images, such as the notorious “twin compasses” in A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.

Consider, rather, the whole range of sources of imagery each uses. Broadly speaking, Donne is eclectic (wide-ranging) and apparently obscure. He did not write for publication, but showed poems to friends whom he supposed to be well-read enough to understand these references. Donne’s imagery draws on the new (in the late 16th century) learning of the English renaissance and on topical discoveries and exploration. We find references to alchemy, sea-voyages, mythology and religion (among many other things). Certain images or ideas recur so often as to seem typical: kingship and rule; subjectivism (“one little room an everywhere” “nothing else is”); alchemy – especially the mystical beliefs associated with elixir and quintessence – and cosmology, both ancient and modern (references both to spheres and to the world of “sea-discoverers”).

Herbert’s imagery, by way of contrast, draws on the everyday and familiar; reason is like “a good huswife”, spirit is measured in “drammes” and God’s grace is a “silk twist”, suffering is a harvest of thorns or blood-letting, Paradise is a garden where winter never comes, severity is a rod and love is God’s bow or the host at a banquet. It will be seen, however, that many of these images are found in Christ’s teaching, while others (or the same ones) may have acquired religious connotations. The reference to “thorn” and “bloud” in The Collar ironically seem to ignore the conventional religious symbolism of these terms.

Vaughan uses imagery almost exclusively from the natural world which is apprehended with a delight notably absent from his perception of most other people. The clue to this lies in The Retreate where Vaughan notes that “shadows of eternity” were seen by him in natural phenomena such as clouds or flowers. These images are readily understood and beautiful as with the flown bird and the star liberated from the Tomb. With Marvell, imagery is more problematic. Unlike Donne who scatters metaphors freely, Marvell is more selective and sparing. Very often the image is more memorable and striking than the idea it expresses, as with the “deserts of vast eternity”, while frequently one finds an idea which cannot be understood except as the image in which Marvell expresses it, as with the “green thought in a green shade”. In any case, with all of these poets, the use of metaphor serves, and is subordinate to, the total argument.

You should not leave the subject of technique without considering two poems (Jordan I and The Coronet) in which poetry is itself discussed. Herbert argues for plain-speaking, truth (man’s real relationship with God, not a pastoral fiction) and simplicity in a poem in which only the final two lines are simple. Herbert cannot help the cleverness of his verse but time and again concludes poems with praise of simplicity and deprecation of the wit he has just displayed. In The Coronet, Marvell considers whether the poetic skill which has formerly (and culpably) served to praise his “shepherdess” can “redress that Wrong”, by weaving a “Chaplet” for Christ.

But, the poet concludes, this is self-deception and vanity, and he ends with a prayer that God will act to remove the “Serpent” (the pursuit, in writing, of the poet’s own “Fame” or (self) “Interest” – even if this requires the destruction of Marvell’s own ingenious verse – “my curious frame”). In the skilful development of the central metaphor of the garland or “coronet” (appropriate both to the pastoral context and with biblical connotations, especially in associating the temptation to evil with the Serpent lurking in the greenery, Marvell exhibits the complexity, the riddling quality which this poem calls into question, perhaps best shown in the tortuous syntax of the first sentence with its succession of subordinate clauses separating the introductory “When” from the subject and main verb “I seek”.

Comparing the Poets
All the poets, though they occasionally display erudition (learning) write with fairly colloquial voices. The best-known (and, so, frequently-quoted) examples are Donne’s pretended outbursts: “I wonder by my troth …”; “Busy old foole” and “For God’s sake hold your tongue …” However the simple intimate address to the reader – “’Tis the year’s midnight” is no less characteristic of speech.

In Herbert we find equally pregnant openings. There are simple introductory statements which turn out not to be so simple: “Love bade me welcome ”(but what is this love, or who?), “I know the wayes of learning …”; there are questions: “Who sayes that fictions onely … become a verse?” and tranquil recollections of far from tranquil outbursts: “I struck the board, and cry’d, No more”. And, finally, as Donne addresses his mistress directly, so Herbert speaks, in the second person, to God: “Throw away thy rod” and “How fresh, O Lord … Are thy returns … These are thy wonders, Lord of love”.

As in other respects, Marvell exhibits more variety here. We find the second person in To His Coy Mistress. When Donne does this, we can believe, even though his own thoughts are what we learn, that an intimate address to a real woman is intended (in, say, The Good-Morrow, The Anniversarie and, even, A Valediction Forbidding Mourning). But the “Coy Mistress” is conspicuously absent – a mere pretext for Marvell to examine his real subjects – time and the brevity of human happiness.

Themes and Subjects
As Donne and Herbert do, Marvell writes much about his own ideas, but with less consistency. There is variety and superficial contradiction in the Songs and Sonets but Donne’s preoccupation with love is not in doubt. Herbert’s devout manner appears consistently in the poems in The Temple, but To His Coy Mistress is not easily reconciled with Bermudas or The Coronet. Marvell in all of these poems writes with lucidity and wit yet there is often an element of detachment – perhaps best shown in the dispassionate clarity and wordplay of The Definition of Love. It is interesting to note that the simplicity of much of Bermudas (essentially a list of God’s gifts to the settlers of the islands, though individual lines contain the usual wit – as in the description of the [pine]apples) is explained by the device of making most of the poem a hymn of gratitude, sung by the English sailors.

Though Vaughan’s exclusive religious views may repel us, we cannot ignore the clarity and directness of his style. The syntax is easy to the modern ear and unusual vocabulary is rare. He may open with an exclamation: “Happy those early dayes!” or “They are all gone into the world of light!” The simple understatement employed by Herbert is more than matched in The World which has one of the most striking openings of any English poem:

I saw Eternity the other night.

It could be fairly argued that the poem does not wholly succeed in the account, in detail (no poem could!) of the vision of Eternity which follows, but we can see how Vaughan works in the tradition established for poetry by Donne and for devotional verse by Herbert.

Stanzas and Poetic Form

Donne also establishes a pattern which the others emulate in his use of the stanza. He appears to love variety as a natural embellishment and (to borrow Milton’s phrase)“true ornament of verse”. We can see this by comparing poems. The three stanza structure which carries the argument in The Good Morrow is used again in other poems. But the fluency of the stanza in The Good-Morrow leading to the brief penultimate line and final Alexandrine with its stately, measured quality, gives way in The Sunne Rising to a far more lively and varied stanza. The almost breathless colloquial lines are, however, qualified in each stanza by a wholly regular and fluent rhyming couplet which enables Donne to conclude with a rhetorical flourish (note, however, that the final pentameter line is divided – rather on the model of the Alexandrine – after the second iambic foot). In The Anniversarie the whole stanza is more measured and stately and the Alexandrine is restored as the final line. In A Nocturnall Upon S.Lucies Day Donne uses, again, predominantly the pentameter line, yet the whole effect is more laboured than the fluent Good-Morrow. This is achieved by repeated interruptions marked by the punctuation.

Herbert matches Donne for variety in the stanza, but is more aware of the appearance of the poem on the page, as well as the effect on the ear. Poems such as The Altar and Easter Wings are written almost wholly for the sake of appearance. In this selection we should note, especially, The Collar and Discipline. In Discipline the cramped, lean lines reflect the severity which the poet begs God to refrain from using. In The Collar, there is an apparent randomness, a lack of order on the page, which mirrors the disordered outburst the poet here records. the jerky quality which derives from rhetorical questions – frequent use of full-stop, colon and question-mark even in mid-line – gives way only in the final four lines to a fluent conclusion which comes with the poet’s account of his submission to the divine pull on the collar.

In many of Marvell’s poems we find the same eight-syllable iambic line, yet its effect can vary remarkably. In To His Coy Mistress the vigorousness of the argument appears in the breathless lines – few are end-stopped, and the lines have the rough power of speech.

In The Definition of Love the same line is used, but arranged in four line stanzas. These carry the argument in the same way in which Donne uses this stanza in A Valediction Forbidding Mourning. Unlike Donne, who is prepared to allow some use of enjambement (between first and second stanzas and frequently within all the stanzas) Marvell’s stanza here has a near metronomic quality – a punctuation mark at the end of the second line exaggerates the rhyming syllable, which is emphatically matched at the end of the stanza. There is a similar regularity in Bermudas but here, by arranging the lines as rhyming pairs, Marvell conveys something of the sense of the motion of the English boat through the water (as the poem’s last line makes clear). This same line is used again, but arranged into eight line stanzas to develop the argument in The Garden, which is less slick but more profound and thoughtful than that in The Definition of Love.

Vaughan feels free to use variety in his stanza. Less spectacularly, perhaps, than Donne, he nonetheless suits form to content. So The Retreate is a fast-moving sustained meditation not divided into stanzas. The more contrived and ordered argument of The World or Man require much longer stanzas, but regular in form, while “They Are All Gone into the World of Light”, with its shorter stanza, becomes, in effect, a long series of distinct observations on the poem’s single subject.

Most of these comments are very general. Connections have been made which you should now exploit in relation to particular poems. Memorizing the text is not required but you must know your way around the poems. Trying, for the first time, to understand them in an exam is not wise.

It is therefore worth taking a poem, and deciding what you can usefully write about it, in terms of content, technique and points of reference to other poems.

Feb 20, 2012

The Waste Land: Mythical Method

The Design of the He do the Police in Different Voices, well known as The Waste Land is mythic that it conceives and takes final shape from the perspective of the poet as sheer. Eliot was considers as mythic poet not because he uses a known myth for the skeletal structure of the poem but because his artistic point of view is always formed by mythic perspective. Mythic conscious conceive a real world as unified, individual and self-contained despite apparent contradiction in both the universe and human affairs. The profane world of illusion which an ordinary man thinks to be real is not more than “a broken bundle of mirrors”--- in words of Pound, a fragrant that never cohere.

In The Waste Land the spring time of fertility and regeneration, is opposed to profane time that merely makes change--- Grontion depraved may is here April, the cruelest month. Water with its life giving gifts, its spiritual association with the ritual washing of Christ’s feet, and its identification with the river nymphs of fertility is juxtaposed to the profane desiccation of the waste land where hot water came at ten to complete the empty routine of bath, when Mr. Porter and his “daughter” of the prostitute house wash their feet. The thunder that heralds rain here dry thunder, its message coming in a language few man can understood. The beneficent death by water that transformed the father’s bones into something rich and strange that drowning of Phelbas, without hope of transformation. All other mythic conscious are brought to bear on his opposition of the meaningful sacrificial death and the pointless death in life which are the condition of the waste land.

Time and space as man can measure them are dissolved as the poet visionary with the steady singleness of the perspective merges literary, mythic and historical figure into mythic equivalents. All questers are one: Tiresias, Ferdinand, Adonis, and Denial. The twentieth century man hailing Stetson. All victims are one: Philomel, the Rhyme Maidens, the man with three staves, the hooded Christ and the fisher King. All suffers violation. The sinners share a mutual degradation: the typist and the young man, Madame Sosotris, the merchant of Eugenides and Lil. Eliot tells us we cannot understand any of the part of a great poem without knowing some sense of the whole. Once the total sweep of the poem is recognized, we can examine each of the section as it fits into this design.

“The Burial of the Death” opens as echoes of Sibyl’s poignant wish fades into the bitter yearning of the lifeless society of the waste land for death in the midst of the earth renewal. In London, it is Chaucer’s season. The entire passage documents inhabitants’ failures: their inability in love, their rootlessness in present--- without a past, desperately looking for a horoscope for the glimpse of the future. A sterile planting evoking Baudelaire specter of Ennui, that closes the part one. Paragraph shows The Waste Land is indeed a living hell without the hope redemption. The speaker, like the others, is neither living or dead, knows nothing as he looks into “heart if light, silence”.

The game of chess forther documents the inhabitants the failures in the waste land. In this paragraph, we experiences two kind of sterility: fist the staled synthetic richness of the upper class and the ulcleen vacuous smugness of the pub woman. The violence is universal in the rape of Philomel, in Lil’s aboration and in the madness of Ophelia..
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Feb 19, 2012

Duchess of Malfi: Plot

Plot is, in generally speaking, is the combination of incidents. According to Aristotle “Plot is the soul of tragedy”. Jacobean and Elizabethan dramatists should invent their plot, instead they took it from history, national story, legend or folk lore but as Aristotle points out: “A dramatist should invent or borrowed his story but he must be a man of plot”. Broadly speaking, plot consists of revelation of the story, basic information about the principal characters and the theme of the play.

Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights seldom invented the plot of a plays instead they took them from some old stories, national history, legend or folk lore. Elizabethan Webster based the story of Duchess of Malfi on a true story which was reported by several writers--- William Painter told this story in English, in his book “The Palace of Pleasure”. It was this version of story that Webster used as the principal source of “Duchess of Malfi”.

Structurally the play is quite simple and it can be easily summarized. The heroine marriages to her steward and is persecuted for it by her brothers. They employ an instrument named, Bosola, to keep eye on the Duchess. The real excellence of the play is almost confined to Act IV where the unhappy Duchess is first imprisoned and than murdered. At the end of Act V, everybody kills everybody else--- the husband, the brothers and Bosola.

Act I introduces all the main characters—the Duchess and her two brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal; hero Antonio and the instrument Bosola, Delio etc. it introduces all the reason for and nature of conflict between protagonist and the antagonist. John Webster not only introduces the central conflict but also suggests its tragic inevitability. In Act I, after a brief and quaint and wooing the young widow claims a “complete man” for her husband.

Act II, builds straight way on Act one’s outcome of the Duchess’ action in the birth of her son. Bosola comes to know about it but is still unaware of the father of the child. When Ferdinand and the Cardinal learn of the birth of the child, they speak of the revenge. Ferdinand reels and rants:
“I’ll go to sleep
Till I know mates my sister
I’ll no stir”.
Though somehow several years lapse time during which the Duchess give birth two more children about whom Bosola says:
“‘Tis rumour’d she hath had three bastards but
By whom, we may go and read the stars”.

In Act III, Ferdinand comes to Malfi and surprises the Duchess in her bed chamber. The Duchess plans to escape to Ancona but as she takes Bosola into her confinements is a foregone conclusion. She is arrested before the end of Act III, and taken to Malfi, where we meet her in Act IV. Act IV is entirely of the Duchess in that she suffers torture after torture both physical and mental. Both Ferdinand and Bosola, through the devices of wax figure, the dance of mad men, the offers of a dead man’s hand, inflict torture after torture on the Duchess until she is died. When Ferdinand refuses to pay to Bosola, the latter is filled with remorse. He decides to act as an avenger for the murder of the Duchess.

F.L. Lucas pointed out, “Long age the play seems to die with the Duchess in Act IV”, but Webster has given one full Act V so that he can show retribution overtaking the Arragonian brothers. It is true that the main interest of the play is over that is why this Act has been often described as anti-climax. Though the main interest of the play is over with the death of the Duchess, the thematic framework of the play remains unfulfilled. The death of the Duchess shows the crushing defeat of a great woman, but no punishment overtaking the evil-doer. Webster has somehow much against his source where no punishment visited the Arragonian brothers. Webster found this Act necessary to project his moral vision. In a sense, he believes in the ultimate victory of virtue. The good are defeated on material plane; morally they triumph. We do not leave the theatre frustrated. We have a sense of reconciliation when Delio says at the end:
“Let us make a noble use
Of this great ruin, and join our force
To establish this young and hopeful gentleman
In his mother’s pride”
——we feel like saying “Amen”.

Webster has seen some tangible and intangible links between Act V and the rest of the play. In the first place, he has shown the transformation in Bosola’s attitude towards his villainous action. Confronted by both of the horrors of his dead and refusal of Ferdinand to pay him, and Bosola becomes a changed man in Act V. and it is he who acts as the instrument of vengeance in Act V. secondly, like Shakespeare, Webster tries to make the spirit of the dead protagonist presided invisibly over the proceedings of Act V. 

All the villains--- Ferdinand, the Cardinal and Bosola--- are haunted by the spirit of the dead Duchess. Ferdinand tries to throttle his own shadow and says “strangling is a cruel death”. Bosola sees an image of the Duchess and confesses that he is haunted by her. Then there is the “Echo” which warns Antonio of the imminent death if he goes to the Cardinal’s palace. Finally, almost everyone who meets his death in Act V dies remembering of the Duchess. It is by these men’s that Webster has tried to unite the Act V with rest of the play. So it can be said that though Act V is structurally and acthelically a weak spot but it is necessary for the thematic framework of the play.

What is important about Webster’s plot construction in Duchess of Malfi is his attempt to create sympathy for his heroine. Webster’s principle shows, William Painter’s Pleasure of Palace, as well as Bandello’s and Bellforest account for the same story. They present the Duchess as a lusty woman, who brought disgrace for her brothers and dies a deserved death. Though Webster told the same story yet his focus manipulates sympathy for the Duchess. This is done in two ways: first, the Duchess’ deviations societal norms are presented as an unavoidable action in the light of her brother’s declared hostility to her remarriage. Secondly, Webster presents two brothers as perverse, violent and Machiavellian villainous. The Cardinal affair with Julia, his cunning ways and misuse of high office make him a villainous of first water. Similarly, Ferdinand’s violence and incestuous (sexual) inclinations towards Duchess destroy whatever social right might have been on his side. Thus, Webster handling of the story converts the story of an ordinary woman into a great and powerful tragedy.

If Act V is criticizes for providing an anti-climax, Act III is criticizes for not following the Aristotelian concept of time. Right at the beginng of Act III Antonio says to Delio: “Since you see her She hath had two children more A son and a daughter” clearly there is a gap of two years between Act II and Act III, but some critics believe that it was just a mistake of the dramatist.

In sum, what is important about Webster’s plot construction in The Duchess of Malfi is his attempt to create sympathy for his heroine. Webster’s principle shows William Painter’s The Palace of Pleasure, Bandello and Bellforest’s account for the same story--- they presents Duchess as a lusty woman who brought disgrace for her brother and dies a deserved death--- but Webster uses the same story but his focus manipulates sympathy for the Duchess. As a moral, the theme of the play is that “We are merely star’ tennis balls Struck and bandied Which way please them…..”  Evan observes “Webster sombre spirit aided by his poetic process raises his plot from a melodrama to a tragic world”.

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