Saturday, April 24, 2010

Death Of Youth in Kipling's Epitaphs

Kipling's Epitaphs are interesting little poems. Short and sentimental, they all have a similar tone describing needless young death. I often find it difficult to cope with death, and these short poems give an insight into Kipling's personal feelings about war and death. "The Coward," is particularly striking, "I could not look on Death, which being known, / Men led me to him, blindfold and alone." Is death the coward, or is the narrator? A common theme in the epitaphs is the lack of choice, especially in, "The Beginner," where Kipling describes the death of his own son, "On the first hour of my first day / In the front trench I fell." Death comes for us all, but in these poems Kipling asks why so many young men must die for no reason.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Kipling's Epitaph, "The Beginner"

This was my favorite of all of his epitaphs: it's just so sad. I love WWI because there was such a beautiful innocence about the world that got completely smashed apart.

The Beginner

On the first hour of my first day

In the front trench I fell.

(Children in boxes at a play

Stand up to watch it well).

My dad made me read a book last summer called The Great War and Modern Memory, which talked about the changes in literature that happened as a result of WWI. Before WWI, modern europe believed in progress and though they were moving forward. There hadn't been a major war since the Second Treaty of Paris that ended the Napoleonic Wars, when almost all of the major and minor european countries agreed upon a Balance of Power between the nations. After awhile, war became something that was glorified - people read The Iliad and imagined heroes - Achilles and Agamemnon. And all the time leading up to the war, as we've read - was filled with romanticism. People wrote poetry about knights and kings, heroes - and that which came along with them - the beautiful, innocent princesses, the lovely lady waiting for her soldier to return home, scarred but valiant. All of that was an illusion, of course - a world before poison gas, tanks, trenches, airplanes, and effective artillery.

So, once these valiant heroes marched off to war, they realized how truly horrible it was - and the type of prose and poetry that entered WWI, all flowery and nature-oriented, was transformed. After the war, disillusionment and stark prose characterized modern writing. Images of death and pointless brutality, or senseless death, were rampant. And that's where this comes into play - stories of innocence that meet with senseless, immediate death. A boy who looks over the top of the trench to see the battle - to see the artillery burst like stars in the air, to see the land transformed from a place of trees into a cratered, surrealist moonscape - for that he is killed, a child, innocent, and most of all, foolish.

And that's the thing I really see that characterizes these poems - a sense of sardonic humor, that grins at the absolute misery of reality, and thinks How could we have been so foolish?

Things Fall Apart

Taking a cue from Yeats' "The Second Coming", the poems we have read for this week all seem to deal with the theme of "things fall[ing] apart." It seems evident that we have entered the 20th century and are dealing with the time period around World War I. There is a sense of hopelessness behind these poems, whether it is Yeats ("And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?") or Hardy ("That night your great guns, unawares, / Shook all our coffins as we lay...") or Kipling ("I have slain none except my Mother. She / (Blessing her slayer) died of grief for me"), they all speak of war and its negative effects, most prominently, death. The worlds in these poems are bleak and falling apart. They all offer social commentary--mostly anti-war (even though they would not agree on the rightness or wrongness of imperialism, since Kipling was one of imperialism's biggest fans)--and in this way they connect with most of the authors we have read throughout the course. They are all writing with greater meaning and a desire to effect thought/change. In these more modern poems, however, I detect a greater bleakness than existed in earlier writings. Perhaps, they reflect the (what I believe is) more modern idea of nihilism--things fall apart, and that's all there is to life.

Tommy and Imperialism

The poem Tommy presents a kind of interesting situation. Kipling seems to me to be yearning for a time when the soldier was a romanticized hero and war still had a romantic notion. At the same time he recognizes the unpopularity of war in the time that he writes and hence the unpopularity of soldiers. Perhaps because of his imperialist leanings, Kipling rushes to the aid of the soldier by taking on his voice. The didactic message of the poem seems to warn the British that they need to do right by their soldiers and honor them because they realize the disrespect they get even in the light of their perilous sacrifice. Kipling himself was a proponent of extreme right wing politics and this poem seems to push in a very real way those feelings of the need to support the troops at all times. Kipling and his voice in the poem seem to favor cowboy diplomacy. I actually really like this poem and appreciate its message. I sent it to a fraternity brother of mine at West Point. With that said, it speaks to the precise reason that Kipling historical legacy has been very fluid. Because of the nature of a lot of his work it is impossible to separate his politics from his art. Particularly because his politics supported a morally questionable practice (imperialism) it makes his work hard to read in a vacuum, even more so than other artists.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Bridegroom

Kipling's epitaph "The Bridegroom" stood out to me due to its thematic connection to some of the previous poems we have read this semester like "Alonzo the Brave" and "Lenora." Whereas we have seen authors describe marriage as a type of death or leading to the grave, in this epitaph Kipling portrays Death itself as a lover that steals the bridegroom from his bride. I especially liked how the poem portrays the narrator apologizing for his unfaithfulness, and asking her to not call him false. He is almost trying to justify to her the reason why he abandoned her with rational, structured arguments about the situation, talking about how Death had a legitimate claim to him before his true bride showed up. This poem offers a powerful image of death as the "ancient bride" who has legitimate claim to the groom- even to steal him from the arms of his beloved.

The last stanza from this poem made me shiver. Reading it, I felt like the poet was saying that the bridegroom expected to endure eternity with his new bride- death.

Kipling's Personae

It's almost hard to write on Kipling beyond pointing out the obvious that these poems or epitaphs are all eloquent, eerily beautiful anti-war propaganda. However, after going through them all a second time, one thing stuck out to me.

Most of the poetry we've read so far reference death/posthumous topics at least some if not frequently. For instance, Keats writes about his brother's death, his reaction to his brother's death, and even his apparent death to come. Kipling is not different in terms of topic, but he is in terms of perspective. Essentially all of these epitaphs come from the persona of one who is recently deceased. There is no lamenting of the deceased, per se; rather, it is the deceased lamenting their mistakes, misfortunes, and loved ones left behind. They remind me a lot of Emily Dickinson in this regard, at least in terms of the differing personae, though she wasn't quite as 'regretful' in hers, nor nearly as motivated to create propaganda.

A side note: It is also interesting is that these are called epitaphs. Generally, when I think of epitaphs, I think of a loved one writing about one who is deceased. For instance, seeing "beloved father and husband" on a grave. It's an interesting twist Kipling employs that I find very effective.

Apocalyptic Poetry: Yeats and Hardy

Its interesting to compare the poetry of both Yeats and Hardy during the period before and during World War I. Both poets use the Biblical reference to the return of Christ and the end of the world in their poems, but the manner in which they do so is quite different.
In Yeat's "The Second Coming" he evokes a supernatural element to the idea of the second coming (as Sarah mentioned in her earlier post). This works on the reader to emphasis that the events leading up to this war are something that can't hardly be fathomed, and bare a strong tone of horror.
In comparison, Hardy also makes strong use of the apocalyptic imagery. he describes the noise of gunfire and compares this to "Judgement Day." However, his poem has a much more realistic tone than Yeat's - focused on the details and common events that actually took place. However, this realism evokes a similar tone of horror and dread simply in the fact that the situations are actually happening.
I think the religious allusions in both of these poems work to emphasis the disillusionment of religion felt by the witnesses of the war. As a question of agency, this shows their hopelessness towards human nature after the war, and they feel as if they can't stop the coming horrors from occuring...

Landscape and Alienation

The profound sense of alienation evoked in Yeats' "The Second Coming" seems odd in connection with the other works we've been reading. On the one hand, the desolate landscape described in
Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
seems to invoke a sort of supernatural in "a waste of desert sand," and "a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun." This supernatural is not the same as the sort seen in The Castle of Otranto and other works, which focus on the supernatural in the personal, the individual. Even in earlier Yeats' poems, the supernatural is placed in the hands of the individual. I wander what it means that the supernatural has entered into the landscape instead of the individual. With the landscape as the conduit for the supernatural, there seems to be no space left for the individual.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Old Man Traveling & The Stolen Child

As I read The Stolen Child, I couldn't help but think about Old Man Traveling and the similarities between the two of them. Nature is personified in both of them and they each have a refrain that changes in the last stanza.
Come away, O human child!
To to waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For to world's more full of weeping than you can understand
For be comes, the human child, 50
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
From a world more full of weeping than you can understand.
After reading about Yeats, I know he was fascinated with Irish folklore and this poem shows it with the emphasis on the faery leading the child away from home. I think it is interesting that the title suggests that the child was actually stolen, which comes across as more serious and longlasting. Also, he wrote this poem in 1889 which is the year he met Maud Gonne and fell in love with her. In such a happy situation, why does he insist that the world is full of weeping? The whole poem is dreary and references tears and unquiet dreams (lines 34 and 36) but it doesn't make sense at this time of his life.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Yeats and Materialism

As I was reading the biographical information regarding Yeats, he seems to be soundly against materialism, but "The Circus Animal's Desertion," one of his later poems, seems to question both his success as an author as well as his stance against materialism. The metaphor of circus animals as literary works lends a highly commercial feel to Yeats' career. Circus animals, or freaks, are spectacles that people pay money to see; they are entertainment. If Yeats' literature is a circus animal, is it not just another material entertainment? And how does this relate to his anti-materialistic views? Perhaps because this is a reflection on his career he realizes the contradiction of his work and his views? The relationship becomes even more complex when he analyzes the merit of his work, finding that the true beauty of each poem is in the dream it inspires, which is abstract and, thus, immaterial. Yet Yeats claims that he has ignored the foundation of his work, the "foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart," which could be the material, or tangible, aspects of his work (ln. 40). It seems to me that this poem is full of contradictions: his anti-materialist attitude is contradicted by the notion of circus animals, which is then contradicted by the claim that Yeats is selling dreams. Maybe this reflects Yeats' own conflict, or perhaps there is a relationship I cannot see. Does anyone else have thoughts?

The Rag-and-Bone Shop of the Heart

I enjoyed reading the compilation of Yeats poem, and found in them a reoccurring theme of wishing for the past, but instead finding oneself in the weary present attempting to start over at life, at love, of trying to regain youth and innocence.
I found "The Circus Animals' Desertion" most consistent with what we have discussed this semester. To begin with, there is a "broken man" at the start of the poem, which immediately alerts us to the fact that something is unnatural, there must be something wrong if he is "broken." Secondly, the Circus is often associated with "freaks of nature," or creatures that don't fit into what we see as our reality. The people/animals/things in a circus are by nature, strange.

My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.

I find it interesting that he groups women in the category of the strange and unknowable, even to the Lord who is supposed to know everything. These are creatures beyond the normal realm of reason. Yeats then goes off into a sort of dreamy, enchanted world that is a little bizarre.
The speaker's brokenness is accompanied by the image of "The Countess Cathleen" wants to give away her soul, (which is not natural), and this brings up the comparison between the body and the soul.
Then there is the "Fool" and the "Blind Man," who can both be considered outsiders who never quite fit in. The reference to Cuchulain (aka the "Irish Achilles") brings in his irrational strength that is otherworldly and superhuman if he is able to fight the "ungovernable sea." However, all heroes have a week spot. The speaker was enchanted by a dream, not reality, and when in the last stanza he finds himself back in the harshness of the real world full of broken objects.

At the end, he mourns all the work he had done in the past, the love he had built up, saying that his ladder is now gone, and his weary tone suggests he doesn't really feel up to creating a new ladder. The speaker says "I must lie down where all the ladders start/In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart," which is to say that love's imperfection causes broken-heartedness. He cannot even stand up and climb, he is reduced to a supine position. This all refers back to the absurdness and irrationality we have seen so far.