Monday, June 27, 2011

The Wife of Asdrubal

Hemans’ “The Wife of Asdrubal” begins with a city on fire. Hemans states, “O’er Afric’s heaven the flames of Carthage throw; / . . . The sculptured altar, and the pillar’d hall, / Shine out in dreadful brightness ere they fall” (lines 2-8).

From the midst of these destructive sights, Asdrubal’s wife appears to look down on the city and the people her husband has destroyed. Hemans writes, “But mark! From yon fair temple’s loftiest height / What towering form bursts wildly on the sight, / All regal in magnificent attire, . . . / A being more than earthly, in whose eye / There dwells a strange and fierce ascendancy” (lines 15-23). From both her position and the description of her eyes, Asdrubal’s wife is on a plane above the chaos her husband has caused. From her perch, her children surround her. They seek both protection and comfort from her as their home burns around them. Hemans writes, “Are those her infants, that with suppliant-cry / Cling round her, shrinking as the flame draws nigh, . . . / Is that a mother’s glance, where stern disdain, / And passion awfully vindictive, reign?” (lines 33-38). Hemans questions whether she looks like a mother in this instant, and I would say no. By this point, she knows what her husband has done. She knows she and her children will not survive, and she is focused on Asdrubal. “Fix’d is her eye on Asdrubal, who stands, / Ignobly safe, amidst the conquering bands; / On him, who left her to that burning tomb, / Alone to share her children’s martyrdom” (lines 39-42). Asdrubal’s wife curses him for the part he has played in their deaths; she shouts, “Scorn’d and dishonour’d, live!—with blasted name, / . . . Still may the manes of thy children rise / To chase calm slumber from thy wearied eyes; / Still may their voices on the haunted air / In fearful whispers tell thee to despair, / Till vain remorse thy wither-d heart consume, / Scourged by relentless shadows of the tomb!” (lines 47-56). Asdrubal’s actions have killed her children, and his wife wants that knowledge to burn him alive as well. At the same time she wishes these horrors upon her husband, she refuses to let her children suffer.

At this point, Asdrubal’s wife says, “Think’st thou I love them not? . . . / ‘Tis mine with these to suffer and to die. / Behold their fate!—the arms that cannot save / Have been their cradle, and shall be their grave” (lines 59-62). Here, Asdrubal’s wife again acknowledges their fate but refuses to condemn her children to the end her husband has chosen for them. Her focus shifts back to her children. In a final act of love and mercy, she kills them. In those final moments, “With frantic laugh she clasps them to the breast / Whose woes and passions soon shall be at rest; / Lifts one appealing, frenzied glance on high, / Then deep midst rolling flames is lost to mortal eye” (lines 65-69). She saves them just in time—as they take their final breaths, the flames consume her. To me, the ending is one of absolute redeeming love. It seems as if she has just a moment or two left. Instead of saving herself from a painful death like Asdrubal did, his wife spends her last moments ensuring that her children do not suffer. In addition, she looks to heaven “frenzied” and “appealing” for forgiveness as she dies—an action Asdrubal never takes.


Today’s reports of the wars America is fighting present a confusing muddle of information. We are making no headway in separating the good from the bad. Some media sources praise our soldiers for their exploits while portraying our enemies as heartless killers. Some sources claim we are causing problems among innocent men and women. Most of these messages are presented as absolute. You should either believe one viewpoint or the other. There exists no continuum of beliefs—just a black or white vision of events. While Siegfried Sassoon’s views were rejected in his time, he presents a clear separation between the views of the civilians and the soldiers. At the same time, Sassoon’s consideration of the men and women on both sides of the war makes up the gray area today’s media seems to ignore.

Sassoon begins with the public extolling the courage and success of the soldiers. He writes, “You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave, / Or wounded in a mentionable place. / You worship decorations; you believe / That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace” (lines 1-4). After chastising the public for their beliefs, Sassoon goes on to describe the “war’s disgrace” in two parts. First, Sassoon states, “You make us shells. You listen with delight, / By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled. / You crown our distant ardours while we fight” (lines 5-7). Here, Sassoon recognizes the discrepancy in the views of the public and the soldiers. As the soldiers are on the battlefields killing each other, the public is “thrilled” by the danger and bravery of the stories. But Sassoon adds reality into the mix by saying, “You can’t believe that British troops ‘retire’ / When hell’s last horror breaks them, and they run, / Trampling the terrible corpses—blind with blood” (lines 9-11). Perhaps partly due to propaganda and partly due to a desire to see progress and goodness in the midst of loss, the public ignores the reality of retreats and death. What Sassoon reminds his readers is that retreat happens to all men eventually. The soldiers are the only ones seeing the reality of the war, the killing, and the retreats. As he points out, the public refuses to see the horror, the blood, and the moral dilemmas soldiers face. The public can ignore the feelings of disgrace and hopelessness that can accompany killing another woman’s son, but the soldiers see the pain and loss of life on both sides of the battlefield. This discrepancy points to the second disgrace.

The men in both armies have mothers, fathers, siblings, wives, and children back home. As hard as the propaganda ministries may work to demonize the enemy, those soldiers are still men. While English mothers celebrate the bravery of their sons, their sons are out killing other women’s children. One of the reasons this poem may not have been accepted when it was published is that it forces readers to acknowledge humanity on both sides of the war. Sassoon writes, “O German mother dreaming by the fire, / While you are knitting socks to send your son / His face is trodden deeper in the mud” (lines 12-15). Here, the mother knits and dreams of her son with pride and a mother’s pure love even as he is dead and decaying face down in the mud.

Hopkins' view of God

In both “Pied Beauty” and “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”, Gerard Manley Hopkins celebrates the variability of God’s creations and the wonder of his work. Each poem begins by listing out numerous creatures designed by God. In “Pied Beauty”, Hopkins notes with wonder the sheer number of things God has made that have spots. He writes, “Glory be to God for dappled things— / For skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow; / For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; / Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches wings; . . . “ (page 775). The variety of creatures continues with “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” with winged animals like dragonflies and kingfishers. For Hopkins, the variability of God’s creations point to the power and wonder of his work.

The kingfisher poem takes Hopkins’ views a step farther to explore the relationship between God and creation. Hopkins sees the relationship as an open one. He writes, “the just man justices; / Keeps grace; that keeps all his goings graces; / Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is” (page 777). As much as human beings can deceive and hide from one another, Hopkins’ God can see through every disguise to the true nature of the creatures he has made. Hopkins describes God as someone who can see everyone for what they truly are.

In addition, God is portrayed as being everywhere. He is revealed in all places and among the faces of all of his creations. Hopkins states, “ for Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces” (page 777). In this poem, God’s power is revealed to us in the infinite number of human faces. For Hopkins, the wonder and majesty of God can be found in nature all around him. He sees every living thing as one of God’s creations.

For Hopkins, the many faces of humanity seem to artistically represent God’s power. Oddly, many Islamic religious groups refuse to use human features in their artwork for fear of creating idolatrous images. Instead, they use tessellations and geographic designs to show God’s infinite power. However, even the difference in these two viewpoints seems to further Hopkins’ original point—God created an enormous range of creatures with different appearances, thoughts, and feelings, and the individual differences we see are merely further examples of God’s power.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Lewis and the "Vorticist Manifesto"

For the author of section 6 of the “Vorticist Manifesto”, industrialism and modern life have transformed England and brought every region of the world together. Lewis begins by referring to his time period as “The Modern World” (page 1095). To me, the capitalization seems to suggest that the author considers this world to be entirely different from anything that came before it, and it “is due almost entirely to Anglo-Saxon genius. . . . Machinery, trains, steam-ships, all that distinguishes externally out time, came far more from here than anywhere else”. This machinery, coal mining, industrialization, and work-centered way of life in England quickly spread throughout Europe. Lewis writes, “But busy with this LIFE-EFFORT, [England] has been the last to become conscious of the Art that is an organism of this new Order and Will of Man.” For Lewis, the economic gains that have lead to the “new Order” have blinded England to the resulting artistic changes. Lewis sees drastic changes occurring in art forms and state, “Machinery is the greatest Earth-medium: incidentally it sweeps away the doctrines of a narrow and pedantic Realism at one stroke.” Building on these changes from the traditional poetry and writings from England, the Blast authors promote lists, new forms, capitalization, and bolded words.

But the widespread affects of industrialized England do not stop with art. Lewis sees the affects across the rapidly shrinking globe; “By mechanical inventiveness, too, just as Englishmen have spread themselves all over the Earth, they have brought all the hemispheres about them in their original island.” Areas that once appeared a great distance away could be reached in a matter of hours. Trade with far off shores became a realistic goal. Travel became more economical. All at once, the steam engines and new transportation bring distant countries and undiscovered civilizations into frequent contact with England. Lewis says, “It cannot be said that the complication of the Jungle, dramatic tropic growths, the vastness of American trees, is not for us. For, in the forms of machinery, Factories, new and vaster buildings, bridges and works, we have all that, naturally, around us.” As a result of machinery and industrialization, England is becoming a more interactive and wide-reaching nation. Lewis feels that the whole world is within reach for an English citizen, and he believes the industrial focus has changed not only that but also the way people view the artistic process.

Oddly, the same machinery, industrialization, and travel that brought the world together were huge contributors to the nature of World War 1. However, the start of WW1 put a stop to Lewis’ vision of modern literature. It seems to me that the very factors Lewis considered to have changed art were also the factors that destroyed its chances of being recognized—at least as far as Blast is concerned!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

John Stuart Mill

Because we live in a time where even the smallest children have rights, I think it is fascinating to look back to a time where neither women nor children had lasting individual rights. In John Stuart Mill’s “Statement Repudiating the Rights of Husbands”, men control the rights of their children and their wives. While it is not completely clear, I would assume that for female children, fathers control their rights up until the time that they marry—unless they reach their majority without marrying. Mill makes it sound as if adult women lose any legal rights to sign contracts or own property when they marry. So while it is possible for women to have some rights, they are not permanent. In describing his marriage contract, Mill states, “[marriage] confers upon one of the parties to the contract, legal power and control over the person, property, and freedom of action of the other party, independent of her own wishes and will” (page 527). Mill sees this state of affairs as a great injustice affecting millions of people.

Unlike other authors who may have referenced similar problems, Mill offers a unique method of persuasion. He does not present himself as just another writer complaining about the inequality of society. He is someone who has experienced the situation and offers a method for correcting the problem on a small scale. He does not overtly tell society that they are wrong and need to change their ways. Using word choice and tone, Mill acknowledges the problem marriage presents and suggests a method for reinstating women’s rights on an individual scale. He writes, “I, having no means of legally divesting myself of these odious powers . . . , feel it my duty to put on record a formal protest against the existing law of marriage, in so far as conferring powers; and a solemn promise never in any case or under any circumstances to use them” (page 527). Describing the powers society bestows on husbands as “odious” shows that Mill feels strongly on the subject without directly telling society that it is at fault. At the same time, Mill makes the issue a very public one by putting “on record a formal protest” and a “solemn promise”. He appears to understand legal rights will not immediately change for the country; he merely proposes that husbands work individually to alter their wives’ legal rights.

To support his suggestions, Mill publically provides a model for others to emulate. He ends his paragraph by declaring his intentions toward his betrothed. He says, “in the event of marriage between Mrs. Taylor and me I declare it to be my will and intention, and the condition of the engagement between us, that she retains in all respects whatever the same absolute freedom of action, and freedom of disposal of herself and of all that does or may at any time belong to her, as if no such marriage had taken place; and I absolutely disclaim and repudiate all pretence to have acquired any rights whatever by virtue of such marriage” (page 527). Here, Mill repeats his distaste for the current laws. He scorns the idea that a man has the authority to take individual rights from another person, and he sets an example by giving up his new “rights”.


Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion brings to light an unusual form of discrimination. Within the first five pages, speech patterns have been used to identify every class—from a lowly flower girl to an upstanding gentleman. The syntax, pronunciation, and word choice of each character serve to divulge their upbringing. The character Henry Higgins claims even the most intelligent and lucky people cannot disguise their inherited class standing without strict tutoring on speech patterns. He claims, “This is an age of upstarts. Men begin in Kentish Town with [80 pounds??] a year, and end in Park Lane with a hundred thousand. They want to drop Kentish Town; but they give themselves away every time they open their mouths” (page 1013). For Higgins, people cannot change their social class without a change in dialect.

This requirement is remarkably similar today. While we may not be born into strict classes, children from wealthier families generally have better educational experiences. In the area I grew up in, you could listen to dropped vowels, mispronunciation, and use of slang to determine whether someone was native to Georgia, grew up in the city, or lived in the projects. I think there are probably more exceptions to Higgins’ rules today given the availability of education and the wide variety of people who make up each “class”.

However, I disagree with Higgins’ observation that people without the “proper” speech patterns are useless. He states, “A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere—no right to live. Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and The Bible; and don’t sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon” (page 1013). His point here seems to be that everyone should speak to the best of their abilities. He sees English as a language of brilliant and wondrous possibilities. He mentions Shakespeare, Milton, and The Bible as examples of amazing works created in the English language. It seems as if the “disgusting” syllables Liza uses offend him. She makes no attempt to follow these great authors, and Higgins appears to view Liza’s speech as if it dishonors those works. He seems to expect people ought to work to speak as well as possible.

As admirable as that goal may be, I do not think correct pronunciation is of the upmost importance. For people like Liza who are born in disadvantaged circumstances, the focus is and should be on survival. Liza cannot eat and pay the rent without selling her flowers each day. In poor areas all over the world are people who work all day long just to feed their families. Time taken for lessons in proper speech detracts from any earnings the person may receive.

How do you decide what language is to the proper one to use? I find that many of the languages I am unfamiliar with have harsh and unpleasant sounds. What right does Higgins have to determine which language is best? To me, he values unreasonable priorities for poorer citizens and perpetuates the language stereotype by classifying people according to their accents.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Hardy's "The Convergence of the Twain"

Hardy describes the Titanic as she is now by saying, “Jewels in joy designed / To ravish the sensuous mind / Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind” (lines 10-13). For Hardy, all the opulent details that made the Titanic a luxurious mode of transportation are now ruined by seawater and darkness. The sea swallows up all evidence of human vanity. Like in Byron’s “Apostrophe to the Ocean”, humans may be bold enough to think they can conquer the sea, but in time, the sea covers all evidence of their presence.

In Hardy’s poem, the fish ask, “’What does this vaingloriousness down here?’” (line 15). While Byron sees the sinking of ships and deaths of their passengers as a type of payback for the abuses humanity heaps on nature (see my blog on Byron!), Hardy seems to view the Titanic disaster as a result of fate and human vanity. Hardy’s reply to the fish is “while was fashioning / This creature of cleaving wing, / The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything / Prepared a sinister mate / For her—so gaily great— / A shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate” (lines 16-21). The “Immanent Will” seems to be much like fate in this case. As humans are creating this unsinkable pinnacle of modern machinery, fate is plotting unseen.

The iceberg seems to be both a source of balance and a mechanism that will teach men a lesson. As a balance, Hardy sets up the poem so that the iceberg and the ship are equals and opposites. He describes the iceberg as growing along with the ship, it’s “sinister mate”. However, he also describes the opposing natures of each object. The Titanic was designed by man “to ravish the sensuous mind” with mirrors, jewels, and warmth aplenty. The iceberg merely grows in the cold and “shadowy silent distance” (lines 24).

It also seems like the more presumptuous and vain humanity gets, the more fate acts to check that foolhardy behavior. Hardy writes, “And as the smart ship grew / In stature, grace, and hue, / In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too” (lines 22-24). The simultaneous development also adds to the idea that these are two parts of a whole fated to meet.

The combination of these parts makes the sinking of the Titanic into a warning for humanity—inevitably, as our arrogance and pride in our achievements grow, this “vaingloriousness” will be counteracted by fate. Humanity cannot become so assured of our power that we assume we are untouchable. There always exist outside forces—whether fate, a god, or merely weather phenomenon—that will destroy what man worked so hard to create. Overall, the message of this poem warns against excessive pride by citing an extreme example of the consequences.