Friday, 17 December 2010

Never Forget

There is a poem by Italian chemist and author Primo Levi which sends a shiver down my spine to this day, and not just because of his experiences in Auschwitz. In 1987, Levi was found dead at the bottom of the stairwell in this apartment building. While suicide was ruled by his coroner, many of his friends commented on the fact that - as a chemist - Levi would have been more likely to take his own life through intentional poisoning rather than risking paralysis from the three story plunge. Regardless, Elie Wiesel pointed out that "Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years earlier", bringing his haunting past back to the front of our mind, where one would think it resided permanently for him. I have reproduced the poem below:

You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who does not know peace
Who fights for a scrap of bread
Who dies because of a yes or a no.
Consider if this is a woman,
Without hair and without name
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter.
Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children,
Or may your house fall apart,
May illness impede you,
May your children turn their faces from you.

Birdsong (Part 1 - France 1910)

Note: The following comments are based solely on the first 47 pages of the book.

The opening to the novel presents an idyllic France and introduces Stephen Wraysford, along with us, to the Azaire family. We learn that René Azaire owns a fabric factory in Amiens, which is on the verge of a strike due to the proposed implementation of machinery and loss of jobs. On the first night of his stay with the Azaires, Stephen hears noises coming from another room in the house. Investigating the disturbance, it turns out to be "a woman's voice...almost like sobbing, interrupted by a more material sound of brief impact". It seems probable that domestic violence is taking place in the room, and Stephen "tense[s] his hands into fists by his ribs", before running away. In his notebook, Stephen takes notes (in code as to not be discovered) but is surprised to see that "what struck him most he had not written about at all".

Later, when Stephen confronts Isabelle Azaire about the noises he heard the previous night, she tells him he "must not humiliate" her, and that he should "respect [her] position". She is clearly afraid of what her husband might do if Stephen causes trouble, which is common with victims of domestic violence, and so she shrugs off his offer of help. The chapter ends with her "shaking her head, as though in defiance of some unwanted feeling".

We are introduced to René Azaire's friend Bérard and his wife, who is described solely as Madamé Berard. We get the impression that Bérard is a frequent guest at the Azaire household, as he arrives promptly after dinner on both nights Stephen stays there. He comes of as a very pompous, somewhat rude man who invites other people to agree with him, but "cutting them off before they had the chance to spoil his version of harmony with actual thoughts of their own". Madamé Berard, who is described as "having eyes only for her husband", frequently cheers on Berard and calls him "papa". I did some reaserch on this word and, as expected, it simply means 'father'. Quite why Madamé Berard calls her husband 'father' has not yet been explained, but judging by the wink of agreement Berard and Azaire shared when Azaire sent his wife to bed, it could very well be possible that their relationship is failing too.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Suicide in the Trenches

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again...
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

Siegfried Sassoon
This poem was written by a soldier in the First World War, so it's likely to be an adaptation of a true event which Sassoon either witnessed or, more likely, heard about. The poem presents a rather angry attack on the "smug-faced" society which cheered the soldiers without actually going to war themselves. Sassoon partially blames these crowds for the death of the boy, which has condemned him to a "hell where youth and laughter go". Youth and laughter are both reasons to live, yet the boy feels he must take his own life to escape the "glum" trenches.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Untitled Novel Introduction

It was when Alan Court arrived on Olney Road in the cold winter of 1978 wearing a weathered brown suit and only a rucksack to hold his worldly possessions that he began to acquire his reputation for peculiarity. He was a well liked and respected man, chairman of the local committee for the preservation and study of the Latin language, but no one doubted his eccentricity. He did not like, for instance, seeing worms emerge from the earth. He considered them to be ‘unsightly and imprudent’ and for this reason the first thing he did when he arrived in the house he had inherited from his aunt was to board up all windows with a view of the garden. From that day on, he refused to leave the house unless the sun was shining; for he knew very well that worms do not like the sun, just as cats do not like water.

How and why Alan Court found himself stepping off a bus into the crisp white snow which covered much of East London is unknown even to himself. The Court family tree, although relatively small, was not what you would call a close knit one. In fact, when Court’s aunt passed away, an aunt which Court had never met due to an argument at a Christmas dinner nearly two centuries ago separating the family neatly in two, the lack of other known relatives resulted in the somewhat undesirable dwelling being passed on to him. Still, it was infinitely better than his current abode, a one bedroom apartment in Essex, where turning on the gas could result in a small yet uncontained explosion and where a sieve had been attached to the shower head to stop cockroaches and any other disagreeable insects raining on to the unfortunate bather.

It was cold when Court woke up on Monday morning. Looking up at a digital wristwatch he had rudimentarily attached to an overhanging bamboo cane he saw that it was nearly eight o’clock. There was spark of brilliance in the simple contraption Court had conceived; a shrewd, judicious example of pure perceptiveness which only the sharpest of minds could formulate. A glance out of the bathroom window revealed that it had snowed the night before, and Court stepped out of the bathtub with reserved elation. It was unknown to most people why Alan Court chose to sleep in the bathtub, but it is rumored that he did it to trick any intruders into thinking that the house was unoccupied, giving Court the time to trap and restrain the unwanted guest.


Found the first paragraph of this saved on my computer and decided to add a little to it. I may come back to it if I can be bothered.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

The English Patient

The Villa

We are introduced to Hana, a young Canadian nurse who is taking care of a badly burned English patient. There is a strong sense of love throughout the chapter, with Ondaatje using lyricism to describe the villa. The English patient had been reading Herodotus' Histories and Hana enjoys reading his notes, annotations and memoirs.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

The Volunteer + To The Others

The Volunteer

Here lies a clerk who half his life had spent
Toiling at ledgers in a city grey,
Thinking that so his days would drift away
With no lance broken in life’s tournament:
Yet ever ’twixt the books and his bright eyes
The gleaming eagles of the legions came,
And horsemen, charging under phantom skies,
Went thundering past beneath the oriflamme.

And now those waiting dreams are satisfied;
From twilight to the halls of dawn he went;
His lance is broken; but he lies content
With that high hour, in which he lived and died.
And falling thus he wants no recompense,
Who found his battle in the last resort;
Nor needs he any hearse to bear him hence,
Who goes to join the men of Agincourt.

Herbert Asquith

To The Others

This was the gleam then that lured from far
Your son and my son to the Holy War:
Your son and my son for the accolade
With the banner of Christ over them, in steel arrayed.

All quiet roads of life ran on to this
When they were little for their mother's kiss;
Little feet hastening, so soft, unworn,
To the vows and the vigil and the road of thorn.

Your son and my son, the downy things,
Sheltered in mother's breast, by mother's wings,
Should they be broken in the Lord's wars -- Peace!
He who has given them are they not His?

Dreams of knight's armour and the battle shout,
Fighting and falling at the last redoubt;
Dreams of long dying on the field of slain:
This was the dream that lured, nor lured in vain.

These were the Voices they heard from far,
Bugles and trumpets of the Holy War;
Your son and my son have heard the call,
Your son and my son have stormed the wall.

Your son and my son, clean as new swords,
Your man and my man and now the Lord's!
Your son and my son for the Great Crusade,
With the banner of Christ over them -- our knights, new-made.

Katherine Tyan


Basing your answer on The Volunteer and To The Others, you should:

  • write a comparison of the ways the poets present the themes of religion and romanticism

  • say how far you agree with the view that Asquith is critical to those who don’t fight, whereas Tynan is more understanding

‘The Volunteer’ is a pro-war poem written by Herbert Asquith which heavily relies on romanticism to honour the soldiers who fought for England in the First World War. ‘To The Others’ is also a pro-war poem, but it likens the soldiers to Jesus Christ rather than old war legends.

Asquith uses stark contrasts right from the outset by comparing “grey” cities to the “phantom skies” of war. This distinction makes existence in the city seem inferior to the “thundering” life on the battlefront. Tynan also uses contrasts to make war appear heroic but – unlike Asquith – she does not trivialise the “quiet roads of life”, reflecting on them somewhat nostalgically. The narrator seems proud to have brought up her son well enough for him to fight for England.

Religion plays a big part in the imagery used in Tynan’s poem. She frequently couples her son with “Your son”. The capitalisation indicates that she is talking to God, and therefore about Jesus.

An aspect which is common to both poems is the association between the First World War and another battle of historical importance. Asquith compares the war to the battle of “Agincourt”, won by Henry V of England despite being heavily outnumbered by the French. Tynan compares the war to the “Great Crusade”, the numerous battles to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims. Both wars were won in the name of Christianity and can therefore be used as bragging points by England.

Asquith is very unsympathetic to people who won’t fight. His poem narrates the life of a clerk who, rather than assuming that “life’s tournament” requires no effort, enlists in the army. Asquith’s account on traditional life is quite scathing, accusing non-fighters of letting their days “drift away”. Tyson however has a very evocative view of peaceful living, reflecting on the narrator’s experience as a mother. Despite being “sheltered in mother’s breast”, the narrator’s son eventually comes of age and bravely enlists. This is shown as a good thing, as the child rightfully belongs to “Him”, as does the war.

Both poems heavily romanticise the war, with Asquith assimilating fighter planes to “gleaming eagles” and Tyson equating Christ and the narrator’s son to “our knights, new made”. The “new made” bit is interesting as it suggests that before dying in the war, the son’s bravery was not appreciated. The same can be said for Jesus, whose worldwide following started long after his crucifixion.

Asquith’s interpretation of war is very heroic. The death of the clerk is not explained, nor is there any indication of the time of passing. Rather, Asquith takes a break from the story of the clerk to tell us of soldiers “thundering past” before reintroducing us to the now departed protagonist, whose “lance is broken” yet “lies content”. This bravery in the face of death could easily be a metaphor for England’s willingness to fight, even “in the last resort”.

Tynan comes off as more emotive than Asquith in these poems, mainly down to her fairly long depiction of life as a mother of a baby. She illustrates the “soft, unworn” “little feet” of a child, before going on to describe the death of the child simply as belonging “now [to] the Lord”.

In conclusion I would like to reiterate what I’ve already said in this essay. I find that both poems have a favourable attitude to war, but the key difference is that only Tynan’s poem is tolerant to life as a non-fighting citizen while Asquith seems to be repulsed by the idea that someone may want to stay home and study rather than fight “beneath the oriflamme”.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

The Charge of the Light Brigade

The Charge of the Light Brigade
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Written 1854


Half a league half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred:

'Forward, the Light Briga
de!
Charge for the guns' he said:

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.


'Forward, the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismay'd?

Not tho' the soldier knew

Some one had blunder'd:

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do & die,

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.


Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,

Cannon in front of them

Volley'd & thunder'd;

Storm'd at with shot and s
hell,
Boldly they rode and well,

Into the jaws of Death,

Into the mouth of Hell

Rode the six hundred.


Flash'd all their sabres bare,

Flash'd as they turn'd in air

Sabring the gunners there,

Charging an army while

All the world wonder'd:

Plunged in the battery-smok
e
Right thro' the line they broke;

Cossack & Russian

Reel'd from the sabre-s
troke,
Shatter'd & sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not

Not the six hundred.


Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse & hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder'd.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

The first couple of lines throw the reader straight into the action, largely thanks to an exhilarating chant which mimics the sound and rhythm of horses galloping. While the audience at the time would have known that the battle was futile, Tennyson makes it clear to modern or uneducated audiences with the repeated “Into the valley of Death rode the six hundred”.

The second stanza continues the story and explores the theme of soldiers’ bravery in times of hopelessness. Despite only being six hundred of them, it was “theirs but to do & die”, reflecting both the courageousness of the soldiers and the lack of thought on behalf of the generals (“Some one had blunder’d”).

Tennyson develops this idea in the third stanza, praising the soldiers on how “Boldly they rode”, then immediately describing their bravery as being wasted since they are riding straight “Into the jaws of death”. Once again, this can be looked at in two ways. A straightforward, literal reading of the poem would suggest that Tennyson is being patriotic and admiring of England’s army, while a more in depth reading would reveal a subtle criticism of the Victorian Era’s Bourgeois culture.

The third and fourth stanzas both recount the details of the battle in vivid detail, for instance the “battery-smoke”. The fourth stanza is more tragic than the third, which suggests there may be a little hope (“Right thro’ the line they broke”), in that it recounts the sadder details rather than the more heroic ones. For instance, it mentions the “horse and hero [falling]” and the cannons firing at them from every direction. It is also important to note that the third stanza is the only one so far which omits the recurring idea of the six hundred charging into the “jaws” or “valley” of death. This stanza is the one Tennyson has chosen to use to pay tribute to the soldiers which fought bravely in the battle, thinking it rude to soil their memory with talk of death.

Tennyson concludes the poem very nicely with his last stanza by ordering the world to “Honour the Light Brigade”, much like they were ordered to “Forward the Light Brigade” in the second stanza. This is a tribute to the lives that were lost in the battle, and although they fought for a senseless cause, there is no doubting their bravery in face of death, “Noble six hundred”.