Sunday, 18 October 2015

'An Unanswerable Apology for the Rich' - Mary Barber

‘His income’s regularly spent,
He scarcely saves to pay his rent.
No man alive would do more good,
Or give more freely, if he could.
He grieves, whene’er the wretched sue,
But what can poor Castalio do?’

‘An Unanswerable Apology for the Rich’
Mary Barber
(1734)

Looks serious, doesn’t it?  ‘He scarcely saves to pay his rent’ (line 36).  Poor Castalio, you might think.  But don’t forget the title; the title gives a huge clue about how this poem is actually meant to be read.

Mary Barber began writing poetry as a way of educating her four children ‘by making precepts easier to memorize’ (Lonsdale, p. 118), and the integral purpose of this verse seems to be to explain how a wealthy man might believe he has no spare income to devote to charity.  The ironical approach of the poem lends a humorous touch that makes it enormously memorable, and indeed it is a beautiful example of eighteenth-century satirical social comment.

Throughout the poem, the whole situation is presented from the perspective of our wealthy hero, Castalio (I’m using the term hero very loosely here…).  He is praying, imploring heaven to make it possible for him to ‘have the power to bless, / And raise up merit in distress?’ (lines 3-4).  In other words, he wants to be able to spread his bounty amongst the deserving poor, the ones whose ‘merit’ deserves raising above the level of ‘distress[ing]’ poverty.  So far so good.  He seems a fair, moral sort of chap, eh?

The next line is key to the educational value of the poem – ‘How do our hearts deceive us here!’ (line 5). Immediately, the plural pronoun ‘our’ includes everyone involved in this poem within its moral compass: Castalio, the writer of the poem, and most importantly the reader. 

‘How do our hearts deceive us here!
He gets ten thousand pounds a year.’ (lines 5-6)

For anyone unacquainted with the glittering merits of ten thousand pounds a year in the eighteenth century, suffice to say that it was a fantastic heap of cash!  If you are familiar with Jane Austen’s novels, then you might remember that this is the level of income enjoyed by her extremely eligible hero Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.  Our Castalio is therefore being placed firmly within the ranks of the landed gentry.  To imagine that he has no spare income with which to fulfil his wish of alleviating the sufferings of the poor is, frankly, ludicrous.  How can he so deceive himself? the poem asks.

The answer is simple of course: ‘one must live as others do’ (line 15).  Castalio is a hypocrite; yet again there is a very strong sense here that he is not alone.  He is spending his income in a way that is entirely consistent with the way in which his contemporaries are spending theirs.  There are certain luxuries that it is simply expected for a member of the gentry to have, such as ‘A coach-and-six to take the air, / Besides a chariot and chair’ (lines 31-2).  (The ‘chair’ most probably referring to a sedan chair; if you’ve never seen one, it’s basically a small portable chair, boxed in on all sides and designed to be carried by two servants).  Once again, the point is underlined: these are ‘Calls of necessity, not pride’ (line 34): in other words, these are not extravagant luxuries, but things that every respectable gentleman is supposed to have. 

But the final couplet dispels any shred of sympathy that we might still have had for 'poor' Castalio:
 
‘Would Heaven but send ten thousand more,
He’d give – just as he did before.’ (lines 41-2)

That is, not at all.  What Castalio is doing is making excuses for himself; what Mary Barber has done in her poem is to take us inside Castalio’s mind, to show us how he has constructed those excuses.  The reader is ultimately allowed to laugh with Barber at Castalio’s absurd self-delusion…to laugh but then afterwards to reflect.  For had she not been writing about how ‘our hearts deceive us here’?

This is such an intriguing poem, one that makes genuine excuses for morally questionable behaviour, but which also peels aside those excuses to examine the complacent hypocrisy that lies behind.  This is a poem which does not so much satirise an individual, but rather human weakness itself.

Happy reading!!!

You can find this poem:
http://www.eighteenthcenturypoetry.org/works/pba35-w0070.shtml
(a handy free version of the poem!  Useful for those who can’t wait to get reading…)

Roger Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990) pp. 121-2
(available from numerous book shops online and on the high street: an excellent volume!!  Beautifully edited, with brief bios of all the writers included!) 

I've uploaded a reading of this poem on youtube.  It's not perfect (technical limitations!) but hopefully good fun!


You can find out more about Mary Barber:

(Wikipedia!! On this occasion the only useful online resource I could actually find.  If any literary academics are reading this, please feel free to contribute more resources if you know of any!
Lonsdale’s book is also, as mentioned above, an exceedingly valuable resource in this regard.)

Information for compiling this blogpost was taken from:

Roger Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Frankenstein - Mary Shelley


‘Increase of knowledge only discovered to me more clearly what a wretched outcast I was.  I cherished hope, it is true; but it vanished, when I beheld my person reflected in water, or my shadow in the moonshine, even as that frail image and that inconstant shade.’
(Chapter XV)

Frankenstein
Mary Shelley
(1818, reprinted and amended in 1831)

Ok, so you’re probably wondering why I didn’t save this for Halloween.  I didn’t because, despite popular myth, this actually isn’t a horror story.  Over a century of cinematic dramatizations and ‘reimaginings’ have created an image of this tale as a straightforward terrifying-monster-chases-helpless-populace kind of plot; a bit like an eighteenth-century Jurassic Park.  I’m not much of a horror/thriller fan myself, so I must confess that it was quite a long time before I finally decided to read Shelley’s original novel Frankenstein.  When I did, I was astonished to discover that the ‘monster’ is actually quite an appealing character.  

I know I said this book isn't about a rampaging
monster, but isn't he cute?  Lego Frankenstein,
with many thanks to www.dailybrick.co.uk
who don't realise they have generously lent this image.
To me, he is portrayed as something of an ‘ugly duckling’ figure, always searching for a place to belong yet unable ever to overcome the sense of revulsion that his own physical being creates in others.  There’s certainly the midnight laboratory scene of popular and pulp fantasy, but even here it is a misguided rather than an evil Dr. Frankenstein who creates the ‘creature’, and who is promptly so horrified by his actions that he goes to bed.  Yes, he really does go to bed, and then becomes terrified when he wakes to see his creation peeping at him through the bed curtains.  What did he expect his little ‘monster’ to do? 

It is after this creation scene, though, that things become really interesting. In a cosy fireside reunion sometime later, the ‘creature’ tells Frankenstein what he has been up to since leaving the workshop.  This includes voyeuristically watching the daily life of a small family, during the course of which he performs small, silent acts of kindness for them such as cutting firewood.  He longs for inclusion within the affectionate arms of this family, but when he attempts to place himself under their protection he is repulsed, not because he is not a nice person (indeed, he is at this point quite an affectionate and philosophical individual, who has spent his leisure time reading classics such as Milton’s Paradise Lost and Plutarch’s Lives).  Rather, he is rejected because they just find him hideous to look at.  There is an poignant scene involving a blind father, and a couple of young, sight-possessing, fainting girls which Shelley uses to explore judgements based upon personal appearance…but you probably get the idea.

Suffice to say, this is a book that deals with far more than a simple monster-rampage.  The question of whether the ‘monster’ even is a genuine ‘monster’ is a good starting point for discussion.  Shelley uses her novel to explore a meeting point between theology and science, and to confront issues of the moral responsibility attached to the creation of artificial life that remain relevant to this day.  The added dimension of the creature’s apparent ‘ugliness’ also seems designed to provoke thought and discussion upon perceptions of so-called deformity, a useful exercise in itself.

This is only a small book, but it is an immensely powerful one.  Philosophical rather than horrific, thought-provoking rather than nightmare-inducing, this is a book that all readers should investigate at some point.  So why not this week, hey?

You can find this text:

(If you’re on a tight budget, this Wordsworth classics edition is a great choice: nice presentation of text, only £1.99 at the moment!  Also, as this is a text that habitually recurs on university and A-Level courses, it’s always worth checking second hand dealers for nice affordable copies of Penguin or Oxford World’s Classics editions!)

(Penguin classics edition of the text.  I’ve linked to Waterstones rather than Amazon because I believe in supporting actual bookshops! I have no idea what the cover image has to do with the story, but that aside this looks a very interesting edition! As always, try to buy a copy of the text that has explanatory notes, as these can be enormously useful when reading novels that were written in a different century)

You can find out more about Mary Shelley:

(Wikipedia!!)

(Encylopædia Britannica: the more sophisticated Wikipedia.  I would say, though, that this article seems ludicrously short for an account of the life of a woman who is widely regarded as the founder of the modern sci-fi genre.  Just saying.)

 

Sunday, 4 October 2015

'To Autumn' - John Keats


‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;’
(lines 1-4)
 
‘To Autumn’
John Keats
(written 1819)
 
It’s a poem often quoted around this time of year, and it’s not hard to see why.  Right from its first few lines, Keats’ glorious ode ‘To Autumn’ epitomises everything that is so wonderful about the season, not just the misty days and glowing fruit but also the sense of warm friendship inherent in the cultivation and distribution of harvest bounty. 
 
The poem is divided into three stanzas (posh term for ‘verses’), and, to me, this has always seemed to reflect the three distinct phases through which a British autumn appears to pass.  First there is the abundance of life, the almost celebratory culmination of the year’s growth, exemplified here through the sun ‘budding more, / And still more, later flowers for the bees, / Until they think warm days will never cease’ (lines 8-10). 
 
Just because I thought this needed some autumn leaves...
Photo taken at Ness Gardens, 21/9/2013, © C.J. Readioff
In the second stanza, it is the drowsy rest after activity that is depicted and celebrated.  When I first read this poem (many years ago now!), this section actually rather confused me, but the clue is in the opening rhetorical question: ‘Who hath not seen thee oft amidst thy store?’ (line 12).  The ‘thee’ here addresses autumn as if it were an individual capable of joining in a conversation; yet this also slides neatly into the next ‘thee’ which refers to a farm worker ‘sitting careless on a granary floor’ (line 14), exhausted after bringing in the harvest.  Essentially, what Keats is suggesting is that the spirit of autumn is embodied and personified by characters such as the tired harvester lying ‘on a half-reaped furrow, sound asleep’ (line 16).
 
The final stanza shifts the tone still further.  This is the end of autumn now, and there is a definite sense that winter is just around the corner.  The images created now are bleaker, as ‘full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn’, and the ‘gathering swallows twitter in the skies’, ready for their seasonal migration to sunnier climbs (lines 30 & 33).  Indeed, it is perhaps this sense of departure more than anything else that contributes towards the commonly held view that this poem is, at least to some extent a metaphor for the progression of life.  The Encyclopaedia Britannica entry claims that ‘the question of transience is hardly raised’, yet for me it is actually the transience of life and the unstoppable continuum of the seasons which Keats celebrates here.  The sense of passing time is subtle, but it is there.  The bees ‘think warm days will never cease’; it is the poignantly reflective ‘think’ that is important here.  This transience is not necessarily a bad thing however, as he writes: ‘Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they? / Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,-’ (lines 23-4).
 
To me, this is one of the most beautiful and perfect poems in the English language.  Autumn has always been my favorite season – a time of new beginnings (academically speaking), and of plotting new projects for the winter, a time of cosying into warm woolly jumpers and of crunching through heaps of brown-gold leaves.  The beauty of Keats’ poem is that it remains understated, and thus simply yet powerfully creates a succession of images that effectively   encapsulate the natural environment of the season, and thus everything that really makes autumn. 
 
You can find this poem: -
 
(a free online version of the text at Poetry Foundation!)
 
(an Oxford World’s Classics anthology of some of Keats’ best loved poetry; if, like me, you don’t want to stop at Autumn, this is the book for you!)
 
N.B. ‘To Autumn’ is a poem of such profound fame that it is frequently reproduced in popular poetry anthologies.  If you have any collections of ‘nation’s best-loved poems’ lurking on your bookshelves, have a root around: you’ll probably find this one tucked away somewhere!
 
You can find out more about Keats:
 
(Wikipedia!!!)
 
(a fascinating biography of Keats’ sadly short life; Encyclopaedia Britannica looks a lot like Wikipedia in layout, but is more accurate, and also sounds more intellectual in dinner conversation!)
 
(the website of the house in Rome where Keats died in 1821, which is now a museum; if you are lucky enough to be going to Rome anytime soon, this looks as if it would be very much worth having a look at)
 
(the website of the Keats-Shelley association)