Reading more poetry

Image: Pixabay

As someone who claims they love poetry, my range tends to stick to those I know, (or studied at A-level) such as Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Carol Ann Duffy and William Blake. During these years I enjoyed studying poetry but was consumed by having to memorise it for an exam.

I’ve decided that I want to read more poetry and have set myself the challenge of reading a new poem every day. Using the book, Poems for Life, I am picking at random a poem everyday to read.

Part of my appreciation for poetry comes from the process of ‘unpicking’. On the first read, sometimes things don’t stick out. On the second, comes the realisation that certain phrases, lines and images are of importance to the central message. I like the fact that the more you read a poem, the more you understand. Above all, what I like is that poetry can have so many different interpretations.

I won’t always be writing a post about each poem I read (as that might get a bit much!) but I thought I would share with you the first one.

Flicking through the pages, I stuck my thumb at a random spot and fell on the poem, “Casabianca” by Felicia Dorothea Hemans. Upon reading it, I had no prior knowledge of the poem (or even when it was written.)

The Poem

The boy stood on the burning deck,
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck,
Shone round him o’er the dead.

Yet beautiful and bright he stood,
As born to rule the storm;
A creature of heroic blood,
A proud, though childlike form.

The flames rolled on – he would not go,
Without his father’s word;
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard.

He called aloud – ‘Say, father, say
If yet my task is done?’
He knew not that the chieftain lay
Unconscious of his son.

‘Speak, father!’ once again he cried,
‘If I may yet be gone!’
– And but the booming shots replied,
And fast the flames rolled on.

Upon his brow he felt their breath
And in his waving hair;
And look’d from that lone post of death,
In still yet brave despair.

And shouted but once more aloud,
‘My father! must I stay?’
While o’er him fast, through sail and shroud,
The wreathing fires made way.

They wrapped the ship in splendour wild,
They caught the flag on high,
And streamed above the gallant child,
Like banners in the sky.

There came a burst of thunder sound –
The boy – oh! where was he?
Ask of the winds that far around
With fragments strewed the sea!

With mast, and helm, and pennon fair,
That well had borne their part,
But the noblest thing which perished there,
Was that young faithful heart.

Reading “Casabianca” for the first time

Before researching , I believed this poem was about the departure of childhood, set against the natural rhythms of nature. The poem features a father and son on board a ship in the middle of the sea. Thus, the passing of nature could be related to the certainty of the end of childhood. Lines such as, “The boy stood on the burning deck, / Whence all but he had fled” and, “Yet beautiful and bright he stood, / As born to rule the storm” suggests the idea of departure with words like, “fled”. Additionally, the image of a boy ruling nature suggests an element of leaving childhood behind.

The poem also contains the repetition of a heroic like theme, words such as, “heroic,” “brave,” and “gallant” which suggests the idea of conquering. Whether that be over nature itself during the sea storm, or over the eventual eradication of one’s childhood. Thus, the conquering of childhood, as it were.

In sum, I read this poem to be about the gradual but relentlessness transition from childhood to adulthood, mirrored by the undulating rhythms of nature presented in the waves. The timeless image of a ship sailing away, relates to the human life cycle passing into the next phase of life, from childhood to adolescence. Like nature – life always has a next stage, or ending.

History and impact

Image: Felicia Dorothea Hemans National Portrait Gallery

Although this poem does contain a considerable element on childhood, it also documents an actual event.

Published in 1826, this poem details events that occurred on the Orient during the Battle of the Nile in 1798. It was a French ship commanded by Louis de Casabianca. The poem features a scene between a 12 year old boy and his Father; whereby the boy refuses to abandon the ship during a series of attacks. It becomes clear during the course of the poem, that the young boy tragically dies, he only ever wanted to protect the ship and perform his expected duties.

Thus, the poem explores elements of death, as well as transitional life. It’s a tale of commitment, resilience and dedication from a young boy, but also the bond between father and son.

The poem became a classroom staple throughout the United Kingdom between the 1850s-1950s. It is therefore, a classic example of classroom poetry recital. It explores a sense of military prowess by featuring the 1798 Battle of the Nile, between the British Royal Navy and the Navy of the French Republic. Hence, I suspect it was chosen for classroom recital due to its demonstration of patriotism and British victory.

Felicia Hemans was a known poet in her day, whose major collections included: The Forest Sanctuary (1825), Records of Woman and Songs of Affections (1830). She was known to be quite popular, especially among women. It is welcoming to note such a successful female poet during this period. Sadly, she died from dropsy in 1835. Despite the beauty of this poem (and probably the rest of her work) it was often used for school children – due to its discussion of morality and patriotism, and easy to remember rhyming rhythm. (see what I did there…)

Upon reading this poem and unpacking it, I was able to reflect on the many things I had learned just from reading these few lines. I had no idea to begin with that it was written so long ago, and about a true event I wasn’t even aware of. I nearly always learn something when I read a new poem, and this one didn’t disappoint!

Graduation (a reflection)

Over last weekend, I managed to successfully graduate from the University of York and obtain my degree certificate.

It was a successful experience on the whole. I managed to climb the stairs in sync with the processions of the ceremony, had the correct name read out alongside my degree, and didn’t manage to trip on my way down. I was relived when I could sit back in my seat and enjoy the rest of the ceremony without having to worry if I would make it up and down in one piece.

After the ceremony came the onslaught of photographs – both professional and ones taken by my parents. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful day. It isn’t often that the sun shines so brightly in the North of England – but it did on the 24th.

Sitting in central hall, surrounded by so many others – PhD’s, Masters and Bachelors, I couldn’t help but think how amazing it was. Every person in that room had to put up a fight and keep themselves going throughout the pursuit of something they love. Seeing the array of mortar boards worn by people of any age, was incredibly inspiring (and I definitely hadn’t expected it to be.)

This may have been my first graduation – but I don’t expect it to be my last. If I can summon up the resources to finance another stint in education that is…

I feel a sense of sadness when I realise that last Friday were my last moments at the University of York as a student. But I also feel a huge sense of achievement and closure. My graduation was a long time coming, due to the delaying of my final exams. But now I can draw a firm line below my undergraduate life.

I’ll be honest, I don’t currently know what’s around the corner, but who really ever does?

Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Image: The Guardian

Title: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Author: Gail Honeyman

Rating: 5/5

Publisher: HarperCollins, Kindle Edition

Synopsis

Gail Honeyman’s debut novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, follows the simple life of a young woman. Eleanor goes to work five days a week, comes home on the Friday, has rather a lot to drink, and catches up on sleep over the weekend.

At work, she doesn’t talk to many people, but always gets on with the day. She doesn’t go out and socialize on Friday nights or the weekends, despite the expectation. Once a week, she receives a phone-call from her Mum, which is her only real form of communication outside work. She lives a simple life, but one that is seemingly lonely and void of human interaction, friendship and support.

Her relationship with her Mum, is told through a series of weekly phone calls. These phone calls are often hard to take in, due to the sheer level of emotional abuse her Mum conveys to her over the phone.

“Mummy has always told me that I am ugly, freakish, vile. She’s done so from my earliest years, even before I acquired my scars.”

Gail Honeyman

After a certain turn of events, feauturing helping an elderly gentleman after he had a fall and becoming (acccidentally) friends with a work colleague from the IT department, Eleanor begins to realise her life is very lonely, and in fact, socialising isn’t too bad (in moderation.)

The novel gradually unravels troubling elements of Eleanor’s past, we learn fairly early on that she grew up in the care system but for a while, never discover why. With the help of her new friend, Raymound, Eleanor begins the journey of coming to terms with her past. This novel is as true as they come. Through Eleanor, we get an insight into the realities of loneliness, depression, and fractured family life.

“I have been waiting for death all my life. I do not mean that I actively wish to die, just that I do not really want to be alive.”

Gail Honeyman

Review

Strangely enough, I picked up this book in the Kindle deals for £1, thinking it would be a nice ‘in-between read,’ as I am still ploughing my way through Ducks, Newburyport. However, I was pleasantly surprised and found myself utterly drawn to the book, so much so that I didn’t read a single page of Ducks, Newburyport. Nonetheless, it is far more complex than the ‘light and fluffy’ type read that I initially had it down for.

After reading internet reviews, it seems that many people didn’t take to the main character, Eleanor Oliphant, very well. Or rather, didn’t know how to feel about her. However, I immediately took to her. I liked the way she actively defies social expectations, says what she thinks – she conveyed a huge amount of honesty and integrity as a character; which meant I was drawn towards her. Often, she made me laugh out loud too.

Part of my reasons for loving this novel is because I found myself relating to Eleanor so much. Like Eleanor, I too experienced the care system, although not to the same extremities as herself. I too, sometimes struggle in social situations and often withdraw myself into the comfort of my own home. However, apart from feeling a sense of attachment towards her, I enjoyed the novel in its entirety. Upon reading it, I could not predict what was going to come next, yet I could not put the book down.

This novel should be praised and read for its sheer honesty and exploration of many contemporary, social issues which are not fully discussed openly within mainstream society. Eleanor is a young woman suffering from crippling loneliness, depression, social withdrawal and alcoholism – although she would rarely drink to excess in public. As a young woman in her thirties, society tells her she should have her whole life together. However, this novel sheds an important light onto the realities of everyday life as a young adult – and the fact that not everyone can always have it together.

It’s a novel that deals with some very difficult subjects but is delivered in the most lighthearted, honest and engaging way. Eleanor Oliphant begins to open up more herself as the novel progresses. Upon finishing the book; the reader begins to be reassured that Eleanor Oliphant; is going to be completely fine.

Book Review: Lolita

Title: Lolita

Author: Vladimir Nabokov

Rating: 4/5

Publisher: Penguin, Penguin Classics

Synopsis

Lolita, is a first person narrative novel, told through the eyes of a middle aged professor, Humbert Humbert. Humbert develops an obsession with a twelve year old girl, Dolores Haze, who he pursues for the rest of his days. Humbert nicknames his prey, Lolita, and attempts to gain greater access to her, in becoming a lodger at her Mother’s house in Ramsdale, New England.

It is here, where Humbert builds upon his disguse of being the studious professor, working on writing his book. However, this is when the access, and consequently, obsession, with Lolita begins. Soon, he will have unrivaled access, as he marries Charlotte, Lolita’s mother.

After a tragic set of events working in his favour, Lolita and Humbert embark on a road trip across America, staying in various motels along the way. Throughout this, Humbert engages in sexual activity with Lolita and constantly rewards her with the ‘things’ she desires – the mundane clothes, candy and magazines that young girls crave.

Eventually, of course, Humbert gets caught and his pursuit of Lolita suddenly comes to an end. The novel ends with Humbert imprisoned but still professing his love for Lolita,

“It was love at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight.”

Vladimir Nabokov

Review

Image: Amazon

This novel made me experience a whirlwind of different emotions. Simultaneously, I was in awe of the construction of the novel and the sheer complexity of some of the images and prose Nabokov has created, but at the same time, was reeling in disgust due to the difficulties of the content. Scenes that detailed Humbert’s sexual encounters with Lolita, and his portrayal of lingering desire for young girls in general, left me with a sense of rage and disgust.

Nabokov, in the use of this first person narrative, creates an unrivaled account of a middle aged man’s erotic obsession with a twelve year old girl. This unrivaled account which has been deemed as “unreliable” by critics, means that Lolita’s point of view is swept away under the carpet. As readers, we are never enlightened into her perspective. Thus, there are many unanswered questions. Effectively, she is silenced, which I suspect is the very point. Additionally, the relationship is almost normalised, especially by the use of ‘relationship’ type prose throughout,

“I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita.”

Vladimir Nabokov

Moreover, the silencing of the victim is achieved in the crafting of this first person narrative. Many (i.e, Stephen Metcalf), have pointed to this as being Nabokov’s critique of totalitarianism under the Soviet regime. Nabokov was a known opponent of the Soviet government and opposed Tsarists autocracy, communism and fascism that he lived through. It is possible, that this silencing of Lolita, the stripping of her identity and childhood, conveys a sense of control not too dissimilar to that used by the Soviet regime.

Lolita immediately gained a ‘classic’ status despite its controversial topic, it was even banned from entering the United Kingdom in 1955. However, its classic status is arguably not due to the story or unconventional theme; but its literary construction. The reader is constantly exposed to a series of complex metaphors and lyric poetic passages that make it easy to forget the shocking undertones of the novel. It can be easy to get swept away by the beauty of the language and forget that something very sinister is taking place on the pages before you. However, as someone that is a sucker for beautiful prose, I appreciated this element.

What struck me as particularly strange and almost sinister, was Humbert’s own self awareness of the horror of his actions and desires. He constantly addresses the reader as “the jury” – putting himself deliberately on trial. But the novel is a monologue of his own account and he always refers to the brutality of his crimes,

“One moment I was ashamed and frightened, another recklessly optimisitc. Taboos strangulated me.”

Vladimir Nabokov

However, regardless of the morality Humbert places on his actions, there is a certain directness in his address to the reader and the narration almost feels like a sit down conversation between him and the reader. There is a sense of intimacy which is enlightening and highly disturbing. Behind everything, and perhaps most of his motivations, appears to be Humbert’s absolute frustration with the restraints of American society,

“….civilisation which allows a man of twenty-five to court a girl of sixteen but not a girl of twelve…”

“We are not surrounded in our enlighttened era by the little slave flowers that can be casually plucked…”

Vladimir Nabokov

I sensed a definitive obsession with what he perceived as the faults within society – for, the one he lived in permitted his relationship with a twelve year old girl. He believes these rules are in place due to the creation division between childhood and adulthood (page 124.)

Humbert as a narrator is truly, and honestly, self reflective which felt like an attempt to appear more human. However, despite this level of self reflection and awareness, he still maintained at the end of the novel that despite his obsession with Lolita being over, he would always crave the same thing,

“I would be a knave to say, and the reader a fool to believe, that the shock of losing Lolita cured me of my pederoins.”

Vladimir Nabokov

In a way, being able to acknowledge himself as a, “pentapod monster” who did wrong, but still wanting to pursue this, is the mark of a truly disturbed, and possibly incurable individual.

In sum, I found the book incredibly well written and thought provoking. I enjoyed the kind of lyricism Nabokov used and was drawn into the first person narration despite its flaws. There were no barriers or restraint, which made it an interesting psychological insight, as well as a literary joy to read.

This complex first person narration gives the reader nowhere to hide. It is compelling, disturbing and unforgiving. But its craft is a work of art just in itself. This paradox between the beauty of the prose, and the harrowing, disturbing nature of the subject fills the novel with complexity. I can see why this is a a classic; Lolita will linger with me for a long time to come.

Going back to Orwell: 70 years on

The Essays of Orwell: Books Vs Cigarettes 1946

Before thinking about writing this post, it hadn’t occurred to me that today is the 70th anniversary of George Orwell’s death, until reading something published by the BBC. Recently, I have been thinking a lot about his life, his writing and political outlook.

Who was George Orwell?

Known most for Animal Farm and 1984, Eric Blair, writing under the pen name, George Orwell, has come to be one of the most famous author’s of the twentieth century. Born in Bengal, Orwell would go on to win two scholarships at two prestigious English schools, Wellington and Eton.

After completing his education, Orwell became an Imperial Servant. This was the beginning of the period in which Orwell was manifesting his political outlook, in 1928, he resigned from the post, as influenced by rising anti-imperialist sentiment.

After this experience; Orwell tried to immerse himself in the realities of deprivation; he donned rags as he went to London’s East End and the poorest areas of Paris. Which later, formed the book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). This is often cited as Orwell’s first socialist memoir and insight into poverty. Later publishing, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) which is an even greater exploration of these themes. Wigan Pier deals with the conditions that working-class individuals were experiencing in Lancashire and Yorkshire, before the outbreak of World War Two.

Orwell is remembered primarily because of 1984, but during his time, he was a prolific figure in the more radical politics of the day. He was first of all, a self confessed anarchist, then came out as a socialist in the 1930s, against the rising tide of fascism. After being rejected for military service during the Second World War, he began working for the left-wing magazine, Tribune in 1943.

In this post however, it is not his novels I want to talk about, but rather, his essays. Having read 1984, Down and Out in Paris and London, Animal Farm and The Clergyman’s Daughter, I thought I knew Orwell quite well, until I started to discover his essays. This post in particular, will be discussing one essay, titled, “Books Vs Cigarettes” which Orwell published in 1946 in the Tribune.

Books Vs Cigarettes (1946)

Writing in 1946, after the end of World War Two, this essay is in response to the idea that reading is an expensive and inaccessible past time. This idea is often thwarted about in our own society, with the assumption it is a privilege that people in 9-5’s cannot afford. Orwell is therefore, critiquing the assumption that reading is a luxury activity.

Orwell in a convincing argument, states that mundane habits such as smoking and drinking, will cost the average person (per year) more than it would to sustain a reading habit. He details his own spending, Orwell was a heavy smoker himself, which cost him more than he spent on books per year.

Take this framework into today. The average Netflix, Amazon Prime or Spotify subscription probably amounts to being able to buy 1-2 new paperbacks per month. Or even better, when buying secondhand, probably 3-5, or even more, depending on the price. Orwell makes the point that there are far more expensive habits which are permitted among the populous, but reading is discounted as being a costly luxury.

Orwell also emphasizes the importance of buying second-hand books and borrowing from local libraries, friends or family which I think is important to point out. Reading doesn’t have to be an expensive habit, nor does it have to revolve around you owning the material you are consuming.

Additionally – Orwell goes on to highlight that the value of reading should not be purely in monetary terms, as one book can have a lifelong impact. (Indeed, 1984 itself is often sighted as a book which has changed the outlook of many readers, myself included.)

The impact of reading one book is worth more than its monetary cost, due to the longevity of the ideas it can plant,

“There are books that one reads over and over again, books that become part of the furniture of one’s mind and alter one’s attitude to life…”

George Orwell, “Books Vs Cigarettes,” 1946.

Final thoughts

Thus, in sum, Orwell argues that in fact, reading is one of the cheapest forms of, “recreations” and it is wrong to assume books are “less exciting” or not so worthy of spending time on. I feel this point is significantly applicable to now – with evenings easily absorbed by Instagram or watching YouTube on the loop. Reading is in fact, one of the most worthwhile past times, which does not have to cost you an arm and a leg.

On the anniversary of Orwell’s death; perhaps this should serve as a reminder that books are powerful and some books certainly leave their marks; on the way we think, view the world, and form opinions; in the most permanent of ways.

Furthermore, reading is not a luxury but a form of “recreation,” which is often brushed under the carpet in an age of so many other forms of entertainment. What would Orwell think? We can only guess.

I will be attempting to read as many of Orwell’s essays this year as I can, to try and understand the way he thought, and how this influenced his writing. I will keep you updated!

References

https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Orwell/Animal-Farm-and-Nineteen-Eighty-four

Link to the article: https://orwell.ru/library/articles/cigar/english/e_cigar

This is interesting too, was published by the BBC today: https://www.bbc.co.uk/ideas/videos/would-george-orwell-have-had-a-smartphone/p080x74t