“Queen Mab” by P.B. Shelley

“Queen Mab” by P.B. Shelley

‘Queen Mab’, a book-length poem in nine parts, was written and privately distributed by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) in 1813. It was the poet’s first work of genuine literary merit. His decision to make it available to a select circle suggests the type of audience he wanted to address: the target readers were of the same patrician (aristocratic) background as himself who had the time and the means to get an education, and the leisure to read and enjoy poetry; the mostly illiterate downtrodden masses whose welfare he actually had in mind and who stood to gain most from the revolutionary changes he envisioned were for the most part outside of this circle.

Structurally, ‘Queen Mab’ is a fairy tale composed in nine cantos. A fairy named Queen Mab comes down in her ethereal car to the sleeping Ianthe, a beautiful young maiden. Leaving the girl in her deep slumber the fairy awakens her Soul or Spirit and invites it onboard and transports it to her celestial abode at the uttermost edge of the universe. From that vantage point the Spirit (Ianthe’s Soul) is given a view of the universe stretching below. The fairy promises the Spirit to reveal the state of (presumably, humanity’s) past and present and the ‘secrets of the future’:

……..Spirit, come!
This is thine high reward: -the past shall rise;
Thou shalt behold the present; I will teach
The secrets of the future.’

Ianthe’s Spirit is afforded a vision of the amazing immensity, wonder and harmony of the universe:

Above, below, around,
The circling systems formed
A wilderness of harmony;
Each with undeviating aim,
In eloquent silence, through the depths of space
Pursued its wondrous way.

Humanity’s past and present are both shown to be oppressive, unjust, and miserable; they are so not due to man’s inherited evil nature (as the priests tell them), but to the fact that

Kings, priests and statesmen blast the human flower
Even in its tender bud; their influence darts
Like subtle poison through the bloodless veins
Of desolate society.

In the evil society that characterizes the past and the present, innocent children are trained to idolize soldiers and link manliness or machismo with violence in their very infancy:

……….The child,
Ere he can lisp his mother’s sacred name,
Swells with the unnatural pride of crime, and lifts
His baby-sword even in a hero’s mood.

So Shelley puts these words in Queen Mab’s mouth that ridicule what people are taught by the priests:

Let priest-led slaves cease to proclaim that man
Inherits vice and misery, when force
And falsehood hang even o’er the cradled babe,
Stifling with rudest grasp all natural good.

‘The secrets of the future’ boil down to the utopian vision of a viciously hierarchical society being transformed into one where egalitarianism, justice, and love reign supreme, bringing peace and happiness to all.
At the end of the vision, Ianthe opens her eyes to look at her lover Henry gazing on her waking, with ‘speechless love’:

The Body and the Soul united then.
A gentle start convulsed Ianthe’s frame;
Her veiny eyelids quietly unclosed;
Moveless awhile the dark blue orbs remained.
She looked around in wonder, and beheld
Henry, who kneeled in silence by her couch,
Watching her sleep with looks of speechless love,
And the bright beaming stars
That through the casement shone.

Critics have called this poem a dream vision allegory, a fairy tale, a utopian daydream, a protest- poem etc. In terms of its substance we may call it a philosophical poem as well. In fact, the 1813 title of the poem was ‘Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem with Notes’. Shelley was a ‘philosopher’ among the Romantics in the sense that while treating the usual ‘Romantic’ themes of beauty, passion, power of the imagination, the natural goodness of humanity, political freedom etc which formed their characteristic subject matter, he discovered and articulated causal connections in them with rare precision and clarity. He was unique in this respect among his contemporaries, with the possible exception of William Wordsworth (1770-1850) as critics have pointed out. Reading ‘Queen Mab’ we feel that it qualifies for all the above labels. Though it is unselfconsciously melodramatic, coldly polemical, and crudely emotive in much of its versification and though he himself seemed years later to have had second thoughts about its estimation as a poem worthy of publishing for public consumption when he came to know that a pirated edition of the poem had appeared in 1821 (which was just a year before his accidental death by drowning), the ‘philosophy’ that he versifies in it is found to be as mature as it ever got in his case (considering the fact that he died at the young age of 30). The poem has even been described as ‘monumental’ by more sympathetic, and in my opinion more rational-minded and more discerning, readers.

Love that dare …

Love that dare not speak its name

(Previously published in The Island/Sri Lanka)

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste;
Then can I drown an eye (unused to flow)
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan th’ expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before:
But if the while I think on thee (dear friend)
All losses are restored, and sorrows end.

–William Shakespeare


(Taken from ‘The Sonnets’ edited by G. Blakemore Evans in THE NEW CAMBRIDGE SHAKESPEARE series, 1996)


No item is of greater interest among ordinary readers of Shakespeare than the well known collection of 154 sonnets. These are poems purported to be based on the poet’s personal liaison with a ‘fair youth’ and a ‘dark woman’. The first 126 sonnets concern the ‘fair’ youth, and the remainder the dark beauty. The question of the Bard’s sexuality and the mystery surrounding the identities of his supposed two friends or lovers are two of the principal factors that largely account for the immense popularity of the sonnets, particularly among those whose interest in them, according to some writers, has to do more with a love of scandal than any devotion to poetry. They hope to discover something in the sonnets that would allow them to have a voyeuristic view of the poet’s private life, of which not much is known. We may, however, assume that, in the meantime, it can’t be denied that they are enraptured by the beauty of what is arguably the best collection of love poems in the English language. It is common knowledge that every year Shakespeare’s Sonnets sell more than any of his other poems or plays.


The lines can be paraphrased thus: “When I indulge in pleasant meditation upon my past (when I think about my past, doing which pleases me), I lament my failure to achieve many things that I wished for; in remembering old sorrows I again grieve over the way I squandered the best period of my life. Then I can cry, although I am not accustomed to crying (it is not my habit to cry), for dear friends hidden in death’s endless night (that is, dead and gone for ever), and weep again over sufferings which love brought, but which I settled like debts.  I ‘moan th’ expense of many a vanished sight’, i.e. I lament the wasting away of my body due to many an escaped sigh (Elizabethans believed that sighing caused a loss of blood; Shakespeare spelt ‘sigh’ as ‘sight’, which form was already outdated in his time, in order to preserve the rhyming), or I lament ‘many a vanished sight’ (i.e. the disappearance of many things I saw and wanted to possess). Then I can grieve over past sorrows again, and sadly recount to myself, woe by woe, the sad account of grievances already lamented over, which account I am paying again as if I had not paid it before. But if, while I am grieving like this, I think about you, my dear friend, all losses are made good, and all sorrows end; in other words, you are as valuable to me as all the many things put together that I yearned for but did not find. ”


Looking for a clue to the poem’s deeper meaning we at once find an unusual preponderance of words normally used in a legal financial context: sessions (sittings of a court of law), summon up (order to appear before a judge), lack, waste, precious (of great value), dateless (endless, but it can also mean ‘without a date being mentioned; e.g. on a legal document), cancelled, expense, foregone, tell over (count), account, pay, paid, losses, and restored (compensated for, made good). These follow from the central metaphor of the sonnet, which is a court in session. Here the judge is ‘thought’, and the witnesses or prisoners are ‘remembrance of things past’ (that is, past memories). Commentators have suggested that Shakespeare is ‘thinking in terms of a manorial court presided over by the Lord of the Manor’. In Shakespeare’s time, a manor was the extensive land that belonged to a nobleman. The lord of the manor looked into the losses and resources of his estate. The speaker (whom we take to be Shakespeare himself) is taking stock of his own past. What is the point of talking in these terms when his intention appears to be to tell his friend how valuable the latter is to him? That’s because the legal and financial imagery helps to define an essential aspect of how the speaker feels: it adds the idea of guilt and punishment to that of nostalgia.


Most of us, as Sri Lankans among whom traditional attitudes to sex are still dominant, are not impervious to the element of ‘shock’ associated with the ‘abnormality’ (with no prejudice to those vulnerable to alleged discrimination on the basis sexual orientation) of the supposed same-sex attraction that is depicted in these sonnets between the mature Shakespeare and the young man who is hardly out of his teens. In fact, something similar to the prevalent attitude in our society towards homosexuality existed even among the British at least until the mid-twentieth century. Today of course the situation is very different, with societal attitudes to same-sex relationships being overwhelmingly tolerant in that country. But Shakespeare lived in a different era. Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) had to spend time in jail convicted of “gross indecency” (homosexuality)  towards the end of the Victorian nineteenth century  (in 1895). In Elizabethan times, a few centuries before that, there was no  legislation regarding the subject, either outlawing it or allowing it. However, it may be safely assumed that homosexuality was not socially and culturally accepted. But friendships and love relations between men and men, and those between men and women were differently viewed. Anthony Hecht, writing an introduction to G. Blakemore Evans’ edition of The Sonnets from which the text of Sonnet 30 is reproduced here, quotes the following from Sir Thomas Malory’s  Le Morte D’Arthur edited by Janet Cowen in two volumes in 1969; towards the end of the book, Malory has King Arthur speak in a mood close to despair:


And therefore,’ said the king, ‘wit you well my heart was never so heavy as it is now, and much more am I sorrier for my good knights’ loss than for the loss of my fair queen; for queens I might have enow, but such a fellowship of good knights shall never be together in no company.  


Dr John Dover Wilson, introducing the first paperback edition (1969) of his own 1966  edition of The Sonnets quotes Edmond Malone’s reply to what he (Malone) called “a stupid note” by a critic called Stevens on Sonnet 20 concerning its coarse language:


Such addresses to men, however indelicate, were customary in our author’s time, and neither imported criminality, nor were esteemed indecorous. To regulate our judgement of Shakespeare’s poems by the modes of modern times, is surely as unreasonable as to try his plays by the rules of Aristotle.


In Sonnet 20, the poet insists on the youth’s feminine beauty, and calls him “the master mistress of my passion”, where Wilson is certain “passion” means love-poetry, (not sexual love, I would add). Elsewhere the poet dwells on the boy’s delicate complexion, the colour of his hair which he compares to that of marjoram buds (reddish brown), and the smell of his breath to that of violets, and then of roses (That’s in Sonnet 99). Still Dr Wilson strongly discounts the theory of a homosexual relationship between Shakespeare and his young friend, who in fact was his patron, his benefactor.


By the way, I remember reading an article in The Island Midweek Review of Wednesday 15th May 2002 reproduced from The Observer, UK about the exciting discovery that year of what was supposed to be the portrait of the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s patron and possible lover. (The author of the article was Anthony Holden.) The portrait was an undistinguished item among an ancestral collection of art and furniture that belonged to  Alec Cobbe’s family. The Cobbes are related to the earl by descent. At the time, this collection was housed in his residence at Hatchlands Park in East Clandon, Surrey, a  property leased to him by the National Trust for the purpose some 20 years before (that is 30 years before now). It was the National Trust’s adviser Alastair Laing who told Alec that he believed that this portrait which had been identified as that of a woman was actually of a cross-dressed man! The article contained, along with the text of Sonnet 20, some material to support the idea that this indeed was the likeness of “the androgynous creature the poet ambiguously called ‘the master mistress of my passion’.”  Reading the piece I too thought that it was probably an authentic discovery; but I was intrigued by the fact that it had been thus misidentified for so long as the face of a woman where the hairline on the forehead reveals to the most casual viewer that it belongs to a man. Anyway, I haven’t followed the fate of this exciting, purportedly genuine find. Of course, it must have done some advertising for the already popular sonnets, apart from providing, for those eager for the experience, what was claimed to be an object that the young man, and possibly the poet himself, looked on.


In that very sonnet, Shakespeare says that nature, while creating the beautiful boy, became fond of him and ‘defeated’ (defrauded) the poet of him ‘By adding one thing to my purpose nothing’. It’s not difficult to understand what he means by ‘one thing’. The concluding couplet


But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,

Mine be thy love and their love’s use their treasure.


rules out any sex between them; the ‘love’ between the poet and the boy seems to have no suggestion of sexual gratification, while the women’s love for him has its ‘use’ which, of course, means sexual intercourse.


Another fact that is not consonant with the idea of homosexuality in this friendship is that of the two friend’s relationships with the Dark Woman. The poet is in love with this woman. He makes the mistake of introducing her to his friend. His lascivious friend makes use of the opportunity, which causes much distress to the older man.


So, there is enough evidence to show that the true nature of the relationship between the Bard and his young friend was most probably what Oscar Wilde thought it was in the case of Shakespeare among others: a “spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect”, that is, nothing sexual. He (Oscar Wilde), of course, was convicted of homosexuality as charged, suggesting an actual discrepancy between his ideal and his practice. Though, in reality, he fell short of the ideal, he had a good conception of what a loving friendship between two men was ideally meant to be: During Wilde’s trial, the prosecuting lawyer Charles Gill asked him “What is ‘the love that dare not speak its name’? This was a question based on a sentence that occurred in one of the letters that Wilde had written to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas; and two of these letters had, unfortunately, fallen into the hands of the prosecution. Wilde replied: “’The love that dare not speak its name’ in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Johnathan such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as ‘the love that dare not speak its name’, … and on that account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an older and a younger man, when the older man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it”. Reading the Sonnets gives us the impression that the relationship that existed between Shakespeare and his young friend was of the sort that Oscar Wilde idealized in his own defence against a charge of “gross indecency”.  


It is what is called “the marriage of true minds” in Sonnet 116 (where ‘true’ is equivalent to ‘mutually affectionate’ according to Dr Wilson) that the sonnets celebrate. The term ‘my friend’ appears in the sonnet cycle for the first time in Sonnet 30, which we have just looked at. The poet is not frustrated. There has been guilt on his part; the young friend also has  had his faults. But the great thing is their mutual love. That is why this is a case of “sweet silent thought”, not bitter silent thought.

Where all that’s best dark and bright meet

Where all that’s best of dark and bright meet

(Published before in The Island/Sri Lanka)

She Walks in Beauty

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!

– George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824)

(Text of the poem reproduced from ‘Byron – Selected Poetry’ by A.S.B. Glover, Penguin Poetry Library, 1954)

The opening line presents us with what looks like an inappropriate simile: ‘She walks in beauty, like the night’. ‘How can a beautiful woman be like the night, in which we can’t see anything?’ we instantly query. But the line runs on into the second line to make a fuller utterance, qualifying ‘the night’ with ‘Of cloudless climes and starry skies’. Now that makes sense, for it makes the comparison richly evocative. It is a striking simile because it is original and because it calls forth exotic suggestions for Byron’s intended readership among his own people. For English readers ‘cloudless climes and starry skies’ are things that are characteristic of tropical lands, hence exotic; the comparison is unconventional, for no English poet before him had compared, to my knowledge at least, a beautiful woman to the night with a view to extolling her beauty. In our region in the tropics, of course, ‘cloudless climes and starry skies’ are familiar occurrences, and in our literary traditions the night is sometimes described as a beautiful woman. So we have the phrase ‘nishakatha’ (literally, Lady Night). The tranquil beauty of a tropical night which the speaker sees in the object of his admiration is, therefore, easy for us Sri Lankans to imagine. For the original readers, it must have evoked memories of the awesome serenity of the biblical Palestine.

However, it is necessary to note that Byron doesn’t say the woman is like the night of the said description; instead he says that she walks in beauty like the night. This means that her beauty is not seen as the static superficial beauty of a statue, but that it is perceived in terms of a quivering balance between light and dark in her ‘aspect (i.e. appearance, or face) and her eyes (i.e. her expression)’; the idea may be stated more prosaically as a subtle blend between external and internal beauty, or as a perfect combination of exquisite physical beauty and a matching personality that exhibits high intellectual or spiritual traits.

‘And all that’s best of dark and bright/Meet in her aspect and eyes’: Her light is tender and mellow unlike the dazzling light of day.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace

That is, just a shade more or a ray less  would have marred the mysterious charm of her dark tresses, and of her lovely face, where the serenity of expression reflects her pure heart; that is, her beautiful exterior reveals a graceful inner faculty. (‘Had half impaired’ is equivalent to ‘would have half impaired’.) On her calm but eloquent cheeks and brows ‘The smiles that win, the tints that glow/But tell of days in goodness spent’. She is serene in her intellect and sincere in her heart. (For the kind information of my readers where they might detect unacknowledged borrowings in the text: I am writing this new essay for my weekly column ‘Matters of the Heart’ from an earlier unpublished draft that was written at least five or six years ago. At this point, I am unable to clearly distinguish between what I found useful in the writings of other commentators and what I independently arrived at concerning the topic, due to the fact that my memory may be playing tricks on me; this applies both to the ideas expressed and the phraseology. But  no plagiarism is intended.)

The poet dwells both on the physical beauty and the intellectual elegance of the woman. The language here is replete with religious associations: grace, pure, goodness, heaven, innocence. This religious evocation is appropriate for the pure inviolate nature he ascribes to the person he is so adoringly complimenting. As other critics have aptly pointed out, the reference to ‘… cloudless climes and starry skies’ being associated with Palestine rather than the poet’s native country adds to the religious imagery of the poem, while also giving it an exotic air.

In fact, the poet’s emphasis is not so much on the woman’s exterior beauty as on the elegance of her personality ‘defined in terms of light and dark and of a perfect, tremulous balance between them’ in the words of critic Angus Calder (2003); he also points out that the lyric ‘… projects a chaste awe of beauty such as we might imagine to have been felt by a Hebrew patriarch in the days of Abraham—and such as novelists since Byron, in parts thanks to him, have been able to award their characters’.

Calder’s reading takes us beyond the mere literal by assuming the beauty of this particular woman to symbolize the principle of beauty in art which is timeless, and which artists endeavour to give expression to in their works of art. In fact, some critics claim that ‘She walks in beauty’ is Byron’s tribute to the beauty of art. American poet and critic Eli Siegel (1902-78) founded the philosophy of Aesthetic Realism, which is based on the principle that “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites”. He proposes that Beauty is making one of opposites. According to him “In reality, opposites are one; art shows this”. Poets who were associated with the Romantic Movement (and Byron was prominent among them) were concerned with the nature of beauty. And Calder seems to have a point.

 The iambic tetrameter used renders the lyric quick moving, while maintaining the poet’s thoughtful preoccupation with his theme. The tone is made reflective and tender through a pair of lines with the same rhyme pattern being added to each basic quatrain. This strategy also expresses the poet’s feeling of genuine awe of the woman’s loveliness, and makes him look for the inner beauty which complements her sweet external appearance. The use of alliteration and a strictly regular rhyme scheme serves to emphasize key words, while contributing to the musicality of the piece. The predominant use of run on lines (enjambment) is a conspicuous feature of this poem. In the first two lines, it is used to surprise the reader by getting them to see how the night would be an apt simile to describe the woman. Enjambment also serves to urge the reader on to quickly and naturally move along with the poet from one idea to another, giving the rhythm a fast pace.   

Let’s now look at some background information about the poet and the poem. George Gordon Byron was an interesting, colourful personality. He was born on 22, January 1788. His father, Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron, was a profligate. He was married twice. Each time he married, he did so for the money he got from the woman. Young Byron’s mother Catherine was John’s second wife. He drove her to penury just before the birth of his son. It seems that, when a child, the poet was subjected to sexual abuse both by a woman and a man. The woman was supposed to look after him and the man was a suitor of his mother (presumably, when she was a widow). Byron had a hardly noticeable limp due to a deformity of his right foot (clubfoot), of which he was self-consciously aware. It seems that he had inherited his father’s prodigality for he too ran up huge debts. He was notorious for sexual promiscuity and indulged in many love affairs. He was even rumoured to carry on an incestuous relationship with his half-sister Augusta. Lady Caroline Lamb, an erstwhile friend, described him as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”.

Lord Byron was a poet of the Romantic movement. He was the best selling author of his time. He travelled to Greece and took part in the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire. For this the Greeks celebrated him as a national hero. He died of malaria while in Missolongi in Greece in 1824, aged 36.

The circumstances in which Lord Byron composed ‘She walks in beauty’ were of a sort that naturally inspired a person of his proclivities. He attended a ball at the residence of Lady Sarah Caroline Sitwell on the evening of June 11, 1814. One of the guests was the beautiful wife of his first cousin Robert Wilmot, Mrs Anne Beatrix Wilmot. Incidentally, Byron’s cousin was none other than Robert Wilmot Horton, who served as the fifth governor general of Ceylon  (1831-37) during British occupation. (It is unfortunate that Byron, a person we Sri Lankans admire as a poet of the world, doesn’t relate to us in a more honourable way.) As a young man of 26 he had, no doubt, a keen eye for beauty. Naturally, he was enraptured by the beauty of Mrs Wilmot, who, nevertheless, happened to be in mourning at the time. Her mourning dress was set with spangles, which must have suggested the starry night imagery of the poem. It is said that the lyric was composed the very next morning. However, in spite of all this, Isaac Nathan, in his reminiscences of Byron, suggests that the source of inspiration for the lyric might have been his half-sister Augusta.

The poem was later published in the ‘Hebrew Melodies’ in 1815. Byron’s ‘She Walks in Beauty’ was the first of several poems to be set to Jewish tunes from the synagogue by Isaac Nathan. This was in keeping with the exotic tropical atmosphere and religious imagery that the poem uses.



Meeting at Night by Robert Browning

Meeting at Night by Robert Browning (1812-1889)
(This essay was published in The Island/Sri Lanka on 10.02.2012 under a different title)
The grey sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i’ the slushy sand.
Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, thro’ its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each.
A young man, probably still in his teens, goes to have a secret meeting with his girl friend in her house in the night, as it appears, despite the opposition of their parents to their relationship. The boy has made it, and the poet leaves him with the girl there. We, as readers, need to attend to the ‘poetry’ of the piece, that is, the quality of its language which makes it interesting and beautiful, in order to do it justice.
But before we ‘analyse’ the poem (i.e. consider its separate parts to understand it more thoroughly), let’s remember the fact that the poem was written in England in the middle of the 19th century when Victorian prudery did not allow young people to interact with each other so freely as they do now. Only a few decades ago, in our own country, gender relations were associated with more taboos than they are today. In modern times, however, attitudes to sexual mores have changed, and parents take a relaxed view of relationships between young males and females. We can even say that the average Sri Lankan parents are a little more permissive towards boys and girls mixing together than before. Besides, easily available communication methods, to a certain extent, make matters too easy for lovers, and may steal some of the thrill of persisting in affairs (whether right or wrong) in the face of parental opposition. So, to understand the intensity of the excitement and pleasure the young lovers in the poem must have felt, we have to put ourselves in their shoes for a while.
‘Meeting at Night’ is a verbal reconstruction of the young man’s adventurous journey in the night culminating in the ‘joys and fears’ of their meeting. The progress of the lover is in two stages: he goes across a stretch of sea in a boat until he reaches a cove (a small bay); he leaves the boat and makes a dash along the beach and across three fields to finally arrive at the farmhouse where the girl lives. The young man himself is telling his story. The twelve lines of the poem are arranged into two stanzas of six lines each as pointed out above, but there isn’t a single complete sentence; it’s a series of phrases and clauses describing an eerie background to the young man’s night time adventure. This sort of story telling is not normal. The poet reports on what happened in this strange way in order to achieve a certain effect. The effect of this is to suggest a scene captured in ‘suspended animation’, and it gives the reader a multi-sense impression. In other words, he dramatises a scene: he describes a suitably threatening background, creates an atmosphere of tension, and offers the reader/listener a sensuous experience. The opening lines
The grey sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low;
delineate a mysteriously beautiful but menacing background. It’s night; the yellow half moon is large and low on the horizon; the sea is grey and the land is black. The landscape just lies there like a painting. The next two lines
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
provide a contrast to that passive dark background: the ‘startled’ little waves ‘leap’ from their sleep in ‘fiery ringlets’ in the moonlight. The last pair of lines of the first stanza
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i’ the slushy sand.
give us the first hint of deliberate movement. It is at this point that it becomes explicit that the speaker is in a boat. He reaches a cove and stops the boat. With their predominant diphthongs (in ‘gain’ ‘cove’ ‘prow’) and long vowel sounds (in ‘speed’ ‘sand’), the lines enact the gradual deceleration of the boat due to the resistance offered by the sand.
In the first two lines of the second stanza
Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
we see the lover crossing the beach and then cutting across three fields in breathless haste. The sea-scented beach is warm, but he also feels warm from his exertions. As obvious, the description is not so prosaic as I have put it. The phrase “a mile of sea-scented beach” is part of the static landscape described at the beginning. We are to infer that the speaker (the young lover) has got off the boat. He now crosses the beach and three fields till a farm comes into view. Then the next two lines
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
give the impression that these things happen by themselves. But the context helps us to understand that it is the boy who taps at the pane, and that ‘the quick sharp scratch/ And blue spurt of a lighted match’ (seen through the glass pane) come from the girl inside who has been waiting there expecting his visit. In the last two lines
And a voice less loud, thro’ its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each.
the girl’s voice is less loud, ”thro’ its joys and fears’/Than the two hearts beating each to each”. There is a bit of exaggeration here: we don’t normally hear hearts beating. But in this situation, the lovers are so excited that their hearts beat louder than their soft voices.
We can look more closely at the way Browning has used words in order to tell his story as excitingly as possible. If he said something like this: “Last night I visited my girlfriend secretly”, who would care? But it is an entirely different experience to read or listen to his poem; we are allowed to share in his feelings of excitement, fear, and joy. Browning manages to produce this effect on us through his use of language. If he had used the sort of language that a newspaper correspondent routinely uses to report on events, he would have limited our response to this ‘meeting at night’, and we wouldn’t have been touched by his piece of writing as literature. By putting it in the form of a little poem – with features such as metre, rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and figurative language – the poet is able to suggest much more than he could ever state. Browning is not simply stating a bare fact; he is giving us a set of verbal instructions for creating a kind of virtual reality in our imagination, so to speak.
In terms of metre, ‘Meeting at night’ is basically in iambic tetrameter (in which there are four feet to the line, each foot an iamb, i.e. a foot that has an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. However, Browning stops his verse from becoming a dull monotone by varying this basic metrical pattern. Of the twelve lines, not a single one is a perfect iambic tetrameter line. The closest example of that type of metre in the poem is the sixth line, and it contains only three iambs, and one anapaest:
And quench/ its speed/ i’ the slush/y sand
The first, second, and fourth feet are iambs, but the third is an anapaest (a foot consisting of two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable). The concluding line has three types of feet:
Than the two/hearts beat-/ing each / to each
where the last two are iambs, the first is an anapaest, and the second is a spondee, a foot having only two stressed syllables. Five beats to the line – quite appropriate to its meaning. By frequently substituting the basic iambic metre with other metrical types the poet gives the poem a lively dramatic rhythm.
The poem, nevertheless, has a very regular rhyming scheme. The first six lines rhyme ABCCBA, and the second six lines DEFFED, giving each stanza a kind of internal symmetry. The lover’s secret passage towards his night time rendezvous with his sweetheart takes place in two discreet stages, which are each described in neatly rhymed lines: the first is over the sea in a boat, and the second is over land across the beach and three fields. Apart from framing the graphic account of each phase of the young boy’s journey towards his lover within a kind of verbal frieze, the rhyming serves to emphasize the key words in the description. Alliteration (e.g. long….land, little waves that leap), and assonance (e.g. cove….prow) are also used to stress important words; in addition to this they contribute to the musicality of the verse, as does the predominance of the l sound in the first four lines of the first stanza.
Naturally, the poem reflects early Victorian social values which, apparently, Browning did not accept without questioning, though. The young man in the poem, the speaker, did something that went against conventional modes of behaviour expected of young men and women at that time. There might be a biographical ‘parallel’ here. The poem could have been inspired by his romantic relationship with fellow poet Elizabeth Barrett, a semi-invalid woman who lived in her father’s house in Wimpole Street in London. Robert Browning met her in 1845. He was six years younger than she was. Mutual admiration as poets led to a romantic relationship. The woman’s authoritarian father had prohibited marriage to his children. But the lovers eloped the following year.
In our little poem, the woman is never seen; she is barely heard either. Victorians generally saw women as passive, and as subordinate to men. Men belonged in the world of action. Though Browning chose to be a non-conformist as far as his romantic affair with Elizabeth Barrett was concerned, he probably did not totally reject these attitudes.
What came to be known as “Meeting at Night” was originally published along with another short lyric which was later titled “Parting at Morning”. (At the beginning, the two poems were respectively called “Night” and “Morning”.)
Parting at Morning
Round the cape of a sudden came the sea,
And the sun looked over the mountain’s rim;
And straight was a path of gold for him,
And the need of a world of men for me.
For the poet, then, a woman belonged to the night and was destined for a passive role in life; he himself needed a ‘world of men’ illuminated by the sun. So, the young man emerges from the tryst with his beloved in the night when ‘the yellow half-moon was large and low’ into the daylight world of men, where hard work, perseverance, and courage were the values for men to pursue. The romantic night with the woman now appears to have been only a necessary ‘feminine’ indulgence for him.
This is not the only way that “Meeting at Night” may be analysed; neither is it a very exhaustive analysis. For example, I haven’t even touched on the symbolism that many readers discover in it, or its alleged erotic content. Such readers make much of the ‘cove’ of the first poem along with other details there, as they could of the ‘cape’ in the second. In any case, a good poem lends itself to such varied interpretations, or ways of enjoying it. It is up to the reader to make the best of it, without misreading its poetry, of course.

Yeats ‘Among School Children’

Yeats ‘Among School Children’
(Published without the text of the poem in The Island/Sri Lanka/03.02.2012)

I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and histories,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way – the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.


I dream of a Ledaean body, bent
Above a sinking fire. a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy –
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato’s parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell.


And thinking of that fit of grief or rage
I look upon one child or t’other there
And wonder if she stood so at that age –
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something of every paddler’s heritage –
And had that colour upon cheek or hair,
And thereupon my heart is driven wild:
She stands before me as a living child.


Her present image floats into the mind –
Did Quattrocento finger fashion it
Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat?
And I though never of Ledaean kind
Had pretty plumage once – enough of that,
Better to smile on all that smile, and show
There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.


What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?


Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;
Solider Aristotle played the taws
Upon the bottom of a king of kings;
World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras
Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings
What a star sang and careless Muses heard:
Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.


Both nuns and mothers worship images,
But those the candles light are not as those
That animate a mother’s reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
And yet they too break hearts – O Presences
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolise –
O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise;


Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor bleary-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
One can only propose to share a literary experience with others having similar interests, but one cannot sell it to them. Again, the sharing here is different from normal sharing in which everyone will be enjoying the same thing as at a meal. Sharing a literary experience is more like sharing the same ingredients in order that each sharer will turn out a different dish to suit their own palate. The following is such a proposition and an attempted demonstration. Needless to say, it is not to be swallowed whole; it provides only a cue for engagement with the poem.
It is good to remember these words of the American essayist and literary critic Susan Sontag (1933-2004): “Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings’.“ Readers are kindly invited to read my comments on W.B. Yeats, “Among School Children” critically and see if my commentary could help them towards developing a more satisfying personal response to the poem. However, the use of words ‘my’ and ‘personal’ does not mean that we should ignore what others have said about the poem when we engage with it. (I am not including the text of the poem for reasons of space. If a book containing the poem is not within reach, readers may easily access the text on the Web. But for the time being, even that is not necessary.)
“Among School Children” by W.B. Yeats (1865-1939) is a carefully constructed poem consisting of eight stanzas of eight lines each. (Incidentally, Yeats died exactly 73 years ago, on 28th January 1939) Generations of readers have enjoyed this poem and have been impressed by its artistry. It is a masterpiece by a great poet. This information ‘about the poem’ is not strictly necessary, but it may be necessary to establish its claim to our attention.
In the poem we overhear what the poet is musing over privately while visiting a school as a ‘public man’. Yeats was a senator of the Irish Free State. He had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, the first Irish to be so honoured. He is being taken around St. Otteran’s School in Waterford (which he visited in February 1926) by ‘a kind old nun’, probably the head of the school. Yeats sets the scene with the opening line “I walk through the long schoolroom questioning”. The kind old nun’s replies explain how the children are learning to read books, to do arithmetic, to sing, to cut and sew, to be neat in everything “in the best modern way”. The children’s eyes light up “in momentary wonder” and stare upon the sixty-year-old smiling visitor.
It is easy to see that this ‘long schoolroom’ is more than just a schoolroom; it may mean the school of life where learning never ends. Questions about the meaning of life, the illusory sense of selfhood in a person in the face of inevitable physical decay over time, the relationship between body and soul/spirit, and mind and matter occur to many of us. Yeats was concerned with these problems, too. For those of us who have lived long enough to realise it, life is often a matter of waiting to live: we learn, we labour, and we merely prepare for ‘life’ until death comes, or until we realise that the meaning of life is in the living, as probably Yeats did. The poet’s fascination with the children is, however, more lasting and more profound than their curiosity about him. He is reminded of a tale told by the woman he loved about some childhood incident (“a harsh reproof or trivial event”) which pained her deeply as a child; the relationship between them as young lovers was such that he felt at one with her “from youthful sympathy”. The phrase ‘Ledaean body’ refers to this woman. She was the Irish nationalist Maud Gonne who was only eighteen months younger than Yeats, and who had great physical and intellectual attraction for him; to him she was like Helen in Greek mythology who was a demi-goddess, being the daughter of Leda, a beautiful woman raped by Zeus in the form of a swan (hence the ‘Ledaean body’ above). In his lifetime, Yeats proposed to Maud Gonne five times in different circumstances, only to be rejected. The other classical allusion in the same stanza is to Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s book “Symposium”. Originally, according to Aristophanes, man was not separate from woman; the man-woman had four feet and four hands, one head with two faces looking opposite ways, four ears, two sexual organs, and so on; the man-womans were strong, arrogant and violent; to stop them becoming a threat to the gods, Zeus divided each of them into two “as you might divide an egg with a hair”. Yeats alters Plato’s parable and says that the two of them (Maud Gonne and Yeats) became “the yolk and white of the one shell”, that is, they felt inseparable from each other.
Thinking of the intense sorrow or passion he felt on hearing that sad story, Yeats looks upon “one child or the other there” and asks himself if Maud Gonne looked like her at the same age. The child he’s looking at may not be as extraordinarily beautiful as his lady love was according to his imagination,
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something of every paddler’s heritage –
and Maud probably had “that colour on cheek or hair”.
And thereupon my heart is driven wild:
She stands before me as a living child.

‘She’ means Maud. She was of Ledaean kind, i.e. like semi-divine Helen; yet she “can share/Something of every paddler’s heritage” and is human; she is subject to old age and bodily decay. So, the woman’s present image that ‘floats’ into his mind is a complete contrast to her apparition as a living child before him, for the woman today is old and “hollow of cheek” and looks as if she’s feeding on shadows. “Did Quattrocento finger fashion it” he is compelled to ask himself because she is so thin and shrivelled as depicted by a 15th century Italian painting. When she was young, she was an incomparable beauty like Helen; and he himself, though he did not possess the same kind of good looks, “Had pretty plumage once…”, he modestly claims. With this he emerges from his reverie for it’s
Better to smile on all that smile, and show
There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.
Of course, this ‘old scarecrow’ is not comfortable; he is looking back on his life with a sense of frustration: his love was unrequited; he’s a man with sixty ‘winters’ on his head, troubled not only by such frustrations, but by what he perceived to be failures in his creative endeavours.
The whole of the fifth stanza is a single sentence, a rhetorical question: What young mother would think her son a compensation for all the pain she had to undergo in giving birth to him and for all the anxious concern she experienced in launching him into the world as an individual, if she saw him as an old man of sixty? Critics debate about who is being betrayed here, the mother or the baby? I, for one, think that in terms of the main theme of the poem and the immediate context (as I understand them), it should be the mother. The mother is betrayed by being given a ‘shape’ (newborn baby) which must “sleep, shriek, and struggle to escape”, as if it was resisting birth. Having superimposed the present image of Maud on his vision of her as a beautiful young woman, Yeats imagines that his mother would have been mortified by the same sort of frustrating experience if she had had the chance to see him with “Sixty or more winters on (his) head”. The phrase “the honey of generation” alludes to neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry’s belief that sex drugs the unborn infants and causes them to forget the honey-like sweetness of ‘prenatal bliss’ or ideal reality before they are born and become mortal (subject to decay and death).
In the next stanza, Yeats turns, with this question, to some legendary wise men in the western cultural tradition, the Greek philosophers Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras, only to contemptuously dismiss them and their philosophies mocking them all as “Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird”, that is, mere scarecrows like himself. Plato thought that the material world and everything in it including us are dark illusory shadows cast by the bright light of what he called the Forms; these are the immortal abstractions which alone are permanent in his view; to Yeats, Plato’s Forms are “a ghostly paradigm of things”. Aristotle was “solider” or was less abstract: he believed that children were substantial enough to be considered worth driving some sense into through punishment, and he
played the taws
Upon the bottom of a king of kings.
(‘taws’ means a leather whip with its end cut into small strips used to punish school children; ‘a king of kings’ was Alexander the Great, whose teacher Aristotle was). By using ‘played’ Yeats discounts Aristotle’s action. Like Aristotle, Pythagoras seemed to consider the material world to have some permanence; he said that music echoed what he called the Music of the Spheres (or planets). Though the three philosophers disagreed among themselves about how to value things of the world such as children, all of them believed that permanent forms or shapes or images are the foundation of experience. Yeats thinks that these philosophies are shallow, and ridicules the three ancient philosophers as scarecrows.
The seventh stanza brings the poet to the images that nuns and mothers worship. But they worship different kinds of images. Nuns’ images are statues that “keep a marble or bronze repose”; a mother’s dreams are centred on a conception of a perfect child; if she saw this child aged and decrepit, it would break her heart. The nuns’ images too break hearts: The god they worship disappoints them. So, nuns, mothers, and lovers including him have their hearts broken alike. “Heavenly glory” is what they want to symbolize. It’s nothing real; it’s all in their imagination. The Presences that the poet addresses are these images, shapes, which are “self-born” because they are products of imagination, and they are not from the world of reality; in their permanence they mock “man’s enterprise”: to Yeats, Maud Gonne will always be the beautiful young woman she was (and not the shadow of reality she’s been reduced to at present) which is a delusion. The Presences reveal the vanity of “man’s enterprise”.
The last word of the seventh stanza “enterprise” links with the opening word of the eighth “Labour”, for both imply work; ‘labour’ is also mother’s work in birthing. Even the chestnut tree is a ‘blossomer’; its work is blossoming. In the last stanza, the performer and the performance are fused into a unity.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
These concluding lines give us the two metaphors of a chestnut tree (great rooted blossomer) and a dancer (body swayed to music) which help define what some readers would possibly interpret as its central theme: a bitter-sweet reflection on his own life as a lover, poet and public man, the “unity of being” subsisting through a relentless process of ageing, the riddle of a reality he experienced, but found it hard to pin down. The chestnut tree is neither its leaf, nor its flower, nor its trunk; it is a unity composed of those different parts; the tree has no separate existence from them. The second image (that of the dancer) transfers our attention from the natural to the human plane: How can we separate the dancer from the dance? For there’s no dance where there’s no dancer, and vice versa. The meaning of both these metaphors can be extended to represent the dynamic unity, the mysterious harmony that characterises all existence, the universe, of which we are a part. Incidentally, the dancer image reminds us of the nataraja (King of Dance) statue of Shiva the Destroyer Creator god of Hinduism dancing in an aureole of flames. Shiva’s cosmic dance is said to represent the vibrant unity of the universe, its awe, beauty, majesty, and mystery. Life is a part of that universe and shares in those qualities. The rhetorical question “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” is where Yeats’ ruminations have led him.
(The fact that I have drawn on many sources should be obvious to the reader. Still, my commentary remains superficial, as cannot be helped within the limits of newspaper article.)

Literature and …

Literature and Life

(Published in The Island/Sri Lanka/27 January 2012)

Literature is so close to our life that many of us pay scant attention to it. Like certain familiar but vital things in life such as the air we breathe, it eludes our notice. Among the usual subjects on the school curriculum, it wouldn’t occupy a ‘prestigious’ position unless the education authorities and the students are enlightened enough to appreciate its real worth. However, the fact that literature is still recognized both in the sphere of education and in the adult world is something for literature lovers to be happy about: literature is one of the ‘humanities’ taught in schools and universities. The humanities are subjects like history, art, language, and philosophy that deal with the way people think and behave, as different from the sciences. Novelists, short story writers, essayists, dramatists, and film script writers, and even poets still publish their works, obviously because they have a responsive readership, which means they don’t go totally unread or unappreciated.

The word ‘literature’ is applied to writings about every subject including science and technology. But here we are concerned with ‘literature’ in the sense of pieces of writing which are considered as art, and which include not only modern works but ancient classics. Poetry, prose (fiction and non-fiction),  drama, and film (the last two in the form of written scripts including dialogues) are commonly called literature. Having said this, we might suggest that our definition of literature should be flexible enough to allow even a well written scientific piece to qualify as literature if it embodies the basic literary elements. Literary writings are those in which content and form are essential features. Content or meaning (what is said) refers to the deeply felt experiences, ideas and thoughts of universal interest that are expressed in a piece of literary writing. If content is what is said, form is how it is said. In literature, however, the word form is used at different levels of description. At the broadest level, form refers of types of literature such as poetry, prose, drama, and so on. Each of these may be described in terms of further forms: for example, we have forms of poetry such as the sonnet form, the haiku, free verse, blank verse, etc. Within a single piece of writing form means the way its various parts are arranged so as to make it a meaningful unity.

All  literature is for the ‘serene joy’  of the readers (to adopt the English rendering of a phrase from an ancient Lankan classic where it is equivalent to ‘the pleasure, enlightenment and edification’ of the readers). Talking about poetry Robert Frost said: “A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom”, but this may be applied to all good literature in general. Among the arts, literature is unique in that it is an offshoot of language; and language is a natural endowment, and is primarily speech. People acquire the ability to speak naturally. Writing is an artificial skill that people must learn later. Now the advent of written language (literature) happened relatively recently; it has only a few thousand year long history, whereas oral literature has existed from time immemorial. This is something common to all linguistic cultures. It is a fact that, among such cultures, extant oral literature (stories and poems)  contains much folk wisdom. This traditional literary lore is as important as what is being produced in any culture today.

When we talk about ‘literature’, the term itself sounds as if it is something inherently formal and elitist, and hence necessarily inaccessible to the hoi polloi. It need not be so. After all literary arts, like all traditional other art forms, started among ordinary people. Of course, over the millennia, with the march of civilization, standards of literary excellence have evolved, which may make little sense to the average reader. It’s like many people with some love of paintings failing to admire a Picasso which art connoisseurs rave about. This is not the fault of the art or the artist. Lack of sophistication on the part those disappointed art lovers is to blame. But there should be paintings which they too can enjoy while they are still refining their artistic sensibility. The same applies to literature.

 Literature is about viewing or projecting life through language. Poets, novelists, dramatists, and other literary artists use words as their raw material to turn out their objects of art (i.e. poems, plays, stories, etc). Since literature is usually regarded as something written, it looks as if it began much later than humans acquired their linguistic ability. But that is not the case, for ‘literature’ was not originally written. Oral literary composition had a long history before writing (i.e. writing as we know it today) evolved.  True writing (not hieroglyphs or pictograms)  is of relatively recent origin being around a few thousand years old. It’s not possible that human beings did not sing or tell stories before they developed writing. All the many different human cultures around the world must have had rich unwritten literary traditions. Whether oral or written, literary creations have always sprung from the reflections of men and women possessing an unusual sensibility (an ability to appreciate what is beautiful, and to respond to emotional situations, which ability the fellow members of their community do not have to the same degree). What do they reflect on? On the experiences of life, on love, hopes, frustrations, sorrows, war, peace, betrayal, friendship, birth, death, beauty, and the rest; based on these, they project their imaginations into the future or into the past, into the unknown, and create make-believe worlds in which they conjure up situations similar to what they encounter in the real world, and contrive to rouse the interest of the listeners or readers by presenting the familiar things of life from a new unfamiliar perspective. Those who listen to or read  the poems, stories, and plays derive pleasure from them just as the artists who create them do by composing or writing them. It is not merely a case of deriving pleasure. The good literature that we read has a positive subliminal effect on our thinking and behaviour (‘Subliminal’ means it acts on us without our knowledge), and helps develop our personalities.

Literature is comparable to play. Play helps the growing young individuals to master, at little or no risk to life or limb, those physical movements, manoeuvres, and strategies  which are useful in adult life. In other words, they acquire the physical and mental agility that is essential for them to live as adults. Once they step out of the play world into the real world, this training helps them in normal living. In the same way, literature teaches the readers to gain insights into potentially problematic situations in life without them having to undergo experiences that are too unpleasant or dangerous or long-winded for them to live through. In their writings, literary artists reflect the value systems that guide the behaviour and thinking of individuals in a particular society. “Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become”  according to British novelist, literary critic, and academic C.S. Lewis (1898-1963).

This is not to assign an overtly didactic role to literature. A mere sermon cannot be valued as art. The most refined form of literature is poetry, which Somerset Maughm described as “the crown of literature”. Among the 19th century English poets, one whom I hold in the highest esteem both for his poetry and his critical sense is John Keats (1795-1821). In a letter to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds dated February 3, 1818, Keats wrote: “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us — and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle or amaze with itself, but with its subject”. He was alluding here to his senior contemporary William Wordsworth (1770-1850) who had declared: “I wish either to be considered as a Teacher or nothing”. However, what Keats seems to object to is the “palpable design” part (the moralizing element), not the power of good poetry to educate by engaging the intelligence and imagination of the reader in responding to its language. Both Wordsworth and Keats have written much poetry that delights the readers as it ‘instructs’ them unobtrusively, something that can be easily demonstrated by reading passages from Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem “Prelude; or Growth of a Poet’s Mind” or Keats’ odes. American poet and critic Ezra Pound (1885-1972) wrote: “Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree”. Ezra Pound’s “meaning”, however, should not be misconstrued as a simple moral lesson that can be extracted from its source like a pearl from an oyster. In good literature, content and form are inseparable, for the one determines the other. (This is probably one of the few things in this article that some of my young readers may find it difficult to follow. I hope to explain them with examples in future contributions on allied topics.)

To put it in a nutshell then, in ordinary life, we basically use language for interpersonal and intrapersonal purposes. We communicate and cooperate with others, and get about the business of living by using language to acquire, disseminate, and process information in numerous ways. We also use language to resolve internal conflicts, dilemmas, and frustrations, for example, by talking about our problems with someone sympathetic who is ready to listen to us such as a relative, friend, or counsellor, or by writing out what worries us on a piece of paper in order to ‘externalize’ it, or singing about it. It so happens that at any time in any linguistic community there are a few men and women with extraordinary sensibility and the language ability that is needed to express it, who bridge the gap between these two types of linguistic engagement. They are the literary artists in whose hands linguistic expression is simultaneously private and public.

Although generalizations are dangerously close to falsehood, particularly in respect of the domain of literature, where the prospective explorer often brings at least part of what they are looking for along with them, these simplifications could still serve as useful signposts. I am indulging myself with another one here (Caveat emptor! Let the buyer beware!): Ideally, a piece of literature should be considered as a process, rather than as a finished product. In it, the literary artist offers the adventurer (reader/listener) a singular experience in an emotion-charged atmosphere, plunged in moral or political tension, such that they (the reader/listener) will experience that act of literary communication with a sharpness and freshness not possible in ordinary day-to-day language. The experience has the potential to change the reader’s worldview, mould their character, and lead to significant improvements in their conduct. That is where the meaning or relevance of literature lies for us. 

Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou

Phenomenal Woman
By Maya Angelou (1978)

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman

Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
‘Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Maya Angelo (b. 1928), named Marguerite Johnson at birth, is poet, essayist, singer, dancer, editor, author, educator, civil rights activist, and a whole host of other things. She worked for Dr Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X.

In this poem, she tells other women about her ‘secret’: it is not her physical beauty with which most women are preoccupied, and which attracts men; it is actually her character as a woman, the dignity of being a woman, being the phenomenal that she is. It is the tone of quiet but firm confidence that makes these lines impressive and empowering.

THE MOWER by Andrew Motion

The Mower by Andrew Motion (1952-)

With storm-light in the east but no rain yet
I came in from mowing my square of lawn
and paused in the doorway to glance around
at my handiwork and the feckless apple blossom

blurring those trim stripes and Hovver-sweeps
I had meant to last. What I saw instead was you
in threadbare cords, catching the sunny interval
between showers, trundling the Ransome out

from its corner in the woodshed. The dizzy whiff
of elm-chips and oil. Joke-shop spider-threads
greying the rubber handles. Gravel pips squeaking
as the roller squashed through the yard. Then a hush

like the pause before thunder while you performed
your ritual of muffled curses and forehead-wipes,
your tugs on the glistening string starter-cable,
more curses, more furious yanks, until at long last

the engine sulked, got over it, sighed a grey cloud
speckled with petrol-bits, and wobbled into a roar.
Off came the brake, and off charged the machine,
dragging you down to the blazing Tree of Heaven

at the garden end, where the trick was to reverse

from the way your whole body lurched lopsided
on the turn this was less than a hundred percent true.
Getting the job finished was all we ever wanted,
parked with our cricket things and happy enough

to wait, since experience had taught us that after
you’d unhooked the big green metal grass-basket
splodged with its Royal Appointment transfer,
lugged it off to the smoking heap by the compost,

thumped it empty, then re-appeared to give us
the thumbs up, we were allowed to burst suddenly
out like dogs into the sweet air, measure the pitch
between our studious stump-plantings, toss to see

who went in first, then wait for you to turn up again
from the woodshed where you had taken five minutes
to wipe the blades down, and switch the petrol off,
and polish the grass-bucket although it never would

shine up much, being what you called venerable.
You always did come back, that was the thing.
As you also come back now in the week you died,
just missing the first thick gusts of rain and the last

Andrew Motion was Britain’s Poet Laureate from 1999 to 2009. “The Mower” was first published in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) on May 4, 2007. It is an elegy on his father. The description of a past memory involving his father is straightforward, is almost prosaic, except for the regular metrical pattern, and the division of the text into four-line stanzas. Though, at a glance, the word “feckless” (line 4) seems to fit the poem itself better than it does “the apple blossom” perhaps, the feeling engendered is genuine – sadness mixed with amusement at his recalling of his comical view of his father in that context when he was alive.
The word that is spelt here as “Hovver” must be “Hoover”’ I think. This is a simple English poem which we Sri Lankans too can easily respond to.


The Brahman, the Thief, and the Ghost
There was once a poor Brahman in a certain place. He lived on presents, and always did without such luxuries as fine clothes and ointments and perfumes and garlands and gems and betel-gum. His beard and his nails were long, and so was the hair that covered his head and his body. Heat, cold, rain and the like had dried him up.
Then someone pitied him and gave him two calves. And the Brahman began when they were little and fed them on butter and oil and fodder and other things that he begged. So he made them very plump.
Then a thief saw them and the idea came to him at once: “I will steal these two cows from this Brahman.” So he took a rope and set out at night. But on the way he met a fellow with a raw of sharp teeth set far apart, with a high-bridged nose and uneven eyes, with limbs covered with knotty muscles, with hollow cheeks, with beard and body as yellow as a fire with much butter in it.
And when the thief saw him, he started with acute fear and said: “I am a ghost, named Truthful. It is now your turn to explain yourself.”
The thief said: “I am a thief, and my acts are cruel. I am on my way to steal two cows from a poor Brahman.”
Then the ghost felt relieved and said: “My dear sir, I take one meal every three days. So I will just eat this Brahman today. It is delightful that you and I are on the same errand.”
So together they went there and hid, waiting for the proper moment. And when the Brahman went to sleep, the ghost started forward to eat him. But the thief saw him and said: “My dear sir, this is not right. You are not to eat the Brahman until I have stolen his two cows.”
The ghost said: “The racket would most likely wake the Brahman. In that case all my trouble would be vain.”
“But, on the other hand,” said the thief, “if any hindrance arises when you start to eat him, then I cannot steal the two cows either. First I will steal the two cows, then you may eat the Brahman.”
So they disputed, each crying “Me first! Me first!” And when they became heated, the hubbub waked the Brahman. Then the thief said: “Brahman, this is a ghost who wishes to eat you.” And the ghost said: “Brahman, this is a thief who wishes to steal your two cows.”
When the Brahman heard this, he stood up and took a good look. And by remembering a prayer to his favourite god, he saved his life from the ghost, then lifted a club and saved his two cows from the thief.
From enemies expect relief…..

From PANCHATANTRA translated from the Sanskrit by Arthur W.RYDER Jaico Publishing House, India. First Jaico Impression 1949. 28th impression 2004. Pp 275-6.

The Wild Swans at Coole by W.B. Yeats

The Wild Swans at Coole – W.B. Yeats

THE trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty Swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

The first stanza sets the immediate scene where we “overhear” the poet as a middle aged man reflecting on the passage of time. He manages to communicate the anguish he feels on this occasion without melodrama (i.e. representing a situation as more exciting or more emotional than it really is). The beauty of the autumnal background to the poet’s meditation impresses us with its curious sensuousness as well as its solemn serenity. The lake water reflects a still sky; on it are nine and fifty swans. The time is also significant: the end of the day is approaching (for it’s twilight); it’s autumn (October) that comes before winter, the end of the seasonal cycle, that is the end of the year. This time is appropriate for musing on the inevitable process of aging that we are all subject to.
The second stanza refers to his first visit here nineteen years ago. On that last visit he was unable to finish his counting before the swans suddenly rose to the air and scattered “wheeling in great broken wings – Upon their clamorous wings”.
The next stanza tells us that although the poet is nineteen years older and so many years sadder the birds remain as brilliant as ever. When he first came, he came with the “lighter tread” of youth, but now he’s coming with a heavier tread. Everything has changed for him since then.
Stanzas 4 and 5 contrast the apparent fixity of the swans with the inexorable flux of the poet’s own transitory existence. “Passion or conquest” will always attend upon the bird lovers wherever they wander. The poet wonders where they will build their nests and whose eyes they will delight when he awakes one day to find that they have flown away.
The thirty lines of the poem are organized into five stanzas of six lines each. Each stanza has a regular metrical pattern. The lines are mostly in iambic meter, with the number of beats in them ranging between three and five: the first and third lines have four beats, (they tetrameter lines), second, fourth and sixth three beats, (these are trimester lines), and the fifth five beats (a pentameter line). In each stanza the lines rhyme ABCBDD. This regular stanza form is suitable for the poet’s pensive and plaintive mood.
Though at the almost entirely literal level the poem could be interpreted as a sad reflection on the poet’s own ebbing life as opposed to the permanent vibrant pattern of the swans, it may also be said to embody a symbolic statement on the nature of art. The swans are involved in symbolizing two things: 1) the graceful beauty of the swans and their fierce passion stand for the vigorous intensity of youth; 2) their unchanging pattern represents “the perfect pattern of art which preserves youth in ‘the artifice of eternity’” The individual swans die, but the pattern of fifty-nine swans remain. The old swans die, but young ones take their place, and so “the swans are both changing and changeless. Thus the swans become an intricate symbol of youth for ever passing, yet forever renewed”. (Words within quotation marks are words that I am reproducing from memory, but whose source I am unable to remember).