Weary Blues

The Weary Blues

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway. . . .
He did a lazy sway. . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man’s soul.
O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
“Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
And put ma troubles on the shelf.”
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
“I got the Weary Blues
And I can’t be satisfied.
Got the Weary Blues
And can’t be satisfied—
I ain’t happy no mo’
And I wish that I had died.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

 

In Langston Hughes poem, “The Weary Blues,” the word that stands out is “moan.” Old Webster defines moan as “a long, low sound made by a person expressing physical or mental suffering or sexual pleasure.” The reader can be sure the word is not referencing sexual pleasure by the following adjectives used, “sad raggy” and “melancholy.” If the reader is still unsure as to whether the pianist is sexually aroused or emotionally distressed, lines 25-30 clarify, “I got the Weary Blues / And I can’t be satisfied / Got the Weary Blues / And can’t be satisfied / I ain’t happy no mo’ / And I wish that I had died.”   

       Hughes uses the word moan to personify the piano. It is not the fact that he is personifying the piano that calls for attention but the word choice he uses to do it. When one thinks of a piano, moaning does not particularly come to mind. Jingle and tinkle perhaps, but not moaning. The reader can infer a great deal from the word “moan.”

What is really notable is that the moaning occurs when the ebony hands make contact with the ivory keys of the piano: “With his ebony hands on each ivory key / He made that poor piano moan with melody” (8-9). The ebony hands represent African American society while the ivory keys represent White American society and perhaps the piano represents society as a whole. An instrument that is capable of playing such beautiful melodies, in Hughes’ poem, does not. When the ebony hands (African American society) and the ivory keys (White American society) come into contact discord results.

Hughes might not have redefined the meaning of the word “moan” but he did use it in a unique context. By assigning its negative meaning to an instrument generally known for its beautiful sound, he is able to highlight the conflict between African Americans and White Americans that create the American society as a whole.

 

 

 

 

The Field at Dusk

She finds herself standing in the middle of a field that opens up to a dusk emblazoned sky. It could have been any field in any town. People are milling about, some have camps set up around small fires. Various music from throughout the decades can be heard playing on small transistor radios scattered across the field – seventies disco falling into seventies rock clashing with the doo wop of the fifties and punk of the eighties. It could have been any field in any town.

A bone thin man who has more stubble on his face than meat on his bones sits on an overturned crate and plays a banjo while six children in knee patched jeans and grubby faces chase the fireflies that are beginning to light up the field. A woman with a haggard look and weary eyes tucks the strand of hair that has escaped her bun behind her ear as she holds her baby to her partially exposed breast. She bends over a large cast iron pot and the light from beneath the pot illuminates her face so that she looks like a dying angel. Steam rises up and with it a smell that makes the mouth water and the heart feel at home. Sunday dinners and family, laughter and conversation, and grown up conversation where children can get lost in the safety of each syllable passing through the lips of those great giants.

Her eyes move past the dying angle and settle on a man dressed in a suit, a finely pressed suit of pinstripes. He has a wireless hands free in one ear and his finger is moving furiously across the small screen of his blackberry. He is oblivious to the music and the flaxen-haired woman dancing circles around him in white harem pants and a top so sheer her nipples can be seen. The contrast of the dark flesh against the white fabric is enticing and the only diversion away from them is the way she moves her long graceful fingers. They caress the air as she moves in circles around him. She thrust her hips forward toward him as he wipes the sweat from his creased brow and continues tapping. A baby cries and she sees the flaxen-haired Goddess dance gracefully to a white-flaked wooden crib where in lies a baby clad only in a cloth diaper. The woman gently picks up the baby and once again begins her dance. The once seductive sway of her hips filled with unnoticed intention becomes softer now. No longer caressing the empty air, she touches the soft skin of the baby’s back, tracing circles with the tips of her beautiful fingers. The baby is quiet as she continues the dance around the white crib, flakes falling to the ground.

She takes it all in, the sights and sounds filling this field. All of the different people. The associations tied to the soft skin of a babies back, or the delighted glee of firefly catching in the light of a disappearing sun. Her own memories of giants before they had fallen are stirred of in the cast iron pot of the dying angel along with her own memories of unnoticed intent like that of the swaying hips of the dancer.

And then they begin to leave. One by one, nearly half of the people in the field begin walking to the line of trees bordering the edge of the field. Brother leaving brother, daughter leaving mother, husband leaving wife, families separated from one another. Those that are walking towards the trees do not look back. They walk with purpose, their heads up and their gaze straight. Those that are left behind seem to be unaware of what is happening. The man keeps tapping away on his blackberry while the flaxen-haired woman resumes her dance. The baby cries in its crib. The banjo still plays as the children make rings that glow from the stolen firefly lights. The pot stands unattended.

That is when she sees the dying angel making her way toward the trees. She is sobbing and holds her arms straight by her sides her fists clenched as if she is willing herself to go forward and her clenched fists are the only things keeping her from going back. She is no longer holding a baby and there is such an emptiness now along with the tired, haggard, worn look in her eyes. Tears have made streaks down her dirty cheeks. The brown strand has come loose once more but this time she leaves it be and it sticks to her cheek in one of the tracks of her tears.

She shouts to the woman. She shouts for her to stop.

“Don’t go! You don’t have to go!”

Then she runs. She catches up to the woman before she reaches the opening in the tree line. It is dark. She cries for her to stop, and though the dying angel continues to sob with such exquisite anguish, she does not look back. And then she is gone.

She wants to follow the woman but she is afraid. She looks back over her shoulder at those left behind in the field. They are oblivious. She is filled with an overwhelming urge to stay with these people, to not leave them behind, and at the same time is drawn to the dark opening in the trees, to follow her dying angel into the unknown. As she is frozen with confusion and an awful indecision a man comes to stand beside her. He is nondescript with no distinguishable characteristics other than the sound of his voice. It’s the tide rolling in and being pulled back out, filled not just with his own voice but that of her father’s who has long been gone. It contains that voice and so many other unrecognizable voices all blended together, all speaking in unison.

“What has happened? Why did they leave?”

He looks at her with kindness and explains quite plainly, “We are all dead. The people who have entered the trees have realized that. They are moving on. The people in the field have yet to realize it, so they will continue to relive everything over and over. They will be stuck until they too come to realize it.”

She does not find herself filled with horror or shock or disbelief. She does not find herself filled with anything but the image of the dying angel sobbing with grief, her calloused hands clenched into fists. Then she looks once again over her shoulder and sees the baby that once laid in the tired arms of the dying angel, surrendered in the grass at the feet of the banjo picker.

She finds herself standing in the middle of a field that opens up to a dusk emblazoned sky. It could have been any field in any town. People are milling about, some have camps set up around small fires. Various music from throughout the decades can be heard playing on small transistor radios scattered across the field, seventies disco falling into seventies rock clashing with the doo wop of the fifties and punk of the eighties. It could have been any field in any town

Christian Symbolism, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Godot

Waiting for Godot burst on the scene, or rather stage, in 1953. Written by Samuel Beckett on the heels of WWII, which finally ended with a literal bang when the atom bomb was unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, post-modernism and the theater of the absurd was ushered in with the two act play considered highly existential in theme and concept. Existentialism is “identified with a cultural movement that flourished in Europe in the 1940s and 1950s”  stemming from the philosophy of Jean Sartre and contains all of the characteristics – “dread, boredom, alienation, the absurd, freedom, commitment, nothingness, and so on” – that are contained within Godot (Existentialism). Waiting for Godot follows two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, who wait for an unknown entity named Godot. If the –ot is taken away from the name Godot, the remaining word is God. If -ot is looked at separately from God-, it could very well be the beginning of the word other – other from God, or the self as it pertains to the individual.

god

Though considered existentialist in theme, in regards to the self, it is also a play about the existence of God. During a time when the prosperity of modern society of the 1950’s wrestled with the threat of annihilation aroused by communism, Beckett explores the struggle of the individual to define self, or man’s existence, and how to reconcile himself to God. Through the examination of Christian symbolism within the play and through the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard and Fredrick Nietzsche, the struggle of man to reconcile himself to God in an increasingly godless world will be explored.

The setting for Godot can be seen as a representation for the destruction brought about by the atomic bomb and war itself – desolate and empty but for a tree, which is one of the major religious symbols that remains throughout the play.

tree4

The tree acts as the meeting place, the place in which Vladimir (Didi) and Estrogon (GoGo) are to wait for Godot or God. In scripture the tree relates to the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified therefor opening the door for man’s repentance followed by God’s forgiveness – reconciliation.

je

There is also a relation to the tree Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, hung himself from in unrepentant guilt. In order for man to be reconciled to God, one must first acknowledge the gift of Christ on the tree or cross which allows for forgiveness of man’s sins. Without repentance there can be no forgiveness and without forgiveness there is no reconciliation.

ju

Upon finding the possible willow tree, DiDi notes that it is dead in which GoGo replies, “No more weeping.” DiDi says that perhaps it is not the season. This is another very meaningful phrase. The idea that there is a season for everything under heaven in a man’s life is found in the book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 3: 1-8. Many things that occur in the play are mentioned in these verses.

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“A time to weep, and a time to laugh” is verified by Pozzo: “The tears of the world are in constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep, somewhere else another one stops. The same is true of laughter” (Act I).

“A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing” is displayed when GoGo refuses to embrace DiDi as he is first taking his boot off and then again when DiDi refuses to embrace GoGo before finally relenting.

“A time to keep silence, and a time to speak” and “a time to mourn, and a time to dance” is illustrated through the character of Lucky who dances on command and is silent until he is demanded to “think.” Solomon wrote the book of Ecclesiastes “to spare future generations the bitterness of learning through their own experience that life is meaningless apart from God” (Proverbs, 1348). It appears throughout the play the characters struggle with the futility of their lives as they are waiting for Godot: “There is nothing to be done.”

lucky

 

The idea of repentance is brought up by DiDi in the beginning of Act I, “Suppose we repented?” GoGo enquires what they should repent of in which DiDi says they would not have to go into detail. This is a crucial part to understanding why DiDi is unable to be reconciled with God or why Godot never shows up. Reconciliation is based on repentance which was bought for man with Christ’s blood at the cross. To skip the details of ones’ sins they are repenting of would defeat the purpose. This empty repentance would just be a delay and according to Kierkegaard leads to delusion and if “it is unable to check itself…it goes on and on: then it is called perdition” (25).

As the play unfolds, the physical pain in the form of the beatings GoGo receives and emotional pain as is seen in DiDi and GoGos willingness on more than one occasion to commit suicide (regardless of the possible erection), along with the bareness, the confusion, the despair, and loneliness are felt in a seemingly never ending circle which could certainly be construed as perdition, damnation, or hell on earth.

In Act I, after GoGo’s foot pain and DiDi’s unknown pain (possibly related to his nether regions) are compared, GoGo asks Didi what he expects when he always waits until the last minute. Kierkegaard refers to this as the eleventh hour and describes it as such, “How still everything is, as if it were the midnight hour; how sober, as if it were the hour of death; how lonely, as if it were among the tombs; how solemn, as if it were within eternity. Oh, heavy hour of labor…when account is rendered, yet there is no accuser there…Oh eleventh hour, how terrible if Thou shouldst remain, how much more terrible than if death should continue through a whole life” (27). The meeting place is certainly still until Pozo and Lucky enter. It is desolate and barren. The aspect of eternity in the eleventh hour is displayed in the conversation between DiDi and GoGo:

Estragon: And if he doesn’t come?

Vladimir: We’ll come back tomorrow.

Estragon: And then the day after tomorrow.

Vladimir: Possibly

Estrogen: And so on.

DiDi states, “Hope deferred maketh the something sick, who said that?” (Beckett). The passage refers to Proverbs 13:12, and interestingly enough, the completion of that verse is as follows, “but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” The persistence GoGo and particularly DiDi to continue to wait for Godot can reasonably be considered a longing. The fact that the tree is dead represents the fact that DiDi and GoGo’s longing has not been fulfilled.

“We may despair from ever being able to bridge the chasm, or we may develop faith. If we despair, we will try and get rid of the chasm by annulling one side or the other, either self or God” (Leone, 66). This attempt to nullify God comes when DiDi begins a discussion about the two thieves who were crucified along with Christ.

thieves

DiDi tells GoGo that one of the thieves was saved while the other was damned. He is convinced of the four gospels, only one mentions this. While it is true only Luke mentions any detail about the exchange between Christ and the thieves, the other three gospels do mention the thieves, and not one of them say that the thieves abused Christ as DiDi insisted. Also, only two of the authors of the gospels were disciples of Christ. Mark and Luke were companions of the apostle Paul. The attempt to contradict the scripture, which is believed to be the inspired word of God, or to misremember them is a common occurrence in attempting to prove their illegitimacy and thereby God’s illegitimacy.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to being reconciled to God is the lack of faith in God’s existence. Fredrick Nietzsche pronounced the death of God in the late 1800’s in his book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ‘Whither is God…Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?’ (Soccio, 527). This idea of chaos without the anchor of religion is seen in the stage directions as the characters move in all directions and in the character of Lucky who must stop, go, turn, backward, etc. The news of Godot’s delay (God’s death) has not yet reached DiDi and GoGo however. Conflicted between resisting the urge to leave (kill Godot in a manner) and killing himself, Didi insists on waiting in a perpetual purgatory of sorts. There is still a small hope that Godot will come (God lives) but the seeds of Nietzsche’s brand of philosophy (God is dead) born out of man’s scientific revelations is fighting to take root.

ni

By the end of the play, no conclusion has arrived. The end is as the beginning. DiDi and GoGo are discussing the tree and whether or not to hang themselves. In Beckett’s day new technologies, home improvements, and luxuries were competing with the trauma from two world wars and the anxiety of communist threats. In the modern world, incredible scientific discoveries such as the ability to grow human life from a petri dish for those who want children but cannot have them is juxtaposed against the ability to destroy human life within the womb of those people who can have children but don’t want them. The same irony and conflict that Beckett faced is the same irony people face today and it is indeed horrifyingly absurd. Though the feeling of meaninglessness and futility remains in the play as it does in life, there is a difference: the tree that was dead at the beginning of the play has five leaves at the end. There is life still in the barren land. This life does not come from science and it does not come from modern man’s newfound liberation from religion, nor does it come from the self.  It comes from faith. Though the reconciliation of man to God does not come to fruition in Waiting for Godot, faith still remains.

 

Works Cited

Kierkegaard, Soren. Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. Watchmaker Publishing. Trans. Douglas V. Steere. 2013.

Leone, George. Kierkegaard’s Existentialism: The Theological Self and the Existential Self. Bloomington: iUniverse LLC. 2014. Print.

Proverbs. Life Application Study Bible NIV. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005. Print.

Soccio, Douglas. Archetypes of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy. 3rd ed. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company. 1998. Print.

 

Jekyll Gives Birth to Prufrock

Robert Louis Stevenson first published his short novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in the year 1885. Technically, Stevenson is considered part of the Victorian Era, the period of time between Romanticism and Modernism when Queen Victoria ruled England, a time in which the idea of propriety, manners, and position were increasingly important. However, “Victorian writing saw the seeds of rebellion against such idealized notions and stereotypical codes of conduct” (Kirschen). The seeds of rebellion, which made fertile the ground for the following modernist movement, came in the form of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. If there is any doubt of Stevenson’s modernist inclinations, one only needs to compare Jekyll with the foremost representation of the modernist movement – T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The similarity in description, setting, and character between the two leave no doubt Stevenson was a modernist before his time.

One of the most striking similarities between Jekyll and “Prufrock” is in the description. Industry, which began in earnest in the eighteenth century with inventions such as the steam engine and the Spinning Ginny, continued with a fury, changing the landscape of England. Farming communities gave way to urban communities as people flocked to the city to become laborers. “Mid-Victorian prosperity carried grim phenomena in its wake: there were bleak, sooty landscapes; exploited workers; crass materialism was rampant; and philistinism seemed to be the new buzzword which captured the essence of all this ‘progress’” (Kreis). One visual aide used in both Jekyll and Prufrock, which encapsulates this picture of industry, is the imagery of fog. There are multiple definitions for the word fog. Physically it is condensed water vapor lying low to the ground, an obscuring cloud of atmospheric dust or smoke, or a haze which conceals. There is also a mental reference as well in “a state of mental vagueness or bewilderment” (Meriam). Both Stevenson and Eliot use fog not only to describe the environmental consequences of industry but the mental distress it was beginning to have on man as well.

Stevenson uses fog to create an unsettling scene of darkness and secrecy in the reader’s mind, hinting at what is hidden, which is a reflection of modern man’s feeling of a growing darkness and uncertainty spilling forth. “A great chocolate-coloured pall lowered over heaven, but the wind was continually charging and routing these embattled vapours…for a moment, the fog would be quite broken up…the dismal quarter of Soho seen under these changing glimpses, with its muddy ways, and slatternly passengers, and its lamps, which had never been extinguished or had been kindled afresh to combat this mournful reinvasion of darkness, seemed, in the lawyer’s eyes, like a district of some city in a nightmare” (Stevenson). Embattled, broken, dismal, changing, muddy, slatternly, mournful, darkness, and nightmare are the descriptive words Stevenson uses in this one passage to pull the reader into this new world which would be coined modern not long after.

The same nightmarish quality is seen in Prufrock forty years later, after the destruction and horror of World War One which would be the impetus to launch people into a steady state of anxiety and alienation, “The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes / The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes / Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening / Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains / Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys / Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap / And seeing that it was a soft October night / Curled once about the house, and fell asleep” (“Love Song” III. 15-22). Though the fog acts as a metaphor for the pollution of the modern, industrialized world, Eliot also uses it as a metaphor for the mental state man has found himself in, as if a fog or haze has descended on his reality.

While the use of the same imagery, as is seen in the description of the fog, is an important correlation between Stevenson and Eliot, the setting also ties the two works together. Both Stevenson and Eliot use the urban city of London as their setting. In one regard, the reader is given a surface view pleasing to the mind, “The street was small and what is called quiet, but it drove a thriving trade on the weekdays…the shop fronts stood along that thoroughfare with an air of invitation, like rows of smiling saleswomen…and with its freshly painted shutters, well-polished brasses, and general cleanliness and gaiety of note, instantly caught and pleased the eye of the passenger” (Stevenson). This superficial view of life, of a proper society filled with citizens conducting themselves appropriately, achieving success and prospering, was important until it came into serious question during the modern era and discarded altogether in the post-modern era. As a true modernist who is beginning to see the edges of his socially-constructed world fray, Stevenson questions one version of society by illuminating the opposite version of society, “a certain sinister block of building thrust forward its gable on the street. It was two storeys high; showed no window, nothing but a door on the lower storey and a blind forehead of discoloured wall on the upper; and bore in every feature, the marks of prolonged and sordid negligence. The door, which was equipped with neither bell nor knocker, was blistered and distained. Tramps slouched into the recess and struck matches on the panels; children kept shop upon the steps; the schoolboy had tried his knife on the mouldings; and for close on a generation, no one had appeared to drive away these random visitors or to repair their ravages” (Stevenson).

Eliot attempts to reconcile the two realities as well. He speaks of one reality with “the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets / after the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor” (“Love Song” XIV. 99-103). This reality can hardly be considered concrete when set against the following, “Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets / The muttering retreats / Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels / And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells / Streets that follow like a tedious argument / Of insidious intent (“Love Song” I. 4-9). It is the battle between these two contradicting realities, one filled with tea and marmalade and talk of Michelangelo while the other is filled with cheap hotels, saw dust floors and insidious intent, which defines them both as modern.

Aside from the descriptive aspect and the similar settings, the most powerful correlation is that of character and theme. One of modernisms major themes is of man feeling alienated, consumed with anxiety that is overwhelming to the point of impotence. Stevenson’s Jekyll and Eliot’s Prufrock both embody those qualities. Jekyll battles with conflicting aspects of his inner self. In one respect, he is a well-respected, highly-regarded Doctor. He fits the Victorian mold of manners and respectability but below the “fog” there lies another hidden part of him, one that revels in drinking and debauchery and lust – all of the things society frowns on. It is a more primal side of his personality and the two conflict with each other causing Jekyll to be overcome with angst. Prufrock also seems to be a respectable member of society with his morning coat and a rich and modest tie “asserted by a simple pin” with “collar mounting firmly to the chin” (“Love Song” VI. 42-43). But like Jekyll, Prufrock battles an inner desire, “And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully / Smoothed by long fingers / Asleep . . . tired . . . or it malingers / Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me / Should I, after tea and cakes and ices /Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?” (“Love Song” XII. 75-80). Though Jekyll and Prufrock both are battling the duality of their personalities, the difference between the two is that Jekyll attempts to resolve his inner conflict while Prufrock remains impotent.

As Jekyll battles with conflicting aspects of his inner self, “It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both; and from an early date, even before the course of my scientific discoveries had begun to suggest the most naked possibility of such a miracle, I had learned to dwell with pleasure, as a beloved daydream, on the thought of the separation of these elements” he seeks out an elixir that will allow him to separate the more noble and socially accepted side of his character from the baser side. This results in him becoming not only alienated from himself but from society as well. Instead of a reconciliation, he has divided himself and as result one part must die so that the other can live.

While Prufrock suffers from the same internal battle, perhaps it is his deep seated insecurity that prevents him in taking action as Jekyll did. Prufrock is so immersed in his vision and revision and his hundred indecisions he remains trapped within his own head (“Love Song” V. 32-33). In the end, his disabling anxiety prevents him from claiming any part of himself thus being a whole version and a part of society as well. As a result he dies over and over again, “We have lingered in the chambers of the sea / By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed / red and brown / Till human voices wake us, and we drown” (“Love Song” XX. 129-131).

While T.S. Eliot might be considered one of the most influential modernist poets in history, there was another who came before who explored modern themes. Robert Louis Stevenson broke new ground with The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde exploring such modern themes as man’s duality and inner consciousness and alienation. Both Stevenson and Eliot use similar description, setting, and character to reflect the inner turmoil of the Victorian sensibility and the evolving modern mentality. Though Stevenson does not belong to the modernist period, his story of Jekyll seems to mirror that of Eliot’s Prufrock. There is a battle in both story and poem, both Jekyll and Prufrock, between conflicting sides of their inner selves resulting in death for Jekyll and an infinite alienation for Prufrock.

 

Works Cited

Eliot. T.S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology American Literature Volume C. Crawfordsville: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. Print.

Kreis, Steven. “Lecture 25: The Age of Ideologies (3): The World of Auguste Comte.” The History Guide.  2012 Web. 31 July 2016.

Stevenson, Robert. Stevenson, Robert Louis. Project Gutenberg EBook #E-43: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 26 Nov 2012. David Widger. Web. 30 Jun 2016.

Kirschen, Robert. “The Victorian Period.” UNLV. 28 October 2011. Web. 31 July 2016.

 

Rearranging: Embracing Impermanence and Letting Go

I like to rearrange, change, reconstruct, and readjust.

I do it all the time.

Why in the past four years I’ve shaved my head bald twice.  I’m talking Buddha bald. Just. Like. That.

I gained eighty pounds, hiding my once thin frame which garnered me more than a few looks, with extra soft flesh. Just. Like. That.

The former blog I spent three years creating with love, sweat, and tears – the very thing which helped me get through my divorce – I deleted. Just. Like. That.

Love letters from my ex-husband that were my tether to possibility, two years worth of love letters I held onto as a drowning person does drift wood, thrown into the fire. Just. Like. That.

Pictures of that other life – complete with a mother and a father, a husband and a wife – I threw on top of the burning love letters. Just. Like. That.

I said goodbye to my children, the sole purpose of my existence, and sent them to another woman without creating guilt or conflict within them (by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done). Not quite “Just. Like. That.” but close enough.

When I rearrange I let go and letting go is the way I stay sane, the way I remember who I am. My identity is not attached to my hair, my weight, my role as wife, or my role as mother.

I was not always good at rearranging and able to embrace the changing. Before my divorce my identity was attached to material things (house, husband, children, hair, body) or ideas related to material things (middle class, wife, mother, beautiful). But when my ex-husband left all of that disappeared. Just. Like. That.

I found myself teetering on insanity no longer knowing who I was. Nights I would spend lying next to my two-year-old daughter as she slept blissfully, reciting my name over and over in the quiet darkness, terrified I would fall into the abyss of nothingness.

It took years but, by the grace of God, I managed to inch away from the edge and find solid ground to stand on, only now the solid ground or foundation is found not on the outside in impermanent material things or ideas, but it is found within me.

So that I never forget, I continue to make myself rearrange things. Whether it is something as minor as the dishes in the kitchen cabinets or something a little more meaningful like donating baby clothes I held onto for my future grandchildren (future grandchildren that are not guaranteed), I purposefully and intentionally let go.

It reminds me of the Buddhist sand mandala. Days of painstaking creation ending with a breathtaking piece of art only to be dismantled. Why? To remind us of the transitory nature of life and the impermanence of material things and ideas.

As the trees can testify, with their leaves falling once more to blanket the earth with color, it is a good thing to remember.

“Wisdom, Happiness, and Courage are not waiting somewhere out beyond sight at the end of a straight line; they’re part of a continuous cycle that begins right here. They’re not only the ending, but the beginning as well.”
Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh

Women in Literature – Or Are They?

I just completed my last year-and-a-half of schooling. At thirty-nine I have finally attained the degree I set out to get when I was nineteen, although back then I had visions of politics, social reform, and changing the world. Naturally I traded in all of those dreams to hitch myself to a man (she hangs her head in shame).

But five years after the un-hitching from that man, I am finding my way back to the path again, the path I should have been on. But it does not revolve around politics, social reform, or changing the world. It revolves around literature.

Literature? Wait just a second. Literature absolutely does have to do with politics, social reform, and changing the world. It also has a little bit to do with history, psychology, culture, and religion. Literature is all-encompassing.

Though I went through nearly twenty months of literature classes, it was not until a couple of weeks ago – during my very last term – I realized something. Though in retrospect, perhaps the knowledge was simmering just somewhere between the sub-conscious and conscious, that place where nagging itches fester and just-on-the-tip-of-your-tongue words mockingly dance. I realized sexism was still very much alive and well.

Ok, so I knew that sexism was actively engaged within our society. You just need to look at the magazines in the checkout line or watch any number of television shows to realize that fact. But in literature? Literature is highly esteemed. It is an intelligent, multi-faceted branch of the arts. And it’s the twenty-first century for God’s sake! We gots the right to vote!!

But like every one else I simply read my Eliot, Yeats, Blake, Hughes, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Maugham, Banks, Becket, Bartheleme, Boyle, Ford, O’Brien, Yarbrough, Frost, Sandburg, Stevens, Williams, Pound, Mckay, O’Niel, Cummings, Cullen, Wright, Shakespeare, Moliere, Ibsen, Alexie, Percy, Saunders, Whitman, Harte, London, Crane, Woodsworth, Shelley, Byron, Keats, Greene, and Lawrence. That is a total of 41 male authors in case you’re wondering.

Intermixed among those brilliant, masculine, literary giants I was given access to a few female authors: Willa Cather, Virginia Wolf, Mary Hood, ZZ Packer, Leslie Marmon Silko, Gertrude Stein, Susan Glaspell, Marianne Moore, Caryl Churchill, Flannery O’Connor, Emily Dickinson, Kate Chopin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Zitkala Sa, Elizabeth Bishop, Harper Lee, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen for a total of 19.

Forty one male authors to nineteen female authors when the typical class is nearly two-thirds female. Hmm…

I suppose the inciting incident, the thing that drew that nagging and irritating feeling out from beneath the two layers of my consciousness was the Trump video released in which he made some pretty gross remarks.

When I heard about the tape I was not fazed. I mean really, I’ve had plenty of experience with men to know that kind of mentality is not a rarity. I’m not saying all men are the same and that all men have that Trump mentality, but I think he is in plenty of bad company.

So it was as this “scandal” was unfolding that I had to read Tim O’Brien’s, “The Things They Carried.” It was a good story, really. A clever enough idea I thought until that one passage.

He remembered kissing her good night at the dorm door. Right then, he should have done something brave. He should’ve carried her up the stairs to her room and tied her to the bed and touched that left knee all night long. He should’ve risked it. Whenever he looked at the photographs, he thought of new things he should’ve done.

Naturally, being the opinionated woman that I am, I began a discussion which involved me, the very male professor, and a bunch of crickets. His first argument was there was a difference between the protagonist of the story fantasizing about a woman as is typical of a straight young male and the comments of an actual seventy-year-old presidential candidate.

Right, of course. His argument sounded reasonable enough only…only Tim O’Brien, the creator of the protagonist, was not nineteen. He was an intelligent, grown man. He was the author of the words, not a nineteen-year-old character. Secondly, comparing forcibly tying a woman to a bed to an act of bravery is outrageous and in my mind does not sound so far from grabbing a woman by her nether regions. Third, why is age even an excuse for that type of thought? Enough with the “boys will be boys” mentality.

The Professor then replied that more female authors need to be introduced into the cannon. Right, of course. His argument, once again, sounded reasonable enough only…in the required text there are twenty female authors. Twenty and only two were used. The women are there; they’re just being dismissed.

I can understand in some weird way why women are so underrepresented. It’s par for the course. It’s what we know. It’s what we expect. But what was even more disturbing than that was the fact that I almost missed it. I almost went along with what’s par for the course even though it is harmful for me as a reader, a writer, and a woman.

Yes, women are still highly under represented. Women are still highly objectified and turned into one-dimensional beings. But I have hope. I do. Because there are women out there, lots of women, who are not going to go along anymore, who expect more than what is expected. There are women that will represent with the power of their words.

It’s inevitable.

 

 

 

The Twitch

I have a small twitch inside of my brain,

A terribly tricky and ticklish tick.

A thing in itself that is quite insane;

A thing in itself that is truly sick.

 

It crawls and it slithers, it finds its way;

It screeches aloud and calls me by name.

A sound like madness, like death, like decay,

It fills me with comfort covered in shame.

 

Yet in the darkness within my own mind,

There grows a light with a gentle fierce air.

It covers the twitch with a love refined,

So the twitch and the tick sleep unaware.

 

There is a hope within discourse divine,

That sorrow’s terror can be redefined.

Prufrock’s Love Song

When the word modern is uttered, the initials T.S. come to mind. When the word poetry is mentioned, the name Eliot follows. T.S. Eliot, in a word, exemplifies what modern poetry is all about.

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A Young Eliot.

Eliot began one of his greatest poems at the dawn of the twentieth century amidst the increasing industrialization, never-before-seen technological inventions like subways and telephones, and urbanization which resulted in overcrowded conditions in cities. Western civilization was changing at a rapid rate which resulted in an upheaval of the social collective consciousness. Eliot portrays this sense of psychological and, to an extent, physical alienation as a result of industrialization, technology, and urbanization in his poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

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Fleet Street 1900s.

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was published in Poetry magazine in 1915 at the persistent entreaty of Ezra Pound who became Eliot’s mentor (Byam, 365). World War One had begun the previous year, and due to the technological advances, the devastation and death wrought by mankind against mankind was unlike anything ever seen before. Machine guns and deadly gases killed more and more effectively, and trench warfare turned the beautiful, natural landscape into a scene of dread and mud. The War was a turning point for mankind. The knowledge that man was capable of inflicting death and destruction on one another and the Earth scarred people with a certain insecurity. In a way, no one was safe any longer.

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Though the War is not referenced in “Love Song” as it is in “The Wasteland,” the alienation and insecurity is still very much present. Eliot introduces the poem with an excerpt from Dante’s Inferno. This excerpt is of the character, Guido da Monteleltro, who relays his disgrace to Dante because he believes Dante is trapped in hell and will not be able to tell anyone on Earth. As Barbara Manca points out, “It enlightens the perspective with which the poem has to be read: a love song that Prufrock tells with no intention of directing it towards the loved one, or towards anyone at all” (258).

After the introduction, the poem begins with one of the grimmest images and suggests to the reader that this is not going to be a Keats’ love poem by any stretch of the imagination. “Let us go then, you and I / when evening is spread out against the sky / like a patient etherized upon a table” (“Love Song” I. 1-3).  An etherized patient is one who has been numbed and can no longer feel pain. This can be related to Prufrock’s own numbness or to the world’s in general. With the rapid cultural changes (think changing morals like “restless nights in one-night cheap hotels” and  greater excesses all leading up to the Great Depression), urbanization, technological advances like automobiles, subways, telephones, along with the global war, and it is easy to fathom the kind of subconscious shock and numbness that would ensue.

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Prufrock continues, “Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets…streets that follow like a tedious argument / of insidious intent / to lead you to an overwhelming question / Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ / Let us go and make our visit” (“Love Song” I. 4, 8-12). And what is the question? Prufrock does not say but given his references to the women coming and going and talking about high-falootin and pretentious things such as Michelangelo, one could surmise the question may pertain to the purpose of life. Does Prufrock’s existence, or anyone’s for that matter, mean anything? Is there meaning to such  inconsequential things like Michelangelo, “the cups, the marmalade, the tea…the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets…the novels…the teacups…the skirts that trail” (“Love Song” XIIII-XV. 88, 101-102)? Will it even matter at all if Prufrock would “disturb the universe” and step out of his own head and into life?

Even if the answer is yes it does matter- Prufrock’s descending the stair matters – Prufrock unfortunately suffers an insecurity that makes him impotent. “Time for you and time for me / and time yet for a hundred indecisions / and for a hundred visions and revisions” (“Love Song” V. 32-33). Prufrock is indecisive and the indecision leads him to play out life in visions, in his imagination, where he can revise and alter, and never actually have to live. And yet he can’t help but wonder, “‘Do I dare?’ And ‘Do I dare?’” (“Love Song” VIII. 38).

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Time for you and time for me and time yet for a hundred indecisions and for a hundred visions and revisions.

Though information, at the turn of the century, was able to be relayed much quicker via telegraph, and people were no longer separated by miles and miles of country, in many ways people were more isolated. People were living in apartment rooms, separated from one another by walls. Prufrock mentions these “lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows” (“Love Song” XI. 72). Because growing industry required labor, cities became increasingly populated. Prufrock describes the effects of industry which paints a polluted and yet highly sensual image, “The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes / the yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes / licked its tongue into the corners of the evening” (“Love Song” III. 15-17). This is not only a description of industrialized-smog but also of Prufrock’s own sexual desires. Caught between the Victorian Era with its refined morals and sensibilities and the Jazz Age with its loose morals and sexual liberation, it is no wonder that Prufrock has sexual insecurities.

With Prufrock’s insecurities comes a kind of defeat. He says, “For I have known them all already, known them all / have known the evenings, mornings, and afternoons / I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” (“Love Song” IX. 49-51). One day that is like the next and the next after that. Prufrock’s life seems to be a tedious strand of redundant moments and this fills him with an anxiety, “The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase / and when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin / when I am pinned and wriggling on a wall / then how should I begin” (“Love Song” X. 56-59). Even if he descends the stair, he is already formulated, wrapped up nice and tidy in other people’s perceptions. He’s been labeled with his receding hair line, his thinning arms and legs, and his “collar mounting firmly to the chin” (“Love Song” VIII. 41-42, 45).

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And indeed there will be time to wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?” Time to turn back and descend the stair with a bald spot in the middle of my hair –

The idea that Prufrock is stuck living the same day in and out under the questionable perceptions of who he is causes an internal crisis. Prufrock seems to desperately want to express himself in a way other than the one he and society has demanded but he is not even sure what he wants to express, “That is not it at all / That is not what I meant at all” (“Love Song” XV. 109-110). It is as if Prufrock is suffering an identity crisis brought on by the convergence of two different eras.

In true Modernist form, there is no conclusion to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. The poem ends with Prufrock reflecting on growing older, “I grow old…I grow old / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” (“Love Song” XVI. 120-121). He imagines walking on the beach hearing the beautiful mermaids singing to one another but he decides, “I do not think they will sing to me” (“The Love Song” XVIII. 125).

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I have seen them riding seaward on the waves combing the white hair of the waves blown back when the wind blows the water white and black.

The last stanza in the poem is haunting and confirms that the whole experience of the poem has indeed been in the mind of Prufrock. As Prufrock wanders down the streets within his mind, he is insecure, anxious, indecisive, wriggling, and growing old…but he is ok. It is only when Prufrock is pulled back out of his mind and into the real world of true alienation resulting from all of the changes that are taking place at the turn of the century that he truly suffers, “We have lingered in the chambers of the sea / by sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown / Till human voices wake us, and we drown” (The Love Song” XX. 129-131).

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Works Cited

Eliot. T.S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology American Literature Volume C. Crawfordsville: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. Print.

Manca, Barbara. T. S. Eliot: ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’: A Close Analysis of Prufrock’s Dramatic Monologue and its Interpretations (Kindle Locations 258-260). Barbara Manca. Kindle Edition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sylvia Plath: The Death of Daddy

    In the late fifties a new form of poetry was taking shape. These poems were of a personal nature and the more personal, the better. This poetry of unrestrained, autobiographical poetry was coined “confessional” by M.L. Rosenthal in 1959 (Bawer, 7). Sylvia Plath is one of the most widely known and widely celebrated confessional poets of the twentieth century. Continue reading