Ozymandias

Next in a series on romantic literature, this poem Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley is a classic. Published in 1818, it is one of Shelley’s most famous works.

The romantic poets were lovers of antiquities and their writings dwelt on themes such as fate and the supremacy of nature over human efforts.

 

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Ozymandias

Written a year after the British Museum acquired a fragment of the statue of Rameses II from the 13th century BC. The poem explores the nature of the impermanence of even the greatest of civilizations; even their legacies fade into obscurity and oblivion.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

First printed in 1798, written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner has left it’s mark on western thought. It marked the turn to romanticism in literature at the start of the 19th century and has influenced much of the new-wave spiritualism and environmentalism prevalent to this day.

Originator of the idiom “albatross around one’s neck,” the tale tells the tale of an ancient seafaring captain whose ship strays into Antarctic waters and is stranded in an ice jam. When an albatross appears, it leads them out and brings a fair wind to sail them north.

At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God’s name.

It ate the food it ne’er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!

And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner’s hollo!

rime 1

Despite the saving power of the albatross and the good omen it proved to be, curiously the mariners shoots the Albatross.

In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmered the white moonshine.”

`God save thee, ancient Mariner,
From the fiends that plague thee thus! –
Why look’st thou so?’ -“With my crossbow
I shot the Albatross.”

rime

The superstitious crew at first lament the death of the good omen, but when a good wind prevails they assume the death of the bird brought them salvation.

And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work ’em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!

Nor dim nor red, like God’s own head,
The glorious sun uprist:
Then all averred, I had killed the bird
That brought the fog and mist.
‘Twas right, said they, such birds to slay,
That bring the fog and mist.

The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free;
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.

rime of the ancient

However, once the boat is stranded in a still sea, the crew punish the mariner by forcing him to wear the dead bird around his neck.

And every tongue, through utter drought,
Was withered at the root;
We could not speak, no more than if
We had been choked with soot.

Ah! well-a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.”

rime of the ancient mariner

The mariner and his crew are then visited by a ship captained by death and a crew playing dice for the lives of the mariner and his men.

Are those her ribs through which the sun
Did peer, as through a grate?
And is that Woman all her crew?
Is that a Death? and are there two?
Is Death that Woman’s mate?

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Nightmare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.

The naked hulk alongside came,
And the twain were casting dice;
`The game is done! I’ve won! I’ve won!’
Quoth she, and whistles thrice.

rime of

The crew one by one are taken but the mariner is cursed to live on watching his men die slowly – it seems as retribution for killing the albatross.

One after one, by the star-dogged moon,
Too quick for groan or sigh,
Each turned his face with a ghastly pang,
And cursed me with his eye.

Four times fifty living men,
(And I heard nor sigh nor groan)
With heavy thump, a lifeless lump,
They dropped down one by one.

The souls did from their bodies fly, –
They fled to bliss or woe!
And every soul it passed me by,
Like the whizz of my crossbow!”

Unable to pray, sleep or die, the mariner lives on alone for seven days, until in despair he notices the beauty of the sea creatures and praises their loveliness. This utterance, releases the mariner’s from the curse.

Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.

The selfsame moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.”

rime of the

The wind picks ups immediately and fresh rain falls reviving the mariner. In his daze he envisions his dead crew steer his ship home or that a spirit beneath the waves carries the vessel forward.

Upon returning home he is met by a hermit, who rows a boat with a pilot and a boy who greet him in the harbour. However, his wretched boat sinks in a whirlpool beneath the waves and they drag him into their boat thinking him dead.

rime 2

Salvaged from the sea he is cursed forever to retell the tale to all who would hear it.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.”

The poem is significant to the romantic literature movement for its animation and personification of nature. The mariner kills an innocent seabird, one that aided his ship from danger. In retribution, he loses his crew to death’s dice and himself is cursed to live on to remind generations after that “dear God who loveth us, He made and loveth all.” Only once he praises the beauty of the sea creatures he once feared, is he released from his punishments.

As the industrial revolution carved up Europe, the romantic poets lamented the death of nature.  Religion, in the wake of Kantian philosophy,  had been relegated to the realm of the private and intellectual while politics, economics, business and science, divorced from spirituality became disciplines commandeered by experts, ruled by reason but devoid of ethics and prone to domination by the strongest of wills.

Seeing the figurehead religion as sham, party to the desecration of nature through capitalist and imperialist pursuits, the romantics kept alive a spirituality and transcendent love of the earth by turning back to classical imagery, Greek and Roman myths and legends in which nature and her elements have agency.

The 20th and now 21st centuries have experienced a flowering of religious interest and environmental concerns which can be attributed to the works of the early romantic poets such as Coleridge and his peers.

A Christmas Carol

scrooge

Who doesn’t love a good story of Scrooge at Christmas? The miserly man who hates the holiday cheer, is reformed through a series of rather confronting dreams and wakes to a new lease on life, love and generosity.

However, on closer inspection,  the story may have sinister 19th century overtones.  Ebenezer [Hebrew for “help of God”] Scrooge,  owns a counting house and is a notoriously miserly business man. He has no love for Christmas, and hates the very sentiment. However, three spirits appear to him in dreams and show him Christmases past and present, recounting life events including his own future death. This is enough to inspire in him a love of the Christmas and good cheer to all.

Does anyone else notice something suspicious about a cold hearted, money hungry, eccentric old man, with a Jewish name in London, chief of a counting house who hates the very idea of Christian holiday ? Faced with his own imminent cold grave, his own selfishness is illuminated, he repents and becomes joyful and generous.

a-christmas-carol1

The story moves from a tale of human redemption to something dated by racial overtones. While the story of restoration through a realisation of Christ’s birth is joyful, unfortunately Dickens tale errs to moralism – Scrooge is Jewish and selfish and should become Christian and generous.  I’m not the only one who thinks so:

http://blogs.riverfronttimes.com/dailyrft/2010/12/dickens_christmas_carol_anti-s.php

If Christians are to tell stories of redemption, we are better to take a biblical [and indeed Hebrew] perspective of how the narrative plays out. The protagonist is always the common one, always flawed. One does not become a follower of Christ by accepting the holidays and charitable ways – but by radically being confronted by the grace given.

 

The Importance of not being Earnest

“The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.” ― Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde was famous for his wit, and satire.  One of the most famous playwrights of the 19th C he specialised in pointing out duplicitous behaviour, vanity and vice. While on the surface he produced witty comedies,  underneath he critiqued society forcing the audience to soften harsh social codes.

“Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people we personally dislike.” ― Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband

picture of dorian grey

 

Wilde managed to change the behaviour and attitudes of his and subsequent generations by pointing out harsh moral codes such as gender roles, attitudes to illegitimacy, and sexual and religious mores. Wilde also presented his own flamboyant passion aestheticism in the face of Victorian asceticism. How can one man’s literary endavours be so powerful upon society?

“Paradoxically though it may seem, it is none the less true that life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” ― Oscar Wilde

How can this be so ? How can art and narrative be so instructive ? This power of story is what I would like to explore. In this case the genre of satire. The following definition begins to analyse the power of satire:

Satire is a genre , in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be humorous, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism using wit as a weapon and as a tool to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society. Satire ranges in “degrees of biting” from the hot end to kidding and lesser evils. Teasing however is  limited to a  shallow parody of appearance or nature, drawing empathy towards the individual it is directed towards. Satire instead goes against the power and its oppressors, it is subversive in nature with moral dimension drawing judgement against its targets.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satire

importance of being earnest

Narrative shows, as though through dream, the words and actions of another. The protagonist invariably represents the self – their foibles, our human faults, their vices, our human ills.  Such imagery allows the audience to see and to judge with objectivity. The audience can address the “log in one’s own eye”, with the same clarity with which we “remove the speck from our neighbours eye.” The protagonist can bear the weight of judgement, like a scape-goat, effectively allowing behaviour change without deep self-mortification.

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” ― Oscar Wilde

The power of satire is what it implies – “the satiric norm”. This is the ideal against which the faults and failings of society, characters and scenes are held. The Satiric norm is the ideal behaviour from which the character has fallen and to which the audience must aspire.  The satiric norm allows the narrative to be instructive, pushing the audience to both hope for a better world and aspire to change themselves.

talawa waiting godot

Satire differs greatly from the literary genre of absurdism, characteristic of some literature in the 20th century, particularly around or post-world wars. Absurdism is characterised by nihilism, or a disbelief in any over arching meaning to life despite the earnest search on behalf of humanity. Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” is a perfect example of absurdism. While sharing characteristics of satire, absurdism has no “norm” against which characters are held and so consequently no hope for a better world or change. The very search for meaning is absurd and thus vice and folly swim adrift alongside love and loyalty.

“Humanity takes itself too seriously. It is the world’s original sin. If the cave-man had known how to laugh, History would have been different.” ― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

To me the advent of absurdism signals the end of satire, the end of the ability to laugh at oneself, the end of our ability to hope for a better world or to challenge ourselves to change. The melancholy of absurdism, advented by existentialism, places meaning within the self, and not defined from any external realm of justice or truth.  The significance of “not” being too earnest, of retaining the ability to poke fun and to criticise ourselves and society, means we retain a belief in a better world, one where humans have a standard of behaviour and being conducive to human flourishing.

Art must keep us laughing.

“Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.” ― Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan