Orwell and Yeats: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Both Orwell in “Shooting an Elephant” and Yeats in “Easter 1916” demonstrate not only the futility of revolutionary passion but the meaninglessness of the whole conflict between the British Empire and its subjects. In “Easter 1916,” Yeats is reflecting on the attempt of Irish revolutionaries- many of which he knew- to rebel against their British oppressors. The rebellion ultimately results in the rebels’ deaths. In his poem, Yeats reflects on the possible futures the men, some of which “might have won fame in the end” or fulfilled some other purpose (28). He notes how, though these men chose to put the freedom of Ireland above the fulfillment of those possibilities and though they believed themselves to be filled with something more than the “polite meaningless[ness]” of daily life, they ultimately failed (6). Their sacrifice was for nothing, the rebels’ lives and the survivors’ lives add up to little more than a “casual comedy” (37). There is little hope or meaning for those under Imperial reign.

Orwell shows the other side of this paradigm, demonstrating the equivalent futility of the Empire in attempting to keep their subjects from rebelling. In order to do so, the rulers must do “what the ‘natives’ expect,” even if that means committing atrocities they would not otherwise commit, like killing a peaceful animal (2570). Orwell notes, however, that such attempts are ultimately futile, and the empire will die as the elephant did, with a slow and painful death. At that point, all the atrocities committed by the empire, all the loss of men’s souls to maintain a grip on the people they have subjected to their rule, will be for nothing. Any justification for the action will be a flimsy excuse (2571).


“Araby” and “Shooting an Elephant”


In both “Araby” and “Shooting an Elephant,” there is an important task at hand for both speakers. The speaker in Araby must go to this bazaar in order to impress the girl he likes. As soon as he gets to the bazaar, he is met with defeat. His wish to impress the girl is not fulfilled, because he reaches the realization that he had been deceived by both her and the allure of the bazaar. His hopes were too high and in the end, he was disappointed. This scenario is somewhat comparable to the speaker in “Shooting an Elephant” because the speaker also had expectations for himself that were not met. For example, the speaker did not plan, in the slightest, to kill the elephant. The idea did not cross his mind, and he repulsed by the idea of killing the elephant. Even when he realized that he “had” to kill the elephant in order to please the crowd, he was still against it. I think that both speakers have something/someone that they want to please, but in the end, they are only disappointed in themselves. The final sentence in Araby could easily be added to “Shooting an Elephant” because both speakers are feeling the same way. “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger” (2222) is the point in which the young boy in “Araby” comes to the realization that he is nothing more than a part to the machine. I think that the speaker in “Shooting an Elephant” surely felt the same way after doing something that he considers evil. The speaker in “Shooting an Elephant” comes to the realization that he is nothing more than a puppet being controlled by those who easily outnumber him. The self-reflective nature of both characters is a similarity that stands out the most. Both speakers take a look inside themselves, and come to the conclusion that they ultimately do not like what they see.

Empire: The Duty of the English

Orwell and James Joyce provide insight into the natives feelings toward England.  Joyce notes that a few street singers in Ireland sang a song about the Irish nationalist, O’Donovan Rossa.  They also sing about “troubles in our native land” (2219).  He is showing discontent among the people.  Orwell mentions similar feelings in India.  He comments that a group of Buddhist priest’s sole purpose was to “stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans” (2567).  These two authors are portraying how the natives publicly displayed their hatred toward England, the Imperial power.

Another interesting similarity between the two authors is their perception on the duty of the English rulers.  Joyce mentions in Araby that an English lady spoke to the narrator “out of sense of duty” (2222).  Orwell fully explains this duty by observing that when a foreign nation rules another nation, the rulers of that nation “wear a mask” with the purpose of “trying to impress the ‘natives’” (2570).  He explains that it was the perceived duty of the English to appease the indigenous people.  Both Orwell and Joyce wrote against the Imperial stance of Britain, so they incorporated the  animus feeling of the native people to convict the British people that the Empire was dying.

Women Romantic Writers

Since we didn’t get to discuss Charlotte Smith and Dorothy Wordsworth in class today (or last week), I thought I’d post some comments on them here. Please feel free to respond or post on your own if you’d like to discuss.

Charlotte Smith’s “To Melancholy” (1785) embodies all of the features of Romantic landscape poetry that Wordsworth and Coleridge popularized in Lyrical Ballads thirteen years later. It is set in a specific time and place, as indicated by the subtitle “the banks of the Arun [River] October, 1785,” in order to convey the concrete uniqueness of an experience of Nature in mid-Autumn. That subtitle utilizes a convention that Wordsworth and Coleridge would later follow in their poems, the idea being to allow readers to return to the same location and have the same experience, connecting to each other through time and space.

Smith also exemplifies the Romantic notion of Imagination as an active and synthetic faculty of the mind, not a passive mirror held up to the world. Her description of the seasonal landscape, with its “grey mists” that arise from “dim waves,” bears an element of obscurity and fleetingness that suggest supernatural phenomena (line 2). In addition, the “native stream” of the Arun (line 9) seems to contain a national spirit deserving of pity, whose “deep sighs swell the sadden’d wind!” (line 11). She then addresses that spirit directly–“O Melancholy!”–praising its “magic power” to “soothe the pensive visionary mind!” (lines 12, 14). In that way, the natural landscape serves not only as a projection of her inwardly gloomy emotional state, but also binds her with some element of the national spirit of Englishness. It’s that connection with her readers individually and with the nation in general through its native landscape that she expresses a vision of national unity, however distinct from politics.

Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” (1812) makes a similar appeal for connection based on a notion of Englishness as a natural, inborn essence. Though her poem is overtly political, there are several passages that invoke the names of rivers to suggest the flowing of time as well as geographic connection and “spiritual” (in the sense of national Genius) connection. I am thinking in particular of the stanza on lines 127-156, where various rivers and other landscape features of England and the United States form a network among some of the great British thinkers and leaders throughout its history: King John and the signing of the Magna Carta, sir Isaac Newton and his definitive model of physics (now deposed by Einstein’s relativity), and so on. What’s interesting here, though, is that Barbauld extends the landscape-inhabited-by-national-Genius to Britain’s colonies, where she seems to agree with the Imperial claim that “If westward streams the light that leaves thy [our] shores, / Still from thy [our] lamp the streaming radiance pours” (lines 79-80). The poem is generally anti-Imperial in condemning the injustices of appropriated wealth and the corrupt political and financial practices that they have led to, yet seems positive about the cultural inheritance it bestows on foreign peoples and their lands.

Dorothy Wordsworth’s “Grasmere” (1805) seems the odd member of this trio of women writers. It follows the tradition of picturesque poetry set in the English Lake District, up north near the border with Scotland, prized for its rugged beauty. The landscape is peopled by cottages in a valley, but one in particular catches her fancy. She goes for a walk that takes her off the beaten path, where she finds an unexpected scene. As we’ve discussed all semester, the Romantic quest for rural landscapes has to do with a searching for British identity, specifically away from the cities. It is a response to modernity, the industrial revolution, and unsavory foreign involvements, even though it might not always refer to them directly.

Dorothy’s landscape describes a pastoral setting in a valley that provides protection from harsher elements.

And when the storm comes from the North
It lingers near that pastoral spot,
And, piping through the mossy walls,
It seems delighted with its lot.

And let it take its own delight;
And let it range the pastures bare;
Until it reach that group of trees,
–It may not enter there!

The mild pleasure afforded by her journey and the scenes she describes represent the aesthetic of the beautiful, which is the least represented among the poems we’ve looked at. There is a faith in the ability of “England’s green and pleasant land” not only to provide unexpected wonder, but to protect and endure. I’m not sure we find the same optimism in Smith and Barbauld.

Can we find anything in Dorothy’s poem that seems to mark her as consistent with the other two women writers here? She expresses a connection to Englishness through a connection to the land, but apparently without the skepticism and concern for the damaging effects of Time we find in the other two. Perhaps you have an answer to this, or see some connections I haven’t teased out?