To the Lighthouse

Time is a recurring theme throughout Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. In Part I (The Window), Woolf stretches time, devoting the first 124 pages to a single day. This reflects the desire of some of the characters for time, that day, to stand still.  Mrs. Ramsay in particular wishes for them to always be together as they are in the dinner scene and for her youngest children, Andrew and Cam, to never grow old and suffer as she has.

In contrast, in Part II (Time Passes) ten years are compressed into approximately 20 pages. The passage of time is reflected by the deterioration of the house on the beach. While only a few words are devoted to the lives of its former inhabitants, the house’s increasingly poor state reflects their own experience over this period. The series of tragedies in the background of WWI are sudden and confusing. Their presentation in a short, objective, bracketed form disrupts the narrative and generates this effect. These years and events are then condensed into a few pages as they are slowly processed over many years. This reflects the way in which the world attempted to process the events and implications of WWI. In its aftermath a strong sense of confusion, shock, and disillusionment was felt. Nature seemed disrupted, as it is around the abandoned house: “…(for night and day, month and year, ran shapelessly together) in idiot games, until it seemed as if the universe were battling and tumbling, in brute confusion and wanton lust aimlessly by itself” (134-5). This processing was extremely gradual. Likewise, Woolf’s compression of ten years into 20 pages suggests that little changed over the course of these ten years as the characters, most likely, grappled with these sudden tragedies and, to some extent, the disruption of nature itself (the loss of the constant, binding force of Mrs. Ramsay in many ways represents this disruption of nature in their lives). Time moved on, but many people did not and so the narrative focuses on the state of nature and the beach house as opposed to the characters.

The Waste Land’s Literary Devices

What I found the most fascinating about The Waste Land was Eliot’s use of literary devices. Eliot’s poem presents a story of what it’s like to live in the 20th century, which is an oversimplification of this poem at best. Much like the inconsistency and uneasiness of the 20th century, the Waste Land lacks any true structure. The poem will have flashes of structure and at most blank verse such as in the beginning of section two, A Game of Chess. In the end though, this all falls apart. Another element that Eliot uses is enjambment. In parallel with the time period, Eliot writes this poem with a lack of closure, conclusion, and confusion. The lines bounce too and fro and never truly connect. An example of this is when Eliot wrote, “Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing” (39-40). This style is Eliot emotionally influencing the reader to feel what the 20th century felt like; confusing, lacking closure, and despairing. On top of this, Eliot’s multiple voices provide a scene that leaves the reader perplexed, like in the middle of a crowd of unfamiliar faces. This isolation appeared to be a personal journey for Eliot and one that also encompassed the feelings of many people of the time.

Eliot’s “The Waste Land”

In T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, many aspects of the aftermath of WWI are present throughout. One of the first notable places is a questioning of identity in Line 12: “Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.” Because Britains felt that the war was waged unnecessarily (or for an unnecessarily long time), there’s a sense of displacement–they’d lost hope and pride in their country, so questioning identity becomes prominent. I also wonder if in this way, showing so many types of people/languages/age groups exemplifies just how widespread the first world war expanded. If that is the case, the poem is unifying the groups of people by their reactions to the war–despite their differing circumstances, many of the reactions are the same. This is displayed in different areas of Part I and II. The theme questioning states of living and of death (and of some sort of in between) present themselves. Lines 39-40 portray a girl and boy, and the girl describes herself as “neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing”, while line 126 shows a man asking “‘Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?'” Eliot may be getting at the state in which soldiers from war returned. They were often described as “shell-shocked”, and these descriptions of living while dead reinforce that.

Another anxiety in The Waste Land–and probably the most obvious, is the fear and remembrance of death. So many British men lost their lives in WWI, which is exhibited in lines 62-63, where “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.” The deaths were not only numerous, but many British citizens felt that the deaths were unwarranted. They felt that the deaths were unjustifiable. The overwhelming confusion about where to go from that point stems from this loss. Confusion also stems from other fears as well. Eliot incorporates fear of the unknown, where he shows something “different” from one’s “shadow at evening striding behind” them, or one’s “shadow at evening rising to meet” them, he plans to show “fear in a handful of dust” (lines 27-29). The media initially tried to play the war off as some glorious service, and as deaths grew and as publications came out with gruesome information, people didn’t know what to believe of the war.

Another fear would be of the future, but more importantly, of the now. Line 59 projects from a clairvoyante, Madame Sosostris, that “One must be so careful these days.” So The Waste Land also introduces the fear that no one is safe any longer. The overwhelming rule of the British Empire had already been declining, but the first world war shut it so completely. The sense of power and importance that Britain once had was gone, and now people weren’t sure what protocol was for living, and for being. Eliot incorporates the stresses people had of future generations as well. Specifically, when Lil describes that she looks unappealing because of “them pills” she took, it is slantly referring to her aborting a child (line 159). Eliot the poet responded to Lil by asking “What you get married for if you don’t want children?” (line 164). She may have gotten the abortion because she felt the world was unsafe to bring a child into, she may have been unfaithful during the war, or she may just be done risking her life for childbirth (as she’d had five kids and almost died with the last one) but as it isn’t explicitly stated, it’s hard to know.

The last thing I want to comment on is the return of the nightingale (in relation to John Keats). It’s interesting to see the nightingale return in lines 100-102, harmed but still singing with an “inviolable voice”, like how after the war people had to keep living. In Keats’s poem, the Nightingale sung, ignorant of human suffering, and here, the nightingale is singing despite her suffering. Yet there is a sense of deliberate ignorance of what was happening, a numbness to the aftermath of the war as an attempt to preserve oneself: “‘What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?” / Nothing again nothing” (lines 119-120).

The Waste Land

Overall, T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” has a dark tone and confusing structure that mirror the aftermath of the Great War. Throughout the poem, different voices emerge unannounced, making the reader feel as confused as many people felt after the war. For instance, in Part II after line 110, Eliot begins using someone else’s voice as shown by the quotation marks. The lines ” ‘My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me./Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.’ ” (2301) sound jittery and psychotic; this could relate to the vast number of veterans with shell shock. Shellshocked men developed nervous ticks and exhibited strange, even paranoid behavior, so the fragmented sentences featured in Part II of “The Waste Land” show a concern for this new development of traumatized ex-soldiers. Another instance where a (new) voice in quotations reflects concerns of the time is located after line 130. The other voice worries ” ‘What shall I do now? What shall I do?…What shall we do tomorrow? / What ever shall we do?’ ” (2302). These lines address the same subject as Sigfried Sassoon’s “Everyone Sang”; although the soldiers rejoiced that the war was over, they lacked a sense of direction and purpose as soon as it ended. The voice in the aforementioned lines is frantically questioning what it should do, just as the veterans of the time were unsure of what to do after the completion of war. In fact, after the devastating results of an almost pointless war, many civilians also began to wonder what the point of their lives were. These two voices capture two very real anxieties from the aftermath of WWI.

In addition, Eliot uses many different allusions throughout “The Waste Land” to increase the insanity and depressing tone of the poem. Part I begins with a reference to Sybil who, after wishing for eternal life, claims she wants to die. This sets the dark mood for the rest of the poem and relates to the aforementioned questioning the purpose of life that became popular during this time. The selection of this particular scene could also indicate that mankind made a fatal mistake by starting the war and now has to live with the consequences of that mistake, just as Sybil is cursed to live with her mistake of not asking for eternal youth forever. Eliot also references a very different source, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, to end Part II of “The Waste Land”. In the play, the character Ophelia says “Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.” (2303) and this is seen as a sign of insanity by the King. By ending the second part of the poem this way, Eliot is directly alluding to insanity to help characterize the lost, confused, and insane feelings many people had after the Great War. I believe Eliot’s many references to earlier works could be a search for meaning by exploring the thoughts of past writers and thinkers, but no matter how much he tries to use the past to explain the present, life in the aftermath of the first world war stays as dark and confusing as ever.

A War Film

The poem “A War film” by Teresa Hooley represents many of the ideals of modernism. War films, a recent invention at the time of World War I, usually functioned as propaganda. They exhibited glorious battles where the enemy of the country that produced the film suffers a humiliating loss or an unfair victory. In a bitter sadness, common to modernism, the poem displays elements of imagism also typical of the movement. The poem opens with saying “I saw” and listing a series of images such as “The Mon Retreat” and “The ‘Old Contemptibles’ who fought, and died,” (1,5-6). The entire poem focuses on clear imagism as showcased by those lines, continuing onto the next stanza which speaks of “hearing machine-guns rattle and shells scream” (9). The imagery in the poem, sharp and broken off randomly from one another, exemplifies the use of imagism associated with modernism.

In addition to imagism, “A War Film” experiments with a new form. The poem’s structure closely represents a war film. The short introductory stanza and the quick stanza following represent the basic introductory elements in most film: the characters, setting, and situation are introduced, followed by a quick turn of events which sets the plot into motion. The next stanza is over twice the length of any of the others, representing the plot, or in this case, battle. The last stanza, medium length, occurs after the plot or battle similarly to the conclusion of a film or aftermath of a battle. The poem’s most intense words occur at the end of the long stanza, around the climax speaking of going “To War. Tortured,/Torn. /Slain./Rotting in No Man’s Land, out in the rain” (22-24). The poem itself mirrors its subject while using sharp and clear images, featuring the typical elements of modernism.

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”and Decadence

The Decadence period was characterized by a decline in morality and increase in refined taste, luxury, and pleasure. “The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock” begins by setting the scene in a bustling city during the evening. The persona observes various elements of the scene such as the “one-night cheap hotels” and the “restaurants with oyster shells”, and his inclusion of these particular places hints at decadence. He specifically mentions places of self indulgence (food from the restaurant) and pleasure (one night stands at the hotels), and these ideas illustrate a transition from morality to luxury and self-centered concern. The idea of Decadence continues when the persona begins to talk about going to a party. The phrase “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo” shows that parties centered around discussion of classical art and relates to the refined tastes of decadence. However, here the poem begins to diverge from decadent ideals. The previously mentioned phrase is repeated in the poem, implying a sense of redundant monotony. Prufrock is also extremely reluctant to enter the party, showing his aversion to that setting and his insecurity. Prufrock seems to disapprove of decadence, and his disapproval only strengthens throughout the poem. He keeps listing trivial, surface details of his life (“After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets”) to illustrate how dull and meaningless decadent life is. The persona has a deep love for someone that goes beyond the petty indulgences and beliefs of Decadence and, as he chooses not to act on his feelings, this voluntary abstinence from sex and happiness conflicts greatly with the beliefs of Decadent writers.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock”, contains elements that coincide with Decadence and that diverge from it. One commonality between the two can be found in Eliot’s attention to surface details. He writes, “Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;” so as to say that something as trivial as a coffee spoon is how he is counts his entire life. He says too, “Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?” This brings importance to things that are purely surface details. We  also see sophistication of taste when Eliot writes, “Talking of Michelangelo”, “the taking of toast and tea”, “the cups, the marmalade, the tea, among the porcelain”, and “my morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, my necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin.” These kind of sophisticated appearances of taste is common in Decadent writing, but I believe Eliot is using them in a much different way than, say, Wilde would. Wilde would perhaps say that taste and pleasure are more important than morality, but Eliot is using these examples of taste as a way to say that not even taste matters. We can find this when he writes, “I am no prophet- and here’s no great matter.”

Contrasting with Decadence and the sophistication of taste, however, we see Eliot write of things considered ordinary or even low-class. He writes of “sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells” and “the pools that stand in drains”. He also mocks those who speak with sophistication when he writes, “Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; At times, indeed, almost ridiculous-” and this is purposely meant to contrast with the examples of high taste mentioned above. He, like the modern age itself, is bringing “common” life into the “sophisticated” life. This is seen heavily through the food he mentions, alluding to the modern availability of varying kinds of food to the lower classes in cheaper ways.

J. Alfred. Prufrock

T. S. Eliot includes many elements of decadence in his poem “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.  Decadence, a weakening of morals often as a result of indulgent activity, fills the poem through descriptions of Prufrock’s lifestyle.  Aside from the content, the poem itself represents a break from past establishments.  Eliot writes the poem in an unconventional verse and rhyme scheme.  It presents a more free style than the previous more structured forms of poetry, similar to how decadence represents a free living lifestyle compared to previous practices, especially in the Victorian age.

Moving to the content itself, decadence is evident in Prufrock’s  practices and Eliot’s word choices to describe them.  Eliot writes about “restless nights in one-night cheap hotel,” suggesting a sexual affair with either a prostitute or a sort of mistress (6).  Even if Prufrock’s partners were steady girlfriends, the traditional view on moral sexual activity is that it should be reserved for marriage.  Later in the poem, Eliot writes “there will be time to murder and a time to create” (28).  This line, followed by another “and time for” line functions mirrors a bible passage directly.  The beginning of Ecclesiastes 3 is a long anaphora with lines repeating “a time to,” including one that says “a time to kill.”  The twisting of the biblical passage shows the decadence movement through its blatant falling away from the past scripture. T.S Elion also asked the question “Do I dare/Disturb the universe” (45-46).  Decadence, associated with a more modern way of living and lifestyle, connects with this question.  Previously, religion and social norms ruled morality itself.  The question asked has a way of questioning reality itself.  As decadence is a falling away from morality as suggested by Prufrock’s sexual escapades, asking if one should disturb the universe is a similar questioning of authority by contemplating disturbing reality itself.  In a way, this new form of poetry and its blatant, shameless discussion of subject matter that would be taboo in Victorian times disturbs the universe as well.

Decadence in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock”

Traces of Decadence can be found within T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock.” The poem, first of all, has a sensuality associated with Decadence as Prufock, the speaker, muses on love, long nights and vague physical descriptions of a nameless, faceless woman.  At the same time, it expresses a dissatisfaction with life and art alike.  Individuals in the poem seem to have the Decadent sophistication of taste (the women talk of Michelangelo while frequent mention of tea, talk, porcelain, and novels is made) but this does not satisfy. Prufock, for instance, states that he is no “Prince Hamlet.” He is not a hero–tragic or otherwise–but has more in common with the attendant or even the Fool. In other words, the art and literature of the past does not suit him or meld with the confusing world and feelings he finds himself in. Similarly, many of the stanzas end with Prufock asking a question: “Do I dare disturb the universe?”, “Should I then presume?”, and “How should I begin?” Decadence was, in part, preoccupied with metaphysical questions accompanied by Christian notions of temptation and damnation. Likewise, Prufock is haunted by the decisions he has made and the actions he has and has not taken. He wonders about the nature of the world and his role within it.

However, these questions also signal a divergence from Decadence. The amoral or perverse attitudes of Decadence were often flaunted. Individuals were open and unapologetic about their interest in sophistication and sexuality and the idea of “art for art’s sake” was popular. Simultaneously they were unapologetic for their sometimes contradictory or unreasonable actions and lifestyle. Prufock, on the other hand, does appear to feel some form of regret or guilt and the questions he asks in regard to parting his hair or eating a peach at the poem’s end reflect his feeling that everything has become meaningless.

Youth in BLAST

What seems most youthful about BLAST is the way the articles are written and typed up.  The CURSE and BLESS sections have a random style that literally floats along the page with no apparent order.  This may have been a way to keep the interest of the reader, but it seems more likely that it was an illustration of how youth can think.  Though the sentences have no apparent order and often weird structure, they have a witty tone that is amusing.  Sentences like, “BLESS this HESSIAN (or SILESIAN) EXPERT correcting the grotesque anachronisms of our physique” on page 25 are humorous considering all that people go through to calm their natural beauty into a false one.  The most youthful statements though are in the “Manifesto” article, “We start from opposite statements of a chosen world.  Set up violent structure of adolescent clearness between two extremes.  We discharge ourselves on both sides.  We fight first on one side, then the other, but always for the SAME cause, which is neither side, or both sides and ours.” (30).  This shows the unrest, but tenacity of youth.  They do not want their thoughts to be put in a box of typicality, so they synthesize the boxes.

Youth in Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

T.S Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” appears to be a poem centered around a love story of the subject. In this piece, Prufrock, as written by Eliot, explores the nuances of his love life with  a peek into the future he anticipates to experience with his lover.

From the presentation of Eliot of Prufrock, there is a hint of this being a young love story characterized by a bit of spontaneity (Lines 1-12). Deciding to do what could be referred to as eloping, Prufrock says quite remarkably “Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” (Line 11). This spontaneity, for one, is in my opinion, one of the three major derivations of youth from this written piece.

A sense of adventure is briefly noted in the second stanza of this poem by the young lovers in his expression of the places they could visit and the experiences they would have.  Prufock, seemingly in an attempt to convince his lover to follow him, declares on more than one occasion that “there will be time” for them to explore memorable things (Lines 15-34). This adventurous enthusiasm is one prominent infusion of youth Eliot employs in this piece.

In addition to the spontaneity, and a theme very much developed in the poem, is the concept of deliberation about the future. This theme beginning in Line 30 and continuing throughout the poem sees Prufrock constantly wondering what would become of himself and his lover in the future. This wonder about the future, experienced by Prufrock, could be seen as the other feature of youth in this poem by Eliot.

History in a Hopeless Endgame and a bleak Waste Land: the Futures of Eliot and Beckett

I found it rather entertaining that Endgame is the last work we’ll blog about in this class, though I wish we could have ended on a happier note. It’s rather depressing and hard to grasp at times, though it certainly follows in step with Eliot’s The Waste Land. Both examine the Western World after the devastation of WWI, and both find a bleak, uninviting, and meaningless place.

The Waste Land was about the degradation of Western society, where people were more machines than humans, where traditional actions have no meaning. People act out their lives because that’s how they are supposed to go; they eat their canned food, and one is “glad” for things to be “over” (line 252). Endgame makes use of the same premises (I question the use of the first, however), though it is more concerned with the after-effects of The Waste Land; for example, while in Eliot’s poem people still perform these “traditional actions” that no longer have meaning, Beckett does away with them all together, to bring light into a world without any meaning. Nothing means anything in Endgame.

While Beckett’s world seems to be after Eliot’s, there is no indication of a time-line. The past is simply “yesterday” (p. 2586), though “yesterday” is confused with all the other “yesterdays” that exist. As Clov says, “[yesterday] means that bloody awful day, long ago, before this bloody awful day” (p. 2597). There is no real past in Endgame, there’s only what “was before,” but what “was before” is never expressed. There is no time, there is no past, there is no future, and thus we realize that the world (the Western world, anyway) is devoid of all of these things, and everything is devoid of meaning.

Endgame exists in a world devoid of meaning, in a world devoid of fertility (the death of Nell, the only female in the play), in a world that exists but yet does not exist, an eternal place that was once something else, but will never be something else. The Waste Land gave us an understanding of why, and a suggestion that we may be able to fix it; Endgame leaves us hopeless.

Detachment as Time Passes

Through the use of a very detached perspective, Woolf engages with the desensitizing effects of WWI in Book 2, “Time Passes.” Perhaps the most obvious example of desensitization is the use of bracketed text to describe all the events happening to the characters while the house is abandoned. By using the brackets, Woolf makes the important events in the lives of the characters an after thought. The deaths of three important characters, Mrs. Ramsay, Prue, and Andrew are all mentioned within brackets and with very little description, almost as if they have no meaning. Take, for example, the description of Prue’s death: “[Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with child-birth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, They said nobody deserved happiness more.]” (380). Her situation mirrors that of the millions of soldiers who died in WWI. To the world, the death of one soldier is merely a drop of water in a vast ocean. Yes, it is sad; but death so pervade the world that hardly anyone notices. People are detached and desensitized.

Another way the Woolf uses a detached perspective to show the effects of WWI is by keeping her characters out of the summer home during the war. Left almost entirely to the whims of nature, the house falls into shambles. Rats invade the attic, “plaster fell in shovelfuls,” mold grows on everything, and the rooms fill with a “yellow haze.” The Ramsay family detach themselves from the house, a place for happiness and peace, during the war. Similarly, Europe also loses internal and external peace during the war. Through the Ramsay family and their detachment from the summer home, Woolf creates a microcosm representing Europe throughout World War I.

A New Culture

In Culture and Anarchy, Matthew Arnold states that culture is “a study of perfection,” and “the pursuit of sweetness and light.” However, if one applied that simple description to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” he would quickly come to the conclusion that Eliot’s poem is anything but an example of culture. Brokenness, confusion, and darkness reign in “The Waste Land;” this poem is certainly not a study of perfection. If anything, it is a study of the widespread imperfections in 20th Century Europe. The dark subject matter, fragmented language and use of quotation all contribute to the notion that though “The Waste Land” is far removed from Arnold’s idea of what culture should be, it remains culture.

Throughout the poem, Eliot quotes from a wide variety of famous literary works, writings that Matthew Arnold would certainly consider “culture.” For example, he often quotes and references ancient Greek and Latin stories, sometimes using the original language. Arnold absolutely loved the Greeks; in fact he considered the Greeks the grandfathers of all western culture, and their Hellenistic society something to be desired by Victorian English society. However, rather than using this classic culture to add clarity to his poem, Eliot uses it to add confusion and fragmentation. The epigraph is composed of a mash-up of Latin and Greek, giving the poem a jarring jumble of two different languages. The actual translation of the epigraph is equally unnerving; it consists of the Sybil’s request to die, a feeling mirrored by many WWI soldiers plagued with PTSD. Within the epigraph, Eliot sums up modern culture. He emphatically states that culture is not all about sweetness and light. Rather, culture is a fluctuating concept that changes with the prevailing mood of society. For post-World War I Europe, culture is darkness, fragmentation, and despair.

On reading BLAST

In reading through BLAST magazine, I was very impressed by how well the editors illustrated their revolutionary ideas throughout the magazine. As others have already commented, it is most interesting that  Pound and Lewis were striving for a literary revolution  through “violent” writing just months before the literal violence of World War I broke out.  

BLAST boldly demonstrates a push towards a revolutionary model of modernist writing through the individualistic, satirical style and the playful imagism employed. The “Manifesto” is primarily comprised of short, extremely satirical sentences, phrases, and words that fall under the authors’ characterization of “blast” or “bless”. I was pleasantly surprised by the comical value of the work, particularly seen in the manifesto. The style of the work clearly employed clever imagism in the concise, choppy writing style that still manages to flow and pop off the page from their revolutionary typography. The interesting typography of the magazine adds to their individualistic style and emphasizes the satire and imagism of their work. 

Confusion and Ironies

Within the pages of BLAST, I found a great deal of dissatisfaction, frustration, and contradiction. Without diminishing the art (for it is art), “Long Live the Vortex” and “Manifesto” reminded me of poetry written by an angst-ridden teenager. The writers behind these works make so many negative comments the people of the world, from calling humanity as a whole unconscious and stupid (7), to cursing the middle-class, proletariat, and aristocracy (13). However, immediately after giving a lengthy list of people and institutions they wish to “blast,” the authors begin a long string of blessings that includes English humor (26), hairdressers (25), and France and her “masterly pornography” (27). Only a very confused, frustrated person would make these somewhat-bizarre comments, unless of course the reader is meant to understand them as tongue-in-cheek. That would certainly make them easier to understand. However, I want to believe that these works are more than just teenage-style ranting or a random assortment of sarcastic comments. Given the overall “couldn’t care less” attitude though, I’m not entirely sure what to make of them.

With the knowledge that World War I looms on the horizon, I find it a bit ironic that these writings are so saturated with dissatisfaction and frustration. In a few short months, writers across Europe will have far greater complaints, terrors, and frustrations about which they can write. Going back to the teenager analogy, it seems as if the pre-WWI British modernists feel like the world is collapsing all around them, just as teens are notorious for making an enormous deal out of a relatively small problem. Unfortunately for them, neither teenager nor these pre-WWI writers have the luxury of wallowing in their problems forever. The real struggles of adulthood and living through a savage, brutal war are imminent. I’m very interested to see if and how these writers change their attitudes after World War I.

Picture Perfect Detail

For me, the single most striking aspect of both “Araby” and Eveline” is Joyce’s extraordinarily precise, yet beautifully artistic use of language to state something quite simple. Before this assignment, I had never read Joyce, and I was absolutely stunned at the combination of art and precision found all throughout “Araby” and “Eveline.”

One line of “Araby” struck me in particular. The narrator goes back into the drawing room where the priest died, and he describes the sound of the rain outside: “I heard the rain impinge upon the earth, the fine incessant needles of water playing in the sodden beds,” (2220). Joyce could have written this line, not especially important to the overall plot of the story, in a much blander, simpler way. He just as easily could have said, ‘Outside, I heard raindrops falling to the ground.’ However, Joyce does not do that. Instead, he gives life to this picture, describing the delicacy of the raindrops as “fine, incessant needles.” He creates lively motion using words like “impinge” and “playing” in a scene that would otherwise seem extremely commonplace. The attention to detail, a characteristic of imagism, is phenomenal in “Araby.” Even though a certain sentence might not be crucial to the plot, Joyce writes it with the same care and precision as if it were absolutely vital.

Joyce uses this same precision in “Eveline.” One powerful example of this is at the very beginning of the story: “She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue. Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the ordour of dusty cretonne,” (2222). With this short passage, Joyce completely draws his readers into the story. He does not say, ‘While it was getting dark, she stared out the window.’ Instead, he uses vivid sensory language, describing the “evening invade the avenue,” and the “odour of dusty cretonne.” Joyce’s choice of words makes the piece both artistic and enjoyable to read. Without resorting to wordiness, Joyce gives beautifully clear descriptions of detail.

Joyce and Poetic Fiction

In typical prose writing, the story and the development of the character are the most important, most crucial, elements. Beautiful language and imagery are preferable, but the ultimate goal of traditional prose writing is for the author to communicate some story, some series of events. Typically, this also means that prose writing has a clear beginning, middle, and end. However, Joyce turns this on its head.

Rather than focus only on the arc of the story, Joyce also focuses on  the poetic imagery in separate individual moments throughout the stories. He allows each  This makes his writing more poetic than the writings of many other prose writers. One excellent example of this is seen in “Araby” when the narrator beholds his beloved: “The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing. It fell over one side of her dress and caught the white border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease” (2220). This description encapsulates a specific moment in a beautiful, poetic way. Many moments like this exist throughout both stories as stand-alone segments that are strung together to create one glittering work.

The endings to his stories “Araby” and “Eveline” are abrupt, not at all like the endings to the traditional prose work. The introduction claims that: “The stories often seem to ‘stop,’ rather than end” (2216). In the case of both stories, the reader is left with an impression of the emotions of the character at a certain time, not a definitive ending. In “Araby,” the narrator has his expectations let down, and sees himself “… as a creature driven and derided by vanity” (2222), and in “Eveline” the narrator’s face is “passive, like a helpless animal” and “her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition” (2225). In both cases, the abrupt, open-ended ending of the story functions like a poem’s ending, leaving the reader perturbed and thoughtful after the work has finished. Joyce wants his readers to think about what they have read, and he recognizes that denying the reader a definite ending will force a deeper reflection, possibly making the reader see himself mirrored in the work that he has just read. In this way, Joyce is very much a modern writer.

Arnold: Using Hellenistic Education to Combat the Woes of Modernity

Arnold is dissatisfied with modernity to a greater extent than many of his contemporaries. This becomes clear in “Dover Beach” when he speaks of the wonders of modernity and technology that seem “So various, so beautiful, so new,” as having “… neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.” The end result of modernity, as evidenced by the riots and unrest that Arnold say in his time, is a nation of men “…on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night. “ He echoes this ominous warning in Culture and Anarchy when he says: “[we English have] blind faith in machinery, because of our want of light to enable us to look beyond machinery to the end form which machinery is valuable” (1598). The English, and the moderns in general, have been swept up in the crush of modernity without real understanding of how they should be aiding their fellow men. They follow their trivial, selfish desires.

In his solution to the problems of modernity, Arnold is like many of his contemporaries. He feels that it is duty to use moral and intellectual methods to enact social and cultural reforms which benefit everyone. He sees education as the primary means to accomplish this reform. His definition of what kind of education is different; he advocates the liberal arts. Rather than a trade and machine oriented education, Arnold feels that the English must turn to an older Hellenism, which he believes would aid men in “the pursuit of sweetness and light (1598)” that is necessary to build a society committed to the welfare of the whole. He believes that Hellenism and a Hellenistic education allow “our consciousness free play and enlarging (1603),” which will help individuals look past their own selfish personal, class, and professional interests, and consider the good of the country as a whole. This theme is also echoed in his reference to Sophocles in “Dover Beach,” who hears the roar of the ocean, and into whose mind “it brought… the turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery.” Sophocles was one of the Ancient Greek tragic playwrights, and his themes echoed the disastrous consequences of the selfish individual.

World War One in To The Lighthouse

The only explicit references to the war while it is happening in the novel are in parenthetical references which give the impression that they have been added as an afterthought, simply for the necessity of accounting for the absence of a few major characters. When the third part of To The Lighthouse is so consumed with explaining and recovering from the absence of Mrs. Ramsay, for example, why is it here that only a single sentence is devoted to her?

And regarding Andrew, the only sentence he gets is this one, “[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous]“, and this seems to be getting at the idea that his death was insignificant in the grand scheme of things, which it is, if the novel is considered the grand scheme; we are led to believe that the action that takes place on the island after the war would have been hardly different whether Andrew had lived or died. This is why he is mentioned in an offhand way, in the middle of the parenthetical aside, merely as a concession to the reader who might have been wondering about him.

The whole section “Time Passes” borders on rudeness in the way that it focuses on an abandoned house, and a fairly insignificant housekeeper, instead of the Great War. Just as the world comes to terms with its horrible modernness during the war, the house comes to terms with its climate and the environment; the books grow moist and moldy with the salty sea air, and the shawl which had covered the skull on the wall of the children’s bedroom slowly begins to come untied. However, this all happens beyond the knowledge of those who live there, as if the home which had treated them well in the first section of the novel has suddenly become rotted to its core in the third, with only the deaths of the Ramsay characters to account for the change.

To the Lighthouse: Perspective & Narration

The issue of narrative perspective is an important aspect of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.  She appears to primarily use the literary technique in her quest toward high modernism.  She takes a step beyond Joyce’s stream of consciousness narration that we saw in the Dubliners to craft multiple and simultaneous streams of consciousness.  She describes it by saying, “Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day” (text 2333).  The result is nothing ordinary – it becomes an exhaustive account of the main characters’ inner thoughts to tell the outward action.  Woolf masterfully captures the random, wandering thoughts, musings, reactions, emotions, and memories of a group of people in minute detail as they interact with each other.  Rather than providing a traditional dialogue to move the action along, Woolf makes it difficult to read (a prerequisite for modernism) by writing in a fragmented style that mimics a bumpy road of associative leaps that constantly occur in our mind to tell the story in addition to winding back and forth among the character’s thoughts.  The novel that emerges portrays the love and resiliency of humankind in the aftermath of one of the worst periods in British history – World War I.

So how does this type of narration engage with WWI and its aftermath?  The new technology introduced in WWI caused mass destruction unlike any war previous.  Flamethrowers, bombs, and gas attacks were especially sadistic and cruel.  Almost fifteen hundred British soldiers died each day in the four year war.  The British War Poets and the emerging mass media gave those at home a close look at the horrors of war.  Those who survived were scarred by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  After four long years of war, people responded with “bitterly rebuffed idealism” and “a sense of physical and moral exhaustion” (text 2112, 1928).  It seems the joie de vivre left most Brits, and Woolf ingeniously captures the undercurrent of this malaise with her unique style of narration.

The story centers around the Ramsay family – the mother, father, and children – and an array of friends gathered at a summer home at the coast near a lighthouse.  The novel describes the activities that take place over a day before the war, a synopsis of action during the war time, and then another day’s activities after the war.  To answer the question at hand, the first person narrative that is used in the first and last sections is a perfect vehicle to capture the malaise that many felt as a result of the war.  Mr. Ramsay, for example, is one who fails to adapt and move on after the war.  Before the war, he admonishes his family who are eager to make a trip to the lighthouse.  The narration from his mind’s eye shows a man who is master of his household:

He had “a splendid mind.  For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is ranged in twenty-six letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q.  He reached Q.  Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q…After Q there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance.  Z is only reached once by one man in a generation…On to R.”  (Lighthouse 33-34)

He has the final say on the family going to the lighthouse, which is no.

During the war described in the middle section, like most Brits, Mr. Ramsay suffers loss – his wife and two of his children – one to war, and one to childbirth.  The narration takes on an impersonal third person narrative to briefly describe the deaths.  The “courage, truth and power to endure” that he lived by challenges him to his core (Lighthouse 4).

Ten years after the first section and after the war, Mr. Ramsay and two of his children return to the summer house.  He tries to recreate the past by now insisting on a trip to the Lighthouse:

“Then he reminded them that they were going to the Lighthouse tomorrow.  They must be ready, in the hall on the stroke of half-past seven.  Then, with his hand on the door, he stopped; he turned upon them.  Did they not want to go?  He demanded.  Had they dared say No…he would have flung himself tragically backwards into the bitter waters of despair.” (Lighthouse 148)

By using the third person subjective narrative in this section, Woolf can show the feelings of malaise especially through Mr. Ramsay’s thoughts and what others think of him.  Their thoughts are more revealing than their actions, so Woolf is able to sharply define his misery.

Virginia Woolf: Perspective and reflections of WWI

The section “Time Passes” speaks most clearly to me about WWI and its aftermath. Much of the imagery denotes the sense of a transitional period, being at a point of change, such as the changing leaves on “autumn trees” and the passing glimpses of a beautiful moonlit night (p. 127). The following page comes Mr. Ramsey’s perspective, as he is musing in his typical philosophical way, but has strong undertones of the sentiments of those reacting to the chaos and death of the war: “Almost it would appear that it is useless in such confusion to ask the night those questions as to what, and why, and wherefore, which tempt the sleeper from his bed to seek an answer” (128). In the aftermath of this event, there simply were no answers to such questions asked by those reeling from the loss. Likewise, the suddenness of death and temporality of life, made more evident by the war, comes out in a bracketed statement. While Mr. Ramsey is“stumbling along a passage one dark morning” with his arms stretched out hoping for his wife, he is left alone, his arms still empty, because his wife had suddenly died. In the passing of just one night, she was gone and he is left alone.

The clean-up and later unsettled, tense house following all the deaths — Mrs. Ramsey, Andrew, and Prue — likewise reflects the painful aftermath of dealing with the losses from the war, both loss of life and of innocence/faith in society. Taking a look of the house in ruins (“too much work for one woman”) and reflecting on the deaths and sinking state of the country, Mrs. McNab muses, “But, dear, many things had changed…many families had lost their dearest. So she was dead; and Mr. Andrew killed; and Miss Prue dead too…but everyone had lost some one these years. Prices had gone up shamefully, and didn’t come down again neither” (136). Life is moving on, different. Many are dead, things have changed, but only for the worse and with no improvement in sight. Society felt exhausted after the war, and this old woman mirrors that exhaustion: “She creaked, she moaned,” and everything before her “was too much for one woman, too much, too much” (137).

The Waste Land

How might the techniques of fragmentation and quotation in “The Waste Land” form a critique of Arnold’s notion of culture?  At first, I had to actually go back to my blog about Arnold’s “Culture and Anarchy.”  After rereading it, I could see the parallels.

To repeat, Matthew Arnold’s “Culture and Anarchy” was a response to the significant upheaval in England due to the effects of modernity.  Arnold advocated for retaining some elements of English culture while enhancing it with new ideas.  One of the issues I mentioned before was that Arnold viewed The Industrial Revolution as a means of financial upward mobility for the masses, but Arnold felt they lacked proper education and refinement when compared to the aristocracy.  Without more sophistication, Arnold felt England’s future ruling class would degrade England’s refined cultural standards.

Let’s move forward about fifty years.  The masses were now beneficiaries of a broadened public education system, which, according to the text, “meant that the reading class grew exponentially” (text 1930).  However, in T. S. Eliot’s opinion, they still lacked a sense of refinement that Arnold had written about earlier.  This is exemplified in their “complacent taste” for “easily consumable” entertainment (text 1930).  This separation in literature was termed high-brow and low-brow to denote the aristocracy from the underclasses. T.S. Eliot and his contemporaries responded by creating “difficult,” high-brow literature that would appeal to the “aristocracy of taste” rather than the masses (text 1930).

What better way to tell the story than to use many fragmented quotes or allusions to a wide array of classical works that only the well-educated and well-read (i.e. the aristocracy) would recognize?  There are a great number of quotations and allusions to the Bible, Greek mythology, Shakespeare, the legend of King Arthur, Greek mythology, and Saint Augustine’s Confessions to name a few.  The fragmentation in the poem’s form allowed for Eliot to combine many quotes in his poem, and it also seems to symbolize the splintering English society Arnold and Eliot recognized.

The one quote that intrigued me the most is a series of quotations near the end that at first glance is a juxtaposed jumble of ideas, but taken as a whole, provide a conclusion to this very “difficult” poem:

“London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down

Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina

Quando fiam uti chelidon – O Swallow swallow

Le Prince d’Aquitaine á la tour abolie

These fragments I have shored against my ruins” (lines 427 – 431)

To preface, there is a figure on the shore thinking about how to “set [their] lands in order” given the destruction caused by WWI (line 425).  He answers this over the next five lines.  In the first line, Eliot draws upon a children’s nursery rhyme to clearly describe the destruction caused by war.  In the second line, Eliot jumps to the second part of Dante’s Divine Comedy called Purgatorio to ask the reader to be aware that many are suffering from the aftermath of war.  In the third line, Eliot references Ovid’s Metamorphoses story of a Greek myth where a tortured woman escapes harm by turning into a bird and flying away, perhaps saying that good may come of the malaise that people are feeling now.  In the fourth line, Eliot pivots to a Romantic French poet who writes about a medieval lord who is isolated in a tower lamenting his misfortunes and loss, perhaps the same as Eliot sees England withdrawing itself from the world stage to heal its wounds.  Finally, Eliot unites all these thoughts into a final line that appears to bolster the demoralized English society by hinting that these works show that from the earliest times, people have suffered and survived.  He ends the poem a couple of lines later with a Hindu prayer for peace in a world of suffering and ruin.

War Poets Exhibition

The most interesting part of the war poets exhibition for me was the description of the mustard gas attack, by the British soldier who was present there. It struck me that none of the soldiers who were fighting that day, even the officers, knew what had happened to them until after they started getting sick. This to me shows that the War on the whole was something that surprised everyone by its magnitude after it had started. For instance, the introduction of trench warfare, tanks, and mustard gas, among other things, were all advances that had never been seen in war before, and it was this shock of new technology that introduced the world to Modernism full force.

Along with this description of the gas attacks was Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est”, which mocks the famous Latin line that “it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.” My interpretation of this line is that the fighting in the war was hardly as simple as fighting for one’s country. Rather, the soldiers were not totally aware of what they were fighting for, and this aimlessness and pointlessness is reflected in the poem as well many other Modernist poems, like for instance, T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock.

James Joyce and Modern Poetry

What immediately struck me as poetic was Joyce’s use of personification, which was used a lot in Araby. One line in particular that caught my eye was “the other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces”. This also reminded me of when we talked about the city being a living thing itself in Eliot’s poem. Something that also made Joyce’s writing poetic was his detailed descriptions that were able to create an image for me, like with Eliot’s poem. This line in particular really seemed to do this: “The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns”.

Also in common with Eliot’s poem was a sense of inaction and anxiety. In Eliot’s poem the man is unable to put himself out there and talk to the woman he likes, while worrying about he worthiness of her. In Araby, the young man is walking through a bazaar and stops at one of the stalls, but does not buy anything. Despite this, he still lingers in front of the stall knowing he still wont buy anything.

This same inaction and anxiety is seen even more in Eveline. She is a young woman who is supposed to be running off with a man to Buenos Ayres, but you can tell she is anxious about the whole thing throughout the poem and afraid to leave her family (which she promised her mother she would take care of). When it comes time to leave with him, he takes her hand but she clutches the railing and cannot bring herself to go with him.