The Gift of India by Sarojini Naidu

Also known by the sobriquet The Nightingale of India, Sarojini Naidu was a poet as well as a prominent figure in the Indian National Movement. Her poetry is replete with her patriotism.

The Gift of India is an emotionally charged response to the martyrdom of Indian soldiers in foreign lands, during the First World War. During this period, India was still squirming under the atrocities and exploitation of British Rule. Its hegemony had usurped our sovereignty. They projected themselves as the rulers and denied us our legitimate rights in our OWN country, through immoral methods. Sarojini cries out that though the English had taken over our entire country and monopolized its prosperity, this loss is insignificant in comparison with the ruthless killing of Indian soldiers, who were duty bound to serve the self-assumed monarchs of India. The Indians were in no way involved either in the cause or the outcome of the war, but they were unscrupulously deployed for the benefit of the English against the Germans and their Allies. Naidu has personified India as a Mother and her fervent patriotism is revealed in Mother India herself speaking of the love, devotion and heroism of her children. She speaks of the precious gifts that she has offered to the world, the most important being the gift of her children’s lives.

The very word “gift” raises expectations and arouses curiosity about the nature of this “gift”—who is the giver and who the receiver? And one wonders—is this impartment spontaneous or forced? This poem, which commemorates the sacrifices of our countrymen, begins with a Rhetorical Question. Mother India cries out impassionately to the British colonisers and asks in a rhetoric tone,

Is there ought you need that my hands withhold

Rich gifts of raiment or grain and or gold?

The gifts of India are abundantly extravagant, and she has bestowed them generously. “Raiment” (garment) perhaps symbolises culture, “grain” stands for energy and “gold” wealth. The quantity and quality of gifts that the Motherland has endowed the British with, inspires us with awe at her sheer magnanimity. The receiver’s hands are replete with the resources that she has been bestowing generously. This suggests the loss of material resources for the Motherland and yet their demands remain unquenched. More precious than these worldly riches, the sons of India, referring to the priceless Indian soldiers(metaphorically compared to the” priceless treasures”), have been sacrificed to the British war cause, ruthlessly “torn from” their Mother’s “breast” and “yielded

To the drum-beats of the duty, the sabers of doom.

This suggests the loss of sons. The mother-son relationship is brought out poignantly by words and phrases like “torn from my breast “and “stricken womb”. She has surrendered the sons born out of her “womb” to serve the British. The word “stricken” depicts how She has had to suffer great pains when giving away her sons. She laments the loss of her beloved, brave sons, who were summoned abroad by the British to fight on their behalf. She alludes to Persia (now Iran), Egypt, Flanders (Belgium) and France, the specific lands, wherein the Indian soldiers were sent. In the Orient and Occident, the drums reverberate as these brave sons march into the Valley of Death, into the mouth of Hell.

Over one million Indian troops from Britain’s colonial empire served in the British army in World War I. Nearly 75, 000 died on foreign fields, never returning home, and over 70,000 were wounded. Serving in the Ypres Sector and other sites on the Western Front, as well as in Mesopotamia and Gallipoli, Indian troops were of vital significance in many battles of the First World War.

Naidu paints a heart rending picture of the pathetic dead soldiers through touchingly apt similes. The Indian soldiers, who fought for the Allies, never returned home and the lifeless soldiers “like pearls” lie buried in “graves” in “alien” lands. Some silently “sleep” along the Persian shores, while others are

Scattered like shells on Egyptian sands.

The poet goes on to say,

They lie with pale brows and brave, broken hands,

they are strewn like blossoms mown down by chance

The soldiers with severed limbs, and bodies relieved of courage, resemble “shells” that have been deserted by the living creatures within them. The soldiers lie motionless and dishevelled with their beauty stripped off by the hands of destiny like the withered flowers scattered in a sun parched meadow.

On the blood-brown meadows of Flanders (Belgium) and France

suggests that the soldiers have bled so much, that even the fields are soaked in their blood. The warmongers have imposed on them the burden of war that they strategize on a table. The Motherland watches in grief as the bodies of her sons lie helpless -­­­­­–victims of war but not of their own making. Grief tears her apart but pride in her sons’ heroism overwhelms her despair. Her “gift” proves to be too unbearable for her to part with.

Sarojini declares that in the annals of history, none other than our sacred India can be honoured for having made such a “priceless” gift to any country. Mother India rhetorically puts forward the question

Can ye measure the grief of the tears I weep

Or compass the woe of the watch I keep?

The heart of Mother India is heavy with the immeasurable sorrow and boundless grief of sons lost. We are horrified to see how the soldiers have been subjected to the futile carnage of war. When She talks about

…the pride that thrills thro’ my heart’s despair

And the hope that comforts the anguish of prayer,

She means that hopeful prayer is the only solace even while our anguished hearts with overwhelming sorrow swell with pride at the thought of our gracious and valorous soldiers.

And the far sad glorious vision

that comes to her are

Of the torn red banners of victory

The use of “banners” suggests that she hopes that a successful war of independence would be waged by the Indians against the British. “Sad glorious” is an Oxymoron which her longing for freedom, but at the same time she would be “sad” at the prospect of her sons, who would die for the cause, as signified by the banners lying “torn” and coloured “red” with blood.

But She envisions, a day

when the terror and the tumult of hate shall cease

And life [will] be refashioned on anvils of peace,

The surge of hate and terror will come to an end when one of the warring countries will be crowned with victory. This seems to be her only ray of light at the end of the gory, dark tunnel of war. People will realize the worth of peace and choose it over hatred, which takes a toll of human lives. An “anvil” is a heavy block of iron on which, a metal is tempered. Similarly, once the pain and suffering is over, life will be “refashioned” anew with love of peace harmonizing the world. Love, respect and honour will be an inextricable part of the new world, laid on the foundation of the gift of India—the blood of her martyred sons.  She hopes that one day the world will be relieved of the scourge of war

And then shall offer memorial thanks

To the comrades who fought on the dauntless ranks,

And [you]they honour the deeds of the dauntless ones,

and cenotaphs will be built in the memory of the soldats inconnus and people will whole heartedly offer their reverence and prayers to the men who had fearlessly charged at the altar of death.

Mother India demands the commemoration of

the blood of my martyred sons!

insisting that they remember the courageous soldiers of India, who sacrificed their lives—a call to honour her martyred sons. Their names engraved in history with the indelible ink of their own blood, will speak volumes of their greatness for aeons to come.

Mother India’s crying over the loss of her children can be seen as a reflection of every mother lamenting the loss of her martyred son.

According to a critic, “It is India only, the great India, which represents itself as eternal Mother India, who loves her sons and daughters as a real mother does…

Literature has glorified war since time immemorial making it seem worthwhile and a romantic endeavour. This sham was shattered by the horrors of World War I—the inhumane nature of trench warfare, the conditions under which the soldiers were made to live and fight, when lethal chemical weapons were the order of the day. This was an antithesis of what a civilised existence was supposed to be.

The Gift of India can also be read as an anti-war poem. Naidu has reinforced this through the brutal killing of the soldiers, their being used as mere cattle fodder (pawns) and their inability to reunite with their country and their families. Their lifeless corpses bear testimony to it. The soldiers and their families are thus victims of any war resulting in loss and bloodshed. Mother India’s anguish reflects Naidu’s anti-war attitude.

 

“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou

Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is not only a title to one of the most heart-rending poems ever penned down, but a rendition of the story of her own life. An American poet and civil right activist, Maya was born in a society where she had constantly been subjected to victimization due to prejudices based on caste, colour and creed. Yet, succoured by her capability, which compensated for the displacement, disparagement and savagely truncated self-worth that she was faced with, she championed through the situation. The tournament of hardships that Maya had to face as a young girl, from near-orphanhood to a rebirth of her being, complete with a generous perception of worth and dignity, finds a vent in this poem.

The poem is an echo of social disparity and the ideals of freedom and justice. Angelou with the metaphor of birds, represents the differences, not only between the African-American community and its White American counterpart, but also that between freedom and captivity.

Written in a free verse soaked in inward reflections, this poem sings of life in the midst of death. Although the poem has no definite rhyme scheme, it creates the illusion of one with the use alliteration in a most craftful manner. The enjambment in the poem draws the reader’s eye to things of importance in a jostling way. With the determination of transcending facts with truths, it brings out the pain of the caged bird and the pathos of the situation, not by strumming notes of pity but by splashing the poem with a full range of emotions.

The poem begins with the blissful images of a free bird, which seamlessly leaps on the back of the wind, with the pressure of a gust of air on its wings, hovering over a stream of breeze and floats downstream till the current (of the blustery wind) ends and dips his wing in the sea of orange sun rays, immersing itself in the pleasure of the mellowed warm beams which caresses its wings. Devoid of any constraint, its freedom makes it dare to claim the sky to be his own, as if proclaiming its jurisdiction. The whole firmament seems to be his one big home. The bird is shown in a state of boundless tranquility. It has the freedom to move about wherever it desires. It makes the readers appreciate the beauty of a free bird gliding in the lap of nature, reveling in its liberty.

In the very next stanza, the poet knits conflicting portrayal of

a bird that stalks

down his narrow cage

By beginning the stanza with a ‘but’, Angelou prepares the readers for a stark contrast. Drastically changing the tone from peace to one that is dark, unnerving and even frustrating, the poet talks about the caged bird, which, as opposed to the free bird, can tries to move within the confines of its narrow cage in vain. Even a slight glimpse of the world beyond its captivity is restricted by his bars of rage. It seems to look at the world in a somewhat furious manner as his feet are tied and his wings are clipped. Wings represent flight and thus freedom—something that the bird has been robbed of. Estranged from nature, it suffers an alienated existence.

It is interesting to note that the title of the poem itself refers to the fact that the caged bird can only sing. The poem expands the idea to manifest the why and what of its song. The “I” in the title suggests an emphasis on the fact that the poet knows the real reason behind the soulful litanies of the caged bird. The question arises— do the readers not know it? Well, probably in the heart of our hearts, we all are aware of it, but instead of pondering over that fact, we concentrate on the symphony of the song.

It is very customary for us to choose to think that a caged bird sings out of mirth. But Angelou exhorts that snapped inside its quarantine, the bird is not able to enunciate its freedom with its flight like the free bird does and so he opens his throat to sing to express its longing for some distant freedom.  The irony lies in the fact that we all admire the doleful note of the song but never try to set an end to its miseries by setting the bird free for it to find its own trajectory. The tone of the poem is thus very matter of fact as in our perception of the song in general. But the woeful notes of the bird’s song has struck the strings of the poets heart and thus she puts it forth to the readers in a way that will make the realization dawn upon them as well.

Even though the caged bird may never have experienced true freedom, deep down, the bird’s conscience probes it to think that it was born to be free. Although freedom to it is scary because it is unfamiliar with it, the bird still sings

With the fearful trill

of things unknown

but longed for still

In a wavering voice, it sings of freedom—something which it does not have, the idea of which is as unsubstantial to it as a dream. What if he cannot achieve it; at least it can sing about it with the hope of having it for his own. The poet says that its tune is heard on the distant hill, where it may inspire others to dream of freedom. Thus the caged bird does not sing of sadness, but of hope, inspiration and of freedom.

This parallels to the author and her cry for freedom in the form of equality. Caged, she felt that her cries were heard, but only as a distant background noise. Yet she did not stop for she believed “You may face many defeats, but you must not be defeated”.

The fourth stanza reverts back to the free bird, further cementing in the mind of the readers, the differences between the two birds. Freedom for it, is something regular, not quite so thrilling and exotic as it is to the caged bird. Thus, it thinks of another breeze, reveling in his flight through the trade winds softening through the sighing trees, referring to the sound made by the breeze while passing through the leafy branches. It gives an indication of their lack of freedom since they too are tied to the ground, much like the caged bird. The bird looks for fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn, thus meeting its own food requirements. With the wind in its feathers, water and earth beneath it, and the entire sky with it, the free bird feels majestic and deems the sky (its universe) as its domain and itself as the proprietor of the whole universe. The ecstasy of the first and fourth stanzas works towards deepening the sense of oppression resounding throughout the rest of the poem like the sound of a muffled drum.

The fifth stanza continues the parallel between the two birds. The first line serves to starkly contrast the free bird’s naming the sky his own. In a most daunting manner, the reality of the life of the caged bird is revealed as it is portrayed as standing  on the grave of dreams, as if all the dreams it had had been lulled into an eternal sleep for it never really was given the freedom of realizing them. It seems to have been reduced to a mere shadow of its real self, unheeded, looking at which it shudders and shouts on a nightmare scream. The bird is so despondent in life of captivity that its screams are like that of someone having a nightmare. Its efforts seem humanly, unflinchingly truthful and intimate. His wings are clipped and his feet are tied—there is little hope that it will ever be able spread its pinion wings against the sky. Yet he opens his throat to sing. Angelou reaffirms that the bird remains undaunted in its efforts of claiming its rightful freedom, the desire of the expression of which it cannot contain. It wishes to exert against all adversities but thus there is a faint but kindling voice of hope in his song.

Again the poet repeats the relentless tale of the bird’s singing. Despite its predicament, it strives to sing. It seems to be its only joy and achievement in life. This refrain recurring as a stanza though brings out the bird’s anguish, justifies the bird’s stout determination to keep going after its dreams of freedom. It may not have a proper modus operandi planned towards the attainment of its dreamt, but it does have a song; it may have been restrained in all possible ways, but its throat was not yet chocked and thus

he opens his throat to sing, inspiring us never to give up.

The poem can be seen as a celebration of freedom—the most important thing that an individual aspires for. In life, we seem to be more obsessed with those things which we do not own and when it is something as essential as freedom itself, how can one but think of anything else? Thus throughout the poem, the caged bird screams its assertion.

Through her evocation of the natural order, Angelou tries to show how man-made culture tries to create rules and ways to put the free bird in the cage. The natural order, on the other hand, does not curb one’s freedom—it allows people to take flight and write their own names in the sky. Angelou makes a scathing attack at the society which decides to tie down others and exploit them.

On an autobiographical note, the poem reveals Angelou’s feelings about the dreams she once had as a child, many of which died for she never got the opportunities that her White counterparts received with much ease. Discrimination, Racism and Child Abuse had walled her up in a cage and at some level she was able to reciprocate with the feelings of a confined bird and thus was able to fathom its agony. Although she sang through her actions, she felt that her voice was not loud enough to be noticed by the wide world. Yet that did not stop her from crying out for the human rights that she was born to enjoy, for some birds are not meant to be caged—their feathers are too bright, their songs too wild. And so was Maya Angelou, who with her towering personality and determination rose above the common folks, breaking free from the shackles of submission, flying in a sky of self-proclamation, as free as a bird.

 

John Brown by Bob Dylan

A ballad in form, this poem of Dylan’s, which is also a song, narrates the story of John Brown in twelve stanzas and relates to us the flawed idealization of war. Since time immemorial, wars have been fought at the cost of innocent lives. And the supposedly just causes behind these battles are unknown, not only to the civilians, but also to the young soldiers fighting at the warfront and that is what this poem addresses. Dylan illustrates war as inglorious and emphasizes on the price that the young soldiers have to pay in the search of some distant glory. Instead of deifying and romanticizing it, this anti-war poem shows the realistic details of the kind of horror and senseless deaths that a war causes, thus strengthening the need for pacifism. Stamping no time or location, Dylan brings out the universality of the theme. Any war in any country is as terrible, callous and futile for the individuals and the society as the war in the poem.

The poem opens with the images of the heroic stature of a young, handsome soldier, John Brown, the titular hero of Dylan’s poem, going off to fight in a war. Standing straight and tall in his uniform, new and crisp, he seemed all primed. The splendor that the political propagandists had so craftily gilded soldiership with, in turn made his mother reel with such pride and admiration that her face broke out all in grin to see her son dressed in the uniform of a soldier. She felt glad to be the mother of a son as honorable as him and felt proud to see him holding a gun. This shows how John’s mother, providing a mere face to the mindset of the people of her era, associated grandeur to the official possession of a gun, an instrument which offers a blaring promise of peace; which is deterministic of not who is right—only who is left. She encourages him to do what the captain says which would surely get him lots of medals that in turn she would hang on the wall as a memento of his achievements when he would return.

As John’s train gradually steamed off the station, his

ma began to shout

Tellin’ ev’ryone in the neighbourhood

boastfully that her son was a soldier now, marching towards the battlefield and made sure that they understood its honour and gravity—make them know that she has raised a soldier who had gone off to fight for what she believed was a good cause. Neither in her words, nor thoughts was there a dram of sadness or a sense of grief and she seems to have a firm belief that her son was going to return home unscathed, too proud to realize that war is no game and that she might never see her son again. Ignorant, she considers fighting to be an ideal pursuit for young men like him.

She got a letter once in a while from John, which naturally made her face break [broke] into a smile

As she showed them to the people from next door,

bragging about her son’s uniform and befitting feats.

It is strange that though the letters seemed to be intermittent, the mother is not as much preoccupied with John’s welfare as she is with satiating her conceit. In fact, the poem does not really state the reason for going to the war, suggesting that perhaps truly, there never is a reasonable reason for waging wars, for there is no war that shall end all wars and thus its futility, we must understand. (At its farthest, the goal here is to satisfy the vanity of the mother, to please the captain and those who award the medals.)

At this point, Dylan assumes a sarcastic tone and mocks the idea of war by calling it “good old-fashioned”, hinting that it is of no good at all, considering that a man kills another man, snatching a son away from her mother. But of this, John’s mama is unaware of, living in a lofty castle of blissful ignorance.

Gradually, the letters ceased to come, for a long time they did not come

They ceased to come for about ten months or more.

There was no news about John.

Then a letter finally came saying, “Go down and meet the train

Your son’s a-coming home from war.”

The mother smiled at the thought of seeing her soldier-son, who was returning home after being victorious in the war and went right down to the railway station, without wondering why her son did not inform her of his arrival directly. Instead she felt happy at the thought of her victorious son coming home. She looked everywhere around

But she could not see her soldier son in sight.

This foreshadows how only after a few moments, she really would not be able to sight upon John.

At last, when all the people passed, clearing her sight of vision, she finally saw John, but in such a condition that she could hardly believe her eyes.

Here, Dylan draws a sharp contrast between the John that went off to fight the war and the one that came back. John’s face was all shot up and his hand was all blown off. He had evidently undergone a lot of physical harm—his arm was amputated, his face bore bullet-scars and grenade wounds. He seemed to be lucky even to have been alive after sustaining such grievous injurious in the battle. These dark, brooding images reflect the poignantly fatal consequences of war. John who once stood straight and tall, now wore a metal brace around his waist to support himself. The grisly manner in which Dylan portrays John’s deplorable condition shows that poetic description can fail and falter in the face of a violent tragedy. But his torment was not limited to physical disabilities alone; when John tried to speak, all that came out was a slow whisper, in a voice that his mama hardly knew, from a face she could hardly recognize. This shows that in the face of irrational and unthinkable destruction, language seems to dissipate.

Thus the mother’s colossal pride that surges through the first few stanzas comes to a stand-still. It is ironically juxtaposed to the “Oh tell me, my darling son, pray tell me what they done. How is it that you come to be this way?” The mother, who had so happily seen him off at the railway station is so appalled by his state that she had to turn her face away. John tries his best to talk but his mouth could hardly move, so wretched was his condition.

Eventually, as verses pile upon verse, we get to the final dénouement of the last four stanzas. John ironically questions his mother’s idea of war. He reminded her of how when he set off for the warfront, she considered it as the best thing for him. He outrageously exclaimed that while he was fighting on the battleground, his mother was no bystander— she happily bided her time acting proud, without fathoming the horrors of the ruthless war that John was made to face; the pain he had to undergo and points out how she wasn’t there standing in his [my] shoes. The only things she was ever interested in were the medals that her son would bring. The vain glory that war is associated with rendered even his mother incapable of empathizing with her own son.

Dylan tries to hint at the vain glory in war. On the battlefield, John cried and wondered what he was doing there, trying to kill somebody or die tryin’. The realization that the “somebody”, who was apparently his enemy, looked just like him, showing a man is another man’s enemy is what shook him to his roots. This portrays the ironic blurring of opposing forces that often occurs in wartime.

As John was preoccupied with the thunder of gun-shots that rolled in the background and the stint reeked the air—the stint of burning and dead soldiers lying heaped and pent, friend and foe, blent in one red burial, he realized that he was just a puppet in a play, that was being penned down by a war-mongering administration. It was at this contemplative moment that a string finally broke and a cannonball blew his [my] eyes away. It is symbolic of the fact that John lost his vision, which confined his understanding to the superficial, only to gain the insight into the reality of warfare and its fatalities.

As John turned away to walk, his Ma was still in shock. She could not believe that her son had to take the help of a metal brace in order to stand. Before her stood in bits and pieces, a broken man.

But as he turned to go, he called his mother close

And he dropped his medals down into her hand.

The same war which wins him medals, leaves him disfigured for life and this is the gruesome reality of war. The war though does not kill him physically, leaves him shattered, both physically and mentally, for life. His “dropping” the medals portrays that the glory associated with war and winning medals is worthless for winning laurels at the cost of one’s well-being is no achievement. Thus having realized this, John as no attachment towards his medals. His last act of asking his mother to come closer is not to show her love or affection as we would have expected. Instead, he gives his mother what she wanted. Yet she stands not as happy as she thought she would be—shell-shocked—her false pride shattered. She has the medals to decorate her walls but seems to have lost her son in the process. All the soldiers are victims of war, not just because of their enemy, but due to delusions of those who glorify it. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a wooden cross for in a war, nobody wins—everyone loses.

Fighting for the nation, they say but then there is no flag big enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people. It really is strange how killing is forbidden, unless you do that in large numbers and of course, to the sound of trumpets! Throughout history, powerful and usually unaccountable leaders have made the decisions that send millions into war, often for reasons very distant from the concerns of laymen. Yet, war has long figured as a theme in poetry—after all, some of the world’s oldest surviving poems are about bravura soldiers—martyrs and war heroes, and epic battles. But while Homer may have idealized his combatants and revered their triumphant, incessant fighting, the treatment of war poetry has grown increasingly more complex ever since. The unremitting skirmishes of the 20th century produced poets who made scathing attacks on the gory realities of warfare and its devastating effects on humankind bringing to light the atrocious conditions in which the soldiers were made to live and fight as the very opposite traits of what civilized existence was supposed to be. Poets realized that all of literature and art based on wars were an elaborate myth. They felt that there is nothing noble about dying for one’s country; it is rather like a nightmare. It is this reality that has been depicted in John Brown.

The Bangle Sellers by Sarojini Naidu

Also known by the sobriquet The Nightingale of India, Sarojini Naidu’s poetry is best known for intensely lyrical pieces replete with imagery and contemporary Indian themes through which she portrays the beauty and variety of India and its traditions. Among her other poems, The Bangle Sellers focuses exclusively and extensively not only on the lives of Indian women but also weaves a vivid picture of the lives of the bangle sellers.

The poem, which touches each realm of a woman’s life, is a fine example of her musical verse, moving step by step with the poem, as if offering her company. The poem seems to be a song of the men who sell glass bangles at village fairs and congregations and in temple towns. The differently hued bangles symbolize different stages in a woman’s life as a young maiden, a bride and as a middle aged matron. The colours of each of the bangles is a symbolic portrayal of their state of mind.

The poem constitutes 4 stanzas, comprising 6 lines each, where each stanza is further divided into a quatrain and a couplet. The rhyme scheme of the poem is aabbcc.

The first stanza relates to us the premise of the poem. Here the bangle sellers bear

shinning loads  to the  temple fair,

referring to the bangles that sparkle in the sunlight. Many people gather at the temple grounds during different religious occasions and thus these hawkers and peddlers make a lucrative decision of choosing these areas to sell the bangles. In the next lines, which are akin to the cry for vending bangles, the bangle seller shouts—

Who will buy these delicate, bright

Rainbow-tinted circles of light?

metaphorically referring to the colourful bangles, which are circular in shape and crafted out of glass. The gorgeous gleam that they emanate in the rays of the sun, gives them the appearance of being made “of light”. He calls out to women who might be interested in buying them, attracting them by this rhetoric question while answering it himself. In a most alluring tone he asserts that these bangles are

Lustrous tokens of radiant lives,

For happy daughters and happy wives.

He assures that these glossy bangles will act as a talisman and bring forth lives ever radiant with happiness and fill the lives of the daughters and wives with bliss.

This stanza is also indicative of the poverty and hardships of the vocation of the bangle sellers which finds only one vent in the poem when the man uses “shinning loadsto describe it, denoting the heaviness of the bangles. Their dreariness is not as much from carrying the bangles all round the day as it is due to the psychological turmoil that these people have to go through each day with only one question racking their mind: “Will I be able to provide my family a square meal today?” Yet they employ a joyous voice which makes us forget that their livelihood probably depends solely on the sale of these bangles. On the contrary they have  been depicted as the harbingers of happiness. The women in their lives are all portrayed as happy, possibly because the happiness of the bangle sellers relies upon that of these women. Moreover, their trade depends on these bangles and thus they must be presented as “tokens” of happiness.

In the second stanza, the bangle seller calls out saying that some of these bangles are meant “for a maiden’s wrist” and uses a simile to depict their colours, which are chiefly “silver and blue”, much like “the mountain mist” (simile)—an embodiment of purity. These lines that talk about girls at their prime, mainly focuses on maidenhood and hints at chastity. The other bangles are rosy and shimmering, “flushed like the buds” of flowers that blossom on the “tranquil brow of a woodland stream”. This is an imagery where the bangles are likened to the pinkish flowers, sleeping, sunken in a “dream” on the crest of plants near forest rivers. There are even some bangles exclusively meant for them that glow with the “limpid”, i.e., transparent glory akin to “new born leaves”, owing to the dew and water and the magic that a ray of sun conjures up in it. This has a connotation to new beginnings and the promise of life. The comparison of buds and new leaves to the young girls depict that these maidens are yet to bloom into youthful radiance. The colourful bangles for these maidens are represent their playfulness and liveliness.

The bangle seller claims to carry bangles that cater to a variety of women with different needs and preferences. In the next stanza, he claims to have bangles “like fields of sunlit corn” for women who are about to become a “bride on her bridal morn”. The colour chosen here is yellow—a colour that teems with life, symbolic of the hope that she has for her future and her felicity. The imagery used here is energetic and lively like cornfields bathed in sunlight. The second part of this stanza portrays the love a new bride has for her husband. Naidu compares the colour of the bangles with “the flame of her marriage fire”, referring to the holy fire that the couple go around and spell out their sacred marital vows, adhering to the Hindu ritual of marriage. The flame can also be seen as a euphemism for the consummation of her marriage. The bangles seem to be tinted red with “the hue of heart’s desire” and her surging feelings of love and passion for her husband; her longing to love him and to be loved in return. The tinkling sound of the bangles, their luminosity, their fragility and the pristine aura that they seem to have about them are much like the “bridal laughter and bridal tear”. On the day of her marriage, a bride is both joyous and anguished(gloomy) for on one hand she looks forward to her life with her life partner but on the other she has to leave her paternal house—a house which has her memories etched on its walls, keeping in accordance with the Hindu tradition.

The last stanza talks about the pride of a woman who has come past her girlhood, bride-hood and motherhood and has earned a position as a matriarch. She seems to have “journeyed through life midway”. Her hands have cherished the care that she could unconditionally bestow on her sons, gently nurturing, cradling them on her faithful breast. With the doting motherly love, which knows the right blend of firmness and affection, she has blest her sons and thus they have treaded the fair or righteous path in love. Thus it is the phase in her life when her diligent struggles have borne fruit and she sits with the complacency that is only natural to her age. With an air of royalty and pride etched to it, these matrons wear bangles hued with purple and gold. The specks of grey add maturity. Notwithstanding the silver years, she runs her household in fruitful pride, meticulously performing each task, rearing the household with utmost perfection, which in turn gives her an inexplicable satisfaction and pleasure. She sits at her aging husband’s side as they seek divine blessing. This is symbolic of the emotional support that a woman provides her husband with till her last breath.

The poem was composed in the pre-independence era when Colonialism was taken its toll of the minds of the Indians, who were made to feel like second grade citizens. Cowering before the British rule, not only did the Indians lose their self-esteem but also the pride in their culture. Besides being a conscious poet, Sarojini Naidu was a freedom fighter. Thus in an attempt to restore the pride of her countrymen in its ancient and treasured culture, she has painted the picture of an Indian fair, where the selling of bangles is quite a common sight. The amalgamation of different colours of the shinning glass bangles are as much a sight of beauty as they are a representation of what India truly is—diverse, yet united. Possessing a strength unparalleled as this, the Indians have all it takes to rise against the British and seize their self-respect and the poem seemingly serves as an impetus.

Apparently this poems seems to be a celebration of the vivacity of the Indian culture through the presentation of its women in vivid colours and roles. But these elucidations are but literal. This is one poem that deserves a deeper thought. For Naidu, writing was not just a form of art—it was a medium of voicing her innermost convictions that would fuel the nation towards a better future. Naidu was instrumental in her encouragement of women empowerment to such an extent that even today her birthday is celebrated as Women’s Day. The poem which seems to question the very deserts of a woman, which does not seem to acknowledge the independent identity of women—an identity free from the restricting labels proclaimed by a patriarchal society, is actually an ironic take on the lives of women during her time.

Choosing the temple ground as the setting of the poem is evocative of how we entrust great importance to religion but tend to neglect other humane aspects of life, upholding not the essence of the religion but the idea of religion. We still reside in a country that marries off girls at a very tender age, depriving her of her rightful education; where girls are killed off in the name of honour rituals, where brother are punished for having attempted rape by sentencing their sisters to molestation, mainly because in our country, women are observed as a token of honour, where acid attacks are rampant, where the terms bodily integrity or autonomy for a  woman becomes a laughing stock, where you either support feminism or disparage it without even understanding the essence of the term. Even while talking about a woman bearing children, she mentions only “sons”. This is an allusion to female foeticide that was rampant in India at one point of time. Also it reminds us of how daughters were denied the right to inherit filial property till one point of time. Naidu’s empowering tone clearly comes to the surface when she does not hesitate to write about a woman’s “heart’s desire”—that she too has all the right to desires, something which would be seen as quite a blasphemous thing if uttered in the days the poem was set in. While her other poems celebrate diversity in the country, this one disparages it as to some extent it goes on to speak about the poor and the rich and thus somewhat addresses the issue of the inequity in the distribution of money. This is how India works where multistoreyed buildings snobbishly stand against slums.

Thus Naidu takes all of the prevalent issues of her time up, only to break them down. By stereotyping the fixed roles that are assigned to a woman, she is being sarcastic. In that way the bangle sellers become a living reminder of the cringy life that these women live, perhaps an indirect exhortation for them to rise above all of it, to not let the colour of the bangles define the kind of life that they are destined to live—to pen down their own destiny.

 

The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy

‘The Darkling Thrush’ was written by Thomas Hardy in 1899. Originally titled, “By the Century’s Deathbed, 1990”. It was published on December 29, 1900 in The Graphic, a weekly newspaper. A meditative poem, it is poised on the cusp of a new century, Hardy reflects on the transition between the Victorian Age and the Modern era. The Victorian era (1837-1901) was marked by intense and rapid changes in the polity, society and religious beliefs due to the developments in science and technology and especially the rise of Industrial Revolution. These changes had rendered people incapable of lodging faith in any benevolent force, creating a feeling of hopelessness and bleakness. This poem is an elegy for the troubled 19th century.

The speaker is a typical Hardy character, a watcher and a thinker who projects onto the physical world his own emotional turmoil. The poem starts with the speaker leaning “upon a coppice gate” which opens into the woods. The gateway is suggestive of a new era and the act of leaning shows that the speaker is drained and dejected. The speaker is outside in a barren landscape on a frosty winter evening

When Frost was spectre-grey,

Makes the landscape seem as grey as a ghost, with the connotation that there is no life at all — a dead atmosphere. This shows nature’s relentless force and its indifference to mankind and its sufferings. Although the poem starts with “I”, as the poem proceeds, with every word uttered, the speaker’s voice seems to become the Voice of the Century.  The poet’s use of “Winter’s dregs” refer to the retreating winter that has made the surrounding seem so “desolate” that even the setting sun appears to be

the weakening eye of day”                            

There is lack of brightness and warmth, rendering the atmosphere cold and dark.

The dreary landscape is a projection of the speaker’s own mindscape. Here, Hardy makes a bleak comment on the potential of human nature as well. The fact that the gloom is emphasized far more than joy, makes us wonder whether the dying old world can ever be replaced by the new. In the course of the next two lines, Hardy paints a word picture of

The tangled bine-stems scoring the sky

resembling “strings of broken lyres”.  The tangled stems, now leafless, are also a reminder of summer, making winter seem harsher by contrast. Since the stringed instrument that once was, is now broken, there is no music suggesting the barrenness of the land. Not only do the broken strings of the Romantic Aeolian lyre, a classical instrument, depict the ebbing away of the classical (traditional) form of art, but also underlines the absence of harmony and thus signifies the absence of joy in the speaker’s vision of life.

Hardy was disillusioned with the ways in which industrialisation moulded the working lives of the country folk, with many of them flocking to cities to work in factories and live in row houses, especially after the agricultural depression of 1870s, cities that soon turned grey with smog and soot. People wanted to believe that their lives have purpose and that the future would be better for them. However, all the evidence during Hardy’s time belied any hope of a bright future. The wars(like the Boer War of 1899-1902), which the British Empire waged all over the world in the name of civilising the ‘ignorant’ as well as the degrading living conditions of the working class toiling in poverty in industrialised cities, was depressing. The urban labourers were now not only cut off from any relationship to the land but also cut off from the products of their work. Doing the same mind-numbing tasks over and over again, barely seeing the sun, they turned as pale as ghosts, almost rendered as automatons by these factories. Instead of bringing enlightenment to the masses, the “progress” only beckoned more misery and pain.

The speaker depicts his isolation through a contrast between the barren outdoors and “household fires” where anyone who lived in the neighbourhood (the vast freedom of land) has gone indoors (confined in their restricted coup). The former depicts Hardy’s hopelessness, rooted in his lament for the now abandoned farms of the countryside and for the loss of the rural customs and traditions, clearly depicted by his preference of choosing a countryside as the setting of the poem. His choice of words, used by classical poets such as Keats’ “darkling”, Shelley’s “death-lament [dirge]” and Tennyson’s “ecstatic” are echoes of Tradition. The cosy indoor seems to depict the blissful ignorance of the rest of the world who, have sought the warmth of the fire and yet have assumed ghoulish qualities:

And all mankind had haunted nigh

This portrayal grips us, as half-dead humanity is far more terrifying than a dying natural world.

The second stanza of the poem intensifies the speaker’s perceptions of the gloomy wintry landscape in a series of metaphors associated with death and are manifested in nature, which too seems to mourn the passing of the century. It is surprising that even while talking about death and decay, there is a constant and conventional rhythm, though the poem is essentially about the world in a flux.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be

The Century’s corpse outleant,

The sharp outlines of the land appear to be a map of everything that has happened over the course of the century. In fact, it starts to embody the ­­corpse of the dying century. The sky like a “cloudy canopy” hangs over the scene like “his crypt” and the storming wind seems to sing “its death-lament”. The hard ‘c’ sounds accentuate the gloom and deathliness and evoke, perhaps the funeral march and the burial of the personified century. Hardy makes us focus on the death of the inanimate in a way that we forget that they are not alive. Personification allows him to paradoxically make the land “come alive”, while simultaneously describing its death-like features. Every throbbing heartbeat of germination is dead and

The ancient pulse of germ and birth

[Is] shrunken hard and dry

depicts how seeds become dry, hard and reduce in size in winter, taking away its capacity for renewal. It suggests that the very processes of nature are at a standstill, and that the next spring might not come. Thus, Hardy has deromanticised nature by taking away its capacity for renewal. The sense of loss is everywhere; even in the procreative powers of nature itself. For Hardy,

…every spirit upon earth

Seemed fervourless as

he was— without intensity or passion. Hardy makes use of two different literary devices—Synecdoche and Symbolism in the word “spirit”. It seems that the speaker is not just hinting at the death of the old century but the death of the pulse of life that vitalises and energises energises, evoking the death of hope. Moreover, personification of the bits of nature apparently keeps the speaker in constant company, yet starkly emphasizes the desolation of the one human figure in the poem—the speaker.

For Hardy, the lapse of the last few moments of the century almost seem like a cortège and he can almost hear the ringing of the knell. But along with the loss of the century, Hardy also perceives the death of religious faith. Hardy himself lost his faith in Christianity early in life, partly as a result of prolific scientific and philosophical development in the 19th century, though he retained a fondness for the trappings of religion. A writer like Hardy could no longer take succour from Christianity, or have unequivocal confidence in the future of the world. Too much had been learnt, too much innocence lost. On an autobiographical note, Hardy’s own writing was undergoing a change in a way that he was switching from novels to poetry and was apprehensive as to how the readers would receive it. This anxiety perhaps also made the situation seem more appalling.

All of a sudden, out of the never-ending greyness, emerges a bird-song, filling the air with a sense of life and hope— a welcome relief from the overwhelming fervourlessness.

At once a voice arose among

The bleak twigs overhead…

The glimpses of a bird, a thrush, the harbinger of hope, among the “bleak twigs” fills our heart with alacrity. “Bleak twigs” gives the impression that death has reached the vegetation in the area, making it bare and dry. The alliteration of ‘a’ resonates with the thrush’s song. He hears the bird singing a song, disrupting the silence of death, drowning out the “death-lament”. The gloom of the previous stanzas seems to have made the

…aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,

The thrush has been in the eye of a devastating storm, as is evident from its “blast-beruffled plume”. The thrush seems to be totally outmatched by the grandeur of the surrounding, until it starts to sing. Delicate and puny as it is, somehow the thrush miraculously manages to brave through that feather-ruffling wind (emphasised by the plosive ‘b’ sounds) and is able to lighten the gloomy air with its

…full-hearted  evensong

Of joy illimited;

which is quite in contrast with its own appearance. The flowing double ‘l’ in “illimited” conveys the sense and sound of joy. Moreover, the song has been referred to as an “evensong” which is sung during the evening service, worshipping God. It is significant here both for the “aged” bird and because it is the last day of the century. The “frail” and “aged” thrush is perhaps facing its imminent end, yet it flings its soul ecstatically upon the “darkling” (darkening) evening. The image of the bird choosing

…to fling his soul

Upon the growing gloom

is suggestive of both hope and desperation. It gives the impression of the thrush giving up its life to fight the gloomy environment. It is an indirect reference to Christ’s sufferings and death on the cross, followed by his resurrection from the dead, bringing hope to mankind.

Also, it is worth noticing that in the first two stanzas, there is a period after every fourth line, which in turn has been replaced in the following two stanzas by a semicolon and a comma respectively, giving a sense of opening, of breathing a sigh of relief.

The speaker can recognise the joy in the bird’s song but thinks there is

So little cause for carolings

Of such ecstatic sound

The Sibilance creates a soft music, much like the thrush’s song. The source of the thrush’s joy, his inspiration for the merry music eludes the speaker; it seems to be something perceptible, yet intangible. But the speaker fails to realise that ecstasy is not external—it comes from within. Thus he tries to seek inspiration from all that

Was written on terrestrial things

Afar or nigh around

The use of the word ‘terrestrial’ suggests that the speaker believes that this ecstatic thrush was ethereal. He seems to be somewhat comforted in the bird’s company. The bleeding of the first four lines into each other makes us feel that perhaps the speaker is acquiring a momentum as he continues to hear the thrush sing.

The speaker’s encounter with the bird is a private one—an internal monologue that we are not supposed to hear.

Paradoxically, the poem evokes both belief and doubt that is seemingly impossible to express.

The speaker wonders why the bird is joyous, when all else is so dismal and desolate. But now, he seems to question his choice. When he says he

could think there trembled through

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope,

Hope’ reminds us of one of the three Christian virtues. In this context, ‘carolings’ may be thought to be reminiscent of Christmas carols. Moreover ‘Hope’ has been personified, as if it were a human being, giving hope to mankind, suggesting Christian optimism. The word “blessed” evokes the sense of God’s Grace. Thus this poem can also be seen as Hardy’s desire to believe in Christianity. The use of ‘could’ hints at the possibility that perhaps the speaker too longs to believe there is hope and this, after his exhaustive exposé of hopelessness, seems to be the irony. Thus the speaker is led to believe that there IS something fulfilling out in the world of which, HE is “unaware” of. Thus, as darkling (obscure) as the thrush’s Hope may seem, it is there. And THAT is enough.

The whole poem is built on contrast: the first two verses cold and gloomy, the second two verses containing unlooked-for melody, joy and hope. By ending with a promise of hope conveyed through the song of the bird, Hardy allows the possibility of emerging out of a long and bitter darkness and emphasizes that happiness remains out of the scope of human comprehension. Justly, Martin Luther King Jr. had said, “We must accept finite disappointments, but never lose infinite hope.” Although some may opine that the poem is replete with pessimism, in reality, it is a celebration of new birth and beginnings.

OR

However the thrush’s carolling can also be seen as a contrast that serves to heighten the poet’s despair. It is an ironic comment on humanity’s joyless state. Even if there is some hope in the thrush’s song, to the speaker, it is darkling—as dark and obscure as night. Moreover, the fact that he uses “could think” evokes a sense that perhaps the bird was singing as always and it was the speaker himself who was trying to find a sense of hope in its song, though in reality there was none. Perhaps that is why the thrush is the only element in the poem that has not been personified, to show that it is ONLY a bird and maybe that is why it is so “unaware” of what awaits and can thus sing merry songs out of blissful ignorance. Thus the poem reiterates on the idea that the corpse of the old century never gives way to the birth of the new and speaks of a bleak future.

Salvatore by William Somerset Maugham

In his short story Salvatore, W. Somerset Maugham, whose works are famous for their astringent cynicism, follows the pattern of third person narration and leads the readers into the story by arousing their curiosity with his statement “I wonder if I can do it” and plans to hold their attention for a few pages while he sketches the portrait of a man named Salvatore.

The narrator recounts that as a boy of fifteen, Salvatore had “a pleasant face, a laughing mouth and care-free eyes”, his brown body was “as thin as a rail” and he was “full of grace”. He lived on the island of Ischia in Italy and spent his mornings sprawling about the beach, “swimming with the clumsy, effortless stroke common to the fisher boys”. The eldest son of a fisherman, he acted as a “nursemaid” to his two younger brothers, taking care of them while their father was away. The responsible brother that he was, he shouted for them to come inshore when they ventured out too far and made sure that they were dressed appropriately when they had to climb the hot, vineclad hill for the frugal midday meal.

As he grew older, he fell madly in love with a pretty girl who lived on the Grande Marina. With eyes like “forest pools” and holding herself like “a daughter of the Caesars”, she won him over with her beauty in no time and they got engaged but their marriage was put off till Salvatore had completed his military service. Not before long, Salvatore had to leave behind his secluded life for the very first time, to become a sailor in the navy of King Victor Emmanuel. “He wept like a child” for “it was hard for one who had never been less free than the birds to be at the beck and call of others; it was harder still to live in a battleship with strangers instead of in a little white cottage among the vines”. Out there he felt nostalgic and dreadfully homesick—he was overtly emotional for his family. It struck him that in some dim fashion his homeland was as much part of him as his hands and his feet, such deep was his attachment. More than anything, he found his separation from his beloved, whom he loved with all his young, passionate heart, unbearable and wrote to her long, ardent letters.  Sometime later, he fell ill to chronic rheumatism from which he was never to recover, rendering him unfit for further service. Yet, he had not an iota of sadness or dejection. Instead he considered it “a piece of luck” and was “exulted” at the prospect of returning home, returning to his beloved, who was supposedly waiting for him—it was all he longed for, it was all that mattered to him.

As he rowed ashore to his eagerly waiting family, there was a great deal of kissing and crying. But in the crowd, Salvatore’s eyes searched for just one person­—the girl whom he loved with all his being. But she was nowhere to be found. In the evening, when Salvatore went to meet the girl, he faced rejection with “blunt directness”, she said that her father would never give consent to their marriage, now that he had contracted an incurable disease and she herself “could never marry a man who would never be strong enough to work like a man”. Heartbroken, he went back home and “wept on his mother’s bosom”. He was sensitive but understanding nonetheless. Neither bitter nor frustrated, he never blamed her. Instead, he forgave her, for forgiveness is an integral part of love.

It is said that forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future and so it was with Salvatore.

Everything happens for a reason. This betrayal made him stronger. Salvatore started working on his father’s vineyard and fishing. It was then that his mother offered him a proposal to marry a young woman Assunta, who was older than him and could have helped him with a little money she had, to buy a boat and rent a vineyard. These were of no interest to him. But when his mother told him how Assunta had seen him at the festa and fallen in love with him, a sweet smile flashed across his face and he said he would think about it, showing that it was not profit that appealed to him, but love. On the following Sunday, Salvatore, dressed in stiff clothes and went up to High Mass at the Parish Church and had a good look at her. Initially, he found her ugly but what mattered to him more was that she had a good heart and he agreed to the proposal. Soon they were married. She was a devoted wife who admired and respected her husband. She saw the goodness of his soul, and did not hold his ailment against him. However, she could not bear the girl who had thwarted him. But Salvatore’s inherent goodness dshone through as he could not bear to hear a single “hard word for the girl he had loved so well”. He still wore his ingenuous smile and had the most pleasant disposition that the narrator had ever seen. “His gentle sweetness” never ceased to touch Assunta. We can clearly see the narrator’s utter fascination for him when he says that Salvatore was a man with “the sweetest manners”.

Salvatore slogged hard to support his family, working diligently the whole day in his vineyard. All through the fishing season, he would set out in the evening in his boat with one of his brothers for the fishing grounds. “It was a long pull of six or seven miles, and he spent the night catching the profitable cuttlefish”. Even when, at times, the excruciating pain racked his limbs, he would simply “lie about the beach, smoking cigarettes, with a pleasant word for everyone”. “The foreigners who came down to bathe and saw him there said that these Italian fishermen were lazy devils.” With this observation, the narrator draws our attention to the human tendency of being judgemental. Yet Salvatore lay there, bearing the pain with the same, “mute and uncomprehending patience of a dog”, that had been beaten, just as he had once borne the agony of unrequited love.

The narrator says that he had the same “ingenuous smile” and “kindly eyes he had as a boy” though he had grown into a “great, big husky fellow, tall and broad”, depicting that life’s harshness cannot cloud goodness. Salvatore became the father of two sons. He was deeply attached to his children. He loved them and used to spend time with them, bringing them down to give them a bath, dipping them in water tenderly and delicately as if they were flowers, laughing with them, amused by their smallness. His laughter was like that “of an angel”, his eyes “as candid as his child’s”.  He was no less than a mother to them.

Maugham concludes by intervening in first person and saying “I started by saying that I wondered if I can do it and now I must tell you what it is I have tried to do. I wanted to see if I could hold your attention for a few pages while I drew for you the portrait of a man, just an ordinary fisherman, who possessed nothing in the world except a quality that is the rarest, the most precious and the loveliest that anyone can have. Heaven only knows why he should have so strangely possessed it”, for his goodness seemed to be something ethereal, something intangible and yet perceptible. “All I know is that it shone in him with a radiance that, if it had not been so unconscious and so humble, would have been to the common run of men hardly bearable”, for not only does self-righteousness and being over conscious take away the splendor of a value but it also makes the disposition of the person intolerable. “And in case you have not guessed what the quality was, I will tell you. Goodness, just goodness.”

 

This story is a celebration of a man named Salvatore, a man whose very name means “saviour”. It is a commemoration of kindness, generosity and above all goodness that his character epitomizes. It shows how the road to a high moral character is paved with acts of goodness. The truly happy people in this world are those who own this precious goodness that Maugham speaks of in its many manifestations, irrespective of social place and standing. In this story the author voices dissatisfaction with the fact that for most people the things spoken about a man are more important than the man himself. This is the question Maugham poses. The “beauty” of a man is not manifested by his external characteristics, but by his inner world. This consistently helps us to formulate the controlling idea of the story – more often than not, people ignore the inner world of man and judge them on the basis of insignificant and irrelevant outward details.

Maugham also gently touches upon the idea that beauty is only skin deep. It is noteworthy that Assunta, whose name evokes images of the Virgin Mary, might have had an ugly and grim visage but her heart was pure. On the other hand, Salvatore’s first love, who had a fair face, did not possess that fair a heart. The fact that the latter has not been given any name shows that she is a representative of the all opportunists that the world is filled with. Goodness is something we are all born with, yet we make choices that passively take this virtue away from us. But it was not so with Salvatore, who was “good” with effortless ease.

It is remarkable that Salvatore’s change of mind to marry Assunta and his subsequent marriage is simply stated, without any explanation. This shows that he was a simple man, who took life as it came. He chose not to grudge the past and wallow in grief. It is said that one who is good, is protected by his ability to love. Salvatore chose to let go and that is what made his life so simple and yet so beautiful.

Despite the fact that Salvatore was an ordinary fisherman, he holds the reader’s attention throughout the story and herein lies the success of the narrator. Though his life is shot through with misfortune, he never complains; he never blames anybody for anything. His character mesmerizes us to such an extent that we almost forget what the narrator was trying to say with his opening sentence.  Thus Maugham’s naming the story after him is an evidence of his sincere admiration for Salvatore.

 

Perhaps great stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again; the ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. And Salvatore is one such story that one would read swiftly, dote on deeply and forget never.

The Chinese Statue   by Jeffrey Archer

The Chinese Statue, the opening story of “A Quiver Full of Arrows” by Jeffrey Archer, revolves around a priceless statue of Emperor Kung of the Ming Dynasty. A nested fiction, it opens into Sotheby’s auction house (the frame story), buzzing with those quiet murmurings that always precede the sale of a masterpiece. Lot 103, a little Chinese statue, a delicate piece of ivory, was the next item to come under the auctioneer’s hammer. Seated among the bidders, the narrator, seemingly a lover of art, studied the catalogue which read that the statue had been purchased in Ha Li Chuan in 1871 and was “the property of a gentleman”. Intrigued by the quaint reference, the narrator does some research. His discovery is what forms the core story.

In a flashback, we are introduced to Sir Alexander Heathcote, the protagonist. Unlike his father, who was a military General, young Alexander chose to serve the Queen in the diplomatic service. Bright and exact, he swiftly went up the career ladder and in no time rose to the position of a minister in Peking. When he was made the British Ambassador in China, he was ever more delighted for he had always had a keen interest in the Ming Dynasty and its artefacts and this crowning appointment would make it possible for him to admire and minutely observe in their natural habitat some of the great statues, paintings and drawings (which he had previously been able to admire only in books) in person. Upon his visit to the Imperial Palace in China, he was mesmerized by the magnificent collection of ivory and jade statues embellishing the hallway in a most casual manner. Perhaps it was his devotion towards Art that led him to the countryside to look for more artefacts belonging to the Ming Dynasty. A connoisseur of Art, he had the highest regard for artists. Thus, as a mark of respect, he left his servants behind and went into the workshop, chaperoned only by his Mandarin, who acted as an interpreter and guide. An enthralled Alexander sighed and chuckled as he studied many of the pieces with admiration for over an hour after which he showered the skilled old craftsman with the praise that he truly deserved. When the craftsman took him to his store, Sir Alexander was enamoured by what lay before him —row upon row of beautiful miniature emperors and classical figures. Understanding Heathcote’s taste and liking for art from his love and knowledge of the Ming Dynasty, which was soon revealed to the artist en-conversation, he brought a specimen of Ming art itself— an old statue of Emperor Kung, an heirloom, which had been in his family for over seven generations. On sighting upon it, Sir Alexander’s mouth opened wide and he could not hide his excitement. The little statue, no more than six inches in height was as fine an example of Ming as the minister had seen. He felt quite confident about the fact had it was the handwork of the great Pen Q, who had been patronized by the Emperor and thus the statue must have been dated as back as the 15th century. The statue’s only blemish, if it be called so, was that the ivory base on which these statues are usually fashioned was missing and a small stick protruded from the bottom of the imperial robes. Nonetheless, so impressed was he with its beauty, that he could not curb his desire of owning it and uttered the same to the artist. But what he did not know was that according to an old Chinese tradition, the giver grew in the eyes of his fellow men by parting with something that an honoured guest requested and in no time the artist hunted down a base decorated with small, dark figures that bore the mark of a good craftsman, though its history was not quite known to him and fixed it unto the figurine. With a heart filled his regret, Heathcote tried but could not refuse the gift that the old craftsman so pressed unto the embarrassed minister for the sake of the honour of his humble home. The way gloom loomed over the face of the old man suggested how dear he held the statuette to his heart and how magnificent a piece of art it was. Nonetheless, the man reassured that his family would be honoured by the fact that the little statue lives in a great Embassy and may one day be admired by the people of Heathcote’s land.

A true gentleman, Sir Alexander had his own way of expressing gratitude towards the man who had been so generous. After an extensive research in the library and with the Mandarin’s assistance, he assessed the true worth of the statue to almost three years’ emolument of a servant of the Crown. Meanwhile the diligent Mandarin had discovered that the man was Yung Lee and belonged to the family of Yung Shau, who had been craftsmen for some five hundred years. Further had had acquired the information that the old man wished to settle down in the hills, where his ancestors had always died, passing over his art to his son. After a discussion his wife, he knew all too well what was to be done and before long presented a small, inadequate gift— a beautiful house crafted in the village of Ma Tien to the old craftsman, sanctioned by the Empress herself. The two men thus parted, honour satisfied.

Upon his superannuation (when he received the honourary Silver Star of China and added the KCVO to his already long list of decorations), the statue adorned the centre if the mantelpiece in his drawing room (in Yorkshire) for all to see and admire. Being a visionary, in due time he penned down a will, giving precise details for the disposal of his estate including the statue, bequeathing it to his first son and requesting for it to be passed on to the eldest child in the generations to come. He also made a provision that it could not be sold unless the family’s honour was at stake.

Much in accordance with the will, the statue remained with the family for more than a hundred year. Its first inheritor was Major James Heathcote (serving his Queen in the Boer War at that time), who despite having little interest in culture, did not fail to acknowledge it as a real treasure and loaned it to the regimental mess at Halifax for his comrades to appreciate. Later, when he became Colonel of the Dukes, the statue beautified the table on which stood his various trophies. Upon his retirement, the statue gained its previous place in the Yorkshire house. After his death, the statue was bequeathed to the Reverend Alexander Heathcote (who was, at that time, presiding over a small flock in the parish of Much Hadham in Hertfordshire), who in turn placed the statue on the mantelpiece of the vicarage, where only a couple of people seemed to notice its delicate carving. It was only when he rose to the position of the Right Reverend and the little statue found its way into the Bishop’s palace that the Emperor attracted the admiration he deserved.

Many of those who visited the palace and heard the story of how the Bishop’s grandfather had acquired the Ming statue were fascinated to learn of the disparity between the magnificent statue and its base.

In turn the Bishop’s son, Captain James Heathcote (a serving officer in his grandfather’s regiment) became its rightful possessor and the statue returned to its place at the mess table in Halifax. The Statue was great not only because of the prodigious craftsmanship that it bore testimony to, but also because of the emotions that it enticed in the various lovers of Art and the due respect that they paid to it. Till now, an apposite will had been composed by each of Sir Alexander’s descendants before their death as if it were the wish of the Almighty Himself, the reference of which we get when we are told “God takes even his own ambassadors, but He did not do so before allowing Bishop Heathcote to complete a will…”. But Captain James died an untimely death, martyred at a war against Germany but English law, the known wishes of his great-grandfather and common sense prevailed and it came under the ownership of his two-year-old son, Alex Heathcote and embellished the mantelpiece in the Cadogan Gardens flat. His over-yielding mother lavished everything on him and in no time grew up to be, in the words of his grandmother, a selfish, spoiled little brat. Dropping out of school, threw away money in utter profligacy. In the swinging sixties, when casinos opened in Britain, young Alex was convinced that he had found the ideal way of earning a living without actually having to do any work. Roulette was what enticed him and that is where he chose to pour his money is a most generous manner. Every time he would lose, he would come up with a refined system. In time it forced him to borrow and this continued endlessly until he received an unsolicited call from two gentlemen who seemed determined to collect some eight thousand pounds he owed to their masters, and hinted at bodily harm if the matter was not dealt with within a fortnight. Caving in, Alex decided to sell the Ming statue for the honour of his family was at real stake. It is then that the statue was drove down to Bond Street and instructions were given for it to be put up on auction at Sotheby’s. There, as the head of the Oriental department takes it in and says though it would take a few days to estimate the true value of the piece, he felt confident on a cursory glance that the statue was as fine an example of Pen Q as they have ever had under the hammer and asked Alex to return the coming Friday.

On the due day, Alex drove down to Bond Street, gleeful, for he was aware of the price his great-great-grandfather had paid for the statue and hoped to raise at least 10,000 pounds. To his downright shock, he was informed that the piece, though crafted with excellent mastery, was alas a fake one and worth 700 pounds at the most. Sardonically, Alex thinks that the money is enough to buy a gun and some bullets, contemplating a suicide and almost starts to walk away, only to be informed that the base attached to it was a genuine piece of art, “quite magnificent, fifteenth century, undoubtedly a work of genius” and was quoted at a price of 22,000 guineas, enough for him, not only to repay his debts, but also to try his luck at gambling once more. In the end, the base is said to have been acquired by an American gentleman of not unknown parentage at the abovementioned price.

Thus the story has a nice sting in the tail. The story is named after (and seems to have been quite appropriate in the beginning) and revolves entirely around a Chinese statue which formed the heirloom of two families for generations. It was the statue that attracted the attention of innumerable aficionados of art. Ironically, in the end, it turns out that the base of the statue put unto it casually and in much haste turned out to be more than thrice as much valuable as the statue. It is funny that the English Ambassador is quick to realize that his exactness has not been up to the mark when he lips his desire but not so much so at his inexactness of assessing the authenticity of his object of desire.

The Chinese statue, which appeared to be a candid piece of art, not only to laymen but even to great connoisseurs of art, craftsmen themselves and even an orientalist, until it was sent for serious scrutiny and in reality turned out to be an imitation of the original, thus bringing out the theme of appearances versus reality. Yet, here, we cannot quite quote/repeat the oft-quoted lines of Shakespeare, “all that glitters is not gold” for though on one hand the statue was an imitation of the original masterpiece, it was in troth a piece of craftsmanship, as enthralling and absorbing as gold, in its own right.

Returning to the frame story once more, we see the narrator buying the Chinese statue without its base, for seven hundred and twenty guineas. It seems quite fair and expected, keeping in mind that the core story had been narrated by this man in third person, giving the statue prime importance though now we know that he had been aware all this while that the statue was fake. It appears that much like Sir Alexander, nothing could detract him from its overall beauty. This shows that the real worth of a piece of art lies in its beauty and not its material worth. The only evidence of truth in art exists when it compels us to say ‘I see’. Any piece of art is essentially a way of seeing. Beauty truly does lie in the eyes of the beholder and the little Emperor definitely had some splendor in it, and believe me, it was not little. Thus in a way, the piece of art which was proved to be fake in this world, may be cited as real in some other sphere, and essentially, a higher one. Thus to some extent, the story also harps on the truth that Oscar Wilde had uttered about a cynical man, “who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”. The Chinese Statue is a lie, which enables us to realize this truth and is that not what art is, really?

Father Returning Home by Dilip Chitre

Father Returning Home is a poignant portrayal of the condition of the elderly in today’s society, facing rootlessness, alienation and estrangement from other human beings. Even in families where the father works as the sole bread winner, he is subject to social isolation. The poet talks of his own father, an old man in a cosmopolitan city and his fatiguing routine, to highlight the pain and misery lurking in his soul and through it, sketches the general malaise the elderly face in the fag end of their lives..

Written in the form of a dramatic monologue, Dilip Chitre strips the narration to a bare minimum. The poem begins with the father returning from his office

on the late evening train

Standing among silent commuters…

in the local train in “ the yellow light” of dusk. The word “silent” is symptomatic of the general apathy rampant in modern society. His father has turned into an introvert due to the indifference and sheer neglect that he suffers from. He has become old, as is evident from “His eyes dimmed by age” and “greying hairs on his wrist”. Old age is marked by physical disability, reduced vision and declining mental ability. Chitre portrays him as “standing” to show that even the other commuters show indifference and do not offer the aged man a seat, though he is carrying a heavy bag. The mechanical hustle-bustle of city life has filled them with apathy for their fellow citizens, especially the elderly.

Suburbs slide past his unseeing eyes

shows that the scenery is too familiar to evoke his curiosity. The drudgery of his daily commute has rendered him incapable of admiring the beauty of nature. Chitre goes on to illustrate his pathetic condition, by describing his clothes as damp and “soggy” and his “black raincoat” as “stained with mud”. His bag is disintegrating under the heavy load of books. This is symbolic of his the mental condition as well for his soul and body long for rest. Therefore,  his father is depicted

getting off the train

Like a word dropped from a long sentence.

The uniqueness of the imagery lies in the visual picture of an old man dropping off from the train, which will now move forward with other people to their destinations. This is an evocative image, suggesting how old people are like irrelevant words in the syntax of life—once they have outlived their utility, they are no longer germane, are neglected and life goes on. This line vividly captures the middle-class dissatisfaction and hopelessness. The phrase “fade homeward” further accentuates this idea. The pathos of an old father returning to a gloomy house, late in the evening is well addressed in this line.

His poor eyesight makes it difficult for him to move in the darkness.

 

He hurries across the length of the grey platform

which seems to be as old as his father as he has been using it for years. He crosses the railway track and enters the muddy lane as is palpable from

His chappals are sticky with mud,

but “he hurries onward” , rushing to his home, in the hope of getting some respite.

The life of the elderly is dull and monotonous. Not only do they have to sustain the vagaries of nature, depicted by “the humid monsoon night” but also seclusion outside his home.

At “Home” too, his condition is no better. There exists a communication gap which leads to a generation gap. He drinks “weak tea” and eats “a stale chapati”, revealing that even his basic needs remain unfulfilled. He is a non-entity, even in his OWN home. He reads a book which may have been a philosophical or religious one, as it turns him into a contemplative mood and he goes to the toilet to ponder over

Man’s estrangement from a man-made world.

He is visibly upset. While washing his hands in the basin, he “trembles at the sink”, perhaps shaken by his predicament. Thinking of his children, he realises that he has been written off by them. They are callous about his needs and do not wish

…to share

Jokes and secrets with him

any longer. To compensate for their loss, he listens “to the static on the radio”, which does not receive a good signal due to the inclement weather. The absence of a clear sound suggests that nothing can recompense the warmth of human relations. The erosion of societal values and breakdown of social institutions like the joint family system have further alienated the elderly people and have made them an unwanted entity. Disappointed and

Listening to the static on the radio,

he falls asleep,

…dreaming

Of his ancestors and grandchildren, thinking

Of nomads entering a subcontinent through a narrow pass.

This is typical of the elderly, who rely on their past and future, with nothing worthwhile to think of in the present, to relieve them of their suffering. He thinks about “his ancestors”, an allusion to the Aryans who migrated from Central Asia and came to India through the “narrow” Khyber Pass. They made India their homeland.

Ironically, today’s people migrate from one place to another but fail to strike their roots. He knows that in spite of being “nomads”, the Aryans had a sense of attachment towards the members of their tribe. But modern man, though endowed with everything, is bereft of a sense of belongingness. Thus, the dream symbolises the father’s deepest feelings, which find no expression in waking life.

On an autobiographical note, the element of rootlessness in Chitre’s father was the result of his migration from Baroda to Mumbai. . The experience of being uprooted from one’s kith and kin finds a parallel in the poem. He feels like an alien and a modern nomad” in the new city, aptly reflected in the last few lines of the poem. Perhaps the thought of being uprooted from his soil and living the life of an alien in a new city was deep seated in his sub-conscious mind and haunted him in his dreams. The feeling of not belonging to the city, of being compelled to dwell in an unaccustomed earth, resulted in a kind of insecurity and a loss of identity.

The poem is a word portrait of the father, drawn in tender colours and with a delicate brush, depicting a deep sense of attachment for his father. It speaks of the severe loneliness that he experienced in the later years of his life.

Throughout the poem, Chitre has used descriptive words to convey the twilight atmosphere in the poem like “evening train”, “unseeing eyes”, “fade homeward” and “grey platform”, suggesting that the father is also in his twilight years. The extensive use of Present Continuous Tense in the poem expresses the mundane routine of his father’s life, devoid of any human contact. Through this poem, Chitre condemns urban rootlessness and alienation.

Paradoxically enough, the more crowded the world becomes, the more isolated man becomes.

 

 

Daffodils  by William Wordsworth

A eulogy to the restorative powers of Nature, Daffodils is perhaps the simplest and yet most celebrated lyric poem of the entire Wordsworth canon. Here the poet dips his mysticism, minimalism and spontaneity in his imagination, with Nature herself acting as the inspiration. Daffodils, which is a representative of Romanticism in English Literature, is one that can be called a “real poem”, which is “a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings arising from emotions recollected in tranquility. Romanticism talks about going back to nature as only nature has the narrative power to save people from the mechanical humdrum of city life. It shows that a poet is not a man in an ivory tower but a man among men, writing about all that interests and inspires mankind. And what inspires mankind more than nature? Not only is it a visual treat, but also a source of joy to the mind and the soul.

With each of the lines of the four six-line stanzas metered in an iambic tetrameter, the poem follows a quatrain-couplet style with the rhyming scheme ababcc.

This lyrical poem starts with the melancholic diction of

I wandered lonely as a cloud

which sets in the mood of seclusion that trails through the entire poem. The narrator much like a lonesome cloud that aimlessly drifts “high o’er vales and hills”, meanders down the mountains in the Lake District of England. It is after this that the poem shifts to a euphoric mood as he comes across

A host of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees

His depiction of the daffodils as “a crowd” is contrary to his previous portrayal of solitude. The discomfort that he feels in the human multitude (which in turn, leads to his solitude) is curiously absent when he is in the company of the infinities of nature. The use of the word “golden” is significant as it bestows a sense richness to a wild flower. The narrator seems to glide into a Utopian world, where these daffodils seem to be “fluttering and dancing” in the breeze (personification).  Now the poet’s mind seems to soar higher and higher like a cloud as he looks at the daffodils.

On an autobiographical note, the loneliness that the poet talks about was a result of his brother’s death. It was on one such gloomy afternoon that he was strolling near a lake in Grasmere in England with his sister, Dorothy, when they chanced upon some daffodils close to a waterside. To him this scene seemed like a breath of fresh air in which his soul, a long-cramped scroll, seemed to flutter.

To him the flowers appeared to be

Continuous as the stars that shine

And twinkle on the Milky Way.

akin to innumerable shining golden stars that are studded in the Milky Way—the golden daffodils that were as ethereal as the stars . The flowers seemed to border “the margin of the bay” as far as he could see. That is why he says

They stretched in never-ending line

It could also imply the undying everglow that these flowers gave the narrator. He uses a hyperbole while describing the number of flowers that he saw, accounting it as “ten thousand”. This poetic exaggeration suggests that never before had he sighted so many daffodils all at once. At a single glance, he could see a myriad of daffodils “tossing their heads in sprightly dance” in the breeze, as if they were rejoicing in ecstasy. The joy that filled the narrator’s soul seemed to find expression in the way he perceived the swaying movement of the flowers.

It seemed as though the sparkling gleeful waves of the lake with the breeze drawing patterns on them were dancing in tandem with these flowers but their gleeful dance was in no way comparable to the euphoric and gaiety of the daffodils that

Surpassed the sparkling waves in glee

They seemed to be in a frenzy of delight. He asserts that

A Poet could not but be gay

In such a jocund company

The cheerful companionship of the flowers lifted his spirits. The use of “gazed-and –gazed” shows that he was so mesmerized by the beautiful image of the dancing daffodils that he forgot all about his surrounding. However ordinary a daffodil may be in reality, the poet has painted them in such magical verses and blended in to such transcendental romanticism, that they leave an everlasting impression on the mind of the readers. Initially, the narrator fails to fathom what wealth the show of these lively flowers had endowed him with but goes on to answer it himself in the following stanza.

By beginning with “for” he presents the reason for his holding that chanced vision as a prized possession. He says that since that day, whenever he lies upon his couch in a vacant or pensive (meditative) mood, the vision flashes upon his “inward-eye”, i.e. his imagination. Not only had he captured the image of the golden flowers but also the feelings that they evoked in him. The daffodils seemed to have become his “bliss of solitude”, something that gives him the luxury to bask in his estrangement from the world and comforts him when he drowns in the imminent sorrows of life. Wordsworth was not without his share of loss. He had lost both of his parents by the age of thirteen. As if it was not enough loss for one, three of his children were taken away by the hand of Fate during his own lifetime. All these alienated him from the world and from life at large. But the moment he reminisces the daffodils his heart is filled with delight and seems to dance with the daffodils. This reminiscence is a source of hope and solace. He realizes that nature has gifted him something that money cannot buy—sublime happiness and a pleasant memory that he can cherish throughout his life; it imparts wisdom upon men in a way formal education never can. This is evocative of how modern man knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. People often forget that peace and joy are more worthy than money and material objects. Worldly pleasure is nothing in comparison with the delight that Nature gifts man.

Daffodils are a metaphor for the voice of Nature, scarcely audible except in seclusion, those magical moments when our spirit develops a visionary power and we return to the enchanted unity with nature we knew in childhood. They represent a living microcosm within the larger macrocosm of nature. Nature is the spirit of the universe—Nature has music for those who listen.

Breaking Out by Marge Piercy

Breaking Out by Marge Piercy is based on the theme of discrimination and subjugation meted out to women. It portrays the double oppression of a girl child for being a girl, and a child at the same time. The poem shows how desperately she wants to break away from the conventional norms of the society which are responsible for her oppression. It holds meaning in terms of its technique and thematic elements. Both aspects contribute to its overall meaning of activism and the need to exhort a statement of defiance in a world where conformity is expected and enforced. Piercy’s poem is one of transformation, where individuals can envision what they can be as opposed to what is expected of them.

Piercy describes her writing as emerging from a singular view. She says that the vision is one where the individual voice is revealed. From the structural viewpoint, Piercy has used free verse which allows her enough freedom to say what she wants to, without any interruption. In fact, the free verse allows her to depict the irony that women are not actually free individuals; they are tied by the conventional norms of the society. SO, the adherence to a structured rhyme scheme and meter would have added to the structured lives of what is expected in women’s lives; not having it has helped her put emphasis on the freedom to which women are equally entitled. The experience of the tyrant and the discipline she experienced at its hand becomes the critical aspect of the narrative frame.

This poem against traditional gender roles begins with a girl, who is subjected to endless humiliation and domestic chores as a girl, who asks the readers if they want her to tell them about her “first political act”, a rebellion to break away from the conventional norms of a patriarchal and biased family and society. She recalls this act in her journey of growing up, as a girl empowered by the dogmas of the society. She says that she sees

two doors that unusually stood open

leaning together …

in a way that it seems that they were gossiping, whispering secrets into each others’ ears. The very word “gossip” brings to our mind feminine connotations. They are inclined in a way that makes a triangular room

a closet of their corner(edges)

They seem to compellingly confine her within the four walls of her house. Presumable, the doors can be seen as two options for her— one to maintain the status quo and silently endure the repression and ignominy; two, to break away from the conventional norms, wherein a woman is treated as an inferior human being and subjected to endless degradations and thankless domestic chores.

Next she looks at the household objects, used for various household chores. Each one of them seems to symbolise a medium of coercion, the endless drudgery that is a part of a woman’s routine. First, there is a laundry machine, “a mangle”, used for wringing out or ironing damp clothes. It is used “for ironing” even those clothes, which do not require it, like bed “sheets, towels” and her “father’s underwear”. Pressing down the iron is suggestive of how women are suppressed.

Then she looks at an old style “upright vacuum” cleaner, standing in a vertical position along with its “sausage bag” (the filter bag) “stuffed” with dust.  The language used to portray the nature of the tyranny is scathing, which hints at the difficulty with which that she as the individual has reconciled with the societal demands. She remembers the roaring and turbulent sound made by the machine when its bag

…deflated with a gusty

sigh as if weary of housework as I,

shows that Piercy personifies the machine and envisages that perhaps it was as tired of dust-suction at home as she was. This makes her swear that she

…would never dust or sweep,

once she grew up and “left home”.  It is suggestive of sowing the seeds of defiance in her mind, which continue to grow. The rebellion becomes sterner when she juxtaposes herself to her mother, who has been ensnared in the society’s wishes and willingly follows them. She hates to see her mother

…removing daily

the sludge the air lay down like a snail’s track,

evoking a slow, disgusting nature that mirrors her sentiments about the nature of the society.Piercy conjures the image of her mother as a mere

…housewife scrubbing

on raw knees as the factories rained ash,

signalling at the pain of being subsumed under society. Living near the factories, all the industrial waste that spewed up smoke and made the air heavy with dust, perpetually filled the surroundings with grime.  The image is also suggestive of the poor conditions under which a woman has to work. She has to remove all the household dust, irrespective of its effect on HER health.

In its openness of form, Piercy seeks to give articulation to the condition of freedom that is the subject of the poem, which she experiences as a child, at its end. The titular concept refers to a forcible repudiation of a contingency that silences voice. Her reaction is an indication that the predicament women face is one where they are forced into a life with limited opportunities—it is an existence tethered to the routine, denying freedom and steeped in monotonous repetition. It reminds her of the time she

… read of Sisyphus

and his rock

The invocation of “Sisyphus” from the “school” lesson “and his rock” is reflective of how the speaker perceives domestic life. It is a story of constant toil without relief, and this continuous rolling the boulder up the hill mirrors the meaninglessness and the pain that her mother faces.

Next she looks at a yardstick, described as

Nasty stork king of the hobnobbing

doors…

which seems to her as an offspring of the rickety doors, equally poor in texture and quality. It has become dusty which chalk marks used by her mother to measure the length of the hem of clothes, while tailoring them. The presence of various chalk marks suggests that the girl is gradually growing (as the places of marking have been shifting), in height and in her intense desires of breaking free.

The second level of repression exists in the parent-child dynamic where the child is depicted being beaten black and blue by both the parents with the same “wooden yardstick”, “the tool of punishment” for her being “judged truly wicked”, for breaking rules. Her father beats her “far longer and harder”. This is compounded by the fact that even her mother, suffering under the weight of society’s demands, uses the stick “more fiercely” , almost as if ashamed at her daughter’s failure to kowtow as she did. It is ironical because her mother, who is herself a victim of the patriarchal society, is the source of her OWN daughter’s oppression. When she is brutally beaten, she howls and screams bellowing “like a locomotive” as if her screams would diminish the pain or “ward off blows”. The simile also suggests her desire to run away from the societal shackles as far as locomotives can go and perhaps even further.

Afterwards, she would “twist” her “head in the mirror to inspect” her lashes.

This poem deals with the broad genre of female empowerment, displaying at first the bonds which the society holds onto her with and the domesticity of her situation. Any attempt to defy these bonds is met with severe punishment, compelling an individual to succumb to its expectations. Yet, somehow, there retributions serve only to empower her and propel her towards an escape, if not clear cut, then a least an intellectual escape through enlightenment.

The imagery of the poem is one that combines a sense of oppression with liberation. Both dynamics are critical to the appreciation of the poem. The oppressive tendencies, seen in the inward images of domesticity is contrasted with the extroverted pictures of liberation evident in the

… red and blue mountain

ranges as on a map that offered escape

which is what her swelled up bruises appear to her. The arteries (“red”) and veins (“blue”) remind her of the ridges in a mountain, which she thinks are her escape route and she

…could travel to freedom when I[she] grew.

Symbolically starting the next paragraph with

When I was eleven,

she shows that she had INDEED grown up. She then describes the incident which heralded her entry into adolescence. She says, one day after the beatings from her parents, with all the pent up anger and frustration in her, due to all the physical and mental agony inflicted upon her, she took the stick, used for punishing her and broke it into pieces. She looked at the broken pieces and could not believe that it was SHE, who had mustered the courage to break it. She wondered how the stick, which has been used for punishing her, could be “weaker than” her. By smashing “the ruler to kindling” she effectively dismantles society’s inability to weigh her down. Unlike the latter, the former was vague and not based on innermost convictions of the self. She realises that she had become an adolescent in her soul and wants to be treated like one, though biologically, she was still a child. Piercy says that though the narration seems like “a tale of innocence lost” but in sooth, breaking of the rule enables Piercy to move into the attainment of confidence and “power gained”. This is her “first political act”. The ability to assert her voice in the face of parental authoritarianism represents her voice authenticated and her narrative validated. She has clearly established that she “would not be Sisyphus “in her act of breaking the yardstick. It becomes clear that Piercy’s childhood was positioned between the world of expectation and conformity, representing the silencing of voice, and one of liberation and transformation, involving a departure from it by breaking the Sisyphean cycle. She proudly proclaims the perception that she had gained at length. It is that

there were things that I[she] should learn to break

suggestive of the myth that women are inferior and the rule of their limitation to domestic chores. Women must raise their voice against the discrimination meted out to them and demand equal status to men.

It is this in which the “breaking out” element is most demonstrative.

%d bloggers like this: