Responses to literary texts Essay
Responses to literary texts
Poetry is often considered a form of art; while poems appeal to the intellect by presenting various values, attitudes and ideas, they simultaneously convey aesthetic beauty and reflect the emotive power of language. A poem’s aesthetic and affective features are vital to the communication of its intellectual messages, and all three play a role in shaping the reader’s response. Two particular examples of this are the poems ‘Personal Helicon’ (from Death of a Naturalist, 1966) and ‘Punishment’ (from North, 1975) by modern Irish poet Seamus Heaney.
‘Personal Helicon’ is a poem narrating the experiences of a carefree child exploring wells and the natural landscape, an activity which functions as a source of inspiration for the persona. This poem depicts the loss of freedom that accompanies one’s transition into adulthood; unable to continue the curious pursuit of his past, the persona channels his creativity into poetry, looking towards it as a means of self-exploration.
Punishment’ describes the body of a two thousand year old girl discovered preserved in the peat bog, and explores notions of patriarchy, justice, cultural conflict and the role of the bystander. The poems’ aesthetic features, including figurative language devices, visual appearance and structure, as well as the emotional response evoked in the reader through the sound and connotations of its words, enhance the reader’s understanding of their intellectual messages. ‘Personal Helicon’ uses various aesthetic and affective features to convey a sense of the liberty of childhood.
One such example lies in the persona’s unusual pastimes and unconventional definition of beauty as a child, demonstrating that his behavior and thoughts were not deterred by the conventions of society. Heaney’s poetry often conveys an appreciation for the earth and natural landscape; this poem uses rural, agrarian imagery to encourage readers to see beauty in unconventional places. The persona writes that he “loved…the smells/ Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss”, and celebrates olfactory images that would typically be considered unappealing.
Assonance is used to similar effect in “rotted board top” lending a poetic quality to something that is usually deemed distasteful. The first stanza also incorporates sibilants and rhyme- ‘windlasses/ moss’, ‘wells’/ ‘smells’, almost evocative of the hissing sound of the wind as it whistles through the countryside. This conveys a feeling of freedom and conjures pleasant natural images in the mind of the reader. Additionally the description “I savored the rich crash” uses synesthesia to intensify the experience being recounted by appealing to both the gustatory and auditory senses.
Heaney therefore intensifies the sense of freedom conveyed by employing poetic devices to describe the nonconformist, carefree pursuits of youth. The poem’s progress reflects the persona’s transition from childhood into adulthood and the consequent loss of liberty; aesthetic features of structure and extended metaphor are used to communicate this. A dichotomy between freedom and confinement is foreshadowed in the first stanza when the sky, which is limitless and carries connotations of flight and freedom, is ‘trapped’ by the well in which he sees his own reflection.
The image of him within the wells functions as a metaphor for the persona’s self-exploration, and the final lines of the stanzas follow his gradual descent to reality from the reveries of childhood. The persona’s reflection in the well is initially ‘so deep you saw no reflection in it’, indicating that the identity of the persona was not yet set in stone. The next stanza ends with ‘a white face hovered over the bottom’, and this ghostly, unreal image hints at his personality and identity gradually taking shape over time.
The next stanza ends with “a rat slapped across my reflection” conveying a feeling of sudden shock to the reader; his identity has become more concrete, and in self-reflection the persona is forced to confront aspects of himself which are ‘frightening’. The poem’s ending highlights the climax of the persona’s transformation, where the influence of society has altered the persona’s adult perspective. The tone changes in the final stanza, and the persona conveys a critical attitude to the activities of his childhood.
The restraining influence of society on his thoughts also becomes apparent, as his appreciation for unconventional beauty is no longer evident; the persona uses terms that carry unpleasant connotations, such as ‘pry’ and ‘finger slime’, to describe his childhood activities. His tone is almost pompous as he states ‘To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring/ Is beneath all adult dignity”; this allusion to a disagreeable character from Greek Mythology represents his past hobby as vain and self indulgent.
Finally, the act of looking into wells as a means of self-exploration and inspiration is been replaced with the writing of poetry in adulthood. The poem’s ambiguous ending “I rhyme/ To see myself, to set the darkness echoing” alludes to the ‘dark drop’ and ‘trapped sky’ mentioned in the first stanza; when linked with the earlier reference to Narcissus, this could be referring to the trap of being confined to self-absorbed patterns of thinking.
Ironically, while the pursuits of his past and present are concerned with the self and present this risk, they also offer freedom from vain thinking patterns by allowing the persona to see a frank, unglorified reflection of himself; thus “setting the darkness echoing”. ‘Punishment’, one of a Heaney’s series of ‘bog poems’, explores similar notions of identity and the human conscience but from a different perspective. The poem was inspired by the discovery of the two thousand year old body of a young girl in Windeby, Germany, in 1952.
Branches and stones had covered her body while alive, handicapping her so that she drowned in the bog; this was presumably punishment for committing adultery. The discovery was testimony to the harsh moral codes enforced in society during primitive times, and the early patriarchal attitudes that led to the punishing of ‘fallen’ females by death. In ‘Punishment’, Heaney parallels the cruel fate of the ‘Windeby Girl’ to the treatment of Catholic girls in modern Northern Ireland, who were tarred and feathered for fraternizing with British soldiers.
Heaney presents the notion that ironically, ‘civilized’ society is ultimately no different to the primitives, and challenges society’s definition of ‘justice’. He also explores his own response to the events, criticizing the role of the silent bystander; in this case the poem’s persona who is conflicted between the following collective identity of his tribe, and doing what is morally correct. In Heaney’s own words, “This is a poem about standing by as the IRA tar and feather young women in Ulster.
But it is also about standing by as the British torture people in barracks and interrogation centres in Belfast. It’s about standing between these two forms of affront. ” The poem begins with a description of the bog body that uses aesthetic features to encourage feelings of pity and empathy- almost protectiveness- toward the young girl. This is achieved through language that highlight her vulnerability and innocence; for example, the metaphor of the wind that “shakes the frail rigging/ of her ribs” conjures images of a drowned, disintegrating skeleton of a ship, and lends her an air of fragility.
Another metaphor describes her noose as “a ring/ to store/ the memories of love”, using the symbol of long-lasting love in a bitterly ironic manner, making the girl appear almost pathetic. Additionally, tactile, sexual imagery is used to create a feeling of shock in the reader- for example, when the wind “blows her nipples/To amber beads”. Such objectification of the girl feels particularly inappropriate given the context, and this, coupled with the pity evoked by representing her as a vulnerable, powerless creature, positions readers to reject the patriarchal values that led to her downfall.
The latter half of ‘Punishment’ examines the persona’s own hypocritical response to the events described, exploring ideas of guilt, discriminatory ‘justice’, and society’s deep-rooted aversion towards insurgents. The persona’s point of view switches to from first to second person, addressing the persona on a personal level rather than as a distanced observer; this mirrors a change in tone from one of sympathy to self-indictment.
The persona affectionately states, “My poor scapegoat/I almost love you”; ‘almost’ being a key word which indicative of something restraining him from fully assuming her side. He accuses himself of casting “stones of silence”, a biblical allusion used here to condemn the role of the silent bystander. Finally, he admits to feeling a sense of complicity with the punishers; “would connive/ in civilised outrage/ yet understand the exact/ and tribal, intimate revenge.
” Thus, Heaney draws attention to the superficial values of ‘civilised’ society, suggesting that a deep-rooted ‘tribe’ mentality within him will not allow her crime to be ignored; she must bear her due punishment. Paradoxically, this also results in punishment for the persona, whose guilt and internal conflict are evident in the self-condemning tone of the poem. Thus, a close inspection of ‘Personal Helicon’ and ‘Punishment’ reveals that, while the two poems explore divergent ideas, the intellectual messages presented are closely interconnected with the aesthetic and affective features of the poems.
Subtleties of language – the sound of words, their connotations and careful arrangement on the page- become crucial in engaging the reader’s senses in a manner that evokes powerful emotions. Therefore, the reader’s responses to intellectual ideas explored in the two poems, such as freedom, personal identity, cultural identity and conscience are strongly influenced by elements such as the figurative language, tone, structural features and sound devices used in the poems.
University/College: University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 2 June 2017
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