Sunday, February 7, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop

This article was published in the Written Word supplement of the Irish Independent January 2016.


''All my life I have lived and behaved very much like [the] sandpiper—just running down the edges of different countries and continents, "looking for something" ... having spent most of my life timorously seeking for subsistence along the coastlines of the world.''


Over her 15 years on the Leaving Cert course Bishop has appeared 5 times and consistently proves a popular choice with students. Her conversational tone, eye for detail and exploration of themes such as the search for identity, coming to terms with loss and childhood memories, make her poetry very accessible for all ages, especially adolescents.  She was greatly feted in her lifetime and won many distinguished accolades such as the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.

Bishop had an incredibly tough childhood; losing her father to Bright’s disease as a baby and losing her mother to mental illness over the following few years. She was raised by relatives and inherited money that allowed her to live independently but her poetry is characterised by a longing and search for home. She also, paradoxically, greatly enjoyed travel; as Niall MacMonagle noted she: ‘preferred geography to history’, and, rather than wallowing in self-pity in her work, she tended to turn her attention outwards to study the world around her in incredible detail.

The Fish, Filling Station, The Armadillo, The Bight and At the Fishhouses all display her skillful use of this razor-sharp attention to detail. In these poems she invites the reader ‘to focus not on her but with her’ at some element of the natural or man-made world that catches her eye. In The Fish she delivers a masterclass in painting a word-picture of the ‘tremendous fish’. She recreates every inch of his ‘battered and venerable’ body, from the ‘brown skin hung in strips like ancient wallpaper’ to ‘the frightening gills, fresh and crisp with blood’. She makes comparisons with ordinery domestic objects so that those of us who have never set foot in a fishing boat can see what she sees: ‘the irises backed and packed with tranished tinfoil’.

Often she is so eager to get her description right that she corrects herself in the middle of the poem: ‘It was more like the tipping of an object toward the light.’ Michael Schmidt said of her voice that it ‘affirms, hesitates, corrects itself; the image comes clear to us as it came clear to her.’ In Filling Station she puzzles over the contradictions of sight before her: ‘Do they live in the station?’ ‘Why the taboret? Why, oh why, the doily?’ She poses questions that occur to her in the course of her observations and then attempts to answer them: ‘Somebody embroidered the doily. Somebody waters the plant… Somebody loves us all.

In the course of her travels she explored exotic locations in Europe, North Africa and South America, some of which pop up in her poems. The Armadillo details the celebration of St John’s Day (24th June) in Brazil with traditional (but illegal!) fire balloons and the havoc they inflict on the local wildlife: ‘Last night another big one fell. It splattered like an egg of fire against the cliff behind the house…The ancient owls’ nest must have burned.’ In The Bight she examines Garrison Bight in Key West, Florida recreating both the man-made and natural elements of the scene vividly: ‘Black-and-white man-of-war birds soar on impalpable drafts and open their tails like scissors on the curves.’

She also investigates the nature of travel itself, most memorably in Questions of Travel. This poem explores the experience of being a tourist in a foreign country, looking at waterfalls, mountains and ‘old stonework’. She wonders if tourism is really a good thing: ‘Is it right to be watching strangers in a play in this strangest of theatres?’ or if our fantasies of exotic places are actually ruined by visiting them: ‘Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?...Oh, must we dream our dreams and have them too?’ She celebrates the beauty of the place she is visiting and feels sad at the thought of missing out on the experience:
                        But surely it would have been a pity
                        not to have seen the trees along this road,
                        really exaggerated in their beauty,
                        not to have seen them gesturing
                        like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.’
Ultimately her ponderings bring her back to her own elusive search for home: Should we have stayed at home, wherever that may be?’

It was later in life when she finally felt able to write about her childhood experiences. Sestina, In the Waiting Room and First Death in Nova Scotia were all written in her 50s and explore a variety of memories from her childhood. In Sestina she chooses to use a rigid, traditional poetic form to explore probably the most difficult experience of her life; her mother’s permanent confinement in a mental hospital. It details the scene in a kitchen of a grandmother looking after her granddaughter from the perspective of the child. Superficially a warm, cosy domestic scene, the child, although sheltered from the truth, knows something is wrong and sees tears wherever she looks: ‘the child is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears dance like mad on the hot black stove.

In all her poems Bishop maintains a slight distance from the material, the complete opposite of Sylvia Plath’s approach. While there is a little autobiography in her work she mostly acts as an objective observer. Colm Tóibín said of her: ‘She began with the idea that little is known and that much is puzzling’ which suggests she was like a scientist in her approach, always open to learning something new. Overall her poems on the Leaving Cert course offer students a great opportunity for deep insight and huge enjoyment.


Personal Essays – Finding Your Authentic Voice

This article was first published in the Written Word supplement of the Irish Independent in January 2016.
Writing a personal essay is, very simply, about writing as yourself. Unlike in a short story, where you might pretend to be a cowboy, astronaut, doctor or spy, in a personal essay YOU, an Irish teenager about to finish school, are the star of the show.
See the personal essay as a chance to reveal your personality. It is a chance to explore your attitudes, emotions, hopes and beliefs; the more original the better- show off what makes you unique and make your essay memorable as a result. Personal anecdotes can greatly contribute to revealing personal memories and feelings and can also be hugely entertaining. You also have the option of exploring your opinions and thoughts on more universal themes.
You can be flexible in the style of writing you use– try descriptive writing in one paragraph, anecdotes in another, argue a particular point of view in another. As long as your true personality is shining through the style can vary. People generally write better when they’re writing ‘what they know’ so the personal essay is a great choice for most LC students.
Here are some examples of titles that have come up over the past few years:
2015: Write a personal essay about your response to an ending, or endings, in your life that you consider significant.

2013: Write a personal essay about the tension you find between the everyday treadmill and the gilded promises of life.
2012: Write a personal essay on what you consider to be the marvels of today’s world.
If you’re stuck for ideas think about how the topic relates to you under some of the following headings:
  •        You in a personal way
  •        Family
  •        The Local community
  •        Ireland – national level
  •        The world – global level
  •        A humorous angle
  •        Popular culture
  •        Literature and History


Here’s a sample introduction for the 2012 title about ‘the marvel’s of today’s world’ written from my personal perspective:
When I was a child I watched ‘Star Trek’ with avid fascination. Giant spaceships that could take you anywhere in the universe in total comfort; magical handheld devices that could let you contact someone else instantly; machines to which you could say ‘Earl Grey tea, hot’ and get your drink instantly – amazing! Along with many children of the 80s, I fantasised about hoverboards and videophones and all the other futuristic gadgets TV could dream up. Would they exist when I was grown up? I fervantly hoped they would but didn’t expect it to really happen. Now I look around me in 2015 (the ‘future’ in “Back to the Future”!) and my hopeful inner child is utterly amazed at the marvels of today’s world. From the International Space Station to smart phones, from 3D printers to bluetooth headsets; so many science-fiction gadgets have become science fact and are affordable for most people to access. We have also made great strides in the fields of medicine, food production and human rights. We are the first generation that is genuinely capable of ending world hunger. Pope John Paul II said “The future starts today, not tomorrow” and, for me, 2015 is the great, glorious future that I anticipated when I was young.

The following techniques can be used to great effect in personal essays:
·      A Conversational Tone: imagine you’re chatting to someone when writing a personal essay and that you’re telling them all about yourself. (This doesn’t mean you should use slang or textspeak) Using a conversational tone creates intimacy with the reader and draws them in to your writing. You can pose questions and then answer them just as would happen in a conversation.

·      Use personal pronouns: It might seem obvious but use the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘me’ throughout the essay. Saying ‘this is how I see things’ is a more pleasant way to voice an opinion than saying ‘this is how things are’.

·      Quote: A well chosen quotation from a piece of writing/song lyric that you love can set off an introduction or conclusion to a personal essay really well. E.g ‘It always seems impossible until it’s done,’ Nelson Mandela. Start collecting them now!

·      Be honest: Be frank about your thoughts and neuroses – the personal essay is all about TMI! (That’s ‘too much information’ for any remaining pre-internet readers out there). Tell anecdotes from your own life – you may think that nothing interesting happens to you but curiosity about other people’s lives is a key part of the human psyche (hence our passion for soap operas).


·      Humour: Take the truth and exaggerate it (hyperbole) to add humour to your work. If an examiner is laughing and enjoying a piece of writing they’re less likely to be picking holes in it. Test out your laugh-inducing writing skills on your teacher over the coming months as a humorous tone can sometimes be tricky to convey on paper.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

King Lear - Characters

Lear


At the beginning of the play Lear has been King for many years.  He has had total power for a long time and has lived in a sheltered, privileged world unquestioned by anyone. He decides to retire and:
                         ‘shake all cares and businesses from our age
                        Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
                        Unburthen’d crawl toward death’.
Initially this seems like a wise move and it appears that he has already decided to divide the kingdom equally between his three daughters.  To indulge his vanity, however, he invites the daughters to proclaim their love for him publically, promising to reward the most lavish flattery with the most land:
                        ‘Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
                        That we our largest bounty may extend
                        Where nature doth with merit challenge.’

This childish ‘love test’ is evidence of Lear’s dual flaws of pride and vanity especially when it does not go as he had planned. Lear’s elder daughters Goneril and Regan indulge his need for extravagant expressions of devotion: ‘Sir I love you more than words can wield the matter’ but his youngest and favourite daughter Cordelia refuses to participate: ‘What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent.’ Cordelia detests her sisters’ fawning dishonesty: ‘Why have my sisters husbands, if they say They love you all?’ but Lear is blind to the truth and sees only Cordelia’s disobedience.  His pride wounded he lashes out in a rage and within minutes has rashly banished Cordelia and his loyal servant Kent who had the courage to question his actions: ‘See better, Lear.

Lear had planned to stay with Cordelia in retirement: ‘I loved her most and thought to set my rest/On her kind nursery’ but has to come up with an alternative plan after his temperamental outburst. He decides to stay with Goneril and Regan on alternating months and to retain 100 knights to attend him. Goneril and Regan are fully aware of Lear’s weaknesses: ‘’Tis the infirmity of his age: yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.’ They realise it will be a challenge to control his rash and volatile nature and promise to stick together to maintain their new powerful positions.

Of course conflict arises as a result of this situation, Lear is not used to taking orders from others and Goneril and Regan are eager to assert and consolidate their power. His daughters attempt to reduce his retinue of knights and Lear’s pride is again offended by the ‘filial ingratitude’ displayed by his children. He stubbornly refuses to accept their terms:
                        ‘No, rather I abjure all roofs, and choose
                        To wage against the enmity o’ the air
                        To be a comrade with the wolf and owl,
                        Necessity’s sharp pinch!’

Word Bank: Come up with synonyms (words that have the same meaning) for each of the following words:

pride
vanity
volatile
rash
stubborn





















The Storm

Thrown out in the middle of a storm Lear experiences great suffering: physical, mental and moral. He is reduced to the state of a beggar and as the storm rages around him a psychological storm rages in his mind as he ruminates on the actions of Goneril and Regan.
   Here I stand, your slave,
    A poor, infirm, weak and despised old man.
    But yet I call you servile ministers,
    That will with two pernicious daughters join
    Your high-engendered battles ‘gainst a head
    So old and white as this.’
He is filled with self-pity, still blaming others for his problems: ‘I am a man more sinned against than sinning.’

The Fool , Lear’s loyal jester, is unafraid to tell Lear the truth and acts as Lear’s conscience in the play. He mocks Lear for his foolish decision to divide his kingdom: ‘When thou clovest thy crown I’ the middle and gavest away both parts, thou borest thy ass on thy back o’er the dirt’. Previously a relationship of master and slave, as Lear and the Fool suffer together in the storm their roles change. The Fool becomes the voice of wisdom and authority as Lear displays foolishness and eventually loses his sanity.

All of the figures who accompany Lear in the storm: Kent disguised as Caius, Edgar disguised as Poor Tom and the Fool, help Lear to grow in self-awareness and compassion for others: ‘Poor Fool and knave, I have one part in my heart/ That’s sorry yet for thee.’ He begins to see the sufferings of others and realise that as he was King for so long he bears responsibility: ‘O I have ta’en too little care of this!’

The next time we see Lear in Act 4 Sc 6 he appears mad, dressed in wild flowers and talking in chaotic riddles. He also, however, has spasmodic flashes of insight and wisdom about the world around him: ‘When we are born, we cry that we are come To this great stage of fools.
The ‘reason in madness’ paradox that underlies the play is seen most clearly at this point.

Reunited with Cordelia he is utterly humbled and, despite being imprisoned, is content so long as he is in her company: ‘Come, let’s away to prison;/ We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage.’ He has learned the value of real love and is a better, wiser man for his sufferings. His punishment is unfortunately not over and the death of Cordelia takes his last bit of strength from him and he dies of a broken heart: ‘No, no, no life! Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life And thou no breath at all?’ It is this last cruelty of fate that perhaps does show a man ‘more sinned against than sinning.


Gloucester


Gloucester’s story parallels Lear’s throughout the play. The Earl of Gloucester was also a powerful but flawed man and he also endures the cruelties of an ‘ungrateful’ child, Edmund. The opening scene of the play shows Kent and Gloucester discussing the illegitimate Edmund. Gloucester is dismissive about the ‘sport’ he had during Edmund’s conception and immediately appears as a man of questionable morality utterly blind to his own fault.

When Edmund initiates a plot against his legitimate step-brother Edgar, Gloucester acts rashly, failing to assess the situation and ascertain the truth: ‘Abhorred villian! Unnatural, detested, brutish villain!’ Like Lear he gives his child no opportunity to defend himself and is gullible to the lies of those who want his power. Gloucester has a superstitious nature and reads pessimistically into recent eclipses (a possible reference to eclipses of the sun and the moon in 1605): ‘These late eclipses of the sun and moon portend no good to us’. In a way he represents medieval attitudes of fatalism (believing all actions and events are subject to fate) which are contrasted with Edmund’s more modern belief that people control their own destiny.

As the play progresses and Goneril and Regan’s true natures become apparent, Gloucester acts to defend Lear and begins to display noble qualities. He questions them when Kent is put in the stocks and later shows great moral courage in going out in the storm to help Lear: ‘If I die for it, as no less is threatened me, the king my old master must be relieved.’

He continues however to misplace his trust in Edmund and when he returns from helping Lear he is accused of treason and brutally assaulted. Goneril demands that they ‘Pluck out his eyes!’ and Cornwall obliges in the most graphically violent scene in the play: ‘Out vile jelly!

Regan then reveals to him that it was Edmund who betrayed him and thus at the moment of his physical blinding he finally begins to see the truth.  He instantly repents his treatment of Edgar: ‘Kind gods forgive me that, and prosper him!

His story continues to parallel Lear’s as he is banished onto the heath and like Lear he is aided by someone loyal to him: Edgar who, like Kent, keeps his identity secret. Gloucester falls into a deep depression at the thought of his treatment of Edgar and asks ‘Poor Tom’ to lead him to Dover where he can end his life: ‘From that place I shall no leading need.’

In the course of their journey Gloucester articulates some profound wisdom on the nature of human society: ‘Distribution shall undo excess/And each man have enough’. Edgar tricks him into thinking he has fallen off a cliff but miraculously survived in an effort to restore his desire to live: ‘The clearest gods, who make them honours Of men’s impossibilities, have preserved thee.’ He succeeds temporarily and when Edgar finally reveals his identity Gloucester is comforted to know he has been forgiven. The shock of all that has happened is too great for him and he dies seemingly of a broken heart: ‘But his flawed heart, Alack too weak the conflict to support, ‘Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief, Burst smilingly.’



Goneril


  •         Eldest of Lear’s daughters and married to the Duke of Albany
  •         Unafraid to exert her power and manipulate situations to her ends.
  •        Clever, cunning and ruthless.
  •        Opportunistic: ‘I would breed from hence occasions.’
  •        In the love test she declares her love in lavish terms ‘I love thee more than word can wield the matter.’
  •        Perceptive of Lear’s rash and unpredictable behaviour – recognises the threat to her rule.
  •        Cold and cynically pragmatic: ‘We must do something and i’ the heat.
  •        Lays down the law with Lear and his ‘riotous knights’ - is determined to dominate and control her father.
  •         Lear calls her ‘marble-hearted fiend’ and ‘a detested kite.’ (bird of prey)
  • Views her husband as weak ‘milky gentleness’ and sees nothing wrong in committing adultery with Edmund.
  •  Her cruelty becomes fully visible when Lear is forced out into the storm: ‘must needs taste his folly.’
  •  Suggests the blinding of Gloucester and is unsympathetic to his sufferings.
  • Later in the play her lust for Edmund begins to override other considerations.
  •  Albany eventually recognises the depths of her malignity: ‘Humanity must perforce prey on itself/ Like monsters of the deep.’
  •       Becomes consumed with passion for power and for Edmund. – is terrified Regan will steam him after Cornwall’s death. She’d prefer to ‘lose the battle than that sister Should loosen him and me.’
  •       Poisons Regan out of jealousy and when she realises Edmund will not be King she kills herself.
  •      Audience has little sympathy for her at the ending of the play.


Regan

·      Second daughter of Lear
·      Similar to Goneril in mentality and disposition – governed by self-interest.
·      Displays a vindictive quality – extends Kent’s sentence ‘Till night, my Lord and all night too.
·      Lear calls her ‘unnatural hag.
·      Declares that Gloucester should be hanged and mocks him before Cornwall gouges out an eye – she demands the other also ‘One side will mock another Th’other too!’
·      Taunts Gloucester with Edmund’s betrayal.
·      When a servant attacks Cornwall she takes a sword and kills him,
·      Throws Gloucester out and suggests he should ‘smell his way to Dover.
·      Shows no grief over death of her husband, lusts after Edmund.
·      Jealous of Goneril- Edmund says : ‘each jealous of the other as the stung are of the adder.
·      Poisoned by Goneril – audience feel little sympathy.


Cordelia
·      Name means ‘heart’ or possibly ‘heart of a lion’ (coeur de lion) à symbol of true love.
·      Lear’s youngest daughter – origin texts have her having a different mother to Goneril and Regan.
·      Frustrated my her sister’s lies she refuse to participate in the ‘love test’: ‘What shall Cordelia speak? Love and be silent.’
·      Sincere and honest – her husband will have half her love: ‘Why have my sister’s husbands, if they say They love you all?
·      Lear’s favourite and so he reacts to, as he perceives it, rude behaviour with fury: ‘They truth then by thou dower.’ He refuses to give her a dowry and banishes her.
·      Fortunately France recognises her virtues and marries her anyway.
·      She’s wise: ‘Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides.’
·      The Fool loved her: ‘The Fool hath much pined away.’ Characters seem to be linked.
·      She’s absent from the play after Act 1 Sc 1 until Act 4 Sc 3 where we hear about her reaction to the news of Lear’s sufferings – she wept: ‘holy water from her heavenly eyes.’
·      Compassionate to Lear’s insanity and forgiving: ‘No blown ambition doth our arms incite/ But love, dear love and our aged father’s right.’
·      Selfless character, loving and merciful. Lear says: ‘Thou art a soul in bliss but I am bound upon a wheel of fire.’
·      Imagery of redemption and Christianity are associated with her.
·      In prison Cordelia and Lear are content in each other’s company.
                                    We are not the first
                                    Who with best meaning have incurred the worst
                                    For thee oppressed King, am I cast down;                
                                    Myself could else outfrown false Fortune’s frown.’
·      Edmund bribes a guard to kill Cordelia and make it look like suicide.
·      Is Cordelia’s death gratuitious? (It is absent from other versions)
·      Lear subsequently dies of a broken heart.




Edmund

·      Illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester.
·      Bitter about his lowly ‘base’ position in society.
·      Hates his brother Edgar for being legitimate and therefore in line to inherit his father’s land and title
·      Code of values is Pagan: ‘Thou Nature are my Goddess’
·      Amoral, fueled by self-interest
·      Despises goodness: ‘foolish honesty’.
·      Views his father as weak and superstitious: ‘an admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star.
·      Machiavellian figure – clever and ruthless: ‘Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit.’
·      Sociopath? Doesn’t appear to have a conscience for most of the play.
·      Handsome and charming – both Goneril and Regan are attracted to him. He has affairs with both but does not truly love them – using them as pawns: ‘Let her who would be rid of him devise His speedy taking off.
·      Treatment of his father parallels Goneril and Regans treatment of Lear: ‘The younger rise when the old doth fall.’
·      Allies with Cornwall to get his father’s title but his ambition rises to the throne of England.
·      No sympathy when Goneril and Regan die: ‘Yet Edmund was belov’d’
·      Bribes a guard to kill Cordelia and make it look like suicide.
·      When fatally wounded by Edgar he undergoes a change of heart and says he will do some good but it comes to late to save Cordelia.


Edgar


·      Loyal, honest and selfless (mirrors character of Cordelia)
·      Also naïve and gullible – trusts Edmund -  a brother noble..on whose foolish honesty my practices ride easy.’ (Edmund)
·      As a result of Edmund’s plotting and his banishment he chooses to disguise himself as ‘Poor Tom’, a Bedlam beggar.
·      Pretends to be mad which feeds into the theme of ‘reason in madness’
·      Shakespeare uses him as a choric commentator and social satirist of injustices at the time. ‘When we our betters see bearing our woes, 
We scarcely think our miseries our foes....
·      He becomes a catalyst for Lear’s madness – inspires Lear to strip away the vestiges of civilisation – to see man as an animal
·      Shows great sympathy for his blinded father and helps him: ‘The worst is not 
So long as we can say 'This is the worst.’
·      Reveals Edmund’s adultery to Albany and bravely challenges Edmund to a duel and kills him.


The Fool


·      Traditionally a court jester or entertainer for the King – can get away with saying more than most in guise of humour.
·      Lear’s Fool represents Truth/Honesty/Wisdom à Lear’s conscience.
·      Relates to theme of ‘reason in madness’
·      He dramatises the nature of folly but also the nature of wisdom.
·      Calls a Lear a fool ‘sweet and bitter fool’, ‘the one in motley here/The other found out there.’ Points out Lear’s mistake: ‘Thou has little wit in thy bald crown when thou gavest thy golden one away.’
·       For a long time Lear refuses to register what is being said: ‘Dost thou call me fool boy?’
·      Sometimes speaks obscurely mirroring Lear’s mad ramblings: Lear: “Who is it can tell me who I am?’ Fool ‘Lear’s shadow.’
·      Seems reluctant to tell these uncomfortable truths: ‘Prithee nuncle, keep a school master that can teach thy fool to lie. I would fain learn to lie.’
·      Offers his coxcomb to Kent as a sign of his foolishness but does not follow his own advice staying loyal to Lear: ‘I will tarry, the fool will stay And let the wise man fly Thy knave turns fool that runs away The fool, no knave perdy.’

·      Reminds us of Cordelia – both were Lear’s favourites – he expects indulgence from them but instead gets brutal honesty.