Poets and their visions 32: Shakespeare 2 – Questions of identity

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Having looked at the heroines of two of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, I thought of considering another couple from the great tragedies. I refer here to what is commonly seen as his most remarkable works, the five tragedies that between them span the different ages of man.

The first of these is Romeo and Juliet, which deals with youth. The last, King Lear, is about old age and. if Lear is not quite in the seventh stage that Shakespeare describes in As You Like It, still we are clearly looking at a man nearing the end of his tether. In between we have Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello, and I will look today at the heroines of the first and last of these.

Ophelia and Desdemona are also innocent victims, which I think serves to make clear that Bloom missed the point when he thought Juliet’s lack of responsibility for what happened to her made the play ‘a tragedy of circumstance’, and in effect therefore a contradiction of the Aristotelian view of tragedy. Aristotle was talking about the tragic hero, and the problem with tragic heroes is that their flaws lead to suffering for others as well as themselves. The most obvious victims of the destruction such heroes cause are their loved ones, and in particular lovers and wives, as we see with Juliet and Ophelia and Desdemona (and I suppose daughters as in Lear are an extension of this for the old and already bereaved).

I would however posit a difference between the two ladies in the tragedies of youth and age, and those I will look at today. Though the latter two are innocent, there is a sense in which they fuel the suspicions of their loved ones, which contributes to the psychological neuroses that are the springs of tragedy in either case.

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Rajiva Wijesinha’s The Past Is Another Country – Down memory lane with Anne Ranasinghe

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The Past is Another Country is a series of interviews with individuals distinguished for their contributions to culture and to society. In addition to discussing their individual contributions, the programmes explore the context in which each of them functioned. The interviews, by Rajiva Wijesinha, cover a range of developments in post-independence Sri Lanka, and present a panoramic view of social change in the latter half of the 20th century.

Anne Ranasinghe is a German of Jewish origin, whose entire family was killed by the Nazi regime. She escaped by being sent on her own to England as a child. Having then married Prof D A Ranasinghe, she brought up a family in Sri Lanka, where she has lived for over 60 years. A distinguished poet, she has also been an inspiration to young writers through her stewardship for many years of the English Writers Cooperative.

Poets and their visions 31: Shakespeare 1 – Love’s Innocence

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I have long been hesitant in writing about Shakespeare, because it seems almost inconceivable that something new could be said. However, in writing a series about the visions of English poets, to leave Shakespeare out would obviously leave an enormous gap.

In trying to think of a new angle, or at least to approach Shakespeare in a way that would provide some fresh ideas, I was inspired by something Harold Bloom said in Genius, his provocative and illuminating account of inspired writers. Naturally he has Shakespeare at the top of the list, and I suspect no one would disagree – though I cannot but recall here a virtuoso performance by the American critic George Steiner, called ‘A Reading Against Shakespeare’, which he delivered with aplomb at the annual literature seminar that the British Council used to run in Cambridge for many years.

His thesis, or rather one of the most important criticisms he made amongst many, was that there was really no order in the way Shakespeare constructed his world. I still remember the example he used to make this point, his account of the death of Cordelia in King Lear, which he said occurred simply because the message to save her went too late. He contrasted this with the failure to save Antigone in Sophocles’ play of that name, which he noted occurred because Creon the errant protagonist, had to reverse the wrongs he did in order, rather than rescuing Antigone first.

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Personal Perspectives – Richard’s Mother

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Over a decade ago I wrote the following in a series that appeared in over a couple of years in the Island Newspaper. I had forgotten it until it was sent me by those seeking to revive the memory of Manorani Saravanamuttu, Richard de Zoysa’s mother. At a time when ‘Ceylon Today’ is reproducing ‘The Terrorist Trilogy’ which was written with Richard and about him, I thought it fitting to republish this piece

Chanted loudly, chanted lowly
Till her blood was frozen slowly

(Tennyson)

unnamedI was out of the country when Manorani died, just as I had been when her son Richard de Zoysa was abducted and killed, 11 years previously. And it was before I came back that Victor Ivan published in the ‘Ravaya’ an article that led to a very forceful critique of Richard in the ‘Island’. Those raise issues that I suspect will have to be addressed shortly. However, for the moment it is time, as Evelyn Waugh put it about another woman of extraordinary beauty, to speak of Manorani.
The last time I saw her was in the intensive care unit in January, which was a terrible experience. She was unconscious, and under heavy medication. Yet there had also been reason for regret on previous occasions I saw her, for her memory had faded. On the last of those, her 71st birthday I think it was, one tried to take comfort in the fact that she was no longer tormented by thoughts of Richard and his death. But her contentment was that of a child, so that, that too was upsetting, for the two qualities one remembered most strongly in her were both lacking – her tremendous dignity and her passion. These are qualities one does not often associate, but Manorani had them both in abundance.

I had got to know her well, as all Richard’s friends did, for their lives were shared in a very deep sense. This was inevitable in that, after she and her husband parted, she embarked on a new life and career in Africa, but gave them up to come back to Richard. He in turn recognized what she had given up for him and felt equally committed. They both, only half jokingly, felt they had been together in previous lives – I still have a copy of a poem he sent her shortly before his death, a poem about commitment in various incarnations. His comment was that they were not the only two in a time warp.

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The colours will still revolve in the sky

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Speech of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha

At the launch of The Terrorist’s Daughter

By Thisuri Wanniarachchi

At the Taj Samudra Hotel, August 14th 2014

The Terrorist's daughter

It is a pleasure to speak at the launch of Thisuri Wanniarachchi’s second novel, The Terrorist’s Daughter. But I must confess that I wondered initially what had prompted a young lady I did not know to ask me to do this. Though I spent many years promoting Sri Lankan writing in English, at a time when the academic establishments of the day tended to look down on this, that was a very long time ago.

Yet having read through the novel, I began to understand. One of my criticisms of the literary establishment at the time was its celebration of what I termed the ‘village well’ syndrome. So Punyakante Wijenaike’s brilliant and very sophisticated novel Giraya was torn to pieces, but there was adulation by a Colombo academic of the wife in This Waiting Earth, as representing the real village woman. The sharp social criticism of a village elite in the later novel was not highlighted, nor was James Goonewardene’s The Awakening of Dr Kirthi, still perhaps the best analysis of what had destroyed the administration of this country.

I have long felt that works dealing with these higher levels of society are also important, because after  this is where decisions that affect larger groups of humanity are made. My own writings, uniquely at the time, dealt with the very highest echelons of power, in that my first novel was based on the ethnic violence of 1983 and I indicated there that that violence had received the blessings of the highest level of decision making. So the entire Terrorist Trilogy dealt direct as it were with the events of 1983 and 1987 and 1989-90. My next novel, Servants, was in a different vein, but its subject matter was similar, since it too, if more obliquely, addressed social and political developments during that long drawn out period of crisis.

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Poets and their visions 30 – W H Auden

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AudenVanVechten1939The last, chronologically speaking, of the poets I shall discuss – and the only one I actually met – is W H Auden. His was the generation that grew up just after the First World War, so they were without the intensity of subject matter that Wilfred Owen and his contemporaries displayed. But they had to deal with a new world order, and their poetry is replete with efforts to develop a system of values to help face the changing political and social circumstances.

In the end this involved, in the case of Auden and one of the contemporaries closely associated with him, the novelist Christopher Isherwood, a rejection of the world they grew up in, and both escaped to America during the Second World War. The third of the group, Stephen Spender, stayed on in England, though as a conscientious objector.

Auden’s attitude to the different world that was emerging can be seen in one of his more light-hearted poems, the letter to Lord Byron that he wrote from Iceland. The objects of his satire and the preposterous juxtapositions he engages in are multifarious: Carnegie one of the first rags to riches millionaires who devoted the latter part of his life to philanthropy; the highly conservative Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, listening to jazz; Oswald Mosley, who led the Black Shirts, the British political grouping that supported Hitler (the Teutonic Fuhrer-Prinzip), persuading Lord Byron to lead his storm troopers; the Pope joining the Moral Rearmament group; and what he thinks incredible, Lord Nuffield who built up the Morris motor business being poor, or anyone thinking British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to be honest. Continue reading

Poets and their visions 29 – John Betjeman

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Sir_John_Betjeman_(1906-1984)Almost the last poet of the 20th century whom I shall discuss may seem a most unusual choice. He certainly would not qualify as a genius, but he was not only a most entertaining writer, he also had a delightful sense of nostalgia. This I think serves to make his vision of the process of age and change well worth recording.

His subject matter was essentially England, and he was easily the most popular Poet Laureate in that country since Tennyson. His evocation of long lost country pastimes, if not quite as preposterous as that of P G Wodehouse, is unreal but compelling. There is no way, having read of her, that one can forget Joan Hunter Dunn of A Subaltern’s Love Song

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Poets and their visions 28 – D H Lawrence

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Lawrence is much better known as a novelist, but his poetry is also certainly worth reading. Though I do not think he deserves the adulation that the Leavis school of criticism, so dominant for so long in Sri Lanka, bestowed on him in the middle of the last century, the neglect from which he suffers, in the world if not here where old habits die hard, is also unfair.

His fame rested for a long time on the sexual aspect of his work, both the openness which sometimes came close to pornography and so appealed much to the young, and also his passionate belief in sexual relations as providing spiritual satisfaction in a bleak and restrictive world. Bloom, though he believes Lawrence needs to be read more, has a rather upsetting take on the matter, since he categorically claims that salvation for Lawrence lay in heterosexual buggery, which seems to me an extreme position.

I would hesitate to challenge so eminent a critic, but this seems to me like those teachers in Sri Lanka who cannot teach one of Lawrence’s best poems, Snake, without stressing phallic symbolism. I am sure that element is in the poem, but it also conveys a more general message too, about the need to accept the world as it is, instead of fighting against natural phenomena.

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Poets and their visions 27 – Wilfred Owen

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Wilfred_Owen_plate_from_Poems_(1920)The First World War inspired a lot of writing in England, understandably so, for it was the first war in which the elite was actively involved. Conscription, and also the patriotic fervor that was whipped up in the first war to be fought as much by the media as the military, led to a number of literary figures being actively involved.

English fiction however is not as memorable as that of other countries, with the writer of war stories who has lasted longest being John Buchan with his Boy’s Own Adventure type of tale. The poetry however was remarkable, and a range of writers taken together express the angst of a generation led to what in retrospect seems unnecessary slaughter.

I will look in this series however at only a single writer, who was far and away the best. Though many such as Rupert Brooke and Raymond Asquith (son of the Prime Minister, killed in battle, a phenomenon that we have not seen repeated since in wars we know of) and Julian Grenfell wrote individual poems that are moving and memorable, it is only Wilfred Owen who presented a wider perspective as to the whole ghastly business.

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