49 John Dryden – the first of the Augustan poets


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From the Metaphysicals we move on to the Augustans, so named because their approach to literature was seen as similar to that of writers at the time Augustus Caesar established the Roman Empire. His great sidekick Maecenas – or rather, one of his great sidekicks, the other being the military man Agrippa – was in charge of propaganda, and ran a stable of poets who celebrated the new imperial dispensation. These included the former Republican Horace, but by far the most famous of them was Vergil, whose Aeneid makes its eponymous hero very similar to Augustus. Later generations found Aeneas dull rather than heroic, in contrast to the Achilles of the great Greek epic, the Iliad, but Vergil I suppose was one of those who found eminently satisfying the peace Augustus brought after 100 years of turmoil in Rome. So pius Aeneas, as he termed him, was to be celebrated instead of more active figures.

John Dryden, the first of the Augustan poets, in fact translated the Aenied, which was considered one of his most significant achievements, though now that translation seems stodgy. He is remembered more now for his political satires, which included devastating criticisms of leading politicians of the day. His portrait of the Earl of Shaftesbury, likened to Achitopel of Bibilican fame, is perhaps the best. I will highlight passages that convey sharp criticism in a brilliantly economic use of rhymed couplets  –

    Of these the false Achitophel was first:

A name to all succeeding ages curst.

For close designs, and crooked counsels fit;

Sagacious, bold and turbulent of wit:

Restless, unfixt in principles and place;

In pow’r unpleas’d, impatient of disgrace.

A fiery soul, which working out its way,

Fretted the pigmy-body to decay:

And o’er inform’d the tenement of clay.

A daring pilot in extremity;

Pleas’d with the danger, when the waves went high

He sought the storms; but for a calm unfit,

Would steer too nigh the sands, to boast his wit.

Great wits are sure to madness near alli’d;

And thin partitions do their bounds divide:

Else, why should he, with wealth and honour blest,

Refuse his age the needful hours of rest?

Punish a body which he could not please;

Bankrupt of life, yet prodigal of ease?

And all to leave, what with his toil he won

To that unfeather’d, two-legg’d thing, a son:

Got, while his soul did huddled notions try;

And born a shapeless lump, like anarchy.

In friendship false, implacable in hate:

Resolv’d to ruin or to rule the state.

To compass this, the triple bond he broke;

The pillars of the public safety shook:

And fitted Israel for a foreign yoke.

Then, seiz’d with fear, yet still affecting fame,

Usurp’d a patriot’s all-atoning name.

So easy still it proves in factious times,

With public zeal to cancel private crimes:

How safe is treason, and how sacred ill,

Where none can sin against the people’s will:

Where crowds can wink; and no offence be known,

Since in another’s guilt they find their own.

The man’s recklessness is succinctly placed before us, and also the stratagem, common in politicians, of asserting patriotism that will cover a number of sins. Continue reading

Acts of Faith – Chapter 6; Pt 1 – Taken at the flood


acts-of-faithWe will begin our narrative of this momentous day in Singapore, not only because the sun rises earlier there than in Colombo, but also because it is time we introduced some more characters. It is not that they are of any very great importance, but they do have a part of some consequence to play at this particular point in the story. In any case, we have not yet met any politicians opposed to the government, and this is a situation that must be remedied if we are to understand the cry for separatism that is held to have provoked the riots with which we began.

There were altogether seven members of parliament belonging to the Tamil party that had as its rallying ground the demand for a separate state for the Tamils. They were no longer members of parliament by the time they arrived in Singapore, for they had refused to take the oath that Tom had prescribed for members of parliament and arrack renters and insurance brokers and other such practitioners of occupations that should have been the sacred preserve of the Sinhalese. Nevertheless, having fled to India together at the very beginning of the riots, and having stated forcefully there the case for their oppressed brethren in Ceylon, there was no question but that they were, in international eyes at any rate, the most respected members of their community, and those best entitled to put its case before CARP.

Since there were seven of them, they were known as the Seven Dwarfs, both collectively and individually. Chief amongst them, on ground of seniority at any rate, were Sneezy and Sleepy. They were thus called because they both usually looked confused and not altogether there, but it was well known that in one case at least, though no one was ever quite sure which one it was, this phlegmatic exterior masked a mind as sharp as a razor. Then there was Bashful, who hailed from what was considered an inferior caste, although he came from the North, and Dopey who came from the East, although his caste was quite respectable; neither of these was considered of any importance whatsoever, not even by themselves. Grumpy on the other hand had thought himself important from the moment he got into parliament, and by dint of his conviction on this issue had got the majority of the party to come round to this view. He was young and energetic and was considered a strong proponent of violence, whether provoked or not, as a result of which his house had been burned down on several occasions by the security forces. This had made him even more grumpy than before, and he was liable to burst into torrents of incoherent expletives at the drop of a hat, or of any thing, which he promptly assumed was a hand grenade. Continue reading

48 John Milton – arguably the greatest of English poets


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Despite what seems to a modern audience the old fashioned nature of both his subject matter and his language, Milton is still arguably the greatest of English poets. My own predilection is for Tennyson but, as he himself put it, he never found a subject worthy of his immense poetic talents. Milton on the contrary had Paradise Lost.

It is on that work that his fame essentially rests, though I suspect there are few now apart from scholars of English Literature who have read it through. And even these are less common, because many universities now no longer insist on knowledge of a canon of great works. Certainly it would take a great deal of enthusiasm to read through Paradise Lost for pleasure. I suspect I would not do so myself now, so I am lucky that in my distant schoolboy days I was determined to get through it.

This turned out to be a pleasure. The sonorous lines roll on like a wave, starting from the resounding introduction

Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of EDEN, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse…..

……………………………………………I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ AONIAN Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad’st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert th’ Eternal Providence,
And justifie the wayes of God to men.

There are splendid set pieces, such as the description of Abdiel who did not give in to the temptations of Satan

So spake the Seraph Abdiel, faithful found
Among the faithless, faithful only he Continue reading

Acts of Faith – Chapter 5; Pt 3 – Confidential


acts-of-faithLast but not least in the course of this chapter and this evening, both of which are important primarily as forerunners of the exciting events that will follow fast upon them, we come to Tom. We have seen little of him recently which is not surprising for he has had little to do. This has now begun to irk him. After the stunning successes of his principal ministers on television, with their more and more histrionic accounts of what really happened during the riots, he feels himself superseded, the more so because both the international press and national gossip have not refrained from pointing out the vast discrepancies and disparities between his performance and theirs. Furthermore when he permitted John, partly as a response to all this in an attempt to divert interest to more immediate matters, to unveil a new economic package, he has been overwhelmed by the intensity of the response, which has even begun to take on a dangerous political tone. He realises now that the tremendous respect he inspired for so long, when no one dared to criticize anything he did or said, sprang only from his air of authority; now that that has been once dissipated, blame and resentment and querying and intrigue have begun to fall upon him like a miasma.

Most alarming of all is the fact that Gerry too has taken to behaving extraordinarily, and exercising her in any case erratic independent initiative in areas about which she understands nothing, and in which she could do incalculable damage. It is not that she has not behaved extraordinarily before. This she had always done, in the days before he became President, whenever his party had been voted out of power. It was partly to prevent recurrences of her peculiarities that he had, after finally achieving power himself, turned himself into a President, and an Executive one at that, and one who would prove perpetual to boot. It is, he sighs to himself resignedly, a proof of the vanity of human wishes that, even with all these arrangements, Gerry has begun to behave peculiarly once more. Man disposes and God disposes, he reflects, reverting as he tends to do at times of crisis to the faith of his less distant forefathers; clearly she is once again convinced that he is vulnerable, which is why she slips far more often than she used to do into the secret room where she takes a drop of brandy now and then whenever she feels unusually nervous.

That alone would not have mattered. What is particularly upsetting now is that she has begun to meddle in politics too, thus making it clear for the first time that she does not have enough faith in him to see the crisis through to a successful conclusion. That she sees Dick in secret is bad enough; but when it has to do with politics, when his own younger brother Dick whom he has always had to protect now appears at the head of political interest groups which he has to take seriously, when everyone believes that the force behind these organizations is his own wife, then Tom feels fundamentally threatened, not only in his role as President, but also in his very being as a Man. For once Tom feels that the fact that he is a Perpetual Executive is of less consequence than that he allowed himself, at his wife’s behest, to be sterilized. It profits a man nothing, he ponders bitterly, to gain even the whole world if he has lost that which can never be regained; and it is even worse when it looks as though he might lose the whole world too, or at least when it seems as though his nearest and dearest does not think him capable of retaining it. With his many years of experience in politics, Tom knows that everything is a question of confidence. If it is believed that even one’s own wife has no faith in one, for whatever reason, then one might as well be prepared to give up. Continue reading

47 Andrew Marvell – not a conventional Metaphysical poet


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Given the general interest in the Metaphysical poets. I thought I should include one other, as a pendant as it were to John Donne. However the poet I have chosen is best known for just a single poem, and that cannot be described as in the genre of metaphysical verse. But I make no apologies for including it and him, because it seems to me one of the most remarkable poems in the English language.

I am referring to To His Coy Mistress, which is very simply about the poet trying to persuade his girlfriend to have sex with him. This has been a perennial problem for young men through the ages, though in recent years the decline of religious restrictions, and the prevalence of condoms, has reduced it to a great extent in many parts of the world, certainly those where Marvell is likely to be read. This development is a healthy one, and I am only sorry it came to fruition as it were after my own adolescence. But at the same time I think it has contributed to a decline in romance, and what might be termed the romantic imagination, for love no longer needs to be sublimated as it once was.

Marvell was not interested in sublimation. But his very practical plea was couched with such elegance, and with connotations of so much beyond it, that it seems to stand for much more than simple coupling. I will begin by citing the whole poem, before drawing attention to some of its more remarkable features –
HAD we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, Lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song: then worms shall try
That long preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave ‘s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace. Continue reading

Acts of Faith – Chapter 5; Pt 2 – Confidential


acts-of-faithMADAM and MASH and Dick and Luke all figured in another conversation we ought to record, one between Matthew and the Black Shadow which took place on the evening of that same day. What led up to these subjects is, however, of equal interest, so we shall first glance at Radha and Krishna whose own conversation at this very time reflects the more significant one taking place elsewhere. We shall not record in detail the conversation of Radha and Krishna, for they are not of any great importance to our story, at the present time at any rate. Suffice it to say that they are both worried, content though they otherwise are with their situation in the household of Indra and Diana, by what they consider to be the excessive attention paid to them by both Matthew and the Black Shadow. Matthew comes in at least every other day and, when he does so, he shoots at both of them a piercing glance. The Black Shadow slips in even more often, ostensibly to see how the household is or to bring them things that are not readily available, but in reality Radha feels primarily to fix upon her his baleful stare. When Matthew spends any length of time with his sister and his brother- in-law, it seems to Radha that the Black Shadow lies in wait for her in the nether regions of the house, almost as though he were waiting to pounce.

The pair might have felt even more reason to be worried, had they known that they too were one of the subjects of the conversation taking place at this time between Matthew and the Shadow. What was actually said, on the other hand, may not have caused them too much concern. It is a conversation not particularly easy to interpret, even for those who have known each other for as long as Matthew and the Black Shadow have. It proceeds obliquely, which might, to the detached observer, seem peculiarly congruent with the circumstances under which it takes place.

‘There is something about that girl’s face that reminds me of yours,’ Matthew muses. He is lying on his stomach on the round bed made of wooden planks that has been specially designed for him. He uses no mattress. Once, long ago, he had had some trouble with his spine; in any case, he prefers as hard a surface as possible.

The Black Shadow is rubbing down his back with a very special ointment that has been distilled by moonlight in an ancient monastery. He knows immediately whom Matthew means, although no name has been mentioned. ‘I think so too,’ he replies. His tone is always quiet and respectful on these occasions, and his hands go on moving ceaselessly. Continue reading

46 John Donne – best known of the Metaphysical poets


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After the splendor of the Elizabethan dramatists, we return now to pure poetry. And the first of the poets I will examine in these last few essays is still much read and admired, despite not being always easy to understand.

John Donne is the best known of the Metaphysical poets, who used unusual images to illustrate powerful emotions. These included, most impressively, love and religious fervor. In Donne’s case it is the love poems that are most popular, but – being the Dean of St. Paul’s – he was also able to convey a strong sense of spirituality, when he put his mind to it.

The best known perhaps of his love poems is The Good Morrow, with its unusual Renaisssance imagery. The Age of Exploration is evoked by the mention of sea-discoverers, but this is subordinated to the main idea of the sufficiency of love, satisfied with its own one world. Again, in the 5th line of the third verse, Donne uses a concept from alchemy, a less than scientific version of chemistry, to affirm the importance of a love that is equal on either side. Continue reading

Acts of Faith – Chapter 5; Pt 1 – Confidential


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acts-of-faithOn the day Lily returned to the country she rang up Paul and Indra and they arranged a meeting for the next day. Before it could take place, on the very evening of her return, she was visited by Mark. Lily at first had not wanted to receive him, but in the end she felt that old acquaintance demanded politeness. Besides, she was curious to find out exactly what sort of attitude the government would adopt.

In that respect, Mark proved more than satisfactory. Without quite saying so, he managed to convey the impression that his visit was in effect one of condolence on behalf of the government. This did not move Lily to forgive Tom, but it did make her realise that, in crushing the forces of anarchy within the government, she should not forget that her strongest allies might well prove to be members of the government too. Mark for one seemed absolutely shattered by what had occurred, and he made it clear how much he disapproved of those such as Luke who had taken the opportunity to advance grandiose plans for reconstruction which were primarily intended to enhance their own standing. There was such haste about it all, he remarked, that one might almost have thought the violence could not have come at a better time as far as those who still needed to make a name for themselves within the government were concerned.

It was thus with a very different perspective that Lily went to her meeting the next day. To her surprise, she found that Paul was quite convinced that it was Matthew who was at the bottom of everything, while Indra seemed to think that it was Mark who had to be most carefully guarded against, for he appeared to be the one most anxious to capitalize on the mayhem. After much discussion, they managed to agree on one thing only, and that was that though he was probably the least guilty John was the most vulnerable member of the cabinet. It was clear that his recent measures had upset all the traditional supporters of his former free and easy ways, whilst his own community was dubious about his association with the government, and leading members of all other communities were dubious because he was a Tamil. He had in short, forfeited the confidence of the entire nation.

Paul and Indra told Lily that, as a very senior member of his community, she had an obligation to point out to John the error of his ways and persuade him to resign. She objected. ‘I couldn’t possibly speak to him,’ she said. ‘I don’t even know who his father was. In Jaffna, he would not have been allowed to sit down in my father’s house.’

‘If you invited him to see you and kept him on your verandah, it might make his position clear to him,’ said Paul thoughtfully.

‘I’ve got a better idea. Go and see his daughter and his son-in-law—you needn’t worry about him, his family is nearly as established as yours,’ Indra added hastily, ‘and point out to him that he’ll lose caste if his father-in-law doesn’t mend his ways. That’s the best way of getting through to John. He only lives so that his daughters can marry well. And there’s one engaged—you might go to her fiancé too—and two who are still very young. John couldn’t resist that sort of attack.’

It was an idea that appealed to Lily, recalling as she did from her own history how tremendous were the pressures the higher echelons of the Tamil community could bring to bear with regard to questions of marriage. She went back home and promptly began ringing up friends, so as to increase the bulk of the pressure to be applied. However, the very first person she rang up told her that she was too late. John’s son-in-law had become a Muslim, and had divorced his wife in accordance with Muslim law and sent her home. Continue reading

Sri Lankan Tamil Poetry: An Anthology – by S. Pathmanathan


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C(Excerpts of Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha’s introduction to “Sri Lankan Tamil Poetry: An Anthology’ by S. Pathmanathan, which was published in Jaffna recently.)

I am pleased, and honoured, to contribute an introduction to this collection of poetry produced by So Pathmanathan. I got to know him well when he helped with the production of Mirrored Images, the collection of English and Sinhala and Tamil poetry that the National Book Trust of India published a couple of years back. He then participated actively in the various launches of the book, in Colombo and Jaffna and Matara in 2013. Then, in 2014, he toured a number of other universities too, together with English and Sinhala language poets, to introduce the book and discuss its contents from a shared pluraristic perspective.

In the case of this volume too I use the work produced because, while the bulk of the book consists of translations which he has produced of the work of others, his own poetry is also included. The work as a whole showcases Tamil poetry of the last several years, and does this in English, which makes it accessible to more readers in the country.

This is an eminently worthy task, because for far too long people in other parts of the country had no knowledge, let alone understanding, of what people whose first language was Tamil were going through. I do not say Tamil people, for this volume contains many poems by Muslims, which suggest both shared experiences and some instructive differences.

The volume covers a wide range of experience, described in vivid language and moving imagery. Though obviously the skill with which the poems are presented is that of the translator, he has also managed to indicate some flavor of the individual styles of the various writers he has included. Obviously, given the dominant experiences of the last couple of decades, there is much emotion arising from violence and deprivation, but there are softer emotions too, and also some examples of whimsicality and romance.

The most unusual of the poems new to me was Solaikili’s ‘THE MAD BUFFALO’ with a conclusion that brings us back to earth, reminding us of what could be seen as the rewards of absurdity –


Drinking the muddy water
it declared:
“I drink boiled filtered water”
“Entry into the fields
is forbidden!”
It decreed
Hot mid- day sun
The buffalo’s madness worsened
It applied soap
dried its head with flowers
‘I don’t like dirty ones”
It proclaimed
and chased away the white cranes
Who knows its speeches and photos
may appear in tomorrow’s papers!
Continue reading

45 John Webster – Studies in Revenge and Perversity


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John Webster, like Ben Jonson, wrote both comedies and tragedies, but his reputation rests emphatically on just two tragedies The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil. They are both macabre works, full of brooding villains and vicious plots, and are perhaps the first example in English literature of what came to be known as the Gothic style. But none of the famous Gothic novels of the late 18th century rival Webster in his exposition of characters bent on revenge, and allowing the claims of neither kinship nor common humanity to divert them.

The main characters, who give their names to the two plays, are however very different from each other. The Duchess of Malfi is a pathetic figure, and perhaps the best known lines in the play are her epitaph

Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle. She died young.

This comes after she is strangled, after a display of both pathos and determination that put her executioners to shame

What would it pleasure me to have my throat cut

With diamonds? or to be smothered

With cassia? or to be shot to death with pearls?

I know death hath ten thousand several doors

For men to take their exits; and ’tis found

They go on such strange geometrical hinges,

You may open them both ways: any way, for heaven-sake,

So I were out of your whispering. Tell my brothers

That I perceive death, now I am well awake,

Best gift is they can give or I can take.

The Duchess died because she dared to love her steward Antonio, which brought down on her the wrath of her proud brothers. She managed to marry Antonio and bear him three children, but when this is found out, and she tries to escape, the couple are separated. She is betrayed by Bosola, whom she had trusted but who turned out to be her brother’s spy. But he is stricken with remorse when she is killed, and turns against the two brothers, and in the end kills them both – though not before he has killed Antonio by mistake, thinking he is the Cardinal. The latter, the more insidious of the two brothers (Ferdinand is just plain bonkers), had added to the mayhem by poisoning his mistress after he had confessed to her his part in the murder of his sister. Continue reading


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