“…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, “Meditation XVII”
“…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, “Meditation XVII”
Conflict is defined as a state of mind in which a person experiences a clash of opposing ideas, feelings and needs, and it is an explicit theme in the play’s parent/child relationships in Hamlet and Middleton’s Revenger’s Tragedy. Many dynamics of it are presented from the two families, thus, it is interesting to draw out contrasts and comparisons between them.
Although some abnormalities may be seen in Polonius’s relationship with Laertes and Ophelia through the eyes of modern audience and critics, for instance, Polonius’s intrusive and controlling nature, this family in the play would have been considered to be a normal, typical upper-class family in the Elizabethan and Jacobean era, especially in comparison with Prince Hamlet’s unstable relationship with his parents. Many critics assume that in Act 1 Scene 3 when Laertes and then later Polonius advises Ophelia to not put too much trust in Hamlet, Where Laertes’s advice is more affectionate, Polonius’s is more of an interrogation and his character hands out more orders than advice. He does not want Ophelia to jeopardise their high-ranking position within the Court by her being a vulnerable “woodcock” to Hamlet’s supposedly insincere “vows”. The theme of conflict is subdued within the two generations because her silence is generally considered to be respectful and dutiful, “I shall obey, my lord”. However, her silence could be interpreted as rebellious. This concept is reinforced with her encounter with her brother Laertes – “Do not, as some ungracious pastors do, show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, whiles like a puffed and reckless libertine, essentially she is telling him to practice what he preaches and to not be a hypocrite. This strongly implies that while she may be listening to his advice, she is being insincere with her replies. On the other hand, this theory is not strengthened by Ophelia’s subsequent actions that result in her rejecting Hamlet and his advances.
Modern audiences tend to be much more critical of male dominance on Hamlet, yet Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences would be sympathetic to Polonius as Ophelia would be considered his possession. This sense of male ownership is reiterated when he says, “I’ll loose my daughter”, which is referencing loosing a cow for mating with a bull. This parallels with Hamlet’s “fishmonger” comment that was directed towards Polonius, yet the tone in which they are both said are entirely different, with the latter being presumably an insult. Polonius comes across as the stronger character in Act 1 Scene 3 compared to Ophelia and Laertes, which somewhat mirrors the Old King in Act 1 Scene 5. Hamlet’s relationship with his father, the Old King, is the source of his own inner conflict. He is unable to commit revenge even for his father’s sake. Old Hamlet is dominant in the meeting with Hamlet. This revenge is going against divine laws. The protestant audience would be aware of the Catholic themes, in context with this scene, the Ghost was in Purgatory, which was a concept that was widely rejected by Protestant Reformers of the 16th century. Essentially, the Old King Hamlet and Polonius are alike in many ways because they both have authority over their kin and their children are obedient and listen to him. However, with Hamlet, the Old King’s authority is challenged because Hamlet delays taking revenge for many possible reasons. One case would be that he is ultimately a coward, and thus, cannot take revenge because he does not have his father’s trait of courageousness. Another interpretation of this would be that he is merely being cautious. It is possible that the ghost is a devil, which was discussed in the play. In this case, this would change the way we see Hamlet. He would be a hero who took matters into his own hands to get justice, and that he was not foolish enough to immediately play into the hands of the Devil. Many other critics would interpret Hamlet’s actions as part of his plot to send Claudius to eternal damnation. We see this particularly in Act 3 Scene 3, he did not kill Claudius because he was praying. According to Catholic beliefs, if you confess your sins to God, you would go to heaven, and as Hamlet wanted Claudius to go to hell, he decided to wait longer in order for that to happen.
The somewhat turbulent relationship Hamlet has with his other parent, Gertrude, is fuelled by what many critics believe to be Gertrude’s “o’er hasty marriage” to Claudius. Audiences in Elizabethan and Jacobean society would have viewed this marriage as incestuous, so it would have been at the forefront of Shakespeare’s mind whilst presenting this theme. She’s perceived as false to him and uses his mother’s sexuality to explain the capricious women are, “a beast, that wants discourse of reason, / would have mourn’d longer”. This means that whereas she was once loyal to the Old King, this quickly changed following his death. Though another interpretation suggests that the source of their friction would be because of He compares her to “Niobe”. This simile refers to her sexuality, which suggests that Hamlet harboured incestuous feelings for his mother and that the real reason for his anger towards her is because her marriage to Claudius meant that those feelings were not reciprocated. Essentially, Hamlet sees her as an example of the weakness of women and constantly hurt in his reflections of how quickly she remarried. It is possible that Hamlet’s feeling of anger and disgust towards his mother is intensified by how lovingly his father treated her, “that he might not beteem the winds of heaven / visit her face too roughly”. This creates the idea that the Old King was very loving and protective towards the Queen, and yet she embraced the “hasty marriage” as if it meant nothing to her. The disgust in his words is also present in the sound they make. The hissing sibilants convey Hamlet’s revulsion to the idea of Gertrude and Claudius together.
If we consider Freud’s Oedipus complex, which means, in this case, the son being in love with the mother, it could explain Hamlet’s true feelings and intentions that involve his father, the Old King. If, for the sake of argument, Hamlet was romantically interested in his mother, this could suggest that jealousy and envy were the motives for wanting to kill Claudius, and not necessarily to seek vengeance for the murder of his father. After all, the King is doing what Hamlet always wanted to do, according to this theory: kill the king, marry Gertrude and claim the throne for himself. This adds a whole new dynamic to their relationship, and in this sense, the source of Hamlet and the Old King’s potential conflict is the female, which is Gertrude. Hamlet’s anger towards Gertrude is later amplified to include all women, “frailty, thy name is woman”. This suggests that he believes that all women are weak-willed and are easily morally corrupted. However, Gertrude’s real reason for marrying Claudius after the Old King Hamlet had been “but two months dead” remains ambiguous. Considering the patriarchal system that would have been in place during the time in which this play was set, which was purposely mirrored with Elizabethan society, the only way a woman could gain status, power and security was through men. So essentially it could be that Gertrude was only thinking ahead to secure her role in the Court. Then again, the Old King Hamlet’s level of anger towards Gertrude casts doubt on this theory. He calls Gertrude an “incestuous, that adulterate beast”, whose “seeming-virtuous”, yet had “shameful lust” that accepted “traitorous gifts”. Many critics would consider this line to be definite proof that Gertrude had been Claudius’s lover before her husband had died, and therefore would have had an inevitable part to play in the murder of the Old King Hamlet, but then again, the rest of the play makes no mention of this adultery, and Gertrude certainly does not at all appear to be guilty. What could have possibly been meant with this phrase is that Gertrude has been “contaminated” and “corrupted” by her marriage to Claudius. In this case, again, we see Hamlet’s belief that Gertrude married too quickly and was considered by both the Old King and Hamlet to be false in her actions. This was possibly triggered further for Hamlet by Ophelia’s abandonment of him by obedience to her father and brother.
Hamlet accuses Ophelia (and subsequently expands to include all women in general) of being a “breeder of sinners” and orders Ophelia to a “nunnery”. The fact that he repeats this phrase increases his disgust towards her actions and loyalties. A “nunnery” could either be taken literally or could mean a brothel, which suggests that Ophelia is a whore who manipulated Hamlet and is controlled by another man: Polonius. This idea is reinforced when Hamlet calls Polonius a “fishmonger”, which is a deprecating term for a pimp, by how he controls Ophelia. This was Elizabethan slang for “brothel keeper”, and thus would have been considered a major insult by the original audience. However, many critics would interpret the famous “get thee to a nunnery” line to mean that she needs to get to a nunnery to avoid corruption, like his mother, Gertrude. It is hard to say exactly if he is saying this as a result of his antic-disposition, or whether he is in genuine disgust. Equivocal actions happen often in the play, which adds to the theme of deceit and deception. It is hard to definitively say what characters truly mean and what they do not. Misogynistic themes are also prevalent through Vindice’s opinion of his mother and sister, Gratiana and Castiza, “women are apt…To take false money…their sex is easy in belief”. He believes, like Hamlet, that all women are easily corruptible and gullible. Elizabethan audience would have been accepting of this, considering the fact that norms were different. Though in contrast with Hamlet, The Revenger’s Tragedy deals with the more superficial elements of a woman’s apparent deception. Vindice mentions women’s “Bought complexion”, meaning faces that are made up with makeup, to add an element of deceit and secrecy. Many would view this as hypocritical because of Piato: Vindice’s disguise. This highlights the lack of trust that Vindice as in his mother, yet it is unknown of these are a catalyst of personal issues that he has with her or with women in general. However, to say that Hamlet does not at all look at women’s physical appearance would be false because in Act 3 Scene 1, Hamlet directs “That if you could be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty” towards Ophelia. This means that beauty corrupts honesty. Then again, this makes no suggestions towards makeup and man-made deception, so in this perspective, it differs somewhat to the Revenger’s Tragedy. There are similar themes of using disguises as means of deception in Hamlet when he uses his “antic disposition” to prove Claudius and Gertrude’s guilt. He “feigns madness”, and is able to tell the difference “from a hawk to a handsaw”.
To an extent, Hamlet does use external methods of feigning madness, for instance, in Lyndsey Turner’s 2015 remake of the play, Hamlet dresses up as a toy soldier, where he then says his “to be or not to be” speech. This suggests that he is ready for battle, yet then again, toy soldiers are also are used by children when they’re playing games and could signify that Hamlet is playing a game of his own and he himself is a piece. However, Shakespeare is much more concerned with the internal signs of madness, and he demonstrates this mainly through Hamlet’s treatment of Polonius and Ophelia. Polonius is a loyal advisor to the King and is the main advocate for Hamlet’s genuine “madness”, which was caused by Ophelia’s rejection of him, in his judgment. It is relatively easy for Hamlet to control and influence Polonius because of his false politeness, “(Hamlet) Methinks it is like a weasel”, “(Polonius) It is backed like a weasel”, “(Hamlet) Or, like a whale?”, “(Polonius) very like a whale”. What Hamlet is doing is proving a point to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by showing how easy it is for him to control the actions of others, and thus stating that he is aware that they are both “playing upon (him) like a pipe” for Claudius’s sake. Hamlet uses Ophelia to get to Polonius and, to begin with, to test her loyalties. He used Ophelia because of her loyalties towards her father Polonius, who in turn used Ophelia as a tool to observe Hamlet’s actions in order to report back to Claudius. Yet we do not know to what extent this may be true because the layers of secrecy and deception completely blur the lines between what we know to be true and what is false. Hamlet is ultimately using his “antic disposition” in order to extract the truth from Claudius on whether he is guilty of the death of the Old King Hamlet.
The idea of using deceit and secrecy as a weapon is a common theme in the play. Gertrude and Claudius use Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet for the same reasons they used Polonius: in order to find the cause of “Hamlet’s transformation” and what “hath put him / so much from th’understanding of himself”. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern subsequently fail to manipulate him, and Hamlet makes them very aware of this through his musical metaphor of the “recorder”. This is where we see Hamlet in control of the argument, “’Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you fret me, you cannot play upon me”. He then proceeds to prove a point to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that influencing others is easy by using Polonius to make him say what he wants him to say “(Hamlet) that’s almost in shape of a camel”, and “(Polonius) like a camel indeed”. This shows his power of how to manipulate people. Furthermore to solidify the strength of this, Hamlet used the play to “catch the conscience of the King” and the Queen and the extent of their guilt in the murder of the Old King. During “the Mousetrap” play that was taking place before the Royal Court, “Here’s metal more attractive”, here he strongly implies that she, along with women in general, are “metal” that attract men, whether it is intended or not. This fits in with Elizabethan love genre, and Hamlet uses it as an excuse to get away in order to watch their reactions to the play.
It is highly believable that Gertrude’s betrayal takes precedence over Claudius’s murder. Hamlet is much more concerned with his mother in Act 3 Scene 4, “to live in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, stew’d in corruption…honeying and making love over the nasty sty”. Hamlet describes their marriage as corrupt and dirty. Thus, we can say that this scene presents Hamlet and Gertrude’s conflict as the overriding source of conflict in the play. Deep misunderstanding is also noticeable between the two, which is underlined when only Hamlet can see the ghost, and that leads Gertrude to assume his madness, “alas, he is mad”. Regardless of this, Gertrude vows to let Claudius tempt her “again to bed”. The fact that it is seemingly easy to influence Gertrude thoughts shows her submission to men, which also explains why Gertrude later betrays Hamlet and confides in Claudius about what she’s learnt about him. She draws on the simile, “(Hamlet is) mad as the sea and wind when both contend”. The confrontation in this scene is, unsurprisingly, heavily dominated by Hamlet, and his anger with her fuels this immensely. This parallels with Laertes and Polonius’s treatment of Ophelia in Act 1 Scene 3 when they are instructing Ophelia to cut her contact with Hamlet in order to protect her and her family title. Gertrude and Ophelia are both seen as men’s weak-willed possessions. However, another interpretation of this shows that Gertrude has a powerful instinct for self-preservation, which leads her to rely too deeply on men, particularly on Hamlet and Claudius. This is why she appears to be a deceitful character. Her reason for showing insincerity towards Hamlet could have been because she was intimidated by him, and her loyalties lied in herself, and not her son. How Gertrude feels about her son, and likewise, remains debatable amongst critics. Yet it is possible to draw conflicting comparisons from other parent/child relationships in Hamlet in order to gain insight into what would be considered ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ within their relationships.
It is widely considered that Donne gave this poem to his wife before traveling Europe in 1611. It is also considered to be one of his quintessential metaphorical poems.
The title itself suggests a farewell, yet not allowing any sadness in this departure. The Speaker explains that he is forced to spend time apart from his lover but tells her that their parting should not be sorrowful before he leaves. The Speaker does not want to experience the normal conventions of grief, or how Donne puts it, he doesn’t want “tear-floods” and “sigh-tempests”. The Speaker uses hyperbole to make his point, which subtly lightens the tone of the stanza, by exaggerating.
A gentle tone is created by the long vowel sounds of the first line: “As virtuous men pass mildly away”, it is as though it’s mimicking breathing and thus adopting tranquillity and peacefulness.
A snippet of dialogue is used in the first stanza to punctuate Donne’s feelings about death: “Their breath goes now”, and some day, “No…”
In the second stanza, he uses a nature metaphor to tell how they should part: “So let us melt, and make no noise”. The Speaker wants his departure to be completely natural, like the changing of the seasons. He wants their farewell to be voluntary, even though it is ultimately inevitable.
For them to put their love on display would “profanation” – he wants their love to remain with dignity and beauty. He implies that their love is sacred, and it would be blasphemous to cry over it.
He explains that a predominantly physical love cannot survive a physical separation, and their love is spiritual, so thus physical separation cannot harm them. They aren’t “dull sublunary lovers”, like the common “laity”.
The “moving of th’ earth” metaphor in the third stanza isn’t intended to refer to earthquakes, but to the theory of Donne’s time about the movement of the earth. This is supported by the use of the phrase, “trepidation of the spheres”, which is an obsolete astronomical theory used in the Ptolemaic system. As we know, earthquakes were little understood by Englishmen of the 17th century as they were exotic. It is based on the idea of vibrations of stars and planets creating music that controlled our fates. During Donne’s time, scientists were beginning to look beyond that theory, as well as the idea that the earth was the centre of the universe. Despite this, these ideas were popular amongst artists, and Donne included. These intellectual arguments to explain emotional matters is typical of a metaphysical poem.
The Speaker uses “gold” to compare the love the between him and his lover in stanza six. The gold (like their love) is being stretched out and distributed throughout the air, which now covers the room and has widened the distance between the couple, instead of being destroyed. This means that their love is now part of the atmosphere itself. Donne gives a vague allusion to alchemy (the ancient theory that turned metal into gold. This turned out to be impossible and the people who claimed to be alchemists were fakes).
The created a compass analogy to convey their love. They need each other to function, so whereas one travels the globe, the other stays in one place, supporting the other. “The fixed foot, makes no show/To move, but doth, if the other do.” Having her makes the speaker a complete and perfect circle, and gives him a point and direction to his journey. The compass is a metaphysical conceit that’s used by the Speaker to fully convey the extent of their love.
The poem has a simple ABAB structure:
The tone is melancholic without being melodramatic. The poem is serious, and yet wholly optimistic. This conveys that, although the Speaker must part from his lover, they will still be together because of the strength of their love.
Hamlet is believed to have been written between 1599 and 1601 and is considered to be one of Shakespeare’s most prestigious plays. The play itself remains loyal to the genre of Jacobean revenge tragedy, and thus, revenge ultimately exposes themes of disorder and corruption, particularly through issues of secrecy and deceit.
The sense of urgency and panic is immediately conveyed in the first lines of Hamlet through its setting. It’s cold and dark outside, which underlines the vulnerability of the guards because this possibly leaves them disadvantaged in an attack. This idea is reinforced when Barnardo, the guard, opens with, “Who’s there?” the jumpiness of the guards adds to the sense of unrest and impending danger in Hamlet. These feelings are deepened as the “ghost” appears. The presence of the ghost immediately adheres to the supernatural tendencies of Senecan plays, but nevertheless, the superstition surrounding it would be terrifying to the Shakespearean audience, as ghosts usually hold hellish connotations in Protestantism, which was the main religion during the period in which Hamlet was written. The ghost is a major catalyst for the presentiment of chaos in this scene. And also the fact that there are “two Sentinels” on duty implies that there are possible preparations for an imminent attack. Furthermore, it becomes clear when Marcellus mentions that it is a Sunday that Claudius is breaking the Fourth Commandment, and thus compelling men to work on Sabbath. This would suggest to the audience that Claudius, the new king, was modern, pragmatic, and prepared to defy conventional morality.
During the time in which the play was set, religion and monarch always had to be intimate because it was assumed that religion and civil order went together, and it was always the task of the monarch to protect the Church and Christian society. Moreover, despite the play being set in Denmark and not England, it is still relevant because Shakespeare wrote Hamlet with the intentions to mirror English society, whilst remaining a safe level of distance from it without raising political questions. Therefore, this idea would have greatly influenced the Shakespearean audience in how the play portrayed Claudius’s character, which could possibly heighten sense of disorder because of his need to defy the religious norms of the time.
Disorder is immediately created in scene two because we learn that Denmark has recently lost a king, “Hamlet our dear brother’s death…our whole kingdom to be contracted in one brow of woe”. This idea of accordance with one another in “one brow of woe” is refuted when Claudius later adds, “Our state to be disjoint and out of frame”. This is in timing with young Fortbrinas’s threat from Norway, and the fact that Claudius only glosses over this topic during his soliloquy without going into too much detail heightens the audience’s suspicion of him. Moreover, Claudius also states in his soliloquy that Hamlet’s mourning presence is “unmanly grief”, and therefore, improper behaviour before the Court. Claudius also doubts his feelings, “why seems it so particular with thee”. Hamlet takes this to be an accusation that his feelings are false. This is comparable with Vindice in Revenger’s Tragedy, where he is see holding the skull of his “beloved” in the beginning of the play. This display of grief is what partly drives both characters on to conspire to commit revenge.
Notably, both Hamlet and Vindice see their adversaries as adulterers. In the first line of the Revenger’s Tragedy, Vindice refers to the Old Duke as “grey haired Adultery”, which exposes the corruption of the court and the Old Duke’s crimes, particularly the one against Vindice’s beloved. Hamlet, similarly, is angered by Claudius for committing adultery by marrying the Old King’s wife, Gertrude, a short time after his death. In his soliloquy, he focuses specifically on Gertrude’s sexuality to convey his anger, “Frailty, thy name is woman – a little month…married with my uncle”. He is angry at his mother for being weak-willed and giving into pressure too soon. This rather misogynistic view of his mother has raised questions about the extent of love he has for his mother. Many critics believe that it is clear evidence that the reason why he wants revenge on Claudius is because he’s subconsciously jealous of him marrying Gertrude. Even during the Elizabethan era, the King’s marriage to Gertrude would be considered incestuous and unlawful, as it is a sin that is written in the Bible. This ultimately implies disorder because the audience is aware that the King is defying the religious norms of the time.
Hamlet’s first soliloquy also widens the sense of corruption within the Royal Court through using disease and uncleanliness imagery, “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable”, and, “seed; things rank and gross in nature”. These images of decay reveals his view of the withering and no longer healthy Denmark, and the listing indicates that he is fed up with the structure of the Court. Critics read “rank and gross” as a metaphor for Denmark, which insinuates corruption and disorderliness within the State. This parallels somewhat with Revenger’s because, through the main character Vindice, we learn of the amount of corruption within the Italian court, which is mainly governed by the Old Duke, whom Vindice is plotting revenge against. Hamlets’ of dislike of Claudius leads the audience to be suspicious of him, “A little more than kin, and less than kind”, this implies that though the two are related, they are dissimilar. This feeling of suspicion in subsequently concreted when the ghost tells Hamlet of his murder, where his loathing of Claudius is immensely justified, and the audience, too, becomes suspicious of the new Head of State.
The theme of unrest is projected in scene two because of the significant amount of secrecy that is needed. For instance, “If you have hitherto concealed this sight/ Let it be tenable in your silence still”. This is comparable with the 2010 remake of Hamlet, which starred David Tennant, where the idea of surveillance and the need for secrecy is relayed through the use of security cameras on set. This eludes to the idea that everyone is spying on one another, and thus, the emphasis on secrecy is necessary.
Distrust is a key theme that is conveyed within scene three when Polonius and Laertes advise Ophelia to stay away from Hamlet. According to Polonius, Hamlet is not genuine in his feelings and wants to take her as a mistress, “When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul/ Lends the tongue vows”. He believes that Hamlet, like any other person, will say anything to get what he wants. Laertes, on the other hand, is much more caring in his advice, “His greatness weighed, but his will is not his own”. So although Hamlet may love Ophelia, he cannot marry her; she would be a burden on the state because it needs a strong marriage to secure the health and stability of Denmark, “The main voice of Denmark goes withal”, the country is relying on Hamlet, and thus his marriage options are “circumscribed”, ruling out any hope for Ophelia, considering her inferior status within the court.
A sense of disarray and danger is underlined when Hamlet acts in spite of the security of Denmark, “I do not set my life at a pin’s fee…I’ll follow (the ghost)”, he acts as though his life is meaningless by putting his life in possible danger. This also strongly suggests that he has a low sense of self-worth, and thus adding to the theme of disorder. This idea is reinforced when, in Act one Scene two, he says, “My father’s brother, but no more like my father than I to Hercules”, he emphasises the difference between the old King and Claudius by comparing to a heroic Greek God. Marcellus directly indicates corruption and disruption within the court: “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”. This is a clear foreshadowing of the events to come, which as we know, eventually leads to the death of Hamlet, Claudius and Gertrude, amongst known characters.
Marcellus hints at corruption when he says “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”, though it is doubtful whether he is referring to the monarchy. More likely, he is indicating the presence of evil supernatural beings. This idea of foreboding of future events is reinforced when Marcellus says, “this bodes some strange eruption to our state”. Horatio is trying to find meaning in the apparition, and warns of its violent disturbance, which made the guards fear, despite being armed.
The ghosts’ story of incest and murder committed by the King in act five cements any suspicions of Claudius and of the true court politics. It is what justifies Hamlet’s sentiment of “A little more than kin and less that kind” and his revenge on the King. This is where the audience sees Hamlet’s gut feelings about Claudius become confirmed, “O, my prophetic soul”, he is understandably shocked and disgusted with his “damned villain(ous)” uncle, and shares this feeling with the ghost. The theme of dysfunction is emanated further on in the scene when Hamlet says, “time is out of joint”. He is directly stating to the audience that there are many things that are out of place and disorderly. This is where we see Hamlet coming to comprehend his role, he was “born to set it right”, to bring justice onto the system that he sees as vile and corrupt.
The first act of Hamlet is very powerfully descriptive. By using a number of literary devices, such as imagery, punctuation and listing, he uses them to convey themes of disorder and corruption in the play. Throughout, we get insights into Hamlet’s mind and the development of his character. We learn of the factors and faults of the court that eventually leads Hamlet to fulfil his revenge on who he sees as this “smiling, damned villain”, which is Claudius.
The Defence of the Book is a visualisation of an alternative future of England. So in this short story despite England’s deprivation of moral and economic success, books have increased in value and importance. This happens subsequently when the government deems libraries ‘valueless’ and plans to destroy them. Towards the end of the story we learn that the survival of the books were crucial if the ‘culture of learning were (to be) kept alive’. Also it is heavily suggested that the Government’s decision to bring an end to libraries was to remove all future political threats in order to maintain power. Thus the message that Barnes wanted to convey was how fundamentally vital books are to us and that they’re undervalued in our society.
Barnes titled his short story The Defence of the Book to exhibit themes of passion and rebellion, specifically among the working class. The author may have wanted to convey the idea that if England were to ever break away from Britain and isolation from Europe and the rest of the world, the Government would become very totalitarian and less democratic as a result of poverty. This would instinctively create rebellion as the lives of people would become less valuable and political decisions would generally be made to not benefit the people. The theme of passion is presented through the peoples’ will to preserve the books. The people are striving to maintain them, and the youths begin to appreciate and value them because the authority illegalises them.
The story begins in exposition, an extract of an article in which the story was set, and this gives us the general context and setting. England, now ‘Old England’, gives the story its futuristic setting. We see a vulnerable England after Scotland and Wales have voted for independence, evicted from Europe and rejected by every other country, including the USA.
There are no characters that are discussed in great detail and we know nothing of the narrator or his opinion of the events, but few specific names are mentioned in relation to the English authority and the preservation of the books. Angela Merkel, who is in reality the current German leader, is the ‘European President for life’ in the story. There is also mention of a ‘book-loving milkman’, who is responsible for the first ‘secret underground library’, which subsequently led to the multiplication of the books and the increase of value among youths as they were ‘forbidden by authority’.
The short story format is incredibly effective to this plot. He allows it to be fast-paced and, in some cases, more convenient to read because of its length. In The Defence of the Book, emotion and tension builds up around the chronological order of information, ‘Trade collapsed, and the nation’s infrastructure with it. The Health Service, long privatised…’, this allows a more vivid scenery of ‘Old England’ by emphasising the need to preserve knowledge and culture.
The Defence of the Book is a compelling and thought-provoking story. We get the idea of a futuristic, yet completely realistic version of Orwellian-style way of life and political setting.
A link to the short story can be found here:
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are happy to be in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
“Larkin is known for his realistic, sometimes fatalistic, view of life, and much of his poetry reflects a kind of less-than-hopeful attitude towards a person’s experience of life. In other words, life just happens — it’s neither good nor bad — and then we die…” – Stephen Holliday.
‘Days’ opens with a thought-provoking, and obviously straight-talking, hypothesis that almost simultaneously questions how we choose our lifestyle, our general outlook on life and emphasising the value and meaning of it, “What are days for? Days are where we live.” It’s as if it invites discussion and debate, which I’m sure was one of Larkin’s objectives.
The phrase “They come, they wake us” personifies life, makes it mortal. It gives life an edge of instability. Also it shows that life is something we may not be able to control, that whatever will happen will happen. We were awoken from unconsciousness by the reality and inevitability of life.
The next line is a negative connotation and twist to the phrase ‘time and time again’. Again it highlights the author’s idea of the fragility of life, “Time and time over.” As each day ends, we lose the freedom to be able to change what happened, and sometimes to ever have a second chance of something. It suggests that though life may be cruel, we’re powerless to stop it, so we’ve to mould into it to suit it, rather than life having to blend to suit us. This idea is also supported with the phrase, “They are happy to be in: Where can we live but days?”, this is quite sardonic in the sense that we have nowhere to life but in the days, it’s inescapable, so we have no other choice but to make the most of it while we can.
“Ah, solving the question/ Brings the priest and the doctor/In their long coats/ Running over the fields”. The doctor here seemingly represents science as does the priest represents religion. They are respectively running a futile race on how to postpone or even explain why it happens. It tells us about the never-changing idea of sickness and death.
Larkin uses an assonance technique in this poem, ‘are where we’. This repetition of the vowel draws a slightly more emotional effect, it’s also heavily contrasted by the poet’s use of alliteration, for example, ‘time and time’. This creates a harder sounding poem. This may have been used in order to draw attention to the specific words and to make it have a lasting effect on the reader. Larkin also uses colloquial words, ‘Ah’. Despite the apprehensiveness in which manner it is said, we can assume that the poet means it in a wise way. Like he’s in a state of knowing. The effect of this is adding to the informality of the tone to the poem.
Punctuation plays a huge role as to how this particular poem sounds. Its use of rhetorical questions and full-stops and a very direct tone to the poem, ‘for?’, ‘where we live.’ It makes the poem slower, so the reader tends to read it in a slower pace, which makes it sound a lot longer considering it’s only two stanzas long.
Then children strewn on steps or road,
Or women coming from the shops
Past smells of different dinners, see
A wild white face that overtops
Red stretcher-blankets momently
As it is carried in and stowed,
And sense the solving emptiness
That lies just under all we do,
And for a second get it whole,
So permanent and blank and true.
The fastened doors recede. Poor soul,
They whisper at their own distress;
For borne away in deadened air
May go the sudden shut of loss
Round something nearly at an end,
And what cohered in it across
The years, the unique random blend
Of families and fashions, there
At last begin to loosen. Far
From the exchange of love to lie
Unreachable insided a room
The trafic parts to let go by
Brings closer what is left to come,
And dulls to distance all we are.
The theme of the poem ‘Ambulances’ is a metaphor for death. It is a major theme in the poem. The poem is a depressing one, yet wholly realistic. It forces the reader to come to terms with reality, which is death is an essential part of life and is inescapable, it’s also largely misunderstood, thus ignored and when it comes it dehumanises you. What I think stands out in this poem is that only one ambulance is discussed, yet in reality there are ambulances everywhere. It’s as if Larkin wants to give the ambulance its own character, which is engaging.
The title to the second poem, ‘Ambulances’, is an extended metaphor. Throughout the poem ambulances is the general topic but the actual word itself is never mentioned. This makes it seem like the ambulance is something that’s everywhere, but never discussed. ‘Ambulances’ opens with a simile, ‘Closed like confessionals’, so as the ambulance is being compared to a private situation, a confessional box, we immediately get the sense of privacy and death. So we already get the notion of the theme of the poem, and its contents. The first line also includes the word ‘thread’. This is a classical illusion of Greek mythology, so in mythological terms, threading represents the connection between life and death, or ‘the thread of life’ which could be a possible theme in the poem.
‘Loud noons of cities, giving back/none of the glances they absorb.’ This may be directed to the ambulance, that the ambulance is ‘giving back none of the glances they absorb’. This infers the emergency of the ambulance, it is too focused on getting somewhere it doesn’t take its time to stop.
‘Light glossy grey, arms on a plaque, /they come to rest at any kerb:/All streets in time are visited.’ The alliterative phrase ‘glossy grey’ enforces a dull atmosphere, whereas ‘arms on a plaque’ gives a slightly horrific tone. Also ‘glossy grey’ may rouse an image of death, so it adds to the general tone of the poem, which is sadness and mourning. What I noted from the line ‘All streets in time are visited’, is that it hints that everyone must die eventually, that it is inevitable. The word ‘visited’ itself is interesting because usually it’s associated with good things, like something good is going to happen to you or is going to happen but in the context of this poem, it’s contradictory.
A juxtaposition is used, so in contrast to the gloomy tone of the poem, ‘Or women coming from the shops/Past smells of different dinners’, this phrase is almost cheerful. Here the reader sees that Larkin disconnects to living from the people who are dying. It shows that death has been cast as an inferior part of life, it has been left in the background. Ambulances in this poem is a symbol of death and suffering. The poet may have wanted to convey the different emotions of the content of the play. So whereas something serious is happening, there is an element of indifference and ignorance of some in the poem. Also it suggests that what’s happening is common, and the people no longer pay attention to it, or that, as previously stated, that as ambulances is almost synonymous with death and suffering in this poem, people choose to ignore it and block it out because of fear.
The theme of hostility and despair is switched back in the next three lines, ‘A wild white face that overtops/ Red stretcher-blankets momently/ As it is carried in and stowed’. The ‘wild white’ phrase is an example of assonance, which sets a distressing, horrific tone to the poem. It has a slightly more emotional effect, and is likely to stay with the reader. Also the dying are described to be more like objects, rather than actual human being, it’s as if that Larkin is trying to say you lose everything that makes you a human being when you’re in that situation. Similar to the beginning of the poem, ‘Closed like confessionals’, the line ‘carried in and stowed’ is very funeral-like, the reader gets the idea of privacy and finality, such as in a funeral. The contrast in colours is notable, ‘wild white’, and, ‘Red stretcher’, it emphasises the horror and reality of death.
Larkin implies that death is the end to all our problems in life, ‘And sense the solving emptiness/ that lies under all we do’, this presents the reader that death is always nearby, it’s ubiquitous, as dark as that may be and it’s what the poet believes.
‘And for a second get it whole/ so permanent and blank and true’. This implies that accidents and death happen randomly, we can never be sure that it won’t be us. The three words ‘permanent’, ‘blank’ and ‘true’ particularly stood out in this stanza because it shows the poets feelings towards death, thus the reader may feel slightly closer towards the poet for that. The reader gets to see his arguably pessimistic idea of death.
The writer provokes sadness and sympathy by using a pathos. It reinforces a gloomy tone and mood in the poem, ‘The fastened doors recede. Poor soul, they whisper at their own distress;’ The use of ‘fastened doors recede’ in the poem is a metaphor for the different stages of life, that when the doors recede, we cross borders into the afterlife, which is something unknown to us until the doors open to us personally. It is inferred in this quote that it is something that may well come to us, that we may one day be whispering to our own distress.
‘For borne away in deadened air/ May go the sudden shut of loss’. This sentence gives us the idea of the families’ perspective, they feel a ‘sudden shut of loss’ for the family member as that person is being shut into the ambulance. The use of the word ‘deadened’ stands out because it gives us an idea of the atmosphere inside the ambulance and the how the air may be very still, which implies mourning and death. ‘Round something nearly at an end, / and what cohered in it across’. ‘Nearly at and end’ gives us a sense of finality, and what’s ‘cohered in it’ adds to the idea of fatality in the poem. We know this poem isn’t optimistic.
‘The years, the unique random blend/ of families and fashions, there’. This sentence gives us an idea of the randomness of accidents and death, it shows that in some cases it isn’t anticipated. The message of this has a strong effect of the reader, it’s something that’s related to everyone, it can happen to everyone and the poem makes the reader comprehend this. ‘At last begin to loosen. Far/ from the exchange of love to lie’. I think the message Larkin may have wanted to convey with using the phrase ‘begin to loosen’, was family members who had to come to terms with finally letting a family member go, to accept what had happened to them. From another perspective, it could be the victim having to come to terms with what happened, to finally let go of life. These ideas reinforce a distressing and despondent atmosphere of the poem.
‘Unreachable inside a room/traffic parts to let go by’, by using the phrase ‘unreachable inside a room’, the poet emphasises the helplessness and safety of the victims situation, no help nor danger can come to him from the outside. The slight awkwardness of the syntax in ‘traffic parts to let go by’ is evidence that ‘ambulance’ is unmentionable, it’s as if the poet purposely didn’t use the word to convey two different meanings. He may want us to hear two different meanings, to let go of life and the traffic that parts to let the ambulance to by. This has a lasting effect on the reader. It’s unique and unusual, therefore it stands out and the reader may appreciate this. The suggestion that the ambulance is rushing in this quote implies that we too rush towards death
‘Brings closer what is left to come, / and dulls to distance all we are’. The assonance in ‘all we are’ gives an emotional effect to the poem, it also adds a gloomy rhythm to it. The phrase ‘dulls to distance’, suggests that all we made or have become diminishes as soon as we’re dying or about to die, like we no longer are ‘human’. This idea reinforces the earlier quote by calling the victim ‘it’.
The lack of punctuation in this poem makes it faster and quicker to read, so whereas ‘Days’ has a lot of punctuation for a small poem, ‘Ambulances’ has less that average for a larger poem to speed it up. I think what Larkin may have wanted us to consider was that death should never be unanticipated and never ignored in life. He wants us to acknowledge that death is inevitable and a natural part of life and that it is nothing to be feared. It should be respected, even.
The idea for the poem ‘Days’ is the pessimistic ideas that days just happen, and death is inevitable in the end. The poem tells us the fragility of our existence and how we will never get our time back once it’s spent, and that’s all there is to life. Despite all this he also points out the insignificance of how we spend our time. Larkin lends the idea in ‘Ambulances’ that death is mostly ignored, despite it being a natural part of life. So essentially ‘Ambulances’ tends to focus on the peoples’ behaviour towards death whereas ‘Days’ focuses on questioning ‘what are days for’ and, similarly to ‘Ambulances’, the inevitably of it.
The theme for ‘Days’ is essentially life, death, science and religion. We see that days are numbered and meaningless, so essentially days are just for living in. Death is end inevitable to the meaningless life and neither religion nor science can prolong or stop it. The word ‘Ambulances’ serves as a theme and a title for the poem. Also, similarly to ‘Days’, life and death play significant roles in the poem, it also conveys the idea that death is inevitable.
The tone to ‘Ambulances’ throughout the poem is sadness and anxious, but the use of a juxtaposition is used in the second stanza to convey the differences between the living and the dying, ‘women coming from the shops/Past smells of different dinners’. This is the only part of the whole poem where we get to see cheeriness. The tone to ‘Days’ is neutral, the use of assonance and colloquial techniques give a conversational and philosophical edge to the tone. The questions raised definitely gives it a conversational tone. The suggestion that neither science nor religion can extend life invokes debate and questioning.
The structure for ‘Days’ is separated into two parts. One’s for questioning the meaning of days. The other stanza is for answering the last question to the first stanza, ‘Where can we live but the days?’ the poet leaves this question open but brings in ‘the priest and the doctor’ who try to answer the question and to bring us comfort. ‘Ambulances’ is split into five parts. The end of the first stanza ends with a full-stop, he ends this sentence to convey a specific idea and give a more dramatic effect to the poem. The next four sentences are linked so they run into another line in order to strengthen its eloquence.
The most prominent techniques used in ‘Ambulances’ is assonance, pathos and an extended metaphor. Examples for assonance are ‘wild white’, and, ‘all we are’. In comparison to alliteration, assonance makes the poem sound softer, it gives the poem the emotional effect to balance out the harshness of it. Assonance is also used in ‘Days’ for the same reason, to soften the tone and to balance the use of alliteration, ‘are where we’. An example for a pathos ‘Poor soul/they whisper at their own distresses’. This is also key to setting a horrific and gloomy tone to the poem, and effectively does so. The extended metaphor is the ambulance. The word ‘ambulance’ is discussed and described but never mentioned, and because ambulance is used to symbolise death and illness, it is ignored in society because it isn’t valued or take into account the majority of the time.
The colloquial technique is used in the second stanza of ‘Days’. We can assume that Larkin meant for this to be an emphasis on wisdom rather than sardonic, ‘Ah’. It helps create a more thoughtful and philosophical tone to the poem and relaxes the general atmosphere. Larkin also uses rhetorical questions to make the reader think and to involve, ‘What are days for?’
My initial response to the two poems was surprise at its realistic ideas of life and death. The two poems are quite similar in the general content. What I found interesting where the content of the poems itself are very metaphoric, thus the meanings aren’t very clear and until we ‘read between the lines’ do we really get a clear idea of the poem and, debatably, the poets rather idealistic outlook of life. Overall I thoroughly enjoyed both poems.