Sunday, May 27, 2007


Every time I visit the Schola Tutorials homepage, I am convicted. Mr. Callihan, my Great Books tutor, has this excellent quote posted:

"If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come."

--C. S. Lewis, "Learning in War-Time", The Weight of Glory

Amen to that.


Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 10:10 PM |

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Deep Heart's Core

The Theme of Alienation in 20th Century Irish Literature

Read "The Dead" here and "Lake Isle of Innisfree" here.

The twentieth century saw a new modernist strain in literature. Among its various characteristics, Modernism emphasized the alienation of certain individuals within an industrialized, urban world. While unique in certain aspects, this feature was merely an extension of its predecessor Romanticism. This earlier philosophy had developed the idea of the noble savage – how man is sinless at birth, but gradually the industrialized world corrupts him. Only in Nature can man remain perfect. In “The Dead,” James Joyce explores the effects of urbanization upon an individual; conversely, William Butler Yeats in his poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” contrasts how a return to Nature can essentially purify and restore peace to a person’s soul.

Famed for his complex character studies and utilization of the stream-of-consciousness technique, Joyce is one of the most famous writers of the Modernist era and of Ireland. His collection of short stories, The Dubliners, displays his immense talent. “The Dead” is the last story in this collection and perhaps the most famous and the most powerful. The main character is a young married man, Gabriel, who struggles with his identity as an Irishman during that country’s political upheavals. At a dinner party, one of the guests invites him to visit the Aran Isles on the west coast of Ireland. Gabriel protests that he would rather go to France or Germany and then admits in an outburst of passion, “To tell you the truth….I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!” (2515). His disgust for his homeland, however, stems from his disconnection with his Irish heritage, rather than a true dissatisfaction with the country. Indeed, his answer was provoked after the dinner guest had exclaimed, “And haven’t you your own land to visit….that you know nothing of, your own people, and your own country?” (2515). Later on, Gabriel continues to evince his anger over the loss of his heritage by declaring in his speech,

But we are living in a skeptical and, if I may use the phrase, a thought-tormented age: and sometimes I fear that this new generation, educated or hypereducated as it is, will lack those qualities of humanity, of hospitality, of kindly humor which belonged to an older day” (2523).

The Irish heritage primarily centered on the importance of the land, for the Irish had always been farmers. By living in the city of Dublin, Gabriel is alienated from the real Ireland of lush green fields and rolling hills. His schooling has drowned him in the intellectual and philosophical thought of his age, but has given him nothing of his own culture to hold onto. The tension grows when one of the guests begins to sing an old Irish song, awakening strange passions within Gabriel. He knows that the song has some sort of symbolic meaning, but he cannot quite discern what it is. After returning home, his wife begins to tell him of a boy she had known long ago who used to sing the same song to her: a country boy who died of love for her. As he listens to his wife’s story, he suddenly realizes that he has never truly loved her before – he realizes the wall that seems to stand between him and her, between him and the old Ireland.

His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling (2534).

The country boy symbolizes the purity of Nature, the purity of the true, old Ireland. Gabriel is the new Ireland, oppressed by British rule and raising children who know only of the present urbanization. This last quote shows that Gabriel has no identity in this urban world and no one ever can. Only in that old Ireland could the qualities of humanity and kindly humor exist; only in that old Ireland could he have truly loved his wife as the country boy did.

Romanticism probably influenced Yeats more than it did Joyce. Indeed, Yeats drew his poetic inspiration from Shelley and Blake, even editing several of Blake’s poems. “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” (Innisfree is a small island in western Ireland) almost seems like a tribute to these earlier writers with its idyllic atmosphere. It describes a person in either a town or city, yearning to “arise and go /…to Innisfree” (1). The person of the poem is not alienated from Nature like Gabriel, however, but rather he is alienated from the city where he lives. The reason why he decides to return to Nature is because he cannot escape from it.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core (9-12).

Gabriel was faced with a similar dilemma in “The Dead.” He also was constantly haunted by this sound “in the deep heart’s core” but he decided that there was no solution to his problem. Gradually, this old world of Nature would fade away and people would be left hopeless and in despair. Yeats, however, still shares a glimmer of hope. Nature is not destroyed and there are still places that will welcome the solitary traveler, places like Innisfree and Gabriel’s Aran Isles. Just as Gabriel had drawn the conclusion that only in the old Ireland could he have truly loved his wife, so the speaker in this poem declares that he can only find peace in Innisfree, “for peace comes dropping slow, / Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings” (5-6). But his peace is truly tangible for his Innisfree exists whereas Gabriel’s old Ireland did not.

The word ‘alienation’ often has bad connotations, but the Merriam Webster dictionary defines it simply as “a withdrawing of a person's affections from an object or position of former attachment.” Romanticism showed that there were two types of alienation in mankind, one that was bad and the other good, and no middle ground in between. The Modernists delved even more deeply into these themes, oftentimes reaching very different conclusions as Joyce and Yeats did. To many, the past was lost and irrecoverable. Like Gabriel, they could only picture themselves as shadowy ghosts living in a world merely the faint outline of its lost glory. But others, like Yeats, still rejoiced in the hope that was offered to them – for the beauty and peace of Nature could never fade as long as it abided in the “deep heart’s core.”

Works Cited

Joyce, James. “The Dead.” 1914. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Major Authors. Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. 8th edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006, pgs. 2507-2534.

Yeat, William Butler. “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” 1890. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Major Authors. Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. 8th edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006, pg. 2391.

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Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 12:02 PM |

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Chesterton on "Cyrano De Bergerac"

Cyrano De Bergerac, a verse drama in five acts, was performed for the first time in 1897 and published the following year. Set in 17th-century Paris, the action revolves around the emotional problems of the noble, swashbuckling Cyrano, who, despite his many gifts, feels that no woman can ever love him because he has an enormous nose. It is one of my favorite plays. And it was one of Chesterton's favorite plays too.

In his essay "French and English," G. K. Chesterton comments on several French plays. Then writes, "I do not know much of humanity, especially when humanity talks in French. But I know when a thing is meant to uplift the human soul, and when it is meant to depress it. I know that Cyrano de Bergerac...was meant to encourage man."

Now, you know if Chesterton liked something it had to be very, very good. So go run down to your bookstore or library and grab a copy of Cyrano De Bergerac. It really does uplift the human soul.

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Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 11:16 AM |

A Letter from C. S. Lewis

A letter from C.S. Lewis to his best friend, Arthur Greeves, written when Lewis was seventeen:

I have had a great literary experience this week. I have discovered yet another author to add to our circle--our very own set: never since I first read 'The well at the world's end' have I enjoyed a book so much--and indeed I think my new 'find' is quite as good as Malory or Morris himself. The book, to get to the point, is George Macdonald's 'Faerie Romance', Phantastes which I picked up by hazard in a rather tired Everyman copy [...]. At any rate, whatever the book you are reading now, you simply MUST get this at once: and it is quite worth getting in a superior Everyman binding too.

Of course it is hopeless for me to try and describe it, but when you have followed the hero Anodos along that little stream to the faery wood, have heard about the terrible ash tree and how the shadow of this gnarled, knotted hand falls upon the book the hero is reading, when you have read about the faery palace--just like that picture in the Dulac book--and heard the episode of Cosmo, I know that you will quite agree with me. You must not be disappointed at the first chapter which is rather conventional faery tale style, and after it you won't be able to stop until you have finished. There are one or two poems in the tale--as in the Morris tales you know--which, with one or two exceptions are shockingly bad, so don't TRY to appreciate them: it is just a sign, isn't it of how some geniuses can't work in metrical forms--another example being the Brontes.

I quite agree with what you say about buying books, and love all the planning and scheming beforehand, and if they come by post, finding the neat little parcel waiting for you on the hall table and rushing upstairs to open it in the privacy of your own room. Some people--my father for instance--laugh at us for being so serious over our pleasures, but I think a thing can't be properly enjoyed unless you take it in earnest, don't you? What I can't understand about you though is how you can get a nice new book and still go on stolidly with the one you are at: I always like to be able to start the new one on the day I get it, and for that reason wait to buy it until the old one is done. But then of course you have so much more money to throw about than I.

Talking about finishing books, I have at last come to the end of the Faerie Queene: and though I say 'at last', I almost wish he had lived to write six books more as he hoped to do--so much have I enjoyed it.

[C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Volume I, Letter of 7 March 1916]


Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 11:03 AM |

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