Wednesday, October 21, 2020

G.K. Chesterton's Philosophy, Madness, and Humor in His Novels

 G.K. Chesterton’s Philosophy, Madness, and Humor in His Novels, The Napolean of Notting Hill and Manalive: As Compared to Edwardian Culture




 

Ipatia Apostolides, B.A., M.F.A.

 

 

October 13, 2020


 

 

 

 

 

Introduction

 

Although Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born 1874 in Kensington, London, during the Victorian period, he was considered an Edwardian author. His extensive writing began during King Edward VII’s reign (1901-1910) and beyond. England’s society, influenced by King Edward VII’s modern views, experienced social change - from the prim and proper Victorian age to the looser Edwardian age - along with industrialization, science vs religion (Darwin’s evolution), and women suffragettes. These changes seemed to jar with Chesterton’s conservative and moral principles; he favored past traditions, family life, and marriage. According to Chesterton’s friend, Hilaire Belloc (1936), the Edwardian environment, in essence, was hostile to the free family, and this continued even up to the year of Chesterton’s death; during Chesterton’s time, England was both an aristocratic state and anti-Catholic, and it had more respect for societies of Protestant culture; it was also a commercial society where wealth was important.

Novelists during that time, like Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness), D.H. Lawrence (Sons & Lovers), E.M. Forster (Howard’s End), Ford Maddox Ford (The Good Soldier) and Virginia Woolf (The Voyage Out), wrote stories that depicted decadent Imperialistic England with its aristocrats and their scandals, and where adulterous affairs and suicide were common themes. However, Chesterton’s stories were a different breed. Dubbed “the prince of paradox”, Chesterton’s fiction, such as the novels Manalive (Chesterton, 1912) and The Napoleon of Notting Hill (Chesterton, 1904), were filled with paradox, satire, and humor. His family life and happy childhood played a large part in influencing his archetypical figures in his stories, and he essentially remained a child all his life; where a child may be open to possibilities and accept fantasy just as easily as it accepts reality. He even states this in his autobiography:


“I believe in prolonging childhood…and have partly

preserved out of childhood, a certain romance of receptiveness” –

(Chesterton, 1937).

 

This thinking could be seen as madness in an adult, and Chesterton, having applied both fantasy and reality in his stories, has often been referred to as mad. Yet I believe he was not mad, but an artist and a genius in his own right, drawing upon his solipsism to battle the evils of the modern Edwardian world.

This paper will first explore Chesterton’s life, his philosophy, madness, and humor and then address these concepts in his two novels, The Napolean of Notting Hill and Manalive, and show how diametrically opposed his novels were to the Edwardian culture.

 

History

Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born May 29, 1874 in Kensington, London, to Marie Louise and Edward Chesterton. In his autobiography, Chesterton reflects on his mother’s side of the family consisting of a French soldier and Scottish ancestors, while his father’s side were all English (Chesterton, 1937). He also refers to his childhood as being mostly happy, yet he and his brother Cecil argued constantly, and he lost his brother during the Great War; also, Chesterton’s little sister died after falling off a rocking horse when he was a child (p. 35). These tragic happenings in the family were noted in his autobiography but did not appear to affect his humorous writing.

Chesterton didn’t learn to read until his ninth year (Kimball, 2011), yet he made up for it later in life, producing more than 100 books, 5,000 essays, and other literary works. As a child, he and his father, a successful real estate agent, performed fairy tales in a toy theater in their Kensington home, and this was a habit that he continued into adulthood (p. 29). These fairy tales provided a moral universe that stayed with him. 

This childlike way of thinking not only influenced his stories, but also those around him. A year after The Napoleon of Notting Hill was published, Louis Napoleon Parker organized the Sherborne pageant which was a show of opposition to “the utilitarian demands of commercial modernity” and was very similar to the pageant in the novel (Shallcross, 2020). Chesterton also applied this pageant theme years later to his metaphysical “pageant of creation” in his next novel The Man Who Was Thursday (Chesterton, 1908). 

After graduating from St. Paul’s School, Chesterton attended the UCL Slade School of Fine Art which is the art school of University College London. Besides art, he also attended classes in literature but did not receive any degree (G.K. Chesterton, 2020). In 1895, at the age of 21, he worked for the publisher Redway for a year; and then worked for T. Fisher Unwin, another publisher, developing his journalistic skills. By 1900, he had made a name for himself in the literary world. Besides his journalism, he had published two volumes of poems (Kimball, 2011). 

He married Frances Blogg in 1901; she was five years older than him and also an author, and she helped manage his life and writing. Considered an eccentric, on his wedding day, Chesterton took his bride to a dairy farm to drink milk where he used to go with his mother, and then he stopped at a shop to buy a gun in order to protect his wife (Chesterton, 1937). However, she “couldn’t resign to the physical realities of marriage” (Kimball, 2011); and even though they both wanted children, they could not have any. He remained faithful to her the rest of his life.

In 1902, the Daily News hired him to write weekly opinion columns. In 1906, The Illustrated London News hired him and he stayed there for thirty years, writing a weekly column. His prolific literary career included journalism, novels, short stories, poetry, essays and apologetics. 

According to Kelly (1942), G.K. Chesterton’s intellectual and moral life directed much of his writing, and in Fancies Versus Fads (1923), he states: “I thought that all the wit and wisdom of the world was banded together to slander and depress the world, and in becoming an optimist I had the feeling of becoming an outlaw” (as cited in Kelly, 1942). Here, he alludes to an important dichotomy that represents his life as compared to the rest of Edwardian society; he was an optimist in a pessimistic society. 

 

Philosophy

During Chesterton’s attendance at London’s Slade School of Art, he struggled with solipsism, where his “eyes were turned inwards rather than outwards” and where he believed more in his mental pictures and reality than in Impressionism and rationalism, which represented the subjectivism of the world (Isley, 2010). He had a difficult time assimilating to the changes that the external world had to offer him. This inward focus seemed to stay with him the rest of his life.

His philosophy, as explained by Kelly (1942) was shaped by: “Tradition, authority, the instincts of childhood, homely common sense, a vast reading, a sense of the individual value of man, a blessed understanding of the poor, an intelligence as fine, vigorous and balanced as any of his generation, sincerity, true humility…” (p.86). Chesterton also believed that humor came from having a sense of humility (Chesterton, 1937).

In addition, the exuberant Chesterton asserted that he was still a Victorian and supported its virtues: “a rich sense of romance, a passionate desire to make the love of man and woman once more what it was in Eden, a strong sense of the absolute necessity of some significance of life” (Eaker, 1959), and he believed that “mere existence is extraordinary enough to be exciting” (p.153).

Eaker (1959) also posits that Chesterton opposed the socialism of Shaw and Wells and the capitalism of modern industry, and in its place, he offered the theory of “distributism” where each person is guaranteed rights of property and is given some ground “in which he can dig” (p.153). Chesterton’s preference of small land holdings, as compared to large land that has absorbed the small land, appears in his novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill where the newly appointed king wants to revert back to old times and divide the large city into its original smaller boroughs.

Chesterton, a lay theologian, also studied Christianity and discovered that “it took account of all the elements of the problem, that it did not simplify artificially, that it found place for good and bad, for complexity and simplicity, for pessimism and optimism, for realism and idealism, for matter and spirit, for freedom and determination” (p.96). To him, Christianity was the “philosophy of sanity” (p.23), and in 1922, he converted to the Catholic faith. His popular Father Brown short stories were about a Roman Catholic priest who, as an amateur detective, solved mysteries. According to Kelly (1942), there was no man of letters during his time who was so “consistently interested in fundamentals” (p.84).

 

Madness

While a student at the Slade School of Art, Chesterton experienced a “period of madness” (Schwartz, 1996), and this appeared in his autobiography. He thought his breakdown represented a microcosm of “a greater cultural collapse” (p.23). As a consequence, a life-long interest of his was the theme of madness and sanity, and according to Schwartz (1996), it became “the chief trope of his writing” (p.23). In Chesterton’s Autobiography (1937), sanity included three elements: externality, commonality, and Christian orthodoxy (cited in Isley, 2010). He also stated, 


“My madness, which was considerable, was wholly within. But that madness 

was more and more moving in the direction of some vague and visionary revolt 

against the prosaic flatness of a nineteenth century city and civilization” (p. 137).

 

 

Humor

English humor was a strong trait in Chesterton’s novels. Both Geoffrey Chaucer and Charles Dickens’s writing often used humor and were said to have influenced Chesterton (Chesterton, 1937). The prolific author and poet, Hilaire Belloc, wrote that English humor was a “by-product of the vivid, exaggerated, and therefore most powerful English visual imagination” (Belloc, 1936). In addition, he said this about Chesterton’s humor: “Here he was in the very centre of the national spirit. Here he was understood and accepted, as in no other thing” (p.375). 

In an essay on humor that was written three months before his death and posthumously published in 1964 by Dorothy Collins (Chesterton, 1964), Chesterton says this about humor:


“In any case, humour is the very foundation of our European literature, which alone is quite sufficiently a part of ourselves…a schoolboy can see it in such scenes of Aristophanes as that in which the dead man sits up in indignation at having to pay the toll of the Styx…” (Chesterton, 1964).

 

Humor is also tied into madness and fairy tales, where anything goes, and worlds are turned upside down. Chesterton was also called the “prince of paradox” because he showed his readers that life was full of contradictions which also carried truths.

 

Edwardian Culture

The Edwardian era, under the reign of Edward VII, was known for its richness and fashion. The English aristocrats held house parties and banquets. A great number of Edwardian era novelists slowly abandoned the moral fabric of the conservative Victorian period and explored themes of Imperialism, cannibalism, sexuality, immorality, suicide, and death. Some Edwardian novels primarily focused on the lives of the wealthy, such as seen in The Good Soldier and The Voyage OutHoward’s End, on the other hand, also included the dichotomy of the rich and the poor. God didn’t appear to be a part of their lives, either, and He was rarely mentioned in Edwardian fiction. Humor was also not an inherent part of their writing as it was in G.K. Chesterton’s writing. Chesterton’s vision was broader and more fundamental. Instead of focusing on the conforming views of modern Edwardian society, he chose the traditions of the past, like the pageants from the time of Chaucer (Chesterton, 1904), as well as his philosophy, Christianity, optimism, and humor. 

 

 

The Napoleon of Notting Hill

 

Chesterton’s first novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (Chesterton, 1904), is set in the 1980s in London. This futuristic tale is not a science fiction story, for it does not take into account any future technological changes, but is a satirical fantasia (Shallcross, 2020). It assumes that nothing has changed in England since 1904. It has been described by Eaker (1959) as Chesterton’s greatest fable, “where romance and glory are found in the tiniest village or the meanest suburb” (p.153).

Chesterton’s introduction gives us not only a philosophical foundation of the reason why nothing has changed, but presents it in an absurd, farcical manner that is humorous and entertaining at the same time. He believes that the “human race has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it until the end” (p. 13). In one of the games, “Cheat the Prophet” the players listen to the prophets and then when they die, bury them and “go and do something else” (p. 13). This ties into Kimball’s (2011) claim that Chesterton’s childhood of performing fairy tales in his home theater with his father lasted into his adulthood. 

Everything eighty years later is the same as in 1904, except that people had “lost their faith in revolutions” but believed in “Evolution” which was “Nature’s revolutions” (p. 22), and no one cared how a king was made. Anyone could become king, which immediately opens up a Pandora’s Box of endless possibilities. Who would the next king be? The ludicrous nature of this story continues with two government workers walking in front of a short government official in London, and their coattails appear to him as “two black dragons were looking at him with evil eyes” (p.24). This vivid imagery and metaphor is humorous and childlike at the same time. One would think that this is a children’s book, but it is not. The short government official is Auberon Quin, and he likes humor very much. He is so short, that he has often been mistaken for a boy whenever he entered a room of strangers. This reference to a boy’s height embodies the image of a child and suggests that this person not only looks like a child but thinks like a child. 

According to Isley (2010), in order to understand how Chesterton thinks, one should look at the recurring images in his writing. The use of color is strongly evident in this novel. The brief entrance of Del Fuego, the proud ex-President of Nicaragua, introduced as a man dressed in a military uniform of brilliant green, who chose yellow and spilled blood on a rag to represent the yellow and red colors of his flag, caught my attention. The color of green is also Innocent Smith’s color of clothing in Chesterton’s Manalive (Chesterton, 1912). Green tends to symbolize nature and tranquility. Nicaragua had severed its ties from England since 1860, and yet it is now the 1980s. 

In his conversation with Barker, Del Fuego states, “But Nicaragua is not dead. Nicaragua is an idea” (p. 37), and Barker counters with, “We moderns believe in a great cosmopolitan civilization, one which shall include all the talents of the absorbed people-” (p. 40). This contradicts Chesterton’s philosophy of “small is better.” Del Fuego, who represents Chesterton, goes on to explain that when nations want to unite and become one (Imperialism), the small nation loses its identity. After he makes his point, Del Fuego dies a short time later. 

Humor is rampant here. Auberon Quin, while capering about and “putting his head between his legs and making a noise like a cow” (p.57) is chosen to be king, which is a ridiculous moment. How could anyone take this childlike man seriously? It’s as if Chesterton took the court jester and converted him to king. King Auberon says this about his thoughts on humor, “one should be funny in public, and solemn in private” (p. 67).

Yet, the fact that he becomes king is enough for people to follow what he decrees. This satirical jab at King Edward VII is too obvious to ignore. King Auberon speaks at The Society for the Recovery of London Antiquities about bringing “ a keener sense of local patriotism in the various municipalities of London” (p.75). King Auberon wants to divide London back into its ancient boroughs and does this through forming The Charter of the Cities, which causes confusion at first. He wants each borough to have alarm bells (tocsins), city guards, and walls, and these changes include halberdiers who carry medieval poles. He also wants the provosts to wear colored uniforms for their borough. 

Ten years pass, and young Adam Wayne becomes the provost of Notting Hill replacing the previous provost, a businessman, who had died. This causes problems because during these ten years, a road going through Notting Hill had been in the process of being designed, and now Adam Wayne does not want that road passing through his borough. 

Auberon Quin had met Adam Wayne ten years earlier, when he was a child, thrusting his sword into this side. This childlike tendency to play with the sword is carried into adulthood. Now a young man and provost of his own borough, Adam Wayne takes his role seriously and carries a sword to defend his turf. He declares war upon those wanting to build the road through Notting Hill and goes from shopkeeper to shopkeeper in his borough, looking for help. The one that helps him is Turnbull who owns the toy shop. As a hobby, he had been studying wars, but the last one was the Nicaraguan war fifteen years ago. Trumbull told Wayne that there had been no wars since then because “The big Powers of the world, having swallowed up all the small ones, came to that confounded agreement, and there was no more war” (p. 157). Again, this is a reference to Imperialism, a recurring theme in this tale.

Adam Wayne makes Turnbull his Commander-in-Chief after he finds out that Turnbull had already worked on a plan to defend the town. This allegorical twist in the story is humorous. Turnbull pays forty children to come to the spot with hansom cabs in order to make a barricade which will be useful during the battle. The fact that children are used in this battle also provides a lighthearted aspect to the story.

Afterwards, Adam Wayne reflects on Turnbull and his philosophy: “Turnbull enjoyed it partly as a joke, even more perhaps as a reversion from the things he hated – modernity and monotony and civilization” (p. 162). This philosophy is similar to Chesterton’s, and one might think that Chesterton identified with the toymaker. Another interesting angle is that Chesterton never had children, but he liked children very much. It was almost as if he were writing stories for the children of the world, entertaining them as his father had spent time playing with him.

Like Napoleon, Adam Wayne fights to defend his borough of Notting Hill when other Provosts want to build the road through his part of town. His clever modes of battle include turning off the lamps at night so his enemies could not see; another one was to pour water over their heads from the water tower.

After many years go by, another battle occurs and he and King Auberon, who abdicates his throne in order to join him, die. When they are resurrected, Auberon Quin reveals to Adam Wayne that his idea of dividing the city into boroughs was only a joke. But Wayne comes back and tells him:


“You and I, Auberon Quin, have both of us throughout our lives been again and again called mad. And we are mad. We are mad, because we are not two men but one man. We are mad, because we are two lobes of the same brain, and that brain has been cloven in two” (p. 299).

 

Wayne goes on to say that they are opposites, like a man and woman, aiming at the same thing. Each one was different and yet the same. Again, the reference to being mad is apparent here, and Chesterton is not afraid to say so. 

 

 

Manalive

 

Eight years later, Chesterton published another humorous novel Manalive (Chesterton, 1912). The first half of the novel, The Enigma of Smith, focuses on Innocent Smith. Inglewood, who is residing in Beacon House, a boarding house in London, recalls Smith during his conversation with two other male boarders, Michael Moon and Dr. Warner; Inglewood says “I was shocked to learn that poor Smith had gone off his head” and he goes on to validate this through a telegram he had received from Smith a year ago stating “Man found alive with two legs;” this is also confirmed by Dr. Warner’s statement “The message is clearly insane” because all men have two legs (Chesterton, 1912, p. 22). He also states, “insanity is generally uncurable” and is countered by Michael Moon’s response “So is sanity.” Chesterton is well known for quips like these.

Thus, begins Chesterton’s identification with Smith’s alleged “insanity,” as Chesterton himself had had a bout of madness while in school (Schwartz, 1996). This recurring theme sets the stage for light-hearted reading that at first appears not to be taken seriously, and yet there are plenty of thought-provoking ideas to consider, such as what constitutes madness, and because someone thinks differently could they be criminal? 

As previously stated, Chesterton liked to use humor in his novels. Innocent Smith, in Manalive (Chesterton, 1912), makes his entrance at the boarding house on a windy day, chasing his hat up a tree, and then hanging from the tree like a monkey. This comical pose is only a glimpse of Chesterton’s humor in the story. Smith was also a massive man with “vast shoulders,” and a “prodigy of a big man in green” and yet he is able to leap “the wall like a green grasshopper,” and this description of such a large man being so agile appears ridiculously funny. Large men don’t jump walls, they usually go around them or have someone help them up the wall. They don’t climb trees, because the branches might break from their heavy weight. So here, Chesterton is defying the image of a “massive” man by coupling it with an athletic and agile man, and thus producing humor. This “massive” man could very well be that of the author himself. Chesterton was known to be six feet four inches tall and weighed close to 300 pounds. He previously used this massive and agile image of himself in the character of Sunday in The Man Who Was Thursday (Chesterton, 1908). Could it be that what was impossible for him to do in real life, he imagined in his stories?

The name of “Innocent Smith” also is worthy of attention. It is nowhere close to a name reminiscent of madness, but rather that of a baby. The word “innocent” reminds one of a baby’s character, na├»ve and harmless, and the word “Smith” reminds one of a common name, in other words, nothing special. When Inglewood recognizes Smith and asks him “Is your name Smith?” the response he gets makes him think of a “speech of a new-born babe accepting a name than of a grown-up man admitting one” (p. 43). 

Smith decides to become a lodger at the boarding house. Because of Smith’s unorthodox ways, he starts bringing the boarders at Beacon House together. They feel as if they are celebrating their birthdays and go about in “high spirits,” elaborating on their hobbies. For years, the five boarders, three men and two women, had avoided each other, but when Smith arrives, “He somehow got the company to gather and even follow (though in derision) as children gather and follow a Punch and a Judy.” 

However, sinister thoughts intrude in this lighthearted story. When Inglewood sees Smith’s pistol on the attic floor, he asks him “are you afraid of burglars?” and Smith explains “I deal life out of that.” This is one of the paradoxes that is explained later in the story; by being fired upon and fearing for one’s life, one appreciates life better. After only ten hours of knowing Mary Gray, Smith proposes to her, and her wealthy friend Rosamund Hunt is frantic and seeks Michael Moon, an Irishman who also boards at Beacon House, for advice. She tells him “That maniac Smith wants to marry my friend Mary, and she- and she- doesn’t seem to mind” (p.92). 

In another section, Smith is called “balmy.” Yet, his boy-like actions influence the other boarders to open up and seek each other and to propose marriage, as seen when Michael Moon proposes to Rosamund by telling her, “We have had a little nap for five years or so, but now we’re going to get married, Rosamund” (p. 93). In addition, Arthur Inglewood and Diane Duke are considering marriage.

Humor and childlike happiness sets in when the boarders Michael Moon, Rosamund Hunt, the landlady Diane Duke, and Arthur Inglewood hold hands and dance around Dr. Herbert Warner as he returns to the boarding house. Dr. Warner shouts at Inglewood “are you mad?” (p.106). He has arrived with a criminologist from America, Dr. Pym, to prove Innocent Smith’s crimes of theft, murder, and bigamy, among other things. 

The story shifts to a darker mood as Dr. Warner searches for Smith in the boarding house. Smith fires a shot at him, and Dr. Warner rushes back outside shrieking “Stop that murderer there!”(p.113) and this is followed by two shots that pierce his hat. Smith comes outside holding the smoking pistol, and laughing, surrenders it to his friend Inglewood. Even this scene brings humor to something that could be dark. This is probably the strangest behavior of Smith’s that would be considered insane from an adult perspective, yet when looked at from the perspective of a child firing shots with a toy gun, it appears harmless. 

The second half of the novel “The Explanations of Innocent Smith” is spent on Dr. Warner and Dr. Pym reading the evidence from hand-written notes of people who knew Innocent Smith in the past in order to prove their case that he was a criminal. It is allegorical because it tells Innocent Smith’s story within this story. It is also an opportunity for his defense.

Without defending his actions, like shooting his gun at people, Smith remains mostly in the background, listening, and the two doctors move the story forward. Michael Moon realizes that Innocent Smith has not escaped, and that he is innocent and “an allegorical practical joker” who uses his body to show his trust and innocence by not escaping. Innocent Smith is an apt title for the main character. 

In Innocent Smith’s defense, a document written and signed by the Warden of Brakespeare College and Innocent Smith, reveals that Smith, as an undergraduate at Brakespeare College, after having attended Dr. Eames’ lecture, and after having done pistol practice and fencing, was feeling sullen afterwards; and he was thinking, “existence is really rotten,” and decides to visit his master and friend, Dr. Emerson Eames, the Warden at Brakespeare College, who liked to stay up late at night. When he visits Dr. Eames, he states, “And knowing you were the greatest living authority on pessimist thinkers,” but he is interrupted by Dr. Eames with “all thinkers are pessimists” (p. 209). Smith bangs his fist on the table and says, “Oh, hang the world!” and Dr. Eames goes on to say this about the world: 


“Let’s give it a bad name first,” said the Professor calmly, “and then hang it. 

A puppy with hydrophobia would probably struggle for life while we killed it, 

but if we were kind we should kill it. So an omniscient god would put us out of 

our pain. He would strike us dead” (p. 211).

 

Smith takes his words literally and picks up his pistol and aims it at him. He claims that he wants to put him out of his misery, just like the puppy, but Dr. Eames shouts, “Put that thing down,” and sprints for the window and balcony. He leaps from there and “hangs” on a buttress. This is a hilarious scene but at the same time, serious. With so many words, Dr. Eames tells Smith that he wants to live. But Smith wants him to first confess that there is a god, and other things, then he fires shots around him. Dr. Eames complies. Smith confesses to him afterwards that he had to do it, to prove him wrong, or to die. He saves the remaining shots and states, “I mean to keep those bullets for remaining pessimists” (p. 225). Smith continues:


            “I am going to hold the pistol to the Modern Man. 

But I shall not use it to kill him – only to bring him life” (p. 226)

 

This is clearly a message to the pessimistic world that Chesterton was living in at that time. His “pistol,” aimed at the modern world, was a symbol for his writing. According to Arthur Inglewood, who is defending Smith, Dr. Warner was shot at by Smith because when Smith asked him about his birthday, he had replied that he didn’t see that “birth was anything to rejoice about” (p.233). Smith felt compelled to use his gun the way he did with Dr. Eames, pointing it harmlessly at Dr. Warner but sending a message, loud and clear.

As the two doctors read each letter or document against Innocent Smith, they also listen to the documents for Smith’s defense, and they find out that Innocent Smith is quite innocent after all. He has never murdered anyone or stolen anything. When Rosamund Hunt tries to talk Mary Gray out of going away with Innocent Smith, Mary Gray does not change her mind. Dr. Pym also tries to convince Mary Gray about Innocent Smith by saying, “to begin with,” he said, “this man Smith is constantly attempting murder. The Warden of Brakespeare College-” and is interrupted by Mary Gray who says, “I know” (p. 131). After Rosamund Hunt calls Innocent Smith “a wicked man,” Mary Gray laughs and replies, “He is really rather naughty sometimes” (p. 133). The other boarders are not aware that Mary Gray defends Innocent Smith continually because he is her husband. It is discovered later that Mary Gray is Innocent Smith’s wife, and she happens to be the same woman whom he marries each time. They had arranged to meet at different places and to remarry. Therefore, no bigamy has occurred.

Reading this allegorical story is like watching a play in a toy theater where adults who avoided each other for years at Beacon House were “given permission” by Innocent Smith to become free, and act like children, and thus, were allowed to interact, jump, play, dance and be merry. It also allowed the reader to live vicariously through these characters and decide for themselves if Innocent Smith was truly “innocent.”

 

 

Conclusion

In essence, what people see before them is not what they think they see, and Chesterton proves this in his fiction. Chesterton’s childlike humor in his fiction represents Chesterton himself; it is a continual breath of fresh air in his two novels The Napoleon of Notting Hill and Manalive. He uses humor, madness, paradox and allegories in his novels to prove a point or disprove a point. He also uses color and art to add vivid images to his scenes. In addition, some of his fiction reads like a mystery, where the detective finds evidence to prove or not prove a crime as in Manalive

Chesterton was also dogmatic and believed in God, marriage and family, and when Innocent Smith was accused of bigamy in Manalive, it is revealed that he varied his living abode and remarried his wife several times instead of being a philanderer. He was perfectly happy being married to the same woman all these years. 

Yet, in Chesterton’s fiction, he never really probes deeply into the human mind (except for bouts of madness in his characters) or into complex human relations as did the other Edwardian novelists. He never explores romance and sexuality as does Paul Morels in D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, or writes about coming of age and finding love, as did Rachel in Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out. His fiction, with its broad strokes of colorful images, with its childlike characters, mad adults, and philosophical themes, and with its paradoxes and allegories, was meant to challenge the popular social change that was sweeping England. He wanted to challenge the “Modern Man” as did Innocent Smith, in seeing life differently; where money, their new god, couldn’t buy everything. By doing this, he hoped to offer them an alternative, life-sustaining freedom – to live happily and as freely as a child.

 

References

 

 

Belloc, H. (1936). G.K. Chesterton and modern England. Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, 25(99), 369-378. http://www.jstor.com/stable/30097363

 

Chesterton, G.K. (1937). Autobiography. Hutchinson & Co. Ltd. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.171708/page/n5/mode/1up

 

Chesterton, G.K. (1964). Humor. In D. Collins (Ed.) The Spice of Life and Other Essays. Beaconsfield.

 

Chesterton, G.K. (1912). Manalive. Thomas Nelson and Sons. https://ia802708.us.archive.org/18/items/manalive00chesiala/manalive00chesiala.pdf

 

 

Chesterton, G.K. (1908). The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare. Pantianos Classics.

 

 

Chesterton, G.K. (1904). The Napoleon of Notting Hill. John Lane. https://ia800207.us.archive.org/30/items/cu31924013462936/cu31924013462936.pdf

 

Eaker, J.G. (1959). G.K. Chesterton among the moderns. The Georgia Review, 13(2), 152-160. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41398145

 

G.K. Chesterton. (2020, October 10). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G._K._Chesterton

 

Isley, W.L. (2010). Mental pictures: Shapes and colors in the thought of G.K. Chesterton. Inklings Forever, 7(9), 1-9. https://pillars.taylor.edu/inklings_forever/vol7/iss1/9

 

Kelly, H. (1942). G.K. Chesterton: His philosophy of life. Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, 31(121), 83-97. http://www.jstor.com/stable/30098025

 

Kimball, R. (2011). G.K. Chesterton: master of rejuvenation. The New Criterion, 26(32), 26-32.  http://content.ebscohost.com/ContentServer.asp?T=P&P=AN&K=66893912&S=R&D=a9h&EbscoContent=dGJyMNHX8kSeqLQ40dvuOLCmsEieqK9Sr6e4S7aWxWXS&ContentCustomer=dGJyMPGus0ivrrRRuePfgeyx43zx1ex99QAA

 

Schwartz, A. (1996) G.K.C.’s methodical madness: Sanity and social control in Chesterton. Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, 49(1), 23-40

DOI: 10.5840/renascence199649120

 

Shallcross, M. (2020). The pomp of obliteration: G.K. Chesterton and the Edwardian pageant revival. In A. Bartie, L. Fleming, M Freeman, A. Hutton, & P. Readman (Eds.), Restaging the Past: Historical Pageants, Culture and Society in Modern Britain (pp.80-107). UCL Press. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv13xprsc. 

 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Irish Identity in Seamus Heaney's Poem "Digging"

Irish Identity in Seamus Heaney’s Poem “Digging”
Ipatia Apostolides
May 23, 2020

Digging
by Seamus Heaney

Between my finger and my thumb   
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound   
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   
Bends low, comes up twenty years away   
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.   
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.


Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging” was originally published in Death of a Naturalist in 1966. The poem describes the speaker looking out his window and seeing his father digging in the flowerbeds. The speaker contemplates that twenty years ago, his father and grandfather both dug for potatoes, and how he has broken that tradition by writing instead of digging. Yet there is more to the poem than first meets the eye. I will cover several aspects of the poem, like its structure, title, symbolism, and sensory detail. I will also show how the dominant theme in “Digging,” which demonstrates the act of digging, is linked to the speaker’s Irish past, or roots.

Heaney’s poem “Digging,” written in first person point-of-view, gives the impression of being a personal poem (3-4). It begins with the first stanza consisting of two eight-syllable rhyming lines followed by the second stanza consisting of two ten-syllable rhyming lines and one eight-syllable rhyming line. The third stanza consists of four lines, and here the pattern changes from traditional rhyme to nonrhyming verse. This nonrhyming verse with varying syllabic meters, including iambic pentameter, continues until the end; with five lines in the fourth stanza, two lines in the fifth stanza, seven lines in the sixth stanza, four lines in the eighth stanza, and three lines in the last stanza. Essentially, the speaker has begun with traditional rhyming verse in the first 5 lines and switches to modern, non-rhyming verse for the rest of the poem.

The speaker’s inactive stance is evident here: “Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests; snug as a gun,” and he is just sitting there (lines 1-2). According to Goes, the speaker “is preparing to write, or perhaps, is unable to write and is merely sitting dumbstruck as he attempts to” (2). Another form of inactivity is shown in the “squat pen,” which suggest that his pen is squatting, or doing nothing, just like he is. 

The physical act of digging commences with the speaker’s father. The speaker looks out the window and goes into minute detail about the process of his father digging among the flower beds (lines 5-6), and then he reminisces twenty years ago when his father dug potatoes: “Bends low, comes up twenty years away/Stooping in rhythm through potato drills/ Where he was digging” (lines 7-9). Line 7 gives a smooth transition from the present moment to twenty years into the past. The majority of the poem focuses on the digging done by his father and grandfather, denoting two generations of diggers. This shows a time in Irish history where digging potatoes was a way of life and a way to feed the family.

The speaker also plays a role in his familial past; he assisted in some part of this digging process. For example, the speaker mentions that he picked new potatoes along with others, presumably his siblings: “To scatter new potatoes that we picked/Loving their cool hardness in our hands” (lines 13-14). According to Goes, editor of the Hog Creek Review, a literary journal of the Ohio State University at Lima, the speaker “is at the center of action,” and he identifies himself as being a member of a group by using the word “we.” In addition, the speaker mentions: “Once I carried him milk in a bottle/ Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up/ To drink it, then fell to right away” (lines 19-21. This act of taking milk to his grandfather symbolizes a feminine, supportive role. It also means that what his grandfather was doing probably was too difficult a task for the speaker, who must have been a young child at the time. Yet the speaker participated in an indirect way by bringing milk to his grandfather. 

The title in the poem is significant because the act of digging has more than one connotation. Digging could consist of actual digging, which falls into the realm of naturalism. For art and literature, naturalism is defined in the dictionary as a realistic depiction of detail, and it focuses on the natural world. Heaney appears to be dealing with the natural world. Digging can also be symbolic. 

The symbolism of digging can refer not only to the physical act of digging, but also to the past. By referring to “twenty years” away (line 7), the speaker guides the reader to reflect upon his past, as if he were digging into it. In addition, using similar words, through metaphor, is a good way to show double meanings and denote symbolism. In the following phrases: “I look down,” (line 5), “Bends low” (line 7), and “going down and down” (line 23), may symbolically refer to the speaker’s father’s and grandfather’s hard manual labor in the past which represented Ireland’s past, and where the Irish, due to British Imperialism, were forced to live in poverty. “I look down” (line 5) could also suggest how the British looked down on the Irish in the past. The “roots” in the following phrase: “Through living roots awaken in my head”  (line 27), can refer to the speaker’s familial roots. There are the roots from the flowers and potatoes, and then there are the living familial roots in the speaker’s head. 

Another symbol in this poem is the gun; it could be symbolic of the sexual act. This is revealed in “snug as a gun” (line 2), “the spade sinks into” (line 4), “straining rump” (line 6), and even “the shaft” (line 10). In the natural world, the sexual act produces offspring, and in this case, the act of digging produces potatoes or crops. The gun in the second line could also represent fighting for a cause, yet it rests, where the speaker has the ability or potential to fight with words. 

The speaker’s use of sensory detail abounds in this poem; he sees, hears, and even smells in the poem. These details include the following concrete words: pen, gun, flowerbeds, boot, knee, spade, hands, potatoes, turf, shoulders, and milk, among others. When the speaker states what he sees, as in: “I look down” from the window, and what he hears, as in the “clean rasping sound” (line 3), the reader is there with him, seeing and hearing. Later, the speaker talks about the sound of the spade sinking into the “gravelly ground” (line 4), as well as the sound of “the squelch and slap” (line 25), and these sounds bring realism and naturalism to the poem. In addition, the sense of smell, as seen in line 25, “The cold smell of potato mould” is evident in  these few words. Although smell is not “cold,” the cold in this phrase represents the coolness of the damp earth where the mold grows.

A central theme to this poem is Irish identity. This has been a topic that has been a central theme in many Irish poets’ works, and being under British rule in the 19th century and early 20th century meant that the Irish were inevitably poor, which was a stark reality of their Irish culture. Both Heaney and Yeats were Irish poets. W.B. Yeats was born in Ireland in 1865 and grew up as a Protestant with the Irish revolting against the British (Finneran). Heaney was born in 1939 in Northern Ireland and grew up as a Catholic (Heaney). 

Their Irish identity was important to them, and it shows in their poems, even though they came from different religious backgrounds and time periods. During the 1840s to 1890s, the Irish peasant was tagged as “Paddy,” a comic Irish buffoon due to their post-famine emigration into the English slums (Hirsch 1119). The Irish Literary Revival revolved around Yeats’s writing; and it tried to change the “Paddy” image into a “natural” aristocrat by idealizing them (1120). Although Yeats liked to idealize and romanticize the Irish past, this romanticizing of the “peasant” was not necessarily the truth, because Yeats didn’t really know them, since much of his life was spent in Sligo, Dublin, or in Coole Park. As a result, the question I raise is “What is the real Irish man’s identity?” The Irish man’s identity really begins when he is liberated from Britain. As long as the Irish were ruled by Britain, their identity was not their own. Even though he was a romantic, Yeats’s “Easter 1916” poem attempts to mark this historical uprising in 1916 of Ireland against Britain, and in line 41, the speaker emphasizes Ireland’s unified front: “Hearts with one purpose alone” (Finneran 76). This was a turning point in Ireland’s history with Britain.

Another significant aspect of the Irish identity was the role that poverty played in their lives. According to the May 18, 2020 lecture by Dr. Frazier (University of the Cumberlands), the Irish were cultivating potato crops but the British were confiscating them, leaving the Irish to be hungry. Hirsch states, “The overwhelming squalor and poverty in the West during the horrible years of the famine also led English writers to conclude that the Irish existed on a lower rung of the Darwinian ladder” (1119). 

Heaney’s “Digging” poem refers to the Irish man’s years of famine, where growing potatoes was an integral part of that life; and it’s depicted through his personal experience with his grandfather: “My grandfather cut more turf in a day/Than any other man on Toner’s bog” (lines 17-18). Equating the Irish past with poverty can also be seen in the “coarse boot” (line 10) which portrays an old boot that is not shiny or new, but a boot of a hardworking man who has used it often in his work. Also, the bottle that was “Corked sloppily with paper” (line  20) reveals that there is no cork, which may have been lost or misplaced, but a substitute cork made of paper. Milk, readily available from the cow, was the food of the poor. These well-chosen and well-placed words give rich detail to the “Digging” poem, bringing the reader into the speaker’s humble Irish past, and making it real for them. Poems like this, that deal directly with the Irish past, help piece together the true Irish man’s identity.

The ending lines of the poem brings it to a full circle as the speaker reminds us again of the squat pen and how he will “dig with it” (line 31). In essence, there are two different ways to earn a living through digging, either through the physical process of digging, or through digging with the mind and pen. By tying into the Irish past with the digging of potatoes, the speaker reminds us that the act of digging is not always an activity reserved for flowerbeds, but was useful at one time for making a living and feeding the poor. The speaker also reveals how he now has a choice to dig with his pen rather than with the lowly spade, and through this, reminds us that his father and grandfather did not have that option during their poverty-stricken Irish lives. 


                                                      Works Cited

Finneran, Richard J., editor. The Yeats Reader: A Portable Compendium of Poetry, Drama, and Prose. By W.B. Yeats. 2nd ed., Scribner, 2002.

Goes, Adam. “Digging into Society: The Hierarchy of the Poet and the Working Man.” Hog Creek Review. https://kb.osu.edu/bitstream/handle/1811/79431/5/LIMA_HCR_2012_ESSAY_Goes.pdf

Heaney, Seamus. “Digging.” 100 Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008, pp 3-4.
Hirsch, Edward. “The Imaginary Irish Peasant.” PMLA, vol. 106, no. 5, Oct., 1991, pp. 1116-1133. https://www.jstor.org/stable/462684 

Metaphors of Darkness in Joseph Conrad's Novella HEART OF DARKNESS

 

Metaphors of Darkness in Joseph Conrad's Novella Heart of Darkness

Ipatia Apostolides

Sept. 2, 2020 


Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella “Heart of Darkness” is a story of horror, greed, and lack of morality. The main character, Marlow, goes into the Congo with his steamboat searching for Kurtz who has lived there a long time and is involved in procuring ivory from the natives. During this journey down the Congo river, the word “darkness” is often repeated in varying nuances; darkness is seen in the dark forest; the darkness observed in the black savages; darkness as in the decaying machinery; darkness as in Marlow’s observing the death of his helmsman and the fear of dying; and darkness representing evil, as in the oppression of the savages by the white imperialists. In addition, darkness can be felt in isolation and silence. This is seen in the passage: “the silence of the land went home to one’s heart…the amazing reality of its concealed life” (Conrad, p. 41).

The more Marlow travelled, the deeper he entered this darkness, witnessing a continuum, like the ongoing river, of death, black savages, decay, and absence of civilization. He observed the black helpers that became diseased, “some of the helpers had withdrawn to die…nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation (Conrad, p. 32). This inhuman treatment or indifference to the helpers and their lives evokes a feeling of moral decay and would cause an outcry in Europe. The cannibals that came along on the trip, after eating their hippo-meat, may have also provided a darkness or foreboding death to him and his crew. The only time that darkness seemed to disappear momentarily is when Marlow witnessed all the ivory that Kurtz had collected. Ivory is not black. It is almost white. Yet it too, was tainted by the greed of the imperialists who collected it to trade internationally.

 

Finally, another metaphor for darkness was seen in the following passage: “There is a taint of death, a flavour of deathlike indifference of unhappy savages” (Conrad, p.42). This “deathlike” indifference of unhappy savages suggests an absence of feeling or emotion, a hopelessness, or lack of joy.

 

Kurtz, an ivory trader, had become a madman by the time Marlow found him. He had heard about him from others; Kurtz collected ivory and had been wandering alone in the woods, and the young Russian man helped nurse him twice. According to the Russian, the tribe followed Kurtz because he had shot game for them. When Marlow discovered the shrunken heads on the posts, he was disgusted. This was Kurtz’s doing and the Russian explained that they were “rebels.” Then the Russian confided that Kurtz also told him he would shoot him for his ivory, “and there was nothing on earth to prevent him killing whom he jolly well pleased” (Conrad, p. 72). Another example of his madness, in the 17-page pamphlet about imperialism that he handed to Marlow, Kurtz had also written “Exterminate all these brutes!” which showed his real feelings about the savages. His evil spirit revealed itself through his killing the savages or threatening to kill the Russian. Marlow described Kurtz as having “the barren darkness of his heart” (p. 85).


When Marlow returns to the “sepulchral city” (p.88), and he realizes how petty the people’s lives are, going to and from their jobs, and their insignificant actions, he is bothered, and he shudders. They are clueless as to what is happening in their world, which is also a sort of jungle, comparable to the Congo. There is darkness there too, but it is concealed. The sepulcher is a tomb, and in the Bible represents a whitewashed tomb that is pure and white on the outside but filthy on the inside. A sepulcher represents death and darkness. What secrets are held in this sepulchral city?”

 

 

 

References

 

Conrad, J. (1996). Heart of Darkness. New York, NY: St Martin’s Press. (Originally published 1899) https://archive.org/details/heartofdarkness00conr/page/n3/mode/2up

 

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Monday, May 11, 2020

A Study of W.B. Yeats’s Poem “Words”
Ipatia Apostolides
May 10, 2020

The Irish poet Yeats and his poem “Words” will be addressed in this paper. First, I will briefly cover Yeats’s biography, including his formative years, Ireland’s influence, his friends, and his primary love interest, Maud Gonne. This will be followed by a study of Yeats’s poem “Words” that was published in The Green Helmet and Other Poems in 1910 (Finneran, 2002). The poem relates to his personal life, particularly his love for Maud Gonne, and it gives us a glimpse of his use of the mask of change, rhythm, and symbolism. I will also touch briefly upon the societal influence in his work.

Biography
William Butler Yeats was born in Sandymount, Dublin in 1865 to John Butler Yeats and Susan Pollexfen (Duane, 1997; Brown, 1999). His father, a barrister, abandoned his profession and moved his family to London to become an artist but had difficulty providing for the expanding family. Yeats spent his youth between London and Sligo, his mother’s country home. Yeats met the poet George Russell at the Metropolitan School of Art where they became friends and had a mutual respect for the occult. During that time, Yeats decided that he preferred poetry over art. Yeats also joined the Dublin Hermetic Society and the Contemporary Club made up of intellectuals who studied magic and the esoteric. There he met John O’Leary who appreciated his genius. That is when Yeats began to study Irish history in earnest. Several of his poems were published in the Dublin University Review (Archibald, 1983).
Yeats’s interaction with the sexes was a source of energy to his writing (Hynes, 1977). This became evident when Yeats wrote the following in a letter late in his life: “We poets would die of loneliness but for women, and we choose our men friends that we may have somebody to talk about women with.” Yeats was to have several relationships with women, but the woman that affected him the most was Maud Gonne.
Yeats met Maud Gonne in 1889 when she visited his family; he accepted an invitation to dine with her the next day, and he did this nearly every evening until she left for Paris (Bradford, 1962). An actress, Maud Gonne was tall and beautiful, and fiercely intent on Ireland being free from Britain. Yeats proposed to her several times, but she turned him down each time. She confessed at one point about her past, where she had been a mistress to a French man and had two children by him (Bradford, 1962; Brown, 1999). He also proposed to her daughter but was turned down.
Another important woman in his life was Lady Gregory of Coole Park. A widow of two years, she met Yeats in London in 1894; she became like a surrogate mother to him, tending to him and giving him access to her rural home at Coole (Bradford, 1962). He visited the estate during the summers to work on his writing. He also wrote plays, and they collaborated in forming a theater together (Brown, 1999). 
With Maud Gonne, however, Yeats was obsessed by her, and she showed up in many of his poems (Bradford, 1962). She refused to say “yes” to his marriage proposals; she told him that she could never marry him due to her “horror and terror of physical love” (Bradford, 1962). Yet, somehow this fear did not fit with her actual life; she had been a mistress before she met Yeats and had two children, and in 1903 she had married John MacBride and had a son, but with Yeats, she could only have a spiritual relationship where they met on an astral plane. Even after she became widowed in 1916, she refused to marry him (Brown, 1999). Eventually, Yeats married Georgina Hyde Lees in 1917; she was much younger than him, and they had two children together. In 1923, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and he also became a Senator in the Irish Free State.

“Words” Poem
Yeats’ poem “Words” was first published in The Green Helmet and Other Poems, (1910; as cited in Finneran, 2002):
WORDS
I had this thought a while ago,
‘My darling cannot understand
What have I done, or what would do
In this blind bitter land.’

And I grew weary of the sun
Until my thoughts cleared up again,
Remembering that the best I have done
Was done to make it plain;

That every year I have cried, ‘At length
My darling understands it all,
Because I have come into my strength,
And words obey my call’;

That had she done so who can say
What would have shaken from the sieve?
I might have thrown poor words away 
And been content to live (p. 36).


This traditional rhyming poem is iambic tetrameter for the first three lines of each stanza with eight syllables, while the last line of each stanza ends with an iambic trimeter of six syllables. In order to maintain the rhythmic eight syllables per line, some of his words, as in stanza 2, line 3, had to be tightened. For example, “Remembering that the best I have done” is 10 syllables, and it has to be crammed into eight syllables. So the word “remembering” could be tightened to “rememb’ring,” and “the best I have done” could be tightened to “the best I’ve done.” This way it phonetically complied with the traditional iambic meter. 
In this passage in 1900, he explained the role of rhythm in his writing (Finneran, 2002):
The purpose of rhythm, it has always seemed to me, is to prolong the moment of contemplation, the moment when we are both asleep and awake, which is the one moment of creation, by hushing us with an alluring monotony, while it holds us waking by variety, to keep us in the state of perhaps real trance, in which the mind liberated from the pressure of the will is unfolded in symbols (p. 378).

Personal Implications 
In Yeats’s poem “Words,” he used a first-person point of view which gives it a personal touch. The poet was inviting us into his private world by beginning with “I had this thought a while ago.” It’s as if he were treating us like a friend. According to Harper (2007), “Yeats’s work is intensely interested in someone we can call Yeats.” It is obviously the case in this poem.
Morrall (1956) believed that the art and personality of Yeats was combined intimately as one, and this made a “more lasting appeal to the human heart.” In addition, Yeats took his personal relationship with Maud Gonne, one filled with private thoughts, and made it public in this poem. How does one know it was Maud Gonne? Although he didn’t mention her name in this poem, the “My darling” in the second line of the poem is revealed in the following diary entry by Yeats in 1909, where PIAL was the code for Maud Gonne (Brown, 1999):
Today the thought came to me that PIAL never really understood my plans, or nature, or ideas. Then came the thought, what matter? How much of the best I have done and still do is but the attempt to explain myself to her? If she understood, I should lack a reason for writing, and one never can have too many reasons for doing what is so laborious (p.176).
In this diary entry, Yeats made it clear that Maud Gonne did not understand him. By this time in his life, she had been separated by her husband for four years and was raising her son. Although he had had other love relationships, he repeatedly returned to Gonne, asking her to marry him, but she spurned him each time (Brown, 1999). 
In the first stanza of his poem “Words,” he stated: “My darling cannot understand/What have I done, or what would do” (Finneran, 2002). But what was it that she needed to understand? The title “Words” gives a hint. She did not understand his writing. Yeats’s writing was important to him, and he had attained recognition for his poetry and plays by this time in his life. He strived to “make it plain” to her in the second stanza. By the third stanza of the poem, he had cried every year “At length/ My darling understands it all” believing the reason being that “I have come into my strength/And words obey my call.” Then retracting these thoughts in the last stanza, “That had she done so who can say/What would have shaken from the sieve?” he wondered again if she had actually understood him, thus by asking this question, he exposed an insecurity toward her. 
At the same time, he revealed his own awareness of wanting to impress her with his writing. If Maude would have given Yeats what he wanted in the poem, which was not only her love, but her whole being and her recognition for his talent and writing, then things would have changed for him. In “I might have thrown poor words away,” Yeats showed how her actions would have influenced him (Finneran, 2002). But that was not the case in real life.
I believe that in this poem, Yeats also revealed the de-selfing of the self where he “constructs the self and then deserts it” (Harper, 2007). He came into his strength where “words obey my call” which appeared to be the construction of the self, and then he deserted it in the last stanza (if she had understood him) with “And been content to live.” Another revelation into his personal life is from his “Per Amica Silentia Lunae (1918), where Yeats wrote: “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry” (as cited in Finneran, 2002). The two juxtapositions in his poem – his wanting her to understand, and what would have happened if she did understand - reveal his angst at her not understanding him, and at the same time the “quarrel” with himself.

Societal Framework
According to the Poets.org website (W.B. Yeats, n.d.) Yeats was born into the Anglo-Irish landowning class. He became involved with the Celtic Revival, resisting the cultural influences of English rule in Ireland, and promoting Ireland’s heritage through his writing. Yeats’s writing was influenced by Irish mythology, faeries, and folklore. He liked to use symbolism and rhythm. He also dabbled in the occult. (Finneran, 2002).
During the writing of the poem, there was a feeling of unrest in Ireland, as depicted in the Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne’s nationalistic stance in wanting Ireland to be freed from Britain. In addition to what was happening politically around him and Ireland, poetry during this time, had been moving from romanticism and naturalism toward modernism, but Yeats was resisting that change in his poetry (Barsky, 2015). He continued to churn out traditional poems like “Words” that rhymed and had very little concrete images except for “land, “sun,” and “sieve.” However, after 1910, his work began to reflect the influence of Ezra Pound, and it became more modern, concise, and filled with imagery (Finneran, 2002). Yet a part of him resisted; Yeats continued to use traditional rhyming verse in his poems. 
In the “Words” poem, Yeats mentioned how his darling could not understand what he would do in “this blind, bitter land” which I’m assuming referred to Ireland. That was the only reference to his society, or Ireland, in this poem. He would go on to write other poems, like “Easter in 1916” which depicted Ireland’s historical uprising in 1916. He later became Senator of the free state of Ireland and also won a Nobel Prize in Literature. These two achievements were attained late in his life and reflected his success in reaching a high societal status through his works. And the poem “Words,” like all his other poems, was a rung in society’s ladder that helped him achieve such heights.
REFERENCES

Archibald, D. (1983). Yeats. Syracuse University Press.
Barsky, R. (2016, March 31). William Butler Yeats and the meaning of poetry in the modern world - 3.31.16. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-aujcOweqHY
Bradford, C. (1962). Yeats and Maud Gonne. Texas Studies in Literature and Language3(4), 452-474. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40753563
Brown, T. (1999). The life of W.B. Yeats. Blackwell. https://archive.org/details/lifeofwbyeatscri00brow_0/page/116/mode/2up
Duane, O.B. (1997). W.B. Yeats: Romantic Visionary. Brockhampton Press. https://archive.org/details/yeats00will/page/6/mode/2up
Finneran, R.J. (Ed.). (2002). The Yeats Reader. Revised Edition. Scribner.
Harper, M.M. (2007). ‘How else could the God have come to us?’: Yeatsian masks, modernity, and the sacred. Nordic Irish Studies6, 57-72. https://www.jstor.org/stable/30001564
Hynes, S. (1977). All the wild witches: The women in Yeats’s poems. The Sewanee Review, 85(4), 565-582. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27543298
Morrall, J. (1956). Personal themes in the public and private writings of W.B. Yeats. University Review1(9), 28-36. https://jstor.org/stable/25504396
W.B. Yeats (n.d.). Poets.org website. https://poets.org/poet/w-b-yeats