“Tease me, vex me”: Uncommon Love and Jane Eyre

Love in great literature goes against the current. Convention is the enemy, especially in Romantic Comedy where intelligent couples must find a way to find one another. Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, for example, differentiates between lovers who fall in love by the rules (Claudio and Hero), and lovers who live beyond the rules, reject customary understandings of love and lovers’ roles, and must stagger in adversity through labyrinths of misunderstandings to recognize and embrace the person so obviously meant for them (Beatrice and Benedick). Love by the book is an easy path but guarantees the lovers remain unknown to each other and to themselves. [1]

Jane Eyre has no single classical model to follow. Jane’s religious journey, her Pilgrim’s Progress, with its intense self-scrutiny, tends to mask the comic plotting, the Cinderella fairy-tale that leads to its happy ending. Jane Eyre lacks laughter, but it is full of wit and sly humor. Within the tradition of Romantic Comedy the unconventional love excites wittiness at the expense of love by the book. In Romantic Comedy whatever is civil and kindly obstructs love, sweet nothings are nothing at all, pledges of devotion unearned by struggle are empty words and “perfect matches” the easy road to destruction. Intelligent people know this and will have to take the rocky path to love.

This broken path can be wonderfully amusing. Beyond the rules and convention, lie playfulness and creativity.  What social convention cannot supply, the cleverness of lovers must invent. Because we are embedded in these conventions, these inventions will delight us. They help us imagine love as liberation and discovery and not a trap set by nature and society. Hard earned and inventive love tests our patience and resolve, but in the end yields emotional richness and sanity.

Jane Eyre offers no better example of unconventional love than the painful teasing with which Jane announces herself, towards the end, to the pitiful and sightless Rochester (Chapter 37). Jane finds Thornfield destroyed by fire and her beloved master crippled and blind. To Jane he appears “desperate and brooding – that reminded me of some wronged and fettered wild beast or bird, dangerous to approach in his sullen woe”. Bronte in her gothic excess tells us: “He lifted his hand and opened his eyelids; gazed blank, and with a straining effort, on the sky, and towards the amphitheatre of trees; one saw that all to him was void darkness.  He stretched his right hand (the left arm, the mutilated one, he kept hidden in his bosom); he … folded his arms, and stood quiet and mute in the rain, now falling fast on his uncovered head” (420). [2] Proud and defiant, Rochester angrily dismisses his servant’s offer to assist him.  In the face of such anguish, Jane chooses to play blind man’s bluff with him, teasing and vexing him as he becomes aware slowly that this unnamed presence is not a dream but the woman he has been dreaming of.

The scene may seem simply cruel as Rochester begs to know who attends him and Jane refuses to tell him.  However, the game fits the sweet torment they have learned to inflict upon one another, the very opposite of kindness and civility conventional lovers owe to one another. Jane learned this game of disguises from Rochester.  It is their way of doing without the pleasantries and knowing one another truly in a perverse language all their own. When they first met in the dark forest, Rochester withheld his identity. Disguised as a gypsy fortune-teller, he pried heart’s secrets from her. To arouse her jealousy, he paraded Blanche Ingram before his poor governess. He teased and tormented her to free her from her carefully composed masquerade, her prim Quaker disguise. Jane’s cruel tease of her bedraggled master in this “Beauty and the Beast” sequel plays the game they have both mastered, following rules only they understand.

Jane’s cruelty continues. Paying Rochester back for tormenting her with Blanche Ingram, she parades St. John Rivers before him to arouse his jealousy.  Rochester calls Rivers “priggish and parsonic” (430), but Jane enrages him by describing St. John’s social polish and excellent appearance – “a handsome man: tall, fair, with blue eyes, and a Grecian profile.” When she informs him that Rivers offered to marry her, he explodes in anger – “That is a fiction – an impudent invention to vex me” (432). Could this love scene be going worse? But Jane has learned from her master how to break down the door of feeling to uncover vulnerabilities. She protests against his anger: “He is not like you, sir: I am not happy at his side. Nor near him, nor with him. He has no indulgence for me – no fondness.” Turning the tables in this dance of abuse and tearful embrace, Jane explains “Oh, you need not be jealous! I wanted to tease you a little to make you less sad: I thought anger would be better than grief … All my heart is yours, sir …” (433). Playing by conventional rules, they would never reveal their longing and never find their idiosyncratic way to extend love beyond the flash of desire into a life-long devotion. They have learned to amuse one another, to play endless hide-and-seek. Jane tells us: “To be together is for us to be at once as free as in solitude, as gay as in company.  We talk, I believe, all day long: talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking. All my confidence is bestowed on him, all his confidence is devoted to me; we are precisely suited in character – perfect concord is the result” (439).


From the beginning, Jane encounters threatening male interrogations. John Reed asserts his ownership over the books she reads and her places of refuge. Lacking the defenses she will acquire, Jane bloodies her tormentor’s nose, and suffers isolation in the Red Room (“Murder” backwards). In Mr. Brocklehurst, Jane encounters with wit and originality a powerful bully.  Brocklehurst represents Evangelical hypocrisy, doing good by battering his neighbor. In Jane’s eyes, Brocklehurst is the big bad wolf (“What a face he had, now that it was almost on a level with mine! What a great nose! And what a mouth! And what large prominent teeth!”). Little Jane deflects his cruel catechism with wit.  Asked what she must do to avoid hell’s fire, she responds she “must keep in good health, and not die” (43). Brocklehurst’s sanctimony rests upon self-serving pieties. Young Jane loses this argument with institutionalized stupidity but learns that her way forward requires wit to oppose the entrenched forces of wooden and pernicious thinking.

At Lowood School, Jane tempers her rebelliousness and dons her prim disguise, her cloak of invisibility. She learns restraint from Helen Burns and adroit policy from Miss Temple. As governess, she must attract no notice and avoid all threats. Jane Eyre may be the most sharply observant character in all non-detective literature. A useful book cover for Jane Eyre might depict the eagle and that raptor’s shining eye, so much a focal point in Jane’s descriptions. [3]

Her disguise is carefully considered. Jane is painfully aware she is not attractive.  She has learned from childhood on that the world’s favor smiles upon conventional beauty; while she has learned to compensate with accomplishments and guile, she cannot overcome her disappointment at nature’s unkindness: “I sometimes wished to have rosy cheeks, a straight nose, and small cherry mouth; I desired to be tall, stately and finely developed in figure; I felt it a misfortune that I was so little, so pale, and had features so irregular and so marked. And why had I these aspirations and these regrets? (106).

Jane hides behind a mask of Quaker simplicity, but Rochester’s fierce manliness assaults her. Even before he speaks, Jane spots his Byronic force, his granite features and, in a shockingly un-Victorian way, his body — “broad chested and thin flanked” (126). His grim look shocks and intrigues her, and his gruff tone compels Jane to break her disguise. A conventional false kindliness would have elicited an appropriate empty response, “but harsh caprice laid me under no obligation; on the contrary, a decent quiescence, under the freak of manner, gave me the advantage” (127).

Abandoning politeness and the appropriate reserve between employer and servant, age and youth, man and woman, Rochester violates Jane’s calm. Having offered a present to little Adele, Rochester asks:

… ‘did you expect a present, Miss Eyre? Are you fond of presents?’ and he searched my face with eyes that I saw were dark, irate, and piercing.

‘I hardly know, sir; I have little experience of them; they are generally thought pleasant things.’

‘Generally thought? But what do you think?’

Rochester commands Jane to play the piano, and his comments shock her.  He interrupts to remark: “You play a little, I see; like any other English school-girl: perhaps better than some, but not well.” Rochester’s intense review of Jane’s dream-like water-colors offers another gruff intrusion. His comments emphasize her lack of experience. But Jane observes a difference from earlier bullying, from the Reeds and from Brocklehurst. Rochester recognizes who she is and probes the mystery behind her prim exterior and guarded manner.

          Rochester has seen Jane and admits as much. When Jane informs him she has spent eight years at Lowood School, Rochester remarks “No wonder you have rather the look of another world.  I marveled where you had got that sort of face. When you came on me in Hay Lane last night, I thought unaccountably of fairy-tales” (128). His comments on her paintings reveal his fascination with her subterranean dream-world:  “These eyes in the Evening Star you must have seen in a dream.  How could you make them look so clear, and yet not at all brilliant? For the planet above quells their rays.  And what meaning is that in their solemn depth?” (133).

          Some days later, Jane experiences another provoking encounter. Dressed in her “usual Quaker trim, where there was nothing to retouch – all being too close and plain, braided locks included…”, Jane lapses into an after-dinner languor and gazes at her master in too unguarded a way (135). Catching her at it, Rochester traps her with a dangerous question:


“You examine me, Miss Eyre,’ said he: ‘do you think me handsome?”

I should, if I had deliberated, have replied to this question by something conventionally vague and polite; but the answer somehow slipped from my tongue before I was aware: — “No, sir.”


Rochester poses an impossible choice, to tell the truth he and she well know, or to retreat into conventional vagueness neither respects. Jane’s efforts to backtrack are clumsy and should, in politeness, be protected and honored.  Rochester, however, pursues her into this patch of obfuscation to embarrass her further:


“Sir, I was too plain: I beg your pardon.  I ought to have replied that it was not easy to give an impromptu answer to a question about appearances; that tastes differ; that beauty is of little consequence, or something of that sort.”

“You ought to have replied no such thing.  Beauty is of little consequence, indeed! And so, under pretence of softening the previous outrage, of stroking and soothing me into placidity, you stick a sly penknife under my ear!” (137)


Rochester mocks her evasions to arouse her feelings and clear the path for a real exchange between them. Most provoking, he tells her she is no prettier than he is handsome, a terrible thing to tell a plain young woman. Rochester demands his right to “be a little masterful, abrupt; perhaps exacting” (139) because he is older and more experienced, and because he is her employer.

          Jane learns to hold her own, which is what Rochester intends and she finds increasingly satisfying. When Jane compliments him for showing concern for her feelings, Rochester continues his attack upon her reserve. Jane answers cunningly that his directness signals that he feels no more bound by convention than she does. Rochester deflects this peace offering, also. He asks whether she is ready to accept his domineering manner as merely an offer of informality in their relations rather than a cruel assertion of power:


“I am sure, sir, I should never mistake informality for insolence: one I rather like, the other nothing free-born would submit to, even for a salary.”

“Humbug! Most things free-born will submit to anything for a salary; therefore, keep to yourself, and don’t venture on generalities of which you are intensely ignorant. However … despite its inaccuracy … the manner was frank and sincere; one does not often see such a manner: no, on the contrary, affectation, or coldness, or stupid, coarse-minded misapprehension of one’s meaning are the usual rewards of candour.” (140-41)


This exchange is followed by the first of several instances where the lovers read one another’s thoughts. After Rochester offers Jane a back-handed compliment — “you may have intolerable defects to counter-balance your few good points” — Jane answers silently within her own mind “And so may you.” Jane knows instantly that Rochester hears her unspoken thoughts: “My eye met his as the idea crossed my mind; he seemed to read the glance, answering as if its import had been spoken as well as imagined” (141).

          At scene’s end, Rochester comments on their deepening communication: “I think you will learn to be natural with me, as I find it impossible to be conventional with you; and then your looks and movements will have more vivacity and variety than they dare offer now.  I see, at intervals, the glance of a curious sort of bird through the close-set bars of a cage: a vivid, restless, resolute captive is there; were it but free, it would soar cloud-high” (144). Having seen Jane behind the prim costume, Rochester has set about to penetrate this veil and compel Jane to meet him directly. They are both stimulated into thought and desire, and Bronte, in her own reticent way, has asked us to be as bright as they are and to learn to distinguish politeness and the rule of courtship from the intelligence and passion of love.


          Jane is an ardent listener to Rochester’s anguished disburdenings of his foolish misadventures. [4] Bronte was criticized by reviewers for having Rochester recount his sexual exploits to Jane, but Bronte knew what she was doing. Rochester himself comments on this unseemliness. The confidence he shows her frees Jane to imagine she has a role to play in rescuing her master from his dark past. Still, as Volume One ends, we do not yet know whether this is “Beauty and the Beast” or “Bluebeard’s Castle” (114). Can we trust Rochester, can he trust himself, to be honest in his affections, or will he prove a collector of damaged women, hung like trophies along the corridors of his outraged life?

While Jane grows comfortable with Rochester’s intrusions, her master harasses her peace to excite her passions. Jane manages to retain her reserve, but collapses faced with Blanche Ingram, a model of female beauty and social ascendency. She tells herself a plain, unvarnished tale recalling her insignificance. Jane’s surrender is precipitous and painful as she stifles her dreams of love. However, Rochester parades Blanche before her, requiring Jane’s presence at his glittering social gatherings. Jane sees Rochester and Blanche in brilliant emblematic poses: “Fluttering veils and waving plumes filled the vehicles; two of the cavaliers were young, dashing-looking gentlemen; the third was Mr. Rochester, on his black horse, Mesrour; Pilot bounding before him; at his side rode a lady, and he and she were the first of the party. Her purple riding-habit almost swept the ground, her veil streamed long on the breeze; mingling with its transparent folds, and gleaming through them, shown rich, raven ringlets” (169).

Rochester makes sure Jane observes the ascendency of Blanche and the guests invited to transact this business of courtship. Jane envisions them as unearthly creatures: “They dispersed about the room, reminding me, by the lightness and buoyancy of their movements, of a flock of white plumy birds.  Some of them threw themselves in half-reclining positions on the sofas and ottomans; some bent over the tables and examined the flowers and books; the rest gathered in a group round the fire; all talked in a low but clear voice which seemed habitual to them” (174). Jane gazes from the shadows in anguish, attempting to convince herself that Rochester does not belong with these creatures of sunlight and ease. She subdues her own good sense and claims a bond that every moment recedes before her: “He is not to them what he is to me … he is not of their kind. I believe he is of mine; … I understand the language of his countenance and movements; though rank and wealth sever us widely, I have something in my brain and heart, in my blood and nerves, that assimilates me mentally to him” (178).

But the scenes drown her confidence. Blanche plays the piano expertly and accompanies Rochester in his recital. When Rochester encounters Jane he assaults her damaged confidence with Iago-like precision. Asked the cause of her sadness, Jane responds she is tired, “And a little depressed,” he adds.  When Jane denies this, Rochester is cruel, “But I affirm that you are: so much so depressed that a few more words would bring tears to your eyes – indeed, they are there now, shining and swimming; and a bead has slipped from the lash and fallen on to the flag.” He insists she appear every evening in the drawing-room, apparently oblivious to the cause of her distress.

Jane constructs an elaborate explanation for Rochester’s betrayal. Ingram is, despite all appearances, beneath contempt: “She was very showy, but she was not genuine: she had a fine person, many brilliant attainments; but her mind was poor, her heart barren by nature; nothing bloomed spontaneously on that soil; no unforced natural fruit delighted by its freshness.  She was not good; she was not original; she used to repeat sounding phrases from books: she never offered, nor had, an opinion of her own” (188).  This bitter and laughable diatribe might seem sour grapes, but the fervor of her rant measures her distress. If she is defeated, it must be for “family, perhaps political reasons; because her rank and connexions suited him; I felt he had not given her his love, and that her qualifications were ill adapted to win from him that treasure…. This was where the nerve was and touched and teased – this was where the fever was sustained and fed …” (188-189). [5]

Rochester assaults Jane as his marriage approaches. He taunts Jane by remarking how capable Miss Ingram will be in lifting him from his spiritual despair. When Jane says nothing, Rochester brusquely comments that she is pale and her hands cold. Rochester vexes her further by noting how much he enjoys sitting up with her in the evening, to which Jane responds with her dutiful reserve “whenever I can be useful” (220). Rochester deepens the offense by inviting Jane to sit up with him on his wedding night to listen to him “talk of my lovely one: for I know you have seen her and know her. His Blanche is “a real strapper, Jane: big, and brown: with hair such as the ladies of Cartharge must have had,” as if he were praising a new horse. The narrator records no response, and the scene ends with us wondering whether Rochester no longer recognizes Jane or whether some twisted plot is playing out. Jane the narrator, recalling all this from years after, holds back on what she knows and what we must figure out.

Gone several weeks to attend her dying aunt, Jane finds herself idly sketching Rochester’s face, the exercise providing her contentment (233). On Jane’s return her master teases her, “Absent from me a whole month; and forgetting me quite, I’ll be sworn” (244), but Rochester knows what she has suffered.  He asks her to admire Blanche’s radiant glory and wishes only that Jane had some magic to make him more handsome and more suitable for his strapping goddess. Soon after, Bronte assumes the electric force of present tense narrative. Rochester extols Ingram’s beauty and calls back Jane’s attention as she looks away to hide her grief. Rochester pretends not to recognize what he sees, a continuing pattern in spurring her to passion. He then announces a plan to send her far from Thornfield “to undertake the education of the five daughters of Mrs. Dionysius O’Gall of Bitternut Lodge, Connaught, Ireland” (250), an excellent joke if only Jane could enjoy it.

Rochester’s assault is unrelenting. He forces Jane to admit that she grieves being away from him – an admission that bursts from her followed by humiliating tears. Rochester assures her, in his matter-of-fact way that he will never see her again once she goes to Ireland. Seating her beside him on the bench at the devastated chestnut tree, Rochester stokes her anguish. His cruelty is beyond measure. He remarks how a cord of communion links them under their ribs that if snapped would cause inward bleeding. Wracked by tears, Jane admits her deep connection to Rochester. Her mask of Quaker reserve shatters. Jane admits she has lived in his presence a “full and delightful life,” the “communion with what is bright and energetic.” Without reserve or shame, she reveals: “I have talked, face to face, with what I reverence; with what I delight in, — with an original, a vigorous, an expanded mind” (251). Love for Jane is conversation, the play of wit, the thrust and parry as the lovers invent surprising things to reveal and disguise their feelings to one another. Still, Jane seems defeated, and in her grief says as much, calling Ingram his bride.

Jane rejects anguish and instead claims the rights of passion and equality. Rochester’s assault has sought exactly this eruption of protest. Jane suspects what he is doing but not fully why and to what end.  She protests: “I have as much soul as you, — and full as much heart! I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you.  I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, not even of mortal flesh: — it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal, — as we are!” (252). Once Jane asserts her equality in feeling, and even the wild thought to punish him as he is punishing her, Rochester can broach the impossible thought of becoming his wife. Jane believes he is mocking her.  Jane has heard so many words from this man of multiple deceits; she studies his face, and what she sees hardly consoles her: “His face was very much agitated and very much flushed, and there were strong workings in the features, and strange gleams in the eyes” (254). His fevered look and the odd pause as he explains his test of Ingram’s feelings for him reveal that his emotions twist in too many directions, even while he pledges his fidelity. When the chestnut tree, their pledge of unity, is split by lightning, Jane ought to know that it is all too good to be true.

          When Jane meets Rochester again, in his wild enthusiasm for marriage, he no longer sees her. He mistakes the color of her eyes, imagines her in finery, and promises the grand tour of Europe, a story-book honeymoon Jane dislikes and distrusts. Jane doubts this effervescence will last more than the usual six-months of new married ardor and will settle into bland, workaday tolerance. Rochester, however, protests that with Jane it will all be different, that to her “clear eye and eloquent tongue,” her “soul made of fire, and the character that bends but does not break,” he will be “ever tender and true” (258-259). These expansive flatteries worry Jane. She taunts him so that he becomes uncivil to her, calls her a “thing,” to which Jane replies she would “rather be a thing than an angel” (260). Worse yet, she demands that Rochester explain his use of Blanche to antagonize her. He admits he tricked her, and Jane is delighted to hear him admit his low trick and to scold him for his duplicity. His bad behavior shows that he is driven by passion and not by any code of good behavior. For Jane, it represents a great admission that he would pay the price of personal dignity and of decency to excite her passion, a passion he admits he feels for her.

          In this period of engagement, Jane meets Rochester’s flowery efforts of ingratiation with her own style of disdain. When he kiddingly calls her a “hard little thing,” she assures him that she is “very flinty” and that she intends to show him her “diverse rugged points” so he will know what “sort of a bargain he had made while there was still time to rescind it” (271). Her testiness annoys him, but also entertains him; Jane comments that “a lamb-like submission and turtle-dove sensibility, while fostering his despotism more, would have pleased his judgment, satisfied his common-sense, and even suited his taste, less” (272). The game continues between them.  While she remains aloof or censorious, he plays at seeming angry: “Mr. Rochester affirmed I was wearing him to skin and bone, and threatened awful vengeance for my present conduct at some point fast coming.  I laughed in my sleeve at his menaces: ‘I can keep you in reasonable check now’ I reflected; ‘and I don’t doubt to be able to do it hereafter; if one expedient loses its virtue, another must be devised’” (272). The game promises endless inventiveness, enough to keep both attuned to one another in the hide-and-seek of exasperation and absorbed commitment. They are singular lovers, writing rules that fit only their own peculiar characters, united for all readers of Jane Eyre, for all our eternities, in their mutual vexation and delight.


[1] Austen’s Pride and Prejudice offers another classic account of the struggle of intelligent people to find love without conventional courtship – the arrangements by parents, the social evenings and formal balls, exchanges of letters and love tokens that serve their less imaginative peers so well. Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy struggle through thickets of convention and their pride and prejudices to learn to appreciate one another’s depth of feelings and values. Her sister Jane, so much a pattern of loveliness and soft sentiment, and Mr. Bingley, so kindly and responsive, are instantly a couple and therefore never know each other. Conventional lovers, lacking complexities, pay a price in feeling and knowledge. In romantic love, what comes easily is not worth the journey.

[2] All references to Jane Eyre are to the St. Martin’s critical edition, ed. Beth Newman.

[3] Her name itself – “Eyre” – points not only to her aerial spirit, her commanding element (air, as opposed to Rivers, to Burns, and to the stony earth of Rochester), her struggles with anger (ire), and her inheritance of the best of England’s failing cultural traditions (heir), but also to the aerie from which the eagle sees everything.

[4] Of the many Shakespeare references in Jane Eyre, one of the most interesting and apparently unnoticed are the several echoes of Othello. As Rochester opens the account of his sad and shameful adventures to Jane, he pauses to notice that he is telling his tale to a young and inexperienced girl. He remarks: “Strange that I should choose you for the confidant of all this, young lady: passing strange that you should listen to me quietly, as if it were the most usual thing in the world for a man like me to tell stories of his opera-mistresses to a quaint, inexperienced girl like you!” (148). Othello, also an older man, noted for his rude and unattractive appearance, a figure of dark and fearsome power, surprisingly captures Desdemona’s heart by means of telling his tale. Othello, like Rochester, notes that Desdemona’s sympathy for his sufferings moved him greatly: “My story being done,/ She gave me for my pains a world of kisses./ She swore in faith ‘twas strange, ‘twas passing strange;/ ‘Twas pitiful, ‘twas wondrous pitiful” (I, iii, 158-161). Othello and Desdemona are another example of intelligent, unconventional lovers. She eschews “the curled darlings” of Venice to love instead an outsider, one who has suffered a life of privations but has earned through them a depth and nobility lacking to the polished aristocrats, or in Jane’s case the handsome clergyman, society prefers.

[5] Rochester’s disguise as a gypsy fortune-teller is one of the least successful moments in the novel, but it is another example of the painful games they play. Rochester paints Jane a picture of herself listening and watching intently the courtship that promises to dash her hopes, “sitting in that window-seat, … Have you no present interest in any of the company who occupy the sofas and chairs before you? Is there not one face you study?” (200). Oddly, Jane does not protest this trick played against her, and in retrospect understands what Rochester’s benign purpose was in taunting her. In any conventional narrative, Rochester’s behavior would have registered as cruel and ridiculous, but in this courtship beyond the rules, Jane accepts this misbehavior as necessary to open trust between them, as peculiar as that might seem.

Kafka’s Metamorphosis

What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself — Kafka’s Diary (January 8, 1914)

I couldn’t read it for its perversity. The human mind isn’t complicated enough.
–Albert Einstein, after returning a Kafka novel loaned to him by Thomas Mann.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 10 AD) celebrates Venus’ power in human affairs. Venus rules in Rome and makes things happen; her dictates, like fire to a dry field, cannot be resisted. We humans are aflame with passion, and can only submit to the force that moves all nature and the gods. Ovid’s transformations are often both horrible and sweet.  Arachne, for her arrogance, becomes a spider, and then spins her marvelous webs, to our astonishment, forever. Characters tormented by fate and tricked to perform evil deeds against their will, become graceful birds, flying above the gray travails of mortals. The stories are preposterous, yet we catch more than a hint of reality in them. New husbands can be captivated at a glance by forbidden love; daughters lust for their fathers; artists devote themselves to their works with greater fervor than to their beloveds; jealousies, without an iota of truth, drive husbands and wives to deadly acts; and, kings and paupers lust for wealth and power beyond human measure. These fables are old news for our kind.

Many would despise efforts to explain Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915).  Kafka might laugh at the attempt. With nothing in common with himself, let alone with us, his private imaginings relate to … nothing at all. But his novella is not a private imagining but of his time, place, and sensibility; and resonates with haunting significance. Einstein may have demurred, but millions read Kafka’s classic and feed upon its ghastly humor and twisted romance.

Metamorphosis is a Freudian nightmare, in two distinct ways. First, Kafka depicts the oedipal conflict between father and son for sexual dominance within the family. However, in a more interesting debt, to Freud and to Sophocles, Gregor both knows and refuses to know what his dream is doing. Who knows better what transpires in his own mind, and who would need more to deny it? The narrative plays hide-and-seek with us. The story’s form is weird and unaccountable, and also oddly familiar. Our consciousness, stressed and misbehaving, works just this way.

Twice we hear that Gregor has broken out, but in his mental process he breaks out in every paragraph. He awakens to find himself a man-sized insect. But even before he is terrified by missing his train, absurd given his perceived condition, his mind fixes on his prized picture, the delicately framed photograph of the woman in furs. We do not need Sacher-Masoch , and his sado-masochistic novel, Woman in Furs, to catch the allure (or that Sacher-Masoch took the name “Gregor” in his submissive role). The picture “showed a lady, sitting upright, dressed in a fur hat and fur boa; her entire forearm had vanished into a thick fur muff which she held out to the viewer” (p. 7).*

Gregor has a special attachment to this secretive and blatant image. His father brags that Gregor, shut up in his room, amuses himself by crafting highly ornamental frames for his pictures. When the family decides to strip his room of furniture and appurtenances, Gregor fights to preserve this particular photograph: “then he saw on the otherwise barren wall opposite him the picture of the lady swathed in furs and quickly scrambled up and pressed himself against the glass, a surface he could stick to and that soothed his heated belly” (pp. 32-33) … in case we missed the point.

Gregor devotes himself to service and selfless love. Though hard-pressed — Middle-Europe’s Willie Loman — he preserves an exalted self-image, his photograph in military dress, “with a carefree smile, his hand on his sword” (p. 17). Though diminished from this manly image, he takes pride in having rescued his family, and that he exhausts himself serving their helplessness, supplying their needs. Diminished and humiliated, he must approach his firm’s director looking upward in supplication to maintain his life of meaningless labors. For all this, Gregor preserves his superiority: he alone treasures the musical promise of his loving sister; he delights in clean and wholesome food; he is sensitive to others’ needs; and expresses his refined sensibilities in delicate wood-working. And, ultimately, he dominates his suffering family, having supplanted his father, who lives in moribund collapse after falling from bourgeois respectability.

Still, Gregor experiences cruel humiliations. His sales have slowed, threatening Gregor’s efforts to retire his father’s debt. Youthful office functionaries outrank him, and he must grovel for their approval. His affectional-sexual opportunities are meager and frustrating, “a sweet and fleeting memory of a chambermaid in one of the rural hotels, a cashier in a milliner’s shop whom he had wooed earnestly but too slowly” (p. 39). The office clerk who arrives to chastise Gregor is a ladies’ man, his power related to masculine prowess. Gregor lives in bleak, hateful, masturbatory misery. His affectional-sexual attachments are to his mother and to his younger sister; both forbidden as a man but not as a beast.

Living in the claustrophobic familial apartment, Gregor fixes upon the dress and undress of mother and sister. If they rush to him, he knows it from the “rustling of skirts” (15). When first seeing Gregor, the mother (Kafka employs generic descriptors) collapses “amid her billowing skirts, her face sinking out of sight onto her breast” (16-17). Coming to feed him in early morning, the sister is “nearly fully dressed” (23). In a primal scene nightmare, Gregor witnesses: “the mother tearing out of her chemise, because when she fainted the sister had undressed her to let her breathe more freely. He saw the mother run to the father, stumbling over her loosened petticoats as they slipped to the floor one by one, and press herself against him, uniting them in her embrace “(p. 36). As Gregor’s hopes wither, he fantasizes winning Grete’s love and standing with her against the world: “She would sit beside him on the sofa, she would lean down and listen as he confided how he intended to send her to the Conservatory … After this declaration the sister would burst into emotional tears and Gregor would raise himself to her shoulder and kiss her neck, which she kept bare since she started working, wearing no ribbon or collar” (p. 44). The fantasy is ghastly, but the coda concerning her bare neck fits the system of stray noticings portraying his obsessions. In Gregor’s last visit with his family, his mother again falls back, “her legs outstretched but squeezed together” (p. 47). When the charwoman comes to deliver the news of Gregor’s death, “Herr and Frau Samsa sat up in their matrimonial bed … Then they each clambered quickly out of bed from either side … Frau Samsa came out in her nightgown” (48-49). Kafka insists upon these furtive glimpses of female bodies and their covering and exposure. Perhaps  Metamorphosis is less about insects than incest.

In a story focusing on masturbation, the constant secretions are horrifying. Coffee spills, and brown tracks streak Gregor’s walls from his vertiginous wanderings. Like so much else, these stains are dream-like, furtive and blatant. There it is; you know what it means … what does it mean? That these appear to be fecal emissions makes the fantasy all the more disturbing. Kafka spares us little. Gregor’s hideous imaginings paint his obsessions in repellent colors.

Gregor’s father completes the oedipal structure, hidden and obvious. Once a wealthy and independent merchant, the father is now torpid and weak. His son’s rise in the family has left him powerless and pathetic. But as Gregor recedes into his transformation, the father reclaims his power and force. At Gregor’s first appearance, the father “seized in his right hand the chief clerk’s walking stick” (p. 19). The father “hissing like a savage” drives Gregor through his bedroom doorway, injuring him severely. Gregor is left “bleeding profusely” (p. 20). The father has injured Gregor’s “one little leg,” which now “dragged behind him lifelessly” (p. 21). In Freud’s “family romance,” sons who would replace their fathers risk emasculation. While mother and daughter exhibit concern, his father shows nothing but the élan of his revival. Gregor puzzles over this metamorphosis: “… could this indeed still be the father?” Before, “bundled in his old overcoat and carefully plodding forward by meticulously placing his cane”… now “he held himself erect, dressed in a tight new uniform with gold buttons, like that of a bank manager” (pp. 34-35). The father, no sentimentalist, preserved some money without telling his son, now driven mad needlessly by his labors. Gregor clings to his lyrical rescue fantasies, his route to power; his realist father looks after himself. Once Gregor had a sword, now the father has family dominance and can stamp – with gigantic boot soles (p. 35) –upon his son’s devious and deviant aggressions. The oedipal fantasy turns on itself – revered fathers must be destroyed, but the guilt exacted in this assassination plot cripples victorious sons. Oedipal rebels are damned in winning or destroyed if they lose.

This programmatic Freudian account, however, fails to account for the story’s many metamorphoses. Gregor is transformed, but so are all the others; as he devolves, each family member evolves. I would suggest that these transformations are not confined to the Samsa family but register an historic cultural shift, unraveling the ethic that protects the failing fortunes of the middle classes. No story persists as Metamorphosis has if it is does not implicate us all.

The mother transforms also from shabby matron, hands wrung in worry, to working woman supporting her family. She tumbles from the lower rungs of bourgeois respectability into the working class, taking in sewing, in propitiatory service to undistinguished customers. The father, too, for all his household dominance runs errands for bank assistants. His uniform masks his servile position. Still, elder Samsas are invigorated and reclaim their connection to the world.

The most revealing transformation, however, is Grete’s. Grete also suffers from dependency. Anxious, and weak, she endures tense concern for her brother. She is burdened by her family’s exalted hopes for her meager musical talents. Grete appears as the romantic artist – sensitive and neurasthenic, a higher soul; frail and depressed, a great spirit resides within. Gregor plans to finance her Conservatory tuition, a gift better suited to his fantasies than to her talents.

Some associate Kafka (1883-1924) with Nietzsche (1844-1900) and with Thomas Mann (1875-1955). Nietzsche mined Greek mythology for his analysis of the ills of modern life. The Birth of Tragedy (1872) pits the rational, Apollonian forces of the psyche against the dark Dionysian forces, a confrontation creating hypocrisy, confusion and spiritual torment. Mann’s Death in Venice (1912) follows a writer famous for high moral standards, stern work habits, and spare yet elegant style. Gustav von Aschenbach comes from a long line of purse-lipped and respectable servants of convention, but his mother introduces dark passion to his Nordic blood. Late in life, attracted to a sojourn to the South, this passion erupts.  Smitten with the appearance of a beautiful boy, von Aschenbach allows the “Stranger god” (Dionysus) to lead him into lustful dreams and ultimately a willed suicide. By the end, von Aschenbach, once a figure of restrained comportment has dyed his hair, rouged his cheeks, and wears the ridiculous straw-hat-with-ribbon of a youth. Mann embroiders his story with spectral figures, compulsions, and dream fantasies; it could be entitled “The Metamorphosis.”

However, Kafka’s story has different aims. Von Aschenbach — famous artist and aristocrat — lives above the social fray. The Samsas experience a social class transformation from the muddled sentimentality of the petty-bourgeoisie to the hard realism of the working class. Kafka tracks the collapse of sentiments that held the Nineteenth-century middle-class compromise in place. The Samsas, once freed from Gregor’s ordeal, abandon their suffocating urban apartment for the bright spring budding of the country-side. They surrender their illusions, the sentiments we like to think make us richly human. No longer sickly and pale, young Grete “had blossomed into a pretty and voluptuous young woman” (p. 51); and at the end, “jumped to her feet and stretched her young body” (p. 52). All the rest — the plangent lyricism of Schubert, Chopin, and Brahms; the longing of Siegfried and Brunhilde, the yearning of Pre-Raphaelites painters – are, like Gregor, swept away to welcome the new day of good health, self-sufficiency, and steady employment.

Gregor’s artistic devotion is more than suspect. His dream-goddess is obscene, and humorously so since he cannot recognize the nature of this phantom pleasure. Gregor is too tortured to be a “ladies’ man.” He is, instead, a lyrically romantic masturbatory boy. His self-image, glorifying his sacrifices for his family, covers only thinly his wish to dominate his family. His transcendental delight in his sister’s violin performances is not much more than incestuous fantasy, imagining his kisses where her violin is held and fingered most lovingly. The mother’s sensitive swoons all end in postures of rape for the son’s imaginings. A twisted Eros commands the hearth of Middel-Europe’s “Kultur”.

Gregor palate had been fastidious. Now fresh food nauseates him. He chooses rotten vegetables over fresh ones, and can stomach only the offal in his food dish. He finds fresh milk particularly distasteful and enjoys only the souring sauces ready for the garbage bin: “half-rotten vegetables, bones covered with congealed white sauce from supper the night before … a cheese that Gregor had declared inedible two days before …” (p. 23). When he selects only foods ready for the garbage, he asks himself “Have I become less sensitive?” (p. 24). But the innocence of milk and apples is no longer for Gregor as he descends further into his loathed self. Elaborating his tainted romance with the sister and her music, Gregor muses “Was he a beast if music could move him so?” (p. 44), but he is worse than a beast, a dung-beetle covered with the dust and muck of his tainted moralism.

Metamorphosis exposes the false lyricism of petty-bourgeois life, the life most readers and many writers share. The next step, as human culture unfolds its anti-Hegelian logic, frees us from lyrical illusions and exalts a sun-bright physicality. In place of noble aspirations, work to express the self, and service to others, we have jobs for cash to buy things. The frisson of sex and desire give way to healthy sex, as alluring as calisthenics. In the redeemed family, everyone works at something meaningless, in equality and forgetfulness. We can cross-reference Kafka with Freud and Marx, but he anticipates Adorno and Marcuse, the philosophers of the new culture of tamed desire and commodification, serving the state. Kafka’s happy ending is this nightmare’s grimmest feature.

* All quotations are from The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, (Trans. Donna Fried), Barnes and Noble Classic, 2003.

Conrad’s Bloody Imperialism

No one reads classics; and when they do and talk about it, you wish they hadn’t. Usually, you cannot tell when bright angels fall noiselessly to sullen earth. But Heart of Darkness fell in 1977. In a celebrated speech Chinua Achebe called Conrad “a bloody imperialist” and the worst sort racist, a liberal who hides behind a mask of tolerance. [1] “Bloody imperialist” in British parlance does not mean “covered in blood”; it means “fucking imperialist.” And so, a great anti-imperialist novel seems fated to be misunderstood and rarely read. Achebe claimed not to be a book banner and included Conrad’s novel in his literature courses; however, I think we know how it was read, and what kindness was there for the student who read it otherwise.

I attended a lecture on Conrad and Imperialism by Edward Said around that time. [2] Said sported a polished manner and British loftiness despite leading, in imagination, the third-world bloody revolution (“bloody” means bloody). I picture Said now in his muted tweed jacket, and thinking at the time that this mantle of power cost more than the car I drove to Bryn Mawr to hear him. These were my Communist days, so I was reading theories of Imperialism, by left-wing and other authors. [3] I had also just published a long essay on Lord Jim. [4] And since I am foolhardy, it was a good bet I would not sit quietly once Said allowed questions.

My comments were unprepared but scholarly and respectful. I cited instances in Lord Jim (1900), Heart of Darkness (1899) and “An Outpost of Progress” (1897) where Conrad mocked European imperialism and condemned the beastliness of Belgian slaughter in the Congo. Though my remarks were limited by time and setting, I situated them in the context of the Boer War and the jingoism it excited. [5]

It would be pretty to think these remarks were acknowledged respectfully. Instead, I was singled out as a racist imperialist plant. Didn’t I know that Conrad wrote “The Nigger of the Narcissus” and used that word throughout Heart of Darkness? And not realize how offended members of that audience were that I praised a writer who used it. One large and menacing African-American woman raged at me. Members of the audience vied for Said’s approval and for my destruction, as they each competed, there on Philadelphia’s posh Main Line, for the forward ranks of bloody rebellion against “the man.”

In years since, I have taught Heart of Darkness often. I hoped to dislodge student prejudices and clear the way to understanding, without success. The “N” word stops discussions. The problem is serious. Heart of Darkness reveals so much about our time and place as we sit comfortably at the center of a savage empire – a supermarket nearby, policemen everywhere, and flat screens transmitting congratulatory visions of the world. No contemporary narrative does as powerful a job dismantling the confidence of our damned ventures abroad. Even Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), though a great homage to Heart of Darkness, offers only an incomplete rendering of Conrad’s original. [6]

Achebe protested Conrad’s depiction of Africa, but Heart of Darkness analyses European diseases. At most, it portrays Africa in the European imagination. Sadly, Achebe’s expectations for emerging Africa mock his hopes. His “African Trilogy ” – Things Fall Apart (1958),  No Longer at Ease (1960), and Arrow of God (1964) — depicting broad corruption, provides a mere hint of degradations apparent since Achebe wrote. [7] Said’s confidence that Palestinian revolt would spark an anti-imperialist revolution hasn’t worn well either.

Marlow, Conrad’s fictional witness, testifies to European savagery.  From the French warship lobbing shells into the jungle, to the “Grove of Death” where African laborers expire, to the random gunplay directed at the locals. Kurtz himself, the idealist transformed into a beast, writes the obituary — “Exterminate the brutes” (p. 50) [8] A humanitarian crusade against King Leopold’s Congo brutality had become a global movement, joined by writers, including Twain and Conrad. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad notes this deadly mayhem.  His target, however, is far more dangerous to the imperialist venture.

Marlow tells his listeners – the Director of Companies and his legal and accounting confederates – what they want to ignore. The savagery and rot are not “out there” alone but pervade London and Brussels and wherever colonialism is reshaping the global system with its “merry dance of death and trade” (p. 14). Brussels is a “whited sepulcher,” full of rot, dry bones and madness, and sustained by idealisms scarcely disguising the slaughter and mayhem. [9] Marlow, like other youths, attracted to adventure in exotic places, is ready-made for “ripping yarns” of empire. [10]

Marlow is most repelled by the waste of it all. The “flabby devil”, the sheer disorganization created by empire’s demented business, disgusts him. Those who operate this system of pillage pursue their careers, without regard for costs. The Manager of the Central Station plots against the corporation, and accountants cook quarterly reports to boost their visibility to headquarters. Kurtz, who is productive, is their enemy. The corporate net, headquartered in Brussels, is so far-flung that no one knows what happens at the distant outposts of progress. The corporation has its own momentum, without concern for efficiency, productivity, or even profits. It is Kafka’s mad machinery; but Conrad, a hardy realist, connects the dots– rusted railcars un-ended like dying animals, bolts of calico in place of rivets, hollow men molded to corporate delusions, corpulent pioneers, wheezing on dense jungle trails, dreaming of advancement while they collapse … the flabby devil.

In Achebe’s view, Conrad believes Britain is exempt from this rot, that where the map shows red, order is well maintained. However, Marlow’s story threatens his British masters, settled there at Gravesend as the light dims and falters. The rot is inevitable.  It destroyed Roman imperial ventures, sank Spanish galleons, and dooms modern inheritors of imperial illusions. Marlow’s listeners complain, and though Marlow softens his tale strategically, his irony damns them. Organize men into these global ventures, where purposes become incomprehensible and agents of progress go native, and no codes of honor can prevail. The hard-headed managers live on illusions, no more real than the feeble romances of “The Intended” or the silly heart-felt concern of Marlow’s aunt. Europe’s grandeur and security rests on a fragile surface; deadly snags lurk beneath, threatening to tear it to pieces.


Marlow tells his tale to four listeners aboard a pleasure yacht at Gravesend in the dying light. [11] London is “the greatest town on earth,” the Thames leading outward to the world (p. 3). An unnamed narrator tells the story of Marlow telling his tale. We know nothing about him, but his understanding differs from Marlow’s. The narrator tells us that the Director of Companies, standing at the helm, appears a perfect ship’s captain to them all, but Marlow would never accord him this honor. Like the others, the narrator has not taken Marlow’s journey.

Marlow begins by challenging jingoistic chatter from the deep perspective of history. Empires rise and fall. Britain was a wild and savage place when Roman soldiers subdued its people fifteen hundred years ago. [12] Britains were savages and the Romans were empire builders, making fortunes and careers along the pestilential Thames. Marlow claims the Romans failed, lacking the administrative skills Britains boast of. But the Romans did well in Britain and ruled for nearly four centuries. Marlow is playing to his listeners’ nationalism. But Marlow’s goal is to excite uneasiness in them just as Conrad is leading his readers into disturbing doubts and prying apart their confidence.

For most readers Heart of Darkness tells a story about Kurtz and features an African queen. But two-thirds of it is complete before Kurtz appears, and the queen has few paragraphs. Readers suggest, too, that Conrad exposes the slaughter of Africans, an expose of King Leopold’s Congo depredations. While the “Grove of Death” and Kurtz’s participation in local warfare support this claim, Conrad’s interests are elsewhere. Conrad exposes the rot of empire among Europeans and the confusion suffered by European societies tied to these ventures. Imperialism is bad for the Congo, but it is ruinous for Brussels and London. As we are learning, globalism infects all participants.

Marlow begins his nightmare journey in Brussels. The “whited sepulcher” gleams on the surface but stinks of corruption within. The central administrative office is strangely staffed … a ironic functionary, two women knitting black wool, a doctor measuring each agent’s cranium to study the effects of their adventures, and the CEO, a portly little man whose pudgy fist handles millions. The core is hollow, an image Conrad embraces. European bodies are bloated and fatigued, their minds distracted by peculiar pastimes and evasive ironies. Brussels talks of noble causes; its bitter heart burns for profits.

Journeying outward, Marlow observes a French warship, hurling small shells into the immensity of dense jungle. A fellow passenger explains “enemies” are there, permitting Europeans to assault them. As in our world, persons targeted for murder, even 16-year-olds, are “enemy combatants,” and their friends killed with them, “collateral damage.” In the language of empire, those in the way are “enemies”; those who resist “criminals.” [13]

Arriving at the Outer Station, Marlow meets the “flabby devil” that lords over empire: railway cars rust in the weeds up-ended like dead animals, work teams dynamite a hillside by mistake, and the “Grove of Death” shelters dying African workers, withering from starvation and exhaustion. Global production, then as now, squanders resources, despoils the land, and torments expendable labor, in Bangladesh and elsewhere, an unpleasant result of free trade and the laws of global capitalism. [14]

The Accountant of the Outer Station maintains order amidst insanity. He is dapper despite dust and heat. His books supply an impeccable account of imaginary profit and loss. He prevails by abstracting himself from his settings. He objects to dying agents left off in his quarters because their groans distract him. The Impeccable Accountant is a cog in the great wheel and exists for his discrete function within the ensemble of functions and purposes. We should recognize him, after a century of calamities — the efficient functionary “only doing his job.” [15]

The Central Station is disorderly: workers await shipments of critical supplies and receive quantities of useless items. Provisioners dump whatever brings profits. Conrad, in 1899, knows that provisioning empire is an independent force running on its own. The Eldorado Exploring Expedition is the feeble forerunner of KBR (Kellogg Brown & Root), a construction corporation flourishing amidst our Middle East debacles and world-wide. [16] A recent accounting estimates costs of $385B to the US government, over ten years, for construction and supplies related to Mid-east warfare. Since much of the work is clandestine, including private counter-insurgency, the costs may be double … who knows? [17] Conrad knew that empire is a thriving business opportunity and takes its momentum from those interests. The Manager’s uncle leads the EEE, making clear the close connection between the agents of empire and the business community profiting from it. Conrad would not have been surprised to find a Vice-President connected to the main supplier of the war. [18]

The business of the Central Station is jockeying for advantage within the Corporation. Here Kurtz’s name first appears. The Manager and his acolytes consider Kurtz a threat because Kurtz has succeeded in producing ivory. You would think that would help their careers, but Kurtz operates alone. The agents sent to help Kurtz are inefficient, unimaginative, and spies for their corporate masters. Worse yet, the Manager believes corporate executives in Brussels favor Kurtz. He assumes Kurtz wants his job. The Brickmaker-who-makes-no-bricks fears working for Kurtz, who abides no nonsense. Although Marlow wants only to restore the boat and get on with his mission, the Manager mistrusts him because the people who favor Kurtz recommended him. The brickmaker associates Marlow with the “virtue” crowd, who justify imperialism’s pillaging with notions of humane progress. Marlow finds the machinations of these petty Machiavels humorous, but they define the “Flabby Devil” misruling the global economy. [19]

Marlow overhears a conversation between the Manager and his uncle, discussing ridding themselves of troublesome competitors who threaten their project. These agents of progress are a law unto themselves. They will arrange to have this troublesome fellow hanged: the uncle explains, “Anything can be done in this country … nobody here … can endanger your position.” As a recent case against the Swiss firm Nestle demonstrates, corporate power abroad can do what it wishes. In Colombia one union leader after another has been labeled an enemy, then tortured and murdered. The Swiss government promoted delays until a statute of limitations expired. [20] The US military and contracted mercenary forces provide numerous examples. Locals in Somalia call the pink compound at the Mogadishu airport “Guantanamo,” the local CIA East-Africa franchise for rendition, torture, and murder of “enemies” and “criminals”. [21] When Kurtz threatens to murder the Harlequin and take his ivory, Marlow says “he did it because he could do so, and had a fancy for it, and there was nothing on earth to prevent him.”

Marlow’s listeners object to his indictment of imperialism. One grumbles when Marlow sympathizes with African suffering. Marlow, recalling coming upon a deserted African village, notes that English villagers would abandon their homes, too, at news of invaders conscripting workers for deadly labor. Marlow observes too the circumstances of Africans transitioning from idol worship to attending a boiler’s pressure gauge. He praises the cannibals’ restraint and takes these workers as human beings. This drives one listener to ask sarcastically why Marlow didn’t just join them for a dance and a shout. Marlow answers he was too busy watching the river for snags and shallows, but he does not say he would not have joined them. Marlow is surprised at the bond of humanity he feels for them.

His British masters, however, have deeper objections. Marlow associates the secure metropolitan center with the deadly madness that makes its comforts possible. There are surface appearances, the pleasant world we think we live in, and the deeper waters full of snags and shallows.  Marlow treads carefully, but at times implicates the corporate masters who listen to his tale. He muses that the jungle looks on mockingly at his silly efforts and then comments that it watches them, too … “you fellows performing on your respective tight-ropes for – what is it? Half a crown a tumble …” And out of the darkness comes a growling voice “try to be civil, Marlow.” At that, Marlow recovers his care for boundary of offence and seems to apologize: “I beg your pardon. I forget the heartache that makes up the rest of the price. And indeed what does the price matter if the trick be done well. You do your tricks very well” (p. 34). This apology, wrapped in cheek, concedes nothing.

Another listener objects that Marlow’s account of an attack is absurd. Marlow responds: “Absurd … Here you all are, each moored with two good addresses, like a hulk with two anchors, a butcher round one corner, a policeman round another, excellent appetites, and temperature normal–you hear–normal from year’s end to year’s end. And you say, Absurd!”(p. 47). Civilization refuses to acknowledge the slaughter that supports its ease and safety. A visit below these surfaces threatens everything we think we know. This is the cost of imperialism: we cannot acknowledge our realities; we are shocked by coffins returning from abroad and the occasional slaughter brought home to our streets. [22]

Marlow’s employers would prefer not to know. They might chuckle when Marlow describes Brussels as a town where people are “hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other” (p. 70) However, Marlow’s tale implicates London and the surfaces his listeners trust in for moral and intellectual equilibrium. These illusions require ideas of law and order that evaporate where profits accumulate: “You can’t understand. How could you?–with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbors ready to cheer you or to fall on you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums” (p. 49) The law, custom, and public opinion masks the violence applied to those who cannot resist. And Kurtz’s mother, after all, was half English.

When we reject Heart of Darkness because of the “N” word, or an affront to women, or to pan-African pride, we ignore Conrad’s insights. The United States has embraced the flabby devil. National honor has become a thin veneer masking arrogance, deception, and slaughter. Efficiency moguls misplace goals and purposes; Robert McNamara, architect of destruction in Southeast Asia, came to mourn the role he played in loosing death upon the world, as did John Perkins, regarding Latin America. [23] Expense is no concern for projects corporations justify to themselves. Corporations stand foremost … before governments, churches, and kings. The provisioners of war and occupation loot and pillage their own nations and are honored for their destructiveness. Young people patching together scraps of ideals, like a Joseph’s coat of many colors, seek a proper connection for their idealistic aspirations. And canny workers, the Marlows who would do the right things well, sour in disgust at corruption of the only world we have to live in.

Chinua Achebe and Edward Said, both of a particular brilliance, are dead. The discussion we need is thinner for their passing. However, their revolutionism has proved a fantasy while Conrad’s novel has sturdy historical foundation and continuing predictive power. The oppositional press, the one that owes nobody anything and tells the truth, delivers footnotes to Conrad daily. [24]


[1] Chinua Achebe, who died earlier this year, was the beloved author of Things Fall Apart (1958), a novel which makes its own strong case against European colonial actions in Nigeria. His remarks attacking Conrad were heard first in a Chancellor’s lecture at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in February, 1975. Achebe published an essay in the Massachusetts Review in 1977 entitled “The Image of Africa”. A third version, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” (1988) appears in the Norton edition of Heart of Darkness, 1991, 336-349.

[2] Edward W. Said, “Two Visions in Heart of Darkness,” 422-429, is excerpted from his Culture and Imperialism, (1993) and appears in the Norton edition, 1991.

[3] That would have included Joseph Schumpeter, The Sociology of Imperialism (1918); J. A. Hobson, Imperialism: a Study (1965); Eric Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire (1970); Owen and Sutcliffe, Studies in the Theories of Imperialism (1972); as well as Rosa Luxenburg, The Accumulation of Capital (1913) and V. I. Lenin, Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917).

[4] Stephen Zelnick, “Conrad’s Lord Jim: Meditations on the Other Hemisphere,” Minnesota Review, Fall 1978, 73-89.

[5] The two Boer Wars (1880-81; 1899-1902) pitted British forces against the Dutch settlers in the Transvaal and Orange Free State in southern Africa. The second war included the commitment of a large force of British military, and before it ended, the defeat of both the Boer military forces and the brutal suppression of a guerilla war which involved a scorched earth policy and the killing of “rebel” families.

Rowena Hammal, in History Today 2010, wrote the following:

“Although the Boer War was perhaps the apogee of jingoistic popular imperialism, it was also the cause of new anxieties about the Britain’s future. Imperialists were deeply worried by Britain’s inability to defeat the Boer farmers quickly. Although the Boers were well armed by Germany, they remained a small army, numbering no more than 40,000 troops at any one time.  Britain required three years and 500,000 troops to defeat them, sustaining 30,000 casualties in the process.

The conflict also revealed the brutal side of British imperialism. Cruelty was preferable to humiliation for the “island race,” and so, frustrated by the Boers’ guerilla tactics, the British burnt Boer farms and forced their inhabitants into concentration camps. This was a new method of controlling the enemy, whether civilian or otherwise, and as a result of illness, starvation and cold, 28,000 Boer children, women and men died in British camps.”

British Jingoism belongs to the period 1870-1914. Literature written for young boys prepared them for service against “the enemy”. The novels of G. A. Henty and H. Rider Haggard enticed young men to adventurous service for crown and country in distance and exotic locales. Conrad was well aware of these deceptions, and Heart of Darkness tells a ghastly truth, debunking conventional heroism.

[6] Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, 1979, the film relocated Conrad’s novella to Vietnam. It tells the tale of warfare and a mad Colonel Kurtz but does not explore the network of corporate imperialism.

[7] The last two novels are set in modern Lagos and trace the ill fortunes of Okonkwo’s descendants. A fourth novel, Man of the People, takes on Nigerian politics. These are angry novels, dark with foreboding, as Nigerians abandon their village world and its moral foundations.

[8] Citations are to the Norton Critical Edition, 1991, and will be provided in the text.

[9] Gospel of Matthew 23:27 — “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.” The quotation fits Conrad’s insistence that Europe’s gleaming surfaces mask the rot within. In Lord Jim, it is a melon that appears sound but on inspection reveals a soft spot of decay.

[10] Michael Palin and Terry Jones’s “Ripping Yarns” (1976-79; BBC) was a series of satiric tales, mocking the age of jingoistic boys’ literature.

[11] Gravesend is a town in Kent on the south bank of the Thames. Conrad mentions the town’s name for its dismal, end-of-an-era suggestions.

[12] Rome’s control of Britain extended from 43 AD until 410. England still carries the evidence of Rome’s presence, including Hadrian’s Wall, which marked the northern defense line. London is built on the ruins of a significant Roman town. Bath preserves its character as a Roman city that featured, then and at later times, a splendid spa.

[13] The Harlequin explains that the severed heads mounted on poles at Kurtz’s compound are the heads of “rebels”. Marlow comments sardonically: “Rebels! What would be the next definition I was to hear. There had been enemies, criminals, workers – and these were – rebels. Those rebellious heads looked very subdued to me on their sticks” (58). Imperialism requires this naming game to accomplish its violence. We have “enemy combatants” in our prisons and “collateral damage” dead at our bombing sites. In “rendition” we pick up people, chain and drug them, and haul them off to countries where torture is a specialty. In “enhanced interrogation” we bring “criminals” to the brink of agonizing death supposedly without torturing them. In Vietnam, the “pacification program” meant burning villages and murdering everyone who lived there. Once we had a “War Department”; now a “Department of Defense”. The killing of 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Alaqui, was first termed “collateral damage”; that is, killing as the unintended result of targeting another person. At the moment, his killing has no name since no one can say just who was being targeted … not that it seems to matter.

[14] Lest we think that Western nations have a monopoly on imperialist destructiveness, we should note the arrival of Asian logging concerns in the Amazon. After rampaging through Malaysia and devastating their forests (and through that their rivers and farm land), the Chinese and others have arrived in the Rain Forest. Much of their clear cutting of trees is illegal – which means officials are being rewarded – and legal land acquisition has been at ridiculously low prices. Mining, headed by Anglo-American firms, has been proceeding at gold-rush pace. Mining requires the clearing of forests for roads and the damming of rivers for power sources. Tribal peoples are displaced as the rain forest shrinks and the global atmosphere loses another cleansing assistance.

[15] We tend to think “Eichmann” and the high drama of the Nuremberg Trials, but the ethics of a highly corporatized social structure require that this phrase applies everywhere. School teachers, physicians, lawyers, police, and so on, carry out acts they know are dreadful every day because they feel they must comply with regulations that govern their actions. As the Brickmaker-who-makes-no-bricks observes: “no sensible man rejects wantonly the confidence of his superiors” (p. 28).

[16] Kellogg Brown and Root is an outgrowth of Halliburton, located in Houston Texas and active world-wide. Along with Bechtel Industries, KBR has reaped huge contracts for occupation-based construction and military supplies.  KBR offers also private mercenary war capacity to a government that needs cover for its most violent tactical needs. Blackwater, once Xe, and now Academi, specializes in private army combat teams, and sups handsomely at the public trough. The producers of weaponry are in the war business for profits, as even Marlow’s aunt has discovered, and require US aggression abroad to sell their wares. A war economy grows naturally from imperialism and comes to dominate a nation’s purpose and self-understanding.

[17] The total cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot yet be estimated. At the outset, the Bush administration publicly anticipated a two-year involvement at a cost of approximately $100B. When Gen. Shinseki boldly testified to Congress it would be $300B, he was fired. Through 2011, direct appropriations by Congress had totaled 1.044T. Debt service through 2017 is estimated at $2.4T, which makes it the $3T war Joseph Stieglitz, Nobel Prize recipient, has called it. Some economists now mention $4-6T. In fact, no one knows, but these funds go to industries, banks, transportation corporations, fuel suppliers, medical facilities and suppliers, food services, universities, and on beyond what we can imagine. Imperialist wars are good business.

[18] Dick Cheney, a principal architect of the war and its deceptions, is the former head of Halliburton. His next thought concerning the nation’s welfare will be his first.

[19] Our wars are helpful; they remove tribal dictators and install in their place our own dictators. Often the local Presidents and Prime Ministers, by our accounts, have been elected in processes quite unreliable and untrustworthy, much like our own. Underneath the humane rhetoric, there is always something tangible like oil or rubber or bauxite or copper to make sense of it all when the humane effort turns bloody.

[20] When I began this section of the essay, I put a test to myself – see what tales of corporate violence would come my way in the next few days.  On Day One it was the abduction, torture and murder of yet another union leader in Colombia at the bidding of the Swiss corporation Nestle. Colombian trade unionist Luciano Enrique Romero died a slow death in 2005. The fired Nestlé factory worker, whose body was found in a paramilitary-controlled area of Colombia was tied up, tortured and then stabbed 40 times. The Swiss courts, however, have determined that time has expired for a court hearing. Romero’s murder was just one in a long line of executions of union activists. On Day Two it was Coca-Cola and death squad abductions and murder of union leaders in Guatemala and again Colombia. Day Three brought the report of Ford’s activities in Argentina during the Coup of 1976 and again the disappearances of union leaders. I begin to suspect that paying attention dredges stories like these out of the past daily.

[21] Jeremy Scahill, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, 2013 reports this conversation with a Somali resident (there are no citizens) in Mogadishu.

[22] Government hides the cost of imperialism by exercising a policy of not noticing. The force that sustains regular and ghastly casualties in Afghanistan is an “International Force.” This helps us think they reported deaths might be UK or Canadian or German or French; but we know they will turn out to be American. The coffins arriving at Dover Air Force base have become invisible to the press. The revenges taken against western nations and their people by the victims of imperialist violence are termed senseless acts by deranged terrorists. When someone speaks as Marlow does — a Cornel West or a Noam Chomsky — that person is tainted by ideology, a leftist, a Marxist, an intellectual. Marlow has good reasons to be speaking strategically, even in a work of fiction. Conrad is trying to find a way to pass on the nightmares he suffers without terrorizing his listeners and causing them to stop listening.

[23] Robert McNamara had been a wonderfully successful CEO at Ford before he was selected by Lyndon Johnson to head up the war in Vietnam. The film by Errol Morris, “The Fog of War,” traces his growing recognition, years later, of what horror he had accomplished. Convenient phrases break apart as McNamara, a good man at heart, admits to the death and destruction he helped make possible. John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hitman (2004) awoke to the damage he was creating world-wide while peddling World Bank Loans that enriched Bechtel and Halliburton and further impoverished economically weaker nations. When Perkins, like Marlow, tells his tale, he changes everything we think we know. Foreign Aid goes to Bechtel and Halliburton, who build vast infrastructure that does nothing for the poor. Those nations then find themselves in impossible debt, and can buy their debt freedom only by privatizing natural resources, further enriching US corporations. As Perkins explains, if we cannot corrupt their leaders, we send in “the jackals” and kill them. As Conrad noted, we do it because we can.

[24] If only our evening news did. However, the media has fallen into line; it, too, is made up of corporations with profits to consider and the friendship of governments to cultivate. Oliver Stone’s wonderful documentary, “South of the Border,” explains how major media make imperial ventures possible. Stone’s film, like the Perkins filmed interview, contains a hopeful premise. The new leaders of Latin America — in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Chile — represent a concerted anti-imperialist force. They are brave and decent and understand the game. Conrad’s novel Nostromo (1904), set in a fictional version of Colombia, suggested that they would.

Tennyson’s “Tears, Idle Tears” in Performance

Tennyson’s “Tears, idle Tears” appears in his verse drama, The Princess, which contains several of Tennyson’s best loved lyrics – “Sweet and low,” “The splendour falls on castle walls,” “Now sleeps the crimson petal,” and “Come down, O maid.”

Tennyson was poet laureate from 1850 until his death in 1892. He was a favorite of Queen Victoria and came to represent Victorianism and its crises of feeling. Tennyson wrote poems celebrating British military valor – “Charge of the Light Brigade.” But Tennyson is at his best dramatizing soft, intense emotion in agile and evocative music.

“Tears” is certainly a lyric, but it is also dramatic. The speaker puzzles over unbidden feelings as they arise in him. “Tears” is not the report of what he feels but his musing over feelings the speaker does not understand.  He gropes his way, and we with him, towards resolution. We overhear the speaker propose metaphors to sharpen his grasp on those feelings. The music that attends this gathering and refinement shapes the experience.

Tennyson is famous for his play of sounds, as in the final lines of “Come down, O maid”: “Myriads of rivulets hurrying thro’ the lawn, /The moan of doves in immemorial elms, /And murmuring of innumerable bees.” This riot of sound/sense makes the passage a model for versification manuals. “Tears” is more subtle and depends upon metrical effects. We know how to mark scansion – the rudimentary stressed/unstressed — and to name stress patterns (iambic pentameter, standard in English verse). Tennyson’s “Tears,” however, works by manipulating pauses, the breaks when nothing seems to happen.

It may help to grade pauses as 1, 2, and 3 – (1) equaling the usual caesural pause (/); (2) more intense (//); and (3) momentous (///). These gradations may serve as a guide to dramatic performance, but they also reveal Tennyson’s musical intent. We can debate specific judgments, but pauses in “Tears” mark what Tennyson has in mind.

Tears,/ idle tears, // I know not what they mean,///
Tears from the depth / of some divine despair/
Rise in the heart, / and gather to the eyes,/
In looking on  the happy Autumn-fields,//
And thinking of the days / that are no more.//

The time is fall, the mood autumnal, the setting rural, and the speaker too perplexed for rhetoric. The stanza, mostly monosyllabic, moves slowly. The caesural and line-ending pauses establish an observation/reflection pattern. End rhyme is absent, but internal rhythms abound, as in “In looking on the happy … and thinking of the days”. While iambs dominate the metrical scheme, anapests swing out, along with single stress metrical feet. The variations happen first, with the line smoothing out to regular iambs after the caesura, creating something like a call and response. Thus, the anapests “idle tears” /”from the depth” /”in the heart” / “on the hap” /”of the days” precede, along with the single stressed “Tears” / “Tears” / “Rise”. The reflections following the caesura, in regular iambs, are weighted with sorrow.

Reflection dominates; the speaker does not know his own mind and why these tears rise and gather. While autumn usually suggests loss and dying, these fields are happy, and the speaker is perplexed. The despair puzzles him; is it “divine” for its celestial source, or is the experience divine as in excruciatingly beautiful. This grieving mood recalls something lost in the past – the funereal “no more” – something the speaker, as yet, cannot name.

Fresh as the first beam / glittering on a sail,/
That brings our friends up / from the underworld,//
Sad as the last / which reddens over one/
That sinks with all we love / below the verge;//
So sad, // so fresh, /// the days that are no more.//

Loss has its rhythm. Loss recalls the freshness of it dawning wonders. To recall the loss requires beckoning ghosts from the underworld; and that thought figures as a ship rising in the west from the darkness of the world of shadows to the brightening horizon of this world. But happiness fades as he recalls these friends are gone, like the sun setting in its reddening sky. The experience is treacherous, both fresh and sad; and reversing the order, sad and fresh.

The stronger pause following “fresh” marks a surprise. The thought first seems contradictory; how can fading memories of lost joys be fresh? In the course of the stanza the order of “sad” and “fresh”, as in the natural order of fresh starts and sad departures, has been lost. The speaker grasps, suddenly, that memory has its own order and the fading brings with it fresh anguish. Memory retrieves the loss, and the loss becomes more vivid than the original experience.

Ah, // sad and strange // as in dark summer dawns/
The earliest pipe / of half-awakened birds/
To dying ears, // when unto dying eyes/
The casement slowly grows // a glimmering square;
So sad, // so strange, /// the days that are no more.//

Stanza three extends these discoveries. “Ah” marks a growing understanding; these departures invite alien thoughts, at the boundaries between the living and the dead, and between this moment and the past. These horizons are passageways to otherness. Imagine the last moments of life, coming at the break of day (reversing the journey in stanza two); birds half-awake hail the return of day while singing to the person dying, the sun brightening the window while dying eyes dim. Past memories illuminate and darken our days. We live at the margins, at the horizon that leads in memory through brightening casements into the realm of shadows.

Dear as remembered kisses // after death,//
And sweet as those / by hopeless fancy feigned/
On lips that are for others; // deep as love,//
Deep as first love, /// and wild with all regret;///
O Death in Life, /// the days that are no more.///

Memory and desire commit us to “Death in Life.” Lovers pass, but kisses leave their traces; imagined kisses are more painful still, meant for a beloved who loved elsewhere. The correction in moving from line 3 to line 4 marks a critical discovery … not “love” but “first love.” The past beckons to our beginnings and to innocent desire.  All this is lost but ever present forever, and tears come since to experience such memories is to be “wild with all regret.” “Wild” and “all” are sustained oceanic sounds of grieving. The speaker mourns unfulfilled desire, for what never happened save in longing. Autumn fields are happy, but creatures of desire and memory suffer our divine despair.

“Tears” is set in the immediate present and records the force of reflection. The speaker grapples with a sudden flow of emotion, feelings he neither welcomes nor understands.  We watch him try out metaphors and then extend them as they lead to clearer understanding of complex feelings. The poem unfolds as the speaker muses upon metaphors that, like the tears themselves, rise to his attention. At the boundary between life as it is and the alluring moments that might have been, we find the death in life. The pause anticipating the final repetition of “the days that are no more” – now fully understood — is monumental. A public performance, or even a quiet personal one, must recreate the drama of this moment as Tennyson so carefully constructed it.

Dostoyevsky, Master of Momentum

I am reading The Brothers Karamazov, and haven’t done that for fifty years. Much has changed in Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece … book elves. They come when no one watches and change the story, insert new characters, relocate the setting and move all the words around. I don’t know who these little biblio-bugs are or who pays them; I do know they are always busy at their work. We have them to thank for allowing us to re-read old classics and enjoy them again, for the first time.

Reading fiction is perilous. You discover odd things about yourself; how your mind works, and what you care about. When I read TBK at twenty, I was pursuing existential questions … what to make of a world without God. I embraced the stupendous ironies of Ivan’s parable, “The Grand Inquisitor;” the big questions had all my attention. Ingmar Bergman films played in my head.

Last evening I read feverishly, as Dmitri squandered his roubles, rushing off to a fateful evening with his Grushenka, a woman he doesn’t much like but who dominates his imaginings. She can’t stand Dmitri, or thinks she can’t. In his mad pursuit of self-destruction, Dmitri has entered his father’s house and apparently killed Grigory, a kindly servant, the loving father his father isn’t. Dmitri is covered with the old man’s blood. Dostoyevsky has been annoyingly silent about Dmitri’s father, still recovering from a savage beating at Dmitri’s hands; we guess Dmitri has stolen his father’s money, but is he a parricide? Wouldn’t the narrator have mentioned that? Wouldn’t he have bothered to mention that he hadn’t?

In his madness, Dmitri rushes about spending as much as he can, waving a fistful of 100 rouble notes, careless to loss from paupers wandering the city streets, shop-owners happy to charge exorbitant fees, and gypsies, who cleaned him out once before. Dmitri plans to spend his three-thousand roubles until morning, and then put a bullet in his head. But first Dmitri must find Grushenka once more before he leaves this squalid and humiliating world.

Dostoyevsky is a genius of momentum. Dmitri is deranged and spends hardly a moment thinking of his father or the bloody beating he gave old Grigory. His seeks only to recreate the one moment when he impressed Grushenka with his wild, self-destructive spending. Dostoyevsky makes us think elsewhere, too, by forcing our attention onto Dmitri’s squandering. Roubles fly from his blood-splattered hands and unguarded pockets; some friends try to impede his excess, but Dmitri propels his miserable self toward fiscal suicide. Dostoyevsky counts assiduously the disappearing funds over several chapters; we sit on-edge as murder lurks off-stage behind a flimsy curtain.

“No,” something in me screams … “not fine chocolates for the filthy drunken peasant girls.” “Stop,” I squirm, “those Polish gents are cheating at cards, and you know it! Too much fine Champagne, and wasted on drunks who would be happy with rubbing alcohol. Don’t pay Andrei the driver 50 roubles; all he wants is 5. Look out for the owner of this tawdry hostelry; he picked your pocket once before when you were drunk and expects to do it again. No, stop, there goes 200, and another 50, and an unnecessary promise to pay 770 to the Polish card-sharks who cheated you.” Dostoyevsky has us following this “squanderfest” like a French Connection car chase. Each 100-rouble note flies off like the soul of a precious saint.

This is crazy. What do I care that an imaginary person spills his imaginary roubles all over the imaginary streets and shops and low dives of Old Russia. And yet I can’t help but be on edge at this waste of so much money, once the pride and substance of the Karamazovs, the object of lust and spite … and now nothing. If I were writing this story I would pay attention to the big-ticket items, murder and guilt, love’s passion and pride, real and imagined. And that’s why I am not Dostoyevsky. Like Kafka and Dickens, Dostoyevsky makes common things hallucinatory and hyper-real. Squandering funds is painful, we spend so much psychic energy on making, counting and keeping cash, and spending sparingly. Dostoyevsky kidnaps us into Dmitri’s impulsive frenzy, and we are helpless to resist.

Fiction is a game of postponement. If authors told all there is to tell from the beginning, there would be no story to unfold. Delay, change the subject, introduce irrelevancies and false tracks, and make those false tracks seem important, and, on the way back from the conclusion, more important than we would have guessed. The Vintage TBK covers 778 pages, my Kindle has gained three pounds holding TBK, and I haven’t found a place yet to stop for a breather.

“To Autumn”: Keats’ Perfect Poem

Keats’ “To Autumn” ranks as the single most anthologized English poem; anthologists, it appears, consider it indispensible to understanding what poetry is.[i] To be sure, there are many kinds of poetry. Narrative poetry tells a story, often heroic, celebrating exalted characters and their deeds and fortunes. Dramatic poetry – from staged plays to drama for reading only –shows a world in action and conflict. In contrast, lyric poetry imitates a personal, inward-turning voice and welcomes us to participate in the poet’s joy or anguish. Lyric encourages us to treasure our feelings. Most popular music belongs to this genre of intense, personal expression. Keats wrote wonderful lyric poems, as did his Romantic contemporaries, and excelled also at philosophical poetry in a lyric mode, at complex meditations exploring questions of beauty and thought, art and mortality, and our senses and passions. But “To Autumn” is a purer kind of lyric poetry in which the figure of the poet and his anguish and turbulence vanish; and thinking relaxes its strenuous efforts to fix ideas in place forever. Keats’ poem is exceptional in its impersonality; it is a perfect poem, in that all considerations other than a pure apprehension of beauty are laid aside, as Wordsworth proposed in “Tintern Abbey,” to allow us to see what we only half notice and to achieve inner peace in a rarified state of being.[ii]

Reading poetry creates anxiety for most people.  Faced with intractable and often mysterious symbolic expression, readers reach for something solid outside the poem to fix its meaning. Perhaps some social issue and the debate around it (from the poet’s time or from our own) can provide a peg upon which to hang its meaning. Perhaps a lexicon of symbols can assure us what a particular color or object reliably means in the realm of poetry. Commentators on Keats have turned to his letters and particularly to his comments on “negative capability” to establish some firm footing. Famously, Keats wrote:

“I had not a dispute but a disquisition, with Dilke on various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason … This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.” [iii]

If we are looking for solid ground, however, this celebrated passage suggests more than defines. Far from providing a simplified key, Keats recommends leaving behind features we normally depend upon to ascertain a poem’s meaning. Instead of settling questions, his remark introduces new uncertainties. In rejecting “any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” Keats proposes that a poem should have no case to prove, no arguments, no examples of things to support an argument, no working of analogies, no final resting point, and no presence of a person, and especially the figure of the palpitating, Romantic poet. Keats offers us an astringent recipe, demanding discipline and patience from the reader. Beauty requires that the poet and whatever philosophical agenda he would wish to propose must stand out of the way.

The search to pin down a conclusive definition of “negative capability” leads critics to Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” where we encounter the poet’s manifesto–like comment that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all /Ye know on earth and all ye need know.” The problem, however, is that this Ode, unlike “To Autumn,” is full of thinking, driving us towards its tendentious conclusion, a conclusion reached by complex analogies, and a good deal of  “reaching after fact and reason.”  The poem is of two minds: a few glimpsed ravishing moments, embedded in a meditation on the nature of beauty. We do not encounter beauty as such in this meditation; we encounter instead Keats’ thoughts about the nature and value of beauty, quite a different thing. His gorgeous examples serve as evidence to support his claims. “Ode to a Nightingale” comes closer to experience.  However, here the figure of the poet is front and center, the main actor in the piece, and continually emerges from one experience after another to think about it. While this Ode reaches no conclusion, it is all about thinking, a series of urgent questions motivating an inner-debate. At the center stands the suffering poet, a figure around whom all these thoughts so passionately revolve. It is a noisy poem, with the clatter of meaning urging us forward towards a resting point which the anguished poet cannot reach.

These remarkable odes recall a family of Romantic meditations: Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” Coleridge’s “Dejection: an Ode,” and Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” most particularly. Like Keats’ own masterpieces in this vein, these poems revolve around the pathos of the poet as a central figure, struggling to come to some conclusions about our nature and the way we experience ourselves and the mysterious world around us. Tracking “the burden of the mystery,” these poems hover uncomfortably at the boundary between two worlds. The hunger for rapturous escape leads back to thought and reflection and to “irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Wordsworth’s sonnet “The World is too much with us” provides an Illuminating companion piece to “To Autumn.”   In Wordsworth’s poem, a tormented speaker voices his anguish at being unable to experience the force of nature through the darkening veil of modern consciousness. Anxieties about time and money and progress have frozen his heart and “laid waste” his imagination. Engaging a series of metaphors, the speaker attempts to reawaken a primitive mind, stripped clean of European culture and modernity. He can think about what it would mean to possess a different kind of mind, and to do so the speaker tries to excite the music in him that might correspond to the forces that move the waves.  However, these mythic beings – Proteus and Triton — remain only approximately there for him, glimpsed through the intricate network of metaphor and analogy and the music of his verse: “So might I standing on this pleasant lea,/ Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; / Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea. / Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.” The rise and fall of the vowels in the next to last line approximates the waves, bringing into the speaker the force of nature; and the final line mimics – especially the word “wreathed” — the sonorous power of the sea, likely the original source of the mythic figure of Triton with his conch. Wordsworth’s speaker, however, despite having taken in the sound and movement of the sea, cannot escape his own self-consciousness as he attempts to think his way back into direct relation with nature. His turn to primitive imagining is antiquarian, adorning the scene directly before him with derivative, antique gods. The urgency of the speaker’s need and the busyness of his thinking blocks his way; the disease of consciousness is already too much with him to permit more than a few glimpses of the original and uncontaminated feeling he desires so frantically.

But what would a poem be that had escaped this trajectory of thought orbiting the self? What would a poem be that had achieved not a discussion of negative capability but the thing itself – a poem without ideas, without the imperative of argument, without the central figure of the thinking and suffering poet? That poem would be “To Autumn.” [iv]

“To Autumn” is an adventure in language and its power to evoke feeling, reaching beyond reasoning to accentuate sensuous qualities – tone, rhythm, and the kinesthetic horizon of sound-sense. Keats’ poem explores the extent to which language can be both music and dance and also invite the speaker/reader to imitate the vital forces of nature. More than holding the mirror up to nature, “To Autumn” asks the reader to be it rather than simply to see it. Here he follows closely the desire of the speaker of Wordsworth’s sonnet who wishes to regain the primitive mind and the radiance of the chthonic gods. However, Keats by-passes his argument in order to accomplish what Wordsworth’s speaker only thinks about.

Stanza One

SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
        Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
    Conspiring with him how to load and bless
        With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
    To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
        And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
            To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
    With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
        And still more, later flowers for the bees,
        Until they think warm days will never cease,
            For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Keats’ ode is made up of three stanzas, each, at eleven lines, equivalent to a short sonnet. The rhyme scheme, like so much else in the poem, is relaxed, and unobtrusive. The play of iambic pentameter avoids rigorous rhythmic insistence, allowing trochaic intrusions and an occasional anapest. The lines move so slowly, with so many monosyllables, languid caesural pauses and rich assonantal effects that it is easy to lose sight of any structure. A quick accounting would assure us that we have eleven lines of iambic pentameter with the rhyme scheme ababcdedcce. However, this mechanical exterior description misses the drama of the inner structuring of Keats’ ode.

Considering the outer framework of the poem, we notice that each stanza enacts its own moment in the autumnal drama. The first stanza belongs to late summer and the frantic growth to completion: fruit that ripens on the vine, apples on the trees, nuts swelling inside their shells, and “later flowers” yielding nectar for the frantic bees that store their honey in cells “o’er brimm’d” with sweetness. The second stanza belongs to early autumn and the activities of gathering the harvest. Workers thresh the grain, separating wheat from chaff, gleaners cut swathes of grain, and the cider-press collects the last “oozing” of the apples. Only in stanza three are we in the depth of autumn, with the field, now a “stubble plain,” as the wet, fruitful force of late summer gives way to desiccation and more gentle poise beyond the busyness of growth and gathering, as nature’s gentle choirs beckon the spirit in a new language only this poem knows.

Stanza one begins in a mist; autumn is a “close bosom-friend” (one of several compounded notions that extend our normal categories of understanding – what is a “bosom-friend” as opposed to other kinds? What are “cottage-trees”?). The relation of sun and season is jocular, replacing the fierce contests of sky and earth of classical mythologies. These mischievous, god-like personages, playfully conspire in plying their magical force of growth. The weight of the fruit taunts the vines that would prefer their accustomed light freedom. Pregnant and weighted with growth, the vines submit reluctantly to this friendly imposition. Those “cottage-trees” also would prefer to be more lightly freighted, to be “moss’d” rather than bent down with the weight of apples. The imposition by these playful gods embarrasses everywhere.  They “swell the gourd” and “plump the hazel shells” in intimate frenzy, working inwardly filling the enclosure of these reluctant cases with sweetness. The same riot of growth assaults the “later flowers” by reviving them when they should be done with their springtime labors; worst off, the poor bees are wild with energies, leading the observer to imagine what bees think as the forces of renewed flowering set them further on in their mad task of filling the “clammy cells” of their hive. “To Autumn” has us enter these inner spaces, inside the gourd, the hazel shells, and the hive and into the “thoughts” of the vines and bees. We are at home in such a fanciful world, a world of thatched cottages, of playful vines, of over-eager bees, and of gods who ply a light touch upon our world.

 The first stanza has its own particular music, a riot of sibilance. From “Season” to “cells” the stanza, voiced and unvoiced, resounds with the hiss and sizzle of sound. If the idea of the stanza is the continuing of relentless burgeoning growth, sibilant sounds are a good way to figure this. The sound itself persists, carrying the weight of the vowel quality into extended duration. This feature of resistance to closure is abetted by the rise and fall of the vowels. If we can think of vowels as high and low, that is, produced high in the mouth and resonating above as opposed to low in the mouth and resonating in the chest, we begin to perceive the vocal dance that Keats has engineered.[v] “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” illustrates this rise and fall perfectly, “mists” rising from “season,” and “low fruitfulness” lowering from “mel.” This graceful movement rocks us into gentle ease. The closing line to the stanza demonstrates this persistent pattern, “o’er-brimm’d” rising from “summer” and lowering to the heavily voiced “cells.” The movement is gentle, as befits the notion of the pleasure of soft swinging motion and of easy breathing. These vocal metaphors are inscribed physically into the experience of the poem. They attach the speaker/reader to the nature Keats describes – the out-there comes in-here.

Another brilliant effect occurs in the extended enjambment that causes line 3 to flow through into line 4 –“how to load and bless /With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run.” The monosyllables slow the line; even more so, the equal value of each word, none emphasized over another, imposes an uncommon smoothness in the rhythm. This even quality is further sustained by the perfect iambic pattern, and a flow that continues much longer than is usual in extending one line into the next. If the idea of stanza one is the endurance of summer’s exuberant process, the flow of lines provides the image of this persistence.

Keats brings our attention to the hum of language as the cradle of meaning with the quiet avalanche of verbs – “load” “bless” “bend” “fill” “swell” “plump” “never cease” and “has o’er-brimm’d” – each pointing to the process of completion and with greater and richer complexity as the series completes itself. Keats also borrows a trick from Wordsworth’s ‘”Tintern Abbey” in lines 8 to 9 by adding “still more” to the already established “budding more” as if the poet needs to be correcting himself in the moment in order to convey the on-going and profuse growth.[vi] Finally, the mad insistence of the bees, as summer drives them mischievously to now useless busyness, figures precisely this over-abundance of activity that swells the chambers of their hive to over-brimming.

The stanza is rich with delights and creates an easeful intimacy for the reader. This intimacy is particularly effective because no agitated or enthralled poet figure appears to block our view to nature’s doings. No thought gets in the way. The stanza settles no debate and provides us no moral or rule to live by, other than itself. Its music and movement convey no idea as Keats’ deftly constructed aimlessness liberates us to a new apprehension of nature out there and in ourselves.

Stanza Two

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
        Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
    Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
        Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
    Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
        Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
            Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
    And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
        Steady thy laden head across a brook;
        Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
            Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Stanza two is no less strange and full of wonder. The stanza opens with a friendly question to affirm what we all know. The question suggests that we have, all of us, of course observed Nature, a phantom figure haunting her material presence, but nonetheless surely there. Still, this poet, unlike Shelley in “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” for example, requires no special powers to see this. “To Autumn” insists that we need no vates, no high priest to recall what we have seen and known. The evasive god whom Wordsworth’s hungry seeker only glimpses, we see and know effortlessly, for whoever seeks this god will surely find her.  For Keats, this phantom is simply there “sitting careless on a granary floor, /Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind:..” For a modern reader, this reference to threshing (Keats prefers the softer “winnowing”) is likely to be obscure. We know of wheat and chaff as a biblical phrase. In Keats’ time, however, this picture would have excited an immediate and precise image. The granary has a stone floor with open doors at opposite ends to allow the breeze to pass through; laborers who pound the sheaves of grain onto the floor depend upon the breezes to blow away the lighter chaff from the wheat.  When the worker strikes the sheaf of grain onto the stone floor, the chaff rises up, dust in the breeze, and reveals the shape of an otherwise invisible presence, the breeze reveals a figure in movement as it blows away the chaff in a swirl of motion.[vii] This is an extraordinary version of personification. When Wordsworth attempts the same move in “The Word is Too Much with Us,” his gods have to emerge from literary reference. Proteus and Triton are not rooted in the scene itself. Wordsworth’s visionary experience is uncomfortably derivative and imposed upon the scene. In contrast, Keats’ goddess is there, a figure that rises in a setting his readers know and with a vision they may well have had on their own.

And sometimes this goddess appears in the worker, the gleaner who herself has drifted off into sound sleep, exhausted by her labors and “drows’d” by the sweet “fume of poppies.” Like the phantom figure revealed in the lift of chaff, the invisible goddess peeps through the gauze of material things, momentarily revealed in the form of the worker intoxicated with the warmth and easeful exhaustion of harvest labor. One “sees” this figure, too, by the “cyder-press,” watching “with patient look.” Like the friendly gods of summer, this goddess is immanent in nature, a local figure animating the scene and with no thunderous Olympian pretensions. She is “careless”; she spares the “twined flowers” that have grown in the fields along with the wheat that must be gathered; she keeps a steady head, and attends the cyder-press “with patient look.” This is a gentle goddess, who embodies, without rush or hurry, or the intention of the goal that must be accomplished, the steady forward motion of nature’s and the worker’s inexorable purpose. Keats achieves these hints of divinity gracefully, avoiding the clanking machinery of worn-out mythologies

The music of Keats’ language, like the winnowing of chaff, reveals the figure of this gorgeous and mysterious being. The first two lines of the stanza roll out in dependable iambic fashion.  Lines three and four, however, catch the updraft of anapest – “on a granary floor” and “by the winnowing wind” – to simulate the sweep of the breeze which reveals the goddess.  Lines five to seven cast a net to capture the phantom in another way. The somnolent deep resonant vowels find a correlative in sound to Autumn’s powers, setting the reader/speaker into a swoon, next to awaken us with the tinkle of high, non-resonant vowels then descend back into the buzz and hum of “flowers.” We are accustomed to think of these effects as onomatopoeia and leave it at that, satisfied with the learned label. These effects, however, belong to the most primitive stages of language, children making the noises they hear as if they could engage with the world around them in direct conversation, as if the non-human were itself invested with spirit and sentience and congenial presence. Having stripped intellect from his poetry, Keats replaces it with the plastic power of fantasy that invokes our instinct for belonging to nature without the rhetorical intensiveness of personification. The word “oozing” makes the point precisely.  Say this embarrassingly evocative word, and we are with the goddess, “hours by hours.” The exactingly slow progress of the sentence, enforced by monosyllables, along with the caesural and other pauses, and the wandering accumulation of clauses, enforces the idea of slow-paced but implacable progress, of motion and fulfillment without the anxiety of intention.

Stanza Three

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
        Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
    While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
        And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
    Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
        Among the river sallows, borne aloft
            Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
    And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
        Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
        The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
           And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

If stanza two is about seeing — “Who hath not seen” – this concluding stanza will focus upon hearing, the music upon which the entire poem is founded. The verbs indicate the sounds — “mourn” “bleat” “sing” whistles” “twitter.” But the sound-sense continues to carry the burden of the experience. If we track the sound emphases from the opening of the poem to its close, we find we have traveled from “season” to “twitter” that is, from resonant sibilance to brittle consonance. Stanza three is a riot of sound effects that welds the energy of the outer nature to our inward response. In the ease of line three – “while barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day” — an old pattern of alliteration leads to an unusual play of sounds moving inexorably downward and forward and from strained articulation of ease and flow and release. The notion of “soft-dying” is carried out, then, in the musical descent from the consonantal tangle of “stubble plains” to ease of “rosy hue.” The delicacy of the verbs “bloom” and “touch” enforce this atmosphere of easing into quiet. The energetic gathering, the frantic busyness of late summer and the ensuing harvest is giving way to a luxurious comfort, a drying out, and a sweet and gentle desiccation. The lines slow with even more abundant monosyllables, the caesural pauses become more emphatic, the clicking consonants increase as in “touch the stubble” “gnats” “aloft” “sinking” “bleat” “hedge-crickets” “red-breast whistles” and “twitter in the skies.” The idea of brittleness is carried by this strange music Keats composes as nature’s delicate recession from her damp abundance welcomes the end of autumn’s drama.

This music comes from boundaries, the crepuscular limits where day meets darkness – the soft-dying day; stubble plains touched by the rosy hue of the dying light, gnats mourning the passing of the day carried by light wind that lives or dies. The bleating of the now full-grown lambs about to pass from youth to maturity comes from a distant hilly bourn, a distant boundary, from which no soul returns; the red-breast’s sound comes from the garden-croft, above and out of sight, as swallows gather — their twitter now as emphatic as the bees clamoring in summer’s madness — for their journey to some unknown and distant world.

The ending of “To Autumn” has invited much debate. Is Keats anticipating his own death in the quiet passing of the swallows from this world to the next? Is this the familiar pathos of the dying of the year as autumn gives way to the death brought by winter? Or does the passing of the swallows anticipate their return, lending the poem a more hopeful recognition of the cycle of the seasons? Or, are we being invited, as in the end of “Ode: to a Nightingale,” to enter a world of pure beauty, though in this case untroubled by doubts about dreaming and waking? I would argue that the poem has been about boundaries all along, about those points of entry where some world beyond our usual accounting leans into the world we think we know, where jocund gods play happily with nature; where goddesses appear in the breeze and in the fume on their gentle visits to illuminate our world; where the swarm of chaff becomes the hum of the gnats’ swarm; and where meanings peep through language at the boundary where the sound and motions of language revive our nature for us.

In “To Autumn” Keats has written an ultimate poem. First, he celebrates the rich sensuous presence of autumn as no poem has ever done; second, he has accomplished more consistently and with less clutter what many other poets and he himself set out to do in “Ode: to a Nightingale,” that is, to create an eternal memorial in pure music of the spiritual connection of inner and outer nature; and third, he has written a pure poem in absolute obedience to his aesthetic commitment to “negative capability.” He has written a poem free from intrusions of thought and the noisy self assertions of the Romantic poet. The result puts us into another zone, a new and brighter room in the mansion of our spirit.[viii]

[i] Harmon, William, ed. The Classic Hundred Poems (Second Edition). New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. Harmon lists “To Autumn” as the most anthologized of all English poems. It was written on September 19, 1819, and published in 1820. John Keats (1795-1821) was already aware of his deadly contracting of tuberculosis.

[ii] In “Tintern Abbey” (1798) Wordsworth describes an experience of pure meditation as both the result and condition of poetry: “that serene and blessed mood, /In which the affections gently lead us on, –  /Until, the breath of this corporeal frame /And even the motion of our human blood /Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul: /While with an eye made quiet by the power /Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, /We see into the life of things” (ll. 41-49).

[iii] Letter to his brother dated Sunday, 21 December 1817.

[iv] Helen Vendler, The Odes of John Keats, Harvard University Press, 1983, has provided the most complete discussion of “To Autumn,” pp. 233-288.  This essay is much indebted to Vendler’s work.

[v] In our time, we have become eye-readers, looking for information and descriptions of mechanics. Poetry invites us to re-constitute the voices of experience. Lyric poetry especially demands to be spoken, words and phrases to be savored as sound with its own force of meaning.

[vi] In “Tintern Abbey” the speaker corrects himself by interjecting “hardly hedge-rows” in the following: “Once again I see/These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines/Of sportive wood run wild:..”   This correction creates the impression of improvisation. Keats, like Wordsworth, re-worked this poem many times to create the illusion of nonchalance.

[vii] I witnessed this winnowing work on a visit to Tajikistan where farm-laborers, all of them women, used the modern asphalted highway as a threshing floor to separate wheat from chaff. The fine grain-dust caught in the wind invited the mind to envision spectral figures in motion.

[viii] In a letter to John Hamilton Reynolds dated Sunday, 3 May 1818 Keats wrote:

I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors of the rest being as yet shut upon me – The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think – We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by awakening of the thinking principle – within us – we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight: However among the effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one’s vision into the nature and heart of Man — of convincing one’s nerves that the World is full of misery and Heartbreak, Pain, sickness and oppression — whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken’d and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open – but all dark – all leading to dark passages — We see not the balance of good and evil. We are in a Mist – We are now in that state — We feel the burden of the Mystery.

G. M. Hopkins and the Blacksmith’s Sandal

Gerard Manley Hopkins was the first poet my heart stirred for. He tore general thoughts down and reassembled them as uneven webs of particulars seen into for the first time. Language, he taught, is a hiding place where sensations go to be pressed and cleaned for common use. Poetry, if working well, undoes this domestication and reconnects sensations with minds and hearts. Exceptional language allows us to recover from conventional language … in other words, poetry.

His curtailed sonnet, “Pied Beauty,” tells the story:

Glory be to God for dappled things —
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Nature, God, and we should all bear the label “irregular.” Hopkins’ language is peculiar – “pied,” “dappled,” “brinded,” “rose-moles,” “stipple,” – the poem is exuberant, crazed with language. And it isn’t only Nature – mottled skies, cow designs, shining trout mosaics, and such – but also our world of endless inventiveness; the hardware store with row upon row of drawers and cabinets, holding screws, nails, hooks, bolts, nuts, braces, plates, and exotic single-use hand tools passed down through the generations; marine gear, automotive gear, medical gear, library gear … world without end. The mind prefers categories, but the world abounds in things.

Hopkins’ four and two-fifths sestet describes what we poetry folks are and prefer – you know who you are. People who embrace the arts are counter, original, spare, and strange, and fickle, too. And we take to our kind and these things in the world. When we come alive to the peculiar energy of particular things, we see God in speckled glory … reality irreducibly what it is (“I am what is”) and resistant to all our puny efforts to hold, contain, and define.

“Felix Randal” puts this into play in a common drama of our uncommon life:

Felix Randal the farrier, O he is dead then? my duty all ended,
Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome
Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it and some
Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?

Sickness broke him. Impatient he cursed at first, but mended
Being anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began some
Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom
Tendered to him. Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!

This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.
My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears,
Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal;

How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!

The poem is a sonnet, but unlike most sonnets, a dramatic monologue. The speaker, a priest, had a duty to watch over the dying black-smith (farrier), offer him the sweet reprieve and ransoming of sins (redemption), and anoint him in preparation for his journey (viaticum) to heaven. The priest knew Felix when he was “hardy-handsome,” one of those big-boned fellows, and saw him broken by illness and reduced to the weakness and fears of a child. As the poem opens, the priest is informed of Randal’s death, and the poem tracks his response, from keeping feelings at a distance to painful emotional recognition, to an imagined triumphant resurrection. We observe the priest make his way through these stages of feeling, and in himself, through the transition from fear to faith.

The priest thinks first of his formal duties and welcomes the prospect that this chapter has ended. He has no shock or pain at the news. Instead he entertains a notion about the medical cause and plays with an ambitious metaphor (the diseases “fleshing” themselves). But the opening quatrain concludes with a question. Are his duties ended, can he close that book and move on, or is there more? He recalls in the second stanza how smoothly it all went, just as it should as described in the priest’s pastoral care manual. The patient was angry, then repentant then reconciled through forgiveness and the promise of heaven. Everything went as it should. To seal the book, the octave concludes with a joke – “God rest him all road ever he offended.” A blacksmith’s occupational sin would have been to make horse-shoes badly and thereby injure the roadway – a piece of wit meant to seal off the episode.

The priest is keeping grief in abeyance. His attendance upon Felix, he proposes, was nothing personal, just doing his duty. Felix was just one of those rough countrymen, cut in that “mould.” Things went as they should. The mystery of death is resolved by the Church’s rites, rational facts, and the slick irony of his little joke. It’s what we do, keeping life at an emotional distance, deflecting its pain in generalizations and abstractions.

In the next three lines, this strategy of abeyance crumbles. The generalization becomes particular. It’s as if the priest’s thought moves in diminishing circles. Still in his mood of pastoral abstraction, the priest recalls that this seeing of the sick sometimes makes them dear to us and that we can become dear to them in the process, too. And, as the circle tightens, it becomes personal, with “my tongue had taught thee.” But the key movement is marked rhythmically – “my tongue had taught thee comfort … touch had quenched they tears … thy tears that touched my heart.” This declension to feeling moves slowly, as each level collapses into a more profound level of recognition beneath.

Here, a good voicing of this drama makes all the difference. The pauses at each level mark a shift in recognition. The iambs pile up without finding their pentameter, broken in ruminative pieces. And finally we arrive at “child” – pause — “Felix” (for the first time addressing the person) – and then the simple grieving of “poor Felix Randall.” The contrast of this heart-felt phrase with all the preceding chatter is profound, a shock of recognition for the priest.

The closing remarks show the priest’s imagination released to make Felix Randal real to him. He recalls the blacksmith in his boisterous years, working at his forge. The line “When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,…” sounds in its scansion the anvil’s ring as Felix hammers upon it, and the plosives sound the shock of his power. But the final line is more remarkable. The words “didst fettle” are delicate and precise, well out of character for the blacksmith at his work. In the midst of all this muscular force, the priest discovers something fragile. This surprising notion carries forward into the collision of “great grey drayhorse” (again the anvil sounding), “bright and battering” echoing “powerful among peers,” with “sandal.”

A horseshoe, for all its weight and solidity, is a sandal. It is an open shape and seemingly too small and narrow to uphold a monumental work horse. As the drayhorse depends upon a metal sandal, so Felix, muscular and boisterous, hangs by the delicate but powerful thread of faith. The battering is done on life’s roadways, offending in their boisterous force. The soul of Felix (his name announcing happiness and luck) is bourn up by the faith the priest inspires. But Felix is remembered for his magnificent strength, resurrected in the priest’s mind as a force in the world, which must like all others pass away.

The priest resisted this journey into feeling and memory, as if death were too painful. However, in the end, the priest resurrects Felix Randall in his memory and imagination. He makes real to himself what Felix was and the love he bears him. We live, all of us, on nothing more substantial than a delicate sandal. In our mortality, we are sustained by God’s love for each original one of us and the love we have for each strange-freckled one another.