Birdsong Essay:)

The novel ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks focuses on WW1 and its effect on society through the journey of the protagonist Stephen Wraysford and his family. The novel is structured around three time periods and Faulks uses these time changes and the characters in each to show the differences that the war made. The first section is set in France before the war and introduces Stephen and his affair with Isabelle. This whole section shows how little rights women had, especially shown in Isabelle’s unhappy and abusive marriage to Azaire. The next section contains the war and explores trench warfare, tunnelling and going over the top. The final section is set in 1970s Britain and concerns Stephen’s granddaughter Elizabeth who is researching WW1. This last section truly shows the change in society and women’s rights as Elizabeth is free to have a child despite being single.

The novel opens with a lush and Romantic description of Amiens and the “river Somme”, showing the nature that will soon be destroyed by the war. Faulks describes passages and tunnels multiple times in the opening paragraphs, giving the ideas of the tunnels of WW1 from the very beginning, “the river Somme broke into small canals”, “unregarded passageways”. It could be argued that Faulks does this to show how the actions of the society in “France 1910” caused the war. The natural elements of the description give ideas of the Garden of Eden, and thus you could see the war as symbolising the fall of man.

Houses are often used as outward manifestations of the family that lives within them in literature and the Azaire house in Birdsong is no different. The house is described in a gothic manner as having a “strong, formal front” with “iron railings”, this sturdy exterior shows that the family is respectable however the iron railings could be seen as a metaphor for Azaire trapping Isabelle within and seeing her as a possession. Isabelle is an obviously beautiful trophy wife, her beauty not shown through her husband’s admiration but Stephen’s curious thoughts about her, “her white hands”, “membrane of her lower lip”. Isabelle is a commodity to Azaire, her marriage was “sold” to Azaire by her “father” and he objectifies her, choosing to “display her to his friends”. This shows the patriarchal nature and capitalist views of Victorian society.

Azaire is not only an abusive husband but an exploitative business owner, representing the capitalist businessmen who contributed to causing WW1. We can see a socialist point of view in the character of Meyraux who plainly describes the problem with society in his argument with Azaire, “What the industry needs is… a less mean and timid attitude on the part of the owners.” Faulks links capitalism to war by having Azaire talk about his workforce using the semantic field of war, “we need to retrench”. In both war and industry the men are used merely as pawns to advantage those higher up in society.

The first things we encounter in “France 1916” are the tunnels, mirroring the opening passage of the novel, “forty-five feet underground”. Faulks uses the language of industry in this section “mechanical” “grinding” to show how the soldiers were merely cogs in a mechanism. Faulks introduces the men, giving them names and a back-story, allowing the reader to get to know them so that the reader empathises with Stephen’s pain when they die. He creates images using simplistic language with very little emotion to brutally describe the horrors of their injuries; “his head was cut away in section… ragged edges of skull from which the remains of his brain were dropping.”

Stephen doesn’t see war like the officials do, he almost poses as the voice of reason, “Every one of the men we’ve killed is someone’s son”. Faulks uses him to voice the views of many soldiers, including Wilfred Owen, “No one in England knows what this is like”. That thought is a theme of the whole novel, confirmed through Elizabeth’s naivety about the casualties of the war in the 1970s. The only outcome of war is the questioning of morality, which is exactly what Stephen does when talking to Wraysford, he expresses his newly damaged mindset weaved with both his opinion and societal opinions of war, “This is not a war, this is an exploration of how far men can be degraded”. He even speaks the truth when talking to his hopelessly optimistic superiors who believe that the battle will be “over at dawn”, Stephen thinks logically and questions both the “terrain” and the actions of the “enemy”.

When the soldiers wait for the command Faulks uses short sentences and phrases, “They were almost there. Stephen on his knees, some men taking photographs from their pockets, kissing the faces of their wives and children. Hunt telling foul jokes.” This slows down time and shows the panic of the anticipation. He uses short sentences again in the battle itself, this time to speed the action up, “It had not been cut.” Faulks personifies nature, “soil spat”, suggesting that nature is fighting back and joining the battle, a similar idea to those in “Futility”. The dehumanisation of soldiers is shown very specifically in the battle as the soldiers are described as “primitive dolls” and “humps of khaki”, giving the impression that they are less than human, dispensable. Faulks uses several semantic fields in the battle, this mix of semantic fields adds to the eclectic and crazed nature of the war. He uses the semantic field of machinery, “clog the progress”; horror, “his nose dangled”; and when Stephen survives the Romantic field of nature, “There are trees beyond the noise, and down in the valley is the fish-filled river.” Faulks later mixes the semantic field of butchery, “pink skin” “small joints of meat” with the semantic field of drowning, “wave breaking” “undertow of fear”. The semantic field of butchery makes the reader see that the soldiers were treated like animals, simply dying for a higher purpose. The semantic field of drowning insinuates that either the men were drowning in the noise of the war “sound of shellfire” “explosion”, or even that they were drowning in the bodies, unable to dispose of them all.

The sections set after the war concern Elizabeth, Stephen’s granddaughter who is both coping with being pregnant with a married man and searching for her grandfather’s story. Part 3 unsurprisingly starts in the “tunnel of the underground”. The motif of introducing each timeframe using tunnels links all three, showing how the war affected all. Elizabeth visits France to try and find out what the war is like and is surprised by the scale and horror of it all, the “endless writing as though the surface of the sky had been papered in footnotes”. That image gives the reader an insight into Elizabeth’s head and the unfathomable number of names on the memorial. Because the reader has just got a taste of WW1 through ‘Part 2’ we sympathise with Elizabeth, however the tone of these sections seems ironic because we know we’ll never experience it like the soldiers did, which is why “My God, nobody told me” rings true with the readers.

Elizabeth gets impregnated by a married man, and the fact that she can do so and have the baby shows how the world has changed. Before the war this would be frowned upon by Victorian society but not even her mother minds now. The only one who’s unsure is Robert, her lover, and the novel ends with him finally accepting the thought of another baby and being overwhelmed with “great happiness”. A feminist reader would be glad of this ending as it truly shows that despite the deaths caused by World War 1 it propelled society into the future and promoted freedom. Faulks shows in this final section what the men in WW1 fought for, not for patriotic values or revenge but for the future.

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A bit o’ Birdsong!

So we’ve been here on WordPress for a whole year and now we’re starting looking at ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks!

The opening passage of ‘Birdsong’ describes the open passages of the canals of the river Somme as well as the Boulevard Du Cange in Amiens. The paragraph is really a display of what life was like before the war, a rich and idyllic description of nature “On the damp side were chestnut trees, lilac and willows, cultivated to give shade and quietness to their owners.” The description gives the idea of the Garden of Eden, which suggests that the fall of man must be close, and sure enough WW1 is around the corner. The idea of “small canals” with “water gardens” gives the first images of passages and tunnels, and thus the first idea of trenches and the tunnels below No-Man’s Land.

We are then treated to a description to the “Azaires’ house” which has a “strong formal front” behind “iron railings” . This represents the family itself, which is formal and separated from the workers. Azaire himself is a capitalist and doesn’t respect his workers. We could also look at the house in terms of its facade, the term facade could easily be applied to countries in Europe at that time, where tensions were running high due to the breaking down of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the subsequent power vacuum. However the idea of a front could simply be a term referring to the front line, where the most fighting occured.

The description of the inside of the house also concerns itself with the idea of mystery and passages, “it had unexpected spaces and corridors that disclosed new corners.” This is the second image of passageways, linking to the trenches and underground tunnels. The quotation “the house was always a place of unseen footsteps” gives the house a sense of intrigue. However it also highlights a major issue later on, in the tunnels Jack Firebrace and his men have to stop and listen for noises several times when digging to ensure the enemy isn’t close. These “unseen footsteps” are exactly what the soldiers in the tunnels needed to listen out for.

Later on in the book Azaire discusses his workers with Meyraux, a socialist. Parallel to this section of the book is the rise of socialism, unions and socialist governments, we hear of riots and Isabelle goes to feed the starving children. Meyraux says that industry needs “a less mean and timid attitude on the part of the owners.” Faulks uses the language of war in Azaires speech and Stephen’s thoughts to foreshadow the future and also show how he uses his men as pawns to get his own way, just like soldiers, “we can therefore only retrench”, “Stephen was surprised by the simplicity of Azaire’s asault”.

We can see the wealth and success of Azaire in his family, his children are “plump”, an outward display off his extravagance and his wife is beautiful, a typical trophy wife. All the descriptions of Isabelle make her seem attractive, formal and fragile, “Her clothes were more fashionable than those of other women in the town yet revealed less.” The idea of her being like a porcelain doll is reinforced by the description of “polished china” in the room.

Thanks for reading – be sure to comment your own ideas below!

Jack

WW1 Poetry as a Genre?

Sorry for the lack of posts over the last week! I have been writing blogs however my internet connection on holiday down south wasn’t letting me upload things *shakes fist* – so unfortunately you’ll probably now get quite a few blogs over this weekend!! Lets begin with discussing whether WW1 poetry is it’s own genre!

To discuss whether WW1 poetry is a genre in itself is very difficult, and would mean that we’d have to compare the techniques with all genres to check that it doesn’t fit in any other genre. Now I don’t have time to do such a thing amongst reading books for next year and such, and thus the easiest way to determine the likelihood of WW1 poetry being a genre is to compare it with other war poetry. A poetic genre is a category of poems that share stylistic devices and techniques! To save the trouble of you guys reading large blocks of text (and to make this more imaginative and exciting!) I’ve compiled a list below of the themes, attitudes and techniques of WW1 poetry compared to war poetry before WW1. I’ve chosen not to compare WW1 poetry with poems from after WW1 for two reasons:

1) The change in attitudes to war (i.e. soldiers are heroes and war is something to be ashamed of) pretty much stay the same!

2) The range of poetry is so diverse it was hard to find a good example to represent them all!

I’ve chosen to compare Wilfred Owen’s WW1 poetry to Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Barrack-Room Ballads’ from the late 1800s.

 Genre

As we can see the techniques and attitudes are very different from before and after WW1, however most war poetry after WW1 has the same attitude and similar techniques to the poetry from WW1 (despite changes over the years due to styles of writing changing!) – so I would say that WW1 poetry is a transitional genre of war poetry that has educated and inspired future war poets on what war is like.

Thanks for reading!

 Jack!

 

“Over the Top”

Twisted smoke from enemy lines fights through the sky like wire,

Unlike the wisps of smoke from chimneys in our pleasant land.

Knee deep in the mud of the trenches we prepare to fight and fire.

At home we plough and reap and the harvest fills our hands.

At home and here our flesh is soiled with the earth’s wet mud,

Yet here our hands and flesh are also caked in blood.

 

Men keep watch of No-Man’s Land, over the broken earth,

The land almost looking like the ploughed soil of the farm.

However here they scour and aim for movement of such worth

To waste a single bullet and hope out of it comes harm.

“Over the top”, that fateful command that the general cries,

And out of the trenches come the Tommies, the infantry arise.

 

The guns fire and blaze and bullets condemn another soul

The shells send soil flying and flailing limbs fall flat.

Bodies entwine together, thrown into roughly dug holes

And in the trenches blood pumps round bodies entering combat.

Is this what life has come to, the rapid progression of man?

These piles of men are sacrifices for several feet of land.

 

One of our tasks in English over the summer was to write a war poem and this is the result!

Thanks for reading and feedback is appreciated!

Jack

The End is Nigh… apparently.

“The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats is a poem about the apocalypse. It was written around the end of WW1, when lots of things were changing, and the world seemed to be changing so fast it was like Armageddon. Thus Yeats wrote this poem to show his thoughts on chaos, and how from all these bad things, even more bad could be coming. The new century was meant to be a bright and exciting new time, and yet everything seemed to be going so badly wrong. The tone of the poem is very pessimistic and confused, showing disorder. The use of both evil language “blood-dimmed”, and religious language, “Bethlehem” creates a confused feeling. The use of enjambment, the varying line lengths and lack of rhyme also adds to the idea of chaos. 

Image

Throughout the poem Yeats uses Biblical language to tie into the religious side of the apocalypse. ‘The Second Coming’ itself is a phrase to describe when Jesus will return and decide who goes to heaven. Yeats says:

“Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.”

The repetition of “surely” shows his doubt, as if he doesn’t know whether all the bad things happening means that the apocalypse is nigh. The whole phrase has overtones of prophetic grandeur. By saying ” some revelation” Yeats is referring to the book of Revelations in the Bible, in which the prophecy of the apocalypse is forseen by St John. Yeats references a verse of Revelations when he says “the blood-dimmed tide” – the verse stating that the star Wormwood would fall to earth and the waters turn to blood. This is an image filled with connotations of both religion and death – showing the nature of the apocalypse. Revelations is full of odd creatures, and this fact seems to be reflected by the line “A shape with lion body and head of a man” – obviously a reference the Egyptian Sphinx. The reference to the “desert sand” could refer to Jesus’ time in the desert where the devil tempted him.

The line “That twenty centuries of stony sleep” is a reference to Jesus being out of the world for twenty centuries. The word “stony” has connotations with Jesus’ resurrection – as the stone was rolled away from the tomb, and Jesus was not there. At the very end of the poem Yeats says:

“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

This rhetorical question seems blasphemous – it is as if Yeats is describing Jesus as a “rough beast”. The effect of the word “slouching” adds to the image of a lazy rough beast. The use of the word “Bethlehem” reminds us of Jesus’ first birth – so maybe Yeats is trying to say that the Second Coming will not be pleasant, it will be a “rough beast” (looking at Revelations it definitely doesn’t seem like an optimistic time).

Yeats also uses references to the time he lives in falling “apart”. He states that “Mere anarchy is loose in the world” – maybe referencing the fall of the Tzars in Russia, or the World War. The use of the line “The falcon cannot hear the falconer” suggests disorder, and could be interpreted as a metaphor for mankind losing it’s connection with God. The use of the word “falcon” makes it sound refined, as only the upper classes would own falcons. Again the phrase “the centre cannot hold;” also suggests that mankind has lost it’s connection with the centre, the centre being a metaphor for God (as God is portrayed as the centre of life). Yeats suggests that everyone is guilty, that “innocence has drowned”.   

The first line, “Turning and turning in the widening gyre” could be interpreted in many ways. When I first read it I thought the word “turning” was a reference to the phrase, ‘turning in your grave’ – and thus the word was used ironically as according to Christian belief all of the dead leave their graves and rise to heaven during the apocalypse. However the “widening gyre” is a reference to the idea of gyres – something W.B Yeats was fascinated with, as he loved the spiritual and the occult. A gyre is a vortex, yet in the spiritual terms it’s the idea that lives pull in at death and then contribute to the next life – thus all the lessons learned in one life are used in the next. It is visualised as two cones, with the points touching to show the lives connected. Thus the word “turning” could be interpreted as a reference to the circle of life, and past lives.  

Thanks for reading,

Jack

 

 

Defining Margaret Atwood…

Today I read three Margaret Atwood poems, ‘Spelling’, ‘Christmas Carols’ and ‘A Woman’s Issue’.
These three poems all have the same overall theme, mistreatment of women and rape in war. Aswell as this they all use similar features (not surprising as they’re all written by the same writer).

The titles are used cleverly in all three poems. The use of the word “Issue” in the title ‘A Woman’s Issue’ is a homonym, the phrase ‘a woman’s issue’ in medieval times was used to mean a woman’s time of the month, but the word ‘issue’ means a problem. This automatically makes the reader assume that the fact that women get pregnant is a problem.

The title ‘Christmas Carols’ has connotations with festive times and joy, though the poem is much more serious. Throughout the poem there are references to Christmas, and the constant reminder that children are not always “holy”, and they don’t always mean good things, a direct references to unwanted pregnancies due to rape.

“Children don’t always mean hope. To some they mean despair.”

Later on in ‘Christmas Carols’ they also reference Mary, the mother of Jesus, another association with Christmas, “the magic mother, in blue and white,”. In my opinion Atwood could be drawing a comparison between the raped pregnant women and the pregnant Mary, both of whom were not pregnant by choice, though this comparison is quickly removed as Mary is described as “distinct” from those who aren’t as “perfect and intact” as her, “everyone else”.

Atwood uses very grotesque language and graphic imagery to emphasise how badly the women are treated, “…her pelvis broken by hammers”. Atwood especially uses graphic verbs to give the reader a sense of how much pain is inflicted by ‘the enemy’, “punctured”, “scrape”. This makes the reader have sympathy for the women. This kind of language contrasts with the almost scientific, blunt language used when describing women as ‘exhibits’. This objectifies the women and makes them sound disposable, just playthings for the men. In all of these poems men are referenced negatively, “eighty men a night” rape one girl – which shows how girls were treated as nothing.

The poem ‘A Woman’s Issue’ uses a lot of ambiguous language, used to describe both rape and war at the same time, “No man’s land, to be entered furtively,” aswell as death and childbirth, “doctor’s rubber gloves greasy with blood,” – this shows how war was intertwined with rape, rape was a normal thing to do to the enemy during war.

Margaret Atwood makes the reader empathise with the victims of these horrific war crimes which is what I think makes her poems so poignant, she evokes emotion, which is her greatest tool in conveying her opinion to the reader.

Thanks for reading,
Jack