09 May 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/19

In a London Drawingroom

The sky is cloudy, yellowed by the smoke.
For view there are the houses opposite
Cutting the sky with one long line of wall
Like solid fog: far as the eye can stretch
Monotony of surface and of form
Without a break to hang a guess upon.
No bird can make a shadow as it flies,
For all is shadow, as in ways o'erhung
By thickest canvass, where the golden rays
Are clothed in hemp. No figure lingering
Pauses to feed the hunger of the eye
Or rest a little on the lap of life.
All hurry on and look upon the ground,
Or glance unmarking at the passers by.
The wheels are hurrying too, cabs, carriages
All closed, in multiplied identity.
The world seems one huge prison-house and court
Where men are punished at the slightest cost,
With lowest rate of colour, warmth, and joy.

(December 1865)

George Eliot

After last week's haiku by Richard Wright, I thought it might be interesting to look at some poems by writers not usually associated with poetry: so here is an urban evocation by George Eliot.

As readers of her novels know, Eliot has a deep feeling for the English countryside and its small towns. There is deep feeling here, too, but of a grimmer sort. The city as the locus for alienation, anonymity, and meaningless monotonous repetition is a familiar trope in modern literature, but Eliot's poem seems to spring from a personal despair rather than an attempt to write into a tradition. The sense of being trapped starts with the title: although the poem itself is a description of a London street, the title tells us that we are not actually out on the street – instead we are in the drawing room, and a drawing room is a formal room for receiving guests, like a front parlor, so the name brings with it an overlying sense of social obligations of dubious sincerity and pleasure. Presumably the speaker is looking out the window during some visit, presumably due to ennui or restlessness or general unhappy curiosity.

The poem constantly makes us aware that we are not in the country; it describes the cityscape in terms that might be used of the countryside: we are told of the sky, the view, birds, the sun, but in each case in a way that makes us aware of what is missing in the urban version. The sky is cloudy and yellow with pollution; the view is of a monotonous row of buildings like a dull scar (they cut the sky), or rather like the grey fog made solid; the birds cast no shadows as they fly, for nothing casts a shadow when everything is in shadow; the sun is covered with smoke and fog like a lamp covered with canvas (clothed in hemp is another reminder of the countryside, hemp being associated with the cheap cloth worn by country folk, as in the hempen homespuns – Bottom, Snout, Tinker, and the rest of the would-be players – that Puck sneers at in A Midsummer Night's Dream).

The street view is presented as a smooth impermeable wall of sameness: without a break to hang a guess upon; you can imagine the frustration a novelist would feel at such sealed-off resistance to human inquiry. There is a sense of hunger perpetually unfed (no figure lingering / Pauses to feed the hunger of the eye, for there is nothing the eye can grab on to) and rest perpetually thwarted (the figures also do not pause to rest a little on the lap of life – the lap, as with a comforting mother and a child). There is a lack of distinction in the inhabitants, too, and they are presented as not quite human:  they are referred to not as people or citizens or any term that might suggest an individuality or a community, however latent; instead they are figures who do not linger, they are passers by who are unmarked even when glanced at (though mostly they are ignored by those so like them, also rushing on). They are no more individual than the sealed-off cabs and carriages, which are also hurrying on, also smoothly deflecting in their sameness any personal inquiry or wonder. The monotony of the surroundings is contrasted with the hurry of the inhabitants; there is nothing in between, and in fact one seems to result in the other, both states unnatural and debilitating. Without any sense of the inhabitants as individuals, their hurry seems pointless as well as frantic. There is little difference between them and the carriages.

The wheeled conveyances and the hurrying passers-by are both machine-like, multiplied identities: not individuals but persons or things (or thing-like persons) reproduced over and over. The machine-like endless reproduction found in this urban life may be meant as a contrast to the artisanal craft and individual labor of the pre-Industrial countryside. The poem ends with a terrifying (and to us inevitably Kafkaesque) sense of this world as a closed judgmental system, a huge and inexplicably governed court and prison that punishes the inhabitants for unnamed crimes with a perpetually inadequate ration of color, warmth, and joy: a little burst of longing, an efflorescence of what has been missing, at the end of the poem. The idea of punishing men at the slightest cost and lowest rates may bring to mind and imply a critique of the grim Utilitarian school of capitalism so prevalent at this period (see, for example, Charles Dickens's novel Hard Times – For These Times, published roughly a decade before Eliot wrote this poem).

This is from The Collected Poems of George Eliot, edited by Lucien Jenkins, published by Skoob Books Publishing (and I just realized Skoob is Books backwards).

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