Thursday, 28 April 2011

Carol Ann Duffy - 'Rapture'

One of the most striking features of Carol Ann Duffy's Rapture is the sheer amount of religious language it contains, which is perhaps not surprising when we recall that Duffy was brought up and educated as a Catholic:

  • "shy of a prayer" in 'River' (5)
  • "like something from heaven on earth, from paradise" in 'Swing' (8)
  • "baptised my head" in 'Rain' (9)
  • "my steps to the river are text to a prayer' (10)
  • "Lazarus" in 'If I Was Dead' (13)
  • "the prayer of rain" in 'Rapture' (16)
  • "I see your soul in your eyes" in 'Tea' (20)
  • "a broken rosary" in 'Bridgewater Hall' (23)
  • "The evening sky / worships the ground" in 'Love' (27)
  • "like a sacrament" in 'Finding the Words' (31)
  • "simple as faith" in 'December' (32)
  • "grace" and "the heron priest" in 'Grace' (33)
  • "they pray at us" in 'New Year' (34)
  • "The Latin names of plants blur like belief" in 'Wintering' (36)
  • "forgiveness", "rain's mantra", "a kind of grace", "an absolution" in 'Spring' (38)
  • "as I drowned in belief" and "the dark church of the wood" in 'Write' (43)
  • "as though / in prayer" in 'Whatever' (45)
  • "grace" and "souls" in 'Midsummer Night' (47)
  • 'Epiphany' (57)
  • "known by heart like a prayer" (59)
  • "a church" in 'Unloving' (61)
  • "without spell or prayer" and "this Christmas dawn" in 'Over' (62)

Now, these images all clearly need to be analysed in context but what is striking about them, with the exception of the "rain's mantra", is that they are all Christian and, in some cases, explicitly Catholic.

Time and time again, Duffy turns to religious language (and to myth) to supply the words and significance she seeks in the relationship described in Rapture. As with Samuel Beckett, Duffy believes that "all poetry is prayer". Or, as she puts it elsewhere: "Poetry and prayer are very similar. I write quite a lot of sonnets and I think of them almost as prayers: short and memorable, something you can recite."

So what does this mean in practice? The hermeneutic key to this particular set of references can be found in 'Over', the last poem in the collection, in which the abandoned lover asks, "What do I have / to help me, without spell or prayer, / endure this hour, endless, heartless, anonymous, / the death of love?" The immediate answer is memories and the implicit answer is poetry. But without myth ("spell") or prayer neither memory nor even poetry itself seems strong enough to fill the gap. For those who still believe, the "Christmas dawn" that ends Duffy's poetic journey has a significance that maybe even the poet herself cannot see.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

A Farewell to Arms

The impact of Hemingway's Catholicism can be seen in A Farewell to Arms but not, in my view, in the obvious places: neither in his sympathetic portrayal of the priest nor in the description of the narrator's near-death experience on the Italian front line but in the journey the protagonist undergoes during the course of the novel.

This is particularly clear if we examine two of the parallel episodes in the plot. One of these - and, in some ways, one of the most shocking episodes in the book - is when Frederic Henry shoots one of his comrades in the back as he runs away and then shows no remorse whatsoever. It is a scene which is thrown into sharp relief later in the novel when Henry himself is shot at by his own side for apparently abandoning his company. 

What we make of these parallel episodes is very much left up to us. As Hemingway put it elsewhere"I don't like to write like God." His narrative technique - the starkness of the style, the absence of all extraneous details, the refusal of the detached first-person narrator to pass judgments - forces us to plunge into the morally murky world he describes.

However, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Henry himself comes to believe that to do as you are done by is an inescapable law of life. The bare narrative continues throughout the novel but the narrator does not remain entirely detached to the end. In fact, it is the journey he goes on - "pilgrimage" would perhaps be too strong a word - which brings us closest to the author's incipient Catholicism. 

As an ambulanceman at the front line, Henry had to allow his senses to become dulled; he was unable to respond emotionally to the deaths of so many of his comrades in arms. However, he also slowly found himself being overtaken by love. Emotional detachment was therefore no longer possible when, at the end of the novel, he was confronted by the possibility of death, the death of his "wife". 

The passages which describe his inner turmoil as he waits in a Swiss hospital are among the finest in this wonderful novel. But bleak as they are, they do not plunge us into an abyss of hopelessness for Henry himself has changed, not wholly but enough to suggest that, as someone else once wrote, the great fisherman "let him wander to the ends of the world [and still brought] him back with a twitch upon the thread." 

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Initial Thoughts on Hemingway's Catholicism

I was rather surprised to discover that, for much of his adult life, Ernest Hemingway was a Catholic. The image Hemingway projected to the world doesn't exactly suggest pious devotion but, according to one distinguished critic, we need to take his Catholicism seriously if we are to understand some of his greatest books:

"Beginning with his wounding and near-death experience on an Italian battlefield in 1918, and continuing with increasing intensity through the early and mid-1920s, Hemingway's personal religious pilgrimage takes him through a rejection of Puritanism, and far beyond the social-gospel brand of Protestantism, into an ever-deepening discovery of Catholicism. This personal faith-journey is manifest, in his life and his work, by profound engagement with the aesthetic and historical and spiritual sensibility centered in ritual and ceremony (e.g., most obviously, as in the world of Toreo, or the bullfight; and, less obviously, in the vision of life-as-pilgrimage).

"Hemingway's rootedness in the sacramental sense of experience, in the incarnational paradigms of Catholic Christianity, grows ever deeper. Before his twenty-eighth birthday (in 1927), he has accepted the tradition, the authority, and the discipline of Rome and formalized his conversion. Far from being a "nominal" or "bogus" Catholic as some biographers would have it, Hemingway is a devout practicing Catholic for much of his life. He believed that "the only way he could run his life decently was to accept the discipline of the Church," and he could not imagine taking any other religion seriously (Baker, Life Story 333)."

These ideas are developed more fully here and, even more fully, in "In the Nominal Country of the Bogus: Hemingway's Catholicism and the Biographies." Hemingway: Essays of Reassessment, ed. Frank Scafella.  New York: Oxford UP, 1991. 105-40.

I'll post a few thoughts on A Farewell to Arms and Hemingway's Catholicism after Easter.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Graham Greene

I've just come across an interesting article about Greene. I don't agree with everything the author says about the modern reader or about Greene himself but he certainly raises some interesting questions.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Flannery O'Connor: Assaulting the Imagination

There is an interesting article in last week's English-language version of L'Osservatore Romano (6th April) on Flannery O'Connor. The article, entitled ''Assaulting the Imagination", is adapted by Michael Paul Gallagher S.J. from his recent book, Faith Maps. There's not a great deal that's new in it but it does provide a useful overview of O'Connor's theological approach from a Professor of Fundamental Theology. 

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

All Quiet on the Western Front

I recently returned from a trip with my students to the cemeteries and battlefields around Ypres and the Somme and while I was there I read Erich Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, one of the greatest pieces of literature to have emerged from the Great War.

Remarque was baptised and raised a Catholic. He was educated in Catholic schools and attended a Catholic teachers' seminary until he was called up in 1916 and then injured at Passchendaele. So it seems reasonable to ask what impact Catholicism had on his most famous book.

It is something of a cliché that religious belief was one of the casualties of the war and, at first glance, All Quiet on the Western Front seems to bear the cliché out. While meeting the bereaved mother of one of his fellow soldiers, Paul Bäumer, the narrator (or, at least, the first of the novel's two narrators) says, "God, is there anything I hold sacred? You soon change your views on that sort of thing where we are."

However, as Brian Murdoch  points out in the Afterword to his translation of the novel, "All Quiet on the Western Front is not a memoir." It is a work of fiction and we have to see this narratorial comment in the context of the whole novel, a novel in which, to quote Brian Murdoch again, "the motif of the inextinguishable spark of life in man" cannot be ignored.

Murdoch does not explicitly link this spark of life with Catholicism but there is surely some link: when, later in the book, the narrator finds himself in a Catholic infirmary he declares that "this is a piece of good luck, because the Catholic hospitals are known for good treatment and good food." 

The place clearly has its faults - the nuns are criticized for praying loudly in the corridor with the doors open - but it is still a place where utter cynicism cannot survive: "There is no one who wouldn't do anything in the world for Sister Tina, a wonderful nurse, who cheers up the whole wing, even when we can only see her from a distance," Bäumer tells us. 

And when we are tempted to see her as an isolated good egg, he reminds us that "there are a few more like her. We'd go through hell and high water for them."

Of course, there's a great deal more to the novel than these hospital scenes. There is much that is harrowing (as well as much that is funny) in its pages. And, given what we know already about Bäumer's ability to lie about the circumstances of his friend's death, it's impossible to draw much consolation from the way his own death is presented at the end of the novel.

And yet, despite the horrors it describes, this is not a book without hope, nor a book that is entirely free of the consolations of religion. Remarque went on to write plenty more novels after this one: I shall now be making a conscious effort to seek them out.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Bringing Catholic Culture Back Into the English Curriculum

I have just had an article published in Faith Magazine on 'Bringing Catholic Culture Back into the English Curriculum'. This is the fullest statement of my ideas to have appeared in print so far and I hope it helps provoke a debate. Any thoughts gratefully received.