Dulce Et Decorum Est, or is it?

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Wilfred Owen was a soldier during WWI that died in the front lines at age 25. His haunting poem, “Dulce Et Decorum Est” is considered to be the plea of a dead soldier. The question remains, what was Owen pleading for? The poem begins:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Owen introduces the metaphors “like beggars” and “like hags” in order to illustrate the poor conditions he and his fellow soldiers are living through. They are exhausted and crippled. They are sick, and deaf from the constant gunshots. They have nothing more to look forward to than “distant rest” – this could be simply their camp for the night, but i think it eludes to the endless rest that death brings. These men are the walking dead. Owen wants his audience to feel the power of their story, and to realize that war is not fun.

In the next stanza, Owen reflects on a gas attack that he lived through. Gas was just another industrialized way to rack up the death toll, it wasn’t just about hand-to-hand combat anymore. Owen fumbled and fitted his helmet in time, but another soldier was not quite so lucky:

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

Owen watches this man die a horrible toxic death, safe behind the green lenses of his own gas mask. He then has survivors guilt and this man haunts his dreams. He dies over and over while Owen remains helpless, listening to the sounds of him guttering – a word choice that invokes the image of the sucking sound created when water flows down the gutter. Owen uses the word drowning twice in order to reiterate the fact that this man essentially drown in his own fluids. This stanza made me feel physically ill, and was meant to show that war is not pretty.

The very last stanza is no longer about Owen’s experiences. It is a direct challenge aimed at Jessie Pope, a popular editor of patriotic poetry at the time (the poem was originally dedicated to her, so she is the audience):

If in smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

I include the whole stanza because the beginning informs the end. Owen is very graphically offering his experiences up on a platter to Pope (“my friend”). He tells her that if she was in his shoes or had any real idea of the horrors of war, she wouldn’t so happily inspire children to enlist. He ends with a quote from an ode by Horace that translates to “it is sweet and right to die for your country.” Apparently this quote was popular during WWI, and was used to convince men that it was their duty to go to war. Owen bitterly refers to it as “the old lie.” He wants Pope to re-think her position, and to stop pushing military service on young men who want to be remembered for doing something important. Owen has seen war and feels that it is not heroic or pretty or fun. He is the ultimate authority since he lost his life in one of the most grisly wars in history.

I can’t help but wonder if this poem changed Pope’s mind? It certainly would have changed mine. I think that this poem is even more powerful when read aloud, so I will leave you with this:

http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Qts3K3KznN4

And also a favorite quote of mine:

“Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind.” -John F. Kennedy

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I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

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I wandered lonely as a Cloud
That floats on high o’er Vales and Hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd
A host of dancing Daffodils;
Along the Lake, beneath the trees,
Ten thousand dancing in the breeze.

William Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” is the speaker (presumably Wordsworth) talking about the beauty and innocence of nature, and about how good it is for the soul (even in remembrance). Wordsworth was considered to be one of the fathers of Romantic poetry, and he proves his prowess with this poem. Wordsworth speaks of himself almost like he is floating above or apart from the world. He is an inanimate object; an observer, and nature is almost like a person. Vales and Hills and Daffodils are set apart with capitalization as if they were a proper noun – a person’s name. The Daffodils specifically are like people in that they are a crowd and they dance. Daffodils tend to symbolize new beginnings, which makes me think that Wordsworth sees nature as the cure for what ails society. If allowed, nature can bring about a re-birth for a lost generation (the audience I see for this poem). He speaks of how even reflecting on nature (the Daffodils) makes his heart soar. In fact, the whole last stanza leads me to believe that Wordsworth has only discovered it’s value in retrospect.

The poem was written in iambic tetrameter, which lends an almost march-like quality to it. Because of this, the lyrical nature of the words almost seem in contrast to the flow. I wonder if Wordsworth did this in order to further show contrast between the beauty of nature and the military mechanics of the industrial revolution? His choice of the word host in the first stanza seems to corroborate this, as host can refer to a military group or formation. The pattern of the end rhymes also add interest to the poem with their ABABCC structure. I believe that the last two lines of each stanza are meant to tie the message together in a less militaristic style. If read together, they simply say:

Along the Lake, beneath the trees, (5)
Ten thousand dancing in the breeze (6)
I gaz’d–and gaz’d–but little thought (11)
What wealth the shew to me had brought: (12)
And then my heart with pleasure fills, (17)
And dances with the Daffodils. (18)

It sounds less like a march, and more like the lyrics to a song.

As with any literature, poems leave the burden of interpretation to the reader. There is no one answer that satisfies everyone. The Romantic Poets were speaking to a generation using words they could understand. They took these simple words and wrote poems that inspired societal change. Like his contemporaries; John Keats and Lord Byron, Wordsworth displayed a respect for nature and a longing for a simpler time. Did you find this to be the strongest connection between the three poets as well?

I’m a Mad Dog Biting Myself For Sympathy

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Who I am is just the habit of what I always was, and who I will be is the result. This comes clear to me at the wrong time. I am standing in a line, almost rehabilitated.

Louise Erdrich’s short story I’m a Mad Dog Biting Myself for Sympathy begins this way, and then jumps directly in and out of a flashback to explain how the narrator got to where he is.

It all starts out fairly harmless, he is trying to find a gift for his girlfriend, Dawn, at the local Walgreens and he picks out a purple toucan. Then he starts to daydream and wish that he had acquired it in some more romantic way. He has the money to pay for it, but instead he walks out the door with it simply to, “…see if shit happens, if do-do occurs.” Pg. 149, And occur it does. He is chased by the manager and a policewoman and several other people, until, “…my stroke of luck, good or bad is no telling, occurs.” Pg. 150

Throughout the next scene, the narrator steals a car that is left idling momentarily at the depot and takes off with it, even with a woman screaming and clinging to the car and people running after him. He doesn’t realize until later when it starts to cry that everyone was running and screaming, “b…b…baby”. Pg. 151

This is the point where his luck takes a turn for the worse. He gets chased by a cop, (though he gets away) only to get stuck in a snowdrift. Then he leaves the baby in the car and takes off on foot, heading south.

The first time I read this story, the mother in me was furious. I was with him right until the point where he realized he had kidnapped a baby and didn’t take it back. This plays upon every mothers’ worst fear. I decided that this was probably not the reaction that the author had intended, so I shut off my blinders and read it again.

Upon second reading, it becomes obvious to me that the narrator is supposed to be the knight of the story. He has this romantic idea of a relationship that is clearly long since over, but he sets out on a quest to get her back by bringing her a Christmas present (even though she lives in another town with another man). In chivalric literature, the knight goes on a quest and everything that happens to him and that stands in his way is pre-destined by the fates. This is clearly how the narrator feels about what happens to him – like he has no control over what happened. Why do you think he seems so unwilling to accept responsibility for his actions?

The narrator feels detached from the humanity of the situation, specifically with regards to this small baby who he describes as, “so small that it is not a child yet.” I interpreted this baby as a symbol of innocence. The narrator has lost his innocence and has no family to speak of, so why should he care about this small child that has suddenly been thrust into his care? He sees his girlfriend, Dawn(though probably his ex) as the only person who can save him. Did anyone else interpret her name as a symbol of sunrise, or a new day – a new start?

As the story jumps back and forth between the past and the present you realize that he is in jail, though he is about to be set free. The last thing he reflects on is the baby living, “They asked me in court why I didn’t take it along with me, bundled in my jacket, and I say, well it lived, didn’t it? Proving I did right. But I know better sometimes, now that I’ve spent time alone here in Mandan…”. Pg. 154 After a little research, I discovered that Mandan is a tribe of Indians, which makes me wonder if he was imprisoned on a reservation (they have their own courts and jails). He also says, “I know I’ll always be inside him, cold and black, about the size of a coin, maybe, something he touches against and skids. And he’ll say, what is this, and the thing is he won’t know it is a piece of thin ice I have put there, the same as I have in me”.

I interpreted this last statement as the narrator grasping for solidarity with some human anywhere, even if it is negative. He clearly felt a little something for the baby, because he left him with blankets and a toy poised above his head. He is somehow so hardened that he believes that he had no control over this, or any situation. Does anyone else get the feeling from the opening line of the story that this will not be the last time he sees the inside of a jail cell? Either way, the story offers little hope.

Hemingway’s Elephant in the Room

…The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.
“They look like white elephants,” she said.
“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.
“No you wouldn’t have.”
“I might have,” the man said. “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.

Ernest Hemingway’s writing style is so stripped down and minimalist. Reading his work always gives me the feeling that he did not waste a single word. Because of this, nothing is placed in a story accidentally, and everything has an implied meaning. Hemingway never spells anything out in plain terms, so the reader is always left trying to decipher the clues left behind.

This is definitely the case with Hemingway’s short story Hills Like White Elephants from the Seagull Reader Stories volume. The story starts off with “The American and the girl with him” sitting at a train station between two tracks in the middle of the desert in Spain. They are drinking and talking while waiting for their train to come in. The majority of their banter back and forth is very terse and they spend the entire story debating whether or not the girl will have an operation. Hemingway never says what kind of an operation she is thinking of having, but it is fairly plain that they are talking about an abortion.

It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”
The girl did not say anything.

Just in this quotation alone, it is apparent to me that not only are they discussing her imminent abortion, but also that she has doubts about going through with it. As the story progresses the man continues to escalate his insistence that it is not a big deal and that she should go through with it. The girl continues to go back and forth, never really committing to having an abortion. At one point the man’s prodding starts to irritate her so she tells him to quit talking or she will scream. After the waitress tells them the train will be there in five minutes, the man goes to move their bags to the other tracks. When he comes back (after getting a drink on his own) he asks her if she feels better and she tells him she feels fine.

Did anyone else find it telling that the girl’s name was Jig? I think that her name was alluding to the way they were artfully dancing around the giant elephant in the room (Another metaphor in the story maybe?). The couple’s relationship was clearly over. Neither one of them said as much, but throughout their flippant discussion of the matter at hand, it is painfully obvious that they don’t even like each other any more.

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Some people can relate, if not to the abortion itself, then to the relationship between the two main characters. Have you ever been in a relationship that is over long before it ends? It is miserable to be in each other’s company, but you continue punishing yourself because you think you still love them. Either that or you are hoping that it will go back to being as fun as it was in the beginning, and somehow it never happens. Such is the case with the American and “Jig”.

I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to.”
“And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?”
“I love you now. You know I love you.”
“I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?

This passage is the girl trying desperately to cling to a relationship that has already slipped out of her hands. She has lost him even if she decides to have the abortion, like he would obviously prefer her to. Perhaps one less thing to tie him to her, so he can feel less guilty about the relationship ending?

Do you feel better?” he asked.
“I feel fine,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.

The ending of the story seems to be the girl coming to terms with the ending of the relationship, and also her decision about the abortion, whatever that may be.

The Yellow Wallpaper as Therapy?

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“I’ve got out at last,” said I, ” in spite of you and Jane! And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” Pg. 189

Charlotte Perkins Gilman is often considered a feminist writer, as her work on The Yellow Wallpaper helped bring the plight of women into the public consciousness. This was simply a byproduct of her original intent, which was just to convince one misinformed doctor to stop prescribing a “rest cure” to treat minor mental disturbances. According to the short synopsis of her life in The Seagull Reader, she suffered from depression after having her first child, and was driven to the brink of insanity by the exact rest cure that Jane is forced into in the story. I have no doubt that The Yellow Wallpaper is autobiographical in nature, and that Gilman did, in fact lose her mind for a brief period of time.

In the story, Jane is a woman who’s doctor husband thinks that she has “hysterical tendencies” and patronizes her almost as one would a small child. He takes her to an estate in the countryside where she is promptly shut off for hours at a time by herself in a room with bars on the windows and a hideous yellow wallpaper that she describes on page 174 and 175:

The paint and paper look as if a boys’ school had used it. It is stripped off -the paper- in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw a worse paper in my life. One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin…The color is repellant, almost revolting; a smoldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.

Jane is expected to do nothing, her husband even worries when she writes. The reader is led to believe that perhaps she suffers from what would now be called postpartum depression, as she talks about her baby briefly and how nervous he makes her. Throughout the course of the book, this woman goes from talking about her husband in a positive light, to being suspicious of him and everything he says. In almost the same way, the wallpaper goes from being merely a wall covering to becoming a sinister being that aims to best her. She obsesses over the pattern and the way it changes and moves before her eyes. The book ends with her becoming one with the wallpaper in her mind. Her husband faints after finding her creeping across the floor pushing her shoulder against the wall so she doesn’t get lost as she winds around the room, and she simply climbs over him and continues on in the groove she has worn into the walls.

I am not certain whether Gilman intended for the reader to feel sympathy for the husband in this story, but I find that I can’t help it. He is a man limited by the knowledge and attitudes of his time. He is trying to help his wife get better and instead helps drive her to the brink of insanity and beyond. As the story progresses you can feel through her descriptions of him that he is growing more and more worried about her, but isn’t able to help in any real way. His fainting at the end is his final realization that she has completely lost her mind and it is too much for him.

This is actually the fifth time I have read this short story, though this time I bring a renewed sympathy and understanding to the character of Jane that I didn’t have before. When I was pregnant with my twins, I went into full labor at 23 weeks. It was also discovered at the same time that one of the boys had a two-vessel umbilical cord instead of a three-vessel one. It was at this point that my doctor decided to hospitalize me in order to keep a closer eye on the babies. I spent the next 10 weeks laying on my back, hooked up to a fetal monitor and being given round after round of drugs to keep from going into labor (not to mention the steroid shots that burned the whole length of my leg). I started out with purpose; I was going to save my babies and keep them from an extended stay in the NICU.

There is a feeling of impending doom on the Anti-Partum ward, especially when you go in as early as I did. Despite the niceties of the nurses, I got the general feeling that everyone was expecting the worst. the lowest point of my whole stay was the day when a doctor who was mostly unfamiliar with my case told me that my children could both end up being Down Syndrome and asked if I wanted to do genetic testing. It took every ounce of willpower I had not to scream at him. I knew in my heart that he was wrong, but I was angry at the insinuation that it would make any difference, or that this was the worst thing I was facing at that moment. As much as my husband and my family tried to be there for me and to understand what I was going through, I was alone in a way I have never been before. I used trash television to fill the hours until something happened that would change my situation. It was during my stay at the hospital that I started to fixate on a leaf pattern on the ceiling tiles in my room that was uneven. I spent many long hours staring at that pattern and willing it to just sprout another leaf so I could stop looking at it. To be fair, this might have been during the week that I started hallucinating that my bed was spinning and covered with snakes (they had the meds cranked up pretty high apparently).

My babies are fine, and were born at 33 weeks with no real issues to speak of and spent only a month in the NICU, but my experience has changed the way i view the world permanently. I still struggle with wanting to hide in my own little world, and I have to consciously force myself to get in the car and drive to the store on certain days. I bring this up, not because I expect sympathy, but simply because Gilman’s story unexpectedly dragged my own story out of me in a way that nothing else ever has.

Bringing T.S. Eliot Into the 21st Century in Style

The first time I read T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland was several years ago in an anthology I was reading for a class. There is something so wonderful about reading something in print, in a book that has smell and heft. The IOS app, and in effect, the IPad takes away the physical aspect of the text, though it is replaced by something else that is still tangible. The App adds the ability to hear the poem read in something other than the voice in your head. Everyone interprets the things they read differently, and so every line is read differently by someone else. It is impossible for them to not leave their imprint on the poem and even on our interpretation of the meaning of it.

I found listening to Eliot himself to be the most helpful in trying to discern meaning. There are several phrases that he almost sings, and others that you can feel the pain he is trying to convey. The App also includes a copy of Eliot’s original manuscript which offers an even more in depth view of the poem. Cathy Levarkus better explains the value of the IPad Application in her article The Expanding Book Apps Market:

One impressive new app is T.S. Elliot’s The Wasteland, developed by Touch Press. This app incorporates readings of the poem by Alec Guinness and T.S. Eliot and a performance of the poem by Fiona Shaw. The Waste/and app also includes original manuscripts with the author’s notes as well as other documents. The Wasteland is certainly the precursor and model for other excellent book apps geared for the middle school, high school, and even college English class. Imagine a book app for To Kill a Mockingbird or The Scarlett Letter with primary sources, historical commentary, video, and readings!

I have read this poem several times over the last few years, and every time, I discover some new meaning to Eliot’s words. I think the App is a beautiful way of bringing more voices and ideas to the discussion of a poem that is almost too complex to ever be fully understood. It gives you the tools to find your own meaning without having to venture too far outside of the App. Technology truly can be beautiful when it is used in the right way.