Essay Page

This page is a place to share a few of the essays I wrote over the course of my undergraduate Comparative Literature degree.

As is apparent here, I have a strong interest in certain subject areas: ancient mythology, modern poetry (Emily Dickinson is an all-time favourite), historical fiction, and quite a few other things that will probably come to mind later on.

Despite having some difficulty finding a career in which to apply this literary study (only recently landing a job even remotely related to the area), one life lesson began to slowly emerge, too, over the course of this time at uni, comparing and contrasting various seemingly unrelated texts, far apart in time and place, yet sharing some type of common theme –

“It’s all relative”

(In other words, more connections exist between seemingly unconnected things than might appear on the surface.)

————————————————–

Theories of Reading Essay

A Comparative Theoretical Study of “The Purloined Letter” “My Life Had Stood – A Loaded Gun”

(Undergraduate essay, Comparative Literature, 2012)

In this essay I will be comparing and applying the theories of Socio-Historicism and New Criticism to, respectively, “My Life Had Stood – A Loaded Gun” by Emily Dickinson and “The Purloined Letter” by Edgar Allan Poe. Both were notable American writers of the mid-nineteenth century, gaining prominence with their respective contribution to the literary canon in their way. Poe, aside from writing, was a respected critic and social commentator, taking a deep interest in the scientific discoveries which were being made almost constantly at the time. Detective work was presumably one of these interests, as clearly portrayed in “The Purloined Letter”; Dickinson, despite leading a far more quiet and secluded life, produced a vast amount of poetry during her lifetime, and indeed “My Life Had Stood – A Loaded Gun” is quite clearly about more than “a gun”, as I will outline, using the most relevant theories studied in the course to draw attention to the poetic and descriptive nuances hidden, “detective” style, within each example given here. There are virtually an infinite number of theories which can be applied to Poe and Dickinson, indeed this has been attempted repeatedly over time, but given the strengths and interests of each writer in their lifetime, these theories I have chosen seem to be the most fitting.

In the book, Literary Theories in Praxis by Shirley Staton, summaries are given of some of the more prominent theories in the study of literature. Most relevant to this essay, mention is made of the article of Jerome McGann; “The Text, The Poem and the Problem of Historical Method”, summarised as being a criticism of the contemporary critics just before and during the time of Poe and Dickinson and their tendency to indulge in “the scandal of referentiality”[1]. That is to say, poetry was beginning to be seen around this time as a self-subsistent thing independent of its contemporary society. The multiple layers which make up the complexity and meaning of any piece of prose or verse could be taken apart and made separate from the conditions under which it was written.

In “The Purloined Letter”, the mystery/detective theme (which Poe had mastered by now already) is brought fully into play, and indeed there is little narrative action, in favour of the dialogue which takes up most of the story. While forensic science was still relatively in its infancy, the inability to grasp certain clues is simply dismissed, or regarded as a “mystery”. One character fits this type; “who had a fashion of calling everything “odd” that was beyond his comprehension”[2]. The effective use of language through description; “amid a perfect whirlwind of smoke”[3] and attributing personality traits to inanimate objects; such as “the jealous scrutiny of the microscope”[4]. Indeed one key New Critic Jacques Lacan – who can be described as such in his endless studies into the previously neglected study of language, and his mastery of nuance and linguistic implication – notably addresses language in this short story. Poe-style, Lacan points out each “clue” which combine to make up the narrative of the detective story. It all contrives, he says, to draw attention to “the insistence of the signifying chain”[5]; furthermore, Poe manages to cover his own tracks – in the style of the culprit of the crime – by having the characters systematically rule out possible answers; Lacan also points this out – “In truth, we should be right in judging that fact highly dubious as soon as we note that everything which warrants such mystery concerning a crime or offense… is carefully eliminated here at the start of each episode.”[6]

To draw directly from the McGann article, generally this tendency is regarded as being a negative thing – nineteenth century (even going back as far as the late eighteenth century) literary criticism was more commonly treating poetry like “an exact science… a timeless object unconnected with history”[7] . However, upon summarising another article on Dickinson by Allen Tate, “Because I Could Not Stop For Death (He Kindly Stopped For Me) – which indeed shares some parallel themes with “My Life Had Stood – A Loaded Gun” in lending a sense of personification to things either intangible or inanimate, it seems we are discouraged from ourselves projecting too much of our own opinion onto the poem, indeed “we are not told to think; we are told to look at the situation”[8] . To be a passive observer of the events unfolding, or a passive object in the hands of an owner, only being able to use power when being “in use”, nonetheless is more difficult than one may usually presume, as Dickinson in fact lends a voice to the gun in the ability to communicate more directly with nature (“And every time I speak for Him – The Mountains Straight Reply -”[9]). Furthermore the “Vesuvian face”[10] hints at a hidden passion which may lie within that which is presumed to be without feeling.

Feeling is concealed to a great extent, compared with many of Poe’s other tales, in this story. Perhaps this is a useful characteristic when attempting to remain impartial in a criminal investigation, but this is generally a fault in this story. As the narrator claims further on, “”they consider only their own ideas of ingenuity””[11] when trying to, and failing, to think like the criminal, using their own, rather than the culprit’s, frames of reference. Indeed, this makes the case almost futile, as “”when the cunning of the individual felon is diverse in character from their own, the felon foils them, of course””[12]. Almost in contrast to Lacan’s emphasis on language, it is language itself which is all but set aside in favour of factual precision. Even the narrator concedes that “”the mathematical reason has long been regarded as the reason par excellence””[13] and soon a mathematical approach is used in the case, and even the human mind, in this case. Yet Lacan, and Poe, are not so hasty in eliminating the importance of linguistic clues altogether. As Lacan points out,“To purloin, says the Oxford dictionary, is an Anglo-French word, that is: composed of the prefix pur-… and of the Old French word: loing, loigner, longe… au long de (alongside); it is a question then of putting aside”[14]. So the letter is merely moved to another location, but it is where the letter is meant to be going which makes all the difference.

In Dickinson’s poem, it is inference which hints at the narrator’s own fate. Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the poem is in the final verse; as she concedes that the owner must live longer than she, “For I have but the power to kill – Without – the power to die –“[15] strongly hints that the absence of death is what mostly defines the absence of life, death being but a part of life. While the historical context of Emily Dickinson’s life was significant, her life was largely a sheltered one, yet Dickinson was certainly not immune to the realities of everyday life. According to the book Approaching Emily Dickinson, “The fact that she was a recluse does not make her any less a product of her culture.”[16]  Indeed if anything, possessing such acute powers of observation would make her all the more in tune with real life, and all the more inclined to empathise with the restrictions on lifestyle which were a reality for herself and many of her contemporaries at the time. Indeed both writers were clearly open to external influence; Poe took an interest in foreign affairs, particularly in Europe, and was greatly celebrated in France, being respected and intricately translated by contemporary Charles Baudelaire. Also Dickinson had direct connections with her hometown – itself quite a hub of social activity – via her family, and even if mainly vicariously, learned enough about goings-on outside to place this within her poetry.

According to Barbara Johnson’s review of the Lacan seminar on Poe’s story, language, whether implicitly or explicitly, always plays a vital role in the differentiating between various nuances of feeling; that language hints at “neither a self nor any neutral metalanguage”[17]. Indeed, the language will serve to tell us more about the characters, individually, than the actual “story”. What will happen will happen; as Johnson affirms, “Finally, if Poe’s story “illustrates” the “truth”, as Lacan puts it, the last words of the seminar proper seem to reaffirm that truth in no uncertain terms: “Thus it is that what “the purloined letter”… means is that a letter always arrives at its destination”[18] . This can also, quite fittingly, be applied to Dickinson, who allows the use of words to convey emotion, without allowing it to dominate the poem’s “course. One defining characteristic of Dickinson’s poetry is the minimalistic rhyme scheme, and the consistency of this draws more attention to the actual language. A more recent critical study of Dickinson (according to this same source) encourages us to read Dickinson from “an oral/aural perspective… as separable from any manifestation of their material appearance.”[19] This is fitting mostly because phrases like “Vesuvian face” have all the more influence.

Historicism is described in a more in-depth way by Paul Hamilton, who introduces the historicist approach as being a method which inevitably “implicates history in fiction”[20]. Going back as far as Ancient Greece, referring to the works of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle, all seemed to be of the opinion that “Provided a fiction was coherent, provided it contained a beginning, middle and end and reached a cathartic conclusion, it served its purpose”[21]. As the forms of myth, legend and saga were increasingly favoured ways of conveying a “take” on history, this would further remove the factual account of history from a stance of objectivity, perhaps being almost as removed as fiction is regarded to be today. Moving on into the Renaissance, philosopher and historian alike would continue the attempt to separate fact from fiction, as it were. According to one German historian, Meinecke – “the desire to find law and typicality in the past will never go away and will always have to be accommodated by the historian”[22], which already echoes in Poe’s tale. As the Enlightenment movement attempted to get people to “see reason”, amid religious and social upheaval of the past few centuries, Hobbes was one philosopher who pointed out that, in fact, this went against human nature, and this movement was little more than an attempt to turn “a natural state of war into one of artificial pacification”[23].

Perhaps the philosophy most resonant in the work of Poe and Dickinson here, is that of the lesser known Enlightenment-age Italian historian Giambattista Vico. In “The Purloined Letter”, the attempt to make sense, of what would make little sense at the time – in matters of detective science for one thing – would form the overall personal resonance of the tale. In fact, it is the baffling nature of the crime, rather than concern for the letter itself, which appears to be of far more importance. Indeed, the letter does reach its destination, albeit in a very roundabout way. Likewise, Dickinson, if we assume that she is likening herself to the Gun, still has power, but in her lack of mastery over that power she does not fully control her own “destination”. This is a theme which many would experience during their lifetime, particularly around times when there was social, political, religious – and personal, revolution. Indeed, “In this development, a nation, society or normal object of historical study follows a pattern or “course”, as Vico calls it, analogous to that of the individual  human life – childhood, maturity, decline and dissolution”[24]. In other words, life follows a narrative of its own, but historicism attempts to put that “story” into a wider perspective. As in one of my references, it is concluded that “(a distinction must be made) if the entire history of poetry and all the potential of specific poems are to be made known to each new generation”[25], it shows that in each “stage” of history, a different perspective will inevitably form yet another account of history. In this continuing attempt, made by each generation – as shown in the examples in this essay – language, however subtle, can slightly more articulately describe the “life narrative.”

 

Word Count: 2030

 

[1] McGann, pg 202

[2] Poe, pg 13

[3] Poe, pg 14

[4] Poe, pg 15

[5] Lacan, pg 39

[6] Lacan, pg 45

[7] McGann, pg 271

[8] McGann, pg 279

[9] Dickinson, 7-8

[10] Dickinson, 11

[11] Poe, pg 17

[12] Poe, pg 17

[13] Poe, pg 18

[14] Lacan, pg 59

[15] Dickinson, 23-24

[16] White, pg 107

[17] Johnson, pg 149

[18] Johnson, pg 155

[19] White, pg 107

[20] Hamilton, pg 7

[21] Hamilton, pg 8

[22] Hamilton, pg 30

[23] Hamilton, pg 32

[24] Hamilton, pg 35

[25] McGann, pg 284

 

Bibliography

Edgar Allan Poe, “The Purloined Letter” from Major Writers of America, ed. Perry Miller et al, (NY, Brace & World, Inc., 1966).

Emily Dickinson, “My Life Had Stood – A Loaded Gun” (Moodle Source).

Staton, Shirley F., Literary Theories in Praxis (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987), pp. 202-215.

McGann, Jerome, “The Text, The Poem and the Problem of Historical Method” in

New Literary History, Vol. 12, No. 2, Interpretation and Literary History (Winter 1981), pp. 269-288.

White, Fred D., Approaching Emily Dickinson: Critical Currents and Crosscurrents since 1960. Rochester, N.Y., Camden House, 2008.

Lacan, Jacques, Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’ Yale French Studies 48 (Special issue: French Freud: Structural Studies in Psychoanalysis, 1972): 39-72.

Johnson, Barbara, ‘The Frame of Reference: Poe, Lacan, Derrida’ in Psychoanalysis and the Question of the Text, ed. Geoffrey Hartman (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 197), pp. 149-71.

Hamilton, Paul, Historicism: The New Critical Idiom. Great Britain, Routledge, 1996.


 

 

Early Gaelic Literature in Translation Essay

(Undergraduate essay, Comparative Literature, 2011)

 How would you evaluate the usefulness of the concept of the “cycle” in early Gaelic literary criticism? You may choose to base your answer on detailed discussion of a single cycle

 Early Irish literature is unique in its overseeing such a rich diversity of tales in the vernacular language. Even upon the arrival of Christianity and the obligation to learn Latin to fulfil the requirements for literacy, the Gaelic language continued to flourish in both oral and written culture. What also sets it apart from other European literature is its mixing of various styles within a single literary piece. According to An Introduction to Early Irish Literature, “Unusually, both prose and poetry were used to record material where prose would be used and expected today… The distinctions of modern literature between the novel, short story, play and poetry do not exist in dealing with traditional literature”[1]. On the contrary, the only true continuity we can see in early Irish literature is the way it imitates the “cycle” of time and of life.Three of the main recognised and named “cycles” of early Irish literature are; the Ulster cycle, the Fenian cycle and the Mythological Cycle, which will be discussed in this essay.

The Ulster, or Heroic, Cycle, is the most prominent group of tales still in existence today, and characterises the exaggerated nature of the deeds and exploits of the “heroes”, or heroic figures, of the time (3rd-4th century). The centre of this cycle is The Tain, short for Tain Bo Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley). The “main tale” is prefixed by a series of remscela, or mini-tales, which serve to provide a backdrop for the forthcoming action, and to introduce the main characters and places, and how they came into being. Lebor na hUidre – Book of the Dun Cow – was compiled in the monastery of Clonmacnoise in the twelfth century… The Yellow Book of Lacan. Between them these give the main body ofThe Tain[2]. Even the pre-tale of how theTain Bo Cuailnge came to be known once again seems to be almost stumbled upon, as it explains, when those sent out to retrieve the story, “It happened that the grave of Fergus mac Roich was on their way”[3].

Key examples of the cyclical theme in the Tain occur in “The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu” the very king of Ireland, Conchobor, turns against the Sons of Uisliu, and with a group of acquaintances, travel the whole country in almost a circular fashion, until they return to Ulster “but still the men of Ulster pursued them until they crossed the sea to the land of Alba (Scotland)”[4]. There are echoes, or even the prophecy, of the cattle raid which is to come, as it explains “when the mountain game failed them they turned to take the people’s cattle”. The Tain is mostly preoccupied with details of the violent exploits of Cuchullain, a part human, part mythical figure. However, it is in an encounter with a woman, in “Cuchullain’s Courtship of Emer”, and they have a riddle-like conversational exchange, and Emer responds to his advances with the words “No man will travel this country, who hasn’t gone sleepless from Samain, when the summer goes to its rest, until Imbolc, when the ewes are milked at spring’s beginning, from Imbolc to Beltine at the summer’s beginning and from Beltine to Bron Trogain, earth’s sorrowing autumn”[5]. These words reflect the importance of the seasons for the early Irish people in everyday life, and goes some way to explain the idea of the “Cycle”.

Proportionately, little of the narrative actually has to do with the bulls which are the core subject of the narrative, being mostly accounted for in “The Quarrel of the Two Pig Keepers and How the Bulls were Begotten”, in which it emerges that the pig keepers in question “were both practised in the pagan arts and could transform themselves into any shape”[6], setting things up for their accidental transferring (through their constant sparring) of their magic into the cows which would produce the bulls “Finnenbach Ai the White, and Don Cuailnge, the Brown”[7], who only make a physical reappearance near the end of The Tain. Indeed, some other pre-tales, such as “The Pangs of Ulster”, are among some seemingly random incidents, which “seem to have been invented merely to account for a place name”[8]; in this case, Emain Macha, or the Twins of Macha, a tale which otherwise has no real bearing on TheTain, except to draw attention to the place called Emain, which is only mentioned again in the following tale.

Around the time of the final battle, the narrative sometimes seems to detach from the action of warfare to account for the names of places nearby. A key example of this is in the chapter “The Mustering of the Men of Ireland”, in which almost an entire page is devoted to giving the names and places of origin of those who are to challenge Cuchullain. This would otherwise seem like an unnecessary diversion, but makes sense when considering that much of the Gaelic language would recede from common use over time, and especially in Gaelic culture, place-names typically hold the last remnants of the fading language.

However, what mostly characterises the Heroic Cycle is again in language, as the defiant warriors exclaim, “We will hold out until the earth gives under us, or until the heavens fall on us and make us give way”[9]. As it states in the introduction to this edition of The Tain, “Irish society did not change appreciably until the advent of Christianity (in the fifth century)”[10], so it makes sense that most of the early Irish tales take place just before this time, to account and possibly to allow for the presence of what is not necessarily Christian in origin. Due to the gap between the times the cycles were meant to take place, and the times when they seem to have actually been written, it is not all too surprising that there are some overlaps in the course of events, and that things are not completely “accurate”. These tales are set in a time when it was not so much a single deity, but several god-like men and women, who were exhalted and feared to the extent that they gain both respect and notoriety.

However, while the Ulster Cycle revels in the legendary glory of its heroes, the Fenian Cycle, which was also written around the twelfth century but is set a few centuries later than the Ulster Cycle, and derives its name from the word fian, meaning “a band of warriors”, less mythical, more human, and seemingly there were “such bands of adventurers in Ireland as early as the sixth century”[11]. The Fenian Cycle follows the story of Finn (“white”) and his allies, including his son Oisin, who has his own legend as the poet “Ossian”. The tales of the Fianna  serve both to divide the aristocracy of the kingship and heroic figures from those “outside of society” (while all in fact live within the same country), and yet still recognise the key transitional stages in the subject’s life, or in these cases, their story.

Indeed, in the related chapter in Dillon’s Early Irish Literature, this is referred to as the subject’s “”liminality”, the transitional stage” and that “a boy who is on the verge of manhood is a liminal figure”[12]. In this respect, the idea of the Cycle is applicable to these members of society. The “hero”, Finn, is less an epic and more a romantic one, for in his becoming a poet (during a chance meeting with his namesake) he gains wisdom and knowledge. Furthermore, with the Fianna living, literally and metaphorically, on the “outside of society”, they would be more in touch with the effects of the seasons on everyday life.

Mythology is a strong and vital part of early Gaelic literature, to such an extent that it is hard to tell what is intended to be taken as legend or history. Although the Cycles of early Irish literature are largely set before and upon the arrival of Christianity, the tales particularly in the Mythological Cycle “probably would have contained material which threatened the new religion”[13] – which is perhaps why there is so fewer of these manuscripts still surviving. There is recurring emphasis on certain aspects of the time when Ireland was largely a pagan, rather than Christian, country.

For example, the festival of Samuin (what we now call Hallowe’en) was a time when the world between the living and the dead became entwined, and this is traditionally a time when such occurrences as metamorphosis become that bit more credible. Also, in occurring annually, it is fitting that key tales from this Cycle occur during Samuin. “The Wooing of Etain” has been found in various manuscripts, including the aforementioned Yellow Book of Lacan (and preceding the Tain Bo Cuailnge) but there had been an earlier manuscript predating A.D 1000, the Book of Druimm Snechtai, which is now missing[14]. As evidence of another link between the Cycles, the Mythological Cycle would nonetheless have been harder to translate than the more familiar Ulster Cycle, belonging more to the oral storytelling tradition, in which local colloquialisms and turns of phrase would not have fully survived interpretation, forcing the reader to take a considerable amount of the narrative at face value. In “The Wooing of Etain”, a quest is made which involves crossing the border of Bruig na Boinde, the land where the magical and the realistic integrate. Indeed, Etain is given no voice, and is little more than an object of high value, and it is ironic that in her being transformed by a vengeful wife “with a wand of scarlet rowan” into a pool of water, then into a worm, then into a scarlet fly[15], she seems to be valued and appreciated all the more (in fact the name Etain is a word for “horse”, a highly valued animal in early Irish society).

However, during this transitional stage, Etain is ousted and sent into exile, during which she experiences a sort of “reincarnation”, in which she ends up on the other side of the Bruig na Boinde divide, is accidentally consumed by a woman who would conceive and bear her into a new life, but she is sought out by the man in her previous life, who summons her with the lines “Etain is here today / at Sid Ban Find west of Ailbe… Once she was called Be Find / Now she is our Etain”[16]. This reclaiming andpassing onto other stages appears to continue throughout Etain’s “life”, and the following tale, “The Dream of Oengus” shares a similar theme of metamorphosis being a means of transition. Oengus has a recurring dream about a girl who appears to him, but is unattainable, driving him into a sickness, essentially “love in absence”[17].

The key difference in this tale is that no favourable connections in his own worls (being part of royalty) can make this evasive girl his own, they must take that step and mutually agree. However, it is only then that “she went to him, then; he put his arms round her, and they slept in the form of swans until they had circled the lake three times. Thus, he kept his promise (to set her free)”[18]

Thus the theme of reincarnation is the most literal interpretation of the concept of the “cycle”. While indeed many of the early Irish tales can be appreciated on their own, they appear to work much like a tapestry, with each related tale connecting the other to a bigger picture, and giving what could otherwise be classed as purely fiction the status of legend, or even of speculative history. In fact, as Dillon states in the Introduction, “The classification into cycles is modern… a story was just a story, whether the matter was legend or history, and the boundary between these two was of less interest in medieval times than it is today”[19]. Therefore, while not strictly the only way to appreciate early Irish literature, the Cycle may be an effective way to structure the oral and early written history of the Irish people and make that bit more sense of their own heritage. Indeed, as stated by Bhrolchain, “No vernacular literature in Europe has had such a lengthy run and this very fact places Irish literature in a special position”[20].

When placed against the equivalent “cycles” of the classical ancient Greek and Latin literature to which it would inevitably be compared, the cyclical structure is essentially an advantage in allowing early Gaelic literature to stand apart and on its own.

Date of publication: 2011

Bibliography

 Bhrolchain, Muireann Ni, An Introduction to Early Irish Literature. Dublin, Four Courts Press Ltd., 1999.

Dillon, Myles, Early Irish Literature. Dublin, Four Courts Press Ltd., 1994.

Gantz, Jeffery, Early Irish Myths and Sagas. Great Britain, Penguin Classics, 1981.

Kinsella, Thomas, The Tain: From the Irish Epic “Tain Bo Cuailnge”. United States,Oxford University Press, 1969.

[1] Bhrolchain, pg 2

[2] Kinsella, pg ix (Introduction)

[3] Kinsella, pg 1

[4] Kinsella, pg 13

[5] Kinsella, pg 27

[6] Kinsella, pg 46

[7] Kinsella, pg 49

[8] Kinsella, pg xiii (Introduction)

[9] Kinsella, pg 247

[10] Gantz, pg 5

[11] Dillon, pg 32

[12] Nagy (Dillon), pg 57

[13] Bhrolchain, pg 26

[14] Gantz, pg 20

[15] Gantz, pg 45

[16] Gantz, pg 48

[17] Gantz, pg109

[18] Gantz, pg 112

[19] Dillon, pg 1

[20] Bhrolchain, pg 5

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