That Sacred Closet When You Sweep

That sacred Closet when you sweep —
Entitled “Memory” —
Select a reverential Broom —
And do it silently.

‘Twill be a Labor of surprise —
Besides Identity
Of other Interlocutors
A probability —

August the Dust of that Domain —
Unchallenged — let it lie —
You cannot supersede itself
But it can silence you — (Emily Dickinson)

Every year, on the 27th of January the world observes the Holocaust Memorial Day. On that day we are called to remember how far can the folly and cruelty of man can go. We must remember; and teach our children that the privilege of being born in such a long time of peace and wealth, at least in this part of the hemisphere, is not for granted, it may not last forever as those dangers are always behind the corner. Peace must be defended by any attack ignorance and arrogance may launch.

Some students from a school in Palermo saw those dangers and on the occasion of the Holocaust Memorial day last January, they decided to put their thoughts in short video made of a few slides. The above poem by Emily Dickinson with its warnings was the elegant introduction to their work, just to say that they had actually swept that “sacred locket” with the utmost care and that in that “domain of dust” they had perceived the semblance of the same ghosts of the past still roaming in the present. Of course, they wore different clothes, their manners could seem more agreeable or even affable sometimes, but there they were. Hence, they proceeded comparing the Italian racial Laws of 1938 step by step, that is, those laws which restricted the civil rights of the Jews, to the first Security Decree of the Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini of 2018, which regulated the rights and protection of the immigrants in our country with the conclusion that they had similar traits. It wasn’t actually even a very original work, as a popular Italian magazine, “L’Espresso”, had already extensively compared the two measures a couple of months before. Nevertheless, this demonstrated that those students were at least well informed and displayed an uncommon poetical taste.

That article had no consequences of any kind, there is still freedom of expression as far as I know, but things didn’t work the same for what concerns those students in Palermo or better, their teacher: Rosa Maria Dell’Aria. The latter, in fact has been recently put off her job for two weeks. She was considered guilty of  having allowed her students to express their free point of view rather than censor it and require a disciplinary measure against them. Don’t rub your eyes, you’ ve read it right, she was requested to censor her students’ thoughts, thus ignoring the Statute of  Students, which in paragraph 4 of article 4 states very clearly that “in no case the free expression of opinions correctly manifested and not detrimental to the personality of others can be sanctioned, neither directly nor indirectly,  ” and in case somebody forgot:”The life of the school community is based on the freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion, on the mutual respect of all the people who compose it, whatever their age and condition, in the repudiation of any ideological, social barrier”. The video was clearly a free expression of opinions just like the article and the cover of the “L’ Espresso”. Hence, the teacher was punished for complying with the Students’ Statute and acting correctly.

What I find really alarming is the presence of the DIGOS (the police department dealing with political security) in a school of teenagers in Palermo. Does that mean that if a student expresses an opinion that the government dislikes, the police department that deals with political crimes or terrorism is allowed to intervene? So, am I to expect to find the police in my classroom if somebody says, that the second Security Decree, for instance, which should be approved tomorrow, goes openly against human rights, as everybody says, because it means at stopping immigration sanctioning those who go to the rescue of the immigrants at sea with fines between 3500 and 5500 euros for each migrant transported, thus condemning to death those who will try anyhow to leave their countries looking for a better future. This is but an intimidation. An attack on the freedom of students and teachers. An attack on the free and democratic school and teachers cannot be found divided or distracted this time.

At end of the video, those student asked a question: what is the point of celebrating the Holocaust Memorial Day, if we seem to forget everything, making the same errors of the past? But, they had an answer and a good one, in my opinion: commitment. Remembering is the key that should make us feel like committing ourselves more, learning from the errors of the past to create a better future, because if we choose only to be the spectators of life, we may not enjoy the show sooner or later and then it might be too late to change channel.

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The Rime of our Life

viaggio3

“A wiser and sadder man, he rose the morrow morn”….”wiser and sadder”, these two words mark the passage of the young  Wedding Guest of Coleridge’s “Rime to the Ancient Mariner” into the world of adulthood, the bitter age of experience, as Blake would call it, and this is because of a weird story told by a mysterious man, an Ancient Mariner. The narration seems to have affected  the mind of the young man so much, that in the end he falters just like one who “hath been stunned” and “is of sense forlon”. He forgets about the allure of the wedding party he had so much longed to go and proceeds back  home, where after a sound sleep,  he wakes up the following day a completely new type of person: “a wiser and sadder man”, in fact. It must have been a very powerful story indeed to produce such a reaction, even if at first glance it seems only the narration of a voyage with a lot of incidents, in a magic atmosphere, with some  religious symbolism scattered here and there. So, what had the Wedding Guest understood between the lines of the story?

viaggio12First of all why Coleridge had named his young character, Wedding Guest, rather than, I don’t know….The Student, The Lover or other stereotypes we are familiar with. What is the category of the Wedding Guest Like?  What does a Wedding Guest do? Well, I guess a Wedding Guest loves parties, noise, people. He enjoys a life focused mostly on relations, symbolized by the wedding party itself and on the rites that those relations share: food, drink, music, good conversation etc. .He actually enjoys the feast of life and somehow he believes that this is what really matters. And he is young. His youth makes him arrogant, hence he despises the man who had dared stop him just to tell a ghastly story, because he is old, nay more than old: ancient.

viaggio10The generational gap between the two would be unbridgeable but for the supernatural powers the old mariner is endowed with, which help him win the will of the young man, who, from then on, will listen to the story willy-nilly like a “three-year child”. Then the old man will use all his mastery to create that “suspension of disbelief” he needs to catch the heart of the Wedding Guest.Therefore, a gallery of extraordinary characters and events takes form : an unexpected, destructive tempest, a heavenly albatross, tremendous cold and then unbearable heat,the appalling ghosts of Death and Life in Death, crawling snakes, zombies, a mysterious hermit, only to mention the most important ones. It is the story of a voyage, and what is a voyage but the most explicit metaphor of life? The old mariner wants to open the young man’s eyes to make him understand that life will be far from being a never-ending party, an incessant whirl of joyous emotions, as rubs and bitter disappointments will be always behind the corner.

viaggio13The first part of the ballad focuses on the narration of the first days of the mariner’s voyage, when he was just like the Wedding Guest, and somehow it can be considered a metaphor of youth. When you are young, you look forward to hoisting your sails and begin your journey. At first you start to glide on the tranquil waters near the harbour with all the cheerfulness  and thoughtfulness typical of innocence. As the winds start to make your boat move and you see all the familiar places far away, the adrenaline and the excitement grow .You finally feel free to experience the world and you are confident enough to believe that you will always be able to drive your boat exactly where you want. You are so sure that life will always be an exciting, marvellous adventure, that your first, unavoidable tempest will catch you by surprise and fear and wonder will overwhelm you.Before realizing what to do, you’ll find yourself in strange, unfamiliar places, far away from where you had expected to be.

viaggio14The ship of the Ancient Mariner, in fact, is driven by the blasts of a tremendous storm to the South Pole. The sudden mist that surrounds the sailor and his crew is the symbol of their disorientation, so that when huge icebergs come floating by – when you are Young your first obstacles always seem enormous and insurmountable – terror paralyzes their mind. Experience  teaches that somehow there is always a way out, especially if you manage to find the right determination to take advantage of favourable circumstances that could be both of a natural or spiritual kind. The spirituality is represented here by the coming of the Albatross, that with its presence soothes the profound solitude of the inhabitants of the ship, who see it as sign of good omen as, since its arrival, a “good wind” has started to spring. A natural helping hand which pushes the ship northward, back home.Maybe.

Typical of youth is a certain lightness of behaviour, you live for the present and you don’t think about the future consequences of your actions. Everything seems to be for granted, so when the danger of the tempest is soon forgotten and you start to sail in more tranquil waters, that shallow and arrogant traits of that age start to surface again. So the Mariner narrates to have killed one day that Albatross, that bird which had swept away the fog of their confusion and fear, giving them the comfort of hope. He did that with no apparent reason. He was a kind of…bored.
viaggio8When you are young, the making of connections is very important. They very often become more influential and trustworthy than the family itself. Being part of a community of friends makes you feel safe and accepted, but what happens when, for some reasons, you find yourself out of it? In the case of the Mariner, the Killing of the albatross places him in a condition of seclusion and solitude. He has to face the reactions of his world of connections, here symbolized by the crew. At first, the crew condemn the action the mariner as they believe that “it made the breeze to blow”, but as soon as they see the sun rise after so many days of wondrous cold, they “all averred, he had killed the bird that brought the fog and mist”. Human nature is mutable and the mariner wants the Wedding Guest to be fully aware of that, before it is too late. He must learn to rely on himself and not on people, because if things go wrong, he will pay for all and will be let alone. In fact, when they find themselves stuck in the middle of the ocean “under a hot and copper sky”, with no water to drink and their tongues “withered at the root”, the blame falls on the Mariner alone. He becomes the only scapegoat and those, who used to be his friends,hang about his neck the dead body of the albatross as stigma.

viaggio11The crew had condemned the ominous consequences the action of the Ancient Mariner had had on them, rather than its moral implications, that’s why all the sailors are punished and die, as the ghost of Death will win them all in a game of dice with the only exception of the Ancient Mariner, who will be left in the power of the other frightening ghost: Life in Death. It is the death of his youthful innocence and the beginning of a new, tiring journey that will make him grow a new awareness on the meaning and the repercussions of his actions. It will take him a long time, a time made of prayers and expiation that covers more than the half of the whole ballad, till he succeeds in going back to where he had started, but he won’t be the same person again. He couldn’t. This is what happens when we become adult, experience makes us wiser but sadder at the same time, as we grow more aware of the world that surrounds us. Then, one day, we may become parents or teachers, “modern” Ancient Mariners, willing to help our Wedding Guests in their progress to maturity.

The Bliss of Solitude

We don’t feel the same, this is for sure. There are those who are able to go beyond the objective form of things, faces, actions and perceive something more. Why am I overwhelmed by a series of emotions when I watch the sea, for example, a particular form of the clouds in the sky, the colours of a sunset and have this sense of amazement as if I saw them for the first time, while the people next to me perceive nothing but the last message on whatsapp ?  Romantic poets called this faculty a peculiar kind of sensibility called “imagination”, which is a “greater promptness to think and feel without immediate external excitement” (Wordsworth, Preface, 579) . If you feel in this way, you are endowed with the power to see the extraordinary into the ordinary as you are more receptive to the beauty of the world.

His famous poem “I Wandered Lonely as a loud”, for example, is all about the poet’s sensitivity. Wordsworth remembers a walk through the woods of Glencoyne Bay, Ullswater, in the Lake District and tells us that he is lonely and feels as light as a cloud floating in the sky. It must have been one of those rare days of bliss when one feels in peace and harmony with the entire world and enjoys the serenity of nature. In such a receptive mood, he unexpectedly finds himself before a stretch of daffodils whose glowing beauty overwhelms the senses of the poet:

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 golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
But if we give a look at his sister Dorothy’s diary, where this walk is described, we find out that those lines are not the faithful report of the truth. What the poets felt might not be exactly be what he saw. She tells, in fact, a slightly different story. First of all, he was not alone that day, but in her company, and at first glance the daffodils were not exactly “a crowd”, but just a few: “When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water-side. We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore, and that the little colony had so sprung up.”  But ” as we went along there were more and yet more; and at last, under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful.” On this point, they agree.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance
Both Dorothy and her brother imagine those daffodils as people moving their heads in a joyous dance: “They grew among the mossy stones about and about them; some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness; and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the lake; they looked so gay, ever glancing, ever-changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them”. The words she uses are very similar to those used by her brother, so I guess, it is not only a coincidence, but they must have commented together the beautiful scene before them. And so he continues:
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
The nature around him, the waves and flowers, everything appears to be engaged in a cheerful dance and the poet is not only an observer but  part of that beauty so much that his soul is pervaded by an intense thrill of joy. While reading the poem, we are always under the impression that the day was warm and sunny, as  both the flowers and the waves of the lake nearby sparkle like stars in the milky way, so I imagine that it must the reflection of the sun rays on water, instead, surprisingly, Dorothy refers: ‘It was a threatening, misty morning, but mild. We set off after dinner from Eusemere. Mrs Clarkson went a short way with us, but turned back. The wind was furious, and we thought we must have returned…..The bays were stormy, and we heard the waves at different distances, and in the middle of the water, like the sea. Rain came on . . .’
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
It is in the last stanza of the poem that Wordsworth reveals us when we are more receptive and likely to feel these emotions : when we are alone with ourselves. Loneliness for the poet is a moment of bliss. In that moment, as in his case, you can be owerwhelmed by pleasant memories or creative inspiration and be able to look deeper at what surrounds you and find heartwarming beauty. If you are alone, of course, without your smartphone nearby.

Objective Correlative

As far as we know the term “objective correlative” was first coined by the American painter and poet Washington Allston and only later introduced by T.S.Eliot into his essay “Hamlet and His Problems”.   Eliot regarded “Hamlet ” as a sort of “artistic failure”, because Shakespeare, according to him, had not succeeded in making the audience feel properly Hamlet’s overwhelming emotions. The bard had not gone beyond describing the Prince of Denmark’s emotional state through the play’s dialogue, rather than stirring minds and souls to feel as he did, and this could have happened only through a skilful use of images, actions and characters:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

In short, poetry must not express emotions but rather find objects, situations and facts capable of evoking them in a definite and ordinary reality.  Hence, the objective correlative correlates the state of mind of the poet to a series of tangible and well-defined objects, thus giving a strong semantic significance to the poet’s feelings. Pain, restlessness, bitterness are no longer expressed through the description virtual or abstract elements, but rather concrete and real, like a landscape, a house, a wall, a lemon tree, but also the sea, a stormy boat, a marina and so on, in this way to poets succeeds in conferring those images a universal meaning.

In the Waste Land, for example, the fragility, the sense of loss and depression of the post-war generation is reproduced powerfully by the following set of words “a heap of broken images“. The war had destroyed from the foundations the world as it was and only the ruins and the bits and pieces of that past had remained. Those fragments are piled up untidily and there is no way to reconstruct the former unity. It is gone, what remains is only “stony rubbish“, that is: useless. The men who inhabit this Waste Land are stunned and devoid of any certainty and perspective, they have been “dried” of their values and once stripped of every superstructure, they have turned themselves into basic elements like “tubers” and prefer to rest safely protected by the “forgetful” winter snow rather than to put their heads out of the ground and act. Men are like “dull roots“, but roots must clutch at something in order to survive, something that might give them the impression of meaning to the days yet to come, but in a sterile lands what seems to nourish and comfort you for the present may become poisonous and turn into a tragedy in a close future. We all know that those “dried tubers” found relief drinking at the fountain which gave life to those populisms which grew in those fatal twenty years between the two wars.

All this in just few simple words, which thus combined give the formula to any reader to feel the state of mind of those who lived one the most tragic periods of our history.

 

 

 

 

Chimney Sweepers

During the Industrial Revolution  thousands of  desperate people came to the cities seeking work, but those lucky who managed to find one soon realized that the average wage would have kept them in poverty for the rest of their lives. Justices were given authority over the children of poor families, and began to assign them to apprenticeships to provide them with work, food and shelter.

For master chimney sweeps, these small, defenseless children of powerless or absent parents were the perfect victims to be exploited in their business.

“When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ” ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!”
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.”

 

Their apprenticeships lasted seven years or even more, but being generally unsupervised, once the papers were signed, the children were completely left under the power of their masters. Once left, their families often didn’t see them any longer. A Master was paid a fee to clothe, keep and teach the child his trade. Even if it common belief that both the master and the child apprentices were always male, this wasn’t always true, as many girls also climbed chimneys.

There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved, so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”

 
After the Great Fire of London in 1666 new fire codes were necessarily put in place. Chimneys became smaller to burn coal and the number of turns and corners in the flues increased. The flues gathered ash, soot and creosote much more quickly than the larger, straighter chimneys had, so they needed cleaning more often. The chimney flues were pitch black, claustrophobic, potentially full of suffocating soot and confusing to navigate in the dark. Sweepers’ job was, actually, to climb up, inside the chimney, brushing the flue as they went, propelling themselves by their knees and elbows and they weren’t done till their heads poked out of the chimney top. This, of course, was a scary job for these children and they were often unwilling to perform it, therefore, many masters used a dangerous punishment: first the child was forced up the flue and then a fire was lit. Since he couldn’t come down, he had no choice but to climb up the flue. Maybe this is where the term “light a fire under you” originated.

And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black;

 
If the apprentice climbed the whole chimney, cleaning it from hearth to rooftop, and exited a row of chimneys, he could forget which chimney he came out of. When that happened, he could go back down the wrong one, or go down the right chimney, but make a wrong turn at some merging of the flues. Children could suffocate or burn to death by getting lost on the way down, and accidentally entering the wrong chimney flue. These children lived in deplorable conditions. They carried a large sack with them, into which they dumped the soot they swept from the chimneys. They used this same sack as a blanket to sleep in at night, and only bathed infrequently. They were often sick, and learned to beg food and clothing from their customers as all the money they earned went to their masters.

And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.

 
Even if some children actually received the weekly bath outlined in the apprenticeship agreement, the majority of them was never bathed or followed a more common custom of 3 baths per year, at Whitsuntide (shortly after Easter), Goose Fair (early October) and Christmas. In London, many sweeper apprentices used to wash on their own in a local river, the Serpentine, till one of them drowned. Since then the children were discouraged from bathing in rivers.

Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind.
And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father & never want joy.

 
Another great increase in the use of small children as chimney sweeps occurred in England after 1773. Parliament passed an act which said that children couldn’t be kept in a workhouse for longer than 3 weeks, as it had been found out that death rates in both workhouses and orphanages was very high: only 7 out of every hundred children survived for a year after being placed in an orphanage. The effect of this act was that small children became much more available not only to chimney sweeps, but to any other business owners who were looking for cheap labor.

And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm. (The Chimney Sweeper, Songs of Innocence, William Blake)

 

The children risked to be stuck in the chimneys or die from burns and suffocation or even from long falls. For what concerns the boys, there was also another danger. Coal soot found its way easily into the folds of skin on a boy’s scrotal sac due to loose clothing and climbing in the nude. As the soot was not washed off for months at a time over the years, many of the boys developed scrotal cancer, called “chimney sweep’s cancer” about the time they entered puberty.

 

A little black thing among the snow,
Crying “weep! ‘weep!” in notes of woe!
“Where are thy father and mother? say?”
“They are both gone up to the church to pray.

 

Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smil’d among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

 

And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.” (The Chimney Sweeper, Songs of Experience, William Blake)

Soldiers

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

 

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

 

If I should die” …. a thought that must have crossed the minds of soldiers several times. Fear, sense of loss, homesickness are the common feelings that follow that painful moment of awareness, which takes the form of death. It “puzzles the will“, Hamlet mused and can make us cowards, but for Rupert Brooke the sacrifice of one’s life for his own country ought not to be feared, but quite the contrary, particularly if that country is England. In his patriotic poem, “The Soldier”, in fact, Brooke sings the love for his country, and how noble and glorious dying for that country would be and how noble and glorious an English soldier is. Just like in Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” this pre-war poem is still full of the imperialistic ideal of the superiority of the English troops in their civilising missions all over the world. This English soldier seems to be a sort of god, who does not fear death. He is serene, as he believes that wherever he will die, that place will be forever England.

I can assure you that for non-English readers, this is a very striking line. The idea that and an English soldier once dead with his dust could somehow “fertilize” any “foreign land” with the seeds of Englishness, turning it into a better and richer place is  undoubtedly a powerful picture of English patriotism and nationalism. English indeed. The war Brooke images, is somewhat idyllic, there is no blood, dirt, cold, fear and death is represented only in its most glorious form. He didn’t have much time to experience how far this picture from reality was, in fact, he died of blood poisoning from a mosquito bite while en route to Gallipoli with the Navy. He was 27.

The truth, we know, is different. There is nothing idyllic in any war, much less World War I.  Soldiers spent endless days in muddy trenches and dugouts, living miserably until the next attack. Technological developments in engineering, metallurgy, chemistry, and optics had produced weapons deadlier than anything known before. The power of defensive weapons made winning the war on the western front all but impossible for either side. War had prolonged too much and millions of people had already died. In July of 1917 poet Siegfried Sassoon sent the following open letter to his commanding officer and refused to return to the trenches:

Lt. Siegfried Sassoon.
3rd Batt: Royal Welsh Fusiliers.
July, 1917.

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.

For those who did not have enough imagination to realise the horrors of the war and continued to use the powerful means of propaganda to recruit young innocent lives, Wilfred Owen lifted the veil which covered the truth in his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est”:

“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge…”

These opening lines of Owen’s poem smash Brooke’s epic narration. English soldiers are not young upright fearless Adonis, but look mostly like “beggars” and “hags” , who are “bent double” with fatigue, fear, cold, sickness and whose native “gentleness” has given way to rudeness and curse. They are young men who have become quickly old, once abruptly abandoned their world of innocence.

“Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.”

 

This is what war is: struggle to survive, dirt, blood, pain, death. Hence, there is nothing sweet and glorious to die for one’s country, Owen concludes, quoting Horace, but it is only a  terrible lie. Owen died in action on 4 November 1918 during the crossing of the Sambre–Oise Canal, exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice which ended the war.

 

“Si sta come
d’autunno
sugli alberi
le foglie.”
(It feels like in autumn on the trees leaves.) (Soldati, Giuseppe Ungaretti)

 

And I Had Done a Hellish Thing

The beginning of the second part of the Rime is strikingly modern in my eyes. Coleridge shows here a great insight of human nature and the dynamics that rule relations among men and I may say nowadays more than ever. The first part had ended with the Ancient Mariner’s unforeseen killing of the albatross. There is not a  particular reason that may justify such senseless and despicable action. He just did it. That is why this crime is somehow even more terrible than that of Cain, who had killed, for sure, but because he envied his brother. At least he had a reason. The killing of the albatross has no justification at all, that is why it represents absolute evil, the evil that does not need motives: ” I shot the Albatross“. Full stop. Evil is a seed  that resides in every human soul and can blossom in any moment, just responding to our basest instincts and this is a fact for Coleridge.

Particularly interesting is how the crew, who represents the Mariner’s community of friends and connections he has to interact with daily, reacts to the killing of the albatross.  Coleridge,at this point, leaves the quiet pace of the ballad made of quatrains and marks a change employing two sestets where he can better develop the repercussions of the incident on the mariners’ souls:

“And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work ’em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!”

The seafarers at first blame the mariner for having killed the bird of good omen they had believed to be the cause of their good fortune, thus, managing to escape from the mist and the wondrous cold of the South Pole and move Northward. There is not a single word of condemnation on the moral implication of his action.They are just superstitious and believe that the infamous behaviour of the mariner, somehow, will have consequences on their welfare. They are 200 in all, but they speak as if they had one voice. The scenario, however, suddenly changes:

“Nor dim nor red, like God’s own head,
The glorious Sun uprist:
Then all averred, I had killed the bird
That brought the fog and mist.
‘Twas right, said they, such birds to slay,
That bring the fog and mist.”

Against all odds, after many days of suffering and fear the glorious sun rises and under that warm and comforting light the seafarers now believe to see the truth clearly : that albatross was not the bird of good omen, but quite the contrary. They all agree, with no exception, that the killing of the Albatross was rightly done as the bird must have been the cause of their misfortune. In this way they all become accomplices to the Mariner. In these few lines Coleridge tells us how mutable human nature is.The members of the crew are prompt to change their minds according to the new situations and beliefs, but above all they move en masse. This herding behaviour makes them feel stronger and ready to attack like wolves whoever acts differently or is seen like a danger. I may say that social medias provide the most fertile ground where this kind of human attitude manifests itself nowadays.

For better or worse the killing of the Albatross places the Mariner in a condition of seclusion and solitude. Furthemore, he is the only one who realizes the extent of what he had done when he says it was a ” hellish thing“, an action that ” would work ’em woe”. In fact, pleasant warmth becomes unbearable heat and when the wind drops and the men find themselves stuck in the middle of the ocean, with no water to drink, the wolves attack the Mariner again and hang about his neck the dead body of the albatross as stigma.

By the way, the crew is eventually punished with death for not having blamed the crime of the Ancient Mariner for its moral implications. As only survivor the Mariner is now condemned to live persecuted by the memory of his dead comrades. His punishment is even more terrible than death itself: to live in solitude, without the hope of God’s piety, with a tormented soul and in constant agitation.  Even when, eventually, he expiates his sin and manages to go back home, he is not allowed to enjoy the communion of other men. He will have the mission of admonishing them, impart the lesson he had learnt from his experience, but nothing more. He’ll remain at the margin of the feast of life, doomed to stop men, with his “glittering eye” to which no one can escape, trying to make them wiser, if possible, even if this means being sadder.