Flitting Across Leaky Roofs Real and Imaginary

Our first submission responding to A Streetcar Named Desire, Lisabelle Tan’s Flitting Across Leaky Roofs Real and Imaginary is a critical essay (written closer to the A Level format) that traverses the interrelation between setting and character in Tennessee Williams’ play. As Tan alternates her compact analysis between starting from the environment of Elysian Fields and Belle Reve and its effects on characters, and starting from the character of Blanche and how she seeks to mark new possibilities within and without familiar spaces, the open-ended questions and final comments gesture toward further points of engagement, further leaky roofs to flit towards.

“Either we create our environment or it will create us.” Discuss the significance of place and setting in A Streetcar Named Desire.

The spectrum of settings present in A Streetcar Named Desire (ASND) has several significances. The sheer multiplicity suggests that there is no one definite sanctuary to root oneself to, and characters like Blanche are compelled to frenetically flit from one “leaky roof” to another for self-preservation. Also, there are two distinct categories of settings – real and imaginary – and in some instances, the imaginary is imposed on the real as an alternative dimension of reality created by characters. While imaginary settings are indistinct blurs either rooted in memory or conjured up by distorted perceptions, the ‘real’ settings are all too tangible in its squalor and sensuousness that they seem to encapsulate the wretched human condition that afflicts most of the characters in the play – one in which death and desire are inextricable from. In this sense, it could be said that people, by injecting humanness into otherwise inanimate environments, create both real and imaginary settings. The reverse also holds true, for environments can activate and extract definite characteristics of people that might otherwise merely remain dormant in a different context.

The environment of Elysian Fields and Belle Reve both strike an uncanny parallel to their inhabitants, illustrating how people and their surroundings can simultaneously define each other. Elysian Fields consists of opposing elements, for it is where the squalid physical environment coexists with hedonistic luxury, evident in the lives of its inhabitants. Although the “section is poor”, Elysian Fields exudes a “raffish charm”, and despite the derelict state of houses “weathered grey”, there is “a kind of lyricism” in “the atmosphere of decay”, and Elysian Fields brims with the vigor of life, the “infatuated fluency” of the “spirit of life”, clearly counterbalancing decay with life, vitality. This mirrors the paradoxical natures of characters, as well as their relationships with each other. Stanley can demonstrate physical vigor, “(stalking) fiercely” and “(charging) after” Stella at one moment, and yet “(fall) on his knees” before her not long after, illustrating his emotional vulnerability and disintegration. Although the spirit of life may tinge the marriages between Stella and Stanley, Eunice and Steve, with decay, resulting in violent falling outs, the very same spirit of life injects “colored lights”, a metaphor for sexual passion, to sustain their relationships.

Belle Reve, on the other hand, French for “beautiful dream” stands for the fast disintegrating illusion of the Old South and its charm. It seems like the inhabitants of Belle Reve embody the fading of the ideal with their passings, the “long parade to the graveyard”, corresponding to how the South’s charm is being whittled away gradually to reveal the squalor beneath its charm, the skeletons in the ancestral history full of “epic fornications”. Blanche is a manifestation of Belle Reve for she has her Southern Belle mask cruelly torn off to expose her own “epic fornications”, her “many intimacies with strangers”, the parallelism to the fate of Belle Reve pointing to the imminence and inevitability of the ultimately tragic fate that she must endure. Here the people and their surroundings mirror each other, attesting to their interlinked relationship.

Being so much of a reflection of the characters’ selves, the surroundings in ASND seem to carve and confer identities upon its inhabitants. The Kowalskis’ domestic space is transformed into masculine territory on poker nights, the striking “lurid nocturnal brilliance” of the atmosphere being a manifestation of their masculinity. Stanley, the man of the house, then seeks to flaunt his supremacy as “richly feathered male” among the inferior female “hens”, as well as to demonstrate superiority over his friends such as the effeminate Mitch. The setting then empowers him with the affirmation that he is the unrivalled alpha male in his territory. Likewise, Blanche is being deemed an outsider in Elysian Fields based on how utterly “incongruous to the setting” she is, not only in terms of delicate appearance, but also in her deceit and “tarantula” web of lies in a place that prizes simple, upfront instincts. Unlike how Stanley can successfully claim ownership over the place he deems to be his territory, Blanche is treading on thin ice, for she is regarded to be an intruder encroaching into the very same space, where she knows she is “not wanted and where (she is) ashamed to be”, the very denial to access or assimilate into the surroundings immediately relegate her to the margins of society. Yet are the moments where Blanche also views herself as superior to her environment? Moreover, in considering Stanley’s ethnicity and social class, could it be that he creates the environment or is it the other way round?

Faced with such hostile environments, characters like Blanche may choose to create a space in which they are not excluded from, a semblance of a sanctuary. Blanche seeks to redefine the hostile environment of Stanley’s territory – his house. She occupies the bathroom for extended periods of time and the bathroom functions as a space for Blanche to feed her fantasies, and bathing, akin to a baptismal rite to sanctify herself from her sordid past of “many intimacies with strangers”. Blanche stakes her claim over the bathroom which is a part of the “Barnum and Bailey” world she retreats to, in which she happily deludes herself that her fantasies are real, it “wouldn’t be made-believe” for people “believed in (her)”, all the while singing with the insouciance of a “child…frolicking in the tub”. Blanche also tries to recreate the hostile environment that threatens her, and admittedly, she has “done so much with (the Kowalski house) since (she has) been here”, masking the banality and squalor of life with pretensions to aristocracy, “sprink(ling) the place with powder and (spraying) perfume”, transforming Stanley and Stella’s humble abode into a product of her fantasies. Blanche has tried to exert control over the surroundings that threaten to stifle and oppress her, and she temporarily succeeds into transforming it “into Egypt”, a territory that she, “Queen of the Nile”, can now claim to be hers. Blanche then creates settings that accommodate her, through skillful distortion and wresting territorial claim from Stanley. Yet is such manipulation of her environment ultimately short-lived and futile? While Blanche is very much a romantic idealist, how could we contrast Stella with Blanche in her interaction with their environment?

Lastly, the transition, or movement from one place to another also has its significance for it creates a new possibility, a new pathway for characters to embark on. This is especially relevant for Blanche who is evicted from the Kowalski household and Elysian Fields and packed off to an asylum. Blanche’s natural tendency to flit from “one leaky roof to another” is telling of her inability to assimilate into her surroundings, be it in Laurel of Elysian Fields. It is the environments’ very rejection of Blanche that destroys her, making her “crumble and fade”, and seek to recreate and reinvent herself in another place, “Elysian Fields”, which seems promising, an Edenic sanctuary but yet again cruelly deny her a place in society. Hence Blanche’s eventual acquiesce to leave the Kowalski home marks a new possibility, that she could “depend on the kindness of strangers” once more to lead her to a new sanctuary, a new life blanched of the stains of her past.

AFI (Areas for Improvement):
“Could extend analysis further to examine more closely the interactions of both Stella and Stanley with their environment and the deeper underlying significance present.”

LISABELLE TAN is an English Literature student perpetually enrolled in the schugh of hard knocks. She likes exquisitely crafted Japanese Literature, and considers Yoko Ogawa and Banana Yoshimoto among her favourites. Apart from being a frenetic freeter, she dabbles in poetry. Her poetry has been exhibited at The Arts House and published in NUS Margins.

Photo credit: Victoria Lee


Dear Dirty Dublin

Content Advisory: Adult Language and Sexual References

Dear Dirty Dublin is Lisa Zuliana’s poetic tribute to James Joyce’s Ulysses, a work testament to Irish Modernism in its concerns with sense of belonging, nationalism, what makes a true Irish citizen, wandering and the usurpation of the home. Writing in the combined perspectives of Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom and Molly Bloom, Lisa sketches in shorter, (hopefully) more understandable verses than the novel, anecdotes of what home means to each character, their regrets, peregrinations and hopes in securing a home.

Think you’re escaping but you run into yourself
Longest way round is the shortest way home

Start from the phallic symbol jutting up from
Mother Ireland that faces her
Scrotumtightening fluids and look up
The gulls caw a greeting and sun creeps
Past the rocks where soon you will wander

Usurp the home but home is everywhere

Ashplant makes a hole in all sand and soil
Walk, you brute, what else are you good for
Save for writing like I am writing because there must be an omphalos reference in here

The streets stank of squalor and a lame soldier begs
Woman’s arm, full of love’s lard and lusty folds, flings down a coin
Glints and I sing a song of sixpence
The journey took me here though maybe it was mine own two feet
Strange, surely, I have transgressed the natural order of things

This detour seems fortuitous

Redirect my path to home but home is everywhere

Potted meat and its gaminess wafts through the air
Coupled with smoke and faeces and fecund wives
The perfume of my nation
But I am not an Irishman yet this smell sinks into my blood
Like the reddish essence of my burnt kidney
Sawed off and gnawed
Leftovers from another world that found solace in the womb of a shelter
Home can be a home even if it is not the picture-perfect home

Paint my own home and look through my eyes and the Daily Telegraph waves in the wind as does the Irish flag

Have a pint no thanks not for me

What I have no money
I wish only to relax in this place that I have known all my life
I am not one of them
Damned dog of the foreign and chased by a mongrel myself
Can’t leave well enough alone
Ah but these are the trials of finding one’s place in home

Home is where I belong surely
But could it also be where I want to belong?

yes of course he took me away to here where the city never sleeps i can’t sleep either so noisy and the stinking rises up in the midday the two damned dogs are at it again breeding populating no stopping want to fill up all blank space He takes residence up in me cunt he fits surprisingly you think after so long of no loving he would be down for the count i want to make him feel all over me till he loses control hide himself in me like i am the safest place for him ay i hear the toll of the clock what a fool he is keeping me up in such a state need to be in his arms lie with him side by side indent on the right is growing deeper and when was the last time he used his tongue on something other than that bit of burnt kidney loved seeing him rush down and near cracking his head on the staircase pussens would lick up the dried blood a happy home is a home of laughs and solemnity my mother used to say without a husband what home could you have a stupid jealous brute that wants to shove it right up into you let you house his hat rack and polish it good till it shines he thinks i want to hang pearls around his neck make it a noose and ill give it a good tug i want him to eat me though it is a stuffy old place this apartment but i suppose it will do so hot so lurid woofing and barking and humping and ay husband come home and make me a home for you

LISA ZULIANA is a graduating student majoring in English Literature in Nanyang Technological University. Her writing often details feminism, eroticism, gender issues and the battering of women. She is inspired by Rupi Kaur and Angela Carter but her senpai is James Joyce. Her hope is to publish two poetry collections she is currently working on.

Photo credit: Rachel Eng

A Feast for the Senses: The Significance of Meals in Dickens’ Great Expectations

In “A Feast For The Senses”, Tan Jia Hui explores the significance of meals in Dickens’ Great Expectations. Not only are meals significant in bringing out central themes in the novel such as family, social class, as well as charting the moral growth and development of the protagonist Pip, Tan observes how food is symbolic in defining various aspects of love, desire, social ambition, want, gratitude, charity, and sundry moral values. In comparing across mealtimes in the novel, we learn how these values can be summed up as good appetite without greed, hospitality without show, and ceremony without pride and condescension.

Meals, along with literary devices that allude or refer to the idea of them, hold symbolic value in Great Expectations. These meals are located on a spectrum of levels: they range from being materially rich, yet impoverished in spirit, to the opposing end, whereby they are characterized by pure simplicity, wholly lacking in any grandeur, yet compensated by the rich warmth of love, charity and spirit. The partaking and imbibing of foods and drinks do indeed evince genial, amicable settings, showcasing warmth in human interactions, imbuing them with a general sense of commemoration and grandness. Food is symbolic in that it is used to define various aspects of love, desire, social ambition, want, gratitude, charity, and sundry moral values—in Great Expectations, we find such values being summed up as good appetite without greed, hospitality without show, and ceremony without pride and condescension.

Firstly, meals are seen to function as Dickens’ critique on dysfunctional and exploitative familial relationships, subverting and perverting idealistic parent-child relationships, drawing on child exploitation, a preponderant thematic concern during his prolific career.  In the Gargery household, Pip is given sufficient food to fill himself, however this food is not given with love. Dickens juxtaposes Mrs Joe’s pincushion breast and her dispensation of bread, contrasting the former soft texture, with the latter’s forceful aggression, as seen from the violent diction used, ‘jammed the loaf hard and fast’, ‘using both sides of the knife with a slapping dexterity’, and ‘sawed a very thick round off the loaf’, connoting a forceful, unceremonious dispensation of the meal of bread-and-butter, symbolizing the utter lack of love in this meal: it is a meal meant to satiate physical pangs of hunger rather than to initiate or exemplify maternal warmth and love or familial interactions. Although Mrs Joe’s brusque and forceful characterization is caricatured to provide comic relief, her role as Pip’s surrogate mother-figure is symptomatic and evidently a grim attack by Dickens on the maternal image, complementing his critique on dysfunctional parent-child relationships. Similarly, maltreatment of Pip is seen during the Christmas feast, where acquaintances and relatives like Uncle Pumblechook are invited to. Ostensibly, one would expect a Christmas feast to be suffused with an air of joviality, warmth, love, generosity and true charity. The antithesis of this happens: through tactile imagery, ‘I was squeezed in at an acute angle of the table-cloth, with the table in my chest, and the Pumblechookian elbow in my eye’ we learn that Pip is thoroughly uncomfortable in his physical setting.His physical surroundings mirror his inner unsettled emotions—desperate to be ‘le[ft] alone’, this accentuates the intense discomfort Pip feels, rather than the expected warm, loving Christmas spirit. This thus elucidates Dickens’ critique on dysfunctional familial relationships whereby Pip is made to feel guilty for ‘contumaciously refus[ing] to go’ to his ‘grave’, thus subverting and warping the ideal loving parent-child relationship. However, Joe acts as a foil to Mrs Joe, with his superfluous provision and offering of gravy being symbolic of his love and care for Pip: the food is simple, yet full of warmth and compassion, thus acting as a counterpoint to this false ceremony of hospitality and giving embodied by Mrs Joe and Pumblechook respectively which otherwise characterized the Christmas dinner as such.

Next, meals are seen to function as Dickens’ critique on exploitative parent-child relationships, whereby parental figures like Miss Havisham and Magwitch are seen to use their children as vehicles to achieve their own selfish ambitions and desires. Rather than explicitly referencing to a meal between Miss Havisham and Estella, Dickens implicitly connects the idea and motif of meals to the duo’s relationship through the notion of hunger, where they share an almost parasitic relationship, with Miss Havisham living vicariously through Estella to attain her selfish desire to avenge herself by wreaking havoc on men. The motif of eating is brought out through employment of anaphora, ‘she hung upon Estella’s beauty, hung upon her words, hung upon her gestures’ and diction relating to consumption, ‘hung upon’, ‘reared’, ‘devouring’, ‘extorted’, connoting and bringing about an intense sense of hunger. Additionally, the motif of hands, when Miss Havisham kept ‘Estella’s hand drawn through her arm and clutched it in her own hand’, emphasizes the close proxemical distance between the duo, and this tactile imagery also creates a sense of dependency on Miss Havisham’s part, where she feels the need to assert her control by ‘clutch[ing]’ Estella, feeding off the stories Estella tells her, firmly rooting the notion of a parasitic relationship. The selfish, manipulative diction in Pip’s narration of Miss Havisham, ‘malicious’, ‘lose’, and ‘revenge’, reveals her ultimate aim of exploiting Estella to capture and shatter the hearts of men.  She feeds her hunger and need for vengeance by exploiting her adoptive daughter, Estella as a vehicle to satiate this desire of hers, establishing the dysfunctional and exploitative parent-child relationship they share, subverting her supposed intended role as a figure of maternal affection, care and love. Mirroring such an exploitative parent-child relationship is the one Magwitch and Pip share, on account of Magwitch’s molding of Pip to fulfill his own selfish desires in attaining vengeance against an unjust social system.

Next, Dickens also condemns social class being used as a basis for biased treatment, through the juxtaposition of the Christmas meal and the personal meal shared by Pip and Pumblechook. During the Christmas dinner, when Pip is still seen as being fortune-less, Pumblechook employs repeated use of imperatives such as ‘be grateful’ to command and reproachfully order Pip around, similarly employing the same derogatory addressing term ‘boy’ to refer to him. However, this sense of importance and social superiority that Pumblechook blatantly possesses is juxtaposed with his obsequious behavior to Pip during the meal at his house after he has found out Pip’s rise in social position brought about by his ‘great expectations’. Pumblechook’s unctuous behavior is seen in the employment of repetition, where he repeatedly asks ‘May I?’ to shake hands with Pip, with the motif of hands acting as a symbol of intimacy, of sociability between the two parties. Shaking hands with Pip establishes Pumblechook as being on familiar terms with a gentleman, thereby elevating his own self-importance and social class by association, exerting his social ambition. His intimate addressing of Pip as his ‘dear young friend’ starkly contrasts with his previous superior commanding of Pip as ‘boy’, rendering his flattering and celebrating as a travesty of the love feast. Verbal irony is employed through Pumblechook’s assertion that he has always said of Pip, ‘That boy is no common boy, and mark me, his fortun’ will be no common fortun’ ’, inciting humour as his pretentiousness is glaringly obvious. This meal is rendered to be a comic situation, whereby Pumblechook’s hypocrisy and turn-about in character is ludicrously contemptuous, evincing Dickens’ condemnation of social class being used as a basis for biased treatment. The two meals—the Christmas dinner and Pumblechook’s hosting of the dinner both offer and provide rich, sumptuous food; with the latter meal boasting of wine, chicken, and tongue had round from the Boar, and are also similar in that they are symbols of sociability, given the amount of visitors and special seasonal celebratory occasion for the former, and the repeated ‘warm’ interactions between the characters in the latter. Yet, the Christmas dinner is seen to be a false ceremony of hospitality and generosity, while the private dinner is seen to be symbolic of greedy desire—a love for social ambition and mobility, also being symptomatic of a false ceremony of love: the celebratory meal of Pip’s great fortune before he leaves for London proves to be devoid of any true love, but is rather characterized by Pumblechook’s hypocrisy and appalling sycophantic behavior.

Lastly, in the novel, Great Expectations, meals are seen to function as symbolic markers of time, charting Pip’s moral growth and development. The motif of meals is brought out through the two parallel meals Pip share with Magwitch, and they are juxtaposed by how the meals work in almost antithesis of each other. The first meal is characterized by the poor physical setting of the marshes, but is filled with graciousness and fraternal love for a poor human soul. The visual imagery and animalistic diction associated with Magwitch, ‘strong sharp sudden bites’, ‘snapped up’ is summed up with Pip’s eventual determination that ‘in all of which particulars he was very like the dog’. It is apparent that Pip’s naïve comparisons to the dog neither hold social implications nor denote social superiority. Despite the host being terrorized, and the guest being pushed to the precipice of desperation, Pip gives with love and charity, ‘I am glad you enjoy it’ qualifying this meal as a ceremony and proof of sociability because of the love, generosity and gratitude which suffuse it despite the two being utter strangers. Pip’s social innocence and accepting love is evidently compromised in the parallel second meal, when Magwitch discloses the identity of Pip’s benefactor to be himself, causing it to form a perfect antithesis in that the physical setting is much more luxurious and grand, yet the spirit of the meal is incontrovertibly spiritually and emotionally impoverished. Again, animalistic diction ‘ravenous way’, ‘strongest fangs to bear upon it’ is used to associate Magwitch to a dog, but this time, the reference is noted with repulsion and disgust, with the food no longer sauced with ceremony. The repetition of the uncouth eating, the hunger, and the comparison with the dog from the first meal on the marshes evince the dichotomous juxtaposition between the two meals: in the first, young Pip gives love generously in the meal that is unceremoniously demanded of him by a pure stranger, while in the second, the older Pip treats his benefactor who has provided him with all that he has with utter contempt, marking the moral and behavioral change in him, highlighting Dickens’ demonstration of  the moral corruptions of the upper-class society into which Pip has successfully moved, whereby class boundaries and social superiority transcend the moral values of charity, love and generosity, suggesting that just as his class position progresses, so too, do his morality and values regress, in terms of the conspicuous shift in his treatment and perception of others. Next, the meals Joe and Pip share are seen to function as symbolic markers of time, charting Pip’s moral growth and development. Once he has left for London, he begins to lose sight of his moral compass and moral superiority of the person who had hitherto been most important to him, his loving but child-like father, Joe.  Through Pip’s severe lapses in both judgement and behavior, Dickens demonstrates the corrosive nature of the upper-class society into which Pip has successfully moved. When Pip and Herbert are entertaining Joe to breakfast, Pip’s failure in hospitality is made apparent, ‘I had neither the good sense nor the good feeling to know that this was all my fault’, with his innate embarrassment of Joe, which even Joe recognizes, ‘You and me is not two figures to be together in London’, exemplifying the greater social gulf and shame that such social progression brings. Joe functions as the paragon of moral excellence, despite his vernacular tone in dialogue, something which Pip only understands nearing the end of the novel. Yet, this ‘embarrassing’ meal is juxtaposed with how tenderly Joe cared for Pip when he fell ill, despite the implicit simplicity of the meal, consisting of ‘wine-and-water’, and ‘supper’. Pip’s reaction to this meal is most telling of all, with his gratitude and epiphany arising from the care Joe devoted him: Pip’s realization ‘I feel thankful that I have been ill, Joe,’ with Joe’s response that Pip has ‘a’most come around’ is symbolic. Although he has indeed been literally physically ill, so have his moral condition and values symbolically equally deteriorated. It is through the ceremonial love meal that Joe loyally provides that Pip’s moral condition is restored, resulting in the motif of meals illuminating how the journey that Pip has undergone encapsulates the novel’s essential moral theme—that it is the inner quality of the individual that really counts, not the eminence of their social position.

Works Cited

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Ed. Margaret Cardwell. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print. Oxford World’s Classics.

TAN JIA HUI is currently a sophomore at Yale-NUS College. A fan of both Dahl and Dickinson, she enjoys a medley of high and lowbrow literature on the side. Her previous works have appeared in The Straits Times, Prestige Magazine, The Octant and poem anthologies amongst others.

Photo credit: Rachel Eng

Light and Darkness in Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market

Victoria Chanel Lee’s analysis of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” explores the ambiguity of evil and temptation through binaries presented in the poem. In the essay, Lee juxtaposes themes of light and darkness, day and night, and fire and ice in highlighting the spectrum of morality. In nuancing the complexities inherent within Rossetti’s presentation of ostensibly disparate entities like “good” and “evil”, Lee successfully challenges the blanket generalizations that threaten to define the two.

Christina Rossetti’s use of specific periods of time of light and darkness in “Goblin Market” showcases the ambiguity of evil and temptation. This is seen through her use of twilight, which is defined as “a period or state of obscurity, ambiguity, or gradual decline” (“Twilight”). The poet also uses binary oppositions such as good and evil, day and night, and light and darkness to provoke a sense of comparison in the poem. The comparisons serve to illustrate the ambiguity of evil and temptation, as compared to the idea of goodness, which can be easily defined.

Twilight, a time in which both day and night co-exist harmoniously together, is portrayed as a time that “is not good for maidens” (Rossetti, 144). It is only when it is twilight, a period “between daylight and darkness”, that the goblins appear to sell their fruits. This could be a reference to the notion of twilight being the beginning of darkness; a time often attributed to when evil appears. Through the appearance of the goblins selling their forbidden fruits and Lizzie’s caution that “The sunset flushes”, the notion of associating twilight with temptation and sinful activities is presented (Rossetti, 221). The line highlights the red rays of the setting sun through the use of “flushes”, and also personifies sunset, giving it a human quality. The colour red is often used to denote something “forbidden, dangerous or urgent” and therefore, the idea of the lack of light can be associated with danger (“Red”). Furthermore, by personifying the sunset, the notion of danger is placed upon the goblins, as they later appear only when darkness falls. The goblins only appear during times when darkness is present, like twilight and night, as seen in “Evening by evening”, and when Jeanie meets the goblin men “in the moonlight” (Rossetti, 32, 148). The presence of darkness enables the goblins to somewhat hide under a both figurative and physical veil of “dimness”, therefore also hiding their impurities and evil intentions, which allows them to successfully tempt and entice innocent maidens (Rossetti, 262).

This is further reiterated in the description of the goblins’ jingle as “sugar-baited words”, where their simple “Come buy, come buy” jingle is made effective because it is sugar-coated, and therefore made superficially attractive to bait young maidens (Rosetti, 232; 234). It is also interesting to note the use of diction, as “sugar-baited” is used instead of the commonly known “sugar-coated”, highlighting the idea of the goblins’ evil intentions to entice and trap potential customers. Moreover, since the goblin calls can be heard but not seen during the day, the “Come buy, come buy” calls in daylight gives the goblin men a mysterious and ambiguous air about them. Their mysteriousness prompts the curiousity of their weak listeners, such as Laura, as she goes to peep at them although Lizzie cautions her against it. Their calls also serve as a warning, as a jingle is an advertisement designed “to be easily remembered” (“Jingle”). This description establishes the goblin cries as being addictive, and is used to persuade someone to attain something, as seen in how Laura “loitered still among the bushes” and her “longing for the night” (Rossetti, 214, 226). This description then serves as a warning to Lizzie, who is the only one, other than Laura and Jeanie, who has not been tempted by the “forbidden” fruits of the goblins (Rossetti, 479). The presence of such a jingle is evil and is used to aid the goblin men in enticing those who are weak at heart, like Jeanie and Laura.

In appearing when darkness falls, the goblins also operate through a veil of mystery, thus instilling curiosity in their targets, making them anticipate their coming, as “Laura bowed her head to hear” the goblins arriving and she also “whispered like the restless brook”  (Rossetti, 34, 53). Laura’s excitement and action of bowing her head simply just to pick out the goblins’ repeated jingle showcases the effect of the sugar coated jingle, and also foreshadows Laura’s later actions of consuming the goblins’ fruits. In addition, the poet’s choice in placing “night” before “day” in “knew not it was night or day”, “sought them by night and day” and “night and morning” also asserts the goblin men as creatures of the night, as this placement of night before day is only presented after an encounter with the goblin men (Rossetti, 139, 155, 302). This unique placement of night before day is a break from the traditional convention of the usual phrasing that follows the sequence of a day, whereby the day starts and then ends with night. By switching the sequence, night is given more importance, and therefore triumphs over day. Therefore, the goblin men appear at the first sight of darkness, appearing during twilight and disappearing after the second twilight of a day, suggesting an association of the goblins with an evil night, and also further reinforcing the idea of night and darkness representing evil.

In addition, moon imagery in the poem is also used to portray how the victims of temptation “pined and pined away” and how they longed for the evil fruits (Rossetti, 154). It also represents evil, as seen in the point above that the goblins always appear under the moonlight. Furthermore, Laura’s deteriorating state is described as, “She dwindled, as the fair full moon doth turn / To swift decay” (Rossetti, 276-279). By associating the image of the full moon with decay, and connecting Laura’s deteriorating state to the movement of the moon, the idea that moon and night is waning Laura’s life away is presented, further emphasising that evil is winning the battle between good and evil. The moon also provides minimal light in the darkness, therefore causing a sort of dimness for the goblin men to hide their evilness. The lack of light also highlights the lack of warmth, indicating a relationship of darkness and coldness as well. Through this, the notion of darkness and coldness housing evilness is again presented.

The idea of coldness is shown through the imagery of “cooling” and “windy” weather in the poem (Rossetti, 37, 121). This is related to darkness and evil, as these images are only mentioned during night or evening. In addition, the season of winter is also used for the same effect and represents death or a coming end. Readers are told that Jeanie died “In earliest winter-time, / With the first glazing rime, / With the first snow-fall of crisp winter-time” (Rossetti, 317-319). Jeanie slowly “dwindled and grew grey” and died (Rossetti, 156). There is a lack of colour presented in the descriptions of wintry coldness, and Jeanie’s worsening state is described as “grey”, a colour often associated with dullness, paleness, and aging. These lines therefore indicate a relationship between coldness (winter) and death. This idea is repeated later when Laura faces the same fate as Jeanie, and Lizzie recognises that Laura “Seemed knocking at Death’s door:” (Rossetti, 321). Furthermore, the melons from the goblin men are also described as “icy-cold”, and Laura later dreams of these melons when she is going to die, adding onto the idea that winter signifies an approaching death or end (Rossetti, 175). Therefore, the idea of evilness, sin, temptation and death is consistently presented through the imagery of darkness, dimness, coldness, and winter, thus emphasising the relationship between the evil and darkness.

On the other hand, the idea of light is associated with the notion of goodness in the poem. Morning represents goodness, as seen in Lizzie’s contentment and “warbling for the mere bright day’s delight” (Rossetti, 213). Therefore, the goblin men do not appear during daytime, as light clears our sight and makes things visible, therefore exposing their horrifying selves to those whom they want to tempt. They never appear during morning and day, although the cries of the goblin men can be heard through “Morning and evening” (Rossetti, 1). It is interesting to note that although their jingle is heard throughout the day, it seems to have no effect on young maidens until darkness falls. Moreover, although their jingle is heard in the day, the lack of their presence indicates the goblins’ inability to show themselves in the light. The goblin men’s shunning of light concretises the binary divide between good and evil, and light and darkness. This suggests that the goblins are afraid of light and brightness, as they are afraid of revealing their flaws, therefore suggesting that light can overpower darkness.

Furthermore, the sisters are “sweet and busy” in the mornings and milk cows, fetch honey, and knead cakes, which is in contrast with “At length slow evening came:”, a time where darkness slowly seeps into the day (Rossetti, 201, 215). The contrast between morning and night activities in which the sisters engage in also shows that constructive, useful and productive things are done in the mornings, therefore promoting life and an “open heart” (Rossetti, 210). Light is also used to represent life and goodness, as seen in “Must your light like mine be hidden, / Your young life like mine be wasted,” (Rossetti, 480-481). This further reinforces the idea of morning and day as representations of life, goodness and purity.

Additionally, the recurring usage of fire-related descriptions in the poem also stands out as these descriptions bring out the dual meaning of fire as a symbol of both life and death. Fire is commonly known to be a provider of warmth and a destructor of the cold. However, it can also destroy life. These nuances of the word, as well as the duality and contrast of fire can be seen throughout the poem. This duality can also be seen in the later conclusion that the forbidden fruits are both the “fiery antidote” and the cause for Laura’s illness, thus showing fire as both the giver of life, an antidote and cure, as well as the helper of death and illness (Rossetti, 559).

Fire symbolises the illness and death through the danger of the fruits, because even though they look bright and beautiful, they also can lead one to illness and death. For example, the bright colour of fire is used to bring forth the idea of death and illness, as seen through the description of the barberries as “Bright-fire-like” (Rossetti, 27). The barberries are one of the evil fruits that the goblins are selling, and will therefore bring the eater illness and death. The description of the colour of the barberries to be as red as a bright fire therefore puts forth the emphasis of fire as a symbol of death.

Fire also represents life, as seen in the poet’s description of Laura’s deteriorating health as “ … and burn / Her fire away.” (Rossetti, 279-280). The idea of fire symbolising life and strength is presented when the goblin men are attacking Lizzie, as she is “Like a beacon left alone / In a hoary roaring sea, / Sending up a golden fire,” (Rossetti, 412-414). In describing Lizzie as beacon – a fire amongst sea, sending out a distress signal of fire, it highlights the theme of good versus evil, as a golden fire represents goodness. Lizzie being a beacon also further proves that fire represents life and strength in the poem. It is also important to note that most of the fire-related description is concentrated towards the end of the poem, especially when Laura transforms back to her old self and is cured. The dual meaning of fire as life and death is shown through Laura’s transformation, in “Swift fire spread through her veins, knocked at her heart, / Met the fire smouldering there / And overbore its lesser flame”, showing that “swift fire” is the antidote, which are the juices from the goblin fruits, and “smouldering fire” is the “lesser flame”, the root of the illness (Rossetti, 507-509). It shows that a stronger fire, goodness, is needed to overthrow evil, whose fire has many flaws and is weak. The use of figurative language in description of the fire as knocking at Laura’s heart emphasises on the process as an awakening. As the “fiery antidote” takes effect in Laura, “Her lips began to scorch,” and “Her locks streamed like the torch”, showing the battle being won by goodness (Rossetti, 493, 500). Therefore, fire can then be seen to represent the dual ideas of life and death, thus presenting the binary of life and death.

In conclusion, in using such binary imagery of day and night, and morning and evening, the themes of light versus darkness and the theme of good versus evil are showcased in the poem. Furthermore, in placing such contrasting nature themed imagery in the poem, the notion that good and evil is part of human nature is showcased. It is also argued that the evilness in human nature can be resisted, as seen through the example of Lizzie. The duality of twilight and fire further reiterates the idea that there has to be an equal balance of both good and evil in the world. However, despite the various representations of evil in the poem, the idea of evilness is still ambiguous and cannot be defined, unlike goodness, which is easily defined by Lizzie, mornings, day, and light.

Works Cited

“Jingle”. Oxford British & World Dictionary. 2010. Oxford Dictionaries. Web. 15 Apr. 2013.

“Red”. Oxford British & World Dictionary. 2017. Oxford Dictionaries. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.

Rossetti, Christina. “Goblin Market.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 8th ed. Vol. 2. New York: Norton, 2006. 1466-1478. Print.

“Twilight”. Oxford British & World Dictionary. 2010. Oxford Dictionaries. Web. 15 Apr. 2013.

Currently imparting her Literature knowledge to teens, VICTORIA CHANEL LEE is a Singlit aficionado who finds joy in web and graphic design. She firmly believes that Tablo is a literary genius, even though many may scoff at the idea.

Photo credit: Rachel Eng

Some Hidden Purpose

Following Thom Gunn’s The Sense of Movement in the Margins

Dominic Nah’s experimental treatise and commentary on Thom Gunn’s The Sense of Movement seeks to introduce unfamiliar readers to Gunn’s poetry in a single journey of reading that crosses Singapore. From motorcycle gangs to personified cities, saints and beggars to Peeping Toms, follow Dominic’s journey in his first reading of Gunn’s “poetics of movement” as he travels to his evening training session, in a bid to uncover “some hidden purpose” latent in the margins of this slim, pale turquoise volume of poetry. 

Opening the slim, pale turquoise volume of Thom Gunn’s The Sense of Movement with its distinctive Faber and Faber typeset cover, the instinctive feeling is that reading this poetry collection would be a quick read, a fast turnover, short enough for me to finish in my commute between Sengkang and U-Town in NUS to drop by a breakdance practice session. Inside the folded flap of the cover, I am greeted enthusiastically by Edwin Muir of New Statesman, who claims that Gunn “states afresh and with great force questions which have troubled poets and thinkers in all ages”. I am intrigued, and at the title page, I begin toying with the concept of ‘movement’ in my mind, turning it over: Movement from where? Movement towards…? Movement for what?

          “Man, you gotta Go.”

This sub-title of the first poem “On the Move” catches my attention. I arm myself with my uniball signo 0.37mm, board the bus and settle myself upstairs on the back row of the double-decker bus. I raise my knees against the empty seat before me, and meet the first image Gunn conjures. The first phrase I scribble alongside the following opening stanza reveals itself as ‘movement in the margins’:

          “The blue jay scuffling in the bushes follows
Some hidden purpose, and the gust of birds
That spurts across the field, the wheeling swallows,
Have nested in the trees and undergrowth.
Seeking their instinct, or their poise, or both,
One moves with an uncertain violence
Under the dust thrown by a baffled sense
Or the dull thunder of approximate words.”

I try approximating meaning to these images. I remember blue jays from To Kill A Mockingbird, and I remember them being somewhat disposable there because according to Atticus Finch, you could shoot as many of them as you wanted, so presumably they were rather ordinary. But the marginal space of the “bushes” and the “uncertain violence” of “scuffling” in them stuck with me. Not only is this a poetics of tentative movement, it is also one that Gunn literally and figuratively keeps down-to-earth. He begins close to the ground, in the bushes where blue jays wrestle and fields that swallows glide over, only for these natural spaces to reveal themselves as fringe sites to human activity, as Gunn later shifts the focus to an almost filmic scene of a motorcycle gang coasting, emerging into view:

          “On motorcycles, up the road, they come:
Small, black, as flies  hanging in heat, the Boys,
In goggles, donned impersonality,
In gleaming jackets trophied with the dust,
Exact conclusion of their hardiness
Has no shape yet, but from known whereabouts
They ride, direction where the tires press.
They scare a flight of birds across the field:
Much that is natural, to the will must yield.”

Gunn captures a sense of their restless movement in medias res, at once embracing (“gleaming jackets trophied with the dust”) and disrupting (“scare a flight of birds across the field”) the natural environment they are cruising through, emphasized by the closing rhyming couplet of ‘field/yield’, subordinating nature to the will of man. But this confident movement is marked primarily by its transience, the only certainty of their identity emerging from their nomadic roaming.

Moving along, the motorcycle gang of the opening poem will later find an echo in “The Unsettled Motorcyclist’s Vision of his Death”, where a solitary motorcyclist imagines a scene where this time instead, his “human will / cannot submit to nature” as he rides into a marsh, and gets caught in a sinking quagmire from which he cannot escape, only to “[accelerate] the waiting sleep”. What begins as a sense of invulnerability, of exalting and revelling in the freedom of movement that opens the collection, later detours into a disturbing encounter with death, suggesting that riding their chosen vehicle of freedom and movement necessitates an acute awareness and readiness for one’s mortality. However, Gunn does not allow this morbid vision to sink into despair, for the persona here appears to exceed the imagined moment beyond his control “where death and life in one combine, / Through the dark earth that is not mine” as he assimilates into the continuing cycle of life:

Cell after cell the plants convert
My special richness in the dirt:
All that they get, they get by chance.

          And multiply in ignorance.”

Nature here, for this persona, seems to continue in a seamless movement of exchange and transfer, its hidden purpose one that ensures that cycles of life intersect and feed into each other, its apparent chaotic randomness working to circumvent any poetic significance attached to it about any transcendent meanings of life.

At this juncture, I alight into the bus interchange, its sliding doors welcome me into the air-conditioned space of the shopping mall. I walk through the weekend crowd, hordes of families, friends and individuals all on the way to somewhere. Riding down the escalator into the train station, I open to Gunn’s poem titled “In Praise of Cities” and first stanza indicates a shift in register in the collection:


Indifferent to the indifference that conceived her,
Grown buxom in disorder now, she accepts
– Like dirt, strangers, or moss upon her churches –
Your tribute to the wharf of circumstance,
Rejected sidestreet, formal monument …
And, irresistible, the thoroughfare.

Here, the consciousness of the city is personified, and I am struck by the idea that firstly, a city could have its/her own consciousness, and secondly, it almost follows that her inhabitants may take that for granted, “[growing] buxom in disorder now”, while the city’s consciousness merely accepts whatever happens in her spaces. How fascinating then, to consider the city as a space that is at once everywhere, and also always at the margins of her inhabitants’ consciousness?

Only at dawn
You might escape, she sleeps then for an hour:
Watch where she hardly breathes, spread out and cool,
Her pavements desolate in the dim dry air.

Gunn writes of a daily tedium, a quiet breathlessness seeking respite, an uncomplaining, benign maternal presence of the all-encompassing city, calling to mind a parent who worries and watches over the children through the night and into the morning until they all leave for school, whereupon some rest can finally be sought. In this poem, Gunn seems to have in mind an amalgamation of the major cities he once lived and lives in, from the London that “wanders lewdly, whispering her given name, / Charing Cross Road”, to the “Forty-Second Street” of San Francisco, both whom appear at once “familiar and inexplicable”.

I am on the train now, standing with my back against the glass panel next to the reserved seat. “St Martin and the Beggar” comes up now, the relative simplicity of Gunn’s metre and rhythm almost reading like a nursery rhyme, loosely following the style of the plot-driven ballad with alternating rhymes that build a sense of emotional urgency, but here Gunn departs slightly from the form of the ballad with its generally stricter ABAB rhyme scheme, keeping only one set of alternating rhymes. The poem follows the well-known story of St. Martin of Tours who generously cut his cloak in two, giving half of it to a beggar who approached him while he was riding in the cold winter. Where this poem keeps faithful to the original story of St Martin and the beggar, what was most noteworthy was the somewhat bathetic ending to the poem.

In both the original story and the poem, the beggar reappears at an inn where St Martin is resting, ostensibly well-kept and completely transformed from his beggar form. He lauds St Martin in omniscient fashion, claiming to know “never since that moment / Did you regret the loss”. But this commendation the poem ends almost abruptly with the latter’s second disappearance the moment St Martin generously
extends an offer for food to him:

          St Martin stretched his hand out
To offer from his plate,
But the beggar vanished, thinking food
Like cloaks is needless weight.
Pondering on the matter
St Martin bent and ate.

Despite the anti-climactic end, or precisely because of it, I enjoyed how St Martin’s generous treatment of the beggar was not overstated or celebrated. Gunn’s choice to vocalize praise of St Martin in dialogue through the beggar’s character allows for the narration of St Martin’s penultimate simple act of contemplation to appear even more charming in its absence of moral exultation, as he responds simply by continuing to eat. Here, Gunn returns the spiritual, noble ideal of generosity and selflessness to the material plane of realism with the final image of masticating, consuming food, as if casting these ideals to the margins and returning the oft-overlooked primacy of lived experience to the centre of focus. I look around the train carriage, but there was no coincidental scene of an elderly looking person needing a seat occupied by an ignorant, able-bodied young person snoozing away in a reserved seat. I imagine that would have made reading this poem presently rather apt.

Several poems later, including an absorbing one on the figure of Merlin musing in a cave, I alight on the outskirts of U-Town, walk through the Yale-NUS campus, reading the last couple of poems of the collection. This time, in the poem “The Corridor”, there is a sense of watchfulness, surveillance and enclosure that follows a voyeur peering through a keyhole in an empty hotel corridor, one especially brought about by the enclosing rhyme scheme of ABBA in the quatrain stanzas. But as this male persona kneels and “[squints] through the keyhole, and within / Surveyed and act of love”, later “[moving] himself to get a better look”, a surprising turn of events occur. Now the watcher becomes the watched, the margins of movement shift and blur, exemplified by the break in the ABBA rhyme scheme of the quatrains hitherto:

And then it was he noticed in the glass
Two strange eyes in a fascinated face
That watched him like a picture in a book.

The instant drove simplicity away –
The scene was altered, it depended on
His kneeling, when he rose they were clean gone
The couple in the keyhole; this would stay.

This brings to mind Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of “The Look” in his mighty 1943 ontological treatise “Being and Nothingness”, where Sartre contends with the problem of how to define an Other as a subject without resorting to objectifying the Other when looking at them. What the persona seems to experience here is exactly the phenomenon of “The Look”, where precisely in the moment of the Other looking directly at him looking at them, he experiences a fissure, a disruption of the self, a moment that Sartre identifies as “Shame”, a shudder of violent recognition that another person has begun to size you up, with some hidden purpose and judgement unbeknownst to you. It is perhaps this moment of interrupted voyeurism that exemplifies Gunn’s apprehension of the arbitrary shifts and movements of both margins and marginal figures. In that split second through the keyhole the dynamics of power and surveillance are quietly, violently shaken:

          For if the watcher of the watcher shown
There in the distant glass, should be watched too,
Who can be master, free of others; who
Can look around and say he is alone?

Moreover, who can know that what he sees
Is not distorted, that he is not seen
Distorted by a pierglass, curved and lean?
Those curious eyes, through him, were linked to these –

As I wander through the corridors of U-Town towards the dance studio slightly paranoid if people are looking at me, I am amazed by the last poem of the collection “Vox Humana”, which suggests for me how perhaps the ‘hidden purpose’ of movement will remain a scuffle for meaning, much like the blue jays in the bushes at the start of the collection. Throughout the collection, Gunn reaches for the definitive conclusions of these scuffles, looking for a triumph of language to anchor meaning in movements that wander through the margins and almost elude capture in language, at best alluded to. A quick Google search on my phone tells me that ‘vox humana’ is “an organ stop with a tone supposedly resembling the human voice”. And in this final poem of the collection, Gunn draws his poetics of movement together with a poetics of notation, translation and focalization, offering an expression to all that is marginal and seeking definition:

          Being without quality
I appear to you at first
as an unkempt smudge, a blur,
an indefinite haze, mere-
ly pricking the eyes, almost
nothing. Yet you perceive me.


Aha, sooner or later
you will have to name me, and,
as you name, I shall focus,
I shall become more precise.
O Master (for you command
in naming me, you prefer)!


Or if you call me the blur
that in fact I am, you shall
yourself remain blurred, hanging
like smoke indoors. For you bring,
to what you define now, all
there is, ever, of future.

Standing outside the dance studio, ready for my own circuit of movement, I close the slim, pale turquoise volume. I pause on his final stanza, turning over in my mind the vague precision (or is it the ‘precise vagueness’?) of his call to mutual and reciprocal acknowledgement. A sense of possibility stirs within, some hidden purpose of movement whispers me along. I keep the volume in my bag, push open the studio doors and call to mind Gunn’s urging: Man, you gotta Go.

DOMINIC NAH is presently pursuing a Masters in World Literature at the University of Warwick. Currently, he is trying to experiment beyond the standard structure of the PEEL essay and this piece on Thom Gunn’s poetry is his modest attempt in exploring the parameters of what literary commentary in an essay can look like. So far, so good, he probably rewarded himself with roti prata after writing this.

Photo credit: Dominic Nah

Works Cited

Gunn, T. (1957) The Sense of Movement. London: Faber and Faber.

Sartre, J.-P. (2003) Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Trans. Hazel Estella Barnes. London: Routledge.

Arthur Bo Pakeh

Translating Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur into Singlish

Jerome Lim’s courageous transmutation of Tennyson’s elegant ‘Morte d’Arthur’ into this Singlish gem is the first of its kind for a Victorian text. His accompanying reflection draws out insightful and pertinent questions of language politics and propels us into a world where Singlish is taken seriously enough for it to be a vehicle of translation.

When my editor-in-chief, Chloe, politely suggested that I write for Margins, I agreed, because it seemed like a good break from grinding in Dragon Age. I briefly toyed with writing a Silas Marner parody where Singapore’s last rattan weaver struggles to get Parenthood Tax Rebates as a male single-parent adopter in Singapore, but the story never spun. Thankfully, inspiration came when OF ZOOS asked if they could publish my Singlish translation of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130” alongside Joshua Ip’s response. This poem was part of a #makesinglishgreatagain campaign I started, half-in-jest, during this year’s Singlish Poetry Writing Month; I wanted to question the notion that “literature written in Singlish invariably is comic in nature informed” (Sharma). While poets (notably, Liren Fu) took on this challenge admirably, I did not further this discussion during the month. Writing this article thus proved to be an apt opportunity to revisit translating literature into Singlish.

The noble ideal of literary translation, metaphorically speaking, is building a linguistic bridge between cultures. But the act of translation is inherently politic: this bridge is always sloped, and likely gated at one end. Commonly, works from an established literary canon are translated from the cultural-dominant language to the peripheral language, but this centre-margin relation is upended when languages in diglossia—two languages within a community where one is used formally and the other is used in vernacular communication—are involved. Because they co-exist within one culture, the need to translate for understanding is almost non-existent. Furthermore, translating great literary works into a language viewed as or informal is deemed as mangling its literary merit; one simply has to look at the Bible’s translation history to get an idea: the outlawing of the Latin Bible’s English translation, or the debacle surrounding Di Jamiekan Nyuu Testiment. Translations between diglossic languages mostly occur for practical, not literary, reasons.

The Speak Good English Movement campaign was a visible part of my experience growing up in Singapore, and these yearly campaigns are reflective of Singapore’s practical approach to Singlish versus Standard English. Singlish, as a diglossic English-lexified creole, has long occupied the margin in the local linguistic power hierarchy. Despite Singlish terms being included in the Oxford English Dictionary’s lexicon, the government has long disapproved of Singlish, deeming it impractical and unprofessional. Indeed, Singapore even denies Singlish independent language status; the Media Development Authority (MDA) defines Singlish as: “ungrammatical local English [which] should not be encouraged” (MDA 10.3). But evolutionary linguists have argued that Singlish exhibits characteristics of a native language, with its own linguistic rules—on this subject, Grace Teng offers a great layman overview of Singlish rules, while Leimgruber offers a more scholarly one. This complicates the government’s notion of a universal, standardized English, with Singlish being an inferior version.

This notion of inferior Englishes has long been questioned by writers who are native speakers of creoles, such as Linton Kwesi Johnson, with “Inglan Is a Bitch” (1980) in Jamaican patois, or our own Leong Liew Geok with “Forever Singlish” (2000). But beyond such works that seem to be “writing back” against the idea of a standard English, there is a flourishing tradition of literature written in such languages, either entirely, or partially. Indeed, Faith Ng’s plays, Cheryl Tan’s Sarong Party Girls (2016), or Abdul Hamid’s poetry, stand as notable recent examples of literature in Singlish across genres. Despite this, serious translation of literature—especially canonical works—into Singlish, are almost non-existent—I can only think of Alfian Sa’at’s translation of his Causeway (1998) from Malay to Singlish; the Shakespeare in Singlish project by Assistant Professor Warren Mark Liew and Assistant Professor Angus Whitehead; or surprisingly, Acting Minister Ong Ye Kung’s translation of Li Bai’s verses into Singlish at the opening of the National Poetry Festival 2016. The majority of Singlish literature is created, not translated.

But is translation of literature into Singlish even necessary? Literature written in Singlish is burgeoning—we do not need to borrow from other canons to give ours legitimacy. If we seek to topple the notion that literature in Singlish is not always comic, then translation of canonical works into Singlish might be adverse; they are elevated, and usually written in an elaborate, literary language. In contrast, a Singlish translation, which by nature is efficient and conversational, would highlight glaring differences and perhaps viewed as a poor imitation—on top of the widely-held assumption that translation involves “loss”. Ultimately, translation itself is a creative act, and in attempting to translate a work, the translator engenders a non-pedantic debate on the language’s status and capacity for literary cross-fertilization. A translation culture is a definite marker of a stable language. Although this may be a distant ideal for Singlish, rather than “no action talk only”, I will attempt to translate a section of a highly canonical work into Singlish as a thought-provoking experiment.

Being Unseen’s Victorian editor, I was compelled to translate Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur (1838), which stood out because of its history. The Morte d’Arthur is a transcreation of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485), which itself is a reworking of French and English Arthurian legends. Tennyson wrote the Morte d’Arthur in a time where chivalric legends were seen as “a mere ingenious exercise of fancy” (Sterling 401); a pioneer in a time when its particular transcreation seemed unwarranted—something that resonated with my mission. However, translating Tennyson into Singlish presents its challenges. Firstly, the direct nature of many Singlish expressions render it challenging to carry Tennyson’s elegiac tone. Also, the Morte d’Arthur is written in blank verse, which relies heavily on meter. Unlike Standard English, which is stress-timed (equal intervals between stress), Singlish is syllable-timed (each syllable takes equal time). This means that traditional English meter is near-impossible to replicate in Singlish, although Singlish does have its own rhythms; I attempt to take into consideration Tennyson’s plosive rhythm.

Overall, my guiding principle for this translation was, as Eugene Nida puts it, to focus “on the sense, less on the syntax” (162). As a start, I selected lines 118–132: a dying King Arthur’s rebuke to Sir Bedivere when he fails twice to discard Excalibur. The translation, together with my notes, are presented below:

Excerpt from Morte d’Arthur Excerpt from Arthur Bo Pakeh

To whom replied King Arthur, much in wrath:

“Ah, miserable and unkind, untrue,

Unknightly, traitor-hearted! Woe is me!

Authority forgets a dying king,

Laid widow’d of the power in his eye

That bow’d the will. I see thee what thou art,

For thou, the latest-left of all my knights,

In whom should meet the offices of all,

Thou wouldst betray me for the precious hilt;

Either from lust of gold, or like a girl

Valuing the giddy pleasure of the eyes.

Yet, for a man may fail in duty twice,

And the third time may prosper, get thee hence:

But, if thou spare to fling Excalibur,

I will arise and slay thee with my hands.”


King Arthur super angry. He said:

“Eh, you liar, pattern more than

Badminton, sabo kia! I damn suay!

If king going die, bo pakeh liao la,

No more power stare then people

Auto sedia. I see you no up,

My knights all only left you, liddat

Confirm-plus-chop can do their job what,

For this kilat sword you want tekan me;

Isit lagi greedy, or like gu niang,

See diamond then eyes big big.

Gabra one time two time still okay,

Third time still got chance sui sui, go fly kite:

But if you neh throw Excalibur,

I get up ownself kill you.”

Title: While I considered a more straightforward Arthur Mati or Arthur Si Liao, I felt that “bo pakeh” (adj. person without sufficient influence) would more succinctly capture the fading of Arthur’s power (cf. 240: “The old order changeth, yielding place to new”). Also, bo pakeh, compared to the other choices, is a native Singlish term (having its etymology in both Malay and Hokkien).

Line 1: The passive construction is less common in Singlish (unless “kena” is used) and frequently, the known subject (in this case, Sir Bedivere) is omitted. Hence the pronoun phrase “to whom” is unneeded.  Topic prominence in Singlish sentences means “anger” comes before “said”.

Line 2-3: My initial selection made Arthur sound like a disgruntled ah beng, so I settled for “pattern more than badminton” (implying “deviousness”, which suits how Bedivere has lied twice in succession) to replace the tricolon “unkind, untrue, unknightly”. This also has the added bonus of maintaining Tennyson’s plosive rhythm. I considered “du lan” or “buay tahan” for “Woe is me” but they lack the metaphor’s lamentory quality compared to “suay”.

Line 4: See Title. Considered “limpeh” (pronoun), but this made the implicit self-reference explicit.

Line 5-6: Toyed with “eye power” for “power of the eye”, but “eye power” lacks the connotation of command. To convey this, I translated “bow’d the will” into “sedia”—the ubiquitous military command, combined with “auto” and “stare” to keep meaning and plosive rhythm.

Line 6 (cont.): To convey the implied meaning—I see your true colours (in a negative manner)—I selected the expression “see you no up”, which also sounds similar to the original line.

Line 7-8: The collective “jin gang” was considered too informal here. “Liddat … what” carries the implication of “should”, and is also typical Singlish pronunciation (reduction). There is added emphasis from “confirm-plus-chop”, and it retains the alliterative quality of “latest-left”. “Chop” and “job”, (both near-rhyme with “sword”), carry the connotation of duty from “office”. Although this makes line 8 sound more direct, I feel this replaces the direct address “For thou”, which was removed in line 7 in favour of a natural Singlish syntax.

Line 9: Considered “sabo”, but felt that the plosive “tekan” (v. treat harshly, cause pain to) would better carry the gravity of betrayal. “Hilt”, which is uncommon in layman Singlish, is replaced with “sword”.

Line 10-11: “Isit … or” used to express choice here. Considered “sarong party girl” but felt that “lagi greedy / like gu niang” keeps the parallelism in “lust of gold / like a girl”.

Line 11 (cont.): This line—an adaptation of Horace’s “oculus et gaudia vana”—proved particularly hard to translate. Thankfully, I studied Latin, and in comparing this to Tennyson’s I felt that the main essence resided in “oculus” (n. eye) and “vāna” (adj. vain, superficial). The diamond was a materialistic way of translating “giddy pleasure”, but is valid in the context of the poem (cf. 152: “Sir King, I closed mine eyelids, lest the gems / Should blind my purpose”).

Line 12:  deemed “Cockup” too crude in tone; “gabra” (v. panic, mess-up) was a better option, although it might connote blur-ness.

Line 13-15: Translating these was quite straightforward. “Go fly kite” is a good analogue to “Get thee hence” (get lost). “Neh” is a typical Singlish contraction.

Upon reflection, I felt that the main challenge was maintaining a certain degree of Singlishness, while striking a balance between the different Singlish sub-varieties. Singlish and Standard English are not clearly bounded; Lionel Wee points out that their lexicogrammatical constructions are often mixed (14)—any translation thus rests on an indefinite Singlish-English continuum. Simply put, at what point does a sentence count as Singlish? Furthermore, within this continuum of Singlishness itself, there exist differing, equally valid sub-varieties, due its rich linguistic heritage. For example, a Malay native speaker might gravitate towards Malay-rooted expressions and syntax, and a Hokkien speaker towards Hokkien. A large onus thus rests on the translator’s lexical selection. This may perhaps be an advantage—two Singlish translations of the same piece can sound vastly different—however, many Singlish translations tend to gravitate towards Hokkien (for example, the Singlish Bible). I tried to avoid leaning towards one root language, but also wanted to avoid simply applying Singlish grammar to Tennyson’s lines.

Like how Tennyson’s Arthur coolly quips on his deathbed: “I pass but shall not die”, interest in Singlish literature will always remain as long as we continue to speak Singlish. For those attempting to translate into Singlish, the challenges of lexicon and boundary are challenging, but not impossible to overcome. All in all, while I do not claim my translation to be good or authoritative in any sense (being an English teacher I may be least qualified in Singlish!), I hope that this experiment will play a small part in pulling both Singlish and translation studies—which James Holmes, noted poet and translator, referred to as “an underdeveloped country in the world of literary scholarship”—out of the literary and linguistic margins. Indeed, Singlish experts such as Dr. Gwee Li Sui, Alfian Sa’at, or Abdul Hamid would do a better job translating texts into Singlish; we can even look towards our own literary canon (perhaps translating Joshua Ip’s Sonnets from the Singlish into well, Singlish?), the question may not be whether serious translation into Singlish should occur, but rather, whether serious translation into Singlish can occur. I think yes, we can lah.

JEROME LIM reads English Literature at the University of York. His poems are upcoming in Rambutan Literary, OF ZOOS, and ASINGBOL. His dream is to write an NYT op-ed on Singlish that will be rebutted by the PM’s press secretary.

Photo credit: Leonard Yip


References About Singlish:

Why don’t Singaporeans speak proper English?: layman introduction to Singlish by Grace Teng

SinGweesh on Wednesday: informative Singlish column by Gwee Li Sui.

A Dictionary of Singlish and Singapore English: comprehensive Singlish dictionary and etymology.

Shakespeare in Singlish: Warren Liew and Angus Whitehead interviewed about, and performing Shakespeare in Singlish.

The Singlish Bible: Read on a dull day (although this is quite Hokkien-centric).

Works Cited

Leimgruber, J. (2011) Singapore English. Language and Linguistics Compass 5 (1), 47-62.

Lindsay, J. (2006) Between Tongues: Translation and/of/in Performance in Asia. Singapore: NUS Press.

Media Development Authority, Singapore. (2004) Free-to-Air TV Programme Code. [Online] Available from: mda.gov.sg.

Nida, E. (1997) Language, Culture and Translating. Shanghai: Shanghai Foreign Language Education.

Sharma, G. (2013) Singlish: Leave it Alone” NewZZit. [Online]

Sterling, J. (1842) Rev. of Tennyson’s Poems (1842). Quarterly Review, 385–416.

Stroud, C., and L. Wee. (2011) Style, Identity and Literacy: English in Singapore. Vol. 13. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Tennyson, A. The Epic [Morte d’Arthur]. In: C. Ricks (ed.), Tennyson: A Selected Edition. Harlow: Longman, 146–164.

Weissbort, D., and A. Eysteinsson. (2006) Translation – Theory and Practice: A Historical Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The Sound of Silence

How oxymoronic would it be to call someone a Victorian feminist? In this essay, Sam Chan skilfully juxtaposes the transgressive female voices in several of Christina Rossetti’s poems to elucidate the struggle between desire and shame that accompanies the struggle of a poet to rise above her gender’s marginalised state.

There is an old saying in literature that goes, ‘Men write. Women get written about.’ That might have been true for a large number of male poets, but it certainly wasn’t true for Christina Rossetti. A strikingly large number of Rossetti’s poems feature either female speakers or female characters. They give voice to complex emotions, like in The Convent Threshold, or are involved in exchanges played out between women, like in Cousin Kate, Sister Maude, Noble Sisters, and The Lowest Room. And in the surreal atmosphere of Goblin Market, the women exist in a fantasy world where all the men have disappeared and been replaced by rapacious goblins. Why the focus on female voices?

In Christina Rossetti’s time, the vast majority of canonically accepted works of literature were written by men. The idealized female subjects of these poems were often perfect, flawless…and devoid of personality, more fresco than woman. This was the state of affairs that Christina Rossetti was objecting to when she wrote:

‘[These women immortalised by the poets] … have come down to us resplendent with charms, but … scant of attractiveness.

Had such a lady spoken for herself, the portrait left us might have appeared more tender, if less dignified, than any drawn even by a devoted friend.’[1]

Rossetti’s poems are often described as proto, or early stage, feminism because the recurring theme of women ‘speaking for themselves’. Rossetti’s status as a ‘feminist’, though, is complicated. Despite the strong female voices present in her poems, Rossetti often portrays women as being primarily in conflict with other women, and their raised voices are usually to say yes or no to the demands of men. In Noble Sisters, one sister sabotages the other to prevent herself becoming associated with scandal. In The Lowest Room, the speaker’s sense of feminine independence is undermined by her sister’s contented domesticity: ‘her husband her main wealth in all the world’.[2] In poems like Cousin Kate and Sister Maude, indirect sabotage becomes outright competition, specifically for the attention of a man. When men are absent from these exchanges, their implicit presence is still eloquent:

O cousin Kate, my love was true,
Your love was writ in sand:
If he had fooled not me but you,
If you stood where I stand,
He’d not have won me with his love
Nor bought me with his land;
I would have spit into his face
And not have taken his hand.[3]

The man in ‘Cousin Kate’ is inconstant in his affections, but the speaker chooses to blame Kate instead: it’s her love that’s ‘writ in sand’, and her failure to ‘spit into his face’. Rossetti’s poem is a strange paradox: a once-silent female voice is now telling us exactly what she thinks – that the other, silent female is loose, immoral and should be shamed.

Yet Rossetti’s poetry doesn’t seem to emerge from a sense of gendered inferiority: the conflict between women often renders them more vitalistic than the invisible men they fight over. In Maude Clare, Maude Clare descends on the wedding party of her faithless once-love Thomas ‘like a queen’[4] and upbraids him for his inconstancy. The bride Nell is ‘pale with pride’: Thomas is merely ‘pale with inward strife’.[5] Maude Clare makes clear that Thomas has no stomach to face his spurned lover:

He strove to match her scorn with scorn,
He faltered in his place:
“Lady,” he said, – “Maude Clare,” he said, –
“Maude Clare:” – and hid his face.[6]

If Rossetti saw male writers as too often effacing the voice of women, Maude Clare is a complete inversion: the woman makes her case in full, reducing the man to stuttering silence. The poem’s silencing of the man becomes so complete that it’s his bride-to-be, Nell, that takes up the argument for him. Strangely, Thomas has been so thoroughly emasculated that Nell’s arguments seem to stem more from her desire to oppose Maude Clare than from any positive quality in the groom.

“And what you leave,” said Nell, “I’ll take
And what you spurn, I’ll wear;
For he’s my lord for better and worse,
And him I love, Maude Clare.[7]

Nell’s defiant declarations cast the groom as passive object (‘leave…take / spurn… wear’). Her language is striking both for what it says as well as what it omits. Nell lists no qualities that make the groom worth having. She lists Maude’s qualities instead: ‘though you’re taller…more wise and much more fair’.[8] The marriage is a contest between women, with the groom a convenient proxy. Yet paradoxically, both women address the quivering Thomas as ‘my lord’, and Nell fiercely anticipates her marriage vows (‘for better or worse’).

Women in Rossetti’s poetry exhibit a strange contradiction: brave and strong as they are, their energies are often directed towards the goal of effacement and subordination. Isobel Armstrong explained the contradiction best when she conceptualised ‘gender [as] a primary focus of anxiety’[9] in Victorian society, that a great deal of the anxiety was deflected onto female sexuality as a dangerous, powerful force, and that the internalisation of this anxiety meant women poets skirted the line between ‘transgressions and boundary’, ‘silence and language’, ‘struggle and limit’.[10]

Read in this way, much of Rossetti’s poetry makes sense as a woman struggling with her feminine sexuality and the conflicting desires of wanting to assert and hide herself. The theme of self-control and self-discipline runs throughout Rossetti’s poetry and her verse; speakers are often caught in the act of waiting or sacrifice, locked into the discipline of abiding by neat, metrical lines broken up by self-imposed caesuras and characterised by sing-song repetition. In Sound Sleep this sense of constraint manifests in a passive conformity with the surroundings:

Some are laughing, some are weeping;
She is sleeping, only sleeping.
Round her rest wild flowers are creeping;
There the wind is heaping, heaping

The long strife at length is striven:
Till her grave-bands shall be riven,[11]

Here the ‘she’ of the poem is subsumed into her surroundings and subsumed into the regular trochaic meter as a single clause among many. The mention of her passive ‘sleeping’ contrasts with the varied ‘some’ engaged in life, the ‘creeping’ flowers and the ‘heaping’ wind, but the linking use of the present participle (where ‘sleeping’ becomes another verb comparable to ‘heaping’, ‘creeping’, ‘weeping’) absorbs her into the vitalistic activity around her. Her passivity is in anticipation of a future hope; the religious anticipation of when ‘grave-bands shall be riven’ in the life after death. Occasionally, passivity becomes a refuge:

I took my heart in my hand
(O my love, O my love),
I said: Let me fall or stand,
Let me live or die,
But this once hear me speak –
(O my love, O my love),
Yet a woman’s words are weak;
You should speak, and not I.[12]

The repeated ‘O my love’ is at once an appeal, a complaint, and a talismanic repetition in the anticipation of a blow. The sense of passive anticipation and of a wilful surrendering of the speaker’s capacity for action, is contained in the line ‘You should speak, and not I’. The words are a self-defence mechanism, an effacement of self in the face of pain.

If men are occasionally invisible from want of character, Rossetti’s women are invisible through striving. Women’s agency often entails either willful silence or in a forceful refusal, as in “No, Thank You John” (‘I’d rather answer “No” to fifty Johns / Than answer “Yes” to you’).[13] When women are overwhelmed, the chief thing they lose is their capacity to resist, to say no, as in Love from the North:

He made me fast with book and bell
With links of love he makes me stay;
Till now I’ve neither heart nor power
Nor will nor wish to say him nay.[14]

The consequence of a failure to resist a coercive love is entrapment and silencing: to be bound ‘fast’ with ‘links of love’. Most importantly, in abrogating her responsibility to refuse, the speaker loses not just her ‘power…to say him nay’, but her sense of selfhood: she has ‘neither heart…nor will nor wish’ to refuse anymore.

This makes sense of the poems where anger is directed at other women, even as Rossetti tries to give women a voice: scorn is reserved for women who breach the unspoken compact and fail to resist. Cousin Kate is, after all, blamed for failing to refuse the hand of the un-named lord. Laura’s mistake in Goblin Market is in ignoring her own injunction to ‘not look at goblin men’.[15] In Noble Sisters, one sister warns the other she will ‘shame our father’s name’[16] and attempts to refuse an adulterous lover on her behalf. To fail to say no is to betray a shared code in sisterhood, a kind of solidarity in passive refusal.

Yet the appeal of an apocalyptic romance is difficult to resist, even as it brings about destruction. Love from the North, for instance, reads closer to the language of Gothic romance than cautionary tale. The speaker is spirited away by an irresistible Byronic lover who ‘took me in his strong white arms / he bore me on his horse away… but never asked me yea or nay.’[17] In Goblin Market, transgressive sex and romance is symbolized through literalized forbidden fruit:

Sweeter than honey from the rock,
Stronger than man-rejoicing wine,

She never tasted such before,
How should it cloy with length of use?
She suck’d and suck’d and suck’d the more
Fruits which that unknown orchard bore;[18]

Rossetti’s language lingers on the sensuous, emphasizing the physicality of the illicit fruit (‘sweeter …stronger’) and Laura’s consuming hunger (‘suck’d and suck’d and suck’d’) even as the poem’s denouement seeks to reject it. Denial is intermixed with, and draws its strength from, the power of the temptations it speaks against.

Perhaps the scorn that surfaces against other women in the poems is not the product of a strict moralism against looseness, but is evidence of a woman struggling with the impossible tension between denial and desire, between moral rectitude and shame. Rossetti gives voice to both instincts: the desire to cast off all restraint, and the attendant female shaming that keeps that from becoming a reality. Where it becomes problematic is when that shame is externalized, and directed against other women as a means of enforcing a status quo: the cottage maid cursing Cousin Kate and Nell dismissing Maude Clare.

Read in that light, Rossetti’s poetry sheds light on the tendency of marginalized communities to turn on each other, as they internalise the values around them and begin to police each other. Think of a freshly-arrived migrant in a foreign country who works hard to assimilate, then turns around and scorns other fresh arrivals for their rustic accents and coarse manners. The arithmetic of this interaction is simple: it’s the act of raising yourself by lowering the people around you. To Rossetti’s credit, whilst she never found herself able to repudiate the values around her, she never fully gave in to simplistic moralizing, perhaps recognising too much of her own struggles in the problems of others. Rossetti’s poetry poses several questions for us: what kind of judgements are we making today that, rather than reflect our best values, reflect our own desire to rise above our insecurities?  And who are we holding down to get there?

SAMUEL CHAN always thought he’d be a lawyer when he grew up, but realised halfway through the first semester of law school that his first love was literature. He went on to study it in the UK and currently teaches in a secondary school in Singapore. These days he spends his time tunneling an escape route under the staff room and lamenting the closure of the one good canteen stall.

Photo credit: Chloe Lim

Works cited:

Armstrong, I. (1996) Christina Rossetti: Diary of a Feminist Reading. In: T. Cosslett (ed.), Victorian Women Poets: A Critical Reader. London: Longman.


[1] Monna Innominata, preface

[2] The Lowest Room, line 238

[3] Cousin Kate, lines 33 – 40

[4] Maude Clare, line 4

[5] ibid. lines 13 – 14

[6] ibid., lines 29 – 32

[7] ibid., lines 41 – 44

[8] ibid., lines 45 – 46

[9] Victorian Poetry, Isobel Armstrong, p 7

[10] Armstrong, p 344

[11] Sound Sleep, lines 1 – 4 and lines 19 – 20

[12] Twice, lines 1 – 8

[13]No, Thank You John”, lines 19 -20

[14] Love from the North, lines 29 – 32

[15] Goblin Market, line 42

[16] Noble Sisters, line 59

[17] Love from the North, lines 25 – 28

[18] Goblin Market, lines 129 – 135


Philip Larkin in his poem ‘MCMXIV’ wrote “never such innocence / never before or since”, reflecting on pre-WWI Britain, tainted by the beginning of the war. In her prose fiction piece, Rachel Eng responds to this poem. Set in 1925 in between the two World Wars and told from the perspective of a war veteran, MCMXXV provides a probable, poignant account of contemporary experience, while writing against the cynicism that our 21st century selves might bring to discussions of war.

I remember, once, a young woman coming up to me on the street. She was wearing a poppy badge in her lapel and had assumed the appropriate expression of mourning that came with November. You’ve probably seen the type; left-wing, sympathetic, anxious to rail on my behalf at the faceless men in moustaches who sent my mates to die. “I’m sorry,” she said, “that you had to fight a war that didn’t matter in the end.”

I gave her a smile and looked down at the row of badges I was wearing. I said, “it mattered to us.”

Mum would take us out to Hyde Park on August Bank Holidays, Charlie and me. There’d be bunches of little kids with their scones and jam and clotted cream and there’d be fights over whether you ought to put the jam or the cream on first. A man was always at the entrance of the park selling hot cocoa and we’d get two glasses for two farthings each. Mum would wear her best dress, always the same sheer-patterned one, and a broadbrimmed hat that Charlie and I would laugh at. We’d sit on the grass and eat our sandwiches and feel like there could never be anything wrong with the world. I know it was London and we’d always expect it to be pouring, but somehow on those bank holidays the sky was always blue. I remember the birdsong the most, the gay chirping of sparrows, the sweetness of the lark.

The reason I remember it is because they had those same birds in France. They corkscrewed in the clear blue sky singing while I pulled the trigger of my machine gun. It makes a staccato-noise, if you’ve never heard one, a thud-thud-thud like a rapid drumbeat, as if the red flowers that bloomed on soldiers’ shirts were set to some bizarre sort of orchestra, the birds the melody. It was all very beautiful, the way war is, explosions like dust motes in the sun. Don’t believe the pictures of the Somme that’re all cold churned-up mud and barbed wire. The Somme looked exactly like Hyde Park in autumn, gentle curves of rolling green grass as neat as a military cemetery, and the Serpentine curving lazily through it all.

Charlie died on the fourth day, so they told me later. He’d gone up after the artillery had stopped and the German drums had tattooed their beat into his heart. He’s still there somewhere, under those wheat-specked fields. Almost as if in some way he’d made it home.

I didn’t pity the fatherless children after the war (and there had been so many of them, dark-clothed and restless as they tugged at their mothers’ fingers by the graves). They studied history, we studied history, but it wasn’t the same thing at all. We were reared on stories of clever Odysseus and brave King Richard and the tanned pith helmets of Rorke’s Drift. And we never had to question any of them because they were, in our mind, all true; we could strut around the schoolyard, as tall and proud as Nelson. Those children were taught that nineteen thousand two hundred and forty men died on the first of July, 1916. And that over a million men were lost for the glorious cause of a six mile stretch (twenty five rounds around the track, some cynical P. E. teacher might say). They would have grown up with the Cenotaph large and looming in their memory, unfamiliar roman numerals etching a reminder into their heads every year.

Charlie was married for a total of sixteen months and seven days. I still have the letter Captain Graves sent his wife that deeply regretted to inform her of Private Charles William Price being officially reported as killed in action fourth July sympathy from the Army Council at the soldier’s death in his Country’s service. There isn’t a full stop or any sort of pause. It reminds me of a delivery boy who just wants to finish his job and never think about this again. I got a letter as well, although mine was probably shot out of my hands at Amiens.

Charlie was a gardener and kept the little plot of land outside the house so tidy. He’d do little yellow flowers and trim the hedges every day after work. Then he’d sit by the window with a cup of tea and look up once or twice at his lovely little patch, smiling.

It is far worse, I think, to have something taken away from you than to have never had it at all.

The girl gave me a long hard look and then launched into a lecture about the failure of the League of Nations and Adolf Hitler and why there would never be peace in the world. She was one of the dark-clothed children. You all are. I listened politely and nodded until she walked away.

You see: it mattered to every young man waiting patiently in line, as if pledging their loyalty to football. It mattered in an age when one could say for king and country without irony or cynicism, and it mattered every day I carried Captain Graves’s letter in my jacket pocket. It has to. Maybe the world will never know such innocence again, but it is important to remember that they did. The only way I can understand it is if I believe that Charlie gave his life for something. Something that mattered to him, even though they decommissioned farthings a year after he died.

I go back to Hyde Park sometimes. Now there are eateries next to the Serpentine and the grass is trampled under tourists’ feet. There are benches and streetlamps and a quiet memorial to the boys of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, just next to Wellington’s triumphal arch. The birds are still there, though no more staccato beats haunt their song.  I look at them and think of scones. Cocoa. Broadbrimmed hats. A garden, still tidy, its yellow flowers dancing in the breeze.

For a final year history undergraduate at UCL, RACHEL ENG still makes the most atrocious puns. An enthusiastic collector of pop culture references, her hobbies include writing, graphic and web design, and watching more British panel shows than she would care to admit. Her achievements include memorising the periodic table and finishing the LOTR/Hobbit EE marathon twice (it’s like the London marathon, but cooler). She spends most of her time pretending that Manchester United can actually play football. 

Photo credit: Rachel Eng

Larkin in the Margins

Priya Ramesh’s essay on Philip Larkin’s poetry offers a helpful positioning of reading the acclaimed librarian poet as a watchful observer of society from the margins of both literary and general society. Navigating Larkin’s balancing act “between being too immersed in spaces and practices…and being too detached”, Priya successfully manages one of her own. In taking us through his speakers’ approaches to marriage, love and religion alongside biographical and critical perspectives, she reframes the typical negative connotation of the “margins” as a disempowering site of power, and instead casts it as the central vantage point from which the individual Larkin understands and critiques the society he inhabits.

“I’m somewhat withdrawn from what you call “the contemporary literary community,” for two reasons: in the first place, I don’t write for a living, and so don’t have to keep in touch with literary editors and publishers and television people in order to earn money; and in the second, I don’t live in London. Given that, my relations with it are quite amicable.” — Philip Larkin, 1982

Philip Larkin is no stranger to the margins; it could even be said he embraces them. In many of his ingenious creations of poetry, Larkin tends to assume the role of a speaker who is opposed to adhering to the normative ways of society and, instead, watches from the sides; he watches the way lives are shaped and moulded by conforming, and comments on them with acute insight.

Larkin uses the distance between the ‘centre’ of society and his own position on the fringes as a powerful device to provide a definitive outlook on ‘mundane’ things around us in daily life and their underlying motivations as inherent to human nature. He walks a thin line between being too immersed in it to provide a holistic view and being too detached to be unable to empathise; he straddles the thin line between compassion and condescension to provide us with a fresh perspective. As Alan Brownjohn put it, Larkin inspires the kind of hope which ‘exists in the humane precision with which hopeless things are observed’.

For example, in the poem “The Whitsun Weddings”, Larkin manages to inhabit the middle ground between being too attached and being too detached. He uses a tone that is both fascinated and yet conscious of absurdity. He thus portrays love and marriage in a more realistic way — a way that is more relatable to the average man than the flowery descriptions of Romantic Era poets — and yet does not fall into the trap of being glaringly cynical.

“I’ve remained single by choice, and shouldn’t have liked anything else, but of course most people do get married, and divorced too, and so I suppose I am an outsider in the sense you mean. Of course it worries me from time to time, but it would take too long to explain why. Samuel Butler said, Life is an affair of being spoilt in one way or another.” — Philip Larkin, The Paris Review, Summer 1982.

The quote above goes some way in lending Larkin the ability to curate a speaker that can look at both sides of a paradigm.The archetypal group type-casting of not only the families (‘The fathers with broad belts under their suits…mothers loud and fat; An uncle shouting smut..’, etc) but the couples themselves in the ‘dozen marriages’ plays to the effect of suggesting the role of weddings as reinforcing a sense of community despite the class-related undertones. This is achieved through Larkin’s speaker being in the margin, or the grey area, wherein he is an active participant in neither these weddings nor the larger, social ritual of marriage, and yet their ‘frail, travelling coincidence’ makes him privy to the blossoming of an intimate relationship.

The movement of the train has a significant role; or, rather, it is the movement of the poem which mimics the stop-start galloping of a train through various stations. The placing of the dimeter in the second line of each stanza stops the flow of the poem temporarily before it wells up and heads on, full steam ahead. It also mirrors the speaker’s movement as an observer pushed into the margins, in a transient moment, involved in the hopeful purview of the couples. The closing lines of the poem read: “A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower /  Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.” This memorable final metaphor of the arrow-shower has a certain ambivalence about it, but Larkin seems to consciously make it so: the image of an arrow-shower is foreboding and ominous in the context of an arrow as a weapon. However,  the arrow-shower is  ‘sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain’. That it is removed from our view allows the freedom for the readers (and/or the couples) to draw their own conclusions to their marriages. The reference to rain, a timeless symbol of fertility and hope, tints it in positive light and the fact that Larkin ends on this note suggests he actively tried not to be overtly disdainful of it. As an outsider to the custom of marriage, he is without a very strong inherent personal bias in his opinion of it. He neither ordains it harshly, nor praises it to be the essence of life itself; he uses his position to succinctly show us the possibilities of all that marriage can be.

The perspective of being in the margins is also seen in the meditation on religion in “Church Going”, which takes the form of a monologue where the speaker ponders over the significance of liturgy and religious superstructure. The speaker is an outsider and does not seem a fervent follower of customs, but neither is he entirely uninitiated, since he is able to identify various paraphernalia within the church and follow some of the behaviour that is expected, such as taking his cycle-clips off in ‘awkward reverence’.

The speaker is not a detached observer, and resides in a grey area between outright agnostic dissent and an inclination to want to understand religion. He tries to follow some facets of the expected behaviour inside a church but the tension is all too palpable, as he speaks too loudly and drops a worthless coin inside the box. As he ponders further over the possible ‘death’ or ‘extinction’ of religion, he seems to suggest that religion is far beyond mere liturgy. He seems to recognise that even if the glow of sanctity diminishes in churches, their function as a storage vault of humans’ most significant milestones in life, will persist because the human desire to continue seeking validation for these moments will continue. In this context, the lines “For, though I’ve no idea / What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth, / It pleases me to stand in silence here” hold special significance. The choice of the word ‘accoutred’ reinforces this as the speaker puts forth the point that we ‘clothe’ and ‘shroud’ the insignificant happenings of our reality in religion — and the church as a proponent of religion — to make them seem extraordinary: birth, marriage, death, etc.

Larkin’s position here is one that does not entirely reject religion, but also one that is not fanatical or blind in following it. He refers to the church as a ‘barn’, which removes the grandeur from the facade of the church, and looks at it perhaps in the Nativity context wherein a significant event such as the Virgin birth of Christ can take place in a simple barn –  of something that houses our hopes and thus, will persist in one form or the other. The allure of the church may no longer be reflected in the architecture resplendent cathedrals with sprawling frescoes, but the role will remain same in its essence. There is a suggestion that the church, as an institution, may be taken to be as elusive and precious as the Holy Grail. Larkin suggests that the church has ‘held unspilt’, which serves as an allusion to the church as a vessel that holds the hopes of our civilisation.

There may be confirmation bias in as much as people wanting to subjectively make what they will of the church and the significance it takes in their lives, but the human longing for the supernatural is not a passing moment in our evolution. It is all but an ephemerality, as Larkin posits in the lines: ’Since someone will forever be surprising / A hunger in himself to be more serious, / And gravitating with it to this ground”.

The speaker subtly transitions from first person singular to plural as Larkin shifts towards a more universal and inclusive statement on religion. He seems to recognise that while religious customs and liturgy may be pretence, there is a deeper psychological yearning in humanity for transcendence, hence the ‘blent air (where) all our compulsions meet’. While the average person may not be able to articulate such a profound spiritual hunger, he may still gravitate to and look for the ‘serious house on serious earth’, subscribing to the prescribed practices of organised religion. This may be why the speaker feels ‘pleased to stand there in silence’, despite not knowing why.  Larkin recognises this and thus adopts the singularly remarkable position of compassion-without-condescension. This was brilliantly summarised by Alan Brownjohn in his 1975 study of Larkin too: “Larkin’s own position is that of a different kind of observer, one standing a little distance away from the happiness of others, unable to feel affinity with them, yet cautiously assuming such joy as they may be able to find.”

The word margin is of course, primarily defined as ‘the edge or border of something’. It refers to the periphery, and does not always come with positive connotations. It is closely associated with being ‘marginalised’ and being in a liminal space, neither inside a circle nor outside of it, but merely on the verge. However, Larkin’s poetry shows how this position of perceived vulnerability, teetering between the one and the other, can be transformed to a position of power. The power of being able to look at something with a holistic perspective and acquire a more rounded knowledge of people, society and what drives them. Larkin thus shows us that, perhaps, there is a profit margin to be gained from standing in the margins.

PRIYA RAMESH is a first-year undergraduate pursuing Medicine at the University of Birmingham, whose life has been immeasurably illuminated by Literature. When she isn’t nursing her existential despair by playing at being intellectual, she writes about football for FourFourTwo and The Guardian. She enjoys works of dystopian fiction, is prone to telling bad jokes, and might be an insect.

Photo credit: Rachel Eng

Works cited:

Booth, J. (2014) Philip Larkin: life, art and love. New York: Bloomsbury Press.

Brownjohn, A. (1975) Philip Larkin. Harlow: Longman Group.

Larkin, P. (2004) Collected poems. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Motion, A., and B. C. Bloomfield. (1993) Philip Larkin : a writer’s life. London: Faber and Faber.

Ricks, C. (1965) Philip Larkin: A True Poet. New York Review of Books, 10-11.

Philips, R. (1982) Interview: Philip Larkin, The Art of Poetry. The Paris Review 30.

After The Tea

A short play

In Unseen’s first dramatic writing submission, Edward Eng’s adaptation updates Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to the late 90s, centering on a quiet, intimate scene between cousins Nick and Daisy and unveiling parallel threads of romanticism between the Roaring Twenties and the Millennial Generation. Written in response to recent stage and film adaptations that incline towards a strong visual portrayal of the jazz age, one that seemingly sidesteps the finer currents of social divides in the novel, “After The Tea” strips away the bright lights and pizzazz, focusing instead on the cousins’ conflicting aspirations and desires, revealing the persistence of everyday ideologies and markers of class, social status and romantic love almost a century after Gatsby’s parties lit up West Egg.

A cosy New York apartment in the bright heat of noontime. NICK is having a quiet smoke by the door, on a bench fashioned from a sideways-laid bookshelf. DAISY admires the living room. Its chairs, tables and wall decor are woody, a slightly confused mix of things that could have been on discount at an upmarket furniture shop.  

NICK: ‘I certainly am awfully glad to see you again.’ Some words just don’t go well together. Certainly, awfully. But the silence after said more than anything else. Whether or not she had intended its effect or if it was just another flippant gesture of hers, Gatsby had been well won over.

(He leaves the unfinished cigarette in an ashtray and enters the living room.)

DAISY: Oh Nick, you didn’t tell me your house was this lovely! (A slender finger across the tabletop.) The hues! Even the grain of this teak is just wonderful.

NICK: It’s nothing. Most of these things are hand-me-downs. That’s why we chose the country club for yesterday’s tea. Not that I’m not proud of this… (He realises how striking DAISY looks in his relatively modest home.)

DAISY: I’m sorry?

NICK: I mean my favourite thing is still my music collection.

DAISY: Oh. You do sound like the kind of man who owns a nice record player.

NICK: No, it’s actually a CD collection.

DAISY: CDs? My cousin, I can’t have you living impoverished here in New York. Without a record player? What next, digital music?

NICK: Well, I’ve managed fine.

DAISY: It’s not just about how it sounds, you know. Don’t you think it’s more… stately? It’d fit in well with your apartment. (Pause. DAISY grins.) You know what? I’ll get you one tomorrow! You pick the records.

NICK: Please. It’s not necessary.

DAISY: You’re right. Nothing is. It’s always a want… but with no wants then what is there?

NICK: Daisy, I can’t let you buy it for me. It’s 1997. CDs are just as good as records these days.

DAISY: All the more since it’s ‘97! No recession in sight! Not that it matters. But the sky is luminous, and awaits all that jazz!

NICK: I’m serious. But if I change my mind I promise to let you know.

DAISY: Fine, you win. (Pause.) How’s that job you just started?

NICK: I’m not really… comfortable here. I think I moved to New York at the wrong time.

DAISY: Oh I’m so sorry to hear that. Maybe you haven’t spent enough time here. Look, how about you come over to my place for lunch one of these days. Whenever you feel tired.

NICK: I can’t. I can’t just walk out of work like that.

DAISY: It’s not far isn’t it? What use is your Yale degree if you can’t go for an extra hour of lunch?!

NICK: Yale… is about some lofty old ideal, I guess. The seven liberal arts. But absolutely useless when it comes to the paycheck.

DAISY: Oh, come on. Don’t be so miserable! You were the smart kid weren’t you?

NICK: Perhaps if memorising quotes from smart people makes me smart…

DAISY: I like a nice quote. Come on, give me one.

NICK: You can’t be serious.

DAISY: I’m not teasing you.

NICK: Don’t we have other things to talk about?

DAISY: Please, Nick. Don’t be a spoilsport.

NICK: (Exhales.) If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to-

DAISY: Stop. (Unanticipated pause.) That makes me feel…

NICK: Makes you feel?

DAISY: I don’t quite know what it is.

NICK: Do you have anyone in mind?

DAISY: Nick, you are ever so eloquent.

NICK: I’m sure Tom’s got nice words too.

(DAISY remains silent. NICK rises to get some water.)

NICK: Or Jay?

DAISY: He is lovely.

NICK: Is he? What do you think of him?

DAISY: He went to Oxford.

NICK: Harris Manchester, wasn’t it?


NICK: Do you know what that means?

DAISY: What what means?

(NICK returns to the table. With each lunge he becomes more cynical.)

NICK: I mean his college.

DAISY: Nick, you’re being ridiculous. He’s a perfectly good man and that’s all that counts-

NICK: It was only named Harris Manchester in 1996. That’s last year.

(Ugly pause. Nick finishes his glass of water.)

DAISY: I like him a lot.

NICK: Why wouldn’t you? (Pause.) But what makes you think he’s a good man?

DAISY: Stop it, Nick. You know I’m not going to answer.

NICK: And when you say that do you really mean ‘love’?

DAISY: That’s a strong word.

NICK: Love?

DAISY: Stop it.

NICK: Why?

DAISY: Why I am careful around that word is because I know what it wants from me. But I don’t know what it means.

NICK: Reminds me of that clock he knocked over yesterday. He tried to put it back together. Even if he could, its hands would still be late.

DAISY: Love’s a loaded word.

NICK: And you avoid using it.

(Tired pause. NICK stands and walks to the far end of the table. He picks up an exquisitely wrapped gift box.)

NICK: Do you believe in predestination?

DAISY: You mean, like fate?

NICK: Like you’ve sailed for weeks on the Santa María. The journey has been empty and stretches for eons and eons. The sea beneath you, is just black enough such that when New York City shines on the horizon, it turns whatever vague destiny you’ve imagined for yourself, into something concrete, something you can hold.

(He returns to DAISY’s side with the open box.)

DAISY: Would that make me Columbus?

NICK: In an idealistic way. Minus the transatlantic slave trade. (NICK offers her a chocolate.) Ballotin? There’s a bit of brandy in it.

DAISY: (Pause.) No. I cannot believe in fate. It’s not led anyone to anything good.

NICK: I see.

DAISY: You see?

NICK: Well, he believes in it.

DAISY: That’s his problem, isn’t it?

NICK: I should tell you this. It was at night when he reminded me to ask you out for tea. Late at night, and his house was lit like it was Christmas. Well… Christmas isn’t as ostentatious. Every inch of that house. But there was no party that night, and it was quiet. A bit surreal, all these lights shining like modern day smoke signals.

DAISY: Did you go in?

NICK: He was waiting outside. You know he has these walls he’s built for himself. All his ‘old acquaintances’ and ‘appointments’. When I mention your name they come down in a second, and all you’re left with is a kind of a relentless idealist. Fresh out of wherever it is he’s from.

(Troubled pause. DAISY paces in the apartment and as she reaches the nearby window, her voice returns to its former clarity.)

DAISY: Why are you telling me this?

NICK: Well. I don’t want you, either of you, to hurt yourselves in this… thing.

DAISY: I don’t think we should talk about it.

NICK: About Jay?

DAISY: Him. I don’t think it’s right that you make him sound… delusional. Tom and I will all be okay as we are, as we always have been. As you said, Jay does have a gorgeous personality. Isn’t that enough for him to live with?

(NICK gets up and brings her glass of water to the window. He holds it out for her. She looks past the glass.)

NICK: Will you tell him yourself?

DAISY: (Pause.) No.

NICK: I am genuinely worried.

DAISY: Well, do you think you might be fussing a bit too much about him? He’s a grown man now. I’m sure he’s… practical. Besides, how long have you known him for? A couple of months?

NICK: I don’t know if I can watch his heart break.

DAISY: He’s got so many friends to care about. You’ve seen how dazzling the parties are here. You can’t help but watch and let the wide, blue lawns draw you in. Surely he didn’t move here for a woman he met so long ago?

NICK: Five years, wasn’t it.

DAISY: Yes, Nick. My dear, I think you’ve been having too much water and too little drink. (She takes the glass from his hand.) Is your bar stocked, at least?

NICK: It is.

DAISY: Let’s swap this for two nice martinis, shall we?

NICK: Okay.

DAISY: Isn’t it better to concern yourself with things of the ‘now’? With things that you can touch and hold. That’s what is important, isn’t it.

NICK: And not reclaiming the past.

DAISY: That’s quite the silly thing to do.

(Daisy exits. Nick returns to the table. He runs his knuckles against the grain and sighs.)

NICK: Daisy, oh, Daisy. But Gatsby thinks the past is all there is to do.

(Lights fade out.)

Having recently given up his corporate career plans, EDWARD ENG is an aspiring playwright-filmmaker currently excited by ideas of hypocritical hedonism, funky metaphysics and moral ambiguity. Edward currently reads Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Warwick, where his upcoming adaptation of The Merchant of Venice set in a local prison is being staged. Will write for food.

Photo credit: Chloe Lim