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

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.

Footnotes:

[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

The Music Of Grief

Alfred, Lord Tennyson was described by T. S. Eliot as possessing “the finest ear of any English poet”. In ‘The Music of Grief, Joanne Loo shows us why, by exploring the melancholic metricality in two well-known lyric poems by Tennyson: ‘Break, Break, Break’ and ‘Tears, Idle Tears’. Through an insightful, auditory exploration of these poems. Joanne masterfully draws out the connection between Tennyson’s resonant rhythms and the emotional struggle that accompanies the death of a loved one. We are urged to delve into the intricate relationship between poetic technique and grief, and to evaluate our own responses to both.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson is well-known for a strong, inherent sense of musicality in the way he sounded words, both in his poetry or daily conversation. Literary critic Eric Griffiths states in The Printed Voice of Poetry that ’Tennyson’s verse sounds as if the body thought’, and recounts further on in the same volume that Tennyson was always eager to correct readers’ pronunciations of his verse. Of Tennyson’s particularities to do with poetic sound, meter was one of the most prominent. Ruth Padel recounts how the 10-year-old Tennyson’s favourite poem was Pope’s Iliad, which he expressed by writing hundreds of lines in Popeian meter. Though he outgrew Popeian meter by the time he became famous, his obsession with meter continued and permeates all of his writing. Isobel Armstrong recounts a rhythm ear worm she retained from Tennyson’s ‘Break, Break, Break’ at the start of her essay, ‘Meter and Meaning’ – ‘de de dum de de dum de dum de, de dum de de dum de dum’ (26). Frustrated with this rhythm ‘you cannot Google’, she struggled to recall the words that fit this cadence, remembering them wrongly on the first instance (26). Armstrong’s experience exemplifies the strong resonance of rhythm that poetry holds, which can exist on its own, untethered to the words that form it. This is not particular to Tennyson’s poetry; nonetheless, it remains a characteristic feature in them that makes his readers susceptible to their annoyingly sticky rhythms[1].

For this reason, I immediately thought of the poems Tennyson wrote on Arthur Hallam’s death upon reading Richard Ford’s words: “…[the] musically satisfying organization of words creates a kind of a stability. And I think that that’s what we are always trying to do with the experiences around us.” Ford was quoting Seamus Heaney, not Tennyson, but his words apply remarkably to Tennyson’s favourite expression of grief: poetry. The death of Hallam was arguably the most tragic event in Tennyson’s life and resulted in prolific outpourings of grief in poems throughout Tennyson’s life, most notably In Memoriam, a long sequence of poems collected over 7 years. It is precisely this confluence of grief and poetry that I see in these two poems – a perfect, artistic balance of grief that is both manufactured and calming in its symmetry. What of this then? The artistic harmony of poetry does not prove anything, of course, but it does suggest a compulsion to make grief into poetry. I suggest that poetry is a perfect medium for Tennyson to express grief because it simultaneously draws out the expression of grief—allowing for some kind of cathartic release—while allowing the poet to exert some control over this grief through the use of poetic form.

‘Break, Break, Break’ is controlled and processed in its form, ostensibly designed to contain the grief it expresses, yet simultaneously providing an excuse for the speaker’s grief to be expressed. In terms of its contents, it is symmetrical, made up of 16 lines in 4 stanzas, the last mirroring the first – an outcry of grief concentrated in the imagery of the sea – sandwiching the two stanzas that provide a point of juxtaposition in their alternative realities of human interaction. Its meter is regular, even if its rhythm and number of syllables might not be: the refrain ‘break, break, break’ beats out a metronomic time beat before the second line fills it like so many notes in a bar. The words naturally beat out a 4-beat rhythm, which propels the poem forward, no matter how softly or lyrically the words may be read. Because of this propulsion, the reader is left no time to linger over any emotion but to continue on speaking; even the poet’s loss for words is expressed in the opening stanza of the poem – ‘I would that my tongue could utter / The thoughts that arise in me’ – a fact that undermines its sincerity (ll. 3-4). This apparent lack of sincerity to be unable to speak is significant because it shows a desire to continue speaking that can simultaneously be attributed to the desperation of grief or the compulsion of poetic meter.

Also, the rhyme scheme is designed to tie up utterances in a neat cadence that aurally signals the end of a stanza. The resulting effect is that the enviousness expressed in the second and third stanzas is forced to come to a dead end, instead of lingering and perpetuating itself forever. The poet’s gaze can only linger on ‘the fisherman’s boy’ for two lines, before having to double up on itself and start again with the same words – ‘O, well for…’. This is not to say that the poem is entirely mechanical and devoid of spontaneous feeling – the subtle shift in rhythm in the third stanza, ‘But O…’ instead of ‘O, well…’, definitely places the stress on the vocative ‘O’ instead of its ambiguous position as a possibly stressed or unstressed syllable in stanza two. This stress draws out the sound, making it a sigh instead of a dismissive ‘O’ in stanza two, thus giving vent to a deeper surge of feeling. Yet, even this upsurge of emotion is subject to the relentless forward motion of the poem, which returns to the disciplining beat, ‘break, break, break’ in the fourth stanza. The repetition of the first stanza’s ‘Break, break, break’ and the rhyme ‘O Sea!’ and ‘me’ in the last stanza draws the poem full circle in a perfectly harmonious form, yoking the expression of emotion down into a beautiful poetic form. The beauty of this form and its potential to be read symbolically – as a way of signalling that the poet gets nowhere with his grief, for instance – gives the reader something to focus on apart from the grief, while enhancing the depth of grief expressed.

‘Tears, Idle Tears’ is less regular in its metrics than ‘Break, Break, Break’, but contains stylistic repetitions that similarly, can be simultaneously read as tying down emotional expression and enhancing the expression of grief. The most notable repetition is the refrain phrase that every stanza ends with, ‘the days that are no more’, which links all the stanzas, which explore different images. Because it is most naturally read with a falling cadence, it aurally signals an ending, which helps to create the illusion of an ending to the grief that is being expressed. Granted, the words themselves suggest a pensive attitude looking backward to ‘the days that are no more,’ but having no fodder to fuel the reader’s understanding of ‘the days that are no more,’ the ambiguous grief that is expressed cannot sustain itself for long beyond the dying of the last line. The positioning of this poem in the longer poem-narrative, ‘The Princess’, further supports this reading. This poem is sung as a song by a court musician in the forest, who is overcome with passion as she sings:

 She ended with such passion that the tear,
She sang of, shook and fell, an erring pearl
Lost in her bosom: … (IV, ll. 41-43)

However, the Princess cuts her short with mocking words in iambic pentameter, and the grief of the song is lost in the predominant verse rhythm. It is curious that Tennyson would choose to frame such an intensely emotional poem – written decades before ‘The Princess’ one afternoon when he was overcome with grief at Tintern Abbey, as he remembered the days he and Hallam spent together there – in this way, almost as if he wanted to bury his grief in an epic-style narrative filled with action. The necessity of moving on with life eclipses the momentary looking backwards the poem indulges, even as the poem itself creates a small, protected space that enables any reader to look back and mourn.

The other small sequences of repeated sounds that pepper the poem evoke a sense of doubling up and looking back, but also a sense of echoing sounds in order to spend the grief. The first stanza itself repeats ‘tears’ thrice within the span of about a line, evoking the sense of uncontrollable welling up in the eyes, but with the third mention of ‘tears,’ the word starts to lose meaning for being repeated so many times. The subsequent lines help to exhaust the riches of this simple image, and by the end of the first stanza, the reader is ready to move on beyond tears. A similar effect occurs with the repeated ‘d’ sounds in the last stanza – ‘Dear’, ‘death’, ‘deep’, ‘deep’, ’death’, ‘days’. The accumulation of these plosive sounds emphasise the doom of life without the dear departed. The palindromic pattern of words leads the reader back to where the grief began, the ‘days that are no more’, manifesting the sense of the speaker trapped in his grief. These effects enhance the speaker’s struggle with grief, but also cause the fatigue that comes with the repetitions of this same sound upon the ear. Because of this, the reader is content to let the poem end where it does, with no desire to perpetuate it further.

It should not surprise us that poetic technique enhances grief, and in so doing, spends it. After all, grieving expends energy, which can be channelled into creative productivity. Metrical starts and stops, as well as haunting sounds that are repeated over and over again, are beautiful metaphors for the human tussle with our memories and the past we have to leave behind. These poetic devices make their rounds through poetry, causing poetry to encapsulate the grief it struggles to express, while stanching it for the moment—until the poem is read again.

Works Cited:

Armstrong, I. (2011) ‘Meter and Meaning’. In: J. D. Hall (ed.), Meter Matters: Verse Cultures of the Long Nineteenth Century. Ohio: Ohio University Press, 26-52

Ford, R. (2014) Fresh Air, ‘Author Richard Ford Says ‘Let Me Be Frank’ About Aging And Dying’. Available from: http://www.npr.org/2014/11/12/363521353/author-richard-ford-says-let-me-be-frank-about-aging-and-dying

Griffiths, E. (1989) The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Padel, R. (2013) ‘Tennyson: Echo and Harmony, Music and Thought’. In: M. Bevis (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Victorian Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 324-333.


JOANNE LOO is a Secondary School Literature & English teacher, with a love for (almost) all things Victorian. She studied Tennyson & his poetry for her Masters thesis in Oxford. Her love for poetry was nurtured most during her undergraduate days at the University of Warwick. 

photo credit: all-free-download

Poems

Al Lim’s poems for this issue reinterpret Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s celebrated poem ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ through a distinctly Singaporean lens. In ‘Charge of the Eighth Brigade’, Al recasts Tennyson’s gallant cavalry into the role of NS conscripts, prompting us to revisit the question of morality and military obedience in a distinctly local manner. In ‘wonder’, Al reworks Tennyson’s narrative within the contemporary local form of the unified twin cinema, highlighting the ethical dichotomy central to Tennyson’s poem—is the sacrifice of life ever justified by its outcome?

Charge of the Eighth Brigade

Plug mine in, wait no batt
iNo phone dying.
Sun so hot, buay tahan
infanteer training.

OC shoot, PC cease,
both give me extra.
Act damn blur, live longer—
still kena tekan.

Fall in now, last parade
rush to wait and zuo bo.
Balonglong get delayed
scrub carbon, crabs go home.

Tracer flash, thunder flash,
they say all by handbook.
Heat injured, fall longkang
sign seven, suck thumb.

Dig shellscrape, sleep in rain,
still water get dengue.
Go MO, rifle stun,
tio DB, negligence.

Eh Sirs ah, Wayang done?
Charge your men, rabak sia.
We wonder: rank big ah
but actually, not at all.

 

won

charging

through the brimstone rain

to lead the lighted path

reaping honor and glory

eternal

der

2.778km

is enough

for becoming cannon fodder

and expending 600

beings.


Al’s meditative response to Othello draws from Salih’s assertion of rootedness in Season of Migration to the North as well as the Moor’s insistence on his individuality, mapping these avowals onto a Singaporean persona to explore the plight of a dominant individual’s vulnerable claim to power, one hinged upon tentative relations with authorities, trusted aides and memories, where one must remain on guard, primed to defend his claim.

Pointed

“I felt not like a storm-swept feather but like that palm tree,
a being with a background, with roots, with a purpose.”
Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North

Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak”
Othello 5.2.402-403

I am the black ram probed by men behind riot shields. Wary
eyes watch my hands. Staying: no sudden movements

from this general, Barbary horse with eyes steamed white as
char siew paus from my childhood. Here lies no Desdemona

but only construction sands clawing at my eyes, halting
my tracks. Invisible Iago pulls the puppet strings, that tie

and fasten me to stocks. I wait for the obligatory open
palm pointed towards my sword.


AL LIM is a rising sophomore at Yale-NUS College. Part-Thai and Singaporean, he studied in Sydney and South Carolina before serving National Service as a Military Police instructor. He is president of the Southeast Asian Society and INK: Literary Collective in Yale-NUS.

photo credit: cliparts

Half A League Onward

Tennyson and the Origins of War Poetry

When a history student writes about war poetry… massive nerding ensues. Rachel Eng takes a look at the historical context behind Tennyson’s famed poem, ‘The Charge of Light Brigade’. She also discusses the nationalism and patriotism manipulated by the then-Laureate for maximum effect while foregrounding the latent criticism that the poem raises of the military command behind the charge.

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