Thursday, September 02, 2010

1: The Ordinary World

When I was in the lower sixth form, I accidentally invented structuralism.

I was writing one of those lit crit essays you had to do for English A level, on a gloomy Ted Hughes poem about Thistles.

Every one a revengeful burst
Of resurrection, a grasped fistful
Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up
From the underground stain of a decayed Viking

"Aha!" I thought. "He's making an Allusion." In the Lower Sixth, allusions are good things to find. Teachers underline them and put red ticks in the margin. "He's Alluding to Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha," I thought. "The thistles growing out of the body of the dead Viking are sort of kind of like the corn which grew out of the body of the youth who Hiawatha wrestled with."

My teacher said that it was indeed a Good Thing for me to have stuck my neck out, but that when spotting Allusions, one should ask oneself: "Is this Allusion likely to have been in the head of the writer when he wrote it?"

Nowadays I would say that it doesn't matter a thinker's cuss what was or wasn't in the writer's head since it is currently buried in a pretty church yard in North Tawton and inaccessible. Hughes may or may not have been thinking of Hiawatha's Fasting when he wrote Thistles. But a connection between the dead Viking and the dead demi-god there most certainly is.

Mr Martin Carthy, who I may have mentioned before, sings a folk song called John Barleycorn. Mr Chris Wood, who I may also have alluded to, sings the same song, rather more slowly. You remember how it goes?

There were three men come from the West
Their fortunes for to try,
And these three made a solemn vow:
"John Barleycorn must die."

They plowed, they sowed, they harrowed him in,

Threw clods upon his head,
'Til these three men were satisfied
John Barleycorn was dead.

They let him lie for a very long time,

'Til the rains from heaven did fall,

When little Sir John raised up his head
And so amazed them all...

Anyone can see that this song is about beer. What's being buried alive, beheaded with a scythe and crushed between stones isn't a person called Sir John, but the actual barley. Sir John isn't being executed: he's being harvested and brewed. You don't particularly need to decode or interpret the song to spot this. It isn't a metaphor or an allegory: it's just a way of speaking.

In Hiawatha's Fasting the process of personification has gone quite a bit further. The mysterious youth who comes to fight the hero (or, very possibly, The Hero) can walk and talk and fight like a man – we aren't supposed to imagine Hiawatha wrestling with a tin of sweetcorn. Longfellow says that our hero fights with the mysterious stranger on two consecutive nights, and kills him on the third. After he has buried his opponent, Hiawatha keeps watch over his grave:

Till at length a small green feather
From the earth shot slowly upward
Then another and another
And before the summer ended
Stood the maize in all its beauty...
And in rapture Hiawatha
Cried aloud: "It is Mondamin!
Yes, the friend of man, Mondamin!"

It doesn't need any clever insight to work out that the Mondamin "is" the corn, just as much as John Barleycorn "is" the barley. But suppose Hiawatha had returned to the grave in the spring and found, not sprouts of sweetcorn, but Mondamin himself, returned to life? I think that most people would still have spotted that the youth –

dressed in garments green and yellow
plumes of green bent o'er his forehead
and his hair was soft and golden

-- who dies and is buried in the winter, but who comes to life and and steps out of his grave in the spring is a personification of the maize.
Extend the line a bit further and you will find that any hero (or, indeed, Hero) who dies (or apparently dies) and comes back to life can be seen as the personification of the Corn or the Grapes or the Maize or the Barley or the Rhubarb. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty and the Turkish Knight are all equally personifications of Nature. And characters like Orpheus and Theseus and Alice in Wonderland and Bilbo Baggins who go down into the earth and come up again are obviously undergoing symbolic death and rebirth, so they are vegetables too. And even that "going down" and "coming up" doesn't need to be literal. If I get knocked down but get up again – or just go through a period of bad luck and then improve – you can be pretty sure I'm re-enacting the annual death and rebirth of Nature. And since it's pretty hard to imagine a literature character who doesn't go through some kind of literal, symbolic or metaphorical death and rebirth, it follows that all stories are the same story and that story is the story of John Barleycorn.

This theory was extremely popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and was one of the principle causes of T.S. Eliot. Whatever my English teacher thought, I am pretty certain that Ted Hughes would have come across it.


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