Author Archive for

02
Oct
17

Roy Collier’s Legacy in Place

On Sunday, September 17, eight Eagle Scouts filled up two front pews of Toccoa’s First United Methodist Church. Wearing dark suits and a collective blanket of grief, we were there to say goodbye to our leader, role model, and mentor. We were there because we loved him. We were there to say goodbye to our friend. Mr. Roy Collier, former Scoutmaster of BSA Troop 77 and community everyman, passed away early on the morning of September 10, and his funeral service the following Sunday was much more than a celebration of a life well lived. As family and friends gathered, it became evident that Roy Collier touched the life of every person he met. And while many things were said about the man over the course of the weekend, this small tribute perhaps offers a different perspective. One from one of his boys. One from the heart.

You see, Roy joined Troop 77 in the early 1980s as an Assistant Scoutmaster. Not coincidentally, it was a period of time that several of us – now Scoutmaster age ourselves – began our Scouting journey. You could say that we started down the path together, and we formed a bond that has extended nearly 40 years. Our group had been Cub Scouts, most of us, but the green and khaki of the Boy Scouts called to us not only from the old Scout hut behind the Armory, but also in the form of its newest leader.

Roy instilled in us from the beginning the ideals of Scouting. And not just the basics of the Scout Oath and Law. Those were modest exercises in memorization that came easily. He taught us that our uniform meant something – that there was an appropriateness to how your shirt looked, how your rank and troop badges were displayed, and how to wear those uncomfortable knee-high socks in the summertime. His practicality, so well-spoken of on Sunday, wore off on us as we advanced through the system. Once green, inexperienced, and raw, we soon began to learn important life skills like citizenship, first aid, and how to prepare for cold-weather camping in the north Georgia mountains. He taught us how to tie a square knot, orient ourselves with a compass and map, and what the history of the native Americans meant to our region. Roy knew all these things, but he also knew how to make us think for ourselves. Monday night meetings weren’t his show, they were ours. He made sure we ran them the right way, with character, on time, looking the part, leading the Troop, becoming men. He necessarily stuck to the tenant that the BSA was and should remain a youth-led organization. He watched us fail. Several times. Then he watched us rebound. And he applauded as he viewed our successes, not only as boys realizing Scouting’s highest goals, but also later as husbands and dads. He was our biggest fan, in many ways.

We traveled the country with him – from the outer banks of North Carolina, to the heights of Mount Katahdin, Maine to Springer Mountain, Georgia. We zipped through the Okefenokee Swamp and swung into cold rivers off rope swings. We got sick off bad fish together at Jekyll Island, and once chased chickens for our Saturday night supper. Roy often reminded us he wasn’t our mother when our socks got wet on rainy trips to Standing Indian, but he hustled us off that hot mountain ridge in New Mexico when the weather turned angry. He led us through our nation’s capital more than once, and taught us how to eat lobster in Bar Harbor. We followed him and we loved him.

In 1987, as the Troop prepared for a two-week trip to Philmont Scout Ranch, a high adventure camp in New Mexico, Roy called a parents meeting. Eleven sets of parents sat down in front of our Scoutmaster as he outlined the details of our expedition – logistics, cost, etc. What strikes me now, that didn’t then, was the fact that he was undertaking the task of leading eleven boys on a journey by himself, as the single adult leader. I challenge you to think of a man who can do what Roy did that night. Parents, put yourself in that seat listening to him. He looked each one of those 22 moms and dads in the eye and
said, “I’m going to take your baby boys on an airplane and we are going to fly across the country. We are going to backpack by ourselves – the 12 of us – into some dangerous territory. We will be tested. It won’t be easy. Challenging? By all means. But trust me. I’ll bring them back just fine.” And no parent blinked an eye. Nobody flinched. In unison, they all said, “OK.” And he was right – of course he was right. We had an incredible trip with some definite challenges, but he returned us to the Methodist church parking lot in one piece. And those are the stories you won’t hear. How not only was he trusted by us boys when we were staring those angry storm clouds and the threat of bears in the face, but also by his contemporaries – the parents – who were handing over to him their most valuable possessions.

To say that Roy Collier will be missed is an understatement, and speaking of him in the past tense is more difficult than I imagined it would be. But his legacy isn’t going anywhere. Not one member of the Troop 77 family – past or present – sees that organization without Roy in the picture. It’s impossible. To the current Scouts, and the families supporting them, I say this: remember what Roy taught you. Hear his voice in the back of your head when you have questions. Follow his guidance, and keep achieving your goals. Make it to that day when your mom gets to pin the Eagle badge to your shirt, because he would be proud. To Mrs. Collier and the rest of the family, I say thank you for sharing him with us all those years. And on behalf of a grateful group of Eagles and former Scouts who cried with you on Sunday, thank you for letting us love him as much as we did. It means everything.

Ryan Fields
Troop 77 Eagle Scout, 1987

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12
Oct
13

Slavery and History: The Symbolism of Memory in Beloved

Toni Morrison, within the pages of her novel Beloved, has created not only memorable characters – but also a historical perspective on the powerful cruelty of slavery. Through the “rememories” of her protagonist Sethe, readers see the destructiveness this oppression caused. The challenge of this essay is to deliver a careful analysis of Morrison’s use of memory in the narrative and also to explain how it delineates the overall theme. The author skillfully uses Sethe’s recollections – especially as they regard her husband Halle – as a metaphor not only for the ruin of a man, but also by showing how certain events relate to the historical reality of the slave experience. Morrison then supplements this view of memory with several references to mother’s milk, blood, and body. By combining all of these elements and presenting them through the historical lens of perspective, she reveals how completely broken these characters ultimately become. It is within this context that we find the textual examples that will illustrate these points and give direction to our analysis.

One of the most compelling elements in Morrison’s work is her continued reference to Sethe’s husband Halle, a character present only in memories but very much symbolic of the trauma associated with slavery. When Paul D tells Sethe that Halle witnessed the brutal attack on her, and that he later sees Halle at the churn with “butter all over his face,” the disturbing image has an equally disturbing effect on Sethe. For one, “she could not picture what Paul D had said. Nothing came to mind.” This is representative of her inability to see her husband in such a state of insanity and brokenness, brought on by his realization of the futility of his situation as a slave. It is referenced in the text that Halle “was too good for the world” and we know that he worked “years of Saturdays, Sundays and nighttime extra” without ever breaking from the weight of this burden. This plainly suggests that Halle was strong, resilient, shatterproof. As Sethe’s memory begins to form a picture of “Halle’s face between the butter press and the churn swelled larger and larger,” it makes her head hurt and the reality begins to set in. Halle isn’t coming to Ohio. This man who “had never drawn one free breath” had succumbed to exactly what slavery represented – the taking of an individual’s self. It is fair to say that Paul D makes a very valid point when he reminds us that he “hoped” Halle was now dead; that “butter and clabber was no life or reason to live it.”
Perhaps one of the most ironic elements of Halle and his situation comes from his daughter Denver, who thinks that “my daddy…never went crazy.” She still thinks of him in her memory as that which Sethe once did – the hard worker, the family man, the rescuer. Unfortunately, the broken image of a man “smearing the butter as well as its clabber all over his face” is the insane vision we attribute to Halle in the end. Helplessly watching his wife have her identity stolen and realizing his was being taken at the same time: that is the dominant symbolism that comes to represent the slave condition. When he was last seen, “squatting in butter,” the man Halle simply disappears, replaced only by recollection and ghosts. Stirred by Sethe’s memory, this lives as a vivid reminder of the damaging power of captivity.

There is a distinct connection between the image of Halle, broken “like a twig,” smeared with butter, and the references to Sethe’s milk. The text suggests that the butter-smearing – tied to his breakdown – is caused “because the milk they took is on his mind.” Obviously, this reference links the theft of a “person” to the breakdown of a man. The milk symbolizes not only motherhood in Sethe’s case, but also the physical body. In her own words, it represented “all I ever had,” which is to say that her milk – the source of life for her children – was the only thing nobody could steal from her. It was not only a part of her, it was her, and when the white men with the “mossy teeth” literally steal it out of her body, what they have effectively done is take her one true possession. This fact, more than anything else, reasonably represents the slave experience as the “unlivable life” Sethe refers to in the beginning of Part Two. It supports why she feels as if she’s been “junkheaped” by life and why her inability to “decide what to do with the day” unfairly defines her existence.

Another interesting parallel to the idea of mother’s milk representing self is the introduction of blood – another life-giving fluid that has profound significance in the story. Blood clearly symbolizes life. The fact that the baby Denver “took her mother’s milk right along with the blood of her sister” is a powerful representation of how connected Beloved, Denver, and Sethe really are. It represents an unbreakable bond of life and family – something that is uniquely “theirs” and untouchable to men like Schoolteacher. Morrison mentions this several times in the narrative, speaking through Denver when she later says, “I swallowed her blood right along with my mother’s milk…ever since I was little she was my company.” This suggests that nourishment, physical and psychological, emotional, and spiritual not only came from Sethe’s milk, but also from the literal blood her sister gave up in death. It establishes a highly symbolic connection between the siblings and their relationship with their mother. All three women belong to each other, this bond suggesting that what happens to one, happens to all.

A final point regarding how all this very suggestive symbolism forms the overall theme is found near the end of the story when we once again enter Sethe’s consciousness. It is this chilling concept of a stolen identity – vivid in its power to conjure up memories of her husband’s defiled face, her milk, her daughter’s blood – that is so clearly evident in her statement: “That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind…dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up.” Ultimately, this is the one factor that describes the theme of Morrison’s work: complete loss of self, of identity, and in some cases – purpose – that leads to an overwhelming psychological detachment. It clearly happened to Halle in the barn, and this break is equally evident in Sethe’s psyche as she struggles with the idea of sending her children back into slavery. She simply wouldn’t allow the same fate that befell Halle happen to her children – her “best thing, her beautiful, magical best thing.” It is powerful testimony to the identification of self and holding on to what one knows as true. In this case, the harsh realization serves theme well and establishes a very moving narrative.

While this is only one interpretation of a very complex work of literature, the symbolism used effectively reminds us that “human life is holy, all of it,” and that the cruelty of slavery must never be repeated. What Morrison has done, then, is present the story of Sethe and her family as a potent example of how deeply this trauma can affect the individual as well as the collective. While no character in the story remains unaffected by the reality of slavery, the work speaks to the human condition and the haunting memories that surround it. More than anything, this spiritual and emotional death provides readers with an understanding that life must be valued, cherished, and protected. In this, we find the heart of Morrison’s theme and the true meaning of the word Beloved.

12
Oct
13

Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Memory and Motivation

In her Pulitzer Prize winning novel Beloved, Toni Morrison introduces readers to Sethe, an escaped slave living in Ohio in the 1870s. This essay’s focus is to show that Morrison’s use of memory flashback discloses much more than simple plot or character development. This technique fairly reveals Sethe’s reasoning, her stimulus, her motivation, for trying to kill her children in an attempt to “put my babies where they’d be safe.” Using Sethe’s memory as the lens through which the reader views this narrative, serves a unique and two-fold purpose. For one, it centers perspective squarely in the mind of Morrison’s protagonist and frames our understanding of motivation through her “rememory.” Sethe’s recollection of a motherless, “iron-eyed” childhood, her indentured time at Sweet Home, and her frightening run for the freedom Ohio provided certainly gives us a keen look into what her thought process was for her actions. Contextually, when you analyze the fact that she is a post-traumatic mother of four doing everything possible to protect and “save” her kids from what has damaged her, Sethe’s stimulus becomes even clearer. This subjective angle must not and cannot be ignored.

Secondly, memory is arguably what creates our present self. Whether that is a positive or negative force depends on the context. In the case of Beloved, extreme and traumatic memories have resulted in extreme and traumatic acts. The memories, and the suggestion that Sethe cannot allow them to re-form within the framework of her childrens’ lives, is what ultimately defines her.

To support this argument, we must look at several examples from the text which involve memory and show how these experiences translate into determined rationale. Initially, there is the flashback memory Sethe has of her own mother, someone Sethe admits she only saw “a few times out in the field.” We learn through the text that Sethe’s mother killed children of her own at one point, but saved the young girl. Morrison writes, “She threw them all away but you.” This idea of destroying lives in order to somehow “save” a child from the atrocities of slavery, then, is not unique only to Sethe-as-mother. It would have been an idea clearly present in the psyche of Sethe-as-daughter as well. As this memory is resurrected, it is referred to as “something privately shameful [that] seeped into a slit in her mind.” Private memories, shameful memories, all memories in fact, have the ability to control future behaviors. As Sethe would (seemingly) be un-resistant to this secret of her mother’s, it follows that the same “secret” would resurface later in regards to her own sense of motherhood.

Another memory that we must examine comes in the ironic form of what I argue is Sethe’s “non-remembrance” of her attack in the Sweet Home barn, of which she can only recall the detail “And they took my milk!” Although she was beaten, whipped, abused, degraded, at the hands of Schoolteacher’s nephew, she is unable to relate the specifics of this experience to Paul D simply because she has repressed them so permanently. Interestingly, what her memory holds onto is what was taken from her in a maternal sense. By taking her milk – that which symbolizes her motherhood – the attackers robbed her of her “self.” And since “milk was all I had,” this argument seems valid: the attackers took everything, and she would never allow that to happen again.

Since the text reminds us that “every mention of her past life hurt,” this is especially relevant considering her experience in the barn. Even though readers can’t know exactly what happened, they understand the suggestion that it was bad. Emotionally bad. It was bad enough to leave permanent, telling, scars that leave an ugly picture of that trauma stamped on Sethe’s body.

Sethe’s experience of being a scared, very pregnant runaway slave in the woods of Kentucky is another memory that must be included in our analysis. As she scrambled not only for her own survival, but that of her unborn baby, Sethe’s character is presented with a set of unique circumstances. In her memory, she recalls being “tired…scared…lost,” and that pursuing her were things like “dogs, perhaps; guns, probably” and the “mossy teeth” of men who would do anything to anybody. She was flatly told by Amy – the white girl who eventually delivered her baby – that “You gonna die in here, you know. Ain’t no way out of it.” The fact that Sethe did find a way out suggests that she found power in her responsibilities as a mother for the safety of her children. This concept of safety, introduced earlier in the essay, is paramount to understanding why she tried to kill them as Schoolteacher closed in.

Finally, the unusual combination of the memory of motherhood and of fear – more than anything else – works to rationalize Sethe’s behavior in the woodshed behind 124 Bluestone Road. This means that Sethe’s conception of motherhood – what it means to her – is that nobody knows better than she what is best for her babies. This is reinforced with her comments about Beloved, that “Nobody was going to nurse her like me…Nobody was going to get it to her fast enough…Nobody knew that but me.” Her insistence that she was the authority on what was in the best interests of her children, in many ways, foreshadows her actions in the woodshed.

Additionally, there is proof in the text that she harbors resentment towards Halle, the children’s father. When she recalls details of her escape, she says that Halle “did worse” than just abandon her; “he left his children.” The not-so-thinly veiled suggestion here is that Sethe would never do something like that. She would never abandon her kids, hurt them, wound them. This speaks to her protective, maternal nature and shows her dedication as a parent. By comparing her sense of maternal commitment to the example of parenting she believed Halle to have shown, she is staking her claim as the kids’ protector, guaranteeing that nothing will happen to them while on her watch.

Fear represents a context of memory that allows for the “unexplainable”. In other words, nobody can know exactly what they would do in a certain circumstance if fear is what framed their situation. For Sethe, I would argue that the memory of fear played an incredibly important part in what she ultimately did with Beloved – and what she tried doing to the others. Fear of going back to Sweet Home is what structures her comment, “I wasn’t going back there. I don’t care who found who. Any life but not that one.” Within this framework, we see that Sethe was adamant about providing a better “life” for her kids. It is interesting that Morrison chooses this word “life” – suggesting that death, removal from life, or the possibility of an after-life is preferable to what lies across the Ohio in the form of captivity.

Ultimately, the argument can be supported that the combination of fear and deeply affected trauma is what drove Sethe to try and kill all four of her children. Memories of this trauma, therefore, work to define her motivation in the end. A life whose conditions were “unspeakable” at best was simply not an option. Perhaps the poignancy of this rationale can best be defined by something Morrison writes early in the novel – but is attributed to Sethe ten years after the bloody event in the woodshed. Responding to the powerful “spell” Beloved’s “sad” spirit has put on their house, Sethe says, “No more powerful than the way I loved her.” And this – as a final suggestion – is what made her actions so subjectively justified. She loved them so much and feared so much for what they might endure, that she took the most extreme measure possible. In the end, can we blame her?

11
Oct
13

Braves Season Ends Amid Controversy

The Atlanta Braves, winners of the National League East, continued their history of poor post-season play Monday night with a decisive 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers at Chavez Ravine.  In many ways, it was the end most long-suffering Braves fans expected but were afraid to discuss.  So many bright spots peppered the season that the Braves just couldn’t choke again.  Could they?  A division title, 96  wins, an MVP candidate, and a terrific young nucleus of pitchers proved not enough to overcome the one decision that will haunt Braves Nation into Spring Training 2014.  When the season was on the line, when there was no tomorrow, and when the chill of October started to blow, the Atlanta Braves broke our hearts again – this time with their best player standing in the cool, unfriendly shadows of the visitors’ bullpen.

 

Manager Fredi Gonzalez’s decision not to bring All-World closer Craig Kimbrel into the game to pitch the 8th and 9th innings for a possible 6-out save likely won’t win him any popularity contests down here in Georgia.  It also won’t endear him to a fan base that is tired of losing when it counts. All it really did was write another hard luck chapter in the book that has defined the Braves for more than two decades:  when championships are on the line, the Atlanta Braves will crumble.

 

Kimbrel was lights-out for the season.  He saved 50 ball games.  Very few hitters in the league could catch up to his fastball. He was Rivera-esque in the way he closed hitters down during the regular season.  Yet his manager didn’t think he was the guy to save their season.  Kimbrel averaged in the neighborhood of 15 pitches a night during the 2013 campaign, most of them coming in 9th inning save situations.  If Gonzalez was looking to take the series back to Atlanta for a possible Game Five, could he not ask his horse to maybe do the *gasp* unthinkable, and go two innings?  Make 30 pitches?  Surely the season, teammates, fans, even the game of baseball deserved that, right?  The baseball gods will agree, of course, that you still might lose.  But don’t you want to go down with your best possible option on the mound?

 

Second-guessing professional coaches and managers is what we as fans and writers do.  But as sports fans, we deserve to see the best vs. the best when it matters.  The beauty that is competitive sports certainly depends on that matchup.  We want the guy who saved 50 to come in and carry the team and his city to victory with his rocket right arm.  What we got this October, instead, was a bazooka loaded with Rawlings baseballs propped up in the corner.  Silent.  Your best weapon standing idle while old Vin Scully celebrates Juan Uribe’s 8th inning go-ahead and series-winning moon shot.  Obviously, there is always next year. But as fans of what used to be called America’s Team look at a 12th straight year without winning a post-season series, next year may just involve more of the same.

17
Sep
12

An Appropriate Memorial

On Sunday, Sept 16th, Boy Scout Troop 77 in Toccoa did an amazing thing.  The Troop, supported in rank by friends present and friends past, dedicated a memorial Flag garden in front of their Scout building to perhaps the most deserving of Scouts ever to represent the organization in the Toccoa community.  Matt Tucker, whose untimely death in 2002 saddened many, was honored Sunday with this lasting tribute to his involvement and dedication to the Boy Scouts of America. 

The purpose of this tribute letter is not to describe the physical area which now bears Matt’s name.  People can see that for themselves – how appropriately beautiful the landscaping and craftsmanship is, how the natural beauty mixes now with the colors of our nation.  It is also not meant as a means of eulogy – we did that a decade ago on a rainy Wednesday afternoon.  This is simply a personal reflection and interpretation of Matt’s legacy, one that is now represented in perpetuity on a hill off Old Riley Street.

Historically, Troop 77 – under the leadership of such men as Joe Kellar, Roy Collier, and Herb Masten – has seen scores of boys come through the doors as Scouts over the years.  In periods of transition, the Troop has seen both times of high involvement and also years where fewer boys were active members.  Levels of achievement relative to membership have fluctuated over time.  However, the 1980s was a period in which Troop 77 necessarily saw its highest percentage of boys achieving some tremendous successes.  Achieving the rank of Eagle Scout (something less than 10% of enrolled Scouts earn annually) became the norm rather than the exception.  High numbers of initiates into the honor camping society the Order of the Arrow were not uncommon.  Merit badges were being earned month after month.  We were a group of Boy Scouts who ran through the ranks, exhibited good citizenship, service, and upheld the values of Scouting.  Our core group during this time camped across the state and country, learned important new skills, and kept ourselves “physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”  We were excellent representatives of Boy Scouting.  We became men.  We were good at what we did.

But for all of our individual successes and achievements, and for every one of us who had the Eagle badge pinned to our uniform, Matt was better.  Matt was more prepared.  He helped more people.  He smiled that big sly grin of his and winked with more “I-know-a-better-way-to-do-it” than we ever could.  He put others first more times than even the best of us combined.  His attitude was better than ours in soggy north Georgia campsites, his campfires always seemed hotter, and his boots always looked warmer.  His pocketknife, I’m sure, was always sharper.  It was Matt who set the bar, daring and encouraging us to try harder to attain every one of our goals.  Quietly, he convinced us to follow him.  Matt’s preparedness, love for the organization, integrity, and passions were what we wished we could imitate – even if we couldn’t express it then, as boys.  He wasn’t just a good Scout, he was naturally great.   And from a leadership perspective, there wasn’t anything Matt would ask a younger Scout to do that he wouldn’t do himself (just ask Alvis.)  His theory of showing and teaching you how to do something – rather than just doing it for you (presumably the easiest route, right?) – paralleled every single one of Scouting’s fundamentals, and Matt did it exceptionally.

I would like to commend Troop 77’s leadership on their decision to honor Matt in such a way and agree that it is altogether appropriate that a monument in his name be available for recognition in his community.  Amidst a backdrop of North Georgia green, his Flag garden was introduced Sunday as such a memorial.  I’m proud that I was his friend.  I’m proud to tell his family that I loved him.  I’m proud to tell his sons that their Dad was such an inspiration.  And when I tell my three year-old son about Matt Tucker, that big sly grin of his will come back to my mind and I’ll hear his great big laugh, and I’m sure I’ll fight back a tear.  But I will have confidence in this statement:  Matt Tucker was the greatest Scout this community has ever seen, and he deserves this memorial for a hundred different reasons.  Thanks Matt, for teaching all of us how to be great at what we do.

12
Oct
11

Olaudah Equiano: A Soul Glorifying God

The study of Romanticism and its place in literature is one that has, for years, been studied and analyzed in countless ways. By introducing readers to measures of the exotic, the imagination, and the search for self-identity, Romanticism not only serves as good entertainment, but also has didactic value and begs further study. Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography, The Life of Olaudah Equiano, is a piece of literature that embodies all of these things and more. Far from being just an historical novel, the work has social relevance and deserves analysis from several angles to gain a strong understanding of its importance. The purpose of this essay, then, is to argue that while Equiano’s narrative is indeed a story of the horrible atrocities surrounding slavery in the 18th century, it doubly serves as a complete spiritual autobiography depicting the author’s conversion to Christianity. By using religion and the Christian faith as a way to contextually frame his argument for equality and human rights, Equiano presents his readers with a very thoughtful look at the role of faith and how it can be used as a tool to overcome even the most dire circumstances. Additionally and more to Equiano’s specific plight, religion is that vehicle which protects and buffers him against a multitude of ordeals he is forced to endure. As a major theme in this work, religion serves two other functions: it gives the author common standing ground (Col. 3:11) with his intended audience, the British (white) aristocrats, and it also gives him credibility as a man who has evolved from a belief system of sun worship and magicians to that of sanctification by grace through Jesus Christ. With this in mind, exploring the life of Equiano through this religious lens becomes our challenge. As such, it plays an incredibly important role when looking at his story critically.

It is important for our discussion to recognize that Olaudah Equiano was born in 1745 and kidnapped into slavery at the age of eleven. He describes his early religious life as being cognizant of a single Creator who “lives in the sun” (17) but also has no conception of eternity. His religion spoke more to the ideas of decency and tribal unity than to any idea of personal salvation. Certainly, there was no evangelical form of this tribal faith. For these reason, he often thought of death as preferable to the indentured and persecuted life he was living. With no command of the English language, no measureable skill in reading or writing, and no education, his future seemed endlessly bleak. At points in his narrative, he speaks of “an anxious wish for death,” (26) and calling God to “direct the stroke of death to me,” (69) textually confirming that he thought death to be the answer to his ills. These thoughts continue until he hears servants speaking on the subject of Heaven and baptism – how you cannot reach one without the other. His baptism at age 14, therefore, clearly becomes a decisive point in his life – trumped only by his manumission years later. Once Equiano is baptized, he is consumed by his religion and uses his faith to carry him through the struggles of being bound by slavery.

A series of events – each individual in nature, but Providential in scope – proves to him that his prayers to God for deliverance are working. He is being delivered into safety by putting faith in God’s hand when storms ravage the ship he is forced to work on, or when his crew goes days without water, or when he finds himself beaten and friendless. God’s Providence is there in these instances, and Equiano illustrates to his reading audience that he is slowly becoming more and more aware of it. His desire to learn to read – to build his education – triggers the act of Bible reading, to learn for himself what faith is all about and how it surpasses the belief in pure magic or whimsical fantasy. When he describes his burden in Chapter 3 by stating that “the kind and unknown hand of the Creator…began to appear to my comfort,” (38) readers get the idea that Equiano has discovered not only his coping mechanism, but also his new outlook on life. And from that, he is able to call out in prayer during times of fear or danger and be reconciled by “worshipping God, who made us and all things” (42).

One of the most interesting elements of Equiano’s narrative is that he lives his life based on a moral code of treating others evenly – something equivalent to the Golden Rule. Since he firmly believes that no man has any right over another, he lives by the “do unto all men as you would men should do unto you” motto. By giving readers this glimpse into his worldview, he can expertly show the brutality of slavery. He cites example after example how he saw slaves treated and how he himself suffered from injustice – both while he was indentured and even after he was able to gain his freedom. The prejudices he endured were extensive, but his tone here is unquestionably terse: slavery is bad, men should be treated as equals, and color doesn’t matter. As this relates to the Christian faith, Equiano symbolizes how strong a belief in salvation and eternal life can really be. The strength that he derived from God, the one that he “looked up with prayers anxiously to…for my liberty,” (87) defined Equiano as a man. And perhaps this is the most crucial element in any close reading of his autobiography: religion and faith combined, as the backbone of our narrator’s story, are inseparable when studying the man. For without faith, I would argue, Equiano’s narrative would be quite different. Truly, there is evidence that it might not exist today at all – that it was the strength of his religious convictions, the “encouragement…to trust the Lord in any situation,” (86) that saved his life, and allowed him to survive, buy his own freedom, and prosper.

The unshakable faith of Equiano and his soul’s glorification of God also gives us interesting insight into the abolitionist movement itself. For at its core, the abolition of slavery mirrors, in many ways, the tenets of the Christian faith. It stresses equality for all people, as in Paul’s letter to the Colossians when he states that “but Christ is all, and is in all.” (Col. 3:11 NIV). As such, what better exemplar to fight against slavery than 1) a former slave, and 2) a resolute Christian? My opinion on this leans toward the belief that had Equiano not been baptized into the faith, or had he not lived under such Christian morals, his relevance would likely have been ignored. His power to persuade the section of Britain’s aristocracy and monarchy – the ones who could really affect meaningful and lasting social change – would not nearly have had the punch it did if not for the equal footing Christianity provides. In short, religion gave Equiano a voice and a power he would not have otherwise had. This is why religion is such a crucial thematic element in this narrative. The story simply doesn’t work without it.

Overall, Equiano most certainly makes his Christian argument against slavery a very convincing one. He credibly argues that it cannot be based on color and that good must win out over evil every time. Not only that, but he speaks with a point of view that is unique to his own situation – being both a victim of slavery and one who has overcome its shackles – to give his readers a portrait of hope and survival. Clearly, religion plays the most crucial role in his development as a man, and it is fair to say that it defines his entire story. Leaning on his faith in God, praying daily for Providence to intervene as a rescuer, and by quoting scripture verses that served as a balm to every injustice he received, Equiano uses religion as a way to incite change. While it is the main theme of the story, it is by no means the only one – it enlightens the mind as to what horrors slavery produced, but at the same time puts the onus of that change into the hands of those who can do something about it. And that, for all intents and purposes, is a task well worth our applause. When the author himself states at the novel’s conclusion, “I hope to have the satisfaction of seeing the renovation of liberty and justice…to vindicate the honour of our common nature,” I think he has more than succeeded. He glorifies God (and in many ways, man) with his work, and deserves an immense amount of credit for that.

11
Aug
11

World War One Poetry: Deconstructing The Soldier and Dulce Et Decorum Est

Poetry is, and always has been, difficult to define.  While some see it as a technical assimilation of economically chosen words on a page, others define it by the way it makes them feel.  Either way, poems certainly have a respected position in literature – they transcend their specific era and speak to readers of later generations.  Because they retain their thematic relevance in such a way, we study and learn from these works and use them, many times, as templates of culture.  One group of writers and their work that was extremely influential at the beginning of the 20th century was the group of British “soldier-poets” who gained popularity during World War One.  The purpose of this thesis is to argue that while the work of these British World War One poets most certainly places itself within the larger Georgian movement of the time, two significant poems from this era situate themselves not only as classical examples of this type of literature, but also as political statements speaking to cultural validation and condemnation of the British war effort.  Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier and Wilfred Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est serve more than admirably as models for these two very divergent points of view in justifying England’s involvement, as close reading and interpretation will prove.  Their inclusion into the canon of World War One literature establishes the very real need for a deconstructive study and placement of the poems into not only a literary context, but also one framed by politics, intellectual beliefs of the time, and humanity in general.  Although Brooke and Owen used their poetry to convey exceptionally different themes, they are linked by what the “Great War” caused in many of the British citizenry:  a necessary examination of how society was changing with the onset of the 20th century.

In order to gain a clearer understanding of the selected poems for this essay, a solid understanding of British Georgian poetry and the historical background of World War One must be established.  The Georgian movement is best described as a body of lyrical poetry written by a variety of British poets in the early 20th century.  This period in literature succeeded the idealistic Victorians, and was a pre-cursor to the more abstract elements of the Modernist era.  While immediately preceding the war, the accepted period of Georgian work (aptly named for the newly crowned King George V) is considered to be between the years of 1910-1922.  Its early lyrical style is characterized by a touch of the romantic, using natural and realist language as a conventional means to express feeling, emotion, and intent.  Later, as the British war effort escalated, it would be accompanied by a significant shift in tone – one that gave readers a darker, more realistic illustration of the war culture, and British societal beliefs.  The movement was further distinguished by its rebelliousness in terms of challenging established poetic techniques, cultural mores, and placing a high level of importance on emotional response.

In 1914, as the fragile political balance between two main European blocks was upset by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Britain made the decision to enter the world’s first “total” war.  Eloquently, George Walter later pronounced it the first total war because “no-one who lived through it could remain untouched by it” (Walter xi).  From the initial British perspective, the conflict was only to last a short time and was necessary for England to solidify her position over Germany as the dominant world power.  The reality soon emerged that this conflict would last much longer – and be proven much more destructive – than anything prior to it.  With the introduction of different methods of warfare, equipment, and tactics, war was – in many ways – reinvented.  Millions of lives were lost during the four year campaign, and an entire generation of young British men was gone.  The deleterious effects of this were innumerable – not only in terms of the tangible loss of men, but also in how society viewed the war.  Soldiers such as Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen began writing poetry that reflected their thoughts on what was happening around them.  These “soldiers-as-poets” became, in a very real sense, reporters of the war activities, and they invented with their verse a different kind of literature – borne of experience, compelling, harsh, and equally sentimental.  Coming out of the idealistic Victorian age, a new readership (thanks to Victorian era educational reform) emerged for this type of writing.  In many ways, the war ushered in an explosion of literary creativity that spurred the writing of hundreds of thousands of poems during the war years.

Arguably the most celebrated of the British war poets, Rupert Brooke symbolized a sense of English nationalism that defined the era in terms of memorializing the war.  Well-educated, young, and talented, Brooke was popularly recognized and representative of the enormity of England’s sacrifice for what many (including the poet himself) believed to be a just cause.  Although he died in the early years of the war without tasting any real sting of battle, his poetic efforts centered mainly on his experience as a soldier.  The reception and praise for his most famous work, The Soldier, was perhaps magnified by his own early death.  Even the title of the work represents simplicity, yet gives the reader the complicit understanding that the soldier in the text stands for an ideal that is both significant and meaningful.

The poem itself is about a man who loves his country unconditionally (idealized) and wants to be remembered – if he were to die in battle – that he was English first and foremost.  When the speaker says, “think only this of me,” he is reminding readers to forget that he may have other titles.  We are asked to forget that he may be a father, an officer, or an employee.  His simple admonition to us is that he is England, and that is what he wishes to be known for.  He goes a step further with the image of “a richer dust concealed,” by claiming that whatever “foreign field” he may find himself in upon his death, the inclusion of his English-ness just made the soil that much greater.  The speaker now owns this land in which he died, has enhanced it through British blood, and has declared it for the glory of England.  These are strong and persuading images, and while the speaker seems not affected by the horrors of war, he shows true acceptance of the idea that dying for one’s country is an admirable charge.  In the fifth line of the poem, Brooke uses the metaphor of England as a mother figure.  She “bore, shaped, made aware” – all very maternal allusions to the rearing of a child in terms of respecting the family name [England].  It is necessarily important to point out that Brooke mentions England six times in this relatively short poem.  This is, notably, not accidental – since it illustrates his deep love of country and reminds us in very unambiguous language, what his subject is.  By literally comparing his idea of heaven to what he knows of his English experience in the last line, “under an English heaven,” the speaker assigns a spiritual connotation to match his national pride – which most certainly speaks to the sentimentality of the poem, and the Georgian movement in general.

Many of Brooke’s critics staunchly defend his patriotic style, which is to say they fully understand the context in which he wrote.  St. John G. Ervine – who knew Brooke personally – writes, “this love [of England] was strong in him, and the wayward irreverence of rebel youths could not seduce him from it.” (Ervine 439).  With this statement, we have first-hand knowledge and textual assurance from one of Brooke’s contemporaries, that his love of country was a real, tangible element – and that his love poem to England isn’t the imagined prose designed to sell books, but the “real deal.”  This translates into amazingly powerful literature.  The poet’s division of his poem from body-centric in the first half to more soul-centric in the second half shows readers how transformative his adoration becomes.  Since we are all human, and all have both physical and spiritual elements, we can relate to this mind/body connection.  Additionally, his words, “all evil shed away,” are impactful in that they remind of us the washing away of our sin or iniquity through the blessed “greatness” of England.  In terms of nationalism – of which Britain needed a heavy dose to swallow some of the atrocities that it incurred – nothing rose as high as The Soldier.  Ervine writes, that the poem “is a thing of exquisite feeling…so long as men love their land, this poem will move them” (439).  And perhaps this is the best thing that can be said about this particular work – it moved people during a time of national and cultural change.  As England came into the 20th century – shedding their Victorian skin – literature helped them to reinvent themselves.  A strong argument can be made that Brooke’s poem continues to move British citizens, as a patriotic anthem.  And for the purposes of this discussion, I would have to agree.  Nothing else symbolizes the transition and general good, nationalistic feeling than the poetry, especially The Soldier, of Rupert Brooke.

Wilfred Owen, categorized not only by his technically innovative work, but also by the fact that he eventually came to see Britain’s participation in the war as unnecessarily involved, represented the opposite side of the coin from his contemporary Brooke.  Famously stating that, “my subject is war, and the pity of war…The Poetry is in the pity,” he also reminds readers that “true poets must be truthful.”  George Walter, in his Introduction for The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, calls Owen “a tragic, selfless, talented young man whose humanism in the face of wartime atrocity spoke out from every poem (xxv).  Nowhere is this depiction of the poet more noticeable than in his poem Dulce Et Decorum Est.

In stark contrast to Brooke’s sentimental look at English patriotism, Owen’s poem is a chilling account of the futility of war, based on personal experience of the appalling conditions of trench warfare.  In direct and painful language, the speaker describes a chemical attack on a platoon of soldiers – using such vivid language as “guttering, choking, drowning” to give his public audience a very real look at war – and something very much different from what the British media was offering.  The title itself is Latin for “it is sweet and right,” but the full quote – borrowed from one of Horace’s Odes – adds “pro patria mori” to the end.  This changes the meaning to “it is sweet and right to die for your country.”  In other words, it is a wonderful and great honor to die on the battlefield representing your nation in war.  Since the poem in no way speaks of honor or glory or rightness, or sweetness, it is an ironic choice for a title.  Owen, with a sneer, calls this statement “The old Lie” at the poem’s conclusion.  While the realism is mixed with an equally compelling sense of compassion, the poem presents a disturbing illustration of what battle truly looked, smelled, and sounded like.  Utter despair is represented in phrases such as “froth-corrupted lungs,” and “incurable sores on innocent tongues.”  Owen mocks those with “high zest”, or what this interpretation sees as enthusiastic idealism, when he presents to them the “hanging face” of a dying soldier.  The tone of this poem is dark, realistic, and full of the negative aspects of war.  It does not celebrate the flag-waving, Brookian view of battle as glorious, but tersely gives readers the practical snapshot of war as a hellish and helpless endeavor.  It shows the true investment of the poet as being genuine in his work, with an attempt to combat the public’s complacency over the war effort.  Since context is important for analysis, it is fair to say that the majority of the English people were misled by reports coming from British newspapers regarding the conflict.  Owen’s work helped to educate the cynical masses, and served as arguably the most well-known World War One poem in terms of actual truth and realism.

One aspect of Dulce Et Decorum Est that is particularly compelling, at least from my perspective, is the relevance of the poet’s point of view.  Owen the soldier was active in trenches such as the ones he writes about.  He wasn’t back home in Shropshire, reading about war in a newspaper article from a comfortable living room sofa.  He literally saw men die and could hear “the blood come gargling.”  He was injured on the battlefield in 1917 and knew the first names of the men in his platoon who strangled to death from the effects of German mustard gas.  Because of this, his poetry has the especially real sense of power by experience.  When he talks of being “Drunk with fatigue,” in Line 7, readers should understand that he absolutely felt the depths of this same fatigue.  He more than likely knew what it felt like to have “blood-shod” feet.  Readers should realize that this example of “soldier-as-poet” isn’t what many might perceive this group of men to be.  They weren’t “poets by trade” thrust into battle – but legitimate military men – writing of their experience in an extremely heightened and emotional way.  This is what makes Owen’s poem so powerful in retrospect.  Because he was, in fact, part of the fighting, we can respect his work at an even greater level.  When A.J.P. Taylor wrote that, “Idealism perished on the Somme” (xx), it was the words of Owen that served as literal proof.  “The old Lie,” ironically, speaks a very sobering truth.

While many scholars might interpret the poetry of Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen in a variety of different ways, this is only one interpretation of two of their best known poems.  There is no question that the writing of this period was affected by Britain’s culture at the time.  How could it not be?  World-power Britain, suddenly thrust into a war it could not readily remove itself from, while watching thousands of their young men die by the trench-ful, became a ripe proving ground for some very talented writers.  As the Victorians waned into history and the post-war Modernists had not yet come into prominence, the Georgian movement bridged a crucial gap in British literature.  Interestingly, as British literature progressed more deeply into the 20th century, the writing of the war poets declined.  One reason being:  many of them did not survive the Western front, such as Brooke and Owen.  For the ones that did, they had lost their muse – so to speak.  This is most likely due to the fact that their writing was so dependent on being in battle and relating the atrocities of what they saw.  It is understandable that once the guns over Europe were silent, so were the literary voices of this group of young poets.  We are now a century removed from the work of these men, yet our studies still continue.  It would, as this argument contends, be a disservice to literature not to recognize their canon of poetry as significant and worthy of discussion.  In this attempt, my hope is that while we use the texts of The Soldier and Dulce Et Decorum Est as models of cultural, war-time literature, we also appreciate their relevance.  As Wilfred Owen himself reminds us, as “children ardent for some desperate glory,” let us as students of literature remember the importance of these poems.  Their place in history deserves as much.