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Tony Harrison’s “A Cold Coming,” William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and George Orwell’s 1984 each display distinct sensibilities that reflect the time from which they emerged. Modernist manifestos differentiate the Modernist movement from previous ones through its self-conscious examination of literature’s purpose in the cultural landscape, yet this very quality is what links all four of these texts. The Romanticist, Victorian and Modernist texts each represent a writer’s efforts to capture his time in a way that is meaningful and relevant.
The narrator in Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” reveals his artistic intentions in the narrative of his poem. The Romantic literary tradition exhibits a concern for a pure, unadulterated representation of nature that rejects lofty vocabulary and stylistic gimmicks. “Tintern Abbey” thus pays tribute to the principles of Romanticism while displaying the universal desire to create a valuable work of literature.
“Tintern Abbey” affirms the writing process as something that is both instructive and comforting. Wordsworth writes, “For I have learned to look on nature, not as in the hour of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes the still, sad music of humanity” (88-91). The act of writing moves the narrator’s observation beyond mindless appreciation and into the state of interpretation, creating a depth that would be difficult to achieve through a mimetic representation of an object. By inserting himself into the poem, Wordsworth shows how he is actively using memory as a way to create meaning. His struggle to capture the essence of his initial memory, his frustration at being unable to recreate the past, and finally his satisfaction for the knowledge he has gained over the years all contribute to what was for Wordsworth a long and fruitful journey.
Bronte’s Wuthering Heights uses the text-within-a-text framing device to map out the process of creating a narrative. The lack of chronology and the contradictory input of multiple narrators result in a convoluted mess, exposing narrative’s vulnerability. Narrative reveals itself to be highly unstable, subject to distortions and misrepresentations.
The industrialization of the Victorian period resulted in class regimentation. Although none of the characters directly experience industrialization, the inherent biases in class structure do influence their technique of representing one another through storytelling. Every character in the story exaggerates Heathcliff’s brutishness, just as Edward Linton comes across as pathetically feminine, Hareton as appalling stupid, Joseph as abrasive and Catherine as hysterical. Because each of these characters carries a stigmatized persona, Lockwood seems unable to present them in a neutral light. Nor can the characters represent one another fairly, since each of them occupies a web of competing ideologies. Joseph and Hareton speak in an outlandish caricature of lower-class dialect while Catherine and Heathcliff exhibit extreme emotional breakdowns that defy all plausibility. Therefore, Wuthering Heights challenges literature’s ability to bridge class divisions.
Although the novel comes out of the Victorian period, it expresses nostalgia for Romanticist values. While Modernism concerns itself with forward momentum, annihilating all outmoded literary forms in order to arrive at a new method of interpreting reality, the text Wuthering Heights remains stuck in the past. Wuthering Heights itself seemingly lies outside the corrupting forces of civilization. Heathcliff, Catherine and Hareton stay rooted to the earth and to the past, refusing to adapt to the status quo and its highly structured class system. However, the deaths of Heathcliff and Catherine, the deterioration of Wuthering Heights, and Hareton’s upward mobility all suggest that this way of life is no longer sustainable. By extension, perhaps the Romantic tradition no longer holds up as a way of representing the world we live in.
Orwell’s 1984 displays a typical Modernist self-consciousness by exploring the uneasy connection between authorship and audience reception. “Art for art’s sake” means nothing in Winston’s society when publicized literature serves no purpose beyond a utilitarian one. Winston questions the value of writing a diary that no one will read. The first passage in his diary, a jumbled description of an idiotic movie, displays the incoherence of a man who has long been accustomed to talking to himself. The existence of an audience thus presupposes the creation of a meaningful piece of literature.
Winston attempts to create an imaginary audience and cannot: “How could you communicate with the future? It was of its nature impossible. Either the future would resemble the present in which case it would not listen to him, or it would be different from it, and his predicament would be meaningless” (Orwell 10). The meaning of this passage could be extended to the quest of authorship as a whole, which is to write a work of timeless relevance. Unfortunately, the absence of a historical legacy in Winston’s society proves that history is not part of a continuum that allows the values of one time period to bleed over into another. Rather, those in power determine the amount of historical access each person can have. Because the citizens of Orwell’s society suffer from an extreme tunnel vision that prevents them from understanding the past, Winston cannot conceive of a work of literature that builds a bridge between the past and the future.
Harrison’s “A Cold Coming” uses a confrontational tone to assault the writer who exploits his privileged position as a maker of meaning to spread propaganda. The dead Iraqi narrator uses the writer’s job description as a line of attack: “Isn’t it your sort of poet’s task to find words for this frightening mask?” By refusing to distinguish between good and bad poetic intentions, the narrator decries the very act of writing poetry as corrupt.
The poet in “A Cold Coming” uses essentially the same method as the poet in “Tintern Abbey,” animating an immobile subject with a personality and a biography. The Iraqi condemns the poet for transforming his dead body into “an icon framed, a looking glass for devotees of ‘kicking ass,’ a mirror that returns the gaze of victors on their victory days.” The nouns “icon,” looking glass” and “mirror” show how poets objectify their subjects by injecting the subject with their own ideology. Poetry is thus an inherently selfish act. The mismatch of the “icon” and the “dumb mask like baked donuts” raises the problem of poetic invention when the sign does not match the signifier. By arbitrarily assigning a metaphor to an object, the poet exposes himself as a reckless experimenter with language.
What makes the poem a Post-Modernist one is its layered intricacy–the structure of the poem contains the poet’s “solution” to the problem presented in the text. Harrison literally gives the exploited subject a voice through the narrator’s recording device, thus preventing the narrative from spiraling into self-indulgence.
When comparing narratives from different literary periods, then, we must examine not only the representation itself but also the way in which the writer addresses the momentous pressure to create a cultural legacy.
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