Apart from to add to your exam stress, each poem in the ‘Character and Voice’ section of your AQA Anthology has been carefully selected by some horribly dull fellow/lady because it conveys a particular theme. The ‘characters’ are depicted by the poets in a variety of ways, sometimes reflecting their own perspective and other times creating a persona by writing in the style and tone of a particular character (for example, Browning didn’t really knock-off his previous wife). Sometimes, the poem depicts the viewpoint of one person; other times we read about individual characters, either imaginary or real, named or unnamed, and asked by the poet to reflect upon how we feel about this particular persona and how we treat each other in everyday society.
As you should know, the exam question will ask you to compare one named poem with another of your choice; therefore, it is imperative you know the key themes that relate to the collection and similarities in the poets’ use of language, imagery and structure. Furthermore, it is your own personal interpretation and response to a poem’s character that is important. Always try to think about the effect on the reader and the poet’s intentions; this will allow you to write deep, perceptive answers to the question and achieve high marks. Finally, it is important to remember that some poems belong to more than one of the following categories:
Isolation and Alienation
This theme is absolutely ruddy everywhere in the English Literature exam: Of Mice and Men, To Kill and Mockingbird, The Woman in Black and the majority of the poetry. Alienation means the rejection or enstrangement from society; the state of being an outsider; of feeling isolated. This can refer to both physical separation, emotional detachment, or often a combination of the two.
The ‘Clown Punk’ and ‘Give’, both by Simon Armitage, feature characters rejected and scorned by society for being different to the norm. One is alienated from others for looking ‘like a basket of washing that got up and walked’ and for living in the ‘shonky side of town’, the other is forced onto ‘the streets’ to beg for ‘change’. The ‘town clown’ is depicted as a bogeyman type character by the speaker, describing his unsociable habit of pushing his face on to car windscreens. However, the father in the car talking to his ‘kids on the back seat who wince and scream’ is also seen as an angry and judgemental character, forcing the reader to feel somewhat sorry for the persecuted ‘clown’. In a similar way, Dylan Thomas’ ‘solitary mister’ in ‘A Hunchback in the Park’ is cruelly treated by school children in a local Welsh park, and reduced to life of misery, fear and loneliness.
In a different form of alienation, ‘Medusa’ begs her unfaithful husband to acknowledge her beautiful and ‘fragrant’ youth before jealousy fuels her desire for revenge and isolates her in a ‘foul-mouthed’ Gorgon state. Furthermore, the imagery of her turning natural objects to stone (‘house brick’, ‘pebble’) due to her ‘bullet eyes’ means that she is physically isolated from society and defined as an outcast. This metaphor is paradoxical, since tears are commonly seen as weak, but bullets are violent. Alternatively, ‘Melia in Hardy’s ‘The Ruined Maid’, wryly accepts social estrangement when choosing prostitution as a preferable occupation to the hardship of a moral, yet poverty-stricken life.
Finally, the ‘poor, clever girl, Alison, is the unfortunate victim of a head injury that has defined her future and has mentally alienated her from her former self. This is similar to the ‘horse whisperer’; another victim of events beyond their control when, ‘scorned as demon and witch’, he is forced to flee his ‘tender giants’ due to the arrival of the technological revolution and farmers growing increasingly suspicious of his ‘legacy of whispers’.
- The ruined maid by Thomas Hardy
- The river god by Stevie Smith
- The hunchback in the park by Dylan Thomas
- The Clown Punk by Simon Armitage
- Give by Simon Armitage
- Horse Whisperer by Andrew Forster
History and Heritage
Some characters from the collection are remembered from a poet’s own recent past, others are from specific historical events. In John Agard’s ‘Checking Out My History’, the poet protests that the history he has been taught has kept him ignorant of the brave and resilient freedom-fighters whose struggles changed the course of Black history, thus denying him a sense of understanding and appreciation of his own identity. However, ‘Ozymandias’, an ancient Egyptian, egotistical ruler, desired immortality by building many statues and monuments of himself to symbolise his wealth, influence and power; yet Shelley reflects how the character is powerless against the changing nature of time, with the sculptor’s ‘sneer of cold command’ being the only thing that remains of his legacy. Furthermore, Browning’s Duke of Ferrara, another powerful tyrant, is so utterly obsessed with material worth and protecting his ‘nine-hundred-year-old name’ that he totally neglects and fails to appreciate the true beauty of his young, good-natured wife.
- Checking out me history by John Agard
- Singh Song! by Daljit Nagra
- Ozymadias by Percy Bysshe Shelley
- My Last Duchess by Robert Browning
Different Relationships: Love and Loss
An interesting comparison can be made between Kay’s description of her speaker’s childhood reliance on her exciting imaginary friend, ‘Brendon Gallacher’, and the ‘best and worst of times’ outlined in Molloy’s ‘Les grandes seigneurs’. Both poets recognise how times have changed and that parts of their characters will be lost forever: the death of Brendon when the truth was exposed by the mother left the image of her friend ‘flat out on [her] bedroom floor’ and after Molloy’s speaker was ‘wedded, bedded’ all power and respect was lost forever. Disregarded by her husband, she is no longer treated to romantic gestures but instead reduced to ‘a bit of fluff’.
Conversely, the narrator in ‘Singh Song’ is delighted with his amorous and glamorous ‘newly bride’, and their relationship is still in the early stages of excitement and passion. This love results in the neglect of his father’s shop and the subject of harsh comments by his customers. The couple spend all night cuddling up behind the counter, staring at the beaches of England and sharing compliments. His nonconformist wife offers a form of escapism for the speaker as he takes pride in her ‘effing at [his] mum in all di colours of Punjabi’. The Duke views his nonconformist wife in a slightly different way: her ‘heart… too soon made glad’ increased his jealousy and envy, resulting in her eventual demise. Her constant ‘smile’ to other men brought shame upon his aristocratic family name and thus the Duke ‘gave commands’ for ‘all smiles’ to stop.
However, the theme of loss is arguably best depicted in Betjamin’s beautifully sombre description of a son’s love for his dead father. This unusual elegy in the ballad form, details the father’s likes and dislikes in a deeply affectionate way, yet juxtaposes these positive images with macabre, horror-filled descriptions of his imagined bodily decay. The poem perfectly captures all the contrasting feelings towards death: grief, sadness, fondness, anger and love. This culminates at the end of the poem when Betjamin questions his religious belief, and becomes obsessed with the finality of death. His heartfelt depiction of his ‘kind’ deaf father shows his definite affection towards him, but this is shadowed with by his own fear of death and its gruesome certainty. His contradicting imagery throughout the poem is startling and evocative, forcing the reader to reflect upon their own thoughts on love and loss and how they feel such a range of emotions during these events. The sensory and grotesque language creates a feeling of overwhelming grief in the reader, and this description can also be linked to the sudden death of Brendon Gallacher, as Molloy uses repetition of the possessive pronoun ‘My’, emphasising the idea that Brendan belongs to the narrator and portraying the theme of loss and longing for something that is gone. When the name Brendon appears without the surname or the
“my” in the last line, as just
“Oh Brendon”, the impact is much greater: losing the refrain highlights the loss of her imaginary friend.
- My Last Duchess by Robert Browning
- The River God by Stevie Smith
- On a portrait of a deaf man by John Betjamin
- Casehistory: Alison by UA Fanthorpe
- Les grandes seigneurs by Dorothy Molloy
- Medusa by Carol Ann Duffy
Naughty Women – By Mrs S.J. Kerridge
Women have a pretty poor representation in Literature; Charlotte Bronte’s Jayne Eyre had a mad woman in the attic, Wilkie Collins’ Woman in White had a character committed to an asylum and Shakespeare made Lady Macbeth into a controlling, but ultimately weak-minded figure of pity. Character and Voice has its fair share of women who are considered unusual because they do not behave in a way that is expected of them. A few of them are allowed this freedom, but most of them are punished for it.
The first of these is Melia in The Ruined Maid. The idea of a woman being ‘ruined’ has ancient, religious and moral connotations. To be ‘ruined’ or ‘corrupt’ is a state often ascribed to fruit, just as it begins to spoil or decay and this is applied metaphorically to the state of women who are ‘corrupted’ by some kind of illicit relationship, like Eve and that apple in the Garden of Eden. It may be why evil people are described as ‘rotten to the core’. Melia has clearly sacrificed her reputation for the sake of material gain (the clothes she gets, the expensive accessories, the fine manners, the easy life) and society at that time would have held her in contempt for it. What I love about this poem is Hardy’s ironic treatment of both women. Melia’s repetition of ‘ruined’ shows an unashamed acceptance of people’s judgement of her and even a touch of elitist pride when she claims that her friend ‘cannot expect that’. Her friend’s tone has just the right degree of envy for us to see that Hardy makes her virtuous, working class life less appealing than Melia’s comfortable life of sin.
Another materialistic, naughty woman is the ‘newly bride’ in Singh Song. She is an unusual Indian bride with her rebellious choice of ‘tartan sari’ and her poor treatment of Singh’s parents, as well as antics on…well, let’s call them ‘dating’ websites; at any rate, it is hardly the behaviour of a devoted wife. What makes it worse is that during their romantic evenings together, her questions are about money – ‘how much…?’ – whereas his replies are all about how highly he values her, ‘half di cost ov yoo’. Singh’s all-consuming devotion to his wife is what makes this poem so charming and amusing, because he loves her, in spite of her faults.
If only the controlling Duke of Ferrara had been so tolerant of his wife in My Last Duchess. Some people have argued that the Duchess was a bit too free with her affections and that her ‘smiles’ are a euphemism for affairs or flirtations, which is why the Duke seems so agitated when he talks about it. I’m not convinced. He is agitated by her appreciation of the ordinary things like ‘cherries’, ‘a white mule’ or a pretty sunset and wants her to be more impressed with his ‘nine hundred years old name’. She has not behaved in a way he expects and he punishes her for it. Now, just another possession of his, she is utterly controlled by him and can only be seen when he chooses to draw back the curtain.
My last choice for the Naughty Women category is Les Grand Seigneurs. It compares well with My Last Duchess because marriage leads to being controlled by men for both of them. Although there is strong romantic, courtly imagery (‘troubadour’, ‘queens’, ‘damsels’) suggesting that the narrator enjoys playing the fairytale of love, there is also a suggestion that she makes fools of men by demanding that they perform for her, ‘prancing’ like circus animals. Of course, the phallic imagery and sexual references are hard to miss (‘towers’, ‘peacocks’, ‘pink flamingos’) and I think this makes her a bit of a tease – ‘out of reach’-, and probably why the contrast of her married life is so stark.