Tracy K. Smith’s “Declaration”: An Analysis

Tracy K. Smith is someone who should need no introduction, but seeing how even the superstars of contemporary poetry are relatively obscures, here goes: she is the current Poet Laureate of the United States, a professor at Princeton University, author of several books of poetry (including the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning Life on Mars [Graywolf, 2011]), and all-around inspiring figure in the literary world. Seriously, go read her.

I’m currently working my way through her most recent collection, Wade in the Water (Graywolf, 2018), and I was so struck by one of the pieces that I set aside everything else and started writing up an analysis of it. That’s how most of these blog posts start, really: something I read makes me think so rapidly that I have no choice but set everything down (and hopefully, set everything in order). The poem in question is called “Declaration”; you can read it on the Poetry Foundation website, where there’s also a recording of Smith reading the poem aloud.

The first thing to note about “Declaration” is that the words themselves are not of Tracy K. Smith’s creation. Instead, “Declaration” is an example of erasure poetry, a form of found poetry in which the poet takes a pre-existing text and removes (“erases”) some or most of the original words, such that the remaining words form a new composition, often one that comments on the original text. Though erasure poetry doesn’t really involve writing as we normally conceive of it, it still requires a kind of creative vision: the ability to see new contexts for old words, to find subversive potentials in someone else’s language.

In this case, Smith uses the United States Declaration of Independence as her source text, which is perhaps the most famous document I’ve seen a poet black-out. However, if you haven’t read the original document (and didn’t see Smith’s title), I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t realize what Smith was doing here. I think it may be helpful, then, to talk about the declaration for a bit.

When we think of the Declaration of Independence, we tend to think of the lofty rhetoric near the beginning: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But such eternally quotable assertions about natural law and political philosophy are a small percentage of the document’s word count, because the Declaration of Independence was not written to be a treatise. It was a written in a specific context for a specific purpose: to state the intention of Britain’s North American colonies to break away from the mother country.

That context explains why most of the document is devoted to listing off the colonies’ grievances against George III. The history of “repeated injuries and usurpations” is the justification for the war for independence, for a course of action that would have been considered treasonous had Britain prevailed in the conflict. The list explains why, per the authors, the declaration is necessary. Yet because the content of the section is so tied to a particular moment in history, it’s the part whose present-day power would seem rather limited. I mean, we’re not exactly stirred to anger these days by hearing references to the Quartering Act, right?

At least, that’s what I used to think, until July 4, 2017. That was the day that NPR decided to adapt their Independence Day tradition of reading the declaration on-air for Twitter. In a series of over 100 tweets, NPR’s Twitter account relayed the entire text of the declaration, like a town crier with WiFi. Most people recognized the exercise as a simple patriotic observance, but a small number of people, mostly of a right-wing persuasion and likely seeing the tweets outside of their full context, assumed NPR was criticizing Donald Trump and even advocating for revolution.

Now, if you’re like me, your first impulse is some good old cathartic laughter: “Haha, the Make America Great Again people don’t recognize the Declaration of Independence!” These randos on Twitter saw a news organization commemorating Independence Day, and assumed it was an attack on their fearless leader. But by accident, the people outraged over this exercise revealed that the declaration remains a powerful document in its entirety. How can anyone reading the declaration from start to finish come upon a sentence like, “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler over a free people,” and not connect it to the present moment? And that’s with context. Now imagine seeing that sentence while idly scrolling through Twitter. Yes, these Trump supporters were off-base on the intention of the exercise, but if it were an institution less staid than NPR, I don’t think it would be that unreasonable an inference.

So, to summarize this long digression: the grievance section of the Declaration of Independence, even though it is the least-recognized and most-dated part of the document, is still a powerful piece of rhetoric, perhaps especially when the language is removed from the original context. And with all that in mind, we can now ask ourselves: What does Tracy K. Smith do with it?

The first thing I’ll note is that Smith leaves the rhetorical structure of the source material largely intact. The primary device used in the grievance section of the original document is syntactic parallelism, especially anaphora (repeating words at the beginning of consecutive phases, e.g., “He has refused to Assent to Laws . . . He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws . . . He has refused to pass other Laws . . . etc.”). Smith’s “Declaration” preserves that formal element, and if anything amplifies it by also using epistrophe (repeating words at the end of consecutive phrases). The result is something which condenses the grievance section down the sensation of listening to it:

He has plundered our—

                                                  ravaged our—

                                                                                destroyed the lives of our—

taking away our—

                                     abolishing our most valuable—

and altering fundamentally the Forms of our— (lines 3-8)

Yet while Smith preserves the source material’s form, she seems to have eliminated, erased, its content. We have all these transitive verbs which are incomplete without grammatical objects, all these phrases which sound in need of closure. One might be tempted to say that what Smith has done is transform the Declaration of Independence into something close to theoretically pure rhetoric.

That, for the record, would be a perfectly fine approach for an erasure poem based on the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps it would reveal the emptiness behind the lofty ideals and philosophy which the document advocates for: all so much pleasant-sounding air. But Smith has something more specific in mind with this. After all, the passage quoted above is not free of content. Those verbs—”plundered,” “ravaged,” “destroyed,” “taking away,” “abolishing”—have charges, connotations, that pure sound would not have. And they start to call to mind a particular piece of context behind the source material, the inescapable contradiction at the heart of American history.

You probably know where we’re going with this, but to make it explicit: the country that extolled the equality and inalienable rights of “all men” permitted and was built on chattel slavery. The men who stuck their necks out in accusing George III of tyranny practiced their own tyranny upon the black slaves they and their fellow citizens owned as property. It is the unpardonable hypocrisy that has continued to haunt the United States from its inception to the present. One cannot in good conscience read the Declaration of Independence without mentally raising that objection to it.

Some might say, of course, that we can separate the admirable aspects of the declaration from the moral failings of the society that produced it, that we can discard the slavery and keep the inalienable rights. (One hears this a lot with regards to Enlightenment-era philosophy.) And that’s why I think Smith’s choice to make “Declaration” a found poem is so powerful: it suggests that such a separation is impossible. In the process of blacking-out the original text, her artistic vision knows to preserve such phrases as “the circumstances of our emigration / and settlement here” (13-14) and “taken Captive / on the high Seas / to bear” (15-17). She sees the sorts of grievances the declaration’s signers lobbed at the crown, and highlights how they were blind to the same faults in themselves.

Smith is not the first person to use the Declaration of Independence for critical purposes, of course. Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted from it during his “I Have a Dream” speech, only to then call it a “promissory note” that has gone unfilled. Ho Chi Minh cited it, alongside France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, at the beginning of the Vietnamese Proclamation of Independence, then attacked the Western imperial powers for violating those cherished principles. But Smith’s poem feels even more scathing than those instances. MLK and Ho Chi Minh emphasized the ideals of the Declaration of Independence—ones that society has failed to live up to, yes, but ideals worth aspiring toward. But with “Declaration,” one senses that the ideals themselves have been tainted. For a poem that appears so halting on the page, that’s one hell of a strong theme.

That’s it from me. But what about you? What are your thoughts on “Declaration,” or on found poetry in general? Feel free to sound off in the comments! And if you’re looking for more thoughts on recontextualizing the classics, you may want to check out my piece on Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley’s short film In the Body of the Sturgeon, which rearranges Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha into a story about a submarine’s crew near the end of the Second World War.

And, as always, thank you for reading!

What Can We Learn from Erasmus’s and Chaucer’s Friars?

I can’t say I was enthralled with Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly (also called In Praise of Folly), a 1509 satirical essay in which the figure of Folly expounds on her role in early modern European society. Maybe it was the translation I was reading from: John Wilson’s 17th-century English syntax, I feel, tends to muffle whatever humor Erasmus wants to find in people’s foibles.

That’s a shame, because Erasmus’s satire is the sort that ought to have a longer-than-normal shelf-life. This isn’t something like John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel, a poem satirizing Restoration-era politics, which lost a good chunk of its relevance and bite the moment Charles II died. No, the sort of superstition, short-sightedness and self-interest that Erasmus writes about has, alas, never left us.

And there was one section of The Praise of Folly in particular that I felt spoke to universal concerns very well, and it was about an absolutely timeless feature of Western society: begging, itinerant friars. Hear me out.

For some quick context: “friar” is the broad term for certain orders of Christian clerics. In contrast to monks, who live their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in cloistered settings, friars take those orders on the road, serving the faithful and spreading the gospel out in the world. They travel from town to town, subsisting on whatever donations they can muster from the common folk. It’s that last bit, the need for friars to beg, which tends to draw people’s ire, and which tends to inspire criticism of mendicant orders. (Then as now, no one enjoys being asked for money.)

Thus, in Erasmus’s telling, friars need to get creative if they want to secure funding. And what tools does a friar have aside from his preaching? The use of language comes up time and again in this section of The Praise of Folly, and it’s fascinating to see how many ways friars employ language to achieve their ends. My personal favorite tactic is their tendency to support the precepts of Christianity by citing literally everything but Christian doctrine:

How they shift their voice, sing out their words, skip up and down, and are ever and anon making such new faces, that they confound all things with noise! and yet this Knack of theirs is no less than a Mystery that runs in succession from one brother to another; which though it be not lawful for me to know, however I’ll venture at it by conjectures. First they invoke what ever they have scrapt from the Poets; and in the next place, if they are to discourse of Charity, they take their rise from the river Nilus; or to set out the Mystery of the Cross, from Bell and the Dragon; or to dispute of Fasting, from the twelve signs of the Zodiack; or, being to preach of Faith, ground their matter on the square of a Circle. (pp. 204-205)

All these rhetorical maneuvers, all these allusions to astrology and mathematics and such, are flashy and sound impressive to the audience—the speaker must be quite learned in the ways of the divine to understand all of this, no? Except, of course, that none of the above has anything to do with the divine, let alone justifies why the listeners should scrape the bottoms of their money pouches.

More than anything, Erasmus’s depiction of friars reminds me of Geoffrey Chaucer, who like Erasmus spends a lot of The Canterbury Tales poking fun at various clerical figures, particularly with regards to how they use language. The Pardoner, for instance, famously brags about all his scams—his fraudulent relics, his insincere sermons—and then delivers a persuasive fable against greed. The Monk, on the other hand, attempts to win the story-telling contest through sheer quantity, recounting tragic fall after tragic fall until the Knight  finally begs him to stop.

And then, of course, there’s the Friar. Chaucer devotes most of the Friar’s description in the General Prologue to his quest for money (e.g., spurning the poor and sick for the wealthy and well), but towards the end he inserts some quick details on the Friar’s rhetorical skills. For one thing, he’s able to move his audience to action through his preaching: “[T]hogh a widwe hadde noght a sho,” Chaucer tells us, “So plesaunt was his ‘In principio,’ [‘In the beginning’]/ Yet wolde he have a ferthing, er he wente” (Fragment I, lines 255-257). For another, he’s aware of the power of delivery: “Somwhat he lipsed, for his wantownesse, / To make his English swete upon his tonge” (I.267-268). If he were in modern day America, he’d be putting on a posh English accent.

But the most biting depiction of friars comes not from Chaucer the narrator, but rather from the Summoner (another of the countless churchmen in The Canterbury Tales). The Summoner, who has just been the target of “The Friar’s Tale,” makes friars the butt end of his little joke. Literally: long story short, the friar in the tale gets farted on. (This is Chaucer, after all.) It’s some foul comeuppance, sure, but the way that the Summoner’s friar describes his approach to preaching is just as memorable:

“I have to day been at your chirche at messe,
And seyd a sermon after my symple wit—
Nat al after the text of hooly writ,
For it is hard to yow, as I suppose,
And therefore I wol teche yow al the glosse.
Glosynge is a glorious thyng, certeyn,
For lettre sleeth, so as we clerkes seyn” (III.1788-1794)

When “hooly writ” does not suit this friar’s conclusion (normally, “Give me money”), he will gladly preach from “the glosse,” that is, an interpretation of the text. “Glosynge is a glorious thyng” because it allows one to support any position, no matter what “hooly writ” actually demands. At least the Pardoner is up front with his dissembling; the Summoner’s friar is both dishonest and sneaky. One indeed might as well cite the zodiac if the plain truth is so inconvenient. Really, why not fart on this guy?

Okay, talking about early modern clerical satire is all fine and dandy, but why should anyone care? Do these slick-tongued mendicants have any relevance to contemporary life?

There’s a recent piece by Nathan J. Robinson on the Current Affairs website called “You Can Make an Argument for Anything.” I think this paragraph gets right to the heart of it:

When I say there are justifications for everything, I truly mean everythingYou can make an argument against democracy or against empathy. (“People don’t know what’s in their best interests,” and “Excess compassion impedes rational decision-making,” respectively.) If I want to seize the land of native peoples, destroy their property and force them into exile, I might say: “Land should be put to its most efficient and productive use, and while we respect the ancestral rights of all people to their homes, all benefit alike from the development of resources toward their optimal functions.” In fact, even today there are those who defend colonialism, saying something like “colonialism improved living standards in the aggregate and was therefore more beneficial than detrimental.” Even slaveowners had arguments: In addition to their crackpot racial theories, they said that dominance of man over man was the natural way of things, and that slaveowners treated their slaves better than industrialists treated factory workers. (If your defense of your actions is “I’m not as bad as the capitalists,” your actions are probably indefensible.) [Emphasis in original]

In these contexts, it’s wholly irrelevant whether the argument is sound, or whether it’s even based on true premises. The speaker only needs the trappings of reason to make a persuasive case for horrific causes. And as Robinson would probably remind us, the stakes involved here are much greater than, “Should I give this friar another hand-out?”

Glosynge is a glorious thyng, certeyn…

On Buying New Editions of Classic Books

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you will have noticed that I have a taste for the canon. I’ve recently written about Albert Camus’s essay “The Minotaur,” for example, and I have an ongoing series of blog posts offering close readings of old poems. Something you notice when you read classics is that there are a ton of different editions for each title. Every publisher has its own version of Great Expectations or Jane Eyre, and each edition comes with its own set of bells and whistles. You’ll even find people who collect different versions of the same book.

I find all this fascinating, because classics are the genre of literature which is probably easiest to find at a low cost, and a lot of these new printings of classics will run you more than a negligible sum. I’ve started wondering what these more expensive versions offer the reader beyond the text itself, and whether that’s worth the higher cost.

Just so we’re working with a concrete example, let’s consider a book that I’m currently reading: The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli. Specifically, we’re going to look at the 2009 Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, published in 2009 and translated by Tim Parks.

The PrinceGoing in, I know that The Prince is an important work in the history of political writing, and that it was rather infamous in its day regarding its arguably amoral advice for rulers. I’ve even had to write a few essays for classes using scanned excerpts of the text, so I’m somewhat familiar with its prescriptions. But I’ve never read the work in its entirety, and given the state of the world, I figure it’s high time I read it. Now, supposing that I didn’t already possess this particular edition of the book, how might I go about finding a copy of it for a decent value?

The Prince dates back to the early 16th-century, so the original Italian text is unquestionably in the public domain. I don’t speak Italian, however, let alone the Italian of Machiavelli’s day, so I’m going to need an English translation. Even though translations are derivative works, they may still be protected by copyright. As such, it can sometimes be difficult to find translations of works in other language freely and legally available on the Internet.

Lucky for me, The Prince has been around so long that there are multiple English translations which have also entered the public domain. I can simply search through Project Gutenberg, for instance, and find the full text of W. K. Marriott’s 1908 translation. It’s fairly bare-bones as a book, but if all I want is the text, then it suits me fine. Indeed, I’ve lately been reading some translations of Plato via Project Gutenberg, and I haven’t had any complaints so far.

But maybe e-books aren’t for me, for whatever reason (e.g., difficulty reading off a screen for extended periods of time). Maybe I’d feel better holding a copy of The Prince in my hands. Assuming the local library doesn’t have a copy available—and if, like me, you live out in the country, that’s a distinct possibility—there are still ways to get the book for cheap. If you went to an American high school, you might be familiar with Dover Thrift Editions, which are no-frills editions of classic, public domain works. (One of these days, I’ll write an appreciation post about them.) Per their website, a copy of N. H. Thompson’s 1910 translation of The Prince retails for $3.00. That doesn’t include shipping, obviously, but that’s still a pretty low price point.

So: if the options I’ve just listed, and others that I haven’t, let me get a copy of The Prince at little to no cost, why on earth should anyone spend $16.00 for Penguin’s version? If I want the text, I have Project Gutenberg; if I want the text printed and bound, I have Dover. What, if anything, does the aptly-named Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition offer that the more affordable channels don’t?

Well, a few things, actually, but whether they’re worth the additional cost is entirely up to the reader.

In addition to the text of The Prince, the Penguin edition comes with four additional features: an introduction, a translator’s note, a map of Italy c. 1500, and a glossary of proper names mentioned in the text. The latter two, for my money, are the least inspiring aspects here. The map gives some sense of the political geography of 16th-century Italy, but since many of Machiavelli’s examples are historical it’s also of limited utility. And while the glossary of proper names is perhaps a more convenient reference when reading the book than a search engine might be, and only includes those facts the translator believes are important, it’s still a repackaging of easily available information. I’m not sure I’d pay a premium for that kind of editorial work.

The translator’s note is more compelling. For starters, it gets at why, even if one wouldn’t pay extra for a new edition of, say, a Jane Austen novel, one might do so for a new edition of a work in translation. Unlike original works, Parks argues, translations “have a way of gathering dust”:

If we read [Alexander] Pope’s translation of Homer today, we read it because we want to read Pope, not Homer. Linguistically, the translation draws our attention more to the language and poetry of our eighteenth century than to Homer or ancient Greece. (p. xxxi)

In Parks’s estimation, original texts maintain their freshness, as though they have a sustaining aura to them. Works in translations, however, need to be updated or they’ll turn stale. Maybe a new English translation of The Prince won’t evoke Renaissance Italy so much as the era in which the translation was written, but at least it won’t end up evoking Edwardian England instead.

For something specific to this edition of The Prince, I like how Parks uses the translator’s note as an opportunity to discuss his process. He mentions the difficulty in translating certain critical words from Machiavelli’s original text, such as “principe” and “virtù.” He also explains how his version differs from previous translations, and provides side-by-side comparisons of selected passages to illustrate the difference. Whether or not one prefers Parks’s translation to the others is a matter of taste, sure, but I like seeing a writer justify their choices regardless.

Finally, there is the introduction, which I’d wager is the most common feature in new editions of classics. Introductions are a chance to place the original work in context: to explain the historical and social forces which may have influenced the author, synthesize how critics have approached the work through the years, and draw attention to details the editor believes are important but worries the new reader might miss. The premium price for a new edition includes some insurance that one won’t blindly stumble through a difficult work.

This is especially important for a book like The Prince, whose reputation precedes it. If you’ve never read The Prince, you might imagine that it’s a handbook for being an absolutely ruthless tyrant, when the reality is a bit more nuanced and complicated. That’s why, after a sizable biography of Machiavelli, Parks goes into a brief history of the book’s reception through the centuries, as well as its noticeable influence on early modern English drama. (It’s certainly a more detailed history than one finds in Marriott’s introduction, for instance.)

And unlike with the glossary of proper names, where the bare facts take precedence over style, both the introduction and the translator’s note are enjoyable pieces of writing in their own right. Parks has a knack for wry appraisals, whether he’s noting “a certain Victorian bashfulness in previous translations” (p. xliii), or wondering how Machiavelli thought writing this book would bring him back to the center of Florentine politics:

[T]here is something ingenuous and almost endearing in the clever diplomat’s miscalculation here. The brilliant reasoning required to convince yourself that you had got a grip on politics and history, the profound analysis that would demonstrate to your fellow intellectuals that you were as clear-headed as Livy, Tacitus and Thucydides put together, were not the qualities that a young and hardly well-read Medici prince was likely to comprehend, never mind enjoy. (p. xxi)

In effect, if one buys this new edition of The Prince, one gets two good essays about the book in addition to the original work. And that’s not an insubstantial amount of writing. All told, the supplemental material is about sixty pages long, whereas The Prince itself takes up about a hundred. If you apportion price to page count, all this new material would run you $6.00 out of $16.00. Is that worth it? That’s up to you.

We could mention other elements of new editions of classic books: design elements like the cover and typeface, or the primary source documents found in more scholarly publications. But I think here’s a good place to stop for now. (I would like to actually finish reading The Prince, after all.)

So, to open up the discussion: Do you buy new editions of classic books, and if so, what aspects of those new editions convince you to do so? Let me know in the comments!

“Brave New World,” “Hiroshima,” and the Art of the Section Break

In his reference book A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation, Noah Lukeman calls the section break “the most subjective of punctuation marks,” noting that “there is not even a consensus on how to indicate it” (p. 160). Some books use a blank space between paragraphs to mark a section break, while others use a dingbat for the same purpose. The section break is such a nebulous punctuation mark, in fact, that I hadn’t even considered it as such until reading Lukeman’s book.

Now, even if you would rather think of section breaks as structural devices rather than punctuation, I think you can agree that their usage is somewhat interesting.

As with any break in the text of a book (paragraph, chapter, etc.), the section break is primarily used to indicate a transition, whether it’s in terms of location, time, or point of view. It’s a way of bridging the gap between two passages which are conceptually close (they are, after all, in the same chapter), but are disconnected enough that moving directly from one to the other would seem jarring. It can also be used to give the reader an extended moment to pause, to reflect on what they’ve just read.

In his discussion of the section break, Lukeman advises writers to practice moderation in using it. He gives two main reasons for this. First, he says that the section break’s brief pause can literally take the reader out of the book:

When considering whether to use a section break, the first thing you must realize is that every time you use one, you give the reader a chance to put your book down. The section break carries nearly the power of a chapter break and also has nearly the visual appeal of one: it creates a nice, too-convenient place for a reader to rest. So first ask yourself if you truly need it. Can the chapter live without it? (p. 167)

Second, he argues that using too many section breaks in a chapter can hamper the reader’s ability to parse the text:

Sometimes one encounters a work where there are four, five, or more section breaks per chapter, and the effect is immediate. It lends the chapter a choppy feel, as if it’s been carved into small parts. As a rule of thumb, there should rarely be more than one or two section breaks per chapter. There is a certain satisfaction for the reader in absorbing himself in fifteen or twenty pages at once; multiple section breaks detract from that…It also makes them work harder, as they’ll have to exert the mental energy of going through multiple beginnings and endings, going through major transitions (whether of time, setting, or viewpoint) several times in a single chapter. (p. 174)

I think it’s fair to say that Lukeman’s advice holds true in most contexts. Most pieces of writing don’t require more than handful of section breaks, and as Brandon Taylor recently observed, writers often use section breaks to “conclude” passages they haven’t fully thought through yet. (Case in point: my “X Fragments on Y” posts, with the Roman numerals in place of dingbats.)

Yet wherever there’s sound advice, there’s also room to ignore it with abandon, and such experiments often have artistically interesting results.

*          *          *

The first place I remember seeing section breaks used imaginatively was in Chapter 3 of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). If Lukeman would find four section breaks in a chapter suspicious, then he would have Huxley arrested on the spot for what he does there. In my edition of the book, Chapter 3 is 27 pages long, and by my count contains 119 section breaks; that’s an average of more than four such breaks per page. What’s more, the sections are of widely variable length. While the first fragment of text goes on for about four pages, the sections grow progressively shorter, even as short as one line. The result is the print equivalent of a fast-cutting, action movie montage.

At least, it is on a formal level. The content is not nearly so exciting. The bulk of the chapter consists of three conversations that Huxley “intercuts” for his montage: Mustapha Mond’s history lecture, which he delivers to a group of confused students; Lenina’s dressing room chat with her friend Fanny, which centers on their sex lives; and a conversation about Lenina which Bernard Marx, our alleged protagonist, overhears and internally condemns. At no point do these threads actually intersect in the chapter; they merely occur simultaneously and in very rough proximity.

If you’ve ever listened to a radio frequency while at the edge of two station’s ranges, you’ll recognize the feeling of reading this chapter: picking up pieces of different discussions, but in such a way that it’s difficult to piece together a coherent through-line for them. At a certain point, you lose track of which words are coming from which station, and all that noise becomes one song. Such is the case for Chapter 3. If you pay attention to context clues, it’s possible to assign every section to its proper scene, but it’s easier—tempting, even—to just indulge in the implied poetry of all that rapid cutting.

But that very temptation, to just bathe in the pleasures of the rhythm without regard to meaning—that seems to be on Huxley’s mind here.

The previous chapter of Brave New World, Chapter 2, introduces a concept called “hypnopædia,” that is, sleep-teaching. While they are sleeping, children in the conditioning centres “listen” to recordings of lectures and pithy sayings that espouse the values of this society. The constant repetition, heard subconsciously, fundamentally shapes the mind of every person to guarantee their contentment with the status quo. As the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning tells his students, hypnopædia continues until

“…at last the child’s mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child’s mind. And not the child’s mind only. The adult’s mind too—all his life long. The mind that judges and desires and decides—made up of these suggestions. But all these suggestions are our suggestions…Suggestions of the State.” (pp. 28-29, emphasis original)

Chapter 3, however, is where the reader first sees the effects of hypnopædia outside the context of the conditioning process, with two characters who flout the norms of society. The first is Lenina, who, contrary to societal expectations of promiscuity, has been exclusively going out with the same coworker for the past four months. Fanny cajoles her into seeing someone else, but Lenina seems passively stubborn until Fanny whips out a hypnopædic proverb: “After all, every one belongs to every one else” (p. 43). Confronted with the inculcated wisdom, Lenina finally relents.

The second is Bernard, the one eternally glum man in London and the target of much ridicule and rumor. His coworkers mock him with exhortations to simply drug his way to happiness, knowing he’ll scoff at their suggestions. “One cubic centimetre is worth ten gloomy sentiments,” one person tells him. “And do remember that a gramme is better than a damn.” (pp. 54-55). Bernard predictably gets riled up, and they leave with a good laugh.

As it happens, Bernard specializes in hypnopædia, and so one might assume that he resists obeying conditioning because he knows how it works. (“Sixty-two thousand four hundred repetitions make one truth. Idiots!” [p. 47]) But as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Bernard doesn’t actually reject the values of his world; he’s simply unhappy because he doesn’t feel like he’s benefiting from them. Once he’s accepted into the higher echelons of society, his rebellious attitude evaporates. Hypnopædia, as it turns out, is hard to escape—which is why, when the verbal montage really kicks into gear, Huxley starts interpolating some of the hypnopædia recordings into the mix.

To give you a taste of what this montage feels like, have a look at page 49:

BNW p49

The rhythm of the short sections becomes so incessant that it takes on the air of a chant, of an indoctrination. It’s an effect I’m not sure could be achieved without heavy use of the section break.

However, Chapter 3 is an outlier in the novel. Nowhere else does Huxley deploy the section break with anywhere near this frequency, and as such the whole chapter can feel like an experiment, even a gimmick. (Huxley’s not even consistent with how he breaks sections in the novel: most chapters just use line-spacing, but Chapters 4-6 split chapters into explicitly labelled parts.) For a more consistent demonstration of the power of section breaks, we’ll need to look elsewhere.

*          *          *

I recently finished John Hersey’s Hiroshima (1946), a journalistic account how six people lived through the atomic bombing of the Japanese city on August 6, 1945, and its immediate aftermath, with an extended epilogue added to the 1985 re-printing that catches up on the subjects’ post-bombing lives. As a work of journalism, the fact that Hiroshima would feature more section breaks than is standard is not all that surprising; articles tend to include them at much briefer intervals than novels do. Indeed, Hiroshima was originally supposed to be printed as a series of four articles in The New Yorker before the editors decided to dedicate an entire issue to the work and printed it all at once. To a certain extent, it simply bears the marks of its medium.

However, I would still say Hersey uses the section break more often that Lukeman would ever deem strictly necessary. For example, the third chapter, “Details Are Being Investigated,” has 27 section breaks over the span of 24 pages. That’s not quite a Chapter 3 of Brave New World clip, but it still averages out to more than one per page. And unlike Huxley, Hersey keeps up with this rough pace for the entire length of the book. Why does he do that?

Part of the reason is practical. As in the third chapter of Brave New WorldHiroshima follows multiple groups of people through events that are happening simultaneously. The section breaks quickly tell the reader that the narrative is moving from one part of the city to another, shifting perspectives among its central figures. That extra space between paragraphs gives the reader’s mind a chance to recalibrate, to file one person’s experiences away for the time being and give their full attention the next part of the story.

The first chapter, “A Noiseless Flash,” is methodical in how it uses its section breaks. The first section lists off what each of the survivors the book follows was doing at the moment before the A-bomb exploded, functioning as a dramatis personae. After the first section break, Hersey gives a more detailed account of one of those person’s actions, the Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto’s. After another section break, Hersey briefly turns back the clock and does the same for the second survivor, Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, and so on for each figure. Everyone’s lives, in Hersey’s telling, are allowed to play out in parallel.

At least, they are at first, and this is where Hersey’s book demonstrates the real versatility of the section break. As the book progresses, and the various survivors start to cross paths and interact with each other, the strictly-divided sections give way to something more patchwork, more like verbal montage. Granted, the sections are not nearly as short as in Huxley’s case, but the narrative of the bombing’s aftermath does move quickly from setpiece to setpiece.

The subtle change in how the section break is applied underscores the dramatic change in how the central characters experience the world. Before the atomic bomb drops, there is something resembling order in Hiroshima. Yes, the city is struggling through the waning days of the war, with air raid sirens constantly warning of impending destruction. But in a way, everyone involved has adjusted to that status quo; their daily rhythms are unorthodox, but they’re still present. The atomic bomb, however, obliterates them. Confusion reigns over the city, so much so that one could conceivably turn Hersey’s journalism into a mystery story: What on earth just happened?

Hersey’s section breaks resemble montage in another sense: the juxtaposition of one section with another allows for commentary. We see this in Huxley, of course, what with those hypnopædic proverbs, but Hersey’s usage, though less frequent, is even more blunt. In “The Aftermath,” the epilogue written forty years later, Hersey writes about Rev. Tanimoto’s efforts as a peace activist, and inserts into that narrative brief snippets of world affairs, none of which are promising. Consider the following sequence from page 139, after President Harry Truman refuses to acknowledge a petition from the peace-oriented United World Federalists:

Hiroshima p139

Hersey does this repeatedly in the home stretch: Rev. Tanimoto’s peace advocacy, confronted with incessant nuclear proliferation. Blunt? Yes. But a perfect example of how a section break is not just functional, but meaningful.

Finally, Hersey’s use of section breaks actually makes me question one of the premises of Lukeman’s discussion: that something has gone wrong if the reader feels like putting the book down mid-chapter. Perhaps an author might think that there are situations where doing so is perfectly fine.

The subject matter of Hiroshima is, to put it mildly, heavy.  It’s the sort of book that inspires one to spend some time staring blankly at a wall, reflecting on the fallen state of humanity. One moment in particular got to me: a short section, which I shall quote in full, in which Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest, attempts to comfort a girl rescued from a river following the bombing.

The night was hot, and it seemed even hotter because of the fires against the sky, but the younger of the two girls Mr. Tanimoto and the priests had rescued complained to Father Kleinsorge that she was cold. He covered her with his jacket. She and her older sister had been in the salt water of the river for a couple of hours before being rescued. The younger one had huge, raw flash burns on her body; the salt water must have been excruciatingly painful to her. She began to shiver heavily, and again said it was cold. Father Kleinsorge borrowed a blanket from someone nearby and wrapped her up, but she shook more and more, and said again, “I am so cold,” and then she suddenly stopped shivering and was dead. (p. 45)

Readers may well find themselves overwhelmed with anger or despair or some other powerful emotion here. The section break serves as a humane exit point. “Do you need some time to process what you just read?” this use of the section break asks. “Well, here’s a fine spot to leave off. Come back when you’re ready.”

*          *          *

What do you think? Are there other books that you think use section breaks in creative or unique ways? Are there other punctuation marks or literary techniques that you think deserve more scrutiny? Share your thoughts down in the comment section.

If you want more examples of how to break the rules of writing productively, check out this older piece of mine: “‘The Sin of the Apple’: Writing from the POV of an Object”

And, as always, thank you for reading!

The Dark Comedy of George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia”

Until recently, if you had asked to me summarize the mood of George Orwell’s writings in one word, that word would be “terrifying.” In his two best-known works, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949),  Orwell’s depictions of totalitarian regimes are so plainly stated, with his prose possessing the bare minimum of ornament, that each spirit-crushing event in those novels comes across as inevitable. One leaves those books with a dull pain all around the heart, even if it’s accompanied by the urge to resist the coming catastrophe.

Homage to CataloniaRecently, though, I’ve started to revise that assessment, now that I’ve read through what is probably his third best-known book: Homage to Catalonia.

First published in the United Kingdom in 1938 and in the United States in 1952, Homage to Catalonia is Orwell’s personal account of his time spent fighting against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Given the dire subject matter, I assumed that the mood of the work would match that of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. And indeed, Homage to Catalonia often leaves me despondent and feeling brutalized by the progress of history.

But it also shows, somehow, that Orwell is also quite adept at dark comedy.

I don’t want to say that Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are entirely devoid of humor. The former in particular has some nice comical moments—I mean, it is a satire, after all. In particular, I’m thinking of Squealer’s justifications for the privileges the pigs seize for themselves, which read as though he’s crossed Pravda with Pangloss. But that humor takes place on the level of language; there’s not much humor on the level of situation. And, one may ask, how can there be? Those situations are rather deathly.

Yet in Homage to Catalonia, Orwell finds exactly that: scenarios which, by their sheer absurdity, get the reader to chuckle, though perhaps with a deep, doubtful sigh right afterward. I first noticed this fairly early on, near the end of Chapter III, where Orwell recounts a few instances where, by carelessness or miscommunication, he and his comrades almost die from friendly fire. Each near-miss merits a muted trumpet in the mind’s ear. The last sentence of the chapter neatly summarizing things: “In this war everyone always did miss everyone else, when it was humanly possible” (p. 37).

Now, in a war narrative, the presence of dark comedy is not exactly a revelation; the literature of war is riddled with spots of black humor, with the jokes soldiers tell as temporary relief from the strain of duty. What makes Homage to Catalonia interesting, I think, is how it uses that humor for more than just comic relief or satiric commentary. These moments of dark comedy are pivotal to understanding Orwell’s personal journey in the book.

To that end, I’d like to look at a passage from near the midpoint of the work, just before the turning point of Orwell’s fortunes. In Chapter VII (or Chapter VI in later editions which turned Chapter V into Appendix I), Orwell recounts a significant military operation he participated in, a mission to attack and raid a Fascist redoubt as part of the effort to capture the city of Huesca. After Orwell’s party manages to break through, Orwell spots a “shadowy figure,” one of the Fascists, and gives chase:

I started after him, prodding my bayonet ineffectually into the darkness. As I rounded the corner of the hut I saw a man—I don’t know whether or not it was the same man I had seen before—fleeing up the communication-trench that led to the other Fascist position. I must have been very close to him, for I could see him clearly. He was bareheaded and seemed to have nothing on except a blanket which he was clutching round his shoulders. If I had fired I could have blown him to pieces. But for fear of shooting one another we had been ordered to use only bayonets once we were inside the parapet, and in any case I never even thought of firing. Instead, my mind leapt backwards twenty years, to our boxing instructor at school, showing me in vivid pantomime how he had bayoneted a Turk at the Dardanelles. I gripped my rifle by the small of the butt and lunged at the man’s back. He was just out my reach. Another lunge: still out of reach. And for a little distance we proceeded like this, he rushing up the trench and I after him on the ground above, prodding at his shoulder-blades and never quite getting there—a comic memory for me to look back upon, though I suppose it seemed less comic to him. (p. 92)

First, let’s consider this passage in isolation. Even if you don’t find this scene especially humorous, one can still see the elements of solid farce here: Orwell bumbling about with his bayonet, the possibility of mistaken identity, and the fact that the man Orwell is chasing “seemed to have nothing on except a blanket.” And the chase itself, with the two men running on different levels as Orwell keeps coming oh-so-close to stabbing his target, wouldn’t feel out of place is a silent slapstick movie. Throw on the understatement at the very end of the paragraph—no kidding “it seemed less comic” to fleeing Fascist—and the result is a sustained moment of comic relief. It’s the sort of anecdote one could whip out at a party without causing much consternation in the audience.

Within the context of the narrative as a whole, though, the humor of this passage is less relieving than it is deflating. On multiple occasions leading up to this sequence, Orwell states that one of his desires in fighting for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War is to kill a Fascist. In Chapter IV, after he realizes that in his first three weeks in Catalonia he’s fired a grand total of three shots, he remarks: “They say it takes a thousand bullets to kill a man, and at this rate it would be twenty years before I killed my first Fascist” (p. 41). He’s less contemplative there than impatient, an impatience that reappears near the end of Chapter V/Appendix I: “When I joined the militia I had promised myself to kill one Fascist—after all, if each of us killed one they would soon be extinct—and I had killed nobody yet, had hardly had the chance to do so” (p.70).

So here finally comes Orwell’s chance to do his part in the anti-Fascist cause: no more waiting around in the trenches, no more risking enemy fire just to gather firewood. He’s part of an assault on a Fascist redoubt, he finds an enemy combatant ripe for the gutting…and it’s a guy who appears to be fleeing from him half-naked. I obviously can’t know how exactly Orwell envisioned his first chance to kill a Fascist, but I’m fairly certain that running around like a farmer chasing a fox off his property with a pitchfork was not part of the fantasy.

But that implication of the passage is merely disappointing. There’s another aspect to it that strikes me foreboding, perhaps even tragic. Up to this point, I haven’t touched on that peculiar flashback Orwell has before he begins his thrusting campaign in earnest, the one where he remembers his boxing teacher telling war stories. On first read-through, I wasn’t sure what to make of that little diversion, but after thinking through the context some more, I think I have an angle on it.

First, there’s something trivializing about that flashback. At the moment Orwell has a chance to capture some military glory, his thoughts turn not to, say, the heroes of ancient mythologies, or to some iconography from war propaganda, but rather to a memory of schooling. Instead of going high and noble, he turns low and common. Further, the flashback represents how most people encounter combat: in abstractions, either secondhand through testimony (the war story), or in ritualized, rule-bound contests (the boxing lesson).

Second, the boxing instructor’s war story, while framed as a personal triumph, comes in the context of ultimate failure. The instructor tells (or rather, pantomimes) of “how he had bayoneted a Turk at the Dardanelles,” referring to the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915-1916, which was a notable exercise in futility for the Allied forces in World War I. They spent almost a year attempting to seize control of the Dardanelles, the strategically-important strait connecting the Mediterranean to the Sea of Marmara, en route to capturing the Ottoman capital of Istanbul, before giving up after having gained virtually no ground following the landing at Gallipoli. One can see a parallel between Orwell’s situation and the instructor’s: while the raid on the Fascist redoubt is a minor success, the greater anti-Fascist cause will prove a bloody calamity.

Bringing up the Gallipoli campaign also highlights the tragicomic irony of war. As Paul Fussell writes in The Great War and Modern Memory, “Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected” (p.7). The Gallipoli campaign was supposed to be easy—aren’t all such operations?—as the battle would be waged against Ottoman forces that UK leadership believed were wildly inferior to British might. The result was a costly, diseased-ridden quagmire. By the same token, Orwell enters the Spanish Civil War with such simple purpose: he’s going to kill a Fascist and help defeat Fascism. Only after living with the conflict for some time, after enduring the bitter cold nights and the injuries of war and the Communist Party’s sabotage of the anti-Fascist effort, does Orwell learn the complexity beneath that simple purpose.

It is not for nothing that Chapter VIII, a summary reflection following the successful raid on the Fascist redoubt, ends with the bleak sentiment: “And after that the trouble began” (p. 107). In the subsequent chapters, Orwell will live through the street-war for the Telephone Exchange in Barcelona, the suppression of the P.O.U.M. and the mass arrests of its members, and a bullet through his throat that almost robs him of the ability to speak.

Yet for how bleak this all sounds—and is—the mere presence of dark comedy in Homage to Catalonia suggests one final thing about Orwell’s work here: there is still room for hope. This isn’t Nineteen Eighty-Four, where one suspects Newspeak is a language incapable of intentional comedy as well as political dissent. That Orwell can find humor in such dire circumstances feels like a testament to human freedom. Indeed, while Orwell grows disillusioned with the Communist Party as an institution, his time spent in the P.O.U.M. camp makes his “desire to see Socialism established much more actual than it had been before” (p. 105). Even when the fight is hopeless, a cause may still be worth pursuing.

If you enjoyed this look into the literature of war, you may also be interested in my analysis of Thomas Moore’s Irish melody, “The Minstrel Boy.”

Living Like the Reeds: Aesop and Ammons

Let us begin with a simple image: reeds blowing in the breeze. In the hands of a painter, we have the beginnings of a new landscape. In the hands of a filmmaker, a calm opening shot.

In the hands of a writer, the seeds of a practical philosophy.

Aesop famously uses this image of wind-blown reeds in one of his fables, “The Oak and the Reeds.” As translated by Vernon Jones, the story goes like this:

An Oak that grew on the bank of a river was uprooted by a severe gale of wind, and thrown across the stream. It fell among some Reeds growing by the water, and said to them, “How is it that you, who are so frail and slender, have managed to weather the storm, whereas I, with all my strength, have been torn up by the roots and hurled into the river?” “You were stubborn,” came the reply, “and fought against the storm, which proved stronger than you. But we bow and yield to every breeze, and thus the gale passed harmlessly over our heads.”

The Oak and the Reed

In his introduction to the Barnes & Noble Classics edition of Aesop’s Fables, D. L. Ashliman says that this fable may well be “the capstone to the pragmatic moral philosophy of Aesop” (xxix). Time and again, the fables instruct us to accept our circumstances, whatever they may be, rather than railing against them; examples include “The Ass and His Masters” (“Why wasn’t I content to serve either of my former masters…now I shall come in the end to the tanning vat”) and “The Crab and the Fox” (“I had no business to leave my natural home by the sea…”).

Yet it is “The Oak and the Reeds” that presents Aesop’s brand of pragmatism in its most generally applicable terms. The wind stands in for any obstacle or hardship that one may face, not just one’s station in life. Low or high, weak or strong, everyone encounters a strong gale at some point. The best that one can do, it would seem, is go along with such events, rather than resisting them and breaking down.

Had Aesop not predated them by a good three centuries, I would be tempted to group him with the Stoics, who advised taking a similar approach to hardship. Consider the following passage from the Enchiridion, Epictetus’s manual for Stoic living:

If you are going to bathe, picture to yourself the things which usually happen in the bath: some people splash the water, some push, some use abusive language, and others steal. Thus you will more safely go about this action if you say to yourself, “I will now go bathe, and keep my own mind in a state conformable to nature.” And in the same manner, with regard to every other action. For thus, if any hindrance arises in bathing, you will have it ready to say, “It was not only to bathe that I desired, but to keep my mind in a state conformable to nature; and I will not keep it if I am bothered at things that happen.”

Epictetus’ bather could get worked up regarding the unpleasant behavior of his fellow citizens, could stand as stubborn as the oak. But their actions are outside his control. Better that he accord his will with nature, bending in the breeze like the reeds, and take the behavior of others as a given. He will thus keep his own mind untroubled.

Certainly this is prudent advice. So long as the difficulties concern you and you alone, it is difficult to refute. Indeed, whenever I read the likes of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius, I find myself wishing I had their cool and dispassionate resolve.

But suppose the breeze is something more than a personal obstacle. Suppose it’s something which affects a large swath of society: an authoritarian government, or systemic injustice. To bend like the reeds, as the Stoics would suggest, may well make an individual’s life more bearable. But it does little for everyone as a collective. One might say that the lives of fellow sufferers are as beyond our control as those of the oppressors, and at any rate we lack the power to actually resist. But I feel that merely rationalizes passivity.

For comparison, let us turn from Ancient Greece to the 20th-century United States. “Small Song,” a short poem by A. R. Ammons, also uses the image of reeds bending in the breeze. In its entirety, it reads:

The reeds give
way to the

wind and give
the wind away.

I plan on doing a full dissection of the poem in a later post, but for now let’s note the difference between Ammons’s and Aesop’s reeds. For the fabulist, the wind acts upon the reeds and not the other way around. Indeed, the reeds only ever act by lecturing the oak for not letting the wind act upon it. For the poet, the apparent passivity of the reeds is in fact an action. Their bending makes it obvious that the wind is present.

What do we make of Ammons’s twist on the reed image? Considered in isolation, it is a pleasing little paradox, a short sentence dense with potential meaning. Considered in the context of Aesop’s fable, though, and one might find a message about resistance. Absorbing the wind’s abuse consequently makes it visible. Think of the specific phrase “give / the wind away.” To be given away, one must be trying to hide something, to sneak it by without notice. Those reeds, because they bend, prevent that from happening.

Sure, when the oak falls to the banks, it does so with a great crash. But reeds do not bend in silence; they flap and rustle, and they do so for as long as the wind is blowing. The oak’s resistance leads to one loud crunch, and then nothing. The reeds, on the other hand, will not be silenced until the wind is silenced. Unlikely heroes though they may be, they resist, and they endure.

A Poet of the People: François Villon in “If I Were King”

The original, 1855 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass begins with a free-wheeling prose introduction, touching on poetry, philosophy, and the American experience. Among the many topics Whitman covers is the role of poetry and the poet in the world of politics and government. Given his background as a journalist, it is not surprising that Whitman sees the poet as having a role to play in public affairs. He writes:

If peace is the routine out of him speaks the spirit of peace, rich, large, thrifty, building vast and populous cities, encouraging agriculture and the arts and commerce —lighting the study of man, the soul, immortality —federal, state or municipal government, marriage, health, freetrade, intertravel by land and sea . . . nothing too close, nothing too far off . . . the stars not too far off. In war he is the most deadly force of the war. Who recruits him recruits horse and foot . . . he fetches parks of artillery the best that engineer ever knew. If the time becomes slothful and heavy he knows how to arouse it . . .

A lovely sentiment, though in a time when poetry is not so widely read, perhaps difficult to believe. Yet it is so ecstatic in its praise that one cannot help but get caught up in its call to arms.

I found myself thinking back to this passage after watching If I Were King (dir. Frank Lloyd, 1938). The film may be set in 15th-century France rather than the 19th-century United States, but it still recalls Whitman’s vision of the poet in the public sphere. Even more: I think the film offers us another way to understand Whitman’s words.

Adapted from the play and novel of the same name by Justin Huntly McCarthy, If I Were King tells a fictional story about a real-life poet, François Villon. A rogue as well as writer, this film’s version of Villon (played by Ronald Colman) is something of a Robin Hood figure, stealing from the royal storehouses to feed the hungry citizens of Paris. Times are tough in the French city, with a Burgundian siege slowly starving the populace. Meanwhile the king and his court, who have enough food to last them six months, seem oblivious to the conditions on the streets.

Villon finds this state of affairs intolerable, and he will say so to anyone within earshot. This includes, as it turns out, an undercover Louis XI (Basil Rathbone), who has come to Villon’s favorite tavern in search of a traitor, his Grand Constable (John Miljan). Not only does Louis get his man, he also gets an earful from Villon, who takes him for an ordinary tavern-goer. After proposing an ironic toast to Louis (“May the Burgundians take the city away from him—better still, may they take him away from the city”), Villon claims that, given the chance, he would be much better at running the country:

I don’t wish to appear boastful, Brother Long-Nose, but I should think a child of two could do better. Had I been born in a brocaded bed, I might have led armies and served France. As it is you see me here, consorting with cutthroats and wantons and wasting my time with a dull old buzzard like you.

The aristocratic structure of French government greatly limits Villon’s potential power. He cannot be Whitman’s “most deadly force of the war” because he is not of the nobility, from whose ranks the generals are drawn. He can have no soldiers at his command to inspire, no people in the streets to rally to war.

Louis, poking at the poet’s presumption, asks what Villon would do if he, in fact, were king. While Villon mentions enjoying the finest of foods and purging the court of its inept and crooked nobles, his most inspiring proposal concerns how he would connect to his subjects:

VILLON: I’d try to know my subjects. I’d try to earn their devotion and loyalty, instead of their loathing.

LOUIS: By abolishing taxes, I suppose?

VILLON: No! By abolishing despair and substituting hope! I’d learn the longings in their hearts, as a man of the people would, seeing them as they are and admitting that their vices are as deep-rooted as their virtues. I’d treat them as my children, instead of as my enemies. So, by knowing the worst in them, I bring out the best in them.

He would still, as it turns out, be “consorting with cutthroats and wantons,” because those are the people he would be governing. It is somewhat foolish to talk about a democratic spirit to monarchical rule, but Villon’s vision shares at least Whitman’s love of the common people.

Villon soon gets his chance to put that vision into practice. The Grand Constable comes to the tavern, intending to arrest Villon for raiding the storehouses. A skirmish ensues, and Villon kills the Grand Constable, putting Louis in an unusual position: he must punish Villon for killing one of his advisers, and also reward him for killing a traitor. His solution: make Villon the new Grand Constable, and show him that governance is not as easy as it looks.

Indeed, Villon has great difficulty in his new position—but only when he must play by the rules of the aristocracy. Notably, getting the lords to even consider an attack on the Burgundians proves impossible. They do seem overly cautious, given the desperate circumstances. But Villon’s penchant for verbal sparring wins him no friends in the war room. Earlier in film, Villon quipped that “poetry is its own worst enemy,” and here he proves his own point. The nobility aren’t going to stand around and let some poet insult them; they will simply render his words powerless.

No, the poet is far more effective in governance where the common people are concerned. Most obviously, Villon calls on the masses of Paris to counter a charge from the Burgundians, which is what ultimately saves the city from starvation. The people’s surprise success is literally the only thing that convinces the generals to fight. “Who recruits him recruits horse and foot,” indeed.

But even his rhetoric within the court appeals to democratic principles. Consider his message for the Burgundian envoy, who offers the king “an honorable surrender.” Villon’s ode to the people’s strength would hardly seem out of place in Whitman’s preface:

Kings are great in the eyes of their people, but the people are great in the eyes of God, and it is the people of France who are speaking to you now. We are armed and provisioned. We are warm and comfortable behind our strong walls. We laugh at your threats. But, if we who eat were starved, if we who drink were dry, if we who are warm were frozen, our answer would still be the same: ha! We laugh at you, we the people, and the king.

So strong is Villon’s message for the envoy, it seems to win over even Louis, who laughs the envoy out of his court. This victory is short-lived, however; the fateful meeting with the generals follows soon after this scene.

If I Were King may present a rather optimistic view of what poetry can do in the realm of politics. Still, it acknowledges its limits, and in doing so, it helps to refine the praise that Whitman offers in his preface. The power that poets wield is not intrinsic to them. It depends on their audience.