Saturday, August 9, 2008

Excitable Boy

Before dabbling in any poetical analysis or other musings, I want to apologize for my lack of posts of late. This started off as a summertime whim, but I’ve hugely enjoyed writing the blog so far, and I’m flattered by all the positive feedback and comments I’ve received. The format may become slightly more concise as the school year restarts for me on Monday in order to try to keep posting with some regularity. This post’s title originates from a Warren Zevon song of the same name, the lyrics of which share a great deal with the following poem. I don’t know how Auden and Zevon would react to being paired in such a way, but they serve my purposes as convenient alphabetical bookends to a mode of fictional story that surrounds us.

James Honeyman – W.H. Auden

James Honeyman was a silent child;
He didn’t laugh or cry:
He looked at his mother
With curiosity.

Mother came to the nursery,
Peeped through the open door,
Saw him striking matches,
Sitting on the nursery floor.

He went to the children’s party.
The buns were full of cream,
Sat there dissolving sugar
In his tea-cup in a dream.

On his eighth birthday
Didn’t care that the day was wet,
For by his bedside
Lay a ten-shilling chemistry set.

Teacher said: “James Honeyman
Is the cleverest boy we’ve had,
But he doesn’t play with the others,
And that, I think, is sad.”

While the other boys played football,
He worked in the laboratory,
Got a scholarship to college
And a first-class degree,

Kept awake with black coffee,
Took to wearing glasses,
Writing a thesis
On the toxic gases,

Went out into the country,
Went by a Green Line bus,
Walked upon the Chilterns,
Thought about phosphorus,

Said: “Lewisite in its day
Was pretty decent stuff,
But, under modern conditions,
It’s not nearly strong enough.”

His tutor sipped his port,
Said: “I think it’s clear
That young James Honeyman’s
The most brilliant man of the year.”

He got a job in research
With Imperial Alkali,
Said to himself while shaving:
“I’ll be famous before I die.”

His landlady said: “Mr Honeyman
You’ve only got one life,
You ought to have some fun, Sir,
You ought to find a wife.”

At Imperial Alkali
There was a girl called Doreen,
One day she cut her finger,
Asked him for some iodine.

“I’m feeling faint,” she said.
He led her to a chair,
Fetched her a glass of water,
Wanted to stroke her hair.

They took a villa on the Great West Road,
Painted green and white;
On their left a United Dairy,
A cinema on their right.

At the bottom of the garden
He built a little shed.
“He’s going to blow us up,”
All the neighbors said.

Doreen called down at midnight:
“Jim, dear, it’s time for bed.”
“I’ll finish my experiment,
And then I’ll come,” he said.

Caught influenza at Christmas.
The doctor said: “Go to bed.”
“I’ll finish my experiment,
And then I’ll go,” he said.

Walked out on Sundays,
Helped to push the pram,
Said: “I’m looking for a gas, dear,
A whiff will kill a man.

“I’m going to find it,
That’s what I’m going to do.”
Doreen squeezed his hand and said:
“Jim, I believe in you.”

In the hot nights of summer,
When the roses all were red,
James Honeyman was working
In his little garden shed.

Came upstairs at midnight,
Kissed his sleeping son,
Help up a sealed glass test-tube,
Said: “Look, Doreen, I’ve won!”

They stood together by the window,
The moon was bright and clear.
He said: “At last I’ve done something
That’s worthy of you, dear.”

He took a train next morning,
Went up to Whitehall
With the phial in his pocket
To show it to them all.

He sent in his card,
The officials only swore:
“Tell him we’re very busy
And show him the door.”

Doreen said to the neighbors:
“Isn’t it a shame!
My husband’s so clever,
And they didn’t know his name.”

One neighbor was sympathetic,
Her name was Mrs Flower:
She was the agent
Of a Foreign Power.

One evening they sat at supper,
There came a gentle knock:
“A gentleman to see Mr Honeyman.”
He stayed till eleven o’clock.

They walked down the garden together,
Down to the little shed:
“We’ll see you, then, in Paris,
Good night,” the gentleman said.

The boat was nearing Dover,
He looked back at Calais,
Said: “Honeyman’s N.P.C.
Will be heard of some day.”

He was sitting in the garden,
Writing notes on a pad:
Their little son was playing
Round his Mum and Dad.

Suddenly out of the east
Some aeroplanes appeared.
Somebody screamed: “They’re bombers!
War must have been declared!”

The first bomb hit the Dairy,
The second the cinema,
The third fell in the garden
Just like a falling star.

“O kiss me, Mother, kiss me,
And tuck me up in bed,
For Daddy’s invention
Is going to choke me dead!”

“Where are you, Jim, where are you?
O put your arms around me,
For my lungs are full
Of Honeyman’s N.P.C.!”

“I wish I were a salmon,
Swimming in the sea,
I wish I were the dove
That coos upon the tree.”

“O you are not a salmon,
O you are not a dove:
But you invented the vapour
That is killing those you love.”

“O hide me in the mountains,
O drown me in the sea:
Lock me in a dungeon
And throw away the key.”

“O you can’t hide in the mountains,
O you can’t drown in the sea,
But you must die, and you know why,
By Honeyman’s N.P.C!”

While the posts may eventually be shorter, this poem is the longest I’ve posted so far, yet its length is slightly irrelevant, given its simplistic diction, short lines and stanzas, and tripping rhythms. Its simplicity clashes ironically with its content, however, in a way that is reminiscent of Larkin’s “This Be The Verse,” my inaugural poem. Larkin smacked you right across the face with his dark content, but Auden delays the darkness over the course of this longer poem. For the opening quarter of the poem, the content of this poem suits its simple structure. It looks, sounds, and reads like a nursery rhyme. Only later on does Auden start turning the knife, gradually pulling away the curtain that hides his monstrosity from view.

Part of the fun is that any vaguely intelligent reader has an experience akin to an audience member at a Greek tragedy: he is one step ahead of the clueless protagonist at all times. While potentially frustrating, it’s a technique that hooks the reader/audience member and keeps him engaged.

Before taking a closer look, I wanted to gloss a few terms:

Great West Road – A main road that runs west from Chiswick towards what is now the M4
motorway and Heathrow Airport. It’s an apt choice for Honeyman’s house because it was the sight of a great deal of local industry in the early twentieth century. Londoners and frequent visitors may remember the Lucozade sign that graced what used to be the Lucozade factory on the north side of the road.

Imperial Alkali – Not, from what I can tell, a real company, but relevant or its proper adjective “Imperial.” Honeyman works at a company whose name refers to the British Empire, yet Honeyman’s best work is used by the “Foreign Power.”

Whitehall – A road in Central London popular for the government offices located there. Hence the word is used metonymically here: Whitehall stands for the offices located on Whitehall.

One reason for discussing this poem this week is that I am planning to teach it to my students this year. Apart from the simplistic structure and diction mentioned above, the poem jumps out at me as a minefield of irony. This is a concept I had difficulty teaching last year, and I hope that the use of this poem will ease my troubles. But before I teach anyone about irony, I’m still figuring out its nuances myself. The different types of irony, for example, seem to lack much in the way of exclusivity. Like too much of the study of literature, the types of irony are manifold and complex. I have come across verbal, tragic, comic, dramatic, cosmic, situational, and proleptic irony, as well as the irony of expectations. A Venn Diagram of these terms would certainly be complex. Nonetheless, I will tackle it as best as I can.

I’ve already mentioned two ironies that occur in this poem. First of all, the easygoing diction, structure, and rhythm of this poem clash with its profound content. The clashing of diction with meaning appears to fit quite comfortably within the category of verbal irony, and I would argue that structure and rhythm could sit somewhere on the periphery. Secondly, the reader is aware of the dangers of Honeyman’s creation before he is. This seems to be tragic irony, as Honeyman is furthering his career to his success, whilst the reader sees that his determination will lead to a demise (we don’t really know it will lead to his demise). This leads to and perhaps overlaps with the biggie: the protagonist’s invention being used against him. I’m not exactly sure what category this fits into, but it has become old hat now, more commonly seen in cartoons than in poems.

One such cartoon would be the recent Pixar film Wall-E. For a darker version, see 2001 Space Odyssey. Both share the role of cautionary tale, warning against technology’s rapid advancement. Auden’s poem serves a more delicate purpose. Written in 1937, it might be seen as a reaction to World War One and a caution against World War Two. Specifically, its ending predicts the Nazi bombings of London and other English cities. I suppose that might be some form of historical irony which Auden would have bemoaned.

Just like 2001 Space Odyssey, “James Honeyman” contains scattered clues of its horrible ending. Honeyman’s family life in particular clearly takes a back seat to his profession. He only meets his wife through her injury at Imperial Alkali (an event that in part foreshadows the poem’s ending). Mention of his son is surreptitious and secondary to his scientific progress. In two nearby stanzas, the second line acknowledges the existence of a child, but does not bring it to the forefront. First we have simply: “Helped to push the pram.” Later on, we are told that he “Kissed his sleeping son.” Then of course, the neighbors think he is going to blow them up, but their statement, intended lightheartedly, also carries an ironic punch. Then we have the ominous “Foreign Power.” The mention of Calais might suggest that this is France, but either way, the lack of specification indicates that the truth is hidden from Honeyman, that this operation is covert in nature.

Ultimately, Honeyman’s outsider status is his downfall. He wasn’t a sociable child, and perhaps if he had found a social life, he would have been too busy to invent his infernal N.P.C. Finally, his downfall is complete with his completely cowardly behavior undercut by his wife’s urgent mimicry. He is still the same odd child playing with the chemistry set, and he lacks the adult (and, as Auden might argue, masculine) wherewithal to handle this situation. Instead he tries to find his happy place. If only he were an English major, then things might have turned out alright.