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ALIENATION IN POSTMODERN BRITISH LITERATURE

ALIENATION IN POSTMODERN BRITISH LITERATURE:


SELECTED POEMS OF PHILIP LARKIN, SEAMUS HEANEY
AND GEOFFREY HILL

NABILAH MOHD NOR (GS37391)


SHIMA SHOKRI (GS34922)

OCTOBER 24, 2013


CONTEMPORARY BRITISH LITERATURE
DR. Hardev Kaur
UNIVERSITI PUTRA MALAYSIA

ALIENATION IN POSTMODERN BRITISH LITERATURE


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NABILAH MOHD NOR (GS37391)


SHIMA SHOKRI (GS34922)
CONTEMPORARY BRITISH LITERATURE
DR. Hardev Kaur
24 October 2013

ALIENATION IN POSTMODERN BRITISH LITERATURE: SELECTED


POEMS OF PHILIP LARKIN, SEAMUS HEANEY AND GEOFFREY HILL

Introduction
In the last half of the twentieth century, the term postmodern is referred to vast terms which
contain different theoretical tendencies and aesthetic practices(Cockin and Morrison 9)
involving both postwar and contemporary writings. In this new era of literature, writers and poets
employ a different style of writing which goes against the values and assumptions of earlytwentieth century (Cockin and Morrison 9-10).
The philosophical themes within such poetry could be clarified as a certain characteristic of
post-war and contemporary writing (Cockin and Morrison 10). Diverging from the concerns of
the previous era, the themes of poetry within this period mostly circulates around death,
loneliness, war, religion, politics, sociality, and alienation. This paper however, intends to look at
the specific theme of alienation and isolation in the post World War II (WWII) British society;
through the channel of poetry.

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In persuit of exploring the theme of alienation in postmodern poetry, this paper elects to analyze
two poems each from three prominent British poets: Philip Larkin (Dockery and Son and This Be
The Verse), Seamus Heaney (Digging and Punishment), and Geoffrey Hill (Ovid in third Reich
and September Song). The poems will be studied through the frame of Melvin Seemans concept
of alienation and the five dimensions within it.

Methodology
The term alienation could be referred to as a personal psychological state and type of
social relationship (Roberts 346). According to Senekal, Seeman identified five dimensions of
alienation in his papers (Senekal 20) which Lystad saw as a sign of personal dissatisfaction with
certain structural elements of society, defined in terms of expression by individuals by the
feelings of powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, social isolation and

self-

estrangement(Lystad 90). According to Kalekin-Fishman, alienation in modern sociology


refers to the distancing of people from experiencing a crystallized totality both in the social
world and in the self(Kalekin-Fishman Designs for Alienation). Indeed, the postmodernist
pattern includes the issues of discovering the individuals reactions towards the rising
complexification and expanding Interdependence of international society(Geyer xiii).

Discussion
This study attempts to examine the sense of alienation in the selected poems of three
postmodern poets: Philip Larkin (1922- 1985), Seamus Heaney (1939- 2013), and Geoffrey Hill

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(1932- present). Such attempt is based on the dimensions of alienation and the meaning of
alienation in modern society.
Philip Larkins isolated childhood with his immediate family had influenced his views on life
greatly. A stammering child, Larkin was educated at home by his mother and sister until the age
of eight, where they barely had any visits from relatives or friends (Bradford 28). His father was
a self-made man who combined his love for literature and enthusiasm towards Nazism (Bradford
25); also described as nihilistically delusioned in middle age by Larkin himself (Larkin 106).
Although emancipated into society as he goes to college, most of his works emphasizes upon
the themes of social and emotional distance, seen from a pessimists eye. His sense of
detachment, especially upon the concept of family; could be seen in Dockery and Son and This
Be The Verse.
Dockery and Son reflects Larkins view on life and its lackluster. Similar to his other poem
Mr. Bleaney, the title refers to someone not actually present in the poem, but whose absence
opens an occasion for discourse (Hibbett 69). The Deans initiation of a conversation was used
by Larkin only to distance himself from it, in space and time (Hibbett 71). While pulling his
attention away from the conversation, his effort to remember Dockery swerved into reminiscing
monotonous fragments of his older days. Hibbetts analysis of the poem reveals further
emergences of alienation in the form of normlessness as Larkin stated that to have no son, no
wife, no house of land still seemed quite natural. Unlike most individuals who would consider
settling down with a family and house to be common stage in human life, the poet went against
the norm by alternatively accepting the opposite setting of being alone as a natural state within
the cycle. Only a numbness registered the shock of finding out how much had gone of life, how
widely from the others. Here Larkin checks in with social isolation, which Kalekin-Fishman

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refers to as the feeling of being segregated from ones community("Tracing the Growth of
Alienation" 97), by acknowledging that a huge part of his life was spent being separated from the
society around him. Back to the issue of Dockery, whom the poet compares himself to; he felt
rather glad that he was without a son. Life to him was first boring, then fearful. Acknowledging
the absurdity of life, Larkin voiced out through the first-person narrator in the poem, a state of
meaninglessness which is characterized by a low expectancy that satisfactory predictions about
the future outcomes of behavior can be made(Seeman 786).
In This Be The Verse, Larkin expresses his distaste on childhood and parenting in a bold yet
casual rhyme, based on the analysis of Dubrow. His thesis statement was very much stated in the
first line They fuck you up, your mum and dad. He advocated that parents are the cause of
their childrens pain and ruin, although unintentionally. Dubrow saw that the parents of Larkins
referent parents in the poem, who half time were soppy-stern and half at one anothers throats,
had negatively affected their children by being drunk and violent towards each other most of the
time (Dubrow). Get out as early as you can, and dont have any kids yourself was his
prescription to put off the succession of such a wreck. With this, he employs the mode of selfestrangement to solve his predicament; through the psychological denial of his own
interests(Kalekin-Fishman "Tracing the Growth of Alienation" 97). Dubrow suggested that to
Larkin, leaving his childhood, home and parents would distort the developing damage; and
escaping the cycle of reproduction would cease the reoccurence of the impairment process.
Having arranged his arguments that the essence of dysfunctional families is an item of
succession, Larkin takes refuge from the family institution itself; refusing to be a part of his
family or to build one of his own. His solution echoes alienation in the form of normlessness, a
reaction towards the legacy of his drunk and violent grandparents. This fits the remarks of Neal

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and Collas (112), stating that normlessness derives partly from conditions and complexity and
conflict in which individuals become unclear about the composition and enforcement of social
norms.
Seamus Heaney was born in a family farm, depicting the intensity of the Irish experience is in
most of his works (Bloom 18). His family was Catholic and like most of the people in County
Londonderry, had lived in a relative harmony with their Prostestant neighbours. Heaney
however, had felt the tension between the two groups and within himself at a very young age;
due to their differing views on politics, religion, and even language and literary traditions
(Bloom 18). His poems mirror the dilemmas and occurences he faced in life as he becomes his
own person, putting him into a limbo-like situation of not belonging despite having strong
cultural roots. Heaney experiences double alienation from the sense of belonging to native and
secondary cultures (OBrien 203). Such could be traced in many of his works, among them
Digging and Punishment.
Digging speaks of how generations of men would succeed their fathers job in the family
business. The poet, a boy watching his old father working in the fields, was admiring his unsual
strength for his age (Fawbert). By God, the old man could handle a spade. Just like his old
man (Seamus

Heaney). - This was the poets acknowledgement and respect towards the

abilities of his father and grandfather in their trade. His grandfather, the previous superman in the
family, could cut more turn in a day than any other man in Toners bog (Seamus Heaney).
Based on the analysis of Digging by Fawbert, it was pointed out that the poet had tremendous
respect for his father and grandfather, portraying them as stalwart men with stoic determination
when it comes to work. Alienation in the form of normlessness surfaces however, when he
realizes that he has no spade to follow men like them(Seamus Heaney). Normlessness, in the

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words of Seeman (787), denotes the situation in which the social norms regulating individual
conduct have broken downor are no longer effective as rules for behaviour. From Heaneys
narration, it had been a norm for generations of men in the poets family to be physically strong
and determined farmers. Trading the family spade for a pen, he walks away from the familys
traditional business and expectations to become something entirely different. The persona
Heaney voiced as in the poem defied the norms of his family, when he decided to do his
digging as a poet and start his own revolution.
Punishment was inspired by a female body found in a bog, an adulteress punished for her
crime during the Iron Age. Utilizing the analysis of Fawbert, it could be seen through Heaneys
precision within the verses that she was humiliated before sentenced to death. The mummified
body was found to be blindfolded and naked, having her head shaved with a rope around her
neck. My poor scapegoat, I almost love you but would have cast, I know, the stones of silence
(27) this is the turning point of the poem, where the persona expresses his sympathy and
admiration towards the assumed criminal for carrying the sins of the community. He however,
played a quiet role by the sidelines, refusing to act against such punishments even when he had
the chance; a person who would connive in civilised outrage, yet understand the exact and
tribal, intimate revenge(27). Thwaite, in review of Heaneys poem, stated that the execution of
an Iron Age girl for adultery is seen as analogous to the ritualistic punishment of women,
presumed traitors in Northern Ireland, who have been shaved and tarred by extremists as an
example to others (Thwaite 100). The weighing of morality brings Heaneys poem to the theme
of alienation in the form of powerlessness. Although his empathy for the convicted female affects
his loyalty towards the persecuting Catholic community, his alliance does not change as he did
not do anything to disrupt the persecution; choosing to stand dumb while her betraying sisters

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were cauled in tar and wept by the railings(28). Here Heaney reflects the claim of KalekinFisherman ("Tracing the Growth of Alienation" 97), where powerlessness is experienced by a
person who is concious of what she would like to do and what she feels capable of doing.
Being a full supporter of neither party, he secludes himself from both groups into the position of
artful voyeur (28), whose only action was to observe.
In his poems, Geoffrey Hill wrote about life, decay, death, use, and abuse of the individual
world (Dean 1), mostly used casual phrase in his poems (Thwaite 65), and demanded
etymological roots (Middleton xli). Amongst his works, his second collection King Log
(1968), depicted more suffering within political, religious, and personal grounds. Through his
poems, although it could be suspected that Hill has little patience for religion as such; he is
compelled by the sacrifice of Christ and continually witnesses the reenactment of that blood
submission in the atrocities of war (the Wars of Roses, the Civil War, and the First and Second
World War)(Hirsch xcvii). This could be seen in the first poem of his collection, Ovid in third
Reich. Reaching adolescence at the end of WWII, Hill uses his own experience growing up as
he explicates the consequence of pain and suffering while writing on Holocaust and other Wars
(Hassan 29). This could be traced in September Song.
In the first stanza of Ovid in third Reich; I love my work and my children. God/Is distant,
difficult , Hill tried to portray the desire of modern humans who prefers subjects of materialism
instead their God. Mentioning God/ Is distant, difficult , he pointed out that God is not
anymore among people; far from their ideologies and beliefs instead. This suggests that the
meaning of God has become lost in the minds of individuals, hence bringing forth the alienation
dimension of meaninglessness. Seeman believed that meaninglessness happens when the
individual is unclear as to what he ought to believe - when the individual minimum standards for

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clarity in decision making are not met . Hence by vanquishing the meaning of God among
humans, the meaning of being human would change; turning them inhumane. Through this result
of inhumanity, individuals have the courage to question the existence of God . Thus, by losing
God in our beliefs, we have no connection towards divinity. As long as humans are alienated
from God, nothing would prevent the loss of their souls.
By saying that Things happen Hill believes that when a person loses his soul, and God
become meaningless in his beliefs, terrifiying events are bound to happen. This is similar to
Middletons belief that one of the things that would happen in Nazi Germany was
Holocaust , in refrence to Hills September Song. As humans were to kill each other, innocence
could not remain or be of any use at that time. Saying that Innocence is no earthly weapon,
Hill advocated that innocence, a character related to divinity; could not help humans in the time
of turmoil. Divinity, a once popular notion in the society, is not clear to them anymore; indicating
normlessness and meaninglessness in the era.
In September Song, Hill talks about a boy who was killed by the Nazi as he watches the fire
around him Through the claim I have made an elegy for myself it is true, he suggests that
humanity approaches death as long as the true meaning of God is lost in our beliefs. From this
stanza it could be indicated that although he had the desire of making some changes in the world
and was executing an effort towards it, he suffers powerlessness and was unsure about the
consequence of his action. In complex situations, individuals are unable to guarantee a precise
outcome of their actions. Since the result is vague with the possibility of both rewards and
punishments, individuals often face indifference and alienation .

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Connection of selected poems to society


While Dockery and Son and This Be The Verse show Larkins fear of marriage and family ,
it also uncovers his stand against the norms of modernity in the era. The British society turns
affluent as the country progresses to a better state of economy and welfare after WWII.
Individual luxury was now tangible after the process of embourgoisement, which results from
the mechanism of wealth increase and classlessness reduction within the society . The society
could now afford many things they could not during the war, indulging into the lifestyle of
material and pleasure. In his poems, Larkin refused to participate in the societys celebrations
and fads, taking to melancholic isolation instead. His attempt to escape the present by
reminiscing his past did not seem to project happiness, for in Larkins case, neither childhood
nor love is and outlet to escape from sadness .
Heaney, in his poems Punishment and Digging, reveals his stand upon the issues concerning
his Irish roots. Through Punishment, he addresses the Irish Troubles by highlighting the ancient
nature of tribal hatred which his community still clings to in the modern day. Richman points
out that the poem portrays Heaneys rejection towards the expectations of his fellow Irish,
especially those rooting for rallying cries and propaganda. While Punishment was his act of
dashing out of his larger family of Ireland, Richman also stated that Digging was Heaneys
act of dashing out the expectations of his family. Instead of succeeding the family farm like
generations of men in his family, he chose to become a poet. The two poems served as the poets
opportunity to examine his own fate of coercion and intimidation .

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In Ovid in the third Reich and September Song, Hill depicts the destruction of war and its
impact upon human perception towards God. After WWII, Morell pointed out that the society
faced a loosening and definite decline in the influence of orthodox religion. He reported that
while most people still have religion to their name, less attended weekly religious activities or
sought fellowship with others of a similar belief system. While Morell looks at the situation as a
byproduct of the general secularization of the society, the decline of religiosity could also be seen
as a post-war retaliation by the society. Having gone through horrifying experiences during
battles and surviving civilian life during war depressions, individuals might assume that God did
not help them during their time of need; hence distancing themselves from religious practice .
Humans survival from their self-engineered massacres had led them to isolate themselves from
God,

hence

taking

the

matter

of

their

existence

into

their

own

hands.

Conclusion
The passing of WWII had lead Britain to reconstruct itself almost entirely. While the
countrys recovery from the war had brought certain prosperities toward its people, the new state
of affluence came together with a sense of self-sufficience and isolation. The chosen works of
Larkin, Heaney and Hill in the discussion was found to have indeed contained Melvin Seemans
five elements of alienation. Not only did their poetry had successfully reflect the preserved
thoughts and feelings of the society in the era; they have also enlightened the future generation
on how important it is to know, appreciate and improve our place in the world we are born into.

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Bibliography