Chapter 2, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

images

Many apologies for the length of time between some of my posts here. For those not in the know, I’m off school at the moment, looking after my wife, who has leukemia. Thankfully this week I’ve found time to get back to the book.

So, without the slightest ado, let’s get to it.

Summary— Chapter Two

Chapter two begins with Willie Dunne reading a newspaper with his father on an evening. The paper that the pair read together runs impressive stories of patriotic commitment: accounts of different peoples from around the world mobilizing to fight on behalf of the British Empire. Willie recalls an Irish Times article recounting a (now famous) speech given by John Redmond that declared his conditional approval for the enlistment of Irish volunteers. Willie’s father notes scornfully that this call for enlistment in the cause of Home Rule is precisely the opposite reason many Ulstermen are volunteering. Willie’s father, as a loyalist, is hostile to both Redmond and nationalism, and instead extols to Willie the virtues of King, Country and Empire. Yet when Willie unexpectedly enlists, his father weeps. Willie’s sisters react excitedly, though his eldest sister Maud is tense.

Willie joins the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and by December is training in Fermoy, County Cork. He writes a letter home about the training there and his new friends, Privates Williams and Clancy. In January the soldiers hear with some ambivalence about Christmas truces with the Germans on the Western front. One of Willie’s particular problems at camp is finding the privacy to masturbate.

The narrative moves swiftly on to the day of the Fusiliers’ departure for Belgium. The regiment arrives at a railway station in Dublin and parades through the city on the way to the docks. The adulation of the crowd excites the marching men. Willie hopes to see Gretta and his sisters on the day, but does not.

The villages of England similarly salute the tired soldiers as they roll through on their troop train. The incongruity of Irishmen being cheered by the English is noted by some of the young men. Willie listens as they joke with one another. While his friends confidently talk, he remains reflective, dimly grasping a broader history and fate that takes men from all over Britain to the front. This confluence of soldiery in a great cause excites a sense of manhood in Willie.

The men arrive in France. They are thrilled to be abroad, taking in the small but significant differences of landscape to home. Willie’s sense of euphoria in his newfound vocation continues, but his overenthusiastic reverie ultimately overtakes him. After imagining a horse charge whilst travelling on a swaying transport, he vomits up his breakfast.

The men finally arrive at the trenches. The artillery bombardment they find is vicious and terrifying and ongoing. Willie feels the fear of war for the first time.

The narrative leaps forward. The platoon are eating together while Sergeant Major Christie Moran spies no-man’s land. Moran, exhausted and splenetic, curses the British Army to the amusement of his comrades. He damns it as the very institution that has repressed the Irish for centuries. Moran is on the edge; as he and his men perform their ablutions before taking the firestep at stand-to, his internal monologue escapes him and he talks ruefully to himself of his misfortune, overheard by the men.

Later, the men learn that the German bombardment of the night previous has destroyed the supply trench behind, killing the men there. There is nothing for the platoon to eat that night.

Questions

Here are some questions that occur when reading chapter two.

As Barry begins the second chapter he manages to convey some of the contemporary excitement in the press at the start of the war (pp. 14-15). How is this presented? How does Willie react to this excitement? In what ways does his father’s reaction to the news reveal tensions in Irish society?

Barry effectively conveys the emotional aftermath of Willie Dunne’s decision to enlist (p.15). How does Barry manage to do this- what relationships does he focus on? How do the reactions of his characters create an emotive impact?

Chapter two is largely preoccupied with Willie Dunne, his experiences, thoughts and feelings. He is presented as an innocent, even naive young man, subject to the desires of youth. What passages does Barry use to reveal important aspects of Willie’s character? Where does Willie seem innocent, where naïve, and where gullible to the reader?

Another feature of Chapter two is the introduction of Willie’s comrades-at-arms. These men are our most profound introduction to Barry’s notion of Ireland and Irishness so far. How does Barry first present Willie’s comrades? What kind of men are they? What kind of language do they use when they speak to each other? What sort of culture do they seem to come from?

It is important that you begin to get to grips with Irish history and the significance of the John Redmond speech referred to in this chapter. Follow the links I have inserted into the first chapter of the summary above. What do you now understand by the term ‘home rule’? Who was John Redmond– and what is his significance in the story of home rule? Why did John Redmond declare nationalist support for the enlistment of the Irish volunteers? By contrast, in ‘A Willie’s father in ‘A Long, Long Way’ is a loyalist and unionist. What do you understand by these terms?

For me, the second chapter of the novel is surprisingly brisk in pace— running from life in the Dunne household, to regimental training, to Willie’s departure from Ireland, journeying through England to Belgium and then finally seeing action on the Western Front in a swift fourteen pages. I thought the movement a little too theatrical for my liking, as if Barry were energetically shooing us to curtains up in Flanders (the use of a letter home to draw the sum of Willie’s training struck me as too economical, for example).

Barry is not afraid of utilising the worn stones of historical cliché in laying the path to his scene. Never such innocence, never before or since, and all that— and just because a saying is much repeated does not make it untrue. Yet Willie so far is an unremarkable character, performing the age-old narrative function of the wide-eyed youth thrust blinking into the fallen world of experience (see Candide, Oliver Twist, William Boot, Ballard’s Jim or any number of genre protagonists).

There’s the Irishness that’s undoubtedly interesting, of course, and the richness of the language that Barry reproduces in the dialogue and narration; but so far, the story rests on a too-easy sentiment that bothers me. But there is a reason why Sebastian Barry is a twice Costa-winning author, and I am just some Joe, teaching English literature in a secondary school in West London.

Advertisements

Chapter 1, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

images

 

So, we begin our reading. This post will hopefully be quite functional. You will need, come exam-time, a way to refresh your minds about the content of the novel. That will be the function of these summaries, and I will tag each of them (look right!) as ‘Chapter Summaries’.

After writing my summary, I’ll ask you a series of questions I want you to consider. You can answer these questions (or offer an opinion on the first chapter) below the line in the comments section.

I’ll write a more detailed response to the first chapter in a subsequent post. But for the moment, here is my summary of the first chapter of Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’.

Summary— Chapter One

The novel begins in Ireland in 1896. A child, Willie Dunne, is born as a thunderstorm rages outside the Rotunda maternity hospital in Dublin city centre.

One of Willie’s early memories is recounted: the contentious visit of King Edward the Seventh to the city in 1903. Willie’s childish recollection is only that the King was “as big as a bed” and that his father, James Dunne, a policeman, was on duty on a “big white horse” that day.

Willie is brought up with great affection by both his mother and father; but his mother dies in childbirth when Willie is twelve, and Willie is brought up by his father and three sisters. As he grows, Willie deeply feels her loss. Moreover, his father’s hopeful expectations that Willie will follow in his footsteps and become a policeman are frustrated by Willie’s small physical size. Willie feels his inadequacy keenly.

The narrative leaps forward to early 1914, when Willie is just short of seventeen years old and has become a fairly contented apprentice builder. Willie regularly runs an errand for his father to take offerings of food to a Mr Lawlor, a neighbour living in a slum tenement dwelling nearby. There he meets Gretta Lawlor, a thirteen year old girl with whom he falls in love.

Mr Lawlor, a carter and marcher on behalf of trades union recognition, was severely injured in street fighting accompanying the Dublin lockout of 1913, beaten by Dublin Metropolitan Policemen under James Dunne’s command. He scorns Willie’s father’s sympathy for him as a sign of the policeman’s doubt as to the morality of the DMP’s violent strike-breaking. He seems to the young Willie a cussed but principled man.

Like many of the Dublin poor forcibly dismissed after the lockout, Mr Lawlor joins the British Army. His duties mean he is often away from home. At first lustily infatuated with the beautiful Gretta, Willie’s visits as the year progresses lead to a growing intimacy and love. The young couple’s relationship remains secret to their fathers, but even given the Lawlor’s poverty (set against the Dunne’s middle class respectability) Willie is confident that he can gain his father’s permission to marry.

At the outbreak of the war in August, Willie explains to Gretta that he is going to join the British Army. His motivation is hazy: he repeats early propaganda about murderous Germans, but more pertinently perhaps, his wish to please his father. Gretta is unhappy and does not want him to go, but Willie reminds her of his father’s opinion that a man should act according to his own thoughts and beliefs. The chapter closes as Gretta discloses that, ironically, these opinions are taken from the Christian philosopher, St Thomas Aquinas.

Questions

Here are some questions it occurs to me to ask about this technically accomplished first chapter.

The opening of the novel (pp. 1-2) seems concerned with beginnings and endings. What represents this in this early passage? Can you find examples of this tension within the text? Why do you think that Barry begins his novel in this way?

It seems to me that Barry very efficiently and economically manages to describe the life of William Dunne as a child (pp. 4-6). How does Barry manage to do this? What does he focus on to create a sense of depth of character? Why does this work?

Barry engages swiftly with the violent upheaval in Irish society at this time (pp.6-11). Why do you think that James Dunne sends food to Mr. Lawlor after the violent breakup of a union rally? Why does Mr. Lawlor tolerate the young William Dunne as he does? What, perhaps, might Barry be suggesting about conflict in Irish society in 1914?

William and Gretta’s relationship provokes some of the narrator’s most extravagant similes and metaphors in the opening chapter— “He was in love with Gretta like a poor swan was in love with the Liffey and cannot leave it, no matter how often the boys of Dublin stone her nest”, or “she looked like an angel, at least how an angel ought to look” (pp. 11-12). The narrator’s language is often lyrical, though it strikes me here that a note of irony is employed when describing their relationship. What does such language seem to say about Willie’s feelings for Gretta? What differences are there in the way the narrator presents Willie, and how the narrator presents Gretta? How does the lyrical narration affect the tone of the work?

I also wonder what interested you about this first chapter. I thought it a confident and above all controlled opening. This is a mature writer who has learnt that it is economy of detail that is most persuasive in establishing character and setting. I am also, however, somewhat perturbed by the elegiac and lyrical tone of the opening passages— this isn’t necessarily my kind of writing, but I’m keen to read on. Just as well, really.

How to arrange a bunch of flowers

jon-stallworthy-poet-and-012
Jon Stallworthy, poet and academic, who died in 2014. Read his obituary here.

 

Before we get started with reading ‘A Long, Long Way’, let me write one last post that may be useful to those who are trying to get to grips with Stallworthy’s anthology. A couple of years ago a student wrote to me, asking:

What could [you] say about the arrangement of the WW1 poems in the Oxford Book of War Poetry? I’ve read the introduction where Stallworthy said they were mainly chronological. I was wondering if you knew which were the exceptions and why? My teacher asked [me] to consider the arrangement in terms [of] the exam question, where I think I’m right in saying that one of the questions tends to ask about how a poem fits into the whole selection? Aside from being chronological are they arranged in any particular themes?

This question and the answer I gave to it has languished in a relatively unread section of the site. I think that as we shift focus for a while towards Barry’s novel it is good nonetheless to remind ourselves of Stallworthy’s impressive anthology and some ways we might approach how he organises the poems within.

As outlined by the AQA, there are 71 collected ‘poems’ in the First World War section of The Oxford Book of War Poetry, from Thomas Hardy’s ‘Men Who March Away’ (poem 99) to Ted Hughes’ ‘Six Young Men’ (poem 169). That’s a big selection of poems, covering many aspects of the experience of the First World War. We might well wonder: are they arranged in any particular themes?

The answer I have to this question is ‘I don’t know’ and, as Professor Stallworthy died in 2014, I am unlikely to directly divine the intentions of the anthologiser. But let me briefly talk you through a rudimentary plan of attack I have used in teaching how to revise the anthology over the years.

Stallworthy’s Anthology is broadly chronologically organised, but we can trace an underlying logic within this order.

The first poems are early responses to the outbreak of war- Hardy, Brooke, Asquith, Grenfell and so on. Hardy’s ‘Men Who March Away’ was published during the first week of the war- as early a response as you can get, really, from a great and elderly Victorian poet. Grenfell and Brooke’s poems are both romantic responses of young men to the war, and display attitudes to heroism and conflict that gradually become unavailable to the great war poets. McRae’s poem was written in May 1915 and so fits into the chronological pattern; but it also seems to evidence an early and relatively untroubled moral certainty about the conduct of the war.

Then we have the ‘transitional figure’ of Charles Sorely: a poet well versed in the classical poetic tradition who nonetheless seems a bridge between the naiveté of the earlier First World War poets and the later war experience, in which the deaths of millions become a reality.

There follow next two poems with very different moral and political positions regarding the British Professional soldier at the start of the First World War: the first a provocative contemporary musing by A.E. Housman, the second a relatively undistinguished but unashamedly political 1935 poem, in furious argument with the first.

A far more interesting and varied cluster of non-British poets follow, giving perspectives philosophical, aesthetic and political. Sandberg, Frost and Steven’s work evidence the objective and philosophical distance these writers have. Two striking French responses follow these, absurdist and surreal and stimulating; followed by five tumultuous poems by the great Irish poet, WB Yeats (Yeats will surely figure as a crucial poet in our upcoming reading of Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’).

The anthology then focuses on a cluster of collected works by the acknowledged greats of First World War poetry: Sassoon, Thomas, Gurney, Rosenberg and Owen. This is the core of the selection, works of those soldier-poets who for better or worse have defined our understanding of the conflict ever since. Rosenberg and Gurney give us poems from a war experienced by preternaturally artistically talented Privates. Owen and Sassoon’s poems reproduce with skill the peculiar experience of sensitive, intelligent, well-read, traumatised Officers. Thomas’ poems bring an elegiac and mature contemplation of the inherent experience of loss that war inevitably involves.

The two great poet-memoirists of the war follow, Graves and Blunden; it is advisable to read these sections in tandem with their great works, ‘Goodbye to All That’ and ‘Undertones of War’.

Then we have what might best be called a rag-bag of notables writing about the conflict, from Aldington to Binyon. There are straightforward but satisfying lyric poems like ‘Winter Warfare’ and ‘Battlefield’, but formal innovation too- the ever popular (with my students at least) E.E. Cummings, and the ever unpopular David Jones, whose outstanding ‘In Parenthesis’ is read in extract form (and what, after all, do students know- that’s right, I mean you, dear reader) .

After this, Ezra Pound (Ezra’s a he, by the way) and TS Eliot stand together as the great Modernist shock troops of the large ‘looking back on the war’ section. Following them are two embittered (and great) late-Victorian poet-provocateurs, Rudyard Kipling and GK Chesterton. These two writers concisely give us the most precise evisceration of the politics of a generation that is found in the anthology. Then follow two female poets, M.W. Cannan and Elizabeth Daryush, thrown in almost as an afterthought (this near complete absence of female voices about the war is the gravest weakness of Stallworthy’s anthology- I have been waiting years for a bright young feminist to get their teeth into this peculiar matter). Finally there are three poems about the first world war written late Twentieth century poets who weren’t alive at the time of the conflict. These strike me as very much photographic ruminations on the First World War, and none of the poems are anywhere near to being the poet’s best; but they each evoke a particular mood of looking backwards from what has now become a grave and forbidding distance.

These compartments are my inventions, but they’ve always worked in the teaching. I hope they will help you get a handle on the anthology. I wonder, do any students or teachers want to add their thoughts on how they approach the anthology?

(Oh, and first prize for the student who can make sense of my title for this article.)

 

How to Use This Site to Revise

“Look, I’m telling you, I started at ‘A’ and went right through to ‘Z’, and I’m stuffed if I can find it.”

January nears: and that means A-level exams. It struck me that I haven’t posted on the ways that this site might help you prepare for your exams.

One of the nice features of a blog like this is the category cloud that you’ll find in the column to the left of this posting (just scroll down). In the exam– especially those of you sitting the AQA AS exam– you will be asked questions or given texts that ask you to link that text (be it a poem, play, fiction or non-fiction) to your wider reading. So it’s always a good plan to have an idea of those poems that have common themes. The category cloud (and the Themes, Issues and Events box beneath) allows you to find poems and posts that I have linked by category.

For example: say you want to link war poems which prominently feature nature and natural imagery. Go down to the Category Cloud and you’ll find a category called ‘Pastoral/Natural Themes’. Click on this and it will bring up a number of posts and poems that feature this theme: ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’, ‘War Horse-Review’, ‘On Receiving News of the War’, ‘To His Love’, ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’, ‘Rain’… and so on. You can use this list to analyse just what kind of natural imagery is found in the poems: the similarities and difference found in Thomas’ ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’, say, and Hardy’s ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’. The list isn’t exhaustive, of course (I’ve only got as far as Rosenberg so far) and you shouldn’t rely on my categorisation alone! But this may be useful for you to make simple mind maps about the relationships between poems.

You can also do the same when reading individual poems: zip up to the top and you’ll find the categories each poem is failed under just underneath the post title. Click on a category and it’ll bring up all the other posts linked to that theme (be careful when you choose a large category like Pastoral / Natural Themes– there may be more than one page).

If you’re feeling a little shaky about historical context, check out the category, ‘History’: it’ll bring up a number of posts, some of which may be useful to you. There are, among other subjects, posts that link to articles about about life in the infantry, zeppellins, popular culture and so on. Even if you can’t find a post about your concern, there may be links to other sites that will help you. Give it a try.

Finally, if you’re puzzling about a reading or a revision issue, you might click on ‘Ask Mr. Griffiths’ at the top of the blog. I can’t guarantee that I can help you– and I’m afraid I’ll never do your work for you– but if I can point you in the right direction, I will.

Good luck!