Discovery in Robert Gray’s Poetry & Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden
Discoveries that challenge what one does in their everyday lives and what one sees as acceptable allows them to reassess their place in the world and forces greater understanding of it. Through viewing the world through fresh eyes, one offers themselves insight into something that may have been previously disregarded or concealed. Composers explore how discoveries encourage re-evaluation of situations, evident in the poems ‘Late Ferry’ and ‘The Meatworks’ by Robert Gray, an Australian imagist poet, where he delves into the consequences of economic progress despite it being widely accepted in modern society, allowing the reader to make informed opinions on the subject. Similarly, in the short story ‘The Garden Party’ by Katherine Mansfield, a well-to-do modernist writer, the reader is taken on a journey as the character reflects on her privileged lifestyle, and in turn causes the reader to reassess their own life.
Reflection on the simple beauty of nature as opposed to the overwhelming consumerism in society leads to deeper understanding and appreciation of life. By separating oneself from the everyday one is able to reassess popular opinion and what society values. In the poem ‘Late Ferry’, Gray brings the reader along on the Ferry’s journey in the “huge, dark harbour”, which becomes a catalyst for Gray’s own opinions. The ferry itself represents the fragility of humankind, being bombarded by the push towards materialism. Gray uses personification and simile to describe how the city is both alluring and dangerous. In the lines “Ahead,/ neon redness trembles/down in the water/ as if into ice”, Gray alludes to ‘red light districts’ to symbolize humanity’s lust, but also how this creates discomfort of the artificial as it becomes consuming. The city is a mantle of seduction, distracting us from the fact that what it advertises as fulfillment actually brings the opposite – an unremitting greed. Gray argues that freeing ourselves from society’s constructs and appreciating nature helps create satisfaction in life. Ending the poem with the use of synaesthesia and simile, he demonstrates the intense yet calming power of reflection. “I can find it while it’s on darkness,/ like tasting honeycomb,/ filled as it is with its yellow light.” This communicates the idea that clarity comes from ‘darkness’, that is, a lack of artificial distractions, and that life can be enriched by an understanding of nature. The color yellow is often associated with joy and calm, and so ending with this shows that peace is found with contemplation. Gray uses the persona to reveal discoveries that he made whilst living in Sydney. Likewise, in the short story, ‘The Garden Party’, Katherine uses the character of Laura to display her own discoveries as she questioned and learnt more about the world, which she made whilst growing up in a privileged family in the late 1800s. She uses the death of the poor neighbor as a means of confronting both the character and the reader with the harshness of life, but simultaneously the beauty of it. By allowing Lauren to briefly separate herself from her sheltered lifestyle and expose her to reality, both she and the reader can gain a new awareness of the delicacy of existence itself, and the prospect of life after death. Using rhetorical question after Lauren sees the dead man highlights realization: “What did garden parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him?”. This brings to attention how although society aligns financial success directly to fulfillment in life, when we die it becomes unimportant. One’s legacy is not held in their former possessions, but the impact they continue to have on others even after death, as if they were only “sleeping”. The simple beauty in the circle of life allows one to reassess the workings of society. By separating oneself and reflecting, deeper understanding of the world and nature can be gained.
Confronting discoveries that question one’s perceptions can offer a broader understanding of the world, by forcing a reassessment of one’s values. A push to financial and social success has begun to overwhelm society and has created a divide between those who value humanity and compassion, versus those who disregard it for their own social and/or financial gain. In ‘The Meatworks’, Gray rediscovers the meat factory he describes and reflects on the lack of respect and humanity that goes into food production, often unseen by today’s consumers. Gray separates the persona from the workers, who disregard humanity in favor of income as “most of them worked around the slaughtering”. This exclusivity highlights Gray’s disgust for those who have become mindless murderers all for some “frail green money”. In the quote “you found, around the nails, there was still blood.” Gray alludes to Lady Macbeth, as no amount of trying can wash away past actions, and stating this as a fact, connects the physical matter to the permanent, physiological wounds. Gray uses his own experiences of working as a butcher to make the reader have confronting realizations of the cruelties that come with consumerism. In ‘The Garden Party’, Laura discovers her family’s indifference towards a death, something which she is deeply affected by. Their sense of ‘false Eden’ and superiority over lower classes creates a lack of morals and humanity towards those less fortunate. Like the pigs are slaughtered in the meatworks, to them, this tragedy is distant and insignificant. Mansfield foreshadows this event when Laura’s sister, Jose, sings a song about life being “Wee-ary”. The use of irony brings to attention the ignorance of the privileged, confronting the reader with the family’s lack of benevolence before the event happens in the quote “her face broke into a brilliant, unsympathetic smile”. Though the lyrics are sad, Jose is unable to sing with true compassion and instead finds amusement in them. The family’s continuous insistence on extravagance rather than sympathy gives the reader a deeper understanding of how classes and materialistic based values can warp basic human nature. Through these confronting discoveries, the reader reflects on what they value, and through this, becomes more knowledgeable.
Challenging the everyday and reflecting on society and one’s own values can lead to a reassessment of one’s views of the world to better understand it. Composers like Gray and Mansfield take us on a journey of discovery, to enlighten and inform the reader, resulting in renewed opinions. A rejection of materialism is presented through their works as a means of gaining greater insight into that which is often overlooked and underappreciated. Through discovery, one can form their own views and not simply accept the fact that society believes ‘progress’ is the only road to fulfillment in the modern world.
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