Jane Eyre in Derry
This poem by John McAuliffe. From Of All Places, 2011, Gallery Press.
Jane Eyre in Derry
Seven Hours with Charlotte Bronte
on the Galway-Sligo bus to Derry
and on arrival, reader, it would be hard not
to have a problem with the shut, shuttered pubs,
the early closing of unknown bookshops
the picketed cinema not showing Prêt-a-Porter
the black cab’s same old uncongenial story…
But I’m happily lost in writing a list
at the loose end of your shift
and here you are, you, and the bright air
of your short, boyish haircut
which you wear in Altnagelvin,
like an amulet
to stop roughly half the staff knowing
what they believe in.
Start with the title?
Jane Eyre: character or book? Will knowledge of the book illuminate the poem? Or will the poem offer a reading of the book? There’s reference to a journey at the start of the poem. Jane makes many journeys: is this related to any of them?
The next obvious question: Who is Jane Eyre in the poem: the /I/ or the /you/? Neither pronoun is gendered within the poem, unless you subscribe to the idea that every first person poem written by a man is that man speaking.
The poem consists of two sentences, the first ending in a series of dots, the second marked by the capital at its beginning. The relationship between the two sentences is subordinate….the second opening on But should qualify whatever happens in the first.
First sentence, the speaker has arrived in Derry. In the third line the direct address to the reader is something Bronte was fond of doing. The first sentence describes an urban landscape, which of course is grim and depressing as urban landscapes tend to be in Irish/British poems. In the usual jangle of images which pass as poetry’s answer to cinematic technique, Derry is summed up and described through ‘shut pubs’, ‘unknown bookshops’, a ‘picketed cinema’ seen, presumably, through the taxi window.
Does the speaker know this place? ‘unknown’ bookshops perhaps is a clue but it could mean ‘unfrequented by the locals’. ‘Same old uncongenial story’ suggests familiarity though whether with Black cabs or the view is not clear.
So after seven hours on the bus, the speaker takes a ride in a black cab through a landscape “It’s hard not to have a problem with.” Why? Who is this speaker? Why is he or she traveling?
The second sentence doesn’t answer this but comes in on “But’ so it’s a qualification of the first. Despite all this /I/ is happy writing a list (But about what? About things in Derry to have a problem with? The first sentence is, after all, a list. ). At the loose end of your shift….who is this you who intrudes into the poem, Jane Eyre, someone the speaker links to Jane Eyre, thinks of as Jane Eyre, but what if the speaker is Jane Eyre? A shift in Jane Eyre would be a piece of clothing, so the phrase ‘at the loose end of your shift’ has an odd ambiguity which doesn’t really do much, as he’s obviously not writing his lists on her night dress.
/You/ arrives. The repetition of you in the one line is presumably to emphasize the speaker’s happiness or /you/’s sudden arrival. ‘Boyish’ might suggest it’s a she…though old men can have boyish looks and boyish haircuts…but what do the last two lines mean? How does a boyish haircut stop half the staff (which staff? Hospital staff? Hotel staff? Bar staff? Teaching staff? Office staff?) knowing what they believe in? And what is it they believe in /You/ doesn’t want them to know?
The words themselves will not answer any of these questions. The poem remains resolutely vague. Over fifty years ago Wimsatt and Beardsley, writing in The Intentional Fallacy, divided evidence into three types: Internal, the words on the page; External, diaries, biographies; Intermediate (a writer’s known use of a particular word). They admitted the distinctions weren’t easy to police. But if you import external evidence to make sense of a poem, you’re going to end up with what they called a private reading, with limited public value.
If you have to import knowledge of secondary texts to make sense of a poem, because on its own it obviously doesn't, does that reduce the poem’s standalone value? If I import all the information at my disposal and it still doesn’t make sense of the poem, then what is the point of the poem?
I have been using 'Jane Eyre' in class every year for nearly fifteen years. Every year my class and I find new ways of violating it with Literary theory: I've done Charlotte with Barthes, Foucault, Freud, Wimsatt and Beardsley, Eco, Iser, Jauss, Stanley Fish, Gilbert and Grubar: Peter Hollindale on Ideology, Derek Attridge on Idioculture. We've tracked recombinations of pre-existing texts, speculated on Rochester as wish fulfillment, the dangers of biographical readings, and discussed why Jane can't run off with him after the first aborted wedding. I like this book. I think Charlotte B was very good at what she did.
So, if the title “Jane Eyre in Derry” offers any clues, I should be able to pick them up.
Rochester offers to send Jane to Ireland just before he proposes to her the first time. So is this “Imagine Jane in Ireland”? If so imagine what? Staff could be school, Jane would have either taught or been a governess. She doesn’t want them to know she’s in love with her previous employer but how does her hair cut stop them form knowing that?
Jane makes several significant journeys to meet people. So if /I/ is Jane, arriving after a long journey in an unfamiliar or unwelcoming place, then /you/ could be the dying Aunt Reed. Altnaglevin is, courtesy of Wikipedia, not only a place in Derry but a hospital. Hospitals have staff, so /You/ is terminally ill? Radiation therapy makes people’s hair fall out, so a short haircut might obscure that and people wear amulets against cancer.
I could spin that one. But nothing in the poem will support it or exclude the equally obvious one that this is Rochester seeking Jane after she’s run away or Jane returning to find Rochester.
I won't go on. My point is it could be any of these or none of them.
To test this I played the obvious game. Change the title and the name of the author in the poem: Tess in Derry. American Psycho in Derry. Anna Karenina in Derry. The poem is so vague it will support these. You can also ditch Derry. “Any two people meeting for an undisclosed reason in any city” works just as well.
The point behind this exercise is not to trash the poem. The book it comes from has many similar ones and someone obviously thinks they are good: it’s a poetry book society recommendation.
But I think it’s fair to ask, what’s in it for me as a reader? I paid for this. What do I get in return. I’m ready to believe that a) this poem meant something important to the speaker and addressee b) that if I knew the autobiographical context I might make sense of it c) there is knowledge I do not have which would make sense of it.
However, as a paying reader, I don’t want the spectacle of someone demonstrating their ability to write something recognizable as a poem, I want something that communicates with me, Not some implied reader who might have the bizarre set of external knowledge that will unlock the text, nor the equally bizarre implied reader who doesn’t care whether the poem he or she is reading makes any kind of sense at all.