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Prose as Poetry in The English Patient

Prose as Poetry in The English Patient

“Never again will a single story be told as though it is only one.” John Berger.

The English Patient consists of the stories of its four characters told either by themselves or by Ondaatje. Two stories, the accounts of Kip’s military service and the many-layered secrets of the patient, are developed while Hana’s and Caravaggio’s stories are less involved. However, none of these stories could stand alone. The clash of cultures and changing relationships between the characters provide the texture for the novel. They create a complex web in which everyone becomes entangled.

Ondaatje uses an extremely complex structure and poetic language to further the interweaving of the characters’ lives. According to one critic, “The author’s four stories are not a story that gathers momentum from start to finish. They are the widening and fading circles on a pond into which history has plunged like a cast stone.” (Eder 203).

“The overall structure of the book is circular and allusive, advancing, rounding back on itself, coming to endings that are not necessarily resolutions, and which may be connected to other starting points.” (Draper 204). The novel begins en medias reis with the burned English patient already installed in an upper room of the villa. It is near the end of the war. The other doctors and nurses have left leaving only the patient and his nurse. He can only give short, vague descriptions of exploring the Liberian desert. When Kip and Caravaggio enter Ondaatje interlaces flashbacks to give the reader glimpses of their pasts. The novel has third person, but often characters revert to the first person to tell their own story.

The least is learned about Hana’s past. Most of what is known about her childhood in Toronto is given by Caravaggio. As the novel progresses the English patient’s flashbacks become longer, more detailed and coherent. The farther into the novel the farther into the past he recalls. Ondaatje moves toward the denouement obliquely, avoiding standard conventions of plot and narrative voice.

The English patient’s story is the oldest narrative material, the center around which the rest of the book builds. His story lies at the center of the book, just as the patient himself lies at the center of the villa. ” The dialog is pften not substantial enough to carry the deep emotions of the characters, so Ondaatje often relies on intierior monologue.

After Apple Picking

After Apple Picking

In Frost’s poetry any deviation, not only from the iambic foot but from the iambic pentameter line as well, is an important marker of the speaker’s state of mind, his control, and his capacity for irony. “After Apple Picking” keeps resolutely returning to pentameter lines, but the speaker is drowsy, and the opening twelve-syllable line – “My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree” – is like the last murmured words before sleep. Of course, it also represents, as does the whole masterful structure of the poem, Frost’s own precise control of tone, as he creates a speaker who is precariously “upon [his] way to sleep.” This fatigued vulnerability manifests itself in an escalating slippage of control from ten-syllable lines to foreshortened lines like “For all / That struck the earth,” or eleven-syllable lines like “No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble.” And as the speaker moves toward an increasing intuition of the symbolic underpinnings of his exhaustion, which is the result not just of his picking apples but of other more visceral frustrations and fears, the frequency of these variations increases. (Lines 1, 2, 14, 16, 18, 19, 25, 27, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 39, and 42 vary from the pentameter; only lines 18 and 34 are extra-syllabic.) His awareness and fear of this loss of control are manifested in the final lines:

The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his

Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,

Or just some human sleep.

What he fears is not so much death as the very state the poem has mimicked – that is, a suspension between not-life and not-death where language is narcotized toward incoherence and uncontrol.

. . . .

Matter . . . makes itself felt even as it capitulates to its own variable nature. If the apple will fall in “After Apple Picking,” if it, like the speaker on his way to dreaming, is about to go bruised to the cider heap where it will be pressed into an essence of itself, it nonetheless maintains through all its transmutations an identifiable appleness. The apple holds, against the authoritative prosodic erosion of waking reality into dream state, its own sensual place as an essential ingredient in the spell to which the speaker is succumbing.

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