The island. Sometimes I think there is no better metaphor for despair. For the feeling of being shored up behind your own barricades, cut off from the larger part of humanity and with nothing but your looping dark thoughts for company. We’ve all been there at some point or other, stuck on that island, bemoaning our fate, cursing heartily perhaps, and wondering how the hell Robinson Crusoe managed to be so resourceful.

My first encounter with the Crusoe story was watching an old, black and white, and (I think) French-made television serialization that I now realize was remarkably faithful to Defoe’s novel. It was screened every Saturday morning, as part of a energy-packed diet of children’s programming that included Champion the Wonder Horse and Joe 90, and it had a wistfully romantic theme tune, played on violins. It arrived on our screens before I was old enough to have encountered despair. But I was old enough to recognize resilience, and I saw its fingerprint everywhere; in Crusoe’s daily ritual of carving a notch on a piece of wood, a measured action that seemed to evince nothing less than a taming of time, and in his building enclosures for rearing goats.

Each week I was agog to see what new-fangled invention Robinson would devise to nudge his tree house (already rather stylish, in a kind of cane-strewn, island chic way) into an ever more close approximate of civilised comfort. I was completely sold on the idea that if only Robinson could build a good enough replica of the world he’d left behind, then he would cease to hanker for rescue: all that was required of him emotionally, I believed when I was ten, was a little fortitude.

Now I understand that one needs a complete tool-kit of emotional equipment to build something out of nothing –  hatching an escape plan, providing meaningful consolation –  and that, even then, you might still find yourself marooned. Thank you Mr. Defoe. And thank you, too, Elizabeth Bishop.

For those who do not know Bishop’s work, her minor epic, Crusoe in England, is as good a conjuring of hopelessness as any I’ve read.

Let us be clear. There are no white sand beaches lined with swaying palms on Bishop’s island. No fruiting shrubs or signing birds, no colourful array of tropical flora, and no ship-rescued booty: neither grog, nor books, nor grub. Crusoe’s island is, from the start, the antithesis of paradise.  Volcano-pocked, ashen, and largely barren, it is a rainy cloud-dump, smelling of ‘goat and guano.’ Bishop’s Crusoe spends a good deal of his time here dangling his legs over the mouth of a spent crater, counting volcanoes.

This island is sterile. There is only one of everything on it. One kind of goat, one kind of turtle, one kind of tree, one tree snail, one man, one sun. There is also only one kind of berry, dark red and sour-tasting, with which Crusoe makes a stinging brew that goes straight to his head. Once intoxicated, he whoops and prances, playing his home-made flute and dancing among the goats like a crazed fawn. But just when you think he’s succeeded in rallying himself, Bishop has him sink back into his home-made ‘miserable philosophy’.

He berates himself for his lack of education. For not knowing enough Greek or astronomy, and for having a store of poems he only half-remembers. Boredom eats at him. He is bored of goats bleating and gulls shrieking and turtles hissing. One day, to relieve the monotony, he dyes one of the goats berry-red, but then its mother refuses to recognize it.

However Bishop’s Crusoe is not such a dolt that he is unable to appreciate beauty. His education may not have been up to snuff, but he has fine sensibilities…Which, of course, only makes his predicament worse. He understands that the marbling of colored lava on the beeches makes for a gorgeous display.  And he is mesmerized by the phenomenon of waterspouts: –

They’d come and go, advancing and retreating,
Their heads in a cloud, their feet in moving patches
of scuffed-up white.
Glass chimneys, flexible, attenuated,
sacerdotal beings of glass. . .I watched
the water spiral up in them like smoke.
Beautiful, yes, but not much company.

 

Stella, an Anglican priest, whose rigorous training in exegesis means that she not only reads texts closely in the group, but looks under and behind the words, as if they were always symbols for deeper meaning. Invariably, she’ll dig up a nugget of insight. And the passage I’ve quoted above sent her into near raptures.

‘This Crusoe is overwhelmed by the beauty of the waterspouts. He sees a delicacy and grandeur in them. But their beauty is untouchable, transcendent, like the lofty intricacies of a gothic cathedral. It is not immanent. Bishop is telling us that on this Island God is distant and inaccessible, not with him, keeping him company.’

Stella goes on, pointing out that when Crusoe succumbs to self-pity, he finds comfort but not enlightenment. That when he has a bad dream about slitting a baby’s throat, mistaking it for a goat, it is really a nightmare vision of the sacrificial lamb. Everywhere in this poem Christian imagery is contorted, twisted out of shape; its purpose – to inspire, to comfort, to redeem –  foiled by overwhelming negativity.

Towards the end of the poem, Bishop paints an abject portrait of old man Crusoe, now in England, ‘another island’, drinking real tea but bored out of his gourd, ‘surrounded by uninteresting lumber.’  When he spies his trusty old knife on a shelf, he tumbles into a reminiscence about his other island. The knife, you see, taunts him. It ‘reeks of meaning, like a crucifix.’  How many years, he intones, did he beg it, implore it, not to break?

I knew each nick and scratch by heart,
the bluish blade, the broken tip,
the lines of wood-grin in the handle. . .
Now it won’t look at me at all.
The living soul has dribbled way.
My eyes rest on it and pass on.

The word crucifix got everyone going . Was Bishop suggesting that Crusoe’s companion Friday, his very own Good Friday, was some kind of harbinger of death? Was she hinting that Crusoe wished for redemption but could not find it? That despite his rescue, he was not a saved soul but a tortured one?

In the last stanza of the poem Crusoe says the local museum has asked him to bequeath them the relics of his island life – his flute, the knife, his home-made shoes and parasol. How can anyone want such things, he asks, implying that such things are dead things, expended, useless. Like him, perhaps? And certainly like Friday, who died of measles in England.

The larger meaning of this final line about Friday’s dying caught Otis’ imagination. ‘Here ends the week,’ he said. ‘Friday has gone. The temporal world has come to an end’.

Everyone in the group agreed that Bishop’s poem was unflinching in its willingness to stare down despair; to name it for what it is, and to be ruthlessly honest in doing so. Crusoe in England, for all it’s religious imagery,  is a strangely godless poem, a poem in which redemption is not in prospect. There is no mercy for our castaway, whatever island he finds himself on. Indeed, what Bishop seems to offer is a pessimist’s view of the human condition in which we can never escape, or transcend, our island selves.

Crusoe says as much, in fact, when he relates that he used to have nightmares;

‘nightmares of other islands,
stretching away from mine, infinities
of islands, islands spawning islands,
like frogs’ eggs turning into polliwogs
of islands….”

Elsewhere, he complains: ‘My blood was full of them; my brain bred islands.’ We are, in other words, all of us and at all times, most definitively alone.

I would never have thought that Bishop’s poem might be comforting in its own way. Until we followed it up with a reading of William Cowper’s The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk, a poem that left all of us stone cold. Alexander Selkirk was Defoe’s original model for Crusoe. A buccaneer who spent four years and four months between 1704 and 1709 on the uninhabited Juan Fernandez islands off the coast of Chile, Selkirk was brave to the point of reckless (he fell off a cliff once when he was chasing goats for food, lying unconscious for more than a day); ingenious (he made his own clothes, befriended feral cats that protected him from disease-carrying rats); and inwardly resourceful.  He became a cause celebre after his rescue, when his story brought to wide attention by the journalist Richard Steele. But Cowper’s poem is pallid and platitudinous, conveying almost nothing of the personality of the man.

Written in 1782, it contains the famous line ‘I am monarch of all I survey’  — a line which is generally quoted without the irony Cowper intended. But largely the poem is pap, full of the easily digested half-truths that pass for Sunday-best piety.

For five stanzas Cowper’s Selkirk moans on about his lack of companionship; about the winds that sport with him by failing to carry word from faraway friends; and the memories of happier times that only plunge him into deeper despair. None of it rings true. Maybe it’s the relentless rhyming? Maybe the lazy generalities? In the last stanza, Cowper’s Selkirk appeals to faith, but with the following truism: that mercy can be found everywhere. And mercy, says Cowper, ‘gives even affliction a grace, And reconciles man to his lot.’

Grace in adversity? Reconciliation to life’s misery? With Bishop’s tart verses and prickly insights still ricocheting round our heads, we found Cowper’s Christian bromides hard to take.

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