Martyrdom and the French Revolution

I am choosing to analyze The Harp of India by Henry Louis Vivian Derozio because to me this is the poem which most accurately describes the kind of “beautiful suffering” I was talking about in class after listening to the harp be played. The tone of this poem is remorseful. It beings, “Why hang’st thou lonely on yon withered bough?” Here we immediately see a longing for the past, unity and strength. This line is followed by, “Unstrung for ever, must thou there remain; / Thy music once was sweet – who hears it now?” Again, we have that deep nostalgic longing for the past. At this point the poem is very depressing, almost like talking about the end of an era. The speaker is questioning, how can we go on without you? How can we go on without your “sweet” “music” which guided us for generations? It continues, “Why doth the breeze sigh over thee in vain? / Silence hath bound thee with her fatal chain.” Here, we see that the tone of the poem has shifted. Here we see a conflict between the natural order of things. The question is asked of why the “breeze” (nature) “sighs” in “vain,” which shows that this state of silence is not natural, but a reflection of oppression. By using the active choice of diction in “silence has bound thee” we see here that the agency of the poem is being attributed to an outside force. It is not the harp of the Irish/Indian people who has the agency here, but those who act upon it and “chain” the harp, and therefore the people. It continues to describe the treatment of the harp/people, “Neglected, mute, and desolate art thou, Like ruined monument on desert plain.” It continues, “O! Many a hand more worthy far than mine / Once thy harmonious chords to sweetness gave.” Here we see the frustration of the speaker, that desire to have agency and to act, but feeling incapable, unworthy. This echoes the sort of sadness and sorrow of individuals being overcome by the daunting task of fighting for freedom and thinking, “It couldn’t possibly be up to me. I can’t do this.” Immediately after, therefore, there is a call for unity, in the lines, “And many a wreath for them did fame entwine / of flowers still blooming on the minstrel’s grave.” Not only has the concept switched to that of unity and being entwine in the music or calling of the culture, but there is now a thread of fate or destiny (which removes the pressure of personal agency). It continues, “Those hands are cold – but if thy notes divine / May be by mortal wakened once again.” Here we see a call to the heavens in “if thy notes divine.” This poem has turned into a prayer, not necessary for strength, but for use. By saying, “May be by mortal wakened once again,” the speaker is asking to be used by fate, to be chosen to do what they cannot do, to overcome the impossible task before them of reviving a culture. It concludes, “Harp of my country, let me strike the strain!” Here we finally see the passion of the speaker and come to that rift of “beautiful suffering” I was talking about in class. The speaker is crying out to be used, to be empowered. This is the only time in the whole poem that the speaker takes accountability for anything. By saying, “let me strike the strain!” this is the speaker being moved to action. It is not a call to action, but a succumbing to action, an embracing of the suffering and hardship. This complicates the story of the French Revolution because, like I mentioned in class, other countries (like India and Ireland) did not have this sort of elevated anarchic call to revolution like the French experienced. Their experiences were far more organic, or earth/root based. They were spurred on by preservation, not progress. They were an acceptance and embracement of suffering, not a blaze of passion. These counties represent the martyrdom of the French Revolution and impact it had on other countries during the romantic era. In my opinion, the harp has the same sort of cultural significance as the cross. It is both a symbol of hope and of perseverance. It embodies “beautiful suffering.”

Elle Lammouchi

2 thoughts on “Martyrdom and the French Revolution

  1. What a rich and suggestive reading! The implication of this argument, then, is that the Irish harp captures or recreates a sense of earthly Christian suffering that was lost or betrayed by the secularizing impulses of the French Revolution.


  2. Pingback: Today’s thought “Death by being taken captive” (May 15) – Belgian Ecclesia Brussel – Leuven

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