The lyrical richness of The English Patient

The English Patient marked the arrival of Michael Ondaatje as a literary figure to be etched in the international stratosphere of literature whose work soon became part of discussions related to both mass readerships as well as scholarly discourse. Thus Sri Lanka too marked some presence amongst the eminence of Mann Booker prize winners. And the celebrated author’s works have become the focus of literati and academia alike over the years, with many perspectives being provided by eruditions on both the subject content/focus of his novels, as well as praise for his craft of novel writing. Ondaatje’s poetry and prose have been widely praised as ‘lyrical’ and his work as a novelist have been acclaimed as marked by this trait. The English Patient is arguably the work for which Ondaatje is best known amongst the broader audiences of modern literature. The work has been praised as intensely poetic and rich in its lyricism by many critics and reviewers. However it is rarely that one would find amongst the bodies/collections of existing academic works an in-depth analysis to identify and expound the elements which would form the lyricism in The English Patient, and thereby present a study of Ondaatje’s craft as a writer of lyrical prose.

This article does not purport to be an exhaustive analysis of the lyricism in The English Patient, but a cameo which would outline some of the textual elements in the novel which evoke lyrical quality in its text. To begin with one may ask as to what exactly is ‘Lyricism’? And what does it mean to say that a poem or prose is ‘lyrical’? Etymologically speaking the origin of the word ‘Lyricism’ is rooted in relation to the ‘lyre’, the stringed musical instrument which was played by the ancient Greeks to accompany song and recitation. The word ‘lyricism’ is meant to incorporate at its core the quality and nature of ‘emotions’ that were evoked by the playing of the lyre. One of the traits of lyricism is said to be ‘songfulness’, understandably as it was in the context of song and music that the lyre and its function exists. But the term has come to represent and incorporate much within the scope of its use and application. Lyricism is seen as a term which represents a schema of ‘tenants’ that act within a broad stream of qualities such as sensuality, musicality and elusiveness. It is often said that lyricism presents a quality of ‘elusiveness’ that the very quality of it is ‘intangible’ and hard to pin down. But it has progressed into literary discourse as a term which presents a form of ‘poetic quality’. And within this form of poeticness one may find the earlier mentioned tenants- sensuality, elusiveness, musicality.

The image of the human body and sensuality

How does Ondaatje evoke these tenants of lyricism in The English Patient? The tenants of sensuality and elusiveness can be seen as evoked in the text of the novel through schematic imagery/metaphor use which would present sensual and elusive images through the course of the narrative. When one reads the book with attention to what prominent imagery patterns keep recurring in the text in the form of metaphors, similes and also direct reference, the word ‘skin’ unfolds as device which the writer appears to employ to evoke a sensual quality in the text. The word ‘skin’ as Ondaatje employs it performs a subtle function of drawing attention to the image of the human body, which is a prominent thematic focus in the novel. Devising a simile or metaphor out of the image of the human body in connection with features and traits of nature and geography and structuring them in recurring patterns in the novel is a significant characteristic which Ondaatje has crafted with much fineness. The comparison of the image of the human body with an aspect or feature of nature is a technique which is found in certain renaissance poetry. French poet Pierre de Ronsard may be noted for this as cited in the academic essay “Rural Lyricism”: A Renaissance Mutation of the Pastoral by H.M Richmond (1964). This evinces that Ondaatje’s novel carries certain approaches that resonate with imagery schema in poetry. This may be seen as one of the means by which Ondaatje infuses the quality of sensuality to the text of The English Patient.

The elusiveness of the desert landscape

The North African desert is very significant to the novel as the setting in which a large part of the story takes place. The quality of elusiveness can be seen as evoked in the novel through the image and descriptions of the desert which becomes a thematic element in the story. The invalid protagonist Almasy who is known as “the English patient” recounts and describes his desert explorations with vivid detail and romances the desert landscape in his narratives. The character of the English patient calls the desert “a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred  shifting names”, and with such descriptivism it is very potently created in to an image which cannot be helped but seem elusive. He further calls it “a place of faith” where they disappeared to. The image of the North African desert is presented as a mystical place through the words of Almasy who was on a quest to map the Libyan desert in the years leading up to the Second World War. The cartographic work that Almasy and his colleagues were involved in also focuses on discovering a place called Zerzura which is called ‘The lost Oasis’. And of Zerzura, Almasy recounts the myths and legends that he had come across which posits the image of this lost oasis as a place shrouded in mystery and very much elusive. An example is the following passage from a monologue of Almasy-  “There was a time when map makers named the places they travelled through with the names of lovers rather than their own. Someone seen bathing in a desert caravan, holding up muslin with one arm in front of her. Some old Arab poet’s woman, whose white-dove shoulders made him describe an oasis with her name. The skin bucket spreads water over her, she wraps herself in the cloth, and the old scribe turns from her to describe Zerzura.” [p.140-141]

This description very explicitly shows how the speaker romances the desert landscape with sensual imagery and a noteworthy feature of the above extract is that the last sentence is in the simple present tense, which will be the next focus area of this discussion.

‘Lyric tense’

George T. Wright (1974) in his scholarly essay “The Lyric Present: Simple Present Verbs in English Poems” identifies the use of simple present and present progressive verbs as traits very prominent in the verse of romantic poets. Wright calls it the ‘lyric tense’ which characterises the verse of many notable poets such as Keats and Yeats. What is interesting to note is that one of the signature characteristics that would very well mark the form of the textual and narrative structure of The English Patient is Ondaatje’s use of the simple present and present progressive. The very opening line of the novel is written in simple present verb tense-“She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance”. The novel is interwoven with both present and past tense and this adds to the richness of the ‘texture’ of the novel which shows many significant textural features that evoke lyrical quality in the text. One may ask, how the ‘lyrical tense’ relates to the ‘tenants’ of lyricism discussed at the outset of this article? The explanation is that the devices which evoke lyricism in The English Patient are not contained only within the scheme of qualities such as  sensuality, musicality, elusiveness. The diverse devices that Ondaatje has crafted in to the prose of his novel engender lyrical quality in the text from the basis of being elements that would be found in certain forms of poetry. It is the use of this variety of devices that make the texture of the novel as intensely rich in lyricism. In some sense it may be called as very much akin to the form of a poem when considering how certain parts of it may present an almost verse like flow, especially when narrated in simple present and present progressive verb form. Thus the lyric tense provides an enhancement of the poetic nature of the textual body of The English Patient.

The use of verse in prose narrative

As a novel The English Patient is a prose narrative, and there appears no room for dispute on that fundamental factor. Yet it is interesting to note that Ondaatje has incorporated verse and extracts of song lyrics in the body of prose for which appear as various purposes. A number of extracts from the lyrics of jazz songs are found in the course of the novel’s narrative, such as- “Manhattan” by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers, “I’ll be seeing you” by Sammy Fain and Irvin Kahal, to name just two. Page 144 of the novel contains an eleven line extract from John Milton’s epic “Paradise Lost” which could be viewed as having significance of a contextual nature to resonate with the novel’s thematic framework. These are only a few of the non-prose components incorporated into the novel’s prose body, and the textual-structure of The English Patient is notably built with such features which may perform different functions in the course of the narrative. However the focus here would not be on the plot-function they may or may not perform in the narrative but how such textural devices, may be understood as lyrical elements within the text. ‘Musicality’ as mentioned earlier is a tenant of lyricism. And one could argue that Ondaatje’s incorporation of lyrics extracts from jazz songs would add a sense of musicality to the body of the text, and thereby evoke a quality of lyricism. The use of Milton in the novel from a textural point of view may be argued as a device for embellishment that enriches the lyrical texture of the novel. The presence of classical poetry could certainly enhance the feeling of lyricism that the reader encounters when reading the novel.

The discussion presented in this article is neither an extensive analysis nor by any means a conclusive one when dealing with a subject focus of this magnitude. The lyricism crafted in The English Patient is clearly demonstrative of how Michael Ondaatje whose roots in the sphere of creative writing are in poetry has successfully extended his prowess as a composer of verse in to the art of novel writing. And thus he presents a form of rich lyricism which undoubtedly holds a unique place in the genre of the novel.


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