To live is to die; this is the message both poems convey, a somber reminder that without death there cannot be life, and without ignorance there cannot be knowledge. These poems represent a duality of two opposing forces, akin to how shadows are born by light, and how change will always be a positively and negatively occurring force. A Breakfast for Barbarians by Gwendolyn Macewen concerns itself with the evolution of a culture, a company of barbarians ripped of their namesake and turned into scholars.
Similarly, Breaking by Phyllis Webb addresses both religion and mental stability, questioning from the first line whether one is ever truly whole. Instead of addressing the act of change, Breaking aims to pool together a mass of known and gifted poets, characters, and writers, and notes how not a single one escaped from life unscathed. Whether it be through the overtly positive but ultimately doomed evolution in A Breakfast for Barbarians, or the destruction of religion in Breaking only to find faith born anew, these poems show that for greatness to prosper it must always grow hand in hand with corruption.
The usage of imagery and metaphorical language combined with blatant allusions to the Bible and Christianity enable both writers to act as religious prophets, appearing to question their previous faith and look forward towards something new. Although obscure at first, the second line of the first stanza in Breaking asks “Give us wholeness, for we are broken. / But who are we asking, and why do we ask? ” (Breaking, Phyllis Webb). The question of “who” we are asking if referring to God, and by asking “who” God is, the poet questions his power.
This is expanded by the addition of “why do we ask”, implying an impotency. The second stanza is ripe with allusions to the Bible, attacking “god” immediately in the first verse: “Shattered gods, self-iconoclasts / It is with Lazarus unattended we belong” (Webb). Webb’s decision to both call the “gods” shattered, and denote them in the plural shows how little respect these “gods” (rather than God”) receive from her; she believes the gods to be shattered, and thus wishes to be with a “Lazarus unattended”, an allegory and metaphor for rebirth occurring regardless of godly intervention.
Saint Lazarus was reborn four days after his passing, but this was done as a direct result of Jesus, thus making his restoration an arguable impossibility should he be unattended. In the very same stanza, Webb writes “(the fall of the sparrow is unbroken song)”. A “Sparrow” in Christian literature often refers to freedom, but is also considered the lowest of birds, showing how even God’s greatest followers will fall, albeit in an unbroken fashion. The use of parentheses shows this is an afterthought, a simple event that occurs following a change in faith.
Webb then guides this ten verse stanza towards a juxtaposition of Jesus and modernday Paris, “The crucifix has clattered to the ground, / the living Christ has spent a year in Paris, / travelled on the Metro, fallen in the Seine. / We would not raise our silly gods again. “. By using imagery of the crucifix falling, followed by Jesus himself falling in the Seine, it is apparent that Jesus has lost both power and respect. Furthermore, while “gods”, is left pluralized and uncapitalized again, Christ is capitalized.
However this seems to be overshadowed by the fact that each of the two middle verses contain capitalized names, Christ with Paris, and Metro with the Seine. As such, Christ does not stand out, instead fitting in amongst the native Parisian locations, reducing his status as an idol to a mere formality. The end to the stanza contradicts what the reader might gather from its proceedings; reading up to this point, it would appear that religion has lost its power in the modern day, however the final three verses conclude that “Stigmata sting, they suddenly appear / on every blessed person everywhere. If there is agitation there is cause. ” (Webb).
There are a number of important points to be made here, the first of which being that Stigmata, representative of the locations on Christ’s body where he was crucified and mortally wounded “suddenly appear”, followed by a line-break. Webb does this to make us question where they appear- is it again on Christ who has shown an inability to summon his previous power? Instead, we see in the next line that it occurs on “blessed person[s] everywhere” (Webb), a result of their lack of faith.
To be more precise, Webb is referring to those who were once considered “blessed”, but no longer as the crucifix has clattered to the grown alongside their faith. This is reinforced by the the last line, “If there is agitation there is cause” (Webb), a cause specifically for punishment. The punishment flips Jesus’ sacrifice upon its beneficiaries, themselves receiving the marks of his prior selflessness. Gwendolyn Macewen’s A Breakfast For Barbarians is less overt about religious tendencies, but still draws upon religion for both the overall theme and individual parts of the poem’s structure.
The poem notes a variety of Gods, and the title itself is relevant in that “Barbarians” predominantly refers to the Norse religion which houses a dynamic pantheon of Gods and mythological creatures associated with them. This is reinforced by the verses: “let us answer hunger / with boiled chimera / and apocalyptic tea,” (A Breakfast for Barbarians, Gwendolyn Macewen). This “hunger” is a hunger for both knowledge and change. The chimera is a famous Greek monster, an amalgamation of various animals, often a lion, goat, and snake.
The fact that the chimera is “boiled”, besides the obvious intention to consume it, implies a finality inherent to both monster and faith; it has been prepared, cooked, and done away with. Thus, a creature of terror is no longer terrifying, losing its godly lustre. This is backed by the verse that follows it, which uses tea to represent religion itself. Tea is known to be calming, and an apocalypse is anything but calming. Viewing tea as the stagnated religion the Barbarians have habitually followed, this “apocalyptic tea” represents a new form of tea, nd thus a new form of religion. The allusions to the bible end with the conclusion of the stanza, as Macewen writes of “an arcane salad of spiced bibles, / tossed dictionaries”. The notion of being “arcane” implies a mystery, and the spice implies a foreign aspect to these bibles. The very fact that there are “bibles”, of Abrahamic or Christian design,, implies something new for these previously “Norse” barbarians, the stanza finishing with “tossed dictionaries”, illustrating how even their vocabulary has evolved alongside their religion.
Macewen begins her poem with an allusion to Marc Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar, a speech remembered for its use of pathos and ethos with the intention of bringing the townspeople to his side. This is not done unintentionally- by aligning herself with the barbarians she speaks to in the opening line, the poet uses these two literary techniques to convince the barbarians that she only has their best interests in mind. Unlike Webb, Macewen tries to hide ill-intentions within her poem, while her counterpart simply writes “Responsible now each to his own attack, / we are bequeathed their ethos and our death. (Webb).
The choice for one to use ethos as a means of convincing the audience, and for the other to remark openly about it is largely due to the first person nature of Macewen’s poem and the free verse, omniscient nature of Webb’s. Webb is not trying to convince anyone, while Macewen is slowly altering the barbarians towards an disparate state of mind. Thus, Webb speaks openly of “our” death, while Macewen only speaks of a hunger, and abuses ethos while Webb blatantly associates ethos with death.
Webb furthers her point of good and bad by mentioning famous Shakespearean characters such as Othello and King Lear, as well as artist like Van Gogh and Christopher Smart. These artists are not picked arbitrarily, but due to their “crown of darkness” (Webb). It is Webb’s belief that as a result of their clouded minds, they are made whole, and are thus better alongside glaring imperfections (including bipolarism, nervous breakdowns and “madness” as the various afflictions that lagued these renowned artists). Their genius in part resides in these imperfections, and it is Webb’s belief that they could not exist without, claiming that “It is better so. “. The final stanza touches on this, claiming that both a madhouse and hospital exist only because of their inhabitants, and war only to feed aggression. Without evil, good cannot exist, as it can only be “good” relative to something “bad”.
Macewen takes a different approach, and one finds that the barbarians’ “hewn wood table”, evolves into a “table of bones and scrap metal / over the gigantic junk-heaped table”. It is revealed only in the end of her poem that all the barbarians accomplished was a change, and not necessarily for the better. They have filled their appetite but now have nothing left to eat, or in other words no more works to plunder. They’ve spent their lives consuming works of other civilizations, promoting learning over innovation.
Neither poem claims that change is good, only that it is possible. Breaking does so in destruction, knocking down old monuments (such as the Greek marble) only to crumble alongside it, while A Breakfast for Barbarians seems to entice the subjects of the poem, the barbarians with a breakfast of knowledge. This results in their hair growing “long and our [the barbarians] eyes are [become] feeble” (Macewen), losing their identity in exchange for a novel God, but not necessarily a better one.
Webb insists that to be whole is only good for a moment in time, as they will inevitably become broken. She notes various authors and characters as proof, while Macewen visibly breaks down the barbarians in their attempt to grow “whole”. Ultimately, the notion of being whole is fraudulent; it is an atemporal fixation that’s very existence is a paradox, for being whole requires one to also be broken, thus placing perfection within imperfection, balance within imbalance.