Literary Shelf

Ironic Mode in Ezekiel’s Poetry

The article is jointly written with Dr. Anshus Bhardwaj

In an earlier time the writers had great crave for using satire and considered it as the greatest literary tool but as they came under the influence of western culture, they felt the need of doing something extra that would be helpful to make them extra-ordinary by making the distance between the writer and his craft. In this reference irony becomes a significant device and confers upon us the finite qualification and discrimination that distinguish a mature experience of the writer.

Irony works with great force and acquires a new meaning in post-modern literature. In fact, irony is the critical device by which a writer or a poet excels all his contemporaries. Ironic mode adds to the dignity and magnitude of the writer or poet’s creative writing technique in handling with the social themes because it helps his experiences an utterly modern shape. Consequently irony becomes one of the most outstanding features of writing. Modern poetry places it first rather than other literary features. Shiv K. Kumar, K.N.Daruwalla,, Nissim Ezekiel, R.Parthasarthy etc. can be counted as the greatest ironists in modern poetry. In this paper we analysis Ezekiel’s poetry in order to know his ironic mode.

Ezekiel’s poetry is ironical and reveals different kinds of ironies such as subtle irony, verbal irony, irony of situation, irony of characters and irony of life. In fact, his irony is direct and woven into the very texture of his poetry. Shiv K.Kumar rightly writes, “his (Ezekiel’s) irony comes through more incisively in his poems written in Indian English, which is a mix of Indian vernacular and half-baked English.”[ 1]

A close study of Ezekiel’s poetry reveals two kinds of irony: “one closely allied to satire where the poet stands at a distance from the object looked at, the other, closely allied to compassion, where the poet examines the experience as if from within.”[2] The first kind of irony can be seen in his early and the second type of irony is clearly visible in the later period. Both type of irony are intermingled in Ezekiel’s middle period. In fact, the ironical method can be visible everywhere in his poetry. Ezekiel makes subtle use of irony and his insight into life finds its true expression through it. He develops irony and ironical contrasts frequently from the superstition and folk beliefs that exist in the society and gives them an utterly modern shape.

As a story teller Ezekiel creates poems out of ordinary incidents, situations and events that one encounters in day to day life. He picks out a situation, analysis it and describes it in such a way that it immediately assumes a kind of social significance because he views the ordinariness of most of the events with sense of detachment. Ezekiel’s ‘Enterprise’ is a beautiful narration of the spiritual journey of our great saints and sages whose mission of life for the people of the country was like a pilgrimage for the enlightening of knowledge. During this pilgrimage a situation is examined with an ironic detachment with a hope that solution would emerge in due course. That’s why, pilgrimage started the journey with a happy note but the difference among the members of the group going on pilgrimage surfaced as they faced difficulties on the way. The difference means here the difference of ideas, rites and rituals between the Hindu and the Muslim before the partition. The difference arose first over the question as to “how to cross a desert patch.” [3]

Desert patch” suggests the ignorance, darkness and religious differences of the contemporary time. Further they say, “We lost a friend whose stylish prose /Was quite the best of all our patch.”[4] The group was in grief but managed to survive and proceed further till the next phase after being twice attacked by China, once our bosom friend in 1962 and Pakistan in 1965. After the partition, India had to face two attacks which created big bombs in the path of the pilgrims but later on it enjoyed the freedom. Thus the poem shows an ironic detachment. As the poet writes: Another phase was reached when we were twice attacked and lost our way. A section claimed its liberty. To leave the group. I tried to pray Our leader did He smelt the sea. [5]

In ‘The Trivandrum Sequence’ Ezekiel narrates a simple incident that arouses his personal emotion at his brother’s failure ness in an examination. The incident gets a universal significance: Any failure in the human family, my mother said, is the failure of the whole family. [6]

Ezekiel is known for the harmony of emotional effect for the subtlety of variation and the subtle touch of irony in his narrative power. The poem ‘Urban’ also presents the poet’s personal touch for the horrible landscapes of urban scenes that makes him repulsive. This experience goes to the cognitive level of the poet and he begins to realize the sad effect of such a landscape. The irony is that he belongs to this landscape. Longing for the light of the sun and the splendid visions of the hills, dales and natural wealth are far away. The cognitive self of the poet makes everybody aware about the ill-effects of the modern civilization that has reduced life only to certain mechanical applications.

The poem ‘Ganga’ shows a typical Indian situation of the servants in typical Indian families in which the servants are dealt with the act of generosity. Indian families deal the servants with generosity by providing them the remaining food of the last night. The poet records the ironic situation in this manner: The woman who wakes up, suspected of prostitution is not dismissed. She also gets a cup of tea preserved for her from the previous evening and a chapati, stale But in good condition once a year, an old saree and a blouse for which we could easily exchange a plate….[7]

The condition of the servants in India is very miserable. They lead a life of wretchedness and go from place to place. “A cup of tea” [8] from previous evening and chapatti stale are the typical offerings to them while offering these things the masters and mistresses of the house consider it a mark of generosity.

‘Background Casually’ is an excellent example of his use of irony to achieve comic effects and to hit his targets of criticism. In the very opening line of this poem Ezekiel ironically describes himself as a poet rascal-clown . The irony becomes more marked as the poem proceeds.
Ezekiel describes himself as a student in a Roman Catholic school in the following manner: I went to Roman Catholic school, A mugging Jew among the wolves. They told me I had killed the Christ. That year I won the scripture prize. [9] But the irony becomes even more conspicuous when he writes that as a student accused of having killed the Christ, he won the scripture prize in the same year. The irony becomes more pungent when he tells us that he returned to India in a cargo-ship was English but carried French guns to be delivered to the authorities in Indo-China and when he further tells us that he had felt and compelled to take up a mental job and scrub the decks of that ship in order to pay for his passage back to India.

More irony comes in the lines: Married Changed jobs and saw myself a fool. [10]  The irony still continues and becomes razor-sharp irony which is the most effective instrument in the hands of Ezekiel which is employed to express his concerns about the society, appears in this poem as the lines speak out: a poet rascal clown was born-married, changed jobs and saw myself a fool... my background place is where I am. [11]

Ezekiel’s sensibility was disarrayed by the lack of peace of mind in Bombay and this indeed prompted him to analyses the situation around him with a critical vision. Ezekiel is not only ironical while depicting his school-fellows belonging to the Christian, Muslim, and Hindu communities but even in depicting himself. He says that, at home, on Friday nights the prayers were said, and the family felt that his morals had been declining. He had asked himself if he could grow into a rabbi-saint, but the more he searched for an answer, the less he found. Here irony also continues when Ezekiel states that a friend had to pay the fare for his passage to England, and that Philosophy, Poverty and Poetry were the three companions who shared his basement room in London.

Ezekiel makes a fine use of irony in ‘The Visitor’ means ironical visit of the protagonist. The poem shows the folk-belief that if a crow caws three times, the superstition proves itself true in the form of the arrival of a visitor. Three times a crow cawed at the poet’s window. The poet prepared himself to deal effectively with the visitor who would come to see him and whose arrival had been conveyed to him in advance by the crow’s cawing. He thought if his visitor would be an angel in disguise or some devil in disguise. If a devil, the visitor would run the poet’s sleep. Such thoughts were running into his mind. The expectation turned out to be just casual and then, with an even more conspicuous use of irony, the poet says that, between the visitor’s good intentions and the poet’s sympathy, the smoke coming from their cigarettes proved to be more substantial than their talk: His hands were empty, his need: only to kill a little time Between his good intentions And my sympathy, the cigarette smoke was more substantial than your talk.[12] Thus the poet’s visit is ironical that expresses only the insubstantially of human intercourse.

In ‘Goodbye Party For Miss Pushpa T.S.’we find Ezekiel pocking fun at the way semi-educated Indians speak or write the English language. Through the device of irony Ezekiel emphasizes the mistakes made by semi-educated or ill-educated Indians in the course of their conversation through the medium of the English language. The poet ridicules the errors of grammar, syntax and idiom which many Indians commit while speaking the English language. The occasion is of party given by Miss T.S.Pushpa’s friends or colleagues to bid her farewell when she is leaving for a foreign country, perhaps for higher education, perhaps for sight-seeing. The poem is ironical in the sense that the people use the present continuous tense when only the present tense is required; and they use the present continuous tense even when the future tense is needed. An example of this sort of thing occurs in the very first stanza of this poem, “Our dear sister is departuring for foreign in two three days.” [13] Thus the speaker in the poem has used “is departing” where he should have said “will be departuring”[14].

Another example of the misuse of the present continuous tense where the present tense is needed, occurs in the following lines, “you are all knowing.” [15] Here the correct form would be to say “You all know.” Similarly instead of saying, “His wife was cooking nicely,”[16] the speaker should have said, “His wife used to cook nicely” or His wife was a nice cook.” Apart from this frequent mistake, the habit of the Indians to give extravagant praise at farewell parties to the departing person has also been ridiculed through the device of irony. Thus the poem is a wholly ironical and satirical. It is full of mockery without having any serious element.

As a poet, Ezekiel’s sharp sense of awareness allows him to chronicle the situation around him with a professional approach. People in India never hesitate to put their professional approach even in most critical situation. They are always in wait for such situation in which they may explore themselves and get publicity.

His poem entitled ‘The Truth About the Floods’ puts both the relief party consisting of five students and the government officials on the mat for their insincerity and hypocrisy in helping the flood-victims. The poet states: A relief party came at last Five students with a transitor, a tin of biscuits a camera…[17] The above lines are an irony on the part of the relief party consisting of five students who distributed biscuits among flood-affected people for their motif was getting publicity by getting photographed rather than the true sense of social service.

Ezekiel heightens his reader’s awareness of pain or joy through his deft use of irony which is the gate way to all suggestiveness in his poetry. His ironical words knife through the dark shades of life and reveal the truth under cover with sensitive and precision. They become meaningful observations on human conditions. So his irony appears direct and creative.

The poet in ‘How the English Lessons Ended’ narrates an episode in a very simple manner and produces ironic effect between superstitious outlooks on the one hand and craze for new learning on the other. The parents of a Muslim girl compelled her to learn English without knowing her interest. The girl is more interested in the pictures in a certain kind of books than in her English lessons. The result came out that the girl failed to pass the examination in English for three successive years and later, was sent to the poet for coaching in English. After sometimes she stopped coming as the poet was suspected of making awareness. As a next step the girl was married off. The following lines present the force of irony: …and suddenly She knows I know. The English lesson end abruptly. I have learnt enough, she claims, She’s learnt enough to say she’s learnt enough.[18] The last line ironically explains the force of contrast between the superstitious outlook and craze for new learning in English.

Verbal irony is frequently observed in Ezekiel’s poems as halves using the traditional items with utmost modernity so he takes the help of this device. On the one hand he talks of Indian ness and Indian concept. But on the other hand, he makes use of utmost sophisticated items of western civilization which insists on frankness, openness and a particular kind of candidness. He has great likening for using those words which are common in Indian English in order to echo in the sense of Indian ness.

In the poem ‘Very Indian Poem in Indian English’ he writes: Everything is coming- Regeneration, Remuneration, Contraception Be patiently, brothers and sisters, ……………………………….. One day Ram Rajya is surely coming.[19] The poet uses the common words like regeneration and remuneration which are enough for providing the slogans of freedom among the young guys regarding their individual meetings. The idea is made clear by keeping the word ‘contraction’ side by side. The mention of Ram Rajya is employed in relation to an ordinary situation of individual freedom regarding lover’s meetings.

Irony of characters is clearly apparent in ‘Letter Day Psalm’ in which people across the continents, though alike in many respects, are haunted by color prejudice. They have two faces which make them ironical. The poet is a habitant of Edinburgh and surprises at his Indian mother-in-law’s behaviour. Mother-in-law is an expert in double speaks. She would speak in two-voices: one before the daughter and another before her husband and sons. When the bride returns from her honeymoon, the mother-in-law politely says: Don’t worry, dear, I need no help in the kitchen Leave it to me, please.[20]  But when the mother-in-law comes before her husband and son, she puts a long list of complains against the bride before them and nonstop goes on complaining as she speaks: That girl is no help to me in the kitchen, is she? [21]  Ironically, the father-in-law and the husband believe the mother-in-law and the poor bride is doomed. In fact, this poem is a direct criticism of modern life and civilization and indicative of his feeling of alienation even from the world as a whole. Ezekiel’s irony is steeped in his high moral seriousness and his deep extension concern for humanity.

The poem ‘Guru’ portraits the modern picture of the Gurus who are more materialist than ever and above ordinary men - “the lesser considered as holy men while they totally lack all the virtues of saints. They make a sharp discrimination between the rich and the poor, men and women, countrymen and foreigners. The following lines show characteristically Indian touch which becomes an irony on our part: The saint, we are told, Once lived a life of sin nothing spectacular, of course, Just the usual things. We smile, we are not surprised. Unlikely though it seem, we too one day May grow up like him, dropping our follies like old clothes or creeds. [22] The ways adopted by the modern saints in the name of Gurus in the Indian circumstances are very ironical. The poet records the correct picture of Gurus and their ashrams in the following lines: Obstinate in argument, Ungrateful for favours alone hard with servants and the poor discourteous to disciples, especially men, condescending, even rude to visitors (except the foreigners) and over scrupulous in checking the accounts of the ashram He is also rather fat. [23] Modern gurus are materialistic and over-scrupulous so they themselves check the accounts of the ashram. The words “accounts of the ashram’’ and “rather fat” signify the materialistic designs of so called modern saints. The poet ironically asks: If saints are like this What hope is there then for us? [24]

Most of Ezekiel’s poems dealing with the subject of sex and marriage are woven in ironical vein. There are the poems entitled ‘The Couple’, ‘Two Nights of Love’ and ‘The Marriage’ expose ironical method. In ‘The Couple’ the hypocrisy and the deceitfulness of both the man and the woman engaged in the sexual act have been exposed by the use of irony. Both the man and the woman are in fact, deceiving each other consciously and intentionally. The man does so in order to win the maximum possible response from the woman, while the woman does so because she does not want to disappoint the man who has gratified her vanity and her ego. It is a deception on the part of man because he wants to possess the woman in order to satisfy his boldly cravings and so after having sexual relation with the woman, he gives her. It was also deception on the part of the woman because she actually enjoys the sexual intercourse even though she does not truly love the man.

In ‘Two Nights of Love’ the poet persona speaks ironically about his craving to make love to his beloved of the moment soon after having already made love to her, and it is in vein of irony that the poet persona speaks about “threshing thighs” and the “the singing breasts” [25] of the woman and in ‘Marriage’ irony has been employed to expose the fleeting nature of the love which had brought the lovers together in marriage.

The second type of irony is found in ‘Night of the Scorpion’, which absorbs irony into its very structure. Ezekiel puts a situation, not merely a state of mind but the speaker in the poem, most probably the poet himself is the detached observer of the whole scene, perhaps smiling to him when the woman’s pain ends after a lapse of twenty hours, moves among other characters. .The poet records those exact situations of the night when his mother was stung by a scorpion and after biting his mother with a “flesh of diabolic tail” the scorpion vanished somewhere in the darkroom. Then the peasants came like swarms of flies and “buzzed” the name of God a hundred times to paralyze the evil one and they “clicked” their tongues. The poet remarks: with every movement that the scorpion made his poison moved in Mother’s blood, they said. May he still, they said. May the sins of your previous birth be burned away tonight, they said. May your suffering decrease the misfortunes of your next birth they said. [26]  The phrase “they said” is repeated four times and it has an effect of incantation of a ritual. This urban and complicated ritual of the chanting is juxtaposed against the primitive quality of its content and it results in the ironic detachment of the poet. Indian belief explains that the previous birth as well as the next birth after one’s death is determined by one’s karma. The protagonist’s father has different perception of life and so he disregards the farmers’ superstitions and puts a match to a little paraffin.
Ezekiel writes: My father, sceptic, rationalist, trying every curse and blessing, power, mixture, herb and hybrid. He eve poured a little paraffin upon the bitten toe and pur a match to it. [27] The protagonist watched the flame “feeding on “his mother and the holy man performs his rites to tame the poison with an incantation. After twenty hours, it lost its sting. The irony of the whole incident is that while the neighbors and the father have been making earnest efforts to assuage the woman’s pain, actually the pain subsides naturally after the long twenty hours of suffering. The poem ends with an overtone of irony. The concluding ironical lines cancel out all earlier responses to scorpion bite. The mother remains in bearable pain till twenty hours as these twenty hours are over. She was not much oppressed by her own suffering but the idea of her children’s suffering in the even of scorpion bite tormented her more. This irony shows itself in the way in which the poet has described the efforts been made by all those who have gathered at the spot to relieve the woman’s pain.

R. Parthasarthy comments on the poem: ‘Night of the Scorpion’ evokes superstitious practices we haven’t still outgrown. It enacts an impressive ritual in which the mother’s reaction, towards the end, to her own sufferings ironically cancels out earlier responses, both primitive and sophisticated. The relationship between the domestic tragedy and the surrounding community is unobtrusively established. The poem also demonstrates the effective use of parallelism. [28]  

Not only poems but their titles also seem ironical as they reveal mocking tone. We analysis the title ‘Song to be Shouted Out’ reveals a critical situation of the husband whose wife is very dominant, nagging and over-bearing. She makes his life miserable and unbearable. After performing his official duty the husband comes to his home with the hope of taking the rest or comfort but his wife in place of letting him rest, starts shouting at him for not doing the personal work such as paying bills, posting letters, buying tickets and depositing cheeks.Shouting, crying and weeping are the greatest weapons in the hands of the women. When they fail to be fulfilled their expectations from their husbands, they use their situation in this way: Shout at me woman! Pull me up for this and that You’re right and I’m wrong This is not an excuse, It’s only a song. It’s good for my sould to be shouted at shout at me, woman! What else are wives for? [29]

One more can be taken which is written after reading much bad poetry. The title is sarcasm and an irony on those poets who bore the readers and erode their sensibility and quality of eulogy. Ezekiel prefers to call them owls as they have frozen lyric impulse. In his opinions they can be only arbores not poets. Ezekiel writes: The lyric impulse frozen What is the poet but a bore? Falling back upon his notes He strays disconsolately From a mystic image to a sterile phrase, Flaunting by the way a myth or moral stolen from an antique page. [30] The word ‘stolen’ shows that the poet has derived the material from the other persons but he is unknown how to use it so his work has no life and thus, his poetry becomes bore.

Poets of this category write on anything on earth: About the sea, a parsimonious Epitaph on soldiers or ‘an ode’. To Beethovan, or simply “lines To my Mother” or sonnet to a bitch - A calculated couplet ends the game- A tired poet quickly sings his name. [31] The above –quoted lines are tinged with irony and bathos. The ‘tired poet’ is trying his best to write and publish his poems and in the process he behaves like an enigmatic stuffed out.

It is noteworthy that Nissim Ezekiel has written many poems ridiculing the absurdities and follies of the Indian people and his chief weapon of attack is irony. Undoubtedly irony has become his most conspicuous quality. He does not attack the superstitious of the people directly but exposes the absurdity of superstitious beliefs by the use of irony. Almost every poem by Ezekiel is characterized by irony to a greater or letter extent. He makes use of the weapon of irony in expressing ideas and depicting situations, characters and life and this weapon is like a great satirist can use with a devastating effect in order to reform society. In other respects, Ezekiel shows originality even in the use of irony and in his mode of attack on the malpractices and the evils from which Indian society has been suffering for years and years, and which are actually growing in magnitude instead of doing brought under control. Thus Ezekiel is a great matter of the weapon of irony and always attempts to use it as a device in his poems and creates truly great poetry. He uses the form of irony and gives a new meaning to his poetry.

Like Kumar he believes that irony can be successfully employed to make one see life in clarity. Kumar writes, “Irony, therefore, is a multifaceted weapon, a kind of poetic stratedy which can be put to very effective use.”[32]

Commenting upon the use of irony by Ezekiel a critic states, “the stand-point of Ezekiel is that of a highly educated, cultured and polished man not belonging to any extreme of society, and that such a stand-point is conducive to the development of an ironic attitude.”[33]

1.Kumar, Shiv K., Poets and Poetry, Nissim Ezekiel’s Poetry Mapping Cultural Spaces Postcolonial Indian Literature in English,ed. Nilufer E. Bharucha,Vrinda Nabar,Pub.Vision Books, New Delhi,p.128
2.Das,Vijay Kumar, The Development of Technique, The Horizon of Nissim Ezekiel’s Poetry, General Editor,N.N.Dwivedi,B.R.Publishing Corporation,Delhi,p.72
3. Kumar, Shiv K., Enterprise, The Golden Treasury of Indo Anglian Poetry, O.P.Cit, p.267
4. Ibid
5. Ibid
6. Ezekiel, Nissim, The Trivandrum Sequence
7. Ezekiel, Nissim, Ganga, Collected Poems 1952-88, OUP, Delhi, 1989, p.202
8. Ibid
9. Ezekiel, Nissim, Background Casually, Collected Poems, p.179
10. Ibid
11. Ezekiel, Nissim, The Visitor, The Exact Name, Writers Workshop, Calcutta, 1966
12. Ezekiel, Nissim, Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa T.S., Hymns in Darkness, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1976
14. Ibid
15. Ibid
16. Ibid
17. Ezekiel, Nissim, The Truth About the Floods
18. Ezekiel, Nissim, How the English Lesson Ended, Collected Poems, p.120
19. Ezekiel, Nissim, Very Indian Poem in Indian English, Collected Poems, pp.237-238
20. Ezekiel, Nissim, Letter Day Psalm, Collected Poems, 1952-88
21. Ibid
22. Ezekiel, Nissim, Guru, Collected Poems, pp.191-192
23. Ibid.p.192
24. Ibid
25. Ezekiel, Nissim, Two Nights of Love, Sixty Poems, The Stand Book Shop, Bombay, 1953
26. Ezekiel, Nissim, Night of the Scorpion, Collected Poems, p.132
27. Ibid
28.Parthasarthy,R.,Critics on the Poetry of Nissim Ezekiel,Indo Anglian Poetry-A Critical Study of Seven Leading Poets,ed.Ramji Lall,Rama Brothers, New Delhi, edition V,2002,p.21
29. Ezekiel, Nissim, Song to be Shouted Out
30. Ezekiel, Nissim, The Stuffed Owl
31. Ibid
32.Kumar ,Shiv K., Interview with Shiv K. Kumar,ed.Shyam Asnand,Literature Criticism,1:1.2,1991-92,p.151
33. Nissim, Ezekiel, A Biographical Note, A Critical Study of Seven Leading Poets, ed, Ramji Lall, Rama Brothers, New Delhi, editionV, p.76 


More by :  Prof. Dr. Ram Sharma

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Views: 3458      Comments: 5

Comment Dear Sir

I humbly request you to guide me on where I will get material on Nissim Ezekiel as a poet of nature.


rashmi maniar
14-Oct-2015 02:54 AM

Comment Hello i am a student of M.A. in English.I want the poem "the visitor"by nissim ezekiel. I can't see it.plz give me a piece of this poem

03-Aug-2014 10:13 AM

Comment A wonderful article on the complex details of Nissim Ezekiel 's approach towards poetry. I sometimes confuse myself with his style. The way he deals with a common man's world with an obvious details of his emotional status makes his poetry such an interesting read for the students of English literature.

25-Mar-2014 16:07 PM

Comment Sir,I want to know about the literary struggle of Indian poets in English during the post independence..era when writing poetry in English was considered t be unpatriotic..And when poets like A.K.Ramanujan,Toru Dutt were leaving India..Is there any reference of this in any poems like Enterprise?What does mean the line"home is where we have to gather grace." Plz elaborate sir....and send me if u can....

Biswanath Santra
06-Oct-2013 02:41 AM

Comment Hello I am a student of M.A in English. I research in the poem Ganga by Nissim Ezekiel. I dont literally understand the concept of generosity. can u explain this?

Monalisa Das
13-Feb-2013 02:00 AM

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