Patrick McCabe's Reinvention of Wordsworth's Approach to Language
In his "Preface to the Lyrical Ballads," William Wordsworth presents a manifesto on the use of language in literature, arguing that "low and rustic" words - the words of impoverished country people - give greater insight into humanity than words affected by the artifice of urban life. Nearly two-hundred years later, Irish author Patrick McCabe's The Butcher Boy features a view of language that embraces the speech of the poor, but transplants the focus to the city. This may seem like an important contradiction between the two authors, but it illuminates a more fundamental disagreement between Wordsworth's lofty Romanticism and McCabe's gritty postmodernism. Whereas Wordsworth believes that humans should be cognizant of their role as only one piece in the greater scheme of nature, McCabe believes humanity to be a separate entity and one worthy of its own examination. This shows why The Butcher Boy takes place in an urban environment - McCabe believes that a study of the nature of humanity works best when a character lives in a world populated by humanity's own creations, including works of art, cultural institutions, and a constant media stream - even if these might negatively influence the character's growth. While Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads introduce a speaker using rustic language to escape the bonds of the artificial, The Butcher Boy depicts a character's battle to form his own linguistic identity using these very artifices as inspiration - whether or not it costs him his humanity.
This is not to say that Wordsworth discounts the value of humanity in favor of some absorbing natural meta-entity that forces humans to lose their own identities, however. By stating that his choice of language allows "the essential passions of the heart to find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity," he attempts a reconciliation between nature and humanity in the form of a natural language that somehow both embraces and transcends the human soul. For example, in the following passage from Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth argues that his relationship with his sister somehow becomes strengthened when founded upon the bastion of nature:
When these wild ecstasies shall be matured
Into a sober pleasure, when thy mind
Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,
…If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations!
He believes that an individual's first contact with nature provides "wild ecstasies," and that memories of "steep woods and lofty cliffs" will comfort his sister in times of "fear or pain," and give her fond memories of his legacy after his death. Wordsworth's language here assumes a lofty, grandiose tone that still maintains a semblance of his beloved country dialogue - the use of sudden interjections ("Oh! then" in line 143) and contractions ("o'er" and "'tis" - lines 69 and 124) gives the poetry the quality of speech. The poet's attempt at synthesizing a natural language here thus acts as both a reminder of the grandeur of nature and the humanity evoked by the speech of those closest to it.
Patrick McCabe in one sense attempts to develop a similar natural language with his formal devices in The Butcher Boy. The use of a fractured stream of consciousness abandons any dependence on nature itself, but instead presents human nature at its most bare. By allowing the reader to scrutinize the thought processes of the main character Francie, McCabe illuminates the most fundamental components of any person's perceptions, even if the person in this case happens to be a crazed, psychopathic teenager:
You did two bad things Mrs Nugent. You made me turn my back on my ma and you took Joe away from me. Why did you do that Mrs Nugent? She didn't answer I didn't want to hear any answer … I lifted her off the floor with one hand and shot the bolt right into her head thlok was the sound it made, like a goldfish dropping into a bowl.
For example, the reference to the "goldfish" recalls one of the main traumas of Francie's life - losing his best friend Joe. This seemingly inconsequential remark demonstrates that people tend to connect inanimate objects with their life experiences. Similarly, the lack of punctuation shows the disjointed nature of interior monologue, as well as the tendency to misrepresent past events in the mind - the lack of quotation marks shows that this is the dialogue that Francie remembers saying, not necessarily the dialogue that actually occurred. McCabe's use of these devices demonstrates his conception of a natural language, one that, like Wordsworth, illustrates the true nature of humanity, but that, unlike Wordsworth, focuses only on aspects of human consciousness.
A more important incongruity between McCabe's and Wordsworth's conceptions of a natural language involves the use of outside cultural references. For Wordsworth, "the dreary intercourse of daily life" goes against everything that he believes to be important to an understanding of human nature (Tintern Abbey 132). McCabe, on the other hand, embraces culture wholeheartedly. Francie develops his style of speech from the media stream that bombards him daily - this character is like an anti-Wordsworth, developed from everything that Wordsworth sees as unhealthy to the human spirit. Yet, Wordsworth himself reached his adulthood while being subjected to these very outside influences - they are responsible for giving him the power to want to get away from them! Any attack on his affected, urban upbringing thus paradoxically comes as an attack to himself and his desire to reject the outside influences that gave him his personality. McCabe, however, allows his main character to revel in this constant media stream and, at least initially, embrace it. Francie parrots back John Wayne lines ("Durn taxes, … ain't fair on folks"), game show platitudes ("You didn't catch Brady but you did catch this - a maggot-ridden old moggy! Congratulations!"), and adult small talk ("Well Mr Purcell I said is the man himself there.") in his quest for an identity in the adult world (13, 220, 114). Here, language becomes the key that separates childhood from adulthood. By contrast, Wordsworth sees language - and only a particular style of language - as a savior from the boredom of the adult world.
Still, McCabe does not necessarily value adulthood over childhood. His characterizations of the adults in The Butcher Boy, combined with Francie's halted, nightmarish mental development, shows that he believes that adults and culture exact an external influence on youth that leaves them with little control over their futures. Even if a child manages to overcome this slave-driven race into adult life, the final product's potential individuality becomes absorbed into a stifling conglomeration of stereotypes and mediocrity. McCabe shows none of the adults in the novel in a favorable light - they have all succumbed to the very stream of media that formed their own personas. For example, Mrs. Connolly and her friends cease to exist beyond their middling small talk and gossip (16), while Francie's father and brother identify themselves only with their troubled upbringing in an orphanage. Mrs. Nugent is a stereotypical British woman fond of belittling anyone of lower social status (4). Rather than fall into this never-ending cycle of outside influences and absorption into the media, Francie rebels at some untraceable point in the novel, at the cost of his own sanity and Mrs Nugent's life. McCabe therefore believes that adulthood, the ultimate developmental goal of any child, unfortunately must exist within the confines of an oppressive series of predetermined cultural standards and stereotypes. He may be subtly critiquing the artifice of humanity to as great an extent as Wordsworth.
Regardless of their individual beliefs and biases, however, the two authors' approaches to language attempt the same task - elucidating humanity's perceptions of reality. Wordsworth's linguistic devices advocate a severance with mere human invention, while McCabe's show what happens when these inventions get free reign to run rampant in the development of a youth. Francie refuses to continue his development beyond a certain point - he populates his world with a set of people and behaviors that never change. Even when his station in life changes, all he thinks about is the Nugent incident, Joe, Mrs. Connelly, Alo, the early relationship of his parents, and a set of pop culture references. Framed around all of these is the song "The Butcher Boy," which he at first identifies with his psychotic mother, but then transplants onto himself as he first becomes a real butcher boy working for Leddy, and then a figurative "butcher boy" as he slaughters Mrs. Nugent. Francie's perception of reality thus embraces only a few force-fed human-invented icons from his early life. Wordsworth's, however, abandons any semblance of culture and the "still, sad music of humanity," transcending beyond reality into a natural and metaphysical world (Tintern Abbey 92).
Consequently, the two styles of language aim at two distinct periods in the life cycle. Wordsworth's language begins as cultured and adult-minded, but aspires for the innocence and almost childlike nature of country speech. McCabe's begins as the language of a child, but aims toward adulthood - even if that adulthood means conformity and stereotypes - as well as a killing of innocence - symbolized in Francie's reluctant slaughter of the innocent baby pig (131-2). McCabe makes it clear that Francie feels just as uncomfortable in the adult sphere as in the adolescent one when he kills Mrs. Nugent - the fully-grown, independent "pig" that represents everything for which Francie strives. He thus figuratively destroys both the youthful and adult personas of himself, resulting in a kind of psychic nihilism where insanity is the only path to salvation. Wordsworth's ideologically similar retreat from society provides a more hopeful tone, showing that nature can be a solace from this frantic, tyrannical society - a new reality where an individual can feel its most human.
Yet, for the post-modernists, Wordsworth's argument fails to take into account the practical reality of a person's environment and sometimes impossible-to-overcome social circumstances - his romanticized view of the world only leads to self-denial if one neglects reality in favor of impossible dreams. For McCabe, Wordsworth's ideals take their place in Joyce's "grey impalpable world" of the romantic heroes and ideological naiveté of yesteryear. Francie's chance to escape the vicious cycle of artificial reality vanished with his assuming the language of John Wayne and the game show host.