Summary and Analysis : About the author
Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, a Trinidadian writer of Indian descent was born on 17th August, 1932 in Trinidad. His great-grandfather was an indentured laborer who had come to Trinidad during the British Raj. Naipaul was a very bright student and attended the University of Oxford in 1950 on a scholarship. He worked for the BBC for sometime before he began his career in writing.
V.S Naipaul is a prolific writer who has had an enormous output of literature to his credit. He has written everything from the comic to the tragic and around overlapping themes of politics, religion identity, colonialism, oppression and individuality. His first three novels of great importance important novels include Mystic Masseur, The Suffrage of Elvira and Miguel Street. However, it was his fourth novel, A House for Mr Biswas which propelled him to the league of the greats. Some of his other works include A Bend in the River, Mimic Men and The Enigma of Arrival. Naipaul has written a couple of nonfiction works centered around India which include An Area of Darkness, India: A wounded civilization and India: A Million Mutinies Now. He was also an avid traveler whose travels across the globe precipitated in works like Among the Believers: an Islamic Journey, Beyond Belief, Half a Life and The Masque of Africa.
He received the Nobel Prize for literature in 2001.
Miguel Street, the collection from which B. Wordsworth is taken bagged the Somerset Maugham Award in 1961 and Somerset Maugham himself selected it as an entry, thus making Naipaul the first non-European writer to win the prize.
Naipaul died on 17th August 2018 and according to Geordie Greig, Naipaul’s friend and the editor of The Mail on Sunday, the writer drifted towards his final rest after being read Crossing the Bar, a poem by Tennyson.
Summary and Analysis : The story
B Wordsworth is taken from Naipaul’s collection of short stories titled Miguel Street. This story is narrated in first person through a boy-child’s perspective. The story highlights the plight of a ‘poet’ whom the child encounters. The two share a very easy-going relationship and the child seems to instinctively understand and empathize with the ‘poet’. Narrated in a humorous and fun manner, the story revolves around the themes of solitude, alienation, admiration, love for nature and the role of the artist in the society. This story is brought to life through the colloquial language, the rich Caribbean setting and its exploration of the complex intricacies of human relationship and artistic expression.
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B. Wordsworth : Summary
The story is told by an unnamed child narrator who lives in Miguel Street. His house is daily frequented by three beggars : a dhoti-clad Indian at ten, a woman smoking pipe at twelve and a blind man led by a boy at two. The strangest caller is a smartly dressed person who comes at about four o’clock one afternoon wishing to watch the narrator’s bees. Thus we are introduced to the man of the story: B Wordsworth.
The narrator’s mother is quite suspicious of the man and gives him the cold shoulder. She instructs the narrator to watch the man while he watches the bees and the two end up watching the bees together, squatting under a palm tree for about an hour. The little boy is intrigued by the man’s appearance and seeks to know him better. The man’s introduction about himself verses on hyperbole:
I said what does you do, mister?
He got up and said, ‘I am a poet.’
I said, ‘A good poet?’
He said, ‘The greatest in the world.’
‘What’s your name, mister?’
He tells the boy that the ‘B‘ in his name stands for Black and that White Wordsworth was his brother. This reference to the British Romantic poet William Wordsworth is significant and shall be taken later in the course of analysis.
Wordsworth then tries to sell a poem to the kid for four cents, only to end up getting chased by his mother. He calmly accepts the unappreciative response as “the poet’s tragedy” and doesn’t seem to mind it at all. Perhaps he has been through such rejections earlier.
A week later, the narrator meets B. Wordsworth at the corner of Miguel Street. He hasn’t sold any poems yet but invites the narrator to his home in Alberto Street to feast on mangoes which have become red, ripe and juicy. The two head for B Wordsworth’s one-roomed hut which looks rather wild, surrounded by a mango, a coconut and a plum tree. The narrator hogs down six mangoes and ends up staining his shirt with the mango juice. He gets thrashed by his mother on reaching home and runs away to B. Wordsworth’s house. Mr B. comforts him and takes him for a walk down Saint Clair Avenue, to the Savannah and then to the Race Course. B Wordsworth then suggests lying on the grass and gazing at the night sky. He asks the kid to think how far the stars are from them and the impact this has on the young mind is a powerful one :
I did as he told me, and I saw what he meant. I felt like nothing, and at the same time I had never felt so big and great in all my life. I forgot all my anger and all my tears and all my blows.
Wordsworth then teaches him the names of the constellations of which he seems to particularly remember the Orion. Shortly, they are interrupted by a policeman and the interrogation becomes a comic exchange:
The policeman said, ‘What are you doing here?’
Wordsworth said, ‘I have been asking myself the same question for forty years.’
The two become fast friends. The narrator starts visiting Wordsworth’s home very often and one day, asks him why is it that he lets the bushes abound in his house. The poet then tells him a little story which completely overwhelms the kid:
He said ‘Listen, I will tell you a story . Once upon a time a boy and a girl met each other and they fell in love. They loved each other so much they got married. They were both poets. He loved words. She loved grass and flowers and trees. They lived happily in a single room, and then one day the girl poet said to the boy poet, ‘We are going to have another poet in the family.’ But this poet was never born, because the girl died, and the young poet died with her, inside her. And the girl’s husband was very sad, and he said he would never touch a thing in the girl’s garden. And so the garden remained, and grew high and wild.’
I looked at B. Wordsworth, and as he told me this lovely story, he seemed to grow older. I understood his story.”
The two have a great time together. They visit the Rock Garden, the Botanical Gardens, climb the Chancellor’s Hill late in the afternoon and watch the darkness fall on the Port of Spain. Wordsworth seems to have a positive attitude towards life and fills the boy with wonder and awe. This is what the narrator has to say about Wordsworth’s outlook towards life:
He did everything as though he were doing it for the first time in his life… The world became a most exciting place
Wordsworth then tells the boy an important secret: that he is writing the greatest poem in the world by writing one line a month, and that the line of the month is: “The past is Deep.” Mr B. tells the boy that he hopes to distil the experiences of a whole month into a single line of poetry and that in twenty-two years he’ll have written a poem that will “sing to all humanity”.
One day while walking along the dockside, the boys asks the poet whether the pin he has will sink or float in water: He asks the boy to give it a try. The pin sinks. We later come to know that B. Wordsworth supports his living by singing calypsos and that he’s a part-poet, part-performer.
When the narrator visits his house the next time, he finds B Wordsworth lying on his bed and he says that the poem isn’t going well. He is in a terrible state. The boy is overwhelmed with sadness when he understands B Wordsworth is going to die soon. He tells the kid that he will narrate him a ‘funny’ story and makes him promise to never come back after he’s heard the story. The boy agrees:
He said , ‘ Good. Well, listen. That story that I told you about the boy poet and the girl poet do you remember that that wasn’t true it was something I just made up. All this talk about poetry and the greatest poem in the world that wasn’t true either. Isn’t that the funniest thing you have heard?
However, his voice breaks and the narrator runs home crying
After about a year, the boy walks down Alberto Street but Wordsworth’s house is nowhere to be seen. It is replaced by huge concrete buildings. The mango tree, the coconut and the plum tree have all been cut down and it seems as if B.Wordsworth had never existed.
B. Wordsworth : Analysis
Taken from a collection of short stories titled Miguel Street, V.S Naipaul’s B. Wordsworth presents before us a complex relationship between a young boy and a rather remarkable man which is forged with great ease and simplicity.
Revolving around the themes of identity, alienation, friendship, admiration and the role of the artist, B Wordsworth is narrated in the first person by a little boy who comes in contact with a man of the same name. One day, the man appears in the narrator’s house to ‘watch the bee’s’. He’s smartly dressed, clearly unlike the beggars who come to his house everyday. The narrator is quick to detect the coldness with which his mother accosts the man. In contrast to her, the narrator doesn’t judge the man and talks to him in a friendly manner. Perhaps this ease of reaching out and communicating with the other enables the narrator-kid to know and understand the life of an interesting, lonely man and perhaps become the only one to do so.
Wordsworth helps the narrator-kid grow and teaches him important lessons about life and leisure. The narrator’s strict mother serves as a foil to B. Wordsworth’s accommodating nature. He lets the boy discover things by himself and even entertains his idea of placing the pin on water to see what happens next. He teaches the kid to delight in everyday experiences we take for granted and presents him a fresh pair of eyes with which to observe and soak in the wonders of the natural world.
Miguel Street, the collection from which the story is taken features many interestingly odd characters and B. Wordsworth’s is certainly one of them. The characters in the book often struggle with their identities and, owing to the colonial past of the region, find themselves shaped by the colonial experience. B. Wordsworth’s story highlights the alienation of the artist from the society he lives in and tries to come to terms with role s/he might play in it.
One of the first things the narrator notices about the man is his English which quite unlike that of his Trinidadian folks. Though he speaks good English, there is a hint of artificiality about it :
His English was so good, it didn’t sound natural, and I could see my mother was worried.
Black Wordsworth calls himself the ‘greatest poet in the world ‘ and claims that William Wordsworth was his brother. Like his Romantic counterpart who was an acclaimed ‘Nature Poet“, B. Wordsworth loves to spend time with nature But he isn’t known by anybody as a poet. Though his marginalized status may be attributed to his color, it is difficult to state whether he actually writes poems at all.
One cannot help but feel that he’s quite lost about his identity. Parts of his identity seem to contradict others. He claims to be the greatest poet in the world . Yet we don’t see his poetry. His poem remains unfinished and he seems to have fallen in an artistic paralysis after writing the line the past is deep. He dismisses the story he tells the kid after having narrated it with much passion. He is poet who earns his living by singing Calypso songs. A lot in him seems to be imitation and he seems have a divided identity.
The setting and the local colour of the story gives it a very distinctive appeal. The Caribbean setting with its palm and mango trees, the Chancellor Hill, the Race Course and the Port of Spain, combined with the sights of Miguel Street provide a distinctive visual appeal to the reader. On the other hand, the colloquial diction helps us ‘hear’ the language of the people inhabiting the story. Notice this brief exchange between the narrator’s mother and B. Wordsworth and the effect it produces:
I ran up the steps and shouted, ‘Ma, it have a man outside here. He say he want to watch the bees. My mother came out, looked at the man and asked him in an unfriendly way, ‘What do you want?’
The man said, ‘I want to watch your bees.
Wordsworth’s story highlights the alienation of the artist from the society he lives in and tries to come to terms with role s/he might play in it. B.Wordsworth lives in the margins. Nobody buys his poems and he doesn’t seem to have any agency in the public life whatsoever. But he does have a great influence on the personal life of the boy which results in artistic expression in the form of the boy’s narration. B. Wordsworth’s is a poetry that is lived, not written. He lives his life like a poem.
The theme of the relationship between art and material wealth is found in the utterances of B. Wordsworth and the hardships he has to face to eke out a living by selling his poems for twenty cents and signing Calypso songs. When the narrator’s mother refuses to buy his poem, his response, though a funny one, has some truth in it :
My mother say she ain’t have four cents.’
Wordsworth said, ‘It is the poet’s tragedy.’
Again, later in the story, we find him unable to be able to believe that material well-being would be his share even if he wrote the greatest poem in the world :
But you will be the richest man in the world when you write the greatest poem ?’
He didn’t reply.
This silence on his part speaks volumes about the chasm that exists between poetry and material prosperity.
Whether B. Wordsworth actually writes good poems or whether he is a delusional person fancying himself a poet is an unimportant question. Such assessment makes the very mistake which the narrator avoids – of placing a value judgment on B. Wordsworth’s worth. What is more important is his personal life, the past he’s been through and the relationship he develops with the boy. When his story about the girl and the child is taken into account, the line “The past is deep” which he takes a full month to write bears a completely different meaning rather than when viewed as a disjointed utterance of a madman.
It is true that B.Wordsworth comes across as a strange person but it is this very ‘strangeness’ which endears him .He cares about the ‘lesser things’ in life and can see himself as a part of the universe. His lazy loiterings may appear as escapism but if at all, it is an escape to discovery. This is perhaps what the narrator feels when he lies on the grass with B.Wordsworth after getting thrashed by his mom, watching the night sky :
I felt like nothing, and at the same time I had never felt so big and great in all my life. I forgot all my anger and all my tears and all my blows.
Furthermore, he also comes across as a kind person with a great degree of emotional intelligence. Before his death, he makes the narrator promise to never return after he’s told him a funny story: of how all he’d said about the poet’s wife was a lie. His voice breaks in the process. It might be a lie, it might not. What seems to be the case though is that it was a true story and that he’s lying now. If so, it is actually a profound gesture he’s making here. B. Wordsworth is undoubtedly a lonely man. He finds a friend in the young narrator with whom he can share his loneliness and transforms the boy’s outlook towards life. However, when he knows his end is near, he attempts to erase his existence from the mind of the young boy by saying that everything he’s ever said is a lie. After having expressed his credo to perhaps the only person through his story, he tries to erase his memory from the very person’s mind so as to relieve him from the burden of missing someone and allow him to explore life in his own terms. In short, he tries to negate himself for the sake of the other which is perhaps the most profound gesture a human being can make. This noble gesture of self-effacement carries a note of sacrifice with it.
The final paragraphs portray a poignant picture of B. Wordsworth’s fate. A year after his last visit the narrator walks along Alberto Street only to find B. Wordsworth’s hut replaced by a two-storied building. The mango, the plum and the coconut trees have all been cut down. The hard, man-made material replaces the living signs of nature and the last line is an awfully sad one which sums up the life of B Wordsworth:
It was just as though B. Wordsworth had never existed.
This strange story about a ‘strange’ person may appear humorous at first sight but at its core lies a tragedy of tremendous magnitude: one with a profound lesson that can radically change one’s outlook towards people, places and the very nature of human existence.