Enterprise by Nissim Ezekiel

It started as a pilgrimage
Exalting minds and making all
The burdens light, The second stage
Explored but did not test the call.
The sun beat down to match our rage.

We stood it very well, I thought,
Observed and put down copious notes
On things, the peasants sold and bought
The way of serpents and of goats.
Three cities where a sage had taught

But when the differences arose
On how to cross a desert patch,
We lost a friend whose stylish prose
Was quite the best of all our batch.
A shadow falls on us and grows.

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 said he smelt the sea

We noticed nothing as we went,
A straggling crowd of little hope,
Ignoring what the thunder meant,
Deprived of common needs like soap.
Some were broken, some merely bent.

When, finally, we reached the place,
We hardly know why we were there.
The trip had darkened every face,
Our deeds were neither great nor rare.
Home is where we have to gather grace.

Summary

A number of people, including the poet, as is clear from the use of the first person pronoun‘we’, decide to go on a pilgrimage. They are city-dwellers and the journey they undertake is to some romantic, primitive hinterland. They start with hope, courage and determination, with their minds full of noble ideas and ideals. They are out to make some heroic effort, which would lead, they hope, to some noble achievement. Their minds are exalted and they are not afraid of any dangers and difficulties. ‘All burdens’ seem to them to be light. This first stage of the journey is symbolic of the stage of Edenic innocence which man enjoys in his boyhood and early youth, when he is entirely unconscious of the human predicament, of the frustrations and failures which life brings at every stage.

But their paradisal felicity and innocence are soon lost. In the next stage of their journey which follows, the pilgrims are faced with dangers and difficulties. They continue on their onward journey of exploration, but they do not care to find out if the urge is sufficiently strong in them, whether the romantic call of the remote and the distant is powerful enough to enable them to face the dangers that lie before them. Theirs is an untested idealism, untested by the experience of practical day to day life. Their rage, their passion for some heroic endeavour, is as hot as the hot sun above their heads. It “beatdown upon them’, ‘to match our rage.’ It seems that the objects and forces of nature are out to frustrate human endeavour, the oppressive heat of the sun thus becomes symbolic of the hostility of nature to human idealism and heroic aspirations. The more hotly we humans aspire, the more hotl ynature tries to beat us down.

The group of travellers is able to put up very well with dangers and difficulties for sometime.They continue to journey in hope. They take notes as they move along. They note down the goods being bought and sold by the peasants. They also observe the ways of serpents and goats and note them down. They pass through three cities where a sage had taught but do not care to find out what he had taught, and what his message was. Their idealism soon degenerates into the trivial and the commonplace. This is the human dilemma, man cannot remain true to his own self for any length of time. There are too many distractions and diversions, and steadfastness and singleness of purpose are needed and must be painstakingly cultivated.

The difficulties and dangers posed by man’s physical environment are not so damaging as those that result from his own insufficiency. Soon there are differences of opinion among the travellers and they begin to quarrel over petty matters. They had to cross a piece of waste land, ‘a desert patch’,and they could not agree as to the best way of doing so. One of their friends – rather proud of his stylish prose – was so angry that he left their company. The shadow of discord fell on their enterprise, and it has continued to grow. Bickerings over petty matters, needless quarrels over trifles, hatred of, and hostility to, those who hold different opinions, is ingrained in human nature, and thus man carries the seed of his failure and frustration within his own self. So do these pilgrims who, despite their quarrel, continue their onward journey.

But now they are divided into groups, each group attacking the other. Engrossed in their internecine quarrel, they lose their ways, i.e. forget their noble aspirations which had motivated the enterprise. Their goal and their purpose are forgotten and their idealism is all gone. Some of them decide to leave the group. Frustration and difficulties overwhelm the human spirit and many do not have the courage to face the realities of life. They seek relief in escape and withdrawal. Many of us are such introverts. Some try to pray and seek divine assistance and blessings, forgetting that God helps those who help themselves. Their leader feels that he “smelt the sea”, i.e. he feels that they have reached a dead end, and must go back. Their pilgrimage must end.

Still they persist, though their journey has lost all its significance. They have lost their idealism, their heroic aspiration, and they notice nothing as they move along. They are no longer a disciplined group of devoted idealists but only a struggling crowd of a few defeated, tired, and hopeless survivors who continue to trudge along and as such are symbolic of the essential truth of man’s pilgrimage on this earth. They are dirty and shabby for they have been deprived of such common needs as soap, are broken in spirit and bent down physically.

Such is the ultimate end of all human enterprises; this is the essential truth of human life. Absorbed in their petty quarrels and tired and exhausted, frustrated and at bay, the travellers do not even hear the thunder, and even if they do so, they ignore its significance. The thunder is symbolic of spiritual regeneration and fertility, but they do not care for it. The extreme hopelessness of man at the end of life’s journey is thus stressed. The urge and the enthusiasm for the inner meaning soon wear out, and disillusionment is so dark and deep that all hopes of inner illumination or spiritual regeneration are lost. Nothing, not even the thunder over the hills, can shake off human apathy.

The disillusionment of the pilgrims is total: and they even come to doubt the very worth and significance of their journey. It seems to them to have been meaningless and futile. All their noble aspirations are forgotten, there is sorrow and suffering on every face, and they are conscious of the fact that their actions have neither been great nor rare. Human life is like a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing.

Analysis

The last line, so characteristic of Ezekiel’s condensed aphoristic style, contains the moral of the lyric. Efforts at escape from the realities of human existence are futile. We must accept the limitations of our lot, and do our best within those limitations. Heroism means the acceptance of our lot in life and the doing of our best in the service of God and humanity. The redemption has to be sought either through the world or in one’s own mind. By putting the statement in very generalised terms, Ezekiel manages to have it in many ways. In a way, home also refers to his city where life has to be lived with all it kindred clamour. If any grace is to be sought, it can only be within the city’s confines and not outside. ‘Home’ is the reality principal which must be accepted, faced and made the best of. This is the only sane and balanced way of life possible for man.

Ezekiel himself said that the lyric was written for, “personal therapeutic purposes”, to analyse, examine and explore his own feelings of loss and deprivation. He wanted to find relief from personal tensions and frustrations and so he has expressed them in the lyric. He thus sought the psychological relief which results from pouring out our troubles and frustrations to an intimate, sympathetic friend. But this analysis and exploration has been done in generalised terms, so that the lyric has also become a metaphor for, a symbol or an allegory of, the human condition. The personal frustrations and tensions of the poet are thus seen to be also those of humanity at large. The journey which is undertaken is symbolic of the poet’s own quest for identity which is also the quest of most gifted and sensitive souls like him.

The way the poem develops is entirely original including possibly what he makes of the crowd and thunder in the last stanza but one; and Home in the last line of the poem is significantly reminiscent of the Four Quartets. The last stanza sums up the futility of much human enterprise: the word “gather” inherits all the poetic associations of the word from Herrick, Milton, W.B. Yeats and finds fulfilment in one who values his tradition and puts his own faith in the things of the spirit, both suggested by the words ‘Home’ and ‘grace’.

The lyric also shows Ezekiel’s mastery over poetic form. Right words have been used at the right place, there is almost Shakespearean felicity of expression, with hardly any false note or superfluity. Simplicity, economy and precision characterise the poet’s diction. The mind is carried away in one sweep with a sense of musical delight. The rhyme-scheme is regular, the rhythm is accurate, and there is a fine fusion of subject matter and poetic form. The slow incantatory music leaves a lasting impression on the mind. It is a great work of art from the pen of one of the greatest living Indian poets writing in English.

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