What are the main issues in Bruce Dawe's poem, "A Victorian Hangman Tells His Love"?
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Dawe seems to be exploring the issue of capital punishment as he wrote this around the time of the last hanging in Australia which was in 1967. The hangman is characterised as a Victorian gentleman perhaps to emphasise how old-fashioned and out-of-date the practice of capital punishment feels in contemporary times. Dawe uses a tone of heavy irony throughout the poem as the gentleman speaker blurs the action of marriage with the act of killing. The language is chillingly kind and gentle as in the line, "See now I slip it over your neck". Dawe seems to be attacking the idea of capital punishment being held equivalent to a moral institution like marriage. Arguably, the Victorian hangman represents the state, as he is superficially courteous and considerate, but is actually engaged in murder.
Dawe also touches on religious subject matter, as the victim in his poem takes on Christ-like characteristics. He states that "the last three / members of our holy family were wed with" the noose which connects the current victim to the holy trinity perhaps. At the end of the poem, he also emphasises that the victim "will go forth / into a new life" which seems to be a direct connection to Christ's re-birth after his crucifixion on the cross. Perhaps Dawe is making the point that the hanged victim is being sacrificed, but will hopefully inspire the compassion of the Australian public which could lead to a change in the law.
Finally, Dawes also seems to be exploring the public and media reactions to the 1967 hanging. The onlookers come across as cold-hearted and passive in the lines, "The journalists are ready with the flash-bulbs of their eyes / raised to the simple altar, the doctor twitches like a stethoscope." He seems to be condemning the lack of sympathy in the public response in the partly ironic line, "you will sink into the generous pool of public feeling", and in the blunt understatement of "You are this evening's headlines."
Bruce Dawe is a very famous poet in Australia, his home country, and in particular he is renowned for using the poetic form to challenge and question social norms of his time. In this poem, he turns his gaze on capital punishment, expressing his sharp disapproval through grim and mordant irony in a dramatic monologue. Describing a government-sanctioned slaughter from the perspective of the hangman, who sees it as a somewhat macabre marriage with the moment of death acting as a symbol of the consummation of that marriage, allows Dawe to focus on the horror of what state executions actually involve:
With this spring of mine
from the trap, hitting the door lever, you will go forth
into a new life which I, alas, am not yet fit to share.
Be assured, you will sink into the generous pool of public feeling
as gently as a leaf—accept your role, feel chosen.
You are this evening's headlines. Come, my love.
The public exposure of the criminal to the "flash-bulbs" of the eyes of the journalists who are watching his final moments is paradied by the "generous pool of public feeling" that the hangman assures his victim he will fall into. The metaphor is apt and somewhat ironic: clearly there has been nothing "generous" about the "public feeling" prior to this, but it is only through death that the victim can be accepted and loved once again by society. There is a mocking intensity in the way that the hangman urges his victim to "feel chosen" and to "accept" his role as passive "bride," and the final invitation of the hangman, given what has come before, exposes the full horror of capital punishment.
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