Study Guide

Bedtime Story

by George MacBeth

Bedtime Story Analysis

Historical Context

In the 1950s Britain witnessed a renewed interest in poetry, particularly in people who desired to move poetry foreword, or at least away from what some poets feared it was becoming. One phenomenon which received much attention then and which has gained a place in the literary history of England is a group of writers called The Movement. Consisting of Philip Larkin, Kinglsey Amis, John Wain, Thom Gunn, D. J. Enright, Donald Davie, John Holloway, Elizabeth Jennings, Robert Conquest, and a few others, The Movement stood for writing about real people and real events and in returning British poetry to a stricter versification, away from what they perceived as the growing sloppiness of free verse and other organic forms. In addition to opposing much of what was happening in American poetry, they opposed melodrama and hysteria, which they thought much of the poetry of World War II embodied, and (largely) thought of themselves as anti-romantic. Critics sometimes labeled them as conservative in their seeming resistance to experimentation and their desire to “forget” the war. The Movement’s work is showcased in Conquest’s anthologies, New Lines, and New Lines 2, published in 1956 and 1963 respectively. Some of the poets mentioned, however, claim that no such group existed, that it is largely a manufactured label for the convenience of literary critics, who need to lump and categorize to make sense of so many diverse approaches to poetry. In an interview...

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Bedtime Story Literary Style

A free-verse parody of a bedtime story, “Bedtime Story” is composed of thirteen quatrains of verse which allegorically satirize European attitudes towards colonialism and humanity’s relationship to the natural world.

Parodies imitate features of literary works or literary genres, often treating “lowlier” subjects than the work or genre they imitate. MacBeth signals a conventional bedtime story by beginning “Long long ago …,” but then launches into a story which can be read as an allegory of Britain’s own colonial history. The “last man” is a type, representing the uncivilized “savage,” whom European countries such as Britain and France felt they had to conquer before helping. MacBeth satirizes colonial attitudes towards its professed mission when he tells us that the Brigade’s intention were only honorable—“to feed them.” He similarly satirizes humanity’s propensity for first hunting a species into extinction or near extinction and then preserving that species in natural history museums and zoos in the next to last stanza.

The poem itself is a narrative, related almost filmically. MacBeth shifts point of view and makes sometimes abrupt transitions in telling the story. His use of enjambment, or run-on lines, also helps propel the story forward, keeping readers interested in what happens next.

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Bedtime Story Compare and Contrast

1962: Scotland-born Sean Connery appears in the first James Bond film, Dr. No.

1995: Scotland’s film and tourist industries receive a boost when Braveheart, Mel Gibson’s film about William Wallace, wins five Oscars and makes the world aware, again, of Scotland’s history.

Today: Ireland-born Pierce Brosnan now plays James Bond.

1950: Scottish Nationalists steal the “Stone of Destiny” from Westminster Abbey. This was Scotland’s Coronation Stone, taken by the English in 1296. By tradition all British Monarchs have to be crowned while sitting on it. It was eventually recovered from Arbroath Abbey.

1996: The Stone of Destiny is finally returned to Scotland permanently, 700 years after it was stolen by Edward I.

1997: Scottish people voted yes for “Devolution” for Scotland, by a 75 percent majority. This would give Scotland it’s own parliament, not tied to English parliamentary systems, for the first time in several centuries.

1958: The most prominent political party of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Movement National Congolais (MNC), was founded in 1958 by Patrice Lumumba, a third-class clerk in the district revenue office of the postal service. Before that, another Congolese political party existed but only brought people together along ethnic lines.

1960-65: Political turmoil engulfs the Democratic Republic of...

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Bedtime Story Topics for Further Study

Compare MacBeth’s narrator in “Bedtime Story” with Craig Raine’s in “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home.” Discuss the similarities and differences and explain what they can tell us about human nature and being “other.”

Write your own bedtime story in the form of a folktale or fairytale about a pressing social topic.

Re-write MacBeth’s poem from the point of view of the last man.

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Bedtime Story Media Adaptations

This website on mass extinction provides charts, statistics, and scientific facts to buttress claims about the dwindling numbers of species left on earth. http://www.lassp.cornell.edu/newmme/ science/extinction.html.

The WorldBook provides this website which contains essays and historical background on species’ extinction, past and present: http://www .worldbook.com/fun/wbla/earth/html/ed12.htm

For extensive information of Scottish history, consult the following website: http://members .tripod.com/cunninghamc/NationalHistory/Nat ScotHistory.html

Professor George Landow of Brown University has compiled an extensive bibliography on the history of Colonial Africa: http://landow.stg .brown.edu/post/africa/histbibl.html

Frank Marshall directed the film adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel, Congo, in 1995. The story details an expedition into deep, dark Africa that runs into an unknown race of killer apes.

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Bedtime Story What Do I Read Next?

Hannah Arendt’s 1968 study, Imperialism: Part Two of the Origins of Totalitarianism, provides a provocative exploration into the cultural and political underpinnings of Fascist ideologies.

MacBeth’s Collected Poems: 1958-1970, published in 1972 provides a rewarding look at MacBeth’s genius as well as his silliness. This book is entertaining and provocative.

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Bedtime Story Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Arendt, Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.

Hochman, Jhan, "An Interview with Thom Gunn," Portland Review, Vol. 28, No. 2, 1982, pp. 21-78.

MacBeth, George, A Child of the War, J. Cape, 1987. MacBeth, George, Collected Poems: 1958-1970, New York: Atheneum, 1972.

MacBeth, George, My Scotland: Fragments of a State of Mind.

Ries, Lawrence R., Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 40: Poets of Great Britain and Ireland Since 1960, edited by Vincent B. Sherry Jr., Detroit: Gale Research, 1985, pp. 327-337.

Rosenthal, M. L., The New Poets: American and British...

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