To what extent can different aspects of Marxist literary theory be applied to Tony Harrisons poem, The Red Lights of Plenty?

Authors Avatar

To what extent can different aspects of Marxist literary theory be applied to

Tony Harrison’s poem, “The Red Lights of Plenty”?

“The Red Lights of Plenty” by Tony Harrison was written in 1983 for the centenary of Karl Marx’s death, and is therefore, as one might expect, Marxist in nature. Interestingly, although a British poet, Harrison’s poem is set in America and is arguably a criticism of its consumerist society. Consequently, Marxist literary theory can be applied to almost all aspects of the poem, the most important being Harrison’s discussions of plenty and war.

Yet, despite strong Marxist foundations, class criticism in the poem is not explicit nor is it conventional – there is a lack of human focus in the poem, meaning there can be no exploration of character relationships to highlight class disparities. Instead, Harrison comments on the exploitative nature of capitalism through an examination of “PLENTY”, which becomes a character in herself, and “her horn.” The horn is a clear reference to the Greek mythological cornucopia, a symbol of abundance and prosperity. Thus it could be argued that the horn of plenty is a symbol of capitalism. Equally, it could be argued that “PLENTY” represents the worker, as the term is inextricably linked to Marxist ideas of production. Marx described capitalism, “with its predominance of quantity over quality”, as converting “social products” into “market commodities”. In personifying “PLENTY” (through use of capital letters) individualism is lost in the formation of the collective. The workers become dehumanised; reified by capitalism and alienated from themselves.

The exploitation of the working classes is explored further through the way in which the poem is structured to portray the plenty (the workers) as falling throughout. “Spilling from PLENTY’s horn”, their descent begins in the first stanza and ends in the final stanza, where a “giant vaccum” is “Hoovering [up] the Fall”. Harrison reinforces the sensation of falling through enjambment as well as an alternate rhyme scheme that pulls the reader through the poem, whilst remaining unobtrusive. Yet it is through an interpretation of Harrison’s employment of polysemic lexis, that Marxist readings can be readily applied. For example, the verb “spilling”, whilst a further reference to falling, holds connotations of carelessness, excess and waste (arguably the by-products of a capitalist society). Harrison insinuates that capitalist societies allow the worker to fall as a result of their destructive quest for profit. The repetition of the noun “Fall” in the poem is also significant. Read automatically as a noun, “Fall” is literally an American reference to Autumn. However, taken as a verb, “Fall” carries all the connotations of the exploited working classes. This coupled with the verb, “Hoovering” (a reference to the FBI agent charged with rounding up communists, and later criticised for “greatly overemphas[ing] [their] threat to national security”) forces the reader to identify “the Fall” no longer as leaves, but people.

Join now!

It is for this reason, perhaps, that Harrison refers to the leaves as “red welcomes on the pavements” in the second stanza. In retaining a sense of ambiguity, Harrison forces the reader to infer a connection between the leaves and the initials “VIPs” that appear two lines later. Our familiarity with the Celebrity means we immediately surmise that the red leaves form a red carpet, creating a sense of the upper class metaphorically walking over the lower classes. Because it is natural for the reader to make this inference, Harrison criticises the ease with which we legitimise inequality between ...

This is a preview of the whole essay