Archive for the 'literary criticism' Category

Artur Domosławski: Ryszard Kapuściński – A Life

March 16, 2019

A13Vt7BNcvL._AC_UL436_I don’t often go in for biographies – perhaps less than once a year. However, I’d heard of this controversial biography of one of my favourite travel writers and wanted to see what all the fuss was about. As an example of the genre it’s fascinating in the author’s attempts to analyse, understand and criticise his subject, who, at the same time, he clearly rates very highly; he therefore has also to admit and try to understand his disappointment. It becomes a critical investigation by a compatriot and admirer, uneasy about a lot of what he learns, but it doesn’t become a hatchet job.

Only a Pole could have written this book: there is so much context one needs in order to understand how Kapuściński, from the borderlands originally, and whose home therefore disappeared into the Soviet Union after Yalta, became a loyal Party member in post-war Poland: it allowed him to become a journalist, to travel widely and to develop his craft; it also enabled him to know the right people who could protect him when things became difficult. So Domosławski’s account and analysis of attitudes driving various groups in Poland is careful, detailed and very necessary.

There are evidently many contradictions in Kapuściński, who carefully edited and altered his past when it suited him. It is hard to see when people are playing the necessary games and when they are genuinely sincere about the prospect of building a new society, though it does seem that Kapuściński was genuine in his support of the regime initially. People were seeking out parameters for freedom of action, as well as being idealistic supporters of socialism. And people needed to cover each other’s backs, and still do in the current poisonous atmosphere of Polish politics. Domosławski also explores Kapuściński’s contacts with the security services, and the self-censorship of some of his writing in order not to antagonise the US.

Kapuściński’s journalism developed detailed pictures of the Third World: he fell in love with Africa and Latin America. He rejects the exotic, and talks with ordinary people, developing at the time a new form of journalism much emulated today, spending much time in the middle of dangerous revolutions and anti-colonialist struggles against white rulers in the 1960s. He came to create legends about himself and his scrapes and escapades: Domosławski carefully investigates the myths about his contacts and connections with Patrice Lumumba, Che Guevara and Salvador Allende, among others.

Although he was ultimately disappointed with the failures of African decolonialisation, it’s evident he was committed to the struggles of the poor and oppressed in the Third World, and socialist governments in Eastern Europe gave more than token support to some of these struggles. To me he appeared to be a man of a certain time and era who in a number of ways was gradually left behind or overtaken by events.

A good deal of Kapuściński’s journalism is still unavailable in English, unfortunately. One of his most well-known books, The Emperor, about the court of the emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia, can also be see as a fairly thinly-veiled allegory about the state of his own country in the 1970s. Domosławski analyses the qualities of his writing and what made him so popular and successful

There is much fascinating insight into the Solidarity period, the time of martial law and the new Poland which emerged in the 1990s, and evidently Kapuściński had trouble coming to terms with his own past after the fall of socialism, and how it might be perceived by the new era.

Kapuściński wrote committed journalism, in the service of a cause. From his wide experience, he made many very perceptive observations about globalisation, neo-liberalism and its effects on our world, and where these forces may be leading us. Although analysis and research, by Domosławski and others, reveal considerable errors, falsifications and inventions in his works, it is ultimately impossible to separate the man and his deeds from his origins and his time as a citizen of the People’s Republic. Literary reporting and journalism are not the same thing, and he was operating within a very different tradition of the press and reportage from the Anglo-American one by which so much is measured; the borders of journalism and fiction are fuzzier in his work. I’ve read as much as I can get my hands on in English and I have enjoyed it very much; I can appreciate that the atmosphere and the commitment, the love of people and places shine through, and while I have been shown that there are factual inaccuracies deliberately introduced, for me this does not detract from a very important and enjoyable body of work.


On the joys of teaching English

March 7, 2019

Every now and then, I remember I was a teacher once. When I meet up with former colleagues who are still working, I sigh with relief that I don’t have to return to school for training days, and listen to the ‘leadership team’ witter on about targets and initiatives and I don’t know what else, and I feel briefly sorry for those who still do have to… I also remember how different it was on the following day, when the students returned and the real work of a teacher began again – how much I loved it!

Things that I really enjoyed: reading books together in class. That was still possible in secondary school and we all loved it: reading around the class, sometimes everyone in turn, sometimes volunteers, sometimes me. We could and did pause to discuss all sorts of things: plot, character, language, how a writer tells a good story, why x happens and not y, why a writer does things a certain way and not another. All kinds of opportunities for different kinds of writing arose at various points in a novel. And everyone could express opinions about all sorts of things, practising listening and responding, learning to argue, and to support opinions with evidence…

Sometimes I would get students to present a book they had recently read to the class: a brief introduction and then read out a carefully chosen extract; explain what their opinion of the book was, and why, and finally take questions from their class-mates. Not everyone found this easy, but I felt, from a very early stage in my career as a teacher, that good speaking and listening skills were probably going to be of much greater use and importance to my students in the future than writing skills…

When we got on to individual talks to the class, we had a great time: choose your subject, and give an illustrated five-minute presentation to the class, then take questions. It was often an astonishing confidence-building exercise for students who were not very strong at English, as they used the opportunity to be experts in their own field in front of the class. As time went by, health and safety curtailed their choice of options somewhat, and having livestock in the classroom sometimes presented management issues… but I always learned lots, and I know the students did, too. I still think the best ever talk came from a GCSE student who was a keen fencer: she spoke confidently and demonstrated her skills effectively, using a male student whom she didn’t very much like as her opponent for the practical parts of her talk: he took it all in very good part. The talk filled an entire 40-minute lesson; nobody was bored, and she naturally received full marks for her efforts.

Discussions and also formal debates featured regularly, and I had an understanding with students that no topic was off-limits as long as they could approach it sensibly and maturely, and respect others’ different opinions and their right to express them: you were allowed to disagree as long as you did it respectfully and explained your reasons… I can only remember a couple of occasions in nearly thirty years when it was necessary to close down a discussion because some could not manage these rules.

Of course, students had to write, as well as speak and read. One of my favourite activities came out of reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with Year 8 students (age 12-13). If you can make the book work, it’s a real challenge for them: nineteenth-century language and behaviour and dealing with issues of race, childhood, schooling and lots more. The book has everything: truanting, running away from home, a murder, romance, getting lost in a cave, finding a real fortune… and there is an amazing writing opportunity immediately after the murder: produce the front page of the town paper the day after that event. There’s writing the story, editing and improving it, working out how much the reporter can know and find out, compared with what Tom and Huck have seen, and then you can go into an IT suite and they can design and produce and print their front page.

The skills of essay-writing come to the fore as students approach public examinations, and over the years I evolved a tactic which they seemed to find effective and helpful: the whole class together would plan an essay. I’d take them through the entire process stage-by-stage, from analysing the title and working out what an examiner might expect, through brainstorming and then organising and sequencing their ideas, followed by selecting evidence, and then crafting an effective introduction and conclusion. It would all appear on the whiteboard, colour-coded with different pens; we could pause the process and discuss any aspect of it that anyone wanted to, and we could also time the different parts of the activity so that students could work out how they might effectively allocate their time in an exam room. We needed a good double lesson – 80 minutes – to do the whole thing, and if time allowed, the last thing was to practise and discuss a range of opening sentences. It was pretty exhausting for all or us: the class being attentive and working against the clock, and me, controlling and managing everything so it all came together in the allocated time.

I used to enjoy giving work back to students. I’ve read some unbelievable nonsense lately about re-marking and triple marking and written dialogue between teacher and student and thought to myself, ‘How can any of that be justified in terms of time?’. Although I wasn’t particularly proud of it, my semi-illegible handwriting did me favours; I regularly did write lengthy and detailed comments and advice on students’ work, and they often had to work quite hard to decipher my runes. They asked each other first and when that failed, called me over: they actually wanted to know what I’d written, and I could briefly expand and clarify. And, of course, there were extra oral comments as I gave work back, perhaps reading out particularly good bits before I hurled exercise books back across the room towards their owners…

A good deal of being a teacher – an English teacher, certainly – is about being an actor, as perhaps you have deduced from the above: confidence builds up over time, as does the very necessary ability to be reflective and critical of what happens in your classroom, and to adapt and modify when circumstances dictate.

I particularly loved working with sixth-formers, for they really kept me on my toes; even if I knew my stuff – and I did – I never knew from what angle their questions or comments might come. Keeping one step ahead of them was exhausting, as well as very satisfying. They got special treatment in some ways: we were a little less formal with each other, and we always set the room out in a circle to create a seminar-style atmosphere, as well as to emphasis equality, rather than use the serried ranks of desks or tables that larger classes required. There was tea and mince pies at Christmas, too. Practical criticism – working with unseen texts – was what I liked most of all, feeling more and more the enabler rather than the teacher as the two years of the course ticked away and they all in their different ways became more perceptive and confident as interpreters and critics of literature…

There is no better profession – and I think that word is so important, and so under-respected nowadays – than teaching. I have been very fortunate in my life’s work.

James Shapiro: 1606 Shakespeare and the Year of Lear

February 28, 2019

51b-1ngINUL._AC_US218_This is obviously a follow-up to the author’s earlier 1599, which dealt with the context to another significant year in Shakespeare’s dramatic output. Here the focus is on a different reign – that of James 1 – and a different social context, with the background to three significant tragedies, Macbeth, King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra. There is also the fall-out from the Gunpowder Plot of the previous autumn, and James’ ongoing drive for the union of the crowns of Scotland and England.

The anxieties of the final years of Elizabeth’s reign may have passed, but life was no more settled, and events showed that James’ hold on the throne and his acceptance by the people was not completely secure. The status of the theatres was just as parlous, what with recurrent plague and the growing Puritan dislike of people enjoying themselves. I had been aware of the fact that a law was passed to eliminate profanity, which had eliminated most of the oaths and swearing from Shakespeare’s and other dramatists’ plays but hadn’t quite realised the implications of this, as, in the spirit of the law every existing text had to be amended, 1984-style, to remove all objectionable matter: the penalties were too severe for theatres and publishers not to do this. And of course this meant that the great First Folio of 1623 is in fact a bowdlerised edition of Shakespeare’s plays…

King Lear is set against the backdrop of Britishness which the new kind propounded: Englishness is out with the king imported from Scotland. We are shown the structural complexity of the play – it’s the only tragedy with a fully-developed subplot – and there is interesting exploration of the use of negative language in the play. Context in terms of equivocation, and references the the Gunpowder Plot are all fully detailed, too, as are the many significant differences between the Quarto and First Folio texts.

Similarly, James’ obsession with witches and witchcraft, and how this is explored in Macbeth, is very interesting, and again the phenomenon of equivocation is embedded. You will need to read the relevant chapters to get to the bottom of this Jesuitical device for justifying being economical with the truth and how outrageous everyone was supposed to find it at the time. And we realise just how Shakespeare was treading on eggshells writing the Scottish play, during the reign of a Scottish king, depicting two kings of Scotland being killed: both of those deaths take place off-stage, understandably, but not in the spirit of the onstage gore of the times. And this in the immediate aftermath of the plot to blow the king up with gunpowder.

There is good depth and detail in Shapiro’s exploration of all three plays he treats in this volume: the context is very enlightening, and surprising amounts of new insights and interpretations, even for me as a long-time student of Shakespeare. There was also a good deal of fairly tiresome and tedious stuff about court masques and entertainments, and despite the title, Shapiro actually spreads his net quite widely, going back at times to the 1580s as well as looking at Shakespeare’s final years. Overall, though, a book I’d very much recommend to any serious reader of Shakespeare.

William McGonagall: The Tay Bridge Disaster

July 27, 2018
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

Twas about seven o’clock at night,
And the wind it blew with all its might,
And the rain came pouring down,
And the dark clouds seem’d to frown,
And the Demon of the air seem’d to say-
I’ll blow down the Bridge of Tay.”

When the train left Edinburgh
The passengers’ hearts were light and felt no sorrow,
But Boreas blew a terrific gale,
Which made their hearts for to quail,
And many of the passengers with fear did say-
I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay.”

But when the train came near to Wormit Bay,
Boreas he did loud and angry bray,
And shook the central girders of the Bridge of Tay
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

So the train sped on with all its might,
And Bonnie Dundee soon hove in sight,
And the passengers’ hearts felt light,
Thinking they would enjoy themselves on the New Year,
With their friends at home they lov’d most dear,
And wish them all a happy New Year.

So the train mov’d slowly along the Bridge of Tay,
Until it was about midway,
Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
And down went the train and passengers into the Tay!
The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,
Because ninety lives had been taken away,
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

As soon as the catastrophe came to be known
The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown,
And the cry rang out all o’er the town,
Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down,
And a passenger train from Edinburgh,
Which fill’d all the peoples hearts with sorrow,
And made them for to turn pale,
Because none of the passengers were sav’d to tell the tale
How the disaster happen’d on the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

You may have heard of the nineteenth century Scots poet William McGonagall, the one often described as the worst poet ever, the man whose public performances were packed by people who went to laugh at him and his poetry. His is truly a very sad story, although he does seem to have been largely oblivious to what really went on…

But remembering him set me thinking about good and bad poetry

When I was first teaching, practical criticism was a full two-year course, preparation for a single unseen paper at A level, where the student would meet two texts, one poetry and one prose, and would have to write an analytical and appreciative essay on each. Only once was a text set that I’d used with some of my students a couple of years previously.

So preparation for this paper involved exploring poetry and prose from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, looking at language, poetic techniques, styles, form and structure; it involved learning how correctly to use the language of literary criticism and how to express opinions; it involved learning to evidence one’s analysis and response. Not easy, but interesting, and two years was a decent length of time for a student to become as proficient as they were going to be.

I came to use McGonagall’s famous poem as one of my final pieces of practice with my students. By then, I would give them a text, and ask them to read it to themselves, and to think about and jot down brief notes on particular aspects, preparatory to beginning discussion. After ten minutes or so, we would be ready to begin work together. Usually, a student would be asked to read the text aloud. There were times when students would tie themselves in knots trying to say positive things about the poem, taking things like rhyme, rhythm and metre seriously. (Try it.) How quickly they were able to realise how bad the poem was, was a touchstone of how competent and confident they had become in their analytical abilities. I tried to keep a straight face through all this. I wish I could remember which student it was, who, at the end of the few minutes of silent study looked up and said, ‘Sir, this is crap, isn’t it?’

So what is wrong with the poem? There are some terrible rhymes – Edinburgh and sorrow, for instance, and some forced rhymes, as in think of a word that will rhyme with x and it will do, forced into the poem anyhow. There is no sense of metre, so that rhyming pairs of lines jar appallingly. There is needless repetition of phrases and lines, perhaps with the hope of a refrain-like effect. The poet strains to covey a sense of tragedy but fails completely, partly because the metre he’s trying to use is a rather jolly one, when he sticks to it for long enough. And then there’s the civil engineering moral tacked onto the end…

I remember, from my time as a school pupil, being told to write a poem. God, how I hated it. I didn’t understand metre, couldn’t get the right number of syllables to a line, got the stresses all in the wrong places, thought it had to rhyme. It was a peculiar form of torment, which I tried very hard to mitigate when I was teaching (see here). I firmly believe that the starting point of a poem is inspiration of some kind – which you either have or don’t – the ideas or sensations produce the words and images, which are then either worked over, tweaked and improved or not, and then offered to readers or not. A good poet, and a good poem, can make me see something I’ve never seen before, or look at something in a way I’ve never thought of, for a (brief) moment taking me away from myself and my pedestrian reality.

Rereading Sense and Sensibility

June 17, 2018

However often I return to Jane Austen, there is always something new to notice, and to reflect on. Sense and Sensibility is not my favourite of her novels, and it’s quite a while since I last read it. I’ve usually found the main characters rather tiresome, people that I could not really care very much about, and my reactions were similar this time around.

Austen always goes into great detail about the minutiae of financial arrangements in bourgeois families, especially insofar as they affect the female characters and their future prospects, and this is particularly the case here, from the very outset, where the dire situation of Mrs Dashwood and her daughters, and the penny-pinching meanness of her relations, is outlined. Austen, of course, was particularly aware of such financial issues in her own family. What does a woman do, if she has no money of her own, and cannot attract a suitable match?

But the whole novel is about the pursuit of money, in a way that the other novels are not, and Austen seems much sharper in her criticism of those characters who pursue wealth, John Dashwood and his immediate family especially; he is unable to contemplate any situation or potential relationship without instantly doing his sums, and rates people solely on their financial worth. This time around he struck me as a far more repellent bean-counter than I’d ever judged him previously, as also did Lucy Steele, for whom I’d previously had a certain – though limited – sympathy.

Austen also provided me with rather more laughing out loud moments than I remembered, especially when the Palmers are in shot, and was rather more vicious in her putting down of Lucy Steele through her appalling grammar than I recalled, too.

I noticed a certain symmetry in the situations of Elinor and Marianne, despite the ways they are also very much contrasted in character: both have devious and secretive lovers – Willoughby who leads on Marianne so that everyone thinks them secretly engaged, and then ditches her for the wealthy Miss Grey to solve his money problems, and Elinor, with whom Edward Ferrars falls in love in spite of the fact that unbeknown to her, he is secretly engaged to the dreadful Lucy, who is also on the make. So there is actually a very interesting and elaborated contrast in the ways in which the two of them confront and come to terms with disappointment (even though things turn out fine for Elinor and Edward in the end).

It also struck me that this is the novel in which the villain is give some redeeming touches, even though he must be terminally damned by his treatment of Colonel Brandon’s ward. He does come to realise that he loved Marianne and has irretrievably lost her; in the detailed conversation he forces upon Elinor at Cleveland this is made clear and even Elinor warms slightly to him, but in the end, the conversation is all about him, rather than the damage he has caused by his behaviour. Yet, compared, say, with Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, he comes off reasonably, and surely the morally reprehensible Crawfords in Mansfield Park are far worse in their attitudes and behaviour?

The conclusion to the novel I always found rather unsatisfactory, financially and emotionally, and Colonel Brandon is another of the cradle-snatcher heroes as I like to call them, like Mr Knightley in Emma, whose marriages to women only half their age today feel distinctly odd… Ultimately I feel Sense and Sensibility is a satire on greed…

Herbert Asquith: The Volunteer

June 6, 2018

Here lies a clerk who half his life had spent
Toiling at ledgers in a city grey,
Thinking that so his days would drift away
With no lance broken in life’s tournament
Yet ever ‘twixt the books and his bright eyes
The gleaming eagles of the legions came,
And horsemen, charging under phantom skies,
Went thundering past beneath the oriflamme.

And now those waiting dreams are satisfied
From twilight to the halls of dawn he went;
His lance is broken; but he lies content
With that high hour, in which he lived and died.
And falling thus, he wants no recompense,
Who found his battle in the last resort
Nor needs he any hearse to bear him hence,
Who goes to join the men of Agincourt.

Hindsight means it’s hard for us nowadays to get our minds around the idea that anyone might volunteer for the hell that was the trenches of the Great War, and yet we know that hundreds of thousands did, before conscription came in, and went to their deaths, doing what they believed to be their duty for King and country. Asquith’s anonymous subject is one of them: in a careful and regularly structured poem, we get the before and the after, the volunteering and the death.

The man is bored with his humdrum life: no difference here from the feelings expressed in Brooke’s sonnet Peace: Now God be thanked who hath matched us with his hour… war offers a change, the potential for being really alive, not toiling (note the choice of word: why is it better than working, which would also fit the metre? Listen to that oi sound in the middle of the word: what does it do?). And yet his imagination is back in an Arthurian or mediaeval world, thinking of lance and tournament. Look at the repetition of of the g sound in gleaming, eagles, legions (almost!) – and what is the effect of the assonance in the long ea sound in each of those words… emphasising eagerness and excitement to get involved, perhaps? There is a stunning and colourful visual picture conjured up in the clerk’s mind, to contrast with the city grey

And now: a subtle shift of mood here, at the start of the second stanza, hinted at in those two words: we know it was an illusion and the man is dead. But in the mediaeval setting of his imagination, he is a hero, for the halls of dawn are surely Valhalla, where the Norse heroes went after death. The man is content with what he did, the poet tells us, having done what he wished: fought and died. We may feel he needs no hearse because there may be nothing left of him to put in it, but that is our hindsight and twentieth-century cynicism speaking; the mention of Agincourt links him immediately and irrevocably with that speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V, and there is a slight sense of irony – or appropriateness? – because the village of Azincourt is in Picardy, on the edge of the Somme battlefield.

What is the poet’s attitude, in the end? What is the tone of the poem: is the volunteer mocked for his futile actions and innocent beliefs, or is his choice and his deed accepted for what it was? I find it hard to judge: I am so far from those times and the ways they thought back then, and the text reflects the times. But I do think this poem had to have been written in the early months of the war.

Sara Teasdale: There will come soft rains

June 5, 2018

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild-plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.


When I first came across this poem, my instant reaction was that Teasdale was imagining the aftermath of nuclear war, and the subsequent disappearance of humanity. However, much later, I discovered two things: that she died in 1933, and that the poem was a response to the Great War.

What strikes me first is its quietness, its unassuming-ness: half a dozen couplets, rhyming, completely anchored in nature. The whole poem is a single sentence, first picturing a world without humans and then pointing out, almost by-the-way our unimportance in the grander scheme of things. No fancy tricks with poetic devices, it moves with a calm pace, building up the picture in an almost Whitman-esque manner as the details are painted in. The soft s and c sounds dominate the first couplet, drawing in sounds and smells; the ands at the start of the next two lines develop the picture of rural tranquility.

War slips in subtly in the third couplet: don’t miss the hints, for that is all they are, really. It’s a robin, not any other bird; robins known for being aggressive birds fiercely defending their territory, with red breasts – the colour of fire and blood. The feathery fire clearly describes the robin, but might equally suggest machine-gun fire, particularly with the whistling in the next line, the alliterated w, and finally the fence-wire, not barbed in the poem but open to the suggestion.

The power of nature and the relative insignificance of humans comes in the fourth couplet: the idea that, despite our self-importance, the rest of the natural world would not actually notice our disappearance, does not notice that we are involved in an earth-encompassing war and equally does not notice when it ends… the triple not one emphasises our over-weening sense of self-importance as a species, as does the sentiment not one would mind – the phrasing there echoing the vagueness and relative triviality of our phrase ‘I don’t mind’ meaning I don’t really care either way. It is sobering that Nature can look at us in that way. There is a musicality to the fifth couplet that, for me, further emphasises this: the tree/-ly rhyme, and the cadence of man|kind |per|ished u|tter|ly.

There is war poetry that is in-your-face with grim and horrid details, there is poetry that springs from anger, and there is this more subtle third kind. It is also a good example of how a poem can have a significance beyond the writer’s original intentions, given that Teasdale wrote in the aftermath of the Great War; its meaning as a picture of our world after a nuclear war is still more powerful to me.

Philip Larkin: MCMXIV

June 3, 2018

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;

And the countryside not caring
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s ,restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word–the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

This is one of my very favourite (if that’s a useful word) of all First World War poems, and I can imagine it being inspired by the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Great War, back in 1964. It is so good for many reasons, which I’ll come to as I write about the poem, but the Larkin’s great achievement lies in successfully capturing an era which has gone for ever, and the idea that the war irrevocably changed our nation’s consciousness…

In the first stanza he pictures the men queuing up to volunteer as if they were queuing up for a football or cricket match; there’s the touching detail of the hats and also the moustaches that were so fashionable in Edwardian times – hunt out any old family photo from the that era and you’ll notice it. The lightness of the idea of the August Bank Holiday lark is very touching, and accurate, as the traditional British holiday fell on the first rather than the last Monday of that month until relatively recently, and war was declared on August 4th, 1914.

Larkin carefully paints the picture of those days in the second stanza. The shops are shut (all businesses used to close on bank holidays until recently); they have the old-fashioned pull-out roller blinds to provide shade and keep the sun off the goods displayed in the windows, and shops would proudly display how long they had been ‘established’, perhaps as a mark of enduring quality. Farthings and sovereigns, two coins roughly the same size, one copper, the other gold: the vanished money of a vanished era. The children are dark-clothed – cheap colourful dyes and pigments were not yet invented. Very occasionally even now one may still see an ancient advertisement board in enamelled tin on the side of a building in long untouched areas of a town or city; a visit to Beamish museum would show you all the scenes Larkin describes so carefully and economically; back in the 1960s the details he mentions would, like Proust’s madeleine, have brought back quite vivid memories to many of his readers. Cocoa and twist (tobacco); pubs today are open when they choose, but strict licensing laws governing their opening hours were first introduced during the war to prevent key workers getting drunk during the working day when their work might be vital to the country’s war effort. As a student I remember my evening entertainment being quite strictly curtailed by those troublesome licensing hours…

After that, in the third stanza, we move out into the countryside not caring, unchanged for hundreds of years, it is suggested, the alliteration of all the s sounds evoking the wind gently blowing the crops ripening for harvest. The servant class that helped Edwardian England to function vanished almost completely with the war. Dust behind limousines because most roads were not yet metalled…

The title is interesting. Why Roman numerals, which I have discovered are now as impenetrable to younger generations as Sanskrit? I often used to ask my students this, and we ended up deciding that it was another device Larkin uses to take the poem into a distant and vanished past, which the Arabic numerals ‘1914’ would not do.

Consider also the way the poem is structured: four even stanzas of eight lines each, that we only gradually perceive to be actually a single, carefully structured and punctuated sentence… why? What is the effect of this? It means that the poem flows, but reads quite slowly, that pace creating a kind of dreamy feel to the images, again suggesting glimpses of a vanished past: so many different elements are working towards this single purpose. You need to read the poem aloud fully to appreciate this. The second and third stanzas both begin with and, contributing to the effect. The poem starts with the queues of men and the holiday atmosphere, moves on to the town itself in the next stanza, then to the countryside, and then onto the gradual shock – if I may put it like that – of the final stanza, which is very different.

The lapidary repetitions of never, always in that powerful and emphatic position at the start of the line, and the idea of innocence, in the opening line and again at the very end are so effective, but it’s the ideas and the way Larkin only hints at such shocking events that we must notice: the idea of things changing, vanishing, present becoming past without a word – you don’t know it’s happened until it’s too late – and I find the image of the men leaving the gardens tidy so utterly chilling: “I’ll just cut the lawn, and then be off to the war, my dear…” sort of thing, and the thousands of marriages | Lasting a little while longer – again, nobody knew, and the heartbreak and loss so lightly yet so effectively touched upon… in this, as in so many of his poems, Larkin demonstrates such mastery of the subtleties of our language.

This is an astonishingly powerful poem in my opinion, and one that could not have been written until a long while after the war. Larkin pays tribute to those early volunteers, as well reminding his contemporary readers that things can vanish almost before our eyes, as it were.

Jan Kott: Shakespeare our Contemporary

May 31, 2018

downloadThere are times when I get cross with myself for not having read a book sooner: this one has been on my shelves waiting since 1995, and another reminder of it at my recent Shakespeare week finally convinced me to take it down and read it.

It was published in the early 1960s when Kott, formerly critic and professor of literature and drama at Warsaw University had left for the West. A foreigner’s perspective on our national dramatist is always very interesting, and Kott’s was an eye-opener, coming from a man who had experienced (and initially supported!) Stalinism, as well as a man from a country with serious links with Shakespeare. It’s known, for instance, that in the 1590s when London theatres were closed because of the plague, Shakespeare’s company toured Europe, including Poland – it’s not known that Shakespeare was with them – and after the construction of the replica Globe Theatre in London, there was a major project, recently completed, to construct a replica theatre in Gdansk, on the Baltic coast, where any ship would have docked in the sixteenth century, and which hosts a Shakespeare festival of its own each summer.

Kott offers first of all a convincing and unified vision of the History plays, with echoes and parallels in twentieth-century history. Then he considers the atmosphere of conspiracy and paranoia at state level in Hamlet. His analysis of the play, and particularly of the role of Fortinbras, is quite chilling and reflects the police states and secret police he knew so well, in this ‘drama of political crime’. This vision comes across strongly in Kozintsev’s stunning Russian film of the play from the same era.

Kott sees characters devoid of free will and the ability to choose, and playing parts imposed on them by outside mechanisms. His approach, attitude and style of analysis are most definitely not English, and this is a collection of essays that could only have been written after the Second World War, and by someone who had lived under Stalinism; his is a very dark perspective on the world and on human beings. The essays on Macbeth and Othello I found particularly thought-provoking. Overall, his knowledge and understanding of Shakespeare and his relevance in the modern world is masterly, and his scope wide-ranging.

There’s also a fascinating exploration of androgyny through the cross-dressing heroines of the comedies, Twelfth Night and As You Like It in particular, along with the subjects of the sonnets, strong and perceptive on the ambiguity, as well as considering the link between the need to use boy actors and the way Shakespeare framed his female roles. However, in some ways this section feels dated, particularly because of the old-fashioned, coded language when writing about homosexuality and homoeroticism in the early 1960s and from the background of a communist state… Approaches to Shakespeare generally have developed enormously in the intervening half-century, sparked by critics like Kott.

The book concludes with an essay on The Tempest which sees parallels between Prospero and Leonardo da Vinci, and focuses on the circularity of the play which for Kott ends where it begins; it’s an essay which could not have been written pre-Hiroshima either.

So, an eye-opener for me, a book to go back to, a book which I wish I’d read while I was still teaching, and a reminder not to let books sit on the shelves unopened.

Philip Pullman: Daemon Voices

April 8, 2018


A writer writes about his craft, his inspirations, and how he works: fascinating, in the same way that Ursula Le Guin doing just that was fascinating. He doesn’t disappoint in the way he writes, either – there’s more of the fluent clear language and sentence-crafting that one experiences in his novels. Pullman is a very readable writer, accessible, communicating effectively. You may think, well, yes, he would, but that’s not always the case…

He’s very strong and forthright on a writer’s responsibilities, fascinating on how stories work, and challenges literary theorists. He writes about his experiences as a teacher and rages against the insanities and inanities of our ‘National Curriculum’. He’s forcefully and coherently atheist, anti-God; this I found quite challenging myself, and though I appreciated his stance, decided to continue to differ with him there…

Out of his atheism there arises a sense of wonder: for Pullman, the more we discover, the more wondrous the universe seems to be, an approach which chimes in with my own ever since my childhood excitement at looking at the skies and learning about other worlds.

Clearly I was looking for further understanding of the genesis of, and intentions behind, the Dark Materials trilogy, and I was not disappointed. There was a detailed personal response to Milton‘s Paradise Lost, and how the Fall story and his anti-religious stance worked together to create a story in which the Fall was a good thing: the loss of innocence and a knowledge of good and evil is what makes us human; that knowledge of evil does not imply that all humans therefore embrace it. There is a myth of the Fall in the world of the mulefa in The Amber Spyglass; it both resembles the one in our world and is very different from it, and Pullman’s clarification was very interesting.

Pullman is interesting on the craft of the writer, too, and open about his need and desire to make a decent living out of it. He’s scathing about Tolkien‘s trilogy, which he compares with Middlemarch (!) from the perspective of characterisation, and finds seriously wanting, and he has no time for C S LewisNarnia books either, because of their reactionary, anti-human, anti-life and pleasure content. I didn’t disagree with him there, either. Perhaps the most eye-opening section for me was a chapter on the nature of the narrator, where he raises a whole raft of issues with which I was familiar as a life-long student of literature, but to contemplate them from the perspective of a practising writer was really illuminating. He also takes issue with the current trend for people to write stories in the present tense and demonstrates clearly how limiting a choice this is.

Pullman shares a good deal of himself with his readers here. Most of the pieces in the collection were originally lectures or talks; a few are introductions he has written to various books. The whole is a book full of surprises; I found him reflecting on a wide range of books I had also known and loved in the past, and also came across a few recommendations for my to-read list. As an insight into the mind and art of one of our best living writers, it’s really good: challenging and thought-provoking.

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