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.

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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.


Siegfried Sassoon: Glory of Women

June 2, 2018

You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave,

Or wounded in a mentionable place.

You worship decorations; you believe

That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.

You make us shells. You listen with delight,

By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.

You crown our distant ardours while we fight,

And mourn our laurelled memories when we’re killed.

You can’t believe that British troops “retire”

When hell’s last horror breaks them, and they run,

Trampling the terrible corpses—blind with blood.

   O German mother dreaming by the fire,

   While you are knitting socks to send your son

   His face is trodden deeper in the mud.

A Petrarchan sonnet – oh the irony! – written to women about their attitudes towards menfolk at the front. The alliteration of heroes, home seems to set the tone: the man has to have done something worth talking about to validate himself; what about the mentionable place? Are you allowed to say what part of the front he’s been fighting on, or is it the other kind of mentionable? You can tell your neighbours your husband was wounded in the arm, but every part of the body is equally vulnerable, and talking about emasculation isn’t quite so easy…

There’s a softness in the sounds: worship, chivalry that nudges us towards the superficial, and the idea of redeems seems to legitimise what’s going on: it’s worthwhile, a balance, a pay-off.

And then the entire first quatrain is undermined by the monosyllabic half-line that hits you at the start of the fifth line. It’s a statement of fact, direct, linking home and front with you and us. What about that word shells? Another double meaning – the artillery munitions, obviously, as the womenfolk make their contribution to the war-effort, each side’s women making the weaponry that kills the other side’s menfolk, but what about man as an empty shell, unable to communicate or deal with his experiences in the lines? What is he to do with himself, and those feelings? But after that brief interruption we’re back to the jauntiness again – delight rhymes with fight, life in the trenches is mere dirt and danger, and the women are fondly thrilled. They hear tales; we’re linked to childhood, innocence and fairy tales. Fondly is a lovely word, the affectionate meaning married with the Yorkshire meaning foolish… We’re almost back in mediaeval times with ideas like ardour, and laurelled memories. Sassoon was frequently enraged by the attitudes of those back home who didn’t know or care to contemplate the reality of what he and his comrades were going through, and we can see this anger seeping through every line of the poem.

Things shift quite seriously as we move into the sestet. We’re with the military-speak now, the word retire in inverted commas because you never use the real r-word about your own side, of course, but Sassoon forces his home-front reader to face a little of the truth through the triple alliteration of hell’s…horror, trampling…terrible, blind…blood. There’s a half-rhyme, too in that last pair.

And then, for the final tercet, another camera angle: shift to Germany. Why? All in this together, mate? A lovely peaceful image, reinforced by the assonance German, mother, dreaming, behaving in exactly the same way as her British counterpart Sassoon has been excoriating, knitting socks for her son (how powerful are the simple tools of alliteration and assonance!) demolished by the utter brutality of the image in that final line.

Whilst Owen is often angry, there is a bitterness about Sassoon that bleeds through into his anger, a cynicism (perhaps?); anyway I can see why he threw his medal into the Mersey in disgust. There is a public side to war and warfare, to which all are party, and there is a quieter, darker, private aspect which, if we are fortunate, we do not have to share.


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.


Paul Theroux: Deep South

May 28, 2018

51mXwxzI4VL._AC_US218_This book annoyed me; it felt like a lazy book, in need of decent editing.

I’ve enjoyed travel writing by Paul Theroux in the past, but it has been about his travels in other countries than his own; here he travels through the Deep South of the US for a year, visiting and revisiting at different seasons of the year. He clearly feels deep affection for his country and this part of it, strives to know the region and its people and to understand it, strives to describe and report fairly about a region that has experienced many troubles. And yet, ultimately, I was rather bored.

The book began badly for me, with Theroux mocking a good number of other writers who have made road trips around the US, attempting to show them up to be fakes or imposters who hadn’t travelled properly, who took short-cuts, who pretended to have done what they hadn’t.

It’s very loosely written, rambling often: sketches, vignettes, cameos, all trying to build up an accretive picture of the Deep South. For a non-American reader, there were too many names and too much detail, and no map at all; perhaps some of the names and places may be familiar to an American reader, I don’t know. Perhaps one needs to be an American and to be familiar with the country to appreciate the book, in which case sorry, but the writer hasn’t done his job properly.

There’s much interweaving of references to the literature of the South as well; I failed once in an attempt to read a William Faulkner novel (not that I’m proud of that), and his caustic and snarky remarks about To Kill A Mockingbird came across as the words of a man who thinks he knows the South better, and ‘real’ Southern fiction better, than everyone else. Maybe he does, but Harper Lee‘s novel is far more than he allows it to be…

The country comes across as quite scary in many ways; there’s the inevitable racism and violence, the gun shows, the details of events from the past. I was deeply shocked, even though I have read about it before, by the details of the abject and grinding poverty and third world conditions he describes in so many small towns in the richest and most powerful nation on the planet. Shocked, too, by the stories about US military nuclear facilities, which fit into the Chernobyl pattern in terms of carelessness, sloppiness, lack of care for people and the environment.

I had been looking forward to reading the book and wanting to enjoy it, but didn’t; it needed editing to make it shorter and less shapeless, and a bit more thought for non-American readers, really. Sadly, it felt self-indulgent, in need of a bit more anger, perhaps…


On literature and religion

May 27, 2018

I’ve written before about the connections I’ve found when thinking about literature and religion, and also about science fiction and religion (here and here, if not elsewhere!). Recently I found myself back with the theme…

It’s possible to see religion as something human beings have evolved or developed as a way of coming to terms with our own eventual mortality, a knowledge we have because of our powers of perception, reasoning and understanding, and a knowledge which might otherwise blight our existence. We are here, briefly, conscious of what goes on around us, we live, experience, remember things and cannot really understand it all coming to a stop, even though before we existed, everything was going on fine without us…

If there were no god, no heaven, no afterlife, then, nevertheless there are still impulses in us (some of us?) that take us away from the purely material plane onto one which has been called spiritual, acknowledging an aspect of how our minds work. I say some of us, because I know there are people who do not seem to be bothered by thoughts of this kind, or else deal with them in a different way from me, and appear to get on quite happily with their lives… the world is surely large enough for all of us. But some of us do experience a need or a drive to make sense of it all.

So for me, and others like me, religion is a way of addressing those spiritual impulses or leanings; for us there are very real issues that we engage with, that take us onto different levels of awareness or consciousness, that address our existential angst, I suppose.

Then I turned my thoughts to a novel I’ve always rated highly, for lots of different reasons: A for Andromeda, by Ivan Yefremov. It’s a Soviet utopia, set a thousand or so years in the future after the inevitable triumph of socialism has transformed the whole planet, and humans are turned towards the cosmos and other worlds. No religion of any kind is mentioned; clearly it has died out under conditions of actually existing socialism, though it is referred to as an aspect of humankind’s primitive past. Yefremov nevertheless allows his characters to be awed by the beauty and wonder of the cosmos and the natural beauty of the world, too, in ways which today we might call spiritual. But he is the only SF writer I know to have imagined the end of religion.

Olaf Stapledon‘s epic Last and First Men is different altogether. If humans cannot cope with the prospect of disappearance and individual annihilation, we are offered another picture, of our race evolving, mutating and moving to other planets in the solar system over geological time periods, during which we (?) become totally different species. And with a pang we realise that pretty early on in his imagined cycle, our particular humanity and its civilisations and achievements vanish, obliterated by the vastness of time and geological change, with absolutely no trace left behind…not just individual, but collective death.

Many less ambitious writers have written post-apocalyptic novels, and it’s a marvel that one of the few objects that usually survives the cataclysm that starts the novel is a copy of the Bible, so that humanity can safely ‘rediscover’ God, often in an even more warped version than many believers seem to find attractive today. John Wyndham‘s The Chrysalids is a good example: post-disaster mutants are an abomination in His sight and must be hunted down and destroyed. No change there then. But for me the saddest of all is Walter Miller‘s A Canticle for Leibowitz, where, after a nuclear holocaust, monks are again the repositories of knowledge and learning, carefully salvaging the knowledge of our past; eventually, thanks to their efforts, ‘civilisation’ re-emerges after hundreds of years, only to travel down exactly the same pathway to another nuclear war…

I’m not really sure where this has led me, sceptical about much religion and the miseries it has caused (though I don’t only blame religion for human misery) and yet, from my own upbringing inevitably drawn to the spiritual that I find in myself and others, and all around me. None of this balances the knowledge that I only have a tiny amount of time to enjoy what our world offers.


On fake news and no news

May 24, 2018

I like to keep up with what’s going on in the world, and I’m increasingly concerned at the narrowing of what is on offer in conventional newspapers and other mass media. Radio news is increasingly trivialised, even on the BBC, and as for TV news, well… editors set an agenda but what it’s based on, one is never quite sure. So, given the time constraints, someone has selected quite drastically what we are going to be told. And I remember someone once calculated that if you took all the words actually spoken in a half-hour TV news bulletin and set them out on paper, they would fill the equivalent of a couple of columns of a broadsheet newspaper. Hardly very informative, then.

So-called serious ewspapers in the UK have become increasingly focused on celebrity and lifestyle, which is cheap froth and fills pages, and also opinions on every subject under the sun written by the yard by people who know not very much about a subject. So newspaper now have several times the pagination they had three or four decades ago, but far less actual news. And if you think about the difference that getting your information from a website makes: it’s potentially a bottomless pit of links and clickbait: how do you actually know what’s there, compared with being able to turn over the  pages of a physical newspaper and glance at ALL the headlines?

Our newspapers also – perhaps inevitably, but also because it’s easy – focus on the anglophone world. We’re an island, and even though we’re only twenty miles off the coast of Europe, news of that continent impinges relatively little.

Where is one to turn for reliable and in-depth information?

I cast my net quite widely. I keep an eye on the New York Times and the Washington Post online, and Le Monde as a window on Europe. There’s a weekly digest from Der Spiegel in English which is often quite interesting, picking up on things I’d never otherwise come across, or offering a different take on matters from the British press.

I’ve kept up with the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books as they both offer very detailed and lengthy comment and analysis of topical issues, sometimes linked to newly-published books, sometimes just because the topic is of moment.

My main go-to for its breadth and scope of coverage of world issues, from a left-wing perspective, with an environmental slant and a recognition of the entire world rather than just parts of it, for the last 20 years or so has been the French monthly Le Monde Diplomatique. Despite its title, it’s not written for diplomats or about diplomacy! It is published in numerous languages including English, and seems to me to offer a comprehensive coverage that I’ve so far not found anywhere else, and I judge that it has kept me informed about aspects of world politics, society and the environment that I’ve rarely seen covered in our press.

What I find most alarming about all this, is that not many people realise the subtle and gradual changes taking place, and also how very much easier it is for everyone to avoid news altogether now, if they wish to, never mind being bombarded by fake news…


On Shakespeare worship

May 23, 2018

Is Shakespeare that good? How good is he?

I’ve recently come back from my annual week with a group of a couple of dozen like-minded folk where we’ve sat and studied and explored Shakespeare and been to Stratford to see a couple of his plays at the RSCRomeo & Juliet and Macbeth this year. The first performance was not bad, the second was brilliant. And at some point we find ourselves sitting in a room all saying in different ways how wonderful Shakespeare was… and sometimes I find myself feeling uneasy.

Can we step back and judge the man objectively any more, or has he been canonised in such a way that it’s impossible to be critical? Or is he clearly brilliant every which way and that’s that?

His language is wonderful: it’s hard to challenge that, particularly in his plays. I was particularly aware of this first re-reading and then watching Macbeth in performance. But when I’m reading or listening to his sonnets, wonderful as they are, I’m always reminded of his contemporary John Donne, whose poetry I’ve always preferred, who breaks out of the restricted and constraining sonnet form when he feels like it (quite often), who often writes as he would speak, with great power and freshness, contrasted with which Shakespeare can seem a bit trite, and same-y – all those sonnets! But when I read or see plays, yes Marlowe occasionally matches Shakespeare’s language in range and scope, as does Webster too, at times… but Shakespeare just does it so well, so consistently, so effortlessly, time and again.

Many people pay tribute to the way Shakespeare contributed to the development of our language, his coining of new words to suit divers occasions and situations; it’s true. But so did Milton, just as much and as powerfully, but people don’t read Paradise Lost any more, and so they never see or hear Shakespeare’s equal in this field.

We are fortunate that so much of Shakespeare’s oeuvre has survived – a couple of plays are known to be missing – and perhaps many plays by rivals did not. Shakespeare wrote in all the genres – historical plays, comedies, tragedies and romances, so there is a breadth to his work we do not have in his rivals. His themes are the same as those used by everyone else, and the judgement seems to be that he just outdid the rest.

I have never really been interested in any of the so-called controversies about Shakespeare’s identity, or his authorship of the plays or not: I don’t think it will ever be possible to have incontrovertible proof of anything that happened four centuries ago, and every generation produces its crop of theories. It would be good to have more information about the man and the gaps in his biography, but then, it would be good to have a lot of things…

Shakespeare is ‘for all time’, said friend and rival Ben Jonson. This may well mean the subject-matter of his plays and how he develops his ideas and characters. Writers are always going to write about the same issues – love, hate, jealousy, rivalry, death, ambition, friendship… but does Shakespeare inevitably have the last or the best word on all these topics? Maybe he enjoys an advantage as a dramatist, in that he brings it all to life, in front of us onstage: there is an immediacy and an intensity that few novelists are able to achieve in what is a totally different literary form.

What do you think?


On writing creatively…or not

May 23, 2018

It’s taken me a very long time to realise that I’m a writer. I spent years training students and teaching them the craft of writing, how to organise their ideas, how to choose their words carefully, how to spell and punctuate correctly to enhance communication, that I lost sight of the fact that I write too. I’ve written this blog for more than five years now and WordPress informs me I’ve written the equivalent of several novels’ worth of posts… I’ve written a couple of literature study guides and am completing a third. I used to review science fiction for an academic journal, and I used to write for the students’ union newspaper when I was at university. And I’ve written countless essays, a dissertation and a thesis… all a very long time ago.

What I’ve never done, at least not since I was at school, is write creatively, write a story or a descriptive piece. I’ve no desire to write poetry, it’s not something I aspire to, but lately I have started to wonder about trying to be creative and where I might start if I did pluck up the courage to dip my toe in the water. There are creative writing groups out there, but then I’d have to expose myself to others’ gaze, and I’m not sure I’m ready for that… How do I make a start, and how do I decide whether it’s worth it?

It strikes me that descriptive writing might possibly be an extension of some of the various travel pieces I’ve produced, and I’m aware that I’ve always liked taking photographs, often taking time and effort to get exactly the effect I want… maybe there’s a way in to writing there. But fiction? Years ago, I thought I was interested in trying to write some science fiction, having studied the genre for so long, but I never did: the ideas and the inspiration never came. Getting started on something new always seems difficult…


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