Posts Tagged ‘John Donne’

On 31 October, 1517

October 13, 2017

All sorts of things have been reminding me of October 31 being the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther‘s 95 theses, whether or not these were actually nailed to the church door in Wittenberg. Having a Catholic school education in England in the 1960s was an interesting experience, as there was still some of the feeling of being a member of a persecuted minority in the air; we were presented with a sketchy outline of the split in the Church as part of history lessons at primary school. Moving to a secondary school where the Anglican Church was the norm and saw itself as continuous with the church brought to England by Augustine at the end of the sixth century, I was offered an account of events from an opposite perspective, together with no small amount of mockery of Catholic beliefs and practices. Then I moved to a Catholic secondary school and got everything in more detail from the ‘right’ perspective again…

I suppose those experiences were useful in terms of teaching me about different viewpoints; they certainly got me interested in what could have caused such major ructions at the heart of Christianity. I’m still learning, and there’s an excellent explanation of the doctrine of justification by faith alone in this week’s edition of The Tablet.

My travels have taught me how different the Reformation was in Germany compared with England; in Germany there seems to have been much more of a continuation than a violent rupture; no mass iconoclasm such as destroyed so many cultural riches in England. I continue to be appalled by the vandalism and wanton destruction of Henry VIII’s reign.

There are three writers who I’ve found very helpful in developing knowledge and understanding of the religious issues and historical events. One is a Catholic priest who wrote in the 1950s, Philip Hughes, who wrote a short volume on the Reformation in general, and a second, monumental tome, The Reformation in England, which details the demolition of Catholic England.

Then there is Eamon Duffy, who has written works of socio-religious history which trace the actual effects of the English Reformation on its people in two detailed and astonishingly well-researched books, The Stripping of the Altars, and The Voices of Morebath. This second volume looks at the changes as they affected on small rural community over the years between the first breach with Rome and the Elizabethan settlement.

Finally there is Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose hefty tome Reformation came out in 2003, and which I have decided to revisit as we come up to that symbolic 500th anniversary. I’ll write more about his book when I’ve finished it.

And then, I cannot forget some of the literature which uses the Reformation as its starting-point. Kingsley Amis‘ novel The Alteration posits the Reformation never having happened in England and focuses on the moral horror of a young boy who is due to be castrated to preserve his voice for use by the Church. And Keith RobertsPavane, a far better novel for my money, is set in a world where the Reformation also didn’t happen, along with various other events consequent upon it…

A curious novel – Q – was published a decade or so, apparently written by an Italian collective who presented themselves as one Luther Blissett. It focuses on the social upheavals in Europe during the early years of the Reformation particularly the Anabaptists and the events in Munster, along with the early efforts of Rome to thwart what was going on.

Finally, I can’t overlook the astonishing religious poetry of my favourite poet, John Donne, a man genuinely torn by the religious strife in England and the theological controversies – although he ultimately knew which side his bread was buttered on. He brings to his Holy Sonnets and other poems the same ardour he brought to his sexual conquests and fantasies in his love lyrics, before he ‘saw the light’, took holy orders in the Church of England and went on to become Dean of St Paul’s and a man whose sermons people came from all over Europe to hear. Not much likelihood of similar fervour nowadays.

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My A-Z of Reading: V is for Vade Mecum

December 20, 2016

What books could you not bear to be without? Or, let’s rephrase that: what book would you take along with you to your desert island, along with the Bible and Shakespeare? If you were going into a home which only had room for one small bookcase, what would you absolutely have to have on it?

Any real reader will know that those are impossible questions. Where do I start? I’ve written about culling my library and how painful it is; I’m still trying to thin it out a bit so there’s room to move. And the loft is creaking under the weight of the boxes waiting to be sorted out.

Musts: Shakespeare. The lightweight single volume on bible paper will do to save space, as will my two-volume complete Jane Austen, also on bible paper. I need my complete John Donne poems, too. Dictionaries I’ll pass on, if I can have a laptop instead. I want one of my reference books to Bach’s cantatas, though, and my trusty Times Comprehensive Atlas. And I’ll have my complete Sherlock Holmes, the two-volume one to save space.

And I could stop there, I suppose, using the excuse that anything pre-1923 is available free online, again as long as I can have the laptop. That just leaves the rest of the twentieth century, literature, history and travel.

You can see that it’s a ridiculous exercise; the laptop is clearly cheating; perhaps you should try it sometime? My house would feel naked, I’d feel naked, without my library surrounding me. One day, I’ll try the exercise, allowing myself 100 books… that feels like a more sensible number. And I’ll post the list.

My A-Z of reading: B is for Beginnings

October 16, 2016

What’s the most effective and memorable beginning to a novel (or a play or poem, for that matter) for you? Many will perhaps default to the obvious ones, like the opening line of Pride and Prejudice… but what makes a really effective start?

I suppose there are the ones we remember, and the ones that actually work, the ones that have an instant effect, and the ones that creep up on us. I’ve always liked the opening of George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-fourIt was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. That works for me partly because of the immediate shock – what sort of world is this, where clocks actually strike thirteen? And it takes me back to my childhood, at the end of the 1950s in the little village where I was born, where the next-door neighbour but one, a reclusive old woman, actually had a decrepit clock that did strike thirteen. This astonished me, and I used to love listening to that final, wrong strike.

But the one I remember most often is not actually an opening sentence, but the opening incident: the narrator of Lawrence Sterne‘s Tristram Shandy is telling of the Sunday night ritual in his parents’ household: Sunday night is intercourse night and he is about to be conceived, when in medias res his mother enquires of his father if he had remembered to wind the clock… for me, this sets the tone for the rest of this wonderful novel, the longest shaggy-dog story in the world as someone once called it.

When teaching To Kill A Mockingbird, I was often conscious of the long opening section – Part One – which is getting on for a third of the entire novel, and appears to go absolutely nowhere. Occasionally a class would become somewhat restless as we read, and this caused me to reflect on it as the opening to a novel; it was often only at the end of the entire book that we could go back and reflect on what Harper Lee had been doing with that lengthy introduction – “too much description, sir!” – creating such a vivid sense of place that we could actually fit ourselves into Maycomb. The book needed it, before the real story of Tom Robinson could start.

Plays are no different, and looking at what Shakespeare does is instructive. Often he hurls us head-first into the action – the witches in Macbeth, the storm in The Tempest: we are instantly gripped and cannot look back, and in different ways he develops the stories and sweeps us forward. And yet, he can do slow and subtle, too: the discussion of Antonio’s melancholy at the start of The Merchant of Venice, for example, or the gentlemen comparing notes about the king’s erratic behaviour at the start of King Lear.

John Donne has some wonderful opening lines in his Songs and Sonnets: Busy old fool, unruly sun (The Sun Rising), for example, or For God’s sake hold your tongue (The Canonisation), or When by thy scorn, O Murderess, I am dead (The Apparition), or Mark but this flea… as an exercise in seduction technique unequalled by any other poet I know.

So what works, and how? Something must intrigue us, either instantly and suddenly as in the Donne poems, or it must begin to insinuate itself, to sow a trail of loose ends and possibilities that we find sufficiently interesting to continue to pay attention, rather than go off to something else, as Shakespeare intrigues us at the start of King Lear. And whatever bait a writer or poet dangles before an audience or reader, it must go on to offer the promise of (eventual) satisfaction after that initial flash of inspiration.

Jorge Luis Borges: The Total Library

May 9, 2016

51VA7luBneL._AC_US160_I like Borges: he’s another wonderfully learned, eclectic writer like Umberto Eco, who, of course, paid tribute to him in The Name of the Rose by naming the blind librarian Jorge… He’s an essayist in the spirit of Montaigne, too, offering thoughtful and provocative disquisitions on a wide range of subjects. I’ve read and enjoyed his collected short stories a couple of times, and decided to venture into his non-fiction.

In his early writings, you can see just where some of the later stories were going to come from: the ideas, the thinking is the same. There are some curious book reviews, and thumbnail portraits of various authors. Here, Borges is both compelling and perceptive, precisely because he zeroes in on his subject-matter from a very individual, and usually totally unexpected viewpoint. In a review he can demolish a book and a writer in very few words – Aldous Huxley comes off very badly – and equally swiftly praise writers such as Woolf and Faulkner. Joyce‘s Finnegan’s Wake is damned completely in less than a page, and he comes back to this stance on that novel a number of times in different places… Edward Gibbon and Walt Whitman also come in for some fairly fulsome praise.

I often reflect on which writers and books will stand the test of time, and it’s interesting looking at these reviews, a lot of which are from the 1930s and 1940s: some of the titles and writers we still recognise, whereas many have vanished without trace. He has, for instance, a curious and quite deep regard for GK Chesterton, whom almost nobody reads nowadays.

A good deal of the content of this collection is, however, rather dated, and presumably of some academic interest to students of Borges’ work; the good bits do need some searching out, but they are certainly here. His essays on Nazism, and Germany in the Second World War are very interesting. I’d never heard of Biathanatos, a defence of suicide by the poet John Donne; I was surprised by his liking of (some) science fiction, including Ray Bradbury‘s Martian Chronicles, and there’s a really good essay on the Shakespeare authorship controversy, from 1964, which was the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth. That one is both sensitive and quit sharply focused and interesting on language issues. The most moving essay is probably on his blindness and what he felt he shared with other writers who had lost their sight.

The Total Library is a Borgesian concept, a library containing every book which can be written, not only in every language, but in every non-language as well; it features in one of his most famous short stories The Library of Babel, and thanks to the internet and its possibilities, someone has actually created it and you can go and play with it here.

 

 

Writing, writers, language and inspiration

February 26, 2016

I’ve been thinking some more about the craft of writing: it took a while before I told myself I was a writer, because I write this blog (heading for 400 posts now), and because I’ve been working on another study guide recently. I was often asked, while still teaching, if I was going to write when I retired, and I always said no, thinking that people meant lengthy and serious stuff, or novels. And when I was a student I used to write book reviews for SF magazines, and worked on the student union newspaper for a couple of years. Hell, my alternative career choice – to teaching – was always journalism…

I’m supposed to be an expert at writing: I taught it for years; I know all the rules of grammar, punctuation and spelling (allegedly); I know all about planning, structuring, drafting and revising. When I write, I particularly enjoy the possibility of choosing my words carefully, and of revising a piece until it’s just what I want it to be. Some of that is easier in front of a computer, some isn’t.

And yet there’s more: there’s inspiration, there’s the original spark of an idea to get creativity flowing. That’s the case with this blog, too: obviously I write about what I’ve been reading, but at other times I get a sudden idea for something to write about. And that has got easier over time. But the sort of flash of genius – the sort of thing I often imagine fires good poetry, for instance – no.

I’m in awe of what good writers can do with language. John Donne is probably my favourite poet of all time (unless you ask me tomorrow, when I’ll choose someone else): he creates moods through language, he varies his tone of voice at will, he uses metre masterfully, and he is witty through his use of language – that supremacy of the sixteenth century mind playing cleverly with words and ideas, that today would probably just seem smart-arsed. Who else would dream of using the image of a flea to persuade a woman into bed?

Shakespeare and Milton are just stunning, when you listen to them. Some of the magic surely comes from their invention of new words, which abound; some comes from the sounds of those words, some from the poetry, some from the ideas and feelings bound up in those words.

James Joyce plays brilliantly with words: the opening chapter of A Portrait of the Artist with its closely observed baby talk; the sections of Ulysses written in the styles of different authors and the masterfulness of the closing chapter. And I haven’t read Finnegans Wake, though the bits I have seen show a wordmaster at work. And someone has translated it into Chinese (?)…

I love the wonderful chattiness, homeliness, conversationality of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days, wit its dry humour; I marvel at the way Raymond Chandler creates place, time and sleaze with so few carefully chosen words; I chuckle at the wonderfully subtle and catty put-downs that are hidden throughout Jane Austen, and so easily overlooked.

English is an extraordinary language (well, I would say that, wouldn’t I?); although I can read French I don’t feel I can get inside it and appreciate its subtleties in the same ways. And English is special, for the hugeness of its vocabulary – several times the size of other languages – which gives the possibility for precision, shades of meaning, myriad rhymes in poetry and so much more. It is a particularly good language to write poetry in because of this richness, and blank verse works, or has been developed, in ways that I’m not sure exist in other languages – I think of the straight-jacketing rhyming couplets of French dramatists contemporary with Shakespeare.

No wonder this blog is as far as I’ve got…

English Literature and me

August 28, 2015

A friend has reminded me of the tricky territory which is the distinction between English and British. We don’t (often/usually) talk about ‘British’ literature, but when we speak of ‘English’ literature, what do we mean, exactly? Not literature written in English, but sometimes it seems to include writers from other areas of the British Isles than England. So, for instance, James Joyce was on my ‘English’ Literature syllabus at A level, and at university. It gets more complicated the more I look at it, so I will try and be as careful as I can with terminology…

English is my language, and I love it, and always have, its weirdnesses and idiosyncrasies, its vastness and its splendours, the ways it sings in the writings of Shakespeare and Milton, to name a couple of my favourites. And yet I can only claim to have scratched the surface, as far as our literature is concerned: yes, I met all the usual greats at school and university, and taught a fair few of them during my time as a teacher. But there’s so much that no-one can now claim really to know it all: the broad sweep, perhaps, but no more. Because I did a joint degree, I never had to go further back in time than Mediaeval English, so the joys of Anglo-Saxon are unknown to me, other than through translations of Beowulf.

How brilliant is Shakespeare? How does one get beyond centuries of hagiography, and academia? I found myself wondering this summer, when I saw a Marlowe play (The Jew of Malta) and two Shakespeare plays (Othello and The Merchant of Venice) at the RSC: there’s some wonderful language in Marlowe, but the play was let down by wooden characterisation and unsubtlety of plot in comparison with Shakespeare. Shakespeare is pretty consistently powerful across his entire career, and there’s clear and evident change, development and experimentation over time. And yet, though I enjoy his sonnets, as a lyric poet I find him somewhat limited in comparison with his contemporary John Donne, who is much more experimental and bold, as well as more wide-ranging in style and subject-matter.

My love of Milton is a minority taste nowadays, I find, when I wax lyrical about Paradise Lost to anyone. The language flows beautifully, he experiments and invents words as much as Shakespeare does, he tells a marvellous story, bringing his characters to life in a way that the book of Genesis does not.

I have grown to love Jane Austen‘s novels as time has passed, despite being faced with the most demanding one for close study at university (Mansfield Park, since you ask, and it’s still my favourite); her style and command of the nuances of the English language is masterly, particularly given the narrow focus of the world of her characters. Somehow she is quintessentially English (and what do I mean by that?). I have developed avoidance strategies for a great deal of nineteenth century English fiction over the years – Dickens really does (over)-write by the yard (though I make an exception for Hard Times) and Hardy is just too laden with heavy symbolism which gets in the way. I can cope with Charlotte Bronte, and love Villette even more than Jane Eyre. At the turn of the century I have plenty of time for Joseph Conrad, perhaps partly because he was Polish, and certainly out of admiration for the fact that he was writing in his third language. The characters and atmosphere of Nostromo are wonderful, and seem to lay the foundations for the worlds of Gabriel Garcia Marquez several generations later.

I haven’t found a lot to admire in the twentieth century. Joyce I’ve mentioned earlier: Ulysses is a masterpiece, though some of it has to be endured rather than enjoyed or marvelled at; I find his skills with our language astonishing, on a par with Milton’s, though very different. Lawrence we had to study at university and I now find him absolutely toe-curling in his approach to sexuality – almost unreadable, and I do wonder how much longer he will be widely read, if at all. Graham Greene I admire for the moral dilemmas he explores with such nicety, and keep meaning to go back and re-read his oeuvre but haven’t so far; I like what I’ve read of Anthony Burgess, and I really enjoyed Anthony Powell‘s Dance to the Music of Time, but other than those, I haven’t really read that much…

For me, the golden days of English Literature are past: we developed the drama and more or less invented the novel, but have passed the baton on to other writers and nations, at least at the moment; my perception is that currently we are very uncertain of ourselves and our place in the family of nations, and this shows in many ways, including our literature…

Desert Island Books

June 7, 2015

I’m not a regular listener to this long-running radio programme Desert Island Discs, but like all other listeners, I have pondered the question of what book I’d take with me to my desert island.

You are automatically allowed the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare. These are both weighty tomes, and I suppose are meant to reassure you that you wouldn’t actually run short of reading matter. The Bible is somewhat limited; there are the familiar stories, and perhaps also the various Wisdom books which might keep me going for a while, but there’s lots of rather tedious stuff like Leviticus, and the geneological lists and the history of Israel and the prophets…

I’d have no problem with the complete works of Shakespeare (you knew I’d say that, didn’t you?), with the possibility of working my way endless times through all the plays and deciphering the sonnets, and who knows, maybe even bothering with the long poems, which I admit I’ve still never opened.

So what should my personal choice be?

Do I need to go for another large tome, so I have plenty to choose from? Should it be a massive poetry anthology? The complete works of Donne, or Milton? A door-stopper of a novel, like War and Peace, or A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (which, again, I’ve never got very far with) ? Another spiritual text, in case my soul craved such reading in its isolation – the Qur’an perhaps, or the Tao, or Confucius’ Analects, or Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, all of which I’ve found very useful and interesting at some point in the past…

Perhaps a favourite novel, so that I can revisit past enjoyments, and also enjoy the sensation of escapism that comes from reading a really good novel? After all, I’m obviously not going to be able physically to escape the island. But then, how many times am I really going to want to re-read any of the novels on this list? And, although I’m very tempted, I think the complete Sherlock Holmes stories would outlive any possible usefulness before very long…

Today, after a random scan of the bookshelves, I’ve narrowed it down to a choice between Tristram Shandy and Ulysses. Tomorrow? And what would you choose, and why, my readers?

 

Poetry: my choices

January 6, 2015

I looked at my shelves to see what poetry I have collected over the years, apart from the usual anthologies. Chaucer is there, representing for me the time when a recognisable English begins to flower into poetry, now deemed too difficult for our sixth form students, by and large. Shakespeare, obviously, though as I’ve opined elsewhere in these pages, it’s his dramatic rather than his lyric poetry that moves me most, and the lyrics of the metaphysical poets shine out most strongly to me from that time period – Donne, Herbert, Marvell, Vaughan. After that, there is a huge gap until the twentieth century, where I have been enchanted by Eliot, Cummings, Larkin and others… so I will not claim any kind of comprehensive knowledge or appreciation of poetry: it’s what I like and what speaks to me.

Poetry used to be narrative; Milton has always astonished me, and I’ve always been conscious of being in a very small minority here. Paradise Lost works best when read aloud – Anton Lesser’s stunning account on Naxos Audiobooks is highly recommended. Sounds, words, rhyme and rhythm, all the other poetic devices come alive in their full glory, as does Milton’s inventiveness with the language, rivalling Shakespeare’s.

Poetry has always been associated with love and passion; for sheer verve I’ll take The Sunne Rising or The Flea, by Donne, or Marvell’s To His Coy Mistris, for tenderness Donne’s Valediction Forbidding Mourning is hard to beat. Some of Shakespeare’s sonnets are very clever. As I taught Love Through The Ages as a unit in the sixth form I came to know and like much twentieth century love poetry for its honesty, frankness, passion and eroticism, its attempts to break out of the old and often rather sexist conventions.

The other side of that coin for me has always been religious poetry, with feelings running as deep, and  just as unfathomable. Donne’s Holy Sonnets and Herbert’s The Temple are obvious, but Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach speaks to a more modern age, an age of doubt and questioning, as does Larkin’s Church Going, which is probably my favourite, working on so many levels, very clever but beautifully understated…

I’ve written earlier about war poetry, portraying the unspeakable, and sometimes I have been struck by other, more ephemeral verse, about nature, natural beauty, different ways of seeing things. And this, for me, is poetry’s value and achievement: briefly I share someone else’s view of something, I stop and contemplate and wonder and am entranced…

Poetry: John Donne

December 20, 2014

If asked, he’s my all-time favourite poet, for his wit, mainly, and the astonishing range of his poetry, from the passionate love lyrics of his early days to the deeply religious poems by the Dean of St Paul’s, whose sermons people came from all over Europe to hear. Sadly, I had fewer opportunities to teach his poetry than I’d have liked, because, to quote an examination board official, “he’s too difficult for today’s students”. Whilst that comment had me seething, there is some truth in it as I recall being observed by a headteacher early in my career who was somewhat astonished at my ability to deliver a crash-course in basic theology to sixth-formers… o tempora, o mores…

Donne wrote in those far-off days when any educated man could turn out a decent poem for an occasion or to a lover, in English certainly and perhaps in Latin or Greek, too. I’ve come to feel, over the years, that Donne surpasses Shakespeare as a poet (of verse, not of drama, obviously) in the breadth of his achievement and the astonishing versatility of his language. Yes, Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets, but Donne wrote a wide range of different lyrics. Shakespeare is in some ways more polished, Donne rougher but livelier too, and more sparkling.

There is the spectacular (sexual) energy via the direct address in such poems as The Sunne Rising and The Flea – who could imagine a lover lecturing his mistress on an insect, as a way of persuading her into bed? There is the real tenderness of A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, which shades delicately into a hint of sexuality at the end. And contrast the verse structures of these three poems! And then jealousy: the woman spooked in The Apparition

When it came to religion, there is the genuine doubt which sprang from an age of religious turmoil, the yearning for God, and the love for Him. The Holy Sonnets may perhaps be more sober than the love lyrics, but there is still the atonishing boldness of the direct address in Death Be Not Proud and the sexual violence of Batter My Heart. And then, the tenderness, the quietness of the Hymn To God The Father, with the subtle wit in playing with his wife’s name.

Donne wrote in the days when so many writers – perhaps Shakespeare most of all – were doing amazing things as they experimented with the versatility of the developing English language; Donne works in many examples of wit, learning, puns, metaphors and conceits to astonish his readers. His life speaks through his verse: from the would-be courtier, the lover whose real love and unconventional marriage cost him advancement to the Anglican priest searching for God and faith in such troubled times: for me the poet par excellence from the most energetic age of English literature.

John Drury: Music at Midnight

August 30, 2014

9780141043401Back to my roots as a teacher of literature for this one: an excellent biography of the poet George Herbert, whose works I never actually had the good fortune to teach, apart from using a couple of his poems to teach general practical criticism. Alas, his poetry nowadays, along with other Metaphysical Poets such as John Donne, Andrew Marvell and Henry Vaughan, has been judged to be too difficult for today’s sixth form students… yes, I actually had an examiner say that to me, a few years ago.

And, reading this book did have me feeling my age, as Drury – an Oxford don – felt it necessary to explain so many small things to his general reader, things that I had as part of my general knowledge as a school student back in the distant past. Nowadays, so many cultural, historical, religious and theological glosses are needed. (Pauses to put on his dead colonel’s hat.)

It is a detailed, thoughtful and sympathetic biography of a wonderful poet with a masterly fluency with the English language, from that Shakespearean and post-Shakespearean period when the English language was bursting into full bloom. Herbert died , probably of consumption, before he was 40. He seems to have been the epitome of the Church of England clergyman, in the early days of the Church of England, before the Civil War, a man who was fortunately sheltered from the violence, torturing and persecution taking place in his time.

Drury weaves much careful exploration and revealing analysis of Herbert’s poetry into the story of his life; layers of meaning are teased out and new aspects revealed – to me, at least. It wasn’t an easy read, but an enlightening one. What comes across most strongly is Herbert’s deep religious faith and trust in his God, speaking from an age that we can nowadays hardly begin to comprehend. An excellent read, a book which refreshed my pleasure in Herbert’s poetry.

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