Posts Tagged ‘John Milton’

On a sadly neglected epic

March 27, 2017

I was reminded by a magazine article I read a couple of days ago that next month marks the 350th anniversary of the publication of John Milton‘s epic, Paradise Lost. It deserves a post here, as it’s one of my favourite works of literature, and, as most critics seem to agree, sadly neglected nowadays.

Why sadly neglected? Firstly, it’s poetry, which doesn’t get much of a look-in nowadays, especially after some of the death-by-poetry onslaughts to which many school students are subjected by exam boards at the moment. And it’s epic poetry, which means it’s very long – twelve books, each of some thousand lines or so – remember, we are in pre-novel days here. Though prose narratives of a kind had been written by 1667, a subject like Milton’s deserved verse, and got it. That’s how stories were told.

Once we are past poetry and length, then there’s the subject-matter: religion. Specifically, to ‘justify the ways of God to Man’, as the poet himself put it. And religion does not figure large in many people’s lives nowadays. In Milton’s theology, everything, but everything centres around the felix culpa, that ‘happy fault’, the Fall, which allowed God to manifest his love and mercy to humans and the Son of God to offer himself as a sacrifice to atone for that original sin. The whole of human and cosmic history revolves around the events of Book IX. And of course, for Milton, it was all Eve’s fault, a silly woman deceived by a talking snake, who then tricks her gullible partner into repeating her sin… truly in this twenty-first century Paradise Lost doesn’t seem to have a great deal going for it.

Why do I like it? For me, the Adam and Eve story is at the level of a legend, but it’s part of our cultural past in the West, whether one is Christian or not. And it’s a good story. I don’t buy the Son of God sacrifice and redemption story either, but again, the Bible stories, whatever your take on them, are all part of our past, out history and cultural heritage, whether or not one accepts them as true. And to lose our past is just that, a loss.

But it goes deeper than that. Whether intended or not, Milton explores and shows us just what makes us human: our free will, our choices, our wish not to be limited or confined by others’ rules. The Adam and Eve after the Fall, after their comfort sex, are people like us, with our flaws and faults; before the fall they were not human as we know it. And in the cosmic story which surrounds the little, human story of Adam and Eve, the same issues are fought over: good and evil, and the origins of evil in the world; freedom and servitude; the very purpose of existence. It’s no surprise to me that as brilliant a writer as Philip Pullman has offered a contemporary take on this story and its implications for human beings nowadays, in his Northern Lights trilogy, and in the up-coming Book of Dust. Pullman celebrates the liberation offered by what Milton the Christian must condemn…

And, for me, these philosophical arguments are reinforced, if not surpassed, by the poetry. It is stunning, and a work of true genius: Milton’s style matches the subject-matter. There is the grandeur of God in his Heaven, the magnificent defiance of Satan and his cohorts, and the human intimacy of out human forebears. There is magnificent description on a cosmic scale, warfare in the heavens, the beauty of Paradise: the rhythm of Milton’s verse captures it all, as he extends the scope and scale of the English language with far more newly-coined words than Shakespeare (though more of Shakespeare’s have survived into contemporary usage). I will admit that it’s a challenge, nowadays, to read on the page, though well worth it; this is the reason why I usually recommend the outstanding, unabridged audio recording by Anton Lesser on Naxos Audiobooks as the way to enjoy the poem. It deserves to be enjoyed by more people…

Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust

March 1, 2017

51c3yuum9ll-_ac_us218_51sf-9svtul-_ac_us218_No, I haven’t had access to an early copy – I wish! I’m really looking forward to when this comes out in the autumn, and hope that it doesn’t take five years for the whole trilogy to be published, like the last one did. I can’t wait to read more of Pullman‘s ideas, to revisit the people and places he invented, to read another story from a real master…

I am now well into the final volume of the Dark Materials trilogy again; I’m listening to it in the car as I travel, and the full version, narrated by Philip Pullman himself, is marvellous, though it’s hard to stop myself picking up the books in the house and racing on with the story. So, what’s actually so good about it?

What has always struck me is the depth and the detail, both of the plot and the structure, of the trilogy, its time and scope, which equals the ambitiousness of Milton when he set out to write an epic that would outdo all those of the past, and took as his theme the creation of the world, the Fall and Man’s redemption, in Paradise Lost. And the parallels with Milton’s story are evident. Milton was a master and an inventor of language, and so is Pullman, though in different ways. Both writers invent unseen, imagined worlds and describe and populate them.

But it’s where Pullman goes with his ideas that has always fascinated me, through my several readings and listenings. In Milton’s version, the Fall is a good thing, a felix culpa, because it allows something far greater, in Christian theological terms, which is Christ’s sacrifice of himself to redeem humanity from its fallen condition. But Milton also has a problem, which is that Satan comes across as the hero of his poem, not intentionally, not deliberately, but nevertheless inevitably: the angels in heaven are dull and boring, and we know that the omnipotent God is going to come out tops, so there’s no narrative suspense there. In Paradise, Adam and Eve are as dull as dust, dutifully spouting a party line as they do the pruning and talk with the animals. The sex is boring, too. As humans, stasis is not our natural condition.

Some fundamentalist Christians have ranted and railed against what Pullman has suggested in his trilogy, which to me seems to be that it’s precisely through the Fall that we are human as we now recognise ourselves to be, that being fallen makes us what we are. Religion and authority limit and restrict us, attempt to deny us our full potential. In other words, our fallen condition is often pretty good fun and we enjoy it. And Will and Lyra re-enact that Fall, joyfully, unashamedly.

The issue, I think, is a similar one to that raised by Aldous Huxley in his challenging novel Brave New World, way back in the 1930s. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to teach that novel a number of times, and students’ reaction to the world Huxley visualised in AF 632 was very interesting: many very much liked the idea of living in it; others were appalled. In our discussions of the novel, we edged towards the discovery, not that there was anything wrong per se with the hedonistic life of that world, but that its inhabitants were not actually human as we understood the term. We are back to the old trope of innocence and experience: we prefer the ‘experienced’ world, and it’s just as well, since turning the clock back is not an option.

Both Milton and Pullman raise all sorts of philosophical and theological questions for us to consider, not to fear: what sort of a God tests his creatures thus? and punishes them thus? What is the origin of evil in the world, given that everything in existence was created from nothing by a supposedly good God, including the seeds of evil? The Cathars had a different answer from the Catholic Church, and the idea of free will is all very well, but is not a complete answer, if you think about it more deeply. If I have a faith, it is one which encourages me to think deeply, to be myself, to work and struggle towards what to believe in; it does not give me easy answers. I’m really excited to see where else Pullman will take us with his stories and ideas… roll on autumn.

My A-Z of reading: A is for Atlas

October 13, 2016

41x19xixdpl-_ac_us160_Some of my readers may have realised I have a long-standing fascination with maps. I remember asking for, and receiving, an atlas for Christmas when I was seven or eight: that’s what comes from hearing about all sorts of faraway and fascinating places from a well-travelled dad (though not all the places were visited freely, thanks to Stalin, but that’s a different story); it was replaced with a larger one a few years later, and then when I was feeling flush, with the full-on, full-size Times Comprehensive Atlas, and I’m now on my second one of those…

So what is it about atlases and maps? Well, there’s a weightiness and therefore a seriousness to a proper atlas, and I find maps a real thing of beauty: the care, neatness and accuracy of the lines, and the different colours for different types of land and depth of sea. And then there is the magic of all those place names, whether it’s the crazy-sounding village names of our our West Country (Queen’s Camel, Mudford Sock, anyone?) or the unpronounceable towns of Eastern Europe (Szekesfehervar? Dniepropetrovsk? Szczecin?)… Milton had a field day in Paradise Lost with faraway placenames: they made wonderful poetry. (And I have a map with them all on!)

There’s a ridiculous amount of information contained in a map, and depending on how well-drawn and coloured it is, you can do a pretty good job of visualising an area, although I will admit that Google Earth does a just as good if not better job pretty instantly. Town, street and metro maps are different, and just as fascinating. And then there are the maps in other languages… early Arabic maps of the world which look wonderfully familiar until you look at the writing. A Polish relative, back in communist times, gave me a road atlas of the Soviet Union, not because it was something that I’d ever use, but because it was something he’d managed to buy, and could offer as a gift, when finding presents for people was really hard. I treasure this volume, on shoddy paper, in Cyrillic script, with vast tracts of the country missing because there are zero roads there (can you imagine that?) and places where you can follow a dirt track for 500+ kilometres until the road just stops, and then have to turn round and head back the way you came.

Atlases have also become excellent at conveying much more than just geographical information, as new generations of cartographers have developed the art: conflicts, migrations, wars and much more can be very clearly represented. I’m thinking of some of the remarkably informative maps published in papers like Le Monde Diplomatique, which occasionally publishes a thematic atlas devoted to a topic like the environment… There’s the astonishing Peters projection atlas, which presents the entire world at exactly the same scale throughout, and manages to equalise the land areas visually too, so that although parts of the world look rather distorted (and we all know that putting a spherical word onto flat paper can’t really be done) the whole world is fairly and equitably represented, with none of the bias to the West, or the US or the developed world that we see in all other atlases.


I love old atlases especially, too, although too expensive for my pocket. I do have a 1919 Daily Telegraph Victory Atlas which is colossal, and built in the old-fashioned manner where every double-page spread is individually pasted and sewn into the binding so there are no minute gaps or discrepancies at the centre where nowadays two pages join… and I think of the incredible labour involved in redrawing so many maps and re-labelling so many towns and cities at the end of the Great War as new nations were born.

My biggest treat is probably Taschen’s marvellous reprint of (selected sections) of Joan Blaeu’s humongous seventeenth century Atlas Maior. It’s a work of incredible colour and beauty, and you get a picture of a half-discovered world, with the lands Europeans knew well delineated in great detail and accuracy, and those half-known, unexplored areas sketched in vaguely, half-accurately – but they are there and you know that there were intrepid explorers hurtling about the globe eager to fill in the gaps.


I’ve never been able – or wanted to – sit and read a dictionary or an encyclopaedia, but I’ll happily spend an entire evening turning the pages and poring over a good atlas.

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…

The myth of the Fall

August 7, 2015

Thinking further about forbidden knowledge and dangerous knowledge took me back to the myth of the Fall of Adam and Eve, which I don’t believe in any literal way, but which I am convinced serves some deeper purpose somewhere in our species’ consciousness and warns us about the dangers of knowledge.

The basic outline appears in Genesis, and is elaborated on in such texts as The First Book of Adam and Eve, and, of course most significantly, in John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. Within a fairy tale is presented a core philosophical question central to our understanding of ourselves: how do we deal with the knowledge (illicitly) gained?

Humans have the ability to reason; this enables us to make choices, and allows us a certain measure of free will. Religions take particular stances on this question, which I don’t think it’s necessary to go into here. In the Hebrew-Christian version of the Fall, firstly it is Lucifer who says ‘I will not serve’ thus rebelling against God (and becoming Satan in the process), and who subsequently, in his disguise as the serpent, tempts Eve with the notion of becoming like a god if she eats the forbidden fruit. The knowledge of good and evil attainted through this rebellion is, arguably, what makes us human. A similar story also exists as the Prometheus myth, incidentally.

So, for better or worse, we have access to knowledge: but can we cope with it? We are necessarily a curious species: we want to know things, and we can’t stop learning. Thus eventually we invent dynamite, nuclear weapons, genetic engineering and a whole host of other things that we aren’t convinced are wholly good things, at least, under our shaky control. But we can’t put the genie back in the bottle, as I pointed out in my last post.

But it is this original sin – if we briefly use the religious terminology – that makes us the humans that we are. Adam and Eve are far more interesting after they have fallen: they argue, they enjoy sex, they become conscious of themselves as individuals. They are us. I’d never really thought about the significance of Adam’s saying to God ‘I saw that I was naked’ – there is the ‘I’ for perhaps the first time as Adam becomes someone different from what he was before…

In Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve do not seem human before the Fall. Similarly, in Huxley’s Brave New World, although the inhabitants of AF 632 seem happy enough, they are not human as we know it, Jim – and this was the position my students and I inevitably reached when we studied that novel.

Our fallen-ness is explored in literature and evidenced by our history over several millennia; we may be humans, but we are perhaps not a very intelligent species. We are unable to balance the needs and desires of the individual – me – which exists because of our self-knowledge and ability to reason, and the needs and desires of the collective or group.

For me, the issue becomes even more complicated if we then look at the – purely Christian, because found in no other religion, I think – consequence of the Fall, which is the redemption that allegedly follows. What exactly are we to be saved from? What are we being offered instead? If we are to be saved from our inabilities to cope with our free will, if we are to be saved from our inability to see the consequences of our actions, perhaps I could be in favour of that, but would I still be human? And would that be any great loss? And then we shade into the realm of the utopian, the perfect worlds of which so many writers have loved to dream, and which we must admit are unattainable, or, if attainable, then at the cost of our human-ness…

I’m not sure where all this gets me…but I do have a framework into which this ancient story now fits, and a message about myself and my species which does speak to me…

The First Book of Adam and Eve (Librivox)

July 22, 2015

Most people are familiar with the account of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis; it’s fairly brief. And there is more: if you read Milton‘s Paradise Lost, for instance, there is a lot more detail to their story both before and after the Fall, bringing the characters to life, developing their motives and arguments, as well as those of God and Satan.

The First Book of Adam and Eve dates from the fifth or sixth century, and comes from the Egyptian or Coptic tradition; it was translated some eighty or ninety years ago and appears in the Librivox collection. What happened to Adam and Eve once they were expelled from the Garden of Eden?

They moan and complain an incredible amount to God about the harshness of their situation. He listens and replies. They have to learn to cope with a much more difficult existence, coming to understand such things as darkness, rain, the need to eat and drink. Satan continues to visit and confuse and waylay them even further, even though this is strictly unnecessary, as he has already achieved his primary purpose. Through various accidents, they die several times, but as their time is not yet accomplished, God brings them back to life again; similarly, when they despair and contemplate suicide, they are not allowed to succeed.

The promise of future redemption is, of course, heavily underlined and further explained to them. And we learn of the birth of their children – not just Cain and Abel but also twin daughters, which is how the entire human race was meant to develop…

It’s an interesting text, and I can see its origins in people wanting more detail than the bald account in the Bible: more information, which doesn’t contradict the Bible, more information which elaborates on God’s future plans, which reassures believers…

Travelling, audiobooks, librivox

July 20, 2015

I’m working up to getting this blog going again after a travelling break. When I’m driving, I like to listen to audiobooks, and they are quite expensive, so apart from must-haves like David Timson’s wonderful recordings of all the Sherlock Holmes stories and Anton Lesser’s superb performance of Milton’s Paradise Lost, I turn to the Librivox website to download my listening.

I’ve mentioned Librivox in passing before, but I’ll say a bit more about it for those of you who haven’t come across it, or visited the site, because my next few posts will be about some of the varied things I listened to on my travels.

Librivox is run from the US, by volunteers who record, check and upload recordings of texts which are out of copyright (in practice this seems to mean anything written before 1923). So everything is free, and there’s an incredible variety of stuff out there. Obviously, many of the classical works of literature which are out of copyright are there, but there are texts from all subject areas, and texts in quite a variety of languages, too. Incidentally, there now also exists a French website ( dedicated to doing the same thing with out-of-copyright French language texts.

Nothing is perfect, even when it’s free, and there are things not to like about the site. Because it’s a volunteer organisation, anyone can offer to read and upload a text, and not everyone reads well, or engagingly. Some people may object to listening to English classics read with an American accent – and by far the majority of the volunteer readers are American. Some of the voices are monotonous. Some seem unable to pronounce correctly fairly basic English words. Some cannot be bothered to check the pronunciation of unfamiliar words… you can see, there are plenty of things which may annoy you. But, it’s free and you don’t have to listen. Recordings are, apparently, checked to ensure that they are audible and of reasonable quality. And the avowed aim of the site is to make audio versions of texts available. Some texts have been recorded multiple times, so if one doesn’t suit, another might – that was the case with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for me, for example.

On the other hand, some of the readers are absolutely wonderful, clear, expressive voices that really do bring texts to life – the recordings of Mark Twain’s novels and travelogues are a case in point for me, as are those of the travel writings of Isabella Bird.

All of the recordings carry a Librivox acknowledgement at the start of each chapter, I think as a way of dissuading various sharks from downloading the recordings and easily turning them into commercial recordings to foist on an unsuspecting public.

I’ve been listening to a wide range of different recordings over the last six or seven years or so; I have occasionally been disappointed, but far more often I have been very happy with what I’ve been able to listen to as I’ve been driving around…

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: Gerard Manley Hopkins

January 9, 2015

A former student called me to task, quite rightly, for not mentioning Gerard Manley Hopkins in my writings about poetry: a very serious oversight, for which I hereby make amends:

I think Hopkins is probably as much of a minority taste in poetry as Milton, nowadays: both are ‘difficult’, or take some serious effort to access, though both are well worth it; both very religious, though at opposite ends of the spectrum – you can’t get farther apart than a Puritan and a Jesuit – and both were serious experimenters with language and verse.

I tried to get my head round ‘sprung rhythm’ when we ‘did’ Hopkins at university and failed abysmally; it was only when my job as teacher meant that I had to pick up someone else’s work on Hopkins’ poetry halfway through that I really came to appreciate him. And for a teacher of literature, in some ways Hopkins is a godsend.

With Hopkins, you finally ‘get’ the crucial importance of reading poetry aloud: on the page it looks and reads like a nightmare. It takes several goes to parse it orally, but the revelation is stunning: nobody illustrates all the poetic techniques so fully and perfectly. There is rhyme in abundance, there is the rhythm (sprung or not!) all of Hopkins’ own. There is alliteration with real purpose, at least as much assonance as you could wish for: no-one revels in the gorgeousness of sounds as much as he, in the fullness of English words. And enjambment – well, who could have imagined it could be used so dramatically? not Shakespeare… Hopkins revels in words, and the ordering of words, to slow us down, make us stop, ponder, and then… the moment of epiphany!

But it’s poetry, too, not just beautifully honed technique: a devout Catholic who joys in the beauty of the world his God created, in masterpieces such as God’s Grandeur, Pied Beauty or The Windhover (how that bird moves!); also a man tortured by depression and suicidal thoughts: who can be gloomier than the writer of No Worst, or Carrion Comfort? though he seems to come back to his God in the end.

And: is it possible to do more with the sonnet form than Hopkins has done? he pushes it to its limits, it seems; but then, that’s the difference between him and me: he was a poet and could imagine such things; I can only wonder.

I don’t come back to Hopkins very often, now, but thanks for the reminder, Sam.

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